Getting Back to Business

So, our school works on a trimester system with Thanksgiving Break (a full week) marking the end of the fall term. We also have fall term finals, so my last full day of classes was November 12. I set myself some lofty goals for the break and met about 80% of those goals. My number one goal, by far, was to do what I could to plan out our next fourteen days for all three of my preps. We have fourteen days of class until the long winter break begins.

I found out late in the summer that I was teaching a new course (around August 10) and I also have two brand new colleagues in my  department. I have not been able to spend as much time mentoring them as I had planned to. The combination of this disappointment, along with perpetually being only a few days ahead of my Discrete class made the fall term a pretty stressful one. I have three preps, five sections, and my chair responsibilities. Luckily, I have a pretty light student load this year.

So, I have my calendar mapped out for Geometry and AP Calculus BC and I have about ten of the fourteen days of Discrete taken care of. Overall I am pretty pleased. Add in the naps and the time with my wife and kiddos and it has been a good break with just enough productivity thrown in.

I am starting off my Geometry kiddos with a three day workshop on Reasoning and Proof. I found this somewhere on the inter webs recently but I cannot recall where. You can find the link here and if you recognize it, please let me know. I am pretty excited about this. I think that it will be a lively way to restart my classes and I am optimistic that the students may make some inroads into understanding the logical structure of proofs. We had a great activity with making peanut butter and jelly instructions for each other earlier in the year. I think that this serves as a nice follow up and I am happy that there is such time between them. My optimistic hope is that the students will make that connection on their own without me pointing it out. This unit has a similar idea with sentence strips outlining the process of making spaghetti. I do know that when I do the PBJ activity again in the future I will scaffold it a little more carefully in advance so that more of the students will have a solid idea how to approach that. If you want to read about our PBJ adventures you can look at this post or this one.

I am also already committed to a project for my winter break. Right before Thanksgiving I engaged in a lengthy and lively twitter discussion with Henry Picciotto (@hpicciotto), Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf), Peg Cagle (@pegcagle), Julie Reulbach (@jreulbach), Mattie B (@stoodle), and Chris Baldus (@Chrisbaldus04) We were discussing HW strategies. When to preview ideas, when to lag and let ideas catch up, how to possibly blend those strategies. It was an amazing conversation with people from all around and at least two of whom I am certain that I have never met. One of those great examples of why engaging with twitter has improved my practice. So, I am too weary to rewrite my HW sets that I wrote last year when we rolled out the Geometry text I wrote. But, I realize that the time before January will allow me to write a few more sets that I can use as buffers near the beginning of the year while I let ideas settle in and percolate for my students. The assignments that they would have been working on the night they were introduced to an idea will now come three or four days later. In the interim we will concentrate on in class discussion and practice and I will write some homework sets that concentrate more on helping to cement definitions and some new mechanical skills along the way – along with reminding them of highlights from 2015. I am excited to do this and I would not have had the motivation to do so without the urging of those virtual colleagues who took the time and care to share with me their ideas and experiences. I am a little anxious because change = bad for too many of my students, but I am convinced that the time off will allow me to think deeply about how to be as intentional and clear as possible with my students. The other fear I had and came to grips with is this – I am one of four Geometry teachers at our school. I am also the chair of the department and the author of the text. My ego keeps creeping in and wanting everyone to follow my lead because of both of my roles here. I came to peace (thanks Julie and Elizabeth!) with the idea that I do not have to have everyone on the same page AND with the idea that I can be a better leader in this process next year if I go through it myself this year. I will still share out my old (and new!) pacing guides and homework assignments. I will simply make it as clear as possible that not everyone needs to agree with this HW strategy and with the timing of assessments that this will entail. If the students are not doing homework concentrating on, say, section 6.4 until three days after we introduce that section in class, they cannot be held responsible for that material on an assessment until they have had time to practice. Consequently, assessments will lag behind where we are in class as well. I need to rethink my ideas about what review days mean and look like, but this kind of rethinking is one of the things that makes this job such a joy.


Rock, Paper, … Chi-Square!

