Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What to write?

Do I write about the chaos of implementing this new schedule?

Or about how much the kids I see every day need the extra help? I have spent 150 minutes this week working on adding and subtracting fractions with kids who forget the steps every time I finish going over them, who will spend at least another week of tutoring on this skill because we are going to have to tackle the issue of "borrowing from a whole number" when subtracting mixed numbers like 7 1/2 - 4 3/4. It is so clear to me that the kind of one-on-one attention that they need in order to learn this material is simply not possible in a class where the teacher has 25 or more students, all clamoring for attention.

Today, all six kids were in attendance. I tried to have a conversation about why we are doing this, to promote buy-in, to set some ground rules with the kids rather than just harping on them to stop picking at each other and making me crazy. Two or three are grateful for the help and, while spacey, generally attentive. One resents every minute of it and is a mastermind of finding ways to distract herself and everyone else, to slow the pace down to an absolute crawl. The others are somewhere in-between, followers who could get excited about improving their math skills if led down that path, but who can also spend a whole period flipping pens at each other and whining. The buy-in conversation was a failure. For one thing, it's hard to just convince kids that they need to improve their math skills, that they will use some of this stuff in real life and the rest is important because knowing it allows you to pass through certain educational gateways so that you can... study even more. Oh joy, mutter the seventh graders. And as their tutor, I'm not going to be the one to design groundbreaking units that inspire them mathematically. Nope, we're reviewing, practicing, drilling.

Or maybe I should write about the rollercoasters we're designing in sixth grade science. The PVC tubing arrived on Monday, along with the little metal balls. First problem: the balls, although they fit, were too large and would stick really easily inside the tubing. Luckily, some random kit I got last year came with a milk carton full of BB's, which were not only just the right size but far more magnetic than the balls I bought this year. Third problem: I do not have enough flat wall space to set up work areas for the kids. Next year, I'm getting giant pieces of cardboard and giving each group one of those, so they can work right at their tables. I was nervous about today. Each group got 3 meters of tubing, a few BB's, a magnet to move the BB's through the tube if they cannot complete the rollercoaster course, a stopwatch, a record sheet, a bunch of graph paper for scale drawings, a new roll of Scotch tape, and an assignment sheet. Fourth problem: I bought (shockingly expensive!) gridded chart paper to put on the walls to help the kids make their scale drawings, but they are still a little fuzzy on the concept. I guess that's my mini lesson for tomorrow. Fifth problem: I tried to make a rollercoaster that would meet the parameters, and in the 30 minutes I spent on it, I couldn't do it! Now imagine groups of sixth graders, whose eye-hand coordination, general knowledge of physics, and frustration thresholds are all somewhat lower than mine.... granted, they get three class periods and are working in groups of five, but.... so, I adjusted the parameters. The goal was to make the slowest possible rollercoaster with four hills and 1 "up loop." I changed that to two hills and one up loop, with extra points for groups who include more features. Slow rollercoasters are much harder than fast.

The project had has real disaster potential. Thus, I forged ahead! I had two out of my three sixth grade classes today, and while the kids found it challenging, they worked extremely hard, cooperated very well, and seemed to enjoy the project. So far, not a single group (out of 12) has built even one rollercoaster that the ball can roll through on its own. And scale drawings are more-or-less non-existent. That may change when they realize that without a scale drawing, they have to start all over every day, while a drawing can help them reconstruct what they've already made work. I'll let you know how it goes. I have a feeling this supposedly four-day project might carry me right up to the vacation two weeks from now... which is way more time than the science concepts deserve, but sometimes a project is just a good experience. I keep telling them they are being engineers, this is what engineers do... design, test, troubleshoot....

Or maybe I should write about the almost panic-attack I had this morning. Over the last few weeks, I've been struggling with breathlessness. The first couple of times it happened, I thought, well, that's an interesting new stress symptom, but I'm not going to let it take on a life of it's own, I'll just stay calm until I catch my breath and then forget about it. That kind of worked, but it's really hard to not think about whether you can get enough air or not... and the problem got bigger, and began happening off-and-on for hours each day, and eventually, just before first period today, I found myself crouching down beside one of the tables strugging to breathe and trying not to cry and wondering whether this was enough to warrant an immediate trip to the doctor and a day off, and deciding that I would be perfectly fine in three minutes and would feel like an idiot asking someone to cover my classes. Plus, what was I going to do with the rest of the day, sit at home and worry? So I got to my feet, gathered my stuff, and just kind of yawned a lot all day long. And yawned my way through yoga class. There is a certain irony to getting anxiety symptoms during yoga class. And yawned my way home on the bus, and through the typing of one blog post. I am very eager to talk to the doctor about this. My initial reluctance, stemming from the absolute certainty that they will prescribe an anti-anxiety med, has all-but-vanished, and now I just hope they don't make me jump through too many hoops before writing out the prescription. The really irritating fact about all of this is that I don't feel any more anxious than usual!

