Monday, December 5, 2016

My Math Teacher's Kitchen

After reading my previous blog post, you might be wondering what I could possibly be writing about for my last one. As it turns out, I've been planning my last post throughout this entire semester and even though I may not be certain that this career is right for me anymore, I've still been impacted quite a bit by a certain teacher during this time.

This year, to save some money, I decided to live with a friend that lives only five minutes away from the Grand Valley Allendale campus. This friend just so happens to be a teacher, and it also just so happens that eight years ago, I was a student in her math class. Our student to teacher relationship slowly became a coach to coach relationship, slowly transforming us into kinda sorta friends. From here our relationship became that of babysitter to parent and it was only a matter of time before that relationship turned into a strong friend to friend one. I promise it isn't as weird as it sounds.

In any case, now that I'm living in said location, it has become routine for us to get home and swap stories regarding my classes for the day and her teaching experiences for the day. Generally, for some unknown reason, this takes place in the kitchen. Several weeks ago, she (let's just call her Susan) shared a particular experience that I now want to share with all of you.

Susan teaches three different seventh grade math classes during the school day. On one Friday, after she had looked at the total number of missing assignments for each class for the week, she decided a talk needed to be had with one of those three classes. This class, just in one week, had had 39 missing assignments. The other two classes only had two and five missing assignments for the week. Here's how Susan decided to approach the situation: How many of you have ever failed at something the first time you tried it? Almost every hand in the class went up. Susan then told them a story of the first time she tried to jump-rope. The first time she tried, she tripped over the rope and bashed her face on the cement floor of her garage, splitting her chin open bad enough to need stitches. Talk about an epic fail right? (Sorry Susan). Now that she had the attention of the class, Susan kept going. She moved the focus to sports and asked the class, "What if you never practiced for your sports team? What if you just showed up to the games to play, but never did anything to practice or prepare yourself?" This question was met with a lot of "Why would you do that?" and "That would be stupid!" comments from the class. Susan then went on to relate this back to the classroom explaining that this class is the 'game' and homework and other outside of class assignments are the 'practices'. If you don't do the assignments, you're skipping all the practices and expecting to still do just as well in the game as the ones who are doing the assignments. It wasn't because the students couldn't do it, it was because they simply weren't. After Susan played this scenario out and told her students the number of missing assignments they had, it was silent. She ended it like this, "What if I had shown these numbers to the other classes? Would you have been embarrassed?" The whole class nodded yes.

When Susan got home that day, she was so proud of these students. After their conversation, the students had gotten down to business and worked hard for the entire rest of the class time. They understood now that they had the ability to do just as well as the other two classes, they had just needed some encouragement.

Sometimes you just have to show students that they can do it. Sometimes it might take a more personal story to help them see it, but when they do see it, it changes them. I think some of the most important aspects of being a teacher involve this encouragement. In this case, it involved a personal story; an opportunity to be open, to be vulnerable, and to provide a connection.

I know I'm not a teacher yet, and I know that being a teacher probably isn't where I'm going to end up anymore either, but I am still confident that these three things are something we should strive to do in any conversation. I felt the pull to do share what I'm struggling with in my previous blog post even though I didn't necessarily feel super comfortable doing it, and since then I have already connected with others who, wouldn't you know, are dealing with the same thing I am.

In the eight years that I have known Susan so far, she has taught me so much, whether she knows it completely or not. She is the one that originally inspired me to become a teacher, and despite my confusion regarding that now, she continues to inspire me in other aspects of my life. It's amazing what can happen when someone goes out of their way to make a connection, and even if I don't become the next 'Susan', I know that her lessons will continue to influence every part of my life. I only hope that no matter where I end up, I can do the same for others.

So, for the last time, I am a math teacher in the making (maybe), a fellow math nerd, and these are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Confessions of a Soon-to-be Teacher (Maybe)

Being a teacher, in my opinion, is one of the most underappreciated jobs in our world. It's not that this career path isn't appreciated by anyone, it's just that the life of a teacher, everything a teaching job actually entails, is unknown by the general public, and therefore disregarded. We (as the general public) have a very basic understanding of what goes on in a teacher's life; it doesn't seem like many people understand what a teacher really does behind the scenes, unless they themselves are already a teacher or are in the process of becoming one, and this is why a teacher's job seems underappreciated.

I decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I was in seventh grade. I know it isn't typical that people already know what they want to do that early on, but for me, there wasn't any hesitation in knowing that teaching is what I wanted to pursue. When I entered my junior and senior years of high school, when others begin to ask you what your plans are for college, the responses I received about my career choice were somewhat shocking and frustrating to hear. While I did hear the occasional, "You're going to make a great teacher!", so many other times I heard, "But you're so smart, why would you do that?", or "Wait really? You could do something so much better!", or my personal favorite, "Why would you want to do that? You aren't going to make any money.".

Hearing these things started a fire in me. Why did so many people think negatively of my choice? Didn't anyone realize that teaching was so much more than those surface level things? As a middle school student, I already had the pull, the passion, the understanding that accompanies the desire to become a teacher. I had experienced these things in some of my own middle school teachers, and I had already formed the desire to give back and pour into future students, the way they had done for me. I wanted to show people that I could be a teacher, and that I could be a good one. I wanted to prove that I could be the teacher that students went home and talked about because of something exciting that had happened in class. I wanted to be the teacher that students felt they had a relationship with, not just as teacher-student, but as friend-friend or mentor-mentee.

That was me in seventh grade; passionate, confident, and determined to prove to everyone that this was where my life was supposed to go. Here's the thing though; that was eight years ago, and even though I had never thought twice about changing that path, this year has posed to be a difficult one in that regards. After working towards this career for 2.5 years now in college, I still find myself thinking about the questions above, almost more than I did when they were originally brought up in my life. For the past several months, I have had some sort of inkling that maybe I'm not pursuing the right career path anymore. It's not to say that I can't still picture myself having my own classroom, teaching math to middle school students; that picture is still pretty visible in my mind. But, there also exists a picture in my mind that doesn't include teaching, a picture that God has decided to put in my life, even though I have no idea why. As someone who had never doubted or second-guessed her degree choice, I struggle with what to do now. This new picture is blurry; it doesn't show me what else I might be doing in the future, it just doesn't show teaching to be something I pursue. So here I am, a junior in my college career, not sure that teaching is what I'm being called to do anymore, despite the fact that I felt that calling for eight years.

I'm not trying to make this post about the inner struggles of Kelsey York's life, but I do feel like these thoughts have made me more observant to the things that teachers don't generally get recognized for. Being in the education program, you get all the background information, all the stuff no one thinks about until it's staring them in the face; things like the need to care for students as if they're your children, the importance of teaching students that it's okay to fail, showing students that they aren't just a number in the grade book, the need to connect with students and form relationships, to get to know students on a personal level rather than looking down on them, the importance of meeting students where they're at, both as students and as people/children outside of the classroom; things like how to talk about politics when everyone's on edge, or how to address religious or cultural issues and how much personal input to include. These things are what make teachers who they are. These things are powerful; they show the true grit and passion it takes for a person to decide to be a teacher and these should be the things that teachers are recognized for. These are the things that I picked out as a seventh grade student, because I saw them in many of my teachers, and although I don't know for sure that teaching is where I'll end up anymore, I am still confident that these things, these connections, are what I will strive to fulfill until I figure that out.

Now I know I've jumped around a bit, but I promise I'm about to tie it all together, so keep reading. Please. Going through this struggle of not knowing what to do with my career path these past few months has been, and still is, a pretty stressful situation for me. There has always been a pull from society to know what you're doing with your life the minute you step into the college world; what's your major, your minor, what are doing with that degree when you graduate, where are you going to live, where are you going to work, and so many more. We even encourage this thought process in students who are only in middle school and high school. Shouldn't the focus simply be to learn for the sake of learning; to grow for the sake of growing; to form relationships with others for the sake of learning to maintain those relationships? Believe me, going through the 'life choices' issue as a junior in college is no fun, but that doesn't mean we should force it upon students who barely know what they're passionate about yet. In my opinion, in order for teachers to fully encompass the ideals and connections mentioned above, encouraging students to take life one step at a time is the only way to go. When college comes and it's time to decide the path you want to take from there, it's okay to not have any idea yet. The ideas will come, and until then it is simply a teacher's job to support them wherever they end up. In this way, and only in this way, can we encourage students to truly find what they are passionate about, what they're interested in, and what they want to work towards someday, hoping that those things will be made clear to them by our actions, not our teachings.

