Honors Algebra 2… This could end up being AWESOME or AWFUL.

I’m nervous about throwing this idea out there…. Usually this is about stuff I DID (and therefore cannot CHANGE), so any negative feedback gets the response of “Meh… whatever” when I read it. This, however, is about something I’m planning to DO, so I’m afraid it’s gonna tank. I have great ideas, but 9 times out of 10 they blow up in my face because they’re last minute and not well thought out. This idea is no different, but I usually only share these ideas with my “bestie” @druinok. She’s been teaching so long that she can play “Devil’s Advocate” without making me want to curl up in the fetal position and DIE because she didn’t exactly agree with me. We mulled over this idea for over 2 hours this morning, and she suggested that I throw it to the “wolves”. I’m nervous, not gonna lie. But I’d rather you rip it to shreds or help me think of “what if”‘s than to try it on my own and it BOMB like Vince Neil on ice.

Before you start reading, make sure you read #1 under this blog post first. What I usually teach from Chapters 1 – 3 and most of Ch 5 is covered in the Algebra 1 curriculum. At our school, we squish geometry between Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 and, because of that (I see pros/cons both ways), most kids have forgotten what they learned in Algebra 1. Or maybe “forgotten” isn’t the right word – they HAVEN’T USED it, so it’s buried in the depths of their teenage brains. I spend the first part of my semester course reviewing these topics and that bothers me because we really only do “Algebra 2” the second part of the semester. If this was a class of students who struggled algebraically, that wouldn’t bother me so bad. But my honors class is a crew of kids that will be taking every AP math course we have to offer and, most likely, take upper mathematics in college. This type of kid also gets very restless if they are being taught something they already know how to do (been there, done that, bought the t-shirt). I wanted to do an “Algebra 1 bootcamp” at the beginning of the course so that I could spend more time on concepts in Algebra 2 that they’ll need for pre-cal/trig–>AP Calculus.

So I thought I might take an old middle school teaching strategy for a spin. It’s based on “Survivor Algebra” from Coolmath.com. When I taught middle school, I had an “advanced 7th grade math” class. For that class, most students would come the first day used to being somewhat smarter than the teachers who taught them (you know the type of kid I’m talking about, dontcha?). I was the first math teacher with a “real” (hahahaha) math degree and this was the first challenging course they’d ever had. BUT I didn’t want to bore them with 6th grade review so we’d do “Survivor Algebra” and it worked REALLY well.

So my thoughts for “Algebra 1 Bootcamp” go somewhat like this:
5-7 MINUTES: Individual Work – Bell activity on Index Cards (see #2 on previous blog)
15-20 MINUTES: Group Work – I’m not going to TEACH the lesson at first because these objectives have been taught before. SO students are going to spend this time looking at problems they’ll be doing for homework that night. Students will skim the material and talk about problems. If they run across a HW problem they want to discuss as a group, the students will set up their paper in “Cornell-type notes” where they work the homework problem on the right and write down any questions they have about it (or the objective) on the left. If the entire group has trouble with a HW problem, they will address that question in the left column of their notes.
15-20 MINUTES: Switch Groups and continue: Students come to a new group and continue the process. Students will start by going over questions they had in their previous group to see if someone in the new group can answer their questions. Once all questions have been covered, they continue to work through problems as a group.
**during both sets of group work, I’m circling groups looking for who is/isn’t participating and listening to the dialogue to see if I can figure out who gets it and who doesn’t.

At the end of the 2nd set of group work, I’m not sure how to go. Should I:
(a) Have a separate section in the room where students who still have questions can group together with me while the remainder work in groups to finish the homework?
(b) “Invite” students to the group with me? Here, invite would mean either you didn’t participate enough for me to feel you earned participation points (REQUIRED by our district in every course) OR you didn’t participate enough for me to know you understand the objectives enough for the day.
(c) Have a “whole class” discussion where we basically clear up any misunderstandings that still exist in the group?

After that (whatever “it” is), students will take the bell activity card (that I’ve returned by this time) and spend the last 2-3 minutes of class working on the “exit pass” problem/question.