In my last post I talked about how my students are benefiting from my pals in the MTBoS. Well, here I am to testify again. We are just about to wrap up our study of the Chi-Square distribution in our AP Statistics class. I used to start this unit with a little document I created based on an article in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In his book he posits the idea that there is a disparity in birth date distribution for players on a junior national hockey team. In the document I linked to I put the roster information into an EXCEL spreadsheet and I just displayed the data and asked my students to notice things. I felt like I needed to stop using this because in each of the past two years I had a number of students who read the book in an English elective and they gave away the surprise before enough conversation happened. So, I put out a twitter call for help and Bob Lochel (@bobloch) chimed in and directed me to a super helpful post over on his blog. I had seen the cool applet for playing Rock, Paper, Scissors over at the New York Times. So, I borrowed heavily from Bob (and made sure to credit him during our class discussions) and off we went to the computer lab. I prepared a handout to help organize my students and I set them loose. I asked (as you can see on the handout doc) my students to play 24 time in four different contexts. Play with random moves generated by a random integer generator or play with your gut instincts and try each against the two modes of the machine on the Times’ website. The NYT claims that the ‘robot’ plays either as a novice with no pre-programmed knowledge of how the game is played or as an expert with data gathered from other players. The novice learns your patterns as it plays you while the expert calls on a large data set of how people behave. 24 repetitions is probably not enough for the novice computer but I had some time constraints that I was trying to work around. After both of my classes played, I created a document with the data on all of the results. The next day I displayed the data and we had a pretty great conversation about the results. An important note – some of my AP Stats kiddos cannot count because the data did not come in in multiples of 24. Sigh

So I tried to start the conversation with  a simple question – Should you do better when you think about the game or should you do better by random number generation? This lead to a quick decision that the expected value of a random number generator would be an equal distribution of 8 wins, 8 ties, and 8 losses for each set of 24. Now the table is set for the important principles of the Chi-Square test. Let’s talk about the difference between observed results and expected results. We also had a great conversation about how it appeared that the random number generator actually outperformed many people – especially in the expert mode. We talked about the fact that the expert mode was trying to predict behavior and how the randomness involved here might actually play in our favor.

In the week plus since this experiment I have been able to refer back a number of times to this experiment and it feels like my students have a pretty good handle on their task here. We have our unit test tomorrow so I hope that my optimism will be supported by some data.

In addition to thanking Bob Lochel I also want to thank a new twitter pal, Jennifer Micahelis (@MichaelisMath) who engaged me in a conversation about this experience and prompted me to gather my thoughts and write about it. I definitely will revisit this experiment the next time I teach this unit.

Why Do I Blog?

Once again, Dan Meyer has me thinking. This time the blame can be passed along to Michael Fenton. Michael raised a question on twitter.  His question to Dan was

Could you have written a list of 5 reasons you blog 5 years ago? And a list of 5 reasons you blog now? Lists match? What’s changed?

As usual, Dan’s page is generating some great responses. You can jump to that page here.

As I write, I am on my first day of spring break. It is a quiet, beautiful morning on my mom’s back porch with everyone else sleeping. Let’s see if I can make sense of this question.

