Saturday, February 24, 2018

Supporting Parents Supporting Students: Start with a Calendar

In my last post, what started as an endorsement of The Incredibles2, and their recent sneak peek trailer, ended as a declaration that parents need help supporting their children with school work at home. Think about how frameworks have changed over the last ten years (but certainly since parents were in school). When parents were in school, there might have been weekly newsletters or emails indicating what happened in school this week and how parents could support students at home. Then teachers developed websites where parents could check assignments and look at support resources. In the last few years, learning management systems came onto the scene and replaced websites. Teachers can now, with a few easy clicks, easily store everything they want to in a digital classroom for students to access. Unfortunately, parents often can't access this resource. Even when Google Classroom added parent email capability, it only sort of helped. 

A most basic example of this is with tracking assignments. Parents probably start the homework routine with the question "do you have any homework?" Some kids probably know/remember/recorded what they have to do and get right to it. For those of us not blessed with professional students, the answer is often "I don't know," followed by a groan (and sometimes it's the student)! An easy solution to this is to use a calendar program and share the link with parents. In my classroom, this is Google Calendar (which I couldn't get by without), but other calendar programs probably work the same way. 

Here's my system:

1. Create a free Google Calendar with the name of my class.

2. Add my assignments to the Google Calendar. I like the "Schedule" view for an assignment calendar because it looks like a list rather than a calendar, but you can choose among several different views. If you want to provide an agenda for each day, consider starting your "assignments" with numbers, like "1 Review Homework" followed by "2 Forces and Motion Lab" so they will stack up in numerical/chronological order.

3. Go into the calendar settings and make the calendar PUBLIC. This will allow anyone, whether or not they use Google calendar, to instantly see your assignments. Share the URL with parents (and students!).

You can also share the calendar with individual email addresses. Or embed the calendar on a website. This way, parents can add your calendar to their digital calendar. Then the assignments come to them without having to do anything special. If you're trying to support student learning at home, what could be easier for parents than just seeing what the assignments are inside an existing calendar? Of course, parents might need to be shown how to do this. That is a great task for Open House, right?

If you want to learn more about Google Calendar, check out this post I wrote about it earlier this year.

The system you have in place might look great to you. Take a minute and think about it, though, from a parent's perspective. Can they access the information? Without an account and a password? How many clicks does it take to get to the vital information for all the classes their children take? Is the system convenient for parents (whose help you probably need) or is it convenient for you? Have you taken steps to teach parents how to make this system work efficiently?

When we make decisions about the way we will support students outside the classroom, we need to think about the classroom that happens at their homes. A fellow Ohio technology enthusiast, Mike Daugherty, addresses this with his website on a page called Help @ Home. Mike is a K-12 Director of Technology and an endless supplier of tips and strategies. He was selected as a Google Certified Innovator in part due to a project that aims to help parents understand and navigate technology advancements that we discretely teach to our students. Of course, this thinking fills the gap that I have now described in two posts. If you are feeling that gap, subscribe to his email updates on his website. And, of course, follow my blog for continued conversations about this topic.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Math is Math!" An Incredible(s) Reaction

It was a crummy week to be a teacher. Maybe that's why I found special happiness on Thursday to walk into my house after work to the sound of my children's laughter. They were crowded around a chromebook giggling, with my husband hovering nearby. "What's so funny?" I asked. "An Incredibles 2 trailer has been released," all three of them said at once. "You have to see it." I plopped down on the couch to watch and soon I was laughing too. If you haven't seen it, here it is:

Just at the point where Bob explodes into a full-blown dad-rant that ends with "Math is math," my son exclaims, "It turns out our family is the Incredibles." That made us laugh even harder. But it turns out that everyone isn't laughing about "math is math." In fact, some teachers are irritated that Pixar seemingly took a shot at the Common Core State Standards

I'd like to offer a different perspective. Almost every school night for the last two years, I sit down at the dining room table to help my son with his middle school math homework. Most of the time, he doesn't need help, just encouragement. This year there have been more times when he needs help with math and also science. One night last week I had to text three physics teachers to get help with something he was assigned. About once a week I ask "what do the kids without a science teaching mom do when they need help?"

