The Reality of a Turn-around Math Classroom

When I made the decision 2 years ago to become a middle school math teacher, there were 3 things I knew I wanted to implement in my classroom (if possible):

1. Flipped Classroom Learning

2. Interactive Math Notebooks

3. Math Workshop

I was ecstatic when I was offered a job at in an inner-city TItle 1 K-8 school; however, I knew that, logistically, one of those elements would be missing from my classroom. (You can’t require homework to be completed through the use of technology if some of your students are homeless.) So, even though I went through the process to become “Flipped Certified,” I knew that I was having to put that dream practice on hold by taking this position. 

So that left two elements to embed into my teaching practices: IMNBs and Workshop.

I was excited to use interactive notebooks because I had heard about all of the success teachers have had with them. Not only do they, IMNBs, serve as a catch-all for everything students do in class (so students can look back at all of the artifacts they have created throughout the semester) but they also keep students organized and give them an easy way to study for their weekly & summative assessments. Bam!

The other element of my teaching practice, workshop, I knew would be a struggle to strongly implement. Let me explain why:

I learned over the summer that the cohort of 7th grade students that I would be teaching this year were 6% proficient on the 2014 state test. That is a tough number to look at. To be fair, those students had a tough year…three different math teachers (one of them being a long-term sub with very little at stake) and very little accountability for their actions. The number of referrals written for student behavior were outrageous. Very little learning took place in the math classroom. Foundational skills were lost, new concepts were ignored, and some of our students graduated the 6th grade knowing less than when they began the year. 

Whoa.

The first thing I had to do was set the norms and high expectations for these kiddos. This was not easy because it was something they were not used to having: norms and expectations. I take that back, maybe there were expectations in the past but these students didn’t know what they were. They weren’t notified when they had met or failed to meet those expectations. The only expectation they were aware of last year were to (1) show up to class, and (2) don’t cuss out the teacher. 

Expectations were explained and norms were put in place. Students took their Unit 1 pretest and scored in the neighborhood of 20%. Not bad. So Unit 1 began, as did Math Workshop.

Workshop in my class consisted of 3 or 4 stations. Independent Practice (practicing questions at the knowledge or application level), Partner Practice (on higher-level thinking problems), Small Group with the teacher, and Computers (a.k.a. online instructional videos). Students would spend 30 minutes at one station each day and rotate the next day.

While a few students thrived in this autonomous learning environment, many of my students struggled. It took me a few weeks to realize it, but I found out that they still don’t have the self-control to work independently, or the foundational knowledge and problem-solving skills to master this content on their own. I decided to let the numbers tell me if I should continue workshop. The students took the Unit 1 Post test last week and the class averages were the following:

Class A: 44%

Class B: 42%

Class C: 60%

Class D: 33%

Those may seem dismal to some of you, but I was THRILLED that all of my classes grew from averages of 20% five weeks earlier! (And if you met my kids, you’d be thrilled, too!) At the end of the day, however, those numbers just weren’t high enough for me to justify continuing Workshop at this time. I need to try something else, pull back on the reigns just a bit, and tighten up the classroom. And I realized that it is O.K. to adjust classroom practices, especially when you notice there needs to be improvement for your students’ success.

So I’m batting .333 for my dream classroom. That’s alright with me. The reality is, is that someday we will be able to bring back workshop and possibly even some methods of Flipped Classroom Learning. Unitl then, we will keep rocking out the IMNBs and keeping GROWING, because that is what education is all about! 

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