Thursday, December 26, 2013

Analysis of the DragonBox App

We recently started solving equations in our junior high math class.  I decided to use the DragonBox app this year to help with the basic ideas of solving equations.  DragonBox is a game designed to teach the player the basic rules of solving equations while they play the game.  A preview of the game is here.

So to start our study of solving equations, the first thing we did was play DragonBox for about 20 minutes in class.  During this time the students mastered the first chapter of the game and more importantly got hooked on the game.  The game is very well designed to hook a student.  The rules are simple and explained quickly in the first couple levels.  It starts off giving the students early success but quickly works its way up in difficulty.

However, the biggest positive of this game is that it encourages the use of their intuition in solving equations.  Students almost always have ideas on how to solve equations, but rarely get to really use them to much.  By starting with the game, the student gets to fully use their intuition while the game moves their ideas into the basic rules of solving equations.

The other biggest positive of this game is that there is no penalty for errors, just like any video game.  The students will make errors, but they just get to reset the level and try again.  This is a huge plus and really helps teach a "growth mindset" or "grit" for a student.

While playing through the chapters I made a list of the emphasized ideas.

Chapter 1
There are two sides to each equation.
Opposites cancel each other out.
Whatever is done to one side, has to be done to the other side.

Chapter 2
Dividing (putting an object under another object) simplifies the two objects into a 1.
Whatever is done to one side, has to be done to the other side.

Chapter 3
Multiply (place an object next to another object) to eliminate division.  
Eliminate constants first.  (eliminate non-attached cards, before cards attached to the dragonbox)
Whatever is done to one side, has to be done to the other side.  

Chapter 4 & 5
Slowly formalizes the notation of solving equations
Whatever is done to one side, has to be done to the other side.  

Overall, this app does not fully teach anybody how to solve equations.  However it does give a great introduction to solving equations.  It lets the students use their own ideas to learn and work it out with no penalties for errors.  

I have set up the DragonBox app as an option for a task to complete on each of my levels.  I set it up so the student would have to at least complete chapter 3, which is where all the ideas have been introduced, just not formalized.  I often find, that if a student works through the third chapter, they are hooked and want to finish the game.  

Level 4 (A) - Complete all 5 chapters
Level 3 (B) - Complete 4 chapters
Level 2 (C) - compete 3 chapters

Of course some students, did finish the first chapter, never touched the game again and just watched the video and did worksheets.  All students are different and this app is just another tool to help all students learn in the wild crazy world of junior high math. 

The Math Hatter:  "There is a place.  Like no place on Earth.  A land full of wonder, mystery, and        
                              danger!   Some say to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter."


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Teach Like a Flippin' Pirate

With my current 8th grade math class the set up is currently a flip style classroom.  However, I do not require any videos to be watched at home, so I am not sure "flipped" is the right term.  It is definitely highly differentiated, self-paced and allows lots of student choice for practice and evidence of learning.

The class is broken down into 28 learning targets for the year.  Each learning target is broken down into 4 levels using a 1-4 rubric.

Each learning target starts with a Pre-quiz using our Schoology account.  (love the quiz feature on Schoology, great math equation editor).  The results of the pre-quiz determine what level the students will start working on.  Students are given a checklist (example here) of the work to be done for each level.  Any advice on making this easier to follow would be great...

Each level of the learning target has the a similar setup.
1. Students watch a short video about that level of the learning target.  I would like to get to a point where I have a video I made listed as well as another one from the internet so students have a choice, but I havent had the time yet.  Students are expected to take notes using a Cornell Style system and complete some basic practice problems that closely resemble the examples from the video.

