Sunday, September 11, 2016

Week 1 Reflection: Groupwork

One of the books I read this summer was Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom by Elizabeth G. Cohen & Rachel A. Lotan. I have always wanted to do a more effective job of having my students work in groups.  I believe that rich group tasks are an authentic way for students to develop their mathematical thinking and it gives them an opportunity to work like mathematicians.  Too many times students develop the inaccurate belief that mathematicians sit alone in their offices pondering challenging mathematical ideas and concepts.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Mathematicians not only discuss ideas with each other, they also build on each other's work.  Sometimes over hundreds or thousands of years.

Through reading Designing Groupwork I began to understand how to develop the necessary skills in my students so that they could work in groups effectively.  I am a work in progress and will continue to reflect on the ideas of Cohen and Lotan.  In the appendix of the book, the authors provide activities that are constructed to develop students' abilities to work together effectively.  I decided to start the first week of school by using these activities with my students.

One of the biggest hurdles I had was in getting groups to share out their strategies they used in the activities during our whole group wrap up at the end of class.  Although students were engaged during the activity, it was quite the opposite when it came to the whole group.  My focus was on getting students to share their strategies so they could see that there were many "paths" to the solution.  This was important to me because I want to emphasize the importance of strategy over the solution.  So often students are so focused on "did I get the right answer" that they overlook the richness of the way (or ways) to get there.  I'm pretty patient and can sit with the "wait time" fairly well; letting the silence hang in the air in the hopes that a student will fill it.  But my goodness they just weren't opening up!

Somehow I stumbled on the idea of debriefing the groups individually as they finished the task and flushing out their particular strategy.  Then I would ask the individual group if they would be willing to share their strategy with the whole group because I thought there was value in other students hearing about it.  This worked extremely well!  I don't know if it was because I gave value to their strategy, asked "permission" for them to share, or built up their confidence so they felt comfortable sharing.  Whatever the reason, I was happy that I had more groups sharing during our whole group debriefing.

My other take away was coming to the realization that the success of a task or activity isn't always related solely to the activity itself.  It matters whether or not I feel some connection to the task.  There were a couple of activities that I just didn't feel a connection to and they did not go as well as the others.  They were perfectly good tasks, but I just didn't connect to them for some reason.  It makes me wonder if other educators have had this same observation.  Maybe my disconnection influenced how I navigated through the task and kept it from being as successful as it could have been.  And I wonder what was it specifically that kept me from connecting to it?  I'm not sure of the answer but I will continue to ponder the question as I try more tasks throughout the year.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Facing the Fear of Change

Here we are.  The day before we return for another school year.  My classroom is ready, at least for the most part.  Beginning of the year professional development has been completed.  Students are on my rosters.  And that is where I begin to feel the panic, worry, and fear set in.

Large classes with a large population of at-risk kids.  The plans of drastically changing what I have been doing year after year start to seem overwhelming.  The self-doubt sets in and throwing out the summer of research and hard work seems like an increasingly safe idea.

There is some solace in continuing to do things the way you've always done them.  At least you know what each day will bring.  Good or bad, the days will at least be familiar.  It is that fear of the unknown that can so eloquently stop us dead in our tracks.  It is in that space of the unknown that the "what ifs" take shape.  What if it doesn't work?  What if students push back at the changes?  What if parents push back?  What if I can't keep up with the workload?  What if...I fail.

Fear can be crippling.  It can stop us from making changes we know in our hearts are worthwhile.  It can turn opportunities into obstacles and possibilities into panic attacks.  How, then, do you we handle fear?  How do we face it?  How do we take away its' power?  Catherine Pratt puts an interesting spin on this fear of change in her blog post Life Change - 6 Reasons Why We're Afraid to Change.
"If you let it, your imagination can dream up a never ending supply of terrible things that could happen.  But let's think about it.  You have the ability to imagine the absolute worst thing that could happen so that means you also have the skill to use your energy to imaging the absolute best thing that could happen.  It's a matter of focus.  Why do you waste so much time imagining the worst when there's just as much of a chance of the best outcome happening?"
Fear is a choice.  We can choose to envision the worst of possibilities.  Or we can choose to envision the best.  Ultimately, neither one of them have become our reality.  Yet.

