I have difficult students from time to time. In College Algebra, it’s generally children who are very inefficient with their work time. One kid like to engage his table in conversation. And they’re usually pretty interesting conversations, though it comes at the expense of productivity. This kid is generally pretty polite and will get business taken care of eventually, asking lots of good questions. Sometimes though, when nudged, they throw up a wall. Saying things like “just let me fail, this is my decision” etc. I stay pretty calm through this, citing reasons why letting this kid do nothing isn’t in their best interest. Other kids jump in to help me, though I don’t want it escalating. Kids don’t respond well if ganged up on in full view of a class. Most of the room was lost in their work, for context. This “incident” if you can call it that was isolated to one table.

Eventually I left the kid alone and finished out the class period. Later I took them aside and we had a chit chat. Similar shut down incidents have been rare since, though it still happens. During the initial discussion though, one of the kids at the table asks me “how can you be so patient?”

Four months ago, 7:15am, my birthday. I’m setting up for the day. Phone rings. It was E, a former student, asking “have you heard?”

Spring 2012. I was starting year two of what was to be a 3 year side gig coaching 8th grade soccer at one of our feeder middle schools. I finished up work at the high school and drove down the street in the afternoons. E was a very hard headed young man with a temper. He had a pretty constant string of discipline issues throughout 7th and 8th grade. But he was good at sports and they helped him from being a complete lost cause. The previous year when he was in 7th grade we had a number of incidents with him at games. I was hoping we wouldn’t have a repeat of these incidents.

M was new to the team. He hadn’t been allowed to play in 7th grade, despite the kids saying he was the best in the school. Finally, the athletic director let him tryout in 8th grade. During tryouts we did some shooting drills. M kicked the ball with more certainty than I’d ever seen. He was going to be special.

I was not a fan of this team. There were constant discipline issues with them. Practices had frequent disruptions. Eventually, a number of them dropped out of school. Some transferred. One went on to rob a car dealership a week before graduation. Every time I’d hear about the new nonsense they’d gotten in to, I wasn’t surprised.

But they’d win games. This particular middle school never won games, in anything. Suddenly we had a shot at being undefeated. Before the game against the primary rival I told M, we get the lead you’re dropping to defense. M nodded aggressively and said absolutely. He knew that’s what we were going to need. Sure enough, we were winning late. M drops back and frustrates the other team for 10 minutes. First win in anything over the rival school in a long time. Eventually, we completed the undefeated season and won middle school district. Some years later the middle school would hang a banner in the gym for this team.

M comes over to the high school and plays for me in the 9th grade. His frustrating teammates and even more frustrating ones from other middle schools follow. I didn’t enjoy a lot about this season. Except for M. He never caused problems. We didn’t have as much success in 9th grade, but he’d put the team on his back when required, you never even had to ask.

M and E are now seniors. Both have made varsity. E just now, M since 10th grade. The frustrating teammates were all gone, washed out because of discipline issues. It was a nicer time. Results wise though, the team wasn’t in great shape. February, M starts missing practice, which was unlike him. We think he has the flu. Later I’d learn his teammates thought he was making excuses because they aren’t doing well.

Late February and M hasn’t been in school for a while. It was leukemia. Treatable, but still. M responds well to the treatment. He is unable to walk at graduation, though he does graduate. He is mentioned in one of the speeches.

Months later, M is strong enough to come to soccer games, and has started working. He says he feels better and can even run a little bit. Late January 2018 I see M again at a soccer game. Again, seems ok, though he doesn’t say much. M wasn’t much of a talker. E was there too.

“No” I say to E. “What happened?”

It’d been 6 months since I’d seen M. Now he was dead. Whether the leukemia was back, or there was a bad response to medicine, or if he’d even been taking his medicine no one knew. After two and a half years, the leukemia won.

I went to the memorial service, but I couldn’t look at him. That’s not a memory I wanted. I’d rather glance at his team pictures on the wall.

Kids lives are complicated. Sometimes it seems the lives of kids I work with are unfairly complicated. The 50 or so minutes we spend with them are just a small window into what they might be dealing with. The kid who tells me “let me fail” got that way for a reason, not because of something I did personally. Those tough seasons with E and M taught me what matters. Winning some argument with a kid choosing to be stubborn does not. There are better ways.

