Friday, November 28, 2008

Homework Confessions

I am just sitting at my computer procrastinating as usual. It's usual in that I have a stack of homework, tests, and make up work to grade. I absolutely hate to grade homework! So I procrastinate since it is the homework that I need to grade the most.

I am trying some self-psychology at this point. I am reminding myself of how much better I feel whenever I am caught up in my grading. It is true that I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of me whenever I have all the grading done, but I still hate to do the grading. Hence, I procrastinate. Even writing this confession is a form of procrastination. Yet, I want my students to do everything in a timely fashion. I am such a hypocrite!

There is a reason why I hate to grade homework and classwork. In order to save the school money and myself time plus make the expense of buying the textbooks worth their while for the parents my homework assignments are usually out of the textbooks. This means that the students will put their work in various sheets of paper requiring some effort on my part to figure out what is what. I do require that all problems be numbered even if they were done out of order; I am not going to spend my time trying to figure out which answer goes to which problem. I also require that the student's name be on the first page of the homework, I allow my students to use my stapler in order to keep homework with more than 1 page together, and I take the "teacher's prerogative" of determining what different characters and words are if they are difficult to read -- I refuse to argue on those points because it is the student's responsibility to insure that his/her work is legible. Frankly, saving the school money by not making and copying worksheets is messy for me. I have fellow math teachers who are absolute fiends about copying worksheets partially to make the grading easier. With the economy the way that it is, I wonder how long they will be allowed to continue that.

Now, there is another way to deal with the said homework grading, and I have used it. It is to put the answers on the board and go around checking that the students did their work while they check their answers. It is faster, but the students learn to make marks that look like work when skimmed by the passing teacher when, in fact, they had done no work at all. I found that this method did not do much in the way of helping my students learn the subject. So I collect their homework and grade page by page .... and I procrastinate when it piles because I have not had time for it.

There is another way to deal with homework that is accumulating. That is to just chuck it in the trash without looking at it. I knew a principal who said that he gave daily quizzes when he taught and he would throw away occasionally ungraded quizzes when time was short. I do not give daily quizzes, so those I do grade, but I do trash some homework and classwork at times. The caveat for me is to check every piece of paper so that make up work does not get trashed also.

I do not have the same distaste for grading tests and quizzes that I do for homework, and there is a reason for that. My tests and quizzes are all done on photocopied sheets so they are not messy in form. It is much easier to go through them, so I usually do them rather quickly.

There is one other thing regarding how I grade both homework, tests, and quizzes. I mark every answer whether correct or incorrect. Correct gets a check mark, and incorrect gets circled. I also write notes and examples on their work so that I can do a little one-on-one in their work that gets returned to them. My intent is for them to learn no matter what; it is not just to "give" them a grade for their effort. (I have noticed that students "earn" an A, but they are "given" a D or worse. It is amazing how their viewpoints change about their work based upon their grade. I guess they do not realize yet that they are fooling no one, especially their teachers and parents, with their words.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New teaching tip from old exceptional children's teachers

In the South, just about any amount of snow or ice on the road means either a snow day or a one-to-two hour delay or a one-to-two hour early dismissal. Well, for the first time in the 24 years that I have lived here, we had snow before Thanksgiving. Hence, on Friday we had a two hour delay to the start of school. Normally, that would not be a problem for me, but the math department was assigned Fridays for tests and major projects, and I had planned to give tests all day. I had already printed the tests for my first 3 math classes with the intent that they would take the better part of our usual 47 minute periods. What to do?

I did not want to completely reprint the tests since that would be a waste of paper, so I went through them and crossed off 4 problems, leaving 37 to do. In the first class, there were a lot of complaints about the lack of time and the students' desires to move the test to Monday. Knowing the principal's opinion of such an action, I said no to their request and had them start. At the end of class I had agreed to the following: those who wanted to finish their tests later in the day could, and the others' tests would be graded on what they already did with the caveat that each problem would be worth more. The students were satisfied, but I was not. I had 2 more classes taking the same test, so I needed to think quickly.

When the next class started, I told them that I decided to give them their tests one page at a time. They would do one page, hand it in, and receive the next page. That way if they did not finish within the shorter class, they could finish on Monday (As another math teacher pointed out early on Friday: we cannot give tests on Monday, but we can complete them then.). All but one student finished the entire test within the time allotted. That one student was upset because she had to do one page at a time, so she only worked on the first page. I assume that she had talked with students from the first class and believed that her class would get the same deal from me. I will not go back on my word for any particular class, but that does not mean that I have to offer the same to the remaining classes. Every teacher knows that one makes the most mistakes on the first class in the day of a particular subject, and I did that in this case. By the third class, everything was running smoothly for this test.

