The classroom is not its own world

Today I showed a video of a young woman talking about majoring in math.  Watch it here, it’s pretty good.  She explains she is just a regular person who studies math by choice and that regular people can do it and do do it all the time.

It is a message I try to get through to the students every day but perhaps hearing from someone closer to their age can be an inspiration.  Perhaps hearing the same message from a middle aged man and an early twenties woman can help illustrate that math is indeed everywhere.

A student asked if a specific term I was using in class would be the same term used on a standardized test.  I assured the student it was a universal term.  Perhaps a way for students to appreciate the subject and study harder is to insure they realize that the classroom is not a vacuum.  That what happens in the classroom is applicable to the real world, and that the classroom is actually part of the real world.

The Trouble with Time Travel

Did you ever see the movie 12 Monkeys?  It’s the story of a plague that wipes out most of humanity (I realize this is not a very uplifting start to the post).  Scientists from the future send back people to see if they can pinpoint the exact time and location of the start of the plague in order to find a cure.  The constant question is, “Is this it?  Is this where all the troubles begin?” 

I think I found that point in my Algebra 1 class.

Combining like terms, adding negative numbers, the distributive property; all skills that students grasp easily on their own suddenly become impossible when all thrown together into solving equations.  There’s a connection between mastering these topics separately and mastering them together that I must help them see.  Constantly I see students making the same mistakes over and over when solving equations.  Dropped signs, like terms not combined, unlike terms combined… 

In 12 Monkeys, the scientists from the future are able to send people back again and again, each time getting closer to source of all the troubles.  Fortunately, I am a time traveler too and am able to return to the same point year after year to try and fix the recurring problem.  Unfortunately, the students cannot return to a fixed point in time to try and get it right a second time; they have to move on into the future and Geometry and Algebra 2.  They move forward and perhaps suffer for my mistakes when all I really want to do is make each step easier for them.

All On The Same Page

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine was an education centered issue.  Here’s a quote from one of the articles.  “In the ‘after’ classroom Britt envisioned, some students might be working together on an assignment appropriate to their shared level of competence.  Others would be ranging ahead on their own, catching up, exploring a special interest.”  My first thought after reading this what that assessing that class would be difficult, essentially making each class of twenty-five students into three or so classes of seven or eight students. That’s a lot of different quizzes. Then I thought again and realized it wouldn’t be difficult, it would just be extra work for the teacher.  If it means a vibrant, communal learning atmosphere, I don’t mind extra work in the slightest.

Ok, maybe I mind a little bit, but still it might be worth it. 

Then I thought, what about the dreaded standardized tests?  It seems to be expected that all students to be on the same page when it comes to what they have learned in class. While thinking about this I remembered a tweet I read over the summer, “If students do well in math class, they’ll do well on a math test”. By teaching content instead of to the test, any standardized test will be easy for students who are ahead and actually a piece of cake for any student doing well in my class.

A test could / should be the least that the student knows, not the most.  

Teach past the test, teach through the test, ignore the test all together.  Know math because it’s worthwhile to know math, not because it’s necessary to pass a test.  Parts of this are so obvious yet can be forgotten very easily if the teacher (me) allows themselves to get stuck in a rut.  

First year, every year

I got to thinking as I was revising my lesson plans recently.  I do that a lot (revise lesson plans that is).  I wondered why I repeatedly have to make wholesale changes to these plans.  I’ve taught Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 many times in my short but growing teaching career, why aren’t these plans good enough?  Granted, I initially made them when I was starting out and they weren’t very good then, but still aside from the occasional tweaks and allowances for new technology the guts of the lesson should still be useful.

They weren’t.

But still, why did I feel the need to revise a second time, a third time, a fourth…each time representing a new school year.  For a while it was frustrating.  This time is different though, this time I look forward to the revisions, this time I approach them with the benefit of how students learned in the previous years.  This time I approach them and think to myself “wait ‘till they get a load of this”.

People often think “if I could do it over again, this is what I’d change”.  Fortunately, each year is a do over for a teacher, a chance to get those lessons perfect this time.  A chance to incorporate all the things I wish I did the first time if only I knew better.  A teachers greatest gift is the benefit of hindsight.