Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Why #NCTM ?

I started teaching middle school mathematics 5 years ago. I had an alternate route certificate, granted by the state of South Carolina due to my earned B.S. in Mathematics. I knew my math, but I knew nothing about education, classroom management, assessment writing, formative assessments, lesson planning or writing, or anything else that a teacher should know. I was pretty much a girl off the street who knew some math, tasked with teaching math to at-risk kids (all of whom were much below grade-level, and many of whom had significant behavior issues). I had no clue what I was doing. But I was enthusiastic and passionate. And smart. I was determined to figure it out.

One of the first resources I stumbled upon was the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) website. I spent some time clicking around, looking at all the cool resources available to me. I didn't immediately become a member, but I did get my school to pay for me to participate in two webinars. The first was about how to use YouTube videos to motivate students in mathematics classes. The second was about helping students to create number sense. I found both webinars to be infinitely useful. Five years later I'm still using two specific ideas I gained from these experiences:

1) Fraction Jackson

    This is a hilarious video that my students really enjoy. I use it in a few ways. First, I use to as a hook into a fractions topic or unit. It gets my kids excited and invested in the lesson. They are eager to see what's coming next. This isn't always easy to do, so I appreciated a resource that helps me do that.  

Secondly, at the advice of the person who led the the webinar, I have students watch the video twice. The first time students are just enjoying the video. They are watching, singing, laughing etc. I immediately play it again, but this time ask the students to find the math  mistakes that Fraction Jackson says or writes. This has worked as a great way to get my students thinking mathematically in the context of a video that they really enjoy.

2) Fraction Division

       Dividing with fractions is hard to understand. In the past (and maybe still now) teachers just taught the "invert and multiply" rule, also know as "Keep , Change, Flip". This is the way I learned when I was in middle school. It works for some kids. They memorize a rule and conceptual understanding comes later. maybe years later. However, the CCSS is really pushing teachers to emphasize conceptual understanding FIRST, and then teach a rule or algorithm, if at all. The thought is that if students understand the concepts and have tools to model their thinking, they can achieve the correct answer. However, if a student only learns a rule, and then forgets it, what is he/she to do?

I participated in a webinar titled "Why Don't My Students Have Number Sense?" where the presenter showed a way to help students make sense of dividing whole numbers by fractions. He showed the following list:

He said that students should be shown this list and asked to search for patterns and then predict/approximate the answer of the last problem. Students should use mathematical reasoning and patterns to explain their thoughts. Though this may seem like an obvious task, it never occurred to me in my first year of teaching. In fact, no teacher ever had showed me something similar and asked me to make sense of how the outcomes are effected when the divisor increases/decreases. I found this activity meaningful for my own understanding, and my students always find it meaningful. When they have trouble working through a task and making the appropriate connections, I always remind them of this list and ask them to recall the pattern. Sure, students still have to model or use an algorithm to get the right answer. BUT, they are able to use number sense and reasoning to approximate the answer, which is arguably a much more valuable skill then simply "getting" the right answer.

Shortly after participating in these two webinars, I decided to spend the money to become a member of NCTM. Soon after, I started receiving "Teaching Mathematics in the Middle School", the middle school mathematics journal published by NCTM. This magazine/journal is, by far, the best mathematics resource I have ever come across. The articles are well done and meaningful, the activities are engaging and easy to use. My favorite sections are "Cartoon Corner", "Solve it!", and "Math for Real". I used both a Cartoon Corner and Solve it! activity when I went through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards Certification (NBPTS) process and got great lessons that provided me awesome videos to submit as part of my portfolio.

 I have been wanting to attend the Annual Meeting for YEARS. Every year I scope out the location and dates, hoping that this will be the year I can find the funds and get my principal to grant me the professional days, so that I can attend. 2015 was my year!

I have an awesome principal who really believes in investing in her people, especially the people who WANT to learn more and be better. School districts don't typically provide a lot of content-specific professional development. I don't know why, as I think content-focused PD is the best way to improve teachers' instruction.

 I was so excited when I got permission to travel to Boston for the Annual Meeting. I started planning my sessions right away!

Reviews of each session I attended while at NCTM Boston are coming next!