Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: January 2010 (page 2 of 3)

Using less paper in class

One of my students today pointed out that we have used hardly any paper all year.  In fact, the only paper I have handed in their class was the required course outline and two tests for a total of 10 sheets of double-sided paper.  I just mentioned to someone that I could be completely paperless in my teaching if I could find a way for the students to securely do tests online and include essay style responses.  Maybe a classroom set of tablets would be the answer to that but they are pretty expensive.

So what do I do differently than when I first started teaching?  Why do I use so much less paper now?

Well when I first started as a teacher, everything was either an exercise from the textbook, or a worksheet of some sort.  I have 4 binders full of worksheets I used a lot during my first 3 years as a teacher.  I even had an administrative assistant help me organize my resources.  I’m considering digitizing my resources so I don’t lose them, but I’m less sure that this is necessary.  Handing out a worksheet to every one of your classes almost every day uses a lot of paper.  I had 35 kids for each class, 1 sheet per student, 5 classes a day, so 105 sheets a day, or about 19,000 sheets per year.

Now I don’t use worksheets at all.  We do mostly project work, students working in groups to complete the projects, and I use a standard project format and assessment criteria which the students access online.  If students ask me for the "requirements" for the project, I’ll either write up some specific criteria and share it via our class website, or I’ll refer them to the more general list of "requirements" for projects.

I also give a lot less tests than during my first years as a teacher.  I find this accomplishes a few things.  First, I have to create a lot fewer exams, so I have more free time.  I still assess the students on every unit, just not always using a test.  I also get a bit more instructional time with my students.  If a unit takes 3 weeks, that means 9 classes, I get an extra class per unit, or about 8 or so lessons back during the course of a year.  That’s not insignificant! I have more quizzes for the students, but these are self-grading and online.  Obviously, not giving as many tests and having quizzes be entirely online uses a lot less paper.

I also realized that because I rely on my laptop so much, for lesson plans, resources, etc… that I no longer carry around a pencil or a pen to class.  In fact, all year I’ve had to borrow pencils and pens to do attendance from the students.  So another way I’ve saved paper over the years is by moving away from paper lesson plans and moving toward electronic lesson plans.

What can you do to reduce the amount of paper you use?




My first semester as a teacher – part 6

…continued from here

Not everything about living in New York city was rosy.  Failure in the NYC schools was systemic.  It seemed that at all levels the system just didn’t work.  I spent nearly 3 months waiting for my first paycheck because it took that long to process all the new teachers each year.  There was the option for emergency checks, but these had to be paid off from your first paycheck.  So I remember getting an emergency check so I could buy some clothes and food, and then a week later getting $0 on my first paycheck.  I was not impressed.  A couple of years later, I would count myself lucky, another teacher who arrived in the system waited 6 months for his first paycheck.

I also had to pass these exams for certification in New York.  I had two years to do the exams, but I had heard that they were "super hard" and that I might need to do them a couple of times, so I signed up for an exam as soon as I could.  The first exam I took was the Liberal Arts and Science exam, which as I wrote it, seemed to me to be a glorified reading test.  I finished it in an hour and a quarter and walked out of the four exam feeling a bit bewildered.  When I got my results a few weeks later, it turned out I had earned a perfect score.  I decided to wait a year for the other two exams I would have to take to qualify as a New York state teacher, confident I would pass them on my first try.

Our school had serious organizational problems as well.  One year, all of the 11th grade schedules had to be redone.  In another year, we lost 3 of 5 administrators.  During the 3 years I worked in my school, I had 4 different Principals, and 8 different Assistant Principals.  Each year saw 3 or 4 teachers quit in the first month, and our final year saw a greater than 50% staff exodus from the school.

Just getting supplies was difficult.  Every request for every pencil and piece of paper had to go through a man named Mr. Santiago.  After a couple of months in the school, we copied the other teachers who just called him Santiago, having dropped the honoriam out of a lack of respect.  Some examples.  We used legal sized paper in the school, not because we needed the extra 3 inches at the bottom of the sheet which made everything we printed or photocopied look amateurish, but because apparently legal sized paper is cheaper.  We had pens for use on our exams which didn’t work at all, or ran out immediately, until I discovered that you could fold the top of the pen over once, and "kick-start" the ink in the pen.  Incidently, this discovery rescued our exams at the end of our year when we had 5 boxes of pens carefully dolled out to us to use for the exams, none of which worked until my fix.

