Highlighters for Dummies

Our big push this year is literacy across the curriculum. We've put together a literacy team, of course, with the hope that it will be teacher led. Our plan is to devote some of our SIP monthly meeting time to teaching a new strategy and giving teachers time to discuss and reflect. I don't know if this is as common in your school but in our school, we never sit back and talk about if things work or how to improve them. Basically, if it didn't work the first time, we give up and think of another idea. Also, when individual teachers go to conferences, we never give them the opportunity to share what they learned with the rest of the faculty. We are missing out. So I am really hoping that self-reflection is a big part of this.

I am not on the literacy team but my graduate practicum is based on re-designing professional development so it makes sense that I am working hand in hand with the literacy team. So the team developed a definition and I created a poster.

We previously had a short meeting where all teachers brainstormed ways to integrate literacy into their content areas. And thus, another poster.

We have also started doing peer observations which has been fun. I noticed that a lot of middle school teachers model highlighting in their classrooms which is something we don't do in the high school. So I started thinking, how could I use highlighting in my classroom? I think it would be a great literacy strategy that would be easy to integrate into every content area. We do a lot of examples and some definitions. I make everything so it is very possible for my students to highlight since I don't use textbooks. But how could we do it so that it is beneficial?

I brainstormed with my students and they said I could tell them the important things that will be on the test. So I turned that around and thought that it could be a good summary of the lesson. Students tell me what is important and then highlight. But that brought up the question of, how do you study for a math test? I don't really know because I never studied either. I review with students in class so I don't know how they would go about studying on their own. We are currently using index concept cards to summarize a concept. Students suggested a way to review would be for me to give them problems and using their cards, tell me which concept it goes with. Another teacher suggested that I give them a list of terms/examples at the beginning of the unit and we could highlight in different colors. Then as we go along, we could highlight with different colors in our notes so that students know what each term/example refers to. But to me, we could do that without highlighting. For example, I could just say 'Refer to Example 1". I don't want to highlight for the sake of highlighting, but I do think it could be a valuable skill for students to learn and carry with them.

How do you teach students to study for math? How do you summarize your lessons? How could highlighting be effectively used in a math classroom?


Class Reflection

My instructional coach is a lover of the jigsaw cooperative learning structure. I've used it a few times but I have not yet reached the stage of lover. I tried it for the first time in my class of 25 anddddddd.....it didn't go so well. I had them line up from smallest shoe size to largest without talking. Then I counted them into groups of four. I ended up with six different groups which totally threw me off. I only had four problems prepared. What I did was create a worksheet of eight problems, four different types. One was worked out as a reference example. Their task was to complete one problem and teach it to their group. I just totally messed up the logistics.

I don't want to explain all that, I want to focus on the reflection I had with my class after that. I asked them what they thought about the activity and they did a GREAT job of raising their hands and listening to each other speak. Their comments were that the activity took too much time due to all the moving back and forth between groups. They also said there were too many people trying to talk and explain at the same time. It ended up being loud, noisy, and crazy. Also some of them said they like to get right to work instead of wasting time moving around and explaining. They preferred working in pairs to groups. I told them we could compromise on working in pairs if we worked in some way where students are explaining to each other since that is the most beneficial part. They came up with the idea to have pairs pair up and explain to each other. I'm okay with that idea.

I later talked to my instructional coach and we figured out how I screwed everything up. So I will try jigsaw again at some point. But I really liked the fact that my last two blog posts have been positive, real-life example of problem-solving and collaboration. I hope that I am improving their ability to reflect and self-assess. I hope. I feel like we are working together as a team for the good of all. Aww, fuzzy butterflies and bear hugs. Now, how can I do a better job and do it in every class?

Something I need to reflect on I suppose.


Naming Basic Geometry Terms

My first unit in Geometry was about basic definitions: plane, line, segment, point, ray, coplanar, collinear, noncollinear, parallel, perpendicular, etc. From there we classified angles and did the Angle Addition Postulate, complete with algebra and variables on both sides. Next we discussed angle pair relationships: vertical, linear pair, adjacent, complementary, and supplementary. Again with the algebra, solving equations, and variables on both sides. So now we are reviewing and ready to test over Unit 1. I gave my students a review packet to work on with a partner. They are really struggling with the naming and labeling piece. They actually asked me if they could have a test of only solving for angle measurements with lots of algebra.

