Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Math class options

This year, beginning in November, I tried several different approaches in my grade 8 math class. Although none of it corresponds exactly to the current wisdom of the three-part lesson, it did work beyond my wildest expectations and allowed for differentiation selected in part by the students themselves.

The three things that changed in class were as follows. One, we got a Smartboard. Two, I started reviewing using Livescribe pencasts. Three, I established a group of six advanced students who worked independently in an adjacent classroom. I should note that this is in addition to all the regular strategies I use to animate a math class!

As I mentioned in the previous post, I do not think you can underestimate the capability of the board to display with light and colour, and to save solutions on separate screens for recall. To me this has a measurable impact on the acquisition of skills. I also found that the willingness of students to come forward and write solutions on the board, while prompting their peers on the processes, correlated to their confidence in learning the math topic, as well as to the needs of individual students to be active in class.

My use of the Livescribe pen is still in its infancy, but I believe that the pencasts did function as a “minds on” type of activity. The room was always silent during playback, a rarity with this group, as they watched and listened.

With the “science room group,” what pleased me the most was the willingness of the students to go really far with their problem solving one day, and then the next decide that they needed info on processes and rejoin the big group of 20 for all or part of a class. To a certain extent the science room group was flexible, but I also wanted the whole group to understand their own personal needs. When they asked me if they could move to that group due to a high test score, I always asked… Did they really want to learn independently? Or was their increasing math success due the fact that they were in the big group for practice and to have their questions answered. I got very little argument from this class, and they were not a shy group!

Now for the big group. Twenty bright kids with a mix of poor computational skills and little recall of math concepts taught previously. I gave in to their needs, expressed in no uncertain terms, to have every question explained, in order. Every single one. Lots of prompting from me and Q and A. But as a result, all students had their personal questions answered in every class, something I have never been able to achieve before. Followed by copious copying from the board. Their choice. In the big group, I always told them, if you get it, move ahead on your own. And some in fact did.

Day one of a unit was always grim, with many complaints, phrased colorfully. Day two, a little better. By day three, they could usually all grasp the concept and do practice questions without too much frustration. Sometimes we got to problems, sometimes not.

What this showed me was that many of the kids were sick of never understanding what they were supposed to be doing in math. Many who became solid level 3 students would still be the loudest whiners about their lack of math ability. They craved the chance to gain mastery over processes, the tools that would let them be successful in solving problems. The pattern of learning that we adopted this year allowed them to work past their frustration point, and feel competent. So, after about six weeks of the above approach, the level 4 students were still there, working virtually with no teacher, but collaborating on their solutions. Some of the level 3 kids were able to apply their learning and thinking skills on problems and tests and became 4 or 4-. The students who started out at levels 1 and 2 often went up a level.

What the Smartboard did was make the learning of more complex processes more accessible to the students who have the ability to take college level math in high school. In my class this included one student who was identified and had never been given anything above grade 4 math in the past. That student had an amazing term two, and with the last unit, on the Pythagorean theorem, had one of the highest marks in the class.

On a non-tech note, I got much better at creating assessments that would challenge the advanced students but allow all to succeed on parts of the test. In each instance, using the test generator that comes with our text, I managed to put together tests that were short enough to be completed in one class and that presented “process” questions and higher level “challenge” problems in order of difficulty. I can always gauge the success of an assessment tool by the response. If I can get every student working and thinking about the topic for nearly an hour, without complaining, and able to show me their skills (from basic to higher than me!), I believe I have been successful with my own goals.

I now feel more confident in myself as a math teacher. With the Smartboard, I seem to have found a rhythm of presenting information that engages the students and their math brains. In the year ahead, I now feel I will be ready to build in more problem solving for my struggling math students, knowing that I can get them to the point of applying their knowledge successfully.

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