Thursday, May 26, 2016

Organization, Structure and a Crisis of Confidence

One of the things I struggle with (as most teachers do) is the balance between covering the material I'm supposed to cover and taking the time to make sure students understand the material we are covering at the moment. I have no magic answers for this dilemma, but I try to at least ameliorate it by having a year-long plan and being very organized.

For me, I have to be organized. I'm not good at "winging it", and I need the structure (control?) that comes with having everything very well thought out ahead of time. There are (hopefully) obvious upsides to this, but there are some downsides, too. My personality outside of the classroom tends toward efficiency and getting things done, and I'm constantly fighting that tendency inside the classroom. Not that I don't want to be efficient and get things done inside the classroom as well, but I fear that too often that leads to me "telling" the students what to do instead of them figuring it out. The same with my need for structure and organization. While I think that overall that's very helpful to a good classroom experience, I have to be constantly aware that learning is messy and that I can't let my need for structure and organization override the needs of the actual students in the classroom.

When I'm honest with myself (and I try to be most of the time), this is probably my greatest failing as a teacher. The combination of wanting to be "efficient" and "cover" what I feel to be the most important topics in Algebra 1, along with the need for organization, "routine", and not "winging it", constantly puts me at risk of bulldozing through my lesson no matter what is happening on the student side. I'm also not particularly good at "thinking on my feet", at least in the sense of asking the right question at the right time and subtly guiding students. In my quest to "Be Less Helpful", this is a major sticking point.

This point was reinforced to me a day or two ago when I looked through my Algebra 1 lesson plans from the 2013-14 school year (first semester, second semester). (Quick side note for full context: second semester in 2013-14 had some complicating factors). My first response was, "Hey, these were pretty good." Still lots of room for improvement, and I'm willing to push the envelope a bit more now which will change some things but, overall, I liked a lot of the lessons/activities I used back then. And then I remembered how successful they were (or perhaps more accurately, weren't). Don't get me wrong, I think I did okay, and I don't think the students in my Algebra 1 class learned less than the students in the other Algebra 1 classes in my building, but I also don't think they learned anything close to what I thought they should have.

As I was discussing this with my wife, I eventually articulated what I thought the problem was. "I think the problem is me." I don't say that in a "self-deprecating, please compliment me" fashion, but with honest concern. This is not a new feeling for me, but one I had put aside the last few years as I was out of the classroom completely for a year and then teaching only computer science this year (which was sufficiently new enough for me that I don't have calibrated expectations for myself yet). I know that I want to teach like Dan Meyer, Fawn Nguyen, Robert Kaplinsky, Kate Nowak, Jo Boaler, <fill in your favorite math blogger here>, and I will greedily borrow and modify every good idea they talk about, but my problem isn't necessarily coming up with the ideas anymore, it's the implementation. Many (maybe most) of my lessons are great in the planning stage, but only adequate (or worse) when I implement them. Again, I think this is partly because of my desire for efficiency that leads me to short-circuit student thinking, but also my inclination to be a bit more "laid-back" (for lack of a better term) and let students get whatever they are going to get without pushing it.

This is a real dilemma for me, because I desperately want them to get the insights and understanding that I think these lessons should help them get, yet I apparently lack the ability (conviction?) to push hard enough to make that happen. I write that knowing full well how that's going to come across (not well) but, in the interest of being honest with both myself and anyone reading, I think it's important. I've said this before in various blog comments or Twitter replies, but I think often the problem is not that many math teachers don't see the wisdom in a lot of the ideas voiced by folks like those mentioned above, it's just that we aren't good enough to carry them out. (And, yes, it's very possible I"m just projecting here, but it's my blog so I'll project if I want to.)

Okay, so for whatever it's worth, that's a very long run-up to the ostensible purpose of this post, to describe my initial thoughts around the structure and organization of my Algebra 1 class. Let me briefly lay out what a typical day looks like so that, the above angst notwithstanding, you can give me suggestions for improvement if you'd like.