Sorry for the jumbled thoughts, but life is jumbled sometimes anyway. In any case, I am a math teacher in the making (maybe), a fellow math nerd, and these are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Redefining Failure & Remodeling Homework

"The biggest mistake you can make is being afraid to make one." I pulled this quote from a book called Mathematical Mindsets, a book that is designed to help teachers understand how they can assist students in finding their potential [in math]. One of the things that this book talks about is the importance of making mistakes for all students. We live in a society where we look down on mistakes; we want to do everything perfectly the first time, and if we mess up, we are automatically embarrassed. In regards to school, I think this is definitely most prevalent in math classes. When a student volunteers their answer in class and is wrong, it is more common for a teacher to simply tell them they are wrong and dismiss them without explanation or praise for trying. Teachers check homework for correctness and deduct points for wrong answers, but generally don't tell the students what they did wrong, not wanting to repeat lessons, hoping that their students will eventually figure it out on their own. Doing these things definitely doesn't encourage mistakes, and because of this, students remain nervous and afraid to volunteer responses in class.

One of the biggest outcomes of teaching in this way is that of stress. Obviously there are many things in life that cause stress, but I think in regards to school, our expectations of straight-A, mistake-free students is a huge factor as to why we as a society are so stressed now. Like I said above, we are a high-achieving society, drawn to be the best of the best in all that we encounter. While it isn't necessarily a bad thing to have the desire to do well, it is unhealthy to instill the mindset of not wanting to make mistakes on students immediately upon starting school. Mistakes should be something that students are encouraged to do, in every aspect of their lives, to ensure learning and the ability to do better the next time. Striving to do our best will only come from first making those mistakes, followed by making the connections to discover what went wrong. In my mind, the stress formed at school never goes away; it continues to grow as we continue on into college, then into the real world and the work force. The stress of not wanting to make mistakes in school carries into the rest of our lives, throwing us into an already fast-paced society, that is now one where you're required to be free of mistakes as well. There's always the fear of disappointing someone with your mistakes, of embarrassing yourself in front of other people, and on top of that, the stress of time. All because of the stress that is piled upon us as students.

So what does all of this have to do specifically with homework? Well, I think another idea we have stuck in our heads is that repetitive homework problems is the best way to make sure our students don't fail, especially in a math class. Generally, students in math classes get assigned an insane amount of problems to do from their textbook for homework, every single night. There has been a lot of debate about whether or not this is an effective way to give homework, or whether homework is even necessary at all. In my opinion, the process of learning requires variation more than repetition. In one of my previous posts, I mentioned the idea of memorizing vs remembering. By using repetitive structures such as homework problems assigned from a textbook, we are encouraging the idea of memorizing. This method of teaching leaves nothing for the students to grasp onto, it simply implements the stress of needing to pound information into your head before you can finally forget everything after the end of year. Remembering is encouraged by incorporating more assignments or activities that fall along the lines of 'out of the box' thinking. It's important to try new things, to allow our students to experiment with their hands before being given the full tools to solve a problem. In using this approach, students find a more comfortable, less stressful environment, and can leave with a memory rather than a fact. I can't help but think that if we, as teachers, started including activities that encouraged experimentation, there would be less stress on students to feel the need to be right, and therefore, less of an emphasis on incorrect work. In this way, I think we can slowly start to encourage and show students that failing or being incorrect is definitely not a bad thing, but in turn, it actually helps guide the way to understanding.

