Owning the Difficult Decisions

It’s been quite a while since I reflected here. I had been trying to write once a week, and when winter break came, I found myself exhausted, frustrated, and ready for rest. After break, upon returning to work, I started with a positive attitude, and a new direction in mind. This was quickly depleted after a week of grading Interim Comprehensive Assessments that our students took before break, and having my calendar changed several times by others who were “dictating” to me what my priorities are and how I should attend to them.

I found myself trying once again to follow the dictates given to me, get everything done, and tell myself I was supporting teachers in doing so. Instead, I found myself angry; angry that I couldn’t do what I know to be important in creating strong learning communities in our elementary classrooms, and angry that I couldn’t do what I was originally told my job description was, to support mathematics learning in our elementary schools.

I had a discussion with my immediate supervisor and our director, was told I couldn’t possibly support all our sites and teachers, and we can’t always hear what we want to hear. I then attended a training session for principals on a math support software program our district purchased and heard the principals being told that I was going to be the support for implementation and learning. I found myself feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, and starting to have conversations about whether or not I was really effective where I was, or if I should be doing something else. I have tried to balance my work and life, and found myself having to skip the things that mean so much to me and have a large part in my becoming the teacher I am, my twitter chats, because I can’t possibly do everything that I have been told are my priorities during the day. Because of meetings, workshops, and other things I am required to attend, I have limited time to actually support sites, plan for math lead meetings (another post), and currently, observe classrooms at sites to complete a criteria for success rubric required because of our new math adoption.

I had reached a point where I was leaning toward moving back into a classroom next year, for no other reason than I knew I would feel successful there. I know that I affect learning for students in a positive way when I am in direct contact with students. I am not at all sure that I affect student learning in a positive way when I am not in direct contact with them at this time, and this is something that I am going to be required to show in some manner with artifacts and student outcomes. This is obviously something that is important to me, and something I have been striving to do, but is currently causing me a lot of stress.

I reached a point where I knew I had no control over any of this. I had to let it go, and just focus on what was right in front of me. This past week I found myself on three different sites, for different reasons. In my interaction with the administrator at the first site, after our discussion when I stood up to go, she came around her desk and said, “I need to give you a hug. Thank you so much for being the wealth of information you are.” I almost cried right there. I did walk out with a little spring in my step that hadn’t been there for quite a while. At the next site, after classroom observations and a discussion with several principals and other personnel, the principal stopped me as we were all leaving. We had a short conversation and her parting words to me were, “Thank you for doing the work you are doing. You are fighting the right fight, and you need to continue to do this.” Again, I was nearly in tears, and walked away with many thoughts and reflections from that. The last interaction was simple. I was at a site to meet with a group of teachers, and before we started the principal leaned into the room and said, “Thank you for being here, and for being the great source of information you are.” Deep breath, we’re about to have a meeting.

I’m not a fighter. I am someone who cares for others deeply, does all they can to build them up, and encourage them to be all they can be. When I have to confront others, my heart races, my palms get sweaty, and I have to constantly remind myself why I am confronting them and standing for the things I do. I like to encourage, support, and build. I don’t like to have to speak to others using strong words. A co-worker said to me Friday, “maybe that’s why you’re here.” Hmmmmm. OK, I’ll bite.

My focus is students. Their learning, their success, their emotional well being. Pure and simple. If I have to fight for that, I guess that’s what I need to do, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, no matter how often I tear up and how much my heart races. Even if I say stupid things in my anxiety, make mistakes about how I speak to others, and forget things I wanted to say because I get hurt or angry in the interactions. I am still learning, and in the end, it’s about the kids. They are worth anything I might have to experience.

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CMC North 2015

Well, here we are once again, in one of the most beautiful places to have a math conference. Last year was my first time to present at this conference, and I overdid it by doing an Ignite also. This year was lower key for me, and yet, not so much. Last year my presentation was at the high school level, definitely a comfort zone for me. I had started a new position as K-5 Math Academic Specialist, however, and this year felt that I should begin to step out of my comfort zone and to present at the elementary level.

