Sunday, September 7, 2008

Music soothes the savage beast

Our school has no music programme. Many of our teachers attempt to use music in their learning areas to fill the gap. In English it might be examining lyrics, in IT examining how digital delivery is changing an industry, in media how music can emphasize and focus delivery of a message.

In my mathematics classes at the end of term I tend to bring in my guitar. Sometimes there's a bit of singing, other times it's placing a guitar in the hands of a student for the first time, sometimes it's a bit of strumming whilst they are doing their work and a bit of banter about 'more modern music' please. Last class I was told it was soothing and they did a fair bit of work. All in all it's simple classroom building.

A strategy I have seen in another school is using music to keep class noise low. The music is turned to just an audible level.. as long as the music can be heard it is left on. Other times, MP3's are allowed as long as students are working with reasonable efficiency.

I have also used music once or twice in statistics, where we examine radio station choice, genre's and the like.

One point that I should make is that I cannot stand the ghetto subculture. Would-be rappers beat boxing and talking about their 'hoes' make me want to fume. Girls that 'booty shake' and behave as property get a stern talking to. I would much rather pop, 'happy house' and dance music was the genre of choice and women viewed the 'empowered' nature of such video clips being object of desire and love rather than being objects of ownership found in rap culture. I inform the young ladies that they should be playing with dolls and doing schoolwork rather than thinking about boys. Once pointed out, the concept has a tendency to stick and find a home in their minds.

It must be a generational thing.

At home, these students work with constant noise/music in the background. In some ways I understand that they wish for similar circumstances in the classroom. There is some kernel of logic in allowing them to listen to music whilst working as known music probably blocks background talking out and allows the student to focus on the task at hand - conversely up-to-date music may be distracting as they will actively listen to the music (and want to discuss it) rather than actively doing work. I believe though that in many cases silent work still has it's place.

Impact on WA of election result

This was the election where no-one wanted to vote for anyone. The major political parties were for the most part an insipid bunch. Now that the voting is over and they are being counted here's how I see the outcome.

In a perfect world (with lots of wishful thinking):
A) The National party has the balance of power, education in rural areas will gain increased support - more incentive to take rural posts, improved housing conditions, higher wages and community encouragement to stay.
B) Political parties will no longer dismiss the impact of educational lobby groups in marginal seats
C) The teacher pay dispute will be resolved quickly as the first item of the new government.
D) Teachers will resume community building roles and prevent disconnect with youth and community that is currently forming within low ability/low socioeconomic students sector.
E) The role of permanency, selection, relief teachers, class sizes and teaching administration will be investigated and resolved.
F) League tables will disappear as they are proved to have provided incomplete and misleading data to parents.
G) Performance based pay scales will be thoroughly investigated and found impractical to implement.

It is clear from this election that both political parties cannot rely on party loyalties of voters - strong leadership is required at all times to maintain government. If a leader is stale, arrogant or belittling to the electorate - move them along, no matter what their perceived importance to policy. It is time politicians looked to running the state rather than their careers first.

I believe that politicians should stay with big picture issues and not turn up 5 minutes before an election and talk about local problems. Either be in touch with your electorate throughout the whole tenure or risk exit stage left. Parachuting politicians into safe seats is also a recipe for disaster.

We need strong experienced leaders. Not young up and comers - unless they are brilliant beyond their age. One only had to look at the faces of politicians last night to see that in "good times" conservative faces is what the electorate demands. Political parties take note! (How Albert Jacob managed to get elected I can't understand - let's hope he is more capable than he looks.)

Well done to the 3 independents and the National party for standing in seats and on issues that matter to their electorates. It shows that our political system is not yet as dead and showy/frightening as the American system or boring as the English. And for a small nation like ours we should be - vibrant, able to take action and go forward in leaps, stumbles and bounds.

I don't mind who is in government as long as progress is made. For now though... no more naive politics from me (at least for a while!).

Here is a link to education policy statements of all parties.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Using notes in tests

Having a working memory of four units, I know the necessity of having well prepared notes. Everything I do has a paper trail of sorts that lets me manage the many things I'm juggling at any one point. The programme we use is far more detailed than most - but without it I would be lost as to what I had done and what I still needed to do.

Students coming through junior school (where tests and assignments are not the norm and alternate assessment is more often used) don't know how to prepare for tests. More so, many suffer extreme test anxiety that affects their performance in later years. Making and having notes makes sense as in real life we do not work in a vacuum and normally have our notes/diary/teachnical books at hand.

To alleviate issue of recall and anxiety in year 10, we test often - at least once every two to three weeks and have a 2hr mid year exam. Students know that a test is coming (and have been forewarned when and the topic).

