In which I need to figure this out

Right now this is my new Facebook profile picture, but I felt like it was necessary to share it here too. Sushi hates me so much, it’s adorable.

The kids appear to be having massive difficulties with the assignment I gave them today. I’ve tried to move on a bit from endless review into new material (effectively the entire fourth quarter has been distance learning, so none of the stuff that is supposed to be covered in the last 25% of the year has been taught yet) and something that probably should have occurred to me earlier occurred to me today.

When I’m teaching in a regular classroom setting, if I notice my first couple of groups having trouble with a specific aspect of something or simply not understanding the way I’m teaching it, or a common mistake I wasn’t expecting, I can adjust throughout the day. If kids in 3rd and 4th hour are frequently making the same kind of error, you can bet that 6th and 7th hour are going to hear me specifically address that type of mistake before I turn the kids loose on whatever their assignment was for that day. And in e-learning, not only do I not really have a way to adjust from class to class, but the vast majority of the time I can’t even tell what mistakes they’re making. This could be fixed somewhat if I adjusted how I was instructing– I’ve been defaulting to mostly multiple-choice assignments in a Google form that can grade itself– but it’s difficult to imagine what I could be doing that would let me see their thinking as they’re making mistakes. I mean, sure, I could ask— I could give them a problem, then they answer it, and then maybe explain in a text box how they solved it, but I know my kids well enough to know that that’s not actually going to be as helpful as it sounds like it could be. I’ve only got about 30-40% of my kids even doing the work on a day-to-day basis, it’s tough enough to get them to watch the instructional videos that are showing them how to do the stuff in the first place, and I have no way of telling whether a kid who got a terrible score on an assignment got a terrible score because he doesn’t understand what he’s doing or because he simply logged on and answered “C” for everything– which I suspect at least a couple of my kids are doing.

I need to figure out a way to get this material to teach itself, effectively– because while there’s less than a month of school left, and maybe only 15 days of actual instruction, there is no way that we don’t lose a substantial chunk of next year to this as well, and when that happens I want to be prepared.


If you’re wondering what I mean by “teach itself,” read this excellent article about how– this is not a joke– the first level of Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers teaches you how to play it. That game is a masterclass of tutorial design; I just need to figure out a way to apply that style of learning to math.

It’ll be easy, I’m sure.


6:52 PM, Wednesday (God, is it Wednesday? Is that right?) April 22nd: 837,947 confirmed cases and 46,560 Americans dead. That is a pretty staggering increase in the 31 hours since I last posted.

THREE day WEEK end (clap, clap, clapclapclap)

Pretty sure I’ve used that as a title for a blog post in the past, but whatever.

It was a really long fucking week, and not an especially good one, either professionally or mentally. My principal (who I really like, for the record) sent out a couple of emails at the end of the day regarding some walkthroughs that are going to be conducted next week and some expectations for how instruction should be going, and I read them and reflected on how I had to keep a seventh grader after class earlier today to make sure that he understood that if you have six pencils and you want seven you need one more.

That is not a joke, and the kid wasn’t fucking with me. At one point I literally put six Post-Its on the table in front of him and counted them and asked him how many more he needed to get seven. He said one instantly.

“Okay, what if they were pencils? If you have six pencils and you want seven, how many more do you need?”

(Pause)

“Forty-two?”

This has not been a week where I’ve been able to feel confident about my skills as an educator, let me put it that way. I have three days to get my head back on straight; I’m not sure that’s going to be enough time, and after several months of thinking yeah, it would be okay if I ended up doing this same job again next year, I’m very much in the mode of thinking that a night job at 7-11 might be a better use of my skills right now.

I’m not talking to anyone under twenty who I wasn’t personally responsible for the birth of for at least 48 hours. Hopefully that will improve things.

Mama cooked a breakfast with no hog

I’ve talked about this before– my seventh hour class is absolutely my problem children this year, and rearranging about half of them at the semester break somehow made no real differences in the overall attitude and vibe of the class. Yesterday I introduced solving systems of equations with substitution, which frankly is one of the more difficult bits of mathematics they’re going to have to deal with this year, at least in terms of the number of steps involved. And they did a decent job! I’d been warning them in advance that it was going to be tricky and I needed everyone focused while I was going over it, and I more or less got what I needed from them.

