Have you ever had that class that just seemed longer(or crazier!) than all the others? It becomes a continuous downer which means you and your class need a pick-me-up! Something new to try out that may or may not change how that class works. In the parts of our blog labeled “Classroom Pick Me Up”, we’ll share about one of those types of classes and a strategy we used to turn it around.
We were in a unique situation in Joplin after the tornado my first year teaching. Our high school was split into two separate buildings: the 9/10 building and the 11/12 building. I taught Pre-Algebra and Geometry in the 9/10 building and while my Geometry class was full of either advanced freshmen or “on-track” sophomores, my Pre-Algebra class culture was very different. When conferencing with these students, many of them identified themselves as “bad at math” or “in the dumb class”. It was heartbreaking.
I struggled throughout my first semester to get buy-in and effort from many of these students who had accepted that they were just never going to succeed in math. Many would do their practice problems and get them right and then fail tests with the explanation that they were the dumb kids and I just needed to accept that. Having spent time in schools in 3rd world countries where kids sat three to a desk and had very limited resources but still worked so hard to do well in school, it honestly made me a little angry that these students in a 1:1 school with internet and all kinds of resources were giving up so easily. There was no way I was going to have a repeat of this overwhelming discouraging semester.
I tried to break down the issue over Christmas break. These kids were continuously telling themselves that they were stupid and incapable of doing well in math, that they were in the dumb class. If I could reframe that mindset, maybe these kids might start to feel success. I tried to think of a day when I had seen this class be motivated or focused. If I could determine what it was that motivated them and give them that feeling every day, class may be different.
Then I remembered a guest speaker I had brought into class. She was from a local non-profit and she told of her experience using art therapy in Thailand to aid children rescued from slavery. The kids were so into it! They had asked questions and showed more enthusiasm that day than I had seen during any other guest speaker or math activity. These kids cared about helping others, so I needed to make math about helping others.
When the students came back to school in January they were no longer going to be traditionally learning Pre-Algebra. They were going to be using the class time to create textbooks for kids in Africa who didn’t have any resources. I showed off a new area in my classroom decorated with pictures and souvenirs from my trips to Africa to be used ONLY in my Pre-Algebra classes. I bought a composition notebook for each student to use.
We would start all the way back at the beginning of the school year with the content in order to be sure what we delivered to the classes in Africa had a complete text. It would be up to each student to make sure their textbook was complete with instructions (notes we would take in class), practice problems with solutions (I provided examples of practice problems while they provided the worked out solutions), and tests (made completely by students). They would also need to add their own flair to the notebooks - drawings, hints or general studying tips, encouraging notes, and more.
I didn’t know if they would really buy into the idea or not until I posted the first section of notes to copy into the “textbook”. The class was silent. They were all intent on copying everything and making sure it was legible. They asked questions so that they could make sure they put everything possible into the book to help the kids in Africa.
After each lesson I took a picture of one notebook. It had to be neat and include all the notes and practice problems and contain correct solutions. I posted these pictures online so that students who were absent could catch up.
I used a rubric to grade each section in the notebook and then the students were tested with the same unit tests that all the other Pre-Algebra classes in the building gave. Their test scores went up and I believe it is largely due to their new mindset. They weren’t in the dumb class anymore. They were in the class that was creating textbooks for kids who didn’t have them. We still had to take tests but those were just one day that they had to take off from making the textbooks. It was a necessary thing required by the school and they were fine with it so long as they could get back to doing work that would impact others.
The whole process made class so much better both for my students and myself! And it got about a million times better when we received pictures from the textbook recipients!
Maybe something like this works for you! Maybe it doesn’t…(sorry!) Regardless, remember that you are not alone with your classroom struggles! Keep pushing through and trying something new!