Saturday, December 22, 2012

Speed, Ratios, Unit Conversion and a Scalextric track

I was chosen ("volunteered") to work with students transitioning from year 7 to year 8 this year and needed a hands on lesson to position kids into seeing math as interactive and engaging.  With 30 students of varying levels of engagement that I didn't know well, it can be a little daunting.  In previous years I have chosen algebra or working mathematically, but for a change I chose a measurement topic this year.

My daughter Kensie has a Scalextric track (a common 1/32 slotcar racing system) and I've wondered how fast the cars actually go around the track.  I also had 10m of string, a 1.6m lump of wood and some stopwatches.

First we discussed speed itself and how it is encountered in the real world.  We used the example of travelling on the freeway.  Travelling at 120km/hr, they knew was too fast.  They knew that the value and units (speed) described how fast I was travelling.  We then discussed distance and time.  Students stated that we moved 120km if we travelled for one hour.

We then thought about how it related to our Scalextric track.  I suggested that we build a track long enough that the cars could travel for an hour.  The students then said we could go round the same track for an hour if we knew how long a lap was and then multiply the distance by the number of laps.

I gave a 1.6m ruler to the yr 10 helpers and they tried to measure the track.  The yr 7's laughed and said use the string to determine the exact length of the track.  They lined up around the track and held it in place until the string was in the slot all the way round.  They then removed the string and measured it against the 1.6m ruler.  They tended to take the ruler to the string rather than the string to the ruler which made it a bit awkward (the 1.6m ruler is quite a heavy bit of wood with measurements manually marked on).

We started the cars around the track and discovered that we didn't have enough time for the cars to travel for an hour (it was a 40min lesson) and that it was hard to keep the cars on the track for the whole time.  At the board we then looked at the speed measurement again

Firstly we converted hours to seconds

120 km per hour = 120 km per 1 hr
                           = 120 km per 60 minutes
                           = 2 km per minute (divide the distance by 60 for the distance travelled in 1 min)
                           = 2 km per 60 seconds
                           = 1 km per 30 seconds

Then we converted km to m

                           = 1000 m per 30 seconds (multiply the distance by 1000 to convert km to metres)
                           = ~33 m/s (divide the distance by 30 for the no. of metres travelled in 1 second)

By doing the reverse process we could work out the speed of the cars.

We timed the cars around the track and had a range of answers from the stopwatches timing a lap around the track.  Students suggested averaging the results.  We also discussed doing more than one lap and finding the average lap time.

This left us with a speed of 6m per 4.3s

This became 1.39m /sec and about 5km /hr (repeating the process above in reverse).

.. and no mention of 3.6 anywhere (to all you Physics heads!).  There's another lesson here for another day.


I'd like to continue this in our after school classes with my 11's and 12's for those that find related rates or kinematics difficult.

(This is the worst post for the year, drawing a lousy 3 visitors.. not sure if it is a poor idea or just the time of the year.  It's a shame as it is a good lesson.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Changes in resourcing math classrooms

Over the last five years there has been a change in resourcing mathematics.  Once the domain of the textbook and worksheet, increasingly mathematics is becoming a dynamic and thought provoking class engaging students in a range of activities that go beyond the chalk and talk lesson.


iPads are becoming a go to tool for mathematics classes.  The symbolic data entry problem can be overcome (unlike with laptops) enabling a range of activities.  Tools like Socrative allow formative testing to occur and can help drive students through the learning process.  Organisational issues such as lugging texts, diaries, bringing pens can be reduced to "have you charged your iPad today".  Active lessons requiring spreadsheets and graphs can now be done at the desk, rather than at the computing lab.  Social learning, such as generating texts based on mutual learning of students or sharing of video tutorials between students,  is now possible with increasingly ubiquitous internet access.


iBooks are exciting.  Now with access to math tools, it is easy to generate an iBook/ebook.  Hop into iBooks Author, type up your material for a lesson, issue it to kids. ... but now the process continues ... learn what works in your social context, edit the iBook and re-issue it next year.  Get the kids to comment on how good it is and make relevant changes.  Share the iBook so that others can use your starting point.

Social Learning Networks

Social learning networks take teaching to a new level.  By extending the reach of teachers beyond the classroom, teachers are able to broaden their subject base beyond four hours per week.  Students are able to see what problems other students are having and help out, or get help on a "just in time" basis.


Interactive whiteboards are an easy to implement supplement to teaching.  Remember the days of rubbing off notes three minutes are writing them.  Not being able to go back and revisit notes and remind students that you had already covered a topic.  Not being able to save notes and store them for students to later look at solutions for problems they have not completed.  Being able to display video easily without having to set up projectors or TV's.


Before screencasting I would get frustrated re-teaching the same idea as students became ready for it, based around a need for differentiation in the classroom and being able to present ideas as students were ready for them - scafffolding at the right time.  Now I can generate a series of screencasts and link them together with apps like edmodo (for embedding it within a series of lessons) or prezi (to show how a subject links together).  They also force me to think how I reached an idea and how to better present it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Job Application technique

I had the pleasure of being involved in an interview panel for the first time and realised that interviews in the dept. had much to do with items outside of the classroom.  I have some advice for people doing interviews.

