“How’s the school year going?” is a question for August.
The fact that I’m just getting around to it now is telling.
It’s actually been a good year so far, albeit busy. Here are the bullet points:
- After 5 years of only teaching 9th and 10th grade mathematics, I am teaching 11th grade Algebra 2. It is relatively new to me, though it has always been an 11th grade course for the school. It is the first course that I am technically without a planning partner on, though I have several years of previous curriculum (thanks to the amazing teacher before me – who is now teaching 9/10 mathematics, and to our District) and an amazing student teacher. I am teaching some (at least half) of the students for the 3rd year in a row (which in some ways, is probably not great for them as they are now inheriting all my weird mathematical habits) and many students for the 2nd year (including one who was not in my class last year but whom I spent a non-trivial amount of time chasing around the room). 11th grade is on a block schedule and has oral defenses in lieu of Portfolios. More on that later.
- Largely because our tests in 9/10 have always had 4 questions, I’ve designed the unit tests in Algebra 2 to be the same. I’m then using variations of those 4 questions on the homework and on our What Do I Know?/Individual Practice Wednesdays. (11th grade has 45 minutes classes on those days. There is not much else I can do besides a repeated structure).
- 3 weeks before school, our new principal asked for a list of 10th grade students who would benefit from an extra mathematics class. I rattled off a bunch (including 2 advisees who have since dropped out of school, sadness) and one 11th grader who might be an amazing TA. A few minutes later, it dawned on us that it might be more beneficial to have the course be for 11th graders, as the supports at 9/10 are pretty strong. We wrote down a list of kiddos (again, many of whom I’d taught for 2 years). A few days later, it dawned on us (me) that I would be teaching this course. Not an actual complaint as I was mostly able to pick the roster. That being said, I also describe teaching/creating this course (first time for me, first time for our school) as throwing spaghetti at a wall until it stuck. Not surprisingly, the spaghetti that stuck the most were the structures. We spent one day a week doing homework for Algebra 2 and there are some kiddos who can do Estimation180 in their sleep. It was also extremely helpful to just let some of these kiddos spend an extra class period delving further into what we learned in class (there will be an upcoming post on the Desmos Project)
So, that was 3 really long bullet points.
Happy 2018, y’all.
It feels slightly weird to write a wrap up for the school year when my mind’s actually on wrapping up summer school (7 more days and everyone’s counting).
Big takeaways, largely parroted from other people:
- If a kiddo can be saying it, why are you? Stolen from one of the teachers who I’ve taught with for a bit. One of the things I struggle with in my context is that, especially at the beginning of the year, many of our students (all of whom are emerging multilinguals) don’t understand that much English. So me saying instructions to them doesn’t always make much sense. However, one student read to everyone at least focuses their attention (and so much better if it’s a phrase or norm that’s repeated frequently or that they’re familiar with). (And they’re generally more respectful to each other than they are to me. Ha.) I maintain that this still works even if they don’t entirely understand what they’re saying (when reading classroom objectives, etc). And having them read and explain to each other is even better.
- Randomness can lead to equity, if you’re thoughtful about it. I’ve always been antsy about calling kiddos at random. First year teacher used to do it to kiddos who weren’t paying attention, which probably wasn’t the wisest idea. I finally glommed on to a structure at our school where a student opens class by randomly selecting students to read objectives, agendas, and announcements. It’s fascinating seeing how this structure plays out. Students speak more and (largely owing to a collaborative culture at our school) will try and help each other read or answer questions. This works when the questions are pretty low stakes (either reading something off the board or choosing between 2 options). The goal is to get kiddos to speak and feel comfortable participating. Another helpful thing is the culture that our school has created where students know they’re supposed to help and support each other. At the beginning of summer school, I saw that students were really reluctant or scared to speak in class and it definitely took some supporting and needling to get them to speak and feel comfortable speaking.
