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September 22, 2012 / Jeff d.

Starting Over from Scratch

Because I’m teaching the same classes as last year, I’ve been fired up all summer because I feel like I’ll be able to knock it out of the park.  After two weeks of school-wide culture building, we finally began content this week.  Regardless of whether I’ve taught the class before, I’ve never taught these classes – these kids.  I have to start over.  From scratch.  Here’s some stuff I learned/remembered.

  • It is a rough transition from passive to active learning – but it’s such a fun and important journey.  I love the looks on learners’ faces after I walk away to another group.  There’s this puzzled look that says “Wait…he didn’t answer our question.  He only asked more questions.  We have more thinking to do.”  (At least that’s what I’d like to believe they’re thinking).
  • Learners are used to being told what to do, step by step.  This is made very clear the first time we determine our next steps.  After being given a problem scenario, we determine what we know about the problem, what we need to know to solve it, and what our next steps will be. After the teeth-pulling required for Knows and Need-to-Knows this first time, we finally develop a solid list of next steps.  The learners have created them, I have the learners repeat them, we have them listed on the board…but the first question I get after we begin working is “What are we supposed to be doing?”  Their task is not laid before them, worksheet style with a list of things to do.  Our next steps are aimed at tackling Need-to-Knows in whatever way best suits the learner.  This is hard to wrap their minds around.
  • Some habits – like hiding mistakes – are hard to break.  As part of our cooperative environment, we have group contracts for each unit to help the groups work together.  On this first contract, I included five problem-solving norms (mostly stolen from Malcom Swan) to get them started, but gave them the option to only use them if all members agreed.  What I got was this:

Apparently rushing and erasing mistakes are important to kids.

Only about half the groups agreed to the norm for enjoying mistakes and not erasing work.  I told them that’s fine…we’ll work on it.

  • Adding the word “yet” to many learners’ comments makes a big difference.  “We can’t figure this out”…yet.  “Our group isn’t getting along”…yet.  This leads us to determine our next move – how can we overcome this problem?
  • Never carry a pencil.  The beginning of the year is the most crucial time for this.  By high school, kids have become very good (and stubborn) at getting you to do the work for them.  Not carrying a pencil helps, but I have to remind myself not to carry a mental pencil either – to create a culture of questions rather than a culture of answers.
  • At the end of the day, debrief.  It took me until this year to figure this out, which is embarrassing.  It’s as simple as holding three minutes sacred at the end of class (I build it into the agenda) to ask “what did we learn today?” or “what did you think of the day?”  It gives learners the first opportunity to reflect on their learning, and I’ve already gotten some great insights from them.
  • Kids are more willing to believe “the internet” than a strong argument from peers.  Sad face.  This came about as we talked about measures of central tendency and particularly the mode.  A problem was posed in which a data set had one of every number, but two 0’s and two 26’s.  The question came up in every class – what is the mode?  So I turned it back on them.  What do you think?  Let’s decide as a class.  (Full disclosure: I don’t really know if the set should be considered bi-modal or if it has no mode…nor do I really care.  The discussion that came from the question is more important to me than the answer).  In one class, they came to consensus that the set had no mode, in another class they agreed to keep thinking about it…but in the third class, the following discussion occurred:

Learner 1: Since the mode is the most frequently occurring number, and there is a tie, then there is no most frequently occurring number.  So there’s no mode.

Me: There’s an argument…anyone want to take the other side?

Learner 2: Well I looked it up and it said that both numbers were the mode – it’s bi-modal.

Me: What is “it”?

Learner 2: The internet.

Me: OK, so the “internet” said that this particular data set is bi-modal?

Learner 2: No, but it said that if there are two modes, then it’s bi-modal.

After a bit more discussion, we tried to come to consensus.  The class agreed that the internet was right, and the learner’s solid argument was not.

So here’s another thing we’ll have to work on.  And man am I fired up for this year – just not for the reasons I thought before the year started.

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