Sunday, June 18, 2017

Still Not My Father's Math Class

This is what Theoni Pappas writes on page 169 of her Magic of Mathematics -- a short timeline:

600 BC -- EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY
1637 -- Analytic Geometry
NON-EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRIES
1639 -- Projective Geometry
1736 -- Topology
1829 -- Hyperbolic Geometry
1854 -- Elliptic Geometry
1860's -- Fractal Geometry
1951 -- My Father's Birth -- dw
present

This post fulfills my monthly posting requirement for Tina Cardone's "Day in the Life" project. My monthly posting date is the 18th. Today is also Father's Day, and so much of this is a repost from what I wrote last year on the holiday.

I rarely mention my family here on the blog. Except for right after my grandmother's passing, I chose not to write about family here on the blog. But today on Father's Day, I must mention my father, because he is a retired teacher. A list of influences on me as I embark on full-time first teaching job would be incomplete if I left my father off.

He was a fifth grade teacher for a few years (including the year that I was a fifth grader), until he switched to a sixth grade classroom in LAUSD. The district often had multiple-subject teachers, including my father, teach sixth grade math and science.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I was a volunteer in my father's classroom. At the time, LAUSD had year-round schools. Students were divided into three tracks, A, B, and C, and the students and the teachers attended school during different times of the year. My father was a C track teacher, meaning that he taught from July to October, and then again from January to April. This meant that I could volunteer in his classroom the entire summer, from July all the way up to my first day as a UCLA student in late September, as UCLA has a quarter college calendar.

I remember my first day in my father's classroom. I was so surprised to see how tiny the sixth graders were -- amazing considering that 13 years earlier, I'd thought that sixth graders were grownups!

Most of my volunteer work in that class was limited to helping my father grade papers. Still, I recall a few things about the way he taught his class:

-- Every third test, he would drop the lowest test grade. Therefore, he tried to give six tests per semester each in math and science, so that he could drop the two lowest test grades.
-- All tests were open-book. Despite these concessions, many students were earning D's and F's, especially in the math class.
-- The four remaining tests were the entirety of the students' grades. In particular, any homework assignments were extra credit.
-- I remember once when a student forgot to bring his pencil to class. My father told the student that he was just like a baseball player who went up to home plate without a baseball bat! Just as it would look silly for a player making millions of dollars to forget to bring a bat to the plate, that's how silly it is for a student to forget his or her pencil.
-- My father regularly gave out candy as a reward/incentive.
-- My father often said that the motto of the class was, "If you don't know the answer, at least know where to find it." In many ways this statement applies more to science than to math -- in math one must calculate the answer, but in science all the answers should be right there in the text.

This, in fact, reminds me of a day a few years back, when I was subbing. It was a seventh grade lesson on the human reproductive system. Due to the explicit nature of the material, students required parental permission in order to attend the lessons. Most likely, the teacher would send students without a permission slip out of the classroom, but she obviously didn't want a sub to deal with all of that. So instead, she provided an alternate packet for the students who didn't have parental permission to study the main lesson. Her expectations were that all students would work independently on their respective packets.

Now in two of the classes, the teacher's lesson plan worked. Again, these classes weren't labeled as "honors" classes, but it was obvious that the teacher expected more from those students -- their packets included an extra vocabulary page.

But in the non-honors classes, the students refused to work on their assignments. Their excuse was, "Normally, the teacher explains it to us." Thus many of the students left more than half of their worksheets blank -- and those who had been absent at least once that week left even more blanks.

In those classes I had more pressing issues to deal with -- including the fact that an explosive device was found in the classroom! But if I could have focused only on the academics, I would have told the students my father's motto: "If you don't know the answer, at least know where to find it."

Notice it's likely that what the students said was true -- usually they wait for the teacher to explain things on their worksheets, so when there is no one to explain anything, they do no work. And after an absence, the students wait until the teacher has a spare moment to tell them what they missed -- until then, they do no work. The teacher probably would have told me to help the students out with the worksheet -- except that she couldn't because of the parental permission problem. She didn't want me to deal with students would had to leave the room and she didn't want me to start discussing the material out loud in front of the students who didn't have permission. I might even have played the "Who Am I?" game to motivate the students to work, except that I couldn't speak out loud.

