Thursday, January 29, 2009

Math B: Thank God it's Ending!

Today, I sat down with the rest of the math teachers in our department to grade the January 2009 Math B regents. I found myself thinking "Thank god the Math A and Math B sequence is coming to a close this year" For those of you who are ignorant (blissfully so) of what has been largely seen as a failure: the math A and Math B sequences divide up the traditional Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II sequence a little differently.  Rather than devoting one year to each of the aforementioned subjects,  Math A covers algebra I and some geometry. Math B covers the rest of geometry and Algebra II.  With few exceptions, schools teach these courses over a year and half. Anyone who has ever prepared a student for an end of the year standardized test like the New York Regents might immediately see the issue. There is a long amount of time and a large amount of material covered by the test.  At the end of June when studetns sit for the test, they must remember things from about a year and a half ago!  The Math B is particularly tough for most students becuase it covers a lot of  'real math' and the curve is much less forgiving than the Math A.  You also invaraibly get some curve ball questions like the logarithmic regression question, question 33.  The thing that was most annoying about this question is that you had to take a natural log regression--and natural logs are not even in the Math B curriculum

Having taught the course for years, I wondered to myself "Did I just not know that natural logs were on the curriculum." In the end, no teacher in our department could find anything about natural logs in the state's published curriculum! All you can wonder is ' what were they thinking when they wrote that question ?'

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Math Games: Ingredients of effective math games

I love making learning fun, and as a math teacher I often tried to create and/or use math games. All teachers know the value of a game. Putting questions into a jeopardy format, can make the must dull math like scientific notation , SOHCAHTOA, or a lesson on a parallelogram into something fun. Teachers of all disciplines would probably agree that turning a regular, chalk and talk lesson into a competition or into a  game increases the overall enjoyment of learning and power of a lesson.

That said, I was reading up on what researchers have to say about the value of learning with games. These researchers point out that embedding education into a game is a tricky task, and that oftentimes, game makers do not do a good job:
Although there are many excellent educational games on the market, some 'purchase children's motivation at the expense of learning,' says Lepper. For example, he has seen some games that provide the most gripping graphics when children lose, thus motivating them to intentionally forfeit the game as well as learning that might occur. (source)

I must admit that I've seen this problem in some games, but more often I have seen the opposite: dull games with poor graphics that just aren't all that fun! Now, I'm referring specifically to math games online, something that I've explored quite thoroughly as math teacher. The best site that I have found so far is; their games do a good job of making learning the objective of the game. For instance, look at this fraction game called fraction balls, you must use your dexterity to drop a fraction ball into the proper jar. As you can probably tell from the picture, you must use your dexterity and you mathematical knowledge at the same time! Now that's a fun and effective math game!

Another good fun game is Math Blaster. Although not an online game, Math Blaster requires you to use your skills and your knowledge simultanesouly. You can buy math games like math blaster at

In the end, a good math game requires the player to 'play' the game while at the same time employ his or her knowledge. If the fun of the game is divorced from the learning, the game will probably flop. For instance, consider a game that has you shoot ten bad guys then in between levels asks you math questions on addition. Such a math game has thoroughly divorced the learning from the fun game play. A child is likely to find the math part annoying. An ideal game combines game play action and content knowledge at the same time!

A good resource  about online math games :

Public vs Private Schools: Part I : The School Administration

As a child I went to both public and a  private school (a well known boarding school with an massive endowment in the 100's of millions!) and now as a teacher with over 8 years of experience, I have spent about half my time teaching at private schools and the other half teaching at public schools--inner city and suburban.  

There are many, many differences between public and private schools, in fact too many differences to summarize in a single post so in this post I'll focus on the main differences in the administration.

The school administration  is indeed very different. I must admit that I was much more impressed by the administrators at the private schools; they were invariably intelligent and reasonable people.  Now, I'm sure there are some very sharp public school administrators and indeed I've met them....but I've definitely worked with some public school admins that aren't the best and the brightest, something that seems a pre-requisite to be able to deal with the kinds of parents you get in the privates. Both public and private school administrators are about as political as you can get--but then again so is all facets of modern education. Pubic school administrators by and large are under great pressure to have their students do well on Standardized Tests (thanks in large part to No Child Left Behind).  Private schools, in general, do not have take the  state tests. Of course, students have to prepare for  SAT's  but by and large parents can afford tutors for this. 

Both types of administrators are beholden to the communities of their school environments. In inner city schools, parents are less involved and therefore have little clout, but in suburban public schools and all private schools I know of--the parents have significant input. So what pressures do these administrators have to deal with?

  • private - demanding parents, particulary mothers, who often have no job a lot of free time on their hands to make look into what their child's teacher is doing/what the schoool is doing. 
  • pubic and urban/inner city: - the two greatest pressure for the administration is how to get control of students  who often aren't interested in school and how  to get these same students to study and pass state tests!  
  • public and suburban : Often times, schools in wealthy counties like WestChester, NY or Long Island are very similar to private schools--wealthy constituents with invoved parents. The main pressures here are similar to private schools. Often times though, there is an portion of students in these schools who aren't motivated and who still have to take teh state tests--of course, there are unmotivated students at private schools--I taught some of them myself!  However, unlike the generally affluent parents of private schools, public school parents may not be able to hire an entourage of tutors to get their child to pass!  Therfore, there can be some additional pressure on administrators to try to get these students to do well on the state tests.

In the end, much of the pressures facing administration spills over into the teachers who, of course, are the front line.  That said, teachers can be a stubborn lot...regardless of private, public, or suburban!

In the end, all school administrations are political creatures affected by their environs. There isn't as much of a difference between suburban public school administration and private school administration,.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Should teachers be responsible for so much?

If you take a graduate education course, especially one focused on urban education, you will probably be inundated with data about how the most important factor that affects a child's success in a classroom is the teacher. There's a well known study about how even high performing students will suffer if a they have a teacher who is incompetent. After years of teaching various subjects and having taught lessons well and having taught lesson poorly, I can certainly say that you can confuse even the best and brightest if your lesson is poor, so--yes, of course an incompetent teacher can bring down the best and the brightest. However, often times it seems that administrators have taken this research and run with it.

Based on my personal experience and stories from other teachers in other schools, it's very common for public school administrators to affirm that no students should be failing your classes. Ok 'no students' is bit strong. But in the public schools I've worked in and several others I know about, you actually become a target of the administration if too many kids are failing your classes--regardless of the actions of the students. If you have a really low functioning class full of students with chronic absences, lateness and behavior problems....well, it's still your fault if that class has a low passing rate.

SO what's the connection between the study cited up above and public school administrators?

Only that administrators seem to have taken the responsibility of a teacher to new levels and seem to have placed the onus of student success and student effort squarely and completely onto the shoulders of teachers. Don't get me wrong. Teachers do play a critical role in the success or failure of a student. However, the expression about leading a horse to water comes to mind here, and often times when you listen to administrators you wonder if they remember what it was like being a teacher. Do they remember that even the best lessons with PowerPoints, with hands on activities, with exploration and whatehaveyou still require an active and willing participant?

I was directly told once by an administrator that 'students do not have the right to fail' And I remembered thinking Did anyone tell that to the students?