Friday, January 13, 2017

The MTBoS, Week 2: Two Important Soft Skills (Days 80-81)

This post is being submitted to the 2017 MTBoS Blogging Initiative. It fulfills the requirements for the Week 2 topic: "Soft Skills."

Before I begin this week's topic, let me announce some good news on this Friday the 13th (that's right, no triskaidekaphobia here). Our school has just announced that we'll all be going on a field trip to the movie theater to watch -- you guessed it -- Hidden Figures. I've already been working on an extra credit assignment to those who see the film, and this field trip gives me the opportunity to extend this assignment to the entire class. I'm hoping that the movie will motivate our students to learn math and science.

Now for today's prompt. The idea comes from Riley Lark, a former teacher who's now a programmer:

I’ve organized a ‘conference’ to focus more specifically on the soft skills we need to be effective teachers.  Not the killer worksheets, or the progressive grading systems, but on the skills of raising children.  This conference is a great opportunity for us to share the way we bring out the shy kids in our classes, handle teasing, build confidence, create opportunities for leadership, and acknowledge the beauty and significance of the blossoming lives for which we are responsible.

Even though Lark hasn't posted in years, the idea of "soft skills" is nonetheless our topic. The challenge is to go to the 2010 online conference and choose one of the links, and then expand upon the ideas mentioned there. I ended up choosing David Cox, since he's a fellow California middle school teacher (who even shares my first name):

Cox's post is about the importance of asking questions. He writes:

I learned how to learn when I was in college.  No one told me.  It just happened.  As a teacher I have tried to help this process along a bit for my students because it kinda pissed me off that I spent 14 years in school and no one actually told me, "Learning is about the questions you ask, not the answers."  So that pretty sums up my teaching philosophy.  It hasn't  changed much in 16 years.

Cox tells us that he makes the students learn by avoiding direct answers of their questions. But not all of his students are enamored with his teaching style:

It takes some students quite a while to adapt to my questioning style in class.  I've had kids want to drop my class (especially when I was at the high school) because "he doesn't give me the answers" "he never answers my questions."  It's tough sometimes because kids are resolute.  They'll try to corner you into taking the pencil out of their hand.  The key is consistency.  The more questions I ask, the more willing they are to ask.

I admit that in my middle school classroom, I don't always adhere to Cox's style. Many times, I'm tempted just to give them the answers myself.

But there is one time when I use Cox's "answer a question with a question approach" -- namely when we are working on STEM projects. You see, at our school the math curriculum comes from Illinois State, and the Illinois State text is project-based. Back in October, I even met Dr. Brad Christensen of Illinois State, who told me not to answer any project questions -- in fact, he often says there's no point, as the students won't listen to the answer anyway. Clearly Christensen and Cox share the same attitude towards direct answers to questions.

As it happens, my classes are working on STEM projects today. The sixth graders are doing a project called "Movin' On." Notice that this is officially a math project that extends into science -- the students are to research animals that migrate long distances depending on the season. Then they are to create a chart that displays migration data and a map that shows where the animals migrate.

Cox and Christensen's predictions prove true during this project. Some students ask, "How do we draw the chart?" and complain when I reply, "What does it say in step 1?" Or some of the students choose a bird as their animal to research, and then I point to some words in the text and ask, "What do these words say?" The answer, by the way, is, "Avoid using bird migration." As Cox writes, the key is consistency -- I must keep answering a question with a question every time we do the STEM projects.

In my classes, I often sing songs in order to break-up the monotony of our 80-minute blocks. Today's song is called GCF, since the sixth graders were learning about greatest common factor yesterday:

Greatest Common Factor
List every factor
Circle the ones in common
Choose the biggest one

Least Common Multiple
List some multiples
Circle the ones in common
Choose the smallest one

I made up the tune as I played it on my guitar. Of course, I couldn't resist the temptation of basing the tune on the actual musical notes G, C, and F.

The seventh graders' project is a classic -- that is, I've done this project a student myself back when I was in either freshman World History or sophomore Health class. I divide the class into two groups -- one of which has only two students, and the other with everyone else. The group with only two students represents the United States. Now the U.S. consumes 25% of all energy in the world, and so I give the two "Americans" two whole energy bars and six to the rest of the "world." Here all the students other than the two lucky Americans complained -- and I don't mind them complaining this time as this is by design. The U.S. not only consumes the most energy per capita, but our country also produces the most waste, represented by the energy bar wrappers.

There is one problem with this project. Some of the energy bars were peanut butter and there's one girl whose throat itches after eating it -- oops! The rule of thumb is to assume that all students are allergic and thus avoid any foods with the most common allergens.

Now in the eighth grade class I take the direct opposite approach from Cox. But first, let me provide some explanation. My small charter school has no middle school science teacher -- instead, I, as the math teacher, must include some science into the lesson. Notice that some STEM projects, like the ones I gave sixth and seventh, already contain some science. But I want to be sure that the eighth graders receive sufficient science content since this is a tested subject here in California.

And so I go to our online software that we use for science, and download a worksheet based on questions that they may see on the state test. The hope is that next week, they can go to the online program itself and answer the questions correctly. The lesson is on the environment, because there is an upcoming science unit that will begin next month. It is called Green Team, and the students will be learning about energy and water conservation.

