Thursday, June 9, 2016

The MTBoS30 Challenge (Day 179)

This is my 29th post in the current MTBoS30 challenge, and today is the day after my finals post, when I usually write about the MTBoS, or Math Twitter Blogosphere.

Of course, when I first explained about the thirty-post challenge, I declared my posts for the last 30 days of school, Days 151-180, to be my thirty posts. But purists will point out that according to the original rules of the challenge, the 30 blog entries are supposed to be written on 30 days in the calendar month of May (even though the month actually has 31 days). I posted Day 151 on April 29th, and Days 172-180 are posted in June. So purists will count only 21 of my posts as having truly fulfilled the challenge. Still, many of the other MTBoS participants wrote nowhere near 21 posts, much less the full 30, in May.

In today's post, my plan was to look at the blogs of the many other teachers who were participating in the MTBoS challenge. I especially wanted to read the blogs of middle school teachers, since I was recently hired as a middle school math teacher (as I mentioned back in the first of my MTBoS posts).

But as it turns out, the vast majority of MTBoS teachers are high school teachers. Indeed, a Google search for "middle school math blogs" gives the following link to a list as the first result:

Yet if you click on any of the links, the majority of them have their most recent post in 2013 or 2014, certainly not in May 2016 during the MTBoS30 challenge. And of the blogs that do have May 2016 posts, the authors are not middle school teachers, despite their inclusion on the list.

Indeed, the author who compiled this list, North Carolina math teacher Julie Reulbach, includes her own blog as a middle school math blog. But here is her May 23rd post:

"I teach Algebra 2 to students who have just completed a year of Geometry."

And so we see that Reulbach actually teaches Algebra II -- in high school, not middle school. Indeed, she explains:

My name is Julie Reulbach and I love to teach!  I am currently teaching Algebra 2 at a private school in North Carolina.  Previously, I taught 6th and 7th grade math at an project-based private school.

And this is the problem not just with Reulbach's own blog, but with many others on her list -- the ones who wrote posts in May 2016 all mention Algebra II or a high school class, because they have since been promoted to a high school teaching position! The net result is that the MTBoS30 teachers are almost all high school teachers, with very few middle school teachers participating in MTBoS30.

(And of course, I must admit that I didn't really discuss middle school much during my MTBoS30 posts either. During MTBoS30 I began discussing my transition from substitute to middle school teacher, but I won't fully discuss middle school until after Day 180 in my district. I didn't go back and label those posts "MTBoS" because I didn't want those posts to be cluttered with labels, "Geometry," "Morris Kline," and so on.)

I wonder why this is the case. It could be that many middle school math teachers don't consider themselves to be math teachers -- in many districts, math in middle schools (just as in elementary schools) is taught by multiple-subject teachers along with another subject (often science) -- and so they don't join the MTBoS. Teachers with a math credential only use middle school as a stepping stone to a high school position. Or it could be that teaching middle school is so stressful that teachers don't feel up to blogging after the long school day.

I was able to find only one middle school teacher who participated in the MTBoS30 challenge -- and that is the teacher from whose blog I first found out about MTBoS30, Fawn Nguyen:

So even though I was hoping to discuss several blogs in today's post, I have no trouble devoting most of this post to Fawn Nguyen. Not only is Nguyen a middle school teacher, she teaches right here in Southern California. So I definitely read her MTBoS30 posts, as she is the participant with whom I have the most in common.

Notice that Nguyen wrote 19 posts in May (as is plain when you click on "Archives"), and if we count her April 30th post in which she announces MTBoS30, she has 20 MTBoS posts. This means that I actually have her beat, as I completed 21 posts in May.

(By the way, notice that my post from yesterday on the semester final was mostly cut-and-paste from last year's final. It would be cheap of me to count a cut-and-paste post as an MTBoS post, even in June -- so notice that I did change the last five questions to match this year's PARCC questions. That way, yesterday's post is not purely cut-and-paste.)

Of Nguyen's 19 posts in May, here are a few of my favorites:

To celebrate Teacher Appreciation week the first week in May, Nguyen writes:

Today I remember my 7th grade home economics teacher Mrs. Quiggle. Marge Quiggle. She was already old when she was my teacher. I didn’t speak a whole lot of English then, but I suppose one does not need to be well versed in the language to sew a sundress or make a baked Alaska. A couple of months ago I started sewing again, and I thought about Mrs. Quiggle a lot, how she made me press open every seam before continuing on.

Afterwards Nguyen writes about another of her favorite teachers -- her 8th grade history teacher. And just as Nguyen uses her MTBoS30 post to write about her best teachers, I choose to use this MTBoS post of mine to discuss to my own favorite teachers (except I choose not to give their names).

