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.


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.

Student Questioning

I annoy students terribly. I love teaching geometry and teach it the way I love it. To me, geometry is the foundation of questioning, exploring, extending thinking, inquiry. I think Algebra should be, but for our students it seems, at least at this point, geometry is where that begins. Until now, Algebra has been taught procedurally, like their previous math classes. Then comes geometry, with Mrs. Ryan. Oh no!

The first thing my students learn is that I never run out of “why?” I also rarely answer questions, but respond with a question. When they say they don’t understand a problem, I ask them what they do understand about it. I guide them to find an entry point, I push them to figure out what they know and what they need to know. I walk away when they shrug their shoulders at me and tell them to call me back when they figure out where they are. I make them explore, inquire, dig, re-read, look at examples and re-answer the same questions until they go, “OOOOOOHHHH.” I get calls from parents telling me their son or daughter has told them I don’t teach them anything. They accuse me of refusing to show students how to solve problems. I try to explain what I do, but they don’t get it. It doesn’t look like math has looked for their previous 10 years in school.

Some years my students begin to see and understand in the first semester. Usually this occurs about November. I’ve had a couple of years when this has occurred near the end of October. Some years it takes to the second semester, January or February. This year, it still is not occurring. I had a parent-teacher conference yesterday where I heard once again from the parent that her daughter says I refuse to answer her questions. When I responded that I always answer, I just tend to answer with a question, the daughter starting laughing hysterically. We all looked at her and she said, “that’s exactly what she does.”

After the conference, I had a geometry class. We were working on solving some trigonometric problems and students were asking questions about HW problems. I always ask them to tell me what they tried and where they got stuck. They have to have tried something, in fact that’s one of my chants, “try something.” We worked together on creating a visual model on the board, labeling values and making sure that we had a right triangle in the model to work with. I solved the problem the way they told me to solve it, then asked, “are there any problems with what we’ve done here?” They all looked at me like I had lost my mind. The problem started with a plane 10,000 feet off the ground, we were looking for the angle of elevation for the plane to get to 20,000 feet. They used 20,000 feet as the opposite leg of the triangle. When we finally figured that out, and changed the values, students began to solve again. One student asked, “can’t we just divide the angle measure by 2?” I said, “I don’t know, can we?” He responded, “I guess not.” I said, “why do you guess not?” He said, “because you just asked me if we could like I had asked a crazy question.” You’d think they’d be used to me by now! I said, “I asked you because I thought it was a worthwhile question and thought we should figure it out.” After a few more questions, a few more changes in values to test conjectures, determining what types of values we needed to test to determine if the conjecture worked, we came to a conclusion. And they understood the relationships between the ratios and the sides and angles of the triangles better. We didn’t get to what I had planned for the day, but I think we got a whole lot more mileage out of what we did do.

When will they learn?