Saturday, September 22, 2012

Making "Effort" Transparent

So, one of the challenges that we face in teaching IB Standard Level Math in Germany is that German universities do not accept any lower level math as valid high-school graduation requirement, even though Mathematical Studies exists as a lower-level option within the IB program. So, as a result, a lot of kids who have a weak math background still want to take up SL Math to keep their university options open. As a school, we sympathize with kids and parents who have such goals, but we still need to make sure that we examine realistically whether a kid is correctly placed into SL Math and to either 1. realize that we will make an exception for this kid, even if it might mean that they get a 2 or 3 on the math IB exam, or 2. we communicate clearly to the parents that the kid is in jeopardy of failing the entire IB diploma if they continue to stay in this class (since a very low score on one IB exam will affect their cumulative score, and that can be a problem if the kid is already borderline passing in their other classes). It's tricky, because for all students the entry into an IB Diploma program can be a choppy transition (especially if they are coming from a different school), and so you cannot simply take into account a kid's current abilities, but also their motivation and commitment to improvement. Even in the two years that I have been teaching IB, I have already seen kids who came in being very weak, showing tremendous progress within the program.

So, one advantage that I have discovered with my 5-minute drills this year is that they help me to objectively determine who is committed to keeping pace with the class, and who isn't. Thus far in Grade 11 SL Math, we have had two quizzes after several days of consistent 5-minute practice. The first quiz was on finding equations of parallel or perpendicular lines through a given point (definitely a prerequisite skill to the IB), and about 1/4 of my class couldn't do it even after several days of practice. So, what does that mean? I gave back the quiz to the students and said simply that I cannot accept less than a perfect score on this quiz from any of them, because it is such a basic skill compared to the fast-moving curriculum. So, if they did not get full credit (4 out of 4) on this quiz, they must come see me within the week to get help, re-quiz, and get themselves off of my worrying radar. Immediately after that day, a girl went to change the class because she felt that the material was too advanced for her. Within the next week, 2 students came in for a re-quiz and one of them had to try three times to get a perfect score. A third student has not yet come in, so I emailed his parent and informed them that this is not a good sign to me in terms of his commitment to staying and keeping pace with SL Math. Simply, there are no excuses because I am always available during lunch, no appointment needed. A kid is either determined to catch up and seeing me for help/re-quiz, or they are not putting their action where their words might be.

The second quiz was on turning a standard-form quadratic equation into both vertex and factored form, and then sketching a graph using all info from all three equation forms. Again, a fundamental skill in IB math, independent of the application to webbed IB question formats. Some kids were able to do it correctly following our week-and-a-half of practicing during class, and others will be expected to come in for more help or a re-quiz on their own time.

I find it very simple and straight-forward this way. If a kid falls behind, they need to take responsibility to create extra contact time with me, in order to catch up. If they don't, and this develops into a consistent pattern, then they simply are not showing either sufficient understanding or a sufficient motivation to be giving SL Math a proper shot. At that point (still early in Grade 11), we would initiate the conversation with the parents to move the kid out of the class, with the understanding that it will impact their university applications. In the end, the decision will be clear as a combination of both their effort and their understanding, and we will be making the best decision to save the kid's overall IB Diploma result... This is much more rational and clear than in the past, when I had just feelings about which kid was doing something extra at home and which kid was not, in order to make up their existing gaps. This way, the expectation is clear and so is the result / necessary follow-up.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


I have been thinking about a lot of things, because the types of issues that come across my desk are various, and in my ideal world I want to do something for every one of those kids.

Kids who need special attention, in my opinion:
  • Very advanced children, who are 1 or 2 grades above grade level simply because of where they come from. Some of these kids are not especially academically independent, and they really need a lot of nurturing in order to continue developing in their current level of knowledge. They should be treated differently from gifted children, because these kids cannot often guide themselves through unfamiliar tasks. They should also be treated differently than regular students, because they should not have to sit through classes that merely repeat what they have already learned previously.
  • Exceptionally gifted children who are very young still (ie. in grade school). These kids lack the independence as well to navigate through very complex tasks, and they are also emotionally drained/socially impacted by the fact that they are different from other kids. Sometimes these kids have very high conceptual understanding, but their skills levels still lag behind their intellect and bar them from learning higher-complexity content. We should aim to provide some significant enrichment for them without taking them out of the normal classroom, because at such a young age they still need all the socialization.
  • Very, very weak students who have little to no conceptual understanding of basic arithmetic and its meaning, mixed in with a group of much higher cognitively operating kids. What do we do with these kids at middle- to upper- grade levels, if those gaps still exist? What is the right action to take, if they cannot even comprehend simple mathematics? Do we then pre-determine what is realistic achievement for them and teach them "basic / survival mathematics", or do we still try to offer them algebra to keep their future options open? Should we assess these kids differently?
  • Children whose skills are weak simply as a result of constantly transferring between incompatible curricula (as a result of being children of diplomatic families). If the kid is only in the host country for one to two years, what is the correct way to handle their mathematical education? Should we try to offer them a menu of topics that is close to what they would have been studying back home, or is that an impossible quest that is difficult to scale to the number of international students that we receive?
  • Students who are in career-bound programs. Should these kids still be learning the same abstract algebra concepts that they have tried to learn for years, or should we offer them a more realistic finance- and money management-driven curriculum? And if we decide to go with the latter, what topics should we cover?
  • Kids who have special learning needs. Are they being supported adequately in the classroom? If they need a lot of hand-holding, is that provided through extra manpower? To what extent is it fair to expect a teacher to simply differentiate for kids with special needs, if they are grouped with many other students also with great need? What systems can we put in place to support these kids and to track their progress?
  • If a kid joins a higher-track class based on their own ambitions, against the assessment-based recommendations of their teachers, what system should be in place to check in with those kids and to track their progress over time?
This is just a slice of the things I think about, separate from the logistics of more urgent issues...

