Sunday, January 15, 2012

Follow my gut

As previously mentioned, I taught three sections of Geometry and two sections of Algebra 1A.

I'm going to use this space to help me work out changes I need to make in my teaching. I was very surprised at how quickly I settled into a routine that was. . . boring and traditional. After reading all these innovative math teaching blogs, (MissCalcul8, dy/dan, Approximately Normal, Maria Droujkova and others), I expected more of myself.

For the most part, the Mentor 1 has not figured out for himself what works with the Algebra 1A kids. These are kids like some of my favorite tutoring clients. The majority have failed at math in the past, it makes no sense to them. They start off the class with the feeling that they are not going to do well, and for the most part, they are right. At one point, I had almost 70% of the class that were failing. Before beginning, I was told to expect about half would fail. I know that I can reach these kids one-on-one. I have done it with tutoring clients. But to have 35 of these students in one class is difficult.

It's not just that they have a bad feeling about math to begin with, there are other issues, too. About one-third of these students have ADD/ADHD. One kid asks to get a drink of water 3-5 times a class. I'm certain that it's not because he's really that thirsty, I think he just can't sit still; he needs to be moving all the time. And he's not the only one. In one of the classes, I had no less than 11 English Learners, 6 of whom had very low English skills. Some of them had sufficient math skills to compensate for the low English ability, but not all of them did.

My first misstep was not following my gut.

I wanted to do notebooks. That is, I wanted to have the students keep notebooks that I would check to make sure they took notes. I was warned, "They won't take notes," and made to feel that trying to enforce notebooks would be a waste of time. Of course, most students don't WANT to take notes, but doing so is essential. I would try to help students on a worksheet, and would say, "Let's look at your notes," and they didn't have notes. [Ok, I feel like I've said "notes" a million times in this one short paragraph.] How can they even start to do the work if they don't have an example to follow?

Eventually, about 6 weeks or so into the semester, I did buy the entire class notebooks, paper, and dividers and tried to show them how to set up an organized notebook. While there were still students who did not do the minimum expected of them, many more started keeping notes. Most of the notebooks were not organized properly, but to begin with, I was trying to get them to just take notes.

Mentor 1 and I went through the textbook to see what we could use and set the pacing. Mentor 1 did not like the book the school (or was it the district) had adopted. He thought it went too fast for this group of students, the examples were not appropriate, and some of the problems went beyond the abilities of the median student in the class. So, he suggested using worksheets combined with my own examples and such.

I agreed that the textbook was not appropriate for the group, but floundered a little at first creating curriculum from scratch. I wish I'd downloaded dy/dan's Algebra course. Perhaps that could have at least helped me begin.

The school where I did my student teaching had problems in the past with making sure the appropriate students were assigned 1A instead of the regular Algebra course. To that end, they decided to keep all the algebra and 1A classes on the same pace for the first two weeks. That way, if we, as 1A teachers, thought we saw a student that should be in regular algebra, we could move them easily.

While I understood the reasoning, and we did move students during that time, I think this was a mistake.

This pacing only allowed one-two days to cover integer operations. I would have preferred to have spent at least a week on this. While most students don't have a problem with multiplying integers, adding and subtracting integers is a big problem. They don't really understand what a negative number is and need lots of repetition with this to feel comfortable with it. I really would have liked to use the red/yellow algebra chips for helping them get the positive/negative thing.

My daughter's algebra teacher created her own note-taking worksheets. I really wanted to do this, but with my school work and the other jobs I was working while student teaching, I simply did not have the time to make them. I tried to use something similar a couple of times. I don't know if they really went over well, because it was before I started enforcing notebooks.

Fractions - what is it with students and fractions?

As soon as they see a fraction, they stop. They won't even attempt a problem with a fraction in it! I find that so odd.

One isn't going to escape fractions. They are part of life. There's so much we do with fractions. And yet, even after 5 weeks (no kidding, 5 weeks) of instruction and practice with fractions, I didn't feel like they learned anything and they were still scared of fractions.

Solving equations. On the advice of Mentor 1, we decided to use a four-step method to solve all algebra 1 level equations. Instead of one-step, two-step, multi-step equations we used four steps for all equations.

I liked it for the most part, but it lacked one thing (how to deal with fractions) and didn't stress the idea of balancing an equation. I think I will use it in the future, but modify it a different way. If you're wondering about the steps, it's:

1. Distribute.
2. Transpose ("over the line, change the sign").
3. Combine like terms.
4. Divide (this should be divide or multiply as needed).

The last step is fine if you don't have a fraction, but if you end up with a fraction, then you have to multiply by the reciprocal, and the students didn't understand that.

Anyway, that's a little reflection for now. Essentially, follow my gut feeling about what I should do.

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