Hand On the White Flag

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Fighting the “good fight” can be a rewarding thing. To know you are a part of molding thinkers and mathematicians brings great feelings of a job well done. You’re fighting for all the little guys and gals that others may have been unequipped to do so.

When you are a middle school math teacher you have two options as I see it. You can carry on the tradition of rules and tricks minus the understanding. Or you can provide bricks for a shaky foundation put in place by the most well meaning teachers. I chose the latter. And so far this year, my students have not been resistant to the remodeling of their math thinking. Until today…

After conducting a number talk yesterday to discuss changing a fraction to a decimal, we as a class identified two strategies we could apply for this. One being, find an equivalent fraction with a denominator of 10 or 100 and the other divide the numerator by the denominator. We attempted to apply those strategies today bringing to light the old issue of being fluent with a procedure but not understanding why the procedure works.

Student: to change 5/6 to a decimal, you…well you can’t divide 5 by 6 so you put a decimal and zero. And 50 divided by 6 is…
Me: actually, you can divide 5 by 6 and we are getting ready to do it.
Student: well just add a decimal and zero
Me: Let’s think about what number we can multiply 6 by to 5.
Random students: 1. 0. -1

I inquired why do we need to add a decimal and zero and the only response given was, “Because you can’t divide 5 by 6.” Twenty minutes we spend on looking at numbers that would give us less than or just about 5. Many students lack the concept of fractions and decimals being part of a whole. Some wouldn’t budge from their add a decimal and zero rule and in turn decided not to make sense of the quantities. I could tell there were many that had just checked out. Those bricks I was trying to help lay sat squarely on my chest. I put my hand on the white flag, grasped it tightly and had a private conversation with myself.

Was it worth the struggle the students were facing as their rules of old were challenged? Was it worth the terrible feeling of knowing your students, a large majority of them, just weren’t getting it? I wanted to say, “yes, we just add the decimal and zero” and follow the steps of long division as I waved my white flag.

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I left work feeling defeated, conflicted, and lost on what to do. In deciding to go for a walk after having such a tough day, a song came to mind. “Started From the Bottom” by Drake which discussed his struggles coming up before making it big as a rapper. Then it hit me, start from the bottom, the basics and strategically work my way up to what number I could multiply 6 by to get 5. I’m working a bottom up lesson to implement tomorrow. I’m hoping this bottom up remediation approach will help students make the connection between the procedure and why it works.

Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now my whole team ________here
Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now the whole team here, _______
Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now my whole team here, _______
Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now the whole team ______ here

– Drake, “Started From the Bottom” lyrics

7th Graders Interpretation of the SMPs

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I had my students interpret the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  What they came up with is better than some I’ve seen teachers produce in PLs I’ve conducted in the past.  Now the SMPs are something I can reference and know my students will understand to what I am referring.

After discussing standards 1-4, I had my students engage in Comparing Temperatures from Illustrative Mathematics.  Students had to determine which of the 4 standards were evident while they were completing the task.  So not only were they aware of the SMPs but also they now knew what those standards looked like in action.

In my blog post, SMPs According to 7th Graders, I share a few examples of their interpretations. Next steps will be, posting the SMPs in the language developed by the students on an anchor chart and using their language to develop a rubric in which we use the SMPs to score math tasks.

Being a Free Spirit

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It’s funny how God gives your children the very character you desire to have. My oldest daughter is such a free spirit. She wears what feels right to her no matter the color scheme or weather. She moves to the music whether others hear it or not. I watch her and wish I could throw my controlling ways to the wind.

Now let me connect this idea of being a free spirit to my journey into middle school. Most teachers are hindered in best practices due to our own struggle with control. Unfortunately, students cannot accept responsibility for their learning if we do not give them some control. This is one way I plan to be a free spirit, my plan is layered like an onion.

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Students will be graded based on demonstration of the standards. This will be done through portfolio based grading. Being a free spirit part 1, students will create a menu of ways to show understanding. Included in this menu will be two teacher selected pieces and 7 other options for students to decide. In order to grade the portfolio, a rubric will be created during a students and teacher collaboration, being a free spirit part 2. The rubric will be based on the SMPs and evidence of them within each unit of study. Well, students will need to understand the SMPs.

This is where being a free spirit part 3 comes into play. The activity plays out in my mind like this. Instead of posting kid friendly SMPs posters in the room, I plan to have students explore two standards a day. Students will look at the standard and discuss their interpretation of each. Students will be given the standard descriptors and will match the correct descriptor to the standards. This will be followed by an activity in which students will engage where the standards will be exhibited. After looking at all 8 standards, students can create posters of the SMPs.

Back to the rubric, with a better understanding of what they are expected to do, students can set the expectations of the 4 point scale rubric. My role will be to facilitate discussions and add specifics regarding the content standards. Free spirit squared 😁.