Thursday, August 10, 2017

Same But Not the Same
Dianne Shaver

In January, my youngest daughter had fraternal twins, Alyssa and Audrey.  They are now almost eight months old and are developing beautifully.  Audrey weighs three pounds more than Alyssa, and has brown eyes while Alyssa’s eyes are blue.  Both girls will need to meet the developmental milestones for 8 month old babies (i.e. sit unsupported, roll all the way around, chew on objects…etc.); however, they have required different size diapers, different formula as one of them has digestive issues, and they both have their own preferred way to be held as they are being fed to grow and develop to meet those milestones.

When they were first born, we fed them the same formula and used the same size diapers and realized that Alyssa was not gaining weight and growing at the expected rate. The diapers were always too big, and they kept slipping off.  As soon as we “differentiated” and met their individual needs, they began developing beautifully. These were temporary “scaffolds” to foster adequate development.  They will eventually be eating the same types of food and probably wearing the same size diaper.  The expectation is that both girls will develop and be successful in meeting the milestones of growth.

This made me think about our students.  Not all of them can be “fed the same formula” and be expected to learn to the depth that facilitates mastery.

Do some of our students need:

·        to experience their learning in a smaller group? 
·        one on one time regularly with their teacher to ensure their complete understanding or to determine just exactly what they don’t understand?
·        temporary supports that allow students to accomplish tasks that they otherwise would be unable to complete? 
·        to show mastery in a different way? 

Can we transform problems so they allow for more solutions or a wider range of responses?  Can we allow the student to chose a level of difficulty for certain problems to facilitate mastery of the concept?  How can we expand the access to a task or idea by addressing various interests, learning, styles, use of language, cultures, and readiness? How will we ensure that each student experiences challenges and yet the likelihood of success?  Many times it just takes a slight adjustment to allow everyone to learn.

“In the end, all learners need our energy, our heart, and our mind.  They have that in common because they are young humans.  How they need us, however, differs.  Unless we understand and respond to those differences, we fail many learners.”  (Carol Tomlinson)

Wishing all of you a very successful school year as you get to know and meet the needs of all of your students. They deserve our very best.   

(When you see me, please ask to see pictures of my sweet grandbaby twins!  You know that I will want to show them to you!)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Twitter as Professional Development

We Tried Something New
Last year as a Secondary Math Teaching and Learning team, we ventured into an endeavor that had never been tried before with secondary math teachers in our district.  We made the attempt to start a district based twitter chat that catered to the professional growth needs of the secondary math teachers of Round Rock ISD.  The aim of the twitter chat was to provide an innovative opportunity for teachers to participate in professional development.  When we think of  “professional development”, most time it raises the notion of travel, conference fees, arranging substitutes, and loss of precious instructional time.  Many teachers did not want to be away from their students, or felt the process of preparing for a substitute was just not worth it to them.  In response to these concerns, we invited teachers to join us in a twitter chat.  We wanted to show that professional development did not have to entail all the concerns posed by attending traditional formats.

As we moved further into the 21st century, we felt that we had to diversify our modality of professional development.  We were asking teachers to personalize learning for students, so we had to do the same for teachers.  We say we want our students to be lifelong learners, so we need to model that behavior by being adults that value continued learning for professional growth.  Formal degrees and training programs provide the foundation for our career paths, but long-term professional success depends largely on the openness to continued learning that included content knowledge, instructional strategies and resources.

Joining twitter can feel like opening the nozzle on a firehose.  There are hundreds of regional, topical, and level-specific Twitter chats available for educators each week, and participating in them for the very first time can be daunting.  This is particularly true for teachers not yet comfortable with the nuances of Twitter.  For these reasons, we started a twitter  chat specifically for the teachers of our district.  It was intended to be a safe environment for them to experience a Twitter chat and connect with other teachers from around other campuses.  Besides connecting with other teachers, this platform gave teachers an opportunity to reflect on their work.  They were able to share what had and hadn’t worked in their classroom.  

