Monday, December 16, 2013

Destination 2014: Magical Maths

Hello, I'm back! I haven't given up on the Destination 2014 series - just had to take an enforced pit-stop while we took our u15 girls chess team to Nationals (where we came 4th in the country, by the way!). But now it's time for the next area of thought - Magical Maths!

While English is my first love, Maths is my first teaching love - it's the first subject I ever taught, and probably my favourite subject to teach. Well, maybe not. I don't know. But anyway I enjoy teaching it.

I've been teaching Maths for four years now, and I believe I am starting to get the basics right. Of course now the syllabus is changing, but I think the underlying principles are remaining the same, and I can teach those. I have a solid selection of basic resources for different topics, and enough headspace to create more as necessary during the year. I have also developed a sprinkling of interesting/inspiring ways of introducing topics and making them come to life which I can reuse each year.

So yes, I think (hopefully without hubris) that I'm a pretty decent Maths teacher at this point.

Now to improve!

The thing about Maths is that it's often awfully dry. Most people don't find the subject interesting for its own sake. They take it because they have to, and hate it most of the time. They struggle with it, stress over it, get poor marks for it. They blame the teacher, blame themselves, blame the system. All in all Maths is a stressful, often unsatisfying subject to teach or learn. Understanding seems to be an unattainable goal.

The role of the Maths teacher, if anything, is to tie the learner up in knots, confusing them and rendering them complete incapable of making the climb to Mathematical brilliance.

The Maths itself, rather like Rapunzel's hair, becomes this esoteric weapon which the teacher wields mysteriously, and the learner has no hope of developing for him or herself. But it doesn't have to be. The teacher could teach every learner to wield a weapon. If not the glorious hair of Mathematical truth then at least... the sword of logic? The frying pan of hard work? And once the learners are armed? Well then we can all tackle the tower of Mathematics together instead of working at cross purposes.

How to make Maths magical? I think the answer is somewhat counter-intuitive. Make it more magical by making it more predictable. Predictability is where the learners will discover the frying pans and swords which will make their Mathematical experience manageable.

Usually I would think that predictability would make a subject boring. But actually I think that predictability cuts down of stress. And cutting down on stress makes learning possible. And once learning is possible - then you can start having fun.

Here are some of the ways in which I will be trying to increase predictability in my Maths classes this year:

  1. Structure: Learners need to feel that they know how each lesson/chapter is going to go. I had great results this year when I published a lesson by lesson plan of a chapter before starting. This helped the global thinkers to work out where everything fitted in, and helped the incredibly busy people to plan their workload. And it helped all of us to stay on task.
  2. Homework: Unfortunately Maths is one of those subjects where homework needs to be done (and checked in class) I hate this. I find it tedious and boring. BUT. It is necessary. I got it mostly right in 2013, but let it slide a bit (at least the checking part) towards the end of the year when I became demoralised by how many students weren't bothering. That's not okay. I need to find the energy to persist in following this up all year.
  3. Independent Work: I want to make a greater variety of resources available to the learners online. This includes extra worksheets and memos, videos, quizzes and so on. I want them to be able to do extra "frying pan drills" whenever they can. In our department we are going to try and make better use of Edmodo to post these extra resources once a week after our subject meetings. This also puts some of the onus onto the learners and parents: if they want to improve, the tools are there.
  4. Communication with parents: This is key. It connects with structure, homework and independent work. It links to preparation for tests and exams. The basic principal is this. If the classroom is the battleground of Mathematics, then the home is the training ground. And the parents are the drill sergeants. They just need to know what to do. SMSWEB, Edmodo, emails and phone calls... essential.

I know that despite its title this post hasn't really mentioned much about Maths itself. But all these structural points are what I believe enable me and my learners to actually get the Maths done. Because trust me, it's a WAR out there, and we need to be as thoroughly equipped as possible.

