Monday, October 14, 2013

Not Calling on Those Who Know

I've been thinking about this topic for about a week now, and one question has stuck with me: Why do teachers not call on students who know? I know I'm guilty of it, but seeing it from another role in the classroom has really given me cause to stop and consider the philosophy behind this practice.

From my own experience teaching, I used to not call on students who I believed knew the answer because I thought that it would stifle class discussions, or because I thought that somehow I would reach more students by refusing to call on those who I knew were with me. Instead, I would pick on those who I thought would be *close* to being right but who needed a little push.  Or, even worse, I would call on a student who I thought wouldn't know the right answer.  That'd show 'em, right?

Wrong.  Thinking back more carefully now, all that philosophy promoted was the thing I was hoping to avoid, to an even worse degree: by not calling on those who knew, I stifled their contributions to the class discussions I was longing for!

The solution is so simple, it's amazing I taught for so long without ever really implementing it.  It's a strategy I was just reading about on Ben Blum-Smith's blog.  It's something I tried bringing into a classroom last week, and it's something that I know can be extremely effective:

Have students summarize, revise, or add-on to others.

Simple, right?  Why did that take me so long to discover??

Last week, I was teaching a lesson about absolute value and found opportunities ripe for this technique.  Students were trying to create an equation that would reveal how close everyone's guess was from the actual number of candy corns (ew) there were in a large jar.  The discussion began as it logically would; students proposed subtracting the actual number from the guess, or the guess from the actual depending on which was bigger.  I pushed students to think further, though, since I wanted to use a formula in Excel and could only use one equation for all guesses.  I gave students a few seconds to discuss in their table groups, then called on a student to share.  It helped that I don't really know these kids, so I could not make any form of informed pick.

The first kid I picked on proposed an idea that was close, but no cigar.  Instead of saying, "No, not quite.  Who else?" I asked, "Can anyone paraphrase what Johnny just said, or revise or add on to what he said?"  I then cold-called a student, and I really made them sit and think.  Normally, after an awkward moment of dead silence, I'll move on; this time, however, I reminded the students that they could, if necessary, simply repeat what the previous student said.  This eased tension a little bit, since even if I called on someone who had no freakin' clue what equation to use, they could just paraphrase what the previous student said.

I did notice, however, just how little students listen to each other.  I thought they just didn't listen to me!

I'm sure that with regular implementation and lots of practice, this technique could be used to ignite some serious class discussions.  It's also a focus area for my school, so that teachers become more of a facilitator than a "sage on the stage."  I can't wait to try it out more and encourage others to adopt the practice!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My "Classroom"

I signed up for Exploring the MTBoS partly because I had no idea what "MTBoS" meant.  Everyone was mentioning it on the sites I had recently discovered, so after some research I decided that I wanted to get involved.

My situation is somewhat interesting this year - I'm in a brand-new role (for me and my district) as Instructional Coach.  I'm lucky enough to be a full-time coach, split between two different sites.  Being a coach, though, means that I don't actually have a class of my own.  I'm also not only coaching teachers of mathematics - I'm also working with teachers on writing, language arts, you name it!  As a result, some of my posts on here will have nothing to do with teaching math, but maybe they'll still be useful to others.

By far, my favorite rich, open-ended problem has been a 3-Act Math lesson with Bucky the Badger.  I've written about it before on this blog, so I'll just briefly sum it up.  I found Dan Meyer online, watched a few of his YouTube videos, and was hooked.  I immediately brainstormed ways I could use this in the classrooms with which I'm working and found a willing participant guinea pig.  After some prepping (I basically took Dan Meyer's Cambridge penny pyramid talk and created a generic script), I nervously entered the classroom to begin the lesson.  I'd never done this before, and it was all a grand experiment.  Oh yeah, and I had two other teachers observing the lesson.  "This had better go well," I imagined them commanding.

I showed the class a short video to introduce the lesson and then asked them to write down any questions they had.  What did I get back from these wonderful young minds?  Blank stares and blank papers.  They could not (or would not) ask any questions!  I panicked.  I showed the video again.  I pleaded, "Please, write down ANY questions!"  And then, the spark caught.  Students began sharing, and I soon struggled to keep up recording the questions they called out.  We generated a long list, and thankfully one student asked the question I was hoping the class would ask.

We began diving into the lesson, and students truly struggled to find an entry point into the problem.  They multiplied.  They used exponents.  They drew function tables.  Finally, about five minutes in, students began to get the brilliant idea of drawing a table and just filling in data.  They worked for about 45 minutes straight on the problem, and shared out their thinking for other students to examine and scrutinize.  Some groups arrived at the correct answer and cheered when "573!" appeared on the video.  Others immediately went back to their work to determine where they went wrong.

The big picture for me was, "these kids just did an hour of intense math" and "students cheered when they saw the answer!"  I knew at that point that I had to share this with as many others as I could.

What made this problem and experience so rich was that students really, genuinely struggled to get started.  There was no list of clues to lead them toward the answer; when they asked me for help, I responded with questions of my own; when they shared their answer, I encouraged them to question each other and justify their steps.  All of these critical activities would have been pretty much impossible to complete using word problems for the textbook.  The kids were hooked.

Going back to my own classroom last year (and the six years before that), what made my room unique was my rapport with students and the class culture I tried to create.  I really emphasized students sharing thoughts and discussing with each other, and I wanted everyone to feel comfortable with what they thought and develop confidence in their own abilities.  Whether that happened or not, I'm not positive.  I'm starting to see that, from my coaching vantage point, I still had a lot of growth to make.  I do feel that I am (and was) on the right track, though!