There were two issues in that class -- the sub issue and the parental permission issue. Had there been only one issue or the other, there'd have been no problem. It was the combination that doomed the class -- the teacher just hoped that the students would work independently, but they didn't. That's why I wished I could have given them my father's advice -- "If you don't know the answer, at least know where to find it." Maybe then, the students would have realized that they were to search for the answers in their science text.

Now that I have discussed my father's class, I ask myself, can I apply any of my father's teaching methods to my own classroom? Well, my new classroom is making some changes that will make my class very different from the one he taught.

First of all, the school has changed its bell schedule, to a block schedule with longer 80-minute blocks. Now here's the biggest change -- the math curriculum. Previously, our school used the McDougal Littell text. But a few schools in the LAUSD were selected to use a new STEM-based curriculum -- and my charter school chose to go along with it. This curriculum is called IMaST, and it was developed at Illinois State University.

Since the focus of this blog is eighth grade, let's look at the Illinois State text for eighth grade in much more detail:

Tools for Learning:
1. The Need for Speed
2. Show Me the Numbers
3. What's the Best Advantage?
4. Learning to Communicate

Unit 1: Mathematics in Settlements
5. H20 + ? Measuring Using Parts Per Million (ppm)
6. The Capacity of Water-Carrying Structures
7. Shapes, Angles and Structures: How Strong Is It?
8. Tessellate a Structural Design: A Study of Polygons
9. Similarity

Unit 2: Mathematics in Systems
10. Input, Process, Output...Does It Work?
11. Bouncing Balls
12. Say it with Words, Pictures, Tables, and Symbols
13. Looking at Relationships
14. Where shall we Meet?
15. That Model Looks Good!
16. Atmospheric Layers

Unit 3: Mathematics in Animal Habitats
17. Give Me Space
18. Patterns in Data
19. Chances Are

Unit 4: Mathematics in Communication
20. Sound Waves
21. Codes I
22. Codes II: Tracking Data
23. Codes III
24. Matrices I
25. Matrices II

This text is full of projects, right from the very beginning. In fact, the first project, "Off to the Races: Design and Make a Car" (made out of cardboard) starts on page 3.

Oh, and it's finally time for me to address the elephant in the room -- homework. In fact, let's see what the Illinois State text itself says about homework, in its preface to teachers:

"Generally, the Creative Core Curriculum...does not rely on homework to reinforce what is done in the classroom. There are, however, instances where work must be completed at home. For example, in 'The Right Kind of Fuel' learning cycle, students must determine the nutritional content of various foods. The home refrigerator may be an excellent source of data. The data is used the following day in a class activity.

Let's compare this to what MTBoS blogger Elissa Miller writes about homework:

http://misscalculate.blogspot.com/2016/05/mtbos30-homework-debacle.html

I have major issues with homework:
  • you don't know who actually did it
  • you don't know whether someone copied
  • you don't know whether you should 'check' or 'grade' it
  • you don't know if students understand enough to do the work alone
  • you don't know the best way to go over it without wasting class time
  • you don't know if it is effective
  • you don't know what students have to do/deal with at home
  • you don't know what other commitments/priorities students have
My normal teaching method starts with notes as a class in the INB for day one, then day two is some kind of practice activity/game, and the start of day 3 is a short quiz, then the notes for the next skill.

(And recall that the other MTBoS blogger, Fawn Nguyen, resolves to give less homework or none at all as #46 of her 51-item list.) Of course, my class will focus even more on activities and less on taking notes than Miller's and Nguyen's classes. In any case, there probably won't be much homework in my class (except for the aforementioned extra credit).

By the way, I've said that I would have to meet with the previous math teacher in order to maintain continuity for the students. Let me correct that -- I'll have to meet with the science teacher to maintain continuity, as the projects in math and science are supposed to link up. Therefore I can't really set up a pacing plan right now, as everything depends on the projects in both classes.

