Day -2: The One With the Laminated Group Roles

Staff development week is quickly winding down. I’m fairly certain that two days ago (Wednesday) will mark the day I was actually over my head, followed by yesterday (Thursday) as the day I started breaking all my School Year’s Resolutions to leave by 6, followed by today (Friday), where I will hopefully adhere to leaving by 6 out of a sense of guilt and hope.

(Yes, the week before school causes all the emotions)

Photo: Laminated Group RolesLaminated group rolesCurriculum partner and I are revising curriculum from 2 years ago rather than writing our own, which is much less stressful and is helping us to really think about past lessons and rework them so that they (hopefully) accomplish what we actually want them to do.

It’s also been a weird walk down memory lane back to my first year of full-time teaching. The way we plan and think about lessons has changed quite a bit and so many of our structures are different (though we’re also trying to revive a lot of them). Some of my lesson plans are filled with less relevant details and even less relevant formatting (Me: “What is this?” Curriculum partner: “I think I wanted to tell you not to waste time on formatting, but figured you’d get the idea after doing it once or twice.”* *They were really nice about it and totally right.)

First-Year-Teacher-Me also went and laminated 4 different versions of Complex Instruction group roles***. First-Year-Teacher-Me was kind of a naive dweeb. That being said, Third-Year-Teacher-Me is now taping down those laminated roles, so…good work First-Year-Teacher-Me?

(Complex Instruction is a structured form of groupwork aimed at helping all students to contribute to the learning of the group. One way to do this is to assign each group member a different role. Some teachers tape the roles to the table so that all Group Managers sit in corresponding positions, all Resource Managers sit in corresponding positions, making it easier for the teacher to identify and reenforce roles in Complex Instruction. One of our goals this year is to authentically use roles, so…)

Day -6: The One With the Math Problem in the Middle Space

Day two of District training through a Complex Instruction lens. Really appreciative of being able to spend time with other staff members beforehand to take time to actively think about common structures we want to use for groupwork (Complex Instruction) and how we want to work with each other. We’re also trying a structure to observe each other in hopes of knowing more about each other’s classrooms and practices. Pretty pumped to have time to revamp our scope and sequence, journal structure and opening structure before schoolwide PD starts. Next week, we’ll have more time to revamp our first unit (in addition to classroom setup and schoolwide meetings and…)

Photo: The Math Problems in the Middle SpaceMath problems in the middle spaceWe always kick off District Complex Instruction Days by doing math together. For me, this is a chance to work and connect with colleagues who I may not know, to remind myself that I am still a learner, and to think about ways that our teaching and teaching structures may affect our kiddos, especially in terms of what it means to be a student of math and what it means to be smart and successful in math. In particular, we looked at this problem and how the language of the task and how the requirements for an “A+ answer” raised the ceiling of the problem and really could push students to do more.

Day -7: “…What Summer?”

We’re winding down from our first day of District Planning. I see another teacher who I’m friendly with and ask them, “How was your summer?” to which they reply (deadpan, of course): “What summer?”

That about sums it up.

In some ways, I’m ready to go back. I’m ready to meet the new kiddos. I’m ready to catch up with the old kiddos (many of whom will be in my class for a second year, some who will not, but who will be across the hall). I’m ready to figure out which kiddos have transferred and to get in touch with their current teachers (all the while ignoring whether this is a healthy practice or not). I’m ready to continue planning with a fantastic curriculum partner and amazing math and science team. But it does seem like the summer has gone away all too soon.

Photo: Planning Notes

Planning NotesAlthough this day is technically a District Professional Development Day, we’re allowed to use it to start planning how we want to start our year (through the lens of Complex Instruction). Curriculum Partner (whose notes are shown above) did a fantastic job of getting people talking and planning, sometimes in large groups, sometimes in small groups. It is pretty amazing to have all 7 of our math and science teachers working in the same space at the same time.

Day 156: The One with the Pythagorean Word Problems

1 full day and 3 half days to go before we’re done with content for the year. #JesusTakeTheWheel

In unrelated news, my favorite thing to do this unit is add “Pythagorean” in front of whatever the lesson is. I’m also duly impressed with how hard the kiddos try to say “Pythagorean”.

Photo: Pythagorean Word Problem

2015-04-28 16.16.15One of the structures that we’ve had success with this year is giving our kiddos (all English Language Learners) a word problem. They read it through, solve the problem, then write about it. Initially, I thought it would be too easy, but I am constantly reminded how many new words there are to learn and seeing the problem in multiple ways (reading, drawing/solving, writing about it) seems to give students more access to it.

It’s also interesting to see how students react to word problems over time. Today, we were pressed for time, so we spent more time solving the problems than writing about them. And I think I’m OK with that. This particular student translated some of the words into English, which is a good strategy.