I like to start class with openers. (Many folks call these warm-ups. This may just be semantics – but I don’t really like the connotation of that. That somehow we’re “warming up” for the real work that’s to come, and that this isn’t that important. I like “opener” better because it feels like it begins the learning for the day, not just prepares you to begin. I’m probably over-thinking that.). Because my Algebra class will be 3rd period this year, class will start with announcements read over the PA system. This is both good and bad. It's bad because while we try to keep announcements short (2-3 minutes), you never know how long they are going to be, so you never know exactly how long class is going to be. It's good, however, because it (theoretically) allows the students to be ready to go (laptops on, logged in, opened to whatever link I've given them for the opener) the instant announcements are over. My current thinking is to use a combination of Kahoots and Desmos Activity Builders.

There's nothing magical about Kahoot (there are others you could choose), it's just an easy way to provide a few multiple-choice type openers in a format that's accessible to students and that they like. I used it with my computer science classes this year and it seemed to accomplish what I wanted with the opener, as well as be a little bit "fun" for students. Some enjoy the mock-competition, and I usually try to throw in at least one humorous or offbeat one, so it starts class off well.

Some days I anticipate wanting an opener that is perhaps a bit more in-depth than Kahoot lends itself to, so my plan at the moment is to build some of my openers as activities within Desmos. I haven't yet created an Activity in Desmos (that will happen as soon as I actually start the specific plans, hopefully within the next week) but, from what I've seen browsing through Activities that others have created, I see a lot of potential in this. This kind of opener would take a bit longer than a Kahoot opener and might blur the line a bit between what an "opener" is and just regular instruction, but we'll see.

After the opener (or conceivably before if it's a longer, Activity Builder one), I'm anticipating "going over" the previous night's homework. As I mentioned briefly, my plan is to usually just assign one homework problem each night, but that the emphasis will be on students not just completing the problem, but explaining it. My idea right now is to have them do a (very short, hopefully 1-3 minutes, max) screencast explaining their thinking as they worked through the problem. Some students will have access to a tablet where they could actually do that in real-time (screencast as they work the problem), but I anticipate most of them will work out the problem on paper, take a picture of it, upload it to Google Drive (docs, or drawings if they want to annotate a bit), then use something like Screencastify to record a quick screencast. (The screencast will be in their Google Drive, in a folder that is automatically shared with me, and I'll have them submit the sharing link to the screencast via a Google Form.)

My thinking is that this really gets them to think much more deeply about the problem, and their own thinking, than simply completing a bunch of problems. I will then pick one to share at the beginning of class the next day to address any questions or misconceptions. I'm still trying to decide between picking one screencast randomly versus previewing and trying to pick one that I find particularly interesting for some reason. I'm leaning toward random for two reasons. First, I'm not sure I'll have the time to preview them to pick the "most interesting" one to share. Second, it provides a little bit of "accountability" (as much as I dislike that word) for students if they know I'll just be randomly picking one. (I only plan to "grade" them - for "sincere completion" -  and enter into the grade book once a week, and I'll pick which of the four days at random.)

After the opener and going over the homework screencast, we will then proceed with the lesson/activity for the day. At the end of the lesson/activity, my hope is that they will actually have class time to start (and perhaps complete) the written portion of the homework problem, just leaving them to do the actual screencast outside of class when there's no background noise (so a relatively short amount of time required to do that).

My concern with this plan, in addition to the ones expressed in the beginning of this post, is if this is too "routine" and could get boring for students. While I think routine is often good for students (they already have 8 or 9 different teachers in a semester at my school, so that's 8-9 different sets of rules and procedures they have to learn), I know that sometimes routine can get too routine. My hope is that the lessons/activities themselves are varied enough, and engaging enough, that any sense of "too much routine" is mitigated.

The one variation to this plan would be on assessment days. As I mentioned previously, my goal is to give relatively frequent, short assessments (think 5-15 minutes, not full class period). What I've done in the past is on days that we are going to have assessments, the assessment takes the place of the opener (and perhaps the going over the homework screencast, depending on timing). My goal is to get good feedback on student progress using the least amount of class time to do it. (As mentioned previously, if students do poorly they will be able to re-assess outside of class as many times as they wish.)

So, that's my initial plan for the organization and structure of my class (with a large helping of angst on the side). I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions.

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