Khan Academy in the Classroom

So, I teach math…  Granted, I teach fundamentals of math classes for Special Education students, so when I say I “teach” math, I basically skim the surface of the major mathematical concepts and hope that nobody asks me too many in-depth questions.  Like “Why?”  I hate “Why?”s… they make my brain shrug.

Honestly, I’m not so modest that the above paragraph should not be taken at face value.  I made straight C’s in math in high school.  Except for Algebra II.  That one was a D… possibly a D-minus.  I think I only “passed” because my dad knew the teacher – two grumpy old men determined that I shouldn’t not graduate because I couldn’t solve advanced Algebraic equations.  Thank goodness.  Besides, I was going to major in English, so who cares about a D in my senior year math class?

If I could go back and smack my 17-year-old self upside the head… I probably wouldn’t.

When I was hired for my current position four years ago and found out that I would be teaching both math and English for 6th-12th grade Special Education students… I almost said “Yeah… no!?”

But three months into the job, I was thrilled that I hadn’t.  Not just because I love my delinquents, but because I was finally learning math.

In the education field, studies show that in order to truly learn a subject, you must be able to teach it, too.  Man, I could write a book on how true that statement is… The first few weeks, I was teaching 6th-, 7th-, 8th grade math, Algebra I, Geometry, and Mathematical Models (which was, at the time, a course designed to prepare students for the 11th grade math state test to determine whether they could graduate or not).  Oh, yeah… I was ALSO teaching English and reading at every secondary level, a couple of science classes, and world geography.

God, that paragraph sounds complain-y.

Was it difficult?  Yes.  Was it stressful?  You have no idea.

But it was worth it.

Every frantic minute taught me a lesson.  Every exhausted afternoon that left me nodding off on the couch before dark was a day that I made an impact.  Every “ummm… I have no idea what the answer to this word problem is…” made me a stronger teacher.

Okay, now ask me how I finally figured out not only how to do math, but how to teach it, too… C’mon, you know you want to know.

Two words:  the Internet.

So, a couple of years later, when I found out about Khan Academy, my first thought was “WHERE WERE YOU TWO YEARS AGO, SAL?!”  And my second thought was, “WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, SAL?!”

Screen shot 2013-10-18 at 5.22.51 PM

And, you know, there are a lot of people in the education world who criticize Sal Khan and his online school.  I get it.  He’s not a teacher by education or training.  And he’s not always using the correct pedagogical explanations for his lessons.  But.


Imagine a world in which everybody (everybody!) with internet access can learn whatever they want to learn.

Earlier today, I ran across a post on Facebook:

Screen shot 2013-10-18 at 4.56.19 PMFirst thought: “Jesus. That’s beautiful.  Khan Academy to Columbia… That’s the fucking American Dream, no?”

Second thought: “Maybe I want to work for Sal…”

Third thought: “Nahhhh…. I love my delinquents too much to leave.”

Okay, so regardless of my train of thought, I did a little Googling, and ran across a WaPo guest post criticizing Khan Academy…. not for what it is, but for how it’s done.

“We face very real challenges in K-12 education today, and they will not be solved with just a Wacom tablet and a YouTube account. Instead, they’ll be solved by teachers who understand their content; who understand how children learn; who walk into the classroom every day and think, ‘I know exactly what I’m going to say, because that’s what teaching means.’ -Karim Kai Ani, Washington Post guest blogger

And, in a lot of ways, I agree.  As Master in Education, I want the pedagogy to be correct… I want Sal to be a great teacher with the education and credibility to back up the hyperbolic pseudonyms the media is giving him.  But I want to believe that we can provide a free and equal education for the whole world. At least it’s a jumping-off point.

The argument can be made (and has been, on my Facebook page) that it’s not meant to be used as a sole source of education.  And I agree, it’s not meant to be used that way.  But it is being used that way, regardless of intentions.  Public school districts (mine included) are using Khan Academy’s video and lesson system to “supplement” classroom mathematics instruction.

My point isn’t that Khan Academy’s not good, but that if schools are going to try to use it to replace direct teaching (which they are currently doing in my district and several others nearby), to free up classroom time for other things (like investigation and experimentation), then it needs to be BETTER than it is currently.

Part of the problem is that a teacher with 100+ students and only one prep period will find that it’s so easy to fall into a pattern of using something like Khan Academy to teach for him/her. (It happens all the time already.)  There have got to be checks and balances in place to ensure that it’s used properly in classrooms before we start using it there. It’s free, and in the education world right now, that’s all that matters.