For the first term, the notes consist of their journal and I tell them what to write in it as we go along. At the end of each test the aim is to do some self reflection (5 mins) that I read in spare moments about their performance and how to improve.

In second term, they can still use their journals but I now insist that 2 pages of notes is all they can bring into the test (by the end of the term the journal has too much content to use effectively). Those that bring notes get an extra 10% for being adequately prepared.

In term three I no longer reward students for bringing notes as they are in the habit and know the consequences of not bringing adequate notes.

Interestingly I had one student indicate that her notes never had the material on it that she needed. On reading it I found that the information was there but she was unable to generalise the notes to assist her. This is an issue that I need to investigate further.

By going through this process I believe that my students are better prepared for tests and exams in yr 11 & 12 and have shown anecdotally that they are not as stressed in the assessment process.


I must admit, being a fairly self motivated person, motivating others is not my forte. Many teachers do I much better job than I do - my primary motivational tool is ensuring student see and value success. TEE kids approaching their final exam need a bit more than this, so I had a bit of a think and did the following:

I dug out my old gown and scroll from my degree ceremony. I talked to all of the students about my goals at their age - many were absolutely ridiculous. They then each wrote ten goals of their own. Each wrote theirs on the board and stood in front of it. I took a photo of them in my old gown, cap and sash, with my degree scroll and printed the results on my little photo printer. The results are that they now have a permanent record of their goals in year 12 that more than likely they will keep. They had graduated from my goal setting session.

Hopefully it will motivate them to lift a little higher when needed.

Index laws and the lower ability group

It always surprises me what will work with a low ability group and what will not. Generally you have to hit the ability level spot on for the whole group for them to be able to grasp a concept (even if only momentarily).

Take indices. On one day grasping 3x3 = 3 squared = 9 was impossible, not to mention any attempts at 3^2 x 3^3 = 3^5. We went through a number of examples and by the end of the lesson I had 10 bored students and had lost half of my hair.

The next day I took a different investigative approach. This might be obvious to an experienced teacher but was fairly radical to me.

Sequence (imagine that ^3 is written as 3 superscripted):
a) Discuss nomenclature with notes (base, index, indicies, power, factor and power form)
b) Use calculator to evaluate single term powers - eg. 3^3 = ...
c) Add multiplying powers to the board (with positive index) - eg. 3^3 x 3^5 = ...
e) Look for a pattern in the numbers - supply the base after a few minutes.
f) Explain how multiplying powers works and supply notes including general forms
g) Rub off the answers, write as index addition - eg. 3^3 x 3^5 = 3^...+... = 3^8 = 6561
h) Add dividing powers to the board where answers are positive > 0 - eg. 3^5 ÷ 3^2 = ...
i) Look for a pattern in the numbers - supply the base after a few minutes.
j) Explain dividing powers, supply notes including general form (as ÷ and fraction)
k) Rub off the answers, write as index subtraction - eg. 3^5 ÷ 3^3 = 3^...-... = 3^2 = 9
l) Supply mixed problems

About 40 mins. I don't think I could have done this investigating factored form with these students as regrouping and cancelling bored them silly the previous day (I will revisit it later though). Using calculators to do the sum and examine the sum backwards worked far better. Special note was made from e) onwards about checking for same base, superscripting properly, neatness, identifying operator used in original sum and always referring back to general form to make sure the correct index operation is being done. By the end of class all 5 students were engaged and had grasped the concepts involved. yay!

Now some may ask 'why do index laws with a low ability group in yr 10?'. I suppose it is a philosophy problem put in place at uni. Students shouldn't have impoverished courses 'entertainment based/childcare oriented' purely because they are in a low ability group. If they could master simple algebra earlier in the year and ratios later in the year, I consider index laws and other more 'pure' maths well within their grasp even with behaviour difficulties. These students too should have the pleasure of mastering something that looks quite cool on paper, harder than they believe possible to learn and not feel inferior to peers when they walk into an upper school maths class.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Longitude and Latitude problems

We revisited longitude and latitude today just prior to a quick quiz on Monday of elevation/depression, longitude/latitude and bearings problems.

Firstly the section that we did on angles(complementary/supplementary) and bearings seems to have resolved many of the angle addition/subtraction problems students encounter in longitude and latitude (this makes sense). The second was that teaching how to solve latitude problems before longitude problems is far easier than vice-versa (this was not expected).

