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.

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.

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.

Total Instructional Alignment

I spent the past two days at the Alameda County Office of Education with six of my colleagues from the district at a workshop for Total Instructional Alignment. This was lead by and based on the book written by Lisa Carter. She wrote the book before the CCSS, however, the resources and process that she showed us is more than adequate for working with the CCSS. It follows the process of unpacking the standards, creating learning targets, determining assessment focus and aligning instruction. This work aligns very well with what we have been working toward in our district with site academic specialists and teachers. The resources and work we did the past two days were eye opening and will definitely help us to extend and deepen what we have started.

It was also great to be there with most of the district level academic specialists, working together and discussing the work we were doing. One of the things we are hoping to work toward is consistency at all levels and in all disciplines throughout the district, so working together today was a great experience toward this. It really helps for everyone to receive and synthesize the same information and being able to discuss our impressions and understandings. I know that I would love to see this kind of work happening at sites and in grade level teams across the district, the comprehension of the standards and instructional practices to support them would be very powerful for our teachers and students.

We all agreed that one of the most powerful things we saw this week was unpacking the standards for a unit plan, recording the same standards from the previous grade level at the beginning of the plan, putting the current grade level standards at the end of the plan, and realizing that the unit plan is the steps to get from the first set to the second. The realization that the standards record the learning outcomes that students should reach by the end of the year really created an understanding for us of what learning in the classroom could look like and how it could be scaffolded for students in different stages of learning. I’m excited to continue digging through the grade levels and creating plans with teachers while gaining deeper understanding of the process of learning that can occur within our classrooms.

This was great timing for us at the elementary level, as we have just created a math curriculum committee and are beginning the work of looking at standards, assessments, pacing and new resources for our teachers. We will be piloting materials next fall which gives us the opportunity to really dig in and make much clearer decisions about good teaching and learning.

CCSS and Teachers

I’m now in my fourth week as a Math Academic Specialist for K-5 teachers. I’m really learning and beginning to sit down with teachers as they plan, and try to make sense of the district pacing calendar that has been created for them. One of the things that has been the most difficult for the teachers, is to attempt to put EnVision Math into the CCSS and make it make sense. Many of them are frustrated with trying to utilize the resource in the pacing schedule. Many of them are confused about how to make the resource work, and many of them are just frustrated with EnVision as a whole. Looking through EnVision myself, to become familiar with it, I had decided that if I were teaching at this level, I would definitely put the book aside as a resource and be looking elsewhere for my activities and lessons.

As I sit in the planning with the teachers, the first thing I am advocating is that EnVision is not their curriculum, the standards are. As this sinks in, I see relief come over the faces of the teachers. Many of them have told me that was very liberating for them, they knew there was a lot missing there, but felt obligated to “go with the curriculum”. As they change their thinking to realize that “go with the curriculum” means “go with the standards”, they are becoming excited about the things they can do and ways they can introduce the ideas of the standards in engaging and realistic ways. I found myself sitting back and listening to ideas of creating a small town, each classroom being a different store or business, and having the students “visit” the different businesses and engage in decision making, buying and selling, etc. I became excited listening to them, realizing that our teachers are very creative and really desire to bring good learning to our students, they just thought they didn’t have time because they had to cover the “curriculum” or what they understood to be the curriculum. This is in our K-2 level classes.

I have been working on creating a list of resources for the teachers, bringing some of the best of what I know to be out there in the MTBoS and other places, and continually searching for more. They are excited about these, and have asked for SMP posters in kid friendly language for their classrooms. The kids are subitizing, justifying, and just plain problem-solving, and I can’t wait to see what else they will come up with as they are liberated more and more from being tied to a publication, rather than the curriculum.

Meanwhile, I am learning more about how younger kids think and learn, and I am hoping that as I can start to visit classrooms more, I will be able to contribute to TMWYK and show the MTBoS what NVUSD can do with math learning in our classrooms. I am grateful for the challenge I have been given, and excited about working with the younger kids, something at which I never thought I would excel.

Lost for a Moment

Wow, I have been so out of touch! The past three weeks have been quite full and exhausting. Has it only been three weeks? Seems like several months. I’m missing interacting on twitter and writing in my blog. 

I’ve spent quite a bit of time going over the K-5 CCSS Math standards. While I have spent quite a bit of time in the high school standards, I have never really paid much attention to the elementary ones. Unfortunately, like others I’m sure, I didn’t think they applied to me. I am beginning to see that they really do, I mean, of course they do now, but even as a secondary educator, the elementary standards are the foundation of what my students are supposed to be learning. If they aren’t learning these things, then when they come into the secondary classroom, they aren’t prepared for what they are going to be exposed to, and may have quite a bit of difficulty succeeding in their secondary math classes. Duh, right?!? Or is it? 

Are students really learning what they need to at the elementary level, and if so, where are the difficulties at the secondary level originating? There are so many questions I am beginning to have, and so many things that I realize I really don’t know. I can tell you one thing, elementary teachers love their students, love teaching them, and want to do a great job at it, just like most of the secondary teachers I know. One thing I have noticed right away, they don’t give up on kids, at all. Every single kid that walks into their room deserves their very best, and they work hard to be sure kids get just that. 

I am finding that I am getting mixed reactions to stepping into this position. Many of the elementary teachers are excited that they have someone who “really gets math” to work with. Some are concerned that I don’t get elementary level kids. A few are just keeping quiet. I understand the reactions, I have taught high school kids, and we all know that high school kids aren’t really kids, right?  And we secondary teachers don’t think that elementary kids can explain their thinking and reason at a deep level, right? 

I’m looking forward to this new learning challenge. I have a lot to learn, and I am excited to do this learning. I am looking forward to adding a new set of educators to my PLN, and stretching myself in the process. I hope that the teachers I will be working with will see something valuable that I bring to the table also. I do feel like together we can create a wonderful learning space for kids, and I believe that I can offer something to the elementary kids just like I created some great learning for the high school kids. 

And yes, they are all kids, just like us.