Sunday, October 8, 2006

Re-engineering the Math Classroom

This is, initially, an idea for a magazine article, but I'd like to turn it into a book. I'm currently a high school math teacher, but I have an engineering background. As a new teacher, one of the first things that I noticed is that I see a lot of new teachers re-inventing the wheel. In my district, we have a "beginning teacher program" called BTSA that provides mentors and training which is good. However, most of the teacher training that I received while earning my teaching credential and that I am currently receiving through the BTSA program comes in the form of theory. As a new teacher, I am then expected to translate this theory into practice in my classroom. While this current process is good and does produce good teachers, we do spend way too much time reinventing the wheel.

At my high school, we are trying to save money (and I hope we're also concerned about the environment) and one step towards that goal is to put a quota on copies. So, every teacher has a limit on the number of copies they can make and each department has a specific budget for copies. While I believe this is fiscally (and environmentally) responsible, it creates challenges for new teachers.

New teachers tend to lean on the copy machine to compensate for inefficient planning while getting used to teaching a particular subject. Also, new teachers tend to teach lower level math classes where students work better with worksheets than they do with a textbook. So, the copy machine used to be a coping mechanism for new teachers. Of course, it was a highly non-environmentally friendly coping mechanism and it's probably better to search for an alternative. Also, relying on the copy machine means that you have to plan far enough in advance to make the copies and on some days, the copies would have come in handy half way through the period. On other days, the 200 copies that you made in anticipation of necessity turn out not to be needed whatsoever.

This situation presented a problem that I never would have tried solving if it was not for the copy quota. So, two problems came together and forced me to think up a novel way to address them both at once. Here's what I discovered: although the worksheets seemed to pacify remedial or non-motivated students, they really weren't accomplishing as much as I at first thought they were. Now, I still use worksheets, they definitely have their time and place. However, I discovered that there's nothing wrong with printing out a worksheet just for me and then rationing out the problems via the whiteboard. This technique ensures that no students get too far ahead. Also, it gives me the opportunity to improvise and put some subtle, advanced twists on the problems as they go on the board. This way I can offer some basic problems and some advanced problems together. And, I can let the students know which is which so that they have some choice regarding what level of problem they will solve.

I've been fortunate enough to work with some decent textbooks that come with a reasonable supply of supplemental materials. The supplemental materials usually offer a fair number of exercises at various levels that can be rationed out to students. However, if for some reason your textbook does not come with supplemental materials, I have to recommend an Internet service called I've looked at a number of Internet sites for lesson plans and I haven't found one that really has enough lesson plans to make the search effort worthwhile. However, if you are willing to let your textbook drive your lessons,'s worksheets offer a fantastic drill supplement. The best thing about is that the worksheets are all dynamically generated by computer software. That means that if you pull up a worksheet on adding and subtracting integers, you can print out a new one every day if that's what is required for the class you are teaching.

And, when you are done with that particular topic, they offer many varieties of worksheets. Best of all, offers a variety of puzzles. These puzzles can be used as warm ups, sponge activities, cool downs, extra credit, post assessment time fillers and can even be used to address standards related to logic and reasoning.

Being a successful teacher is a lot like playing a game of chess. Good chess players know that there are several elements that affect the balance of the game. If you are playing a particularly good player, you must concentrate on your defense as well as your offense. Your goal is to continue to seek an advantage in one of the parameters of the game. These parameters include: position, where are you're pieces on the board, if you dominate the center early, you'll have an advantage; tempo, are you continually moving into desired positions or are you being forced to move as a reaction to your opponent; number and kind of pieces, which pieces do you have left and which pieces does your opponent have left; and, finally, thinking several moves ahead, will a short term sacrifice result in long term gains?

Of course, you can't directly relate these strategies to teaching in the classroom, but there are definitely parallels. As a teacher, you have a variety of tools at your disposal. You can use these tools to influence student learning. You may not be able to force all students to learn all the time, but you can definitely improve your odds and your success rate by integrating a variety of techniques.

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