September 9, 2012 by ray_emily
My email from the Math Blogging Initiation Team this week exclaimed, “It’s week four. Write a post on whatever you want!”
And so, I want to respond to a prompt that I was a bit nervous about addressing when it was offered up a few weeks back. Today, I want to talk about my least favorite unit to teach – my unit on decimal operations.
Although I’m starting to think up some solutions to the problems that I itemize, below, I’ve definitely got a long way to go. I would love to know if any other folks have struggled with this unit (or another unit) in the same ways that I am struggling.
Without further ado, here are the reasons why I am less-than-enthralled about teaching sixth graders decimal operation:
- Kids always perform at a variety of ability levels – of course. That we’re not ‘all on the same page’ feels true in an especially pronounced way during this unit, and I’m pretty sure I’m not just imagining it. For instance – some kids solidly mastered decimal operations in fifth grade. Others need to sort out minor confusion, due to lack of practice over the summer. A few kiddos never had a clue.
- Moments of discovery (you know, the moments when class is totally fun and exciting and you love your job the most?) are less frequent, largely because this skill is simply not brand new for anyone.
- Kids who decidedly don’t fully understand the skill are convinced that they do, because they’ve seen it before. They zone out, rush through their work, and make lots of careless mistakes.
- Kids use a whole bunch of different algorithms, and a wide variety of terminology, which they’ve learned from a handful of different feeder schools. (This is fantastic, but it leaves me feeling stumped – a bit paralyzed, really – when it comes to leading whole-class discussions and working example problems.)
- Algorithms are at the heart of decimal operations. Yes, conceptual understanding is crucial (duh), but let’s face it: When kids are successful at adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing decimals, they are meticulously following a whole bunch of rules.
In the past, I’ve ended up teaching boring lessons on one or two algorithms, peppering my explanations with lame disclaimers. (For instance: “Yes, you’ve learned this before—we’re just keeping it fresh,” and, “I know you don’t do it this way; that’s just fine. See if you can learn a second method.”) I am not at all happy with this approach. It sucks, basically.
I need to either think up some terrifically amazing way of differentiating (ensuring that all students are suitably challenged), or develop some brilliant method of having kids share their knowledge and coach their peers through the process of mastering these skills. Does anyone know of any structures for making this happen? (It’s not just collaboration that I’d want to happen, but rather, one kid would actually teach the skill to another kid.)
Seriously. What do you do in situations such as these!?
PS: Worth mentioning: I really struggled to nail down what I wanted to say for each of those bullet points, up there. I felt a sheepishly embarrassed to recognize (mid blog-post, too – eek!) that I’ve clearly spent an insufficient amount of time scrutinizing this situation. Ah well. I wrote the blog post, so up it goes! (I suppose there’s a lesson, there, too…)
PPS: I was going to share one recently attempted, halfway decent method of overcoming these struggles, but I think I’ll wait on that and see if y’all have anything better for me. (You’re just DYING of suspense, I bet. Sorry!) Also – I’m still in the middle of this unit; it’s not too late for me to change things up.