Vito Prosciutto: Teaching community college math on the road to a PhD.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

So today at school we had a fire 

Not a fire drill, an actual smoke and flames fire.

The alarm went off about ten minutes into a test which I'll have to reschedule for tomorrow. Of course today was the day that my mentor was on a field trip so I had a sub in the room instead. And neither of us were really familiar with the fire procedures. I collected tests as students left the room, grabbed the attendence book (as insisted by my seminar instructor in an earlier seminar discussion).

Once outside, it was chaos as we had all 4000+ students of the school on the sidewalks across the street from the school. I lost most of my students and the sub and after discovering that most of the other teachers had lost their students and weren't terribly concerned, I stopped my efforts to round up my class and instead focused on keeping a couple gang members nearby under observation and being a conspicuous observer of their actions. I'm not sure, but I may have deterred a fight.

After about half an hour we were directed to herd the students into the field house (which was good because it had gotten awfully cold again round these parts) and we then spent another hour waiting to get directed back inside. 3rd hour was officially cancelled and 2nd hour was effectively lost. The rest of the day went pretty close to normal.

Fortunately, I have some flex in my schedule so I'll be able to accomodate rescheduing today's test for tomorrow with 2nd hour. Third hour will require cancelling a quiz, but I should be able to be on schedule. I think that I'll give the quiz in some form tomorrow, but perhaps not grade it.

I also took over my mentor's other Advanced Algebra class today so that they could continue to proceed in the limited time available. The lesson went pretty well, but it's a relatively easy one, on how logarithms and exponential functions are related.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Standing in the Shadows of Motown 

This past weekend was educator's appreciation days at Border's (not sure if this was every Border's or just the ones near my house), so I bought a couple books, some CDs and a DVD (eclectic enough to confuse the cashier).

Among these is the soundtrack to the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. What fantastic music. It is a little marred, I think, by the use of contemporary pop singers in the lead vocal roles (it seems like Joan Osborne is on every other track). It ends up feeling a bit like the assorted Blues Brothers albums of the late 70s/early 80s, but then, if, like the Blues Brothers, it opens up this music to a new generation of fans, perhaps it's not such a bad thing. This is definitely worth picking up at your local music store. If it doesn't make you want to dance, well, then you just ain't got no soul.

Arc length and sector area 

I'm not sure why this is such a difficult concept for students to learn. I've given formulas, I've shown them where the formulas come from, and yet I still have attrocious learning rates with these two concepts. Do other people have this difficulty or am I just teaching this poorly?

Long division 

So we're doing polynomial long division in the algebra class today. And I'm absolutely amazed by how many students have some bizarre resistance to writing down the change of signs when they subtract polynomials.
Them: Do we have to change the signs.

Me: Yes, otherwise, you'll make mistakes and get the problem wrong.

Them: No we won't

Me: Maybe not, but my experience has been that if you don't do it this way, you'll make mistakes.

And of course when we do these in class, they don't do it that way, and sure enough, they make mistakes. And to each and every one, I point out the mistake and tell them that if they had followed my directions, they wouldn't make those mistakes.

Picture with a note on the back 

While erasing the board between classes, a student left me a picture with the following note on the back (all spelling and punctuation from the original):
To: Prosciutto
Hope you like the pic, take care of it! Youre a good person, dont ever let some hoe change you! I got your back (Good luck w them too though)
[student's name and nickname deleted]
The picture and note were from one of my students from last semester when I was doing a couple weeks' teaching for my ed class. As I recall she was a bit of a delinquent and usually didn't do homework, but I'm happy to take her note at face value, even if she meant it ironically (or for that matter even if she doesn't know what "ironic" means in the first place).

Friday, March 26, 2004

I've changed my mind 

At one point in the past I declared that I didn't care whether my students liked me or not as long as they learned the material. I've come to realize that this was a misguided sentiment. I should care about whether students like me, but not for its own benefit, but because if they like me, they'll be more willing to care about the material as well.

