Remote learning starts tomorrow

I never signed up to be a remote learning teacher.

Learning is a social activity and a big part of that is being together to share, discuss, argue, and show our support. It’s difficult to practice social distancing in a school setting. If your picture of a classroom is desks in rows 3 feet apart, with the teacher lecturing and students taking notes and working in quiet isolation, then you need to update your perspective. I’m not saying that isn’t still the case someplace. It’s just not the case for me and many of my colleagues (not just talking about my colleagues at Baxter Academy, either).

This morning, school districts all across Maine have announced that they are closing for the next two weeks, or longer. How do you take an active, noisy, dynamic classroom and transform it into something that can work remotely, with everyone working individually? We’ll muddle through and learn together.

On Friday night I sent this message to my advisory students and their parents:

Hello advisory students (and parents),
** This is a long email because I didn’t see you all on Wednesday. Sorry about the length, but I have lots to tell you. Thanks for reading it all the way through. **
Well, here we are in uncharted territory. I never signed up to be an online instructor, but that’s what I am now. I promise you that I will try my best to continue to support all of you through this most difficult time.
That said, I encourage you to become more engaged with your email. And turn on those Classroom notifications that you’ve turned off. This is the best way to stay informed and stay connected to what’s happening over the next few weeks.
I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy. And we have to remember that it’s hard for all of us, teachers and students included. We will all try our best. The thing to remember is that you need to check into Google Classroom to find out what the expectations are for the day, including Flex Friday. As we get better at this new reality, we might be able to post longer term plans for you. In the meantime, understand that we are learning along with you. And be kind. Be kind to each other and be kind to us.
Amos’s message implies that all of your classes will be held through Google Meet, a video conferencing app that allows you to log in with everyone else in your class, along with your teacher. I doubt that will happen every day, all day. I suspect that will happen a couple of times during the week, with the other days using Google Classroom posts similar to snow day learning. Your responsibility is really to get your work done. There are “office hours” every afternoon when you can ask your teacher questions – via email or classroom comments or whatever mode your teacher uses. Ms Lucy will be communicating with Mei about the best ways to keep BLC hours, options, and sprint courses going. Take advantage of those opportunities. Do your work. Ask for help. Help others.
Several of you are also taking college classes at USM, which will be moving to strictly online following spring break and will stay that way for the rest of their college semester.
I’m attaching a graphic that does a good job at explaining online learning etiquette.
The good news is that Slate seems to be working, complete with 2nd semester rosters. Give your teachers a chance to upload grades. But at least you will be able to monitor your progress now. Remember, this is about learning. Your teachers will continue to provide you the opportunities to learn – even if it’s in a different mode than what you’re used to or what you prefer. Only you can take advantage of the opportunities we provide.  (Speaking for my colleagues, based on conversations from today, we would prefer to be with you live and in person.)
I anticipate that you will be asked to give some feedback on the processes that we are testing out and trying to use through this difficult time. Give your feedback and use your voice.
The digital learning schedule is also attached. Remember, the main thing is doing the work. It’s nice for you to “show up” if your teacher invites you to a Google Meet session. It makes us feel like you care and value us. But, if that’s not possible for you to do, then be sure to do the work and turn it in on Classroom. That’s going to be our main mode of communication. So show up, check in, and be present.
Unless you are feeling sick, nothing about what we’re doing mandates that you stay home while we are learning this way. That said, we are all trying really hard to slow the transmission of this thing, so use your best judgement – stay out of crowded areas, but go outside and soak up some sunshine; practice good hygiene, but don’t shake hands; if you work in retail, wash your hands a lot, seriously.
Like I posted on our Advisory classroom, let me know if you have any questions or need my support in any way. This is going to be new for us all and we need to support each other. I am grateful that you are my advisory and I am grateful for your parents’ support.
Be well and I hope to see you all soon.
If you are a teacher in the same situation that I am in, feel free to share strategies. I will try to log my successes and failures, too.

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It’s been a while

What can I say? It’s been a rough 18 months. I hope to get back to recording my thoughts and trials and experiences of teaching soon. It’s not like I’m waiting for that perfect moment. I know that will never come. It’s more that I haven’t been very inspired to write about teaching recently.

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#signingday2018

Another graduating class. This makes three.

Last year, I wrote about the Class of 2017 and their plans. Seems only right that I should write about the Class of 2018. They, too, are a remarkable group of individuals who care about the world they live in – the world they will soon be leading. So, without further ado, here are the schools that look forward to welcoming our graduates.

