Never Stop Learning

I’ve just completed the hardest 3 months ever in my career. I am learning to support elementary teachers in teaching and learning mathematics, and working hard to help decrease anxiety and stress. Elementary teachers work so hard. They teach all subjects, often with limited time for planning and collaborating. Throw in a new math curriculum which has increased the conceptual depth of the mathematics they are teaching, and you have chaos.

Many of these teachers have embraced the new curriculum, and are working together to create a cohesive learning experience for their students, recognizing that they can’t do it all, and accepting that this year they will be learning along with the students, slowly but surely. I’m not concerned about these teachers. They ask for help and guidance, they accept what they can do, and work in new things as they are able. They discuss their experiences in the classroom, both the successes and the things they hope to improve.

Others are struggling and anxious. They are upset and angry, complaining about the time it takes to plan and learn the new material, often refusing to try some of the new lessons or reverting back to direct teaching to “get it all in”. They fight the idea of leaving some things out for now to learn how to facilitate conversations and become familiar with the program and new teaching methods because “kids won’t be ready for CAASPP.” I’m more concerned about these teachers. I want to support them and decrease their anxiety because I know that is the foundation of their anger and struggling. I check in with them, remind them to be gentle with themselves, encourage them to pick a couple of things to work on and get good at them, then add in new things as they feel comfortable. I model lessons in their classrooms, and discuss lessons with them and how to improve what they are doing. At times, they hear me and feel better, and their anxiety lessons a bit.

A handful of teachers are refusing to incorporate the new program at all. They refuse to put in any time outside of their classroom to familiarize themselves with the material, think about how to facilitate lessons differently or learn how to visualize math in a different way. I’m extremely concerned about these teachers. They often refuse to allow me to enter their classrooms, will not attend any collaborative or supportive learning situations we put in place, and often respond to surveys with sarcastic and volatile messages. These are the teachers I want to support and work with. These are the teachers that I find myself thinking about, worrying about, and the ones that are the incentive for planning my professional learning opportunities, even though they refuse to attend or to even enter into conversations about learning or growing. I guess my hope is that they will get it by osmosis.

My colleagues remind me to go with the goers, and honestly, it really is the only thing I can do at this point. There are just too many teachers and one of me. I do continually hope that the things we are doing and the learning that is occurring will seep into them little by little and that their mindsets will change and grow.

Mostly, I worry about the students. There are so many good things happening in the classrooms across the district, even the ones who are anxious and feeling overwhelmed. I know they see it too, they often talk to me about the things they hear their students saying or what they see them doing and love the learning they are seeing. The students in the rooms of the last group of teachers continue to struggle with ideas, topics, and learning.

I’m grateful for the changes we are making and the fact the the majority of our students are growing and changing because of it, but I want EVERY student to have the opportunity to grow and learn. I want it all.

I have a lot more to do.

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!

Focus is Key

I have resolved to work on blogging once a week, because I need it, and hopefully it will help me to re-prioritize in a meaningful way. If it helps someone else, all the better.

This week felt very chaotic. I’m finding that having Mondays as our meeting days can make a week feel that way, because there is stuff coming in that you feel needs to be addressed, and yet, paying attention in meetings is important. It’s also a good way to make sure everyone is on the same page at the start of the week. I think I’ll be able to reconcile that as I get used to it, I just wanted to throw that out there.

Tuesday morning I spent 4 hours in a training for a new fluency program that our district has adopted. It was a “train the trainer” type of training, so the majority of people in it were site principals and site coaches. Since this is our second week of school, we are working with a new math adoption, and materials organization is a huge issue right now, you can probably guess what was happening for me this entire time. I was getting emails and notes passed to me about all the other things occurring.

I’m so glad that I was a mother before I did this job, because I am able to “key in” and listen to more than one thing at a time. I heard a couple of very important things in this training that caught my attention and made me sit up and focus. One, is that this program is set to push kids grades 2-8 to learn their basic operations at a rate of 0.8 seconds. As an elementary math specialist, this concerned me. One other teacher in the room caught this also and expressed concern. I was glad to hear this, because I thought maybe I was being the “helicopter parent” for a moment. My background is mainly high school, but I’ve raised enough kids and grandkids to know that this seems like a great opportunity to create the kind of math anxiety that Jo Boaler discusses.

