cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Monday, February 24, 2014

New strategy for introducing INBs: complex instruction approach

After months of not feeling like my best teacher self in the classroom, I got fed up and spent all weekend tearing stuff down and rebuilding from the ground up.

INBs are something I know well — something that work for students. So I decided to take what I had available and, as Sam would say, turn what I DON'T know into what I DO know. Love those Calculus mottos.

So I rebuilt my version of the exponential functions unit in terms of INBs. But that meant, I would have to introduce INBs.

As one girl said, "New marking period, new me!" The kids just went with it and really took to it.

Here is what I did.

ON EACH GROUP TABLE: I placed a sample INB that began with a single-sheet Table of Contents (p. 1), an Exponential Functions pocket page (p. 3), and had pages numbered through page 7. There were TOC sheets and glue sticks on the table.

SMART BOARD: on the projector, I put a countdown timer (set for 15 minutes) and an agenda slide that said,

  • New seats!
  • Choose a notebook! Good colors still available!
  • Make your notebook look like the sample notebook on your table 

As soon as the bell rang, I hit Start on the timer, which counted down like a bomb in a James Bond movie.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, if you want to create suspense, place a ticking time bomb under a card table at which four people are playing bridge. This seemed like good advice for introducing INBs to my students.

I think because it was a familiar, group work task approach to an unfamiliar problem, all the kids simply went went with it. "How did you make the pocket? Do you fold it this way? Where does the table of contents go? What does 'TOC' mean? What goes on page 5?" And so on and so on.

I circulated, taking attendance and making notes about participation. When students would ask me a question about how to do something, I would ask them first, "Is this a group question?" If not, they knew what was going to happen. If it was, I was happy to help them get unstuck.

Then came the acid test: the actual note-taking.

I was concerned, but they were riveted. They felt a lot more ownership over their own learning process.

There are still plenty of groupworthy tasks coming up, but at least now they have a container for their notes and reflection process.

I'm going to do a "Five Things" reflection (trace your hand on a RHS page and write down five important things from the day's lesson or group work) and notes for a "Four Summary Statements" poster, but I finally feel like I have a framework to help kids organize their learning.

I've even created a web site with links to photos of my master INB in case they miss class and need to copy the notes. Here's a link to the photo files, along with a picture of page 5:

We only got through half as much as I wanted us to get through, but they were amazed at how many notes we had in such a small and convenient space.

It feels good to be back!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sometimes the most important thing we say is...

I love this journey I am on in my new school. I love my colleagues and our local community and my administration and the security staff and the office support staff. I love our community outreach coordinators and our special ed department and our paraprofessionals.

But these are not the most important things I get to say on any given day.

The most important thing I ever get to say is something I actually got to say twice today — once at the beginning of first period in a student-parent-staff conference and at the end of the day as I was about to pull out of the parking lot.

I said it to two different students who are each on their own completely different journey right now.

Each had been missing from class for their own different reasons, but they both needed to hear this from me for the same reason.

What I told them was this:
when you are not there, you are missed. 
We miss your voice and your insights and your completely unique presence in the room.

We miss you because we need you.

Whenever you come back to us, we are happy to see you again because you bring something to the community that we need — something we cannot get from any other source.

We need you.

It never ceases to amaze me how many obstacles and complexities and self-defeating behaviors this kind of direct statement clears away.

When you find the opening to say something like this to an adolescent, take it. It's like dropping a pebble into a still pond.

You'll be amazed how far those ripples go.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Arithmetic of Complex Numbers Placemat Activity - Algebra 2 + Complex Instruction (CI)

Just because you have an all-groupwork and all-Complex Instruction (CI) format doesn't mean you don't need practice activities too.

Our Algebra 2 kids were getting the concepts of complex numbers and complex conjugates, but were still kinda shaky in terms of fluency in working with them.

Based on ideas I stole borrowed a long time ago from the fabulous Kate Nowak (@k8nowak, and the equally fabulous Rachel Kernodle (@rdkpickle, ), I proposed a placemat activity to my ever-game Algebra 2 teaching team and they dove right in.

