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.

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.

Intentional and Practical Professional Learning – Part 2

Our district Teaching and Learning team is taking part in Cognitive Coaching training. This is a series of eight professional days, two at a time spread over a series of months. Today was our 3rd day of this training. I’m finding these very informative and practical for my practice and my personal learning. Today we were discussing questioning. After writing a previous post here, I realized I left quite a bit unsaid and unaddressed. While I definitely need to be monitoring my mindset both in planning and facilitating professional learning, there is so much more that needs to be considered.

Questions are hugely important on so many levels. Our facilitator left us today with this thought:

 “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers.

You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”

Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize Winner)

Now I would definitely like to be counted among the wise, in which case, I need to be asking the right questions. Not only of others, but of myself. So, while I work on planning professional learning for teachers, it is important that I ask the “What” and “How” questions. These are questions that allow me to assume positive presuppositions, and “are designed to stimulate thinking, not action”. (Cognitive Coaching Seminars) Stimulating thinking is what provokes us to action, and allows us to reflect on what we do or do not know, and to push our thinking to the point we can begin to find solutions and ideas which become actions. Often these are the types of questions we would be using in working with colleagues and other practitioners, however, I find that I sometimes need to be inviting when delving into my own thinking. I need to be intentional and honest with my personal and professional reflections in order to push myself to deeper levels of learning.

This is where I become a better developer and facilitator of professional learning. By asking the right questions, reflecting on the “how” and “why” of what I am attempting to share, and pushing my thinking beyond the normal stages of planning, I can develop habits of mind and practices which will allow me to plan, execute and model a more cognitive level of professional practice. This is what I meant to be saying in the previous post when I commented that I needed to continue learning. I have to push myself beyond my comfort level, especially if I am going to ask colleagues to push past their comfort levels.

I am blessed to have many colleagues, both in my district cohort and on twitter, with whom I can think through projects on which I am working, question my thinking, and verbalize my frustration when things don’t seem to be going the way I had planned. They are willing to push me by asking hard questions and encouraging me to ask them of myself. They also work with me to interpret responses to survey questions that are asked of teachers with whom we work to provide a deeper and more valuable learning experience. This in turn, is a precursor for me to ask questions of the teachers in the meetings and professional development situations I facilitate to push them to the next level of learning.

Hearing is important and necessary, but it is the questions that lead us to learning.

The Parent Trap

Our county office invited parents out for a night of “Common Core Mathematics”. We are a district of approximately 20,000 students, so, lots of parents. Earlier in the week they had reported to my colleague and me that 65 parents had signed up, and they did not know whether they were parents of primary or secondary students. We had decided to split the group, I would work with primary parents and she would work with secondary. When I arrived to set up that evening, the director told me that they now had 90 parents registered to attend. OK, that works.

Dinner was served first. My room started as a set up for 60 parents. Throughout dinner more table and chairs were added. I think the last count for my room was 75, and I know my colleague was spilling out of hers. We were excited, lots of parents who were wanting to hear about how to learn with their kids this new way of looking at math.

I had an agenda. I told parents that if this did not meet their needs I would work with them to do my best to meet their needs. I was ready, I am working with parents. I started with a 1st grade lesson. I was the teacher, they were the students. The lesson went well, we were working with some domino cards and discussing different ways to create the number 6 by having them predict which number would be under a covered section of the domino, showing me ways to create 6 on their fingers, making connections to addition and subtraction, talking about their predictions. Then the fun started. I passed out this student page, and the parent trap began. Unfortunately, I slipped into it, a bit. I asked parents to review the page, and think about what they notice, and what they wonder.

