Monday, November 25, 2013

Student Generated Test Review

I had a bit of extra time in my grade 9 class as my students had mostly finished the review they were working on before the end of the period.  As I thought about how I could fill the time, it occurred to me that my students had little experience in trying to figure out what was going to be on a test.

I decided that I would have them work in groups of 4 to come up with good questions for a test. In addition to a question they needed to work out a solution to their problem. I expected to get a lot of knowledge type questions (calculate, graph, etc.). I did get some of those questions but I also had some great thinking questions. I was very excited that some groups came up with 'how' or 'why' questions. Some of the questions were so good I wished that I hadn't made up the test yet. They would have made good test questions. We shared the questions with the class so that everyone could work on them. Perhaps next time I will have to give this type of work a little earlier in the unit and give students class time to work on solutions.

As a bonus, the activity forced students to work on their vocabulary. The questions had to be clear enough so that everyone understood.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Great Start (So Far)

We have just completed the second day of the semester and I'm having a blast.
I've changed my routine a little(see my previous post) and I have managed to make some changes that are hopefully for the better.

My students are sitting in groups and we've started to develop a collaborative environment that will hopefully continue to grow. Students are not only sharing their work with their groups but with the entire class.

We've looked at some low floor/high ceiling problems and we've spent much longer on those problems than I had anticipated. Longer because students were generally interested in the work they were doing and I felt bad pressing one. My students seem to enjoy the work we've been doing and they seem curious about the problems we've looked at.

I haven't covered any curriculum yet but I'm hoping the time we've spent on developing a good classroom environment will pay dividends in the long run. I know that it has only been two days but I'm hoping for more great classes.

Here are some highlights from today:

  •  Had five student stay at lunch to share how they solved a problem I gave towards the end of the period
  • Heard "I feel so smart"
  • Heard "I love finding patterns"
  • Heard "Can't we just take notes and memorize them?"

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hoping to Suck a Little Less

Creative Commons Licensed photo by Flickr user benjamin_scott_florin
After five months off I'm getting ready to start teaching again. Over the course of the past five months I've thought, read and learned a lot about teaching math. I've read a lot of blog posts by amazing math teacher. I took Jo Boaler's How to Teach Math course. The one thing that I kept noticing is that there are a ton of great teachers doing amazing things in their classrooms. Which led me to the questions: why am I not doing these great things? Why is my teaching sub-par? Although I didn't have any answers for these questions I've decided to step it up a little this year. I don't claim that I'm going to be amazing this year but if I can suck a little less that's a move in the right direction.

What do I want for my students?

Comfort: I want my classroom to be a place where students are comfortable making conjectures, thinking outloud and sharing their ideas, even especially if they are wrong. Learning from our mistakes will be very important

Number Sense: I want students to develop better number sense so that they can make sense of the world around them and check to see if their solutions make sense. I'm hoping to working on number sense by using and on a regular, if not daily basis.

Collaboration: I want my students to share their thinking and reasoning. I want them to help one another and to learn from each other.

Enjoy Math: My hope is that by doing the above students will enjoy math a little more, be actively involved and hopefully seek out mathematics in the world around them.

To all the great math teachers out their doing great thing: thanks for the inspiration.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Financial Math and RESPs

Creative Commons Licensed photo by Flickr user Meddygarnet
One of my favourite areas of math to teach is financial math. I like teaching it for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that it's something that all students will be able to use at some point in their lives, hopefully in the near.  For most students it's the most useful math they will learn in high school. The other big reason that I enjoy it is that you're learning about money. Who doesn't get excited about making money.

Although I like teaching about money, I would say that my students tend to be for a day or two but they loose interest (no pun intended) once things get complicated, abstract or not so relevant. There are lots of calls for improving financial literacy in Ontario. The trouble is that every student in the province gets a taste of financial math (in grade 11) but somehow what they learn doesn't seem to translate to their own lives. This could be because for many students the idea of buying a home, leasing a car or having a credit card seems so far off and so far removed from their day to day lives that it's almost irrelevant.

When I teach the financial components of the courses I cover the curriculum, extend it a little and generally try to make it interesting. Some of my students seem very interested, some mildly amused and others seem to not be interested at all. To add a little excitement we talk a bit about their plans for post secondary education. We talk about how they will pay for it and we talk a little about Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). Still not much interest. Maybe financial planning for two years down the road may not be exciting for them.

I've decided to put a quick guide to RESPs here for any of my students who may be interested but also for ALL parents of school aged children (or younger) in Canada.