We have typical CI four-person table teams set up in each of our rooms, with each person assigned a specific role based on where they're seated at the table. Our roles are Facilitator, Resource Manager, Recorder/Reporter, and Team Captain, although of course, your mileage may vary. Each role has specific tasks they are expected to perform; for example, only the Resource Manager may call the teacher over for a group check-in or a group question (in our program, teachers only accept and answer group questions).

Each table was given:
  • two, double-sided "placemat" sheets for doing work in the center of the table
  • a set of problem cards (there are four sets, one for each round of play; to simplify clean-up and organization, I printed each round of cards single-sided on a different color of paper, one set per table group. I've got 7 tables in my room, so I made seven sets of cards. I laminated them and clipped them together, but hey, that's just me)
  • the sum to which all four answers for any given round should add up
The sum for each round was written on the whiteboard, though it could have been projected via document camera or Keynote/Powerpoint slide.

We had mathematical objectives for the activity as well as CI or norms-based, group work objectives. My students in particular needed reinforcement in group work norms and collaboration. Our objectives were:

     Math Objectives

  • achieve greater fluency in the arithmetic of complex numbers (including the distributive property)
  • deepen understanding of and fluency with the powers of i
  • deepen understanding of and fluency with complex conjugates

     Group Work Objectives

  • work in the middle of the table
  •  same problem, same time (no one moves on until everyone moves on)
  • using table group members as resources

The next time I run this activity, I will definitely give a Participation Quiz because the group work norms are so beautifully reinforced in this activity.

How We Ran It
Recorder/Reporter writes the sum in the central oval of the first side of the placemat. Each group member gets a problem card for round 1 (problem a) and works his or her problem on his or her quadrant of the placemat.

When everybody is finished with their problem, the Facilitator facilitates the addition of all four answers. If they add up to the given sum for that round, the Resource Manager calls the teacher over for a "checkpoint" and the next set of cards for the subsequent round of work.

If their answers don't add up to the given sum, they need to work together through everybody's work on the placemat to diagnose what went wrong and where, as well as how to fix it. Then when they've fixed it, they call the teacher over for a checkpoint and the next set of cards for the subsequent round.

Group Work Benefits — Reinforcing Norms
For my classes, the greatest benefits of this activity came from the fact that it forced students to work in the middle of the table, to use each other as resources, and to talk mathematics. Getting kids to work in the middle of the table is the hardest part of CI, in my view, because it goes against the grain of most of their in-school conditioning. The placemat format makes it nearly impossible NOT to work in the middle of the table. And once they're doing that, it seemed like everything else ran pretty smoothly.

I especially liked the fact that this activity created a context in which students experienced an intellectual need for the using the rules of arithmetic for complex numbers and for the powers of i. It was situationally motivated, but extremely targeted.

Sums for Each Round 
The sums for each round are as follows (if you find an error, please speak up):
  • Round 1 (problem a):   26-73i
  • Round 2 (problem b):  0
  • Round 3 (problem c):  165
  • Round 4 (problem d):  2 – 48i
PDF Files for the activity
These are available also on the Math Teacher Wiki on the Algebra 2 page. If you haven't visited the Math Teacher Wiki, you don't know what you're missing.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Building concept maps is harder than it looks

I'm having students create a concept map as a summative assessment for our Complex Numbers unit and... w o w — there is all kinds of learning going on.


Students are working in groups and can use all their notes and assignments from the unit. Some kids jumped right in and started hacking away. Others whined and asked why we couldn't just have a normal test.

We are using Post-Its, scissors, pencils, and paper to do our constructions.

In-process projects range from amazing to struggling, but what impresses me most is how much the work reveals about what students are figuring out and how each student is understanding and constructing meaning in their learning. It also demands that learners own their own learning.

Because this is so revealing, I am probably going to use concept maps both as formative assessments before and during the unit as well as using them as a 'ways of understanding' tool to help them consolidate their learning.

BREAKING: OK, this activity is definitely a keeper. Students are really digesting their learning, talking about it, debating how to represent it, and clarifying areas of confusion for themselves. Here is an outstanding example from today: