Miss! When will I ever use Algebra?

I am currently teaching Algebra to my junior students. Without fail, no matter if I am teaching students who struggle with maths or students who claim maths is their favourite subject, I am always asked the same question: “When will I ever use Algebra?”

Sometimes they phrase it differently. They’ll ask me what the purpose of learning certain Algebraic skills are. Or my personal favourite: “When will I ever use algebra in the real world?” I then have to check if we have slipped into a fantasy land which would mean I haven’t really needed to teach this pretend class all this time. It’s never the case, though.

Mathematics teachers sometimes struggle with how to answer these questions. I believe it’s quite straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that there are multiple answers to the question! (Shocking, right? Usually in mathematics there’s only one solution! Har har.)

 

REASONS WHY ALGEBRA IS IMPORTANT / WHY WE SHOULD LEARN ALGEBRA

  1. Algebra helps you understand Science.
    Most science courses require you to have a basic understanding of algebra. If I had a dollar for the amount of times a student has said “oh, it’s like a formula in Science!?” I’d be a billionaire. Yes, formulas. Like algebra! It’s the same thing, silly!
  2. Formulas are a part of every day life.
    You’re using algebra without even realising it – and not just in Science class. When you drive a car and calculate distance, it’s a formula. When you are cooking and need to figure out how many times to double a recipe to feed everyone coming to your party, it’s a formula. Algebra is sneaky like that.
  3. Algebra helps you make life decisions.
    Which is the best cell phone plan? This can be solved by using simple algebra. It’s the text book example! Interest rates is another classic example – many people get fooled by their banks because they do not know simple algebra.
  4. Algebra is a prerequisite for higher training.
    Most employers and universities these days expect people to have completed some form of algebra (as well as most other forms of mathematics… usually for the reasons stated above.
  5. Modern technology and careers use algebra.
    Spreadsheets, data entry, video game design, programming, internet, mobile phones, satellites, and other modern careers rely heavily on the use of algebra.
  6. Algebra helps you to problem solve.
    Problem solving skills are an important part of our development. Using problem solving skills trains your brain to think in a logical way. Simply put, it helps to make your brain stronger and you’re always going to need to use your brain.
  7. It’s fun!
    Alright, so perhaps this last one is me and other mathematical people. That doesn’t stop me from saying it to my students!

What do you tell your students when they ask you, “Why do we have to learn Algebra?” What did your teachers tell you when you were in school?

Athletics

Today we had our school athletics day. I really enjoy days like these where I have the opportunity to see some other things that students do outside of the classroom.

For some students, it’s easier to jump an actual hurdle than to jump the mental hurdles of learning an academic subject. It’s really endearing to see these students shine in their athletic events and I enjoy cheering them on in a setting other than the classroom.

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When I first started teaching in New Zealand schools, the only other place I had ever heard of house systems were in Harry Potter books. My family and friends teased me when I started talking about my house class and the fact that they were trying to earn points so they could win the house competition. They wanted to know if my school taught potions class as well as mathematics classes. Har har.

This is one of the only years in my teaching career where I don’t actually have my own house class and to be honest, I kind of miss it. I became really invested in the group of students who I saw every morning for 4 years. It was my job to know where they were headed and keep them on the right track to success in their time at the school.

What is good about my current school is that even though I don’t have a house class of my own, I have been assigned to one of the houses. For athletics, I still felt like I was a part of everything. I got to follow my house group and cheer them on. The students were excited that I was supporting their house.

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The only bad thing was that nobody told me what colour my house was (the houses are named after past students who have made significant contributions to sport) so I accidentally wore blue instead of green! I had to explain all day that I had made a mistake! At least I’ll never do it again since I had to explain myself so many times!

Seems kind of anticlimactic to have to end the week with one more day of classes after such a fun day! I have tried to plan some really exciting lessons for tomorrow!

Lockdown

I have worked in three different schools now and one of the procedures that I have found noticeably different in all three schools is the lockdown and evacuation procedures.

