Thursday, May 27, 2010

Help With Teaching Elementary Math Facts

As these final days are winding down, I find myself thinking more about what I want to change next year.

One thing that I need to do more of with the kids is practice basic skills. I take a couple weeks at the beginning of the school year to review/teach the basic skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, but it doesn't seem to have been enough with the clientele I have had this year.

The kids that I teach have fallen behind and fallen through the cracks of the normal system. Many of them are extremely bright, but simply didn't go to school or do their work. However, I have many other students that are significantly behind in basic skills. I did have this problem with my students in Mississippi, but oddly enough, not to the same extent. My impoverished students in Mississippi knew their multiplication tables better than my students at this alternative school.

So my idea has been that I will actually take time each day to review, practice, and drill basic math facts. However, I don't have any training in elementary math techniques. I was thinking of doing a timed test every day - the kind I remember doing in elementary school where you did all the problems you could in a certain amount of time. However, I want to make sure I'm doing this effectively.

I am definitely looking for suggestions on how to go about setting this up and how to reward and encourage students to do well. Should I do flash cards like I remember my teachers doing in elementary school or is there some new research that has other ideas about the best way to reinforce basic facts? Are timed tests a good way to go to practice or is there another new idea in the elementary world for that as well? Would a chart with stickers for students who pass off different facts be effective, i.e. a student perfectly does his 3's multiplication flash cards gets a sticker on the chart?

Any ideas are appreciated - again I am completely green when it comes to teaching elementary math concepts.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The End of the Year....Finally!

We have five and a half days of school left. I have made it through another year of school. There are many reasons that this is significant to me.

From a curriculum standpoint, I am in the middle of the experimental end of the year portfolio project with my Algebra classes. So far I think it's going really well. The portfolio works like this:
  • I gave the kids a list of all the topics we have covered this year and a list of alternate assessment activities that they could do - everything from writing a letter to a friend who was absent to writing a rap to performing a puppet show to making a news broadcast.
  • The task is for the students to match different topics with different activities. All the activities are worth different numbers of points. Some of them are 10 points and some are 20 points. The students have to pick a combination of activities that add up to 100 points.
  • If they want extra credit opportunities, I have a list of extra activities that they can do separately like write a math autobiography, or research a famous mathematician, or make a collage of pictures from magazines or newspapers or the internet that demonstrate math in the real world.
I never know how these types of projects will go, but right now it's going very well. I have received email submissions of PowerPoint presentations and websites that students have created already on certain topics. They have been quite good and not plagiarized. Overall I think the students are having fun because they get to pick the activities that interest them. I like it because it's low maintenance for me and an easy way to wrap up the year.

From a "wrap up the year" standpoint, our school will be graduating 20 students. 20 STUDENTS! We only have 55 students and every single senior that we accepted will be graduating. Some of them are graduating with a 28 credit diploma and some are graduating with the special 22 credit diploma, but they are all graduating!

We as a staff are very proud of them and the work they have done. On a personal note, I am very proud of the students, but I'm also extremely proud of the work that all of the staff has done to help these students. While the students are the ones that earned the grades, these kids were so far behind and had so much to do that it would have been impossible without the tireless efforts of this special staff. Everyone here comes in early and stays late almost every day. It's a very special crew of people at this school. I've been extremely grateful to be a part of it.

From a personal standpoint, I have made it through the year in one piece. I have not quit or been discouraged about my teaching or given up on the system. This is significant because I have been timid and gun shy since I left Mississippi. I thought I never wanted to teach again. I felt like a failure, but I wasn't.

I have just proved that not only am I a good teacher, but I make a difference with kids where it counts. The kids that I teach every day really do need me. They are the forgotten ones...the ones who fell through the cracks...the kids that no one else could handle. I have not reached every single one, but I have reached a significant number of them.

And 20 of my students are graduating from high school.

I simply want to say to all those in Mississippi who were angry with me for leaving or mad at me for "giving the program a bad name," what would you say now? Would you write me off like you did before? Could you finally admit that possibly the problem wasn't me leaving, it was the situation I was put in and the lack of support I received?

I am not a failure. This is my redemption. No matter what happened in the past, my kids are graduating, and I had a part in that success.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

More Differentiation and Independent Projects! In Math!

Yes, it's true. I am continuing with my recent trend of more differentiation and more independent math projects. It seems to be working very well, especially with the types of kids I work with.

The portfolio assignment went so well in Practical Math. The kids enjoyed the visitors, did their daily math assignments and so many of them went above and beyond what I expected for the portfolio assignments. I have such wonderful, creative students - even if all teachers say that, I still think mine are always the best!

In fact, it went so well, that I'm going to try a portfolio assessment for Algebra as well. I have not ironed out the details yet, but I have one week at the end of the school year that is open to whatever I choose, because we will finish the required curriculum early. Snow days will give you that extra time at the end of 4th term, I guess. I think that it will be a great way for the kids to showcase what they have learned, but also not be too stressful the last full week of school. Kids and teachers do have trouble focusing during that time and I think it will be a good activity for all of us.

The idea that I am playing with is giving the kids a list of all the topics we have studied this year and also giving them a list of possible activities they can do, e.g. write a rap, make a poster, design a news program, etc. They will need to match up a certain number of topics with a certain number of activities that will demonstrate what they know about the topics they pick. Suggestions on this idea? Again, it's still in the works in the back of my cluttered brain.

Practical Math is also going well. I have a good mix of group work and individual work each day. We are currently working in construction teams that have to put together bids each day to win my business. I pose as a customer each day with a special construction need, whether it is siding, carpet, windows, or whatever, and the teams have to figure out the cost of parts and labor as well as profit to charge me. If they do their math correctly, I pay them the full amount and they "deposit" their money into their bank account each day. After this unit, they will use all the money they made to invest in the stock market, buy real estate, and complete their final project which is to plan a vacation.

I've really liked this unit and the kids seem to like it as well. Overall, I think Practical Math has been a huge success. It has done what I hoped it would do. There are a few things I want to do to fine tune the class for next year, but I really enjoy teaching it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Differentiated to the Max

Practical Math so far has been a success. I have completely developed this class on my own and it's going very well.

In 3rd term we did a personal finance unit for six weeks. We learned how to balance a checkbook, fill out tax forms, computer credit card interest and all of that good real life stuff. I used an old business math text book to give me some direction, but developed activities and in class work on my own. I set up a routine - each day we had a certain number of topics to cover. I bought each student a mini steno notepad. For each topic, they had a personal reflection question they had to write about. Then we would spend a few minutes talking about definitions and formulas - like how to compute state income tax - and then they would work on some practice problems in some way that I devised. Sometimes we mixed things up with Scrambled Eggs practice, or I would divide up problems by the color of shoes that students were wearing that day. That way, a little variety was added to the day.

But now we are finished with the personal finance unit and I wanted to find a way to apply that knowledge in a real world context. So for the next three weeks, we have been working on what I'm calling the Job Explorations Unit and it's completely differentiated.

Each day, we look at three different real world jobs that the students could possibly hold. Each day I bring in one guest speaker that actually works in one of those three jobs. The guest speaker tells the kids a little about what they do in their line of work and how they use math each day.

After the speaker leaves, the students have to do activities relating to the three jobs for the day. They get to pick two job stations and complete the activities at those stations. After they finish their in class work, they are to work on their portfolio.

I'm doing a portfolio assessment for the first time ever. I've created a rubric and I've created different activities that I call Tier 1 or Tier 2 activities. Tier 1 activities are lower level thinking and Tier 2 are a little higher level thinking and take a little more time and effort to complete. For each day, the students have to pick three Tier 1 activities and one Tier 2 activity. When these activities are complete, they will be put in a three ring binder that will comprise the students' portfolio.

I have been very pleasantly surprised at how well the students have been working on both their in class assignments and their portfolio submissions. Some of the students are almost done with their portfolio and still have a week of class left to do them! Some of the students need a little more help, but I still strongly believe that when choice is part of an assessment, that students will work harder and do better because they care more about what they are doing.

I hope that I can find more ways to do units like this. The students seem to like it and after the initial work is done, all I have to do is facilitate and keep kids on task. It is lots of fun and leaves me with lots of energy because it's not teacher intensive - all the work is done by the kids! I just lend a hand where needed.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Positive Post

With so many negative posts this week, I thought I should put up a positive one to balance things out a bit.

Even though the week started out rough, it has become much better as the days went on. I did end up teaching the same lessons to both classes this week. I did this because Monday's attendance was so low in practical math that I didn't want to have to reteach all the definitions the absent kids would have missed. But then the kids were having so much fun with the first activity that I thought it was only fair to let them finish the other activities I had planned for Algebra, even though they were in Practical Math.

We did experiments all week this week. We started off on Monday with a bouncing tennis balls experiment. We continued on Tuesday with Barbie Bungee Jumping and finished on Wednesday with a time/distance experiment where we went to the gym and measured our walking speeds.

(Thanks to the Illuminations website of NCTM, I had these great lessons. Here are the links:

I love this site. It seems like all of my best lessons come from here.)

So Monday we bounced tennis balls and counted the bounces and graphed our data. Then we played a game on the SMART Board that was a huge hit. (Found here: ) I couldn't even believe how much the kids liked that game and it was so simple.

Barbie Bungee Tuesday was a huge success. When I first saw this lesson I was a little wary of it and wondered if it would even be possible to implement it in my classroom. But it worked and it not only worked, the kids had a lot of fun. Again, we graphed our data and analyzed it.

And on Wednesday, the walking experiment was great - not only for the math involved in the graphing but in the exercise we managed to get that day! The kids had a lot of fun comparing their speeds with other kids speeds too.

Even though it was a good week, I find myself quite exhausted at the end of it. These lessons are great fun and I love doing stuff like this, but it really does take a lot out of you.

I'm just grateful my classes are so small.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Update #2

One more update to the problems with having school on Monday.

I have a student who fell on her way to school on Monday morning - hit a patch of ice and then she hit the ground.

She fractured a bone in her hand. I wonder if the superintendent will reimburse her for that since he is the reason she was on her way to school in the first place?

Monday, February 22, 2010


Just to update.

The attendance today was not good at all. I teach 37 of our 55 students. 16 of them were tardy or didn't show up at all.

43% of my students were not at school today. That's not even a percentage for the whole school since I only teach 67% of the students anyway, but the rest of the attendance was not much different.

Reteaching will be done tomorrow and I had to push the lessons back for Practical Math to try to avoid reteaching for that class as well.

Also as a side note, the English teacher in the building had no students at all until 9:20. He said he had two students by 9:30, three by 9:40 and four total by the end of the block which is over at 10:20.

He's supposed to have nine students in that class.
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