This is the first time, aside from things I do in my job for my teachers, that I have presented something at this level. I have to admit, I was nervous, it’s difficult to feel accomplished enough to share when I’m feeling that I’m still in the learning process myself. Thankfully, the MTBoS has taught me that learning is a continual process, and if I don’t continue to learn, I stop being effective, so I stepped out, and became bold.

I was pleasantly surprised at the response today. I had planned to present based on the interactions and engagement I have come to expect from a lot of the teachers I work with. Often they will wait for me to tell them exactly what they should be doing and how to do it. The teachers today were engaged, and interacting with me and each other and really thinking through problems and the problem solving. When I first saw the room and set up I was very disappointed. The room was crowded, desks in rows, barely room to get around and definitely not conducive to interactive discussions and teachers coming to the document camera to share, so I thought. I made some changes to how I was going to have teachers share, based on the room set up, and that may not have been the smartest move on my part, but it is what it is. I really wanted teachers to come to the document camera themselves, and have group discussions about their solutions, but I made an executive decision. There was also some difficulty with the wi-fi, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to use my presentation at all, and was going to have to be creative in sharing problems. Fortunately, one of the attendees offered his hot spot and saved me that pain. I think too, as a future consideration, a topic like this may need 1 1/2 hours rather than one hour. It’s big, and we all need time to cognate on it.

As I read through the comments from attendees, my first reaction was “darn”. I took a chance, and it didn’t work out. I wasted people’s time, and that is never a good thing. I sat through another session, had dinner, conversed with friends and other presenters, and began to see it a little differently.

I was transparent at the start of my presentation, letting attendees know that elementary education is a new area for me, and I am learning as well as the teachers with whom I work. I commented on how I hoped to learn from them, and that I had something of value to offer to the discussion. I also modeled a growth mindset. I was willing to step out of my comfort zone, share things that I am learning, and allow myself to learn from others who were willing to do the same. I saw several “ah ha” moments in that hour today, heard teachers reflecting and thinking about problems, student thinking, and conversations they could be having in their classrooms. I heard teachers sharing with each other things that have worked, and misconceptions they themselves have had about this topic.

I want to thank those who gave feedback for taking the time to do so. It helps me to see where I need to grow, and reflect on my own learning. Some feedback I would like to comment upon: “How much you get out of this session depends on you”. Yes, that is true of any learning situation. It is what we experience in classrooms every day. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I begin to depend on someone else for my learning, I am passing up the opportunity to have a say in how far I can go. Another: “Abstract discussion is fine, but I prefer methods to take back and use in the classroom tomorrow”. There is more to take back to the classroom that a pre-made activity or someone else’s lesson. Often, the things we need to learn are the ways to facilitate a lesson, and to allow students to be heard. A large part of what I was doing today was modeling facilitation of classroom discourse, allowing voices to be heard and encouraging students to make meaning of a difficult topic.

Finally, I realize that in changing how I was handling this presentation, I lost something very important. Two attendees made mention of the fact that the discussions were not recorded. This is a salient point. In changing the way the presentation went, we did lose some of the important points and a visual record of the conversations that happened. That was not good. I needed a back up plan for that, and believe me, next time I will have one. I will also prepare better and have a plan for the possibility that things go better than I had hoped, and make sure that I am able to provide a solid learning experience for everyone.

Thank you so much for allowing me to continue to learn and grow, and I also hope that you all will continue to do the same on your journey.

Thank you all once again for a wonderful CMC North Conference!

The Sound of Learning

I have had the honor of visiting many classrooms across the district in the past 6 weeks. I have been to every one of our sites, some of them more than once. As September became October, things changed. What started as a stiff struggle, has become laughter, shouting, arguing. Some people would call it chaos. In my teacher training program, my supervisor called it “organized chaos”.  I call it the sound of learning.

