Saturday, February 18, 2017

MTBoS A Day in the Life Post: February Reflection

 This post fulfills my monthly requirement for Tina Cardone's "Day in the Life" project. My monthly posting day is today, the 18th. Not only is today a Saturday, but since the length of February is 28 days (a multiple of the seven-day week), March 18th must fall on the same day of the week -- yet another Saturday. Let's look at my recent posting schedule:

November 18th -- PD Day (leading up to Thanksgiving break)
December 18th -- Sunday (leading up to winter break)
January 18th -- Field Trip Day
February 18th -- Saturday (President's Day weekend)
March 18th -- Saturday

The "Day in the Life" posters for the 4th (18-14), 11th (18-7), and 25th (18+7) have also commented that their posting days seem to fall on the weekend or other non-school days more often than not.

As usual, "Day in the Life" on the weekend means it's time for Cardone's special reflection questions:

1) Teachers make a lot of decisions throughout the day.  Sometimes we make so many it feels overwhelming.  When you think about today, what is a decision/teacher move you made that you are proud of?  What is one you are worried wasn’t ideal?

Well, I like the activities I came up this week for sixth and eighth grades this week. I took advantage of the three-day week (due to PD on Thursday and Friday) to give special activities on Tuesday. I found these activities -- where else? -- on the MTBoS.

In sixth grade, we played Tax Collector, which I found on the website of Denise Gaskins:

And in eighth grade, I provided some Mathematical Dating Advice (as it was Valentine's Day, after all), which I found on the website of Sarah Carter:

As for a decision I'm less proud of, well, the worst decision I made this year involves science. In my December 18th "Day in the Life" reflection post, I wrote about the problems I had when giving a Green Team pretest. And many of my other November and December DITL posts mention how I'm officially a science teacher, yet I haven't taught much science.

This week, my science struggles continue. Lately I've been trying to give science projects to my eighth graders, but not all of them have turned out well. The project I gave this week required the students to cut out pictures of physical changes (such as melting) and chemical changes (such as burning, for example). But instead, I had the students draw the pictures because I don't have access to a printable copy of the pictures. The problem is that I don't have copies of the Illinois State science text -- I could access the projects online, but not print them.

Last week, the project had the students identifying six "mystery substances." The problem is that these substances were a mystery even to me, the teacher! The Illinois State teacher's edition doesn't specify what the substances are supposed to be! So I just cobbled together some Ajax. salt, alcohol, and other household items. One of the items was supposed to be magnetic, so I used steel wool.

During the PD meetings on Thursday and Friday, I spoke to my counterpart -- the middle school math and science teacher at our sister charter school. She told me that her school, unlike mine, actually has copies of the Illinois State science text. But she just skipped the "mystery substance" project because she couldn't figure out what to use as the substances either.

And with all of this, I can't say whether my science efforts will lead to my eighth graders getting even one question right on the California Science Test. There is too much confusion with regards to the content of the test -- whether it includes only physical science (the old state test) or elements of earth and life science as well (the Next Generation Science Standards).

2) Every person’s life is full of highs and lows.  Share with us some of what that is like for a teacher.  What are you looking forward to?  What has been a challenge for you lately?

Well, I'm looking forward to the rest of my President's Day weekend, because the challenge is definitely what lies ahead. It seems interesting that Tina Cardone would associate the months of February and March with Rejuvenation -- probably because we are now finally closer to the upcoming summer than the previous summer. But I've always considered this time to be the toughest time of the school year.

Let's think about it for a moment. From the first day of school on, we have never gone more than a month without a day off from school. First there's Labor Day, then a few weeks later are the Jewish high holidays (or Columbus Day at some schools.) A few weeks after that is Veteran's Day. A few weeks after that is Thanksgiving, A few weeks after that is winter break. A few weeks after that is Martin Luther King Day. A few weeks after that is President's Day.