Goodbye, M. ❤️

MAMS 92497 - 82318

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

You spend a lot of time around young people and you can’t help but do a lot of analysis of how you were as a young person. By far the biggest difference I see in myself and my students is how local their field of view seems to be, at least in my observations. When I say local field of view, I mean a lot of their time and energy is spent on the present and some handful of hours ahead of the present. What’s happening next week? month? year? You wouldn’t know they were concerned with such things.

And that’s not a bad thing, kids should get to be kids and only worry about the here and now as much as possible. Planning their next meal with friends or scraping together $10 for an impulse purchase is what youth should be about. Yes, college or post secondary plans, but kids are just so good at living right now.

Somewhere in the last 15 years, my brain got bored with right now. Or perhaps, with enough experience, you can handle the right now so well that it just doesn’t require a lot of effort?

Just off the top of my head, school related things I happen to be processing and their due date:

  • logistics for laser tag (7 months)

  • approximate sales expectations for my upcoming Varsity Math merch line (1 month)

  • is summer camp happening again? how many might go? (9 months)

  • painting a wall in the school visitor entrance (3 months)

  • National Honor Society induction logistics (6 months)

  • approximate AP testers (5 months)

  • AP benchmarking ideas (2 months)

  • TMC 2019 (10 months)

  • TMC 2020 (22 months)

  • does Varsity Math have a logical conclusion (20 years)?

Stuff like what am I teaching tomorrow? what should I eat today? what game/show/movie should I get into? just aren’t interesting questions. Have I just solved those problems too many times?

Is this why I tinker with curriculum so much? To keep my own attention?

I still very much like planning what I’m teaching tomorrow and what I should eat today, but they just aren’t a source of concern. I started noticing this about 3 years ago when I passed an experience milestone.

As friend Rachel put it the other day, it’s like I’m just in a constant state of playing tug of war with the future. As one long term project ends, another steps in to take its place. The never emptying to-do list.

Does this stress me out? No. It’s bizarre really. I just really like working long term problems. I mean, I’m still in the middle of my longest problem to date, improving AP effectiveness. We’re at 4.5 years and counting with only preliminary results.

You might be tempted to call me a workaholic or something. Some have before. I just don’t see it that way. For one, I don’t see it as work. I do “non-work” things, whether you hear me talk about them or not. I haven’t gone to “work” in 10 years. I’m solving interesting problems, something it turns out I really wanted in a career. Teaching offers fascinating logistic problems that I really really really like. It’s probably the biggest thing I liked in engineering school, mapping out plans to get stuff done, forged in a (now demolished) dorm basement as I figured out what it takes to pass exams. Secretly, I don’t really care for summer break anymore (though it is still a nice respite, and I mean, duh, TMC is the greatest), as there aren’t as many problems to solve.

It’s almost a bit of a game I play with myself, “bet you can’t figure out how to start a company” being the latest.

All this to say watching kids is just fascinating stuff, it helps me try to remember what it was like before whatever switch flipped in my head.

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

Based on a Global Math Department Presentation from 9/18

I have a single goal, that within a few days of the start of school, my students are convinced that their time with me is going to be the best part of their day. I even say this on the first day of school. Although once you’re at a school long enough, you earn a reputation. In recent years I’ve appended that statement to say “this will be the best part of your day, I hope it lives up to the hype.”

At the same time, I want it to be the best part of their day for the right reasons. Yes, we are going to have some fun, but we’re going to be productive at the same time. Kids can have weird perceptions of what makes a “great” class. I’m reminded of a conversation I heard between middle school students talking about their really fun social studies class in which they did nothing and watched movies every day. That’s not the sort of thing I’m going for here.

Inspirations

I draw most of my inspiration from two teachers. I loved going to their classes every day. It was exciting to spend time in their room because I knew I was going to have a good time. As a teacher, I really want to have a good time as well, since I’m in the room all day after all. So if I’m having a good time, they should too.

My 6th grade math teacher, Mr. Richardson, was a legend. In my elementary school there was a buzz about him. When you got to 6th grade, you needed to have math with this guy. He had a counterpart in social studies that was equally hyped, but sadly, I didn’t get them both.

What did he do?

First and foremost he organized us into teams. These would change throughout the year. We had jobs. We had to have a logo. There was an in class economy. Each week you’d earn a salary depending on your job, and his currency could be traded for trinkets from a store. How this man kept track of 150 some odd salaries is beyond me, but we got paid every week.

