Adventures in Teaching

A university professor goes to high school to learn about teaching math

It’s all in the details

Posted by Darryl Yong on August 20, 2010

Going back to my home university has been a bit of a shock over the last few days. I finally figured a contributing reason: Last year I got used to an environment in which decisions didn’t seem to be made with a lot of careful thought. Administration and teachers (me included) just did the best we could and we didn’t sweat the small stuff. Lots of things and students fell through the cracks. So, the level of detail that goes into decisions made at our university seemed a bit overwhelming when I first stepped back on campus.

Example: Our school is small so one of our associate deans manually matches first-year students with faculty based on their personalities, interests and other things that they might have in common. This associate dean briefed me on some facts about my advisees and what kind of advising might need. A lovely thing to do, and completely worthwhile. But, this feels totally foreign to me right now given my experience over the past year. I immediately thought about a girl in my Geometry class who I discovered was enrolled in a second Geometry class by mistake. I discovered this about two months into the semester.

Student: “Oh Mister, I did this already in my other Geometry class.”


Another example: Today I talked with two other colleagues who are co-teaching a course. We talked about common themes between the different topics that we are planning on teaching and how to make more connections to bring these themes out. Awesome awesome awesome. I missed this kind of conversation. Made me sad that I never got to talk about such things at that level with my colleagues last year. And it’s not like that took a huge amount of time to have that conversation…

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Overpayment !@#!$%! ????

Posted by Darryl Yong on August 4, 2010

I received this letter today in the mail from my school district:

“Dear xxxx,

Our records show that you have received an overpayment as a result of a change that was processed in June 2010. The total adjusted gross amount of your overpayment is $12,197.66. This letter is intended to advise you of your options in repaying the identified overpayment.”

This is ridiculous. I definitely have not been overpaid this amount.

Since September 2009, I received a total of $17,454.97 from the school district. There, now the entire world knows how much I made from my year of teaching high school (at a part timer’s rate, for someone with alternative credential).

Now the’re telling me I was overpaid by $12,197.66 and they want their money back?

That would mean that I would only have made $5,257.31 for the entire school year. Is that how much my effort was worth?

When I first read the letter, I was furious. After talking to a dear friend who went through something much worse with the district, now I find the whole thing so completely stupid and ridiculous.

My friend is right–I need to frame this letter.

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Nothing like being around my peeps

Posted by Darryl Yong on July 15, 2010

I’m here nearing the end of a three-week professional development workshop for secondary school math teachers. I knew that it was going to be an excellent experience for me coming off of my year of teaching, and I was not disappointed.

Over the past three weeks, I have been surrounded by teachers that I trust and respect deeply who have asked questions and pushed me to think and articulate things that up to this point have been just too raw and recent to touch. And today, I got the chance to talk about my experiences over the past year with them. I won’t forget this one hour of sharing and conversation for a long time.

The encouragement I felt was incredible. One part of me felt like the whole thing was too indulgent–why should these people find it admirable for me to teach high school for a year when these same people do it themselves year after year? And yet, another part of me was soaking it all in. It was an emotional experience for me and many others in the room, I think because there was a shared experience and understanding that deeply connected us.

So what was gained from this hour? I realized that the emotional struggles of a being a high school teacher far outweighed the instructional, intellectual, physical, logistical challenges and that this was natural and not unusual. It was helpful to be reminded by other teachers that your reputation has a huge impact at school and that the first year at any school will always be difficult because of students’ uncertainty about you. It was helpful to be told that instructional changes take a long time and are supposed to happen slowly, and that I can’t expect to be good at teaching in a new setting in one year. It was helpful to be told that the fruits of a high school teacher are rarely observed by that teacher. It was helpful to be told that not being able to get off to a good start with your students on day 1 (let along week 4)  is very detrimental to classroom climate.

A colleague asked me, what lessons did I learn that will affect the way I lead professional development for teachers? I’m still trying to think beyond the obvious answer (that I now have much more empathy for and understanding of the work that teachers do). Stay tuned.

