Monday, August 29, 2016

Introduction to Coding (Day 10)

Here is today's Blaugust topic:

29. What are your best organizational tips?

Well, my school provides every teacher with a green file folder for each student. Within each folder -- hey, wait a minute, this sounds familiar! Oops -- apparently Prompts #19 and #29 are the same! But let's not blame Shelli -- we can all easily make mistakes when keeping track of 50 different prompts!

Speaking of those folders, I did finally obtain the folders, although I'm still a few folders short. So slowly but surely, I'm going to get completely organized.

For today, let's just do the previous Blaugust prompt instead:

28. Professional Growth Goal

This is my first year of teaching -- so my professional growth goal is just to have a successful first year and start to my career. The best way for me to become a better teacher is simply to teach -- until then, I can read books and write blog posts about the theory, but what matters is how I put it in practice in the actual classroom.

On the academic side, I'm learning how to teach to the Common Core Standards. Many of my blog posts so far are all about how to teach the standards, especially in Geometry (including the eighth grade standards relating to geometry). I hope that some of my ideas will be effective in teaching the students these new standards.

On the behavior side, there is still much I need to improve there as well. As I mentioned in my last post, the school dean came in to my eighth grade class last Friday because he saw that these students aren't respecting me as a new teacher. He showed the students a PowerPoint slideshow on the importance of doing well in math and science.

Here in Southern California -- AKA Silicon Beach -- STEM grads can earn six-figure salaries. On the other hand, those without STEM degrees may find themselves unable to stay in their homes due to gentrification. Thus the point of this slideshow is to scare the eighth graders straight. (In fact, one student refused to respect even the dean as she talked during his presentation. He ended up having to call her mother, who came to fetch her.) Nonetheless, I want to improve my classroom management skills so that the students who want to learn can learn and work towards those six-figure salaries.

Due to the dean's slideshow, I didn't play Fraction Fever in class with my eighth graders. I want this blog to reflect accurately what I taught in class, with Grade 8 having priority. Therefore I've edited my last post to remove "Fraction Fever" from the title. I also removed some discussion of what Fraction Fever is from that post, but I kept the Fraction Fever song there because I actually did play it in class, as I had no other song prepared. Expect me to edit posts when I have two day posts -- such as that "Days 8-9" post -- and something unexpected occurs the second day.

In many ways, this is just as well. Fractions and rational numbers are more relevant to Grades 6-7, so at least I played Fraction Fever with my sixth and seventh graders. As for the eighth graders, science is more important, so at least I was able to give the Survival in the Desert activity, which is more relevant to science, to the eighth graders.

But let's get back to those high-paying jobs again. If my students want to be considered for these careers, they need to be successful in math, science, and coding (or computer programming). I provide the instruction in math and science. As it turns out, my school has a coding instructor, and he's present to teach coding to our students every Monday, starting today in fact.

Before I discuss what my school's coding class is like, let's see what the traditionalists have to say about coding. As it turns out, fellow California middle school math teacher Barry Garelick is opposed to teaching coding:

Again, I don't bite the hand that feeds me. I've said that I will quote Garelick when he's writing about the importance of learning math, not when he disagrees with our school's pedagogy. Our school will indeed teach coding, and so I don't cut-and-paste anti-coding statements from Garelick's blog. (Or actually, I should say Garelick and SteveH's blog, since SteveH frequently comments on the blog and indeed, SteveH's comments here are longer than Garelick's original post!) But I will summarize the post here and explain why I disagree with it.

First, SteveH hopes that the coding isn't done in math class. Well, unfortunately for SteveH, coding is indeed done during my math class, albeit taught by a special coding teacher.

Both Garelick and SteveH write about a pictorial language which contains commands for moving forward, turning a few degrees, and lifting the pen up and down. This language sounds very much like LOGO, which I've mentioned several times here on the blog (most recently in March).

Indeed, reflecting on my own coding experience, the first language in which I learned to code was indeed LOGO, back when I was in the first grade. The following year, I learned how to code in BASIC, on the same computer that played Fraction Fever (which was not at school). I believe that LOGO and BASIC are excellent training languages in which young students can learn to code before approaching the more powerful languages (such as Java, the target of the AP Comp Sci test).

SteveH repeats his usual comments that math classes should be focused on getting students to Algebra I in eighth grade and AP Calculus in senior year. But as usual, I counter that many students are going to be turned off by math. They ask questions like "Why do we have to learn this?" and I doubt that they'll accept "You'll need it for AP Calculus" as an acceptable response.

SteveH suggests that coding be taught after school instead of during the school day, because he feels that coding as currently taught in elementary and middle schools doesn't adequately prepare students for AP Comp Sci in high school.

At my school, the coding class varies by grade level. For example, one of the grades will be coding in Scratch, another visual language similar to what Garelick and SteveH are discussing. Since this blog focuses on the eighth graders, I'll tell you that Grade 8 is all about multimedia. The students are surprised when the coding teacher informs them that it takes hours just to create one minute of video!

Coding takes up nearly one hour out of the 80-minute block. This leaves me with only 25-30 minutes for math class. I've decided that this is just enough time to give the students a Warm-Up and a homework packet, with possibly some time for them to start the HW.

At our school, teachers are required to assign homework packets from special Daily Practice books. I notice that while the questions from the problem sets follow the Common Core Standards, they are taken from a mixture of strands through the year. For example, of the five problems on the Monday Week 1 problem set, Question #4 is "In a set of data, the difference between the greatest and least numbers is called the __________" (range), and the next is, "Which pairs of lines are perpendicular?"

Now if I know middle school students, they'll look at these questions and say to themselves, "I don't know the answer to #4, and I don't know what perpendicular means. The teacher never taught us this stuff, so I just won't do any homework at all."

Here is my compromise -- the 1-2-3-4 homework plan. I'll have students answer one question from Monday's set, two from Tuesday's, three from Wednesday's, and four from Thursday's. Then the students turn in the ten problems they answered on Friday. That way, there should always be enough questions the students do understand, and they get a choice. This should increase the likelihood that a student turns in the homework, as I'd much rather see the students answer 10 out of 10 questions than 0 out of 20 questions.

Furthermore, the Warm-Up contains a problem similar to one of the HW questions. For example, Question #1 on the HW is "Which sum is larger, 9,821 + 7,433 or 7,388 + 9,872?" So as a Warm-Up I ask, "Which sum is larger, 17 + 12 or 13 + 15?" This way, students won't be able to say "I don't know what sum means" as an excuse for not doing the homework. Moreover, the numbers are much smaller so that the answer can be 29, since today is the 29th.

For my fourth block of the day, I see the eighth graders again and they will be using the computer again, except that this time it's for Math Intervention. Students will visit a website and answer questions generated by a computer. The results are reported directly to me, so I can keep progress of how much the students are learning.

So far, I have the students work on identifying ratios -- this is fairly easy, but the computer asks increasingly difficult questions as the score approaches 100. My top eighth grader, of course, did exceptionally well. Of course, this is the perfect time for me to give her some Algebra I questions on the computer. The first section is about classifying numbers (rational, irrational, etc.) -- and naturally she does a great job with these questions as well.

Thus ends my computer-filled day.

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