RESPs, RESPs, RESPs - take advantage of them early

The Canadian government wants to encourage Canadians to save for post secondary education. As such they offer Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). To begin an RESP go to the bank, setup an account and then start making contributions (go ahead, do it now, I'll wait). Once you have the account you can begin contributing and saving for your child's education. The best part is that the government provides a grant for money that you contribute. If you contribute up to $2500, the government will kick in 20%. That's an immediate, guaranteed 20% return on investment, leaps and bounds above any other guaranteed investment. Now invest the grant and your contribution to earn even more. You are allowed to invest more than $2500/year but you won't get grant money for contributions beyond the $2500 (unless you're 'catching up'). If you can't contribute the maximum amount some years, you can catch up later by contributing up to $5000/year (if you want to get the maximum grant). If you wait too long you won't be able to get caught up on missed grant money. When the money is withdrawn from the RESP the grant money and the growth is taxed at the child's rate. The principal contributed is not taxed since the contributions were made with after tax dollars.

So the best way to get the most out of an RESP is to contribute the maximum $2500 (per child)/ year. The government will contribute a guaranteed 20% (or $500). Invest your the money and repeat. I know that money is tight and making these contributions can be difficult but the long term gain is huge. It's too good not do. The worst case scenario is that you end up setting aside a little money for your child's future and you've received some grant money from the government to help out. The best case scenario is that the grant money plus the growth over time are enough to pay for school. Your child benefits and you get your contributions back. Hello retirement slush fund!!!!

What are you waiting for? Go open an account now and start contributing $2500/year, or whatever you can. Get caught up later if you need to. Go! Go! Go! Don't wait!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Exam Time

Creative Commons Image: Zelda Was Kicking My Butt
By: couragextoxlive
I've written before about how I enjoy exam time. Somehow this year feels very different. Over the course of the past week I've had a number of situations that worry me a great deal.

1. Last week on Wednesday and Thursday my grade nines wrote their standardized test (EQAO). A few days before they wrote the test I went over everything that we covered in the course and worked through sample questions from each unit. Students spent a few days reviewing and then wrote the test. Once students write the test I go through and mark them so a portion of their final grade can come from the test and then the tests get mailed off to the big bureaucracy in Toronto. As I marked I noticed just how terrible the results were. The next day I asked my students how many of them had spent any time studying outside of class. It turns out 5/18 had.

Failure #1

2. The day after the test one of my grade nines asked what we were doing for the last few days of the semester. I told him that everyone should use the time to prepare for exams. He then proceeded to ask if  I could provide the class with a list of topics that they should study. Luckily, some students replied that we had already done that, before the sarcasm came gushing out of my mouth.

Failure #2

3. When I gave my grade elevens some review work to prepare for the exam, just about everyone in the class put up their hand to ask me how to do question 1. I refused to tell them how to do the question and referred them to their notes. When some students told me that they didn't have any notes I told them to check the textbook or to work with a friend. I then explained to the class that all of this work was review and that it would be impossible for me to walk each and every one of them through every question. The lack of independence was frightening.

Failure #3 

This year more than ever I believe that I have failed my students. I don't really care that my grade nines didn't do well on their standardized test. It doesn't really matter that some of my grade elevens will end up with a mark in the 50s rather than in the 60s (where they should be) since for most of them this is the last math class they have to take. Where I think I have failed my students this semester is in stressing the importance of good listening skills and good study habits (see Failures 1 and 2). Probably more important than learning the content of my course is for my students to become good learners. Some have, but I'm guessing that most have not (see Failures 1-3). The other big failure I had this semester was in developing independence, another crucial trait of successful learners. Clearly my students are not willing to be independent when, arguably, it matters most. I need to do some serious reflecting over the next couple of weeks to find out how to fix these issues for semester two. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Open Letter To Premier McGuinty and Minister Broten

I have been a secondary school teacher in Ontario for twelve years. During my years as a teacher I have been extremely generous with my time. I have contributed countless hours to coaching, student government and numerous other extra curricular activities. I have done so not as a sense of duty or obligation but because I enjoyed it. In addition to extra curricular activities I have spent many hours helping students with their math work. Over the years I have made myself available for extra help in the morning before school, at lunch, during my preparation period, after school and even in the evening via electronic communication. I have done so out of the goodness of my own heart. It was something I really enjoyed doing and it was extremely beneficial to many students.

With today's  announcement of contracts that are to be imposed my passion for teaching has disappeared. From this day forward my career is just a job. I will do my job to the letter of the law; nothing more, nothing less. On the one hand this saddens me a great deal. I find it very difficult to give up something that I have devoted so much time to over the years. However, I can no longer justify the time commitment.  I guess you could say my good will vanished when my collective bargaining rights were taken away. On the other hand I am excited to spend more time with my own children and to seek out volunteer opportunities within my community.

I will not return to doing 'the extras' until I am working under a FREELY negotiated contract. I imagine that others will likely do the same.