Wednesday, November 20, 2019

When Some People Think They Are Right They Force Their Belief Down Your Throat. This Means You Are More Free.

The Illinois Association of School Boards or IASB has resolutions, "If approved by the Delegate Assembly, resolutions become Position Statements or Belief Statements in the IASB Constitution, and thus give IASB staff direction on legislative positions."

Resolution number one proposed by Mercer County School Board would  "allow voluntary district employees, in any capacity, the ability to carry a concealed firearm on district property,".

This resolution failed last year, but they came back with added rationales. 

Their rationales:
"In our district, we could allocate funds to hire a full-time SRO in each of our five buildings, but it would do no good, because there aren’t enough officers or deputies on staff in our community to fill those positions. "

"Another problem, mainly found in rural areas, is the distance school buildings are from local law enforcement teams. " ... "response time" of 10 to 21 minutes.  

First let's just ignore the fact that they could fund a position to be filled by a professional and what the local police force would refuse to hire a new person(s) to fill it?
Now I am what most people call a "liberal" or "progressive". While I'd like to be a conservative, seriously who isn't for smaller government, less taxes, and more freedoms, Since I started voting in 1986 most politicians who reflect those values have been Democrats. And yes I even joined my local county Republican committee because I too believed that they were the fiscally sound group. It turns out that even in most local elected positions there are a bunch of Republicans who feel the need to apply strict national litmus tests restricting freedoms and increasing spending (and taxes), or they don't believe you are a real Republican (RINO). 

I'm throwing that out there as a caveat so you don't necessarily toss out my position here as just another dumb liberal.  Some may and probably will disagree, but that isn't the argument I want to make. I'm just trying to say I am not knee jerk against guns in any and all forms. I've been hunting, I've been to the range, I even took a riflery course in college. (I earned an A). At one time I was a member of the NRA. I have no problem with guns and most definitely am supportive of safe use. Both of my children have gone to gun safety classes and my wife has her FOID card.

With that being said I am against this resolution. While Mercer County seems to have a good reason for wanting staff to have the choice of carrying their rationales do not extend to every school in the state. 

I am very concerned that they may have an ulterior motive for presenting the resolution for the second time in two years. Mainly that they want to inject these divisive 2nd amendment politics into local school boards.  

If they had simply added a stipulation that schools with an average police response time of just 5 minutes or more I would vote for this resolution. I still don't believe it is the correct step in making schools safer, but I also understand that it might. We don't really know because we don't study these sorts of things. 

Yes, I recognize that 5 minutes is a very long time, but I also realize that unless the person with a concealed weapon is right there they are probably going to take 4 or 5 minutes securing their own space before attempting to help, if they even do that. (In Parkland there was a trained and armed policeman who choose not to confront the gunman)

This resolution as it stands forces me and my school board to choose between doing what Mercer County thinks is right for their school district and doing what we think is right for our school district and we are miles apart on circumstances. In my school district police response time is just a couple of minutes at most. We do not feel the need to have an SRO for any reason on campus full time, we haven't even discussed it as far as I recall. We have not ignored the ugly specter of school shootings. We have defensive measures and regularly practice responses as well as consult with local and county police. 

Mercer County makes a big deal of pointing out that their resolution leaves the choice up to local school boards. They aren't forcing anyone to vote for concealed carry in their school district. This is true, but it is also forcing us to bring a politically charged question into our schools for no good reason. 

Their are two things I am firm in my beliefs about. First, any guns in our local schools would increase danger to our students. Their aren't studies on gun violence that really tell us what is the best thing to do, but one thing that is conclusively true is that more people are harmed or die from their own guns than by stranger's guns. 

"Those people that die from accidental shooting were more than three times as likely to have had a firearm in their home as those in the control group."

The second is that people who want to argue about guns do so out of emotion instead of logic. There is little or no good data that shows having a concealed weapon in a school would do anything to prevent or mitigate the danger of school shootings, but there is strong evidence that having more guns in schools would make it more dangerous for students.