He gave us interesting problems. There was a curriculum to tackle, but he went out of his way to challenge everyone in the room. We did a multi-week travel project, where we had to plan out every detail and track every expense, writing the checks and everything. He was the sneakiest direction writer I ever met. There was ALWAYS some little treat hidden in his directions. It was his way of teaching us to pay attention. I sucked at these.

Most importantly, he respected everyone in the room. It didn’t matter that we were 11. If you came up with a clever method, he’d name it after you. He was constantly grouping and regrouping us based on our needs. He would give different types of assignments to everyone. And he expected you to keep them all organized. I was horrible at keeping them organized.

My 12th grade Calculus teacher was Mrs Westerfeld. Compared to the other guy, her classroom operated a lot simpler. She’d do two things consistently, complain about George W Bush (she was from Crawford, TX where he has a ranch) and let you know she cared.

Twice a year she’d sit everyone down and read you a story. She read us the Polar Express and gave us all a little bell. At the end of the year she made the whole class write one nice thing about everyone else in the class. You’d put your name on a card and pass it around in a circle. When you received a card, you wrote your nice thing, and she’d add hers. She did this for 150 students.

But the other days of the year she got down to business. Plenty of homework and challenging tests, but you loved it.

Classroom

I send several important messages to my students. I never say them out loud, I let the actions speak for themselves. The setup of my classroom is integral to this process.

There are six tables in the room. Students sit in semi-random groups throughout the year. The goal is to build an identity with their table mates. If we do a group activity, kids work with their table. If we have a contest, kids compete with their table. If it’s time for classwork, they do it with their table. If I start flirting with rearranging seats they will give me the biggest STINK EYE if I even THINK about breaking them up. They were complete strangers on day one! Are you serious? Several times a group of kids who were complete strangers at the beginning of the year have asked if they could do Secret Santa for JUST THEIR TABLE.  It’s the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve had several students for multiple years, and these repeaters want their table back. Doesn’t matter that the kids are slightly different. That’s THEIR TABLE.

Why in the world would a kid care so much about a seat? Let me explain.

You Are Welcome

I greet everyone at the door and I greet them by name. I have been the quiet kid in the back of the class. I never felt like those teachers knew who I was. I’m not doing that to my kids. I want them to know I notice them. At the end of every class period I give them all a high five as they leave. I’ve been doing that since 2015 thanks to a presentation by Glenn Waddell. Since then I’ve given about 75,000 high fives and have washed my hands about 3,000 times. Seniors are legitimately depressed when it’s time for the last high five. They’re excited to steal extras at graduation.

You Can Relax

If I have to talk in front of the whole group, I treat it like a discussion. Kids can interrupt me at any point with a question. Initially they’re all very polite and will raise hands or whatever, but they figure out pretty quick that I want them to just jump in. If I ask them to think about something and prepare an answer, they’re not allowed to shout their answer. We want everyone to have time to think. If I have them make a calculation, or estimate a quantity, I write down anything I hear. I never confirm anything as right or wrong unless it seems like that’s the consensus. If the answer is 5, and one kid says 5, I’m not moving on until the group agrees. If a kid said 3, I never disparage them for saying 3. I ask them why they thought 3. Some less daring kid might also be wondering why it wasn’t 3. If I make a mistake, I announce my mistake. Sometimes I’ll explain how I make the mistake. You should never be afraid to be incorrect in front of the group, and that starts with me.

You are also welcome to ask an off topic question. Often I will acknowledge the question and deal with it later. Often I’m the one with the off topic remark. I am easily distracted.

If a kid wants to know where I went to high school, I’ll take a minute and show them. If they want to know where I live, I show them a house that could be mine. I might have a question about how the football team did. That might inspire someone in band to tell a funny story from the football game. I welcome the story. The other day kids were asking about hurricanes, so we spent some time discussing the current hurricanes and what it takes to track to us. I want them to be curious about things, and it doesn’t always have to be about the current discussion. I also want them to know that I care what they’re up to and that their stories are interesting to me. We’ll entertain the idea and go right back to our main discussion. Honestly, I think this helps absorb the day’s content better. It offers a natural opportunity for me to repeat something, and it’s given their subconscious a minute or two to process what we’re doing, even if we were talking about something random. Our curriculum is not so sacred that we can’t take a second to deviate.