  • Acadia University
  • Bard College
  • Bates College
  • Bennington College
  • Clark University
  • Earlham College
  • Hampshire College
  • Hobart and William Smith Colleges
  • Landmark College
  • Lesley University
  • Maine College of Art
  • Maine Maritime Academy
  • Marlboro College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • The New School
  • Saint Anselm College
  • Saint Lawrence University
  • Salem State University
  • Smith College
  • Syracuse University
  • Southern Maine Community College
  • University of Maine
  • University of Maine, Farmington
  • University of Southern Maine
  • Wentworth Institute of Technology
  • Worcester Polytechnic University
  • Yale University

Among the group who stated majors, there are 22 scientists, 10 engineers, 10 working with arts or design, 7 looking toward the liberal arts, 2 business, 2 working toward skilled trades, 4 entering the work force – including one with his own landscaping/snowplowing company – several are undecided and 7 are taking a gap year.

This group is also full of the pioneering spirit that brought our original group of students to Baxter. Like NASA’s “next nine,” they are the “next class.” And the world #bettermakeroom.

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Claim-Evidence-Reasoning in Geometry

Last year I used the process of Claim-Evidence-Reasoning, or CER, to teach statistics. I wrote about it a lot. I mean a lot. Seriously. More than I’ve written about anything else. (two more posts here & here.) But that was about teaching statistics. This term I have a geometry class and as my students were struggling with a proof, I had an “aha!” moment. Why not use the claim-evidence-reasoning process?

We were trying to prove why the sum of the interior angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees. Here’s what I gave them to start with.triangle sum proof

That’s right. I just gave them a triangle. The traditional way to approach this proof is to draw a line through point C so that it’s parallel to side AB. And I did include that on the back, in case kids got stuck. But here’s the interesting thing – faced with just the triangle and a background of transformational geometry, they began rotating this triangle to tessellate a line of three triangles. It looked like this:

triangle sum2

Then I asked kids to think about this approach, talk about it with each other, and then write a proof for why the sum of the interior angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees.

I collected what everyone had written and, like before, transcribed it for students to analyze for evidence and reasoning. Then we reviewed as a class to try to sort out the evidence (highlighted in cyan) from the reasoning (highlighted in orange). From there, I was able to give them another try with some direction from our conversation about evidence and reasoning. This was more successful. I pulled 4 examples to share with the class – I could have easily shared twice that number, which was more than half of the papers that I received from the class of 22. Here’s one of the 4 examples:

triangle sum3

Unfortunately, what you can’t seen in this scan is how the individual statements are numbered. Thinking doesn’t always come in deductive order. Sometimes you just have to write down what you know and why you know it. Then you can go back and organize it. It’s like making a rough draft of the proof.

Today, as we were reviewing these exemplars, I asked my students how often they wrote rough drafts for their humanities essays (all the time) or how often they wrote rough drafts of their science CER (claim-evidence-reasoning) papers (all the time). So, it shouldn’t be surprising that a rough draft might be in order for a geometry proof.

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Systems Without Mobiles

In this fourth entry about using structure to teach algebra, I’d like to focus on how we moved our kids from the picture-based systems to using traditional symbols. We focused on systems of two equations because even though they could solve systems involving more than two equations using emojis and mobiles, moving to traditional symbols could be more intense.

We began with systems that could have been represented by mobiles.

system1

Many students even drew their own mobiles using x’s and y’s. Others went right to the equation 2x + 5y = 4x + 2y and came up with 3y = 2x. Again, they used this relationship as a direct substitution. Some substituted into the top equation to get 3y + 5y = 48, while others transformed the bottom equation into 6y + 2y = 48. Once they were able to solve for y, they were able to solve for x.

But we didn’t just want systems that immediately transformed into mobiles, so we also gave them ones like this:

system3

We were quite curious about what they would do with this kind of system. Our instinct and experience would be to solve the bottom equation for y, but that’s not what the kids did. They added 3 to both sides of the bottom equation so that both equations were equal to 22. This left them with the equation 2x + 3y = 3x + y + 3, or 2y = x + 3. There’s no direct substitution here, though, so kids needed to reason further. Some used y = 0.5x + 1.5 while others said that x = 2y – 3, which led them to 2x = 4y – 6. Again, they did this on their own, without any direct teaching from us.

We also gave them systems like this one, which seemed pretty obvious to us:

system4

Just about every student was able to come up with the equation 3x – 2 = 4x + 1, but lots of kids weren’t sure what to do next because the equation didn’t contain x & y. Those students needed a bit of prompting until they realized that they could use that equation to solve for x.

And then there was this one:

system5

It doesn’t look all that different from the others. Most students added 24 to the bottom equation and proceeded as above. But I had one student who decided to multiply the bottom equation by -5. What?! When I asked him why he decided to multiply, he said that he wanted to make the bottom equation equal 20 and multiplying by -5 would do that. Fair enough.