We dubbed our special day “Twitter Third Tuesdays”, and met at 7 pm for one hour using the hashtag #secmathchat.  To increase participation, we included door prizes for participants to win throughout the night, and even had prizes for the instructional coach who had the largest number of teachers from their campus(es) participate.  In total we hosted seven Twitter chats.  At the conclusion of each chat, we Storified the chat for individuals that were not able to attend.  Our discussions were substantive and invigorating. Despite our best efforts, the discussions were not well attended, usually consisting of mostly members of our Secondary Math Teaching and Learning team and a handful of teachers.  Our last Twitter chat included teachers from across the nation that stumbled onto our hashtag that outnumbered members of our district.  So at the end of the school year, we did what we ask our teachers to do and reflected on our practices.  It was determined that the investment of time and resources did not produce the returns to justify continuing the Twitter chat for the next school year.

Benefits of a Twitter Chat
Although we did not continue our Twitter chat, I do still feel that there are benefits in being a part of one.  Twitter chats offer instant opportunities to follow and learn from like-minded learning professionals worldwide around a particular subject area.  These spaces allow us to follow and learn from educators, authors, and other professional heroes and heroines who not only share information and resources but frequently initiate and invite direct engagement.  You could follow people who you would otherwise only have access to through books and articles.  Even if you don’t feel like you have a lot to say, there is power in retweeting.  Although this is an acceptable way to experience this virtual space, if one stops there they will miss out on its full potential.  

The idea of a Twitter chat is one great big conversation centered around a particular topic.  All you need to do is jump in.  Twitter chats take place when a group of educators “meet” on Twitter at an agreed upon time, using an agreed upon hashtag.  Any user can create a hashtag by adding it to his/ her own tweet.  These hashtag create a community around a topic of interest.  Participants sound off by sending tweets about things on their mind, and responding to tweets of others.  This back and forth helps participants build close relationships with each other.  These connections become an integral part of educators’ Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) that may have a substantial impact on refining practices, ideas, resources, and inspiration.

With Twitter chats, professional development is always in session.  You can read and respond to tweets at your own pace.  There is a variety of ways of interacting with chats.  Chats allow individuals to participate in conversations weekly, biweekly, monthly, and sometimes sporadically.  Typical chats have a duration of 60 minutes, but others are 30 minutes.  There are also “slow chats” that happen over an extended period of time.  Regardless of the version you participate in, the time commitment is minimal.

What’s Next
Although our in-district twitter chat was not a success on the scale we had hoped, it did open some of our teachers, instructional coaches, and curriculum personnel to the idea of using social media as a form of professional development.  You may be one that has little to no experience with twitter and twitter chats, but I implore you to start somewhere.  Our district no longer hosts a twitter chat, but there are a number of options out there for you to try.  Just jump in.  Tweet or don’t tweet.  Retweet or don’t retweet.  Your level of activity does not matter, just be active.

Use this site as a resource.

Monday, May 1, 2017

An Unknown Future

We’ve all heard the line about how educators are tasked with, “preparing students for jobs that don't exist”. Maybe you’ve seen this video, or one like it. Well, I did a little google search on the topic and was hit with over 2.9 million results in 0.40 seconds. I had no idea there was so much content out there. I spent ten minutes consuming as much information as I possibly could.

Why does this matter? What are the implications for math teachers? I’d like to share my takeaways...

  1. Change: “The system”, whether you’re looking at K-12 or higher education, must change in order to serve its customers. “That’s the way we’ve always done things” floats the line between irrelevance and injustice. It just doesn’t work. We need to shift our focus from ‘teaching’ to ‘learning’. We must embrace our role as facilitators of learning and create opportunities to let students get messy with content. As facilitators, we need to engage in reflective practices so that we don’t get stuck repeating practices that are outdated, ineffective, or unnecessary.
  1. Critical Thinking:  The answer isn’t so important anymore. I can google it. Or there’s an app to do the work for me. Our students have access to more information than they can fathom. Take heart...access to information doesn’t make the teacher replaceable! Rather, students need teachers to act as guides, creating context for information and asking questions.

In the math classroom, this means we need to make more noise. Are students discussing how they got a solution and why it’s valid? Are they communicating about trends or patterns? Are students asking the questions in order to process and connect new information with prior knowledge? We’ll know students are “doing the work” when there’s evidence of critical thinking.

  1. Collaboration: The ability to engage, communicate, and produce new things with others are essential skills for all learners. What opportunities are we providing for students to read, write, speak, and listen in the math classroom? Students need to engage in tasks that take them beyond checking to see if group members all got the same solution and into a place of collaboration and creativity.