The Secret Service did write a report on Enhancing School Safety.  Not once did they suggest that staff members carry weapons, even if they were trained to do so. Instead most of the report detailed creating a safe school environment where students felt safe to talk if they  felt violent, or if they thought someone else might be a danger and then getting them appropriate help.

I cannot get into the heads of the people in Mercer County who are proposing this resolution, but in my experience most of the time arguments are put forth in an attempt to force change in areas outside of local needs. If Mercer County felt their district really needed this then they would have focused their efforts on making it possible to make changes in their own local school district (such as adding the change I suggested above). They also could have done like Peoria did in resolution 4. They proposed a resolution to fund a school district police force. A resolution that would be controversial in many districts. Yet, their resolution is worded such that is basically only affects Peoria.

I may be wrong, but I have evidence to back up my reasoning. First when this resolution was presented a year ago there was a huge and contentious debate that included protestors and TV cameras. So they knew they were going to face resistance this year. They even made a big deal of pointing out that they aren't forcing local school district to have votes, just giving them the ability. Second, they didn't even attempt to find data that shows that this resolution will do anything except make it more dangerous to go to school.

My conclusion, and this is my own conclusions not part of anything else, is that this resolution's purpose is to force school districts in Illinois to argue 2nd amendment rights on the school board. A very inappropriate place to have this discussion. 

This also scares me a lot. It isn't hard for a couple of committed issue based people to get elected on a school board. It usually takes just a few dozen signatures to get on the ballot and only a few hundred votes to be elected. And these are elections most people don't take notice of until too late. Think about that for a second. Four people in your area who believe guns belong in school could easily get elected and not only force the discussion, but they would be a majority and would win the vote. Would this be the in the best interests of students?



Monday, November 4, 2019

The Big Test

Not my test the students took a test. We covered area, surface area, and volume or everything we focused on during first quarter. Oh my was that difficult. I called 16 of 62 parents, these were not the only failing grades these were the tests with nothing. Like what did we do for the last 10 weeks because they had no idea. 26% of my students seemed to have no idea what we did for the entire first quarter of math class. On the flip side only 21% passed. 79% of my students could not pass a 7th grade math test after spending an entire quarter learning and 3 days reviewing.
Student's creative answer to a tough question

Through my disappointment it occurred to me that if this many students failed maybe something else is wrong. Could I be failing as a teacher? Probably, I'm mediocre at best.

All my innovative thoughts of differentiating down to the level of my students and building from what they know to what they need to learn just failed miserably.

Did they just freeze on the test? Were the questions too complicated? Did they not know the material?

Maybe a combination of all three depending on the student.

I am sure there are a few students who just don't know the material.

Of the 17 students who failed at 25% (minimum score even for blank tests) there were 67 missed days of school. Average of about 4, with a minimum of 0 and maximum of 20. Take out the outliers (16 and 20) and we still have an average of 2 missed days of school. Remember this is just the first quarter. These students are on a pace to miss 8 days of school and they are in serious danger of failing math already. Students who passed the test had a total of 15 missed days of school. An average of 1 day.

The average MAP score of a student who scored 25% (the minimum) was 198.5. Equivalent to about 3rd or 4th grade math.

So now I don't feel so bad.

The average MAP score for all students is 211. This is saying the average student in my class tests a the equivalent of 5th grade in math. The average grade on the test was 43%.  When they take a 7th grade level math test is it so surprising that they score below a 50%?

Of the 13 students who passed the average MAP score was 223 which is equivalent to 7th grade math. Their average test score was 71%. 

For the rest of the class (those with a grade of greater than 25% and less than 60%) the average MAP was 206, average grade equivalence between 4th and 5th grade. Their test average was 46%.

So did students know the material? If they missed a lot of school and had a 3rd or 4th grade math equivalency (often still struggling with multiplication tables) then they did basically nothing on the test. If they were 2 or 3 grade levels below 7th grade they scored an average of 46%, still failing, but almost double the lowest students. Students who were at or above grade level 60% passed the test (Only 4 with MAP score below 7th grade passed the test). The other 13 who passed were at or above grade level. Grade level for 7th grade is 223 to 226 a small range and only 2 students are actually in that range. Six of 15 students with a MAP score at or above 7th grade level failed the test. Average MAP for those students was 228. Of those six there were 11 missed days of school or almost 2 each. Almost double the average absences of students who passed. The class average for missed days was 2.6 or 2.2 with the outliers (16 and 20) removed.

