Tag Archives: classroom management

High School Students Tell All — Motivation in Math Class

As a strong student with a good deal of intrinsic motivation, I sometimes find it hard to understand my own students’ academic dispositions.  What makes them choose to put forth effort, or not?  What do students find motivating?  Since many studies suggest that time spent practicing is highly correlated with growth, as a teacher I want to know how to structure class to increase time on task.

Which brings me to the panel discussion we had with high school juniors and seniors about their experiences in math class.  None of the students who participated love math or see themselves as strong math students, which is much more typical of the students I teach in 6th grade.  Here are some highlights from our discussion:

What makes you participate during group work?

  • I don’t want to be seen as the weak link / slacker holding the team back.
  • If I don’t know my group members, I’m less likely to participate.
  • If I’m in a group where everyone is low [level], then we’ll all just space out.
  • When the teacher lets us choose our own groups we pick people we can work with.
  • When the teacher won’t answer our questions, we have to rely on each other.
  • Team tests (here’s a great NCTM article) get students to work together.
  • Team roles help give everyone a job that’s unrelated to skill level.

What advice do you have for middle school students / teachers?

  • When I understand something, it makes me want to keep going.  (The seeds of intrinsic motivation?)
  • Parent phone calls would make me act right, because I didn’t want my mom to take away my XBox.
  • Parents should keep their kids busy outside of school so they don’t just play video games or watch TV all day.
  • Make students feel comfortable sharing their ideas.  They need to believe it’s okay to be wrong.
  • Finally, a student said that in non-math classes they participate more because they’re sharing ideas, not answers.  Participating in math class isn’t interesting because either you know the answer (and you’re showing off) or you don’t know the answer (and you don’t want to look dumb).
    • So how can we structure math class so that the discussions are more about ideas, not answers?


At one point, a student was talking about logarithms, but couldn’t think of the name.  All he had was a vague sense that they were the “opposite of exponential functions.”  The video below gives students a bit of math history and motivation for learning about logarithms.  Maybe there’s even an interesting discussion in here somewhere 🙂

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Starting Strong!

The school year is off to a strong start, and for the first time since I entered the classroom two years ago, I feel like a real teacher.  I understand how to present a persona that promotes an organized, safe classroom.  No matter how much I may want to crack a joke or do something goofy, it behooves me to secure the authority necessary to make things run well.  It’s that tricky blend of “warm and strict” (from Teach Like a Champion) that I knew was ideal.  A perfect cocktail that my first-year self had no idea how to brew.I also understand the importance of routines and procedures and how to teach them.  Teach for America mentioned them, but I don’t feel like I really learned them.  There’s so much going on in a classroom that experienced teachers forget all they’re doing.  And to an untrained first year, these things are invisible.  It’s like discussing thick/thin contrast on the rounded letters of a font.  Most people have, at best, an unconscious recognition of these things.

But knowing how important the start of a class is and making it priority number one at the beginning of a year.  It’s the first thing you do with students every period.  If you set the tone well at the beginning, they fill in the blanks and end where they expect themselves to be.  People are predictors, constantly imagining how things should be.  As mentioned in Steve Pavlina’s recent post, the essence of frustration is when our predictions don’t match reality.  So teaching kids how things should begin is half the battle.

I’ve recognized a few things that work really well with my 6th graders:

