What I’m Reading: Undocumented in San Mateo and Cambridge and the Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

These days, I get most of my news from Twitter and Facebook. 3 interesting reads that popped up (all on Thursday morning, I believe):

1. Facebook pointed me to The Transition Continues: Teen Migrant from El Salvador Tries to Fit in At School (from KQED). An article on a recent immigrant from El Salvador and her transition to life in the San Francisco Bay Area (not the school I work at). The issues she’s facing are similar to the issues many of our students face. A quote that stands out to me:

“Even if she were fluent tomorrow, Jennifer would not be able to graduate. School officials say that because she turns 18 next year, she will not have enough time to satisfy all the high school requirements in time. Jennifer will have to enroll in adult school or find work at the end of next year.”

2. Facebook also pointed me to The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (via NPR), which is an account of a young black man who grew up outside of Newark, dealt drugs, went to Yale, returned to the neighborhood he was from and was eventually shot. I broke down and bought a copy on Friday. As far as I can tell, the book tries to cover all aspects of Robert’s life rather than framing him as just a Yale graduate or just a young man from Newark or (just a insert-your-own-soundbite-here).

Excerpt (of an excerpt, ha):

“The father-son bond is big stuff, of course, and particularly here. Rob really revered his father, who was sort of the “mayor” of the neighborhood, as I gathered — had a kind word to say about everyone. They would leave the house and go eat full meals at seven different friends’ houses over the course of a day. He was very active in Rob’s academic life — drilled him with good penmanship, the importance of memory, and continued to do so from prison using the prison phones once or twice a week.

I think it made him a leader. Also, I think that experience really built his incredible capacity for friendship, particularly with friends in his school and around his neighborhood, many of whom shared this plight of fatherlessness. And that’s how they processed together.”

3. Twitter pointed me to: I Told Harvard I was an Undocumented Immigrant. They Gave Me A Full Scholarship. Written by someone who’s now a junior at Harvard who is undocumented about what the college application process was like. I kind of want to pass this on to our senior teachers.


“Still, I realize that my privileges and challenges are rare in the undocumented community. There are students whose parents have never filed a tax return and so cannot provide proof of income to qualify for scholarships. There are students who are here without their parents. There are students who do have to hold down a job if they want to go to college or even high school. Most undocumented immigrants are not nearly as lucky as I’ve been. And with the immigration stalemate in Washington, it’s unlikely that life for those in the shadows will become easier anytime soon.”

Day 24: The One With the Unit Test

So strange to think that we are 5 weeks into the school year, one week away from the end of the first marking period and thus almost 1/6 of the way through the year.

After much anticipation, we gave our first unit test yesterday. The problems were all similar in structure to the problems from the group test on Wednesday, but with different patterns and different numbers. The hope is that students understand the structures and concepts, but still have to show what they know (rather than regurgitating the group test).

Preliminary results look good. Most students wrote something for every problem (as opposed to many of our tests last year, which often had blank answers if students didn’t understand). As to the overall structure, I think we’re going to focus on the reflection day (which happens after the group test, but before the individual test) to see how feedback and conversation can help improve comprehension. Ideas include having groups of students explain problems to other students (a structure which has worked well before) and having students reflect on each problem.

Photo #1: The Student Work

Fix the MistakeThis student work is from the problem that I think students had the most trouble with. We gave them a problem with several mistakes, asked them to find the mistake and then draw the pattern correctly. (This structure was altered slightly from the group test and threw at least one class into a panic of “Wait, what do we do?”) This student saw the mistake with Figure 0 (which should have 2 squares instead of 4), but didn’t fix the (incorrect) equation.

Photo #2: The Useless Teacher

The Unhelpful Teacher Because the test does involve some level of English and explanation, I tried to support students with less English. One student asked me how to spell “should”. Since the goal of this assessment is not correct grammar, I wrote it on their paper (in green, so that I would remember I helped them). Unfortunately, my penmanship is so atrocious, I think I only confused them more.

Photo 3: The Messy Desk

All the papers on my desk

Whenever we assess students summatively, I try to spread them out. (We also make 2 versions of the test) As a result, I had to pick up all the papers lying around the room and put them in the one place where I couldn’t seat students: at my desk. Please don’t judge.

Photo #4: The (Cleaned Up) Turn In Area

Clean papersMany students finished their test early. One student took it upon herself to clean and organize the area where I put finished papers.

1. Compare and contrast my desk (photo 3) with the student’s organization of my papers.

2. Can you spot all the mistakes in photo 3?

3. I’m happy to share copies of the assessment structure so far. I’d be curious to see how other people use group tests to prepare students for individual tests.