It brings me such joy to hear kids asking questions like, “How can we know if the two pieces of clay are the same size?” and “Can you explain to me how you knew that?” I love watching classroom discussions where a teacher asks a question and every single hand in the room is waving and you hear the, “oh oh oh” of “pick me, pick me”. I love watching kids sitting on the carpet, wiggling their fingers, writing with fingers in the carpet, looking at the ceiling with their eyes rolling back and forth as they visualize numbers, figures, and manipulate them mentally to try to figure out an answer. I especially love how they come up with their own language when they are trying so hard to explain what they are thinking and just don’t have the vocabulary yet. What I’m loving the most, is that they are doing it. They are figuring, they are mentally working to solve, they are searching for language to tell us what they are thinking.

There are wonderful signs across our district of changes in the way kids are thinking and approaching mathematics. Principals are noticing, teachers are noticing, and kids are noticing. Parents are noticing, and have lots of questions, and teachers are reaching out to each other to find out how to share these things with the parents. At our last district PL sessions for K-2 teachers we had 45 teachers sign up! The sound of learning was happening there also, as teachers shared their fears, their wins, asked questions, and just plain talked to each other. It was incredible.

Today I was asked to model a Number Corner lesson in a fifth grade classroom and a Kindergarten classroom. What fun this was! In the 5th grade class it began slowly. We were using clues about top view, right side view and front view of three-dimensional figures to determine which of a group of figures was being portrayed. Kids were shy to answer at first, but I kept asking and referring them back to the previous figure they had unveiled. One of them built this figure out of unifix cubes, and we compared what we saw in the three dimensional figure with what was being seen on the cards. Lots of “ah has” happened here, and as one boy described, “on the card we see what happens if the figure is rolled over by a tire”. OK, I can go with that. After we cleared that up, suddenly a large portion of the group who had been leery about making predictions and sharing became very animated. One got up and asked if they could work on building the next figure, which we had not yet uncovered. This led to more discussion as we compared the built figure to the three views we had, and kids began to choose which figure was being modeled. When we uncovered the picture, there were lots of “yeahs” and “darns”. I took a little more time with this discussion, because I could see that kids were beginning to warm up and feel more confident about sharing their thoughts as we went along. The teacher gave me permission to do this. When we finished the entire group asked, “can we do some more?” How cool is that? I told them I had to leave now, and there was a collective “aaaah”. Talk about feeling welcome. I promised I’d come back and we’d talk some more and they were happy.

In the kinder class, we were looking at leaves and patterns in pictures of leaves. The leaves were changing colors and the number of leaves was increasing every fifth card. It took a bit for them to see this, but then we talked through the patterns together several times, and they loved it. We counted the days we have been in school by tens and ones, and they told me what they next number should be (39). Lastly, on a number line with four numbers showing, between 1 and 20, I asked kids to tell me what number should be under a certain card. Many of them had their hand up immediately, without counting from one. It is so exciting to see our kids becoming so fluent with numbers and their thoughts so early. I can’t wait to see how our current kinder’s do as they grow up with this type of math learning.

I feel so blessed to be a part of the changes occurring in our classrooms this year.

This post is a part of Kathy Perret’s #EduCoach Blog Challenge. You can read more about it here.

Math Talk

I had two of my grandkids for the weekend, as their parents took a quick trip to Montana. Lilli is seven, in second grade, and pretty quick with numbers and math ideas. She enjoys the challenge of learning and seeing different ways of doing things. Gwen will be nine in November, in fourth grade. She had some difficulty last year with math, felt very frustrated and decided she wasn’t good at it. We worked together quite a bit over the summer. I was able to identify some of her problem areas, and she started the year with 100% on her first math test and is feeling much more confident at this time.

We had some wonderful moments this weekend in both math and science discussions. I’m going to stick to the math discussions here, the science will have to be another blog.