To close I want to go back to Mathematical Mindsets. Carol Dweck, a psychologist and fellow writer says, "Every time a student makes a mistake in math, they grow a synapse." So am I saying that students should just decide to not try? That they should just purposely fail at everything they do in an attempt to grow? Of course not. Believing in yourself is still incredibly important in the development of each student's mindset. In my opinion, the key to tying failure and believing in yourself together, is finding that balance. It's not specifically one or the other that helps the brain grow, but the idea that when you believe in yourself, you can fail as many times as you need to, because you also know that at some point, you'll succeed. Jo Boaler, author of Mathematical Mindsets, claimed that the people in our world who are the most successful, have made the most mistakes on their way to achieving where they are know. Instilling this knowledge in our students and showing them that the value of correct work is much less important than the value of mistakes is a great place to start. I can only imagine how much more our teachers and our students could change the world if we work together to achieve this new mindset.

Note: I am definitely not trying to generalize and say all teachers are guilty of making their students feel this way. I am saying that this might not always be noticeable and that it might not be a bad idea to think about how current teaching methods are affecting students. I am simply calling out a problem that I have seen and experienced in an effort to help change the stereotypes about failure.

So, as always, I am a math teacher in the making, a fellow math nerd, and these are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Observations from the Outside

Of all the different 'in-school' experiences I've had since deciding I was going to pursue a teaching career, I had never gone to a school for student/teacher observing up until a couple of weeks ago. As a requirement for a class right now, I needed to find a teacher who was willing to let me come observe his/her classroom for several days throughout this semester. As someone who is from the general area, I decided it would be easy to go back to my high school and observe a teacher there. I ended up asking a math teacher who I had never had while I attended high school, although I took the class that he is teaching. Mr. K is a math teacher at Grandville High School and teaches Pre-Calculus. Because I had never had the experience of having him as a teacher, I thought this would be a good route to go, as it would give me a new perspective that I had never observed before. My younger brother also happens to be in one of Mr. K’s classes right now and really likes the way he teaches; another reason I thought he (Mr. K) would be a good choice. 

One of the first things I noticed about Mr. K, was that he was a very genuinely nice person. Although we had never met, he was more than willing to help me out, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all while sitting through the class. Throughout the class time, you could tell that he wanted his students to have more of a personal connection to him than just that of “I am the teacher, you are the student”. He wanted them to enjoy his class, not dread it. This was also evident in the way the students acted with him. They were plenty comfortable with asking (and answering) questions, but they were also plenty comfortable with joking around with him and him joking back. I think the relationship that a teacher has with his/her students is one of the most important things for a teacher to establish. In some cases, students see their teachers more often than they see their parents, and because of this, it is important for there to be a positive connection, or at least the opportunity for a positive connection, between teacher and student, and I thought that was great to see in Mr. K’s classroom.

Mr. K’s general schedule for the day included time for questions about the homework, time for his lecture, time for questions about the lecture, time for example homework/practice problems, and time to work on the homework in class. I thought this was a great way to organize the time, in an effort to ensure that all his students understood what went on in the previous class period, as well as what is going on in the current one. During this class period, Mr. K just so happened to be teaching “Polynomial Long Division”, which we reviewed not too long before in our 229 class. It was interesting to be able to compare things we talked about in class to what Mr. K was implementing into his classroom. One of the things he did to begin this lesson was do a warm-up problem with synthetic division. I found this especially interesting, because this was not something I ever learned. The first time I ever saw synthetic division played out was in our class, this year. So it was interesting to see not only how he used concepts we talked about in our class, but also to see what has changed slightly since I had attended this high school. When Mr. K actually started the process of explaining polynomial long division, he followed the generic process that I have always been taught as seen below (we also did this in class). In any case, I thought he did a great job of explaining the method and process of how he obtained an answer. After explaining the first one, he took questions and then moved on to another example, explaining again very thoroughly. He repeated this until there were no more questions.

Another thing I noticed during this observation was that Mr. K didn't plan his lecture to last the entire class period. I think sometimes as teachers, we feel the need to fill the entire hour with the lecture, scrambling to assign the homework one minute before the bell rings, and therefore not allowing students to ask questions about the homework before they bring it home. Each of these classes at Grandville are only an hour long, and somehow Mr. K still had plenty of time to review questions from the previous night's homework, as well as to allow his students to work on their homework problems in class. Seeing this was, in my opinion, a really impressive way to see how Mr. K organizes his class time to ensure that his students were going home confidently, rather than confused.
Overall, after just one hour of observing so far, I am very impressed with the way that Mr. K approaches his classroom, and I am excited to see what I learn from him throughout the rest of this observation time. As someone who has always been on the inside, experiencing these things while they're happening, it was great to now have the opportunity to observe on the outside, looking in.