- When in doubt, lean hard into your structures. I’m pretty sure I stole this from Carl Oliver and it goes for both kiddos and adults. Since so much of school can be new and strange for our kiddos, having established structures calms a lot of nerves. It’s said at our school that kiddos are confused by the blue opening papers (a schoolwide structure where kiddos fill out the date, day, content and language objective, and do an opening) at the beginning of the day, but are pros at it by sixth period on the same day. I’ve also noticed, in my afternoon classes (which are almost always squirrely) that, as crazy as the actual class may go, things calm down noticeably when I ask them to take the last 10 minutes to write a journal (again, repeated structure). This plays out interestingly when thinking about direct instruction (“Copy this down in your notes”) versus groupwork where students have to step out of their comfort zones, but that’s a thought process for year 5. I’m also finding that structures work well for adults (or maybe just me). By a stroke of luck (good? bad? Undecided…), I ended up making meeting agendas for our grade level team this year. Figuring out what to actually covering in meetings was tricky, but certain structures popped up that made the process easier – there’s always a check-in question, someone suggested that we make time to celebrate our students, and having time for feedback, and to reflect on our process gave us a way to get ideas for the next meeting and to give people a chance to reflect on how the meeting went for them and to say things that might still need to be said.
- It takes time. This is my fourth year as a teacher, which firmly puts me in “not new teacher” territory (where I think I’ve actually been for about 2 years, though it was easier to shirk duties in prior years. Ha.). This became clearer to me with some newer teachers on our team. Some of our school is just like any other school. But there are some very
quirky school-specific structures at our school, specifically our intersession electives and our semester portfolio process. Whereas both of these structures have become “Oh, that’s just a thing we do” to me (after 4 and 7 cycles, respectively), I have to remind myself what it was like the first time I went through either of those cycles. (For intersession electives, I was lucky enough to get paired with 2 amazing teachers from my team and for my first round of Portfolios, I just stumbled through because I didn’t know any better). I somewhat try to think of how to share strategies, structures and work samples to make the process easier for new teachers, but mostly I just try to stay afloat amidst my stuff (a large part of my Portfolio process this year is storming out of the classroom to drag back 2 of my advisees who eventually saunter in on their own time. “They’re like really slow boomerangs,” the vice principal tells me.). I know there are probably better ways to structure weird processes, but for now, I can’t think of a way better than to just experience it.
And since I’m not entirely sure I want to end things on that note, here’s what I’m doing this summer:
- One week of staycation (sleep, clean out classroom, watch friend teach, go to Julieta Venegas concert, sleep, host dinner party)
- 4 and 2 half weeks of summer school.
- One week at the Inquiry Schools Summer Institute (and then a week in DC).
- One long weekend at the Knowles Teaching Initiative Summer Conference (and then a week in New York).
- One week at a Geometry of Redistricting conference.
- And then we’re back for PD week. And if that feels short to you, it doesn’t include a few optional work days that I’m missing (they coincide with the last conference) and does include an extra week of summer because our District is starting a week later (to accomodate December holidays).
One thing I’m finding, 3 weeks (to the day) into summer school, is that when in doubt, lean on your routines (I’m fairly certain I read this in Carl Oliver’s blog, to give credit where credit is due). We have about 5 weeks with 50 minute classes, so there is not much time to teach or to plan (let alone condense everything into a cohesive, project-based unit that may or may not sync with the biology class next door).
It’s taken me a while to remember this, and to get back into it.
I do recall that one of the structures that was most successful from our linear functions unit is the multiple representations paper (It says “Different Representations” on the actual paper and that is how the kiddos largely refer to it. Change it? Leave it? The eternal dilemma…)
For some reason, the kiddos love this one. There’s enough to talk about, there are different sections, and (added benefit of teaching summer school to some awesome multilinguals, many of whom I taught some portion of the year to) enough kiddos know something about the things that we’re seeing that most kiddos have some access to the content but still need to practice what goes where in the table or why we don’t just put the y-numbers from the table on the y-axis.
I’m also fairly certain that only our school talks about “Figure X” as I had to stop class and review it every time. It’s sometimes a bit too complicated for my tastes, anyway (but makes a nice stretch point).
Photo: Different Representations Paper
What do you notice? What do you wonder?
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.
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.