I have paid close attention to these procedures, especially in the last school I worked in where I acted as the school’s Staff Health and Safety Representative for two years. Also, coming from an American background makes it something that is, sadly, ingrained into my very soul.

The first school I worked at was in New York. It was a large intermediate school (US grades 6-8, NZ years 7-9) that had approximately 2100 students. We not only had lockdown drills but I actually was unfortunate enough to partake in an actual lockdown twice. It’s really scary when you know as a teacher that there is actually no lockdown drill scheduled and the school goes in to lockdown. (But this blog isn’t about the differences between the American and New Zealand school systems so I’m going to go no further down that slippery slope.)

My last school was a rural New Zealand school and I was incredibly surprised when I started teaching there that many things just weren’t thought about. Not because they were not diligent – there was just such a high trust model going on that certain things didn’t even get considered in procedures such as a lockdown. As an unrelated but similar example, students didn’t even have locks on their lockers because why would you? When I was health and safety rep, I asked the staff in a workshop to try and come up with some hypothetical situations that could initiate a lockdown so we could talk through them. One group came up with: there could be a swarm of killer bees outside! They were serious. (Me, coming from a background of bomb threats, school shootings, and that one time a parent going through a custody battle came to school with a gun to get their kid just can’t visualise the killer bees being all that scary.)

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That brings us to today. My current school had a lockdown today and to be honest it seemed to be a happy medium of the two schools I have been at so far. This works for me. It has clear procedures. The staff and students all knew what to do. I think the best part of it was that when we went in to lockdown, my students took their maths with them under their chairs and tried to keep working. They whispered, “Don’t worry Miss! We’ll keep being really quiet!” It was really endearing. The only negative about it was that it was a really hot day so when we evacuated to the field it was way too sunny! I guess there are worse things in the world. Like killer bees.

Being effective.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend my first professional development course since the start of the year, and my first since starting at my new school. It was about being an effective Head of Department.

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My last school was quite isolated and so, although they were quite generous about sending us on courses, there were never all too many of us gathered from the area. Sometimes courses were even cancelled due to the fact that there weren’t enough people to sign up. One of the greatest things about the course I was on was the fact that there were so many people there. There were about 50 other heads of department and it was a great place to network and share ideas.

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Not only did I gain a lot of fantastic insight and ideas from my colleagues through meaningful conversation during the two day workshop, but the workshop itself was really helpful. It had some really experienced facilitators who were able to provide some really useful resources and tools to use both every day as well as in specific situations.

The first thing I did once the course was done (literally – I was still in the parking lot) was call one of my best friends who is a colleague from my previous school. I couldn’t wait to tell her some of the things that I had learned about on the course. I thought about her all throughout the course because a lot of the ideas fell into one of two categories… 1) ideas we had spoken about at length, enjoyed very much, and had a very good pedagogical understanding of or 2) issues we had spoken about at length that we never could seem to solve or were unclear about what the best way to go about was. We talked on the phone about my course for over an hour before I even left the parking lot.

I told one of the members of my department today jokingly, “Don’t worry… now I can be effective!” They replied back without hesitation, “You mean that now you can be even more effective!” They probably didn’t realise it at the time but that casual little exchange really made my day. Here’s to hoping I continue to steadily increase my effectiveness.

By linear regression, however, that would mean I was incredibly ineffective if you go a few years into the past… 

Why I love Google Classrooms

One of the things I have really enjoyed about the new school I am working at is that it is a BYOD school – Bring Your Own Device. All students are expected to have, and bring, their own device to all of their classes.

I’m a pretty tech-savvy person and I like to think that this skill flows into my classroom. I have really enjoyed using tools with my classes that I have not been able to make sufficient use of in the past due to lack of access. One such tool is Google Classrooms. I have used this with Year 13 Statistics classes at my previous school but always needed constant access to the hard-to-obtain-access-to computer labs. Right now I am using Google Classrooms with my Year 13 Statistics class and my advanced Year 11 Mathematics classes.

I love how organised Google Classrooms is – it syncs right with Google Drive and all student work is named. It is really easy to assign work to an entire class and keep track of how each student is progressing. Students can also access the documents from any computer so can continue working when class is over.

