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.

Constantly Learning and Growing

This year our district has adopted new math programs at all levels. At the elementary level we have adopted Bridges, from The Math Learning Center. It is an inquiry based program, encouraging students to think deeply about mathematics, numbers and their relationships. We changed to this program from enVision, which teachers were constantly saying they disliked and wanted changed. Of course, the change is huge, and now teachers are struggling with time to plan lessons, and the lessons themselves which require facilitation of mathematical discussions and learning by investigation, rather than “I do, we do, you do”. Also, teachers are requesting more training, which can be helpful and yet, not what I really think they need.

In response to the cries for help and challenges we have put a couple of things into place. I have monthly meetings with “math leads” both K-2 and 3-5 from each site where we discussion implementation, assessment, lesson facilitation and other topics as they arise from teachers. We also have Lead In Napa in our district, an “in-house” professional learning program through which I am conducting monthly collaboration times with teachers from all sites on a rotating basis: K-2 and 3-5. So far we have had one 3-5 meeting which was very successful and have a K-2 meeting planned next week. We already have quite a few teachers signed up. It is exciting to see teachers coming together across the district to collaborate, share their experience and frustrations, and talk. The best thing is I’m hearing from teachers across the district that they are feeling heard.

The last thing I have been working on lately is getting out to sites to sit in on their grade level PLC collaboration time to answer questions, clarify expectations, and make face to face contact with teachers. This seems to be having the greatest impact. When some of these teachers start talking about how hard this is, they look at me, see me listening, and actually stop themselves a lot of time and begin to ask questions about how to make things work. I have offered to do model lessons and co-teaching with many of these groups, and have been taken up on the offer. Not only do I get to support teachers, I get to play math with kiddos. Best of both worlds.

It’s often difficult to work in a leadership position, but can be so rewarding.

This post is a part of Kathy Perret’s #EduCoach Blog Challenge. You can read more about it here.

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.

Good Teaching

Whew! It has been a busy couple of weeks. I have been asked to facilitate several different PD sessions, at sites and with our site coaches. I’ve enjoyed it, and really love to teach and build capacity, it’s always difficult when it happens all at once. For starters, our school board was recently presented with our latest benchmark results in math and the results of the Scholastic Mathematics Inventory (SMI) from our students in grades 5-8. These were not good, and the board has become quite interested in K-12 mathematics. This is good news for me, although, it creates a steady stream of needs. I am quite in demand at sites and in coaching meetings.

First, at one of our Title 1 sites I walked teachers through a coherence activity for the CCSSM in comparing and ordering. I took this set of vertically aligned standards and cut them up, asking teachers to put the correct standard in the correct grade column. Although many of them felt that this should end at grade 2, they soon realized that so much of the work done in K-2 prepares students for success in fractions and other topics in grades 3-5. It was a great exercise, and the teachers were having some wonderful discussions about how to plan lessons, monitor student understanding, and best of all, that they needed to know more than just their grade level standards.

In our coaches meetings I have been working with the MS and HS specialists to create some workshops around performance tasks and the SMP. We started as a whole group for one meeting, asking the coaches to come up with the SMP and then to discuss how they should be informing instruction and embedded into teaching. From there we broke up into grade level groups and worked on some performance tasks, discussed classroom activities and routines that would lead to success on these tasks and increased comprehensive understanding in mathematics. Today we looked at student work, discussed how the student responses helped us to understand what students knew and understood about the mathematics, and implications for classroom instruction. There were some great discussions, and coaches had some “AH HA” moments in looking at the student work. I sent them back to the student work several times, and they realized that one look wasn’t enough, more became clear as they looked and discussed the work in detail. They also talked about how important it is to look at student work together, to calibrate grading and inform instruction, as well as for review and re-teaching. We also talked about lesson and unit planning and how this information could help to plan more strategically, and help teachers to understand where the low entry point may be for many units and topics.

