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Teaching off topic 3

February 1, 2009 pm28 8:47 pm

I go off topic all the time; it’s how I teach. I wrote about how I was miles away twice at the beginning of last month. Here’s the first story. And here’s the second. But there’s a third, too:

My friend, a former chapter leader from a former school, he works with a newish math teacher who was having problems with classroom control. And he asked me to come by. And I did.

Nice guy. Soft, quiet. Told me his math was good (I never asked a single question about his mathematics). Classes were out of control, and this was not his first year.

I listened as he described his classroom procedures, and what actually happens. He talked about how often he has to stop to quiet kids down, how they don’t listen. He leaves each day discouraged, and exhausted.

I asked about test grades (most kids fail each test) and about homework (maybe a third of the kids do it). He has trouble keeping up with checking it.


And I told him how lousy I was at the beginning. How Estelle and some of the others helped me. And how some of the advice I was starting to share was the same that was shared with me a dozen years before.

  • I suggested putting a piece of paper in their hands at the beginning of each class. More kids react more quickly to a paper with stuff to fill in than to anything else that is not video or music. It could be a full worksheet. If paper is short, it could be strips with “Do Now” (how I hate that term!) exercises. Narrow enough, and he could put four on each page and cut them down.  (It could also be the outline of a lesson, so that kids had stuff to look at, places to write notes, had the exercises already in front of them, in the right places – but I did not suggest this. He was already overwhelmed)
  • I suggested that the number of homework exercises was too great. He gives 10 or so a night. I think that the homework needs to be so short that it is embarassing not to do it. 3 or 4 carefully selected exercises. I glanced as he wrote down 5-6. We spoke more.

Math teachers think our subject is important. It is. We think that most others do not properly appreciate it. I agree. But sometimes we forget that getting a kid to do anything, anything at all, is an improvement over having them do nothing. And he was stuck. He didn’t want to compromise the math. But the cost was that he wasn’t teaching. He changed his notes to 4-5. We talked more. He changed his notes to 3-4-5. Learning is hard.

  • I strongly suggested visiting other classrooms. Since he indicated the math was fine, I emphasized finding a teacher who was both quiet and effective, who runs a good class. I told him he could grade while he was seated. He could read. But he should listen for teacher voice, pacing, and “blocking” (where and how s/he stands or moves). He could try a bunch of colleagues until he found one he was comfortable with. When I was starting out, I resisted this, hard. I was too busy, too busy. But they yelled at me. It was one of the most important things I did. I use a few of the procedures I picked up. And my ‘teacher voice’ has an element of Estelle’s borrowed 12 years ago. Some of my phrases at the board are exactly hers. Sitting there, against my will, may have saved my career.
  • I also suggested checking the homework in class, and not collecting it. With only three exercises assigned, it would be easy to put them all up (he could assign 3 kids) and review them. If he has a “do now” on paper or an entire worksheet, he could quickly go up and down the rows, checking for completeness only. No homework collected. With regular checking, short assignments, and immediate feedback the number doing the homework could soar.
  • Finally, I suggested that he allow kids to retake tests on a fairly regular basis. He has enough scoring 40 – 65 that he could grade tests, return them, tell them he wants them to learn more, and doesn’t want the bad grade to count, and then run a fresh test with everything the same but the numbers changed. It tells kids he cares about them. It raises grades. It gives borderline kids more of a chance (and who cares if it takes them 4 weeks to learn what others learn in 3 – better than never). And kids with a chance behave better…

And that was it. He smiled and thanked me. He didn’t notice that I hadn’t said a word about getting kids to stop interrupting class. And I hadn’t. But here we go: New term coming, new kids, fresh start. He asked for some help with how to start the first day, and I shared one good idea (also from Estelle).

I know he can’t do everything I suggested. But if he tries and he succeeds with a couple to start with, things may get better. And it will be easier to make other changes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2009 am28 8:32 am 8:32 am

    The discussion about teaching these days is so focused on carrots and sticks — both for teachers and students. It is heartening to read a post like this one about how to engage students and help them to achieve.


  1. So You Want To Teach? :: Entries :: Classroom Out of Control? JD2718 Has Some Great Comments

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