The Snare of Comparison

Anne Schwartz has started a  , and while I’m not promising to blog every day, I will attempt to be more consistent in my blogging agin.

Reflection is a two edged sword. It is important to do, pause, reflect, evaluate, make changes, repeat. This is the process of life and learning. The problems come when we insert “look at what someone else is doing” into the process. On one hand, it is important to observe others at work and think about what makes their practice theirs, the trouble comes when what we are doing is measured against what they are doing, and graded accordingly.

Every time I present at a conference, I do this. I started submitting proposals and presenting in 2014, my first being CMC North in Asilomar, CA. That presentation went very well, it was a high school level presentation, and I had been teaching HS for 10 years before doing that. I felt confident about what I was presenting, it was something I had worked on in my own classroom for quite a while, and was excited to share it.

I have since become a district level elementary math specialist, and have been presenting the last two years at the elementary level. I’m struggling with this a little bit, because I haven’t tested some of these ideas in my own classroom. I do work with teachers, and do model in their classrooms periodically, but it’s not the same as being able to try something, evaluate it’s effectiveness, and try again. I feel like I’m flying somewhat blind here.

I had a conversation on twitter last night about submitting a proposal to NCTM Annual in San Antonio, TX for next year. I did finally submit one, but I’m a little trepidatious about it. Tina reminded me that trying again is how we get better.  I know this, I’m fearful of wasting teachers’ time while I work on figuring this out. With the students, if I made a mistake I could correct it the next day or the next week. In presenting at conferences, I don’t get that chance, they see something that doesn’t help or they don’t like and make up their minds to “never see that speaker again”.

This is where I begin the comparison. I look at some of the “tried and true” speakers, the ones who’s sessions everyone loves to attend, who always have something valuable to say, do it with flair and can make you laugh at the same time, and think, “I’m just not like that”. And, I’m not.

I was very successful in my HS classroom. My students succeeded regularly, I saw test scores increase consistently, I heard students speaking the language of mathematics and feeling confident about what they knew, and taking risks with things they hadn’t seen before. Colleagues would tell me, “I can tell which students came from you, they are able to think critically”.

I have seen some wonderful changes in the elementary classrooms in the last two years, and have had discussions with teachers and principals that help me to believe that I am making a difference at this level,  I just don’t have the classroom and the direct connection to students that allows me to gauge the growth like I did in the past. This causes me to question my effect at this level, and hence, my right to present at conferences at this level, and yet, it is something in which I hope to become proficient. Is that enough reason to continue, and hope that I am not wasting anyone’s time? I hope so.

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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!

Intentional and Practical Professional Learning

Today on twitter I had a short conversation with a colleague about professional learning. It went like this:Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 5.00.18 PM

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Recently I have found myself frustrated about what I view as a fixed mindset on the part of many of our teachers. I am working hard, both by myself and with another PD provider at our district to create meaningful and timely professional learning for our elementary teachers. They are wanting time to work together with other teachers from the district to walk through our new curriculum and discuss the problems and successes that others are having. I have taken this to heart, and have been working with K-2 and 3-5 math leads from each site monthly. I have changed the topics and plans for these meetings based on the needs I am hearing from teachers, as well as the discussions that come up during these meetings.

I have also created a google survey for all teachers asking what their immediate needs are, and based on those responses have been working with our Lead In professional development center to create time once a month for teachers from all sites to come together and participate in training on things they are requesting, work together on lesson planning and problem solving, and discuss their concerns and needs with teachers from two of our sites who have been using our new curriculum for the past 1-2 years and get ideas from them on organization, prioritizing, and how to facilitate classroom conversations. We ask for feedback from each of these meetings, and no matter how much we use this and try to meet needs, there are many unhappy teachers.

I have found myself creating a mindset in the midst of planning some of these sessions, asking myself questions like, “Why work so hard at this? Many of them are not going to find this valuable.” “Why do they show up if they feel there is nothing of value happening at these sessions?” You get the idea. I’m glad to have had this conversation today because it reminds me that I am in charge of my mindset, and I definitely want to be one with a growth mindset. I have learned so much in the past two years on twitter, blogging, and sharing my ideas with colleagues in meetings, professional development settings, and at conferences. The feedback is something I take very seriously, and stretch my thinking by using it to plan my next steps. It is often difficult to separate all this when we are so close to the heart of the work happening, and it helps to have someone on the outside push us and ask the hard questions.

I need to continue to work hard to meet the needs of our teachers and not take their responses personally. I need to continue collaborating and talking with my colleagues on twitter, in my professional development capacities, and reflecting on the work I am doing and striving to make it the most meaningful I can. I need to support the work to prioritize needs for our teachers also, as some of them are feeling so overwhelmed they are struggling to make those decisions for themselves, and help them to problem solve these things and find solutions that will help them feel more successful in the classroom.

I have to continue to grow and learn myself, so that I can be a strong support and encouragement to the teachers with whom I work.

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.

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.

La Cucina Matematica, Twitter, and the MTBoS

Saturday I spent in Alameda at the COE with Matt Vaudrey, John Stevens, and several other educators. We were learning about teaching math in an engaging and focused manner. I have actually been to their workshop before, and was asked by a colleague if I would attend again. I was happy to, I find Matt and John very entertaining and love learning from and with them. Their workshop is called La Cucina Matematica and their website is extremely helpful. Their workshop includes work from Fawn Nguyen, Sadie Estrella, Andrew Stadel, and others that I find inspiring from the MTBoS. When I first began using twitter approximately 1 1/2 years ago, I was fortunate to stumble upon this group, and I haven’t looked back since.

We spent the day engaged in several different activities, counting circles, estimation 180, the mullet ratio, visual patterns, and discussions of the Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are the foundation of all of the activities. We talked about how important and exciting it is to see kids who have not been very successful in mathematics come alive and begin to justify and stand firm on their mathematical beliefs. Kids believing in themselves and their ability to learn and use mathematical ideas. I love being reminded how important this work is, and that others are as passionate and involved in the learning of students and their success as I am. I often felt very alone in this at my previous site.

I want to thank the “Regional System of District and School Support” for supporting and hosting this and other strong and wonderful programs like this for teachers and teacher leaders around the North Bay area. While I have been fortunate to have been a part of the MTBoS and to learn from and with these wonderful educators, there are so many who are not connected to twitter and are missing a large part of this PLN. The group of educators to which I refer are dedicated, supportive, active, reflective and collaborative. We work together constantly to improve, strengthen and create strong teaching and learning. Sometimes we just have a lot of fun discussing nerdy and goofy things. One thing John said that really resonated with me, when he was working on a presentation for a classroom that he hadn’t taught for a bit, he put his lesson plan out there and asked for opinions and help. Within minutes he was receiving help and suggestions from many different sources. This just doesn’t happen consistently on sites.

My practice has improved immensely in the past year and a half, and as I work with teachers I am constantly thinking about, “How would the MTBoS think about or dig into that”, and “How can I use my PLN to strengthen my work with teachers?” I am sharing the things I learn from these marvelous people, and hope that I can offer something to this wonderful PLN of which I am a member.

Thanks once again for the learning, reflection, and reminder to always strive for more.