Sunday, October 8, 2017

Gotta Know When To Fold 'em

I had a completely different plan for my blog this week.  Originally this was supposed to be a blog on a vocabulary review game that I play in all of my classes. It involves paper plates, teams, and an expectation of 100% participation.

I planned on taking pictures of my students holding up plates, spelling vocabulary words, and talking about how this is one of my favorite review games.

Then 6th grade happened, as it often does.

We had done our first two rounds of the game, which in this case was a review of rules.  The first word they had to spell out was "Wonder" (the title of the book we are reading as a class.  The second word was October.

I was excited because I was things were going perfectly.  My co-teacher was also excited because she is the Language Arts lead and loved that the students were doing this in a science class.

I gave the students the definition of the next key word: The preserved remains of an ancient organism. The groups got the word (fossil), but there was some dissent in one of the groups (I want to hold the L, no you hold the S, I want to hold the L.)

Then two other students started arguing because "you are always trying to boss me around."

Suddenly I had a flash to my first few years of teaching. I saw myself as a teacher that "had to get through the lesson."  The one that would have thought "oh my goodness, my lesson is bombing, I have no control over the class, but I have to finish because my lesson plan says so."  Then would have finished the lesson despite children crying and yelling.

However, years of experience have taught me what really matters - the community.  I stopped the lesson, and had the class return to their chairs. 

We then reviewed our agreements, specifically ones on accountable talk.  It was a very powerful discussion with students realizing and admitting they lost the purpose of the lesson and the game.  They also noticed they lost the values of the community.

We teach our students so much during the course of a year.  Each lesson builds upon the previous - and this includes lessons in culture, community, and expectations.  Letting little things go leads to bigger things later.  I'm glad I have enough confidence to know when to stop the lesson and review cultural expectations.

I'm also glad to have enough experience to know that sometimes six grade just happens... there isn't much I could do to prevent that - but know that when it does, we process, apologize, and move on to more greatness.

Side note, the kids that snapped at each other talked it out and were besties again by lunch... because sometimes 6th grade just happens :)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reflection, Pooh Style

I recently started my 20th year of teaching.  I've been reflecting on so many things over the past month - how education has it hasn' I have...and how I still haven't.

One thing that has been consistent in my twenty years is the importance of building culture both in the classroom and also with the staff within a school.  I'm sure most of you have really focused on classroom culture over your first couple of weeks of school - but what have you done to build your relationships with your co-workers?

I recently read some quotes from Winnie The Pooh (or more specifically A.A. Milne.)  As I read them, I reflected on how they relate to building relationships within a staff...

A staff has to be thoughtful of others. It is a long school year.  There are bumps and obstacles.     How do you show thoughtfulness to others?  There are so many ways in a school: Take someone's lunch duty. Buy donuts for the staff lounge for no reason.  Give out balloons. Be unexpected.

This quote had two meanings for me.  First, so many teachers are in need of help.  You can't wait for them to come forward and announce they need help. Many beginning educators don't even know WHAT to ask for.

Second, we tend to flock around the same people all the time.  We see them at our division meetings, at our parent meetings, and at duties.   At the next staff meeting instead of sitting with your usual crew, go sit with someone from a different division.  Say hi. Share what you did over the weekend. Make a new connection.

It is so easy at a school to let everything get to you.  Students yell at you or tell you that you lost their work.  Parents hear their child's side of a story and come to you with fire in their eyes.  It is so important to step back and realize why you are doing it all. That student needs you.  That family needs you. You are helping to change their future.  

I am so grateful that I work in an industry where my impact can be felt both short and long-term. I am making a difference in the lives of so many - my students, my families, and my co-workers.  I can't say it is the most rewarding profession since I have no reference point for that, but I can't imagine getting so much love and satisfaction out of doing something else. 

So here is your challenge this week:  Go make a new friend. Buy them a balloon.  Tell them you are grateful that they work in your building.  Go be Pooh. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Random Thoughts of a Runner

When you talk to most runners about their races they may talk about their goals.  For a 5-k that might be "run in less than 30 minutes" or "go the entire time without walking."  For longer distances you might hear numbers like "3 hour half marathon" or "qualify for Boston.

Just about two weeks from now I will be starting a race at 6:30 in the morning in which I have a set a goal to "finish before sunset." This is not a hyperbole, and sunset is 7:15 PM.   Most people are not comfortable talking to me about this run.  Few really even know what questions to ask about my run.  When I tell them the length of my race.  Generally the reaction I get is "I don't even like to DRIVE 50 miles!"