Speaking about organizational leadership, author Andy Stanley made the comment that, “circles are better than rows.” His words are especially applicable for educators. How we physically organize our classrooms can facilitate or limit collaboration. We all know that collaboration goes far beyond any desk arrangement, but getting physically organized will set the stage for collaboration. Maybe we can make a small adjustment this week...

  1. Celebrations: All of this change opens the door to redefine success as a culture. And the culture that we each have the most influence upon is our classroom. “When you see something that exemplifies the culture you are trying to create, recognize it.” Recognition can come in the form of tangible rewards, verbal praise, high fives or fist bumps. What gets recognized gets repeated.

We may not know what jobs our students will be doing or what problems they’ll be tasked with solving, but we are faced with a great opportunity. We can ensure that our students are prepared for whatever they may encounter by facilitating their development as learners who think critically and collaboratively.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

My Journey to Authentic Engagement

Jeremy Lee

It’s 10:15 pm and I am reading a bedtime story to my two year old son (don’t judge).  I am completely enthralled in the story creating voices for characters and being the most engaging reader that I can be, when all of the sudden I read a sentence in the story that made me sad.  Not just like an awe sad, but a punch in the gut sad, a lost your dog sad, a genuine feeling of anguish, almost despair.  The character in the story is having a hard time falling asleep and says “I have tried everything.  
I even tried thinking of things that are boring, like math class.”
Engagement Trial #1
As a new teacher fresh out of college I was determined to make math fun.  I was sure by being an engaging and dynamic speaker my students would be excited to attend my class and want to do math.  I took the approach as if I was preaching a sermon.  I included stories and anecdotes and always drove home the main objective at the end of the speech.  Students would see the example that I had performed and would then replicate the steps on their own.  I even took it a step further and had the students explain their reasoning after each step.  Reasoning that I had already given to them in the sermon of example problems.  The students were simply being entertained by me, not truly engaged in the math itself.  
Engagement Trial #2
Growing professionally has always been at the top of my priority list and the driving movement of the time was the phrase “real world problems.”  This should make math even more engaging to the students.  I responded to this idea by continuing my sermons, but using “real world” examples.  I continued to strive to be an engaging speaker, but now the examples that I was presenting had a context that would hopefully make math even more engaging.   I gave examples of which the numbers must be extracted and be put into a structure that was provided by me for the students.  I used the “I do, We do, You do” philosophy to make it easier on us all.  Besides, learning should be easy, right?

Upon reflection of my own mathematical journey as a student, I realized that even with the goal of engaging my students, my students were not authentically engaged.  As a student I was never engaged in math problems.  I could, however, easily repeat steps and understand the reasoning behind the given steps to solve the example problems.  This made me appear “good at math”.  The engagement into mathematics did not arise for me until I was in college and attended a number theory class taught by Dr. Michael Starbird.   It was different.  No examples, only questions and statements to prove.  Questions posed in which students answered and discussed those answers as a class.  Each question posed was built upon the previous.  These were questions that provoked thought, logical reasoning, and ultimately our own creation of mathematics.  I was very uncomfortable.  It was a struggle and I learned more in that semester than I had in my entire student journey.  

As a class, we were authentically engaged in the math itself. Dr. Starbird was simply a coach, directing the conversations between his students.  This method was continued in my post graduate work under Dr. Mark Daniels.   Now through a lens of not only a student but also as a teacher of secondary math, I was able to appreciate the masterful way of guiding a classroom into authentic engagement.  The daily challenges were extremely beneficial to my mathematical understanding and solidified the results of this approach in my learning as well as my pedagogy.  I created a new goal that was a bit different from my original goal of being an engaging teacher.  It was to guide students to become authentically engaged in mathematics.

As a math teacher, I had fallen into the trap.  The trap of thinking that if math is easy for the students, then I must be doing an awesome job.  I should, however, expect a level of discomfort within the learners, just as I felt in beginning stages of my own experience of finally being engaged.  The growth happens in this uncomfortable state of not having the right answer instantly, yet being engaged in thought by the opportunity to prove the unknown.  Math should provoke thought and creativity.  It will be a struggle.  And, it will take time.  

