Friday, September 30, 2011

Bungee Barbie gets schooled

I hate to say I told you so, to Kathleen Porter-Magee regarding her CCMS+Bungee Barbie = Epic Fail blog post, so instead, I'll say NA NA NA BOO BOO! This was the most fun I've probably had in any math class EVER! For my students too! My other classes can't wait to try it out for themselves. And guess what... we actually LEARNED a few things!

A little background, for those who have not been following my blog long: the article above insinuates that the Bungee Barbie lab boils down to throwing barbies around the room, and that students don't really get a good grasp of linear equations from the experiment. I have concretely and soundly proved this WRONG. Or my students did anyway. 

Over the past few weeks, my accelerated class has been learning how to calculate slope using "rise over run", making steps on their coordinate grids, following the online analogy of "Joan the Chameleon" to graph lines using slope intercept form. We then took the concrete visual/kinesthetic approach to a more mathematical, algebraic understanding, playing with x-intercepts and y-intercepts, solving equations for both variables, and making input/output tables to demonstrate linear patterns in the numbers. 

Upon introducing the Barbie problem this past Monday, I gave them a simple ratio tool from my own trial, stating that I tried 2 rubber bands, and Barbie fell around 48 centimeters. They were asked to predict intuitively or mathematically how many rubber bands they would need to drop a doll to a height of 530 cm (That is the distance from the top rail of our balcony to the floor below). Predictions brought forth various comments on weight of the dolls, elasticity of the rubber bands over time, and ability to accurately measure the drop height. They also named their dolls (the headless Ken doll, now called "Leonardo", as well as "Tape" and "Ian" for Barbies) and to practice the slip knot method for 2 bands, as well as the drop motion to be used.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, students practiced and perfected drop measurements; many decided to redo data that did not seem accurate, or to adjust the number of rubber band inputs to meet the height constraints of our 2.5 meter - high upstairs ceiling. I suggested trying odd numbers of rubber bands, instead of the even numbers given in the spreadsheet, as 10 and 12-bands made all the dolls hit the floor. We determined that our rubber bands were bigger than were probably used in the initial design of the experiment. Groups then averaged their data, plotted their coordinates, and drew best-fit lines. 

The REALLY cool part of the project came on Thursday, when groups were able to calculate the equation for their best fit lines. There were moments of real joy and understanding when they realized that the y-intercept of the equation, the value of x=0 (no rubber bands), was the height of the Barbie herself! This prompted many students whose best-fit lines didn't seem quite right, to go back and measure their actual doll, in order to write a more accurate equation. 

Other break-throughs came when I asked students what their "3 boxes rise / 4 boxes run" slope actually meant. I queried, "are you counting by 1's on either your x-axis or your y-axis?" Student response: "ummm, no?"... my response: "then what do 3 boxes actually represent from your experiment?".... pause.... thinking... "Oh! That's the height of the drop!".... my response... "and so what did you count by?"... student response: "We counted by 20's... AH! So the rise of my slope is SIXTY!!!" ... I prompt the same question for the x-axis... pause for thinking... "AH HA! That is for 2 rubber bands! We skipped every other line!" (queue heavenly music of bliss as actual learning takes place)

It didn't take much more prodding for students to interpret their slope as a unit rate, shrinking their 60 cm/4 rubber bands to roughly 15 cm per band. Then they could set up their slope intercept equation, and actually get a visual, kinesthetic, tactile interpretation of y=mx+b with "m" as their drop rate, and "b" as the Barbie height. Solving for the equation of 530=15x+30 was an absolute cinch. They had that down for over a week. 

But now it MEANT something. 

Leading into the actual drop test on Friday, with all Barbies poised on the cliff... and the final drop challenge proved a little more complicated. Groups found out quickly when their Barbie hit the floor, or only dropped to the ceiling of the floor below, that their experimental bands had stretched out. About half of the groups had taken into account the variables of aging/usage of the rubber bands, as well as the weight of the doll and the slight added pull of gravity from the greater height. Theirs were the drop heights of 18, 36, 40, and 48 cm's from the floor. The top two groups actually tied, with heads dropping to a dare-devil 15 cm's from the ground. No one had a clear photo, and even after two trials, I couldn't venture to declare a winner. So both groups will get silly bragging rights certificates on Monday. 