Or maybe I should respond to Chris's post about the point to all this blogging. His post is a response to another blogger's rejection of the idea that any kind of systemic change comes out of blogging about education. What kind of change are we creating? I never thought that blogging would be a primary stage for creating systemic change, just as I wouldn't expect that of a newspaper column, tv show, or any other single means of communication, whether broadcast or interactive. However, I see blogging as one more opportunity to extend the conversation and push ever-so-slightly farther in the direction of positive change, straws on a camel's back or approaching the tipping point or what-have-you. Many, many things have happened as a direct result of this blog, although the overall effect on society remains to be seen. I have had conversations with people in the UFT, the opposition caucus ICE, the DOE, and elsewhere that absolutely would not have occurred without this blog. Has any of those conversations led to some new policy or other immediate change? No. Nevertheless, I am becoming more and more certain that teacher-bloggers are heard by the powers-that-be. Futhermore, I am now part of a growing network of teachers committed to putting our experiences in writing for the world to read. As I've written before, I believe that something positive will come out of it - besides just support in this tough career! - but it will take time to develop. I've given advice and support to at least a dozen new or pre-service teachers who have emailed in response to the blog. I've borrowed ideas from other bloggers' classrooms. I've passed on ideas and resources discovered on blogs to non-blogger teachers. Through reading blogs and blogging, I've found organizations that I might have taken a long time to discover on my own, and I've shared resources with others. I've been spurred to think beyond the insular world of my school, when my natural inclination is to circle the wagons. I've provided a little glimpse of the day-to-day work of teaching and of creating a new school, and in doing so, have allowed people to compare their perceptions of schools to (one school's) reality. Those are just the experiences I can think of off-hand. None of these things is earth-shattering or sea-changing, but they are not to be dismissed, either.

So many topics, so little time. Don't forget that one purpose of blogging, for many of us, is to keep a chronicle of our lives, to reflect. We happen to think others might benefit from our chronicles and reflections (or we're just narcissistic! LOL) so we publish our journals on-line. Writing has become a bookend to my day as never before.


Blogger Janet said...

I've been teaching fractions to my third graders for the past few weeks. Improper fractions and mixed numbers are causing headaches and to some extent I understand, but at this point, not knowing a whole number? This really makes me want to cry.:(

9:35 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

And dude, your kids are 8. Now imagine them in another four years, working on the same darn thing. *sigh*

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Schoolgal said...

I have also been reviewing fractions and decimals for the what seems to be an eternity. I am now wondering if the new math programs (both Trailblazers and now Every Day Math) is the cause.

On a more serious note, you really should see a doctor, and if need be, take a day for yourself. You don't have to sit home. Treat yourself to a massage.

10:20 PM  
Blogger posthipchick said...

When I have had anxiety issues, I've always said the same thing: "I am no more stressed than normal." But in some way, some how, you are.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe your anxiety is that you just need somebody to hold you...

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Muriel said...

I don't have any great ideas on the anxiety attacks except to go see a doctor and take a day off to pamper yourself. Even though you practise Yoga, maybe you need something more 'active' to blow off steam. When I'm stressed out, the only thing that's marginally useful is some type of aerobic activity, done long enough that I'm somewhat tired out and thus more relaxed.

Once again I'm impressed with one of your hands on science projects. It does seem ambitious for 6th graders, but I'm sure that accomodating the tasks and instructions has you've already done will help it become successful.

As for the tutoring, I feel for you. I don't have much experience teaching adding and substracting fractions as it regular middle school curiculum over here, but tutoring kids that aren't really motivated, that I know about. In that position, I try to find alternative ways to make the drill work more motivating : challenges to reach a certain execution speed or percentage or right answers, any type of game I can come up with... It's no miracle cure, but somedays it works.

Good luck with everything.

2:08 AM  
Blogger Patti said...

