Posted in beginner teachers, elementary school, high school, middle school, relationship building

Connecting with students

One big thing that has been on my mind this year is the relationship I have with my students. I pride myself in knowing my students well, beyond the mathematical skills they display and don’t display in my class. I get to know their family dynamics and remember details about them, but of course, I don’t know this about all my students. When my principal or another teacher talks to me about students of concern, I have details and valuable information to add to the conversation. But I know I’m not different from other teachers in this aspect. We love kids and love our jobs, so we do get to know the students that we see every day for 9 months. We think about them when we get home. We write lessons with certain student needs as the focus while making sure all students learn. We go above and beyond for them.

Relationship building is probably the number one thing that any veteran teacher would tell you when it comes to teaching. No matter the age or subject, the kind of relationship you have with students make a difference in their learning. This really is the best piece of advice and lesson I have learned. I love teaching math and talking about math, but it takes especial people like you and me to love math. Students, at any age, also need to “love” you before they can “love” math. They need you before they need the subject. I know that I am guilty of putting the subject before the students at times due to pressure from state test scores, my love of math, or even keeping pace with the other teachers. Just like you when you decided you wanted to be a math teacher, you didn’t do it for the love of the subject, but some teacher in your past inspired your love of math and your love to teach it.

Building a strong relationship with students is not easy and may not come naturally, but it’s such an essential part of being a teacher. But how do you do it and be genuine about it?

Weekly Reflections: This is my favorite way to get to know students. In one of my courses, I teach some of the lowest and behaviorally challenging 8th graders in my school. They are assigned homework every day even on test days, but every Friday, their assignment is to complete 3-5 questions about the week’s learning, the class, or themselves. They  know that completion is all I ask for and that their responses will not affect their grades. With that stipulation, they are very honest when given the chance to reflect. When they write, I actually read it, which surprises students, because they think they are only doing it fulfill an assignment point. Through these weekly reflections, I learn more about their learning needs and wishes. I learn more about how they feel about themselves, their classmates, and me. I learn how to be a teacher that can and will meet their needs because they voice it. Some examples of more personal reflections I ask are:

  • Why do you do homework?/Why do you NOT do homework?
  • What do you think of Cornell Notes? (We always do notes in Cornell style.)
  • What was the best part of your week?/What was the worst part of your week?
  • Rate yourself from 0-4, how well did you understand this week’s lessons? Explain.
  • What kind of teacher should Ms. Vang be so that you are successful this year?
  • What kind of classroom should we have so that you are successful this year?
  • What is one math goal you have this year?
  • Describe how you feel about math.
  • What are you looking forward to this weekend?
  • What can Ms. Vang or the class improve on to help you learn better? If nothing, what is something you like about our class?
  • What grade are you getting in this class? Do you think Ms. Vang is fair in her grading?
  • What do you need to do in order to get better in this class? If you are doing well, what is something you want to keep doing so that your grade doesn’t drop?

Because of these questions, I feel that I building a strong trust and bond between my students and I. When they realize that I read them and use them to better our class, they feel that they are being heard and cared for. They acknowledge that I am trying my best to be the best teacher I can be for them. It’s my way to give voice to my students, and through it, I know that I’m being the teacher they need for success. I do have rules for when answering the question. I don’t accept “nothing” and “I don’t know” as answers. I know that students can answer the questions even if it’s artificial, but even those artificial answers become more real as the year goes by because they know I read it. I do have students who choose not to do the weekly reflections or forget to do them, but I don’t worry about it. I just continue to encourage everyone to complete them because it is homework and that I am doing it to help our class and especially me be better.

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Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school, organization, resources

What’s with the posters?

It’s the second week of teaching for me and I’m feeling exhausted and confident. I know my students names and have lesson plans all ready to go. I even decorated my room for the second year in a row now. 🙂

As a secondary math teacher, I’m notorious for having blank walls. I have never really bought or made posters because I figured my students would make them as the year goes by. I didn’t even put up my classroom expectations/rules. I always assumed that since I verbalized what I expected, it was enough. But being a middle school teacher has changed that in me. Middle schoolers have such a hard time recalling or following instructions even when written. Now, I have a posters that I put up. They are colorful and have great messages. I even laminated them, making them a more permanent part of my teaching resources. My classroom looks great and not so empty. Then I made the assumption that my students would read them while they were in my room. But I was so wrong. My students don’t notice them or care about them. In the past whenever I pointed out my poster, my students would be shocked that I had a poster that showed them what I meant.

Last year, my coworker and I made a commitment to actually use them and point them out. She was the one who told me about an article (sorry I don’t know the reference) she read about the importance of actually talking about the poster. Why put up a poster and not talk about it? I didn’t realize that by not talking about them, I wasn’t telling my students why those ideas and messages were important to me and to being a mathematician.

As part of my commitment, I introduced the GROUPS poster after doing the 100 Numbers activity that @saravanderf used in her classroom (https://saravanderwerf.com/2015/12/07/100-numbers-to-get-students-talking/). Through the activity, I was able to show students how the acronym came into play. They understood it better and saw what GROUP looked like. I had taken pictures of their group work, and they didn’t even notice because they were so engrossed in the activity. Even that along helped illustrate group work for students.

With different activities that I do with my students will come the introduction of each poster. I do a lot of Math Talk (http://www.nctm.org/Publications/Teaching-Children-Mathematics/2015/Vol22/Issue4/Creating-Math-Talk-Communities/) and inquiry activities/discourse, which lend themselves well to the Math Talk and STRONG Mathematicians posters. My students take Cornell Notes, which in itself needs some explanations because it’s such a specific way to take notes. Then I always like to give my students the chance to say “I don’t know” without saying “I don’t know”.

Next time you walk into a classroom, whether it be yours or not, ask yourself about the purpose of what you see hanging on the walls or from the ceilings. Everything in our classrooms have a purpose whether you talk about them or not.

Much of my poster inspirations have come from Pinterest.

Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school

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.

Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school, resources

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.

Posted in beginner teachers, middle school, resources

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!

Posted in high school, middle school

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?

Posted in beginner teachers, high school, middle school, organization, resources

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.