We then returned to the classroom where students were given reflection time; to think about why their dolls exceeded or failed to reach an appropriate drop height. Were their predictions correct? How did their experimental accuracy help or hurt their data analysis process? What tips might they use in the future to minimize error? 

I was greatly pleased to see that several students chose to take their packets home, to continue reflecting over the weekend, rather than rushing through answers to get it turned in today. How many would have done the same thing, had it been a boring old pencil and paper test? Fewer, I'm sure. One thing I do know for sure... they will never forget the day that Barbie plummeted off the balcony. And I wouldn't be surprised if they remember some of the math behind it too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Giving thanks a little early this year

It's Wednesday, which means we had our weekly team meeting at work this morning. Between hall duty and being sick, it was my first one of the year. I felt a little bad because I could not think of anything to say during the "thanks and appreciations" jam session. But I have plenty now!!!

On this gorgeous eighty-degree September day, I have a lot of things to be thankful for. The amount of my paycheck is not one of them. After surviving two days with a total zombie frog voice, I am thankful that my cold did not render me mute. My favorite comment of the day, repeated frequently, was, "Mrs. Bellm, are you sick?!?!? Awww."  (No really, I am talking like Kermit from the Crypt just for the heck of it).

I had a gloriously peaceful drive home through the country side of Watertown, listening to Persuasion by Jane Austen, stuffing my face with an entire bag of popcorn. Really good for my sore dry throat too, eating popcorn... at any rate, I am thankful to not be living in the 1700's as many of Austen's characters are, getting ready to marry a cousin. EWW!

After my marvelous drive, I pull up to our cul-de-sac and spot three energetic boys and my hubby Chris and his mom "Nanny" running around in the back yard, wearing out our filthy dirty boys. THANK YOU BOTH!! They were so tired that they crawled right into bed after their baths and virtually collapsed. Despite the streaks of mud on their faces and random scrapes and bruises, they are both really lucky to have 1+ adults at home during the day while I am at work, bonding with their cousins and breaking each other's toys.

The first thing I see on the counter in the kitchen, which I have been greatly anticipating, are the Coborns Penny Pincher coupons!!! YESSSSSSSS....  these are way better than Mackenthun's "Dollar Days" because even on a busy day at Coborns, there are like five cars in the parking lot. Seriously, have you ever tried to shop at Mackenthun's during Dollar Days? You'd think Justin Bieber stopped by and the teenagers had been camped on the curb for weeks, the way the cars fill the lot and the lines inside reach back to the isles, and crazed soccer moms and elderly grannies are elbowing and shoving (sometimes not so gently) their way through the produce section.

Now I am not usually a coupon person, but these are just too good to miss. Milk for $1.48! Cereal for $1.83! Chili beans for 47 cents a can! Shredded cheese for a DOLLAR!!! I can make CHILI this weekend! Add on the 24-oz pop bottles at 24 for $9.96 and $1.96 frozen pizzas, $1.71 12-grain bread loaves and $5.97 twelve-packs of TP, and Mommy is a happy camper! Gotz to make that dollar stretch as far as possible. So THANKS Coborns!

While I am talking slang, I absolutely must throw a shout-out to the awesome website for their many hilarious, cat-themed, grammatically incorrect posters. You can type just about anything into Google, add the word "funny", click on the images tab, and you'll get a silly picture and phrase that will make you laugh and go "awww" at the same time. I regularly insert these into my Smart lessons just to make the kids laugh. However I do advise the kids NOT to visit their website directly, as there are some not-so-appropriate comments and pictures mixed in with the cute and cuddly ones. Stick to Google with "safe search" on and you should be fine.

My final thanks is to my sister Ashley, who is flying back from Boston tomorrow night on a random cheap ticket she found (probably on and is actually willing to drive out and do lunch with me in my classroom. Granted, she's never seen it, but how many people actually ever go to school when they don't have to? It's got to be about an hour drive both ways, plus another hour to hang with me and catch up, so she's basically willing to give up her entire afternoon just to see me. I'm blown away. Thank you Sis!! 

