Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Warm fuzzies for No HW Week, Flip Lessons, and CHOICE!!!!


Here's another jewel from seriously.... adding one of these a couple times a week to my Smart lessons makes the kids laugh out loud and lightens the whole mood of the class. I can't say enough for the importance of pre-screening material from their site, or any other, or for using Google Images at all... but if you take the time to add "funny" to whatever curriculum you're googling, you're bound to find something usable that will increase student interest exponentially. 

Which (exponents) just happens to be what my math classes are studying right now... so EXPERIMENT! Let's try it! Go to Google Images, type in "exponent + funny"... scroll down a few rows past the "real" math, and guess what shows up??? Here are a couple of my favorites, neither of which really has much to do with exponents...OK maybe the first one...

All this has absolutely nothing to do with my blog topic today at all, other than the choice I make every day to be random, unpredictable, and to relate to my students more like adults than children. Not to say that I try to push the line with appropriateness; rather, when they are misbehaving or refusing to follow directions, I redirect them with humor and/or sarcasm, as I would want to be treated. 

For me personally, and maybe this has to do with being a female teacher in a female dominated profession, I feel that middle school students are most likely to shut down when subjected to authoritarian behavior management. Most adults I know do too! Compared to authoritative teachers, who validate and respect their students' feelings and take the time to listen to their opinions and reasoning... Click this link to see an example of the difference between authoritative and authoritarian. I always get their names mixed up even though I know exactly what both philosophies mean.

Okay... so what was my point... oh yeah! That I wanted to send out a warm fuzzy to "choice" in the classroom. That it's okay to choose to act like a kid once in a while, or a lot of the while, so students let down their guard and actually look forward to coming to class, knowing that something new and different (and maybe even fun) will be learned each and every day. Also, the choice to offer students choices in curriculum has been one of the most liberating experiences of my teaching career. 

I can't quite say how or when "choice" really became a way of life for me. Other than even in my first few weeks of teaching in my first classroom ever in 2003, every kid seemed to have different expectations and motivation, and I never felt like one homework would work for all kids. So I set up the method of copying huge packets (as a time saver so I could have a life) and gave a grade of 8/10 for completing 80% of the homework, a 9/10 for 90% of the homework, and 10/10 for the entire thing. 

I had already chosen which problems they had to do, so everyone was required to do the "core" concepts. That way the high-achievers chose to work their tails off, and the not-so-motivated learners could choose to do the bare minimum and not feel guilty about it. We can't all be Einsteins after all. And he didn't particularly like school for that matter either. 

When I switched to my current district, that idea of differentiating based on prior knowledge stuck with me. My school's colors became the basis for the equivalent of a basic, intermediate and advanced level of homework expectations. I searched far and wide to do a better job of selecting homework problems, which took quite a long time, and there were many stumbles along the way. Then I began teaming with various special needs teachers, and discovered that not only homework assignments, but assessments also needed to be differentiated. After writing numerous modified tests, I began to think that maybe quizzes and tests could be differentiated too. 

Who says a pencil-and-paper unit test is the only way to assess math concept mastery? What if more projects and performance-based learning opportunities were provided? Could a student write an essay analyzing, comparing and contrasting various math concepts, and support their conclusions with formulas and examples? Doesn't that provide a clearer picture of the depth of a student's understanding? What if students are given the choice to write a vocabulary essay, instead of matching 20 words correctly? Isn't the essay a better tool to assess whether a student understands the meaning of the mathematical language? 

That sure opened a can of worms. Once I started opening up assessments to differentiated methods and learning styles, that lent itself naturally to offering homework for different learning styles as well. I discovered a life-changing way to teach from a book called Differentiating Instruction With Menus Grades 6-8: Math, by Laurie E. Westphal. Giving students the power to choose what path they took to knowledge, with the end curricular goal in mind, led to achievement and creativity that surpassed my wildest expectations. Using her templates for my first few homework "menus", I soon began creating my own, and developed my M.Ed. project around the idea of choice. 

Having piloted the menus last spring with mostly good student and parent reviews, I went all-out this year. We have had very few cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all assignments. The kids shout out suggestions like "we want a hockey menu!" or "we want a baseball menu!" or "we want a swimming menu!" and then I fill in choices that meet the learning goals I want them to achieve, plus offering some extra choice assignments that they pick based on readiness, interest and/or ability. Here's an example of the one we're working on now.