But then we enter a stretch, from President's Day to Easter, devoid of holidays. Depending on the particular school district and when Easter is in a given year, there may be no holidays at all in the entire month of March. Furthermore, this is often the time when math classes reach some of the more difficult units in the year (such as factoring quadratics in Algebra I), big projects become due in English and other classes, and so on.

I've noticed how tough it is from Prez Day to Easter ever since I was a young students myself. And so I now refer to this toughest time of the year as the "Big March" -- named after the month that largely makes up this period, but also brings to mind a hardworking soldier.

Non-teachers who read this may feel little sympathy for our "Big March." So what, they may say, that we have to work from President's Day to spring break without a day off? In the private sector, not everyone even gets Prez Day off, and they certainly don't get a week off for spring break! They may suggest that we teachers try a real worker's "Big March" -- after New Year's Day, they might not have another off day until Memorial Day!

Here's how I respond to such naysayers -- we teachers work with students, who are too young to appreciate what a private sector work schedule is. All they know is that every few weeks, they get a day off from school until the Big March, when there's no day off. They get antsy, and we teachers have to deal with that. That's why the Big March is a tough time for us teachers.

At my school, students have a slight reprieve from the Big March. It was just announced yesterday that there would be another PD day coming up right at the end of March. Thus the Big March doesn't extend all the way until Easter (which is late this year, April 16th), but instead covers the rest of February and most of March.

For Cardone this may be a time of "Rejuvenation," but for me, I must prepare for the first Big March of my fledgling teaching career. As a substitute teacher the last few years, the Big March was tough, but of course I wasn't called in to sub every single day. But now I really do have to work six weeks between off days.

3) We are reminded constantly of how relational teaching is.  As teachers we work to build relationships with our coworkers and students.  Describe a relational moment you had with someone recently.

This week was Valentine's Day -- a day strongly associated with relationships. My students gave me candy that entire day -- and in fact I ended up eating nothing but sweets until dinner! After the holiday, I had to give some of my candy away -- in fact, during the PD, one of my fellow teachers felt drowsy and wanted some candy to boost her energy, and so I handed her some of mine.

Lately I fear that I've been criticizing certain students too often. Some of my sixth graders are smart but talk too much, and some of my brightest seventh graders have the opposite problem -- they fall asleep in class. I tried pulling them off to the side and let them know that they're smart, but they need to change their attitude to go along with their intelligence. I told one of my sleepy seventh graders about the time when I was myself in seventh grade and nearly failed art class. These pep talks may have helped -- but not if I turn around and start yelling at them again the next day.

In fact, one eighth grader has had enough of all of this. I got upset at her this week when I passed out Valentine's pencils and she decided to take two pencils for no reason. She eventually apologized, but she rejected my own apology for lashing out at her -- probably because she correctly notes that I'll end up yelling at her again at some point. At least I acted like the adult I should be by accepting the girl's apology.

But her actions show that it's too late to repair my relationship with this student. It's far better for me to maintain good relationships with my sixth and seventh graders, as these are the students I'll need to reach not just the rest of this year, but into next year as well.

4) Teachers are always working on improving, and often have specific goals for things to work on throughout a year. What have you been doing to work toward your goal?  How do you feel you are doing?

My goal was to become the ideal classroom manager. Well, let's see how my classroom management went on Wednesday, the last day I had students:

-- Some of my eighth graders took out their cell phones. They put them away only after I threatened to inform the history teacher that they had cell phones out.
-- Some of my sixth graders are loud in class. They become quiet only after I threatened to inform my support staff member that they are loud in class.

So in both cases, the only way to compel the students to be complaint is to invoke the name of some other adult on campus. This doesn't sound like anything the ideal classroom manager must do.

The reason for the cell phone incident is simple -- both Tuesday and Wednesday, the history teacher collected cell phones from all the middle school classrooms. Students had to turn in the phones even if they weren't using them. When no eighth graders surrendered their phones, the history teacher specifically asked me to inform him if any student took out a phone.