The entire journey, from emoji’s to mobiles to traditional symbols took us to a completely different substitution method for solving systems. Had we not been open to following our students’ lead, we never would have learned these ideas that were completely intuitive to them. Remember, these weren’t “honors” kids, but they were willing to try, to think, and to take risks. And we gave them the space and time to play with the ideas.

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Mobile Algebra

Following the introductory use of structure and emoji math to introduce systems, my teaching partner and I continued with mobiles as suggested by the authors of “An Emoji is Worth a Thousand Variables.” EDC has this great website, SolveMe Mobiles, that has 200 mobile puzzles like this:

mobile1

Each shape in this mobile has a value (or weight) and the total value (or weight) in this mobile is 60 (units). Go ahead and solve the mobile.

This mobile represents a system of four unknowns. Using traditional algebra symbols it might look like this:

mobile2

A couple of those equations have just one variable, so it may not be quite as intimidating to look at the traditional symbols. On the other hand, the mobile shapes are just so accessible to everyone!

We needed to move our students away from systems that had one variable defined for them, though, and the SolveMe site, as great as it is, always includes some kind of hint. So we started to make up our own mobiles.

 

As first, students used a lot of educated guessing to solve the mobiles. Then there was a breakthrough.

Take a closer look at the left-hand mobile.

mobile3

Students realized that they could “cross off” the same shapes on equal branches and the mobile would stay balanced. In the example above, you can “cross off” two triangles and one square. Whatever remains is equivalent, though it no longer totals 36. Therefore, two triangles equals one square. Using that relationship, some students then substituted two triangles for the one square in the left branch. Then they had a branch of 6 triangles with a total of 18. So, each triangle is worth 3. Other students used the same relationship to substitute one square for the two triangles in the right branch, resulting in a branch of 3 squares with a total of 18. So, each square is worth 3.

We were floored. We had never discussed the idea of substitution, but here it was, naturally arising from students reasoning about the structure in the mobile.

mobile4Looking closer at the center mobile, students used the same “cross out” method to find the relationship that 2 triangles equals 3 squares. If we’d been teaching the substitution method in a more traditional way, kids would have been pushed to figure out how much 1 triangle (or 1 square) was worth before making the substitution step. We knew substitution was happening here, but we didn’t invent this approach so we just followed closely to see where our students took us. Since 2 triangles equals 3 squares, some kids substituted 3 squares for the two triangles on the right branch of the mobile. Others made two substitutions of 6 squares for the 4 triangles on the left branch. Either way the result was a branch of 7 squares that totaled 14. It seemed quite natural to them.

What would you do with this one?

mobile5

Next up: Moving to traditional symbols. The final (?) post of this saga.

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Emoji math

The October 2017 issue of Mathematics Teacher included the article “An Emoji is Worth a Thousand Variables,” by Tony McCaffrey and Percival G. Matthews. (Note that you need to be an NCTM member to access the article without purchasing it.) The authors introduced their students to systems by using sets of equations comprised of emojis, similar to those puzzles that are found on Facebook. Lots of people, including those who say they hate math or they aren’t good at math or, “I’m not a math person” will do puzzles like these. They get lots of likes, answers posted in the comments, and shares –  probably because this doesn’t look much like math. Take a moment and solve the puzzle.

emoji

What if, instead of the emoji puzzle, I had posted this puzzle:

system

The two are actually equivalent, but the abstract nature of the second representation is enough to make our students who see themselves as not math people shut down.

My fall term teaching partner and I used the emoji approach with our students. We hadn’t discovered the website yet, so we gave our students this short worksheet. Many of our students had struggled with math prior to coming to Baxter Academy. They were in self-contained or pull-out special education settings or in pre-algebra classes in middle school. A few probably had something closer to algebra 1, but they certainly hadn’t solved systems of three or more equations. They had no problems understanding what the emoji puzzles were asking of them. They weren’t put off by the number of equations or the number of icons. They were able to explain their solution process clearly and with great detail.

In a follow-up exercise, asking students to make connections between the emoji representation and the more traditional representation, nearly 80% of my students saw and could articulate the direct connection between the icons and the variables.

If the emoji system is more engaging and more accessible, then why don’t we use more of them to introduce systems of equations? Is it because emoji systems seem to “dumb down” the mathematics? The authors of the article make the case against that view:

“The algebra represented in [the emoji system] is not dumbed down at all. Notice that the puzzle presents a linear system in three variables … First-year algebra students are generally not exposed to three-variable systems; indeed, when McCaffrey checked all the first-year algebra texts in his school’s faculty library, none included systems of three variables. Although McCaffrey’s students had never seen three-variable systems before this class, most found the puzzle intuitive enough to solve.”

It is important to transition from emojis to more formal algebra, but it’s not important to start with the most abstract representation – the one that leaves too many of our students behind.

 

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