Monday, November 28, 2011

Math Class Experiment: The Week with No Homework!

It's nearly January and an entire trimester has once again passed in the blink of an eye. MEA came and went,  then Halloween, Thanksgiving, and in just a few weeks, it will be Christmas Break!! Time sure does fly by faster as we age; especially as educators and parents, often with multiple jobs and time commitments, chauffeuring children and keeping a home. Are we stopping to appreciate the time we have, before it's gone?

There is a brilliant article called "Why Does Time Fly By As You Get Older?", by Robert Krulwich, that discusses precisely this conundrum. The video of children playing at a beach/carnival is a must see! My brain was forced to slow down and enjoy every second of its beauty. What the article delves into, is the persistence of new memories and experiences, and how the quantity of novel information processed by a youthful human brain can make time seem to pass more slowly than it actually is. Conversely, we have fewer and fewer "firsts" as we age. Traditions form, birthdays, anniversaries and holidays blend together, and less novel information is stored to document the passage of time.

Which leads me to wonder, what does time feel like to teens these days? Online? At sports? With family? What about in school? Do traditional textbooks and pencil-and-paper assignments create any meaningful learning for students anymore? Heck, I can't even get half of them to bring a pencil to class!

There seems to be a perpetual recurrence of early-winter laziness, lack of organization, and general apathy to studying that surfaces each year in the student body like a bear preparing to hibernate.

On about my ninth hour of correcting unit test after unit test on the road to Michigan (back seat, NOT driving), I began pondering the cruel irony of my self-imposed situation. 60+ hours per week (20+ unpaid) are eaten up developing sophisticated curriculum, matching appropriate formative, ongoing and summative assessment, delivering said curriculum, and then processing and analyzing the results. Compared to an average of 10-15 hours that students put in over the course of the unit. I think I'm "winning" by a ratio of about 4:1. How did this come to be??? Shouldn't the work get easier and faster each year?

Well, for starters, the age/experience factor takes several assumptions into account. First, that teachers regurgitate the same material, the same standards, year in and year out, with the same labs, the same tests, the same assignments and the same tools and teaching methods each time. I know very few teachers who actually operate that way. The standards and textbooks alone change every 5-7 years, which is about how long any particular teacher is usually teaching the same subject to the same subgroup of students, if s/he is lucky.  Reassignments, modifications and increases to workloads are the name of the game in the current "market" of increased demand on test results and decreased/deferred school funding.

Second, technology has increasingly become not only an expected, but essential and required component of our daily teaching. Smart lessons (good ones anyway) take a lot of time to write. Internet teaching resources are abundant, but quality materials take time to find. And often don't have keys. Third, the old-school hand-written grade book is a think of the past. Correcting, grading and assignment feedback has become electronic, requiring timely correcting and reporting in order to appease parents and keep students accountable. Oh yeah, and let's not forget all the meetings required before, during and after school for IEP's, PLC's, curriculur teaming, school-wide planning, and mandated teacher training hours.

Add that to all the extra work that I've created for myself. Owwwiiee, meh Zombie Brain hurts, says IcanHazCheezburger Cat. While venting all this to some fine mother hens at Thanksgiving, I blurted out, "Maybe I should give the kids a week off from homework next week". While subconsciously, my internal monolog is saying, 'Maybe I should give myself a week off from planning and correcting a week's worth of homework'. 

Rest assured, Nay-Sayers, we are not having a week-long party or watching movies all day. There would still be lessons and class work, which I could assign as homework if they're being lazy in class... and kids might think of extra credit, and they have test corrections to complete, which is kind of like an "optional" homework... So it's OK, right?!? Parents are getting a week off from hassling their little kiddos about the homework too! Break for all!

Well, I went ahead and made the decision NOT to give homework this week. I still have great lessons planned, with a modified "flip-lesson" on Wednesday, and interactive Smart lessons on Tuesday and Thursday. My experiment, if it really is an experiment, is to determine if the students really learn any less. Or if the freedom from homework will help them focus more. Or better yet, their malleable and anxious teenage brains might actually benefit from the brain-break and stress relief of that metaphorical homework weight being lifted off their shoulders. For the time being, anyway. Performance Assessment to follow in a few short weeks to analyze the results! Stay tuned.

P.S. if you are as interested in human perceptions of time as I am (duh, I'm a Zombie after all!), then check out this neat Time lab, correlated to national math standards: 

I'm thinking it will fit right in with upcoming units on non-linear data :o)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Break time for zombie brains to reset

Happy Thanksgiving!