The weekend started with the game Math Dice. This was with their Auntie Heidi, and we decided that only the operations addition and subtraction could be used, because Lilli hasn’t had experience with multiplication and division, yet. Gwen was very quick at first, seeing the equations right away, and Lilli was getting frustrated, because she doesn’t like to think that she isn’t good at something related to math. Heidi, being very quick herself, changed the rules of the game. She said that once the first person shares their equation, the others need to find another way to solve the problem. Lilli was all over this. One thing she is very good at is finding another way to solve problems. Lilli ended up winning the game, much to Gwen’s surprise. Gwen was a good sport about it.

On the way home, in the car, Gwen starting talking about the game and how she would have won if we would have allowed multiplication and division. Lilli said she didn’t understand those and it wouldn’t be fair. I suggested we talk about multiplication and see if we couldn’t help Lilli understand what is happening with multiplication. I suggested 2 x 3. I asked Lilli to tell us about skip counting, and Lilli gave an excellent description:

L: Well, you put all your objects into equal piles of a number, like 2 or 3, and then you count by that number, like 2, 4, 6, 8 . . .  until you’ve counted all your objects. If there’s one or more left over, then the piles aren’t equal.

G: I’ve got this Nonnie. Lilli, multiplication is like skip counting. You put your objects into equal groups, then you count how many groups of the objects you have, and that’s what you’re multiplying.

L: I totally get this! So, for 2 x 3, you have 3 groups of 2 objects!

G: Yes! Or. . .

L: 2 groups of 3 objects! (Did I mention she loves to find another way to solve the problem?)

G: So, if we are looking at 3 x 4. (She’s not too good at problem strings, yet)

L: We would have 3 groups of 4 objects, or 4 groups of 3 objects. (Maybe it didn’t matter)

G: Exactly! How many is that?

L: 3, 6, 9, 12! I can count it by the fours too, do you want me to do that?

At that point we were home. So we didn’t have her do that.

Later, we were putting together some materials for Bridges. Our district has adopted Bridges this year, and teachers have been complaining about how long it takes to get organized. I brought home a set of fourth grade teacher materials to problem solve this. My granddaugthers decided to help me. We opened the boxes, and if you are unfamiliar with Bridges, teacher materials come in 3 large boxes. One box is equivalent to all the teacher guides, 10 in all, including Number Corner and Assessments. The other two boxes area a bonanza! They are full of manipulatives! Cubes, square pieces, geometric shapes, tape measures, measuring cups, scales, dice, game pieces, cards, and so much more! We had quite a problem on our hands. I had purchased 8 plastic containers at the dollar store to organize materials, but we quickly realized that our colored squares and geometric pieces weren’t going to fit in the ones I bought. We had a great discussion about what we needed to do, which included estimation.

We had six bags of geometric shapes. Three of the bags fit into one container. The girls knew immediately it would take two containers to hold them all, but also made the comment that it would be so much better to have them all in one.  We then discussed what we would need to find to hold all of them.

We had a similar problem with the colored squares. We had three bags of those, and two fit into one of the containers. Another discussion ensued, and we went off to Walmart to fix the problem. I wish I could put in our discussion at Walmart, but this is already quite a long blog, and it was full of estimating, discussion and arguing between the two. I let them handle it, we came home with two containers that worked perfectly!

I can’t wait to tell you about the scales, measuring, estimation and science discussions! More to follow!

New Curriculum Excitement

We just completed our fourth week of school. Our district has new math adoptions K-12. Grades 6-12 are doing well. They knew about their adoption last year, were working in May and June to organize, pace, and collaborate around their new materials and focusing their energies on the changes required. K-5 is a completely different story.

