Posts Tagged ‘Engagement’

        So there’s this other crazy teacher (MA) at my school and together we took a leap into the unknown this week.  With little planning time, uncertain supplies, and a crazy schedule we did something unthinkable.  We offered 25 students the chance to free up their Fall second period by taking a week long, intensive version of the class.  We were surprised by the overwhelming response: 18 students showed up Monday morning, two weeks before regular school starts.  I’ll say it again: 18 students were willing to give up a week of the last part of their summer. Whew! We were amazed.

       What is this class they were so willing to jump into? We called it Summer Pathways 101 to distinguish it from regular school year Pathways 101.  The content of the course is all about process. We have two standards: Students will be collaborative and quality workers and Students will be self-directed and life-long learners.  How hard could that be to teach, right?  No math standards, no writing standards; seems like that should be a breeze! 

     Um, no.  

     Think about a conference you may have attended that lasted three or four days all day long. Think about how intense that was and how you were both wiped out and energized at the end (if it was a good conference).  Now multiply that by 17 students who are also both energized and wiped out.  By the third day of five. 

     We started the first day by jumping right into a group challenge.  We split them into four groups, gave them each 2 sheets of 4×8 cardboard, 50 yards of colored duct tape, a utility knife, a meter stick, and markers.  With these materials they had to build an object that would float long enough for one team member to navigate a straight course.  We loaded kids and materials into a bus and traveled to a local beach where they designed and built cardboard boats.

     Did I mention that about half of the kids were interested in the Arts Pathway and about half of them were interested in the Marine Studies Pathway?  And that these two groups were pretty distinct within our school?  And that about half were freshman?  The real challenge for them was how to work with people they would not normally be grouped with.  It was great fun to see them get frustrated and then work through it.

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     We only had three goals and it was so hard to achieve them.  We wanted students to complete a group project, an individual project, and a draft personalized learning plan.  We were asking them to learn how to work in groups to solve problems, to work individually to plan and execute a project with limited resources and time constraints, and to understand this new-fangled personalized learning plan.

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I confess.  I am addicted to twitter.  And a few blogs.

This morning I was reading Dan Meyer’s blog about developing questions that will engage students with problems.  I would like to be able to ask better questions; as a new teacher I am only beginning to develop that skill.  Although it isn’t a skill that was addressed in any of my methodology classes, I have come to believe it is a critical skill to have.  

Dan’s post doesn’t provide any context for posing questions.  He doesn’t say whether the questions are asked in a ‘traditional’ class or an inquiry based class.  Certainly students must solve problems in both types of classes and teachers must ask questions about those problems in both types of classes.  What he focuses on is how question are developedThis is an important consideration for someone who wants to get better at asking questions and I appreciate the way Dan is focusing our attention on this matter.

But then I got sidetracked in the comments.  One of the commenters wrote, “I have taught in an environment of “The (standardized test) is our business, and our students’ scores are our product”and it was horrid. When I went off-script to do real-life math labs, like measuring, sectioning, and spec-ing out a new playground, the class was engaged and happy. When I was forced to go back on script by administration, they became restless and disruptive.”

At first I was, like, yeah, that is a horrible way to focus teaching, it’s good you went off script.  But then the comment started to settle.  Wait.  You were essentially forced to teach in a way that was abhorrent to you.  And your students responded with restlessness and disruption.  

Somehow that resonated with an experience I had last year where I was not happy in a classroom.  My students felt that and fed it back to me and soon we were in a feedback loop that created a downward spiral.  It was not a great semester.  So now I wonder if the commenter on Dan’s blog had spectacularly different results in student engagement because of his level of engagement.  

I have often heard how the passion of a teacher for their subject can infect students in a positive way; but the flip side is also important to remember.  

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Eleven days. 11. Only two more weekends.  Then it begins. Second semester.

Three teachers. 16 students. 4 content areas (three levels of math). Two and a half hours, five days a week.

When I put it in black and white, my stomach starts to knot up. How, why did I ever think I needed to be part of this?

On January 27, our second semester begins. On that day, Marine Studies Pathway (spring 2014) begins. The first semester (the trial class of one period, one content area, and two teachers), it wasn’t great. Now we have pretty much the same kids for second semester MSP.

In two and a half hours a day, five days a week, three of us have to teach them Marine Ecology, Marine Industry Standards (think Captain’s license), grade level writing (half their english credit), and Math. English at four different grade levels. Three different courses in Math: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Trig, or maybe Stats.  Half the class with IEP’s (oh, sure, there’s an ed tech to help). And the syllabus is still. not. written. [do you hear me screaming in terror?]

All eyes are on us as we attempt this new program dreamed up by a crazy principal who thinks he can keep all his kids in school by making school more relevant to their lives.  No one thinks it can be done; except maybe the principal.  And the facilitator. Thank god for the facilitator and her organization skills.

