Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Three Reading Levels

In Multiple Paths to Literacy I read about three different reading levels that teachers consider when assigning reading materials to their students.  The first level is the independent reading level.  This is the level at which a student should be able to read everything with little or no difficulties.  This type of reading is fun, because it is fast, satisfying, and not frustration.  I think of it as "green light reading"

A second level is the instructional reading level, which students should be able to read most of, but occasionally need a teacher or someone else around to help with new words, or mispronunciations.  This level of reading usually produces the most learning and "growth" for the students because it pushes them just a little beyond their comfort zone.

The third level is called the frustration reading level -- what I consider "red light reading".  This level is too difficult for students, even with help and guidance, and Gipe calls this the "groan zone". This is when students start squirming, crying, misbehaving, or just stop enjoying reading.

Ideally, teachers would know what these levels are for each student, and push them to the growth zone as often as possible.

This concept reminded of weightlifting -- which believe it or not, I have done.  In weight lifting, while it might be fun to spend all your time with green weights, you will not grow if you don't push yourself to try harder weights.  Of course, if you are not aware of your limits, you can cause significant damage by attempting to lift weights too high for your muscles.  Ideally, you want to push yourself to spend time in the yellow zone, where you are able to do multiple repetitions, yet still struggling some what, so your muscles have to break down in order to rebuild.

Assigning problems in mathematics is similar -- If I assign students that are too simple, it ends up being a waste of the students time.  If I assign problems that are too difficult, then the students won't be able to gain anything from them, and may get turned off, frustrated, angry, or lose confidence.  My goal in assignments is to meet in the middle. I sometimes call them Goldilocks problems....

Observations and Standards Based Grading

Peter Johnston was quoted in Multiple Path's to Literacy describing the language we use about our own assessments as teachers, and the large-scale assessments the state requires:
We refer to our own observations as "subjective", "informal", and "anecdotal", where as we refer to tests as "objective" and "formal".  Our own language devalues the close knowledge we have and values distance. It would be more helpful if we referred to our own assessments as "direct documentation" and test-based assessments as "indirect" or "invasive."  These uses of language are far from trivial.  They show that we do not value our own assessment knowledge.  Our unfortunate cultural concern for control, distance, objectification, and quantification does not favor teachers, whose knowledge is often intuitive, usually nonnumerical, more inclined to the narrative, and gained through personal involvement.  Detailed knowledge comes from proximity and involvement, not distance.
I read this quote the day after I had a conversation with a parent of mine who disagreed with my grading scheme this year, because I am using much more observation of my students as the grade, instead of simply recording the students scores on assignments and tests. They were surprised and confused that I was taking a subject that is traditionally so objective, and making it subjective. At the time, my confidence was shaken and I almost decided to change and return to a more common method of simply recording assignments and tests scores, because after all, they are objective and numerical.

However, in the past two weeks, I have been able to make many observations of my students.  I feel quite confident that those observations are working better, and are being communicated better through my current standards based grading scheme, than they ever were before.  Now if a parent, student, or tutor asks if there's anything I can work on, I can point directly to skills that they have not yet mastered and confidently direct their studies.

While this quote was directed towards teachers of reading, writing, and literacy, which would be more 'nonnumerical' subjects for grading -- I think it applies equally well to algebra and physics.  I CAN tell, either by watching or listening to a student, what they understand and what they are still not getting, without just having students complete a quiz or test. However, a quiz or test is still one of the most efficient ways of me addressing a lot of different ideas and topics, and so I'm sure I will never be getting rid of them.

Link: explanation of my grading scheme:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why do I gots to teach literacy!? I'm a math teacher!

In her book Literacy Multiple Paths to Literacy, Joan Gipe describes literacy as multidimensional. I see literacy as having three unique axes, much like the x-, y-, and z-axes familiar to most math teachers. The literacy x-axis would be reading and writing. Both are communicating, but in different directions. Reading is the input of information in written or typed form. Writing is in the opposite direction, as a person chooses to communicate by paper, pencil, or typed form. The literacy y-axis would be speaking, and listening. Again, both are different directions of the same method of oral communication. Finally, the z-axis would be viewing, and visually representing. This would be through pictures, demonstrations, gestures, graphs, and drawings.