You Will Be Productive

I love student work time. All the stories and distractions are great, but students know that in my room, when it’s work time, it’s work time. As much as possible I give students their class time to get their work done. This is also when I secretly get to know them the most. As they work, I wander. I’ll look over someone’s shoulder for a second, or I’ll listen to kids discussing a problem. I rarely intervene. I hop slowly from table to table. If a table needs me, they’ll stop me. The whole table will perk up and listen to the question, and I’ll move on. If I pass a table that hasn’t said much in a while, I’ll stop in to see how they’re doing. If they happen to be off topic, this is fine. 99% of the time kids are naturally back on topic within a minute or two. If they take longer, I’ll politely suggest they get back to it.

Every student has a notebook and every assignment we do is in that notebook. I started doing it a long time ago and it’s a proven winner. At the end of the year a majority of kids can’t believe how much stuff wound up in there. It’s their physical artifact that ok, yeah, I did a lot of work in here.

If a kid is really struggling, I’ll either take a seat next to them or kneel down and talk them through it. Often they’ll want to quit.

I’ll remind them that they do know what they’re doing, and that there’s something they know that will help us here. If they need to go slow, we’ll go slow. I wait patiently for them to rewrite a problem, or correct a mistake, or fiddle with the calculator. We are never in a rush. Last year I had a student who struggled with just about everything. I helped her individually all the time. But this girl was determined to keep at it. Throughout the year I’d have kids show me their classwork and this girl would BEAM when she showed me everything she did by herself. She was in 12th grade and had never felt that way in a math class before.

Sometimes I’ll jump into their conversations. Throughout the course of a school year, I develop an individual relationship with each table. If there’s six tables in the room, I’ll have six inside jokes going amongst them. I don’t care how big a class is, I want kids to know that they can have my attention whenever they need it.

We Are A Family

I was really attached to my Calculus class. There were 12 of us and I dubbed us the dirty dozen. At the end of the year our teacher let us decorate a ceiling tile. I went back to visit her and our tile was still sitting up there. This was us.

So let’s talk about Varsity Math.

I took over our Calculus program 5 years ago. Kids were fairly apathetic about the course. They heard it was difficult, so they’d try it for like 3 weeks and drop. I wanted to change that attitude. Kids were going to be excited to join an AP Math class.

Varsity Math is an initiative for AP Stats and Calculus students at my school. It has become a signature institution. Younger students ask for it by name.

We have t-shirts. We have stickers. We have sunglasses. We have snapchat filters. We have a big end of the year party. And we have a monument. We also adopted that baby shark song as our anthem. We played it at prom, twice.

The main idea here is that the 100 or so AP Math students are in this together. They are proud to be in a challenging class. Because they should be proud to be in a challenging class. Since starting this initiative, the drop rate in our AP classes plummeted. AP Exam performance has been ticking up too. And for crying out loud they had a PARADE during lunch last year. The kids are so into their math class that they want everyone else to be jealous of their math class. Kids are ECSTATIC the day I hand out the merchandise. Their time has come. They’re part of the legend.

Take Aways

First and foremost, I’m admittedly a little ridiculous and some of this stuff take a LOT of time. Do not feel like you have to drop everything and start your own clothing line to gets kids hyped about math. Though I hear that works for Desmos.

Even the most difficult student wants to learn something. Kids are very aware of what their classes demand of them, and they adjust appropriately. If they know English is a joke, they’ll treat it like a joke. The biggest compliment a kid can ever pay me is when they say “we really do a lot in here” or “wow class goes fast.”

If you were going to pick something to change, the biggest move you can make is to yield as much class time to students as you can. My lessons are very condensed. If they’re longer, there’s almost always a day of classwork that follows. In College Algebra last year I stopped whole group instruction entirely. Kids would come in, and I’d give them a series of structured tasks. They came to expect it. Within a few minutes of class starting even my most difficult child would ask when she could get the work for the day.

Sit down with your kids. Chit chat with your kids. It doesn’t have to be about math. They will become the hardest workers for you if they know you see them as an equal.

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon
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I’m working on community building a little more within my classes. Now that things are a little smaller I want to place a greater emphasis on the whole group being involved, rather than 5-6 kids at one table. Last year’s BC Calculus group was my first foray with a sub 20 class in a while, and I structured like it was a big class. Kids sat at three tables, and they stayed more or less confined to those tables. At the end of the year I felt like in a room of 15 people, they should’ve known each other and worked with each other better.

