Rookie Year: Day 118

Comparing yesterday to today one concern I have is how much it feels like my students can be in control of the classroom.

For example, yesterday my final block did really well. They responded well to the notes, telling me that the multiplication made sense. I had a few students who seemed genuinely excited about solving the problems and said it was fun.

Today that same class was a disaster. It was one of the worst days we have had in a long time. Students were all over the place while working, shouting and talking, and being off-task. I was constantly putting out fires. And so what I mean by that first sentence is that it seems whether my class goes well depends more on how the students choose to behave than how well I am controlling the classroom.

Some caveats:

I am convinced lesson plan affects behavior. It is easier for me to control off task interruptions during direct instructions because students are either silently taking notes or asking/answering questions. As I have written many times, if I give an activity where they are supposed to work individually or in groups, they can be wildly off task and difficult to control and I still haven’t figured how to train them.

It’s not necessarily bad that how a lesson goes depends on the students. We can’t get away from that. Some students will find a math fact interesting and others won’t. I saw that even today.

But what I can’t have happen is students controlling how well a class is going.

There were a lot of things going wrong in my final block today that were really frustrating me and wearing me down. But there were some good spots too.

My lesson plan for the day was to accomplish the following:

1. Reinforce student understanding of how to multiply polynomials
2. Emphasize that mathematics is about pattern finding
3. Related to 2: help students have that “ah-HA!” moment for the binomial expansion
4. Show students special cases of binomial multiplication: perfect squares and difference of squares

So I gave two activities. The first had students evaluate problems that were all perfect squares

• (x+1)(x+1)
• (x+2)(x+2)
.
.
.
• (x+a)(x+a)

and also evaluate difference of squares:

• (x+1)(x-1)
• (x+2)(x-2)
.
.
.
• (x+a)(x-a)

I told them that if they recognized the pattern after the first few problems they wouldn’t have to work so hard. I also let them pick which of the three strategies that they had for multiplying binomials. Most chose area, which I was happy about. After they worked individually I did a whole class summary where I asked for the patterns that they noticed and then told them the names perfect squares and difference of squares. This went decently well in the all three blocks. Many students found the patterns easily and told me so. Others struggled. And one got the pattern but still preferred to work out each problem anyway. My favorite quote from today came from her in reference to solving a problem.

“No, see, this is why I need my rectangles.”

It was great.

The second activity was a binomial expansion. I had them calculate the following:

• (x+y)^0
• (x+y)^1
• (x+y)^2
.
.
.

This gave them practice with multiplying polynomials that were bigger than binomials (and I repeatedly emphasized that FOIL would not work and made them tell me why) and it also set up a great ah-HA because we had already done a Pascal’s triangle activity recently.

So when I circled coefficients and asked if they had seen that pattern before I got exclamations like:

OH MY GOSH

NO WAY

UH-UH

It was seriously cool in that first block.

But then none of the blocks since then reacted that way. Now I don’t know if it was because they punchline had been told in the hallways and in lunch, or if they rest of the blocks just weren’t impressed, but I kept thinking about how different students react differently to lessons. For this discovery activity  some students really seemed to enjoy it, and for others it held no interest at all.

Recently on Twitter I shared an article about how educators shouldn’t be held responsible for student apathy or engagement. Many of my colleagues reacted in different ways. Some said it felt like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders, others said it was BS, others debated me with buzzwords about teacher vs student centered, and my friend Chris G wrote me an excellent comment full of sharp insight that I couldn’t disagree with but felt didn’t really refute the core of the article, which is that teachers can’t be held responsible for student apathy or engagement.

I taught a lesson that was more student centered than teacher centered today. It was not a panacea of all classroom discipline issues. It was a lesson that had some students respond with exclamations of wonder and other students go “Ok Pascal’s triangle, big deal Mr. Belcher” Those second students are not bad students. They still did their work. But they didn’t find it exciting like I did and some of their classmates did. But they still did their work. I had students who finished their work and ASKED me for factoring problems because they liked the challenge. These were not A students, but students who have D ‘s and C’s who have chosen to engage with me. And I had students who did not do their work. Those students drove me to the brink in my final block today. They were all over the place or just sitting there refusing to do anything but play games when I’m distracted helping someone else. I cannot make students engage. I can encourage them. I cannot make them. I can make a great lesson. Different students respond differently. My first block responded well, my second block was thoroughly unexcited but worked through the block, and my final block was wild. But there were hard working students too.

I’m ranting now so I am going to stop but I feel very strongly about that article because I saw it played out across my blocks today. I also saw how far I have to go in controlling my classrooms and with management. I am getting better. But I am still not good at it.