A Belated End-of-Year Reflection : Lowlights

This is part 3 of my 2015 school year reflections. If you’d like, check out my previous entries:

In today’s episode: LOWLIGHTS

Lack of clarity in what to teach

Coming from public school, you don’t really have to figure out what you have to teach. You’re given a scope and sequence; you know what units are to be taught and in what order. Sometimes a bit stifling and rushed, but you know what’s expected of you. I came in with a little bit more autonomy than I expected. The math isn’t broken up into 6th/7th/8th math, it’s Math Skills (mostly 6th graders), Pre-Algebra (mostly 7th graders and 6th graders who tested out of Math Skills), Algebra 1 (mostly 8th graders). Algebra 1 is typically a 9th grade course so really Math Skills is like the Texas 6th grade math, and Pre-Algebra is a mix of Texas 7th/8th grade math. I had a list of concepts that was given to me, but I wasn’t sure of the depth to go into those concepts.  Take exponents for example.  “Am I introducing them? Do we get into negative exponents?  What about fractional exponents?  Are they supposed to begin to learn the exponent rules?”

I began sifting through the middle school math TEKS which posed a problem because they were in transition and a new set of very different standards were beginning to be used. I decided to check out Common Core standards, which were at odds with the TEKS as well. “Hm. Maybe I could see what Khan Academy does with these courses…well that’s different too. How about the textbook I got early in the year?” Well that sort of aligned with the Common Core but not the others.

What ensued was a hodgepodge of concepts and units, some of which ended up overlapped in both Math Skills and Pre-Algebra since the Pre-Algebra kids didn’t see those concepts in Math Skills last year. I did what made sense to me at the time. In retrospect, the sequence of the textbook made a lot of sense,and I think using the Common Core standards as a baseline guide may be the best way to go.

Classroom economy going through so much evolution

So I tried this classroom economy thing in my 5th grade class in the last semester I was at Iduma. It wasn’t perfect, but I learned a lot. I decided to use the resources from myclassroomeconomy.org, all of which were derived from the classroom economy Rafe Esquith established in his class. I love Rafe and have read all his books.  Check out his TED-ED talk here.

The way it was laid out on myclassroomeconomy.org, it took up SO much class time. I had bankers,and anytime someone wanted to withdraw money they would have to write up a withdraw slip and go to the banker and then get the money taken out. Payday was a nightmare because I coupled it with bonus money day. Students would have a paycheck and some bonus money, and they’d have to go to their banker and deposit both all after logging it in their ledger sheets. Sometimes the banker’s ledger sheets differed from the clients, and they had to figure out what went wrong. It didn’t help that in some of my larger classes I only had only 3 bankers to serve all the students. Some days it took 45 minutes for ‘pay day’ to happen.

I eventually found an educational online banking system where I could create accounts for all the students, and it was just like a real online bank account.  I also added a banker to each class. Bankers had access to the online bank accounts of their clients ,and I was able to do direct deposit paychecks and automatic rent withdrawals. It was a huge time-saver and everything went much more smoothly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find this solution until February.  I felt I had wasted so much time during the first semester. I do wish we did have the actual money still because even though it’s pretend money, you ‘feel’ spending more when you’re handing bills over (part of what Dave Ramsey talks about, whose principles I also incorporated when we talked about money management).

Inquiry-based learning is still hard

Last summer I read a book that introduced me to the idea of an inquiry-based math classroom.  My reflection on the book actually became one of my most read blogs.  I learned a lot this past year on how to develop the right culture for inquiry and discourse to happen. By the end of the year, I struggled most with coming up with high-quality tasks / questions that would lead to a great discussion. I always wondered when to cut conversations off, when to go ahead and help out, when to provide MY way of doing things, etc.  I reflected on those struggles here and here.

The idea of a pure inquiry-based classroom seems unfeasible for me right now. The idea behind this is that it is ALL based on inquiry, and you create an environment where your primary role is to allow students to discover the concepts, let the class go down the rabbit trail, explore various wrong answers, and avoid telling the students the answers by letting them logically happen upon those answers themselves.  In theory it’s great.  In practice, the challenge is learning how to manage time, knowing when to avoid the rabbit trails, knowing when there may be a need for a lecture (which has become almost a curse word in education circles today), and knowing when it’s ok to say YES! THAT’S RIGHT!

I completely feel that inquiry-based learning is the most effective and most engaging way to teach.  Students begin to conceptually understand mathematics instead of memorizing algorithms they don’t understand. It is definitely an art.  Perhaps I have a misconception of what a pure inquiry-based classroom would look like. The more I learn about it through conferences, chatting online, reflecting, reading books, scouring websites, and conversations with peers, the more I feel I have so much to learn.

Didn’t get into Google Teacher AcademyScreen Shot 2015-07-18 at 11.43.07 AM

I thought I’d get in. I had a great video. They take 50 people and there’s usually hundreds, if not thousands of entries.  The Academy was in Austin this year which would’ve been pretty convenient. I know I’m not any less of a teacher, but I thought it’d be fun to go. In the end, I don’t think I would’ve learned anything that isn’t already being shared online, but you really go for the connections and relationships you develop with like-minded educators.


So there you have it.  This reflection gives me a great place to move forward this year with things that I want continue, change, or get rid of altogether.  Thanks so much for reading 🙂

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2 thoughts on “A Belated End-of-Year Reflection : Lowlights

  1. Thom – wonderfully honest and insightful blogpost – thanks for sharing. I am so impressed with your hard work, amazingly thoughtful and endlessly effortful ways in which you are working to improve your practice. You are a great example of what teaching can and should be.

    Here is an old blogpost of mine that hopefully will make you feel a bit better about this year and please remember it is a practice, we are all on this journey together (even for me going into my 26th year), always looking for ways to imrpove. http://www.carmelschettino.com/wp/2010/09/19/pbl-facilitation-from-a-yogis-perspective/

    Thanks for lending me Patrick for the past few days – use him and his wisdom as much as you can and I hope to see you next time!

    Carmel

    1. Carmel,

      Thanks for the encouraging words. It’s an honor to have you as a reader and I look forward to a continued correspondence. As much as I struggled with various aspects of refining my craft this year, I definitely had some things to celebrate as well. I wrote about the highlights of the year in the previous blog post.

      I look forward to chatting with Patrick. He’s been texting me screenshots of some of the stuff he’s been learning 🙂 Happy conferencing!

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