With that, I am a math teacher in the making, a fellow math nerd, and these are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Teachers vs Technology

We live in a crazy world. We live in a world where we have forgotten how to speak; where we have forgotten the importance of face-to-face conversations; a world where people of all ages 'hang out' by sitting together and staring at their phones. We live in a world that encourages greed for what we don't have, rather than thankfulness for what we do. We live in a world that wants the next best thing; a world that obtains excitement from material things rather than moments experienced. We live in a world driven by technology; a world that has become increasingly advanced in those regards, and a world that in my opinion, is falling in a somewhat uncontrollable manner towards not knowing how to communicate without it [technology] at all.

The summer before I started college, I was asked a countless amount of times what I planned on doing with my life; what I wanted to major in, what I wanted to be, etc. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a teacher, but every time I told someone this, I received an incredible amount of skeptical remarks. While a lot of these remarks have stuck in my head since then, some of the ones that stick out the most are ones that regarded technology. I was told that teachers weren't going to be needed eventually because of all the technological advances. I was told that it was pointless for me to become a teacher, because by the time I graduated there wouldn't be anywhere for me to go. For me, these reasons only made me want to be a teacher even more. It is so frustrating to me that our world is being controlled by technology, but even more than that, I can't wrap my head around why we are allowing technology to overtake our schools as well. And that is something I want to change as a teacher.

As I am going into my teaching career, it has become even more apparent to me that our world is caught up in the so called excitement of having and using new technology. I do believe that technology can be helpful in some instances, but I also believe without a doubt that it is more distracting than helpful. This is evident not only in our everyday lives, but also in that of our schools and the way we, as teachers, are choosing to teach our students each year.

I know it could be argued that not all school systems want technology to take over completely, but as technology continues to advance, it seems as though it's simply the easier thing to do. People, especially teenagers, are so obsessed with technology already, that it just seems wrong to include it in the 7-8 hours they're at school as well. As a part of the class I am currently in, we have explored a few options of online math sites that teachers can use to help teach a lesson. One of these is called Desmos, which allows a teacher to select one of several different games that will help students explore concepts further and will test each students' understanding of those concepts. While exploring this site, I have come across some activities that may be helpful in obtaining a general assessment of student learning or may be useful in introducing a topic before jumping in. In this way, I can understand how making use of this site could provide a chance for students to experience learning in yet another way and allow for them to have fun doing so. However, I strongly believe that this should be the extent of allowing technology in a classroom.

Just in the past few years, school systems have begun incorporating the use of more technology in their classrooms. In my opinion, this is more work than it's worth and simply gives students access to yet another distraction. I mentioned in my last blog post that I think it is a key goal for teachers to engage their students and make them excited to learn. However, the use of technology in the classroom, while it may make students excited, gets in the way of true learning. True learning incorporates hands-on activities for our students, encouraging them to put action into their learning, and helping them to try different things in an effort to help them feel engaged. Although I don't feel that using technology to implement these things is any different than reading out of a text book, I would say that using a small amount of technology in the classroom to introduce a unit, or to find out how well students are learning material is acceptable if a teacher really desires to do so.

These ideas are only one person's opinions, and no one has to agree with them, but because of this topic's importance to me, I still want to ask a few questions to end my post. Isn't it our job, as teachers, to prepare students for the real world; to teach them about the essentials in living an adult life? It has been explained to me, that it is a part of a teacher's responsibility to educate students for three major dimensions of life: as individual persons, as citizens in a democracy, and as participants in economic life who must earn a living. As it stands, are teachers helping with this? Is technology helping to achieve this? More and more students are experiencing social anxieties when asked to participate in a face-to-face conversation, but are completely fine when communicating via technology. As teachers, we are educating the future educators of the world, the future lawyers, the future doctors, the future president. This is our job; would it be so hard to educate without using technology? We live in a beautiful world, one that was created for us to experience both in and out of the classroom. It would be a shame to watch it pass by without partaking in the grand adventures it provides.