And now, thanks to Top Chef: Just Desserts, I get to watch other people cook really delicious food that I wish I could reach through the TV and devour, but thank goodness, I really can't. Already microwaved myself a S'more and ate that in about 30 seconds. Thank you taste buds for returning, I've missed you!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Laundry, Lewis & Clark, and Linear Equations

Before I head to bed with my first cold of the season, I thought I'd share some random tidbits from the weekend. Ethan studied the letter "L" in pre-school last week, and apparently "L" has been on my brain as well! 

Today marked officially the biggest "Laundry Party" in the history of the Bellm household. Both boys get super excited when they hear that it is about to commence. Loads of laundry are dumped all around the trampoline on the carpet downstairs... and I'm not talking one or two loads... I think I dumped seven buckets FULL of clothes all over the floor. Not only did it all get sorted, but some actually got put away too! I have clean underwear in a readily accessible drawer! Wrinkly work pants and button-down blouses have been tucked away for a future zombie ironing frenzy in 2-3 months.

Also of note, I finished my first actual turn-the-page, hard cover book in... oh... I don't know, eight months??!? Since joining, it has become increasingly silly and unthinkable to sit down and devote myself to reading words on a page. When instead I could be listening to the words in dramatized form, while driving, doing dishes, sitting outside watching the kids... so I don't regret it, but in a weird way, I think I missed it. 
The book was called New Found Land, and was loaned to me by a dear colleague, looking for feedback on what parts of the Lewis & Clark fictional history novel would be good to share in a language arts class. Now this is not my typical genre of YA sci/fi or modern fiction. I normally DESPISE reading history, whether fiction or non... but this was something totally new and different. 

In New Found Land, the Lewis & Clark adventure is dramatized, from beginning to end and back, jumping back and forth between characters, including the famous adventurers, their slaves and soldiers, Sacajawea, and even Lewis' DOG! It reads a little bit like Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. The pages look like poetry more than novel. I will sadly admit, that once the party reached the Native American peoples of the pacific northwest, I had an obnoxious desire to hear a shout out to the Quileute nation of the Twilight saga.

Now that I am through with the book, I am hoping it will fill my dreams tonight of far off mysterious lands and peoples; compared to last night, when I spent many fitful hours tossing and turning about the linear equations lessons I am scheduled to teach in math class this week. I am not sure why! The students are ready for it. But I guess all caring, involved teachers have the same tendency to worry as much about our students and our curriculum while we're sleeping as we do when we're awake. 

Maybe it's the stress of standardized tests. Or from differentiating menus of homework choices for two separate math classes... but despite the tiredness and the fragmented sleep I may or may not get tonight, there is always coffee and cold medicine awaiting me in the morning! So I will bid good night, hoping the zombie-inducing cold symptoms magically disappear overnight.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

School through the eyes of a Zombie Parent

It's always fascinating to read a story through the eyes of another character, to see the world from the perspective of a different person. I think that's why I enjoy reading sci/fi fantasy fiction so much. You get almost an out-of-body experience that let's you sit back and say, "Huh. I never thought of it quite like that before".

I had one of these body-snatcher experiences today, opening my eldest son's backpack. Ethan has graduated from pre-pre-school, to plain old pre-school this year, where he'll probably stay for the next two years. Some parents hold their kids back from kindergarten because of sports or academics; Ethan is just not going to be ready for the social scene, or mature enough to deal with the rigors of today's competitive kindergarten classroom for a while. 

You might think I say that sarcastically, but I don't! I have subbed in kindergarten classrooms, and the kids are already flex-grouped by skills, reading level, and neediness pretty soon after walking through the door. Add in full-day madness, and you've got a huge stress ball for a high-anxiety kid. Not a good match. 

Alas, I digress. So as I'm digging through Ethan's backpack, I come across yet another "letter to the parents" and start groaning. In big bold print across the top, is the sentence, "Please discuss with your child", complete with a parent/kid worksheet stapled to the back. And here you thought that preschoolers and kindergarteners didn't have homework!  That's right, they don't! The PARENTS DO.

Parent Assignment #1- before Ethan even started pre-school, we parents had our own homework, to sign up for a separate parent/child class to get our "rounding out" of the ECFE experience... OR we have to complete what is literally called a "parent homework" self-directed learning packet, or Ethan gets kicked out of the class.