Year two I’m trying to fix that. This year’s group of 14 sits at two tables of 7 normally. I didn’t assign seats, they could just pick wherever. In this setup they’re with long time friends or whatever. But at least once a week I make them mingle.

I randomly assign partners for the day and make them combine the two tables into one big table. Sometimes there are snacks.

One, I want to make sure they’ve had multiple conversations with everyone in the room. As we progress through the year, I want them to seek out any kind of person for assistance, because they’ve worked with everyone in the room. Second, I want them to operate like a unit. Last year the class was all seniors. This year it’s a mix. I want the 11th graders to feel like they belong, and the 12th graders to respect their membership in the class.

There are things to improve upon, but this is a good start. They’re now used to the idea that I will randomly arrange them whenever I see fit. I want to better tailor the assignments for partner day, make them use 1 computer instead of 2, or version the task a bit so everyone isn’t doing the same thing. At the moment I’m making them confirm all work with their partner, and it’s working for the most part.

This isn’t anything special. Search for “visual random grouping” and you’ll find people who have been doing this and doing it better than me for years. I felt like the scale at which I had to operate wasn’t conducive to it. With that no longer a problem, I figure this pilot couldn’t hurt.

It also does more of what I always want in a classroom, students facing other students. My location in the room is irrelevant. When they’re sitting at the dinner table and we need to talk about our findings of the day, I’ll grab a seat with them. It is an incredibly relaxing way to teach. It’s the way my AP Government teacher always started class, everyone in a circle, discussing the current events of the day. I really looked forward to it every day.

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

This is a bit overdue and was intended as a first week of school update, but the conclusions here have really been reinforcing themselves over the last couple of weeks.

At the start of the school year I was in a bit of a funk. I found staff development week to be particularly uninteresting, not because of the content but just for that delay of being at work but not really doing my work, teaching kids. I think it was a mix of three things.

Rinse, Repeat

Like most of you, I have to break down and rebuild the room every year, and I’ve gotten that system down to a science. I used to take tons of stuff home. Now it’s just one reasonably sized tub and the whole place is in October shape after 1 day. I am very into setting up my classroom, but after the 10th time there’s only so much to this. There was some uncertainty compounding the process this year though.

So Tiny

The massive reduction in student load really threw me off (I’m now up to 73 students). I’ve spent the last 5 or so years delivering stuff at big big scale. My very classroom management style has been predicated on the notion that there were going to be lots of kids in the room. How in the world do you readjust when you’ve got a class of 9 people? A lot of stuff was just thrown out. Named tables? Gone. Seating charts? Gone. Dumb Points Game? Very sadly, gone.

Mainly, I felt like a weird outlier. My school is bursting at the seams with kids, my colleagues are dealing with 30 some kids in classes, others are having to float, and here I am twiddling my thumbs with half that and my own room. But what am I supposed to do about that exactly? I stumbled into teaching specialized stuff, and there’s only so many kids that can take it in the first place. I don’t really know how to explain it really, like I was unneeded or something, even though that makes no sense.

Imposter

More than anything, I got absolutely punched in this face this summer about my effectiveness. And of course, I was front row center when Julie Reulbach delivered her excellent keynote on Imposter Syndrome. I spent a very long time this summer thinking over and over “it’s great the kids have fun, but how long are we just going to suck?” Varsity Math, etc has put us very out there as an organization. And to have nothing to show for it really doesn’t make me feel good. I have to admit I was not enthusiastic about grinding out another year of teaching AP Calc (and the loads of work that comes with that) only to be told “yeah, nice try” yet again.

And Yet!

More than anything I just needed the school year to start. Being around kids is very energizing for me. I am very motivated to do my best job for them, and I need their energy to push me to get it done. Sometimes it’s as simple as a kid from last year who put a shark on top of a llama to remind me how fun and random teaching school can be.

Once school started within just a few days I instantly felt better. The kids were excited to have me, I was excited to have them, and it was back to having laughs all day long. After some deep breathes I had a look at some things that could improve in Calculus and I made a plan. I’m forcing myself to attend to a lot of things with better detail this year. The new batch of kids doesn’t know the burdens of the past, they’re ready to show me what they can do.