When teachers are absent, we leave lesson plans for our substitute teachers to follow. When kids go home with their school assignments, they sit down at dining room tables to complete the work and their parents, who function essentially as de facto substitute teachers, try to help and support them. Without lesson plans. Without extra information or professional development or degrees in education, parents won't necessarily understand what an assignment is trying to accomplish. Or how a skill is foundational. Or why we would try to solve a problem three or four different ways. They just want to help their kids. And we could probably do a better job at helping them do just that.

For two years, my son has been solving diamond problems in math. I didn't know why. And neither did he. He just did them. This month he started factoring quadratics and one night at the table, he told me, "Mom, this is why we've been doing all those diamond problems. They make the thinking we have to do now easier." That was a cool moment, but it took us two years and a lot of diamonds to get there.

Maybe Pixar meant to take a shot at the Common Core. Maybe, as others have pointed out, because the story is set in the 1960s when the phrase "New Math" was born, the shot they took is at that. Or maybe Pixar capitalized on the timeless, common experience that all parents have shared - that feeling when you look at the work your child does, work that looks different from what you did, and you don't know how to help. The "math is math" rant makes us laugh, not because it's about math, but because we have all been there about something.

For my part, I think the trailer makes the movie look great. I can't wait to see it. Between now and then (June 15!), I am going to give some thought to how I can do a better job at helping parents support their kids while they learn chemistry.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Word Choice: Use Ctrl+F when Proofreading Writing

This week a few of my students have asked me to proofread their research papers for English. The papers have been a fun read; I have learned about several interesting topics. One thing that struck me, though, has been stale word choices. In one paper I found the word however four times in one paragraph. In the paper pictured above, the use of huge was, well, huge.

After I read "huge" for the third time in seven lines, I decided to investigate how often huge was used. I clicked Command+F (on Mac; Ctrl+F on PC). When you access the "Find" command with this keyboard shortcut, a small pop-up window appears in the upper right and shows how many times a word was found. In this case, huge was used fourteen times. Next to the usage window are two arrow buttons. Click on these and each use of the word will show on the screen.

This would be a great shortcut to show kids before they turn in the final version of their essays. During editing, Command/Ctrl +F could be used to check for commonly overused words. Once they are located, the arrow keys can be used to toggle between uses so that a different word can be substituted.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Choice is Yours: Differentiating the Math of Chemistry

Unlike many chemistry teachers, I don't teach stoichiometry (the math of chemical reactions) all in one unit. I introduce the mole early in the year with atomic structure and cycle back to the mole concept in every unit I teach. Today I took my second pass at reaction math, incorporating what the students have learned about gas laws in our current unit. Some teachers will tell you that if you don't show students how to solve these problems, they won't be able to. I disagree with that and have a couple of years of differentiated lessons to back me up.

When the bell rang, I asked all my students to stand up and come to one side of my classroom. Once they were there, I briefly explained the kind of problems we would solve. Then I described three approaches they could choose from: 

  1. Sit at a table with other people and talk about ways to solve the problems (or ignore everyone and forge ahead without conversation). 
  2. Sit at a table with an iPad loaded with a presentation that will model each type of problem and solve a subsequent one without the model. 
  3. Sit at a table with some manipulatives I made to help get from the start to the finish of the problems.

Then I gave them the opportunity to self-select. Most students ended up where I would have placed them! About half the students sat at the tables with the iPads. About a fourth of the students sat at a table with no resources except each other. The last fourth sat with the manipulatives. The conversations at all the tables were outstanding. At each center, students were having great conversations about why and how they should proceed to an answer. All these conversations would have been lost if I had been the only one modeling.

The manipulatives were just pieces of cardstock with conversion factors on them for each of the problems. They included conversions that students needed and conversions that they didn't need so they had to choose correct relationships to get from the start to the finish. As a new problem solver, it's challenging to look at a blank space and figure out which relationship will help solve the problem. The manipulatives took a little guess work out, but still required students to think through the problem and select the right ones. The cards were color-coded for three types of chemistry problems we attacked today. They seemed to genuinely help students see why they sometimes need molar mass but other times they don't. One student even asked if the manipulatives would be available next week on the quiz.

Two takeaways really stick with me tonight: 

  1. Given a chance and the support to think and talk through problems, my students will successfully do this. The way they help and question each other is awesome. 
  2. When high school teachers say it's impossible to differentiate, I wonder how often they have tried it.

Today in my class, more students got what they needed. And I did, too, because I was able to wonder around and listen to their terrific progress and touch base and observe students who might struggle. I think all of us - my students and I - learned more today than on many other days this year.