Day 22: The One With the Group Quiz

Curriculum partner and I are testing a new unit assessment structure, which consists of a group test (today), a written study guide reflection (tomorrow) and an individual test (Friday).

The group test went surprisingly well today (knock on wood). Most groups worked pretty productively the whole period. One class struggled a bit, but I suspect reasons other than the test).

Both the group test and individual test focus on conceptual questions – who’s right, fix the mistake, fill in the next step type problems. We also ask students to write about their work and their thinking.We’re hoping this will move away from strictly procedural problems and will give access to students who may not understand an entire concept but can at least show some understanding.

Photo: The Group Quiz

The Group Quiz

This particular problem was tricky for lots of students – there are multiple errors, which offers more access points (we think) but can get tricky for students who are trying to check parts of the problem against each other (Does that make sense? They think they find an error, then say, “but it doesn’t agree with this part of the problem and now I can’t tell which part is wrong”.)

This particular student stepped up their game quite a bit. Lots of speaking English, lots of working with the group. For someone who didn’t speak much English at the beginning of the year, their answer shows a lot of growth in English (I think).

Big takeaways:

Limiting questions can be a thing. I’ve been working on getting groups to ask group questions rather than individual questions. That is, they’re supposed to check with their entire group before calling me over. When they call me over, I acknowledge the person calling me over (the Resource Manager), then ask someone else the question. The idea is that the group will have already discussed the question with all group members, who will be familiar enough with the question to ask the teacher without being prompted. Today, we further limited students to only 2 group questions during a 55 minute period. Very few groups even asked one question and no one used both group questions (as I recall).

Also, students like a bit of drama. Curriculum partner and I wanted to hold groups accountable so we decided to only review one quiz from each group. I picked randomly and students were generally transfixed (out of fear that their test would be chosen and out of fear that someone else’s test would be chosen). A bit of random ceremony does wonders for everyone, I guess.

Fun quotes from students:

“You feel me, bro?” (checking for understanding. At least it was in English)

“You need help with spelling? Ask my grandma.”

Day 21: The One Where Multiplication Beats Addition

Today was the first day we looked at linear equations as a class. Curriculum partner and I set it up as a station rotation where students looked at an equation and another representation (table, graph or figures) and then had to make additional representations. Didn’t get them quite as far as we wanted (trying to balance taking time at each station versus seeing a variety of equations), but we’ll be looking at linear equations in our third unit, so we have time.

Photo: Multiplication beats Addition
Multiplication beats Addition

The kiddos had to figure out how many squares were in Figures 25 and 43. Some students still insist on adding the numbers until they get to the 25th or 43rd figure. In a (rare) fortunately-timed teacher move, I watched one student (who was largely absent last year but has turned it around this year) repeatedly add 2 to the number of squares in the 4th figure, aiming to get to the number of squares in the 30th figure. I waited until they got to the 20th calculation and then wrote the multiplication problem on the other side of the paper. “Yeah, I guess we should have used multiplication,” they admitted once they saw the answer.

Side note #1: Curriculum partner likes to talk about how lazy math teachers are. Multiplication is definitely easier than addition.

Side note #2: we’re preparing for assessments for the end of our first unit: group quiz tomorrow (graded on participation with an eye to having students practice for the individual quiz), written reflection on Thursday and individual quiz on Friday. Any guesses as to the average student grade?

Day 18: The One With “Go Back to Your Seat”

As part of our unit project (graphing cost, revenue and profit for different number of items), we spent Thursday learning about cost, revenue and profit. This is much condensed from the last time this project was taught 2 years ago (when it spanned about 3 months).

We learned about cost, revenue and profit through a reading guide. Teachers at our school write reading guides as scaffolded mini-articles where students read a passage together, then complete certain tasks after reading. This plays nicely into our focus on supporting reading this year. Usually, the tasks involve language functions like making predictions and inferences, but since our class is a math class, we usually do math tasks (calculate profit, calculate revenue, etc).

Photo: “We are working. Go (back) to your group.”
We are working. Go to your team

Reading guides can be tricky. Students are supposed to read and stay with their groups. One of my classes is particularly antsy and there were students who were constantly getting up and asking friends at other tables how to solve problems. While I admire their commitment to finishing a task, one of my groupwork goals is for students to learn to work and talk with their group (rather than just their friends).

Intervention #1: I taught groups that were often visited by wanderers how to say “We are working. Go (back) to your group.” (I was slightly flustered and forgot to add the word “back” when I wrote it on the board). I like this phrase. It emphasizes that the group is working. It emphasizes the behavior the wayward student should do. It isn’t quite as prickly as “go away” (which one of the kiddos constantly yells at other students. Sigh). It helps students who are doing the right thing actively redirect their peers in a more positive way. We’ll see if it works.

