Wednesday, June 15, 2011

3 Act Story Problems

I'd never really thought of a story problem as being similar to a three act story.  Maybe it's because I'm horrible at writing stories!  But after reading examples on blogs such as Mr. Piccini's Mathtabulous Site and A Recursive Process, I think that volume problems in Geometry naturally lead to this type of set-up.

I taught Geometry again this past year, but this was the first year in a long time where I got to teach the second half of the material, which happens to be the half  in our curriculum with Volume and Measurement.  In fact, I think I've done a few "starter" or "warm-up" problems that could easily be rewritten into 3-act lessons.

For instance, I have done "which is larger?" problems in the past.  Here's an example of a problem I wrote and gave to my class as a warm-up earlier this spring.  This problem could easily be set up as a 3-act story problem.  I'm certain the students would be much more engaged if I gave the set-up first, added the information and back-story, then finally gave the "reveal" at the end.  I was intrigued by the idea of adding a "sequel" as well, or letting the students come up with their own math problems.

If I'm teaching Geometry this year, I'll definitely add some problems like these to my curriculum!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Textbooks or Not Textbooks?

The secret to being a lazy math teacher?  Good textbooks!  Yes sir, anyone can be a math teacher if they have a good textbook - just read the material in the next section before class starts, give a few examples of the new material on the whiteboard for the class, assign the even problems to the class (no odds, they're all in the back and all the kids will do is copy!), and sit back in your chair with a good magazine for the rest of the hour while the kids work.  The next day, have the kids trade and grade yesterday's papers, and repeat the previous day's process, following the material in your textbook.  Give a quiz once or twice a week, a test every 2-3 weeks, and there you go - math class.  Right?

Of course I'm attempting humor in the previous paragraph, but the truth is, I'll bet every secondary math teacher in America has tried the formula above once or twice in their career.  As long as you have a great textbook, right?  The problem is, today's changing math standards don't really follow any given textbook.

I student taught and spent the first decade of my teaching career using the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP) textbooks, and I loved them!  The books focus more on reading than previous math texts, they offer a wide variety of story problems, and they encourage project based learning.  I attended the UCSMP conferences in downtown Chicago several times early in my teaching career, and I bought right in to what they were selling.  I liked having my kids read, and when I got behind and wasn't prepared for the next lesson, I'd read along right with them.  In my first years of teaching I taught from everything that UCSMP had to offer:  PreAlgebra, Algebra, Geometry, Adv. Algebra, FST, and PDM.  You could follow the planning schedule in the book day after day, use the provided tests and quizzes (or accompanying software), throw in the occasional project, and your teaching year was set.

Unfortunately, the State of Michigan switched the standards for HS math in the mid-2000's.  Now Statistics were a part of Alg 2, while topics like matrices were not.  Suddenly, following the UCSMP books day after day was no longer possible, as we began to introduce curriculum that previously only existed in other courses.  My world was turning upside down!  To make matters worse, I got hired in a district that didn't use UCSMP at all!  In fact, this new district was encouraging us to not use textbooks at all, or use material that could be found or accessed online.  By assigning each student a laptop, with access to our "official" texts online, students wouldn't need to lug around texts each day (and our district wouldn't need to spend $ replacing texts).

So now, the question is, what "textbook" do I use, or do I even use one at all?  Our Trig and PreCalc books are older than my students, and they don't really even align with the state standards.  I can find better material elsewhere, but my district won't buy new texts.  So I can try another option ....  I can scan a sample textbook that I like, post links to it on my moodle page, and have students use it as a text.  The catch is only students with the password can access the material, which keeps me from getting caught for violating copy write laws.

This whole situation would be made easier if I had fewer preps and some consistency of teaching assignment.  As I've complained in previous posts, I teach a wide variety of classes, and they switch year to year.  If a teacher can focus on just one or two math subjects for consecutive years, I think they'd be a much more effective teacher.  Regardless of the textbook.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lesson Planning ... ugh!

I knew I was in trouble during my first year of teaching when my principal gave me a lesson plan book.  He expected me to turn in my upcoming week's lesson every Monday morning.  Plan ahead?  Me?  I just don't work that way!

I tried as best as I could that year to submit weekly lessons.  I was lucky enough to have submitted my lessons the week our staff irritated my principal so much that he entered a negative note into the file of each staffer who hadn't submitted their plans that week!  But I can admit it - I'm a seat of my pants type operator.  I'm lucky to stay a day ahead, let alone a week or a whole unit!

There was a short time during my first years of teaching that I actually made up monthly calendars!  I would print out a schedule for, say, the month of October for Stats class with potential assignments, quizzes, tests, and projects listed for the whole 31 days.  And I'd do my best to stick to that schedule!  That would force me to plan my units and activities far in advance.  I'm not sure when and why I dropped this system.  I think it was when I switched schools in 2001 - in a new district, it took me a while to plan ahead for the new subjects I was teaching, and then I got moved from building to building and subject to subject so often that I just gave up.

I started at my current district in 2007, and in 4 short years I've now taught every regular math course our school offers - I'm the "catch all" guy.  I've taught Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Trig, PreCalc, Stats (these last 3 are stand-alone 1 semester subjects), and AP Calculus in this time.  That's everything my district offers, aside from Tech and Business Math, taught by our Business/Math instructor.  So I've taught 7 math subjects - my colleagues have taught 2,3, or 4 different subjects in that time period!  My flexibility is good for my administrators and counselors making schedules, but it's tough for me to focus my craft on just a few select subjects.

Currently, I try to plan a chapter or unit at a time.  I figure out what assessments I should use, which topics will take the most amount of days, and what special projects or activities I should add into the regular text we use.  Sometimes I choose not to use the text at all, if I don't like the question bank for a particular lesson.  Then I'll rely on other texts and sources I have.

I love to do special projects, and now that I'm no longer teaching on trimesters, I have more time in the year to assign them.  Simple activities like taking a day to make tessellations in Geometry, and doing stats measuring experiments in class I feel encourage students to explore learning math in different ways.

There have been days this year (Mondays?) where I've walked into school 20 minutes before my first class with no clue what I was doing in class that day - and yet since I've taught such a wide variety of topics in my career, I feel very confident on finding different ways to introduce new material to students.  But being organized and planning ahead always works so much better!