Thursday, April 08, 2010

One Toe Back in the Classroom

My school district, like just about all school districts in Colorado (and many across the U.S.), is facing a severe budget crunch. I won’t really comment much on that other than to say that we are losing many good staff members and our students will be the worse because of it.

Due to the reduced staffing in my school, I will be teaching at least one section of Algebra I next year. This both excites me and makes me a little bit nervous. It’s exciting because I miss being in my own classroom with my own students. I’m in classrooms every day helping teachers and students, but it’s just not the same as having my own classroom and really getting to know kids.

But I’m also a little bit nervous, primarily for two reasons. First, it’s been over ten years since I’ve had my own classroom, and I’m worried about getting my teaching legs back under me. Second, and probably the more worrisome reason, is the fact that this is in addition to all my current duties. (In fact, I will have more to do next year because we’ll be adding netbooks for all of our 10th grade Language Arts classes as part of the next phase of my district’s Inspired Writing project. This is a really good thing, but it still adds up to more to do.)

I’m estimating that teaching one section of Algebra equates to at least two hours added to my day, figuring one hour of class itself plus at least another hour of prep and working with students outside of class each day. Given that I’m doing a fairly good job of keeping busy all day and late into the afternoon (and often more learning in the evening) as it is, I’m worried about what’s going to get missed. I’m worried about balancing the needs of my students in my Algebra class and the needs of my staff (and all of “my” students in the entire school). I’m worried that I’ll treat both parts of my job as “full-time,” which in a way they are, but the return-on-planning time ratio for teaching just one section is not in my favor. (This problem of time is nothing new for educators, of course, but since this is my blog I get to occasionally make it all about me.)

Okay, now that I’ve got those worries out of the way (thanks for indulging me), I’d like to look forward in a more positive fashion. Over the next few months I’m hoping to do a series of blog posts sharing my current thinking of what I’m going to try in my classroom next year. I’m going to put some ideas out there and then ask my network to provide me feedback and new ideas to consider. (Crowdsourcing Algebra – works for me.) My hope is that the result will be a better learning experience for my students next year.

So, in hopes that you will actually take me up on that, let me briefly describe some of the parameters of my Algebra class. (See how I worked the word “parameters” into that last sentence? I feel like a math teacher again already.) My high school operates on a variable schedule, which is similar to a college schedule with some classes meeting five days a week, others meeting MWF, others TR, and still others four days a week (see page 5 of our pathfinder (pdf) for more). My Algebra class will meet four days a week (MWRF) for 59 minutes each day.

To try to segment my day a little bit, I’ll be teaching first period, which is from 7:21 – 8:20 am. My students will be primarily freshmen (9th grade here in the U.S., generally fourteen years old at the start of the year), although I could have a couple of upperclassmen in my class, and I will most likely have between 30 and 35 students in class. We schedule for an entire year at one time, but because our classes are one semester and students often move things around in order to take the electives they want, I won’t necessarily have the same students all year (I’ll probably have more than half of my first semester students second semester, but will have a fair amount of turnover). We have a six period day, and freshmen typically have two to four unscheduled hours each week, where they can work in the library, visit teachers to get help, see their counselor, or choose to hang out with friends in the cafeteria. (We also have an open campus, so they can leave campus if they choose.)

Because of our semester-based courses, we have a fairly well-defined curriculum in terms of the standards that must be covered each semester (since many students will switch classes at semester). So while I have tremendous flexibility in terms of how I teach in my classroom, I’m somewhat restricted in terms of what must be taught each semester. And, of course, I have our state mandated testing (up through 10th grade, plus ACT mandated for 11th graders) in March (this testing will be changing soon, however, as Colorado is developing revised standards and assessments).

Students at my school are generally great. They mostly come from middle to upper middle class families who value education, and many of them open enroll in our school because they want to be there. Having said that, they are still fourteen years old and I’m tasked with sharing the joys of Algebra with them at 7:21 in the morning :-).

So, that gives you enough background to play along if you’d like in subsequent posts. I hope you do.


  1. Let me be the first to say, congratulations. The further we get away from the kids, the further we're away from why we started in the first place.

  2. Congratulations, good luck, and most teachers I've talked to agree: "part-time teacher" feels like an oxymoron. To me, being a teacher isn't a job, it's an identity, and not something to turn on and off throughout the day. I'm sure you'll manage the juggling act well, but you'll have those moments when you wish you could have all day to plan an amazing lesson.

  3. @Kern - Thanks, appreciate it.

    @Raymond - That's exactly what I'm worried about. I'm worried that I'll do both parts of my job with mediocrity.