Intervention #2: During the reading guide, I did a participation quiz, meaning that students earn points based on positive groupwork behaviors (reading in English, working together in the middle of the table, leaning in) and lose points if they leave their group or are not working. With 10 minutes to go (and realizing that many students were wandering), I showed groups the scores they were currently earning (and actually took points away from one group while they talked over me). I then crossed out the scores they were earning and told them they could raise their scores by following the positive group behaviors we had talked about earlier. To my surprise, students stayed in their seats for the rest of the period.

Day 19: The One With the Crumpled Paper

Raise your hand if you’ve fallen off the blogging train.

We’ve started a unit project that will actually span two units (linear relationships and slope). The idea is for students to design a product and then make graphs to help them set a price for their product. The plan is to actually sell the best product (as chosen by our classes). Overall objective: understand linear relationships.

This means graphs for days. We need the practice.

Photo: The Crumpled Paper
Crumpled Paper This photo is from a group of students that had a rough start when we changed seats this week. Different personalities, different school experiences, different math histories. Recently, they’ve been working together well (knock on wood). Some combo of helping a student who likes to work quickly see the benefits of working with the group rather than rushing ahead and helping students who tend to work more slowly see some of the things they can contribute (translating, explaining their calculations, explaining to group members who don’t understand the first time around). (I wish I were better at explicitly drawing attention to this in class. Next year?).

At one point, one of the kiddos asked if their graph was correct. I said “no”. They crumpled it up and threw it on the table (mostly kidding, I think). We talked about the graph as a group and fixed it (kind of). If you look closely, you can see the results of the crumpling as well as an impromptu explanation of why we multiply the number of products by the price to get the revenue. Also, a somewhat incorrect graph. Because: what would we do tomorrow if today were perfect?

The group later asked if another graph was correct, at which point the kiddo in question covered his ears and said “don’t tell me!” (we worked it out).

Day 13: The One with the Incomplete Graphs

I was tired at lunch today. Then there was some student drama (’cause high school) and I’m generally on the struggle bus by the end of the day anyway. So today was rough. I also forgot to bring Gatorade, didn’t have time to get coffee, and the vending machine refused to cooperate, so today’s afterschool meeting was also rough (Bless my coworkers and their infinite patience). Needless to say, not a bad day, but not a stellar example of me taking care of myself.

Photo #1: The Number TalkHow many ways can you add 46 + 37?


As part of our effort to increase numeracy and participation, we’re continuing number talks. Today, we looked at 46 + 37, figuring that it was too hard to add mentally and didn’t have any neat shortcuts like adding nines (but we could build on some of the strategies we learned by adding nines last week). This class had a long discussion about the traditional algorithm (not in those words), which I think lost some students, but felt important to discuss. We talked about whether the 1 (from 6 + 7) is a 1 or a 10, though I didn’t frame it as well as I would have liked. I think the student who multiplied 8×5 just worked his way back from the answer, which, in retrospect, is pretty cool, though I wasn’t quite sure how to address/acknowledge it at the time.

 Photos #2, 3 and 4: Patterns, Graphs and Tables

Student work connecting figures and graphsStudent work connecting figures and tablesPatterns, but no graph

Students are exploring the relationship between pile patterns (figures built of blocks) to tables and graphs. Today felt a bit rushed and I worry that student work reflects this. Students are pretty good at figuring out what the pattern of figures looks like and can fill in the table. We need a bit more practice with graphs (which we’ll do tomorrow). Photo #4 is the eponymous “incomplete graph” from one of my classes. Another teacher was quick to point out that most students take time to get  started and to build the pattern that they need to make the graph and table – not finishing everything is not (necessarily) the same as not understanding. Plus we’re spiraling in a lot of this tomorrow.

Photo #5: The Participation Quizzes


Participation Quizzes

 It’s taking me a bit of time to get back into the swing of things, especially things that happen on the fly, like grading participation quizzes. This is the second participation quiz I’ve graded this year. I forgot to give the results to one class, but I think they’ll be OK. While participation quizzes are supposed to emphasize positive things, I remembered to take points off when students were talking outside of their tables (a norm that our team is trying hard to enforce). Debating whether or not to enter them into the grade book. I think I’m shooting for one participation quiz grade a week.


Unrelated: check out the new Blue Engine Teaching Assistants! (small, education nonprofit in New York. I less-than-three them)

Questions for the Floor:

– What’s a math problem that’s just challenging enough to be too hard to do mentally?

– Is it wrong to document “bad things” on participation quizzes (with smiley faces)?

– How cranky (on a scale of “1” to “Hulk”) do you think I am without coffee AND Gatorade?