I got a pleasant surprise in my school mailbox today.

This year has been so trying for me. How I made it through without quitting, I don’t know.

Every teacher gets to nominate one co-worker for the ‘Teacher Of The Year’ at the school. I think everyone knows that I was surely the worst teacher at my school this year. But there is something that I did do, which was probably expend the most energy trying to be a good teacher.

Because of that, I guess, I received the original of the one and only ballot I received for this award. It was written by a great math teacher named Leon Hodrick. I’ve watched him teach and he does such a great job of keeping class fun, keeping control, and having students work. He is also one of the most fun teachers I’ve met, with his constant joking and laughing in the lounge.

Anyway, here is the note. I’m sure I will keep this safe for at least the next twenty years.

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As a math major, I disagree with this. There’s something to even learning the times tables that builds a foundation to build upon for higher math.

I think about half my students know the times tables pretty well, but for the other half, I’ve tried to come up with some alternative way of learning them. How many times have they been given a copy of the times tables and were told to memorize them? So I made this thing, which I hope works.

The idea is to make the times tables less intimidating by reducing it to just 36 boxes instead of 100. Also, by putting it into a random order, it is something they can study like flashcards. I know the old thing didn’t work, so it can’t hurt to try it this way.

]]>So I made an activity that enables students to explore the relationship between counting, adding, and multiplying. So you take a question like #4, with 5 houses having 6 windows each. They can count the windows to get 30, or they can do 6+6+6+6+6 to get 30, or they can do 6*5 (or 5*6 !) to get 30. This way if a kid ever forgets 6*5, he can just add 6+6+6+6+6 and re-derive it. That’s thinking critically!

There were a few kids who raced through the thing, just using their memorized times tables, but I made them also turn each question into the related adding problem, just to force them to think of the relationship between those two math concepts.

After answering the questions, they had to make their own examples. Some kids got really creative with them, which was great.

Here’s the worksheet:

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Here’s the diagnostic I made. The students worked pretty well on it.

]]>When I got to my schools orientation last week I learned that since my school was overcrowded (there are 3,000 middle schoolers making it the most populated middle school in Texas) I would not have my own room. The 20 newest teachers are called ‘floaters’ meaning that we teach in rooms when other teachers are off. I will teach in four different rooms and two different floors.

The different floor thing is going to be a problem since floaters are issued carts to push their stuff on, but the building doesn’t have an elevator, so I won’t be able to really use the cart.

During orientation, all the floaters decorated their carts and we had a ‘cart parade’ which was a lot of fun. I measured everything on the cart and wrote the different measurements and the area and volume of all the things on the cart to give it a good math theme.

This is just the first obstacle, but not insurmountable. There are people who quit during institute, which is pretty crazy. What’s funny, is the standard way people quit. At the beginning of institute we were all given these giant binders with all the materials in it. When people quit, they generally did so in the middle of the night and their roommates would wake up and see the giant binder in the garbage. I’m not sure how many of the 750 of us quit already, but it wasn’t many.

Here’s a picture of me during my student teaching at institute.

The first day of school went pretty well. On the drive from L.A. to Houston I talked a lot with the guy I drove down with, Bruce, about what to say on the first day. He had a high school placement at Milby High and said he was going to ask the students to raise their hands if they are planning to go to college. If anyone did not raise their hands, he was going to say. “Everyone’s hands should be up since you are all capable of going to college.” I’m teaching 6th grade math so after introducing myself, I tried to explain, as simply as possible, my educational philosophy.

I really believe that without critical thinking, school is pointless. So what I did was I held up a calculator and said to the class “You probably think a calculator is pretty smart, but I know that you are smarter than a calculator. Because all a calculator can do is multiply, add, divide, and subtract. But if you ask a calculator a word problem, it can’t do it. But you can. You are smarter than a calculator.” Then I went over the rules.

I made one major screw-up in one of my classes. On the first day of school the day started with a two hour homeroom. Floaters don’t have homerooms. Then, since there wasn’t a lot of time left in the day, classes were just 20 minutes each. So My period 1 and 3 went fine. Then I had period 4. They came and I did my 20 minute thing, but the bell didn’t ring yet, so I stretched it to 25 minutes when it did ring. Then the kids went to lunch. I hung out in the room since I didn’t have a class again until period 6. Well, 25 more minutes went by, a bell rang and suddenly my period 4 class came back to the room. When I asked why they were back, they explained that they had ‘B’ lunch. Period 4 is divided into three 25 minute sections. If you have ‘A’ lunch, you go to lunch for the first 25 minutes, and then have 50 minutes of class. If you have ‘C’ lunch, you have class for 50 minutes and then lunch for 25 minutes. If you have ‘B’ lunch, you have class for 25 minutes, then lunch for 25 minutes, then more class for 25 minutes. This is true every day, including the first day of school.

I wish someone had warned me about this. I improvised an ice-breaker where everyone gets a chance to talk about what they like about math and what they don’t like about math.

The kids were surprisingly quiet on the first day. I think I got a good group!

