I Like Math

I like math. I like how it makes me question, pull things apart, wonder deeply, think harder than I ever thought I could, feel excited about small successes, and much more.

I was asked by the parent of two kids that I am tutoring, one in Algebra I and the other in Algebra II, if math always came easy to me. I thought back and realized, for the most part, yes. There was one year in elementary school when I had a teacher who was very impatient and unwilling to explain things that I gave up and gave wrong answers just to be wrong. I realize now, that I knew the math well enough to knowingly give wrong answers, and I did it just to annoy him because I could. I was angry that he wouldn’t take the time to explain to the kids who didn’t understand how to do it.

In high school I had the most wonderful teacher for Algebra I and Geometry. He was an elderly gentleman, who was known for being “mean” and strict. I purposely chose him for both years and I learned so much. I had 100% in both classes and he moved me to the honors track from there. (Honors just meant you were taking harder classes, it didn’t improve your GPA at that time). I worked hard in his class, but I walked away really understanding the math, number sense, critical thinking and problem-solving. I was blessed to have two years with this teacher, he pushed me to a level I never would have reached otherwise.

When I needed to think about a different career after 20 years in nursing, it was memories of this teacher and the things I learned that sent me back to college to earn a math degree. I had to work hard in college, it didn’t come easily, but with the hard work I did well and feel I have a pretty good understanding of math and relationships. When I began teaching it was extremely important to me to share that understanding of mathematical practice and relationships, not just teach the stuff in the book, and as a new teacher I was considered strange at my school because I was constantly digging and spending time planning for deeper understanding and things that would encourage questioning and purpose for my students. One teacher, who just recently retired after 50+ years at the school, would say to me, “Why work so hard? Math hasn’t changed, and kids will continue to learn it even if you don’t work so hard.” This is the man who taught all honors level classes while he was here, and I would walk by his classes and see students just sitting and staring, sleeping, or texting during his classes. It used to upset me. I spent many years working alone, trying to create interesting, valuable lessons that would help kids really understand the math, and being laughed at. Until Common Core.

All of a sudden, when our district began implementing CCSSM, I was sought out, questioned, asked for help with lessons, planning, ideas, etc. I wasn’t being laughed at any more, in fact, my theme song has become, “I was common core, when common core wasn’t cool.” Imagine it to the tune of “I Was Country” by Barbara Mandrell.

The young man I have been tutoring in Algebra II came to me after several test scores in the 40% area. He was frustrated, and struggling to figure out why he wasn’t doing well when he thought he knew what he was doing. When we first sat down, he started by asking me, “Isn’t this the formula for this problem?” I asked him, “Why do you think that’s the formula?” He said, “I’m pretty sure that’s what my teacher told me.” I geared up for a loooooong session. After 2 – 1 1/2 hour sessions, during which there were many, “Oh, oh, oh, oh” moments, and “I never realized why that worked” and similar type comments, he took a repeat test from the last unit. His score this time? 89%. YES!! Want to try to tell me that common core and the SMP are just another edict coming down from above? You can try, but I believe in the power of where we can go if we are willing to change our mindsets and those of our students.

His younger sister is going to need a little more time. She is struggling with number sense, relational concepts, operational fluency and vocabulary. Sound familiar? No worries, I’m on it.

I love seeing what is happening in our classrooms as the changes are happening. Hearing an 8 yr old tell me that 58 + 49 can be added without paper and pencil, that they can show me more than one way to do it, and they can look at it before they start adding and have an idea of how much it should be is very exciting to me. Imagine what Algebra will be like for this child, compared to the many we have seen come through without these concepts.

I like math.

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Coherence

Monday I facilitated a meeting of elementary teachers. We are meeting to discuss assessment, pacing and piloting new curriculum resources for our district. Our discussion Monday was regarding the coherence of the K-5 CCSSM and we started looking at assessment. We’ll continue that discussion next month, but the coherence discussion brought up some great comments. I started by giving each group a copy of the K-5 math standards on a page. I’ve linked them into CCSS Math Standards on this blog.

We then took this Coherence activity from Achieve the Core and in groups began the work of looking at how the fraction standards relate in grades 3 to 5. A couple of minutes into this activity, one group had an “ah ha” moment, and started back at the Kindergarten standards. The discussions that occurred after this activity were amazing and exciting. One teacher commented, “If I teach 1st grade, I need to know what the Kindergarten and 2nd grade standards say.” Other teachers began to discuss how this could help with creating differentiated activities, creating a lower entry point and extending ideas for students who catch on quickly. A coach’s dream.

The assessment discussion didn’t go as well as I had hoped, often bring up assessment causes many teachers to become defensive, and talk about “bad” assessments, rather than the work of looking at how to create better assessments. We started looking at the 3rd grade practice exam for Smarter Balanced, and tried to concentrate on, “What are kids being asked to do, and how are they being asked to do it?” We’ll dive into this discussion more next month at our next meeting, with two more assessments. I’m hoping we can start to have the conversation about how assessments should be created, and what we are hoping they will tell us about what our kids know and don’t know.