If it’s used as it’s intended to be used – as a resource for tutorials and practice – then there are magnificent possibilities in the time it can open for teachers and students in the classroom.  But if the instructional pedagogy isn’t embedded in the lessons, then it’s not enough to replace direct instruction.

There is a real opportunity here for world-wide collaboration and discussion.  If Khan Academy can be held to the standards of research-based practices and pedagogy that most universities are, there is no reason that it can’t one day evolve into an educational reform platform that changes the way we “do” education around the world.

But it has to be done correctly.  Methodically.  And without government interference.

And unfortunately, Sal, you’re not quite there yet.  Close, but no cigar.

So, I won’t be using it in my classroom as direct instruction.  As a resource? Sure.  As extra practice? Of course.  As a refresher? You bet.

For now, though, that’s all it will be inside my cinder block walls.


Lesson Planning

(This was moved from the end of Classroom Management – Part 3)

I am lucky to have that online curriculum, so I only spend about 10-20 minutes each week preparing for math – just long enough to print out and read over the daily assignments for that week. (Lately, I’ve been printing whole units at once.) Most of the time, I give kids a week’s worth of work at a time because some will fly through it, some will take just long enough, and some will need more than a week to finish it.  Giving them a week at a time means I don’t have to scramble around for extra work if they finish a daily assignment early.

For English, my planning time varies.  I base my grammar/vocabulary assignments on what problems I notice in their writing assignments.  A few years ago, I found some really good workbooks and made mini-lessons for a variety of problems, and made a bunch of copies of each one.  So when I notice that one student is having trouble with subject-verb agreement, his grammar assignment that week will probably be on that.  That means not all students are doing the same assignment, but my stockpile allows me to pick and choose.  Were I in a traditional classroom, I would do this the same way.  They would get a weekly grade for “Grammar,” but Johnny’s assignment might not be the same as Susie’s.
For some good help with teaching grammar and writing skills, check out Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined or Everyday Editing.  Kids really struggle with editing because they think once they’ve written it, it’s finished.  We as teachers need to model good writing and editing.  When my students are doing their writing assignments, I spend at least half the time sitting right at the table with them writing my own (some of which may end up here at some point), and then I show them how I edit my own work.

I also keep notes for myself from year to year – what worked, what didn’t.  Almost like a teacher’s journal.  I’ve also been keeping all of the assignments I’ve ever given on a flashdrive.  There are hundreds of documents on it from the past 8 years.  If I pull a worksheet from a book, I scan it to a PDF and it goes on the flashdrive to be used later.  I am not the most organized person, but digitally, I look like Martha Stewart.  It just makes life easier.

Classroom Management—Part 3: Keep ’em Busy

One of the biggest mistakes teachers make (newbies and vets alike), is failing to plan enough work to keep your kiddos busy for the entire time you have them.  I don’t care if you’re teaching AP classes or the worst of the worst, if they don’t have something to keep them busy, they’re going to misbehave.

So the question is: How do you keep them busy, without give them busy work?  Because, believe you me, once they realize that’s what you’re giving them, they will shut down on you.  Everything you do in class must be for a purpose.  Whether it’s something that will help them on a test later, or something that will be graded, it must be clearly defined.  If you’re showing a video just to kill time (let’s face it, we all do this at some point or another), there should be at least one question about it on their next quiz or test.

Planning ahead is hard for me.  I’m a procrastinator.  It’s has plagued me all my life.  My way of coping with that is to set a schedule both for myself and for my kids.  My kid’s schedule is on the board…

Most of my students are with me for English, so this is the basis for our day.  The few math students I have follow the district’s set curriculum which I access online.  Since I don’t have the same resources as the other schools – and since I only have these kids for 30-60 days – I kind of do my own thing for English.

“Grammar” on the board includes vocabulary and editing, as well as parts of speech and other regular grammarly things.  They do a lot of writing here, and I do reading comprehension checks through self-selected texts.  We don’t get to do much literature study, unfortunately, since I have 6th-12th graders all mixed together, but we do spend some time on literary elements.  When they write their reading logs, they have to write about one of those elements that they’ve noticed in their self-selected reading material.