1) Selection criteria

Address the selection criteria in your cover letter.  If your cover letter does not address the selection criteria, you will not get an interview - each application is graded, if your application does not get a good grade it's tough luck.  Get your CV and cover letter proofed by someone that has successfully navigated the interview process recently.  Briefly mention critical documents for schools (AITSL's Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, DET's Focus 2013, Classroom First, ACARA's Australian Curriculum documents and objectives, the School's Annual report) but importantly only mention it if associated to teaching practices. Omit overly technical and scholarly diatribes unless requested, focus on what you have done and how it has impacted on student learning.  If you have taught specialist or stage 3 subjects state how many times and when.  Describe successes in these classes.

2) References

References are checked BEFORE interviews.  This is odd compared to private enterprise but is a valuable process in selecting interviewees.  Ensure that your reference is willing to give you a positive review.  If they are not, nurture someone that is willing to GLOW about you.

3)  RTFQ

Read the question.  Answer the question.  The application process is heavily weighted to the interview process.  Use the preparation time well to structure an answer.  If you don't actually answer the question you will not be employed.

4) Relax, be interesting and be confident

Look keen, but control your nerves and don't ramble.  Take a deep breath and use the water on the table to gather your thoughts.   This is a presentation, you cannot be monotone.  Especially in hard to staff schools, monotone teachers will not survive, monotone interviewees are unlikely to be selected.  There is a difference between putting a panel to sleep and carefully considering a question before answering.  If you have trouble thinking on your feet, prepare some situations beforehand that answer high criteria of Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.  Have a lesson prepared that you are proud of, that met learning outcomes and that you can clearly describe (don't use busy work!).  You need to wow the interviewers to gain a position.  They are looking for outstanding candidates.   Practice with a spouse or peer.

5) Be positive

If you put your negative points forward be sure to have a positive end to the story.  Don't give interviewers the opportunity to discount you for something that has been rectified.  A good application can be undone by continually discussing difficulties in the classroom.

6) Keep an eye on the time

Be aware that time is of the essence.  You need to be succinct and to the point to answer the interview questions.

7) Have some questions prepared for the end

If you end early, the panel will look to you for questions.  Have some prepared based on the context of the school.  It's probably a bad idea to ask about behaviour policies as that will indicate that you may have behaviour problems with your classes.

8) Theory
Know a little theory but use it sparingly.  Make your teaching look effortless not theoretical.

9) Include topical information
ICT, Australian curriculum, Professional Standards for Teachers and community involvement (grants obtained) are topics of today.  Have a case study of these prepared (but do not read directly from them in an interview).   Refer to notes to prompt your memory.

10) Motivation
Understand your motivation for applying for the role.  Ensure your answer is a win/win.  If it is not, suppress it and seek a win/win.

I think the applicant process has come a long way in identifying good applicants but has a long way to go to reach the easy manner in private schools and private enterprise.  The current process can be very formal, which (from experience) does not give a clear indication of the capabilities of teachers.  I would like to see the following:

a) Being clearly able to articulate requirements (eg 2 yrs stage 3 experience) in job advertisements to reduce the pool of applicants that will not reach interview
b) Reduced reliance on the formal interview process and more relaxed interviews
c) More focus on actual experience
d) Recognition that teachers are rarely in formal interviews and that good teachers are likely to interview and write applications poorly
e) A focus on whether a teacher can deliver a class rather than fluff associated with current fad practices.
f) Recognition that for some learning areas, "A type" personalities are not the only effective teachers.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Importance of self esteem

There are always groups of students that are difficult to reach.  Students that do not directly benefit from mathematics in the short term can lack motivation to attempt work, leading slowly to disengagement.  Success with these students often relies on making a personal connection with them, sharing part of your life indicating that students that do not go directly to university are still successful in life.

My approach for this centres around experiences when I was not much older than my students.  I am lucky that during my formative adult years I had little support and passed through many jobs; nightfill, fast food, labouring, kitchen hand, reception,  data entry, accounts, furniture removal.  These jobs were not  the high flying roles that I had later in my twenties, but they enabled me, I had skills and could recognise opportunities that those closeted in university may not have had access to.

It's an important message for kids not destined for direct entry university.  Many lack any vision of the future and don't have an understanding of hope - they're simply living for the now. The simple message that "if you're willing to work harder than anyone else, you'll start to get ahead" is an eye opener for them.  I couple this with some basic finance, setting a budget, learning about credit card debt, saving half your income, basic investment strategies and interest calculations to show them that the jobs they may be already in, can provide them with financial security with a small amount of planning.

A favourite lesson is valuing a dollar saved.  Most (if not all) kids do not recognise that a dollar spent is worth more than a dollar earned.  To spend a dollar we must have already paid taxes, the bills and all the costs of living.  An dollar saved may require three or four dollars to be earned first.  If students can get this ratio down to 1:1 they are on their way to financial independence.  When a third factor is introduced (investment) and they can cover expenses through investment dollars they can increase the time to enjoy life and enable retirement.