The next day I ran across The Recovering Traditionalist, and her blog confirmed my thinking. I have made an appointment to talk to the Director of Interventions in our district to discuss my concerns. I understand that fluency with operations is important, and I think that this could be a great way to encourage kids to become fluent, I’m concerned about pushing the speed so hard in grades 2-5. I’d love any feedback from others out there to help me with this. I want to do what’s best for our kids.

I also spent 6 hours this week moving, organizing, cataloging and inventorying boxes of elementary math books. I actually had to do it twice, due to an unfortunate incident involving the moving of all the boxes I had originally organized. I decided after doing this that I needed to take a little more control of my time and resources, and I have scheduled several site visits for next week to help me get focused on my main objectives for the year; supporting sites, teachers and kids in good mathematics learning.

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.

Second Grade Interaction

This morning I spent some time at one of our elementary schools, in a second grade classroom. I am working with this teacher during math time. She and another teacher are exchanging students to give more leveled instruction, and this teacher has taken the kids who are struggling the most with math topics. Currently, she is working hard on strengthening their math fact fluency, adding and subtracting within 20.

The lesson started with a number of the day, adding and subtracting 1 and 10 from the number, and have students discuss how they did this and what patterns they were noticing. They were able to use fingers, number lines and 100s charts. She did a great job working with the entire group, there are several SpED kids in this group, three that I could identify with hyperactive issues. She spoke in a low voice, very peacefully and most of the kids were engaged for a majority of the time. The next step was to work on several problems adding and subtracting 2 from different numbers, and identifying patterns while they did this work. Again, the students were asked to share what they did and how they thought about the problems. The teacher used several different statements in asking the kids to subtract: “What is six minus two? What is two less than five? If we start with seven, and remove two, what is left?” The kids didn’t bat an eye when she changed the way she was asking the question. It was great to see them learning and responding to different ways of hearing and seeing the same thing.

For the last 15 minutes I worked with four of the students in a small group, the three hyperactive and one other. The teacher was working with the large group on subtracting two-digit numbers using the algorithm, and she told me I could do whatever I felt would be useful with my group. Not knowing the kids, I started with some blocks, subtracting some of them and asking them to identify how many were left, how they knew it, and writing an equation to match the math we were doing.

After a couple of those, which they followed very well, I put the blocks away and asked them to write an equation on their papers that I gave to them, then use a 100s chart to solve the problems, and explain how they did this. One girl immediately was able to “jump back” an appropriate number on the 100s chart and show me this by counting backward from the original number. The other three really struggled with this. Some of the issues: inability to focus long enough to understand the question I was asking, too busy writing on someone else’s paper to write down what they needed, just not interested.

I am challenging myself to figure out something to try with these kids. It’s hard to step into a classroom and work with the hardest group immediately and feel successful, so I’m not kicking myself for this. I’m just wondering what would be good to try, and how to interact with these kids at a better level of engagement. Now that I know exactly what she is working on in the classroom, and have a better idea of the needs of these kids, I’m really going to work on creating something to try with them. I’m loving the challenge of thinking about how to engage and stretch these kids to a new level. This is the group of kids I enjoyed working with at the high school level, second grade is definitely a different challenge.

After class, the kids went to lunch and the teacher and I chatted about the class. She discussed her desires for these kids, and told me she spoke with one of the third grade teachers to figure out where to put the focus and what to leave out, so she could best prepare the kids. I love how reflective she was about the kids, their “real life” issues and how it affects their learning, and working on ways to meet their needs and prepare them the best she could. We talked about some possibilities we could try in future lessons, and I am looking forward to collaborating and reflecting more with her as we walk this challenge together.

What a great experience and opportunity for me to grow even more this year.

Extending My Thinking

This year has been very challenging in many ways. It was my first year as the K-5 Math Specialist for our district. After teaching HS math for 11 years, this was a definite change for me, and a wonderful way for me to extend my learning and teaching. Elementary education is a real specialty, and the teachers here are incredible. I am amazed at what they do every day, teaching several subjects, balancing large amounts of energy in small bodies with the emotions and needs of these young people, challenging them to be their best and loving them like crazy. I am blessed to be learning alongside these amazing teachers, and feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity.

