Questioning

For the 2016 Blogging initiative, Week 3 had the title of Questioning. In the article, it then proceeded to give suggestions for topics to write about. In previous weeks, the prompts were few in number, but I found one that seemed to be a good fit for me. This week, even though there were more prompts listed, I knew I needed to buck the system and write on a related topic that didn’t apply to any of the prompts.

As mentioned before, I teach in an online school. But I haven’t always. I started in a classroom and most of my experience is there as well. One thing I noticed while in the classroom is that students are observant.

If a student provided an answer to me, often they could tell by my body language or my facial expression if they were correct or not.

Slowly over the years, I was able to better mask my excitement or disappointment. If the answer they gave was to the question, “What is the next step?” often I would say, let’s try that and see what happens. Then we work through the problem as if they were correct.

If they were indeed correct, we have success. If, however, their thinking was flawed, I think it was helpful for them to see why it was flawed, or what would happen if we tried their method. Not only helpful for them, but helpful for the handful of other students who agreed with their initial response.

Other times, they wouldn’t be “wrong” per se. But their suggestion wasn’t helpful. For example, if we were looking at the problem x + 5 = 13, they might say to “add 5 to both sides” for the next step. Mathematically, this isn’t wrong. The Addition Property of Equality says you can add the same value to both sides of an equation and not change the answer to that equation (both sides are still equal).

When we use their suggestion, our next step would look like x + 10 = 18. Again, thier step wasn’t wrong; it just wasn’t helpful. I think students benefited for seeing this as well, especially because they have the right idea, just the wrong execution.

So what does that have to do with questioning?

More recently (and part of this is helpful in an online environment where students cannot always see my facial expressions as we work together), I hve started to question everything.

If they got the answer wrong, I would ask how they got their answer.

If they got the answer correct, I would ask how they got their answer.

They couldn’t tell anymore if they were right or wrong when I asked that question. Many students who were wrong were able to find their error and correct themselves as they explained why they did what they did. Even if the student could not find their own error, by asking the question, I (as the teacher) could better identify their thought patterns and discern what the true problem really was.

Although I can’t find the exact resource that lead me to start doing this, I believe it was in a blog post by Marilyn Burns, probably talking about the Math Reasoning Inventory (MRI). Alternately, it may have been from her article “Looking at How Students Reason” (bottom right paragraph on page 29).

Completely unrelated, but funny story. When I was in school training to become a teacher, I had the opportunity to pick up some free resources. Two of the items I chose were the books The I Hate Mathematics! Book and Math For Smarty Pants. I mostly picked them for their titles and fun graphic inside, along with the well written content. Just the other day, I was looking though them again, and I noticed they were written by Marilyn Burns! Who would have thought that she would have had an influence on me at the start of my career, and even now well over a decade later?!

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My Favorite

So I’m reading the Week 2 challenge, and it reads, “Our week two blogging challenge is to simply blog about one of your favorite things.” I’m thinking, this is super easy; I will just write about my wife. She is my favorite (to the point that my kiddos get sick of me saying it).

But then it clarifies a bit more, “Called a ‘My Favorite,’ it can be something that makes teaching a specific math topic work really well.  It does not have to be a lesson, but can be anything in teaching that you love!” So I guess my wife doesn’t apply any more…

But… I do have lots of things in teaching that I love. Right now, I think my favorite is a MOOC published by Stanford University and created by Dr. Jo Boaler. It is called How to Learn Math.

I don’t remember how I first learned about this course, but when I learned about the basic premise, I immediately signed up for the How to Learn Math: For Teachers and Parents. The course was not free ($125 when I took it), but well worth the investment (and they offer a discounted rate for group sign-up). I didn’t get any Professional Development credits in my state for taking it either (although I heard some states do allow using it for credit), but given the opportunity, I would take it again. There are 8 lessons, each taking about 1-2 hours if you do the full lesson.

Shortly after I finished the course, I learned that they developed a second (shorter) version of the course called How to Learn Math: For Students. This version is free, only has 6 lessons, and each is 10-20 minutes long. The first three lessons talk about math and learning in general; the second three lessons talk about strategies for success.

As I teach in an online school, my students are already used to asynchronous learning, so this course isn’t too far from their comfort zone. I actually haven’t taken the student version, but if it has the same quality and information as the Teacher/Parent version, it has to be good.

When learning math, I think a big struggle we need to overcome for many students is negative self-talk. This course can help remove (or reduce) that negative self-talk. In some cases, I have just encouraged the student to take it on their own and at their own pace. With other students, I have encouraged them to talk with people at home about the course and what they have learned. Since the negative self-talk can sometimes be developed by parents unintentionally (“I was never good at math either.”), having them talk with parents can sometimes reverse this mentality at home.

I end with a quote from a parent:

I wanted to give you a quick update on [student] & a laugh…We went through Dr. Boaler’s course yesterday & did 3 lessons. [Student] was interested in the fact that other people said it’s ok to make mistakes, and when you try hard & even struggle your brain grows. Later that evening she played tennis & had the best night ever! On the way home she told me that when tennis was getting hard she just told herself that she could do & she was going to work hard. At that point I knew she had listened & thought about the video & its message.

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One Good Thing

I’ve heard people express that life is like a rollercoaster. Sometimes you have the ups, and sometimes you have the downs. I have even felt this way before.

However, I once heard someone talk about rollercoaster tracks themselves, and not the hills and valleys. They said that life is like the two tracks of a rollercoaster. On one track are all the good things that are happening in your life; the other track is the not-so-good things. Both tracks are present all the time, but it is up to us which track we focus on.

I have tried to be intentional in focusing on that good track, even during some bad times in my life. I believe Chuck Swindoll was correct when he said, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” By focusing on the good track, I can also react better, so a win-win all the way around.

I’ve even changed the way I talk. My wife and I used to joke that if it wasn’t for bad luck, we wouldn’t have any. Now I am more apt to say that today is going to be an awesome day, because I don’t know how to have bad days.

This past week was especially good for me as we had Spirit Week at our school. Granted, being an online school, we cannot see everyone in their spirit gear at the same location, but our marketing team housed a collection of pictures of our students (and staff) participating remotely all over the globe.

I didn’t participate everyday (one was dress up as your dream job — I do that everyday!), but the more fun ones I did participate in were Crazy Hair Day and Mismatch Day.

Yes, there are five “pony tails” in the crazy hair day photo. Yes, I think it is important that we as educators teach our students content, but it is just as important to develop relationships with them. Having fun together is one way to do that.

All that to say, it was another awesome week (and next week will be awesome, too). Getting to have fun with our students was just one good part of that awesomeness.

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Kicking off the 2016 Blogging Initiative

I have been toying with the idea of blogging, not so much because I feel I have a lot to say, but because I enjoy reading the blogs of others. I do believe in the C.A.S.E. method of teaching (Copy And Steal Everything), because I know I am not as smart or as creative as others, but I also believe that if I take, I should also give.

The MTBoS (Math Twitter Blogosphere) is having a blogging initiative starting January 2016. I am also reading a book I received for Christmas called The Innovator’s Mindset. In chapter 3 (Characteristics of the Innovators Mindset), George Couros writes,

When students come to school, we continually tell them, “You need to share!” because we know the great benefits to their learning. Educators would all benefit if we decided to take our own advice. One way we can do that is through blogs. If you’re thinking, “I’m not a writer,” consider this: every opportunity to share with others on a global scale makes you think more deeply about what it is that you are sharing in the first place.

Those two ideas together gave me the desire to start this blog. We’ll see where it leads us! I’m looking forward to the journey.

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