The Year in Review

This has been one of the most challenging years I can remember, and I’ve had a few. I have had to rethink my teaching and student learning several times and am feeling like I came up short.

While reading this blog this morning, I was reminded about learning, assessing, and approaching the classroom from this point of view, rather than the “old school” teach and test. I found myself back in a groove that was not comfortable this year, because I felt overwhelmed by the changes I had made in my life, and the challenge of being in a new situation once again. It’s definitely not a good reason, it just is.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to begin again. For me this is occurring in many ways: back to the classroom after supporting teachers for several years, teaching in a new state, teaching block scheduling over a semester rather than having a year to connect with students  and their learning, and personally learning to assimilate to a new area and way of living, or at least one I haven’t been in since I was young. My gratitude is for the opportunity to once again evaluate myself as a teacher, as a leader of learning, as a facilitator, and as a role model. It is good for us to have new opportunities to do this and to take a step back and evaluate our ability to adapt to new roles and situations. I was confident I could do this, but the magnitude of the changes this year make me realize I fell short, however, I am also realizing that I am strong. Instead of the messages of my past, “you’re a failure, etc” I am asking myself what needs to change and where do I start?

This is a powerful place to be. I can’t wait to see what I have learned about myself this year, what my students have learned about me, and what I will be when the next school year begins. Thank you Dave for pushing my thinking and not allowing me to fall into the “woe is me” thinking that I am capable of doing, especially when fatigued and stressed. Thank you MTBoS once again for being there when I was able to get on twitter looking for encouragement and ideas to get me through, and thank you teachers everywhere for your continual drive to push through another year, and return the next to do it again, even when the challenges can feel huge and unyielding.

I am also encouraged by my new administrators. Both my principal and vice-principal have told me how happy they are to have me here, that they feel that I am a strong teacher and bring tools and ideas that they have been desiring in the school for a while. When I look at my teaching this year, I’m wondering what in the world they saw, but I have to remind myself not to discourage in what I didn’t see in me, but be encouraged that I know I can do better, and just do what needs to be done to make sure next year is better than this one.

I already have ideas and have begun making a list. I’ll be doing the work of prioritizing and refining over the next two months. We are also given multiple opportunities for Professional Development, for FREE, here in Tennessee, and I have signed up for several, grateful for these opportunities to improve my practice also.

I’d love to hear from any of you and your thoughts about this, or ideas to help push my thinking forward.

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Reclaiming the “Groove”

In 2017 my husband and I, and my daughter and her family, made a huge decision. We packed our homes and moved 2200 miles across the country. We did this for many reasons, and it was one of several changes for me especially.

I left a position at the district, supporting K-12 teachers in implementing the common core math standards, changing their thinking about classroom teaching, assessment, student talk and many other things, and returned to the classroom in a rural district. This is huge for several reasons. The district I was employed in was a large, suburban district, with 3 comprehensive high schools, and one specialty high school, 4 middle schools, and 19 elementary schools. The district in which I am now employed has two elementary schools, one middle school, and high school is split with ninth graders at one site, and 10-12 at another. Our district covers 593 square miles, most of them rural areas, and a population of approximately 33,000. Many of our students travel by one or more buses, with travel times of 15 to 60 minutes each way to attend school. This is one reason there is a large home school population.

I am currently teaching geometry and algebra II. We have block schedules of 90 minutes, and a course runs for a semester. Add that to new curriculum, new school routines, new social routines, and some standard differences and you can begin to understand the stress I felt in the past 5 months. Our new semester began in January, and I am beginning to feel like my legs are underneath me a bit. I found last semester that I truly missed the support of my twitter colleagues, and the MTBoS. I have recently begun to reconnect with some of them, and am hoping to get back to the chats that I enjoyed so much.

I have had three observations. The first two occurred during the first semester, and I truly cringed each time I thought of someone observing my teaching. I haven’t felt that way in a long time, but the pressure of knowing I wasn’t doing the job I knew I could do, the change from support to being back in the classroom, and having administrators who didn’t know me at all pressed on me in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. The last one was different. My principal asked for a lesson plan before the observation, and observed the entire 90 minute block. I was nervous at first, the students in my school have not been used to collaborating in class, and I have been working hard at encouraging discourse and an environment of checking our conjectures and revising as necessary, rather than doing it correctly. This is quite a change for them and they do struggle with it.

The students made me proud. The went to the board to put problem solving ideas up for discussion, they worked in pairs to question and talk about what they did and didn’t understand, and even participated in some “notice and wonder” about differences of square and conjugate terms. They used vocabulary, they challenged each other, made corrections to each other’s work on the board, and showed enthusiasm I hadn’t yet seen. My principal was pleased. She told me that what she had seen in my classroom was what she had been hoping for since she began at the school. She also discussed how some of my geometry students may end up in my algebra II classes next year and this will encourage them to continue to work this way and be prepared for college.

I am grateful to begin to feel like I am creating an atmosphere of learning and discourse once again, and hope to expand and continue this, as I know this is best for students. At least I’m heading in the right direction once again.

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.

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.