My classroom is an algebra 1 and physics classroom. Before reading Gipe’s definition of literacy, I was certain that my classroom had very little literary content involved. We don’t do reading, I thought. However, Gipe described literacy as the ability to communicate, and not simply reading. Instantly I realized that there is a lot of literacy teaching going on in my classroom. Most of this is as the students in my algebra classrooms are learning to communicate using abstract ideas, and writing in a new language called algebra. I became aware that though I never teach finding subjects and verbs of sentences, I do teach them to break an expression down into individual terms. While I never teach my students how to sound out a word by emphasizing phonics, I do teach them to identify parts of terms, such as the sign, the coefficient, and the variable part.

In fact, I see all three dimensions of Gibe’s definition of literacy appearing in my classroom. In a very literal sense, students are reading the textbook, following examples. In a more general sense, students need to learn to read the language of algebra, by interpreting expressions, equations, formulas, and inequalities. Students need to write their answers using a new language, as well as communicate their thinking steps using the agreed upon conventional algebraic notation.

Students also operate among the speaking and listening dimension in class. I deliver much of the new information through lecture format, where students must listen and interpret. We often correct our assignments in class, sharing answers aloud where ‘pronunciation’ must often be addressed as students will say “x-two” instead of “x-squared” or “x to the second power.”

Many times in algebra, students are also learning new ways of illustrating relationships, by way of graphs. Most commonly this is via the Cartesian xy-plane and through graphs of lines and functions. We also use xy-tables to show relationships, and at times interpret other statistical graphs such as box-and-whisker-plots, pie charts, and scatterplots with line-of-best-fits. Students learn to make such graphs both on paper and on a computer, as well as how to interpret, and make extrapolation and interpolation predictions from such graphs.

In physics, we are doing much of the same, although at a deeper level. We spend much of our initial efforts focusing on the information that the units of an number can tell us, much like the use of various suffixes determines the type of word used. Our vocabulary has increased, and continues to grow as new quantities are precisely defined via formula. I teach specific writing skills as my students write lab reports, and I often need to correct their use of vocabulary words, such as the common effect/affect mistakes. Finally, graphs continue to be used, but primarily the line-of-best-fits becomes the tool of choice to show if and how two quantities are related.

My first reaction to taking a literacy course was that it was completely irrelevant to me as a high school math and science teacher. I initially had no motivation for the course, seeing it as just a hoop to jump through to earn my masters, and stay certified to teach. While I admittedly am not excited to take the course, I am happy to find that learning about teaching literacy will be much more applicable than I ever imagined.

Caution: First Tests Ahead

We're coming up on our first tests of the year in physics.  It will be interesting to me to see how the students fare on the tests under the flipping model. I'm confident they will do well on all but one topic -- and that's one I hope to review a little more this week in class: significant digits and uncertainty.  After we practice that some this week, I'll feel like they're more prepared.

They'll begin the next unit next week - kinematics.  The videos for the unit are mostly made -- though I have to edit a few more, and record one more.

I enjoy physics classes this year more than last -- primarily because we are doing more problems, and I can see the students work more frequently.

Sorry I don't have anything deeper to write about -- my mind and body are pretty tired after Monday's classes.

Friday, September 2, 2011

First Week of Flipping

Well, school has started.  It has been an exhausting couple of weeks, as tennis season is in full swing (pun intended).

I decided this year to implement a significant change in my physics classes this year. I have flipped the class, which means that instead of lecturing during the school day and assigning homework for students to do at night, we are doing practice problems and assignments in class and the students are required to watch videos of my lectures at home. The videos are all screencasts that I have made available on Youtube, and also through our class website.

The students seemed very positive about the idea as I explained it to them on the first day, and have hit the ground running with watching them. So far I have checked every day if they watched and took notes on the video, and have had only a few people not watch them on time for the following reasons:
   Slow internet at home -- Solution: he brought in USB Thumb drive and we transferred the videos onto it
   Didn't have time -- Solution: he watched it the next night, and was just a little bit behind in class
   Didn't know I had to watch them -- Actually, this was my fault that I didn't make myself clear in deadlines.  Temporary solution was to watch it in class that day.  I didn't mind doing this because it was the very first time, but I told them this wouldn't happen again.  More permanent solution: posting a video watching calendar or schedule, which I have yet to implement.

The in-class activities are more challenging than I had imagined because the students are answering things faster than I had anticipated.  I'm learning that I will probably have to overplan.  Another difficulty is that students are working at different rates so some are finishing early while others taking longer. I don't have a solution in mind about this yet.

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