Our adoption was finalized in June. Teachers were given on-line access to materials during the summer, Trainings were scheduled for the first week of August, and for a myriad of reasons many teachers did not make it to these trainings. We are experiencing the same difficulties that every district across the nation is experiencing, staff turnover, lack of subs, and PD scheduling difficulties. We scheduled a second round of training this past week, but could only schedule a total of 70 teachers for this. A handful were called back to class because of sub issues, and we still have approximately 20 teachers who have not been to a training at all. I’m actually feeling pretty good about this, since we have 340 teachers at the K-5 level in our district, but it’s never a good thing for a teacher not to have some introduction to their new materials. Especially if math causes them anxiety, and the new materials require inquiry based learning and constructivist teaching.

That’s where we are. I have felt overwhelmed the previous three weeks, with trying to get materials to sites,  responding to teacher emails from teachers who suddenly realized that they probably weren’t going to be able to just jump into this curriculum without some introduction, and many other issues. Labor day weekend gave me the opportunity to reorganize my thinking and priorities. This week I made it a point to talk to site level coaches, get into classrooms and encourage teachers, sit in on grade level planning, help teachers to prioritize their learning and teaching with the new materials and routines, and be visible. The results were amazing. My stress levels decreased, and anxiety levels are decreasing at sites. I am going to address teachers at two sites during staff meetings this coming week, and sit in on full day planning for grade level groups at two sites. I still have five more sites to visit, but we are getting there.

My first math lead meetings will be on the fourteenth and twenty-first of this month, and on September 23 our PD support team called, “Lead In” is working with me to schedule a 2 hour support and collaboration time for grade 3-5 teachers across our district during early release time. We will attempt to do this each month for both primary and intermediate grade level teachers. My hope is that they will see this time as a valuable asset to them, time to problem solve with other grade level teachers and have support available for questions around inquiry and the facilitation of classroom discussions. What seemed like an overwhelming prospect three weeks ago is beginning to seem possible, with the support and help of other teams in our district.

I’m excited about our fist math lead meetings, two teachers have stepped up to share their expertise in a portion of our new curriculum, and we will be working on problem solving and collaborating on how to answer questions and support teachers at individual sites.

More to come.

Non Verbal Messages

For a number of years I was a constant fixture at Al Anon meetings. If you are not familiar with this, it is a 12 step program for friends and family of people who have addiction issues. I found that I also have an addiction issue. I have an addiction to helping people. This may not seem like a problem to a lot of you, however, for me it is. I care so much about people that I will do anything, give anything, and give up anything for the people around me, to the detriment of both them and myself.

I took a WPI last year for work. All of our leadership take this. It helps us to see where our strengths and weaknesses are as leaders, not so that we know if we should be leaders, but to help us identify things that we can use and things that we can improve upon in our leadership. One of my greatest weaknesses once again, I care too much.

I learned a lot about myself and social interaction in Al Anon. I learned about the messages I give to people, not with my words, but by my actions. I learned that if I continue to answer the phone, answer messages, get up and take care of things until late in the night, people will continue to expect me to do that. I learned that if I take care of financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs consistently for people, they will continue to expect me to do that. I learned that if I allow people to change my schedule, determine what will and won’t work for me, and redirect my path, they will continue to expect me to do that. I learned that if I give my quiet time, my exercise time, my rest time, my reading time, my TV time, my walk time, or any other time that I have set aside for me to others, they will continue to expect me to do that.

I learned how to take care of my self in Al Anon, and still love the people around me, which is extremely important to me as one who cares a lot about people.

Last year I began a new position in leadership at our district. It was a tumultuous year, as I was feeling out the boundaries of my position, learning about the people around and above me in this new arena, and learning about the expectations for me. The year ended very busy, and started this way again this year. I did not have a lot of time in the summer to relax and refresh, as the busyness continued in attempting to take care of the needs of the teachers. I learned a lot last year and began this year feeling very excited about what I could possibly accomplish. I attended our first meetings in which the expectations and design of the year seemed to indicate that my objectives and the district objectives were on the same track. I have more confidence this year, as I made a lot of connections to the teachers and administrators in my arena last year. Most of all, I had a plan for this year, which I did not have last year.

