I’ve mentioned in the past that my district has a limited amount of technology. While the administrators understand the value of integrating technology into the curriculum, the funding has not been available for such updates. Despite the minimal amount of technology available, we have been able to implement a few technology-based programs in Language Arts and Mathematics. Just this year, we began using an online program that enables students to practice math skills and play games when they are successful. The program has been well-received by teachers and students because the students enjoy working towards the goal of playing a game, and from the teachers’ perspective, the games are so short that they don’t take away from instructional time.
While this level of technology integration is minimal, it is a step forward for our district. It has helped our staff understand that games and other fun activities can motivate students to willingly practice skills until mastery. As a district, I am hoping we can use the success of such programs to slowly integrate similar programs for a larger breadth of subjects and grade levels. Students are so stimulated by technology in their daily lives, so it seems natural that their education would also be infiltrated with technology. Most students as young as Kindergarten are more comfortable managing technology than some adults. So, it’s important that parents and teachers let go of their fears about technology and recognize the benefits that such tools have for children.
For schools that are low on technology funds, there are options. Programs are available in a range of prices. Because the “printing” cost of web-based programs is lower than print programs, companies are often able to offer them at a low cost to customers. Also, keep in mind that there are some no-fee programs available. Be careful, though, some of these programs inundate users (kids) with ads and pop-ups, so be sure you screen them before permitting students to use them. So go ahead, start looking into educational technology programs. I bet you’ll find some tools that motivate students and inspire teachers to change the way they think about educational games.
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Jotting down worries before an exam can help students perform better academically. New research, published in the journal Science this month, suggests that this short exercise can especially be helpful to those who routinely crack under pressure.
According to the journal's online news, here's what happened in the experiment:
"In the study, the researchers asked college students to take a math exam covering material they had never seen before. Then things got even more stressful. The students were given a second exam, but this time they were told that they would receive money if they passed. They were also told that they had a partner who had already done well and who would be let down if they failed, and that they would be videotaped while taking the test so that their teachers and friends could watch."
The results? Students who wrote about their worries scored, on average, 5 percent higher on the second test than on the first. And here's the shocker: the other students did worse on the second test than the first by 12 percent! In explaining why this happened, one of the researchers, Sian Beilock, explained: "Writing about their worries allows the students to reexamine the testing situation and reappraise it. This frees memory resources and increases the ability to focus."
The study provides one more piece of the puzzle in the development of interventions for students with test anxiety so that the exam is more indicative of their ability.
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The release of the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results last month prompted another round of hand-wringing over the United States' mediocre performance. Shanghai (China), South Korea, Finland, and Singapore topped the charts in math. The United States ranked 17th, slightly above the average of other advanced OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) members. The latest PISA results followed the publication of the report U.S. Math Performance in Global Perspective, which summarized the importance of creating a population of high mathematical performers to feed a growing STEM-based economy. Sadly, the report concluded that the U.S. is lacking compared to its international peers. There’s an accessible article articulating the findings of the report at Education Next.
However, not everyone thinks the situation is so dire. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado has challenged the methodology of the Harvard and Education Next report. The NEPC review calls the report’s comparison across countries and tests (PISA versus NAEP) “deceptive”, offering “essentially no assistance to U.S. educators seeking to improve students’ performance in mathematics.” Those sound like fighting words to me. Noted economist Robert Samuelson joined the fray with a recent article in The Washington Post, where he suggested that schools in the United States aren’t as bad as they are often depicted. Of course, that piece prompted a response in Education Next.
What’s the story? Are American schools short-changing us in the competition for top mathematical talent or not? Well, we can certainly do better, and we should seek to learn from countries like Singapore that have turned a largely illiterate population at the time of its independence in the 1960s into one of the world’s top academic and economic performers. And one area where everyone agrees (I think) is the need to remedy the performance gap among sub-groups in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics continue to lag behind whites. While some may argue that a focus on raising the bottom has taken resources from elevating the top, I certainly wouldn’t want the reverse.
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This week, I came across an article that provides insight into some of the struggles that math teachers face. CNN's article, Subject Matters: Students Struggle with Math Fundamentals discusses some of the challenges that math teachers encounter in today's educational environment.
