Rookie Year: Day 94 Or Saving Sick Days

I woke up with a head cold this morning. Not the worst one I have ever had, but a sore throat, low grade fever, muscle aches, etc.

My wife Lauren is pregnant and we are expecting our second child, a baby girl, sometime in mid-May. We were planning for her to come in the summer and we weren’t too far off, but it is looking like I will have to take some time off near the end of the year. So I need to save my sick days and personal days up to use for paternity leave later on.

So I taught sick today which was, you know, just the best.

For the sake of my ego I will officially blame the cold for how my lessons went today, but unofficially between you and me, dear readers, I really did a poor job. I didn’t even want to write this post today, not because I am embarrassed–I don’t seem to have a problem with that when it comes to sharing my teaching failures–but because I feel crappy.

Anyway, my goal today was to teach linear inequalities to my students. The plan was two-fold: use a lovely introduction to one-variable inequalities in Desmos Labs made by Chris Lusto as a review and transition to linear inequalities in two variables. Then I would give some direct instruction on the definition of linear inequalities and have them work through some examples.

In first block we had the same struggles as yesterday. Everyone was dead and no one was answering my questions. I thought maybe the issue yesterday was that the activity was an application and a stretch for the students. So I was hoping today would go more smoothly since technically inequalities were review. But once again I found myself in front of the class pulling answers out of them and mostly having no luck.

And second block was not much better. In fact it was worse because there was a fire drill and then I spent too much time on homework questions and suddenly we were 20 minutes short on time and I really wanted to introduce the new topic today. And so I rushed them through it. I should have just ditched it entirely I think. Or maybe not. I’m not sure. It was bad.

Third block went the best: instead of going at a teacher pace with me in the front guiding them slide by slide, I released them to try to work through it on their own. I got much better answers and student thinking when I released classroom control, BUT I had more students off task and I was not able to gauge their understanding as a class as well as I could in the previous two blocks. Part of this was that I felt like garbage and so I had less energy when students were off task. Just not as vigilant. But I still managed to keep the class under control. Time constraints got me again. If I retaught this lesson I would let everyone go at their own pace, making sure that they all were attempting the assignment, and THEN I would have go through the slides with me in the front and had them summarize answers and talk. This would have taken most of the block but would have been much more effective. Because I was trying to use it as a quick review that turned out to be not so quick, I really messed it up.

So it didn’t go as well as I would have liked and my classroom management wasn’t as good as previous days because I was feeling down, but I am telling myself not to get discouraged. I’m allowed to have an off day and this is especially true if I am teaching with a cold. So sorry Lusto, I think my sample data was compromised but here it is anyway.

I am scheduled to observe teachers on Thursday so I have to prep for a sub by writing directions for the sub, writing directions for the students, AND creating activities for the students that they can mostly do without my help. AND also prepare for tomorrow. All I want to do is nap.

I’ll make it. My complaining it disproportionate to my current level of discomfort.

Thanks for reading.


Rookie Year: Day 93

Today was a low day, but not awful.

I had my students work through the Racing Dots activity on Desmos, which asks students when a red dot will catch up to a blue dot.

My first block students seemed dead and I could not get them to answer anything. They stared at me. I think part of the problem is that Block 1 is 1st and 2nd period, but also I didn’t quite do the lesson correctly. I messed up the flow of the Desmos lesson I was using and moved them on before we were ready and had to cover it up. I should have released the students into the groups that I had assigned them to wrestle with a problem, but I forgot to do that so when we all moved to the next slide in Desmos, we were asked to sum up strategies that we never used. I didn’t realize that was what it was until it was too late and I had essentially told the punchline and gave the game away. So they were a little glazed over. I had talked too much and not let them try the problem. I asked them at some point why they weren’t answering and if they were asleep and they just said “No, Mr. Belcher, we just don’t know.” Another possible issue was that since I was using Desmos racing dots lesson, which is an applied activity for systems of equations, and they were struggling to make connections and I hadn’t sold the hook well with the dots at the beginning.

My second block went much better as I made adjustments, and I even had groups try strategies on their own that I had not suggested. After a group discussion about what information we needed to find the speed of the dots (I had asked what information they might want or need) I had groups counting out loud to gauge how long it tooks dots to travel certain distances. I didn’t tell them that, they just did it. That was fantastic. And then when we were looking at tables of time versus distance, several groups starting extending tables by splitting up work and then comparing how far the dots had traveled. I still felt like I was doing too much of the talking in this block, but if I did not push them along the class stalled very quickly. But of all three blocks I had the most student generated strategies.