Today my co-teacher and I split the group up, if only to keep the noise level down a bit, and I ended up sitting at a table with five of my boys for the majority of the class.

And the five of them spent probably about half an hour working through the assignment with me, with varying levels of teacherly assistance, and after maybe fifteen minutes I found myself wishing I was recording them. They were genuinely working together– not one of the five was waiting for the others to get the answer– discussing their ideas on how to solve problems productively and without arguing, explaining their thinking, and generally doing every single God damn thing I want my students to do when working through math that they find challenging.

Three of the five failed math at least one of the two quarters last semester, too, which made the whole thing even more amazing.

It was a damn good day today.

In which I am successful and I don’t like it

Objectively speaking, today was a good day. Unfortunately, I apparently have no idea how to react to good news, so my brain is melting and I’m looking around for ways to mistrust what I should be treating as evidence that I have some idea how to do my job.

My first two classes of the day are seventh graders, and they are working on volume this week. We started with cubes and rectangular solids, moved on to triangular solids, and then started working on cylinders today. Now, in some ways, all of these are fairly simple– there is a reason that “follow the formula” is literally one of my classroom rules, and I allow calculator use any time that the calculation is not the point, and in this case I don’t want an inability to multiply fluently interfering with understanding what three pieces of information you need to calculate the volume of a prism.

Cubes and rectangles and triangles went fine, but in sixteen years I’ve never had a class of math kids that didn’t struggle with cylinders. Once pi comes into the mix, and especially once not only pi is in the mix but radius squared becomes a thing, they start having trouble. They get over it, but kids always need to be monitored carefully while they’re doing cylinder volume for the first time. They screw it up. I’m used to it. It’s okay.

Nope. Both classes sailed through the assignment I gave them, and from watching the class I could tell that damn near all of them understood what they were doing. Just like they’ve sailed through basically every assignment I’ve given them this week. They just aren’t having trouble with this, in a way that I haven’t seen with my previous math classes. And how did I react, to evidence that my students have learned what I have tried to teach them, a fact that in a sane world would make a math teacher happy?

Tomorrow’s assignment is going to include a mix of shapes, because I’m paranoid that what I actually have is an age cohort that has learned to push buttons in the right order but can’t actually figure out which formula they should use if I don’t hand it directly to them. I’m still going to make sure they have access to the formulas they need; I don’t need them to have anything memorized yet– but it’s not going to be a situation where they can use the same formula every time. And we will see if they crater or if they finish this assignment with the same ease that they’ve completed everything else I’ve thrown at them this week.

“But Luther,” you may be thinking, “you used an image related to graphing equations up there! That doesn’t have anything to do with volume! Why would you choose such a misleading graphic?”

Because my 8th graders pulled the exact same shit with working on slope and graphing linear equations this week. Now, I’ve talked about teaching slope on here before— be sure to read the comments, which feature the single most entertaining fight I ever got into in my comments section in the entire history of the blog, including the utterly priceless “you’re lucky you’re Canadian” final comment– and it is something that middle school kids tend to struggle with. The whole thing is weird, really; they’re just getting used to one letter being in their math, and now there are two, and somehow there’s not one right answer but a whole bunch of right answers, and you’re telling me that this equation and this line are the same thing, somehow? Okay, boomer. Sure.

Thing is, my kids have got this this year. In a way that previous groups never have. And part of the reason is definitely that because of the way that the scope and sequence was set up this year I was able to take my time and go piece by piece with it in a way that I haven’t in previous years, but it’s still stunning how well they seem to have absorbed this particular material.

So, again, I don’t trust it a bit, and I expect to go into work tomorrow and discover that they now think you use your feet to add numbers. We shall see. One way or another, Winter Break is six teaching days away, and that means they will forget everything I’ve ever told them in six teaching days plus one minute. But for now? It’s nice to feel like I know what I’m doing.

In which I have probably made a terrible mistake

Just applied for a teaching position for this fall, a math job. I don’t really want to go back to the classroom right now, but given what’s coming toward me next year I don’t think I have a choice– or, at least, the choice is between “teach in a location and position of my choosing” or “get thrown into a classroom on a temporary basis” like what happened last year. And I’m choosing to get ahead of it rather than sitting around and hoping.

So … cross your fingers for me, I guess?