The author, Sally Holland, mentions three areas of struggle and offers supports through examples provided by teachers around the country:
- Students rarely have a deep understanding of the math basics that are necessary for further math study. Because students are required to learn so many topics in a given school year, they tend not to master any skills. Instead, they gain surface-level understanding that enables them to pass the test, but doesn't necessarily enable them to learn higher-level math in subsequent years.
- Teachers have to deal with a variety of student learning styles. Many teachers have developed one method of teaching that may not meet the needs of the majority of students in the class. Now, with the heightened awareness of different learning styles, teachers must be cognizant of how best to meet the needs of all learners.
- The article stresses the need for teachers to incorporate math into the real world. Unfortunately, with so much pressure to learn a great number of skills for state tests, teachers don't always have time to incorporate real-world activities until late in the school year. Even so, it is important to help students recognize how math is needed for so many activities outside the classroom.
Each of the challenges mentioned in the article is likely to arise in your school or district. The important thing for us to consider now is how to overcome these challenges.
Please share the techniques or strategies you use to overcome these challenges. How are you ensuring that your students leave school with the knowledge, skills, and disposition that they need to succeed in our mathematical world?
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Although it feels like we’re just getting into the thick of this school year, it’s actually time for us to start planning for next school year. I always find this time a bit overwhelming because it seems as if we’re still trying to perfect our learning plans for this school year. One of the largest tasks that we undertake each year is scheduling and determining if any changes need to be made in the overall schedule for next year. Since starting with my current district, one of the scheduling aspects that I’ve been reviewing is class sizes and their effect on learning.
While our class sizes this year are currently slightly smaller than in previous years, I am researching whether we need to decrease the class size even more. Or, if certain limitations prevent us from maintaining smaller class sizes, I want to have a clear understanding of the impact that will have on our students. From my previous understanding, smaller class sizes are better because teachers can provide more individual attention to each student. Additionally, fewer students may imply fewer levels of learning which may take some of the pressure off of teachers when it comes to differentiation.
To my surprise, Education Week recently released an article titled Whether Slight Rise in Class Size Hurts Learning is Unclear. This article focuses specifically on classes in Texas but provides some general information regarding class size and its impact on student learning. The article mentions some research that shows a smaller class size has a positive impact on learning, but it also mentions that other studies do not show a major impact. Therefore, the research is considered inconclusive. Given the recent financial state of many districts, reports such as this one are likely to provide the backing that districts need to increase class sizes and decrease the number of teachers needed. I really hope that this is not the case. This article might indicate that a larger class size doesn’t always have a negative impact on students, but I can’t help but believe that teachers are happier and students learn more when they are provided with the additional attention that is possible with smaller class sizes.
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After five years of teaching, I took a break and worked in another area of education for several years. It was only two years ago that I returned to a school setting and I’ve been quite happy since. I often reflect on why I left teaching in the first place and I always come up with the same answers – because I was constantly frustrated and emotionally drained from my job. I liked teaching and, honestly, I think that I was a very good teacher. But, I always felt that I was putting far more into my career than I got out of it. I never admitted my frustration and certainly didn’t know how to go about improving my emotional state at work.
Recently, I came across an Education Week article called How Teachers Can Build Emotional Resilience, which provides information about the emotional toll that teaching takes and how teachers can overcome this challenge. The article discusses the pressures teachers feel in regards to job stability, changing conditions, and student behavior. Working conditions can often be challenging for teachers and, without the ability to manage their emotions, teachers can easily burn out. The article refers to the ability to properly handle shifting emotions as emotional resilience. According to the article, research shows that “when teachers are more relaxed, students are calmer, and the overall climate at a school can be transformed.” The responsibility for improving emotional resilience lies with teachers, but administrators must also support their teachers to improve morale and motivation.
Thankfully, emotional resilience is something that can be developed. The article cites strategies such as mentoring others, staying focused on the children, and knowing when to get involved and when to let go to help build emotional resilience. I think teachers need to learn more about this topic because I believe that many teachers are feeling the stress and isolation that often comes from teaching but few admit it and they don’t know how to deal with it. I wish I had found this article years ago when I decided to leave teaching. Informational pieces such as this one bring a voice to over-stressed teachers and provide information that can help ensure that fewer quality teachers leave the profession due to emotional burnout.
