Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Prepositional Nightmare: Anywhere a Cat Can Go

One of the problems with block scheduling is that, when you lose a day of school, it throws your whole system off. Due to community day on Thursday, and spring break starting on Friday, periods 1 - 4 met twice this week, but 5-6 only met once. So, it was time for a slush lesson. Sorry, I mean "enrichment". I find these hard to do well, because if it is something worthwhile - such that you can justify spending 80 minutes of time with periods 1 through 4 - then you want the other periods to see it to. And if it isn't worthwhile, then why not just have a pizza party or something? But you'll never catch me throwing away a lesson like that. There's just no time to waste.

So I decided to experiment with correcting a linguistic problem that bothers me, but is not necessarily mission critical. That is the reversal of terms when saying division and subtraction problems out loud, confusing divided by with divided into, and my personal favorite, "subtract 7 to both sides". I know that part of the problem here is the somewhat arbitrary nature of prepositions, and I've been told that fluency with prepositions is one of the last things to develop when a person is learning a new language, and can take many years of practice. When students make these mistakes in class, I tend to repeat their words back to them, using the correct language, but not making a big deal out of it. My thinking here was that I could do a lesson on it, and then, when they make those mistakes in the future, I can just say "remember the correct way to say that?" and jog their memory, instead of launching cold into an explanation again and again.

I did the lesson. Nothing fancy - just some explanation, some practice, a little board wars (which I typically shun, but it's a slush lesson, so what the hey) and some delectable Easter candy prizes. Yesterday, the students were pretty non-enthused about working on prepositions (shocking, I know), and board wars was so-so, although there were quite a few kids who were very motivated to win the giant bunny lollipops. Today, I had some pig- and ducky-shaped candies to give away, and I think I struck gold, because the minute I showed them to my class, they freaked out and got super-focused. I don't really like bribery, but I think it's probably ok to break form on the day before vacation.

In any case, we were well into the first round of board wars when the phone rang. When I picked up the receiver, I heard some students say "Mr. Greene, we're in Algebra class right now and we have a question." I was pretty confused, until their teacher came on the line. He had them on speaker phone, and said, "My students are telling me that I'm not speaking like a mathematician." (Speak Like a Mathematician is the phrase I use with them for all matters linguistic.) They were all laughing in the background. I finally got what was going on, and said, "Hold on, let me put you on speaker phone here." When I did that, his class erupted in a cheer, which my class could hear, and they were shouting hellos back and forth (although nobody knew who was in each class). They quieted down, and I had them ask me the question - it seems that their teacher said "subtract by 7", and not only did they notice the mistake, they had enough confidence in themselves to call him on it. So I settled it for them, all the kids shouted goodbye to each other, and we went on to an excellent board wars competition.

Later, when talking about it with the other teacher, he told me that he had actually read a problem that said "reduced by 7", but the students swore he said "subtracted by 7" and he decided to play it up for them and call me since he knew I'd been working on it with them. Moments like that are really cool (and potentially powerful), and they can't really be planned out. I love when the last class before a break is a really good one.

Does anyone else remember the phrase "anywhere a cat can go"? I still remember it from 7th grade French.

Funny cat videos. My classes loved these for the physical humor. But if you've ever had a cat, you'll see that the cartoonist captures their behavior really well. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Physics is Phun

I don't have the proper hardware to experiment with this, but it looks extremely cool. Check it out: Phun - 2d Physics Sandbox.

Don't tell, but I learned something on YouTube

I've been using Keynote this semester as an experiment, to see how it could work in my Numeracy class. So far, it's gone pretty well - especially after I bought a remote mouse so I could control it from anywhere in the room. Combined with the mini-whiteboards, it's been a really efficient way of getting students to do work. After presenting a concept, I can have them practice a few problems right away by showing the next slide, and having them work on their boards. There is no time wasted passing out worksheets. Also, I can make sure all students are focusing on a specific set of problems (versus on a worksheet, where they tend to start jumping around right away, based on what seems easiest). Then, I can show work/answers on the slide without having to pull out a transparency.

Since I've got the projector reserved and set up now, I can easily insert fun and interesting images, sounds, and video clips. I've recorded myself and other teachers singing little ditties (like the infamous "Don't add across"). I've started scouring YouTube for interesting stuff... though the ratio of total crap to interesting stuff is quite high, I've found a couple of gems. I even unearthed my old calculus professor from college, who recorded a "top ten algebra mistakes hit parade" as well as "all of calculus in 20 minutes".

So I'm in my fraction adding unit now, and we've been working with fraction circles to understand adding. Now, we're taking a break from that to do some work on prime factorization, reducing fractions by canceling common prime factors, and finding LCM. Once they get all this mastered, we can go back to adding fractions using common denominators. I hope they don't forget it all over spring break... I've always found it difficult to teach factors and multiples, and GCF and LCM because students confuse these concepts very easily. Part of the problem is their difficulty with the language of division. Just about every student I have says "divide 6 by 40" when they mean 40÷6. If I ask "does 3 go into 12?", they'll say yes. But they'll also say yes if I ask "does 12 go into 3?". (Aside: I think I'm going to devote an entire lesson to this issue - along with the whole "subtracted from"/"subtracted to" issue.)

In any case, I YouTubed LCM and GCF to see if there was anything interesting out there. I was surprised to find a method for finding both LCM and GCF at the same time using Venn Diagrams that I'd never seen before. It's mathematically equivalent to looking at the prime factorizations and picking the right factors, but it provides a nice structure for students to remember which is which. So I designed a lesson to practice finding factors and multiples, and then using this model to find LCM and GCF. It went quite well. I don't know how much will be retained over the weekend, but we'll practice more on Monday/Tuesday because I want them to have LCM down solid. Here are two of my slides, and then the original video I got the idea from.