So I begin to imagine the possibilities.  The possibility that my students will take ownership over their learning because they have been given a voice in what they learn, how they learn it, and how they are assessed.  The possibility that my students develop number sense through authentic number talks.  The possibility that my students develop their critical thinking, creativity problem solving, communication, collaboration, connection making, and curiosity.  The possibility that they view mathematics conceptually rather than through mere procedure alone.  The possibility that they begin to think like mathematicians and, dare I say it, begin to love math!

I'm not sure which reality will become my truth.  Maybe a bit of each.  But I do know this, if I can choose which direction my mind will wander, I'll choose the one that puts a smile on my face.

And somehow, the fear begins to slip away.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Halting the Hiatus

My how time flies!  Sometimes, the best of ideas get placed on the back burner.  Maybe for good reasons.  Maybe because the rhythms of life took you somewhere else for awhile.  Either way, I've decided to return to this place to share my thoughts (and my adventures) into this journey we call teaching.

It really is a journey.  One on which we hope to grow and become better teachers; for our students, our students' parents, and for ourselves.   Although it is sometimes a difficult journey, filled with self-doubt, unending criticism, and daunting goals, we trudge on.  You hope that the passion you had when you began this career as an educator will carry you through.  Sometimes it does.  Sometimes it doesn't.

We all reach those dark moments.  The moment you wonder whether or not you want to (or can) carry on in a career as an educator.  Some of us realize we can't and leave.  And that's okay.  Choosing to do something different is really just another choice in life and not necessarily an indication of failure.

For some, the passion continues to brew; although it feels a million miles away.  You look in the mirror and wonder what happened to the idealistic educator who so passionately put together their first classroom that first year.  Or second.  Or maybe even tenth.  You know that passion still resides within you; buried deep beneath the pointless PD, laundry list of standards, requirements to post learning targets, and overwhelming evaluation rubrics that make it clear no one can ever really be "highly effective" in every area because of those nasty little "all" or "every" clauses in the matrix.

And then, you make a choice.  To stay.  Like every other choice in life there are pros and cons.  You decide to focus on the positive and overcome the negative.  They exist with every decision we make after all.  You recognize you need to make some substantial changes in hopes of rekindling that passion.  They will take work of course; much worth doing usually does.  And then you begin to feel that passion, rise yet again.  And it feels...right.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teachers for the Accountability of Parents (TAP)

No Child Left Behind was the biggest shift in trying to legislate good teaching in my opinion. I'm not against holding teachers accountable for educating children. Many of our kids have no power or control over the situations they find themselves in; addict parents, poverty, custody battles, parents battling cancer and other health issues. It is the adults in their lives that do have influence over these conditions. Those adults with the most influence are their parents. The educators in a child's life have very little yet they are the only ones being held accountable through legislation. 

In extreme cases there are laws protecting children from abuse and neglect. There are organizations (like CPS) who can remove a child from these conditions. We have social programs like food stamps, WIC, and public housing to help support families in financial crisis. We have Pell Grants and student loans that offer parents the opportunity to go to college and end the cycle of generational poverty. I understand that it is not an easy task to improve ones situation but there is help. 

Let's be real for a moment. How many teachers have gotten the brunt end of an angry parent of a child who is failing because they are choosing not to work in class. I get there are many reasons why a student may not work. I personally know many educators who have tried everything to help; giving up family time to stay after and personally tutor students, accommodating assignments, giving multiple opportunities to improve on a test, etc. Yet the parents don't provide a quiet place to work at home, have no consequences at home for their students lack of work in school, take them on vacation or hunting when the student is suspended, buy them expensive cell phones as if they are required to provide them.  Do parents not understand that when they blame the teacher they remove all accountability from their children and set a lifelong precedence of blame everyone and everything else?

