Another year, another country, and another school! Phew, all this moving around is getting tiring, and I've been teaching new courses every year. I'm so grateful to the MTBoS community (Math-Twitter Blogosphere) for sharing resources and teaching tips and tricks, it makes me so happy to be teaching math! I can't praise it enough! Sarah Carter from Math = Love, Sara VanDerWerf, and Dan Meyer have been my go-to's for classroom activities and lesson ideas.
I'm teaching high school math (grades 10 and 11) this year. My school runs on 80 minute blocks. Here's what I did.
Algebra Seat Finders and Visibly Random Groups - Rather than making a seating plan or having students choose their own seats I greet students at the door and hand them each a card as they walk in. On the card are algebra problems involving one or two step equations and order of operations that are easily solvable via mental math. The answer to the question will tell them which table to sit at. I've arranged my tables into groups of four and have signs taped to the side of the desks so they can easily find the group number. (If you would like to download copy of the seat finder cards I used, they are available at the bottom of my post).
I do the same thing each day, so that every day students will sit in different groups. I like this activity because students are doing math as SOON as they enter the classroom. Some students will cheat and trade cards with other people so they can sit with their friends, but you will come to notice this quickly. I tell students that in this class we are a community and that they will always be working with different people so they get to experience different perspectives and meet everyone in class. Even if certain students don't get along, it's low stakes because the seating changes every day. On Fridays I give them a break and tell them to sit anywhere they like. It was interesting for me to notice that given the choice, students tend to sit with classmates with similar level. Peter Liljedahl has done some cool research on visibly random grouping, check out his free webinar here.
Next, I tell them a bit about myself and we grade the quizzes. #2 and #6 (distance questions) are a good chance to incorporate number sense and reasoning as most students have no idea how far it is from China to Canada or how long it takes to run a 21 km race.
I asked them to silently think of things they notice/wonder about the diagram. Then I did my first ever Stand and Talk and went around listening to conversations which gave me a chance to check in on students' English ability. I teach EL (English Language) learners so I found it helpful to model how a conversation might go the second time round:
Student A: What do you notice about this picture?
Student B: I notice there are two perpendicular lines. What do you notice?
Student A: I notice the four dots are arranged in a square. What do you wonder?
Student B: I wonder what the teacher will ask us to do with this diagram. What do you wonder?
Student A: I wonder if this is a function.
We discuss and review parts of the coordinate plan. I ask them a few questions about the dots. (Which two dots share the same x-value? Which dot has the lowest x and lowest y value? etc.)
The next time we revisit this activity I start with an example:
Teach some content and continue reviewing and practicing start of class and dismissal routines.
Yay! So excited to actually start contributing to the #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blogosphere) community, and to start blogging more in general! This Sunday Funday blogging initiative is the perfect excuse to set aside some me time each week and reflect on my teaching.
I'm now going into my third year of teaching, and so far, each year has been in a different country, which has made each "first day" even more special.
My First First Day
In my very first day of my very first full time teaching job in Kazakhstan (blog post here), I spent the first day getting to know my students, telling them a bit about myself, talking to them about my expectations for the class, taking selfies of all the students, and giving them some general advice about how to succeed in math class. I found that it was important and effective to start building those relationships with my students from day one, and by learning all their names as quickly as possible, I let them know that I notice them and care about them.
Prior to preparing my first day lesson plans, I soaked up as much information as I could with all the resources that were available to me. I had read First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong and a few other teaching books, browsed the internet for countless hours looking for ideas and inspiration, watched this entire video by Agape Management, and looked for elements of each that I thought would be suitable for my teaching style. What didn't work, however, was the fact that I did not start the year knowing where I wanted my students to be by the end of the year. This was difficult because I didn't know much about the culture, the style of teaching that students were accustomed to, and I had never taught a class full of ELL students before (hence why nobody laughed at my jokes). Moreover, I did not have full autonomy over the classroom (it was supposed to be a co-teaching type environment but ended up feeling more like I was "guest teaching" a few times a week); my co-teachers were not fluent in English, and had different visions of how they wanted to run their classrooms, which made it difficult to have consistency when it came to expectations and rules.