Do you think predictability helps or hinders learning?

yours mathematically

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Destination 2014: Excellent English

I so enjoyed writing the first post in my "Destination 2014" series, not because I think I will get all that stuff right, but because it means that all those ideas and aspirations have stopped swirling around my head. I stopped desperately trying to remember all those things I want to get right next year, because it's all written down...

Ahem! So, speaking of the necessity of writing... Another aspect of my goals for next year: Excellent English!

(Belle is me, encouraging my students to greater heights in the great library of the English language. Look, there the little learners are, disguised as furniture...)

I have one fewer English classes in 2014, and I will be focusing (yay!) on the juniors: grade 8 and 9. A bit of background: I love teaching English, but found the switch from all Maths in 2012 to 3/5 English classes in 2013 extremely stressful. Even the ways in which the departments function is totally different, and I was tearing my hair out in 14 different positions trying to keep up with everything I needed to know/learn/teach/do. So going a tiny bit back into my comfort zone - while keeping the incredibly joy of teaching English as well - is really the best of both worlds for me. I'm so lucky to be at a school where management at least tries to take my preferences into account (most of the time!).

So. Two English classes. Juniors. My focus - which links up with the focus of my department, don't worry - is writing! I want learners to be able to write fluently, confidently and above all with enjoyment. How do I get that right?

Well, they need to get inspiration from good writing, observing what works so that they can reproduce it...

They need to write all the time, in all kinds of weird and wonderful situations...

They need to work on writing, critiquing and editing each others' work...

And at the end of the day they need to take flight and write LOADS:

(The old man is me, admiring the huge oeuvre of writing that the learner's will have produced by the end of the year. This time Belle is a student, showing off her wonderful work!)

Let me stop mixing my Disney movie metaphors (though at least I stuck to one movie this time) and get down to brass tacks. These are some of the things I want to implement in my English class (in no particular order other than that which they occur to me!):

  1. Class Blog where each child makes one post per term - themes would be book reviews, comments on literature studied in class, creative pieces etc... A strict schedule would have to be set up at the beginning of the year to ensure high quality, varied content. I have taken the first step towards setting this up, but the idea needs some fine tuning particularly with regards to privacy for the learners. But I think it is important to expose the kids to writing in the modern world, and blogs are an important part of that. Plus, how better to drive home the need for editing than knowing that the world will be able to see your work?
  2. Journals for private/free writing at some point in every single lesson. They have brought A5 books for this purpose. Now all I need to do is choose topics that integrate the journal writing with our other class work. I am starting an index card box full of "topics". We need to just produce VOLUME of creative output, at least to start with.
  3. Integration of writing work with EVERY other topic we cover. Grammar rule? Let's use it in a piece of writing. Poem? Let's mimic the poet's style. Novel? Let's write a letter from the point of view of one of the characters. Writing needs to be a part of absolutely every lesson, topic, idea. An INTEGRAL part. This impacts a lot on how I need to plan my lessons...
  4. Grammatical Correctness - of every sentence and paragraph. Not always - of course there is room for "free writing" (see point 2) but sometimes we have to sit and nitpick at the grammar of their writing until every child can write a perfect sentence. A careful, precise, simple sentence. A controlled, specific paragraph with no "fluff". Much harder said than done. This takes a lot of editing, proofreading, time, effort. Especially on my part. It's an investment. On a related note: vocab lists and spelling tests. Yes. Peer editing. Yes. This also impacts a lot on how I plan my lessons. Duh. Should I do another post on lesson planning? 
  5. Functional Writing. This is important. The writing they learn needs to WORK. They need to be able to see its usefulness in their other subjects and ultimately in their lives. Do we need to write love letters before Valentine's Day? We are already spending the whole of the first term in grade 9 concentrating on formal writing to help them with their major Science Fair project in the second term. Where else can I demonstrate the practical applications of their writing skills?
I have a lot more to say about my ideas for English next year. But this is already a marathon post, and is probably full of those errors I want my learners to weed out of their work. More later, if I get a chance what with all this lesson prep that needs to happen.