Attendance had to be done by pencil on bubble sheets at the beginning of every 3rd period of the day.  We waited until then to do attendance because it kept our numbers up as many of the students were chronically late.  We were a title 1 school, with 90% of our students eligible for the free crappy school lunches.  Every year I was there we also saw no suspensions at the school until some magical day in November when our allotment was calculated only because the suspensions counted against our allotment.  One day in January I remember 2 out 17 of my students showing up for class, and the following day, not a single student came.

Our school had very prescribed lesson plan structure.  I had to have an "AIM" written on the top left hand corner of the board, and my name and the date in the top right hand corner.  Every class was supposed to start with a discussion of the homework, and end with the assignment of more homework for the following day.  If I didn’t do these things, then I would receive an "Unsatisfactory" (or U in teacher slang) rating for my lesson, regardless of the success or failure of my teaching. 

My first U came in my first lesson.  I started the lesson with having students complete their presentations from the previous class (with the aforementioned information visible on the board already) and then when they finished after 10 minutes or so, got up and taught a short mini-lesson and assigned some exercises to do.  When I got my report back from my Assistant Principal, who incidentally didn’t work at my school but was actually covering two schools, he claimed that I had "started class" 10 minutes later than I had.  I pointed this out, he said that the presentations didn’t count.  He didn’t even include anything about the presentations at all in his write-up of my lesson.  It was a hatchet job, pure and simple, with no way to win.

That was one of the lessons I learned well while teaching in NYC.  There was no way to win, the problem was too big, and it was always someone else’s problem.  It still sickens me that people who do not care about the children of NYC are allowed to manage its schools, patrol its hallways and teach in its classrooms.  The people who really cared spent everyday being beaten down by the system and encouraged to quit or move on by mindless bureaucracy and rules.


My first semester as a teacher – part 5

… continued from here ….

I didn’t spend every moment of my first semester in the classroom. We would go to a place called Teddy’s in Williamsburg every Friday to unwind.  Each Friday, in a ritualistic manner, we would get a bit drunk and complain the evening away.  Our students, our school, our administration, NYC in general, all of it was fodder for our discussions.  It was cathartic.  It kept us sane.  During these evenings we also began to meet the other teachers we shared the building with and since most of them had more experience than us, we got lots of great ideas on how to manage our classrooms.

The international teaching group I was a part of included a group of Austrian teachers.  They had been preceeded by another group the year before, and were living in a gigantic house in southern Brooklyn.  I hung out with a bunch of times, and we basically explored NYC together, had some fun house parties, ate dinner relatively often, and just watched movies occasionally.  I was really grateful for their company, for in many ways, because we all had left our home countries, that first semester I felt like I had more in common with them than with the teachers from the US in my school.  They also had their stories to share.

One of them worked in a school which had a bilingual program.  A Yemenese boy had been placed in this program automatically because he was ESL but was failing horribly.  Unfortunately the program was intended for native Creole speakers to learn their classroom subjects in Creole and English in kind of a weird mixture.  This boy, at the end of 4 years in the program, spoke perfect Creole and hardly a word of English.  I thought to myself, here’s a boy that if someone in the system had cared at all, he would be receiving a proper education.

I loved living in New York City.  It was so different than anything I had seen before.  Just going to the corner store and getting a really fresh deli sandwich was a treat.  Having someone else do my laundry for dirt cheap, or wandering around midtown Manhattan at night time.  All of these were really cool experiences which I will remember forever.  The sights and smells of the city kept me alive that first semester for sure, and made my time outside of school less depressing.

We also left the city a couple of times that semester.  I remember a skiing trip to Vermont one weekend, and a shopping trip to some retail outlet mall in the middle of nowhere.  These trips were my first introduction to the American highway system.  It was so strange to me that we could drive along these highways and not see any cities or towns or dwellings of any kind for miles and miles until my friend explained that a lot of the highways had these strips of green space left around them.  Quite a lot of things were strange to me that year, including my introduction to Canadian bacon.