One thing that I am struggling with here is scaffolding. How do you help students see strategies for solving problems without telling them the strategies? It’s great when a student suggests one, but sometimes if no one has any ideas I don’t always see the path to help them make a creative connection. I don’t mind giving explicit direct instructions on how to do elimination method, it’s not reasonable to expect them to come up with a more advanced technique like that. But on littler tasks sometimes it feels like there’s no middle ground between not helping at all and giving the whole game away. I am sure that I will pick up more of that with time and experience.

My final block was between 1st and 2nd block on engagement, but closer to 2nd than 1st. Final block’s issue was more disciplinary. They are starting to get comfortable with each other and with me and are trying to talk more in class. I addressed the whole class several times and they straightened up after admonishment, but I don’t want to spend too much time steering the whole class back on task every day. I may have to do some seat shuffling. The threat of a seat shuffle has been working for a day, but if I actually go ahead and move seats I might get longer lasting on-task behavior. I will see how the class goes tomorrow.

I really wanted to see more student to student interaction and not so much me up at the front. I think I may start assigning random pairs for group tasks rather than pairing up students who are sitting near each other. They seem to do well when they are randomly paired and have to get up and move.

So some basic stuff I need to work on, but at least I have moved past some big classroom management issues in order to even work on these basic instructional issues.

I don’t know if you can tell by the tone of my posts, but overall I am feeling much more upbeat at work lately. It’s been nice when my classes are not emotionally exhausting every day.

Thanks for reading.



Rookie Year: Day 92

I gave a lot of quizzes yesterday. Well two. But two seems like a lot in one day. Some of my students were confused about this and others were not. I cannot tell if I effectively communicated what was going to happen before yesterday or if they simply were not paying attention.

The first quiz was a homework quiz. The expectation was that the students had already completed the assignments from the week and had the work completed, organized, and labeled. If they had done and understood the homework (I allotted time at the beginning of every class for them to ask homework questions) then they would simply answer the questions.

Of course, this was not how it went. I had students who did not bring their homework despite being told they could use it. I had students who had not labeled their homework or numbered the problems. I had students who I am pretty sure had done the homework but still didn’t answer correctly. I am trying to think about what adjustments to make. One of my favorite graduate school professors would give extensive homework assignments and then on Fridays would give quizzes with problems that were LITERALLY from the homework. (And somehow I would still fail some of those, I was a terrible graduate student sometimes, haha.) I am stealing from him somewhat here but not completely because I don’t intend the homework quiz to be a quiz as much as a homework check. As I wrote before, I am trying to find a good balance between allowing students to practice and also holding them accountable for working on the class. The expectation from my school is to assign homework every night and at the level of student that I have I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation. I try not to assign more than 6 practice problems a night.  So the issue is that my quiz is not meant to be a measure of how much students know of the material (that’s what my standards quizzes using an SBG system are for) as much as an accountability system. I am going to wait to see how they do on the second week before I make adjustments. Perhaps they just weren’t prepared for what it meant to do the homework and this first week let them see.

After the homework quiz we worked on substitution and elimination some more using Go Formative. Most of my classes got to work with their markers and erasers. I really wish that I had gotten little markers and erasers sooner. I don’t know if my classes are working because they are new classes or because they can write math on their desks, but it’s probably both. The only downside is that I’d really like them to have a permanent record of some of their work and many of them are not transferring their practice over to their notebooks. I haven’t been doing any notebook checks yet, so I should probably incorporate that somehow so that they have some access to resources that they have created. Or tell them to start taking pictures of their desks and keeping a folder for math work on their Google Drive. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t go completely digital since we are a 1-to-1 district, but there’s still something about physical writing when it comes to working out math. I’m rambling now, sorry.

After practicing I gave them their first standard quiz. Several students went “Wait, I thought we already had the quiz” and I had to re-explain to them what I had explained on the first day and repeated several times and just explain to you all above. That made me worried that I was over taxing them. Perhaps I will try to move the homework quiz to Mondays and be over the previous week so that they have more time to digest Thursday night’s homework. I’m rambling again here but actually that sounds pretty good and I won’t be giving two quizzes in a day anymore. I shall try this for the next round. There. Never say blogging never did any good. Probably no one says that. I don’t know. Rambling. Sorry.