Watching how my geometry mentor relates to the kids now that I'm back in observation mode makes the importance of this a bit clearer to me. I had the last ten minutes of the last period while my mentor was getting ready to leave right at the bell for a doctor's appointment and I could feel the difference in attitude from the students and see what a difference it made, although there's also been a bit of a warming of the relationship between us compared to earlier in the semester. One amusing moment came when I asked one of the students how she came up with her answer. She rattled off her answer more quickly than I could write it (or listen to it, for that matter). "And you complain about me going too fast," I said in response.

Thursday, March 25, 2004


iLoveSchools.com is a website which is based around matching teachers with donors of equipment, supplies and materials. It lacks some of the organizational savvy and safeguards of Donors Choose, but since Donors Choose is still only in New York City and North Carolina, this will have to do for the rest of us.


My official time in front of the classroom is over, so now things end up a bit random. My first day back from the interview trip, my mentor was out so I was back in front of the classroom. There will probably be at least one more day like that before me.

Then yesterday was a college fair during the first geometry class and I met with my other mentor during the second geometry class since we hadn't had a chance to have any extended meeting time before that.

Today was observation, and there were a few things that I spotted that I need to be better about doing myself: One was rather than reading out answers, having students provide them. I did that once or twice before, but with the geometry, my big weakness is that I tend to forget to give them at all. In the algebra classes this isn't an issue since I make a point of only assigning problems with answers in the back of the book.

New quarter new face 

For the interview/job I shaved off my "student teaching" beard. It's been quite entertaining to see the student reactions on my return. One student commented that I looked five years younger. Another spent the whole class period with a silly grin on her face.

So I've gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:
Hmm, that might be more than five years younger...

Job fair and interviews 

A few quick notes on the weekend job fair and interviews (yes, I'm behind on this).

First, the interview: It was a relatively quick thing with the associate principal (I later found out with some web research that the school for which she's an associate principal doesn't actually have a principal. Instead the usual principal role is handled by a group of associate principals). There were some questions that I think I could have answered better in retrospect, but I think that I did well with the interview. One interesting thing was that the AP mentioned that she's looking for someone to run the school paper which would be a great fit for me.

The job fairs didn't seem especially useful I got a little bit of face time with people from the districts and hand-delivered resumes and applications to some districts on my short list, but I didn't especially feel like I got anything out of the process that I couldn't have done with the internet, a phone and a couple visits to the post office. Although the principal from one district on my short list did ask me to e-mail him with my interview availability. On the other hand, I haven't heard back from him yet.

There's one test that I'll need to improve my marketability that I'm thinking about making an extra trip out to take. I could probably schedule things so that I have time for an interview or two.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Friday Five 

If you...
  1. ... owned a restaurant, what kind of food would you serve? I think I might rip off the Southern California Souplantation chain and have a big giant salad bar and lots of healthy other stuff.
  2. ...owned a small store, what kind of merchandise would you sell? I've always wanted to have a bookstore/literacy center. I found a place like this in New Orleans back in '91 and fell in love with the idea. It's my plan for retirement.
  3. ...wrote a book, what genre would it be? Well, I actually wrote on once. It was a novella in diary form which I suppose would be in the literary fiction genre. It was pretty awful, so no, you can't read it. I guess it's my English BA at fault, but I keep trying to right litfic. I've started a little bit on a semi-autobiographical novel about friendship, betrayal and international espionage.
  4. ...ran a school, what would you teach? A bit of everything. After all, I am going to be certified to teach English, Math and Psychology come May. I wouldn't mind adding History, Government and Music into the mix.
  5. ...recorded an album, what kind of music would be on it? I've actually played on two albums (one of which you could even buy at a decently stocked record store). One was eclectic rock, the other vocal pop. I've been writing material for a couple albums based around my singing (oh dear), one being a progressive rock album (mix King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Genesis together, see what comes out the other end), the other horn-driven rock (in the vein of Randy Newman fronting Blood, Sweat and Tears).

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Notes while waiting in the airport 

Tomorrow I won't be teaching because of a trip to my future home for job interviews plus a couple job fairs. It will be a quite busy weekend.

My mentor for the algebra classes was out today, so I had a sub observing. Not a big deal, but I left my keys at home, so I wasn't able to get into the classroom until much later than usual. She's also going to be out tomorrow, so I had to put together a plan for a sub being in the room. Since I can't count on the sub knowing any math, I ended up finding a couple worksheets for my students to do instead.

Geometry was in the computer lab, doing some exercises in anticipation of the coming chapter. I need to re-write these, however, so that it's more clear what we're up to with each exercise. On the other hand, getting a chance to try these with the students helped identify where the problem spots were.

"Cindy" took the quiz that she missed yesterday and aced it. The only points that she missed were really technicality points: She didn't simplify a couple fractions. On the other hand, she told me that she was going to go home early to take care of her child so I let her out of the classroom (with instructions to check in with my mentor who was back in the classroom before she left). Then I saw her two periods later. She's bright, but will also take advantage of people given a chance.

There are weather and air traffic problems here at the airport, so the place currently looks like Calcutta. Every eatery has lines well into the corridors and almost every seat is taken.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

It's nice to be wanted 

I've got two more districts interested in me just because I registered for a job fair this weekend. One contacted me by e-mail and I noted that in their notice about openings for math, science and special ed, there were just 20 recipients. Can there really be that small a number of math teachers attending this job fair?

Very Negligent Indeed 

Courtesy of not having my notebook back until yesterday, I’ve fallen very far behind on keeping up my journal. Some more notes:

I’m in my last week. We’ve been doing trig all this past week and had the big quiz at the end of the trig unit today. I’m a bit disappointed in how much difficulty many of the students have been having with this material. Some are getting it, but too many aren’t. I’m afraid that I needed to put more on the board for the inverse trig functions, because that seemed to cause a bit of confusion with the review homework assignment that I gave last night. Even more disappointing to me was the extra credit that I put on the quiz because there isn’t time to do a retest before the end of the quarter: Four of the questions were straight off the last test and I even told them that I would ask questions like those and I’m seeing atrocious performance on those quizzes that I’ve graded.

Advanced Algebra.
We had the chapter test for quadratics last week. I’ve got a bimodal distribution. A couple As and the rest are Fs. This apparently has been the situation all semester. We started trig this week with them and they seem to be getting the material, but I think I’ll need to do a "homework quiz" tomorrow to check on whether they’re really understanding this or just not asking for help when they need it.

I’ve got some mixed results here as well. But it’s more positive than negative in the mix at least. It is upsetting to see how many blank stares I get when I ask them to factor relatively simple quadratics factoring x2-9 seems to be an insurmountable challenge to many of the students.

Is one of my Geometry students. She’s remarkably bright. But she’s also frequently absent so that works against her. She’s going to be moving out of state with her mom at the end of the week, so that should help her homelife situation a bit (she’s currently in a shelter), but of all my students, she’s one that I’d be most interested to find out what happens with her. On the other hand, she does seem more than willing to abuse the kindness of others and I suspect that it’s not a coincindence that she wasn’t here on a test day.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Friday Five 

I always mean to do the Friday Five but I never remember on Fridays. Today I did. So here they are:
  1. What was the last song you heard?
    I guess that'd be the theme to West Wing. I just had that on the TiVO.
  2. What were the last two movies you saw?
    Oh man, student teaching has nearly killed my movie-going. I used to go at least once a week. Plus rentals and cable movies. I'm thinking that my last two movies would be a couple Luis Buñuel films. I forget the titles, but these were some earlier short-ish films he co-wrote with Salvador Dali.
  3. What were the last three things you purchased?
    Lunch today. Lunch yesterday. A wireless mouse. I don't seem to buy a lot.
  4. What four things do you need to do this weekend?
    Get caught up on grading. Write lesson plans. Teach in the Saturday program. Clean up my room.
  5. Who are the last five people you talked to?
    My mom, my dad, two of my students and my geometry mentor teacher.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

My laptop died 

Tuesday night at 5, my laptop started to have he display fritz out then locked up. Over the last couple of days I managed to keep the computer alive long enough to back up critical files (my gradebooks, yesterday's quiz which I'd just finished typing...) and today I dropped it off at the Apple Store for a warranty repair. This is the second time it's gone in for repairs. Last time, it was promised back in 3-5 days and was gone 3-5 weeks instead. I'm hoping that it actually comes back in the promised time span. Meanwhile, I'm tethered to my desktop Mac which I hadn't used in such a long time I've lost the mouse. I ended up making a Target run and buying another one. I ended up getting a wireless mouse since if I was going to buy another mouse, it might as well be one which gives me something new...