I’m from the Western part of Canada where Canadian bacon is the same as anywhere else.  It comes in long strips and you fry it and as you eat it, you feel your arteries hardening.  At a diner one morning, one of my friends asked if I was going to order the Canadian bacon, which I had never heard of.  I asked him what that was and he laughed and said I should try it.  Apparently Canadian bacon means a thin piece of cured ham which is fried like regular bacon.  I can’t see the point, but I’ve since learned it’s a delicasy in Eastern Canada.

My American friends took my under their wing that year and really helped urbanize me.  I was still operating under the assumptions of my small town youth.   I went to parent teacher conferences in a t-shirt, thinking I would be that hip young unconvential teacher that everyone admires, instead one of the senior teachers came to me and told me to my face how stupid I looked.  The trip to the outlet mall previously mentioned was my friend’s offer to help cloth myself in professional attire.


My first semester as a teacher – part 4

… continued from here ….

One of the things I learned about early was my power to kick students out of class.  I was amazed, no one would have done this on a regular basis in British Columbia, you’d make the kids stand outside the classroom.  Not here though, I had this god power that could make a kid disappear, at least for 20 minutes while he was processed in the Dean’s office, and more than likely, sent back to the purgatory that was my classroom.  I abused this power at least once a day that first semester, although there were times when it was warranted.

The first time I had a fight in my classroom, it erupted without warning.  I was shocked.  Two girls were suddenly shouting at each other about something and their classmates held them apart while they verbally sparred.  I ran to the door and yelled for security, as per my training during the summer.  I remembered well the warnings not to get between the combatants because you never knew if one of them was going to draw a knife.  Within seconds of the call for security, two security guards and one of the Assistant Principals ran into the room.  The Assistant Principal was not a large woman but she carried herself with amazing confidence and when she entered the room, some of the children shyed away from her.  The first thing she did was to place her body between the two girls, but she made sure never touched either of them with her hands.  The two girls tried their best to get past her, reaching their arms around this tiny woman, but she stubbornly kept them apart until the security guards managed to get them under control and out of my room.  I stood their in stunned silence, having never experienced such hatred come out of such young people before.

That year fights were commonplace in my room.  By the end of the year I felt a bit more confident and began to get a feeling for when it would be safe for me to intervene while I waited for security and when I should stay the hell away from the fighters.  I knew already that most of my students were pussycats in wolves’ clothing but a small number were predators in training.

I also remember the first time I connected with my students really deeply.  I was attempting to teach the students how to solve quadratic equations.  After unsuccessfully attempting to show them how to factor, and then failing to show them how to solve by graphing, I decided to go for 0 for 3 and teach them the quadratic formula.  I wrote down the formula and remembered the advice of the cool Assistant Principal from the summer, "Make it memorable."  I told the students that using the formula was pretty easy, and they mostly ignored me.  I then said that the hard part was remembering the formula itself and I was going to show them a trick.  As I started to sing the quadratic formula song, the students started to quiet down.  By the end of the song, they were hooting and hollering and begging me to sing it again.  I sang it 4 more times, and by the 4th time, 3 of the students joined in and most of them were keeping time to the music.

Now I can’t saw that the tune was very good, but I’m pretty sure it was the first time most of the kids had ever seen a teacher act a bit silly.  They were impressed.  So impressed that every single class for the next three weeks, the three brave students would enter class singing the song.  I’m in contact with some of my students from this year and they tell me they still remember the song.  It might be the only thing they remember from that entire year.  Not surprisingly, it was one of the few topics where most of the students were able to use the formula, as I made promises to sing it again after every time the class finished 3 or 4 exercises.


My first semester as a teacher – part 3

… continued from here ….

My first day of teaching I felt even less prepared for the experience than when I started student teaching.  I was very nervous as I waited for the students to trickle in.  Almost all of my students were on time though, and my 9th grade class started smoothly.  I remembered to introduce myself, set a good tone for classroom management for the semester and managed to get through my discussion with Brittaney whose name I still cannot say with the right accent.  Anyway, I was feeling pretty good and was pleased with my progress.

My M$AA class also went reasonably smoothly, but I had hardly any students.  Of the 17 students on my roster, only 10 or so showed up, which really should have been an immediate warning sign for me.  There were some hiccups.  I remember one of the students saying something to me and I had NO idea what he was trying to say, I wasn’t even sure it was English.  I later thought it might have been in Creole (when I learned later that student was bilingual), but whatever it was, the rest of the class cracked up.

After lunch, my M$C class started poorly.  I made a huge blunder.  The teacher across the hall was late returning from lunch, so I ushered his students into my classroom to safeguard them until he arrived which I thought was standard procedure.  It took 20 minutes, 2 security guards and an Assistant Principal to extract the M$AA students from the room so I could get back to teaching my grade 10 students.  Actually teaching is the wrong word to use.  Talking to a room full of people who paid me NO attention at all is much more accurate.  My M$AA class was difficult but at least I had good days with them.  With my 10th grade students, I didn’t actually get their attention at all (except from four dedicated souls sitting in the front, THANK YOU!) until near the end of November.

At the end of my first day of teaching I was feeling a little low, but I got some advice from one of the new teachers who actually had a fair bit of teaching experience from previous years.  She said, "Don’t try to make every day perfect just keep plugging away.  You’ll find that at first about 1 in 5 of your lessons works, and those are the lesson plans you should keep.  Throw the rest away."

The rest of the week, which in this case was two more days, went by pretty much the same as the first day.  9th grade class was okay, 10th grade and mixed class were pretty difficult. I felt like a failure a lot in those first few weeks, and at the time what kept me going was the fact that there were 12 other teachers going through exactly the same thing, and that every once in a while, I would connect with the kids.  These moments made me really happy and each of us who was experiencing the same horror story would share both our failures and successes during our Friday afternoon unwinding sessions.


My first semester as a teacher – part 2

 … continued from here ….

When I stepped into the office, the teacher was in the middle of scolding a student and the assistant principal was chatting up a school assistant.  As I entered, they both looked at me, and the look they gave me did not inspire confidence.  Right away I knew I had made a mistake.

The teacher gave me some advice (once she had hit the student on the head with a rolled up newspaper and told him to stop being so stupid) that I don’t really recall but was along the lines of "Don’t let them eat you alive on your first day."  The assistant principal shared a brief story about his first day on the job back in the really depressing 70s era NYC education system and then did his version of a long tour of the school which took all of 10 minutes.

Back at the international teacher training we learned about some basic classroom management rules, the first of which was to never, ever hit a child.  We also learned that anything which involved either being physical with a child or making the child being physical was considered corporal punishment.  This meant that telling a student to write lines after school, or asking a student to move in class, or just picking up something they had dropped, these were all official no-nos.  I began to feel a little bit scared but my youthful optimism won out and I got over my fear.

One of the people I met during this first week was an interesting individual who was an assistant principal at a high school in the deepest baddest part of Brooklyn.  He had some encouraging words to say about our students, the first I had heard since being recruited.  "These kids can learn, " he said, "and they can do it well.  You just need to motivate them, excite them, and grab their interest."  He brought in some of his own students, who he convinced to come and meet some teachers during their summer break, and showed us some neat techniques for teaching math, including singing the quadratic formula to get the kids to remember it.  I think of all the people I met the summer he helped me the most get through the semester, and I only saw him for two days in the summer.

Very quickly school started and the beginning of the year started with two days of getting ready for school.  We were all assigned classrooms, it turned out that there were 12 new teachers that year, all of whom were fairly new to teaching, most of us were not from New York.  I was the only Canadian, but there was apparently one "on another floor so you’ll be alright."  I spent my first day preparing my classroom which needed a lot of cleaning.  I noticed that I had a bunch of ugly desks and saw some classrooms with nice tables, so I made my first mistake of the year.  I went to the Assistant Principal in charge of Supervision, even the name sounds ominous, and asked him for some tables, which I did not get.  Needless to say, he and I did not get on well that year. Or the next.  Or the year after that.

My next day, after I had done as much as I could, I found out what my schedule was.  The person in charge of curriculum for the whole school came by our school to give us a pep talk and give us a copy of the curriculum for the year.  He handed me a piece of paper with 20 questions printed on it and in a thick Brooklyn accent said, "Make sure they can answer all of those questions by the end of the year, and you’ll be fine."  He also took a look at my schedule and immediately walked off with it.  He came back about 10 minutes later and gave me a new schedule with M$A, M$AA and M$C on it, instead of M$A, M$AA, M$AA.  He said, with my first schedule they’d be looking for a new teacher within a few months, so he was doing the school a favor.  He also told me I was lucky, the new textbooks would only take a couple of weeks to arrive.

Apparently M$A meant first semester 9th grade, M$C meant first semester 10th grade, and M$AA meant, all of the students who were whatever age but had no credits in high school at all, some of them after 3 or 4 years.  I was really grateful later in the semester when I could hear the shouting and laughing happening across the hall.  My M$AA class would come back and haunt me time and time again, but as the year progressed it got easier and easier to teach.


My first semester as a teacher – part 1

I’ve been thinking about my first semester as a teacher a lot recently.  I had a very difficult start to my profession, perhaps some of you can relate.  I can honestly say that the only thing that kept me in teaching was the money I owed my parents to move to NYC, and the cost of repaying my student loans.  At one point during the semester I was ready to throw in the towel and quit.  For some reason, I didn’t.

I grew up in British Columbia and spent most of my young adult life in Vancouver after moving their for university from my small town home.  In 2002 I finished my teacher training, and found that getting a job was going to be very difficult.  So after a friend pointed out an advertisement the New York Department of Education had posted in the newspaper, I decided to take a chance and put together my student teacher portfolio and resume.  I showed up at a hotel, looking professional in a new suit and with my ideas about education ready to share.  I easily got a job in a difficult school district in something called the Chancellor’s district.

At the beginning of August I moved to NYC after receiving special permission from the UBC Faculty of Education to graduate early, having compressed my summer courses into a single 3 week session.  NYC was hot, it was August and I was not ready! I had some time to rent an apartment because I was in New York early, so I promptly got myself ripped with a cockroach infested apartment in Williamsburg.

We had a week of training ahead of time where we given some preparation to what we were going to experience, and we were encouraged to go visit our school and find out what it would be like.  I was in a cohort with a few hundred international teachers, and nothing the NYCDOE could say would whole prepare us for our experiences in inner city Brooklyn.

I arrived at my school and it was a gigantic block, it looked like a prison.  Bars on the windows, horrible peeling paint, depressing atmosphere.  I had some trouble finding my school in the building because there were three schools in the building and no signs pointing to any of the schools, at least none that were obvious.  Eventually I found the unmarked main office for the school and had a chance to talk to one of the teachers and the main assistant principal for the school.


60-Second Education podcast

Do you think teachers would download and listen to a 60 second podcast about education?  We’d basically take short bite size pieces of ideas, and turn them into interesting audio clips that teachers could download and listen to in their short amounts of free time.  Well, anyone who is interested in joining could participate, we all have some great ideas on how to make education better, we just need a wider audience.

If every teacher was in the same social network, or had the same preferences for how they received information, then I’d say "Let’s all get on Twitter" and share our information that way.  To be honest, I know this won’t work because our colleagues are so different.  We still need to reach our colleagues though and perhaps subscribing to a short podcast would be easier than learning a the mechanism for change that Twitter represents.

The podcasts could be great conversation starters for professional development for example.  Any thoughts?

Research based teaching

I’d like to be a research based teacher.  This means, if research comes out which is compelling and reliable and which suggests that an alternate approach to what I do will work better, then I’ll experiment and try that out.  If research tells us that people learn in a certain way, then I’ll need to look at my practices and adjust them correspondingly.

