“Runaway” on a snowy weekend?

Here is Massachusetts, we had a crazy blizzard that caused school to be cancelled for days.  No school last Friday as well as yesterday and today.  We just got the call that we will be going back tomorrow.  Of course I liked having the time off, but without power and heat, we were displaced for a few days – my husband and I were lucky to have a place to go, but it’s always nice to come home.

What to do on a snowy weekend with no power?  Read, of course.  Although I love to read, I never feel like I have the time.  But this weekend I did, and there is one book in particular that I am glad I had the time to read.

It was Runaway Girl by Carissa Phelps.  Carissa writes about her childhood and experiences having run away from home and the terrible things she went through while living on the street and in and out of group home, juvenile hall, etc.  Carissa tells her story with maturity and honesty, and her story is really heartbreaking.

What touched me the most was reading about all the people in her life who tried to help, who saw something in her.  As a math teacher myself, I was especially interested in the math teacher she met at a juvenile detention center.  While the other students were struggling with basic math, Mrs. W. saw that Carissa could do more.  She helped Carissa learn Algebra.  She showed confidence in her, she believed in her, and you could tell that mattered to Carissa, even as she was so troubled.  Carissa found solace, from a world that probably didn’t make a lot of sense, in math.  It made sense.  It’s funny, sometimes that’s what I like about math too.

Of course, it’s not a story about math at all.  It’s more of a story of succeeding in spite of the difficult things, the terrible things, that happen in life.  It reminds me, as a teacher, that we need to let kids know that we believe in them, that they can do anything they set their mind to.  That’s something we can all learn from.

I’ll let you in on a little secret…

I might be a little weird for a teacher, but I hate grades.

In fact, as much as I am enjoying writing this blog, I have not written in almost two weeks because the second term was ending, we had mid-year exams, and all those grades to do.

It’s not just the actual grading of papers I dislike, although that really is my least favorite part of my job.

I just hate grades.

I know, I know, how do you “measure student progress” without grades.  I get it.  I understand that grades may be a necessary evil.

But I still don’t like them.

Let me explain.

I feel like so many students care more about their grades than about actually learning.  They are not learning for the joy of it, they are learning so they can get decent grades.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great when kids are conscientious, but sometimes I feel like the concern over the grade gets in the way of what should be the excitement of learning new things.

Do good grades make a good student?  I guess so.

Do good grades mean you are smart?  Maybe, maybe not.  I guess it depends on how you define smart.

Does getting good grades mean you are a creative problem solver?  Maybe, but maybe not.

Aren’t we supposed to be fostering a life-long love of learning in our students?  I think so.  But sometimes I feel like grades get in the way of that.

Like I said, I get that we need some way to measure what students know, I just worry sometimes.  I worry about students who take their grades as a value judgement of themselves.

I have this great class of Calculus students, kids who have always been in AP and honors classes and have always gotten great grades.  We had a conversation about what would happen if they were to get a B in the class – oh my!  The consensus was that this would be tragic.  But, I argued, Calculus is difficult, and it could happen – and it would be ok.  Because even if some of those students actually got a B, they all were working hard and learning some really difficult concepts.  They were making connections to things they have learned in previous years in math and to things they have done in other classes.  Isn’t that more valuable?

I also worry about the kids that typically do not get great grades.  This has been the case for some of my Algebra 1 students.  The sad thing is, some of these kids, with really great potential, let the bad grades they got in the past define what kind of student they are today.  They don’t want to try because they have failed in the past, which sets them up for more failure, which becomes a very sad cycle.

I know we probably will never do away with grades.  I would never even suggest it, I get why we need them, even though I really don’t like them.  I just think it’s important to find ways to show kids that the experience, the struggle, and the joy of working and learning and mastering something difficult is as important as the grade on the report card.

“Guess what we figured out yesterday?”

I teach Calculus this year to this really great group of kids. It’s a very small class, only 9 students, and they are so eager to learn and work really hard.

They have their mid-year exams this week, so I know most of them spent a good part of the weekend preparing for it. When my students came in today, a group of three girls in the front had these big grins on their faces. One of them said, “Guess what we figured out this weekend?” She seemed very excited.

“What did you guys figure out?”

“Well, we were studying yesterday, and we figured out that if you take the integral of the circumference formula, you get the formula for area of a circle – and that makes sense because the integral gives you the area under the curve.”

“Are you serious?” I said it with all the amazement I could, and I have to say, I was thrilled.

Another of these girls wondered why we don’t teach these formulas this way. I explained that the idea of the integral is a big concept for a sixth or seventh grader, and that’s probably the reason. I also reminded them, especially the students I had last year, that sometimes they ask me about why we are doing something or what it connects to, and I find myself giving vague explanations and promising them that it does connect to something they will see. I ask them to trust me, and usually they do.

I also pointed out that, if I had told them this a long time ago, they never would have had that moment of making that connection on their own. I would never want to take that away from them. I remember these moments myself, as a student, when I would make these kinds of connections. It made me feel pretty brilliant, I must admit. The fact that these students made this connection to something they learned a long time ago was only beat out by the fact that they were so excited that they made this connection on their own. What more could a teacher ask for?

A Good Day for Innovation

I recently read a post on the site “Good” about a school in the U.K. where a teacher organized what he called an “Innovation Day.”  Students were given a full school day to work on any project of their choice – the only real requirement was that they needed to present their project at the end of the day.  Students worked on a variety of projects, “…they made everything from art related projects like album covers and Manga to more tech oriented projects like a remote control car and rockets.”

The full post from “Good” can be found here: http://www.good.is/posts/why-every-school-needs-an-innovation-day/

“Good” links to a post on the Guardian’s site by the teacher who ran the project which can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/jun/14/freedom-teaching-learning

Matthew Bebbington, the teacher who came up with the project, says he got the idea from something Google does – the give their employees free time to work on anything they want, and apparently, this is where the idea of gmail came from.  I didn’t know this, but 3M does this as well, and this is how the idea for the Post-it note was born.  Pretty amazing!

The students involved in this experiment were ages 11-15.  Bebbington reports that students worked steadily throughout the day, were fully engaged, and collaborated well with each other.  He credits this to the fact that students designed their own learning.  They had the freedom to try things, and even to fail, since their projects were not graded. Since they had to present this projects, students were motivated to create something really great.

Bebbington advocates that this be something schools do once a week.  However, he does acknowledge that, with the amount of curriculum a teacher needs to cover, this would be very difficult.

Although doing exactly this would be difficult, this does make me think about how I could work in something like this.  Could I allow students to design their own projects at the end of a unit?  What would they come up with if I gave them the freedom to find some authentic way for demonstrating the skills they learned?

Math class makeover

I watched a video today that made me think about how I teach problem solving to my students.  It was a TED talk with a math teacher named Dan Meyer.  In this video, Dan talks about the kind of students we want to create. We want students to be good problem solvers, and we want them to be able to solve not only the kind of problems they might see in a book, but also the kind of problems they might actually encounter in real life.

When I go into school tomorrow, I plan on teaching my Pre-Cal students about solving trig word problems, and I am thinking about how I might re-work the way I present these problems in a way this fits more with what Dan was saying in this video.

You should take a minute to watch it, it’s really very interesting.

Math Class Needs a Makeover