On the other hand, the sixth grade situation is more alarming. These students continually talk in class and don't become quiet until my support staff member threatens to take away their nutrition or lunch, or punishes them during P.E. class (which she's in charge of). They've decided at the start of the year that she's the only adult in my room that they need to listen to and respect -- and there's nothing I can do to gain that respect.

In both Thursday's and Friday's PD meetings, we continued Responsive Classroom training. The topic for Thursday was Academic Choice, and Friday's was Morning Meeting. But discipline continued to be a running theme throughout both day's meetings.

All teachers received a copy of the book The First Six Weeks of School, which is published by Responsive Classroom. Of course, we're well past the first six weeks (unless by "first six weeks" we mean "Big March"). But it reiterates the ideas that I mentioned on this blog -- according to the education writers Harry and Rosemary Wong, the first part of the school year is critical.

I refer to the first part of the school year as the "Wong Unit." I think of the "Wong Unit" as the time it takes for me to learn all of the students' names -- which should be shorter than six weeks. Then again, six weeks is a "hexter" (half of a trimester). In a way, this is how long it takes for the students to understand all the academic expectations -- they can't fully appreciate what these expectations are until they receive grades (progress reports) for the first time.

Whether we call it "first six weeks," "first hexter," or "Wong unit," I believe that my problems with the sixth grade extend even further back than this! That one day I "subbed" in November (and which I mentioned in my November DITL posts) revealed flaws in my teaching style -- when a student challenges me ("I wasn't talking!"), my first instinct is to yell.

My New Year's Resolution in 2016 (not 2017, but 2016) was to think about whether my instincts in the classroom made sense -- and if not, to do something about it. By yelling, I was breaking that resolution, since yelling does nothing to instill good behavior in students. And so I should have been improving my classroom instincts as a sub in January 2016 -- seven months before I stepped in the classroom the first time. My support staff member has better instincts than I do -- and that's why she commands the respect of my students more effectively than I can. I have renewed that Resolution for 2017, in the hopes that I may fulfill it this year.

If there's anything I could have done during the actual first six weeks of the school year, it may have been to develop better relationships with my students -- not just learn their names (as I wrote above), but understand their learning styles. That one eighth grader I had a problem with this week is one of the lowest students in the class. I should have realized that math would be a struggle for her and tried to be more understanding when giving her help from the very start of the year. Perhaps if I had done this, she wouldn't have been compelled to steal an extra pencil from me in the first place.

5) What else happened this month that you would like to share?

Earlier this month, a famous mathematician passed away -- Raymond Smullyan. I wrote about him on my personal blog back on New Year's Day 2016 (yes, the same day I wrote that ill-fated New Year's Resolution for 2016). He was famous for coming up with puzzles -- in fact, this is what I wrote last year about him:

David Kung wraps up the lecture with some classic Knights and Knaves problems, which he attributes to the American mathematician Raymond Smullyan (who apparently is still alive at 96 years of age). Here is a link to some of these problems so you can try them out for themselves:

Well, he passed away last week at 97 years of age.

At the time I wrote about Smullyan, I was not yet a full-time teacher. I was watching David Kung's lectures for pure recreation and not anything to do with an actual classroom.

But notice that it's possible for teachers to give Smullyan's puzzles to their students. For example, the aforementioned Denise Gaskins writes that she has her math club students work on his puzzles:

This isn't quite a Smullyan puzzle, but it's today's Pappas question of the day:

1/3 of the people at a party were women, 1/9 were girls, 1/6 were men and 7 were boys. How many at this party?

Notice that 1/3 + 1/9 + 1/6 = 11/18, leaving 7/18 of the party as boys. Therefore there must be eighteen guests at the party -- and of course, today's date is the eighteenth.

This concludes my "Day in the Life" post for February. My next DITL post will be on -- yes, Saturday -- March 18th, and my next personal post will be on Tuesday, the start of the Big March.

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