  • Having them line up outside, tell them a preview of what they will do when they come in, and making sure it’s purposeful and strictly timed does wonders for those first 5 minutes.  In my class they have 4 things to do:
    1. Take out their HW and HW trackers (a weekly sheet that I stamp daily, with a rotating quote, and space for parent communication)
    2. Write down tonight’s HW in their planners (keep this short, because 6th graders are notoriously slow writers)
    3. Check their answers against the posted HW solutions OR Complete the Do Now OR set up a new entry in their ISN (Interactive Student Notebook)
    4. Review your work with your teammate, & see whether he or she is ready for class.
  • If it’s a minute into class and I’m still waiting for students to take out HW trackers, I know it’s because they’re unfocused.  We line back up outside, I reiterate that they weren’t meeting my expectations, and then I send them in with the assurance that they can do a better job.  Some days I’ll use a timer and report their start-up time, challenging them to improve tomorrow.  (Maybe I should be more consistent about this?)
  • Students know the HW tracker is a big deal.  They’re responsible for it for the whole week.  (I print it on bright yellow paper, to tilt the odds in their favor!)  If they lose the tracker, they lose credit for the HW.  (Our math department’s policy is that late HW is not accepted, because the point is that it’s daily spaced practice.)  The other piece is that I only grade HW on effort:
    • 2 – Attempted Everything
    • 1 – Partial Effort
    • 0 – Little to No Effort
  • I stamp every student’s tracker daily.  By personally coming by and checking, I create a personal obligation.  I want all of my students to do HW, I believe it’s valuable for them, and I’m disappointed when they didn’t do it.  Telling them I know they can do better tomorrow and regretfully having to stamp that 0 kills me inside.  But I’ve noticed that HW completion is higher than it’s ever been in my past two years.
  • Finally, I have these chimes for the classroom.  I hate countdowns; they feel so authoritarian.  I’m not really a “clap twice if you can hear me” kind of guy; I think those sorts of calls to order often release too much energy.  But the kids seem to like the soothing tone (I certainly do), and I can hit them quickly or slowly.  I taught the class that my expectation is that by the time the third chime sounds, everyone is silent.  I gave more space between strikes early on, to build success.  Now I can hit the first two quickly and pause an instant for the third chime, until the room is silent.  They always see themselves quieting just in time, and then I compliment them and move on quickly.
    • As a side note, my first year I borrowed something from the 7th grade teacher.  She would whisper “Good morning, class”  And they would whisper back, “Math is life.”  Then she would speak it loudly and they would echo in turn.  I tried to do that with my classroom motto, “Strength in Numbers,” but I didn’t pull it off as well with my 8th graders.

So that’s the start of my class.  Then we’re off into the day’s lesson.  And each day keeps getting better!

Next post, I’ll talk about the management strategies I’ve found successful during class.

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Any landing you can walk away from…

It’s been over a year since I’ve written about my foray into education, so I’m well overdue. Quick synopsis: overconfident first year teacher + weak classroom management + poor support = failure. Want the full details? Read on.
In the fall of 2010, I began my first year teaching 7th and 8th grade math at a charter school in the Bronx. I taught all three sections of 8th grade and one section of 7th grade 5 days / week, and I also was assigned the advanced 7th grade section that met 2 days / week. There wasn’t any curriculum in place; the 8th grade teachers from the previous two years had left binders of little more than problem sets pulled from past state tests. But Teach for America (TFA) had taught me strong backwards planning skills for designing curriculum, and I double majored in math in college. The freedom to design my class from scratch was thrilling. The literature about math education suggested students were frequently taught by people who themselves had limited understanding of the subject. In the search for better test scores teachers would give students tricks and formulas to memorize. I was eager to teach students to think critically and reason.
I still remember the night before the first day of school, too excited and nervous to sleep. The last time I had the problem was Christmas Eve half a lifetime ago. We spent the first week solving interesting problems and getting to know each other. I introduced our Big Goal–80% mastery on standards–and followed the TFA guidebook on an investment plan. The problem was that my students certainly didn’t care about the assortment of NY standards that would be tested on the state test. And my personal goals were to change lives, have meaningful discussions, and rekindle curiosity.
Classroom management was a challenge once the newness of school wore off. I conflated my early success with students’ timidity as they test boundaries and learn the lay of the land.  When push came to shove, I didn’t do enough to manage the disruptive students and hold the class to high standards.  My desire to keep everyone in class rather than send them to the Dean’s office–a technique other first year teachers routinely employed–left me looking soft.  In the end, all my strong rapport meant was that students saw me as more of a friend than an authority figure.  If I were still teaching in that school today, I feel confident I could manage the students and teach them twice as much.
I guess what frustrates me the most is that new teachers must be seen as an investment.  Rare is the first year teacher who outperforms veteran teachers his or her first year.   Instead, schools should see neophytes as a precious resource that must be refined to realize their full value.  They must receive support and mentoring that focuses on what that teacher needs most.  In return, new teachers bring enthusiasm and a fresh perspective.
From my point of view, I worked incredibly hard my first year, to the detriment of every other aspect of my life.  I designed two curricula from scratch, provided extra help during preps and after school, volunteered for optional retreats, and strove to build parent involvement.  I sought to be a role model for my students.  That my charter school and TFA would dismiss me–a career changer who left a higher paying job to teach–shows a lack of good faith.  I will become a master teacher without their support.  I will do what I set out to do in spite of their short-sighted decision.

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My first full week was amazing!

My 7th and 8th graders are a bit tougher sells than the elementary schoolers in the TFA weekly newsletter stories, but I already love them to death. I feel like I’m slowly building up great buy-in from these kids. The investment and management components seem so closely correlated to me, and I’m feel successful in a way I never did with my summer school students during Institute.
The students are also enjoying the lessons, and the reflective writing I’ve had them do has really impressed me. Teaching the same lesson multiple times in a row is another big difference from Institute. For me, it lets me see progress in an easily measurable way. (It’s so good that I would seriously suggest changing Institute to 2 lessons taught 2x a week rather than 4 taught 1x. It would also relieve some of the lesson plan load, which for me felt like it received a bit too much of my attention. The time spent lesson planning ate into sleep, which hurt my delivery for sure the next day.) I find that with repetition my lessons get tighter, the delivery gets better, the kids are more engaged and on-task. Fortunately–and fortuitously?–my classes rotate throughout the week so each one gets me at my best at some point.
Learning the names of 105 students is no small task, either! I’ve got the difficult students and the advanced students–sometimes one in the same–but those quiet, well-behaved middle ones blend together. “Aliyah? Wait, Alyssa?” I need to take more lunch duties so I can rehearse with the senior teachers.
Missing piece: classroom jobs. I need to put something together with job descriptions and applications. I think I have enough buy-in that the kids would want to interview. I’ll let you know how it turns out…

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Barclay and the Technicolor Poster

Today I went down to Barclay (Teacher) Supply Store in Brooklyn to pick up some odds and ends for the classroom. Tomorrow is the first day of school, and I still don’t have student trackers up on the wall. Wendy Kopp would lose her mind if she found out. How will I get the students invested in their academic success if they don’t have a public tracking system with glittery stickers?

(Side note: think what you will, even too-cool-for-middle-school students will go to unbelievable lengths for the sticker that they publicly dismiss as childish.)
So I ventured into Brooklyn and found myself descending into the bowels of Barclay, a basement warehouse of pens, pencils, tape, paper, folders, post-its, workbooks, and more. But the unbelievable assortment of posters they carried blew me away. From elementary to high school, science to social studies, secular to Jesus-themed, they had a poster for just about everyone.
Except, it seems, me. I quite liked many of the posters my peers had made during summer school with facts about rocks or how to write a good essay. These posters were handmade, drawn on giant sheets of chart paper, and colored with fat-tipped markers. They were clean, bright, and clearly summarized their key points.
The posters in the store, perhaps with the exception of the elementary school ones, did not. Written by someone who long ago forgot what it’s like to learn something, the abominations I saw looked as though a rainbow had thrown up on them. When did white space become a bad thing? It’s like Debussy says about music: “Music is the silence between the notes.” These posters were so busy that even if I wanted to gather information from them, I would be constantly distracted by pictures of rulers or happy faces or apples. A few really dated posters had pictures of a computer with a CRT monitor and 3.5″ floppy disks. For a brief second I was tempted to deck out my classroom with an 80s theme just to see what the kids would do, but then I came to my senses.
I searched and searched for posters I would feel good to hang in my classroom. I went through PEMDAS & how to solve word problems (ironically, too wordy). I looked at measurement conversions and the quadratic formula. Finally I found a set of 4 that describe big ideas in mathematics: the concept of 0, the Pythagorean Theorem, pi, and the Sieve of Eratosthenes. Perfect! They fulfill all my criteria for a good poster:
– Interesting content
– Presented well (layout and conceptually)
– Good use of color & white space
– Large enough to see from a distance
and, finally
– Good font choice
For anyone who has not questioned a business’s font selection or wonders what the difference is between serif and sans serif… well, I have one recommendation.
Watch Helvetica. It will forever change the way you look at printed text. Seriously.

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