It has been a long long time since I have had classes this small and I am infinitely better prepared for it this time around. My class of 9 is amazing and a really fun way to end the day. The 21 in College Algebra are super chill and are eager to figure stuff out. This will be the focus of a future post, but it is amazing to me that the natural state of a student is that they want to learn something from you. So many people are just content to give them very little to do. If you set the tone that we’re going to get stuff done during our 50 minutes, they will get that stuff done regardless of their overall attitude about school or experience with previous teachers.

So despite all that negativity hanging over me during the start of school, I love being back at it. Kids are great. Teaching is great. Thank you to every student and fellow teacher alike who remind me of this.


Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

Since starting work at my school, we have been experiencing a population boom. We had roughly 1700 kids back then, and the biggest class I taught was 25. Most were less than 20. Slowly, steadily, and surely those numbers rose and rose and rose until I was serving up hot and fresh math to 36 people at a time.

I had to make a big investment in restructuring my room, finding ways to get more kids to be able to see what we were talking about, and incorporate a lot of creative classroom management strategies. For years this worked and it worked well.

And now, just like that...

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The dropoff is...dramatic. What happened?

School within a School

Seven years ago our school district launched an initiative with KIPP and YES Prep public schools to incorporate charter programs within established school buildings. One middle school would house a 5-8 KIPP program, another a 6-8 YES Prep program. When students entered high school, they enroll in a 9-12 YES Prep program housed within our building. Because it is a charter, spots are awarded by lottery and the high school caps at roughly 1000 students. It was billed as a way to provide school choice to parents but to keep people invested in their local school. Students living outside or inside our district are eligible to apply for the lottery. Increased preference is given to in-district students. Roughly 95% of the students enrolled in this charter are students who would attend our schools anyway.

For the local schools it keeps the community involved and keeps people from moving away. For the charter, it gives access to extracurricular programs that aren't usually offered at stand alone charters (full range of athletic teams, fine arts, etc).

This year is the first time students in this charter program enter the 12th grade. We have 2700 students total, only 1700 of them non-charter.

This is not a debate on whether or not this was a wise decision or if that decision has actually improved anything. It is a program that exists in my building. They have their own teaching staff. As a result, there are fewer kids for people in my half of the building to teach in the first place.

Specializing

Part of this I did to myself. In those increasing years I was teaching more general access classes, on level Algebra 2 and Pre-Cal. Significantly more students take those classes. I stumbled into Calculus, which is generally accessible for fewer students. Then we added BC Calculus into the mix, a class with even fewer students able to take it. Simultaneously a couple years ago we started a discussion about better math options for seniors. At the time we had Pre-Cal or an AP math. There is a subset of students who could be better served. I volunteered to revive Algebra 3, a class we give to students who have ahd Algebra 2, are currently only 50/50 for going to college (and even though most likely community college), and who could use another year of reinforcement with algebra concepts. Students take this instead of Pre-Cal. When it was conceived I thought the population was about 30-40 kids. This year there are only 15 students enrolled.

Stats

Our Statistics program has had some ups and downs, enrollment wise. One year it didn't even make, then bounced back to about 40 kids, bottoming out last year with only 10 kids. To breathe some life into the course, we started improving our messaging. Students in Algebra 2 were unaware that AP classes were available to them. We printed up some Varsity Math flyers and gave kids more information about what they could be doing senior year. That messaging worked, with 30 stats students this year. Calculus should never be the class everyone takes. A healthy stats program is a healthy math department.

Adjustments

What's all that mean? Time for the great downsizing. So much of my classroom management methods will be retired. It's like I'm starting over. An increased ability to give students my attention will be welcome though. Last year I had two sections of Algebra 3 (17 and 15) and I got an incredible amount of face time with those kids because there just weren't a lot of them. 

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

Seniors graduated a few days ago and I'm making an attempt to be a little more proactive about some things this summer. Mainly addressing some to do items that have been languishing for a few years. Before it starts in earnest, a few final thoughts about the year.

Ten years ago when I informed an advisor from college I was switching to education, his only comment was "well, will be interesting to see how you like teaching Algebra 2 forever." Interestingly enough, there was only a small run where I taught the same thing multiple years in a row. This year's biggest challenge was all the creation that was necessary. At the end, it all turned out pretty well.

