Thursday, February 28, 2013

Second Chances

Today is the day after a test.  I walk around to hand back tests to the students.  Students, who did well, put a smile on their faces.  Students, who did poorly, sink into their chairs in displeasure.   I come back to the board to review the problems which created the most difficulty.  The students who did well are so excited they don’t want to listen.  The students who did poorly are so upset with themselves they can not concentrate.  So, what am I doing?  I’m pretty much talking to no one.  I’m not helping those students who received a bad grade and the students who were successful are now bored.

After about two and a half years of doing this in my classes, I realized something must change.  Some students were not successful on a test.  The only way they can help their grade is to do better on the next test.  But they need the material from the previous test to help them.  So what service am I providing to my failing students?  How am I motivating them to do better?  I used to say, “You are going to need to learn this to do well on the midterm.  Don’t just put the test away and not look at it.  Study it and learn from it.”  After thinking about how I would take that statement as a student, I realized how little impact it actually has.  Something needed to change in my grading philosophy, and change fast.

Everyone deserves a second chance, right?  You fail your driver’s test; don’t you get a shot at it?  You do poorly on the SAT’s; you can take them again right?  So for a test in class, why are students only getting one chance?  After much questioning, research, and consideration, I decided to implement a re-take policy for my classes. 

After students receive their test and are not happy with the score, they can come to me and inquire about a re-take.  I give the student a contract that lists the steps they must follow in order for the opportunity for a retake.  The contract must be signed by the student and their parent/guardian.  The steps are as follows:
1.      Get the test paper signed by a parent/guardian
2.      Attend extra help session for corrections on the test
3.      Complete given assignment on your own (if necessary)
4.      Make an appointment after/before school to take your re-take
(You can see my full written policy and contract below)

Once students take the re-take, I look at how much knowledge they have gained, and use my professional judgment to assign a new grade.  Students are appreciative of the second chance and are taking full advantage of it. Students are recognizing how much more work they need to put in if they are unsuccessful.  This gives them some motivation to do well the first time.  And it also gives them an opportunity to right the wrong.

What is our goal as educators?  My goal is for every student to have the best opportunity at succeeding in my class.  If my students have only one chance at every test, then they really don’t have the best opportunity at succeeding.  I want my students to learn and one of the best ways to learn is from your mistakes.  I have a little saying I like to use:  “Failure is not an ending, it’s a beginning.”

Mr. Fiscina
Algebra 1
Re-Take Policy

In order for students to have the best opportunity to succeed, students will now have the ability to take a re-take of a test.  The following guidelines will be enforced in order for a student to take a retake.  Any of the guidelines may be adjusted at judgment of Mr. Fiscina. 

  • Student must get test paper signed by parent.
  • Student must attend extra help session (before/after school or during lunch) to fix the mistakes made on the test.
  • Student must complete appropriate assignment (if necessary) given by teacher during extra help session.
  • Students will re-take the test when ready before or after school by appointment only.  If student misses appointment, student’s parent will be notified about it.
  • The re-take and test will both be looked at to see the student’s growth of knowledge and Mr. Fiscina will use his judgment to adjust the grade.

There are no restrictions on the grade you get on the test in order to take a re-take.  All test scores are eligible for a re-take, even A’s.  Students are also allowed to make up as many tests as they feel necessary.  Our goal is to have everyone succeed!     

Mr. Fiscina
Algebra 1
Re-Take Contract

I ____________________________ feel that it is necessary to take a re-take for the test taken on ____________.   I understand that I need to complete the following:
____ Test paper signed by a parent/guardian
____  Attend extra help session on _____
____  Complete any assignment from Mr. Fiscina
____  Make appointment for re-take on _____ 

Student Signature

Parent/Guardian Signature


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hi, I'm Ed

Let me introduce someone to you.   His name is Ed.  He has been my best friend since I attended Edscape 2012 in October here at NMHS.  We have gotten to know each other very well and my classes seem to like him as well.

Ed is a great asset to all my classes.  He helps the students with their homework and their studying endeavors  .  Ed provides reminders as to when assignments are due and when tests are coming up.  He also relays messages to me from students.  He shows videos that I have made to my classes so that they can review.  He even flipped my class last week on Digital Learning Day.  What a guy!

Ed collects homework from my classes and checks it.  He gives them a grade and feedback as to what they did wrong.  Ed saves all the homework that was to be turned in.  This way when a student is absent or falls behind in class, Ed can help them out.  Also Ed is "techie."  Whenever he needs to tell everyone something, he sends them a text or a notification through their smart phone.  And he always waits until after school is over at 3 so this way he doesn't interrupt any one else's class.

Ed is also a big help to me.  He files everything away according to subject or class.  He shows me everyone's homework and keeps a record of it.  This way if I forget to include someone's homework into their grade, Ed can show me what the student was supposed to have.  Ed is organized and easy to talk to.  I can talk to him in school, after school, or even on the weekends.  He is always available to me.