The purpose for this version of bootcamp is simple – in high school, I stayed in rows and columns for every class I ever had. In college, during CLASS we stayed the same way but there were many classes that I didn’t have a CLUE what was going on (shocking, I know). I didn’t know how to ask people in my class for help and I had no idea how to study within a group. I’d always relied on my teacher being the sole source of information. What if your instructor SUCKS at explaining stuff? Every one of us remembers the first time it happened to us. It happened to me when I was a junior in college (Calculus 3 – God help me…). My professor made no sense in OR out of the classroom and I had no skills to fall back on to help myself. I almost flunked that class until I found people that were having the same trouble. And as a very shy person (SHOCKING, right?? But I really was), I didn’t know how to put myself out there to take a risk and ask questions. But I learned how and that “crew” of friends is still very important in my life today.

@druinok had several questions about this method for which I have SOME answers:
1) Kids are so used to being spoonfed, they are going to whine… a lot…
—> I agreed and thought that maybe the solution to this would be “If you whine, you work by yourself.” Anyone have any other ideas?
2) Kids that shut down without trying
—> This is where the “participation” grade will come in – I’ll be circling (like a buzzard) so if I see this I will stop and question
3) both of the above can be solved, it will just take time to teach them how to trust and try again
—> I am concerned of that as well – do I have the PATIENCE to see this through without just saying “SCREW IT!! WE’LL DO IT THE OLD WAY!!”
4) Kids that go home and whine (and parents that believe them) that “Mrs. Approx_Norm makes us teach ourselves”… even though its not true
—> She then helped me put together a nice section in my parent letter to justify this method. Here’s her original idea in its first draft. I thought it was awesome!

As I said, normally it takes me an entire 9-weeks to get through the Algebra 1 material they’ve already learned. But the way I have it planned, that will reduce that time down to 4 or 5 weeks. This will allow me to actually get through the chapter on logarithms and exponential functions and hopefully get into rational functions and conic section stuff. I’ll get with my pre-cal/trig colleague and find out what she’d like me to cover (if this actually works) to help her out.

So there’s my idea in a nutshell. This isn’t going to be my preferred method of instruction for the new material – just an attempt to get past the old stuff. I hope it made sense – I’m trying to think through this with a WICKED cold, so my ability to reason things through is worse than normal. But I DO want input. I’d rather think of everything bad that COULD happen and “nip it in the bud” or ditch the idea completely prior to next week.


8 thoughts on “Honors Algebra 2… This could end up being AWESOME or AWFUL.

  1. I am very supportive of your idea and absolutely think it's the right way to go.

    Suggestion – be careful how you structure/organize the assignments kids will work on together in class. If they look at the first one and are like “oh geesh I have no idea” it will be hard to get them back. But if they start out easier/more concrete and gradually ramp up/get more abstract they will be more likely to keep trying.

    You also might provide a key or answer bank, so they can know whether they are on track or not as they work. If they are getting them right they will feel validated and keep working, and if they are not, they will know sooner than later to ask for help.

    In order to communicate to the kids what you expect them to be doing in their groups, I suggest “participation quizzes.” I use them this year and I believe Sam used them too, I found they work really well to promote positive cooperative group work.


  2. I love your idea & agree with Kate's suggestions. I would also plan a whole group discussion to tie things together. You'll know what needs discussing as you hear their group discussions when you are circling.


  3. Thanks so much! Kate, I read Sam's blog and I think that's an EXCELLENT way to go. I also want to incorporate that into my AP and regular statistics classes when I set up “research teams”. I appreciate the feedback so much! If you see any “holes” in my idea, please let me know.


  4. I like all of your ideas and agree with the comments above.

    I have two alternative kind of ideas too add.

    Personally, my students love review games. If you were using material they are supposed to know and played in teams, they might work together better since they are in competition. They might look forward to class for the first few weeks if they felt they were just 'playing games' the whole time. Of course you'd have to mix up the games and the students, but it could be fun.

    Also, would it be possible to cut out of all this review in the beginning and embed those topics before the appropriate Algebra 2 topics? Review the Algebra 1 skills they need immediately before teaching the Alg 2 topic? Otherwise it seems like you're reviewing for 4-5 weeks and then later in the year you'll have to review it again because they've already forgotten. Again!