OKAY, SO. After school on Friday I spoke with several colleagues from the department and they told me in not so many words to hang the pacing guide from the district and do what I think is best for the students that will help them learn and prepare them for the EOC. This made me feel quite better. That’s doesn’t mean I won’t keep using the pacing guide–it’s been an outstandingly helpful document for week to week lesson planning, but I’m not gonna freak out as much about sticking exactly to the recommended number of instructional days. I am already incorporating review each day with the bellringers and it won’t do my students any good if we blaze through all of the material but they understand none of it. Better to miss 20% and understand the 80% than cover 100% but only understand 20% right? (I realize I just pulled those numbers out of thin air, but you get the idea.)

I’ve got a couple special “non-rookie year day count” posts I’m working on that I will post soon, but definitely not tonight.

Thanks for reading.


Rookie Year: Day 91 Or Denn Viagrams

On the musing of Michael Pershan on Twitter this week I created a quick activity for my students to see if Venn Diagrams would help them understand solutions to systems of equations. I used the very excellent Desmos activities to help build my class’ understanding solutions to systems of equations so they already had some background, but I still felt like it was a worthwhile activity.

What I ended up giving the students to try needs to be developed some more. I began with a quick reminder of how Venn Diagrams worked and as a class we filled in a large Venn Diagram on the board with characteristics of dogs versus pigs. Then I transitioned to having them decide where solutions to different linear equations would go and what belongs in the overlap. The sheet I gave their groups to work on had three systems of equations. The first had one solution, the second no solutions, and the third infinitely many.

If I try this task again, I need to scaffold some more and plan for more classtime. This should be easier as the next time I teach it this idea will not be an on-the-fly based on inspiration from Twitter. I am thinking of something where a list of solutions are given to students and they have to decide where each belongs. This could emphasize not only what a solution to a system of equations is, but also how an ordered pair is a solution to a linear equation all by itself. Then in the next problem they could be given less info and would need provide more themselves.

I did not get as much discussion out of my students about what belongs where in the Venn Diagram and why as I would have liked, but it was a start. And the students had a chance to work together for the first time in class, which I was also hoping for. I saw various degrees of on-task behavior. I pointed out to the class what I liked and didn’t like about how they handled group work and encouraged them for next time.

I had some students who I had to move at the beginning of my middle block today because they were too disruptive yesterday. During the group task even though I had not placed them in groups they were disruptive again but did not misbehave during the other activities. I will need to talk to them about how when we do group work it does not mean that suddenly all proper class behavior goes out the window. I also had to move another student in my last block and that block struggled to get some chatter under control today. They were slower to transition activities correctly. I addressed it immediately and I will follow up with it again tomorrow. I am really hoping to avoid a situation like last semester where I start out connecting with a class and then I lose them and never really get them re-wrangled. However all of my classes were good. It was by no means a bad day.

Tomorrow they take a homework quiz with problems exactly from the homework assignments I gave this week that I did not check but did allow them to ask questions about. I am hoping this will work as a compromise between not checking homework and keeping them accountable for practicing the ideas from class. The first standard quiz is also tomorrow. I hope that this doesn’t end up being too much for them, but the quizzes are different in purpose, style, and import. But that’s how I see them and I am not sure if the students will agree. I am curious to see how it will go.

I am really feeling some of the time pressure from this class and the South Carolina EOC exam. I still do not think I have enough time to give them enough cycles of quizzes and learning before I need to give the Unit Test along with the department and be on pace to complete the curriculum. I know we like to say “we don’t cover curriculum” here on the math-twitter-blogosphere but to me right now it feels like a reality of the course I have been assigned. I don’t mean that in the sense of “Okay I talked about it so they should know it” but in that I have to teach a specific list of topics in a certain amount of time and if we don’t get through all if it then my students won’t be fully prepared for the test.

I’m not exactly complaining either, I’m just feeling a little pressure and I am worried about doing a good job. I definitely think there is a difference been the task of teaching math in this class context and the task of teaching math. I don’t know if that is going to make sense to someone else when they read it, but I have been struggling with wording this post correctly for over an hour now and have taken frequent breaks so I think it’s time to publish it and be done with it.

