My guest blogger this week is Beth Polhemus. She is a 13-year veteran teaching middle school math. She is an inspiration as a mentor and friend. Beth has a way of making everything seem positive and upbeat, even on a bad day. I love her teaching style because she has a way of teaching Christ-like values to students that do not see them on a regular basis.
LIFE IN THE CLASSROOM: MAKING CONNECTIONS
My name is Beth, and I teach 8th grade math. I’m pretty sure anyone who has gone through education courses in college has heard some variation of the same advice: helping students learn is all about making connections. But what comes to mind when we hear that phrase? After 13 years of experience, I’ve learned there’s much more to be said for making connections than just the material I’m teaching. In fact, I would say that this phrase has been a constant theme of some of the more successful moments in my career as an educator. We can connect new material to prior skills, of course. Along with that, though, we can connect concepts to student interests and experience. We can make connections with our students on a personal level. (“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”-John C. Maxwell) We can find a network of support from our fellow teachers who we connect with regularly to share ideas. And we certainly want to make connections with parents. I try to incorporate all of these different connections regularly in my classroom. I find it helps challenge me to find new ideas, and it also helps me realize when my own ideas are maybe not the best (WHAT??!!). Below are some examples of how each type of connection has helped make my classroom a better, more comfortable place for students to learn.
- CONNECTING CONCEPTS TO STUDENT INTERESTS AND EXPERIENCE
Think about a time when you have learned something new. It doesn’t have to be in the classroom. Why is it that you were able to learn so much or so quickly? Most likely, it’s because you had a genuine interest. In my world of teenagers, most 13- and 14-year-olds are not naturally excited by math. So, I have to be creative about helping them make connections. This is something I still work on all the time. One way I engage is by using fun activities to introduce a concept. For example: When we study scatter plots, functions, and independent and dependent data, I do a musical activity with the students. They listen to 10 different songs and give them a rating from 1-10. Then we talk about the ways that their graph represents a function because no songs were repeated, how it shows no relationship as a scatter plot because there was no pattern to their ratings, etc. The kids get a kick out of making fun of my musical taste, but it also helps illustrate a point that is sometimes hard to visualize. Another example is when studying transformations on the coordinate plane. Most students have been to the eye doctor and understand the concept of getting their eyes dilated, and thus can understand that a dilation changes a shape by size. Or, I take my student athletes by surprise. When I talk about translations and rotations (slides and turns), I shock them with my basketball knowledge. I compare a rotation to a pivot: a legal move with the ball. I demonstrate, and then I compare a translation to a walk/travel. I am picking up my feet. It makes sense to them! I am always looking for little things to help make connections in their mind for math concepts to things that are familiar to them. I have also been known to rap, sing songs, and even do the electric slide when teaching about slope.
- CONNECTING WITH STUDENTS ON A PERSONAL LEVEL
Students want to feel valued and appreciated. As a teacher, I cannot demand respect or earn respect without also giving it in return. So, I take the idea of making sure my students feel important very seriously. Every year, as most teachers do, I have my students fill out an All About Me sheet on the first day. The difference is, I read every single one AND make notes. Then, throughout the year, I have a Guess Who? Wall outside my room. I randomly pick anywhere from 5 to 10 students and put their info up on the wall. I have a jar where students can place their guesses for about a week (sometimes longer if I’m being honest—I do get behind!). Then, I reveal the answers and do a drawing. The first correct answer I draw from the jar gets a homework pass. This lets my students know I really do pay attention to their interests, and it lets them be the center of attention for their classmates during their time on the Guess Who? Wall as well. I will never forget the year I had a student write down what I thought was going to be a very questionable song choice as their favorite song. I was reading my forms and as I ran across his, I had to look up the song and its lyrics. It was actually a really interesting song! During some down time in class the next day, I happened to mention it to him that I liked it, and he looked at me with the most shocked look on his face. First it was shock, but then it turned into a smile. Priceless! I also do a theme for every day of the week in my classroom. My favorite is Math Joke Monday. I post a cheesy math joke for my students while they do their bellringer. One year, I got a book from a coworker called “Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks.” I started using jokes from it instead of ones I found online or made up myself. I had a student that year who was having a pretty rough time personally, but she absolutely loved my jokes. She asked for that book for Valentine’s Day from her parents, and emailed me a picture of herself with the book. Her dad told me she never liked math until she had me as a teacher, and that he had only ever seen her love a gift as much as that book on two other occasions. Now, every year, I can count on having at least one or two students submit their own jokes. I also have a Thought for Tuesday, where I share quotes or inspirational videos. One of my favorites is Kid President. I hand out a piece of paper to my students after I show the video and it says “REMEMBER: Love is louder than hate. You are important. I am glad you are here.” At the bottom is a space for them to fill in the blank, “I can contribute to the world because ________.” It is not unusual for things I give students to get lost, left behind, thrown out, etc., but this yellow slip of paper usually hangs around visible: in their binder cover, in their phone cover, in their wallet. They really do need to feel valued!
- CONNECTING WITH FELLOW TEACHERS
These days, there are plenty of mandated opportunities for connecting with our coworkers. Faculty meetings, vertical meetings, workshops, PLC’s, PLT’s,…But the type of connection I’m speaking of takes effort. Is it hard to make time at the end of a long day to go and talk to someone about their day? YES. But, it’s necessary. If you see a coworker has had a hard day, go check in on them. You would want the same when it’s you! Or, if you are stuck on an idea or lesson, ask! There are so many great resources in your own building, it’s a shame to try to do everything on your own.
- CONNECTING WITH PARENTS
Finally, this is a no-brainer. In a perfect world, we would all have angels in our classrooms who never need behavior intervention and they always do their homework and study hard and make good grades because we have epic, amazing teaching skills. But we all know this is not the case. Parents, especially of middle schoolers, are at the point where they want to be involved, and also want to make sure their students are getting the level of academic success they need to tackle the high school years. A weekly or bi-weekly e-mail of classroom news works wonders! In addition, I keep a detailed website. It has a calendar of homework and test dates, as well as a section where notes can be found if a student is absent. This has helped with so many questions about assignments! And, on a side note, contacting home early before there is a problem can make all the difference in the world. One year when I was feeling particularly motivated, I managed to find time to either e-mail or call the parents of every single one of my students within the first 2-3 weeks of school to introduce myself, give them some basic info, and say something positive about their child. Some of the parents almost broke down in tears as it was obvious that this was not something that happened on a regular basis. I’m sure it was rewarding for them, but even more so for me. It gave me a different viewpoint of my students, and it helped me to be less nervous for that day when I did have to call home with a concern. I can’t say I have succeeded in contacting every parent every year, but, I do still try to periodically pick a few students about whom to send home some positive news. It always makes an impact!
I will embark on my 14th year of teaching this year, and I am excited about connecting with a new principal, some new coworkers, and of course new students and parents. The most important thing is that I never stop learning, and striving to make my classroom a better place. And for that, I rely on one of the most important connections of all: the Internet! There are TONS of helpful articles from teachers sharing ideas. May we all be enriched and ready to go this school year!