Many are destined for jobs they will not enjoy.  If working has a clear purpose, it will make for better employees that value their employment. I also tell them that a bit of life experience can help them understand the importance of education.  I didn't finish my degree until my thirties!

Another message is to give them is a multi-generational viewpoint.  All say they want their kids to go to better schools, they want houses, weddings, fast cars, plasma TVs.  If they understand the costs incurred during later life and can aim from the beginning to help their kids during their lives, it will promote a budgeting outlook rather than hand-to-mouth accounting.

I try and invoke the principle that taking pleasure in "giving" is the simplest path to happiness.  There are many occupations where the pleasure of working becomes a part of the attraction to the work.  You won't become rich but you will have a life of rich experiences and make fruitful contributions to society.  Teaching and nursing are two that spring to mind, and we do have a disproportionate number of students seeking math teaching and nursing each year.

These things, together with providing rich mathematical programmes (and not falling into the trap of assuming these kids need an impoverished curriculum purely because of low assessed results), can turn around students that are disengaging.

I think that seeing future pathway is a path to positive self image that can improve their self esteem.  Self worth of some of these kids is at rock bottom but it can take very little to get them excited again about their futures.  Lessons like these are part of a broader picture to get our kids thinking ahead.

I don't think I'm explaining myself well here, but I think the gist is present.  After six years of teaching here, the formula for delivering lower performing students (or students with a disrupted educations) is getting quite complex but some general strategies are emerging.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reasons to not achieve

"Low ability" students have always been a bit of an enigma to me.  I put them in quotes, as many times they are not actually low ability, they only demonstrate low ability under assessment conditions.  They come in many shapes and sizes.

The student that does not value education.
On occasion I get one of these.  They're the ones that ask why are we doing (whatever it is)...   The answer is fairly simple in that the curriculum is set and the government pays me to teach it.  Blame your parents they elected the government.  The alternative is to identify how each topic is applicable to the workforce (which inevitably ends in I'm not doing that) which makes embedding context for these students a reasonably ineffective approach.  I have a book that does this, if they continue I direct them to it.  Eventually we get to the point where they accept that education is an enabler of general occupations and that their chosen occupation (footballer, dancer, stripper) may not be their only occupation and that math skills will help them in their future life.

The student that sees work as a favour that deserves special credit any time they do it.
"But I did work" - So what? Still less than everyone else and well below your level of ability.  Doing more work in my class than anyone else's is not an excuse for poor behaviour.  If a student disrupts ten other students but finishes their work, it still is not acceptable.  Maturity is the only thing that reliably fixes this, as they get a goal that they need your subject for.

The student that cannot perform under assessment conditions.
I don't have an answer to this one.  I've had to use teacher judgement on a few of these over the years.  They sit in class and work.  They complete assignment work.  If it's done 1-1 they're fine.  Put the word test on the top and their brain explodes.

The student that sees you as an equal.
I'm not a friend, I'm not a colleague, nor am I an acquaintance.  Students don't have a right to discover whether they should respect you or not.  When I walk into a class, I set the rules.  By rights of a degree and being placed in the role by the school I have earned the respect given.  I decide when these rules are broken.  I may tighten the rules at the request of a class.  The right to negotiate is born through acceptable behaviour, not through misbehaviour.  If I don't do a good job teaching I will lose that respect over the year, but I deserve the benefit of the doubt in the early days.  This is best fixed with a team leader or deputy present.  Explain the problem, probably no-one else has.  You will now become a lone entity in the world they don't treat like everyone else and may help them keep their first job.

The student that avoids work.
This student needs to see the counsellor, toilet, drink fountain, office, nurse, dentist at least once per day.  They are late to class and have not been told that assignments/tests/homework are due.  They are probably the easiest to fix.  Fail them.  Early.  Sit them down and explain to them why they are failing.  Give them catch up time at lunchtimes and additional homework delivered to parents.  Then encourage them as their grades improve.  Don't stop too early, it may take a few years to change a habit of six or seven.  It takes a fair bit of effort.

The student that believes life is fair.
Guess what.. it's not.  If I believe you need more attention than another student to succeed, I'll give it to you.  If I believe that one student will respond to a stern word, and another will not, I won't bother with the latter - I'll try something else.

which leads to...

You're picking on me because I'm .....
It's true, some students I will give a hard time to, because I think they'll come good and make something of themselves.  Others require different strategies and a host of people and money for special programmes before they come good.  Swearing is a favourite - kids from good homes don't need to get the habit, others from difficult home lives need tolerance as it takes time to come around.  "Unconscious" swearing is one thing, being sworn at it another.  Very few homes allow disrespect to parents (it's fewer than many believe), and this respect has to be transferred to teachers and being sworn at crosses the line.  I love the shocked look on their faces when I say my grandfather is darker than them and that they need to consider their words carefully because, like them, I take racial vilification comments very seriously.

The student that tries and fails, every time.
If a student can't pass your course legitimately, then you need to act.  Create a course for them, move them, do something.  It's soul destroying to you and the student to allow this to continue.  Heterogenous setups are a trap for this sort of thing.  One curriculum does not fit all unless you are a highly (and I mean highly) organised and skilled operator.  I have not met that many that do this well.