So I believe that I'll have much to contribute to the MTBoS, as I am perhaps the only member of the MTBoS who is teaching Illinois State math.

There's one thing I know as I prepare for the school year -- this is certainly not my father's math class.

OK, let's return to 2017. Last year, I'd written about what I was expecting my class to be like -- and some of my expectations turned out to be wrong.

First of all, it turned out that there really was homework to assign my class. But the homework from Illinois State was to be assigned online -- so it's even less like my father's class, since the technology for online HW didn't exist in his day. And I couldn't just make the homework extra credit, since PowerSchool required us to count homework as 15% of the grade.

More importantly, last year I was looking forward to meeting the science teacher to discuss some of the projects. As it turned out, I was the science teacher. My father had taught both math and science to sixth graders, but he had a multiple subject credential. I'd been expecting to teach only math.

Last year I wrote about my father's class motto, "If you don't know the answer, at least know where to find it." I remember telling my class this motto at the start of the year (see my First Day of School "Day in the Life" post). But then I don't recall saying it much ever again. I never really did embrace my father's motto the way I'd planned.

So in many ways I feel I've let my father down. When I told him that I'd been replaced at my old school, of course he was disappointed. But he saw a silver lining, in that I might do better teaching high school students at my new school than middle school students -- the toughest grade span.

In this post, I quoted the MTBoS blogger Elissa Miller. (Actually, Miller is also a fellow participant in Cardone's "Day of the Life" challenge -- her monthly posting date is the 10th.) I was quoting Miller's homework philosophy, but now I notice something else that I unwittingly quoted:

My normal teaching method starts with notes as a class in the INB for day one, then day two is some kind of practice activity/game, and the start of day 3 is a short quiz, then the notes for the next skill.

As it turns out, this was the best method for teaching from the Illinois State text as well. I could have expanded Miller's three-day plan to a full five-day weekly plan. One extra day was for coding Mondays (since the coding teacher came in every week), and the other was for Learning Centers. Of course, I had to squeeze in science somewhere -- either the activity could be a science lab, or else science could be included as one of the stations for the Learning Centers.

But unfortunately, I never truly embraced this weekly plan. If only I had taken Miller's advice to heart, I might have had a more successful year -- and perhaps never had to leave my old school. So instead, I used a ten-day cycle where the project and traditional lessons are extended. This fit well with our requirement from the administrators to submit some project photos to Illinois State every two weeks.

So now you might ask, why didn't I embrace Miller's plan? Well, I must admit that some of those projects intimidated me. Many of them required materials that I wasn't sure I had -- there were so many boxes to search each time I needed to start a project. And the fact that I was teaching three grades meant that I'd have to set up three different projects most of the time. So in the end, I wanted to slow down the pace to give me more time to prepare for the projects -- and this meant that I wouldn't be able to finish all the projects by the end of the year.

In hindsight, I realize that I shouldn't had let the projects dictate how I ran the class. Instead, I should have followed Miller's plan. If I reached a project that I didn't know how to implement, I could have set up an alternate activity, or even a science project if that was easier. I could have even given an extra day to the traditional lesson and just skipped the project. As long as I had one project in one grade every two weeks, I could have met the photo requirement.

The first four projects of the year ("Tools for Learning" above) were the same for all grades. And that car project I mentioned was to be created using mousetraps (which were provided). I didn't confident in building the mousetrap car myself. So of course, I asked my father to build the mousetrap car the night before I set up the project for the classes.

Of course, it's too late for me to do anything about this past year. I can now only worry about the upcoming school year and how I will make it a successful one. I don't know anything about the curriculum, so I don't know whether it's project-based. If it is, then I know that I should follow some sort of daily cycle similar to Miller's method above. At least I don't have to teach science, which will make it easier for me.

No matter what I'll teach, classroom management is a must. I'll continue to reflect all summer on why my management style failed, and consider what I'll do to improve my management for this year. I'll make sure that I actually say my father's -- make that my -- class motto throughout the year.

There's one thing I know as I prepare for the school year -- this is still not my father's math class.

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