Why teach middle school?

Why I choose to be a middle school math teacher.

In my third year as a middle school teacher, I have days that beg me to question why I ever chose to become a middle school teacher. Grades in middle school do not matter, so grades are not any sort of incentive to do well. Middle school student brains are in a major developing phase, so they are constantly unable to control their voices or actions. They are more reactive than reflective. They still need me to be “mom” at times, which is a role I do not play well. They are still learning major school-life lessons like remembering to put their names on homework, learning how to work a locker lock, and listening, writing, and thinking at the same time.

I have a lot of nostalgic feelings about teaching high school students because of middle school students. I miss the conversations I had with high school students. I miss Algebra 2 and Geometry. I miss the 2pm end time. I miss being the teacher they turn to for a life talk. I miss watching students grow up from being young naive teenagers to young adults with whole futures ahead of them. All that nostalgia does go away though because like every memory, we always remember the good of the past and compare it to the negative of the present.

During the dark cold days of winter, I needed to remind myself of why I stuck around with being a middle school teacher. Being a high school teacher laid the grounds for me, but being a middle school teacher has changed me for the better.

Before, I never understood why middle school math was so difficult to learn or teach. After my first year as a middle school teacher, I took back every negative thought I had about middle school math. Teaching algebra came naturally, but teaching pre-algebra and math 6 have never felt so foreign. I frequently felt like an inadequate teacher. Trying to explain the logic behind dividing fractions or why the denominator changes with ratio addition but not with fraction addition still do not come as naturally as teaching how to factor a polynomial. To make up for my inexperience and natural inability for teaching middle school concepts, I read about math and teaching math. I surrounded myself with people and books, which supported my growth as a teacher. I could not be more appreciative of middle school math teachers. I feel like a better math teacher because of this middle school experience.

With the end of school year in sight, I have learned a few more things. The students themselves have really inspired me. Weeks ago, one of the most behaviorally difficult students came up to me and held me by the shoulders, telling me how much he actually joins math now. Another student, who was so scared to meet me during open house because I was her math teacher, told me that she loves math and couldn’t believe how much she didn’t enjoy it before. And of course, I got that letter that every teacher dreams of getting. The letter that tells you how much you have touched their lives and that they wouldn’t be where they are without you. These students remind me that I have a huge impact on them even if they are not quite ready to harness the impact teachers have on them. Lastly, I get to be the teacher who preps them for the “scary” world of high school.

Even though I never thought I would be middle school math teacher, I would not trade these last three years for three years as a high school teacher. The experiences and knowledge I have gained has made me the teacher I have always wanted to be. I may never feel confident teaching middle school concepts, but I know I will get better every year that I teach. Students may overwhelm me with their lack of control, but I know I am reaching them. I know they appreciate me and want to be their best when given the opportunity.

Throw-Back “Virtual Mentor”

The “Virtual Mentor” is a long running newsletter series written Ann Sweeney, a Mathematics Professor at St. Catherine University.  A full archive can be found here.

March, 2014

Happy March! Although it is traditionally Minnesota’s snowiest month, I’m buoyed because I know that April is coming. Besides spring, I always look forward to April because it is Mathematics Awareness Month (MAM). Each April the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) sponsors MAM. The JPBM is a collaborative effort of the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematics Association of American and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. They started MAM to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation for math. It actually started as Mathematics Awareness Week in 1986.

Every year the JPBM picks a theme, designs a cool poster, offers suggestions on activities, and has a list of resources. This year’s theme is Mathematics, Magic and Mystery. The theme comes from the title of a 1956 book by Martin Gardner. Each day during the month an activity will be made available that matches one of the images on the poster. Since the activities, videos, etc. aren’t available until April, I don’t know what they will be. Based on activities that have been featured in the past, they will probably be suitable for high school and college students and excellent interesting ones.

That certainly doesn’t mean that our K – 8 students shouldn’t participate. You can easily have a set of puzzles, poems, interesting problems, games, etc. that you give to your students, one each day during April. You can award the Math Awareness Crown to the students who solve the most correctly, with small prizes for those who get each day’s answer correct.