]]>I’m still digesting all that I learned at the institute. One of our final assignments was to write an educational ‘philosophy’ based on what we experienced at the institute. The thing, I think, that was drummed into me more than anything else was that to be a truly great teacher, one has to encourage deep ‘critical thinking.’ There’s an easy, mindless way, to teach something, particularly with math. We want to avoid that way. Even though it might be the easy way to teach something, if it doesn’t encourage thought, it is really not serving the real purpose of education. I realize that a lot of the math teachers that I had as a student were pretty dry and straight forward in that way. I know that I still learned the math well enough to eventually major in it, but if I were a few years behind in my skills for various reasons and if I didn’t have a stable home life, I could see how this real boring way of teaching might not have worked for me.

The best thing about trying to get kids to think critically is that they will fully ‘understand’ the concepts meaning that they will not have to really ‘memorize’ the concepts. This will get long-lasting learning as they won’t just be recalling memorized facts, but thinking through the logic of the different ideas. Memorizing can only take you so far, particularly in math.

My plan is to really challenge kids to think about the different concepts. Even if they don’t fully understand the logic behind everything, the process of thinking about the topics will make my class a good learning experience. Since I’m not in this to just be an OK teacher, but to be a great one, this is something I feel pretty strongly about.

The institute was very fun. The people in my group were great. The instructors were very wise. One person I really liked was Guy Stella, who had been a principal for about 10 years. I also liked Rick Sjoquist, who had been teaching for about 15 years.

At the end of the institute, some friends and I put on a skit that I wrote where two of the deans tried, in vain, to teach a rough class (I played one of the students) and then Wendy Kopp also tried to teach the class unsuccessfully. Finally, a new corps member tamed the class.

I am pretty puzzled by Wendy. She’s this 24 year old Princeton dynamo, but she reminds me of a die-hard sorority girl. I have NEVER seen her dress in anything but pink from head to toe. It’s hard to take her that seriously. So in our skit, we spoofed her

Here’s part of the script:

Wendy: Give me a ‘T’

Class: T

Wendy: Give me an ‘F’

Kid #2: You better not give me an ‘F’

Class: F

Wendy: Give me an ‘A’

Kid #2: You better give me an ‘A’

Class: A

Wendy: T-F-A. T-F-A.

Class: T-F-A. T-F-A. T-(switch emphasis to the ‘F’) F-A-T. F-A-T. F-A-T. (taunting Wendy.)

Wendy: Oh my god. Are you calling me fat? I must be huge! (runs off stage)

Well, at least this organization is pretty laid back since we didn’t have to get our script approved, and everyone seemed to like it.

In response to one of the comments from one of the other posts, about 25 1990 Corps Members who had just finished their first year came to the institute. First, one 1990 person spoke to a group of 30 new corps members. Ours seemed completely shell-shocked. Then they had a panel discussion with 5 of them and four were completely frazzled and talking about how hard it was while one of them was like “I found that my best lessons were the ones that I improvised.” I hope I have an experience more like his.

]]>Teaching a full class is a lot different than my experience teaching small classes for The Princeton Review in Boston, which I did during college. I’ve been fortunate at the instutue to be paired with a mentor teacher who let me teach three periods a day — over 100 students in total, for the entire summer. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. They barely got to teach at all.

There were some very presigious faculty at the institute. The four house deans were amazing with such different personalities and strengths. One was a very old guy named Paul Nash. From what I understand, he actually wrote the section on ‘education’ for the Encyclopedia Britanicca.

This is the second year of Teach For America. There are 750 corps members this year, which is a pretty large expansion from the 500 from the first year in 1990.

One day during this summer the 1990s who just finished their first years came to advise us. It seemed like they were really struggling, which is not a great sign for me.

Though I got a chance to do a lot of teaching, and even to plan some higher order thinking units in math, my management is not very good. I have a lot of trouble ‘pulling the trigger.’ I keep saying ‘next time someone …’ and then some kid who never talks does, and I just can’t go through with it.

I got a nice letter from one of my students telling me that I’m a great teacher and that “we’re going to be friends through writing.” I plan to write to him sometime.

On my last day of student teaching, one of my top students, a very quiet girl came up to me and said, ominously, “they’re gonna walk all over you.” I responded, “but you didn’t” and she just looked at me sadly and walked away.

But I think I can do a good job. I’ve been teaching math in some form or another since I was 15 years old. I’ve learned about how to make lessons include higher order thinking. That was a big focus of our training. Another thing they are really into is using portfolio analysis. I don’t think in middle or high school I’ll be using those much, though.

Apartment brokers from Houston flew to the institute at U.S.C. and I had to pick my apartment by just looking at a map and the five choices they gave us. I picked a single apartment on Memorial Drive in a complex called Bayou Park Village. $560 a month. Most of my friends are living with roommates, but I’m going to splurge for a single.

I don’t have a job yet, but they will send me on some interviews this week, I think.

I’m hoping to document my first year through this blog. Maybe it will become a book one day.

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