Many teachers talk about “pseudo-context” and how making up a word problem doesn’t necessarily engage students further. I think I agree with this, but for students learning English, word problems fulfill a need to learn new words that might not exist for other students. (This is not a measure of success, but many of our standardized tests, which ultimately do count for our students, are filled with words. I’ve seen so many students who can do the math work be stumped by words like “garden” and “astronaut”) Kiddos got stuck on words like “owner” and “porch”. Incidentally, many students translated “porch” as “espacio libre” (free space).

Outside of Class

Building on the “teachers do more than teach” narrative:

In addition to prepping for tomorrow (which the curriculum partners largely did), I spent a bit of time after school trying to get ready for a Student Support Team meeting (which are called when there are students that need extra support for whatever reason). Multiple phone calls, etc. As a result, I may or may not have been late to another meeting (oops) where teachers from schools across the city to talk about implementing Complex Instruction at our schools. Pretty cool to hear what other people are doing.

Came home, tried to go for a run, took a nap instead. Close.

Day 150: The One with Triangles and Squares

New week, new unit. Pythagorean Theorem is usually taught in middle school, but (again), it’s not a given that our students have learned it, so here we are. It also builds nicely on what we did with right triangle trigonometry.

I should probably change seats today, but I feel like it takes the kiddos a bit to warm up, so I’m leaving them in the same seats for now.

Which probably means we won’t change seats again.

Because there are two weeks of content left to go.

Photo 1: The Recording SheetTriangles and squares activityThe idea behind today’s activity is that students use squares to make right triangles. Our first set of squares was too small and students build several right triangles that looked correct (4-5-6-nope), but weren’t. We spent 2nd period making the squares bigger and removing some of the confusing ones. One class tried to cut up the squares into smaller squares, but otherwise, this helped.

This photo is from a group that worked steadily throughout the whole period. Most kiddos made the connection between the area of the hypotenuse square (as we’re calling it) and the sum of the area of squares 1 and 2.

Photo 2: Explaining Complex Area

Day 150 - Complex AreaWith both of these photos (and most of the photos I post here), I wish I could actually capture the groupwork that is happening. Kiddos who finished the triangles and squares activity worked on a practice area worksheet. We haven’t touched much on complex area, so these kiddos had to struggle their way through it (which is difficult and good at the same time). One of the high status students really struggled with this problem and a student, who would be considered a low status math student, saw how to adjust the height of the rectangle and tried to explain it. So cool to see. This photo doesn’t really do it justice.

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).

Days 82 and 83: Out With the Old…

Day 82: Instead of giving semester finals, our school has a 2-week portfolio process. Teachers spend all day with their advisees, working on reflective essays on a variety of topics like what they felt successful about, what they felt they struggled with, etc. The process is often described as intense and at the end of it, I’d agree. I’m just beginning to wrap my head around what it all meant.

Elvis' essays on what he struggles with in school

In their essays, quite a few students said they struggled with math. Thursday’s picture is from Elvis, one of my students who was absent for most of the portfolio process, but worked on essays from home. His essays (sentences written first in Spanish, then translated to English) talk about how he felt math was difficult and how he sometimes felt angry because he didn’t always understand what was happening in math class and because his classmates didn’t always help him (we rely pretty heavily on groupwork given that students enter with a wide variety of math backgrounds). There are a million excuses and variables that play into why Elvis thinks math is difficult. His English is still developing and classes are taught entirely in English (though there is lots of native language support. Perhaps too much). He is sometimes absent (though not truant). His class is at the end of the day and struggles with staying focused. Many of the other students are also struggling with the math and often resort to distractions rather than asking for help, which affects the entire class.

Elvis is a good kid. He was one of the few kids who said goodbye to one of our students whose last day of school was Friday and he won a round of musical chairs for our advisory. Next semester, I’ll continue to think about how to help Elvis and other students like him gain more access to material in class. This means thinking about how to break problems down to the most basic level while still building in challenges for students who have been doing this math for years. It means really figuring out what my students know (we’re going into simplifying and solving expressions and I’m sure that some of my students aren’t quite comfortable with division and that most of them aren’t comfortable with exponents). It means pulling in Elvis at lunch and after school – I’ve gotten him to come in a couple times, but never really consistently and probably not focused on the things he needs to learn. We’ll see.

Day 83: After a few last portfolio presentations and a gradewide assembly, the last day of school ends at 1:05. Teachers finish last minute grading until the grading system closes at 3 and then everyone frantically cleans their rooms so that they can both be ready for the next semester and get home at a decent hour (the custodian kicked me out. You can guess which end of that scale I ended up on). In addition to getting rid of a mountain of paper and resetting my room after portfolios, I also re-taped manager roles on my tables (because I finally learned how to use the laminator, which is a whole other post in itself).


Each group has 4 roles: the resource manager, the group manager, the communications manager and the task manager. Theoretically, each manager is in charge of a specific part of the task that the group is working on so that everyone has something to do and some way to participate. In reality, I often use them more as a way to call on a member from each table, though I’m hoping to use them in a more authentic way next semester.