Why am I doing it?  Running two marathons?  Back to back?  There has to be a reason.

It's easy - run ten 5ks, then four 5-milers. 

Honestly, there are many, many reasons.  I can talk and write about many of them - health benefits, the challenge, the mental therapy, the time to reflect, the food, for all the people that can't run at all, because some day I won't be able to....  but being a teacher's blog, I'm going to keep the filter with my teaching goggles on.

When was the last time you asked a student to get out of their comfort zone?  My guess is it wasn't too long ago - maybe even today!  Each day as teachers ask our students to do dozens of things each day that challenge and scare them.  We ask them to practice skills that are difficult for them.  We make them read out loud.  We randomly assign them a partner to work with.   We give them tests on which they may or may not succeed.   And we ask them to do all of these things compliantly.

Here's the next set of questions - When was the last time you truly got out of your comfort zone? What have you done recently that challenged you?  What have you committed to that scares or intimidates you?  When was the last time you volunteered to do something you had a significant chance to be unsuccessful at?

So many teachers set goals of "get better at integrating technology" or "to incorporate reading strategies in my science class."    As a teacher pushing your students out of their comfort zone every day, shouldn't you be on the front line leading the charge?

Some have taken this challenge. Have you done it yet?

Monday, September 4, 2017

#TeacherMyth Challenge

Just before school started, I was in a twitter chat where this image was produced

I took this challenge to heart.  How much do we know about our students? We are with them for days..weeks...months... and in some cases years.  Yet with that knowledge, how much do we know about our students?  We know how fast they can complete math facts... We know how many words per minute they can read... We know that they have trouble behaving in class.

But what do you know about the students themselves?  What music do they like?  What sports do they play?  How do you build upon that knowledge?

To start the year I had students complete a google form.  Our sixth graders are in a 1:1 Macbook program with Google accounts.  Many of them have never used a laptop before so teaching them how to check email, respond to a form, or even open chrome is a period-long event.  Students answered a two-paged form.  The first page had basic information such as their locker number, their advisor's name, their birthday, and how many years they've been at Marburn Academy.

Page two asked for some different information.  It included questions about their birthday, their favorite books, movies, singer or song, and "What actor / actress / movie character would play you in your life movie?"

I'm excited for when students start archery

This gives me, if nothing else, a starting point of conversations with my students. I love having this information in the back of my head as I play some of my first three days of school activities.

It has been great to be able to talk to students during class and unstructured times about their interests and get to know them better.  I have learned so much about my students.  In my sixth grade classes I have someone that

  • makes her own usable mermaid tails
  • has played soccer for years
  • is a farmer and made a tractor out of donuts and candy
  • is an Irish Step Dancer
  • is a hip hop dancer
  • loves playing card games, especially Dominion
  • has the nickname "Iguana" when she plays basketball
I'm still working on learning more about all of my students, and don't think I'll have 3 authentic items for each of my students, but just by accepting the challenge I am way further ahead of where I would have been!  For those of you just starting school, I hope to hear how you are getting to know your students.  For those that started a bit ago, it isn't too late!  Find out something new about your students today!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Name Webs

The beginning of a school year is amazing! I love getting to know all of my students. as well as let them get to know each other.  It really sets the whole class up for a great year.  This foundation of community building - learning names, strengths, weaknesses, and just laughing - builds the classroom management needed for the rest of the school year.

One of my all time favorite things to do with students are circle games.  Circles allow everyone to see everyone else.  It allows everyone to participate.  It gives an aura of fun, not competition.  It also gives some control to what can be more chaotic activities.

I play this circle game on the first day of classes.  When possible, I get my room in the circle before students arrive.  If that isn't possible, we go over protocols and expectations for moving furniture.  This includes moving one piece of furniture at a time, always using two hands to move it (I tell them that I know they can move a chair with one hand, but we're going to use two) and remembering physical safety.  I also demonstrate and let a few students go first.

Actual picture of how middle schoolers sit. 

The game is called name web.  Students sit in chairs in a circle and I ask how many names they know.  I have them show me on their hands how many people they can name (but I don't actually have them name students.)  Many students come in knowing a few people, but rarely will they know all members of the class.  I then tell them the goal of this game is to learn at least ONE new name.  You may set a higher goal, but the ultimate goal is one more name.

