But Math Is HARD

Slamming on the brakes

Forgive me in advance for the not-so-touchy-feely words regarding our beloved Mother Goose, but this one gave me pause…

multiplication is vexation2My two-year-old daughter drug over The Real Mother Goose yesterday as we were playing.  I knew we had the book.  It was a gift at some point in the last couple of years.  However, it has never been one of my favorites.  I guess I’m a prude, and for that I’m sorry, but these sing-songy bits of goofiness never did excite me.  But hey-  what my daughter wants to read… we read.  So we read.  Actually- even at two, she can spot-read (identify?) many of the words on the page already.  So we laid in her comfy bed reading verse by verse and studying the accompanying artwork.  Until I spied one in particular queued up across the page.

We didn’t read this one.

The Real Mother Goose

Now you can go on and on in the comments section about the historical significance of this work from 1916.  It certainly does give an interesting glimpse of society at the time it first went to print.  Jack Sprat, Little Boy Blue, London Bridge… I get it.  I also appreciate the fact that these descend from verbal tradition and seem a bit weird on the printed page.  I know.

But I have a pretty bright little turd here, and as of my current state of mind, we’re not about to sing songs of the difficulty of mathematics in my house.  I almost hope someone will reply with just cause for not fretting over such a silly verse.  I mean… she’s just two, right?

What will two years of failure do?

I was educated in the very public schools in which I now teach.  I stayed pretty close to home.  I was fortunate enough to be served by our gifted education program from elementary school on, when it was just out of the box and brand-spanking-new.  I am proud of the experiences I had in our district from early to late.  In fact, I was also in advanced mathematics in grade seven with Ms. Melody Boring (a known expert) and I learned a ton.  However, I also have some baggage from later years that speaks to the power of having two bad experiences…  two years in a row.

I don’t really feel like the usual research links here tonight that show how two neglected years can really sink a kid.  It is in my head that this has been shown.  I’m hoping someone will do that for me in the spaces below.  But-  I have a case study that says it is so.

Me, a bright kid sitting in the back of the room as a sophomore reading In-Fisherman and Sports Afield while my teacher sat in his desk chair tying flies.  Yes, you read it correctly… tying flies.  Tying flies in a full-on fly-tying vice clamped to his desk.  Tying flies, painting the lead heads of crappie jigs for the weekend’s fishing expedition.  (Now that’s a “workshop model” of instruction if I’ve ever heard of one.)  Heck, I liked the guy.  I mean, really… what high school boy wouldn’t?  It was pretty routine.  He’d scribble on the board for ten or fifteen minutes…  give an assignment…  and then get to work on his sportsmanlike artistry.  If we needed a brownie point or two, we’d approach his desk and ask something like: “what color have the crappie been biting on this week?”  … and we’d be “in.”

Lure 3

The next year I was lucky enough to score a good teacher.  He was a kind and gentle man, and one who knew a bit about mathematics instruction.  I was playing catch-up, but a bright kid can do just that.  Just a few months in, my teacher (the father of a current colleague) passed due to cancer and I was once again thrust into a tailspin.  You can’t play catch up in advanced mathematics with a sub who reads the paper.

My senior year began anew with the trigonometry experience.  Really-  this was all quite interesting to me from a science perspective.  I instantly got the conceptual ties to physics.  Apparently, these conceptual ties weren’t solid enough as I ultimately scored a 6% on one exam, nailed the only D in my life…  and pulled out of calculus for the second semester.  This teacher?…….  he was not rehired the following school year.  Years later, my principal would show me the actual three-ring binder of documentation it took to pull this teacher’s roots from the public school system.  Bad seeds in a good system.  But the collateral damage of that mess is writing this blog.  You should see the disparity in my ACT scores.

So perhaps I can thank all of this mess for pointing me in a rather literary direction.  I remember even as far back as middle school, taking tests in Odyssey (gifted ed.) that always showed me to be “left-brain dominant.”  That didn’t last long.  From college on, the right side has done nearly all of the “talking” for me.  That is probably rather obvious to anyone reading this blog over time.

A naked nerve

So, ultimately I apologize for defiling The Mother’s good name in kiddie lit (if she indeed has one).  What I do not apologize for are some of the attitudes I have taken with me into the classroom for the past eighteen years.  The idea that every kid matters.  The idea that everyone deserves to grow, regardless of the skills they bring into your room in September.  The idea that smart kids, perhaps most of all, deserve to be challenged, pushed and empowered every bit as much as any other kid.