Thanks for reading.


Rookie Year: Day 90 Or Taylor Look Up This One If You Ever Teach Geometry Even Though It Is Only A Minor Thing Because This Gag Is Funnier To You Than Writing A Memo Another Way

Yeah that isn’t going fit in the blog post tweet.

I think I have sacrificed some engagement for classroom control.

I have quiet classes all day. They come in, they do what I ask, they are quiet while I am talking. But they are too quiet. I can’t get very many volunteers to raise their hand if I can get any at all. If I cold-call a student I get a lot of blank stares and very obvious “I was just looking out into space and I have NO idea what was going on for the two minutes before you said my name” looks.

I think I am afraid to do more collaborative activities where the students are talking and sharing more often because I had so much trouble last semester with getting my classes to work in those contexts. My classes aren’t crazy and it is a really nice change. I’m afraid to try anything else. I need to figure out how to train students to work well in groups. Last semester I couldn’t figure how to get them to stay on task and keep the noise level to a reasonable amount. Part of that is that I haven’t quite gotten the hang of differentiating between on-task talking about math and off-task talking about whatever. Volume can be an indicator but honestly it’s easier when they aren’t talking at all unless they are talking to me.

They have been good at practicing in class after we finish a whole class activity, but I would really like to see them collaborate more. I’ll ease into it once I have set a tone for classroom behavior. I think considering how I was too loose last semester I may have overcorrected this semester, but as far as my sanity goes this is probably the lesser of two evils.

I gave a practice quiz for the first standard to help the students do a gut-check on their preparedness for the real quiz on Friday. The standard I am going with for systems of linear equations is

  1. I know what the definition of a system of linear equations and it’s solution is.
  2. I can solve a system of linear equations in multiple ways.

I know that’s a two part standard but I didn’t want to have two separate standards. Really the standard is “Can I solve systems of linear equations” but part of that is knowing what they are and what the final solution should look like and I wanted to be explicit about what is necessary to complete the standard.

After I gave the practice quiz, I explain how the EMRF rubric I use works and how the letters (unfortunately have to) translate to numbers in the gradebook. I also reminded them how the Standards Based Grading system works for quizzes and that while they should be ready on Friday, they will have more opportunities to show their knowledge of the standard should they not do well.

I also wanted to try out an idea from Michael Pershan today about using a Venn Diagram to model solutions to systems of equations, but I did not have enough time to prepare an activity this morning because of a department meeting. I am going to try again tomorrow.

As a side note and as an explanation for the stupid title, I did some after-school tutoring with a student who had some geometry homework and it really made me wish I had a geometry class. There was a fantastic question on his homework about identifying all segments in a larger line segment that were congruent. It would have been a fantastic assignment all by itself, with all kinds of extension questions. The line segment ran from -5 to +5 with a labeled point every length of 1. The points were numbered A – K.  I think a great assignment could have asked how many congruent line segments you could find within AK with a given length. How you could know there was not more than that. Why if CF was congruent to another length that CD could not also be congruent and so on. I hope I remember it if I am ever assigned a geometry class to teach.

Thanks for reading.



Rookie Year: Day 89

I talked too much today. Or at least it felt like it.

All of my classes went like this:

Bellringer (With attendance and me passing out notes)


Asking if anyone needs help with the bellringer (yes all three block)

Homework questions (We did two questions in every block)

Notes on Substitution Method (25 slides but most of that was pre-made examples–we worked through them as a class and the slides were meant to be a permanent copy) For me, notes usually mean I introduce or review a few definitions or ideas and then we are working through problems with me calling on students, asking them to justify or explain next steps. So by notes I really mean some direct instruction. I gave them a copy of my powerpoint and half-sheets to tape into their composition books.

In-class practice of substitution method of solving systems of equations.

Exit Ticket

My notes were too long I think. I only left 20-40 minutes for each class, depending on how quickly they were able to answer my questions during notes. All of my classes worked on the problems once I released them to do so (I did have to put some kids in a middle block back on task repeatedly) but no one finished because they didn’t have enough time. I realized this during lunch and tried to adjust for final block, but instead of taking out a few examples I tried to go through the same amount faster, which was stupid. I don’t know why I did that. But on the bright side 3rd block seemed to get it the most so I didn’t mess up too badly.

