Saturday, December 10, 2011

The gravest sin : favouritism

"You're a great teacher, but you have one problem - you have favourites"

When I read this feedback in the anonymous survey forms from five students I was shocked and disturbed - favouritism is one of the worst things a teacher can do - it distorts and poisons the classroom. What surprised me was that a teacher could have favourites without really being conscious of it. But I knew it must be true when so many students had written this in their feedback. 

It didn't take me long to realise the root cause : as a new teacher with a great class, I've made the mistake of not imposing a strict 'hands-up' rule during whole class discussion - with the consequences that a group of (well intentioned) students have dominated these sessions by calling out. And so week after week, the quieter students at the back of the class have been watching silently, building up the idea I preferred the ones in the front. Did I have favourites? I may not have thought so, but it surely worked out that way.

There's nothing for it when you get feedback like this - an immediate apology is required. I shared with the class my distress at having made this teaching mistake and apologised.  I thanked them for their trust and openness with me - and how grateful I was that they helped me be aware of this problem with my teaching. I was careful to put the blame where it rested - on me - and not on those students thought to be the favourites. I made a committment on their behalf to do better with my classes next year.  By small way of recompense - and as a test for myself to see if I could do it -  I made up a set of thirty "Thank You" cards and wrote a personalised comment to each student, taking care to demonstrate through the comments that I had indeed noticed what they had contributed to the class during the year. 

I'm so grateful my students gave me this feedback, and I really do believe the only reason they told me was because I collected anonymous feedback from them several times throughout the year. Without this framework and trust, students would never have dared tell a teacher about this until it was too late. Without the feedback, I could have blissfully continued unaware making the same mistake for years - building up a reservoir of hurt and misunderstanding along the way.

Was it all bad feedback from this class? Not at all :-)  Overall, the students really enjoyed the year and gave lots of positive feedback and encouragement. But as always - the most valuable feedback is the one that helps you see what didn't see before - appreciate the positive feedback, but it's the uncomfortable feedback that pays the biggest dividend.

Reaching the end of term for 2011? Try some anonymous student feedback - you will be amazed what you discover! Take the plunge - you will never regret it. Every time something special  happens - for the teacher and for the students. See my post on getting student feedback for templates and some suggestions. 

So what can I do better next time to avoid favouritism?
  • Use the "hands-down/paddle-pop stick" system for asking questions. I had actually done this for the first month with this class but as we got more comfortable dropped it. Bad decision.
  • Enforce "hands-up" for when students want to ask questions. How silly I feel writing this down - it's Teaching 101. I thought I didn't need to do this for this class - they were such enthusiastic students and it felt too authoritarian. Wow did that idealism bite me back!
  • Split up or move dominant groups to a less prominent position in the classroom.
  • Ask myself : have I visited each group table during this period? Have I asked them questions? Have I given them some of my time today?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

End of year maths classes: a precious opportunity

If you live in the Southern Hempisphere and your school is anything like mine, everyone is winding down as the holidays draw near. Final tests and reports are done, and the students have decided there is no more formal learning for the year. I'm sure the same effect happens in the Northern Hemisphere around July. For some teachers the response is to provide 'find-a-word' worksheets or watch an entertaining video. And while it is a struggle to get students in this frame of mind to do any work, I've come to realise this "winding down" period is a fantastic and precious opportunity to do some maths beyond the confines of the standard syllabus. Now is the perfect time to bring out your big gun 'fun' mathematics activities.  

Some ideas for end of year activities

Bring out your concrete maths objects and just let students play: this week my Year 7 students helped me unpack a recently arrived box of 250 GeoShapes.  Once they saw someone construct a dodecahedron, there was pandemonium in the class for the fifty minutes while groups traded, cajoled and bargained to obtain the required 12 pentagons from the surrounding tables: "I need more pentagons!" demanded a student who had never used that word before. Students who didn't have the required shapes tried to build them using other shapes. One group wanted to know why they couldn't make a 3D regular solid with hexagons. I think this class have a better understanding of prisms and polyhedra than when I was actually 'teaching' them the topic.  From what I observed, just letting students 'play' with my concrete object kits, without any overall objective, produced very interesting results. If you feel the students aren't challenging themselves enough mathematically, join a group and ask a few questions, or just quietly construct  something interesting and then walk away. I really think we don't give students enough time to 'play' and get a feel for these mathematical objects.  So this end-of-year 'winding down' time is the perfect opportunity to have some quality play time.  Play helps older students too - I found even my Year 11 students gained benefits from more hands-on time with the concrete objects. 

Don't watch "The Lion King" - share your favorites maths videos and digital interactives: choose the right material and the response can be surprising. I showed my Year 8 a section of Marcus du Sautoy's "The Code" on the mysterious places π turns up. Once the class got over groaning that were going to watch a maths video ("Can't we watch Harry Potter?"), they were quickly drawn into du Sautoy's 'spooky' presentation. "Is this going to be scary, sir?". And they were hooked! The students were riveted by the exploration of how strange and interesting the number π was and demanded to watch more of the video: looking at the mystery of negative numbers and I even let the video keep going into imaginary numbers ("This is Year 12 maths", I said,  but they insisted on watching it). We then zoomed in and out of an amazing digital π poster (π to around 350,000 decimal places) and looked at a Buffon's Needles simulation for generating π.  The questions and conversations this material produced was amazing. Students who previously were bored or disengaged were asking very deep questions about numbers: "How do you know the decimals go on forever without repeating?", "Why is the ratio always π?"  du Sautoy's presentation and the follow up material really had stimulated thinking and wonder about mathematics.

Bring out your maths games :  I'm a huge fan of SET. I never cease to be amazed how students who don't like maths, or say they can't do math problems, can get hooked on SET. The secret is how you introduce the game and ramping up the complexity carefully. (I will write some more about this in a later post).

So - use this precious time - bring out your favorite maths activities, 'toys', games and videos - and very soon you will be wondering why you don't do this through out the whole year!

Still have syllabus content to get through these last weeks? I do! So I'm blending these activities into the new content I still need to teach. I'm doing circumference and area of a circle with my Year 8, hence the selection of π materials.  I have a sense they are going to learn this topic better than many others I did this year because I'm using so much concrete material and interesting, challenging digital material.