Enjoy MAM and use it to have fun with your students while they and their parents become more aware of and appreciative of math.

Scholarship for you!

When anyone becomes a teacher, they know they are also a student for life. In the last few years as a middle school math teacher, I always found myself in a situation that required me to do some reading or learning about what I’m teaching and how I am suppose to teach. Teaching middle school math has not come as easily as Algebra has, but I know that by educating myself more, middle school math doesn’t have to be so intimidating.

I journeyed through my Masters courses while as a middle school math teacher, and I couldn’t be more happy about how it coincided. I learned at night while applying it during the day. I felt more confident and definitely more competent. A big part of my learning was taking more math or math related classes. I knew that if I had more knowledge, more higher level knowledge, I would feel more comfortable teaching it. Knowing more than what the teacher’s manual says is critical in secondary math.

In sponsorship of my education, the MCTM (Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics) Foundation granted me a scholarship. The Arnie Culter Scholarship helped me get the education I sought after. MCTM showed me that what I value in myself as a teacher is something they value and something they want to support. Below you can find the information on how to apply for the scholarship. It is a journey worth going after especially when someone else is there to support you in becoming a better teacher.

The Cutler Scholarships are given semi-annually to MCTM members who teach mathematics in middle school and who submit applications by either the March 31 or October 31 deadlines.  More information on the Cutler Scholarship and application materials are available at www.mctm.org (go to “Grants and Scholarships” or to “MCTM Foundation” links on the homepage).

The current awardee is Suzanne Horne, a 6th grade teacher, math coach and ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) coordinator at St. Paul Humboldt. She has been awarded a $1200 Arnie Cutler Scholarship for Middle School Teachers.  Suzanne has taken a course in statistics which helped her explore new ways of helping students and also to better analyze student data to better focus on student needs.

In a school setting where most students cannot afford graphing calculators, Suzanne found new ways to engage her students with data, formulas, and graphing using Excel.  She was able to revisit how students learn content such as standard deviations, chi, chi squared and p-values by employing new teaching strategies.

Grateful for the financial support that lightened the tuition burden, Suzanne found she could better “focus on the most important aspect of teaching, my students.”

Congratulations Suzanne!

The Homework Debate, yes, I am going to tackle it.

With the end of quarter 1 around the corner, my students and I are itching for a fresh start. They either feel satisfied with their grades and want to freeze time there, or they are want to erase the damage that grades have caused and start over. I feel the same way too.

Reflecting on a quarter’s worth of homework, I have dealt with my accelerated course, Accelerated Algebra, which goes throught 8th and 9th grade MN math standards, differently from my grade level course, Algebra 1, which is 8th MN math standards only. Was I fair in my decision making and treatment of students in the different math courses? Did I do more good than harm to their perspective on math homework and math in general? I’m not sure. Perhaps this debate of mine will spark some discussion and discourse among all of you.

i was thinking all summer on how to give my students my choice and differentiate homework for my accelerated students. I wanted my high fliers to feel that homework is worth their time, and I wanted everyone else to feel that homework is doable. Peeling through problems in the textbook and researching online, I came to the conclusion of dividing homework into two types. Students got to choose between homework that I labeled as “Meets” and “Exceeds”. The meets problems were ones that all students should be able to complete after the lesson. These are not problems for students to regurgitate the information, but students are to use the concepts learned in class to work through the homework. The problems were also meant to equip students for skills needed to pass the state standards. The exceeds problems are more about applying the concepts beyond what is learned in class, interpreting the result. As part of the by in for homework, I assigned ten meets and five exceeds questions per section three to four times a week and hardly anything over a weekend. Students chose to do one of the two or both sets of homework.