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Posted by Darryl Yong on June 25, 2010

It was a bit strange to wake up the last few days and not have to go to school. Last night I dreamt I was going to work on the first day of my second year of teaching high school. The weird thing is that I was a passenger in a car with two strangers and we were very lost. It was clear that I wasn’t going to make it to school on time and I was freaking out about missing the first day of school. Then I woke up…

Just in case you were wondering, I will be going back to my home university in September and will not be teaching high school again in the near future. This summer, I will be traveling and attending various teacher professional development workshops. During that time, I hope to process all that I’ve experienced over the past 9 months so that I can give a more coherent answer to all the people who have been asking and will ask me, “So, what have you learned?” (Maybe the dream I mentioned is an indication that my brain is trying to work through things.) If you see any common threads in this blog, I hope you’ll also write to me to tell me your thoughts.

In the meantime, I probably won’t be updating this blog regularly. So, let me take this opportunity to thank you all for joining me on this adventure. I’m very grateful for all of the kind words of encouragement that many of you have sent to me this year. Thank you!

P.S.  And please do me a favor–next time you meet a teacher, please tell her/him how much you appreciate the work that she/he does.

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Classroom break-in

Posted by Darryl Yong on June 21, 2010

Ah! What better way to end the school year than having your classroom broken into?

Today is a pupil-free today, which we’re supposed to use to clean up our rooms and pack up our stuff. When my colleague and I got to our classroom this morning, we noticed that students had gone through her stuff. (My stuff is pretty much all packed up already.) Our adjoining teacher’s room was also similarly rummaged. Someone must have gotten into our rooms (which were locked) some time over the weekend.

It appears that nothing of value was taken, but there were three bags that were packed up with things that the hooligan(s) were presumably going to take but then left behind for some unknown reason. Here are some of the things that they were going to take:

  • almost empty bottle of hand sanitizer
  • stickers
  • markers
  • hot chocolate
  • pencil sharpener (with the shavings dumped out on the table)
  • sticky notes
  • rulers
  • tissue
  • blow bubbles
  • plastic forks and knives
  • staplers and staples

Some of the things that the miscreants were planning to take.... I didn't know there was a black market for slightly-used school supplies.

Clearly, these were not professionals as they weren’t interested in things of value like computer equipment or calculators. The miscreants also put a bunch of staples into the wall. And… the best part!! They did some math on the white board.

(simulated conversation) Thief #1: "I bet you can't add 1/3 and 2/5." Thief #2: "Oh yeah? I'll show you."

So since I’m a teacher…

Thievery Assessment Rubric:

  • Cleanliness: 2/4
    Comments: Pencil shavings were left on the table, but there was some interest in hygiene (vis-a-vis the hand sanitizer).
  • Mathematical content knowledge: 2/4
    Comments: Good work on correctly finding the lowest common multiple of 3 and 5 (even though 9 was not listed as a multiple of 3). Also, good job changing 1/3 into 5/15. But how can 1/3 and 2/5 both turn into 5/15? That shows poor mathematical reasoning.
  • Thieving: 0/4
    Comments: If you’re going to go to the trouble of breaking in, at least take something of value.

Total score: 4/12

Final grade: F

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Last class

Posted by Darryl Yong on June 18, 2010

I’m sitting in an empty classroom after my last high school class. Still have to calculate final grades for everyone and clean up the room, but otherwise am done. No strong emotions yet, maybe because it’s too fresh.

Only a handful of students showed up for class today, but a few of them still did math right until the last possible moment. That was a nice feeling to see that they were still interested in learning.

In my last Algebra 1 class, we had a chance to have some closure. I explained that I wouldn’t be returning to the school next year and that normally work at a university. We then talked about the etiquette of giving and receiving business cards and I gave each student my business card.

This afternoon, my Algebra 2 students will come by the room and we’ll go have frozen yogurt together.

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Textbook silliness

Posted by Darryl Yong on June 17, 2010

When I took over an Algebra 2 class in the middle of the school year, the person in charge of textbooks gave me a bunch of copies of our textbook. I kept these books in my cabinet and unfortunately didn’t keep close track of them. I returned all of the books I had to the textbook office yesterday and I was told that I am still missing 5 Algebra 2 textbooks. If I don’t return them, I will be charged for them. I have no idea where those books would be. The only thing I can think of is that since I use a colleague’s room for Algebra 2, I maybe some other students looked in the cabinet and used those textbooks. ???

