Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I was excited to find out I can finally get back into my classroom after the custodial staff have waved their magic wands and made the room all clean and new again. The wax on the hall floor is dry so it is OFFICIAL.

This week I have been spending a little while there each day. I always have the best of intentions of really tackling the putting back together process and getting done in a day or two and just being done. It never works that way though.

First comes the moving of furniture, rearranging, trying to find that perfect setup to start the school year. I would love to move it regularly but the laptops I have dictate that once my tables are set, they pretty much have to stay where they are to maintain power sources and room for all the cords. So getting it perfect is crucial. Last year, my classes were small with no more than 20 students per hour. This year, I can count on 28+ so my configuration has changed. But that is a time consuming project. I must move the tables, and then, let then sit for a while to decide if it is the right fit. I look, I ponder, I sit, I walk, I stand, I ponder, I sit, I stand, I scoot between chairs, I ponder, I try to imagine every possible scenario and problem. Then, one day, I know it. The tables and chairs are where they belong.

Then comes the dragging out of stuff, all that stuff I crammed into drawers and cupboards last June as I packed up my classroom. Inevitably, I find the most interesting items. Today's big find was a set of snapshots taken 6-7 years ago when I still taught 8th grade. That year I had an elective class. I think it was public speaking? For part of the class, my students went down to the elementary and read to little kids, I believe kindergarteners. I found the pictures of them all!! How cute... how adorable... Those 8th graders are long gone, graduated, grown up and off to college or the armed forces. But the little kids!! Those were my 7th graders from last year. **tears** They looked so sweet and innocent sitting there staring up at those 8th grade faces reading them their favorite books. Perched on chairs, sitting on the floor in the hall leaned against lockers, their little faces the same as when I had them in 7th grade, only younger, and sweeter, and much more innocent.

What will I find tomorrow when I am digging?? I can't wait to see...

Monday, July 21, 2008

When I recently commented on another blog(TJ on a Journey), someone commented back accusing my classroom, at least the curriculum, of being coercive. This first riled me a bit. But after thinking about what it means to be coercive, I was intrigued by the thought.

Googling coercive, I found this definition:Coercion is the practice of compelling a person to behave in an involuntary way (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force.

Given that definition, my classroom IS indeed coercive. I compell, or attempt to compell, my students to act in certain ways by forms of pressure. I do not use threats, (OK, maybe on occasion I threaten to call home, or to keep a student after class, or make them wash desks if they write on them.... ) and I never use force, but there is a certain degree of intimidation involved in a classroom setting.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

When we become adults, life itself is coercive by nature. Everything we do, we do as a result of coersion in one form or another. I obey the speed limit because I am coerced with the threat of a speeding ticket and my car insurance going up. I go to work each day and do what my boss coerces me to do because if I don't, I won't keep my job, I will lose my paycheck and therefore lose all the things that paycheck buys, like food, shelter, clothing and entertainment. I eat healthier choices and exercise more because my doctor's stern lecture coerces me to think carefully about the alternatives.

The role of school is inherently to prepare students for adulthood by giving them the skills they need to be successful in life. Some of those skills are academic, such as math, science, and written language. Others are more ambiguous, like learning to get along with others by follow societal rules like being on time, prepared and cooperative.

My curriculum is also coercive. While I often complain about the guidelines set forth by the State of Michigan as limiting what I can and must teach students, I also know that without those grade level content expectations, students would be left to the whims of individual teachers as to what they were taught in classrooms. Even now, it is apparent which elementary class students were in based on their math skills. If there were no guidelines to follow, I can only imagine the discrepancy among skill sets of my students.

I understand the school of thought that thinks students should be free to explore and learn what they are interested in. However, I think that is unreasonable given our current education system. Employers, as well as institutes of higher learning, has expectations that a student who graduates from high school will have certain base of common knowlege, regardless of where that student attended school. Some may argue this is out of date with today's easy constant access to information, and the rapid change of technology and its impact on society in general. I say let's simply change that common base of knowledge to incorporate these new skill sets, but keep a general assumption that all students at certain points in their education will be comparable in what they have in their repertoire.

It seems only fair to me to keep my classroom coercive. I want my students to leave my classroom with the most possible gained from our time together. I want them to learn, to grow, and to leave wanting to learn and grow even more. If that takes a little arm twisting on my part on occasion, then so be it!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Summers are always busy it seems, but this summer I took on the additional task of tutoring a young lady who will be going into 7th grade next fall. I do not usually tutor for a lot of reasons: I don't have time, I feel uncomfortable charging parents for my time, and I always feel like the time is not worthwhile. However, since this young lady will be coming into my grade, and needs help in math, I thought maybe it would be different.

M. works hard, very hard, every single time we are together - twice a week for 45 minutes each. I see her trying. I know she wants to do the work. I know she wants to please me. But for some reason, M. has a true learning disability in math.