Now if you haven't figured out by now, I personified  It is a website which I call "Facebook for school."  What I can do with it is assign homework, upload images and videos, and send out announcements or reminders.  I have students submit their homework through it so I can provide feedback.  I even had a class take an online quiz through it.  Ever since I implemented edmodo in the fall, I've noticed a significant increase in student engagement.  I use it for all my classes and even run a HSPA prep through it for Juniors.

If you don't use it in your classes or don't know what it is, check it out when you get a chance.  Start off small when using it.  Then learn as you go.  Don't expect to do major assignments through it right away.  Take your time.  And don't be afraid of failing.  If something doesn't work, try doing it differently.  Failure is not an ending, it's a beginning.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bringing Your Teacher Home

Every teacher has probably hear this from a student at some point in their career, "I understand it while I'm in class, I understand once I leave the class, but once I go home to do my homework, it's all gone."  I know I have heard it multiple times.  It's heartbreaking.  You feel like well at least I'm getting through to the student in class but why are they not getting any of it once they leave.  I knew that I needed to do something to alleviate this problem.

Well, unfortunately I can't go home with the students and sit with each one while they do their homework.  But maybe I can.  After attending Edscape 2012 at New Milford High School (the school I work at), I learned of a free application for the iPad called Educreations.  When I open the app, it turns my iPad into a whiteboard that has recording capabilities.  So what I can do is, record short review lessons of the material taught in class. The students can then watch them at home to assist them with their homework, study for a test, or just solidify what they know.

I have gotten much positive feedback from my students.  They even ask occasionally for a video to be made about a topic discussed in class.  They also love the fact that if they miss something I say, they can now rewind the video to listen or see something again.  Also they don't have to worry about missing anything when they go to the bathroom, because they could pause me too.

Its unrealistic to believe that students will absorb everything they learn in a day.  Each kid goes through 7 or so classes a day.  That's seven or more topics they need to learn, understand, and master by the next day...and they're all different subjects.  Taking notes are great and re-reading them are great.  But if there is something missing from the notes or the student doesn't understand what's written they need other help.

At first glance, making these recordings seems like it would take up a lot of your time.  However, it really doesn't.  The video only takes at most 10 minutes to record.  Once recorded, it's uploaded to my account through educreations.  I can then copy and paste the link for it on any website for the students to access.  They also make it easy for me to embed onto my class website.  I also tweet it for the students to see.  Embedding, copying and pasting only takes about 5 minutes to do.  So in reality, if I spend 20 minutes preparing and sharing a video, it's a lot.  Also, thanks to our Principal, Eric Sheninger's implementation of a PGP period (2-3 periods a week where teachers get time to themselves to create, implement, and research innovations to enhance their work) I have plenty of time during the week to create and share my videos.

I am fully enjoying making these videos.  They are helpful for my students, not at all stressful for me, and fun to share with everyone.  Now,through educreations, I get to go home with my students, help them with their work, and they don't even have to feed me dinner.

Sample of one of the videos:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Celebrating Excellence

Do you remember the days of bringing home a good report card to Mom and Dad?  Do you remember when they took it, slapped a souvenir magnet on it and then put it on the refrigerator?  That was great.  Or do you even remember when your Kindergarten teacher gave you a sticker on your work or put a stamp on it?  Wasn't that awesome?  Remember how that made you feel?  Remember the joy of getting that sticker or seeing your grades up on the fridge?  What happened to that?

I teach high school math, a subject nobody would ever imagine seeing a sticker on a test paper.  One would think that giving out stickers in a high school math class is too childish and stickers only belong in the elementary schools.  Why?  What about a sticker makes it not relevant for a high school student?  What message is a sticker sending?

I adopted a new policy this year.  If a student achieves a 95% or above on a test, then the students' test paper gets a sticker on it.  Also I have put up what I call "Fiscina's Fridge."  Its a few pieces of poster board put together and drawn on to resemble a household refrigerator.  When a student gets the 95% or above, then the test gets posted to "Fiscina's Fridge" to recognize the student's achievement and celebrate their excellence on that test.

We celebrate excellence in our culture in many ways.  Athletes receive MVP awards and other similar recognition.   Singers and actors have award shows to celebrate what they have accomplished.  But students achieving excellence seems to be left out of that celebration.  There will be press conferences for the student athlete who decides to commit to a big time college, but nothing for the valedictorian who made his or her choice of schools to attend.  I am not trying to downplay the success of any student athlete and others, but there should be celebration for excellence across the board.  Students who do well in school should be recognized for what they accomplish.  And not just once a year or once in their academic careers, but should be celebrated more often.

What I have noticed with implementing "Fiscina's Fridge" this year is that students are striving to get their test paper up there.  They want their test to be posted for everyone to see and celebrate their accomplishment.  Also what I have noticed is that the students who are receiving A's are more excited about their grades.  Students used to get their test back with an A on it and be content.  But now, students are practically jumping for joy when they see their name up on the fridge.

