Saturday, January 25, 2014

So Many Students (+two teachers)

     This week marked the beginning of my team teaching endeavor with the beginning of a new semester. A colleague of mine and I are teaching algebra 2 and pre-calculus together, combining our classes in a large group instruction room, and enjoying every minute of it. It's been an intense week, but a productive and overly positive one as well.
     The first day we started the students all together in the large room, giving them zero notice of what they were about to get into. According to their schedules, they all thought that their math classes would be as they were in the past, sitting in rows of desks listening to their teacher teach. They were massively confused, and some curious, when they were directed to a large room on the other side of the building. We explained to them what we were going to do and how the system was going to work. We could see some faces excited about this opportunity and others were nervous.
     Our algebra 2 class contains about 60 students, comprised of sophomores and juniors; it is a huge group. We didn't fully realize what 60 students looked like until that first day, and we got nervous ourselves. Our biggest fear is that a large number of students will get lost in the mix and we will be missing them and doing them a disservice. Sixty students is going to be tough to keep track of, but we're determined to come up with as many strategies as possible to do so. After the first week, we've already noticed that the overwhelming majority of these students are on board with this experiment of team teaching, which is great. With the clientele being younger, we were nervous they wouldn't want to change, but they're good to go. The good news is that after this first complete week, we've noticed that the students are looking out for each other. We have them sitting in tables of (at most) eight. Each table seems to have a few students that struggle, but also a few students that excel. Those excelling students have naturally been helping the others, but not in a "here's the answer" kind of way, more of a "let me explain what's going on and how to solve" kind of way. We did not prompt this in any way, it just kind of naturally happened. Students are asking us and their classmates questions and staying on top of the material. As we walk around, we hear the conversations going on at each table, and they are all about the topic at hand. There is a tremendous amount of support within this group, and it is truly incredible to watch.  We did our first true, in depth checkpoint after three days and the results were positive. Students are showing us that they know what is going on for the most part, and there are not any major gaps in knowledge at this point. Hopefully all of this continues and we're able to make great strides in the coming weeks.
     Our pre-calculus course has a slightly different feel to it. There are only about 40 students in this group, and they consist mainly of juniors with some seniors. We get the feeling that these students are not as enthusiastic about this experiment they are a part of. From some feedback that we have received, they would prefer to be back in a traditional classroom, just like the old days. While we want to do what is best for our students, we are encouraging them to give this a shot for a few weeks and see how it plays out. We don't want to take away from anyone's educational experience, but we realize that their resistance could possibly be from a fear of change. We'll see how it plays out and seek their input constantly, but hopefully they jump on board and we can continue combining our classes.
     One observation that we have made already with these upper classmen is that they want to be challenged. We started on the first day with finding a linear equation, given a table of points. We tried to explain some things in a new light, but the students didn't bite. They weren't interested and they were not engaged. My colleague and I are not fans of reviewing algebra 1 topics at the beginning of courses, but we were going to build on this skill and wanted something to relate to. The second day we went into finding the quadratic function given a table of values, and the students were hooked. While the topic may not seem exciting, they have never done this before without a calculator 'quadratic regression' function. Doing it by hand was a foreign concept to them (and a challenge), but they saw the connection to the first day's material, and quickly latched on. We had every student's attention now that they were being challenged with the material, and we had much more participation. There was a huge difference between the first and second day in the attitudes of the students. We knew that pushing them was the key and we plan on doing it for the remainder of the semester. It made us think about how students feel in other classes, where they spend a week or two doing pure algebra 1 review. It's no wonder that students don't like math when they are put in those environments. If they are forced to sit through material that they have seen over and over again, and the know it, what is going to get them to enjoy the class from the start?  I have talked to other math teachers that feel they need to start every course (regardless of the students and the level) with a few days/weeks of algebra 1 review; they do not agree with our process. In my opinion, from the research that I've done, it is much more effective to dive into new material and review those previous concepts as necessary in the context of the new material. Why should I take two or three days to review solving linear equations when I can do it for a few minutes (only if I need to) when we need that concept to master another? But, that's a different conversation. Bottom line: our students want to learn and they want a challenge - we're going to give it to them.
     We remain excited about this opportunity of combining our classes and are determined to do everything we can to make it a success. There will be bumps along the road, there will be times when we lose students, and there will be adjustments made constantly. I don't think that we'll ever have it down to a science with a teaching formula that works perfectly, but with the trust of our students, I think we can come pretty darn close. As the semester progresses, I will try to post updates on some of the procedures we come up with, as well as the observations we make/feedback we get from students. Wish us luck, and if you ever get the opportunity to do something like this, I highly recommend you give it a shot.