I am a relative newbie to this blogging business. My first post was in the first week of July 2013. This is my 58th post. I started reading blogs with some regularity and subscribing to them a few years ago. The first one I subscribed to for regular delivery was either Dan’s blog or Sam Shah’s. My memory is not sharp enough to recall which was first ( Edit – A little research shows that I subscribed to Sam’s blog in Oct 2010 shortly after relocating to NE PA). I was living in NJ where I moved after leaving FLA. While I was in FLA I was enrolled in a program to earn a doctorate in education. I was taking night and weekend classes while teaching full-time and raising a little boy. I even took a year off from the classroom to be a grad assistant and full-time student. I worked on a super cool research project looking at arts integration in schools and was feeling super energized by the reading I was doing, by my classmates, and by my professors. We headed off to NJ where I was going to carry out my dissertation research (where I was lucky enough to work with this guy as one of my research participants) and I worked with a really inspiring Associate Head/Director of Studies and some other good colleagues there. But, once I was back in the classroom walls, I started realizing how much I missed the level of conversation from my graduate classes. As most of you reading this know, we spend TOO much of our time in our four walls closed off to our colleagues. As many of you have probably experienced, there is not much in the way of structured time during the day where we can have meaningful conversations about what goes on in those walls. As a math teacher, I get too much semi-snarky jokes when I try to talk about my class at the lunch table or in the faculty lounge. There is something about the pace and structure of our days that seems to work against built-in reflection time. So, I found that time and space out on the internet. For a few years I read blogs and occasionally commented on them. I finally took the plunge last July and started my own. In the fall when the MTBoS blogging initiative kicked in for its second year, I was all in. I even took the plunge into twitter based on one of the challenges presented there. That must have been in October. Since then I have sent out almost 1300 tweets. All but about 50 of them have been to people I know only through my math experiences or through their blogs and tweets. The majority of them have been sent to people I’ve never met. Through these experiences, I have had the pleasure of being invited to my first EdCamp – with another on the way. I have been invited by the amazing Tina Cardone to take part in a workshop presentation at this summer’s Twitter Math Camp, I have received tweets as answers to questions from Ketih Devlin and Steven Strogatz, I have shared amazing lessons from people I’ve never met, I have pestered my colleagues with emails and document attachments that I have gathered from the web. I spend the first 45 minutes or so of each morning (after I feed the cats and start some coffee) reading my email alerts from the previous night, scanning what might have happened on twitter after I fell asleep, and checking my wordpress reader. I go to school every morning thinking about something that I might not have thought of on my own. I look forward to this quiet time in the morning before my family wakes up as a time to wake my brain up and recharge it. It’s a way to improve the lives of my students and to help ensure that I don’t feel stale and bored. I am in my 27th year in the classroom and I feel as energized about it as ever and I think that much of the credit belongs to a world of people I’ve never met.

So, I realize that most of what i have just said explains why I read blogs and prowl twitter. Why do I write my blog? A much simpler answer. I think that there are two reasons.

  1. I want to give back – at least a little – to this rich world of ideas.
  2. I want feedback on my ideas as they develop.

Not profound, but it feels good to chime in. Now, I’m off to breakfast.

MTBoS #4 – Listen and Learn

So, thanks to Julie and the MTBoS crew, I remembered to login last night to the Global Math Department. Family took me away before it was over but not before I saw some great Geogebra tools that I did not know about. I knew – in theory – that GeoGebra had some built-in stats software but I had never seen if before. Thanks to the crew leading the convo last night ( Jennifer, John, and Audrey) I came away with some skills I did not have when I woke up yesterday. That’s a good thing. I intend to listen in on some Infinite Tangent podcasts to catch up – probably this weekend on my iPod while I am supervising some campus activities. This week’s challenge reminded me of some important lessons. If I let life just move along I can feel busy as hell, I can take care of what I NEED to take care of, and I can find time to be with family, friends, and students. However, if I commit to taking care of the teacher part of myself, I need to carve out time in a very conscious way. I need to remind myself of these learning and sharing opportunities because the recharge me. I need to consciously set aside time where I plug in in a quiet way to tap into my resources. What I think I am also discovering – and this is related to the whole MTBoS challenge series – is that twitter might not fit me very well. I got excited at first when I sent out a plea for help and was contacted by Keith Devlin within an hour offering me help. Pretty damned cool, I thought. However, since that first call for help I have sent out two others and received nothing in reply. I check in on my twitter at night and feel overwhelmed by trying to catch up to what has happened since I was last on. Perhaps I just need to adjust how I interact with it. Perhaps it is just not for me – not for the way I want to digest info, not for the schedule my life has now. I engaged for a little while in an Algebra II chat on Monday while I was on dorm duty. I felt swamped by the multiple threads and by my loaner iPad binging at me constantly. I had a few nice exchanges with Jennifer (who was one of last night’s co-hosts) but it was not a satisfying experience overall. I was sent to a blog post recently from a former teacher who pointed to his efforts to being plugged in as the source of his leaving the profession. I don’t know that he sold me on that with his story, but parts of it did resonate. Finding a balance these days is a serious challenge.