The two weekly writing assignments are used to teach proofreading and editing skills.  All of our students are required to participate in 1.5 hours/day of Character Education.  They take a 7 Habits class, and all the core teachers incorporate it into our lesson plans.  So on Mondays, my students get a writing prompt that asks them to either analyze a given situation, or think about a character dilemma and discuss thought processes and actions.  For free writing day, they either get to choose their own topic, or pick one from the board…

Sometimes, I have kids who finish assignments very quickly (because we tend to over-identify Special Ed students in our district, and they probably don’t need to be in my class), so for those kids, I keep a binder of “Extra” work that challenges them a bit more, but is still relevant to what we do in class.  Or, they get to spend time typing their writing assignments to build their computer skills.

About once a week, as a special privilege for those with good behavior, students get to play games on my classroom iPad.  Yes, I bribe them.  And I’m not ashamed of it.  Many of my kids can’t afford such thing, so I see it as experience building.

So, my advice for those of you struggling with kiddos who get “bored” and act up – give them more work than they could possibly do in a single class period.  Teach them to prioritize by telling them what order to do things in.  Then have a “finish up” day for any work they didn’t get a chance to finish in class, or set the expectation that whatever isn’t finished is homework.  (I have strong opinions on homework, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

What are your tricks to stave off bad behavior from boredom?

Read my Lesson Planning tips.

Until next time…

A Very Wonderful Thing

A Very Wonderful Thing happened today.  One of my students, who is back again for the 3rd or 4th time since I’ve been teaching here, began reading a new book this week (from the Bluford Series), and today I had to ask him to PUT IT DOWN so we could go to lunch!  He wanted to keep reading “because it’s getting good, Miss.”  This child used to stare blankly at a book for hours, daydreaming or dozing off, but my new Reading Log system means he HAS to read (something, anything, I don’t care if it’s a cereal box), and now he WANTS to finish it. I would bet money that he’s never finished a book – ever.  This is a magical event… I can’t even… I mean.  Wow.  (There were ALMOST tears; there was DEFINITELY clapping. But, you know, these are mini “tough” guys, so you can’t be all *excited girly moment* or they will shut down.)

I wanted to be all like


But I didn’t.

Until next time!

Teaching with Technology

One of my favorite teacher bloggers, Mr. Coward, is one of my mentors, even if he doesn’t know it.  I’ve been following his blog since my second year of teaching, which was my first year teaching middle school.  Since the middle school animal is quite a different breed from the high school animal, I turned to the internet for help, as any good first wave Millennial will do…  And I ran across his awesome Seventh Grade blog, and have been along for the ride ever since. Continue reading

Classroom Management Part 2: Shutting Down Back-talk

“It takes one fool to talk back.  It takes two fools to have a conversation. – Fred Jones Tools for Teachers

In Part 1, I discuss the easiest, least time-consuming method for stopping unwanted behavior in a classroom.  It’s always the step that I start with, and my students know “the look” very well.  However, it doesn’t always work.  There are those students who want attention, and in some cases, even negative attention will do for them.  You know those kids.  They are argumentative, hot tempered, and sometimes quite rude. Continue reading

Classroom Management Part 1: The Look

When I first started teaching, I was a 22 year-old non-education major teaching high school English.  My students were 9th and 10th graders, so there wasn’t a ton of difference between our ages, especially since several of them were repeating the class.  Not only was I clueless about how to manage a classroom, but I didn’t even have the same type of background these kids did, so I couldn’t relate to them well at all.  Growing up in the Midwestern farm town didn’t give me a great deal of comparison to my urban student population.  Talk about being out of your comfort zone. Continue reading


I should probably tell you about my school.  I work in an alternative school for kids who have been kicked out of regular schools for disciplinary reasons.  I teach English and math special education students in grades 6-12.  So, my room is usually full of students from 12-18 years old, studying geometry postulates, learning to add fractions, writing book reports, or diagramming sentences.  (That’s not true, I don’t teach diagramming sentences, because it’s boring and not very useful. But you get the idea.)  They stay with us for as few as 30 days or as many as 120 days, depending on what they did to get sent here. Continue reading

Moments like these

I teach math. Granted, I teach math (and English) to Special Education students, but I still teach math.  When I got my current position, I didn’t tell my boss that I almost failed Algebra II in high school and had to take remedial Algebra in college.  (Sorry, boss.)  The weird thing about this whole situation is that I am actually enjoying teaching math. Continue reading