# Remind me of this great day

(This post was begun on Wednesday, December 18) Today was the kind of day you want to bottle, or put in a little box that you can open and peek into for a shot of confidence, adrenaline, efficacy. I exhausted myself meeting the edicts issued by our administration in anticipation of the biennial Quality Review; even though I consider myself to be a well-planned and relatively intentional teacher, the degree of documentation required to be at my fingertips at any point during the 48 hour school-wide assessment was ridiculous. All teachers had to carry folders with them which included two copies of their lesson plans, curriculum maps, student work with rubrics, student action plans (for failing students) and a description of our administrative duties. All students had to carry folders which contained examples of their best work; these could be handed in to the teacher of their choice for extra-credit at the end of the QR, per the principal. And ALL classes were to be engaged in ‘project-based groupwork’ – the whole school! (The number of times the thought ‘Are you kidding me?’ ran through my head during this process is countless.) But good girl that I am, I dotted all my i’s and crossed my t’s; my completed folder was on my person at all times. I have been on the hit list during this dog-and-pony-show twice before, so I fully expected [erroneously, as it turns out] to be observed.

The day began with one of the few classes in the school that actually has been engaged in project-based learning for the last month, my Geometry class. Sadly there was no chance of this class being visited, because the Reviewer did not arrive at the school until 8:45 a.m., three minutes before 2nd period ends. I’ve written about the struggles I’ve had with this class and this project in other blog posts, and had invited a colleague and mentor to observe me that day, looking for constructive feedback. I had this uneasy sense that the students were floundering and that the iPad presentations on which they had been working for 2 weeks were amorphous and directionless. The students had a deadline on this date to share drafts of their projects; I purchased a VGA adapter so we could connect their Pads to the Smartboard. As we began the Share, I informed the class that they were groundbreakers at Midwood High School (clearly, since I needed to purchase the technology which allowed them to project their iPad screens). I thought I detected a hint of surprised pride on their sleepy faces (it was after all, 8 a.m.).

To my delight and surprise, the students (a) had cohesive ideas of where their presentations were going, and (b) were articulate about sharing them. I didn’t have to cajole anyone to present, and I didn’t need to remind anyone to respect their fellow students while they were presenting. We discovered a few kinks together in the use of the adapter, and I also learned how well some of my students had done in adapting their ideas to the available apps. My colleague had several suggestions – a specific checklist for completion rather than the open-ended log I had provided, and better monitoring of the location of the work given the attendance issues in that class. But she was positively impressed as well. I am very proud of the progress that this class has made.

In my Discrete Math classes, we began @approx_normal‘s terrific Intro to Statistics lesson on Kristen Gilbert. The murder mystery was an immediate attention-grabber. Some students wanted to declare the Angel of Death guilty before we had even begun our investigation (teenagers can be SO judgy!). But they also were clearly engaged in the activity, and in working through the data to build their case. Making sense of a simple chart of nine numbers (deaths that occurred during shifts Gilbert did and did not work) proved to be a huge challenge for many of them, which nicely reflected the opening Big Idea, “Data is Messy”. We ran out of time during the second day of the lesson, and the students asked me to return to it after vacation. Not bad for a group of disenchanted seniors, a third of whom are graduating in January!

Having thus far escaped the Reviewing Team, I knew that my Algebra 2 classes in the afternoon could also be on their itinerary. I had planned an exploration from the Mathematics Assessment Project on using quadratic equations to solve word problems which involved a tricky application – using a quadratic function to determine how far a bus wheel would cut into a bicycle lane when making a right turn. The equation itself was simple, but visualizing the problem, I knew, would be a challenge for many of the students. (It took me a few minutes to grab a hold of it, which did not bode well for those in the class who gave up easily.) I had assigned a first pass at the problem for the previous night’s homework, which many of the students declined to complete, so class began with a mini-lecture [I chose not to resist the impulse this time] on perseverance, challenging oneself, and the value in finding solutions that are not readily apparent. The students moved into assigned groups, were given big whiteboards, and I circulated, refusing to answer questions (My responses to almost all of them were limited to “what shape do you see in the sketch?” [a right triangle] and “have you asked the very smart people with whom you are sitting?”). Lo and behold, there was enough collective initiative in the room that magic began to happen.

As I walked past one group, I noticed the crumpled homework sheet, and asked Sam, its owner, what happened. He told me he needed to go to the depths of despair with the given situation before the solution began to take shape in his mind. The group whiteboards are so effective, because everyone can get in on the work, even if only to draw a picture of the problem. I heard lots of great math chat – students talking about tangents to circles, the Pythagorean theorem, and the two roots always created by the quadratic formula. There were discussions about whether or not an answer was reasonable and even required a ‘check.’ In the second part of the lesson, students were given work completed by other ‘students'; each example had an error ranging from a sign switch to a clear lack of understanding. Amid the rich discussion I heard coming from every group, there was also speculation as to the identities of the students whose work they were trashing. (“They must be from the OTHER class.” “Donna should definitely NOT pursue a career in mathematics.”) Two days of great math.

One of my Algebra 2 students, Carrie, participated in the student meeting with the Quality Reviewer. She ran into the classroom, late and breathless, and described the intense conversation to the class. She was mystified regarding the purpose of the interview, a disparate group of students brought together to be asked loaded questions by a former superintendent. Carrie pointed out that she mentioned the post-PSAT score report class we had, in which I coached the students on the following issues: (a) how they can use their disappointing PSAT scores as a learning and action tool, (b) why the PSATs do and do not matter, and (c) that they can still have good, fulfilling lives regardless of the outcome of any standardized test. In my view, this should a required conversation in at least one high school class, but sadly, my classroom is apparently one of the few in which it takes place. Hopefully, Carrie raising the issue will have some ramifications.

The day finished gloriously with the Math Club meeting – the largest yet: 36 mathletes attending! Many students brought festive snacks, and I piloted the Pirate Game I recently downloaded from tes.co.uk. It is a great way to spend a pre-holiday class – a combination of strategy, the coordinate plane, and competition. It can become quite boisterous, so use it, for sure, but with care.

So here’s the thing – clearly a wonderful day, clearly my Herculean planning efforts paid off. I am proud of the fact that each of the classroom activities were lessons I would have used at some point, regardless of the Quality Review (not the case for many of my colleagues). Would I have attempted ambitious group activities in 5 classes over two days? Hardly – the effort was exhausting, or was the exhaustion a result of the external pressure? My goal is to be able to teach at this level on a regular basis without feeling like I am using every bit of my energy reserves, and then some (note that I became ill as soon as holiday break began two days later). How do I get to that place where this type of teaching is the norm and not the exception? The engagement, level of discussion, and concomitant learning all speak to the value of what I accomplished in my classes. I want this to always be the watermark of my classroom – and another New Year’s resolution is born.

So, could the energy expended getting ready for this be part of the reason your vacation started with an illness? In any case, congrats on a fantastic day of learning for you and for your students.

Hey – a question about the Stats Murder Mystery Activity. I was thinking that this might be a fun activity when we get back from our long winter break for my AP class. Have I missed my logical opening for this activity with this group, or would it be a reasonable welcome back type of activity?

Absolutely; I can share it with you tomorrow. Email me.

Although exhausting for you, it sounds like you had the type of lessons and student engagement that we all strive for. It is unfortunate that to have that “perfect” lesson in each class has to require so much energy and planning. It can be invigorating but the thought of repeating the process can be overwhelming. How do we find the time and energy to plan at that level each day? Finding and creating resources in itself is time-consuming. As I try to regain my energy over the break, I hope to find ways to make the teaching/creating process especially for the project and problem-based lessons less exhausting. I look forward to any hints or strategies that you can share.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. What I have tried to do this year is to mix in a balance in each unit of discovery, direct instruction, and problem-solving; in my Regents-based classes in particular, I need to be mindful of the departmental pacing and curriculum. And I also try to balance what is going on in each class at any given moment – so yes, these were three lessons I would have done anyway, but probably not at the same time. Breaking down the goal of changing the classroom culture into these type of ‘bit-sized pieces’ makes it less overwhelming, and over time, I will hopefully have a library of resources to draw from. Of course, there are always new and wonderful ideas being generated by teachers everywhere, so the process will always be on-going – one of the things I like about being a teacher, even if it means I’m always in work mode!