My conclusion, if students were close to grade level, did not miss too many days of school, they had a decent shot at passing this test. This is not good enough for a "failing" school of course.

Now was the test too complicated? This is where I can make the most improvement. We spent the bulk of our classroom time working area of shapes and very little time working word problems. Most of the problems on the test were word problems. Two of them were asking students to use area or volume formulas as a means to solve a logical problem. These are depth of knowledge 3 (DOK 3) problems, they ask students to solve a multi-step problem of which one of the steps requires the skills learned in the unit and they other steps use logic and skills learned previously. We did do a few of these DOK 3 problems in class, we just didn't do many. When we did do them we were rushed to finish and didn't really have time to think about them.

I know why we didn't spend enough time on the more complicated problems, I felt my students didn't have a strong enough grasp of the fundamentals so we never moved past them. I can't do anything about the low MAP scores, but I can introduce more complex problems earlier and more often.

As a final note, I always give my students the opportunity to make corrections on any test. They must not only provide the right answer, but also an explanation of what they did wrong or what and why  they did their specific calculations on each step. (I still have trouble explaining this to my students. I feel if they could understand this better they would do better overall. My latest attempt is this graphic organizer). Anyway, during at least the first period I overheard a several great math conversations about what went wrong and how to make it right. The other 3 periods are all afternoon and tend to be less enthusiastic about math. There were pockets of great math work, but also pockets of students who did their best to avoid math.


Monday, October 21, 2019

Wait the quarter ended already? I'm not ready.

I spent all week telling students that the quarter ended on Friday and if they want to change their grade they had to turn in work on Friday. Still at least three students asked if they could turn in work today.

I did have a big pile of work to review on Friday. Much of it was not good enough to make much of an impact on their grades. I try to use grades as a measure of student knowledge. Instead of making 25 packets of missing work, most of which will be thrown out, lost, or scribbled on and then deal with students demanding to know why their grade hasn't gone up because they "did the work", I make a review test of sorts. I offered it on Wednesday for students to take it home and prove that they know and understand the concepts I taught. Every single question included a second question asking how did you solve this question. Then I gave everyone the opportunity to work on it in class on Friday.

This test could take anyone from an F to an A depending on the quality of the work.  I encouraged students to Google how to solve problems, I made videos and posted them on Youtube, Google Classroom, and a Google Web site. Still for the most part students did not finish the test and many of the problems answered were riddled with mistakes.

I spent 8 weeks on a topic that is scheduled to take 7 days in my grade level book. I spent weeks starting at 5th grade level attempting to build up background knowledge of multiplication and division, attempting to build fluency. I spent hours organizing and reorganizing my classroom to facilitate learning. I bought vertical whiteboards to allow students to work in temporary space and then share easily with the class. I gave students time everyday to work, independently and/or in groups. I gave homework everyday, mostly practicing basic skills. I spent time with various formative evaluations and used the data to help students. (observations, exit slips, practice problems that I took home and wrote individual notes for every student who turned in their work). I talked at least two students into coming to after school tutoring twice a week, once with me, once with the 8th grade math teacher. I spent so much time kneeling with small groups, and individuals to work together on a problem that I bruised my knees.

Did any grades change? A few, but mostly because I gave the benefit of the doubt.

I love teaching middle school.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Third Week in and I'm Already Behind

I meant to sit down Sunday and write, but well you know life happens.

So the new curriculum is really going well. We had our first common summative assessment last week. Most students did fairly well. 

I know most 7th grade math curriculum starts with ratios and use that as a theme, because it leads nicely into expressions and equations which are the starting point for 8th grade. Then a lot of intervention focused curriculum usually start with number sense and then on to ratios. I wanted to start with area.