I can just hear voices in the background saying, I could never do that, I'm not that creative... but it's honestly as simple as picking a theme, googling related images, and copying and pasting it all together. I use PowerPoint pretty exclusively, and the bonus with Microsoft 2010 is that when you go to "Save As", you can select ".pdf" from the file type menu, and get a much smaller, universal document that can be opened from any brand of computer. No Office product required. And much smaller to store and upload too. I usually save a second copy using the .pptx setting so I have an editable version too, in case something doesn't work the next time. Having two different class types as well, I keep the theme and then swap out the content listed; thus killing two birds with one stone!

If you're still with me now, you're probably wondering when the heck I'm going to talk about the rest of my titled topics. So thanks for wading through all my word-vomit to get this far. Here it is.... 

No Homework Week: EXCELLENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I totally hadn't planned what actually happened, which was that I got really sick with a hacking cold and body aches and ended up being out Tuesday/Wednesday. I had the best sub ever, and it was such a load off designing good lessons for her to work through at her own pace, and for the kids to not feel stressed about doing a homework that they didn't quite understand. 

When I came back, I just picked up the notes of where they stopped, and we jumped right back in. I didn't come back to a mountain of correcting, and/or angry parent emails and calls about the homework that nobody understood. And the kids got a break. Now I can't be certain, but that brain break certainly seemed to pay off... because THIS week, they are incredibly motivated and an insanely high amount of students are done with the entire week's worth of work, and has moved onto extra credit and extensions! Maybe I should do this more often! Highly recommended. For the sanity of teachers and students.

Flip-Class: It's BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK! Every time I mention flip-class, the kids get super excited. "We don't have to listen to Mrs. Bellm talk all day today!!!!!!!" "We can work with our friends!!!!!!" "We can work at our own pace!!!!!" "We already know how to do this and are ready to finish it up and move onto something harder and more fun!!"

I added a second component to Flip-Class... Flipped Warm-Ups! Each warm-up is split into a review of the concept from the day before, and a brief battery of problems on the new concept for the current day. As we correct both parts, I teach a quick overview of the new concept, which is often enough for the top 33% to get it, and they go off to the "Dharma Initiative" and complete their work, start extensions, or go play math games on the math sections of my website. 

Every day that I teach with flip-class, I find myself less tired from talking, more connected to my students, and completely energized to keep doing it. Everyone is getting what they need, and absent students or those who need more practice have an easily accessible flip-lesson on my website that I DON'T HAVE TO TEACH!!!! Not to mention, it's helpful for parents too. Both for accountability's sake, and for them being able to help with homework. Or heck, maybe even to learn it themselves! 

Maybe it's just me... maybe my students are really really smart... but I feel like we move faster through curriculum with flip-lesson. I know that next week will go faster, because I'm going to offer a FLIP-QUIZ too! All this really means, is that students can take it when they want to. I may even give them a "second chance" attempt if they bomb the first one. Which means... drumroll.... MORE CHOICE!!! YEAH! 

In conclusion, I use way too many exclamation points. Can you tell I love my job?? Okay bye.


  1. Hi Mandy,
    I know your post was a few years ago, but I am sure you will get a notification of the comment. Anyway, I am revisiting all of my favorite "menu" bookmarks with a request: Someone has posted on the Differentiating Instruction with Menus Series ( page on Facebook asking if I had any photos of student created products. I always informally mention sharing (and hence I only have a few photos), but because of the request, I am being more proactive. I know you have been doing menus for a while so perhaps you have some photos of student products you are willing to share on the page to address their request. I know people are doing great things so if you have any pictures of products you are willing to share on the page, I would appreciate it. :) Laurie

    1. Hi Laurie-
      What a great idea! I'll have to check that out. Unfortunately I've been out of the classroom for a few years now working as a tech integration TOSA, so the products I have left are mostly digital. Feel free to grab photos from any of these:

      Exponents Math Menu:
      -Build a tetrahedron choice

      Slope Math Menu:
      -Contribute to the wiki
      -Create a slope photo journal (photos on the wiki)
      -Post to the Slope Pinterest board (link on the wiki)

      Sequences Math Menu:
      -Post to the wiki
      -Go on a sequences photo journal (photos on the wiki)
      -Post to the sequences pinterest board (link on the wiki)

      Integers & Coordinate Graph Menu:
      -Graph Art choices; posted best work to Pinterest board at

      Just to name a few... if I stumble across some more, I'll send you a message!

      Happy Holidays,