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Catching up 

One thing about keeping an on-line journal: It kind of enforces honesty. While my classmates may write their journals on Tuesday night and pretend to have done it earlier, by keeping mine on-line, I end up having to admit falling behind.

So here's what's been missed:

Algebra: The algebra students seem to be quite comfortable with the beginning part of chapter 11. Percents and proportions have both gone reasonably smoothly. Inverse and direct variation wasl also pretty straightforward. Then comes the hard stuff: Rational expressions. Grading the quizzes from Friday it looks like most of the students have most of the material down pretty well, but we need to review some portions of proportions to make sure that we have that a little stronger.

Geometry: We've wrapped up the first part of the chapter on right triangles (all except the trig, which my mentor suggested holding over for after the chapter test). We were on a tight schedule so there was only one day of review and the kids were a bit ansy during the review in the earlier class, although the later class was a bit better. I think that the list of names of kids with detentions helped because it served as a metaphorical head on a pike.

Advanced Algebra: Another chapter wrap-up here. We ended up slipping a day which caused a surprise for my surprise observation today. One of the supervisors arrived to observe, but the kids were in the midst of an all-period quiz, so there was nothing to see. It seems likely that she'll be back tomorrow.

Saturday College: The digression from factoring continued for a bit this week as I showed how polynomials can be used to model dice probability. I've decided to let the second class just be a week behind the first class. They were quite a bit less excited by the card probability exercise than the first class, which was a bit of a downer. I'm afraid that they might react similarly to the dice probability lesson, so perhaps I'll just bring them back up to speed with the first class this Saturday.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Factoring Quadratics 

As much for my own reference as anything else I wanted to include a link to this post at a school yard blog on factoring quadratics.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Algebra - percentages 

Algebra class went relatively smoothly. There was some confusion on how to set up proportions in the applications, so I went over those homework questions again, but there didn't seem to be anywhere near enough problems in the book to provide additional practice.

With percentages, the problems all follow a set formula:

A is P percent of B
which translates to the equation
So if we have, for example,
12 is what percent of 48?
We can write that as:
and solve for P.

Geometry - the best it's felt 

Geometry class felt quite good today. We've reached a point, I think, where the students' trust in me has reached the point where they'll let me teach them. In the early class we reached a point where the who class was smiling and laughing as we worked through the problems.

Speaking of which, I'm looking forward to the students' reaction to being asked the following question:

Plato is alleged to have said that the 30°-60°-90° triangle was the most beautiful right triangle in the world. Grunts Giraffe, a sophomore student at Animal High, is alleged to have said that the 30°-60°-90° triangle didn't look very pretty to him. Who was Plato and what do you thinke he meant by beautiful?

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Geometry - a bit of traction 

I finally feel like I'm beginning to connect with my geometry students, although the one student that I mentioned last week is still highly resistant to me. I'd love to get some tips on dealing with her from any of you. Or I suppose, I could just give up and figure that it's only another 11 days in the classroom with her.

Advanced Algebra - graphing calculators 

At 7.45, I had a suggestion from my mentor to use graphing calculators in my lesson in the advanced algebra class. It was pretty easy to modify my lesson plan for this and while she briefly took over my class towards the end, I liked the result. We were able to discover the result of changing the variables a h and k in the equation


This put them in a position where at the end of the class they could sketch the graphs pretty quickly without using their calculators.

I probably could have cut slightly the number of graphs that they did on the calculators so that we would have had a little more time for the whole class, but in all it was a good lesson.


My final decision on the review question: A little bit every day. So today I had them working on four fraction multiplication problems while I checked in homework. I need to look ahead at what else we've got to get a good sense of where to go from here. Grading exams has been a bit depressing as many of the students seem to have completely forgotten how to factor for the exam.

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