Now before anyone decides to lambaste me for calling out parents let me put on my parent hat for a moment (I have five kids, three of them, in college). I work hard as a parent and I teach my kids responsibility and hold them accountable. I take away their privileges when they aren't doing what they are supposed to in school. Yes, they can survive without a cell phone. There was a time when parents made arrangements for rides home from after school events before cell phones. It can be done! I check my childrens'  grades regularly and if I get busy and haven't checked I don't blame the teacher if my student has missing assignments or is failing. I blame my kids and kick myself for slacking in MY job as a parent. 

So why aren't we calling for the legislation of good parenting? As I see it there are three stakeholders in a child's success; the parent, the student, and the teacher. In that order! Parents have the most influence in holding students accountable and supporting their success. Yet there is no legislation requiring that they do so. That is absurd!  And that, my friends, is what's wrong with the education system. 

Rather than tapping out and leaving education, which many teachers have done or have considered, why aren't we collectively calling for holding parents accountable? Where are the parent evaluations? The pendulum is constantly moving in education. Maybe the next move will be in the direction of parent accountability. Maybe we teachers need to speak out and give it a little push. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Flipped Update: Meeting the Needs of Advanced Students

Many times I find myself focusing on how to help students who are struggling.  It's the main reason I decided to flip my 9th grade math class a few years ago.  However, I have had an interesting situation develop with my advanced students.

After trying flipped mastery at the beginning of the year and realizing it wasn't working (read Week 3 Reflection: Regrouping) I returned to the flipped format I was using last year.  Prior to our winter break we gave students an assessment over the Linear Functions unit.  Unfortunately, the results were extremely disappointing.  Most students failed, so after break we regrouped, reviewed, and re-assessed.  However, I had 13 students (out of about 100) who scored 80% or higher.  I just couldn't stomach the thought of making them review and reassess when they clearly understood the concepts.  So I gave them a choice; you can review and reassess with the rest of the class OR you can move ahead and work at your own pace.  ALL 13 students took me up on the idea!

Luckily I have most everything ready from last year's flipped Algebra 1 class and only need to tweak a few things and stay ahead of the most eager student.  I have them sitting in a group together, helping one another and coming to me when they have questions.  After they check the practice assignment for each concept against the answer key they must meet with me briefly.  From time to time they will pause (of their own free will) and be my "classroom experts" and help other students.  I have a few who are very eager and will be ready for the final exam for this trimester in the next week or so.  The trimester doesn't end until the beginning of March!

Our typical path for students is Algebra 1 in 9th grade, Geometry in 10th, Algebra 2 in 11th and a senior math class (either Trig, Stats, or Consumers Math).  If students were identified in 7th grade as advanced they took Algebra 1 in 8th grade which put them on course to take AP Calculus their senior year.  I have spoken with a few of the most advanced students who are progressing rapidly about the possibility of not only finishing the Algebra 1 curriculum this year but getting started on Geometry.  This gives them the opportunity to advance through our curriculum and be able to take AP Calculus their senior year (Geometry, Algebra 2, and Trig are only 2 trimesters, Algebra 1 is 3).  Thus far the several students I have spoken with about this opportunity are excited for the challenge!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Finding Myself, Defining Myself

Over the last few months I have taken an unannounced hiatus from this blog.  Recently I've come across a couple of articles that seem to articulate the impetus for my silence.  I decided it was time to write again.


When I began teaching I was idealistic, eager, and very focused.  Admittedly to my own detriment.  If standards were supposed to by my guiding force, well then, I would know them inside and out and have them drive everything I do in the classroom.  If my evaluation was to be based on student achievement I would pour over that data and use it to guide my instruction.  If creating engaging lesson plans meant sacrificing time with my family then I would make the sacrifice.  The result?  I got burned out.