I took a different approach with the Algebra 1 students because they had skills that were below or well below grade level with a history of failing math, incomplete work, and bad attitude about math. After a workshop at the spring 2015 MCTM conference, I took on the presenter’s idea of daily homework. The presenter said that she established the expectation because students had too many excuses about not doing homework. She wanted to eliminate the “I forgot” excuse. She wanted to get to the bottom of why her students were not doing homework. So, I adopted that same expectation, and my students wanted to fight me on it. They moaned and groaned for about one minute until they realized that daily homework was doable. I assign them 4-10 problems, depending on difficulty of the lesson. I assign them homework to complete over the weekend, before a test, and even on the same day that they take a test. I don’t allow them to take a break from math.

A quarter later, where am I with these two different approaches to homework? Well, homework completion and attitude about homework in the accelerated course has been subpar. Those who always do homework. do the homework, and those who never do homework still don’t do homework. It makes me feel like the effort that was put into finding the “perfect” problems and combing through every assignment has been futile. Assigning less and more purposeful homework hasn’t proven to change the minds of nonhomework doers.  I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the number of students who choose to complete the exceeds problems versus the meets problems.

In contrast, the daily homework in Algebra 1 has proven to me and to them that they can step up to high expectations when asked to do it without excuse. Even when they don’t get it, they report and show that they have tried and are willing to work to understand it. There was one time that I decided to give them a break from homework, many if them freaked out about losing their homework and not completing it. They were used to thinking and doing math that not doing it was not a norm. The success in homework completion, more positive attitude, and passing grades has made me feel that I have made the right decision for them. I don’t know about the long term impact, but I know they are enjoying the class and don’t mind the daily homework.

In both courses, homework is worth 15% of their final grade, so the numerical worth is not much. But for one course, they have started to see the value and purpose of homework, while I have yet to change the mind of many others in the other course. So did I make the right decision with both courses or should I change my approach to the accelerated course?

Building a classroom for all.

Trying to organize myself.

I am putting myself out there and showing all of you a picture of my living room. I have a week left before I return to my classroom, and this is how I get ready. I know that last year I posted about how I organize my classroom and work life. Well, this is the start before I can be organized.

Some lessons are written and planned. First week of activities are coming together. I have attended the first of many workshops lined up for the year. But now it’s time to start planning the classroom. What worked well and should be kept? What needs to be rethought and changed? I have done a lot of Pinterest and Google search on classroom ideas and have come across a few that I need to try out before students arrive. In the whist of my search, I received the summer 2015 NEA Today magazine. It has some great articles, and one in particular jumped out at me. It is the “Ten Must-Haves for New Teachers.” It may say it’s for new teachers, but the must-haves hit home for me, too. It just reminds me that I am doing some great things, and that I can incorporate some new ideas.

I’m going to summarize the must-haves for you and include my own advice on it.

