Measurement!

by wltreece

I’ve just taken on a part-time tutoring position, and wanted to jot down some quick thoughts after my first day.

The job is with EducationWorks, a non-profit tutoring agency that contracts with schools around Philadelphia and New Jersey. EW uses NCLB money to provide supplemental services to high-poverty schools in order to help them meet AYP. I’m working on remedial math skills with 3 elementary students in Southwest Philadelphia, 3 hrs/week.

I arrived early and clueless. Got there before my supervisor, waited awkwardly and did nothing while others were rushing around. No idea what my lesson plan would be. Picked up a student from his classroom and mispronounced his name in front of the whole class, making both of us the laughingstock of the class. Fortunately, he washed it right off.

I actually have a lot of independence when it comes to choosing what to focus on and making my own lesson plans. For my first day, though, my supervisor just looked at the data for my kids and said that they were all behind their grade level with measurement, and gave me a set of rulers and tape measures.

I asked a coworker if we had any spare pencils or paper and was met with an “Aww, look at the naïve young white kid on his first day” look. My supervisor lent me a few spare pencils from her desk. Strangely, even though we hardly had any pencils, I found myself unwrapping a shiny new set of manipulables for measurement exercises. I decided not to ask about funding streams on my first day.

 

The actual instructional time: amazing. The kids were engaged and excited beyond my wildest dreams. We were measuring! Measurement is the best thing.

I want to take credit for getting them excited about measurement, and I like to think I’m pretty good at projecting enthusiasm onto students…but these kids were primed from the start. One kid told me about how he really liked measuring big things around the house, and another said she liked to try to sneak up behind her brother and measure him. Really.

We stretched out our arms and measured our armspan, we measured the table’s height, width, and length, we learned how to lay tape measures end-to-end and add up their sums. We had a brief digression into what the year before 2000 was, after one kid wrote down the date and said, “The 20 [in 2012] is never going to change.”

My rookie mistake of the day was that I asked the three kids if they wanted to measure the whiteboard’s height in inches or centimeters. Two votes for centimeters, one for inches – so we used centimeters, and the one outlying vote was put out for the rest of the afternoon. Her motivation never recovered.

One of the lessons I learned from teaching last summer is that one of the toughest parts of everyday classroom work was feeling out when to tell kids what to do and when to let them choose, when it comes to mundane details: form your own groups or count off by five? So I was disappointed to find that letting them choose their own measurement system brought down the class dynamic – especially after hearing a student throw up his hand with a big smile and say “CENTIMETERS,” and another say “No, inches” in a small voice with deep feeling. These kids were invested in measurement systems.

We measured plenty of things, and used a number of non-standard measurement systems (How many notebooks long is the table?), but I probably should have spent a little more time fine-tuning the steps of measuring something. Stretch the tape measure out as tight as you can; line up the beginning of the ruler with the beginning of what you’re measuring (actually very difficult. We’ll come back to this next time). I went over the technical skills as part of the process, but it may have gotten a little lost in all the excitement of measurement (!).

In conclusion: this is awesome, I should’ve signed up for this five months ago, and today I learned that “an inch is bigger than a centimeter – it’s like its older brother!”

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2 Comments to “Measurement!”

  1. Will, you are right, measurement is amazing.

    Your rookie mistake is something I accidentally do a lot, too. The reverse of it is: you can and should control aspects of examples and lessons that are instructionally relevant. If you teach place value and need a three digit number, maybe don’t like a student pick 777 or 200 for the first example, since those will make distinguishing 100s 10s and 1s a little bit more opaque. Also definitely, knowing you made a mistake is first step in improving next time. Nice knowing!

    I enjoyed hearing about your first day.

  2. I loved this first foray into teaching – and the fact that you had such a good time! Maybe just as the kids love measuring you will love teaching! I think the balance between democracy/choice and guidance/control is a key – but difficult – teaching practice to learn. I still struggle with it in honors seminars! When to let students go with their ideas, flail around in not very productive conversation, find their own paper topics – and when to jump in, provide an outline of key ideas, provide structures for thinking about ideas. So just so you know – it’s not one of those teaching techniques you ever really master; it’s just one you have to know you have to work on all the time. (Not sure if that is good or bad news!) Lisa

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