I learned this technique from our learning support/exceptional children/special education teachers. We have students with diagnosed requirements of extra time to take tests, so what our LS teachers do in those cases is give the tests one page at a time. That way the students do not know what's on the next page if they have to finish their tests later in the day. I offer this tip to all teachers who, like me, find themselves having to give an already printed test in a shorter time frame than originally planned. It works. Now, if I could only go back on my word to my first class ... ;-)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Of parents and teachers in high school

There is a major difference between the parents of students in "poor" public high schools and the parents of students in "well-to-do" public high schools and non-public schools. The difference is the accessibility of the parents to the teachers and the willingness on the part of the parents to show up at school functions in order to talk with their children's teachers.

When I taught in public high schools, I always seemed to be teaching in poor schools, the type considered to be schools of failure -- and with 4th year freshmen, i.e. 18-year-olds, some of them had really earned that title. I learned early on that the students who believed that their parents would never hear of their misbehaviors were the worst behaved in classes. We would have open houses for the parents, and I would be lucky to see one parent even though I taught mostly freshmen and sophomores. I did learn to call parents between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturdays because that was when parents were more likely to answer their phones rather than letting their children do so. I did have a few interesting situations because of this. The first one was when the mother said to me, "Well, what do you expect me to do about it? She treats me the same way!" At least, I tried in that case and had documentation of it. Another time I heard the mother turn around to her daughter and use the worst language in screaming at her daughter for making her receive a phone call from a teacher on a Saturday morning. In that case, I spoke to the girl privately later when we met between classes. I try to make it a rule never to say that what a parent does is wrong, but I kind of broke that rule then. I told the girl that most parents don't use profanity when talking with their children. The girl and I agreed from then on to work things out between us because I was never going to call that mother again.

Where I teach now, the parents are an integral and important part of the school community. Many of them volunteer to work in the office and other places. They seek out their children's teachers in order to speak with them. There are, of course, some "missing" parents, but they are the very small exception to the rule. Usually when I try to contact my students' parents, I have very little trouble finding them. Our open houses are full, both the ones for parents of current students and the ones for parents of potential students. I would say that the cost of a non-public education is the main reason for this, but my acquaintances who teach in well-to-do public schools see the same types of relationships, so out-of-pocket cost is not the only reason. There are parents who are vested in their children's education and those who are not. Now, if we could only get the unvested ones to be vested. Hmmm.

I close with a story told me by another teacher. The way that legislators look at public education and teachers is much like the idea of making dentists responsible for the state of their patients' teeth without taking into account how the different patients take care of their own teeth when not in the dentists' offices. Educating young people takes responsibility of all people involved in their lives, all the way from birth until high school graduation. In our society, that's very hard to do sometimes.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The BookWorm Award ....

My brother, Just the Library Keeper A.K.A. Earl, put this on his blog, so I guess I will continue it.

Rules:Pass it on to five other bloggers, and tell them to open the nearest book to page 56. Write out the fifth sentence on that page, and also the next two to five sentences. The CLOSEST BOOK, NOT YOUR FAVORITE, OR MOST INTELLECTUAL!

The problem with my book is that it is a paperback Webster's Dictionary. Frankly, we keep our computers in a common room which is small, so we do not have much else in it except software, paper, etc. It's a workroom for us. Here goes.

blitz (blits) n. sudden, concentrated attack -- blitz'krieg (-kreeg) n. sudden, concentrated military attack; war conducted in this way
bliz.zard (BLIZ-erd) n. a blinding storm of wind and snow

I believe that that is enough for anyone really into this. Unfortunately, I only read my brother's and my mother's blogs, so I offer this to any other bloggers out there. Have fun. Maybe you have more interesting books in your computer area than I do.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Of Group Work and Projects

Over the years I've learned not to pay too much attention to students complaining about the work they have to do when it comes to group work and projects. All I usually hear is the complaining until the end of the year when they may actually say that they really liked the group work and/or the projects. Sometimes I hear from their parents about how they came home all excited and talked about something they had done as part of a group or how proud they were of their projects. As I said, all I hear at the time is the whining and complaining because I make them continue on their merry way to an education.