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In the upcoming weeks, I have professional days scheduled that will require me to be away from my students. Typically, my substitute plans include a review packet that spirals back to content learned earlier in the year. Such an assignment is usually met with a less-than-stellar report back about student interest in the activity. Yes, I suppose what I’m used to giving to substitute teachers has been the dreaded “busy-work”. While this type of review assignment does serve some purpose, I started to think about how I could make better use of the time when I am not in the classroom.
I decided to do a trial run of what I consider to be a more effective assignment; one where students take a bit of ownership over their learning. I want to keep with a type of review assignment, but instead of a teacher-directed assignment, I created a student-centered assignment. For their assignment, students will be asked to select a topic with which they initially struggled. They are to use their book and other available resources to create a study guide for this topic. The study guide had to include related vocabulary words, a brief section of “notes”, and sample problems (with answers on a separate sheet of paper). Directions indicate that neatness counts so that students would try to make this tool one that will be useful to them or their classmates in the future. Grading is based on accuracy of information as well as organization.
I always feel that one of the best ways to master material is to write about that topic. It is my hope that many students will meet success using this technique. Please keep in mind that this assignment is designed for middle-school students and would be more challenging for elementary students. However, I think this assignment could be amended to ensure its appropriateness for elementary students. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this assignment. It may be one that has to be tweaked for maximum effectiveness, but I hope that it is an activity that I can continue to use in the future.
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In November, Montgomery County schools, the largest school system in Maryland, decided after long study to dial back on its practice of accelerating elementary and middle school students briskly through math levels and topics.
It seems the practice had become quite aggressive, and concern grew about gaps and faults in students’ fundamental understanding of math. Maybe a sort of Peter Principle of math at work here.
The decision is of course controversial. You can read about it here in an excellent Washington Post article. One expert cited is William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor of education and statistics, who says he has never understood the constant push for acceleration in math, and that students would be better served by moving slowly and with more understanding through math, and arriving at college truly ready for college-level math.
It must be hard, in a high-powered place like Montgomery County, to take a stand against the thinking that earlier and faster is always better. But it sounds to me like they are taking a good faith stab at it.
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Each year, lots of people start anew by making New Year’s resolutions, but so few people tend to keep their resolutions. I admit it...I usually fall into this category. I often begin a year with such good intentions and then, suddenly it’s the end of January and I can barely remember what I resolved to do. This year, I am going to turn this lack of willpower into a positive and have a group of my students investigate the statistics behind New Year’s resolutions.
According to Proactive Change, between 40-45% of American adults make a resolution each year. Of these resolutions, 25% are broken within the first week, 35% are broken within one month, and over half of the resolutions are broken within 6 months. I wonder what percent of the resolutions are kept for an entire year? My prediction is that a very small percentage actually achieves the goal they set out to reach.
Coincidentally, this is just the time of the year when I begin integrating data analysis activities into my lessons. This year, I’ve decided to have my students complete their own analysis of resolutions made by adults in their life. First, students will collect data from at least 10 adults who have chosen to make a resolution. Then, students will be required to track data from these adults to determine if and when their resolutions have been broken. Data will be displayed on a classroom graph and students will be required to track their subjects. While I know some of the data may be difficult to collect in the short term, the data that is collected by the 20 students will give us a decent sample size with results that can be compared to the results documented above. It is my hope that this activity will provide an interesting context for introducing simple data collection and displays and also shed some light on the statistics behind New Year’s resolutions.
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The New York Times recently reported that researchers are looking to public school students for insight on what works in the classroom. As part of a project funded by the Gates Foundation to tease out good and bad teachers, thousands of students anonymously answered surveys about their classroom environments.
Preliminary results released last month illustrated that students often agreed to the statements below in classrooms with highly effective teachers. The effectiveness of a teacher was measured by student gains in standardized test scores through value-added analysis.
- Our class stays busy and doesn't waste time.
- In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.
- My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class.
Ironically, teachers whose students agreed with this statement, "We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test," typically achieved smaller gains on those exams than other teachers.
The foundation's goal is to help researchers look for possible correlations between teaching practices and high student achievement to inform the development of more effective teacher evaluation systems.
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