Saturday, September 13, 2014

No Calculators Allowed!

Ok, of course there's a time a place for calculators in math class, but in my classes I try to use them only when appropriate. It is a total shock to my Precalculus students when I tell them that they can't use a calculator on the first day of class. They're preconditioned to walk into a math classroom, grab a calculator from the classroom set, and sit down. The majority of the students say "I can't do this without a calculator" as we start to get into the math. It only takes about a day and half for them to realize I'm serious that you need to convert 325 degrees into radians without a calculator. It's not that I want them to be able to do 325/180 in a blink of an eye, cause I don't, but as I walked around the room this year and had quick conversations with groups of students it becomes clear to them why I'm taking away their "best friend" in my class. Believe it or not, and I know you'll believe me because you probably see the same things in your classes, a lot of students really have to think long and hard before they even realize that 5 is a factor of both of those numbers. That's when I explain to them the reason why I'm taking away the calculators is not so they have to do 180/5 on paper but because it's not automatic for them to know numbers that end in 5s or 0s are divisible by 5. Then we can also have a great conversation about how dividing 180 by 5 might be difficult, but 180/10 is not and my answer is half as large as 180/5. 

We have also had a lot of practice these first two weeks of school with fractions. Students don't even know where to begin with fractions, and by taking away the calculator they are forced to deal with them, forced to think about how they interact with numbers, and forced to finally learn fractions. One of the first homework assignments is a review of solving equations with one problem containing a fraction of a third and I'm always surprised at how many students change this to 0.33. I usually give an analogy the next day like if you have a dollar and have to split it with two of your friends, everyone gets 33 cents and a penny is left over. No biggie. And if you have $100 everyone gets $33 and only a dollar is left over. No biggie. But when you're rich a successful and you and your two business partners have to split $1 me up, I'll take your leftovers. It's a dumb analogy but the students like it and I get a lot of students to stop changing fractions to decimals like that. 

I do have a lot of motivation for getting the students to do more mental math since I teach a section of AP Calculus (more than half the AP test at the end of the year is no calculator) and most of my Precalc students will take AP Calculus the next year. It's only my second year at this school but historically our students have done the worst on the no calculator multiple choice part of the AP test. Maybe it's because the middle schools at one point stopped teaching long division, or other basic fundamentals that are going away that probably shouldn't. Anyhow, I'm trying to work on my students number sense and doing so by taking away their calculators. 

High Five Fridays!

It's been awhile since I've posted. A few years in fact. After having going through some big changes in my life, (a move, a kid, a new teaching job) I think I'm starting to get the itch to really get into this blogging thing. 

Here's something I've been doing the past few years that I thought I would share. Each Friday I try to bring in some math and science topics that are beyond the scope and sequence of the course. My thought process for doing this is three-fold: 
1.  It breaks up the monotony for the students and myself and gives us something to look forward to. 
2.  It shows the students that the world of mathematics doesn't fit into the small box that is controlled by the sequencing of textbooks, ACT College Readiness Standards, or the CCSS. 
3.  It (hopefully) gets students to appreciate the field of mathematics and understand its vastness. 

One of my goals as a math teacher is to get more students interested in STEM related fields. I feel that by only teaching the traditional scope and sequence more and more students will choose not to go into math and science related careers. This is especially true for those students who don't get to the more advanced courses and never get past the idea that math is not just a bunch of rules that don't make sense. I hate that it's ok in our society to say "I'm just not good at math." Hopefully, by showing the students that traditional high school math doesn't define math I'm hoping that students get a better understanding of what math is and create curiosity to want to learn more math. 

What I do each Friday isn't that special. Typically it's just a short YouTube video that I found at some point and a short history/background of the topic. Sometimes it's related to the topic we're learning about, and sometimes not. Sometimes it's science related, and others are just a cool, blow your mind video. You know the ones. The Vi Harts, Veritasiums, Minute Physics, etc. I've been teaching for six years now and I can't really remember when I started this, but the past three years I've made it a point to do this every Friday. The students look forward to it, and they also get a celebratory high five as they leave class.  This year I decided to create a sequence for each grade/course level I teach with the plans of expanding this to all 9-12 math courses. I mean I've kept a list of the ones I've used in the past but I didn't always keep track of each one and they weren't in any kind of order. The sequences aren't complete, in fact I don't even know what I'm going to do for this coming Friday. I used to just use the same plan for all my classes but I'm thinking that if this is going to be a thing, then they should be different. A lot of the students I have in Precalc I will see again in Calculus. My ultimate goal would be to roll this out so that all the math teachers in my school/district could pull from these lists and use them if they wanted to, which is another reason to have no repeats. Of course I would also love to share this with the MTBoS and would love to get suggestions from you. When I get a decent sized list going I'll post it here so check back soon!