Thursday, April 25, 2013

Searching for the Cafegymatorium

If you have not read Dave Burgess' book entitled Teach Like a Pirate, I do not know what you are waiting for. It is full of great strategies for increasing engagement in your classroom. The main premise is that teachers over-look the fact that we are entertainers. The students are suppose to be active participants in our show that we are producing daily. Dave goes so far as to dress the part in several of his history classes. I am not there yet...but, I am trying.

The part of Dave's book that really struck home with me was how we can increase engagement by just holding "court" in a different location. Where can I take my class (literally) to maximize the learning experience? Today that place was our cafegymatorium.

Yes, I did combine three words into one. But, being a smaller school, we do not have the luxury of three separate parts to our campus. Anyhow, I saw the opportunity to have my math classes head to the cafegymatorium for a review on area and perimeter. The basketball court gave us a great chance to calculate the area and perimeter (and circumference) of the entire court, one of the lanes and the center circle.

What I witnessed during the day was kids working together in groups to measure the different side lengths. It was very interesting observing the different methods kids used to gather the information needed. I did not specify the number of kids in the group, but they seemed to stick with groups of 2 or 3. While the students were working, I used this opportunity to walk around and informally talk with the kids about how they found the area of the circle, why they only measured halfway down the court or why only measured halfway across the circle. The answers were varied, but right on target.

Did I have 100% engagment 100% of the time? No. Did I have 100% of the kids engaged most of the time? Yes. I think too many educators feel things are not a success unless they get 100% of the kids 100% of the time. Talk about setting an unrealistic goal!!

The engagement was extremely high during this lesson. I was very excited about the feedback I received from kids while they were working. Students that before I had to stand next to keep them "with me" were asking if they could give a second set of answers in yards or square yards after completing what I required of them. Yes, there was conversation. But, the conversations were about math. The students were focused on the task at hand. The real-world activity kept their interest. I love the sound of kids "disappointed" that the bell rang to end the period. Yup, it was that kind of day. A day full of treasure. Many thanks to Dave Burgess for the "map" to help me locate that treasure.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

I Wrestle With Grades


This week was the end of the 3rd marking period for my school. Time to put the finishing touches on comments for the report cards. This takes A LOT less time now that we have electronic gradebooks. What always make the process longer for me is the agonizing over the required PARTICIPATION GRADE! How is this suppose to factor into the equation? How much value does this variable require? How is this suppose to all add up to a mark? Can you tell I am a math teacher...

In all honesty, these questions are what wake me up in the very early morning feeling guilty. How can this group of students receive a low grade because they did not "participate"? How can they have a low grade 12-14 year olds do not do homework? To me, these are behaviors/skills for kids to acquire over what if they need work on that at their age? Isn't that the point of school?

There is another group of students that generate an educational headache for me as well: the ones that "play school" well. Who are these? The kids that are getting Bs or Cs because they participate, but do not really know the concepts. Actually, these kids create greater anxiety because they do not know what the grade says they should!  That is not their fault, but mine alone! They just happen to reap the rewards of the system in place.

This is the point where I thank @PrincipalJ and my PLN at #SBGchat for pushing me towards making some changes. PrincipalJ's influence was due to her discussion of change being hard at first, but over time (and a lot of hard work) it becomes easier. Honestly, she gets a tip of the hat from me for giving up coffee...I may have just dealt with the pain. I am a coffee addict, know doubt.

The great members at #SBGchat have provided me with a lot of information about Standards Based Grading. I have been moving SLOWLY in this direction over the last couple of years by paying more attention to grading on understanding the concepts than if it was done for homework. I allow kids to come to my room at lunch or during a free period to complete problems for a grade on that standard. I am completely confident of that student's ability to do the work when it is done in front of me. When the work is done somewhere else, I always wonder if they received any "help" from an outside source. There is no doubt of their ability to cover the standard when they complete the activity under my supervision.

I have a ways to go before I am completely using SBG in my classroom, but I believe I am on the right path. Change is hard. Change is difficult. But, when it is part of what we want for our students, I am willing to fight the fight. My alterior motive is to not wake up in a panic 8 times a year when grades are due...but, I am sure there will be something else to take its place! Oh, to the always-thinking-mind of an educator!!

Thursday, April 11, 2013



I have spent the last several years reading a lot about teaching and education. To be honest, if I read this much in high school, I may have actually cracked four digits on my SATs. During this time, I have found books by Rafe Esquith and Rick Wormelli to be just what I needed to get rejuvenated about teaching. Recently, I have come across a book by Dave Burgess entitled "Teach Like a Pirate". This book has absolutely helped me regain my passion for the classroom.

Please do not misunderstand me. I love my job. However, we all run through peaks and valleys during the school year. Recently, I have definitely been in the valley. I do not know if it has been the cold weather in New Jersey this year or worrying about the looming state tests in a couple of weeks, but I have been dragging recently. I have been loooking for something to help push me towards that peak. I decided to be a "Pirate".

I have really enjoyed the beginning of this book. As a middle school math teacher, I completely agree with Dave's approach about "selling" lessons in the classroom. I am far from an entertainer, but I work hard at being passionate about whatever topics we are discussing that day. My "Pirate Moment" occured during a discussion today with my 8th graders about circumference of circles...

As we were reviewing some examples, I had a student raise their hand to ask about pi. Her question was, "Why is it 3.14"? I paused for a second and thought how can I answer this question while staying on track? I can not afford to stray because those state tests are coming up. Honestly, I have every day planned up to those tests to make sure everything is covered. It was then I took Dave's advice to let the learning happen.

So, I darted across the hall to borrow some string. I gave the spool to one student, a yard stick to another and scissors to a third. My instructions were simple: Measure out a line of string. With that, I had four or five kids out of their seats looking to help. Once that was done, I had them make a circle out of the string. I asked them to measure the diameter of the circle. Then, I had them divide the length of the string by the diameter. What did they get? 3.14

Again, I had them measure out a second, longer string. Again I had them make a circle with it and measure the diameter. Lastly, I had them divide the length by the diameter? What did they get? 3.14.
It was like a lightbulb went off above their heads. Nothing is better than hearing 8th graders moan because the bell rang to end the period!!

Looking back, I did not have to ask anyone to get up...all 9 of them were out of their seats, looking to get involved. To my surprise, so was the young man who I constantly have to "nudge" to keep awake some days. It was fun "swimming with" this group as they navigated themselves through the activity. Dave mentions several times in his book about the difference between being a "lifeguard" or a "swimmer" while having a classroom full of students.

I guess word got around that we did something great during that class, because my other 8th graders "complained" as they were leaving the building today that I did not try the circle activity with them. I guess I have my lesson for tomorrow...