The New Year’s Resolution that I am NOT Making

I have to confess that I am mesmerized by commercials from the Container Store, which   moved into town a couple of months ago.  Now we are delighted by visions of the perfectly organized home – canisters of cereal and pasta all neatly aligned on the pantry shelves.    It’s a thing of perfect symmetry and beauty.   It looks nothing like my pantry, which is strangely organized by the meal into which the food item is most likely to fall.  (This interesting scheme was my daughter’s brainchild a few years ago and I haven’t changed it because the quirkiness of it is  a reflection of her.  I like that she doesn’t see the world in exactly the same way as everyone else.)   Neither does this picture of perfect symmetry look at all like the cabinets in my classroom.   The shelves in the cabinet are are filled with inexpensive containers from Target and re-purposed containers from Trader Joe’s full of all things mathy.   Despite my best efforts, they do not stack perfectly into a thing of beauty because they were not designed to do so.  The top shelf of the cabinet houses two giant salad bowls that I have turned into reaping balls for a Hunger Games simulation in our probability unit.   Somehow, these bowls  manage to topple out onto my head when I open the cabinet about fifty percent of the time.

If I were a person who believes in New Year’s  resolutions, one of mine would probably be to re-organize these cabinets in a slightly more sane way    I could purchase nice stacking containers and organize everything into them, finishing off with a nice label.   The finished product would be lovely, but it would take more money and time than I am willing to spend.   Instead, I will spend the money on books to add to my teaching library and my class library, on puzzles to challenge my students, and materials that bring STEM into my classroom (replacement parts for my motorized toy project, android devices for use coding apps, and robotics).    I will spend my time trying to plan better lessons and making materials for my students to use.    So, there will be no New Year’s resolution to “get better organized”.

Perhaps that perfectly organized cabinet will come together in May or June when school is out for the summer.   More likely, though, I won’t get to it.   I will be busy preparing for the STEM camp for girls at which I teach in June.   I’m also pondering the possibility of creating a summer coding club for girls if I can convince the school to let me use the library for meetings…..

I think that perfectly organized cabinet is likely to just remain a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.

 

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A Small Step Off the Beaten Path – A Formative Assessment Shift

I love pictures with paths leading through them.   They seem to pose endless possibility.   Where did it begin?     Where will it lead?   What discoveries will spring up along the way?    What if you step off the path and go in a slightly different direction?

Earlier this year, I stepped off a metaphorical path just a little bit and made an interesting discovery.   It really wasn’t a planned departure, more one of necessity.   I was doing an entry card with my students on making a line graph.   When I do entry cards or exit tickets, I make my way around the room to each student with a pink highlighter and a green highlighter in hand.   If the response is correct, I give a green mark.   Otherwise, I give a red mark and the student must correct it and be checked again.    On this particular entry card, there were so many things to check on each one:   were the independent and dependent variables in the right place, did they choose an appropriate scale, were the intervals uniform, did they correctly plot the points, did they label the axis, did they give the graph a title, did they make the right choice with regard to continuous/discrete.   As I finished checking the first one, I looked at the clock.  It occurred to me just how long it was going to take to check each graph and then to fix errors.    I made a snap decision and handed the student (who had gotten a green check) my highlighters and told her to help me check the rest.   I grabbed another set of highlighters and moved on.   The next green check was also given a set of highlighters and tasked with helping to check.   The same was true of the next green check and the next until I ran out of highlighters.   Each “checker”  only gave “correct/incorrect” feedback at first.    As they went back to recheck the corrections, they could give more feedback in the form of a question (e.g., what has to be true about the intervals, are all points in between points valid, etc).   Within a matter of a few minutes, every student received the feedback that he or she needed and then actually did something with that feedback.

As I contemplated my step off the path that day, I gave some serious thought to whether I should keep going in this direction or step back into my usual practice.    Was this something to do just because of a time crunch or was this a serendipitous discovery?     I was pleased with how things worked that day.  The “checkers” took their responsibility seriously.   Those being checked got good feedback and fixed their mistakes.    I decided to try the experiment again, but did so with a little bit of trepidation.  There was a lingering question in my mind about whether this was a good thing, though.   I kept wondering if I was setting up a situation where some kids would be perceived as “good at math” and others not so much because of who was doing the checking.     I had worked pretty hard to push my students away from such a fixed mindset so I was nervous about possibly creating a scenario that would undo that work.    Interestingly enough, my concern seemed to be unfounded.   A different set of kids were the “checkers” the second time  (and the third and the fourth).    Some of that was within my control (I started checking the entry cards in a different spot in the room), but some of it was just a function of who got things right.