In any case, I am a math teacher in the making, a fellow math nerd, and these are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Problem With Math Class (As Told by a Future Math Teacher)

One week ago, something started. Something that many students dread. Something that students refuse to acknowledge, because it means the end of summer and the beginning of countless loads of homework that most students neither care about nor understand. It means the beginning of hearing "What did you learn today?" from your parents and replying with an "I don't know" or a "Nothing" every time. It means dragging yourself out of bed at an ungodly hour and forcing yourself to make that awful drive, after eating a half-hearted breakfast. It means the beginning of school.

Here's the thing: School isn't supposed to be a place where students sit for 7 hours a day and get bored out of their minds. School isn't supposed to be a place that causes students to struggle to complete homework for hours per night, because they don't understand what was taught. School isn't supposed to be a place that students go to, just because it's required. But it is. For a time, I myself felt this way about school as well. It only takes so much time of sitting in class, taking notes off a whiteboard, before that feeling of "go with the flow" boredom sets in for the rest of the school year. I've watched friends do the minimum amount of work required to get through high school, and now I watch and listen as the next generation does the same thing. This problem, although prevalent in all aspects of schooling, is particularly an issue in regards to math classes. It's not to say that there is something wrong with these students, but I will say that maybe, just maybe, there is something wrong with the style of teaching of our textbooks.

As a current education student at Grand Valley, I have found myself in many different 'teaching' classes. In the one I am taking this semester, we watched a short video titled, "Math Class Needs a Makeover". This video talks about 5 symptoms that show math is being taught incorrectly. You can view all five of these in the video posted at the bottom of this page, but I only want to talk about two of them. Two of the symptoms mentioned, 'lack of initiative' and lack of retention' are two issues I strongly believe to be very present in math classes. Students can be incredibly hard to engage when teaching, but it isn't necessarily because of something they are doing wrong. When math is being poorly taught, or when a student's learning style isn't being met, it makes it difficult for students to find that desire to listen and to learn. It makes their understanding of each concept sometimes impossible to grasp, silently encouraging them to give up on trying. In a similar manner, when students don't understand a concept, it makes it that much harder for them to retain any information regarding that concept. At times, even if a student understands the general idea of a particular concept, if the math is being poorly taught, a lack of retention can occur as well. Because of these two issues, I feel it is important to find alternate routes to using 'typical' teaching methods.

One thing I have learned while being in education classes, is that not every student learns the same way, and not every student is starting the year with the same knowledge. It is important to enter a school year knowing that you should meet each one of your students where they are at, not where you expect them to be. This is important to keep in mind not just at the beginning of a school year, but all the way through. I think it's easy for us, as teachers, to get caught up in the schedule we have in our mind. We don't want to have to change how many days a unit lasts, or how long it takes to cover one concept per class period. My thought is this: if your students need more time to gain full understanding of a unit, let it happen! Our job is to ensure that each student can go home feeling confident in what they learned; timing doesn't matter.

The second thing I have learned while being in education classes, is that making use of the world around us provides so much more room for learning. As is stated in the "Math Class Needs a Makeover" video, often times teachers use the method of teaching out of the book. This is the typical way of teaching, but for students, book learning is simply a lot of memorization of things that they will forget just as quickly as they learn them. We need to turn memorization into remembering. Instead of staring at a book, we need to encourage action in learning. If you're curious as to specifics, there is more information again, in the video below. It is my belief, that in making use of real life situations, teachers can incorporate multiple learning styles, effectively reaching out to each student's needs.

All in all, I think that math class does need a makeover; maybe not in all situations, but generally speaking, I could go for a change. There is so much more I could say about this topic, but for now I think I've written enough. To conclude, I want to mention that I am in no way trying to throw math teachers under the bus. I have had many amazing math teachers who worked hard to make sure classes were taught well and made fun for their students, successfully reaching out to each student to ensure initiative and retention. I think that's the key; working to make use of other resources and not simply requiring students to understand book problems without extra activities. Help your students want to be engaged, help your students feel excited to learn something new. The world is at our fingertips, why not make use of it.

In any case, I am a math teacher in the making, a fellow math nerd, and these are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading.