The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Competitions in the Classroom

I love watching movies, and I really love watching movies about inspiring teachers. Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, Freedom Writers, Stand and DeliverSister Act 2, Akeelah and the Bee… the list goes on! I think what I love most about them is that they are movies that remind me that I am not the only teacher who has struggles in the classroom, but also that it can and does get better. These movies are also reminders to me that student engagement is such a huge component in contributing to a safe, positive learning environment. In fact, of the movies I listed above, each of them has a turning point in which the teacher finds a way to connect with their students’ interests and discover the joy of teaching students where they are at.

The reality of day-to-day teaching, however, is that I am not the final voice of what I do in my classroom. I have building, district, and state rules, policies, procedures, curricula, and standards that guide my instruction and inform what I teach. That being said, I am fortunate to be in a district that has leaders who encourage teachers to do what works best with their students.

So, even though I have spent this entire year teaching math with a curriculum that is much more rigid than I am used to, I have found ways to change things up to meet their needs, most often by utilising small groups and taking advantage of the abundance of student teachers and tutors and volunteers I had at my disposal throughout the year.

With just six school days remaining to the year, we are definitely in wind-down mode in many ways. My students are also working on culminating projects for writing, they are finishing books, and they are reviewing all of the concepts and skills they have learned during mathing workshop.

Yesterday and today I took a new approach to reviewing math skills. I have had a set of math and English/language arts “task cards” that I picked up from a school supply shop years ago but hadn’t really used much this year. In fact, they have mostly sat on a shelf collecting dust. I decided to brush off the dust, take out the cards, and set up a challenge:

Students self-selected teams of three or four and spread out in the room. Each team was given a random task card (face-down) that connected to a specific Common Core State Standard for Mathematics. I set a time for 30 minutes and set up a tally sheet on my Promethean Board. As soon as the timer started, students flipped the cards over and began solving the problems or completing the tasks given to them. As soon as a card was correctly completed, the team would earn one point and then receive a new card. The process repeated until the timer ran out.

Over the course of the two days that we did this, my students completed about 45 different math tasks. They were engaged, working together, encouraging their group members, checking work, explaining answers, and shouting with excitement when they completed a card and earned a point.

I don’t think I have ever seen a group so focused or engaged in mathematics as I did this afternoon. For the first time, my students were actually excited to do math. Was it because it was a competition? Because the winning team members got to select prizes from my prize box? Because they were able to work together? Most likely, it was a combination of all of the reasons and others that I haven’t even though about yet.

The entire process made me wonder: why haven’t I been doing this more often? Why have I been so reluctant to break out of the rut I found myself in, to give my students a lot more freedom than I had been giving them, the kind of freedom they have during reading, writing, and inquiry workshop times? I think a big part was that I was using a new math curriculum this year (along with everyone else in the district) and no matter how confident I was in the content and my delivery, I needed to see how the curriculum works “as written” before I start changing it up, in much the same way that I do when baking. I always follow the recipe exactly the first time to know what to expect, then I start tinkering with the ingredients to see what I can do to make it better or just different.

So I imagine that my mathematics instruction next year will be much more flexible and group-oriented than it was this year. I’m not saying that my math instruction this year was lacking, mind you. I am just saying that next year it will be better.

And it will certainly include more competitions.

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