I used the techniques I learned in Al Anon to help me. I scheduled myself for time to work and reflect, time to visit the 19 sites I deal with, time for the multitude of meetings that I am required to attend, and made sure that I was covering the bases for my position and the district objectives. I was feeling pretty good about where I was heading. My schedule was full, and I knew I was going to be busy, but I was ready for it. Frankly, I’d rather be busy than not.

Things changed. I’m adaptable, I’m ok with this. I made adjustments, worked hard to follow through, had many things added to my plate that were taken off other plates, made more adjustments, committed to my teachers and administrators and prioritized, and reprioritized, and reprioritized. We have just finished the third week of our school year, and I am feeling overwhelmed. I attempted to speak with my immediate supervisor and heard things like, “you shouldn’t be doing that”, “you need to organize your time better”, “the meetings are a priority”, “you have to get to sites” and some other things that made me feel like a petulant child. I went home very angry.

I spent yesterday doing some things around my house, taking care of my husband’s immediate needs as he was having a difficult day, ignoring emails that streamed in non stop, and thinking about what I do and don’t have control over. Basically, I reverted back to my 12 step program, and began at the top. I had allowed people, circumstances, and my fear of failure to once again dictate what I should and should not be doing. Once again, I need to prioritize and remember my right to say “NO” when things do not work for me, and determine what things are important for me.

Most of all, I need to take care of me, my time, and my needs. I learned long ago that no one else is going to take care of me, I need to do that, and let people know by my actions what is and is not acceptable in their actions toward me.

I need to lead by example. I’m going to the gym.

A New Year and New Start

I had hoped to do some reflecting and writing over the summer, however, my last school year ended at a crazy pace. In fact, It didn’t really end at all until I stepped onto a cruise ship headed for Alaska.

I’m grateful for that cruise. Not only was it a wonderful way to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday with my family, but it made me unplug. It’s difficult to get email and texts in the middle of the ocean on a teacher’s salary. The time I spent with my family was peaceful and relaxing. It also allowed me to give my brain the rest it needed to be able to reset for the new school year.

A quick recap: 1) I was in a new position as K-5 math specialist after teaching HS math for 11 years, 2) our district was in an adoption cycle year, and I worked with a committee of teachers to evaluate materials and instead of piloting this year, we made a decision to adopt materials and have them for the start of this year, 3) I had to schedule ~330 teachers for training on the new curriculum during the summer and get trainers situated to do this training, 4) the training occurred during a week in which I was out of state, so it had to be organized before I left, and 5) I was asked to write a PD plan for my teachers this year, create a budget for it, and have it scheduled on the school year calendar before leaving for the summer. BTW, I have never created a budget this large before.

Needless to say, for the month of June I was working, but my brain was so fatigued from the last 3-4 months that I just couldn’t summon up the energy to blog. Today was our first official day back to school, our students return Wednesday, and we had two meetings to start the day. There are many new routines for our district that have been put into place by our directors of the Teaching and Learning section, under which my job falls, so I found myself spinning just a little again today trying to figure out the organization and how to proceed.

I am looking forward to this year. I believe the new organization will be helpful, there is much more direction for us, and clearer boundaries in place. I will be meeting with teachers from all sites twice a month to conduct district level PLCs to help teachers with the new materials, new thinking involved in teaching with a focus on the SMP, and supporting and encouraging those who are feeling overwhelmed by the whole deal. I will be out at the school sites much more this year than I was last year, which I am very excited about, and we have had some changes in personnel at sites which is allowing me a little more leeway in getting invited in for PD and classroom support. I will be busy, but it will be a good busy.

I attended an Institute for the Standards of Mathematical Practice at the EDC in Boston earlier this month, and I am very excited about the materials we were given and the training. I met some new educators and can’t wait to incorporate some of the information I received into my PLC work with teachers. I think this will be the start of some good stretching and growing for our teachers and our kids.