What a busy few weeks it has been. I've hardly had time to think, sleep, exercise or blog. Student apathy for note-taking and homework has increased exponentially as the holiday draws nearer. Part of that disinterest may have to do with the fact that we're studying rates and ratios; one of the most boring topics of the year. 

Here's crazy Mrs. Bellm, jumping up and down, singing and dancing "Criss Cross Multiply, Divide By the Lonely Guy", and writing "Very Important Notes: You NEED to copy this down"... and glazed eyes stare back at me in dead silence. You literally could hear a pin drop. That just doesn't happen in normal life. AAAAAAAHHHH!

Luckily there are only a few days left in the trimester, and a new unit on integers is upon us. Time to rest up, recharge, and NOT, under any circumstances, think about work. (Except for that mile-high stack of unit tests that need to be grade on my 14-hour road trip, and the subsequent grade slips that must be printed before students get back).

Before I sign off to finish my road trip packing, I'd like to take a few moments to think about the math that I will NOT be doing on my road trip. 

#1: Balancing my checkbook. There is no money in it. Haven't been paid for committee work from LAST YEAR. Haven't gotten my "step" for THIS year, or a new work contract, because shocking, the economy sucks. At least gas prices are going down!

#2: Calculating the rate of driving speed on the trip, and how it relates to the distance covered during each of the next two days. My daddy drives a bus, and is therefore obligated to NOT get any speeding tickets on the highway. And my hubby, who likes to speed, can't, because he recently got a ticket. So it will be a looooong drive. At least I'm not the one behind the wheel.

#3: Discovering how many calories are in any of the food items I consume, or worrying about how many steps I walk each day, or figuring out just how many ounces of adult beverages I've consumed. It's a vacation, for heavens sake. Although on Saturday I had two glasses of wine and was so tired that I fell asleep in my older son's bed when I put him down for the night, and subsequently woke up at midnight wondering how the heck I got there. Maybe reds aren't such a good idea.

#4: Keeping track of pounds gained. All the loose pants and sweats are packed, in anticipation of nummy eating and lots of sitting on the couch.

#5: Worrying about what time of day it is, since I won't have to set an alarm for 5 days!!! Hallelujah! I can nap if I want to, dang nabbit. Who is going to stop me??

#6: I will not be counting my lack of book sales for the month, since I've pretty much taken the month off from any grand advertising endeavors. Teaching and life are their own full-time and double-overtime jobs. So on that note, I'm too lazy to advertise. But go buy my books anyway. I'm also too lazy to copy the links into this blog. So go ahead and click on the buttons on the right all by yourself. 

And that's more than enough things to not be counting, to the point that I've started counting the things that I'm NOT COUNTING. So I'd better sign off, quit procrastinating on the packing, and GET TO BED!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

PLC provides warm fuzzies, free therapy, and happier spouses

It's been a rough few weeks. Between the sugar fade-out from Halloween, adjusting to daylight savings time, and grinding through two straight weeks of proportions in plane figures, we are finally approaching the long awaited Thanksgiving break. A few short days later, the first trimester of school will end. Budgets are crunching, our referendum didn't pass, and our contract hasn't been settled. Oh yeah, and taxes went up too. Really!?!?

With all the stress going on around us, you'd think us teachers would curl up into a ball and give up. Far from it! My team of teachers was just commenting today how much smoother this year is going, now that we've switched to mini-teams, in which we have common students, common prep, and professional learning committee (PLC) time built into our school day. Meeting time is more productive than ever. We have a spreadsheet to-do list, we talk within our team, we talk between our teams, and we are even starting to send collaborative emails to parents "from the team" (thus eliminating two completely redundant emails from the other teachers). 

Another important function of PLC's? Venting. AHHHHH my smile has been plastered on my face for the last 3 hours and I need to bang my head on something. Did you have a discipline issue with so-and-so? How are this other kid's grades in your class? Is it just me, or are boy X and girl Y flirting more than usual? And on and on... while we don't often document much of our complaining, it is very therapeutic. I often find that I am doing less venting at home because my coworkers have been gracious enough to listen to it at work. We are all in the same boat, we can relate, and occasionally offer advice that the others may or may not listen to ;)

The bigger question, of how much "prep time" teachers should get, is listed contractually at 250 minutes. Really, union!?!? You think teachers can get prepared for class, contact parents, correct papers, make copies, assist students, update the grading system and teacher website, in 50 minutes a day!?!?!? Really!?!? (the "Really" bit from SNL is going through my head now, even without Seth Myers present) Luckily at the middle school level, we are given a second 50 minutes for prep/PLC time. This usually equates to 2 days of mini-team meeting, 1 day of curricular team meeting, one day to update the grade system, and one day to contact parents. (in random order, for the most part)

That seems like a lot of meeting time; but if you think about it, each parent email takes roughly 5 minutes, and if each teacher contacts 10-20 parents per week, and then spends an average of 5 minutes per email dealing with whatever was needed and following up, that's pretty close to 100 minutes per week of communication time. Say you bundle that up with mini-team meetings and send one email "from the team", you've just saved nearly 200 minutes of duplicate work. Ah, the papers I could be grading!!! 