I then take out a soft round object - sometimes it is a koosh ball, a stress ball, or something of the like.  You need to greet someone in the circle and toss the ball to that person.  There are a few restrictions:

  • You can't toss it to someone that already has had it
  • You can't toss it to the person on your immediate left or right
  • The goal is for your toss to be caught by the other person - it isn't dodge ball!

I encourage students to sit with their hands and palms open if they have not had the ball, and sit with their hands folded or closed if they have. This helps students remember who has and has not had it.

I start by greeting someone by name and waiting for them to greet me back (Good morning, Joe. Good morning, Mr. Taylor.)  I then toss the ball.  They then find someone else, do the greeting, and toss the ball.  If they forget someone's name the expectation is that they ask in a polite way ("I'm sorry, I don't know / forgot your name) - and we model this often.  If a protocol is broken, I calmly review it with them and have them try again.

(not allowed in this game)

Eventually, everyone will get the ball and the last person will finish by greeting me to finish the web.  We then go around again in the same order - whoever you tossed it to is who you give it to again.  We still use the greeting, we still use names, and we still give 'polite' tosses.

After two rounds I ask them to recount how many names they know.  Often their count goes up by one or more names.  I encourage them to continue asking names and that just because you know a name today doesn't mean you'll remember it tomorrow - that's ok.  Just like school you'll learn something, kind of remember it, forget it, then have to get reminded.  It's all part of learning.

I also apply this throughout the year to integrate curriculum.  On the second day after doing names we switch from that to count-bys.  So I'll say two, and toss it.  The next person says four, then six and so on.  After that variation, I'll say we have to count backwards - but in order to count backwards the web has to move backwards!  So instead of tossing it to the person, you will receive it from that person.  This mental juggling helps students be flexible thinkers and adds to the fun of the game.

There are so many variations of this game I couldn't begin to list them here. If you are interested in how else I use this as a base in math, science, and reading classes, comment below!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Great Big Bag of Feelings.

I love the beginning of a new school year - new faces, new challenges, and a chance to start fresh.

One of my favorite beginning of year activities allows students to express how they feel about math using objects. It gives me a chance to get to know their feelings towards math, and also gives some insight into their ability to create figurative language.  I also get a chance to share a bit about myself.

Here is how I introduce this activity.

I have the class in a circle and explain that my daughter used to play with lots of different items. I then pull out this ratty lunchbag.  It is, I explain, her lunchbox from when she started pre-school when she turned three.  In this bag I have some items she also used to play with when she was about three years old.  I shake the bag and ask, "What are some things you think might be in here?"

legit - it is her lunch bag from preschool!

I get guesses from dolls and ponies to legos to crayons... It's a nice variety.  I then dump the contents in the center of the circle.

Students always are amazed at the variety of things in the bag. They also then ask about how old she is now, if I have other children, and suddenly we are connecting on a personal level.  They bring up connections with the objects (I had a Mr. Potato Head! Does that Silly Putty thing really have putty in it? (it does) awww, that's a cute Littlest Pet Shop!)

The great bag of everything

After I give them time to observe, I bring it back to math.  I tell them people have lots of different feelings about math.  Some people love math and some don't enjoy it.  All of those feelings are ok - you don't have to love math, and in fact it could be your least favorite thing.

I then ask them to look at the objects and find one that you think of when you think of math - how you feel about math, what you think of math, what math means to you...

Students get some think time, get a thumbs up ready, and choose a student to start.  That student then picks the direction the circle will travel.  I explain that everyone will share, but I also give students the opportunity to pass if they aren't ready on their turn.  When a student goes, they take the object from the center, return to their chair and explain why they chose it.  Here are some quotes from my 6th grade class this week:
  • "For me math is like a weight - when I get a math problem it feels like a weight is being put on me." 
  • "Math is like the Rubic's cube piece.  I always get jumbled up and think there is no way to solve the problem."
  • "Math is like the multi-colored pen.  There are lots of ways to solve it like there are lots of colors."
  • "For me it is like the battery because I need lots of energy and when I get something right it recharges me, but if I get it wrong I feel like a dead battery."
I have found the key to this lesson, like so many others, is not in the activity itself but the culture setting and story telling before hand.  This is a great 2nd day of school activity after students have gotten to know each other and me a bit.  Just as important is the lead up.  Building that curiosity about the bag, having students talk about the objects, and making those personal connections makes it easier for them to share later in the activity. It isn't enough just to get the students in a circle and dump a bag in front of them - they need the whole experience!