As days turned into weeks of using this  assessment technique on a lot of different kinds of entry/exit tickets, I have concluded that enlisting my students to help check entry/exit cards and to give feedback to each other was a lucky discovery.    I have seen a lot of growth in my students.    Previously, everyone was getting feedback but it was just from me.    Now, everyone is getting feedback but they were also giving it.   The giving of feedback requires a different kind of thought.   They have to know how to do something, but they also have to know how to analyze someone else’s work and find the error.   They have to communicate a path forward from that error without just telling someone how to do the problem.   While there is an element of this in the discussions they have about student work in our normal classwork (using cooperative learning structures and in whole class discussions), putting limits on how they can give feedback and requiring a response to the feedback seems to have deepened the thinking of both the giver and the receiver.   I think I will be following this branch on my path a little bit further to see where it leads.

 

Some Must-Haves

“Being passionate about your work, believing in kids & continually growing as a teacher & a learner are what it takes to be an amazing educator.”    –  Cassandra Clowry-Baillo

Passion 

You can’t be a teacher without passion.    Teaching is an incredibly hard profession.   To do it well, you have to figure out each kid – how they think, what they need, what they know, what motivates them, how to get their very best, how to coax them past their fears, how to connect what they know and how they think to what they need to know.   You are part educator, part salesman, part coach, part mentor, part parent.   You will spend endless hours each day (and more hours in the middle of the night) worrying about someone else’s child.   This is the hardest job you will ever have.   (I don’t say this lightly.   I used to be an engineer at a top R & D firm and regularly worked 60 hours each week.   As a teacher, I work 70-80 hours a week.)  You can’t do this job if you don’t believe deeply in the importance of this work.   You just won’t last.

Believing in Students

You have to believe that every single student can be successful.   You have to believe it so deeply and so loudly that they hear your belief and that it becomes their own.   You have to believe that it isn’t “the fault in their stars”, but in your practice if they aren’t succeeding.    You have to believe it so deeply that you will be brave enough to step out of  your comfort zone and try new things if the old things aren’t working.    You have to believe it deeply enough to be brave enough to change instead of just blaming them.

Commitment to Growing as a Teacher

The more that you know, the more that you know that you don’t know.      You have to have an insatiable thirst to find the answers that you need to help kids succeed.   That means you can never stop learning because there is always a new kid, a new challenge, a new need.

Auld Lang Syne 2017 – The Year of Code

The days are long and the years are short.  This is true for parents and also true for teachers.    There are never enough hours in a day to complete all the tasks at hand.    Yet when I think back to the beginning of the year, I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed.

One of the prompts for the YuleBlog  Challenge is to reflect on the last year.   As I think of 2017, it will always be the Year of Code.   While I have taught my students to code video games each year for a number of years, this was the year that coding went from a single one shot project to something more.

First, I received a grant to purchase a class set of Ozobots.   After spending some time learning how to code them, I created a project for my seventh graders (who already know how to do some coding because of the video game project they did in 6th grade) in which they had to code the Ozobots to graph a system of linear equations.   They had to solve the system of equations to ensure that the Ozobots would not collide.    I also had students code Ozobots to draw a set of Wumps (characters in a video game) to explore the concept of similarity.   These tasks gave students real experiences.   They had a real reason to solve a system equations.   They also extended their coding skills to work with the realities of the physical world.   (Friction means that bots don’t work exactly like one would expect in theory).

Second, I partnered with a colleague to sponsor a group of kids learning how to code apps.   We spent one afternoon every week learning how to use MIT’s AppInventor software and creating some simple apps.   Then, we entered a GameJam.   For the uninitiated, this is a coding competition in which the participants are given a single weekend to create a full fledged game/app.   We spent Friday evening , Saturday, and Saturday evening with a bunch of middle school teams coding apps for the competition.    It was an incredibly long weekend but we ended up with four amazing apps, two of which were winners in the competition.   This led to spending another weekend with our winning teams as they presented their apps at the Science Fiesta.

Third, as a result of our experience with the app competition, my colleague and I created an afterschool programming club this fall.   We have thirty kids who signed up for the club (and more that want to join).   The students have widely different levels of experience and knowledge.   We quickly brought differentiation into our work with the club.   Our more advanced coders are working on coding an Ozobot to traverse a fairly complex maze.   Our beginning coders have learned how to code in SCRATCH and have now started to create some simple video games.   In another month, we will start teaching them to code in AppInventor so that they will be prepared for this year’s GameJam.