My daughter stands to be a pretty brilliant little human some day.  I’m not reading her stories of the vexation of multiplication.  I’m just not going to do it.  In fact, I’ll be damned if anyone does.

Sorry Mother Goose, you caught me at a bad time.


*”Multiplication is Vexation” from Mother Goose, 1916
*Lure 3 by mmahaffie on Flickr

From Day One: Information Literacy In Core Content

Establishing tone

I believe information literacy is the responsibility of all content teachers.  The following piece is a bit about how I tend to kick off a new year, and how to easily aim at info literacy from very early on.  As I have said here before, I do not like to go shy into the new school year.  Our students are learning from us every second of every day.  The real question then is what are they learning.  As the lead learners in the classroom, this is under our control.


With this in mind, it is my goal to have my students leave the room on that first day with a few things spinning around in their heads like…

1.  “Wow. This class is active.  I was working with ideas and classmates the entire period.”

2.  “This guy means business.  He is infectiously passionate and serious about this class, and yet has room for humor within all of the intensity.”

3.  “He seems to have a longview for us in the class.  I can tell he has plans for us and cares that we are “in” as much as he is.”

4.  “I might be headed for a music major in college next year, and this will likely be my last formal science course, but I am actually thinking this class might be built with people like me (as well as the biology geeks) in mind.”

5.  “I had better get used to sharing my learning.  This class is open.  I will certainly have to step out of my comfort zone a little on this one.”

6.  “Not sure how I feel about construc…. whatever he called it…  but if it means I won’t have to sit while he talks all period, then I’m for it.”

I obviously believe in creating the ultimate mental model, and then working from there with my planning framed by those ideals.  This year we started the school year with built-in early release days and short periods.  Last Wednesday was our first full period of instruction.  I just don’t believe that on that first day you can just go gently into your course.  It is my philosophy to swing hard from day one.

So how can you teach your students who you are, what to expect, what you stand for, what and how they’ll be learning during the year…  all in one day?  As usual, I’m still debriefing the success of this one lesson, but I do believe that all of this is possible.  Stick with me on this one.  Here in a bit, I’ll ask you to help me assess some of this by scanning through the pages of online student writing about this lesson.  Here’s a small sample as a preview:

I believe this type of learning is important… the activity split up our class in two sections making each side work together in a very short amount of time. This helps build chemistry between everyone in our class which I believe is very important since we’ll be around each other for a whole year. It was also important, because it made all of us think and learn about a topic we most likely hadn’t heard anything about. Science has a lot to do with the unknown and I believe this issue on shark cartilage really challenged us on something we had no clue about. We had to work to decide whether or not the shark cartilage was effective and for that matter whether or not the information we were given was reliable.” ~Kerstyn Bolton

Day one

I don’t do stand-alone “ice breakers” any longer.  That’s not a criticism of those who do, but in my thinking that says to the students:  “we had to construct a special event outside of our normal work in this class in order to talk to and learn about one another.”  I design my first day to be authentic collaboration and sharing among students where classmates must rely on one another to complete a content-related task, or solve a content-related problem.

My learning goals for the day were rather broad.  It was day one.  They were as follows:   1. Setting classroom tone.  2. Building the foundation of a learning environment.  3. Proving the concrete, daily value of science.  4. Team-building.  5.  Evaluating and debating a scientific assertion in the field of medicine.  6.  Establishing an academic spirit for our first online work at Principles of Biology.

Principles of Biology

Shark cartilage?

So, to trim down a rather complex story…  We divided into two large groups (10 students each side) to examine the idea that shark cartilage supplements can be used as a safe and effective treatment for some types of cancer.  This is fringe alternative-medicine stuff.  There is a ton of web chatter on both sides of this issue.  Though the medical community is rather aligned on this issue, as with any “natural” treatment, there are many proponents on the fringes.  The data found on the web is, in short, a big area of gray to most people.

The information on this issue is all over the board.  There are a few freely accessible journal articles on the web, there are terribly crackpot e-commerce sites, and there are hundreds of examples in the gray area between the two.  Because I had to have a brisk pace to finish in one period, I constructed two packets… one for each group.  One group of ten got a packet full of public websites representing the “for” side of using shark cartilage supplements as a treatment for cancer.  The other group of ten were given a packet representing sites that represented the “against” side of the issue.

shark cartilage

With no formal instruction on argument nor debate, the students were led through a protocol to digest the content of the packet in short order and prepare a speedy argument aligned with their given viewpoint.  I led them through a series of skimming, compiling, active reading, and sharing tasks to help them build structure for an argument in about 20 minutes.  Considering this was a group of ten working with a subject they knew nothing about, that is saying something.  The action was fast and furious.  Frankly, they ended up engaging in a better debate than I had even anticipated.  Battles over sources cited and inherent biases came out without being prompted.

