November 17, 2013

Keeping Things Fresh

After two years abroad I've returned to my old school. I'm sick of standardized tests and the horror that the IB program has apparently become. I'm back at a school were the average kid is below the national average in math. I'm back at a school that cares about kids and is more interested in producing good people than good test scores. It is a gift to have another chance at this school.

This time around I'm teaching Algebra 1, Geometry and Physics. The physics is old-hat, but the other two are new to me or at least mostly so. The newest of all is teaching such young students. I've generally taught 11th and 12th graders. So I'm having to retool a bit.

Our classes meet 4 days a week one of those being a 70 minute period. My approach will always be student centered even if it looks like "worksheets." It been going well, but I have come to dread my Wednesday's. I teach 3 of these long periods and its like pulling teeth to keep the kids focused. A colleague of mine mentioned pulling out one of Dan Meyer's 3 Act problems on the long periods and "who cares if it matches what going on the rest of the week."

This has always been my problem with Dan's problems. They're awesome, but how do they fit in? This year I find myself in a department struggling to find its identity and tempted to go old school "skill and drill."

So two weeks ago I decided to just try a problem. We had talked about exponents. So the Domino Problem seemed perfect.

After showing the intro video, the class looked at me like, "You kidding? You really want us to work on that." I stared back, "Uh, yeah."

5 minutes later the class was all over it. The results were amazing. Students were engaged and arguing over math. Perfection.

It went so well that the next week I pulled out another this time it was the Shipping Routes problem. The comments on the blog post seemed negative, but the idea seemed good to me, plus the math was approachable by my students.

Again the results were fantastic. And I'll admit when we did the times with decimals the whole class was stunned, myself included! Even better the one quiet girl who figured it out was beaming.

Selfishly these problems were great. They bought me SO MUCH capital in terms of classroom management. Each one of these problems took 40-50 minutes of class, but the next 20 minutes were some of the easiest I've ever had. Even the next day in class was easy. Not only were they easy for me the kids really learned something. AND. The kids were more productive the other days of week following the problems. So even if Dan's problems didn't move my curriculum forward, it and of themselves, they made my classes more efficient.

The lesson (re)learned was the need to change up class. To keep things fresh. What I was and am doing is good, but the students needed a change of pace.

June 03, 2013

Let's Play Spot the Error (Misconception)

A few months ago a bunch of Sports posters showed up in the hallways. Okay, great. Have the kids do some research into different sports as part of their PE curriculum. I think they might get more out of playing a sport, but hey what do I know? I think reading physics books is fun.

On closer inspection I saw that each of the sports was being related to Newton's Laws. As I read the posters it was clear students had simply found the law(s) on Wikipedia or some other site and then did their best to apply them. Sometimes the results were the "t-shirt versions" of the laws, i.e. short, simple and catchy, but incomplete. Such as:


But, mostly it was the application of the law that was wrong - no surprise there.

I don't share these to make fun of the students, they were doing their best, or to embarrass the teachers, they probably don't know any better. I shared these because the photos gave me an idea for a new game - "Spot the Error."

Lets hit misconceptions head-on. Not in the contrived language from a teacher, but in the language of peers (albeit younger peers). I would love to have a collection of student quotes on a full range of physics topics... I can see these as material for test questions, homework, or class discussions.

As a side note the quality of student work that is posted in public spaces is a big topic of discussion at our school.

March 15, 2013

Frozen Water "Sine Wave"

Some more video awesomeness.

I'm not sure I would call that a "sine" wave as Boing Boing did... but all the same some pretty cool visuals and some great potential links to physics and math. I'm teaching trig to my SL kids at the moment, might make for an interesting diversion. There is no place in the SL curriculum that hints that parameters such as amplitude and period can be functions rather than just constants... 

March 14, 2013

More Reflections - The IB and other Things

Moving back to greener pastures.

Next year I'm returning to my previous school. Leaving an overseas post, a great pay check and a school that I perceive to be in a pretty deep rut.

[Insert self-pitying rant on the failures of my current school].

This is my third school... I'm burned out. Tired. Frustrated. And still loving it when the light goes on and my kids get a tough concept.

IB it's not you. It's me?

With a senior class who doesn't have a single IB student likely to score above the world average and 25% of whom are likely to fail the diploma...  reflection comes quick and often. 

Looking over past posts as reminders of what went well (or not so well) I came across this at the bottom of a post about the unit circle.

Reflections: To be honest I don't know where the stage for this success was first set [...]. While having all the mathematical tools needed [...] is necessary I don't think it's sufficient. Two more pieces were needed:
  1. Students feeling the freedom to tackle a problem with different methods, thus allowing them to see problems in the context that is most natural to them. 
  1. Students being trained to solve new tough problems not simply repeating steps that the teacher has demonstrated on a whiteboard. 
A year after teaching that lesson on the Unit Circle I still believe those two pieces were the key to one of my most successful class periods in 10 years of teaching (and most other successes I've had).