Tomorrow we will just spend the entire block practicing solving systems of equations with graphing and substitution. I probably won’t introduce elimination until Thursday and the quiz on Friday will only be on graphing and substitution.

I am concerned that I am not getting enough cycles of quiz, feedback, re-quiz in before department wide Unit Tests, but it’s hard on me to grade more than one quiz a week. I need to do more informal quizzes with the students where we have the atmosphere of a quiz–do this, by yourself, no talking, and no notes–but without the pressure–no grade and we talk about it as a class afterwards. This is the only solution I can think of currently but if anyone has some other suggestions I am open to them. The problem is that I simply can’t give enough individualized feedback in enough time before the curriculum and pace dictate a more summative assessment. (Keep in mind that the course I teach is HEAVILY regulated by the South Carolina department of education, there’s a state written exam at the end, and the district has a pacing guide for maximum numbers of days that should be spent on a topic.)

I also haven’t written a list of standards for this course for Standards Based Grading. I probably just need to steal some from another SBG teacher. I need standards for essentially a typical Algebra I curriculum, but from systems of equations on. I’m probably just go browse Dan Meyer’s site.

Thanks for reading.


Rookie Year: Day 88 Or Sleep Deprivation

Last night I stayed up too late because I drank like two pots of tea while watching playoff football (Don’t judge me, I ran out of beer. Also shut up). Coffee today was no help.

I realized this morning that I had not done enough to prepare for class over the weekend and so I was scrambling to get ready for students at 8:40. The biggest issue was that I had planned to teach my students how to use a TI Inspire to find solutions to systems of equations graphically but I had not idea how do it. I grew up on a TI-84.

So my colleague Katie had to give me an under 5 minute crash course (Thanks, Katie) and then I had to find the calculator emulator software on my computer and figure out how to use that. Which involved calling Katie again after I just left her room. (Sorry, Katie!)

I needed to create and print off practice problems for solving systems graphically. I made half-sheets to save paper, took the time to print, cut, and tape…and then made 55 copies like they weren’t half sheets that I planned to cut. So I had twice as many worksheets as I needed. Argh.

I also needed to finish the bellringer on Go Formative. I didn’t notice until 3rd bell that I had typed “identity” every time I meant inverse. I also dropped a lot of things. Markers. Keys. TI Inspires. I was a klutz. Although I managed to get an eye-roll out of my 5-6 bell students by kicking a marker away after dropping it, pretending I didn’t need it for a few minutes, and then later singing to it.

But the day went great. I got everything sorted in time. The students listened and followed while I walked them through using a TI. Most of them did not finish the practice sheet I gave them, but I think that was because I stretched out some of the direct instruction for fear of having extra time at the end because of my rush this morning.  And it all went fine.

I told my students I was going to give them assigned seats today and instead I told them “You can stay where you are as long as you continue to work.” And they have. It’s like a different job so far. They work when I ask and when I give them independent or semi-group assignments they don’t go crazy. I can hear students when I am helping them one-on-one. It’s fantastic. The atmosphere change from last semester to this one is night and day. I hope that I can continue to do a good job with classroom management because it allows me to actually enjoy my job.

Other highlights:

  • Crushed a can on my forehead to wake up sleepy students
  • Yelled “WHATS IN THE BOX” to teach my new students the Block Method for solving equations
  • Did the Jim Gaffigan talking about myself as the audience bit and got some good eye-rolls
  • Students requested markers to write on desks and did work and asked questions and learned math

I was still sleep deprived when I went home today though because I tried to air up my tires at the gas station and absolutely could NOT get my tires to air up. They kept getting flatter and flatter and I was Mormon cursing at myself. (What the JUNK is going on with these HECKIN’ tires??) I ended up driving down the road to the Honda dealer on very, VERY flat tires and begging a salesman to let me into a service department that closed 10 minutes before I had arrived. I mean seriously, what kind of idiot can’t get tires to air up? I’m done it hundreds of times. The auto-tech (who was very gracious to air up all of my tires) told me the machine at Kroger was probably broken and that’s why air was coming out of the nozzle but not going into the tires. I was just too sleep deprived and fuzzy-brained to stop trying. But in my defense, have you ever just been in disbelief that you could not do something that is as simple as plugging a hose onto a tire stem and squeezing a trigger? Who knows. I’ll have to get my oil changed there next time I think.

Anyway I need to sleep. Thanks for reading.