The seniors returned from a week of internships on Monday -- one day of class followed by no school on Veterans Day. How to set the tone for getting back to work? I looked at my lesson plans from prior years for my functions and modeling classes and discovered that I had written 2 ways to teach an introductory lesson to power functions, i.e. functions of x^n . One way was lecture and demonstration on the overhead calculator. The other way was to have the students in groups take an exponent, create a table of values for x to the said exponent, plot the points, sketch the curve between the points, and answer some questions about what their final graph shows them. Each group would then present their graph and their findings to the class. All of this within a 47 minute class. I decided to go with the group work format because they would probably be more engaged with it than with the lecture. It was successful as far as that went, but I did spend much of each class walking among the groups to keep them on task while answering questions. The presentations were good considering the lack of planning time for the groups. Wrong answers were corrected with no embarrassment. They learned more than I could have taught them in a straight lecture even with the overhead calculator. Of course, it actually was more work for me in that classroom management is far easier with students sitting in straight rows being quiet, but I am teaching for their learning. If I wanted a quiet career just for the money, I would still be in private industry.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Back to Traffic

I noticed that it has been about 2 weeks since I wrote. Basically, my cold took longer to go away, and the first quarter end hit at the same time. I survived field day by doping myself up with cold medicine (I always wonder why it is called cold medicine since it does not help get rid of the cold; it just makes it possible to function at a low level without causing others to notice one's condition too much.). The day was supposed to be sunny, but it was overcast and breezy instead. I had taken my own advice by wearing layers which made the chill tolerable. Some of my homeroom, however, didn't take the advice as seriously as they should have. ... and what is it about teenage boys that they can go around in tee-shirts without jackets or sweatshirts or anything else and still claim not to be cold? The teachers all agreed that it was not wise to change the date of field day just because of a play. I hope that this mistake will not be repeated.

As I feared, my cold did not go away but hung on. The problem with a cold is the fact that it drains my energy. That's good for making sure that I get enough rest to get rid of it, but it wears on my teaching and non-teaching tasks. I struggled for the next 3 days to teach, to catch up with grading make up work, and to answer students' questions about their grades. Thankfully, on Friday (Halloween) there was no school so that faculty could get their grades done. They were due online by 8:15 Monday morning. I actually didn't spend long at the school since most of my work could be done on the internet. I had some problems with accessing my computer science students' programs, but other than that everything else was almost ready. I loaded up the needed programs and headed home after I got some help with my immediate problem.

I decided to defragment/pack my hard drive and install the compiler I needed so that I could grade my students' programs at home rather than at the school because it would be much easier for me. I messed up the download of the compiler somehow, spent much of the weekend trying to figure out what I had done/not done, and ended up downloading a different compiler so that I could finish grading the programs.

I zipped off to school on Monday, getting there 1 1/2 hours before the deadline to tweak the grades. In my math classes I always drop the lowest quiz grade and 1/10 of the homework grades at the end of the quarter, and I had not done that yet because of the time I used in trying to fix a problem that I never fixed. I was finished on time, though. This past week has been easier because the seniors were out on their required 1-week internship. I lost 2 classes completely for the week, had 3 classes with 6 or fewer students, and only had one class that had only 5 seniors (missing) to 18 juniors. That class (computer science) had videos about computers and science fiction all week.

I spent a lot of time at the school planning for my Honors Probability and Statistics class which is the only class that I had never taught until this year. I've learned over the years to keep my notes on my computer science and my functions and modeling classes intact so that I can start from them each year. I never really needed to keep notes from one year to the next when it came to teaching straightforward algebra, but functions and modeling is an applied mathematics class, so I need the notes for reference. The computer science notes I keep have to do with the programming language I use (Java) and not computer science itself, since I come from the world of private industry and computer programming and systems analysis ... plus I'm a computer science grad school dropout (not due to grades ... my grades were fine).

Thursday afternoon and evening and all day Friday were set aside for parent-teacher conferences, but I had very few of those. The teachers for the freshmen and sophomores get most of the conferences. I did get time to help another teacher change the format of her homework website from an icon-driven menu to a "frames" version, i.e. no icons. I am not sure what it is about English teachers, but most of them think it's important to look sophisticated. I guess most math teachers don't think that way because it is hard enough getting students to understand how necessary and useful math is so that they will actually want to learn. We tend not to be so distant in our own ways.

I am over my cold completely. I do find it hard to go back to my healthy way of life every time I get sick. I have not exercised for nearly 3 weeks, so I am having trouble convincing myself to start up again. I will do it, though. Likewise, I need to get back to blogging.