Tuesday, October 26, 2010


WCYDWT is an acronym for 'What can you do with this?'. It's a teaching strategy I stole from Dan Meyer that brings interesting real world math problems into the classroom. Generally these problems begin with a visual prompt, either a video or image, and you ask the class, 'What can you do with this?'. Ideally the class forms a math-related question, determines what information it needs to answer that question, and does the math to answer the question all on their own - with minimal prodding from the teacher. Today, I showed them the reverse side of an audio CD and shaded in the area to the burn line to make it a little easier to see. It looked something like this:

I was hoping to prompt the question, "How much space is used up on this CD?", which we could easily estimate using ratios and the knowledge that a standard CD holds 80 minutes of audio. Instead, this question was not immediately apparent, and many students seemed disinterested in figuring out the problem. This disinterest led to about 10 minutes of discussion in which I had to spoon-feed them all of the steps, the justification for the steps, and then repeat my explanation because many students didn't care to listen. Here are my takeaways from this experience:

1. Sometimes you have a lesson that is designed for success, but how you implement your lesson is just as important, or more important, than what you have planned. Even a genius lesson plan can go to waste if it is not wielded correctly.

2. Silence from the class does not always imply that the teacher needs to step in and save the day. Because I had a particular direction that I wanted the lesson to go in, I became quite antsy to interject every time there was a brief moment of silence. It's difficult to let the silence simmer, but I think often it is necessary and allows the students to take ownership of their education. Hopefully next time an extended and awkward silence can be an opportunity for the lesson, not a speed bump. 

3. You cannot always anticipate what the students will enjoy and what they will not. Last week I did a WCYDWT (again, that I stole from Dan Meyer) using a movie clip from 'The Book of Eli' which was a big hit. It didn't necessarily go as planned and the clip didn't prompt the question I was hoping for, but I'm pretty sure I overheard some student say, "this is fun", while we were doing the math, and those aren't exactly words that are commonly overheard in remedial algebra classes...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Justin Bieber's of Math

The current rage in math education are these short tutorial videos that explain fundamental concepts in math like the distributive property or solving one-step algebraic equations, etc. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, is one of the largest proponents of this form of teaching, but if you search for any math topic on YouTube you are bound to find hundreds of users providing quick math lessons that students, parents, and teachers can learn from.

At Chinquapin, we decided to get in on the action, and make a few math videos of our own. Working with the 6th graders, the math teacher and I decided to let them make tutorial videos of their own with the end goal of posting them on YouTube. Of course, they loved the idea immediately, and could not have been more excited to potentially become the next Justin Biebers of math - 11 year old YouTube sensations.

We started by watching a few math tutorials on YouTube to get ideas of what to do and more importantly what not to do (there are an unsurprising number of terrible math tutorials online). Then they chose a topic they wanted to teach, got into groups, and planned out their videos from start to finish under the stipulation that they could not exceed 120 seconds. Next, we did a 'first take' for each group that the rest of the class constructively criticized. I was surprised at how adept the 6th graders were at criticizing the teaching techniques and video storyboards (probably a skill honed over years of criticizing their own teachers...). They touched on every criticism I would have made, so I basically just stepped back and let the process unfold. We filmed the first takes so that each group could watch itself on video as well, and then after another day of editing we will try and shoot the final versions.

Here is a first take video from one of the more nervous and entertaining groups:


We're clearly still in the editing phase of this endeavor - and some of us are still learning the math to teach - but I have faith that by the end of this project the students will understand their concepts well enough to teach them, and will teach them well enough to post online. As you can see from the video, they're definitely having fun and investing themselves in the project, which together go a long way to ensuring that they learn.

Bacteria Unit

Vibrio cholerae (AJC1 on Flickr)

In 6th grade science, we are currently finishing up a unit on bacteria. Because my 6th graders seemed to lack the desire to learn the different parts of the bacterial cell, I decided to focus this unit on 'interesting bacteria' instead of the details that make prokaryotes different from eukaryotes. My senior thesis research was on the infection process of the plant pathogen A. tumefaciens, so I was pretty excited about this unit and the kids knew it.

For one of the assignments, I created a list of pathogenic and beneficial bacterial species, split the class into groups of 3, and gave them the task of researching their species and making a presentation for the class over the course of 3 days. Tomorrow is the culmination of the assignment, when the final 2 groups will present their research, and here is what I have learned so far:

1. The students lack a lot of the fundamental skills required for researching and acquiring knowledge on their own. Next time, before I ask them to do an independent project, I need to present a tutorial on how to conduct research, gather information, and synthesize it.

2. They enjoy working in groups, for the most part, and really enjoy making projects and presenting them. While this may be obvious to some teachers, 6th graders (and likely all students) love doing projects and labs and other hands-on activities.

3. Some teachers argue that there is some fundamental information that is best provided through lectures, but I'm not sure the issue is that black and white. Are lectures ever necessary? For this 2 week unit on bacteria I didn't lecture a single day, and I think I was able to accomplish my goals for the unit, namely: to show that bacteria are ubiquitous, give an idea of what they look like, show that they can be beneficial and harmful, and demonstrate how critical they are in our daily lives. I accomplished this mainly through projects and activities where we discussed current events and talked about what we could learn from them. Students enjoyed reading through the articles, it helped them with their reading comprehension skills, and they really enjoyed the videos accompanying the articles. I actually learned a lot too. Tomorrow, for example, we will discuss the recent outbreak of cholera, an illness caused by V. cholerae, in Haiti and watch the related news clip.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Inaugural Post

You are joining this program already in progress.

It has been 3 months since I joined the faculty of The Chinquapin School and officially started my first real job in the 'real world' - teaching middle school science and math. As other teachers may recall, the first year is hectic, challenging and frustrating - but in all the right ways. Often I find myself floundering in a sea of lesson plans, grading and other academic duties, and I am hoping this blog will anchor me and help me move in some sort of positive direction over the course of the year. My ultimate goals, however, are for this to eventually serve as a guide for future first year teachers and as a venue to publish my students' work, as well as what we are doing in class on a daily basis.

Needless to say, my first 3 months were filled with plenty of trial and error, but fortunately I did have brief moments of success. I will build and elaborate on these moments as these posts progress...