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What I particularly enjoy about Google Classrooms is the ability to readily give feedback to students through Google Docs. This particular student decided to be silly and alter the questions to make the question about a student’s parents being fascist dictators because they made him do homework… but at least they read and completed the questions!

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Once a student hands in an assignment, the teacher owns the document so that students cannot alter it until it is handed back. I can do this through my account on any computer or even through the Google Classrooms App on my iPhone.

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Assessments can even be done through Google Classrooms and kept secure. Last year, I trialled running Year 13 Statistics internal assessments through Google Classrooms and it worked really well. The students loved it and it actually ended up making my workload easier! (The only “issue” with last year was that we had to basically live in the computer labs because it was not a BYOD school so there were some hiccups there at some times.)

I’m looking forward to finding out what other exciting ways I can use Google Classrooms with my students in the future. It has been successful so far. How do you use Google Classrooms with your classes?

Every kid needs a champion.

Yesterday we had our first full staff meeting. We talked about some really interesting things (which I will probably end up expanding upon at a later date) however one of the things that stood out for me the most was a TED Talk that was shown.

I had seen this TED Talk before and when it was projected onto the screen, I nearly squealed from excitement. Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion is about truly knowing your students and building relationships with students. I love this talk because I follow Rita’s philosophy that if you can build the confidence of your student and make them feel cared about, this is what will help them want to learn. She reminds us that some students don’t have anybody else cheering them on and that’s why it is so important that at least their teacher does.

I have had students who were very difficult to teach but I enjoy finding out what makes them “tick.” There was one Year 9 boy a few years ago in my class who refused to take tests for anyone and so nobody knew what classes to place him in. He really refused – he even cut up my maths test with a craft knife. The school put him in remedial classes where he proceeded to act out and disrupt the class.

I spent the time to talk to him at lunch one day and found out that he was frustrated and upset and said all the teachers thought he was dumb. I took the time to explain what had happened and while we were talking I found out he was really into tabletop games, including Warcraft. I told him that I played Warcraft too and we bonded over this. He wanted to know more details about what factions I played in the games. I made a deal with him – if he took my maths test, I would talk to him about Warcraft.

You should have seen the looks on the other teachers’ faces when I showed them this boy’s maths test. From that point on, I was his champion. All it took was a conversation… and to tell him some of my Warcraft strategies.

The first day, and a pōwhiri.

I have been at my new school for about a week now trying to get myself organised. I have set up my new office and done some lesson planning for the first few weeks. I have also been hard at work placing students in the correct classes. Course counselling has been going on all last week for students who have been coming in to try and make sure that their timetables will be ready for this week when they begin their classes.

Today is the first official day for staff! It is customary in New Zealand schools to have a pōwhiri to welcome new staff or students to the school. Since my new school is so large, they had a pōwhiri just for the staff to welcome other new staff.

For those who don’t know, a pōwhiri is a Māori welcoming ceremony involving speeches, dancing, singing and finally the hongi. Both the people who are welcoming and the people who are being welcomed are expected to participate.

I decided that I would get involved. At our new staff meeting last week, I decided to teach the other new staff members the karakia, or song, that was our staff karakia at my previous school.

Whakataka te hau ki te uru
Whakataka te hau ki te tonga

Kia mākinakina ki uta
Kia mātaratara ki tai

E hī ake ana te atakura
He tio, he huka Tīhei mauri ora!

The karakia has a beautiful melody but it also has a beautiful meaning:

Cease the winds from the west
Cease the winds from the south

Let the breeze blow over the land
Let the breeze blow over the ocean

Let the red-tipped dawn come with a sharpened air. 
A touch of frost, a promise of a glorious day.

I was really proud to play and sing this karakia at the pōwhiri today. I got a lot of compliments.

The head of drama and the head of music have both already approached me asking if I would like to help in their departments with production and helping with music. I told them that I would definitely be interested once I got myself situated within the school.

It was a lovely start to my first official day.