Engagement in mathematics does not lie in an entertaining presentation or real world problems, but in the connections in the math itself.  Students become authentically engaged when they are wrapped up in the web that mathematics is constantly weaving.  When students can begin to ask questions of each other’s ideas and drive the learning process without examples or yes/no questions, mathematics becomes a creation from the students rather than monotonous repetition of rote processes (yes that is redundant and so is this teaching strategy).  The teacher becomes a coach or facilitator for the learning process of the class.  This does not insinuate that the teacher does nothing.  On the contrary, I would argue that it is much more difficult to prepare for this type of instruction.  Teachers must have a deep understanding of their content and must be ready for all paths that the class may take.

I am eternally grateful for the innovative instructors such as Dr. Starbird and Dr. Daniels at the University of Texas who are dedicated to inquiry based mathematics approach.  This Modified Moore Method of teaching allows access to sophisticated mathematics to the everyday student, creating mathematicians.  Giving the students tools to think and the ability to be creative is the goal in an engaging math classroom.  Students will begin to realize the complexity in the simplest statements and the beauty of pure mathematics.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Education: From "Here" to "There"

Southpark Mall in Shreveport, Louisiana was one of the first large shopping malls built during the late 70’s in North Louisiana.  From a people watching perspective, it was awesome.  From a ‘get what you need’ perspective, it could be a frustrating experience filled with questions like:  Where am I?  Where is that store?  Which direction do I go?   

The “Directory”, a mass produced map of the entire kingdom, was the key to answering these questions.  It was here that the weary and confused stood and performed the same routine:  look up, look down … look up, look down … point, nod, and proceed.   Deciphering the map was made easier when each Directory was customized with “YOU ARE HERE” labels.   

So much work for answers to three simple questions: 
  1. Where am I? 
  2. Where am I going?
  3. How do I get there?

If you thought maneuvering a shopping mall was frustrating, you should have tried traveling using a
printed map.  For many just folding the map was a challenge … much less trying to answer those three questions (especially if you had the map upside down).  Fortunately, for many direction challenged people, google has simplified our task and alleviated much of the frustration.  At the touch of an App all we need to do is follow the blue line to get from where we are to where we desire.  It even gives options in case of road construction, an accident, or just a desire to see the countryside.

For educators, classroom teaching can be like planning and taking a journey every day.  We have to ask and answer those same questions.
  1. Where are they? (what do my students know)
  2. Where do they need to go? (what do they need to know).
  3. How do they get there? (How will they experience the material so that learning happens)

Fortunately there are a number of tools and resources to help answers those questions and the challenges of often needing alternate pathways (differentiated instruction).  The power of collaborative teams, curriculum maps, digital tools, and much more are at our disposal (even Google).  While answering those questions in a classroom of diverse learners is not as easy as “the touch of an App” it still should be much better than a confusing experience with a  1970’s mall directory or a time-consuming wrong-turn experience with a Rand McNally Road Atlas.  Let’s make every effort to use those tools and resources so we all enjoy the journey that is education.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Routines, Procedures, and Celebrations

Growing up, I spent the summers at my grandparents’ cottage on a lake in Northern Michigan. We’d eat oatmeal for breakfast, picnic at the beach for lunch, and spend our evenings watching Jeopardy or playing board games. The days were hot, but night time called for a sweatshirt…my favorite weather! Sitting on the porch early in the day, you’d hear the hum of boat engines, even though you couldn’t see them from our spot on the hill. No smart phones, no internet, no friends to play with. This wasn’t a fancy place, but it sure was good. The simple routines created a safe and fun environment that, as an adult, I am so thankful for. 

Creating a safe and fun environment is also important in our classrooms. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but it does require intentionality. Routines, procedures, and celebrations are the foundational elements of classroom culture. The beginning of a school year is the ideal time to examine the routines, procedures, and celebrations we have it place. Consider the following:

  • What classroom systems have you established that work really well?
  • What is something new you want to try?
  • How might your experience be different if a new procedure is implemented for a usually challenging experience in your classroom?" How do you explicitly teach your classroom expectations? What verbal and visual cues to you regularly use?
  • What do you celebrate in your classroom?

