Monday, April 29, 2013

When will I use this in real life?

As a math teacher, this is a question I field from students almost daily.  You have probably had to answer it or a question like it, no matter what subject you teach.  I am sure that this question is not asked only in math class, but at times math skills can be especially difficult to connect to a student's everyday world.  Here is a pretty complete answer that I want to give, but have trouble forming in the moment:

"You won't.  You probably will never have to factor a quadratic expression in your life after your college math course.  However, this skill is necessary for doing all the other stuff we have to cover in this class, which is necessary for you to do well on your ACT and SAT, which are necessary for getting into a good college.  Math teaches you to think and problem-solve.  Don't focus so much on how you will use each of these individual skills.  The more important skill you are learning is critical thinking.  In addition to this, math opens up many career opportunities for you.  Stick with it now so that you do not close doors to the future that you might wish were open to you once you head off to college."

I agree with everything in this explanation.  The problem with it is that my students tune me out after the first sentence: You won't.  I am challenging myself to find an inspiring approach to answering this question before it gets asked.  I challenge you to do the same.  No matter what your subject, material must be connected to your students' lives in order for them to be motivated and to fully understand the concepts.

Here are my thoughts about meeting the challenge.  I want to hear yours!  Please comment.

1. I need to learn as much as I can about the careers that use my subject matter.  Who do I know that uses my subject?  What can I learn from them to pass on?  Would that person be willing to speak to my class?

2. Drawing connections with the "real world" is well worth the time.  Many times the question gets asked in the middle of note-taking and I don't feel that I have time to answer it well.  Maybe I can purposefully fill those extra minutes at the end of class  (see previous post) with talk and/or videos about math careers that fit with the current unit.

3. I would like to answer the question before it gets asked.  These connections should be integral to my lesson plans, rather than haphazard replies.  

4.  The internet can provide a wealth of inspiring answers to the question.  Here is a great video from a website I need to explore more:

As you look over your lesson plans this week, take an extra moment to add significance to your content.  Remember that you are not making this up!  The connection exists, but as teachers it is our job to sell it.  Try it, and see what you can learn.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Make Every Minute Count

Make Every Minute Count - The importance of using every available minute you have with students in the classroom. 

There are certain inevitable truths about lesson planning and running a classroom: a) you can approximate closely and do your best but you never really know how long things will last (due to a multitude of reasons), and, b) the amount of free time given is directly proportional to the amount of small fires started/animals tortured/ graffiti on your wall/etc.. (maybe this one is just me).

Addressing the former, however, the frequent default solution for extra minutes at the end of a period is to "get started on the homework" or just "kick it". On one hand this makes sense, but on the more rationale hand, this is a terrible idea. If the minutes you dismiss at the end of a period were only 3 or 4, it doesn't seem like a big deal, but it also doesn't take a math teacher to see what this means long term: 255 - 340 total cumulative minutes by the end of the year. That's almost six hours! Thus, I offer a better solution.

If you keep the attitude that every minute counts, you'll find something to do with those extra minutes do make them count. Here are some good ideas:

- Have a pile of interested FYIs or questions about your subject and pull out as many as time allows.

- Keep some games on hand that students know how to play and require no set-up (obviously, games should be relevant to your subject)

- Some kind of review on hand and go through them like flashcards with your class.

- Teach them a song and then make them sing it during these minutes. (There are thousands of educational songs for your subject, just search youtube and look for the least or most terrible one. Sometimes the lamest ones are the most fun to sing)

- Have them talk quietly while you check email really quick. (Just kidding, this is a bad idea. Your time with students needs to be time with students)

- Read a related book/story/novel over time.

You may see a trend in the list. In short, if you don't have the time to start something new in those few remaining minutes, then you should have one (or really multiple) things immediately ready with which to fill them in. In the foreign language sector here are a few of my favorites:

- Go through the vocabulary cards. I always have oversized vocabulary cards for every chapter (students make them) and keep them in folders by the door. We go through them once during every class but it's okay to go through them again if I find myself with extra time - it's frickin vocab.

- "Salvar al Ciego" (Save the blind man). The logic here is that sometimes communication is in a hurry and we can't go through grammar charts in our head or we'll miss the opportunity to relay an important message so the point is to free associate (or, to tell the blind man a bus is coming before it hits him).  I keep a collection of magazine pictures, or just magazines, and tell the students they have only 7 seconds to say whatever sentence they want to a partner, inspired by the picture I show them. This could easily be adapted to several other subjects by changing the requirement

- Round-the-world. It's an easy review game that can go on as long or as short as needed. This can also be used easily for any subject.

I hope the point is clear. After all, it's like I say when students pack up or line up early, "It's a small school. You don't need a head start." Of course, the unspoken part of "It's a big world. You need all you can get" is really the message I'm looking for. A group of students once complained and nicknamed me the "Classpacker" because of my philosophy on minutes. But, I took it as a compliment because it really is the attitude every teacher should have. Give it a shot and see what you can learn.

Other related resources:
Top 10 Time Filler For Your Classroom
5 Minutes To Go In The Classroom
5 Minute Learning At the End of Class

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Big Picture

Being a history teacher, one may seem to be set up to be a factual names and dates type of teacher.  I have had several history teachers like this in my time as a student.  There are indeed some people and specific dates that are good for students to know, but that isn’t really the point of teaching, is it?  It may make things easy to assign, and I know some students like the ease of just memorizing facts and spitting them back out.

The question you very well may receive from time to time is the question of: why are we learning this?  While seasoned veterans may have developed a crafty response to that question over the years, I attempted to give it an honest look.  I do remember having that question as a student, and I figured students may appreciate having an honest answer.  This question is admittedly tough when studying self-proclaimed “dry spots” in the wide array of history.

My best attempts to answer this question came when I tried to answer a specific question about a certain time period or event:  Why is this significant in the big picture?  Though that question might lead to further hair splitting, generally this helps give perspective.  At the end of each unit, I try to either answer that question myself, or have the students answer the question.

When students answer this question, I try to prompt them towards ideas such as: how can the effects of this person/event be seen today, how would things be different without this person/event, or what specifically made this person/event so unique/significant?  The final history trump phrase is the good ole, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

While it may seem like this may be something that only History teachers can use, the objective of having students relate a topic to the big picture can be applied to all subjects.  I also teach geography, and each time there is a term or place that students think seems insignificant, I have them think about things from the big picture.  If a science teacher fought issues with student’s concerns of relativity, there are many opportunities to show how important understanding the details of life are.  Or for a Math teacher, the dreaded, annoying, and undoubtedly repeated question of, “why do we have to do this?”  For this, God has given the ultimate comeback of the word question.  The questions that put the skill learned into a direct, “real life” situation.  Though some word questions are certainly better than others,the concept of making things more applicable to students is something to give acknowledgement to and genuine thought to.  Though many things students learn may be tough for them to grasp the significance, have them think big picture.  Try it out, and see what you can learn…