Are textbooks as big of a headache at other schools?

By the way, all students are required by law to have textbooks (Williams v. State of California, 2004). Back in May, a woman from our district came to our school to make sure that all students had textbooks. She came into our classes, asked “Do you all have textbooks?” and left in less than 10 seconds. Ta dah!! Our school is “Williams Compliant.”

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Dilemma about a graduating senior

Posted by Darryl Yong on June 15, 2010

A 12th grader transferred to our school and into my Algebra 1 class two weeks before the end of class. He needs to pass Algebra 1 to graduate from high school. He tells me that he had a B in Algebra 1 before coming to our school, but I have no proof of that.

He shows up to class about 4 days in those two weeks, doesn’t do a whole lot of work, then takes the final and gets a 16/40.  This week the seniors are all out of class practicing for graduation and checking out of school, so we won’t get a chance to work on the math any more. But, would that be productive anyway?

I would hate to fail this student and prevent him from graduating from high school just because of Algebra 1. He’s already passed the CAHSEE, so he should have a passing knowledge of Algebra 1.

My current plan is to take his prior “B” and average it with my “F” and give him a “D” so he can graduate.

I think it’s crazy that students are transferring to our school at such a late date.

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Final exam results

Posted by Darryl Yong on June 14, 2010

Seems that the students in my geometry class had the lowest retention compared to the students in my Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classes. More than half of my students in geometry still don’t know the meaning of the word “perpendicular” (they confuse it with “parallel”). They still don’t know that a linear pair of angles (adjacent angles whose outer rays form a straight line) adds up to 180 degrees. And, I wrote a few days ago about students not knowing the formulas for the area and circumference of a circle. Even after I impressed upon them the need to memorize those formulas for the final exam that day, more than half still could not find the area and circumference of a circle. It’s so !@#$!@#$ frustrating. I’m still trying to figure out why that happened.

As with other exams, I am allowing students to correct their mistakes to earn a portion of points back on their exam. If they work hard, they can raise their grade on the exam back to an A or B. To earn correction points, students have to write an explanation of why the corrected answer is right and what they did incorrectly. This system has some problems: some students will copy the answers and explanations from their friends and thus not gain any benefit from it themselves and it’s also a big pain for me because that means I basically have to regrade every exam multiple times. But, I feel that the extra learning and confidence that they get from correctly answering exam questions is worth it. Most of the students seem motivated by the prospect of an improved exam score, but it’s the ones who are diligent and hard working that usually get their their exam scores raised in any significant way. And, I can tell who is really working on learning and who is copying from friends.

The school year is almost over! We’re just working on our exam corrections now, and we’ll do some fun activities the next few days.

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High school graduation rates

Posted by Darryl Yong on June 10, 2010

Education Week’s June 10, 2010 issue is devoted to the issue of high school graduation rates in the United States. Fascinating stuff.

One of the things that you can see with the power of data analysis is that the U.S. high school graduation rate (measured using the “Cumulative Promotion Index,” which is a product of the completion rates for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades) is lower than its been in decades. And, not surprisingly, the graduation rates for White and Asian students is much higher than for Hispanic, Black and American Indian students.

The largest two districts in the country (New York City DOE and Los Angeles USD) have the largest number of non-completers. But while NYCDOE has roughly 257,000 high school students compared to LAUSD’s 162,000 high school students, both districts have roughly the same number of nongraduates (43,000 and 42,000 nongraduates). LAUSD is one of the worst districts in the country in terms of students not completing high school.

This year I’ve repeatedly experienced that strange disconnect you get when you alternate between the macroscopic and microscopic views of the same issue. All of these numbers are informative and they tell a story. That story makes you think of the students around you who are the ones who are making up those statistics–each of them has a story too.

One very hard-working student that I know (but not in my classes) is not graduating because her mother is refusing to provide child-care for her while she finishes high school. And remember that student who  wrote the nice card for me a few weeks ago? He hasn’t been to school since then and he’ll probably not finish the 9th grade as a result. He is in this country illegally and I wonder if something happened to him.

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