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.

DIBELS

This is a new term for me this year. DIBELS is an assessment, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills or what our Elementary ELA Academic Specialists call “Foundational Skills”. This is a test that can be given to grades K-6, two or three times a year, and is a predictor of student’s reading, comprehension and fluency in reading. We give this test to our K-2 students. Having taught 9-12 mathematics, I wasn’t aware of this assessment previously, but this year it has become an “educational buzzword” for me. The teachers, principals and sites that I work with are all very involved and aware of this test, and often this is a priority and focus for them. I found it very frustrating at first for several reasons, the main one being I didn’t understand it at all. I wanted to focus on math instruction and learning, and indicators of student understanding and progress here. I really didn’t understand why so much focus was placed on this particular assessment until recently.

Our district level coaches meet weekly with our CCSS Coordinator, our Assessment Director and our Interventions Supervisor. We discuss all things data; teaching, learning, assessments, assessment analysis, support for sites in utilizing data to inform and adjust instruction, and the how, when and why of assessment. We are also involved in a district-wide process known as “DATA COM” where all principals share site data with the Teaching and Learning division at the district. (This is us: Superintendents, Academic Specialists, Instructional Directors, Assessment, Intervention and PBL Coordinators). We are a large district and a large department. At the elementary level, the main data point shared is DIBELS for K-2, and SRI, Scholastic Reading Inventory, for all levels.

This past Friday, our usual meeting days for data discussions, we looked at the recent DIBELS data and discussed the implications for all students who took the assessment, how to interpret and utilize the data, and how this can give us important information for ELD students. The one thing we didn’t discuss is how this can also be a very important indicator for mathematics success, but as we talked, I had an “AH HA” moment.

Students who are having difficulty with fluency, phonemic awareness, and the meanings that accompany these will also have difficulty in fluency and understanding of math academic language for the same reasons that they struggle with verbal language. Knowing these areas of struggle can be very important in creating a learning environment that supports these learners in all academic areas.  This can also help us to predict where and when students will struggle with academic language and academic discourse which research has shown to be extremely important for learning.

This year is turning out to be quite a journey for me, but I am continually stretching and growing and am increasing my ability to be more cognizant of the learning occurring at the elementary level, and increasing my ability to truly be a support and asset to the teachers and staff at this level. I am truly blessed to have this opportunity to learn about and support elementary teaching and learning.

Building Capacity

I’m working with the HS and MS math academic specialists on creating a vertical alignment plan for PD, K-12 math alignment, and system alignment across the district so that all students receive excellent instruction. We have been tasked with creating a strong K-12 program which is consistent at all levels. This is really big. Our district has approximately 18,000 students. The MS academic specialist has derived a plan which utilizes an on-site teacher to be trained and implement PD for all teachers at the site. This could also work at the HS level, where there are expert teachers in mathematics.

I have been pondering this since our director brought this up. I work with 19 school sites, grades K-5. While we do have several teachers with a strong interest in math and the ability to be trained or encouraged to provide PD, there is not a teacher at each site. I have considered many options for this, grouping sites and utilizing one teacher for 4-5 sites, working with teachers at other sites to strengthen their math and PD skills and supporting them as they grow in ability, or asking MS or HS teachers to provide the PD for elementary teachers. There are pros and cons to each of these ideas, and I’m struggling to find a solid answer to this.

I’ve considered having grade level teachers come together to work as a larger PLC, with me facilitating the work, but this would mean having 6 different meetings or entail facilitating large groups of teachers when you consider 19 sites and 2-3 teachers at each grade level for most sites. The HS academic specialist suggested two meetings; K-2 and 3-5 and one teacher from each site. They could work on unpacking standards for grades K-2 and 3-5 respectively, and then take the work back to their sites and share with the other teachers. This could mean that a Kinder teacher would be working on unpacking standards for their grade level, or another one, and taking back the information for all three grade levels to their site. None of this is really feeling like a deep, meaningful experience for the teachers, and a lot to expect from a small amount of teachers. On the other hand, attempting to support all grade levels at 19 sites myself is overwhelming at best.

I am new to the elementary level, having taught HS mathematics for 11 years and coached teachers at the HS level. I am very aware that I could be missing some vital pieces in my thinking and reflecting on this issue. I would love to hear from elementary coaches and district leaders regarding ideas for building this program and the capacity of my teachers. Please share your ideas, experiences, and expertise in this area, I need all the help I can get.

Thanks in advance.

Asilomar Nerves, Part 2

I’ve returned home after a wonderful learning and teaching experience at CMC North in Asilomar. On Friday I was discussing my nervousness and concern about my session and Ignite on Saturday. This is the follow up to that post.

To my surprise, I had a full room for my session Saturday morning. Several of the teachers there told me this was “exactly the session they were looking for” and I found out Saturday evening that two teachers were sent there by a PD facilitator I met at our district when the original facilitator took ill and she substituted. She told me they came back excited from my session and were showing her several pages of notes and ideas they had accumulated during our time together. We had a very interactive and collaborative session, teachers worked through an activity I wrote to encourage students to inquire and develop a definition. Afterward, we talked about some extension activities that could be planned and ready for any students who completed the task. The participants had several great ideas, and I was able to model pulling out of the conversation and allowing the room to take over. Things went very well, exactly as I had hoped they would. Only a couple of the participants are using twitter, so I pitched the MTBoS and encouraged them to start “lurking”. It worked for me.

I ran into Steve Leinwand during the day, and told him how I had feared that I would have an empty room having to compete with him. He said, “this should show you that you can fill a room all by yourself”. I felt very validated, as I always do when I interact with my colleagues from the MTBoS and twitter. CMC North is a wonderful conference, smaller that the NCTM conferences and in a beautiful setting at Asilomar, it feels very warm and friendly. Meals are set up so that you really have no choice but to sit with new people each time, and some very interesting conversations are often the result. There is a little more time between sessions also, so it doesn’t feel so rushed to get to the next session or that you have to leave early to make it. Unless, of course, Dan Meyer is speaking.