Now you're getting to the good part... teachers who truly communicate and collaborate, save time on combined efforts, make learning more meaningful (which means less re-teaching later), have better emotional states after venting, bring less work home to correct and plan, which leaves more time for spouses and family! And blogging!

For example, my math mini-team is able to finally work together one day per week, for the first time in my four years in the building. We'd previously been swapping a billion emails per week, walking documents back and forth, and often not had time to compare student grades. We would love a chance to watch the other two members teach a lesson, but we all teach at the same time, so that's a no-go. This year, this month, we were finally able to sit down and edit a test together, DURING school, and then reorder / tailor materials to suit our needs so that the entire grade would maintain common assessments. As often as the standards are changing lately, it feels like we're doing this every year. Hopefully this will be the last. PLEASE!!!!

Anyhoo, this blog entry has been kind of random, but I just wanted to send out a few more warm fuzzies to my wonderful coworkers for making my job (and my life) easier, and for making me a better teacher through all the sharing. The kids we serve benefit daily from our joint efforts, and even on our worst days, (like when teeth literally get pulled out and our children have kept us up all night) we are better together. Sell it as a model to students... if TEACHERS can successfully do group work, SO CAN STUDENTS.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different! 11/11/11 Binary Fun


That wasn't supposed to mean anything in particular, but it's fun nevertheless. At 11:11 on 11/11/11, my 3rd hour math class had a 1:11 minute dance party. "I Need a Hero" was blasting in the background and the students covered my back board with 11/11 graffiti (some of which said Thanks Vets!) and made wishes for the special day. 

This would have been the perfect moment to drop everything and teach them how to do binary. It was, after all, the last binary day for a very long time. Instead I dropped a couple binary one-liners and called it good. I guess we'll get there some time in the spring, after MCA's and the rest of our standard curriculum is finished. 

Having not learned binary until a few years ago, it was a real eye-opener into a different way of counting. It came up in "The Story of 1", which is a phenomenal DVD about the history of number systems and the evolution of mathematical principles. Surprisingly for a math video, it's actually quite funny too! Towards the end of the movie, the subject of computers and binary counting is introduced with an egg analogy. Using powers of 2, a hard-boiled egg cup is either filled with an egg (switch on!) or it is empty (switch off!). 

For example: 
1 in binary is 2 to the 0 power. So there is one egg cup, with one egg in it. Or "1" in binary.
2 in binary is 2 to the 1st, but no 2 to the 0. So there are 2 cups, with the first filled. "10".
3 in binary is 2 to the 1st PLUS 2 to the 0, So there are 2 cups, with both filled. "11".
4 in binary is 2 to the 2nd, no 2 to the 1st or 0 power. 3 cups, only the first filled... "100". 
and so on... 5 = 101, 6 = 110, 7 = 111...
then at 8 you bump up to 2 to the 3rd power and add a cup. 1000.

This egg analogy makes total sense to kids, especially kinesthetic learners, because they can manipulate a cup or picture of a cup with coins or tiles or actual eggs, and they can practice their powers of two, which in turn helps them to understand the decimal system better. "111" in decimal means something completely different than "111" in binary. This leads to a great discussion on the advantages of various number systems. 

Advanced students can be taught how to add and subtract in binary as well, or how to count in hexadecimal or octal. Who knows if they'll ever use it for anything, but it feels kind of like a secret language and makes them feel really smart! So anyway, back to 11/11/11... the fun of it was to tell students that 111111 in binary is 2 to the 5th + 2 to the 4th + 2 to the 3rd + 2 to the 2nd + 2 to the 1st + 2 to the zero power = 63.

I think it is extremely important to pause and elaborate on teachable moments. It may be a subject or conversation that has nothing to do with your goals and objectives for the day, and that's okay. Connecting to humorous, educational, artistic, historical, political and/or occasional controversial ideas in your classroom is what kids actually remember when they look back. 

The real challenge is leading the conversation back to math in as meaningful a way as possible, without cutting them off before everyone with their hands up got to share. Funny, isn't it? How many hands go up when you stray off topic to something personal? And how few hands are raised during morning warm-ups or instructional time? Interesting....