Another conversation we will soon be having is piloting curriculum resources. I am beginning to preview materials along with another teacher, and we are working on creating spreadsheets to compare materials and look at what might be non-negotiable for teachers. I really want the focus to be on how to teach the standards, and not about the materials, however, we have a large contingent of teachers who are not there. It will be interesting and quite a learning experience I’m sure.

More to come on this journey.

DIBELS

This is a new term for me this year. DIBELS is an assessment, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills or what our Elementary ELA Academic Specialists call “Foundational Skills”. This is a test that can be given to grades K-6, two or three times a year, and is a predictor of student’s reading, comprehension and fluency in reading. We give this test to our K-2 students. Having taught 9-12 mathematics, I wasn’t aware of this assessment previously, but this year it has become an “educational buzzword” for me. The teachers, principals and sites that I work with are all very involved and aware of this test, and often this is a priority and focus for them. I found it very frustrating at first for several reasons, the main one being I didn’t understand it at all. I wanted to focus on math instruction and learning, and indicators of student understanding and progress here. I really didn’t understand why so much focus was placed on this particular assessment until recently.

Our district level coaches meet weekly with our CCSS Coordinator, our Assessment Director and our Interventions Supervisor. We discuss all things data; teaching, learning, assessments, assessment analysis, support for sites in utilizing data to inform and adjust instruction, and the how, when and why of assessment. We are also involved in a district-wide process known as “DATA COM” where all principals share site data with the Teaching and Learning division at the district. (This is us: Superintendents, Academic Specialists, Instructional Directors, Assessment, Intervention and PBL Coordinators). We are a large district and a large department. At the elementary level, the main data point shared is DIBELS for K-2, and SRI, Scholastic Reading Inventory, for all levels.

This past Friday, our usual meeting days for data discussions, we looked at the recent DIBELS data and discussed the implications for all students who took the assessment, how to interpret and utilize the data, and how this can give us important information for ELD students. The one thing we didn’t discuss is how this can also be a very important indicator for mathematics success, but as we talked, I had an “AH HA” moment.

Students who are having difficulty with fluency, phonemic awareness, and the meanings that accompany these will also have difficulty in fluency and understanding of math academic language for the same reasons that they struggle with verbal language. Knowing these areas of struggle can be very important in creating a learning environment that supports these learners in all academic areas.  This can also help us to predict where and when students will struggle with academic language and academic discourse which research has shown to be extremely important for learning.

This year is turning out to be quite a journey for me, but I am continually stretching and growing and am increasing my ability to be more cognizant of the learning occurring at the elementary level, and increasing my ability to truly be a support and asset to the teachers and staff at this level. I am truly blessed to have this opportunity to learn about and support elementary teaching and learning.

Building Capacity

I’m working with the HS and MS math academic specialists on creating a vertical alignment plan for PD, K-12 math alignment, and system alignment across the district so that all students receive excellent instruction. We have been tasked with creating a strong K-12 program which is consistent at all levels. This is really big. Our district has approximately 18,000 students. The MS academic specialist has derived a plan which utilizes an on-site teacher to be trained and implement PD for all teachers at the site. This could also work at the HS level, where there are expert teachers in mathematics.

I have been pondering this since our director brought this up. I work with 19 school sites, grades K-5. While we do have several teachers with a strong interest in math and the ability to be trained or encouraged to provide PD, there is not a teacher at each site. I have considered many options for this, grouping sites and utilizing one teacher for 4-5 sites, working with teachers at other sites to strengthen their math and PD skills and supporting them as they grow in ability, or asking MS or HS teachers to provide the PD for elementary teachers. There are pros and cons to each of these ideas, and I’m struggling to find a solid answer to this.

I’ve considered having grade level teachers come together to work as a larger PLC, with me facilitating the work, but this would mean having 6 different meetings or entail facilitating large groups of teachers when you consider 19 sites and 2-3 teachers at each grade level for most sites. The HS academic specialist suggested two meetings; K-2 and 3-5 and one teacher from each site. They could work on unpacking standards for grades K-2 and 3-5 respectively, and then take the work back to their sites and share with the other teachers. This could mean that a Kinder teacher would be working on unpacking standards for their grade level, or another one, and taking back the information for all three grade levels to their site. None of this is really feeling like a deep, meaningful experience for the teachers, and a lot to expect from a small amount of teachers. On the other hand, attempting to support all grade levels at 19 sites myself is overwhelming at best.

I am new to the elementary level, having taught HS mathematics for 11 years and coached teachers at the HS level. I am very aware that I could be missing some vital pieces in my thinking and reflecting on this issue. I would love to hear from elementary coaches and district leaders regarding ideas for building this program and the capacity of my teachers. Please share your ideas, experiences, and expertise in this area, I need all the help I can get.

Thanks in advance.