Taking Charge

This was started a week ago, but I was distracted. What grabbed my attention, by the throat, was a smackdown with the flu. I lost.

One of the exciting things about Algebra on Demand is that the students are taking charge of their own learning and this is spreading beyond the mathematics classroom. Some have asked for thatquiz.org  in other subjects. My teaching partner in grade 8 mathematics is making quizzes for their other subjects, because they like using it as a quick check. They are aware of what they have mastered and what still needs work “Why are we having that test now, when all it’s going to show is that we don’t know it yet?”.  I think the next step is to get the kids onto thatquiz to generate tests themselves, replacing the ones I found or made. I don’t think testing is the be all end all at all (enough alls?), but we use it as a check. I used the analogy of thinking you’re a great dancer, then you see yourself bust a particular move on film and rethink that jerky motion. Did you ever see Elaine dance on Seinfeld? Although it’s great to have thatquiz for students to check skills and understanding, I don’t think anyone should ever be told they can’t dance.

For the record I think that timed tests and exams are very stressful and unnatural settings to check for understanding. Kids need to be taught about stress management and that old fight or flight thing that happens in many of our brains, when confronted with a test, while in our educational systems as benchmarks for obtaining such things as places in tertiary institutions. The pleasing thing is that kids are showing more awareness of what is being taught and learnt and not just going along for the ride.  They want time to explore and master concepts and skills before moving onto the next thing. School can feel like a race at times, for teachers and students alike. AoD is giving the students a chance to stop and smell the roses, all of them if they want to.

At play in kindergarten

Some of them are even playing maths games in their own time. A few teachers have said to me “Mangahigh, I know. But we can’t get them off it!”. They weren’t all impressed, but I was. Playing games that teach and foster mathematical thoughts and processes for FUN, in their own time! I am a fan of mangahigh, where is that like button?

Learning through play is so natural. How do we learn new things on this wonderful worldly wise web of ours, master new software, become a blogger, learn the world of twitter and see what it can give us? We play, we make mistakes, we work out the tricks and the way things work. We even learn how to get to the end without going through all the steps. Kids need to play to learn too, just as much as adults.

Ask yourself if you read the manual or jump right in to see if you can work it out yourself? I am the latter and will refer back to manual, if needed. Gaming is big with youths.  I need to learn more about it all, so that I can tap into this.


Scratch has just recently caught my eye. What did I do? I jumped right in and played around. For those who like the manuals, there is so much on the internet that you could read for days before you got started. Technology does not change the need for play it just offers different avenues for adventure. Technology can sometimes make us race a little faster to some sort of ‘finish line’. Before I even develop the task for my students they will have Scratch downloaded and installed on their tablets. Some will muck around and explore before they were meant to. Perfect.

With any class or new thing, AoD BETA, as it were, “it aint all roses”. My concern that some students would rest on their laurels and not challenge themselves was warranted. At the same time, however, some just wouldn’t be aware that they were doing this and hang about too long on one particular skill. To help students to be more cognisant of their progress I made a simple chart. Each lesson we begin with some colouring in. Of course I play up the colouring in bit. Students begin the lesson, after a brain break, with a task that takes seconds. They colour in the column for the previous lesson. It is immediate feedback and we are getting lots of different looking learning graphs. Some are quite linear.

Example of the graph students use to track their progress

The graphs showed areas of concern immediately,  highlighting skills that students had sat on for days (I just got another idea for gradients!). We spoke as a class about challenging ourselves and setting short and long term goals, but when you are having a fine old time in mathematics land you might not notice being on skill five for three to FOUR lessons. I wasn’t surprised as it was a concern when I was putting this all together. Some students do need extra time, especially at the basics. I have one student who has only just mastered the first five skills, while others have moved into the teens. This is where that student should be and I am so proud of him, and he is pretty pleased with himself too. It’s the other ones that I know should be further along, that concerned me.

Each column represents about 70 minutes of mathematics, including the odd film and brain break here and there. I asked students what it meant to be on one skill for three to four lessons. They “did the maths” in their heads and replied, at times tongue in cheek:

We’re lazy

We are playing mangahigh too much


We might need some help

It was ‘needing more help’ that I was looking for. No-one is stupid in my classes, we all have strengths. I have met some stupid adults in my time that beg belief (blind lady riding a bicycle in Ha Noi is a particular favourite of mine), but not kids. They set about colouring in. Two lessons later walking around checking their progress graphs and chatting with them, you could see the pick up in pace.

It’s a bold claim, but I think it’s a fair call, when I say that there isn’t a single student in grade 8, out of 66, that dislike  mathematics. Usually there are quite a few that HATE it, an expected challenge. The spectrum of enjoyment is all positive. Every single one of them is achieving, at different rates, but that was the idea. The initial chaos has settled into a nice groove. Kids who have struggled with mathematics are telling me they are proud of themselves.

Being where I am makes me incredibly lucky. I don’t feel resistance anywhere. My teaching partner is excited to try this new approach and is now using parts of it in other grade levels, admin is behind me, parents seem to like it, we have a wonderful technology facilitator (my partner in crime when AoD was created in its early form) and the kids are willing to get stuck in and they appear to be enjoying it.

I think if I didn’t have this supportive group, I may have gone rogue.