My daughter's psychiatrist said to take 4000 mg of fish oil everyday; he cited some Harvard study or something. He said that was as effective as happy pills, and you don't need a perscription.
We have panic disorder in my family, and while I could always talk myself through it, I haven't had a crisis episode for months-since a couple of weeks after I started taking fish oil. My mother and my siblings are taking it too, with good results.

5:30 AM  
Blogger notnearlyperfect said...

In reaction to your last point, the one about blogging and how it's causing change, I must also add, that in addition to the small (albeit, useful) changes that are already occurring as a result of teacher blogging, how about the changes that may come for future generations as a result of exposure to these teaching issues via blogs? Future generations have the advantage of getting a very real, very firsthand account of teaching, and also an exposure to issues with NCLB, teacher/administrator relationships, and various other issues... not to mention the advantage of access to viewpoints from teachers around the country and sometimes even the world.
~S (Future teacher who discovered your blog because she was reading an article in one of her mother's NEA magazines)

8:33 AM  
Blogger Aunt Murry said...

The anxiety is your fight or flight response getting stuck on instead of regulating itself to just situations where it is needed. It is from prolonged stress. We get used to the stress, or think we do but it affects our bodies in way our logical mind doesn't see. Go see a doctor, take the meds, you may only need them for a short time. Having an axiety disorder is no fun, trust me I know.

8:38 AM  
Blogger KC said...

re: the kids who instantly forget what you've taught... either they have no framework on which to hang the stuff you teach (no idea what the topic is), or they may have brain problems of their own (drug use maybe?) that you can't fight.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Journal Freak said...

I get the same anxiety symptom at times... and its funny, but I yawn a lot too (I guess that forces us to realize we CAN take a deep breath). I haven't had to take any meds for it- and its been happening for a couple of years now... but I guess that's because meds make me anxious, LOL....
In any case, if it is happening to you all day, even when your mind is busy, meds might be the way to go!
Good luck with that.
P.S. Love your blog!

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Ivory said...

Have you ever been diagnosed with asthma? My sister never has attacks but spends a lot of time yawning when she gets air hungry. Just a thought.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous k said...

We spent six months building a roller coaster for tennis balls in Destination Imagination with a bunch of fourth graders. Hardest problem we did in six years of coaching. Every part of it was designed, built and rebuilt three times. They worked their little hearts out. They built an awesome structure. Then we went to competition and the electrical connection went wonky on them. They fixed it during their presentation by experimentation while putting on their skit and I was never so proud of them.

2:42 PM  
Blogger The Teacher said...

7 1/2 - 4 3/4

1 minus 3/4 = 1/4

1/4 plus 1/2 = 3/4

6 - 4 = 2

2 3/4

Is that right?

7:43 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

Well, I'm teaching them to find a common denominator - 4 - so you have

7 2/4 - 4 3/4

then look at subtracting the whole numbers

7 -4 = 3

now subtract the fractions... uh-oh, 3/4 is greater than 2/4

so, take 1 of the three wholes that you have and change it into fourths

so you have 6/4 - 3/4 = 3/4

and 2 wholes left

2 3/4

your way works and makes sense to me, but my way is more similar to what you do in any subtraction situation (borrowing from tens to make more ones, for example), so I think it will be less of a stretch for the kids to understand why it works.

8:17 PM  
Blogger your math teacher said...

I'm suprised by the emphasis on adding and subtracting fractions in middle school. It's not a large part of the math regents curriculum in high school. Multiplying and dividing fractions, on the other hand, come up frequently, especially in word problems.

10:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have fraction manipulatives that students can use during tutoring? I imagine not, but I teach fourth grade, and I can't imagine trying to teach fractions in a way that would stick without manipulatives. It's super-easy to make some. Just have kids cut different colors of construction paper into long, equal strips and then fold and cut the strips into different fractional pieces -halves, thirds, fourths, eighths, whatever - and then label each piece. For working with fractions greater than one whole, it would of course be necessary to have a couple of sets of fourths, eighths, etc. and a few uncut strips labeled 1 whole. Finding common denominators, converting from mixed numbers to improper fractions, borrowing when subtracting mixed numbers, etc. all can make a lot more sense when students can visualize what they're doing and why. You have to control the numbers in the problems, obviously, so that students can solve them with the manipulatives, but hopefully after hands-on experience they will be able to better understand problems they can't solve with the manipulatives. Just a thought ...

12:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Frizzle, I hope that your anxiety starts to subside. I love your blog!

7:00 AM  

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