It has been an exciting year so far with "Fiscina's Fridge" and I hope it continues to make students strive to be better and celebrate those who excel.  Recognition for accomplishing something goes a long way.  And celebrating the students has an impact that you can not believe.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Learn by Doing

All through high school and college, my favorite type of mathematics was Geometry.  Whether it was writing proofs, figuring out missing measurements, or classifying something, I was always eager and excited to do so.  When I became a teacher and saw that the majority of my classes were Geometry, you can understand how excited I was.  Not that I don’t enjoy teaching Algebra or Calculus, but there’s that special connection I have with Geometry.

I figured that I would teach Geometry the same way I was taught.  I figured good old lectures and lots of note taking would be sufficient.  I found out real quick that I was wrong.  My students were not able to grasp the material in the same way I did when I went through school.  What was I going to do?

Well after calming down first and collecting my thoughts, I looked through my textbook, Discovering Geometry, and found tons of activities to do with the kids.  Instead of lecturing, we were now going to learn by discovery and inquiry.  Students will complete an activity, take note of what they see, and then complete a conjecture or theorem from their observations. 

My favorite activities include what is known as patty paper.  It’s a 6 inch by 6 inch piece of thin transparent paper.  Students can fold to find midpoints, trace polygons and segments, and perform transformations with it.  There are books out there with specific patty paper activities to explain further what you can do with it.  But, what the best part about using patty paper is that the students are learning in a tactile fashion.  They are holding onto concrete things and being able to see what they are learning.  I use my SMART board simply to model what they are supposed to be doing.  But once the students are able to make observations, I stop teaching and they start learning.  We collect all our thoughts and put them into concisely written conjectures and theorems. 

Everyone says, including the research, that we learn best by doing.  You learn how to drive by going for driving lessons, you learn how to play sports by practicing, and you learn how to play an instrument by playing it over and over again.  So why do we learn in school by being told?  The one place where learning is the biggest priority seems to steer away from the “learning by doing” philosophy.  As educators, let’s step back a little bit.  Be a facilitator as opposed to an instructor.  Have students come up with their own ideas and thoughts from observation.  Let them learn it by doing. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Making Connections

Hello everyone.  This is my first blog...ever.  I have been contemplating writing a blog for a long time now, and I finally felt like taking the dive.  Many ideas have gone through my head on what my first blog would be about.  My thoughts were blogging about my life, about my journey becoming a teacher, or something else to introduce myself and provide background.  However, I have decided to go in a different direction.  
But aren't stories supposed to be the other way around?  Shouldn't you give some background information first in order to understand what is happening later?  Well, I challenge that theory and say, “Let’s turn it around.”  Let's get right to it, and then discuss the background info later.  This is exactly the teaching style that I am bringing into my Algebra 1 classes this year.
Earlier this week in my Algebra 1 classes, we were learning about ratios and proportions.  This is normally a difficult topic for students because it includes what I like to call the "f-word" in math, fractions.  So I decided to take a different approach.  Instead of putting numbers on the board and showing examples of what ratios are and then doing problems 1-10 in the textbook, we just defined what a ratio was and went right to work.  Students had to use the numbers 1 through 10 and make ratios for different scenarios (i.e. prime numbers to composite numbers, multiples of numbers, factors, sums, products, etc.).  To assist in the learning process students received index cards with the numbers 1 through 10.  This benefited tactile learners by having concrete examples in front of them.  Students can pile the cards according to the description and count how many they have in order to make their ratios.  Then students went on to make ratios using different types of measurements (feet to yards, centimeters to meters, hours to days, quarts to gallons, etc.) The students not only learned about ratios, but reviewed math vocabulary and measurement conversions without even knowing it.  Students were encouraged to use their mobile learning devices in order to look up conversions as well as using their agenda they were given by the school in the beginning of the year.  Now students were practicing how to use their available resources.  It was a great day for learning all around.
After learning about ratios, we moved onto proportions.  Again, without showing example after example and lecturing the students about proportions and cross products, we just simply defined what a proportion is and went to work.  Students were given a worksheet called "What's Cooking."  Problems on the work sheet were all about cooking recipes.  In each problem students would be given equivalences, such as 8 slices of cooked bacon was equal to 1/2 cup of crumbled bacon.  Then students had to figure out how much 12 slices of cooked bacon was equal to.  Once the worksheets were handed out, teacher assistance was not available. The only thing I did was let the students know if they were correct or not. Students were able to implement their own strategies, come up with proportions on their own, and work together to develop answers.  Learning, collaboration, and discovery was happening the whole class.  It was wonderful!
Most math classes would wait until the end of a lesson or the next day to work on word problems or make connections to real life.  Why?  Why not start with the word problems and then go into how you would solve mathematically?  Students have a tough time understanding the abstractness of math.  There is no connection made when they see two fractions equal to each other and using the cross products property to solve.  However, when students come up with their own strategies and make their own connections, then they will get a better grasp of the topic.
Is this done for every topic?  No.  There are going to be times where the teacher needs to teach and the students need to learn.  But, for those opportunities when a student can make their own connections first, before being taught how to do something, it makes the material so much more relevant.  Not only that, it is more fun for the students to learn and more fun for me as a teacher.