Finally, I am being asked to come out to sites to lead grade level groups in assessment analysis and strategic planning based on assessment results. This is very exciting, and while I love working with these teacher groups and enjoy teaching them how to do these things and collaborating with them, we have 19 elementary sites and I just can’t do it all. I’m really needing to build a strategic plan for increasing the capacity of the on-site coaches to do these things, and to increase their knowledge.

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.

I Like Math

I like math. I like how it makes me question, pull things apart, wonder deeply, think harder than I ever thought I could, feel excited about small successes, and much more.

I was asked by the parent of two kids that I am tutoring, one in Algebra I and the other in Algebra II, if math always came easy to me. I thought back and realized, for the most part, yes. There was one year in elementary school when I had a teacher who was very impatient and unwilling to explain things that I gave up and gave wrong answers just to be wrong. I realize now, that I knew the math well enough to knowingly give wrong answers, and I did it just to annoy him because I could. I was angry that he wouldn’t take the time to explain to the kids who didn’t understand how to do it.

In high school I had the most wonderful teacher for Algebra I and Geometry. He was an elderly gentleman, who was known for being “mean” and strict. I purposely chose him for both years and I learned so much. I had 100% in both classes and he moved me to the honors track from there. (Honors just meant you were taking harder classes, it didn’t improve your GPA at that time). I worked hard in his class, but I walked away really understanding the math, number sense, critical thinking and problem-solving. I was blessed to have two years with this teacher, he pushed me to a level I never would have reached otherwise.

When I needed to think about a different career after 20 years in nursing, it was memories of this teacher and the things I learned that sent me back to college to earn a math degree. I had to work hard in college, it didn’t come easily, but with the hard work I did well and feel I have a pretty good understanding of math and relationships. When I began teaching it was extremely important to me to share that understanding of mathematical practice and relationships, not just teach the stuff in the book, and as a new teacher I was considered strange at my school because I was constantly digging and spending time planning for deeper understanding and things that would encourage questioning and purpose for my students. One teacher, who just recently retired after 50+ years at the school, would say to me, “Why work so hard? Math hasn’t changed, and kids will continue to learn it even if you don’t work so hard.” This is the man who taught all honors level classes while he was here, and I would walk by his classes and see students just sitting and staring, sleeping, or texting during his classes. It used to upset me. I spent many years working alone, trying to create interesting, valuable lessons that would help kids really understand the math, and being laughed at. Until Common Core.

All of a sudden, when our district began implementing CCSSM, I was sought out, questioned, asked for help with lessons, planning, ideas, etc. I wasn’t being laughed at any more, in fact, my theme song has become, “I was common core, when common core wasn’t cool.” Imagine it to the tune of “I Was Country” by Barbara Mandrell.

The young man I have been tutoring in Algebra II came to me after several test scores in the 40% area. He was frustrated, and struggling to figure out why he wasn’t doing well when he thought he knew what he was doing. When we first sat down, he started by asking me, “Isn’t this the formula for this problem?” I asked him, “Why do you think that’s the formula?” He said, “I’m pretty sure that’s what my teacher told me.” I geared up for a loooooong session. After 2 – 1 1/2 hour sessions, during which there were many, “Oh, oh, oh, oh” moments, and “I never realized why that worked” and similar type comments, he took a repeat test from the last unit. His score this time? 89%. YES!! Want to try to tell me that common core and the SMP are just another edict coming down from above? You can try, but I believe in the power of where we can go if we are willing to change our mindsets and those of our students.

His younger sister is going to need a little more time. She is struggling with number sense, relational concepts, operational fluency and vocabulary. Sound familiar? No worries, I’m on it.

I love seeing what is happening in our classrooms as the changes are happening. Hearing an 8 yr old tell me that 58 + 49 can be added without paper and pencil, that they can show me more than one way to do it, and they can look at it before they start adding and have an idea of how much it should be is very exciting to me. Imagine what Algebra will be like for this child, compared to the many we have seen come through without these concepts.

I like math.