College Algebra

I took a giant gamble in January where I decided to stop whole group instruction. Somehow, we made it through the entirety of the second semester and it really wasn't a problem. It required a lot of effort on my part to properly script moves. Accounting for the time kids would take on things was constantly in flux and I was always over or underestimating. Though it felt like there was a lot of wasted time, it could be argued it all evened out because even if it took forever to get kids started, they were doing something quite a lot of the time.

Essentially, I had 4 hours of class time each week and kids had about 3 hours of work to do (exploration, discussion with me, classwork). Early in the week a lot of time was burned with setup as I had to float around and give some introductory information and outline the requirements of the week. Each little pod took a different amount of time to buy what I was selling. In any given week maybe 8-10 kids out of 32 would finish their week's work early and not have a lot to do Friday. This was not ideal, but a reasonable trade off to allow the ones who needed longer to take longer. A mistake on my part is letting a particular group of students set the pacing for everyone some weeks. Often they were taking longer not because they needed to, but because they actively chose to. It was very hard to decide whether I should penalize them for taking forever (and thus make grades about compliance) or surrender the time now to avoid delays in the future (inevitability there'd be an assessment they had 0 clue how to do because I forced them to stop working on a topic). The long term benefit of having everyone in the same ballpark was more valuable than getting into a protracted skirmish with 4 kids (it was highly likely that weaponizing grades would've caused behavior problems from 1 of them).

I am teaching College Algebra again and I think starting with the small group model from the beginning will be interesting. There are a few procedures I can tighten up as well. In the end, teaching this class was a good experience and the students as a whole were very good. There is a lot of joy in helping seniors rediscover an interest in math when a lot of people have told them they aren't good at it.

Calculus AB

The eternal struggle. There's sort of three things going on. Vocab, concepts, and deep mechanical fluency. And you only have time to pick two. I have always chosen to focus on some core fundamentals to the detriment of smaller ones to improve the whole group proficiency. I just don't like leaving kids behind. As a group, there was a lot to like. Many many kids put in a good effort and showed promise during our AP reviews. What that will translate to in July remains to be seen. Last year saw sizable increases and the sense I had was more kids were prepared and at a better level of preparation than last year. Fingers crossed.

There are always new efficiencies to find and I think I've got some we can work on next year. Wrapping my head around presenting good, concise, mathematical arguments was a late game discovery this year, something that will be helpful if we can put it into practice for longer.

Post Exam reactions were fairly positive. The ones who I thought would do well didn't seem too frazzled and the free response questions were incredibly restrained and well within stuff my kids would've known how to do. As I said to them several times (with only a little snark), with 62 people taking the test, I would think more than 2 could pass.

My big goal this summer is to finalize my classwork. I change it so much each year that I think it's finally time to decide what I should be doing and stick with it, as a sanity saver throughout the next school year.

Calculus BC

Probably the biggest questions here. This was our first group of students taking it as a separate class. The sheer scope of the material caught up to a few of them at the end of the year. But they were all incredibly capable students. It would be almost impossible to pick a better group to start a class like this with. They really embraced the task at hand, validating the recommendations they were given to take it.

There was some mild complaining about free response with this group, but after seeing the question they were talking about (#6), I agree with their assessment. We didn't dive into series quite thoroughly enough, so there was a lot of surprise that could've happened in free response scenarios. The big relief was that as with AB, there were minimal comments otherwise. All the students felt like the material was accessible. We also had some very calming conversations about what it takes to show proficiency on this thing and I think that helped. I really hope some of them do well and that there are some universal good results for the whole group.

In their exit comments, they did mention that they'd like assessments to be a little more intense. Throughout the year all of their assessments were collaborative (sometimes with notes, sometimes without). In my mind it made the most sense for such a small group, with only 15 students the grades shouldn't be important, the focus should be on collective understanding. In effect, their request was for me to force them to be stronger individuals, as a few noted that while they understood what was going on, they found themselves becoming dependent on others. Interesting to seem them recognize this with no connection at all to the "I need to know I have a better grade than other people" mindset.

New Frontiers

As the old ones leave, it's time to start thinking about the ones that will come to take their place. I had a meeting with the BC students of 2018-19 and they all seem very excited. Especially when I said not only would they be getting their own personal calculator (not for keeps, but for use throughout the year), but that they could give it a goofy name. Varsity Math is proving a successful recruiting tool, with Statistics numbers finally headed to the right direction (30 next year, up from 9 this year) and kids pumped to be involved in all of our AP offerings. Summer Camp enters year three, and it continues to be a fun way to onboard kids into the Varsity Math universe.