But then one girl -- the top student in math -- begins to complain. She argues that at the very least, science should be project-based, and so she wants to have some project rather than a worksheet. I assume that she had her hopes up all week when she saw that we'd be doing science, only to be disappointed when she sees the worksheet today. She says that she enjoys the science projects that she performed at her old school, before she transferred to our school over a month ago.

There are several issues at play here. In sixth and seventh grades we have the Illinois State "STEM" projects in math, but "STEM" projects are not actually science projects. At our charter school, there is neither a science teacher nor a specially designated time for science. But at our sister charter, there is an actual science period, even though there's no separate science teacher there either. At our last meeting, the math/science teacher at the other school tells me that there are separate texts published by Illinois State for actual science projects, distinct from the STEM projects. She says that her students enjoy the real science projects more than the STEM projects.

My top student wants to do actual science projects. She isn't satisfied by the STEM projects -- which isn't surprising, since the students at the sister charter feel the same way. Even traditionalists like California middle school teacher Barry Garelick, who disparages math projects (like our STEM projects), acknowledges that science projects are fine:

What isn’t mentioned is that such approach has been the purpose of science labs for years. The difference now, is turning much of instruction–including math classes– into one big science lab.

In the end, we agreed that next week, we'd do one of her favorite projects from last year -- the Edible Cell Model. I decided to change "cell" to "atom," but this is problematic. There is still a debate between California and the federal government regarding whether the state testing will be based on the old California standards or the new Next Generation Science Standards -- and the final decision may still be a month or so away. Teaching the eighth graders the model of an atom makes sense under the California standards, where physical science is the eighth grade focus -- but not under the NGSS, where this is a seventh grade standard. Likewise the model of a cell is taught in the seventh grade under the old standards but sixth grade under the new standards. I fear that I could be having the students do a project on a topic they won't be tested on in May. (There was a similar scuffle between the state and federal governments at the adoption of the Common Core Standards.) But at least this project doesn't waste any class time -- the preparation for the edible models takes place at home.

You may wonder why I didn't just provide time for science projects in the first place. Well, first, if I took our 80-minute blocks for each of the three grades and divided it in half for math and half for science, I'd essentially have six preps. Even my current three preps are a bit daunting for a first-year teacher like myself, so six preps would have been overwhelming. The second is that many science projects require many materials with which I'm not comfortable using, especially considering that I came into teaching thinking that I'd teach math, not science.

In the end, maybe four preps wouldn't have been that much tougher than three -- I count eighth grade science (the tested year) as the fourth prep and let sixth and seventh get any science that happens to fall in a STEM project. And note that my counterpart teacher at our sister charter was originally a kindergarten teacher. If even a kindergarten teacher can handle the middle school science projects, then surely so can I.

OK, by this point I'm rambling, so let's wrap up this post. Hey, I began by talking about the soft skill of asking questions and I ended with a different soft skill, namely listening to the students. They had concerns about the way the class is taught, and I address these concerns.

In fact, today's whole lesson demonstrates why soft skills are so important. I've been trying to develop the soft skills of asking the students questions and listening to what they have to say, but these are still a work in progress. My lack of soft skills means that the students don't like or respect me as much as they would a teacher who already has those skills -- and it shows.

Here's the problem -- some are my eighth graders already say that they don't want to participate in Green Team or watch Hidden Figures. In theory, they should at least be looking to forward to the Green Team, since they will be working on exactly the type of projects that they say I should have more of. But I've only mentioned "Green Team" in conjunction with the worksheets, which they don't want to see more of.

But more importantly, they don't look forward to Green Team or Hidden Figures because they associate those with me -- the teacher they don't like or respect. If it was another teacher with the necessary soft skills to gain their respect, that teacher could make them look forward to Green Team as a project they'll enjoy or be inspired by the Hidden Figures movie. A more respected teacher can say more personal things to the students and have them actually listen to me.

After the Edible Atom project, but before the Green Team project, I may be able to find some projects in the Illinois State science text. Fortunately, I have only one copy of the science text, so I can just Xerox it -- the students may be turned off by the sight of an Illinois State text and assume that it's one of the math projects that they don't like. I can also get projects from the science book that I purchased last week (and mentioned in my Week 1 post). I did buy that book for a reason.

(Speaking of which, I bought one more book from Barnes and Noble today as Educator Appreciation Week draws to a close. It is Euclid in the Rainforest, written in 2005 by Dr. Joseph Mazur, who is a math professor in Vermont. His book discusses the relationship among math, science, and logic.)

Don't forget that I'm still participating in Tina Cardone's "Day in the Life" challenge! Since today is (Friday) the thirteenth ,the participant whose monthly posting date is the 13th is Kit Golan, a fellow middle school teacher:

Today's math problem can also be used in science, since Venn diagrams can be used to compare tand contrast the traits of, say, two different organisms. (I write it here in ASCII as sets, but pretend that it's a Venn diagram.)

How many elements are in the universe of this Venn diagram?

Universal set U = {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12}
A = {0, 3, 6, 9, 12}
B = {0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12}

The answer is 13 -- and today's date is (Friday) the thirteenth.

This is a two-day post. Monday is Martin Luther King Jr, Day and Tuesday is the day I don't post, so my next post will be on Wednesday the 18th. Hey, that's my own monthly posting day for "Day in the Life," and it's also the day of the field trip. That will make for an interesting post indeed.

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