Sequence used:
a) nomenclature & uses - great circles:longitude+equator, small circles:latitude
b) how to draw latitude problems - uses of front vs side views
c) find the radius of small circles - r(small circle) = r(great circle) cos (longitude)
d) how to find the circumference of small circles - C(small circle) = 2 x pi x r(small circle)
e) how to identify the angle travelled - reading diagrams carefully & common errors
f) how to calculate the distance travelled - angle / 360 x C(small circle)

The reasoning for the second finding is that students were happy to learn new skills (eg. solve latitude problems)...

... students were even happier to be told that longitude problems were easier than latitude problems (eg. remove step c), draw the diagram a little differently - front view edge marked)

.. rather than teach longitude first and say that latitude problems were more difficult (as you need to add step c) and have to think harder about the diagram).

All in all, it can be taught in a lesson to a good group in year 10, maybe a bit longer if proving step c), with practice for a couple of sessions. I never would have identified the second finding if I hadn't chosen the wrong question as an example. Nothing like a random event to improve your teaching and give an insight into student thinking.

Different approaches to supporting teachers

It is interesting to view different teaching styles and different ways of supporting teachers. Support staff such as team leaders and HODs are important parts of school machinery. I've been to a couple of schools and have made a few observations about how these support staff operate.

Type 1: Student focused (Soft and mushy).
The soft and mushy students support person always has the student in the forefront of their mind. They are 'friends' of the student, listen to their grievances and reason through their issues. Issues with this person relate to support of students based on student reporting of incidents especially as students often only relate parts that they remember and conveniently forget negative portions. Positives of this type of support staff is that many issues can become non-issues without further teacher intervention and they can negotiate middle-grounds where teachers and students both feel POV is acknowledged and resolution has been achieved. They also have great rapports with parents. Generally supporters of BMIS management techniques.

Type 2: Authoritative (Firm and stern)
For me, the easiest support person to deal with as many issues are black and white. They will investigate, report and resolve issues. In most cases will lean to the side of the teacher. Negatives is that some students will feel that their POV is not given enough weighting. Positive is that student POV is not given weighting over teacher and holistic classroom position. Middle ground resolution tends to focus on end results and measurable future performance. Generally supporters of the "teacher is boss" type mentality.

Type 3: Administrative (Paper pusher)
This is the worst type to my mind as nothing gets resolved but all paperwork is in order. Chaos tends to follow a support person of this type and responsibility is delegated to anyone but the support person for ultimate resolution of an issue. For specific issues they are often unavailable as they are pursuing "pet" projects. They tend to be active self promoters. The main negative is the sheer amount of unresolved issues pushed back onto teachers - students are not sent to support staff unless an unresolvable issue within the classroom has been encountered and pushing unresolvable situations back to teachers does not help maintain programme momentum. The only positive is that major incidents have well recorded backgrounds. Generally supporters of give anyone the responsibility as long as it is not me.

As I think of more I will add them to the list.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Curriculum Council Moderation

Here are words that inspire fear in the most confident graduate teacher - "Moderation". We had ours and the one thing it showed was the need for experienced teachers to guide the less experienced teacher. Our most experienced teacher took the work of students, repackaged it to make it easy to be viewed and removed much of the stress.

I'm not saying that moderation was not stressful - the idea of redressing issues 3 weeks before the end of a course kept me up at night for a number of days. When it happened though, it was great to have recognised that the grading given was correct and also be given ideas about how to improve the course.

In my non-TEE course I now understand that they like to see context heavily developed into the course - coursework specially developed for the cohort. If this can be demonstrated in assignment pieces this can be a good thing.

Another insight was that moderators look at the intake as well as the results especially in TEE courses - to check if the students selected for courses has been done appropriately. It was interesting to hear of restrictions placed on student subject selection in other schools to (I imagine) protect school TEE rankings and student self esteem. As schools reduce the number of subjects on offer and students have reduced options, I wonder if we will see more issues in this area.

Our moderator liked to see cognitive type assessment. I shall seek out some more of this sort of thing (to be honest I have no idea what they are (isn't an investigation typically cognitive?) - but will ask around).

It shouldn't be underestimated the time it takes to prepare for moderation and the disruption it causes to other classes. I strongly suggest for portfolios of all assessment to be gathered and kept for all students in a class by the teacher. If you don't have these pre-done, prepare a couple of each for moderation or you may have your D turn into a C and have to find another portfolio at the last minute to fill the gap (...I wonder how I know this??).

Keeping portfolios from students is detrimental to test preparation (as you have the portfolios rather than students for study) but is far preferable than trying to gather materials in the lead up to moderation dates (especially as for us they fell just before the start of TEE mock exam preparation). After moderation dates portfolios can also be a great study tool for exams that careless students wouldn't have at the end of the year.