I asked for things they noticed first. Several talked about the dominoes, how they were arranged, the example above and how they were seeing different ways to show numbers and addition. Then I asked what they wondered. Hands went up, and the hijack began: “I wonder why there are blanks all over the page, and if there’s a really good reason for it. I wonder why I have to solve the same problem so many times when I already know the answer. I wonder why I’m spending time doing this, when I could be working on addition in the “normal” way and still learn how to do it.” You get the idea. I thanked them for their wonderings, and then tried to get the focus back on the work itself. At this point, there were approximately 5 parents who felt they had the floor, and when I would ask questions, they would steer the conversation back to things like, “Why did my kid not get full credit even though he knew the answer?” “My kids are doing ok, why change what we are doing,” etc. You know the drill, the “I hate Common Core” crowd. I admit, here’s where I got trapped. I allowed this to happen for approximately 10 minutes. I then brought it back around, and we were able to look at a fourth grade lesson.

Here’s where the magic happened. We went through the lesson. Parents were telling me about the pattern, what they saw and felt would happen in other rows, challenged each other, really rich conversation. Then one parent said, “Isn’t this just a ratio?” I walked over to the chart paper I was recording their conversation on, and wrote the word “ratio”. I then asked what others thought. Once again, “Why didn’t you just tell us this was a ratio, and explain how to do it?” I then did a quick, direct teaching lesson on ratios, what they look like, the fact that they are a relationship between two different numbers, they can be represented in three different ways, etc. Then I asked, “Which one of these lessons gave you a better understanding?” AH HA! The first one of course.

One parent asked, “How would you do the last problem?” I handed out grid paper, and we talked about how kids would approach the problem. Then I pointed to the number 280 and said, “What do you notice about this number?” A parent told me that it was 28 x 10. I agreed that there would be someone who notice that, would have a sudden “ah ha” about how to solve the problem, and would explain that to the class. My last big question to the group, “Why do we cross out a zero at the end of a number when dividing by 10?” The responses, “Because we were told to. Because it works.” I asked, “How many knew when they were learning to divide, that crossing out the zero meant you were dividing by 10?” Two hands went up.

Enough said.

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

Encouragement

The blogs that I have had the opportunity to read the past 2-3 weeks during the #edublog challenge have been inspiring. I love reading and learning about the work that others are doing, and how that work affects the learning of our kids. This is my second year at a district level coaching position, and I’m beginning to feel more confident about interacting with the teachers and encouraging them in their work.

Sitting in on planning time with grade level groups has been amazing. Often they will start by asking me questions. I am getting better at giving answers for the ones that are simple, to begin the interactions and to help relieve any discomfort or anxiety that might be a hindrance to accomplishing work. After this, the conversation usually starts as we begin to look at the upcoming week and discuss the lessons and outcomes the teachers are hoping for their students. It gets easier here for me to begin asking the questions, and allowing teachers to think about what they would like to accomplish with their lessons, and what will be productive and not overwhelming for their students. As these conversations play out, teachers begin to realize they do know what they need to be doing, and that they do know their students, their needs, and their strengths. It is a wonderful time of “ah ha” and “I’m glad we talked about that, I was worried, concerned, afraid, etc.”

These “ah ha’s” are often more exciting for me than the ones I would see in students in the classroom. I know these will be affecting the learning of a classroom full of learners, and that teachers are beginning to feel confident about using the new program, their own learning and teaching, and the conversations and learning of their students. It is so powerful to see these changes occurring in the confidence of our students and the teachers. They still look at me as they are making decisions, as if they want my approval. I try to stay with, “I like, I wonder, and How will you know” and let them be the final say on what they plan. They will feel so much better about what they are doing that way, and be more confident as they move on through the program.

Last month was so stressful, as we all fought our way through understanding and becoming comfortable with the change in instruction, the increased time needed for planning and learning ourselves, and focusing more on the teaching and learning than the newness of the program and the struggles to implement. There are still struggles, but it is noticeably decreasing, and teachers are beginning to enjoy the fact that they are learning things that the didn’t understand before, and they can celebrate kids seeing new ways of thinking and understanding the math themselves.

This feels so much better this month, and I look forward with anticipation to the changes that each month brings.

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

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.