I recently began to realize that I wasn't happy with my career choice anymore.  Being a teacher used to feel like my calling.  Now it just feels like a job.  One in which rules and regulations are decided by people who have no experience teaching, assessments of my abilities are quantified when in reality much of what I do is qualitative, and what qualifies as true learning has been dissected into a laundry list of standards I must cover rather than an environment of opportunities I'm allowed to create based upon my own experience and the true needs of my students.  I can relate to a veteran teacher in the article I Would Love to Teach But  who states that;
To pursue this calling, I worked hard to earn the title of “classroom teacher,” but I became quickly disillusioned when my title of teacher did not in any way reflect my actual job.
 And the public's perception of my job is no more positive.  From the article In What Other Profession David Reber states;
If a poverty-stricken, drug-addled meth-cooker burns down his house, suffers third degree burns, and then goes to jail; we don’t blame the police, fire department, doctors, and defense attorneys for his predicament. But if that kid doesn’t graduate high school, it’s clearly the teacher’s fault.
Although he's using sarcasm the unfortunate reality is that there is much that is made a teacher's responsibility that is clearly student/parent responsibility.  At least is should be clear.

Recently I had coffee with my father and we discussed the articles our superintendent writes in the local paper.  He wondered why there has not been a letter addressing parents' responsibility.  There have been articles addressing student achievement, curriculum, and state mandates so why not parent responsibility.  I also wonder why there are no state regulations mandating parent responsibility.  After all parents have more control over their students than we do as teachers.


I decided that I needed to somehow change the direction I was going in.  I started teaching late in life (I turned 40 my first year of teaching) and our financial situation requires me to keep working toward my pension and health benefits.  It was time to pull back and focus on myself and my family.  In essence, it was time to find myself separate from my position as a teacher.  I scaled back the time I spent on work from home and spent that time with my husband/children and on my own hobbies.  Magically, lesson plans still got done as did grading.  But I became a better mother, better wife, and better me.  I began to delve into my creative side again.  I began to knit, crochet, and sew again.  Something I haven't done in years.  I started to find myself.

Most importantly, I began to realize that I didn't have to be the "best" at what I do to still be happy with the job I do.  The perfectionist in me thought the only way to be satisfied with a job well done was to be the absolute best at it.  The perfectionist in me was wrong.  There is a critical balance that needs to be created and maintained for me to happy.  There is a lot about the politics of teaching that I have come to despise.  I have had to learn to define myself and the job I do outside of that political arena.  It means that I let go of evaluations, standards, and the like.  It means that I concentrate on supporting children in transitioning to adulthood.  It's high school after all.

I teach.  It's what I do not who I am.  Who I am is a caring, empathetic adult who enjoys helping children become the best adult they can be.  And THAT makes me happy.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Week 4 Reflection: Progress

This week I found myself able to breathe and relax a bit. Students are getting comfortable with class and are realizing I expect them to take responsibility for their own understanding. Memorable moment of the week; a student whose struggling completed a practice assignment, upon grading it realized they had many mistakes and asked "can't I just turn it in to have it done?"  No Honey, it's not about completion, it's about understanding.  We are making progress. Slow, steady progress. 

As students come into class I have the tracking spreadsheet up.  If you are in the red you're in a row. Being in the red means that students haven't completed their WSQ (watched video, summarized with notes, and answered questions online).  In rows they need to grab a netbook and complete their WSQ. 

For those in groups we've been starting class with our Rapid Review. Students grab a whiteboard and I put up some problems from the concept covered in huge video. They work them out, show me their answers/work and I can identify who needs help and provide some remediation. I also use students' answers to their online submissions (the "Q" part of WSQ) to guide what we do for Rapid Review. 

Next students have flex time and work on their practice. I also use this time to pull together small groups for remediation and help students individually. We end class with a whole class activity. Lately we've been finding mistakes in student work or doing number talks. 

We also have a number of interventions from our Freshman Academy including academic detentions, meeting with counselors, parent calls home, and Link Crew lunch study buddies. There are a few students I need to meet with about retaking their first unit test. Progress is happening. Slowly but surely.