When we first went over basic terms, we wrote definitions, drew a picture, and wrote how to label. We did practice problems, homework, and bell ringers. They are still struggling. From what I can see, the confusing thing is when you can name the same thing in two different ways. For example, a line can be named with one lowercase letter or two capital letters. A plane can be named with one floating letter that isn't a point or with three points that lie on the plane.

Ooh, an idea just hit me! What if I compare it to names? The lowercase letter is like a nickname and the two capital letters are a first and last name representing the first and last point of the line. Is this something that makes sense and is likely to help?

We were scheduled to test on Monday but I could tell my students were not feeling good about that. I was truly frustrated with myself because I couldn't think of any other way to teach them what seems to be so simple in my head. I sat down and brainstormed with my 8th hour Geo lab students about what we could do.

They came up with the idea that we needed to do something hands-on where students could see, touch, feel, and actually move things around to get a better understanding. I sent three students to the computers to look for any helpful ideas. The rest of us scoured my room for supplies and the students then created packets of the following supplies for each student:

We will use a sheet of construction paper for a plane. The arrows are to form a line. I bought fuzzy balls to use as points and to create line segments or rays. We gave letters so that we could label.

Now my problem is, I don't know what to do with this. Should I give them a list of things to create? Should I post it on the SMART board so I can check each student's progress as we go? What kind of things do I need to tell them to create in order to practice naming and labeling?

My students on the computer found this 5 minute tutorial video that they thought did a good job of going step-by-step through each term. They also found this video of a geometry rap.

So my plan is to do a bell ringer with maybe a diagram and the answers scrambled so that they have to do matching, maybe? That might help them connect the right way to label. Then discuss the nickname idea I mentioned earlier. Next show the two videos. After that comes the putting things together...but what am I going to tell them to do? 
I need some suggestions please!


The Textbook Debacle

On my last post about being overworked and needing to use the textbook, Kate Nowak linked me to a PCMI presentation on using a scaffold to make textbooks more usable. I contacted the presenter, Marcelle Good and with her permission, wanted to share her perspective (emphasis mine).

Me: My students don't use textbooks at all because I basically create my own. I make daily worksheets using problems, scenarios, and diagrams from the book but I *try* to scaffold or ask questions in a way that starts with what they know how to do and leads into the new material.

Marcelle: My students don't use textbooks, either, but this year I was introduced to a really good textbook from which I based many of my lessons. It saved me a lot of time and I'm looking forward to doing more of it this year.

I had an aha moment in working with Leslie Hamburger, who is a consultant with WestEd and is their "Quality Teaching of English Learners" math expert. Their philosophy on scaffolding is the idea that a scaffold is something you use repeatedly, students internalize, and then they are able to do the work without the scaffold.

So, for example, the best scaffold in my classroom are my "Sentence Starters for Accountable Talk." At the beginning of the year, I'll have students in small groups with a list of sentence starters (I agree with...I also think.../ I respectfully disagree with..../I had a different idea.../I'm not sure what this means, but I think it might be about.../etc.) that they are required to use. At first, this is awkward and weird, but my students are learning English and I find that even native speakers tend to struggle with academic conversation. The next step is those Sentence Starters are on the table. By December, they're in poster form on the wall. When students say something in a really great way, I highlight it and often add what they say to the poster ("I'm not sure what this means, but..." came from a great student moment in trying to figure stuff out). By the end of the year, in classroom discussions (in my room and also in their other classes), students had internalized the language and were able to have an academic conversation. Students don't sound scripted anymore, and they'll take this manner of speaking with them to future classes. So, that's a scaffold - model, apprenticeship, independence.

Thinking about that as my basis for a scaffold, I moved to thinking about how to get students to read a text. As you pointed out, guiding questions are really important ways to get at a text, so this may be splitting hairs, but I started to think about chunking the text and finding a prompt that could work for everything. So, in the powerpoint you saw, I think I included, the "Summarize, draw a picture, or ask a question about the text" prompt. That's something that I used every time I took something from a textbook. What was nice about it, is that by May, students had internalized how to do that (I didn't start using the textbook until February, and I was still experimenting with how to use it, so I wasn't ever able to move away from the prompt). But the idea would be that that would be the prompt starting in the beginning of the year, then we'd move to boxes with no prompt, then I'd ideally be able to give them a text with a wide enough margin at the side that they could read a text and make notes about it.

None of this is super innovative, but there was something really powerful that happened for me when I separated the idea of a worksheet that I create from scratch with good guiding questions to move students forward (which students obviously need) from the idea of scaffolding a lesson.

The text/worksheet/activity is one thing, and the scaffolding is something else. It's the repeatable protocol or prompt or idea that students are familiar with that will help guide them through a challenging lesson. When I go back to thinking about Vygotsky, the purpose of scaffolding thinking was to move a student to a place where they would be a more independent problem solver, or an apprenticeship. I want to think about what students can internalize and use without me and make sure I'm building that into my lessons, with the hope that at some point, when they're in a new class or setting and they see a challenging mathematical text or hear a challenging idea, they'll have a whole bunch of tools to figure it out. The stuff that relies on my asking them really good questions to help them move forward is important, but thinking about how to move them to a place where they internalize a way that they can generate their own questions, or find some way to look at the math and start to activate prior knowledge on their own is where they become more independent.

So, in math, accessing prior knowledge is super important and is something you do in your lessons. Good math students and mathematicians somehow get really good at it, and find a way to do this on their own. They look at an unfamiliar problem or topic, and immediately start going through their mental database of math that they know and make connections that can help them understand the new topic. It's amazing. So, the question is, how do you get students to go from accessing prior knowledge because you prompt them, to looking at something and being able to access the appropriate prior knowledge on their own? And I think the idea is what is the next step? How can math teachers be explicit: I am asking you about this stuff because you already know it and it's going to help you! To, a more, "What is it that you know that will help you with this?" to students automatically doing that. And the scaffold is the repeatable, internalizable thing that gets them there, and the first step of that scaffold is just asking them the question that will make them think about it, but maybe with something that makes clear to them that what you're doing is trying to activate their prior knowledge so that the teaching part that you're doing and the reasoning behind it is clear to the students so they can get there on their own someday. So, a rudimentary example would be on every worksheet with a new topic, there's a heading that says, "Activate Prior Knowledge" and there's a box where you ask general questions to guide students to what they already know that can help them, and in the beginning, you answer those questions as a class or as a small group. Then you take away pieces of it, so at the end of the year, you just have a heading and some empty space that students start brainstorming in. They'll still get stuck, they'll still need your good questions, but it means you have to spend less time making worksheets (this was my main goal), and the students are taking over a little bit more of the cognitive load.

Again, this could be splitting hairs, but I really struggle with trying to make teaching sustainable, and to get back to the textbook idea, it was great to find a good book that asked those good guiding questions for me, so that I could spend my time thinking more about the habits of mind and the practices I wanted my students to have. I still write a lot of my own stuff, but my goal in the next few years is to have a textbook take care of the What so that I can just think about the How.


I loved hearing her perspective and I had never thought of creating a general, scaffold box. I always recreate the way the textbook presents the information because I think it sucks. So I don't think that I could use the scaffold box and still just used the textbook. But, Marcelle is using the CME Project textbook which is apparently amazing compared to anything I've ever seen.

What was really a highlight for me is that no matter how good I am at questioning, that is not helping them to be independent thinkers and problem solvers. They might be thinking better while they're with me but they aren't learning how to think on their own.

I still hate my textbooks. They are confusing. But is it a valuable skill that I'm causing my students to miss out on? I'm still not totally sure but I still know I won't be using the textbook. I guess next step would be to check out the CME Project and try to integrate more parts of the book along with the scaffold box.

Anyone else familiar with the CME Project?


Ode to Math

Dear Math,
You are so frustrating. How can there be a million different concepts bundled up inside of you? How can you be so complex to assess? How can you be so difficult to remediate? How are you so completely interwoven that one tiny piece can make or break you? Why do students hate you so much? Why are you so easily forgotten? Why are you easy to understand and simultaneously hard to explain? Why is there so much of you shoved into 4 years that just aren't your size? Why are the parts of you that are so important the same parts that are rarely used? Why do I know how to use you in ways that mean nothing to my every day life? Why are parts of you so interesting and seemingly useless? Why is it okay for people to hate you and be scared of you?

Why are you making my life so difficult?