Have I found a missing link?

My maths students really struggled in semester one this year. Whether it was to do with a new curriculum we’ve recently implemented, or maybe it was some aspect of my teaching, or their feelings about maths as a subject in general, or just life events happening outside the classroom. For whatever reason, things just didn’t go so well for us in the first semester.

When other teachers told me that their students were also struggling, I felt a little better…but only a little.

So I decided to change my approach.

The Email List

After marking all my semester one maths exams and reflecting upon the results, I sat down and started ringing parents – every single one of them, whether their child had passed or failed. I invited them to join an email list, so I could send them class work and homework, plus any helpful attachments like textbook pages or links to video tutorials.

When I did this, I learned something: parents in general are on my side. They are on our side. They want to know what’s going on. They love the idea of being informed about homework, because their kids are always saying, “I don’t have any.”  They want to be involved, and they love the open line of communication between themselves and the teacher. Accordingly, they were thrilled to come on board.

I confess, there was a time when I didn’t realise this. I’m an introvert by nature and very shy about ringing people I don’t know. Whenever I had to ring a parent, especially in my earlier years as a teacher, my face would turn white and my stomach would churn. This was not helped by the fact that it was usually something negative that I had to call them about.

But now that I’ve started emailing, it’s a whole different ball game. I much prefer writing to speaking. Having to stand up in front of a big group of people and talk every day is decidedly not my preferred way of doing things. I love writing though, and I love that I can write to the parents.

The first thing I noted after doing this was an immediate improvement in both behaviour and homework throughout the whole class. It especially warmed my heart when one student, who was notorious for not getting his homework done, showed me three pages of volume and surface area equations that his dad had made him do over the weekend. Another student told me, in an ever-so-slightly disconcerted tone, that her mother had started talking to her about Pythagoras over breakfast.

Those who hadn’t completed their homework had not done so, not out of laziness or forgetfulness, but because they didn’t understand it, but at least they’d given it a shot. Either that, or I received an email from the parents to say they hadn’t had time because of some other circumstance.

But not a single dog has eaten so much as a page of homework since the parents came on board.

Virtual Classrooms

This is something I experimented with in music over the past couple of years, but it didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. I’m trying it again with maths, and it’s working a treat. I’m getting such positive feedback that I’m planning to get my music classes back online.

You may be familiar which a virtual classroom. Basically, it’s an online learning environment, and there are lots of different platforms that run it. The ones I run are on Blackboard, but there’s also Moodle and many others.

What I do for each lesson is write a dot-point list for class work and homework, attaching a pdf of the relevant pages from the textbook. I also hunt around for videos from YouTube which explain the concept we’re working on. I’ll generally try to get at least two or three different ones that will explain the same concept. That way, I figure that if the students don’t get it when I explain it, maybe someone else’s explanation might work. Links to other websites get put in as well, so I end up with a bit of a library much like the one one this blog.

My class has had the virtual classroom (VCR) for nearly two weeks, and today they were proudly showing me their books. Nearly three quarters of the class said they’ve done more maths since our work went online, than they had done in the entire first semester. What it really enables them to do is work at their own pace. If they know how to do the work, they can just go ahead while I explain it to the rest of the class. They can go back and forth as much as they need.

But the most important thing for me is the fact that, not only are they working more, they’re enjoying maths more. They’re more engaged. One student in particular has done a complete 180-degree about-face in his attitude. Last semester, he and I would be at loggerheads every other week. These days, he’s still as talkative as ever, but he’s doing the work. Others are getting the work done so fast that I sometimes have a hard time keeping up.

My thoughts so far…

So far, there has been a definite improvement in behaviour, homework and general engagement with the subject. I will be very interested to see how that translates into assessment results.

I think the VCR is a huge help, because students can just open up their laptops and away they go. For those who don’t have the laptops, there are hard copies of the textbook and the set work is also written up on the board. They seem to do fine as well. It appears to be the general culture of the classroom that has changed for the better, with regards to getting the work done.

However, while the VCR is great, I think the thing that’s really been helping my students the most is the extra push that they’re now getting from home. I’m coming to realise that the parents are really the most important link, and I now wonder why I didn’t do this ten years ago. It has given me a great opportunity to build relationships with them, and to let them be really involved.

It does take a lot of work to set up and put into place. Also, I sense that others’ expectations of me as a teacher may be raised dramatically. Parents will now expect to hear from me regularly. Students will expect the work to be uploaded on time, and they will expect that their parents will know about it. I have a feeling, however, that this could be an ounce of prevention that is worth several pounds of cure.

Having said that, I won’t sugar-coat it and tell you that it’s necessarily an easy undertaking. On the contrary, it can be a daunting task. For one class, it took me two weeks to contact every parent. In the first week of the new term, my workload also increased tenfold; I went to bed every night at 3am.

The good news is that this initial period does settle down, once you get the ball rolling. I am now back to going to bed at a reasonable hour. I also know that it won’t be so difficult or take quite so long the next time around, because I’ve done it before.

One of the best things for me personally, is that the email list and the VCR both work to an important strength of mine: I’m a writer, and I write far better than I speak. Writing is how I think. If I don’t write about something, I can’t think about it quite as clearly.

Since I’m a writer, I think the students get to see a different aspect of my personality when I write to them on the VCR. Certainly, I feel like my rapport with them has been immensely improved by the fact that I write to them. I feel like they can know me better. Big groups are not my thing, and writing has really helped me feel more comfortable, which makes me less stressed, which makes for a more pleasant maths teacher.

About Gabrielle Deschamps

I'm a secondary music teacher, interested in music technology and its integration into classroom pedagogy.

View all posts by Gabrielle Deschamps

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