First of all most of the time students are short changed with area and statistics because they come at the end of the year and are most often left out because the teacher runs out of time.

More importantly I know from experience that I have a lot of students, sometimes up to 50%, who struggle with basic math facts. I wanted my students to spend a lot of time practicing those math facts to start the year.

There are also a ton of ancillary skills that come with multiplication with the area model.

For example. Decomposing composite shapes leads naturally into decomposition numbers. Which leads naturally into the distributive property. Which is a great way to work with multiplying fractions especially for those students who can never remember all the complicated rules.

In just five weeks we have touched on a ton of topics I rarely get to in the entire year. We had a great discussion of rational and irrational numbers. Usually I introduce this with circles and I did this time too, but we flowed into circles by relating them to rectangles. At the time the mantra was everything is related to rectangles. So when we watched the usual video on how a circle is cut into infinite pizza slices and fits together as a rectangle it was easy to see that hey maybe each of those slices still has a bit of a curve so maybe that is why pi is a never ending never repeating decimal. Boom irrational numbers explained in a way everyone understands.

Later while decomposing rectangles with mixed numbers into a whole number and a fraction and we stumbled on 1/3. We saw that this decimal ended up being a repeating decimal. And that sometimes it is actually easier to use fractions instead of decimals even though they don't have fractions on the calculator. (Surprise they do, but I haven't shown that trick yet). Usually students don't care about these funny decimals, but maybe this time they did.

Anyway there is a lot of stuff that just seems to flow so much easier with area. I'm glad we started with this focus. I'm excited tomorrow we get to introduce our first variable. Well see if it is as exciting for students.

Multiplying Binomials Using FOIL & the Area Method ...
Image from


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Week 4 Just About Halfway Through the First Quarter

Wow was I busy last week. I usually had time to stop at home and grab some dinner, but 30 minutes later I was out the door again and not home until at least 8:30. The weekend didn't bring any respite, we drove to Lisle for a marching band competition and picked up a dryer along the way. I was up until 11:30 catching up on laundry, then up again at 5:30 to clean the basement and backyard for a some up coming construction. I did finish by 3 so I could grade papers and go shopping which is good, at least I won't go hungry next week.

The problem with such a busy week it that I also had to spend hours on Sunday grading papers. I would rather return the work the day after with notes so we can integrate the feedback into lessons. Come Monday morning most of my students, and myself, will have forgotten what we did on individual days so looking at old papers is hard. You have to remember the assignment and think back to what you were thinking at the time and then try to make sense of the feedback. It really isn't an ideal situation.

I'm contemplating adjusting my schedule so we can review the work together. Or maybe just those students who haven't gotten the hang of it yet. So I just took the time to review my lesson plan for the week and it's like I was planning for this on Friday. Most of my students have the area idea down, not just for rectangles, but triangles, and circles as well. We started some fractional areas last week, it is a great way to explore multiplication of fractions and the distributive property. I think I will let some of my students work independently on those projects while I reteach students who still struggle with the basics. I had even made a list, just seconds before starting to write this blog post, of students who need one on one help so I'm ready to go. Just have to remember to make two different activities for tomorrow.

I think one more whole class exploration of fractional areas especially multiplying two fractions and we will be ready to go. In the middle of the week I am going to introduce a thought process graphical organizer. Then end the week with a summative quiz on finding area/multiplication. My only real worry is that I gave out a homework assignment with area problems, but it didn't use graph paper and quite a few of my students were completely confused. I'll have to make sure to review that homework before Friday.

I'm a bit proud of the problem solving worksheet, I'd love to have a bit of feedback on it.


Friday, September 13, 2019

Starting Over in 7th Grade

I've been in the education field for almost 20 years, but in the classroom only about 11. Five years ago I took a position as a 7th grade math teacher. For the first few yeas we had no curriculum and were expected to build everything from scratch.

Holy smokes starting a new grade after being out of the classroom for 7 years and creating everything from scratch is tough. Especially in a school/district renown for it's constant change. I thought, shoot if we could just get a decent curriculum we'd be great.

