Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 18 2011

Snapshot 1.18

Today’s lesson was not my best. It’s the first lesson in 2011 that has pretty much flopped, though, so I’m not too broken up about it.

When my lessons flopped before, I could see it coming—I knew I’d planned it too hurriedly or carelessly, or I knew there was something involved that the kids wouldn’t swallow. But this flop was due to pure oversight on my part.

The lesson, in a nutshell:

  • I talk about cause & effect, the words “depends on,” and then independent/dependent variables. Kids do some matching together and take notes in graphic organizer template thing.
  • I hand out strips of paper with widely varied situations (eric wants to know how many skateboards he can buy with $500; Ice cream man notices that he sells more on a hot day, doubling the radius quadruples the area, etc).
  • Kids have a worksheet with blanks in key phrases we went over in the notes (“ ___ depends on ___,” “___ causes ___,” “__is a function of ____,” “____ varies with respect to  ____,” etc)
  • Kids decide how they could fit their situation into the sentences by deciding on variables and whether they’re dependent or independent. We rotate the situations around the room, so kid 1 fits his situation in #1, then passes it to kid 2, who fits that situation into the blanks in #2, etc.
  • Kids then fill out a worksheet of wordy multiple-choice questions about dependent/independent variables.

Why it failed, in a nutshell:

MY KIDS ARE ILLITERATE. (note: problem = teacher not foreseeing and preparing for illiteracy, not students’ illiteracy itself)  Let me explain. I foolishly made a lesson that was completely based in common phrases of the English language, first by making my main idea that “the dependent depends. The independent doesn’t” and second by making a worksheet with 10 common ways we describe functions in everyday speak. I thought I was clever—turns out m y kids don’t even know what “depends on” means. This is not an English Language Learner problem (only about 4 of my 110ish kids are ELL).

I discovered today that my kids use “depends on” to mean “determines.” As in,  “How many hours you work depends on how much money you’re going to make” or “your foot size depends on whatever shoe size you buy.” So it makes perfect sense to my Pink-Haired Mohawk to say “How many Big Reds you drink depends on how often you go to the bathroom,” because to him, that means the Big Reds make you have to pee. It wasn’t until the day was half over that I realized I’d heard them misuse “depends on” in conversation before, and that THAT was why my “the Dependent Depends” gig wasn’t working. I was making as little sense to them as they were to me.

Then, I had them match these variables they didn’t get into more common phrases that pop up in text (i.e. word problems) –these they understood better, but I’m sure it was confusing to have me mix them in with “depends on.”

THEN, I had them answer 7 multiple-choice questions that amounted to a full page of text. Judging from their scores, I don’t think most of them even read the questions or the answers.

(That, and then there was the activity itself. Strips of paper. Never a good idea, unless you’re going to glue them onto something. If I’d done this lesson well, I would have printed them out in huge print on colored cardstock, or laminated them or something. 1×3” pieces of paper aren’t inspiring, and kids rip them up or fold them, so they don’t recycle for the next period very well.)

Things I tried, with varying success:

In first period, each kid had their own strip of paper, and nobody got started. Then when they did, there’d be back-up when the faster kids would burn through them and have to wait for the person before them to get done and pass their strip. So in third period, I paired them up so they’d at least read the situation to someone. Then in fifth period I had the idea to give them all 2 minutes to read it with their partners and fill in their blanks, then call “switch” and we all passed together.

Once I realized (at the beginning of seventh)  about our communication breakdown, I changed my tune: instead of the dependent depending, X and Y were now in a relationship. X is the independent one, and Y is the one who can think for themselves. Everything Y does is determined by what X does. (Then I thought of my Literacy Specialist from Institute: “ooh, you could do a R.A.F.T on that! Have X write a breakup letter to Y!”)

Come to think of it, my LS would have loved my lesson. Talk about literacy being important for mathematics! This is DAY ONE of reviewing functions and already the way my kids talk is getting in the way of their understanding.

Things I learned:

Strips of white paper with small print aren’t fun or inspiring.
Activities with words are interesting, but one should be careful not to make too many assumptions.
The more structure, the better. Small timed chunks work better than big timed chunks.
My kids need a lot more word problems.
If one wants kids to pass paper strips in a circle, instead of merely swapping with their neighbor, one should say “Rotate!” instead of “Switch!”   … mucho confusion.

One Response

  1. G

    Trial and error, my friend….it’s the only way to go!!

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