Hours have been spent on the big picture. What do we want them to learn? What are the standards? Who are the community partners? How can we work with them to provide authentic projects to frame our students’ learning? How will we structure the course? How will we structure the class? How will we three teachers work together from our different content areas? These are questions we have struggled with.  These are questions we are still struggling with.

One science teacher, one marine trades teacher, and one math teacher (and an ed tech). I think all three of us must be slightly insane.

So in eleven days, this will happen. Ready or not, here they come.

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For our first mission in exploring the MTBoS, @samjshah has asked us to respond to one of two prompts.  I am excited to be a part of this great adventure and to see what other people have posted.

I am a pretty new teacher; this is only my third year.  My first year, I had a small group of high school students in a pre-algebra class.  As you can imagine, they were not excited to be taking a remedial math course.  But they sure were having fun baiting the new teacher.  I don’t remember how many times I cried after that period; I was so frustrated.

I did notice there was a common thread that was underneath their total disengagement.  They didn’t think math had any relevance to their lives and interests.  One day, one kid said for the umpteenth time, “This is stupid; I’ll never use this.”  And I blew up.


On the spur of the moment, I assigned the whole class a project, The Passion Project.  Their assignment was to choose something they loved and then show their classmates and me where the math could be found in that thing.  The moans were impressive.  I had a strong feeling of “There, take that!”

Then a funny thing happened.  As I started explaining the project, I started to calm down.  It began to seem like a good project, even if it did have its birth in anger.  Making it up as I went, I outlined the parameters.  It must be something you love, you had to find a way to present it to the class [Yes, everyone, even people who don’t like to get in front of the room.  There’s ways around that.], it would only count as much as a quiz, and there would be no class time.  No, none.  At first, I called the Second Quarter Project, but then it morphed into the Passion Project.

Some kids knew right away what they wanted to do, but weren’t sure how to find the math.  Some of the easy ones included basketball and dance.  However, some kids really struggled with just finding a topic.  So we had a discussion.

What do you like to do when you’re not at school?  Nuthin’.  Well, describe what you do when you get home.  Nuthin’. Ok, so you get home, you walk in the door, and then what?  Watch TV, maybe.  Uh huh, do you watch TV all weekend, too? No, I go muddin’, sometimes.  Ah, on a 4 wheeler or in a truck?  Neither, dirt bike.

So, finally, a topic, something the student is interested in.  Whew!  I only had a couple that were like that, thank goodness.

Then it was just a matter of making sure they knew what to do.  A couple of students were really distressed about finding math in their passion.  I had to make it clear that it didn’t have to complicated math.  It could be as simple as how many miles to the gallon or the dimensions of the basketball court.  But some of the students really jumped in and looked for math.

The best part was hearing and seeing what they all loved to do.  And they all started to see that there really is math everywhere.  Success!  It was such a fun project, that I did it again the next year.  I’m not sure about this year; my classes are a little different, but I hope to find a way to include it.

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Friday was closing day for progress report grades and I should be working on my gradebook.  And I have a thousand other things to do. Well, maybe not a thousand, but that is how it feels.  That is how this year has felt every day so far.  With a new problem based course co-taught with a teacher new to the school and the area, my learning curve is pretty high this year.   But I love this class.  Even though we both feel like we are only one step ahead of the kids, it is still fun.

For our opening unit/project, we had students build a cardboard boat.  The boat had to carry one member of a two member team and be strong enough to paddle out to a buoy about 10 feet from shore and then back again.  We asked the students to predict their waterline, but didn’t give them any instruction before the first build.  They were restricted to 3 sheets of 4×8 cardboard and one roll of duct tape. Launch day was awesome.

IMG_0422            IMG_0302           IMG_0262           IMG_0268         IMG_0432           We used two pickups to get the boats to the shore and one of them was damaged pretty badly in transport.  That team pulled it together, borrowed some extra tape and regrouped with what they had.  Even though the resulting boat wasn’t that successful; we feel that the students were successful.  They had a challenge and didn’t let it stop them from moving forward.  There was some great problem solving going on.

The next few days were spent on the science and math behind predicting waterlines.  We looked at net forces and did a lab on buoyancy using coke and diet coke.  And we worked through the calculations for their waterline.  Most of them had a hard time visualizing one cubic foot spread out over the bottom of the boat  Even though the calculations weren’t that complicated, changing from cubic feet to depth in their boat was a huge leap.  But they all kept at it, because the relevance was clear to them.

After the direct instruction, we had them build again to see if they could better predict their waterlines the second time through.  This time, they only got two sheets of cardboard and they had to use all of it, even the little scraps.  Oddly enough, most of them used the same boat design as their first run.  They just built a little more carefully. Again, launch day was great fun.

Next week they will be writing about their successes and failures; I can’t wait to see what they say.  But first, we start the week with a field day to collect data on invasive green crabs, followed by a day of testing (NWEA’s).  Coming soon, we will dig up seed clams that were planted last spring and analyze the survivors.  There’s no time to catch my breath; before we finish one project we’re on to the next, and planning the one after that.

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