Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Explicitly teaching calculator skills

This will be my fourth year teaching, and each year begins the same way with high expectations and millions of ideas in my head.  One of the goals I've had every year is to explicitly teach students how to use the graphing calculator, but I've never done a good job with it.  After teaching a high performing junior level precalculus students last year and realizing as the year went on just how little they knew about their calculators made me want to do something about it.  And I'm talking simple stuff, like recalling the last entry or fixing a mistake inserting a digit in a line they are typing instead of just clearing the entire line.  I don't know who or how my teachers taught me how to use my graphing calculator in school.  I think I just knew I couldn't break the calculator by trying different things.  I once wrote a program to use the quadratic formula by asking A=?, B=?, and C=?.  I was all vainglorious about it, and I did it all by myself playing around with the simple programming logic. I guess I was bored one time in class, or a better explanation might be that I'm a Super-nerd!  Anyway, my students need better graphing calculator skills.  I've known this for awhile.  I have always thought that having separate calculator skills assessments would be the way to go.  I wanted to make sure and watch each student proficiently use their calculators.  However, I never fully implemented it into my classroom.  It was always an after thought, or in the case of my juniors last year a crash course right before they took the ACT.  Obviously, this is not OK!  So this year I'm making a point of starting to teach graphing calculator skills in my Algebra 1 classes.  I've even made the first unit's assessment!

Not very Hemmingway-esque, but it gets the job done.  For the first unit, we wanted to hit the skills needed to proficiently use the HOME screen.  Later on in the year we will teach how to use the calculator to graph and stat plot when we get to that unit.

Starting with freshmen in Algebra 1 makes the most sense because it will take them all of their high school careers to get familiar with their calculator.  We do not want to keep doing the crash course right before the ACT every year.  I also think it may encourage students to buy their own graphing calculators.  I'd say in the past it's been about 50% who have had their own graphing calculator, which is very good being that we have a majority of students coming from low-income families.  But let's be real, if a student has the latest cell phone that lasts them less than a year, or even the $315 Lebron's (I'd eat okra for the rest of my life before paying that much for a pair of shoes.) they can buy an $80 graphing calculator.

So, hopefully this year is different.  I'm not quite sure how I want to grade this.  I do SBG on my quizzes, but should this be worth more like a test?  Do you make a point of teaching graphing calculator skills?  Do you see a need in your class?  Have a comment/critique/suggestion/addition about the assessment?  Hit me up in the comments!  Thanks!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Helping Students Become Problem Solvers...

The question that we’ve been thinking hard about all summer is “How do we get kids to become better learners”?  Our students are pretty successful at solving problems, but many don’t even know where to begin the process of problem solving.  If you have an easy solution to this, send it our way!  Until then, here’s what we have been discussing…

  • My guess is that since this is only our second entry, you’ve read our first one which means you’ve read about our “Google Days” implementation in an honors Precalc course.  Since then we have done a lot of decision making about how we want to implement this well.  Here’s what we’ve got so far:
    • Students will be introduced to the topic by reading the abstracts and introductions of various research papers we find out there in cyberspace.  We are trying to compile papers written by staff (not necessarily math teachers) to help students connect, even if only by a little, with the content.  Our goal is that this will trigger curiosity in students and they will begin to wonder and research for themselves.
    • Students will work with and advisor to write an abstract on a topic of their choosing (yes, total freedom!), due mid-fall.
    • At the end of semester 1 we will host a “Math Fair” where students will display their research/projects/constructions/whatever they choose to do for family, students, and other teachers.
      More to come on the “Google Days” later…
  • What about students not in honors Precalc, you ask?  Sometimes I think that recalling things you’ve learned is like recalling a memory – we are trying to get students to be able to put themselves back into the moment they learned a specific skill or idea.
How are we doing this?  High stakes projects!  Many have done “Barbie Bungee” in their classes where students create a linear model for the number of rubber bands needed to drop Barbie from a certain height.  When we did this our kids were graded on how close their Barbie got to the ground.  If a Barbie died the students simply received an F.  The day of the “drop” students were checking and double-checking their work, all afraid that their dolls would die.  We actually had students in tears when their Barbie hit the ground because the kids were so invested in the project.  My guess is students will always remember this project and the process they went through to solve the problem.
We’ve got lots of other ideas for classes other than Algebra.  This year in Algebra 2/Trig we did an Illuminations activity for rational functions that also had the same affect.
Ideally we’d like to do one of these types of projects in each class each quarter.

Our goal is that throughout the year students will become invested in the process of solving problems.  We’ll see how that goes…!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why We Started This...

I have been a so called "lurker" for a few years now.  I've enjoyed the benefits of reading other math teachers' blogs and borrowing their ideas.  Through reading the blogs, I decided to open a twitter account and have enjoyed where that has taken me as well.  For some time I have wanted to start a blog, but never thought I could contribute anything of value to the mathblogosphere.  Well three things changed that thinking for me:

  1. I'm not doing this alone.  Another teacher and I will be tag-teaming this endeavor and hopefully between the two of us you'll be able to get something halfway decent out of this blog.   
  2. Sam gave us the kick in the pants we needed with his call for new bloggers.  My colleague and I were talking about starting a blog all summer so I guess this is what we needed.  
  3. In my Precalc class we're starting a new project-based learning idea that was inspired by Sam's MV Calculus projects, and also by a TED talk on motivation.  I definitely wanted to record how this idea pans out, and I'm hoping that a blog will be the best way to do that.
I guess I'll try to give a very brief description of what we're going to try to do in Precalc, but I'm sure this will be a work in progress all year.  First off, the class is a Junior level course, and it's the only section in the school.  (There are other Precalc courses, but those are mostly seniors.)  For the first time this year we are going to track these students to go into an AP Calc BC course the following year and they'll be the only students in this course.  Thus our thinking is that we can make this course different.  If you watched the TED talk I linked above it talks about how Google has "20% days"where their employees have to spend 20% of their working time not working on work! Ha!  I should have went and worked for them.  Actually another teacher in my school spent this summer working with a friend who works for Google on one of his 20% projects.  So through all of this we decided to implement "Google Days" in my Precalc class.  (Google, please don't sue us!)  I don't think that we'll be able to do a Google Day every Friday, so maybe we'll do 10% and do every other Friday or something.  The students will have all year to work on one project or more depending on how this all plays out.  Each student will have an Advisor, a math teacher who will help oversee the project, and I'm envisioning total freedom (fingers crossed) on what they turn in for a grade.  It's going to be a a big undertaking but we're all very excited about this.  If it works well this year, we're going to try to implement it in other classes next year.

There are some things that we need to think about as we begin:

  • How do we introduce this?  What is the structure going to be like? We need to have this down soon!  School starts in just over 3 weeks.
  • How do we create a common rubric that is flexible enough to adapt to many different types of projects (i.e. skits, papers, physical constructions, etc.)
  • How do we get the students excited about a topic?  There's so much out there that they probably don't know (and that we as teachers don't know either!) so how do we create the desire to always dig deeper and keep learning about their topic even when the going gets tough?  Also, how do we incorporate challenging math topics when these students haven't had Calculus yet?
It feels great to get this blog going.  Thanks Sam for initiating this!