  1. Student supplies center. I have two or three staplers, tape dispensers and hand pencil sharpeners, which is enough for me to have a set at my desk and extras for students. In addition to the center, I always set a stapler by the homework in-trays. I have trays of lined, blank, and graph paper, too. One of my new ideas this year is zip tie baskets to the front of students desks to hold things like extra pencils, pens, hand pencil sharpener, and markers. These are things that students need throughout the class period, and by having it close by, it eliminates the need for distracted movement.
  2. Pencils and pens. The advice in the article is to collect collateral like a cell phone for exchange of a pencil/pen. I have used the idea in the past but just didn’t always had the time to deal with the exchange. This year, I plan to tape colored duct tape on pencils and put them in the student baskets. I am hoping that students are honest and put back the pencil they use. I know that this doesn’t prevent pencils from leaving the classroom, but I hope that putting flags on and talking about supply usage expectations, I will not loose too many.
  3. A calendar for student reference. This is pretty self explanatory, but this is a great idea to help students develop a better sense of time and accountability. I used to have a weekly calendar up and the high school students I had taught at the time really appreciated it. They used to manage their time and especially to see that a test is coming up. In my current school, my students all have iPads, and I shared my Google calendar with them. The great part about the Google calendar is that they get a notice when homework is due. They also get to see if we are taking notes that day or doing an activity.
  4. Trashcans…Not one…not two..but three. I like what the writer said about “preventing students from making a big trip across the classroom..” I have two trashcans in my room, but I never thought about putting one on the other side of the room. I usually have one by my desk but to have two trashcans available for students never occurred to me. I’m definitely adopting this idea. It makes a lot of sense especially when I want to limit transition.
  5. SORTKWIK fingertip moistener. Dry fingers are inevitable when we have so much paperwork. Also, I do live in Minnesota, so dry skin is definitely inevitable in the winter months. I never thought about getting something to help me flip through or distribute paper, but this one will go into the idea box.
  6. A sanity saver. Or something like it anyway. The writer is talking about having a paper grade book and/or attendance record that fits your needs. It’s so important to have a backup because you have to report grades and attendance. Any discrepancy is on you and your records. A paper copy may save you.
  7. A homework landing point. This is a huge one! I do not like spending time in class collecting paper. I do not like students handing me things because I’m not always responsible for keeping it safe. I am usually not fully aware of what students are handing me. From my first year of teaching to now, I have always had a homework turn-in tray. Each period gets their  own tray. Then right above the trays are where I hang no-name papers. This way I hope that student notice their own handing writing and that they didn’t put their name on their homework.
  8. An information center. Having a designated place to put extra school handouts, field trip forms, lunch menus, and basic school information is important. My students know where to grab an extra copy that they need. I don’t have to spend time looking for forms and menus.
  9. An absent work something. The writer loves her absent binder. She puts work in there for students who have been absent. Her binder is kept in the student center. I am glad she found a system that works. I thought I had a good system with folders in a hanging file holder, but that kind of didn’t work well for me. I just wasn’t used to the absent folders and didn’t look at it. I was used to just talk to the student once he/she returned. I am going to work harder on this one to make it habit.
  10. A variety of storage solutions. Bins, drawers, trays, baskets, tubs, buckets, whatever you need to keep organize. It’s hard to stay clutter free every day, but if you can dedicate one afternoon a month to organization, you will be able to find the surface of your desk and find manipulatives whenever you need it.

These are just a few things to consider as you start to think about your classroom environment. Lesson planning and relationship building may be at the top of your to do list, but remember your room, too. Beyond you, your classroom is the first thing students really see and it’s how they start to feel supported and comforted. They don’t notice that you planned great lessons or that your messed up a lesson, but feeling like they belong in your class is the first step to a great year.

Problem Solving with Struggling Learners

I teach a class called Geometry Concepts, geared primarily toward high school sophomores who struggle with math. Much of the time, there is the ever present pressure of meeting the standards, teaching them formulas, and practicing properties that truly don’t mean much to these kids.

I have been thinking a lot about what I can do to best serve these struggling learners, and it led me to the name of the class: “Geometry Concepts“. I feel like my job with these kids is to help the build on the concepts, the bigger ideas that are much more transferable to their lives. I don’t just teach quadrilaterals, I use quadrilaterals to teach “classification,” the same ideas they use in science and English.  I don’t just teach parallel lines, I teach them about driving and all of the lines used (they are getting there licenses this year).

Anyway, we spent the last two days finding areas of polygons and we did some really nice problems where they had to find the area of a lame triangle with a base of 12 and a height of 7. Very applicable, I know. Even though we have been practicing these formulas, I feel like they needed a different approach to area. So for a Friday, I scrapped the quiz and instead gave them one task: find the area of the carpet in the room.

This immediately took my class from bored note-taking to genuine curiosity. I had a prime opportunity to build some real problem solving skills with kids who don’t like to be challenged. We discussed how we could approach the problem, how to make a diagram of the room, and how to account for the cabinets, furnace, and other non-carpeted areas. Then they spent class measuring, recording, and calculating.

My initial concern was that we weren’t practicing the formulas; they were just finding a bunch of rectangles. But this was the most engaged I have ever seen these kids. These were the hardest rectangles these kids had ever seen in their lives and they went with it. They did some genuine problem solving. Today, my struggling math students got a real feel for what area is and how to find it without looking at a piece of paper.