-- My favorite elementary teacher was my second grade teacher -- who later became my fifth grade teacher as well. She was one of the first to notice that I was good at math, and so she came up with the idea of having a Pre-Algebra teacher from the high school (which went from Grades 7-12 in my district) send me a textbook. As a second-grader I would work on the assignments independently, then my teacher would send my work to the high school before I worked on the next assignment. By the time I reached the fifth grade and was in her class again, she had convinced the high school teacher to send me the textbook for "APA," or Advanced Pre-Algebra.

-- Incidentally, my favorite math teacher was that teacher who sent me the advanced work. I finally met her when I was placed in her Algebra I class in the seventh grade. I was the only seventh grader in a class full of eighth graders, but she made me feel welcome in her class.

-- Just like Nguyen, I had my favorite history teacher when I was an eighth grader. He was also in charge of the Thespian Club at our school, and so he decided to teach history in a unique way -- he would dress up as a historical figure and lecture as if he were that character. Therefore his lectures were more memorable to the students. A few years ago, he retired from teaching, and many of my classmates held a big party for him.

-- My favorite science teacher was my junior-year teacher. I was an up-and-down student when it came to science -- the first two years of Integrated Science were more biology-leaning and I struggled a little, but the third year had more emphasis on physical science, which is more closely related to my strongest subject, math (as we spent over a month discussing with Kline's book). And so I did very well in this teacher's class -- indeed, she told me that I would finish the whole test in a few minutes and spend the rest of the time making my writing neat, and of course my answers were correct. She wondered why I wasn't enrolled in the magnet program, and I replied that I had moved to my new district as a freshman, while magnet students are recruited in the eighth grade. And so my science teacher convinced the school to admit me to the magnet program as a junior. Even though I was no longer in her class, she was still my most memorable science teacher for this reason.

-- My favorite English teacher was my senior-year teacher -- or to be precise, one of two English teachers I had that year. You see, the magnet program I'd entered a year earlier was a year ahead in English -- that is, junior-level English for neighborhood students was equivalent to sophomore English within the magnet. This meant that I would have to double up on English my senior year in order to graduate from the magnet -- and I didn't look forward to this, since my strongest subject was math, not English. So even though I was the only senior in a class full of juniors, I enjoyed this English teacher's class the most. This teacher allowed us to be creative in our writing -- I remember that for extra-credit, I wrote parodies of the literature we were reading, except with my friends and me as the characters. There was also an essay contest for seniors in which we were to write about a journey we had taken -- I wasn't going to participate, except that the junior English teacher whose class I had to take decided to assign the same topic for an in-class grade! I was in the unique position of writing an essay for class and submitting the same essay to the contest.  So I wrote about my journey through my education (much of which I just wrote about in this post) -- and won $200.

When I reflect upon my favorite teachers, I notice that they have some traits in common. Two of my teachers taught subjects I didn't enjoy, English and history -- and made them enjoyable by presenting them in a unique way. The other teachers taught my stronger subjects, math and science -- and they recognized that I was talented enough in those subjects to move me up to the next level.

Some traditionalists lament the fact that the Common Core accountability movement encourages teachers to focus on the weaker students at the expense of the stronger students. They say that some strong students want to move ahead in their classes, but the teachers, who claim their hands are tied by Common Core, won't let them.

I'm torn whether I should focus on my stronger or weaker students as I get ready to teach in the middle school classroom this year. On one hand, neglecting the weaker students is why many people spurn tracking, so I want to help my weaker students get ahead. But on the other hand, I myself am the beneficiary of certain teachers noticing my special talents and allowing me to succeed in more challenging classes. Therefore I owe it to my stronger students to support them and celebrate their talents just as my own teachers celebrated my own talents.

This is so important that it bears repeating. owe it to my stronger students to support them and celebrate their talents just as my own teachers celebrated my own talents.

Recall back on Square Root Day the story I told about teaching my second grade friend the square roots of 0, 1, and 144. I admit that this incident, along with my admiration of my second teacher, formed the foundation of my desire to become a teacher. At first I didn't know that Grades 7 and higher even existed -- I knew that my elementary school was K-6, and I'd always believed that students went directly from sixth grade to college. I remember that as a kindergartner, to me the sixth graders looked like grown-ups, and so I expected that they were nearly college students.

Naturally, it was the arrival of my Pre-Algebra text that alerted me to existence of 7th grade. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be a teacher because I wasn't sure I'd be good enough at any subject other than math, but the benefactor who gave me the Pre-Algebra text was a single-subject teacher who taught math and nothing else. And so I knew at that moment that I wanted to become a single-subject math teacher -- which meant that I'd most likely teach in a high school.

Now I will be working in a K-8 school, just like Nguyen, But while I will have three preps, Nguyen has just two -- interestingly enough she teaches 6th and 8th grade, but not 7th. This means that my new K-8 school will actually be more like what I thought school was like when I was a little kid, with 6th grade as (one of) the highest grades.