And what does any of this have to do with math? The classroom environment sets the stage for how students understand content. We want our students to personally, specifically, and actively experience math. In his book, “How the Brain Learns”, David A. Sousa writes, “Emotional climate is directly related to classroom climate, which is regulated by the teacher.” As the teacher, you have the power to create routines, procedures, and celebrations to guide your classroom culture and facilitate student success. Routines and procedures create safety and minimize distractions. Celebrations are a way to positively reinforce the values you want to define your classroom culture. None of these things happen by accident. Take time to reflect on your current systems. Make a plan for implementation. And celebrate along the way!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Silly rabbit tricks are for kids! Or are they?

As we come into another testing season, I am reminded of my first year teaching mathematics in the public school classroom. As a naïve new teacher, I had every confidence that my 7th graders were going to knock the socks off the state assessment. I had spent the entire year giving my math students the tools they needed to be successful on the state exam; furthermore, I felt I had prepared them for their future math classes. I thoroughly taught them every math trick
I had picked up on in my teacher prep courses and from veteran teachers willing to share them  on my campus.

The butterfly method for adding and subtracting fractions.

The bat and ball method for solving proportions.

The alligator eats the larger number for comparing rational numbers.  

Keep change flip to multiply fractions.

I quickly realized that there are so many tricks that it could be quite confusing for the students. In short, I may have been doing more harm than good. If I were a doctor I may have been cited for not living up to the Hippocratic Oath.  But what if I teach my students all the necessary rules and algorithms to solve math problems? Is that any better?  Although well intended, in reality I felt that even following logical rules was more focused on teaching students to follow instructions rather than providing a pathway to become mathematicians.

Where did I lose my way?  I was turning my students into robots that have an operating system, able only to do simple tasks like memorization of facts and tedious procedures. What about critical thinking, applying prior learning to new experiences, and being able clearly explain reasoning?

The argument is made that we don’t have enough time to do those types of things, but a good friend of mine always responds, "We don't have time not to do it." Initially, the time spent is greater, but the benefits are also greater. Teaching students conceptually allows them to retain more and learn more, thus allowing for fewer misconceptions when introducing new content from year to year.

“But what about the yearly state assessment?” you ask. Having a solid conceptual foundation, I believe, is far more useful than a bag of tricks. If we have worked with our students on reasoning practices, explaining their thinking, and problem solving tools, won’t our students at the very least confidently eliminate unreasonable answer choices on any given assessment?  Perhaps students will even reason all the way through a given math problem. 

I have recently started reading "What's Math Got to Do with It?" by Jo Boaler.  In the book she tries to answer the exact question we have raised, saying, "It [math] has a lot to do with children having low self esteem throughout their lives because they are made to feel bad in math classes; it also has a lot to do with children not enjoying school as they are made to sit through uninspiring lessons, and it has a lot to do with the future of the country, given that we urgently need more mathematical people to help with jobs in science, medicine, technology, and other fields."

Let me end by challenging myself and other math teachers to reflect on the lasting impact we have on our students when we reduce the beauty of math to a collection of tricks.  I believe this quote from the Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science sums it up quite nicely.  "Show a child some tricks and he will survive this week’s math lesson. Teach a child to think critically and his mind will thrive for a lifetime."

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Few Good Words?

"You can't handle the truth" ... Perhaps one of the most iconic movie lines ever delivered on screen by the infamous Jack Nicholson to the sharp dressed attorney played by Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men".

Are we silently replaying that scene in classrooms in an effort to simplify math?  Is the absence of precise academic language because we don't believe our students can handle the truth? There are times when the terms "roots, solutions, zeroes, and x-intercepts" are used interchangeably as if they all mean the same thing.  But do they?  A quick Google search reveals some nuances to those terms that would indicate they are not all the same.  Do we fail to shed light because we believe a half truth is less confusing than the whole truth?  Is it just not that important?  What other academic words do we bypass because they contain too many syllables?  Or the ones we can replace with simpler, more "descriptive" words.   What about the word we can define less precisely?  It serves the immediate need but does not build the conceptual base required for next year.  

Let's face it ... Math has a rich vocabulary.  It is a needed vocabulary that can and should be handled.  So let's challenge each other to use the vocabulary .... The complete and precise language of math.  May our plea be that of Tom Cruise, "I want the truth".