The other perk? All it took was a bucket of tape measures and 30 seconds of prep time.

Planning For a Sub

For the first 3 years of my teaching career, I barely missed a day. This year, however, my 2-year-old, who just started daycare, cannot seem to stay healthy. This is when I first realized: as a teacher, it is hard to be gone.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a day of as much as anyone. Unlike many professions, however, I have 180 students who rely on my presence to guide their learning.  I’m sure they don’t mind too much, but I sure do.

With this post, my intention is to outline some of the struggles with having a sub and some ways to prepare for it. I in no way intend to slight substitute teachers, as they make it possible for teachers to be absent. It is not easy to be gone, and I want to help teachers make the most of it.

There are 3 main issues I have run into when I have a sub:

1. You are not always guaranteed a sub that knows your content.

In a perfect world, your sub would teach the lesson that you otherwise would have taught. They would answer questions about the previous days homework, go through all of the notes and example problems, tell students animated stories to help the content come to life, and then assist students as they work through the assigned practice problems. That is when you realized that your substitute is a retired English teacher coming to your math class.

I have only seen this actually work out 2 times: once when I had a retired math teacher from the school cover my class, and the other when I covered one class for the teacher I shared a room with. I wouldn’t bank on this happening by chance.

Even when a sub does know your content, sometimes their process does not align with how students have been learning it. It can be a good thing, but it could also confuse student.

2.  Things don’t always go according to plan.

Though you hope a sub would accomplish everything you ask them to and your students would work diligently, but the reality is that it doesn’t always happen. I wanted students to finish a worksheet from the day before picking up a new challenge worksheet. The sub just give students the new worksheet right away, which they did finish, before just sitting around the rest of class. By not finishing the earlier worksheet, Students missed out on two of the tougher calculator problems, and I had to spend extra time catching everyone up before the end of the trimester.

3.  It takes time to put sub plans together

I can only speak for myself, but on a typical day, I do not neatly lay out every worksheet, test, and seating chart on my front table so that it is waiting for me when I get to work. Also, when you are gone, plans often change, and you need to create a new worksheet. This prep could take several hours depending on the classes you teach and what you need to change. And then needing to do this while you are sick at 10pm? No fun at all.

So what practical advice do I have to offer? There are several things we can do to prevent our absence from feeling like a wasted day.

  • Provide answer keys. Every sub I have ever had said this was most helpful. I normally provide enough answer keys for each group to have one as they work. This helps to prevent kids from giving up.
  • Make guided notes. If you want to teach a lesson, put a worked out example next to each problem you want students to try. This allows the kids to interact with the notes while giving them some guidance. Provide a full answer key for when they are really stuck.
  • Videos. If students have access to technology, make a video of the lesson for them to watch at their own pace before or while they work on practice problems.
  • Rearrange. You might need to look at your week ahead and see if there is something that you were going to later that you could do with a sub. Save that tough lesson for when you return and get kids started on the review early.
  • Have students teach themselves. I first taught solving by factoring when I had a sub. Students started out with easy problems ( 5 x __ = 0) and slowly combined skills they had until they were factoring and solving quadratics. I now use this every year.
  • Be as clear as possible. If you are giving a test, give specific instructions about calculator use, note use, partners, etc. This is especially true if you have different policies for different classes.
  • Don’t be afraid to expect learning. Don’t give in to just watching a movie. Give students a meaningful worksheet to practice important skills. Tomorrow, I have my juniors working on a practice ACT test. It might not be ideal, but it is more productive than nothing.
  • Assess when you return. Try to get a feel for what students actually accomplished while you were gone. Use the subs notes, ask students, give them a quick quiz, anything to help you figure out if the students accomplished what you hoped. If they didn’t, you have some catchup to do.

It does take some work to prepare for a sub, but one could argue that the thinking that goes into preparing for a sub can help you diversify your teaching. I know that sometimes you wake up sick and have no time to prepare, but if you have some time to get things ready, put some thought into it so your students can still get something out of the day.