Before we get back to Nguyen's blog, let me point out that when I changed districts as a freshman, I was placed in an Algebra II class -- but many of the other freshmen were in Geometry. So I never met the Geometry teacher at my new school, but I heard that her name was -- Ms. Nguyen. (OK, so I wrote the name of a teacher at my school after all -- but she wasn't my teacher.) Now Fawn is 51 years old, so she'd have been 31 back when I was a freshman. Despite being old enough to have taught me, Fawn was probably not the Geometry teacher at my school -- Nguyen is a common Vietnamese name, so there are likely dozens of California math teachers with that name.

By the way, how do I know Nguyen's age anyway? Well, she tells us in one of her MTBoS30 posts:

I remember reading Shireen’s wonderful post last year when she turned 50 and thought, We’re the same age, and I want to celebrate turning 50 too! Well, I missed my chance to write something last year, but it’s never too late, so I’m stealing Shireen’s prompt “50 things I’ve learned about teaching” and broadening it to “51 thing I’ve learned about teaching and growing” because I turned 51 last month.

Here are some of Nguyen's 51 things -- especially those directly related to teaching:

3. Tell students how awesome you are.
7. Share with your students your hobbies and maybe your adulthood fear.
13. Catch students being good. Go overboard with praising them.
14. Ask students to pick up any trash around them, and model this.
15. Tell students how much you respect and appreciate a colleague.
21. Be the first to say sorry, especially to your family and students.
29. Laugh out loud with your students. Be funny. Have fun.
33. Always put children first. Feed them first. Take care of their needs first. (Your students are these children.)
38. Don’t underestimate students’ abilities. Don’t overestimate their sensitivities.
46. Give less homework or give none at all. (I’m working on this.) Encourage children, big or small, to play outside.

That last one is the most controversial -- how much homework to give. I plan on addressing this in a separate post.

Actually, Nguyen wrote two posts on May 27th. Here is a link to her other post:

Why it’s so hard for me to leave the classroom. I’m making a difference here and now.

This post is more visual, so you have to click on the link to see what it's about. Just as Nguyen writes about how much she appreciates her old teachers on May 3rd, here her students write about how much they appreciate her.

When I get my own classroom, I don't need any students to write letters to tell me how much I make a difference. I just need to make a difference regardless -- and I hope I will. Notice that of the three Nguyen posts I've chosen to highlight in this post, none of them mention mathematical content. After all, I feel that I already know about the content I need to teach -- it's the intangibles that Nguyen mentions in her MTBoS30 posts that I need to focus on more as I prepare to become a teacher.

By the way, would I consider Nguyen to be a traditionalist? I say that most MTBoS bloggers are definitely not traditionalists. But in the her final post during the official MTBoS30 month, Nguyen criticizes a very progressive form of teaching, "Whole Brain Teaching":

I myself prefer traditionalism in the earliest grades, so I can see why Nguyen, as a middle school teacher, may be more sympathetic to traditionalism than the high school MTBoS bloggers.

I do want to mention a few other blogs for today's MTBoS post, besides Fawn Nguyen's.

Elissa Miller is, like most MTBoS bloggers, a high school math teacher. But I highlight Miller's blog because she actually completed the 30 posts on time -- just look at the Blogspot archives and we see May (30), indicating that she truly wrote 30 posts in May! She wrote one post per day, with her first post on May 1st and her last post on May 30th.

Just as Nguyen turned 51 during the MTBoS30 challenge, Miller turned 30. Here is a link to her 30th birthday post:

(And of course she celebrated her 30th birthday month by writing 30 posts in that month!) Miller also writes about the homework debate -- or as she calls it, the "Homework Debacle":

Again, the homework debate/"debacle" merits a post of its own, so I'll wait to chime in later.

Miller is decidedly not a traditionalist, and here's why:

If you're like me, you love anything that is not direct instruction.

There are plenty more blogs to look at. In the past, I've referred to Dan Meyer, whom I call the King of the MTBoS. Notice that even though I call him the "king," he's not the poster who first came up with the MTBoS challenge -- that's left for others. Still, Meyer did post to his blog seven times during the MTBoS30 month.

The Meyer post that drew the most comments in May is about -- dilations, so it's very appropriate for me to link here on this Geometry blog. It's also good for me to look at as a middle school teacher, since students begin learning about dilations in 8th grade.

Meyer provides a few teaching tips in this post:

  • Before I ask for a formal algebraic rule, I ask for an informal verbal rule.
  • Before I ask for a graph, I ask for a sketch.
  • Before I ask for a proof, I ask for a conjecture.
  • Before I ask for conjectures, I ask for noticings.
  • Before I ask for a calculation, I ask for an estimate.
  • Before I ask for a solution, I ask students to guess and check.
This ends my 29th so-called "MTBoS30" entry. My 30th and final MTBoS30 post will be tomorrow.

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