The year began slowly, and I often wondered if I was up to the job if I couldn’t even figure out what to do and where to start. It has definitely picked up speed over the ensuing months, and I now feel like I am heading down a steep hill in a go cart with no brakes. There is so much going on, and I have built some strong relationships and am growing in so many ways. I have some ideas for what I would like to see accomplished next year in our math programs, and am working with our math committee on reviewing math resources for the classroom while working on a PL plan for our teachers that will create a strong, consistent, and ongoing learning experience for them. I am meeting next week with our Teaching and Learning Director and the Executive Director of Elementary Education to discuss priorities for elementary math education for next year. I am hoping that we can begin to solve some of the time considerations for PL for teachers without causing them more stress or pressure. I really want to find a way to support them and challenge them to discuss lessons and learning with each other. I know it has been very beneficial for me the past couple of year as I have become more connected to the MTBoS.

Part of my extension has included submitting proposals for CMC North in December and NCTM in April 2016 at the elementary level. I found myself wanting more in this area as I stretch my learning and understanding of these topics and teaching elementary level students. I know that researching and sharing my learning with other teachers is a large part of what helped me to grow as an educator at the secondary level, and I need to do the same for elementary. I will also be working in the classroom with teachers more regularity next year, something about which I am very excited. I’ve loved connecting with elementary teachers and coaches in the MTBoS and on twitter this year, and they have stretched me immensely. I am so grateful for the expertise that is out there and the willingness of educators to share their knowledge and experience. There is a twitter math coach chat that will be starting in June that will be an awesome experience I am sure. Once again I find myself hoping that I will have some expertise to share soon. I feel like I was just beginning to get somewhat competent at teaching HS, and now here I am in a whole new world.

Next year will bring new challenges, and I am looking forward to them with hope, and excited that I now have a foundation on which to build. The first year is always the hardest, and I am glad that this year happened, and am ready for the new challenges and learning experiences that are about to begin.

Professional Learning Challenge

I am creating a Professional Learning plan for our K-5 schools in the district for next year. We are experiencing the frustration of not enough subs (I’m sure that’s happening everywhere) so day long workshops are a problem to schedule, especially when the high schools and middle schools are trying to do the same thing. We have 19 elementary schools in our district, and I’m working on trying to build a PL plan which will reach all sites, all grade levels with minimal time and that doesn’t require me to be at all sites for this. That’s the first challenge. The second is, my plan is to schedule something once a month to create learning that will be consistent, viable and valuable to the teachers.

There are so many things that I am thinking about that are important; support and improve student learning, give teachers something they can use in classrooms and model good teaching. I also want to support good unit planning and classroom activities which allow low entry for all students to engage, yet have extension activities for students who are ready to move more deeply into learning. In addition, I want to create a program which strengthens the learning of our teachers, especially the ones who don’t feel confident in their own math skills.

We may also be piloting new math materials next year, which brings an added challenge to all of this. Teachers could be changing math materials in their classes, working on creating stronger unit plans, incorporating new and stronger activities into their classroom routines and learning more about mathematics and how to teach it? This seems ambitious at best. How do I prioritize the learning for everyone, and improve classroom outcomes for all our students with out overwhelming the teachers? Oh yes, the ELA specialists are also working on the same type of plan. Obviously a priority list is in order.

At the middle and high schools this plan seems to be unfolding well, the fact that teachers at these levels teach one subject area most of the time helps a lot. At the elementary level there is a very important consideration. All teachers facilitate all subjects in their classrooms all the time.

I feel the best way to do this is to model a PLN, and am working on how to make this happen. It will require administrator participation and willing teachers from sites, to take information back to sites and engage teachers at sites in collaborative, working conversations. A very important piece of this will be to model those strong collaborative conversations at a district PLN level, including discussing student work and utilizing these discussions to improve instruction. I’m writing this to help me think it through, as well as gathering suggestions from others who may have gone through something similar and found ways to make it work. I’ve found that when I discuss things with myself and others, things begin to become clear, and ideas form. Once again, I am hoping for this wonderful process to bring something new and important to life.