What ended up happening was that the first day allowed me to start building relationships with my students, but it did nothing to help me manage my classroom (because nothing was consistently enforced). If I could re-do my first day, I would spend more time getting to know my co-teachers, and specifically, these are the questions I would ask:
1. What are your classroom rules and expectations?
2. What are your beliefs about learning in math? (i.e. How do students learn best?)
3. What are your beliefs about teaching in math? (i.e. How can teachers best reach their students?)
4. Describe a typical day in the math classroom for you.
I learned that it is important not to go in assuming that your teaching partner will have the same views about teaching and learning as you do, and not only that but that I needed to take the time to get to know and understand their views! Had I done so much earlier I would have discovered that hands-on activities, student investigations, or differentiated teaching and learning weren't a common tools in their teaching toolbox. The general style of teaching I observed included very fast-paced progression through the units, with lots repetition and mental computations, but very little time spent developing the concepts or looking at their applications. Knowing this, I would have modified my first day presentation to include some math activities that integrated both styles of teaching.
The Second First Day
Country: South Korea
Grades: 8 - 10
In my second year, I taught in South Korea and had full control over my own classroom, which made it significantly easier to plan and organize everything the way I wanted to. My first interaction with my students, however, was not on the first day of class. We had an "orientation day" in which both students and parents attended brief 10 minute presentations by all their teachers.
I began by greeting every student and parent at the door with a handshake. I called the students by name as they walked into the classroom, which took a lot of time for me to learn beforehand, but was so worth the reactions! Prior to meeting all of them, I borrowed the previous years' yearbook and memorized the faces and names of all the students I would be teaching in my classes. Some of them looked stunned that I knew their names already, when none of them had a clue who I was yet!
At the front of the room, I had copies of letter to parents and the course syllabus which I asked each student to pick up as they walked in. In my presentation, I talked briefly about who I was, my educational background, and what students can be expecting to learn this year. My primary goal was to let them know that I care about them and their learning, and that while this year would be challenging, they would also be supported by me.
Then, on the actual first day of class, I had students fill out a "Get to Know Me" form, we played an icebreaker game (two truths and a lie - my favourite to this day), I talked about the rules and expectations, and I ended the day by teaching them my class dismissal routine. What I DIDN'T do (but wish I did), however, was any science, and that's about to change for this year.
This Upcoming School Year
Subject: Chemistry (?), TBD
Grades: 9 - 12 (?) TBD
As in the past, my main goals for the first day of school are:
1) get to know my students, and
2) set the tone for the rest of the year,
but how I plan to achieve them will change somewhat.
1 - Getting to know my students.
Ideally, I would like to learn student names as quickly as I can, before the first day, if possible. But regardless, I would still like to use name tents with feedback, an idea that Sara Vanderwerf talks about in her blog. I think this is a great way to connect with students individually and on a more personal level. I would also like to take pictures of the students with their name tents so I have a visual record as well. A modification I will make to Sara's version of the name tents is that I will provide some open-ended prompts that the students can respond to, so that they have a jumping-off point for organic thoughts to develop. For instance:
- I noticed ...
- I wonder ...
- I learned ...
- I wish ...
I also really like the Talking Points activity from MathMinds and plan to modify it to make it chemistry specific.
Another idea I've been toying with is some sort of homework assignment that addresses a few or all of the 5 Questions to Ask Your Students To Start the School Year from @gcouros but my problem with this is that I don't want it to JUST be about rapport building, it needs to address or be linked an aspect of science (or science learning) specifically... to be determined.
2 - Setting the tone for the rest of the year.
We will, presumably, be doing chemistry so I would like to begin the first day with a demonstration, or an activity related to the nature and processes of science. Some ideas I would like to try:
Stacking Cups (Dan Meyer) - related to concepts of measurement, accuracy, precision, and estimation
Candle Light Activity (Art of Teaching Science) - importance of observation (qualitative and quantitative) in science, making inferences and predictions, chemical and physical properties
Ira Remsen Demo (Michael Morgan) - observation, predictions, inferences, chemical safety, chemical reactions
I believe that it is important to talk about my expectations and what students can expect out of the class, however, what I DON'T want to do is just read the syllabus on the first day. A prof once suggested just letting the students read the syllabus at home and talk about it the following day so they can ask questions about what they read, or doing a quiz if necessary about the content in the syllabus.
First Day Plan (rough draft):
1) Greet students at the door
2) Have an activity for them to get started with on their desk (either to quietly read the syllabus or fill out a Who I Am handout)
3) Introductions myself and the course
4) Student introductions + talking points
5) Do some science!