Saturday night was invigorating. There were ten of us presenting Ignite talks, and I was number seven on the list. As I listened to the six in front of me, I began to notice my fear rising, and the feelings I often fight of not being good enough. When it was my turn, my first words were, “I feel a little intimidated right now”. As the slides started, I forgot about that and just gave way to the desire to share what I had put together. It went much better than I had anticipated, and quite a few people made a point of telling me both Saturday night and this morning how much they enjoyed my talk and related to it.

All this, and sessions by Robert Kaplinsky, Shalek Chappill-Nichols from RAFT, Andrew Stadel, Jo Boaler, Phil Daro, and many, many more that I was unable to get to but heard great things. I have seen presentations by some of the other presenters and have learned great things from them, so I believe all that I heard. I ran into people I haven’t seen for a while, including one of my methods instructors from my credential program. It’s just a wonderful place, and I’m happy I was able to be a part of it.

One more step in my journey toward becoming a better educator and believing in myself.

Math for Our Smarty Pants

The California Mathematics Project at UC Davis has been conducting professional learning for our elementary teachers this month in grade level groupings. It has been a great way for our grade level teachers to get together and talk a bit about what is going on at school sites, as well as learning about designing curriculum around the CCSS, rather than the text book. I love the way that Pam Hutchison has been reinforcing the things I have been telling teachers as I work with them, as well as giving them hands on experiences that allow them to walk away with some very concrete ideas and lessons to use in the classroom. The teachers have been very positive about the experience, while letting me know that they need a new curriculum that is more focused on the CCSS. Well, at least they are realizing that the CCSS should be their focus?? One can hope I guess.

One of our principals has asked me to come out to the site when they are having their staff meetings to reinforce the information the teachers are learning in these professional learning sessions and to help them incorporate the information into their lesson planning. He has given me the time to talk with them as a group and then allow them to work in grade level groupings as PLC’s and to rotate among the groups to be a part of the planning discussion. I had my first meeting with the K-3 teachers this past Wednesday.

I had the opportunity to work with Justin Lanier this summer, both at TMC and again in his SMOOC: Math is Personal. Several educators worked together to solve problems, discuss readings, and reflect on practice. Justin is a wonderful leader, and knows just what questions to ask to get us thinking deeper and better about our teaching and learning. One of the readings assigned was the Getting Started portion of “Math for Smarty Pants” by Marilyn Burns. She is a gifted educator, with a focus on elementary learning. After reading and identifying the type of learner each of us is, we wrote a small piece about it. I was very excited about it and told Justin that I would love to use this with the elementary teachers I am working with.

On Wednesday, I wanted to start by having the teachers read this portion of “Math for Smarty Pants” and discuss it, while thinking about their students. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. The principal had some agenda items and then when I had the opportunity to work with the teachers there wasn’t enough time to do that and to discuss the unit plan and how to put together viable units as a PLC, planning for all learners and allowing low entry with some extension activities planned to be sure all learners were captured and given learning experiences that would allow them to extend their thinking no matter what level they are at. This is really important for us. We have 19 elementary schools and a large ELL population, some of our kids are fresh from Mexico with no English background and little to no learning in their native tongue. At this time, we have little consistency across our district at grade levels, and in some cases at school sites in grade levels. There is a lot of work to be done, and I am going to need to plan very carefully and pick my battles wisely.

The discussions went well. I had created a simple unit planning template, focusing on student learning outcomes, the standards, prior learning and low entry activities with extensions for students who are learning more quickly. The discussions were wonderful and rich, teachers were discussing what extension activities should look like, what essential learning outcomes should be, and when to incorporate “nice to know”  learning.

All in all, it was a very successful time, even though I didn’t get to do everything I had hoped. I still have “Math for Smarty Pants” in my back pocket, and will be looking for opportunities to incorporate this resource and the valuable learning it contains into our discussions.

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.

My First Week

Tomorrow will be the end of my first week in my new role. Fortunately, things are starting at a handleable pace. We have been meeting as a PLC, reading through Jim Knight’s book, “Instructional Coaching, A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction”. It’s very good, and the meetings have been quite helpful. I think the anxiety for a lot of us is decreasing. I’m finding myself wanting to get into the Elementary math curriculum and digging for purpose in the elementary math classes. I’ve sent out a google form to get some ideas from the on-site coaches about what they need so that I can start planning and digging for resources and answers. Wouldn’t you know it, I embedded the form into email and received a response from a tech geek about how I shouldn’t have done that. So, right off the bat I have to admit that I still have a lot to learn about using technology and google forms. Brother! Nothing like looking like a goofball from the start. 

I am meeting some really great people, some of them have been doing the coaching at the district for a few years, others are new to this like me and trying to find their place also. All of us are in the process of “building the plane in the air” as my supervisor put it. I had a talk with one of the coaches who has been here for a couple of years. She gave me some encouragement and reassurance as I was reflecting on some of the things I was feeling somewhat anxious about. She reminded me that I know math, and the students are just shorter than I am used to. That made me smile. I have to say, the students are awfully cute. 

Tomorrow I meet with several district coaches and the superintendent to talk about Junior Achievement. I’m not really sure what this entails, yet, but I’m sure I will tomorrow. I’m grateful that we’ve spent the week discussing coaching and the partnering aspect. It makes me remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. I’m looking forward to working with the elementary teachers, hearing what they struggle with and what they are good at, and building a strong math program with them. 

Let’s get the show on the road!!