Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Are you smarter than your math teacher?

This is an interesting question that was imposed on me in an indirect fashion tonight at our student open house. Our textbook was opened to a random page, and a parent asked me to solve the problem, on the spot. I did, successfully, and the parent was satisfied. I am not sure how I feel about this. Should I be offended? 

The zombie part of my brain says, "Dude, you've been at work going on ten hours straight, and you want me to do calculations?" while the logical part of my brain says, "It's a parent's right to know whether the teacher knows the content well enough to push my student hard enough". But the bigger question is, does a teacher need to be able to solve random problems in the book on the spot, to be capable of teaching and challenging students effectively? According to the students themselves, the answer is NO.

This seems backwards, doesn't it? My G/T training this summer gave teachers a chance to brainstorm lists of our opinion of what makes an effective G/T teacher. We came up with a list pretty similar to the ones on the first list on the link below. It was a hand-out we were given that totally blew my mind.

Now that you've read what teachers think makes a good G/T teacher, read further down in the article to the student survey of what gifted students actually want from their teacher. The percentages astounded me.

50% of gifted students felt that it was most important for their teachers to make it fun, understand them as an individual, have a good sense of humor, and be cheerful in the classroom.

30% of gifted students felt it was important that their teacher was supportive and flexible.


Only 5-10% of gifted students responded that it was important for their teacher to be an expert in their subject area or be able to explain the subject well. 


I am looking forward to testing these ideas out this fall with several students. I know I will make mistakes, and I encourage students to catch me making them by rewarding them with good behavior marbles. When we fill our marble jar, half an hour free time. Do they do anything productive or educational during free time? Rarely. Do they fill the jar quickly? Not really. It fills roughly every 3-5 weeks. Will they do just about anything to earn marbles? Yes! And they get so stinking excited about them too!

"Mrs. Bellm, you mixed up our names again!"  "Oops! Five marbles for each of you."
"Mrs. Bellm, that's the wrong answer. It should be ____." "Good catch! Ten marbles!"
"Mrs. Bellm, can I pick up scraps for marbles?" "Sure! 20 scraps = 5 marbles!"
"Mrs. Bellm, is the jar full yet? How many do we have left? When will we get game time?"

I pass them out at the beginning of the hour if the kids are prepared and on task.
I pass them out for reading aloud in class.
I give out extra marbles for really good answers.
I bribe them with twenty marbles for being SILENT in the halls between math labs.
I even offer five marbles a piece for extra boxes of Kleenex and hand sanitizer!

Oh, did I mention, I can take them back too? If they screw around, I just stand in front of the marble jar or dig my hand into the pile, and they all shut up. I grab a handful and start walking away from the jar and they all whine and look sad and contrite. If they are really really bad, I have dumped out an entire Care Bear mug's worth back into my starting bag, but that only happened once, ever. No shushing needed, they shush themselves!

So what does this have to do with gifted students? Well, a lot actually. They often are the restless, unfocused ones in the group, because they get it already. Sometimes they're the immature ones who act out trying to impress their friends with naughty behavior, or sneaky behavior, or big words. (or selling pop cans out of lockers) They are "above" what we are doing, and then act snotty or dismissive, because the rest of the class (including the teacher) are about five steps behind them on any given problem or project. Add these all up, and you get a big need for positive, proactive behavior management.

If gifted kids want their teacher to be funny and positive and flexible, that marries well to concrete or sarcastic (but not rude) behavior reminders. And I love sarcasm. Make 'em laugh, and then redirect them. Make a zombie comment, or just change the subject. And my favorite new reminder system that I found in a magazine, have some "duh!" sheets printed out that say things like "I know I need to bring a pencil and paper to class" or "I know I have to wait to go the bathroom until the end of the hour" or "I know I can't shred paper and pencils or gouge holes in the wall with a compass, or stick gum in a rainbow pattern all over the underside of my desk". And then if they decide to act out anyway, I'll give them one to sign. Next infraction, BOOM you gotz yerself a behavior ticket! (two more and you're at a detention and that is NOT a fun use of a Tuesday afternoon).

Now that we've removed every possible behavior problem forever (yeah right) I might be able to actually teach. Maybe. But I still need to prove to the parents that I can teach, even if their gifted kids don't really care one way or another. All I have to do is make it "fun" - bring on Bungie Barbie and her friends, Polynomial Ken (or maybe bi-nomial Ken would be a better name) and make them laugh a lot (show the 18 Wheels on a Big Rig song on the first day of class) and then get to know them individually by talking to them in the halls before class and not being in such a hurry to curtail off-topic conversations during class.

Am I smarter than a 7th grader? Possibly. Do I have more life experience than a 7th grader? Bucket loads. Do I have a higher IQ than most of the students in my class? Doubtful. But part of being a Zombie Teacher is that I couldn't care less what my students think of me; whether they think I dress weird, or said something stupid or got a problem wrong, or if I stumble around in either a frenzied or comatose zombie state. I will be entertaining just by being my clutzy self... I will be unpredictable because they'll never know which zombie will show up... and they will learn not only math smarts, but personal smarts by following my example.

"Know thyself!" -Plato

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." -Ferris Bueller

And my favorite thing to do to make 'em laugh: put silly random Graph Jam graphs on every lesson!

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