IB 2014 Investigation Introduction

This presentation might be helpful if you are an IB teacher looking to introduce the new internal assessment format. I made the presentation after poring over IB docs from the OCC, looking through their samples and FAQs, and talking to my departmental colleagues. I think I have a pretty good general feel of what is expected, and so I pasted over some excerpts from the official docs into this presentation and walked the kids briefly through the motivation behind internal assessments, why it is done in this new format this year, and what they should be considering as they try to brainstorm possible topics / narrow down to a single topic. We also looked briefly through some of the annotated online samples from OCC, but did not hand out any copies of those samples (to avoid even tempting future plagiarism), and as well examined some MYP task prompts that are formulated in the structure of an investigation. We still need to do one day in class when we just sit down with laptops and brainstorm possible topics together and individually, but I think today was a very clear intro. It's making me a bit less stressed out about everything.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fractions Project

Do you have a killer fractions project that you just love?? I made one involving designing a dartboard with specs written in fractions, but until it's done, I cannot decide whether I like the project or not. It has been quite tricky to get my Grade 7's through this project, much more difficult than I had imagined. I spent an entire lunch time with some of the weakest kids in the group, going through it step by step to show them why one-fourth of something means you are dividing by 4. And then, how to divide big numbers by single-digit numbers in order to calculate how many squared units would be in each fractional part.

After this individual calculation/planning phase (which, thank goodness, we're mostly all done with), they will design the dart board in groups, and then after they "build" the dart board, they will go back to working on individual written explanations of all the calculations. This is their first writing assignment -- possibly ever -- involving math!! Hurray! Big step for these itty-bitty incoming 7th-graders. But, it's all making me a bit stressed out that we still haven't managed to start the "regular Grade 7 curriculum." I hope that happens very soon, in a week or two. These kids are going to need to HAUL ASS to get through the "normal" Grade 7 algebra topics by December. sigh.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Silver Lining

I am totally emotionally drained this week, because I am dealing with some potential plagiarism issues and it's just really a nasty experience all around. On top of this, everyone needs me in different places for different meetings, and I just discovered that about 1/3 of my Grade 7 class do not know the meaning of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. (As in, given simple, one-step situations, they randomly choose one operation to apply.)

So, I am in need of some silver lining, and that comes from the German class I've started last week (which also sucks up 6 hours a week in class, plus two extra commute hours a week, plus homework that I do in the mornings on the way to work). I really love this class, and the teacher keeps it moving, which is really nice.

I think my feel for grammar is improving within the structured lessons of the class. My vocabulary is also slowly expanding, because our teacher gives us "pop quizzes" from older lessons, which motivates me to keep careful track of new words and to review them on my own time. Her first quiz was hard! Even though I had been reviewing all the new words, I was only able to muster up about half of the answers on the sheet, and that was a lot better than most other students. (The words I managed to translate from English: Remember = erinnern, challenge = Herausforderung, success = Erfolg, and foreign language = Fremdsprache. She didn't have a word box or anything, so you had to just generate the word from scratch, and previously she didn't give us a list to study -- they were just words she randomly picked up from readings from the Ch. 1 of the textbook. So, it was not trivial.) Anyway, silver lining! Here's my introductory piece about my family, which the teacher will collect and correct for me. (We are reviewing grammatical structures for objects, which they call accusatives and datives in German. For everyone else, anyway, it's a review, but for me all the grammar things are new. It's initially a bit confusing, I think more so than direct and indirect objects in French/Spanish. But I hope that it will get better once I grow accustomed to seeing and applying the rules in class.)

Ich habe eine kleine Familie. Meine Schwester lebt in California und meinen Eltern leben in China. Meinen Eltern haben nicht seit drei Jahre gearbeitet. Ich lebe in Berlin mit meinem Freund, wer ist auch aus dem USA. Wir uns heiraten nächste Jahr. Sonst habe ich noch zwei Onkel, zwei Tanten, und drei Cousins in dem USA. Meine Oma noch lebt und sie wohnt mit meinem Onkel. Sie ist 83 Jahre alt und ihr Gesund ist nicht so toll, weil sie nicht gern aus geht. Meine Schwester arbeitet als Chemiker und sie lebt alleine. Sie ist älter als mir aber kleiner und sie sieht jünger. Meine Schwester heißt Flora, und sie liebt Hunden.