With a background in math as well as learning disabilities, I am more than qualified to help her overcome this struggle, on paper, but in reality, I am struggling alongside her. To be sure, we are making strides in the right direction. However, it is a 3 step forward, 2 step back process.

The thing I would like most to help M. gain this summer is number sense. Even at 12 years old, she doesn't intuitively know that given 7, you need 3 more to make 10. She must count on her fingers to add up from 8 to 12. She can count by 2's, but not by 3's or even 4's. We have drilled and worked and played games and tried various strategies to help, but some days, the numbers are there, and others, they are not.

Today, we stopped trying to work on fractions because the finding a common denominator was just too tedious. I had her write columns of mulitples of numbers on the board. 2's were great. Then on to 4's. M. could not grasp that she could simply count 2 more, and 2 more, to get the next in the sequence. Often, her next choice to write was an odd number. We tried 9's, which we have worked on since Day 1. She knows the finger trick, and she knows that the first number, the digit in the 10's place, must be 1 less than whatever we are multipying 9 by. She knows that the digits in the answer must add to 9. She knows those tricks. She can tell them to me, faithfully. But when asked to write: 9, 18, 27, 36, ..... she is lost. There is no connection there.

I feel like a fraud, a total incompetent. I can't help her the way she needs to be helped. I can keep coaching her, giving her some self confidence. I can teach her more tricks. Help her draw pictures to attack word problems. Encourage her to use the calculator to solve problems. Help her strategize as to how to eliminate choices in multiple choice questions. But, I can't FIX her.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A recent conversation on Twitter with Robert Talbot about technology and what it means to be a truly competent user of technology, sparked my thinking about this topic. It all goes back to Marc Prensky's Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants article from 2001. According to Prensky, today's students are born into a digitally rich world and therefore will always be ahead of those born prior to the explosion of information and availability of tech toys and tools.

Is this truly the case though? Is simply using technology for socialization online making today's youth tech competent? Or instead, does this perpetuate the myth of the disconnect between digital natives and immigrants? Is it possible to be of the OLDER generation and be technologically competent? Is it possible to be a young person today and be technologically incompetent?

Part of the problem with this discussion is the definition of technology. Does being able to text to one's friends, acquire new ring tones, play Wii, seamlessly find wireless signals, and play online games make a 13 year technologically competent?

Does some of the problem stem from the want of using technology? If a student in class needs to practice integer operations at a online review site, many of them balk - "I don't get it!" "How do I make it work?" " It says my popup blocker is on." They are unable to figure out this simple process assigned to them. However, give them time to play online games of their choice, and suddenly, not only can they play them, they can get around the filter installed at school to the games that are blocked, they can message friends using IM programs that are blocked, all while they are listening to YouTube videos, that are also blocked. So then, why can't they "play" a review quiz such as the ones at which are a million times simpler than the other things they are able to achieve.

Prensky says, "Today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors."

He goes on to quote Dr. Bruce D. Perry, "thinking patterns have changed. "

Interesting to think about. Do students truly think differently today? I remember sitting reading and studying with The Eagles blaring from my 45's on my record player, with my mother complaining I couldn't possibly be learning anything with all that noise going. But, I was.

So back to the intial question: What does it mean to be technologically competent in today's world? To me, a simple answer would be: able to manipulate technology to meet your needs, in any situation. It means figuring out how to use that new iPhone, hooking up your new Wii, and chatting with friends on MSN or Facebook, sure.

Beyond that, it means using technology to find answers, manipulate data, and find creative ways to share with others.

Technology is the way to work with people far from your own geographic location, whether to learn in your own career, or about things which interest you outside the world of work.

Technology is the answer to all the questions you have, whether it is where is the best place to go to college if I want a degree in chemical engineering or how do I decide what is the best treatment for my latest diagnosis.

Technology expands your horizons beyond what previous generations were able to even imagine. However, technology also limits our ability to communicate face to face when we become so locked into a virtual world we do not talk to those in the same room. It also opens up dangers and possibilities for exploitation beyond the confines we once felt the safety net of.

Only by teaching students to use technology competently on all these arenas are we preparing them for the real world.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Our high school MME scores came out recently. 27% of the students were proficient in math. If that number alone is not enough to make a person cringe, I looked back at their 8th grade scores. Since the 8th grade test is given in the fall, it reflects their learning in 7th grade, and is the late test score until MME in the spring of their 11th grade year. When this group was in 8th grade, 60% were proficient in math. Not a great percentage, but over twice as much as when they reached 11th grade. Given the fact that some of your lower students have dropped out of school, gone to the alternative school, or simply moved by their 11th grade year, coupled with the fact this test is more important to students than when they are in middle school, logic would say if anything, the proficiency level should rise, not fall.

What is happening? Why are we doing so poorly in the high school math area? And, even more importantly, what do we do about it?