Monday, May 23, 2016

Constraints and Opportunities

Every school is unique, and every classroom is different, so I wanted to take this post just to lay out some of the "constraints" and "opportunities" of my specific situation for you to keep in mind as we begin this journey together. (See how positive I'm being? I'm assuming you're along for the journey. So unlike me.)

My high school has about 2150 students, with about 90% of those white and generally middle class (although it's important to remember that not all of our students are well-off financially, and our school is slowly, but surely, becoming more diverse). Our schedule is a bit different than many high schools, as we run a variable schedule. It's loosely based on a college schedule, with classes that can meet anywhere from 2 days a week to 5 days a week. We have 6 periods in a day and each period is about 59 minutes long on a regular day. Like most schools, we have a variety of days that are not "regular" in terms of the schedule, including 10 PLC days (2 hour late start), 3-5 assembly days (shortened classes), 12 advisory days (shortened classes), and a variety of testing days (vastly shortened classes or split differently across days). In addition, I will miss at least five days of Algebra myself because I serve on the Board of Trustees for our retirement plan.

Algebra meets four days a week (MTWF for my class) and I expect to have approximately 63 days with them first semester and about 68 second semester. Of course, as mentioned above, not all of those will be full 59-minute class periods, and I'll miss 2-3 each semester due to my PERA commitments. This is somewhat problematic because we are still supposed to cover the same amount of "Algebra" as other schools who typically meet their classes 5 days a week (and, in some schools, for as much as 85 to 90 minutes each day). Time is one of my biggest constraints. While this is true for any teacher, I think it's even more true for my situation.

This also presents an opportunity, however, as freshmen can have up to four "unscheduled" hours each week (out of the 30 possible hours they could be scheduled). Both the median and mode for most freshmen is two unscheduled hours and, because I'm in the classroom only part time, there's a good chance that most of them have at least one unscheduled hour a week that I do. That means they can come in for help, or to re-assess, without having to stay after school or coming in during their lunch (although both of those are options). Even if they don't have an unscheduled hour in common with me, at least one (and usually more than one) math teacher will be available during their unscheduled hours and will help them if they ask (every math teacher but me is located in a math department office, so students can just walk in and ask for help).

My class will likely be 30-35 students. All students at my school have a laptop, either one they bring themselves (a little over 70%) or a chromebook that we provide them, and we have a pretty robust wireless network that supports that (and almost every student has high-speed Internet access at home). My classroom has a mounted LCD projector and a smart board. Most of my students will be freshmen (14 years old here in the U.S.), although it's typical to have 3-5 sophomores who are either taking Algebra again because they weren't successful as freshmen or are perhaps coming from a Learning Support Services Fundamentals of Algebra class. We have a fairly large number of freshmen who are in either Honors Geometry or "regular" Geometry because they took Algebra in 8th grade (and a few in Algebra II and even Trig); my (freshmen) students were in a "regular" 8th grade math class.

Two of the four middle schools in my district are our primary feeders, but about 30% of our students are open-enrolled, which means our students typically come from between 25-30 different middle schools (the two others in our district, from several adjacent districts, and from private schools). In many ways that's nice, but it does make it tough because you can't assume they've all had the same curriculum. The students from our two feeders are aligned with our curriculum, so theoretically are on track in terms of preparation for a common core Algebra class; the other students vary widely. This is another constraint.

Our curriculum is aligned with the Colorado State Standards, which means it is essentially aligned with the Common Core Math Standards. We have an online "textbook" to use as a resource (at least that's how I'll be using it). I have a lot of latitude in terms of how I teach in my classroom, but the expectation is that I'll "cover" essentially the same material as the other Algebra teachers (more on this in my next post). We have a final exam (85 minutes) each semester and, at times in the past, that has been a common (or mostly common) final exam for all Algebra classes. I don't know if that (the common part) will be the case next year or not. My ninth graders will take the PARCC test in the spring, any tenth graders I have will take the PSAT, and if I have any 11th graders they will take the SAT. My students will also take the MAP test once in the fall and once in the spring (two more days of instruction lost). I see this as both a constraint (standardized) and an opportunity (lots of freedom within my classroom to teach how I want).

Students at my school generally want to do well at school and have parents who value education. Having said that, they're still 14-year-olds who may not always think Algebra is the greatest thing ever.

So, that gives you enough background to play along if you'd like to in subsequent posts. I hope you do.

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