Parent Assignments #2 and 3- attend a pre-school conference (during my work day), and then a pre-school open house (also during my work day), and OH YEAH you can't bring your other kids. So add in Homework #3B - find a sitter.

Parent Assignment #4- Check the snack schedule and pack adequate food for the entire brat pack, and don't forget, no nut products, and there's a milk and egg allergy too. Graham crackers it is!

Parent Assignment #5- Read the weekly/daily agenda, try to talk to Ethan about the topics covered, fill out the little post-class reflection for families and tuck it back in his backpack. Getting a 4-yr old to talk about his day is literally like pulling teeth. "What did you have for snack today, son?" (he looks at his dinner plate, picks and item, and states that that is what he ate). "Who did you sit by at snack today?" (he mumbles some name I didn't understand, but I think was a kid from last year's class). "What did you do at school today?" (cars and trucks!) Helpful.

Parent Assignment #6 - Find yet another wall space or door frame to hang the ever-growing collection of childhood art. Honestly, does anyone ever look back on their pre-school art and say, "wasn't that just the neatest thing ever?"  Maybe a couple turkey hand-prints, or poems to mom that the teacher obviously helped them to finish. This worked great last year when I had crappy wall-paper space to stick all the tape and glue-covered creations. But now that the kitchen is painted, where does the junk art go!?

So my epiphany, after having assigned my own "parent homework" at my middle school, was to NOT be too hard on the parents who didn't complete it. I have one kid, in one class, in preschool, and I'm already super tired of looking through all the scraps and treasures and instructions every night. Can you imagine how bad it must be to have 2-3 kids, with 6 classes each, and nearly every teacher asking the parent to sign something? or read something? or fill out 10 paragraphs about what is neat or challenging about their kid? AHHHH! 

I have passed through to the other side of the mirror and am looking back at my zombie self, saying, take it easy on your students' parents. They have a lot on their plates; like teen know-it-all attitudes, masters classes, full-time jobs, soccer practice, band concerts, friend drama, and maybe some time with their spouse. (probably not any for themselves). It's time to cut them a break and let them have a life. God knows I WANT ONE!!!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

9-19-11: Official Website Launch
Holy techno babble, Zombie Bat Woman! You have a website? 


After putzing around sending emails from my Yahoo! account to various local teachers and not making very many sales on my book (5 to be exact, and at least 2 of which came from close friends), I realized that I needed to get legit. Too legit to quit.

So I sucked it up, spent $10 on a domain name from (yes, I know, go ahead and snicker) and purchased a software hosting package with 1000's of templates. And boy oh boy, is this junk easy to use!!! The hope now is that I can help my hubby to get his own eBiz site up and running, thus saving on a zillion eBay fees. 

(Insert shameless plug here:)

In the mean while, I need to download the Mobile site app, research the insanity of starting a classroom or facebook blog, check into Hoobble to see how that mobile homework app is coming along, and FIGURE OUT HOW TO SKYPE!!! 

My poor sister is all alone on the east coast, teaching Freshman English 101 at UMass/Amherst... and I have hardly been able to talk to her except on Facebook and LinkedIn. As tech savvy as my family is, even I feel like a shmuck. Hang in there Ashley, I'll get there soon :o)  Miss you honey!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Silliness rules the day!

I dedicate this post to my hubby on his 34th birthday. He is a major inspiration for my attitude in the classroom. Growing up, I was always silly and odd, and even a bit inappropriate. I always thought there was something wrong with me. Trying to fit into the cool crowd, as a gawky, gangly, goofy brainiac was a major worry in school, and I have vivid memories of how I failed at it.

When I met my husband Chris, one of the things that I fell in love with the most, was watching a home movie of him doing karaoke in a whiny effeminate voice to "I'm With You" by Avril Lavigne. He swayed to the music in his Hawaiian shirt, shoved a buddy away from the mic when he tried to join in, and proudly belted out the "Yeah yeah yeah! yeah yeah! Yeah YEAH, YEAH YEAH YEAAAAAAAAAAH YEAH!!!!!!!!!!" ending in a screeching soprano voice. It was such an obnoxiously care free performance, that I thought, "I could really be myself with this guy, and he'd never call me a loser!" That song was later the first dance at our wedding, with a huge crowd belting out the tune as we danced. Ah, the memories. 