6) Dismissal routine
My first day experiences thus far have been pretty nerve-racking and exciting. I'm slowly learning to strike the right balance between talking about rules and procedures to relinquishing control, and giving voice to the students. This is particularly difficult in a room full of ELL students, but once they gain confidence in their ability to speak and be heard, I found that they had a lot to contribute. With international schools, it is usually the case that the students are well acquainted with each other already, so usually the introductions are more for the teacher rather than the students. Even though students may already know each other, however, my role as a teacher to facilitate a safe and positive community cannot be ignored. This was made prevalent to me in Korea when I realized that students still felt unwilling to work with particular classmates even though they had been in the same classes for years. Regardless of country, language, or culture, my biggest take away for the first day of the school year is to BUILD RELATIONSHIPS and ESTABLISH COMMUNITY. I will keep this in mind as I continue to plan for my first day of school in China this school year!
Last Thursday, I finally got to meet some of the students I will be working with this year and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! I started off by introducing myself as one of the new international teachers at the school. Teachers go by a first name basis at the school, so the students call me "Ms. April." Since I will be working with them for the entire year, it was only fair that we take some time to get to know each other. I passed out two pieces of paper to each student (one white, one blue), and my first task for them was as follows:
The first unit we are covering has to do with series and sequences. The blue paper I passed around to students contained a sequence with a missing number. The idea is that answer to their sequence problem would determine the order in which students would speak. In theory, this seemed like a great way to tie in bits of math instruction along with my introductory spiel, but since all of them were English Language Learners, this part of the activity took longer to explain than I had anticipated. While the students worked on the Starter activity, I passed my camera around and asked them to take a #selfie of themselves so I would be able to better learn their names. The students had a lot of fun with this, and I got some pretty nice pictures at the end:
I had a professor in university who started off his very first lecture with the statement, "Ask me anything," and it's stuck with me since. I appreciated how he did not choose to just hide behind all the abbreviations attached to his name (trust me, there were many), and owned up to the fact that he was a real life human being who eats, poops, and sleeps just like you and me. So, I let my students ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I figured they were all curious to learn more about the new young and beautiful looking international teacher at their school (ha!).
Most of them wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about their country and their city, how long I would be staying at the school, and what my hobbies were. I answered their questions in earnest and they shared some facts about themselves. I am from Canada; I've had a very enjoyable time in Taldykorgan so far and I love seeing the mountains as I walk to work everyday; my current contract allows me to stay for one year; and I enjoy reading, playing volleyball, badminton, and drawing. I learned that most of the boys enjoy playing football (soccer) and basketball while the girls had a wider range of hobbies, including playing musical instruments, watching anime, and reading. I got the feeling that the students wanted to share more, but their limited English language prevented them from sharing any thoughts that may have been too difficult to express.
After the sharing, I showed the students some pictures that represented me and where I am from. In particular, they were very interested in my grade 8 class photo. I explained to them that I grew up with people from many different ethnicities, and that there was no single colour of skin that defined "Canadian." Also posted some examples of my artwork from high school since drawing is one of my hobbies. I got a big reaction from the boys when they saw my pencil crayon drawing from the cover of "World of Warcraft" which I wasn't expecting. I think I gained some massive cool points for that.
I shared with the students what my reasons were for teaching, and talked a bit about my teaching philosophy in language that was more accessible to them. I framed my classroom expectations within a brief talk I called "How to Ace Math Class." There are only three rules in my classroom and they are not optional. They are: listen ACTIVELY, take good notes, and participate! I took some time to talk about what each rule entails, and explained the rationale behind each one. I chose these specific rules because I learned from the experience international staff that the students will often chat among themselves during instructional time, and that they are used to being spoon-fed information so it is not unusual for students to sit passively in class. I think if I were to teach in Canada, I would have to rethink these rules a bit. Keep in mind that many teachers in Canada and the US will spend at least the first week discussing expectations and classroom procedures, I only had 20 minutes - and that is longer than most local teachers spend on this topic. The culture here is just different, and the norm is to jump right into curricular content. The good news is that there are no major behavioural issues with the students. As I learn more about my classes, however, I will continue to introduce and rework new routines and procedures on an as-needed basis so that we can have a successful year together.
My concluding message? "Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous," (advice from one of my teacher idols Tina Seelig).
International math educator who writes, occasionally.