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

I have always liked introducing games into the classroom. Often I take trips to Target just to see what kind of new games they have that might work with kids. Some are relevant to math, and some are just fun to play in big groups. With the advent of internet connected devices everywhere, a new kind of genre has opened up, trivia games played on a console or computer that lets students enter a room code and participate in front of everyone for fame and fabulous prizes (well, not so much the prizes). You know, like Kahoot, but better. WAY better.

I have gotten endless value from the Jackbox Party Pack, specifically Party Pack 3. For $25 you get 5 games, and two of them make FANTASTIC classroom games. Right before Spring Break, with a confluence of a blood drive, field trips, and general maybe-lets-not-introduce-something-new-right-before-a-giant-holiday, I played Guesspionage with all my classes. Participants take turns approximating answers to survey questions, the other players get an opportunity to decide whether the guess is much higher, higher, lower, or much lower. Points are awarded based on the accuracy of the guesser, and who correctly said higher or lower, with a bonus for much higher and much lower. In the final round, everyone is given the same question and has to choose the three most popular answers from a set of 9 (for example: which decade would people like to live in the most?).

Thanks to The Array™, I brought in my Nintendo Switch and we were off.

The questions are great. Every kid has an opinion and some of the answers will surprise you. There's also the collective FREAK OUT if a participant manages to get the question exactly right. Guesspionage allows 8 players to compete in the main game, with room for an audience who are also able to answer the questions. You can also set a family filter if you have a younger audience.

Here's a gameplay video:

Once kids understand the rules, the game runs itself. I just sit back and enjoy the arguing. When prompted to play a second round, every class was a unanimous "YES MORE GUESS NOW."

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

My most elaborate creation has got to be what I affectionately call The Array™. It takes a Mac mini, my dedicated teaching computer, and duplicates its screen all around the room to six little pods. It was constructed one piece at a time starting in 2011 and might be nearing its final form, well until fancier TVs get cheaper or school becomes a VR head set experience anyway.

Here's a schematic

Each TV serves as a focus point for discussion in each little pod. I can have something on display and reference it anywhere in the room. My ability to turn College Algebra into a no lecture zone works great thanks to The Array™. While working on computers, kids have access to the room's printer and can reference the screens for examples or instructions or whatever. I can't count the number of times I've caught kids teaching each other using their local screen. It makes my big classes tiny.

Key modification this year:

These screens used to sit on their own tables, limiting my mobility at the back of the room. I found wall mounts that use picture nails (a LOT of picture nails) to do the job of cumbersome bolts, allowing these TVs to hang in place without having to damage studs or do any significant hacking away at the walls. Though it took forever, routing the cables along the wall was the smartest thing I think I've ever done.

I'm not saying go out and build your own array, but finding ways to decentralize your classroom opens you up to all kinds of cool possibilities. Some of which I will elaborate on soon...

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon

Last school year was very demanding. Through a lot of circumstances I had a full teaching load plus coaching duties for two very time consuming sports. Prior to that school year, I had already made the decision to step back from my school responsibilities and call the 16-17 my last year coaching. Overall, it has proven to be a very good decision. Not only have I been able to focus on my teaching more, but I have been able to incorporate a lot more time off into my schedule. This is something that gets talked about a lot and remains the most important thing, you need to have set times where you say "no" and do something, anything, else other than work.

To co-op a discussion from the fall, here's my work load #yearinmath measured in Stress Units™

While teaching still remains demanding, mostly because I have to make all kinds of stuff, it has been incredibly more manageable this year. Two nights a week (Wednesday and Friday) I don't do anything school related after hours. Saturdays are generally off limits too. As much as I like to think about school constantly (and I'm usually thinking about school constantly), I don't act on any of it when it's a night off. Secondary to this, I have become comfortable in my ability to do the job. As I told a panel of aspiring student teachers a little while ago, eventually you can plan 3 completely different 90 minutes blocks in about 20 minutes.

Regardless of experience level, make sure you're forcing yourself to take time off. Whatever it is can wait, and whatever it is can be done faster than you think.

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon