Sunday, January 30, 2011

Real Life Choices

Non Sequitur Comic Strip
by Ed Wiley

This cartoon by Ed Wiley really struck a note with me.
I will be starting my new teaching job tomorrow, and I will post this on the wall to remind my students that they (not just I) have work to do so they are prepared to make their "Real Life Choices."

I will be teaching 2 small sections of Biology, 1 of Integrated Science, with about 4 students working independently in Chemistry, 1 with about 10 students who are falling behind in Algebra I, a math remediation class for seniors who haven't passed the math of the California HS Exit Exam ... and working with a new student who was completing French II in her old school (since I used to teach German, and used to know French!)

I expect my days will be varied and interesting, and hope I can motivate the students to make the right choices!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

High School Science and Math Teacher

I seem to have a new title now. I am no longer "just" a math teacher. On Monday I will be teaching Biology, Integrated Math, with some few students trying to do Chemistry, Algebra I and CAHSEE prep for students who haven't passed the state graduation requirement in math.

My new school is a tiny charter school, so my classes have fewer than 20 kids per class, and some closer to 10. It is also in an unusual setting, the former kitchen of a defunct Italian restaurant up in the high desert in Hesperia (which people from Los Angeles got by on their way to Las Vegas.) The school has been around for more than 10 years, although the high school is relatively new.

That means that the room isn't really set up well for fancy chemical experiments, so we will be using things like lemon juice, vinegar and baking soda. I think most of the books are gifts from other schools who have gone on to a new textbook. I will have to pick and choose between lessons and materials.

We are also in a rush, because unfortunate circumstances mean that the time up to now has not been used as efficiently as I would have hoped. I will try to introduce the students to as much of the curriculum as possible, but I would rather go into depth than "cover" everything superficially. I hope they will learn those things well.

Many of our students have learning disabilities and have not done well in the large impersonal classes of public school. I know that many of them are actually quite smart, and maybe have been lazy because they have been bored. I just finished reading a book called "Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom," which has inspired me with some great strategies. I will be trying several, and report back here how they go.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Greening chemistry in the classroom

As if learning all this math wasn't enough, I've applied for a job where I would be teaching chemistry part-time, which seems like an ideal way to start out teaching! Since I am very interested in sustainability, and most everything "green" and I remembered reading about "green chemistry" when I was studying for the qualifying exam, I checked out my links again.

The EPA has a whole section on Green Chemistry, from which their are links to the American Chemical Society's website section of Green Chemistry, with the slogan "Chemistry for Life." There are lot lot of resources on Green Chemistry for various age groups, including high school. In fact they have been publishing Chemistry textbooks called Chemistry and the Community for high school and Chemistry in Context for college (which I had bought earlier, so I'm reading it now along with the math.) There is also an inexpensive magazine for high school students called ChemMatters, with extensive teacher's guides.

Learn something new every day. That's a great motto!

What we learn to do we learn by doing

The title was attributed to Aristotle in today's Daily Ray of Hope from the Sierra Club, which included the photo shown here.I'm not quite sure what the duck is learning, but it's nice to have an illustration.

It's strange that so many math teachers think "doing" means doing drills, rather than doing something to make the math they are learning make sense, as in "doing math."

I've been having a lovely time reading lots of books published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, particulary their series, Focus on Reasoning and Sense-making, the Navigation series, to help incorporate the new Core Standards in lessons, maybe using textbooks that don't really get the concept of reasoning, and the new series, Developing Essential Understanding.

Reading these has led me on to other discoveries of my own, since they often use math that I haven't used very often, like polar coordinates, matrices or graph theory. 

I'm enjoying my little break here learning about learning. But I hope I soon have students with whom I can practice what I've learned (learn teaching by teaching!)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why I don't give up

Several well-meaning friends have asked me why I don't just give up. Why don't I find a job tutoring and stick with that? Or volunteer, or do something completely different?

First of all, I started all this because I wanted a meaningful way to be active, and I felt that I could help fill up a tiny gap in the need for math and science teachers. I love math, and thought that I could extend my love to inspire students to enjoy it as well.

Then there is the resources aspect to not giving up. I've invested a lot of money, time, effort, interest and even passion - in my graduate school education, as well as numerous other courses, seminars and conventions. I've bought - and read - almost every book the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics offers on Reasoning and Sense-making and other topics I deemed useful for the subjects I've been teaching.

I read great blogs about teaching, not least Coach G's Teaching Tips on the Education Week Teacher website. There I just found another blog posting that inspired me: How Teachers Can Build Emotional Resilience by Elena Aguilar. She lists a number of ways that teachers become emotionally resilient:
  1. Have personal values that guide their decision-making. They often feel they were "called" to this profession and a commitment to social justice keeps them in the classroom.
  2. Place a high value on professional development and actively seek it out.
  3. Mentor others.
  4. Take charge and solve problems.
  5. Stay focused on children and their learning.
  6. Do whatever it takes to help children be successful.
  7. Have friends and colleagues who support their work emotionally and intellectually.
  8. Are not wedded to one best way of teaching and are interested in exploring new ideas.
  9. Know when to get involved and when to let go.
I think I do all of these things (except maybe realizing when to let go!) I am particularly flexible about #8, ready and willing to try many different methods (except "drill and kill," which one adviser insisted was the only way to get kids to learn.) Furthermore, Ms. Aguilar says, principals can help their teachers become emotionally resilient.
Trust has been called "the connective tissue that holds improving schools together." Organizational consultant Margaret Wheatley has written beautifully on the impact that having meaningful conversations and listening to each other can have in changing environments. Principals can ensure that these conversations happen. We can’t support each other intellectually (or create Professional Learning Communities) if we don’t trust each other.
At my previous position, we math teachers had no preparation period, and no common time where we could get together to help each other (different lunch breaks.) And the principal was quick to fire rather than support teachers. (The teacher before me managed to find another job and quit before the principal dismissed her - he had already announced her position as open. He also let most of last year's math teachers go since school scores on the state math tests were ridiculously low - more likely because the school expected most learning to happen through projects, where math was ancillary to other projects, than because of the teachers' competence.)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

That didn't last long

My Christmas present from that school was an At Will Employment dismissal. "You don't fit in here," they said.
I think what really happened was that the son of a benefactor was one of the students who did poorly on the tests I gave in the 3 weeks I had before semester grades went in.
My faculty adviser (the principal) only came in to observe one day - the day he had filled my classroom with an absent teacher's students, where the combination of 2 classes was like adding lemon juice to baking soda.
My grad school adviser thought things were going as well as could be expected under the very difficult circumstances, and that I fit in well at the school.
My colleagues were amazed, and the department head wrote me a recommendation.

So, what did I learn?
  • Be very careful about working in charter schools.
  • Insist on getting the book immediately, as well as information from the previous teacher about where they've gotten to, and what her plans were (I left that information for the next teacher at this school.)
  • Since I evidently teach differently than many other teachers - I believe that students have to create their own learning (sense-making,) rather than my presenting them with steps to solve a particular problem - I have to prepare the students for working together to figure things out, and not expect me to give them the answer immediately. 
  • I'll have to work out some initial lesson plans that teach collaborative learning
  • Talk with colleagues about methods, ideas, resources (I discovered the last week that there were carts with computers. Unfortunately, we did not have a staff room, my lunch was different from the other math teachers, and we math teachers had no prep period.)
  • As a new teacher, don't take the job if there is no preparation time, mentoring, etc. You're only setting yourself up for failure.
And what am I doing now - besides looking for another job?

I am reading lots of books about how to teach geometry. I discovered that the students were very reluctant to work with proofs, and I didn't know well enough how to engage them in that. I've found fantastic online resources and books, particularly through the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. I hope I get to teach geometry now! All new teachers discover that just because they can solve problems, do proofs, pass the qualifying exam, doesn't mean that the students will be as engaged in the subject as much as they are.