Thursday, March 29, 2012

Term 1 Take-Aways

Well, it's all over. The first term, the "big test" referred to in my previous post... reports have been handed out and what's done is done. What sticks out most: my marks were 'much too high' and the learners now all love  Maths and almost all of them feel confident or very confident. Are these first steps to success or disaster?????

I'll jot down some quick notes on how the final test went, and then write about my own 'big questions' for next term.

Test and final results - confidence building, standards, and challenge

In the end I took some of my own advice and scheduled an extra lesson before the test, AND made a colourful foldable summary of everything we've learnt about fractions. I'm sure it's better if learners make this kind of thing themselves,  but there wasn't time, and my trifold pamphlet-style summary was useful during a revision lesson.

I made the test too easy (by any normal standard), scared of damaging the learners' fragile and (for many) newfound confidence.

In the end my maths term marks were over-the-top high. This was a result of the non-challenging final test, and because the rest of the mark consisted of skill-by-skill assessments. I also allowed learners to re-take the smaller tests and so improve their marks. This seems all very well but in South Africa a grade average of 78%  means you're doing something wrong.  (Pass is 40%, grade average usually around 60 or 65.)

My HOD first asked if there was any way we could weight marks differently, so as to reduce them. In the end I managed to convince her and the principal to keep the marks. I sent a letter out with the reports, explaining that the first term's focus had been on foundation skills and confidence building, and that the pace and level of challenge will now be picking up. I'm happy with this.

Questions for next term

1. Can I sustainably use the JUMP Math methodology without the workbooks? The Teacher's Guide is pretty explicit but I found the way activities are laid out in the Introduction Unit Using Fractions really helpful to learners - and I'm not sure I can replicate this.

2. We've been given some excellent, full-colour workbooks provided by the goverment to all state schools (see further note on these, below). However, I'm worried about integrating these additional activities without
 shifting too far from a JUMP Math methodology. 

3. Providing enough challenge for the high-performing learners. Some of them simply zoom through any extension activities I include in the daily work, so I'm thinking of compiling a booklet they may work on, and providing some answer sheets they can access by themselves.

4. Limiting the time spent on marking homework (will try again to get overhead projector working - beamer is a distant dream); finding time for 'mental and oral' work on which we are supposed to spend 30-60 minutes per week.

5. Getting through the curriculum! I'm already behind my own plan...Perhaps the truth is that I'll need to identify some topics where we work more superficially. My preference would be to build really strong skills in the most important areas... once I've identified those :)

6. Finding a new balance between confidence building, meeting standards and providing challenge - hopefully without losing the confidence and enthusiasm I've just invested so much in.

Government issue Math workbooks
This is a MAJOR good deed by our government - imagine children in distant villages and shack settlements receiving these. They are supplied for Mathematics and Home Language. There's plenty  of use of colour graphics, and even cut-out manipulatives  in the back, suggestions for games, etc. What makes them a bit tricky to work with is that their approach is to go through almost all the topics in our curriculum every term (4 terms per year), increasing the level each time. I'm not used to this 'bitty' approach and feel insecure about using it. Nevertheless, now that we have them, one option I have is to abandon JUMP Maths and simply follow the workbook.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Wrote this post a while ago, and then forgot to publish... so it's a bit out of date but a record I want to keep.

We are now approaching our 'big' maths test of the term, and I have some concerns
(The test will include early number systems, adding and subtracting fractions (same or different denominators), reducing fractions, and some work with proper/improper fractions - further work with fractions and decimals comes later in the year; also number sequences.)

1. There are a few learners who never got adding fractions with different denominators right. I hoped to do remedial work with them during this last week but the timing didn't work out.
2. A small group are also struggling with reducing fractions, and changing mixed to improper fractions (and linking those terms to what they stand for).
3. We have to write the test at the very latest on Friday.
4. In the meantime, we have to continue with our new module on number patterns and sequences.
5. While I can do some whole-class revision of the problem concepts, there isn't time for enough, nor would the learners (majority) who are doing well with them, tolerate that.

So far I'm thinking:
  • I really should have caught up with the first problems a while ago, and in future I need to make sure to respond quickly to any problems.
  • Whole class revision: maybe creating a colourful foldable or summary sheet together will be interesting for the class and of use to those who need it.
  • It would be a good idea to schedule a special lesson in my extra maths time slot, to work with learners who need it. It is on Tuesday. I'd then still need to set them a small number of revision exercises to maintain/consolidate their knowledge leading up to the test. 
Problems I've encountered in teaching the fractions unit:

- To start with, the learners had a weak foundational concept of what fractions even are, and what fraction notation represents
- Though we did some good cutting and pasting activities to understand equivalent fractions, we really needed to do some more manipulatives work when it came to mixed/improper fractons. I'm only realising this now, though time would have been a problem anyway.
- What conceptual understanding learners have of fractions, tend to get clouded by confusion over computational strategies (where and how to multiply and divide, add and subtract - to find equivalent fractions we multiply or divide both the numerator and the denominator, but when to use which? Depending on the operation, there are different methods to determine what to multiply or divide by...) and perhaps we learnt these too much by rote, without understanding WHY. This could be a weakness in the Jump Math programme, or else in my interpretation of it.

While a week ago I had a class of mostly positive, achieving learners, more of us now seem to be on morassy ground... and I would hate to end what was meant to be a confidence building phase, with some learners drowning while others are rearing to go for the mountains and frustrated at our pace.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mat routine versus trapeze

OK the honeymoon is over and right now I'm seriously challenged by managing my two very unruly classes (though as usual, the problem is down to a minority of individuals).

As a result I'm not making as much progress as I'd hoped, though this is more pronounced in English than Maths. I think the predictability of what happens in Maths suits many of the learners (is that an indictment of me?) and the language barrier many experience in English is less of an issue.

Though on the slow side, the progress we have made so far is pretty solid, thanks to the Jump Math material I'm using. Most of the kids who'd been close to failing are shining and very proud of themselves, so that's a big thing to feel happy about. On the downside, while giving attention to those whom I know needed it... I missed out on a few others who've 'fallen by the wayside' as revealed by a recent quiz. Though I feel responsible for not having noticed, fortunately I can help them back on track before our major test for the term.

I'm still figuring out how to keep track of the progress of 30 children per class, at a time, without completely killing myself with over-frequent marking. While I usually get around to helping those who ask, others have been quietly messing up.

What to do?

Ideas so far:
- compile a more comprehensive list of learners to keep an eye on
- mark smaller sections more often
- form quick study groups within class (I have no idea of how to make this work!) rather than helping learners one by one and missing out on some

A final word on Jump Math. It's been a really good feeling for myself and the learners, never to have felt that quicksand-feeling of half-formed ideas and misconceptions under their feet as they try to get to the other side of a task. Our feet have been firmly on solid ground. But the last two days I deviated from the material, mostly to speed up and finish an overdue unit.

Without the careful scaffolding we've been used to, suddenly a bunch of the kids looked like worried trapeze artists again.

I wonder whether I'm coddling the most able students too much, perhaps undermining their belief in their own ability to struggle through and figure things out. On the other hand, the sense of ability most formerly-struggling learners are glowing with is hard to pass up.

I guess there's always differentiation. Anyone got a link to good 6th grade enrichment material?