2. There are 3 activities listed to "practice" the skill.  Students are asked to complete 2 of the tasks successfully.  The 3 activities fall under a couple general catgories.
     IXL Practice - a skill is listed from the IXL website (our school has a subscription)
    Worksheet - a single page worksheet with more complex and higher level thinking problems
     Creating - students create a movie, slide show, poster, etc...
     Activity - students complete some kind of hands on lab experiment
     Gaming - students play an online game to practice (using Manga High or some other website)

3. When students have completed two of the activities they take a 5 question "post quiz" about that level of the learning target.  This is also completed on Schoology.  Students must score a 4/5 on the quiz to complete the level.

4. If students fail to achieve a 4/5 they are asked to do some remediation activities.  Generally they meet with me and we work through their misconceptions.  They then have some choices of another task to complete.  These activities are generally similar to above with only 2 additional options.
     BuzzMath - a free online interactive math book with an option to upgrade to premium
     Fix Mistakes - the student can submit detailed fixes of their mistakes on the quiz

This system take up about two-thirds of the classtime.  During this time students are working in groups or on their own, helping each other and asking questions.

The other third of classtime is taken up with whole class activities.  I have used 3-act problems, Connected Math problems, and whole class games, (like we played MathDice this week to review order of operations).  We also play a weekly Monday game that takes the first 10 minutes of class.  We also start class on other days with some peer instruction strategies, or a My Favorite No activity.  Starting with these non-threatening formative assessments to stimulate discussion are very helpful in keeping students on track with their learning.

It is during these times that I really try to implement the TLAP.  Simple things like playing music as they come into class, having interesting things on the board or around the room to peek interest, and just radiating the joy I feel to be there most days.

With a complicated set up like this, we really took things slow at first.  (Hence it is almost the end of quarter 2 and we are on concept 9 of 28).  However things are starting to pick up as students now have the hang of it.  What has really helped is I now have two dates for each concept.  I have a due date, where they are expected to have completed at least 1 level from the learning target.   I also have a deadline, after which I will not take any more work from that concept.  I am still refining this system so any advice would be great there as well.  We do use the Power of ICU system, so that is also helping.

Grading this mess is a lot easier as I switched to a standards based grading (SBG) system a couple years ago.  The students earn a score of 1-4 depending on what level they complete for each learning target.  The student also earns a 1-4 score on a differentiated quiz for each learning target.  The quiz portion can be re-take as many times as the student needs as long as there is some remediation in between.

I am generally happy with the set up of this so far, but the main problem is organization is not my strong suit.  Things tend to get a little chaotic and sometimes I am overwhelmed by it.

Hatter: Pieces of paper? Pointless.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Genius Hour (kind of)

I am a big believer in the idea of fueling student's passion.  So when the genius hour (based of Google's plan to let employees use 20% of their time to let them follow their own ideas) caught on in various forms in the classroom I was all in.  I just couldn't quite figure out how to use it in the best way.

I also read Dave Burgess' "Teach Like a Pirate" book this summer.  I loved how he started his year off.  I really took to heart his "3rd day, the most important of the year."  This is where he gives his speech about multiple intelligences etc...

With all that in mind here is what I have done so far this year with the 7th grade...

1st Quarter Genius Hour

On my third day of class I put together a prezi presentation about
1. How the Brain Works
2. Growth Mindset
3. Multiple Intelligences
The prezi is here if you are interested, notes are below the prezi.

After the presentation was over, that Friday (setting up the Friday idea) we went to the computer lab to take a "multiple intelligences" assessment.  I kept telling the students we are going to find out "how you are smart, not how smart you are."  I then had them all sign in with their google accounts (we are a google school and this was a great way to introduce the use of their google drive) and they created a google presentation about their results.  They had to pick their top 3 areas (or so) and create slides for each one.  They then looked at a website that offers different careers to think about based on your areas of strength.

We took a couple Fridays to work on the presentation.     During this time they were figuring out how to do transitions, insert photos, etc...  The kids who were tech savvy flourished as they helped out classmates figure out these things.