Math Talk

I had two of my grandkids for the weekend, as their parents took a quick trip to Montana. Lilli is seven, in second grade, and pretty quick with numbers and math ideas. She enjoys the challenge of learning and seeing different ways of doing things. Gwen will be nine in November, in fourth grade. She had some difficulty last year with math, felt very frustrated and decided she wasn’t good at it. We worked together quite a bit over the summer. I was able to identify some of her problem areas, and she started the year with 100% on her first math test and is feeling much more confident at this time.

We had some wonderful moments this weekend in both math and science discussions. I’m going to stick to the math discussions here, the science will have to be another blog.

The weekend started with the game Math Dice. This was with their Auntie Heidi, and we decided that only the operations addition and subtraction could be used, because Lilli hasn’t had experience with multiplication and division, yet. Gwen was very quick at first, seeing the equations right away, and Lilli was getting frustrated, because she doesn’t like to think that she isn’t good at something related to math. Heidi, being very quick herself, changed the rules of the game. She said that once the first person shares their equation, the others need to find another way to solve the problem. Lilli was all over this. One thing she is very good at is finding another way to solve problems. Lilli ended up winning the game, much to Gwen’s surprise. Gwen was a good sport about it.

On the way home, in the car, Gwen starting talking about the game and how she would have won if we would have allowed multiplication and division. Lilli said she didn’t understand those and it wouldn’t be fair. I suggested we talk about multiplication and see if we couldn’t help Lilli understand what is happening with multiplication. I suggested 2 x 3. I asked Lilli to tell us about skip counting, and Lilli gave an excellent description:

L: Well, you put all your objects into equal piles of a number, like 2 or 3, and then you count by that number, like 2, 4, 6, 8 . . .  until you’ve counted all your objects. If there’s one or more left over, then the piles aren’t equal.

G: I’ve got this Nonnie. Lilli, multiplication is like skip counting. You put your objects into equal groups, then you count how many groups of the objects you have, and that’s what you’re multiplying.

L: I totally get this! So, for 2 x 3, you have 3 groups of 2 objects!

G: Yes! Or. . .

L: 2 groups of 3 objects! (Did I mention she loves to find another way to solve the problem?)

G: So, if we are looking at 3 x 4. (She’s not too good at problem strings, yet)

L: We would have 3 groups of 4 objects, or 4 groups of 3 objects. (Maybe it didn’t matter)

G: Exactly! How many is that?

L: 3, 6, 9, 12! I can count it by the fours too, do you want me to do that?

At that point we were home. So we didn’t have her do that.

Later, we were putting together some materials for Bridges. Our district has adopted Bridges this year, and teachers have been complaining about how long it takes to get organized. I brought home a set of fourth grade teacher materials to problem solve this. My granddaugthers decided to help me. We opened the boxes, and if you are unfamiliar with Bridges, teacher materials come in 3 large boxes. One box is equivalent to all the teacher guides, 10 in all, including Number Corner and Assessments. The other two boxes area a bonanza! They are full of manipulatives! Cubes, square pieces, geometric shapes, tape measures, measuring cups, scales, dice, game pieces, cards, and so much more! We had quite a problem on our hands. I had purchased 8 plastic containers at the dollar store to organize materials, but we quickly realized that our colored squares and geometric pieces weren’t going to fit in the ones I bought. We had a great discussion about what we needed to do, which included estimation.

We had six bags of geometric shapes. Three of the bags fit into one container. The girls knew immediately it would take two containers to hold them all, but also made the comment that it would be so much better to have them all in one.  We then discussed what we would need to find to hold all of them.

We had a similar problem with the colored squares. We had three bags of those, and two fit into one of the containers. Another discussion ensued, and we went off to Walmart to fix the problem. I wish I could put in our discussion at Walmart, but this is already quite a long blog, and it was full of estimating, discussion and arguing between the two. I let them handle it, we came home with two containers that worked perfectly!

I can’t wait to tell you about the scales, measuring, estimation and science discussions! More to follow!