Finally, I received another grant that will enable me to purchase some additional technological resources.   I will be purchasing Lego Mindstorm robots and android devices that we will use with the AppInventor  software.

The best things about The Year of Code is the number of kids who are getting the chance to experience computer science first hand as they solve problems and create real things.   Hopefully, a few of our girls will discover a whole new future.

While I have degrees in Electrical Engineering and know how to code, that kind of background isn’t really necessary to introduce kids to coding.   The block coding used by SCRATCH, AppInventor and Ozoblockly is pretty accessible.

 

Unforgettable

Every teacher has students that are unforgettable.   I don’t know how it is for other teachers, but I find the ones that are the most unforgettable are the ones that I feel I let down.

Sometimes, there was nothing more that I could have done but the outcome still felt like a failure – a student who died of an overdose, a student who ended up in prison, a student who committed suicide.    It’s been a number of years since I saw them, but they each occupy a space in my heart and mind.   I suspect that they always will.

Sometimes, though, there are the ones for whom I know I just wasn’t a good enough teacher.   Each one of these was one of “those” kids who seem to exhibit so many of the symptoms of ADHD but who aren’t on medication and who are not getting  behavior modification.   They are the kids who are impulsive, who blurt out in class constantly, who pull their classmates off task, who are in constant motion.   They are the kids who get into fist fights and eventually end up expelled from school.

I’ve had exactly four of “those”  kids.   Each one is unforgettable.  At first, I didn’t have enough experience to recognize what was behind the behavior and so I didn’t do the things they needed.   With the second and third student, I could see what was happening but couldn’t figure out how to make things work.    They did all the things that would drive me crazy and I wanted them to control the behavior but they couldn’t.    Each time I had one of those kids, I was not a good enough teacher.   This year, though, “that” kid is not driving me crazy and is successful in my class.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to really like “that” kid.   When he blurted out, I just raised a hand towards him and moved on.   I told him that each kid gets x% of the air time and he has used up his share until everyone else speaks.   When he finished before the rest of the group, I let him get up and move around.   There are comics on different walls that he could walk around and read while he waited. so long as he rejoined his group when they were ready.    When he needed to wiggle or move while he was still working, he could push or pull on a theraband tied across his desk with his feet to release that energy.

When “that” kid acted inappropriately, I was clear about the boundary.   When he insisted that he hadn’t done anything, I took him out in the hall.   I told him, “We both know what you did.   No, let me finish what I am saying and then you can talk.    I want you to be in my class.  Every. Single. Day.   You were just in trouble because of what happened in another class.    I don’t want you to be in trouble again.   I want you to be in here.   So, I need you to make a better choice.”   He responded, “OK.”   Then, we turned around and went back in class.   I didn’t get drawn into a confrontation or argument about whether he did or did not do something.   I let this student know the boundaries, but I started by letting him know that I care about him and want him in my class.

None of this is earth shattering or brilliant, but it feels powerful because I have grown a little bit as a teacher.    I really do like “that” student and he is more successful because he knows that.   He will be one of my unforgettable students because I feel like I didn’t let him down.

Not a Creature Was Stirring

Early Thursday morning, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up donuts.     This was the day that I was hosting my annual Donuts with a Developer event.   Each year, I teach my students how to create a video game.   I teach them the basics of coding in bits of time before breaks in October, November, and December.   Then, before launching the “code a video game” project, I invite a technical professional who actually creates video games to talk to my students about the process of creating a video game.   We usually do  the event first thing in the morning, so it has become Donuts with a Developer.

After I loaded the seven dozen donuts into boxes, I headed to school.   As I drove the block to school, I looked at the star-filled sky and listened to the news.   The story was about the fifth anniversary of Sandy Hook.     My heart felt a little heavier, as it always does when I am reminded of that day five years ago.

A few hours later, my classroom filled with students as they settled down to hear our guest speaker.   I was feeling particularly pleased because this year I had been lucky enough to find a woman to talk to them about coding video games.    I try really hard to expose my girls to women who work in STEM and this felt a bit like a coup.

About ten minutes into the presentation, the principal came over the loudspeaker and said that we were going into a lockdown.   I launched into action.  I grabbed my keys and raced out to lock the exterior door and then back into my room to lock the classroom and do all of the things that are part of our lockdown protocol.     I knew this was not a drill.  We had a drill less than two weeks ago.   This was definitely not a drill.   Best case scenario it was something happening in the neighborhood.   Worst case scenario was a place I wasn’t going to go unless I had to do so.