Then the next week we started to present them in class.  Now asking a 7th grader to present to the entire class during the first month of school...  It can be terrifying for the student.  So to present each student's slideshow, I would present 1 each day.  I would keep the projector off until I had it on the 2nd slide.  We would then go through all the material of the presentation without the student's name ever being mentioned.  At the end of the slideshow, we would guess as to whose presentation it was.  It was a great way to make it fun and to get to know the all the students.  We did one a day and it took most of the 1st quarter to finish.  The kids really loved it.

2nd quarter Genius Hour

For the second quarter I asked the kids one question..."What is your passion?"  They again made a presentation using google, but this time it was about their passion.  I told them they would be presenting to the class for about 5 minutes.  It could be about whatever is their passion.  For some kids they knew instantly what they were going to do.  In fact I even had one student go home and finish it all in a weekend after we talked about it in class for a couple minutes.  I had other students who needed the question rephrased to think of an idea.  So I asked it differently...
"What do you know more about than anyone else in this room?"
"What do you love to do?"

We are in the middle of presenting.  As the students were putting their presentations together we started working on their skills.  Most 7th graders will write thick blocks of text on their presentation and read it word for word with their back towards the class.  I stressed the 5 x 5 rule.  No more than 5 lines of text and with about 5 words in each line.  After some major haggling they have done really well with that.

The 3rd quarter is quickly approaching and I am kind of at a loss of where to go next.  I would like to link this project in to their math standards somehow, but I am not sure how to make the bridge between the two ideas.  I am not sure whether to make it a PBL experience or a review project experience, or something else entirely.

We will see where this goes...

Alice Kingsley: Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. 
The Mad Hatter: That is an excellent practice.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Differentiation & Standards Based Grading

I have always believed in differentiation.  This started in my math class as giving choice to students about a lot of things.  When I assigned homework, I would offer two choices for them to do, an A-level homework and a B-level homework.  I also allowed many options to show learning when we would do projects.  Although students liked the options, this led to many questions that involved fair grading and fair assessment.

On a trip to MCTM (a Minnesota math teachers' conference) one spring in Duluth I came across 2 ideas that changed my teaching forever, differentiated assessments and standards-based grading.

I currently use assessments that are based on learning targets.  Each assessment of a learning target is split into an "A-level section" and a "B-level section."  Each section has only a few problems in it that cover the major ideas of the learning target.  I am currently working on refining/creating a 4-3-2 rubric for each learning target.  I have always had an informal one in my head as I created the assessments, but I am finally getting around to writing it down this year.

With ideas stolen from teachers at MCTM, Dan Meyer, and countless others I have adopted and adapted this system and still love it.  The kids love the choice on an assessment, they can do both sections or just 1 section.  I always tell them if they do both I will correct the A-level first, then if they get that wrong I will correct the B-level.  Scores are assigned on a 4, 3, 2 or 1 basis.

4 - Everything right on the A-level
3 - Everything right on the B-level or very minor errors on the A-level
2 - Minor misunderstandings of the learning target
1 - major misunderstandings of the learning target

Using ideas of standards-based grading, these concept scores make up the majority of the students' grade.  I have stolen a lot of ideas from Thomas Guskey, Ken O'Connor and countless others.  Standards-based grading was the theme of my master's action research project, so that helped quite a bit in developing the system.

Buried in the idea of SBG is that we do a lot of practice in the class.  Practice is non-graded work.  Over the past couple years, students have stop asking if this is graded, and learned that we do things for practice.  A book called "Fires in the Mind" really helped me solidify my thoughts about the role of homework and practice in the math class room.  Homework must be a for a purpose, and hopefully the students realize the homework is not busy work, but meant to help them improve on their skills.  (good luck with this in junior high...)

Homework is still differentiated in my classroom, in various ways.  There are still "A-level" and "B-level" homework assignments each week.  I only give 1 assignment per week, as students are really busy now days and their time is valuable.  This also helps drive home the fact that I will only ask them to do homework that is relevant and improve their skills.

To further help differentiate homework we use various websites to practice.  IXL, Buzzmath, BrainGenie and MangaHigh are some of the sites we have used/will use this year as homework.  The sites help meet students at their level.  This is pretty basic practice, which some students really need to help solidify their understanding of various math concepts.  We save the higher levels of Bloom's stuff for class time.

For grading their assessments, students take assessments on each concept at least 2 times.  They are free to schedule re-takes as many times as they want after that.  When entering their grade for each learning target I consider their last 3 assessments.  I take the best 2 scores of their last 3 tries.  Not sure this is perfect, but I feel it is pretty fair for the student.

I push each student to "master" each learning target.  I consider mastery two scores of 3 or higher.  There are two levels of mastery: "B-level" mastery which is two scores of 3 or a score of 3 & 4 and "A-level" mastery which is two scores of 4.  Either of these accomplishments will get a student on the "Wall of Mastery."  We have a wall in the room dedicated to hosting the names of the students who have mastered the various learning targets.  The students seem to really enjoy and want to get their name on that wall.  I have been taking pictures of the wall throughout the year and hopefully can put together a stop motion animation of the wall growing throughout the year.

This has gotten really long....I did write a 100 page paper on this very topic, so I tend to get going and not be able to stop.   So if you are still with me, thanks for reading all this.  These things do require a lot of work, writing all the quizzes, tracking progress of students, and trying to provide effective feedback on various practice.  It is all very time consuming.   Some of my colleagues think I am nuts...

Alice Kingsley: This is impossible. 
The Mad Hatter: Only if you believe it is.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Goodbye textbook, hello Learning Targets!

In the first couple posts on this blog, I will try to summarize my journey to this point in my teaching career.

About 4-5 years ago a couple things changed in my classroom.  The first and biggest and change was saying goodbye to my textbook.  I taught out of Pearson's CMP book for many years. While I loved the approaches in the book, I knew the students needed something more aligned to the standards.  I took some time in the summer and really dug in and came up with 30 learning targets for my 7th grade math class and another 30 for the 8th grade math class.  These were based on the Minnesota State Standards, the Common Core Standards, the Focus Points for 3-8 by NCTM, and conversations with our high school science and math teachers about what they need from junior high math students.

While these concept lists have changed continually every year, and sometimes during the year, it has really helped me focus on the essentials of the curriculum and needs of the students.  The lists have always been around 25-30 concepts.  However, no matter how much time I put into making the lists in the summer, the needs of the students always tend to have me switching the order as the year goes.  This year was actually the most ridiculous as we went from concept 1 to 3 to 4 to 2 in the 7th grade.

This was pretty scary, as I put the textbooks in the closet and used them only as source material for some of the concepts.  This made up about 1/3 of the year.  The rest of the stuff came from various other sources and digging around the internet.  I have purchased many books with many teaching ideas about many topics.  It took a lot of time, but after years, I have a plethora of sources I regularly draw from and have created.

This changes was the beginning of the snowball down the hill, causing an entire journey I never antcipated....

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad? 
[Alice checks Hatter's temperature
Alice Kingsley: I'm afraid so. You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are. 


7th & 8th Concept Lists 2013-2014

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


I am a junior high math teacher in SouthWest MN.  I teach in a small school and have all the 7th and 8th graders at our school.  I am hoping to use this blog to bounce ideas around and hopefully get some feedback.

I currently am using ideas from standards-based grading, flipped learning, teach like a pirate, differentiation, love and logic, genius hour and many other ideas I have run across from the past 13 years.  I love technology and student choice.

I do have a twitter account (@CjSieling34) and have used that to get many great ideas over the past year or so.

I love teaching junior high because it fits my personality well.  I will end this short intro post with a quote from Alice in Wonderland that sums up teaching junior high very well...

The Mad Hatter:  "There is a place.  Like no place on Earth."  A land full of wonder, mystery and danger!  Some say to survive it:  You need to be as mad as a hatter...which luckily I am."