Owning the Difficult Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. 

Struggle and Continued Learning

Today I read the article “Faster Isn’t Smarter” by Cathy Seeley, posted by druin in preparation for the #EduRead chat tonight. I have the book this comes from, and haven’t been able to sit and read the book, so it was great to read this portion. I too have found that there are so many things that I get caught up in that I can’t keep up with the things I really want to do. I also love to read, and in hopes of doing just that have purchased many books which continue to sit on my shelf, started or not, waiting to be read.

I have been of the opinion since I started teaching 11 years ago that we are too easy on students. I went to high school in the 70’s, and remember being expected to do way more that we ask of students now. If I couldn’t do HW problems, it was expected I would find a way to get help or to work on gaining an understanding. Honors courses were set up as individual study courses, you had to be self motivated to succeed in them. I cannot remember walking into a class without completed HW, and would have felt mortified to turn in something that I hadn’t given time and energy to. This was also an expectation in my home, that school was my job and I was to do my very best at it.

I have high expectations of my students, and will often challenge them in class with challenging problems, which I try to choose to also be interesting. Obviously, I can’t please them all, all the time, but I do try. I will answer questions with questions, ask them to organize their thoughts and ideas that they are comfortable with, show them how to dig for more information, and push, push, push until they want to give up. Often, something will then break and they will become excited about figuring out a piece of the problem and become willing to dig more.

I wish I could say this goes smoothly and easily and that I have a magic equation for how to make this work. It often takes 2-3 months at the beginning of school setting the stage to show the students what I expect, and listening to a lot of complaining and whining about how it’s too hard, before things begin to show signs of turning. As difficult as this time can be, I know for certain it is worth it, and will continue to push students as long as I am in the classroom and working with them. I know I am not doing them any favors by not pushing them to be their best, and teaching them to be solid problem solvers and critical thinkers.

The essence of this and how I do this is going to be my talk at CMC North in Asilomar in December. I hope to be able to show other teachers the routines I build in my classroom and how I challenge students to think, research, and become solid problem solvers and critical thinkers. I truly hope this will be enlightening and encouraging for other teachers. If nothing else, it will really make me reflect and pay attention this year to what I am doing.

Thanks for the article and topic.

July Blogging Challenge and Start/Stop/Continue

Well, here we are, the 1st of July. Our last day of school was June 6, but it seems like I really haven’t stopped since then. I was at a Transformational Geometry workshop one week through the UC Berkeley Math Project. Henri Picciotto presented for three days, and it was wonderful. The last two days we looked at using transformations in higher level classes and saw some inspiring Pre-Calculus applications along with other math subject areas. I attended PBL World in Napa for one day and heard some great stuff from Paul Curtis and Kentaro Iwasaki about Critical Thinking and PBL in Mathematics.

I still am unsure about what I will be doing next year. I have just completed another interview and have one more to go before I can say that I have done all that I am supposed to do about finding my path and waiting to hear. I know if nothing else comes through that I will be teaching Math II and Pre-Calculus at American Canyon High School, a New Tech Network high school, which is exciting in itself. I have applied for some other opportunities in coaching and developing, planning and implementing PD within our district so there is still much up in the air.

With that in mind, I will work on my Start/Stop/Continue topics knowing what I know at the moment and reflecting on last year’s teaching assignment.

3 things to Start:

  • Because American Canyon is a New Tech school, I need to work on implementing more of my assignments and topics utilizing technology, I need to work on how to assign, and monitor work on-line, utilizing the echo program. I also need to become familiar with a Promethean board, and plan to go to the school site to work on this.
  • I want to work on writing more activities and lessons myself. I started doing this toward the end of last year and really liked the way they went. I have utilized other’s lessons also, and appreciate the work that is out there, and am inspired to attempt to create some good things myself.
  • Desmos and Geogebra as regular programs  for research, inquiry, and modeling of mathematical ideas. I’ve begun interacting in the Geogebra chat and am hoping to work with others in learning to do some coding with the Desmos API app.

3 things to Stop:

  • I need to stop being so strict about what and how students do their learning. I want to plan my units as more open, knowing what topics need to be covered and allowing students to have more say in how we cover or learn those topics.
  • Utilizing only tests and quizzes to do most of my assessing. I want to do more activities and search out other ideas for assessing student knowledge and assigning proficiency and understanding.
  • Assigning HW problems on a regular basis. I want to work on more of a “flipped classroom” idea, where students are researching or gathering some information on their time, and we are working together in class on problem solving. Haven’t quite figured this one out yet.

3 things to Continue:

  • One thing I do quite a bit of in class is insist upon discourse. This is a very important part of learning and I want to continue this, along with finding new ways to encourage students to engage in important problem-solving discussions.
  • Greeting students daily at the door and making sure to interact with each student every day, even if just to say hi or let them know I notice them. It helps students to see that I care, and that I’m interested in their success.
  • Blogging consistently. This year was my first year of blogging, and I really like the reflective practice and being able to share my practice with others. I’ve appreciated the comments and ideas shared with me, and hope to be even more consistent this year in my blogging practice.

Thank you for the challenge, and I will work hard at keeping up.