Saturday, May 18, 2013

How Polynomials Save My Year...Everytime

With the middle of May now slowly fading into the rearview mirror, with it goes state testing. The kids are tired after days of completing tasks that do not really measure how much they know. But, they are given by the state, so we have to administer them. The teachers are exhausted after months of lessons and activities getting the above mentioned students ready to take those ridiculous exams. I have a confession, I probably spend too much time gearing my students for those exams now that they impact my "score" by 30%.

What saves me every year from the post-test season "let-down"? What keeps me fired up and ready to teach with just a few weeks to go in the school year when I am dead tired? You may not believe me, but it is the unit I teach on Polynomials to my Eighth Grade Students.

Polynomials? Yes, you heard me right: Polynomials. This topic is the last chapter in our book. But, I have realized that I make sure I save this chapter for after our annual state exams. In all honestly, I look forward to this chapter every year. After some thought, I have compiled some reasons as to why this is true:

First, this chapter is an introduction to a critical standard for 9th graders. As 8th graders, we get a chance to explore a this strange new world of coefficients and variables through the main four mathematical operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I use a quote for The Wizard of Oz to break the ice: "We are not in Kansas anymore, Ladies and Gentlemen."

Second, I know these topics are not on the state exam. With that pressure removed, we can learn something for FUN! We can explore, question, work, fail and try again. I do not hear that voice in my head that says, "OK. Three days on this is really need to move onto the next topic..." It is a tremendous feeling watching those smiles on their faces after tackling a tough polynomial problem. I know I've got them when even the "cool kids" let out a triumphant "Yes!" when they get a correct answer.

Last, I focus on standards instead of grades. I know I would like my kids to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide polynomials by the end of the year. We work through example problems together, answer questions and take short assessments. But the great part is, if the assessments turn out poorly, I rip them up! There is no way I am burying them with low grades on topics that are at the introductory level. Because of that, these 8th graders work for me right up to the end of the year.

I thought I could get through an entire post without mentioning @burgessdave and his book "Teach Like a Pirate", but I guess I was wrong. His book is a great resource for educators looking to catch their second wind during the school year. Also, there are great ways to challenge ourselves to be better...or as Dave would say...DARE TO BE GREAT!

My "pirate" thought is maybe I will run my entire year next year like I run my chapter on Polynomials. Maybe I look at turning away from normal grading and take a more standards-based approach to my students' learning. Maybe I take a deep breath and navigate my "classroom ship" on a different course that gets the kids excited about learning all year. That would require a Herculean effort on my part, but might just be worth it for all of us in the room.

And who would have thought the catalyst for all of this thinking was a chapter on Polynomials? Algebra is Awesome!! May everyone have the chance to teach their own version of a Polynomial Chapter. Your students will thank you for it!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dare to be great!

I was struck while reading Dave Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate by the following question: Do you want to be great? The question really made me think about my role in the classroom and the impact I have on the people I interact with everyday. Why is our profession one of the few where striving to be great could be considered a negative, slightly arrogant even?

I do not think professional athletes would say no to the same question. Definitely not chairperson's of companies. What is it about being an educator that makes us hesitate at wanting to be great?

This question has inspired me to try to create greatness in my classroom. I continue to work hard at creating an environment in my room where my students work hard and are not afraid to make mistakes. I honestly feel I have reached that several times over the last few years. That's pretty good considering I teach middle school math.

In my quest for a "great" classroom, I have had my students create podcasts in class the last few days. The groups were allowed to pick their favorite lesson(s) and given an iPad to work record and download to iMovie. It has been a pleasure being a part of the activities in my room the past few days.

I can honestly say the engagement has dramatically increased. Students that before were passive members of my room are not leading groups and editing segments of their video. I was concerned about not having a "normal" lesson for them, but I was noticing they were talking about math and correcting their problems for the podcasts! There is learning displayed there, right?

I am going to blog more after the podcasts have been finalized. I had an alterior motive for having my students create these...I always wanted a collection of podcasts for parents or students to use if they had questions. And the nice thing is, they were created for me!