As I looked around the room, the students had done exactly what they were supposed to do.    Most of them seemed to think it was a drill.  As busy as I was with the necessary tasks,  I found myself glancing at the windows to double check that you couldn’t see into the room at the edges of the blinds.   I had already checked but my eyes were drawn back there anyway.   All of my senses seemed to be heightened.   I listened carefully to each sound I heard, trying to discern what it was, thinking hard about what I might need to do.

As time wore on and the usual sequence of events did not transpire, it began to dawn on a few of the students that this might not be a drill.    In some students, I could see a slight shift in posture or in expression.   Others showed the tension in other ways.

One student passed gas and several of them started to laugh.   While this is a normal reaction for a student of this age, it wasn’t a normal reaction for the two girls who were laughing.  Neither one of them would ordinarily do this.   I looked across at them and gave them the teacher look and pressed my finger to my lips.   They put hands over their mouths, but continued to laugh.   I tiptoed over to them and whispered that they needed to be quiet right now.   It took another minute or two before it dawned on me how out of character the behavior was.  They were laughing  because of their tension about what was happening.

A few minutes later, another student looked at me and said, “this isn’t a drill, is it?”   I looked at her and silently mouthed “it’s going to be OK”.

I hated seeing the tension mount in my students.   I walked silently over to the bin where I have a bunch of stuffed elephants.    (We usually use the elephants when we take tests and on birthdays.   Elephants never forget so the students put them on their heads or their desks when they take a test.   On birthdays, we dump the bin full of stuffed elephants on them to wish them another year of wisdom.)   I started passing out stuffed elephants.   I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I thought having a stuffed elephant to hold just might help some of them cope with the way they were feeling.    When the elephants ran out, I started handing out stress balls.    (I have more than enough elephants for a normal class, but there were many more kids than a normal class.)     When the stress balls ran out, I started handing out books to read.    The elephants and stress balls and books weren’t part of our protocol.    I felt like my students needed something, though.   Elephants, stress balls, books, a hand lightly touching a head, and a silent “it’s going to be OK”  were all I could give them in those moments of silence.

I won’t go into the details about the reasons for the lockdown, but it did eventually end and everyone was fine.  It was a tough day.   It wasn’t my first real lockdown and probably won’t be my last.     This one was particularly hard, though.

This month’s blogging challenge was to put a phone in my pocket and then listen to the things I said to my students and reflect upon them.   The most important words I said this month were said silently during that lockdown.

An ongoing quest to give my girls a voice

Not long ago, I wrote about an unexpected inequity I observed in one of my classes.   The girls were in effect silenced during a Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity because the boys repeatedly chose to quiz/trade with other boys.   At the time, I pointed out to the students what I saw.   I told the boys that I expected a change.   I told the girls to be a little less well-behaved and to push in if they needed to do so.

While I haven’t done another Quiz/Quiz/Trade activity in the ensuing days, I have been watching to see how the boys and girls are interacting.    What I have observed does not make me happy.   At each table group where girls are present, the groups have a 50:50 male to female ratio.    At one of the table groups, the girls talk to each other and include one of the boys.   The other boy works at a slower pace and may join the conversation at the end.   At another table group, the boys talk to each other.   One of the girls is ready to talk but sits waiting to be invited into the conversation.   That generally does not happen so she waits for the other girl to finish so that they can discuss the problem together.   This happens when the constraints of the discussion are loose (discuss the problem with your table group) and when they are tight (use Kagan’s Numbered Heads Together Cooperative Learning Structure).   Girls voices are being heard largely by other girls except when I draw them out during a whole class discussion.

This dynamic is happening in only one of my classes, but it concerns me.   I recognize that a portion of the equation is the personalities involved.   The boys in this class are more extroverted and the girls are more reserved.    I am struggling to get the girls to assert themselves and I am struggling to get the boys to see that they are excluding the girls (the are inclusive when I point it out, but I can’t point it out every single conversation).

I watched the girls on Friday during an activity involving choice.   Not surprisingly, the girls all chose the same activity.   I went over and talked to them about what I have been seeing in class.   I asked them how they would feel if we went back to single gender groups.   Their faces lit up.   That is what we will do in this particular class, at least for a while, because it appears to be what they need right now.

As I contemplate this decision, I am consumed with mixed feelings about the messages that I am sending.   I keep reminding myself that it is a long journey.