I've also accepted this challenge put forth by @Aaron_Hogan.  So far I've learned I have students that

  • Play soccer, swim, and dive.
  • Make their own mermaid tails that are usable in the water.
  • Enjoy farming and made a model tractor using donuts.
  • Do not like candy or cake! 
  • Have 11 pets including 3 dogs and 3 cats.
Go learn something amazing about your students!

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Welcome to March Madness...

The MATH behind the MADNESS!

Students came in talking about the NCAA brackets and how that would be the focus for the week before spring break.  First things, first: What is a tournament and how are they set up?

I set up a mini-tournament in the classroom.  8 students were put head-to-head in a critical game of coin flipping.  I had students complete a bracket and discuss how many different ways this bracket could be filled out

There can be only one!

Students came up with many different theories: 2*8, 2*7, 8*7*6*5*4*3*2*1, 2^8, 8^2... It was a good check in for me since we already had covered calculating outcomes of independent events.

Finally students realized this is the same as flipping a coin 7 times and settled on 2^7, or 128 possible outcomes.

"So, Mr. Taylor, the probability of two of us filling it out the same is 1 in 128?"
That was a good eye-opening realization for many of them: in this small bracket of just 8 teams there were 128 different possible ways to complete this.

From there I introduce a region of the tournament. We review what the rankings mean as well as how the tournament runs.  Students were randomly assigned one of four regions.  Students were told there were 16 teams in each region and were asked to make predictions as to how many ways those could be arranged. Many, understandably, made the jump that if there are twice as many teams, there should be twice as many outcomes.  They quickly checked the math and realized how far off they were.

Instead of 256 outcomes, it actually explodes to 32,768 possible outcomes!

Their homework night one is to complete a regional bracket and think about why companies will put up $1 million as a prize for a perfect bracket.

Students come in the next day and discuss their picks - they meet in their region and discuss similarities and differences.  They notice while many picks are the same (everyone took my advice and picked the one over the 16 seed), nobody matches exactly.

On day two we talk about the whole tournament.  Students pick up the pattern that there is one fewer game than number of teams (an 8 team bracket had 7 games, a 16 team region had 15 games.)  They use Wolfram Alpha to calculate this value.

They discover that the number is big.  Like really big.  Good thing we have reviewed scientific notation.... because the answer is 9.22 x 10^18, or 9,220,000,000,000,000,000... over 9 quintillion.

The question the becomes how to QUANTIFY a number that big?  Many students talk about having that much money, but is that even possible?

How big is big?

First, let's look at space.  Space is really big.  That should be a good place to find 9 quintillion.  The distance from the Sun to Neptune is 2.8 billion miles.  Billion is too small, so lets figure out how many INCHES it is from the Sun to Neptune.  Will that reach 9 quintillion?

Not quite:

Tournament: 9,220,000,000,000,000,000
 Distance in inches: 176,400,000,000,000

(I make sure to line up the place values to emphasize the SIZE difference. In this case the tournament value is over 51,000 times bigger.)

In other words: if you picked a random inch between the sun and Neptune, and I picked a random inch between the sun and Neptune, we are 51,000 times more likely to pick the same inch as someone picking every game in the NCAA tournament correctly.

Let that sink in a moment or three..

Not big enough, Solar System!

OK. Let's try this.  The accepted scientific age of the universe is about 14 billion years.  How many SECONDS has the universe been in existence?  TO WOLFRAM ALPHA!

 Tournament: 9,220,000,000,000,000,000
Seconds of the universe: 441,500,000,000,000,000

Wait. So not even that is a big enough number?  Well how close are we talking? Let's figure out the part of the whole:

441,500,000,000,000,000 ÷ 9,220,000,000,000,000,000 = .047


The students sure did...  

"So wait. That means if Jeremiah filled out one tournament since the universe started, he'd only be 5% done?"

Yes.  5%  This number, 5 quintillion, is so ASTRONOMICALLY HUGE, that if you had a large supply of pencils, blank tournaments sheets, came into existence the same moment as the universe, and filled one out tournament per second, every second, since the universe started... you would be 5% finished. 

I love the madness. And Math.