Thursday, December 17, 2009

ELL Joke Worksheets?

Kate wrote a great post about the value of a well-structured worksheet last month.

I agree that there are huge benefits of having a unified task, with some type of self-checking or affirmation. And a little fun and/or creativity doesn't hurt. Joke worksheets do that pretty well. However, my students (who are generally not native English speakers) hardly ever get the joke. They tackle the sheet with excitement, but there is usually that little moment of disappointment at the end when they don't get the punchline. Instead, of course, of the expected groan and eye-roll that accompanies a quality pun.

"What do you get when you mix prune juice with holy water?"
"A religious movement"

After two minutes of explanation, that loses some of its original zing.

So my question is if anyone has or knows about these kinds of worksheets developed for ELL students? I'm kind of doubting that there are any, but it never hurts to ask. I think I will probably end up creating some next semester, with jokes solicited from my students. Then I can publish the DCP Spanglish Algebra Joke Book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Algebra 1: Situation Graphing

I learned a few years back that jumping right into graphing slope-intercept equations never worked. This is one of those concepts that, before I became a math teacher, I never would have guessed would be so hard for students to master. Start at the y-intercept, use the rate of change to plot the next point, and you're done - right? Yeah, not really. So after a couple of years of teaching, reteaching, re-reteaching, and tearing my hair out, I decided to try some other things. Eventually, I realized that a ton of scaffolding of the concept of slope was needed, along with firmly rooting linear functions in situated contexts.

One of the constant problem areas is deciding which way to draw the line for a negative slope. To graph something like y = -(2/3)x + 5, students would often move down 2 and left 3. My old attempts at correcting this focused only on the mathematical explanation: -(2/3) = -2/3 = 2/-3. So, you either go down 2 and right 3, or up 2 and left 3. If you go down 2 and left 3, that means -2/-3, which is 2/3. This is a perfectly reasonable way to explain it, but it didn't really provide much of a lifeline to my lower-skilled students, as it hinges on mastery of the division rules of signs, as well as remembering that a fraction also represents a division problem.

The other common problem was for students to correctly identify the starting point number, but to plot it on the x-axis instead of the y-axis.

The way I run the unit now is to provide numerous opportunities to graph and describe situations, both with and without numbers, in just the first quadrant of the coordinate plane. Distance, income, height, and so on. The quantity being measured is always on the vertical axis, and the horizontal axis always represents time. When we eventually generalize to y = mx + b equations on the full coordinate plane, I use the situated contexts as memory anchors. If a student doesn't remember where to start, I say something like, "Where do we show that the Hare got a two foot head start? On the feet axis or on the seconds axis?" In these situations, a positive rate of change always means "moving up" and a negative rate of change always means "moving down", while time is always passing to the right. This is a much more helpful way for my students to think about how to graph their decontextualized lines. Suddenly, there is a reason for the direction the line is moving in, instead of just a sign rule.

Another benefit to this approach is that my students are now a lot more flexible with the form of the equations. My situated equations typically are in the form y = b + mx, which seems like a more natural connection to the preferred method for graphing. Once they grasp that the number without the variable is always the starting point, then they can handle both y = b + mx and y = mx + b relatively interchangeably. Also, it really helps them to understand the difference between equations like y = 2 and y = 2x. The first shows a starting point of 2, with zero rate of change. What does it look like on a graph if someone is not moving, but time is still passing? Exactly - a straight line! (I'm still working on that one - even my highest skilled students still say straight when they mean horizontal. My "all lines are straight" response doesn't usually clarify the way I'd like it to.) And in the second, the rate of change is 2. Ahh, it's like a graph of someone running 2 feet per second... but where did he start from? Zero? Where is that?

This approach takes a ton more time, of course, but I can't see any way around it for my students. I hope that I am providing them with a long-lasting ability to understand and graph linear functions. The semester is ending this week (final exams start tomorrow!), so the test will be to see how much they recall in January, when we move into the next unit. We'll be doing those oh-so-fun problems where you give them a point and a slope (or a parallel line and a point, or two points) and they have to give you the equation of the line. I'm going to experiment with doing every problem both graphically and algebraically (both in instruction and on assessments) to see if the focus on multiple representations helps them master these problems. I'll post more about that in late January (after I develop and teach it!).

My Slope and Graphing Linear Functions unit (Unit 4) is pretty much up-to-date in my widget in the side bar. Here are a couple of examples (in pdf format) of the kinds of activities that they were doing. The Word and Keynote files are all in my box. I'd love to get feedback on any of this.

Lesson 10: Practice graphing with tables
Lesson 11: Learning to graph without tables

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review game: Trashketball

I know that many teachers out there play some form of Trashketball, so this isn't really groundbreaking. However, I always have problems with these kinds of review games. Structuring them so that the higher-skilled students don't dominate or pressure the other students can be quite difficult. Or, looking at it the other way, there are plenty of lower-skilled students who are happy to sit back and let others on their team get the work done for them.

I developed Tic Tac Toe Battle Royale a couple years ago which addresses some of these concerns pretty well. But you can only do the same game so many times. My experiments with Trashketball in the past haven't been that successful, and so I thought about how I could improve it to work more effectively in my class. This is what I came up with:

  1. Break students into groups of 3 or 4 - for me, this yields no more than 6 groups in my Algebra 1 classes. Give each group a letter, and each person in the group a number. Write these in a grid on the board. (If there is an unfilled spot in a group, that spot becomes a wild card - any person can take that number.)
  2. For each round, create 6 separate problems that all target the same concept, but that are slightly different. This prevents the copying problem found in board races.
  3. Hand out a template for doing the work on. My freshmen need an organizer for everything. "Get out a sheet of paper" just doesn't fly.
  4. Show the 6 versions of the problem, giving the class enough time to get it done.
  5. Call for silence. Block the projector. Randomly (or not) call a number between 1 and 4. The student in each group with that number comes to the board - all 6 at once. Have the board sectioned off so they know where to write. They are allowed to bring their own graphic organizer up with them, but no one on the team may offer help at this point. The idea here, of course, is that students must make sure that all group members have done the work. Students who tend to slack off have to at least write down the work that others in their group are doing. Not ideal, but it's better than spacing out.
  6. Have the trashketball basket set up. As students complete their work on the board, tell them if they are right or not (make sure to have answer keys ready!). Right answers get a point, and they get to take a shot for a bonus point. There is less waiting around time this way - some students will still be writing their problems as others are already lining up to shoot.
  7. Record the scores and move on. Winning team gets a whatever.
How it looks:

I did this for the first time today, and was amazed by how well they did. There were only 2 students in the class that I couldn't get totally engaged. The rest did all their work, were excited to take their shots, and so on. It takes longer to make this activity due to the multiple problems, but it was really worth it. Man, do they love tossing paper balls into the recycle bin.

I know it kind of breaks my respect class norm, but it really warms my heart to hear a kid (who I can usually barely get to sit down, and who really wanted to win) say to his teammate who hadn't done his work on the board carefully: "Fool! I told you it was negative eleven!"

Trashketball Problems (Keynote) (Powerpoint)
Answer Template (Word)