"There is no one way"

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Math in the Long Period

In this post, I will expand on some of the ideas from a previous article about Teaching in the Long Period. (Read that article first!) I will also add some thoughts that were missing in the original, and try to answer some specific concerns often expressed by math teachers whose schools are adopting block schedules.

Do students have the necessary attention span to remain engaged during a long period?

Yes, they do, if you break the period into two or more chunks. Few activities  will work well for the duration of a long period. In your planning, get used to breaking it up. Here are two possible templates, and a blank one if you don’t like either of them:



(These templates are intended for a 70-minute period. Adjust as necessary.)

The opener can be a transitional piece into the day’s work. What I did was have students go over the homework in their groups. Another possibility would be a well-chosen warm-up or "do now" which will help set up the main topic of the next segment.

The One Main Activity template is good for a lab or collaborative project, the sort of thing one doesn't have time for in a shorter period.

The Basic Routine template is one way to set up a daily rhythm. The central segment is where you’re forging ahead with new material. The last segment is where you might review some past work, apply new ideas, or preview some future topics. It is not to do homework or have a study hall, and should be planned just as seriously as anything else.

Breaking up the period is only partly about content. The main point is to use different formats:
◊ whole class / groups / pairs / individual
◊ paper-pencil / verbal / hands-on / technology
◊ formal / informal
◊ watching / reading / writing / making
Format-switching helps students stay focused, and in any case is better teaching, as it increases engagement, motivation, and understanding. (See my Art of Teaching worksheet to help you think about broadening your pedagogical horizons.)

Use this worksheet to draft possible long periods:
◊ generic for your department or all your classes
◊ special versions for different grade levels and courses
◊ actual implementation for a particular day
...or all three. Whatever would be most useful.

Can students remember what they learn if they don't have math every day?

They will if you rely on understanding rather than memorization. One way to do that is to teach the most important topics in multiple representations, and/or with the help of technological or manipulative tools. Take advantage of the long period to diversify your toolbox, and use your new tools strategically on the key topics. Longer periods make it possible to build interesting review into your course. (Teaching the same thing the same way is the worst possible kind of review, as it is boring for students who got it the first time, and usually unhelpful to the ones who didn't.)

I discussed other strategies to strengthen retention in these posts:
- lagging homework
- separating related topics
- and generally extending exposure
(Practical advice on implementing these ideas.)

Will I be able to cover as much material in a block schedule?
Probably not, because even if you see students for the same number of minutes, there's only so much they can learn in each school day. If your goal is to teach for understanding, you will need to prioritize the most important topics, as suggested above. To do that will require eliminating or giving less time to other, less crucial topics. See my guidelines for pruning the curriculum.

But even then, you still run a risk of not covering even a pruned curriculum if you allow your classes to be too leisurely. Do not let long periods lull you into a false sense that there is plenty of time. There isn't. As suggested above, I do believe in eternal review, if it is done well, but the other side of that coin is constant forward motion.

Constant forward motion is helped by lagging homework and the other strategies listed above. Another way to keep moving forward is to pursue two units at a time. I realize that is truly countercultural, but my department has done this for years, and it's worked very well for us. For one thing, if you're pursuing two units, you can use that to break up your period into chunks as suggested above. Also, if things bog down in one of them you can switch the emphasis to the other one while you figure out what to do. Finally, pursuing two units forces students to be alert and not turn into automatons.

Ideally, the units would be unrelated, and as different from each other as possible as to their "feel". For example, a unit on the properties of special quadrilaterals can be run concurrently with one on right triangle trigonometry. Or, a unit on systems of equations along with one on the Pythagorean theorem. And so on.

Will I be able to change my habits?


I cannot answer that for you. I'll just say that the long period is unforgiving: if you don't heed at least some of the above suggestions, it will feel endless, and you'll conclude that "it doesn't work". On the other hand, the long period can be a motivation and an opportunity for ongoing professional growth. In my own career, it has both required, and facilitated my becoming a better teacher. If you're up for the challenge, the long period is a wonderful gift to you and your students.

--Henri

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