Those two pieces seem to be in stark contrast to the demands of the IB and  other standardized test based programs.

March 05, 2013

Mechanical Integration - Surface Area

A clip from Dirty Jobs (one of my favorites) of a machine that calculates the surface area of irregularly shaped objects - in this case tanned hides. Too clever. Wish I'd seen this when I was teaching integration.

Spotted originally on Boing Boing.

March 04, 2013

IB Math SL and UbD

Could your students solve (with understanding) the following problem in 6 minutes with only 2-3 hours of class time and no prior exposure to binomial expansions or pascal's triangle?

Sure, my kids can write down the correct answer - they might even understand what they're doing - but it took a whole lot more than 2-3 hours to get them there.

I came to my current school a believer that the IBDP program was a good, even great, program for many students. I will be leaving with some serious doubts... In physics there are 6 hours set aside for kinematics but 18 for climate change and energy sources. Seriously? In Math SL I have 9 hours total for arithmetic/geometric sequences and series, binomial expansion plus rules of exponents and logarithms. Where's the time to develop either the need for these tools or any real understanding?

If you say it's supposed to happen in a prior class, then why isn't it in the presumed knowledge?

Today is a PD day. My job was to write enduring understandings (a la UbD) for my Math SL classes. So what is the "enduring understanding" of 2-3 hours spent on binomial expansion? Or for Math SL in general?

If I'm honest?
Students will understand that a big scary test that determines their college options is coming their way so regardless of personal interest they will pretend that they want to be engineers and "learn" math.
Or when thinking about arithmetic and geometric series: 
Students will understand that these questions are easy points on the IB test and should not be missed and that missing these questions will be followed by a long frustrated rant from the teacher or appropriate administrator.
For the sake of transparency maybe I should put this on my wall?

Please tell me I'm wrong. I know people live, breath and bleed the IBDP. It's just that I'm losing my faith. 

February 05, 2013

Independent Project Elective

This year I've been running an independent project class. Some of the kids are doing really cool things. Pin-hole camera, wind-powered generator, app development... Others are struggling with the lack of structure and the realization that when projects are not handed to you by a teacher they're hard! A few groups are a bit slippery about how much they are really getting done... Still not sure how to handle that when every project is different.

Anyways. The real reason for the this post is to beg and plead for folks to give my students real feedback that comes from someone besides their teacher! Each week (supposedly) students are creating a short blog post describing their work, any struggles and what the plan is for the next week. I decided early on that the blogs should be the student's space, while required, the posts don't need to get marked up in red ink so to speak by their teacher...

If you've got 5-10 minutes to browse the RSS feed it would be much appreciated.

January 25, 2013

Did You Hear What I Heard? - Value of Lectures

The other morning on my way to make a few copies I saw a fellow teacher confronting a couple students over what appeared to be copying of homework - a practice that admittedly is pretty rampant at our school. I stood trapped at the copier, knowing what was coming my way - a one-sided conversation about the wrongs of copying. I braced myself and prepared my smiling and nodding muscles.

The monologue covered the predictable ground that copying work is not only wrong but results in little or no learning. I was smiling and nodding in agreement, but not feeling the passion of my colleague. Then came the unforeseen twist. This teacher goes on to explain that they intentionally change the style of bullet points used during lectures and then at the end of the lecture asks the students flip through their notes to see that they blindly copied the variety of bullet points... Using this as a jumping off point to explain that copying doesn't equate to learning. At this point in the conversation I tried to keep a straight face and not laugh at the irony.

This teacher had just equated the educational value of taking notes during their lectures with copying homework!

I couldn't agree more.

January 11, 2013

Modeling Approach Assessment with Robots

I always struggled with labs, they too easily become plug and chug fill in the blank labs or week long experiments that don't really relate to the current topic in class - the later is not a bad thing but maybe not as awesome as it should be. The physics modeling curriculum is helping on both fronts. While I'm not in love with everything about the physics modeling curriculum, the labs are simple, beautiful and well thought out. It's a great supplement to the other PER tools I've picked up.

Some awkward scheduling around exam time forced some creative thinking (when given lemons?). Rather than give a standard paper based assessment I used the school's ample supply of Lego robots as the source of motion.
Lego robots at their simplest.
The kids were asked to the create the usual representations of the motion; written, graphical and motion maps. With the robots "complex" motions are easily created. Different speeds, pauses  and changes in direction are simple to create and program - motions that are challenging at best with the more typical inclined ramp. Perfect for kinematics when the cause of motion is not an issue.
Collaboration beats the socks off silent individual work.
The results were this side of outright awesome, but the students were engaged, working together, solving familiar problems in a new context not to mention see constant acceleration for the first time.What's not to love?

For those interested I linked the handout and the RobotC files. The programming is sloppy as the idea to include a light that blinked every second was a last minute idea and I didn't have time to be clever and create a cleaner program. The first two programs involve constant velocities and the third has a linear velocity.