    Just my two cents.


  5. Review games would be counter-productive, I think. You want to get the students working through as much “refresher” as possible and review games, by their nature of taking turns, etc., end up covering a lot less ground than having the students working at their desk on a bunch of worksheets.

    As a parent, I would read your parent letter and say “Hmph! You can use all the educationeese that you want with cooperative learning circles, etc., but the bottom line is that you're admitting that you're expecting my kid to teach himself, which isn't acceptable.”

    Since you apparently can't just give your students an algebra 1 refresher packet of problems to do over their summer break and then go over during the first few days, why don't you do a hybrid of worksheets and direct instruction? I.E., take 10 minutes to go over a concept they're more likely to have forgotten, maybe solving a system of equations by elimination, then have them work for 20 minutes on a refresher worksheet covering that and other topics while you roam the room. Then take another 10 minutes to review another forgotten concept, students work for 20 minutes while you roam, repeat.

    It really doesn't matter whether you ask the students to work at their desks by themselves, with a partner, or in a group: if they don't know the answer, most honor students will ask you or a neighbor for help, especially if you tell the students there will be a quiz on the material at the end of the week. But if you're enamored with groups for some reason, go for it.


  6. @Paul –
    I don't think that's a fair response to the parent letter. Remember these are honors math students and won't need much (if any) direct instruction on items they have already learned.

    Honestly, if I were a parent, I would be much prefer this to a summer packet of the same information because in the summer my student would not have the teacher/peers/resources at their disposal.

    When they get past the review material and into new material, the direct instruction will be back, but there is no reason to re-teach honors students how to solve two-step equations or use the distributive property, both of which are in chapter 1 of most algebra 2 textbooks. There are some topics in the first few chapters that will need more of a hands-on approach, such as linear regression or transformations of parent functions, but those can also be done with groups and discovery learning methods.

    Would the methods described in her post work for every teacher in every classroom? Nope. However, there is a LOT to be said for students working together to problem solve and talk through their methods.


  7. @druin
    My apologies for completely shooting down your letter. While I can see how bootcamp could be extremely effective, I was trying to convey that many parents get concerned if there isn't at least some form of direct instruction when school starts. It doesn't mean that the concern is necessarily justified, but if it's there, I think your letter might inflame that concern for some, rather than provide reassurance.

    I think parents and administrators will feel more comfortable if there is *some* direct instruction during this time. The need for direct instruction can even be group-driven. For example, if a group can't figure out how to do a review concept *AND* they've asked another group without success, then I would take 10 minutes to review that concept at the board.

    Just a thought.

    One unanswered question for me: how long is bootcamp going to run? Last year, 3.5 chapters were spent on algebra 1 review, which, if I'm reading correctly, took over two months of class time to cover. Can bootcamp cover all of that, or the most important parts, in a few days? a week? two weeks? If it can, I think that's just awesome.


  8. I like the idea of a bootcamp. I'm at a school in it's first year with grade 8-10 students, so the students have come from very varied backgrounds. I had to do something similar for Algebra with my grade 9s. I gave them a diagnostic and as imagined there was a range from “struggling with anything to do with algebra” to “C'mon Mr. Cowan this is easy!”.

    They then divided into two groups (I'll call them relearn and practice) and worked through problems suited to their level. I started and interjected “10 minute mini-lessons” throughout the 4 week unit with the relearn group (and even shorter lessons with the practice group) and by the end a number of the “struggling with anything to do with algebra” were up to speed or a lot closer anyway. And the “C'mon Mr. Cowan this is easy!” group had a chance to try some extended topics. The groups were totally fluid and varied from topic to topic over the unit, so as students remembered topics, they moved from the relearn group to the practice group.

    I was pleased, but if I were to do it again, I would have some links Khan Academy videos (or something similar) so the practice group could quickly view them rather than have to wait for me to get to their desk for a mini-lesson, which usually resulted in a, “oh yeah I remember that” response.

    Good luck with bootcamp!


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