“I LOVED learning like this because I think it gave everyone a chance to teach everyone else.” ~Hannah Rush

Ultimately, they were to take their thoughts from the day and reflect on both the content learning as well as the process of the day’s learning events.  To me, I never go a day without sharing the strategic purpose for that particular event.  If I don’t have a best-practice reason for doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it…   then I (and they by default) would quite possibly be wasting time.  This keeps us all on our toes and makes the “game of school” completely transparent within my class.

So let’s see where the rubber meets to road on this one.  If you haven’t been tempted to click through to the discussion thread on this already, please do so now.  I think you’ll be pleasantly impressed by the willingness to dive head first into this one and really discuss the issues.  As of this morning, there are seven pages of student discourse.  I think you’ll appreciate this look into how students approach the task of reflecting deeply over their learning in this class.

“I really thought what you said about “You learn only 10% of what you read, but you learn 95% of what you teach” was very interesting…  …This makes our activity in class so much more exciting to me! I remember a lot of what my section said about shark cartilage and that’s because I had to, because my team needed me…” ~Kerstyn Bolton

My LMS can beat up your LMS

Not only should information literacy not be an add-on, nor should your Library Media Specialist.  At Benton, we are undergoing a true paradigm shift in library media services.  By hiring Melissa Corey, we have in the span of a summer updated our services to bring the library’s digital tendrils into every classroom in our building.  Last year, the physical space of our library was scrapped for a full redo to bring it up to date as a learning space for 2010.  This year, we have the personnel to put the plan into action.

As this lesson was unfolding, I realized that I was setting up our new Library Media Specialist to fly in the next period, cape and all, to deliver the way to a more rigorous online research process.  What I didn’t know is how personalized this service would be.  Boy-  were we in for a surprise.  For starters, here is the slide show she used to help deliver our learning for the day:

What is amazing about this interaction was not the beautiful and informative slide set, nor her thoughtful and pleasant presentation.  What was inspiring is the fact that she stayed up the night before to craft an absolutely perfect example of “just in time learning” for my students.  Slides 4 through 7 show screenshot examples of the actual resources the students had used in this exercise on page after page of our discussion thread.  These resources are marked up and annotated with questions aimed at the authority, accuracy, currency and content of the piece.

The students were then led through a lesson on the peer review process as well as online database searches through peer reviewed material.  They were then to go back to the same thread and post some follow-up commentary after this latest search experience.

Extensions and infiltrations

As if polishing our lesson to a fine shine were not enough, Mrs. Corey (who as “BHS LMC” is a direct member of our classroom network) also took the time to post follow up connections and extensions to the lesson in the form of a blog post.  She also took a spontaneous conversation from our day…  discussion about a group of crows that were supposedly using cars to crack nuts… and created a completely separate extension in the form of a media-rich blog post (along the lines of info literacy in science) for our network.

screenshot from biology network

I cannot tell you how exciting it is to have such a partner in crime in my own building.  Forget the archetypal image of a librarian still etched into your brain.  Rather than archiving books and telling students to “shuuush,” my LMS is deeply passionate about pushing out into classrooms to help our students find, evaluate, and manage information in all subject areas.  My students now not only feel like they can walk to the library to visit our new librarian for help…  they know that within a single click on our classroom network, they can tap our building’s very own information specialist.  Did I mention the fact that she’s been working with students and staff here not for just two weeks?

Our “library” was until very recently defined as a “remodeled room in the annex… with books.”  The following image now better represents the effective size of our LMC:

Benton High School  --  CLOSE

Pretty stately-looking library for a public school, eh?  In reality though, like anything really useful…  it is becoming invisible.  Our media center and staff are now as ubiquitous as our student laptops.  Once they begin to follow our students home, we will extend the reach of our learning environment even further…


*Lattice by Todd Huffman on Flickr.
*Shark cartilage image courtesy of The Vet Shed.  Apparently, dogs eat this stuff.
*Image of Benton High School:  me.
*Student comments (featuring Kerstyn & Hannah) courtesy of our class network.
*The collaboration of Melissa Corey, LMS at Benton High School, in Saint Joseph Missouri.