I should have been more specific. The school choose an opensource curriculum known for it's rigor. Personally I hate it. Not nearly enough concrete work. I struggled each day trying to get through the lesson and keep the students engaged, while they struggled to understand something speaking in a language they can barely understand.

So this year I went back to building my own curriculum, not completely from scratch. I will still use the content in places, but starting in a more relevant area for the students. I know many of my students struggle with basic math facts. I know 7th graders who aren't automatic with something as simple as 3 X 2 is crazy right? Well it happens. So we are starting with area. We are just practicing multiplication, but we don't realize we are practicing multiplication. Of course two weeks in and I still have students asking if they can count the boxes, but we are getting there.

In years past I would start homework with a couple of days of multiplication, then division, and fractions. Just to get the practice in and then homework was relevant practice to what we learned in the classroom. Not this year. Homework has been almost nothing but multiplication practice. Which has actually been good in that most of my students are returning homework everyday.

So everything is multiplication multiplication multiplication. I really thought we would move quicker through this, but I have a few students who are really struggling. I know this because starting with area, a skill 7th graders should have learned 2 years ago, allows me to work in groups and about half the students are able to work independently. Now my group work is actually starting to function and I can get to those struggling students and get to know them. 

I've also changed my focus on group work. I've always wanted group work and quick presentations, but I've never been able to achieve that. So many students have refused to speak or discuss or risk an wrong answer. I started the year with a classroom saying,
"I give myself and others permission to make mistakes." 
Then I reiterated on a daily basis that we would work in groups almost everyday and someone from each group would be expected to share what the group talked about and it couldn't be the same person everyday. Then we did it. At first with the start of school expectation lessons that lasted two weeks. then with math. It's actually worked. Students share and it's not always the same person. Though I've noticed it slowing down in the last week so time for a reminder. My focus switched from making sure students have mastered this new skill in math to making sure students are comfortable sharing with the class.

The school also bought me a couple of vertical non-permenent writing surfaces, whiteboard easels. This combined with the familiar work means students are happy to take risks and write stuff on the boards in full view of the entire class. Then they share because everyone can already see what they wrote. Plus they have looked around the room and maybe changed an answer a time or two, or their answer matches a few other answers, even if they aren't 100% perfect.

The year is starting better than before, but 4 weeks in I see I am started to get caught up in the usual drama and its time for a restart. Mostly what is happening is a few students who enjoy drama are starting to feel comfortable and are attempting to derail the classroom. They don't really do it on purpose because they want to mess up my teaching, they tend to do it because they need to slow down learning, or call attention, or some other need. It is time for me to regroup and stop falling into these traps. Now I just have to figure out the best way to do that.

If you have suggestions I'm open. I know I can write a few behavior contracts, but in my experience many of these students will break them before the ink is dry because they know I'm not really organized enough to be consistent and calling them out for minor transgressions. I can write referrals and send them to the assistant principal, but that takes away my power in the classroom. I need something that allows me to teach and not be a constant behavior guard, and also helps some of these students learn to monitor themselves. Anyhow whatever suggestions you have are much appreciated.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Data from Illinois Report Cards

All data from
All data specifically 7th grade math in 2018.

If you are a 7th graders in Illinois and you are low income, you are probably not successful in school. There are only two 7th grade classes with more than 50% poverty above the 50 percentile on PARCC in the whole state.

What can we do about this?

This is schools so if your school has more than about 10% of students chronically truant, your school is in the bottom have of proficiency.

How do we fix this?

Having an all white school is not a guarantee of proficiency, The best school in the state is only 40% white.

At actually looks as if as schools pass the 90% white percentage they start falling. Of course the schools that are less than 20% white are all below the 50th percentile. I wonder if they correlate to the high poverty threshold? My point here is that diversity is a strength, I don't know why I feel it necessary to explicitly say that.

Schools with high rates of mobility (students moving in and out of district) perform worse on the PARCC test.

At about 10% it looks like all schools are below the 50th percentile.
Would helping people find and keep housing over the years help improve grades?