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.