Here’s an example of one change I’ve made recently because of research I read.  The research is a meta-study of the relationship between the time between a learner makes a mistake and when they receive feedback on their mistake.  If there is more than a very small amount of time between making a mistake and getting feedback on that mistake, interference between the mistake and the feedback is likely to occur and the feedback may not be what is remembered, instead the mistake may be remembered.  "Teachers who want their quizzes to help students learn should try to arrange conditions so that students receive feedback as quickly as possible after they answer quiz questions." Kulik & Kulik, 1988

I don’t assign homework anymore of a quiz or exercise nature which doesn’t provide immediate feedback.  So this entire year, I haven’t assigned a single exercise from the textbook.  I still provide a textbook in case the students want to study, or practice with their tutor or parents, but we only use it during class-time.  During class I can roam the classroom and provide feedback when students are making mistakes, and I can make sure students are checking their answers with the back of the book on a regular basis. If I want students to practice assignments at home, they get an online self-correcting quiz.  Fortunately for me, all of my students have internet access at home.

One problem with this approach is that so much good educational research is locked up in the vaults of proprietary publishers and difficult to access. I am lucky and can access much of this material through my university, but I can imagine that this could be a major stumbling block for most teachers, and of course schools can’t afford to pay for the expensive subscriptions to all of the educational journals out there.  Just having access to the database to search through the journals is difficult.

We need to, as a profession, come up with a solution to this.  Either money has to be spent ensuring that teachers have access to the best educational research out there, or teachers need to become better researchers themselves.

What would you tell a new teacher?

I had the opportunity to have a new teacher hang out in one of my classes today.  We had about a 20 minute discussion afterward where she asked some questions and I got to share a couple of resources.  She is being trained to teach Math and Science so we have a lot of overlap in our specialties.

First we talked about instructional strategies.  I mentioned that I don’t assign exercises from the textbook anymore, I haven’t all year.  I read brain based research which talked about how important immediate feedback (related meta-study) is in the learning process and realized that there was no effective way to have an exercise from the textbook tell my student what they are doing wrong, it just doesn’t work.  If I give any repetitive exercises at all, they are online quizzes hosted at either (if I want to create the quiz myself) or (if I want the students to have more open ended questions and more feedback).

I also mentioned that I focus on including real life examples of everything I teach.  In other words, every unit has at least one (usually many) examples of ways this math is used, or could be used.  I’ve got a bunch of examples up here, more to follow later.  The idea is obvious to me, connect what you are doing in class to what the students will be doing outside of your class, or at least to things they are interested in outside of class.

I talked about my strategy during my first years as a teacher.  My first year I focussed on surviving, I started my career in inner city Brooklyn so this was a necessary survival strategy.  My second year I started experimenting.  Every week I used a different instructional strategy.  In my third year I tried a new thing two or three times a week.  Every year I’ve been teaching I’ve created all of my lesson plans from scratch every day for every lesson.  It has forced me to reflect on my teaching and I think it has helped me to keep improving my practice.

She asked for some website resources and I gave her the ones I mentioned above, and she said that it was SO difficult to find resources in today’s age because there are so many resources to choose from.  The ranking algorithm of Google is good, but not perfect and doesn’t always help find the best resource for you.  So I pointed out Twitter.

I said that Twitter is like having however many people who are your followers acting to do some of your research for you.  Ask question, get an answer.  See a question, give an answer.  Follow 1000 people who Tweet regularly, multiply your productivity 1000x in terms of searching for resources and information, assuming you follow the right people.

What would you share with a new teacher?

More advice from Twitter PLN:

penphoe @davidwees re: new teachers, "5% lesson content, 95% dealing with people"

sharon_elin @davidwees I’d tell new tchr "Put bureacracy aside; it’s all about you & the kids." Relationship 1st, w/you as curiosity coach (not peer).

Philip_Cummings @davidwees Dear New Teacher – Develop a PLN & pick a really good mentor.

acmcdonaldgp RT @davidwees: I would tell a new teacher: Build GREAT, appropriate relationships and never take away hope!

rrodgers @davidwees Be adaptable and process-focused, and he end results will take care of themselves.

amichetti @davidwees I would say that the most important thing to remember is to be flexible!

misterlamb @davidwees "Teaching is your job, it’s not your life." Advice from my co-op from student teaching. Make time for yourself.

TSherwood @davidwees That it’s OK to cry. There will be more smiles than tears.