I started my first year teaching long before I met Chris, and I tried really hard to be firm with my discipline, strict and consistent with the way I ran the class, (meaning I talk, they take notes and study and regurgitate for tests) and I didn't make much effort to keep in touch with parents. I think if I remember correctly, I was borderline afraid of talking to parents about what their kids were (or weren't) doing in my classroom. Working in a remedial classroom setting, the news I needed to pass along was often bad news, and I felt way more responsibility for the students' lack of effort than I should have. 

Now beginning my fifth year teaching, I have lost all those pretenses. I am who I am, silliness and goofiness and zombieness all showing through proudly. I dance and sing and tell goofy stories about my kids, I shamelessly plug the latest young-adult fiction book I'm reading to students who might share my interests, and I state as many sarcastic comments and random movie & book quotes as I can fit into one class period. When it comes to subject matter, I look for the oddest, silliest, funniest, most original tidbits I can relate to a concept, doing anything I can to get a laugh. 

Are they laughing at me? Or with me? Who cares! I'm having fun and hopefully the students are too. Because laughter = endorphins = more memory retention.

The best part of my day is hearing the laughter and seeing the smiles of teens who walked into my room looking sad, or grumpy, or defeated. They know my room is a safe place, and they know they are going to get some genuine attitude from a caring adult. They know I care about them, because I am one of them. There, I said it. I may have continued growing up and out long into my high school/college years, but...

I stopped maturing when I was thirteen. 

So much for 13 going on 30! I am 30 (or maybe 31) going on 13. It's a great age to be! Go ahead, be somebody different today. Try out something new. Reinvent yourself. Change your attitude and your friends. Who cares what people think of you!? Normal is boring! Weird is fun! And if you don't like something about me, just keep your mouth shut because I don't want to hear it. 

All of this I knew about myself, but having a caring and supportive husband who not only loves me for these weird characteristics, but embodies them himself, really helped me to see the value in it. As students pass through my door, I'm sure they think I'm odd. They may think I'm a zombie or a caffeine freak. But after they put all of this aside, I hope they see that their teacher knows who she is and what she is, and loves what she does. If I can inspire them to take a couple steps down their own road to self-discovery, my life is worthwhile. And maybe they'll learn some math along the way too.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hot new technology in the works! This is a total "duh", way to go NL!

You wouldn't believe what random tidbits you come across by joining groups on LinkedIn. I randomly sign in and BAM! there is an awesome software link or new person to network with, or personal story in the "Teachers Lounge" or tech question I can offer advice on. Last week, the top story in the "Secondary Education Professionals" group was for a new homework app that is still in the test phase. I couldn't resist checking it out. 

On the one hand, I'm shocked that nobody has thought of it before. But then, I think of some of the push-back that many teachers across America are having against the tide of technology that is cresting in the classroom. I'm sure there will be a loud voice crying, "they don't NEED a homework app, use the free planner the school gave them!". So which side of the fence to take... 

As a busy mom, amateur author/enterprenuer, educator and tech enthusiast, this is a total no-brainer to me. Anything to reduce the zombie-ness in my life and help me do things faster is an easy decision. I think that most parents of middle schoolers, between driving kids to soccer practice, coming/going from work, cooking/shopping/cleaning and occasionally sleeping, would jump on the chance to try this out. So here's how it works.

Step 1: Teacher logs into the website above and creates an account. The program works an awful lot like Facebook or MySpace, in that they have to add a class, type in basic school information, and then type the homework for each day into specified boxes. 

Step 2: Students and/or parents log into the website and create an account of their own. They search for their school and their teacher, and any teacher who has posted homework will show up there. They add them to their teacher list, click on a day, and Viola! they can see homework assignments listed. This much you can do now.

Step 3: Eventually the programmers will launch a free app that will be available in the Android market, and hopefully soon after, for iPhone and other devices. Parents/students visit the market, download the app, and save it to their phone favorites. Badda bing, they can keep track of homework from anywhere without lugging a giant dinosaur planner around. Saves teacher time, parent time, student time and communication time not rewriting and restating the assignment again and again. 
(Still doesn't help students who forget their homework materials at school!)

I can see huge potential if a school were willing to go full-throttle into such a program. Parents could see all of their kids' homework from every teacher with the click of a couple buttons on their phone. Students would whip their phone out at the end of the day, double check what they need to pack, and not have to run down to the teacher's room to ask (if they're even still in the building at the end of the day, or at bus duty or coaching a sport). 

There would of course be concerns about the fairness for students and parents who either can't afford or don't allow their young teenagers to have phones. This is becoming a smaller and smaller minority though, as family cell phone plans with parent protective tools become more and more affordable. As an educator, I can't see the logic of holding back a free tool from families who are willing and able to use it, when the old system of writing down homework in an agenda book and bringing supplies home in a back pack works just as well for everybody else. 

Time saving technology seems to be the way of the future, and the most logical, least expensive tools will become more and more desirable, as funding for education and teacher prep time are systematically reduced all over the nation.

Check out the site, weigh in, and share your feedback here or on LinkedIn! Erik Harinck is the co-owner of Hoobble in the Netherlands. I don't speak a lick of Norweigan or Dutch or whatever it is, so thank goodness their site can translate to English!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Technology in and out of the classroom

Welcome to my 21st century classroom. We are fast paced, high energy, tech savvy zombie information junkies, making math come alive. Here's a snap shot of class on a typical day.

Warm-ups and homework correcting on the Smart board. Write on top of the problems with electronic smart pens and save the "ink" layer for later classes. Freeze the screen while taking attendance so they can keep working. (saves 1-2 minutes)

Open to lesson 1.3 in your book, oh wait! You don't have to! The e-version of the book is on the Smart board. Follow along. Take notes as we read. I will be writing with the timed erasing ink that disappears 10 seconds after written. 

Missed the notes for a band lesson? Check out the study guide on Mrs. Bellm's website. The key is also provided, so you can see if you're on the right track.

Time for a math lab, bring your cell phones outside so we can use the timer app to track our walking rates. Make a short video of the process because Student X has such a funny speed walk. Bring the students to the computer lab to teach them how to enter their lab data into an exel spreadsheet and then use the graph feature to make it come alive. Save to your student drive in the mobile student file cloud (where any teacher, but only that student, can see it).  

Were you absent today? Check out the homework list on Bellm's website or link to her teacher Facebook page to get homework help, class reminders and notices. Network with other students and/or chat or Skype so everyone is on the same page.

Forgot your homework at school? No problem! Print a copy of Mrs. Bellm's document page on the website.  Or do your homework on the computer and email it back to her! Terrible handwriting? Type it up and print it.

Text Mrs. Bellm when you get stuck on a problem, get help right away, move on with your life. Cell phone with unlimited texting capabilities has not yet gotten a crank text or phone call. They have figured out how easy it is to get caught.

Students come to class prepared the next day, questions answered (mostly). And if they are not prepared, they have absolutely, 100% NO excuses why it isn't done. It was on the whiteboard. It was on the website. It was provided during the lesson on the Smart board. Mrs. Bellm updated her website and Facebook with the current homework. You could have gotten a copy of the assignment in class or electronically instantly.

Parents want to check in? Read up on the weekly parent "messenger" emails with class updates, homework concepts for the week and general notices for the grade. Mom or Dad can email back right away or visit my website at the link provided, and check the online grading portal to track their students' progress. 

Need I continue? 
-Computerized MAP tests fall and spring give immediate feedback on progress.
-Students pick their own Accelerated Reader books and take computerized tests for course credit.
-Web quests are often assigned as homework with 30-60 minutes of game time on Mrs. Bellm's website
-Math MCA-II tests are fully computerized as of this year.
-Independent student math software has been implemented in a variety of settings for enrichment and remediation on the computer.

Heck, our SCHOOL even has a Facebook page and a Weather bug link too! We are digital, baby!

I could put up a comparison of what a typical class day was like when I was a middle schooler, but the highlight of our day back then was getting to sniff the whiteboard markers or write with a bright purple overhead marker during class. PATHETIC. Be happy, little students, you are living in a dream world.