How would you teach writing?

yours writingly,

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Destination 2014: Punctual Planning

During exams every six months, I try to carve some time away from marking and trivial admin to use for dreaming big and creating plans and resources for the coming six months or year. This time has been no exception, and in fact I feel that I've been more successful than usual at making this a priority. This is partly through necessity, because I am acting as curriculum organizer for not one but two year groups in my two subjects so flying by the seat of my pants in terms of planning is just not going to cut it!

Now that exams are over, and school is winding down for the year, I want to make thinking ahead even more of a priority for December. I want to get my ideas, aspirations and plans for next year down on paper (well, virtual paper). Although they may not work out how I imagine now, at least I can refer back to these goals, and see how I have done. Hence my new mini-series: Destination 2014.

My first topic - though it really links into all the others, and is maybe more of an introduction to the series concept: Punctual Planning.

You see, no matter how hard I try to be an good, solid, consistent teacher; cool, calm and collected; patient and caring...

...taking my students on wild, but carefully organised adventures through the syllabus...

...more often I am a lot more like poor Jasmine trapped in the deadly hourglass:

Too little time, too much admin, too little inspiration, too much material and just too many students!

Now of course this dilemma isn't unique to me, nor is it one that can just be solved with a click of the fingers. BUT... I find careful, boring, precise and punctual planning can help a lot. To mix my movie metaphors completely, it just means that I have a bag of tricks to call upon when things get...sticky...

Anyway, so here is my strategy for conquering planning in 2014:

  1. Expectation Management: planning lessons at least two weeks in advance (including resources/activities) just isn't optional. No, really. Come now. Why two? See below points...
  2. Sharing (staff-team): I need to be sending at least fortnightly emails keeping all the teachers of grade 9 Maths and English on the same page. Probably more like weekly in the case of Maths. Thursday afternoon deadline: emails must be typed (at home if necessary) so that they can be sent on Fridays. This is partly why one week ahead just isn't good enough. By the time I do the email, my personal planning already needs to be done for the week after next so that I can give good outlines and deadlines (especially for English).
  3. Communication (learners): I want to print fortnightly lesson outlines, including topics, textbook references and activities to put up in my classroom. This will help to keep me and the class focused and goal orientated. Hence two weeks' worth of planning, again.
  4. Tests: for English, these need to be done a term ahead (term one 2014 already done, yay!!). For Maths I need to start setting two weeks ahead so that I can distribute for comment a week ahead. Diarise these "start setting" dates at the beginning of each term. Do the actual test dates for the year NOW. Yes you can. Tomorrow.
  5. Scheduling: one of my two non-chess afternoons (until 5ish) must be dedicated to lesson prep and printing. The remaining chess-free afternoon must be used for test setting and moderating, plus general resource creation. No trivial admin (emails! marking!) on these afternoons. Saturday morning while Adam teaches = laundry and spill-over planning.
Important Questions for...
  1. End of Every School Day: Is everything printed for tomorrow? Can I roll into school and "do" tomorrow off the top of my head? Does anything on my plan need to change based on today's lessons? Do I need to do a bit of top-up work at home?
  2. End of Every Week: Does everyone know about next week's tests/deadlines? Is everyone comfortable with the goals and resources required for next week? Am I on top of tests/deadlines/goals/resources for the week after next?
  3. After Every Assessment: What and when is the next one? Is it set? Has it been checked by everyone? If not... why am I not already doing that??? If so, can I get ahead on next term's assessments?
  4. End of Every Term: Are all the English assessments set and checked? Do I have all the dates for Maths assessments + proposed topics + "start-setting" dates?
Remember, future self... planning makes everything better! It means that you are free to just go with it, improvise, have fun, roll with the punches... and still get everything done.

And also remember... all of this punctual planning? Starts now. 

yours planningly