  4. Embarking on anything different from what one is used to is both exciting and can be a source of anxiety at once. You are fortunate that you have a wide audience to draw upon for ideas and support (yours truly included in that, for whatever it's worth :D). A helpful resource for Algebra that I've found (either to use in conjunction with your own daily lessons or just as a way to refresh your own memory on concepts) is to use YouTube video clips. The YayMath guy is my favorite! He has such verve and energy and he's funny... you can see the rapport he has with his class and I've found his video clips extremely useful, not only for freshman classes, but for more advanced classes too (it's amazing how many students need brush ups on "basic" algebraic concepts). No matter which way you use it, even if you just recommend the clips to your students to assist themselves at home during homework hours when they might not have access to your expertise, you can't go wrong with the YayMath guy! He also has a dedicated website here:

    Good luck and have fun! :)

  5. I wish you all the best. As you know, I moved back into the classroom for two years for the same reason. I did enjoy having the chance to finally do all that I had been asking teachers to try. And most days, I loved being there. is difficult to support others and focus on your classroom. I was told to let the other responsibilities go--but people don't stop asking, and I did feel pulled in many directions.Your positive attitude will help. I have a feeling you'll be an amazing teacher, once again:)

  6. A site that I would recommend for creative math ideas with interesting integration is I am not currently teaching math, actually I'm not currently teaching anything since I am a Fellow, but if I were I would be using his ideas.

  7. @michelleclarkpc - Thanks for the words of encouragement and the resource.

    @scmorgan - Thanks. Hopefully I can live up to that.

    @MartiC - Yeah, if I can be half as good as Dan Meyer next year I'll be reasonably happy. Now if he would only post his entire set of Algebra lesson plans as he has his geometry ones . . .

  8. Oh gosh, I don't envy you. Having taught a class the year we first opened, I can relate to trying to find balance between the classroom and the technology duties. I can't say that I did either one justice that year. Even one class requires the same amount of planning that teaching five would. All you can do is your best and cut yourself a break if either one turns out differently than expected. Good luck!

  9. Karl, best of luck. Not sure if you thought of this frustration... since you'll still be in other classes, you will have just taught a lesson, visit an English class and then think to yourself or blog... "crap, that would have been cool to add/talk about/relate to 32 minutes ago!" So, take notes. Also, I remember when you told me that if you could, you'd eliminate math class and integrate it each class. So, have you thought about how you might make your class thematic to Social Studies, science, and English?

    Either way, Karl Fisch's medicore is most people's great. Cannot wait to follow the new posts.

  10. @Mike - Yeah, have thought of that. Multiple problems in my school trying to do that, because the students in my Algebra class won't all be in the same LA, SS, Science, etc. classes, so really hard to do anything cross-disciplinary.

    Having said that, I've already talked with some folks in other departments about what they do in their classes that freshmen typically take.

  11. I am very, very excited by this. I can empathize with your overloaded schedule, yet I am very much looking forward to learning about teaching math from you.

    Do you have a list of standards you have to cover? Do you have to use a certain textbook? Give course alike exams? How much flexibility are you given in designing your course?

  12. @Jackie - I was hoping you might stop by and help me with this. Slow down with the questions, though, or I'll have nothing left to blog about in future posts :-)

    I'll be talking more in-depth about all those questions in future posts but, briefly:

    Yes, we have a textbook and a curriculum (that pretty much aligns with the textbook). Through our PLC's the Algebra team has developed some common assessments, including the final exams both semesters. (I'm getting up to speed on all this myself, so bear with me.) So I'm pretty restricted but, within those restrictions, I have a lot of flexibility in terms of how I teach, so that's what I'm going to explore in some future posts.

  13. what we've decided works best for getting it all in..
    short snippets of instruction during class... but most of class time is spent doing what we normally call homework and/or activities.

    kids get more individualized help/experiences...

    here's our grid in beta form.. for algebra 2

  14. @monika - Thanks, I'll take a look. I'm actually planning something similar - more on that soon.

  15. I didn't mean to steal your future topics - I'll be patient. Or try to.

    One piece of unsolicited advice - try to observe (even if only for a few minutes) as many of the current Alg I classrooms as you can.

  16. @Jackie - Yep, already asked the current Algebra I teachers if I could drop in. Haven't made it in yet, but I hope to this coming week.

  17. Congratulations on getting your own class back! I'm sure you will do a great job! The way your school operates seems a little confusing, but very interesting to me! Good luck with your classroom!

    EDM310 at USA

  18. I think this is the best thing that could happen for you, dude. Back to the Future!

  19. Congrats on getting back in the classroom! I'm sure all will go well. I have no experience as a teacher but from a students perspective the way your school operates sounds awesome! My school was nothing like that at all! I think if I had that kind of laid back and free atmosphere I might have wanted to work even harder. Good luck!

  20. Apologies for commenting belatedly on this post, but I couldn't resist chiming in. As a former student of yours, I couldn't be more pleased to hear that a new crop of students will experience Mr. Fisch in the classroom. I always felt lucky that I got in just under the wire.

    I wouldn't worry about mediocrity, it's not something you are capable of; your standards are high and your commitment is unwavering. Your students will experience excellence in teaching and be the better for it all the rest of their days.

  21. I can empathize with your nervous excitement as I too am looking at going back into the classroom after 8 yrs as a specialist. A suggestion would be putting the net books to good use via 2 interactive sites that can provide opportunities for interactive demonstrations and a quick formative assessment of where your kids' thinking is at: and
    Good Luck

  22. @Kelly, Sam, The Dukes (hi Sarah!), and MBelmo – thanks for the encouragement.

    @MBelmo – Unfortunately for me, those netbooks are for Language Arts classes.