This Year in Teaching

I can stand in front of a classroom all day long and teach. I’m actually pretty good at that. I explain well, I have a deep understanding of my subject so when half formed questions come up I can usually see where they are coming from, but this is not the way I teach. This method of teaching meets the needs of students like me, but I don’t teach students like me. Most people at the age of 13 don’t want to sit and take notes from a teacher. they want to talk, move, text, snap, whatever, anything except sit and take notes.

I won’t try to incorporate all that into my teaching. That would be forced. What I will do is to allow students to take more responsibility for learning. For me this means projects. I’m calling what I am doing this year project based learning, but it isn’t quite fully that. We have one project for each unit, but they are not always natural teachers of the content.

For example the first project will be rewriting a song so that the lyrics teach operations on rational numbers. The project, could be more natural if we asked the student to explore sound frequencies, but I am not going for pure project based learning, I’m going for standards based learning.

I know studying song lyrics won’t teach anything about operations on rational numbers, but writing the lyrics correctly will. Maybe it isn’t project based learning right away, maybe call it project based assessment except that the project will be given first and students can choose to learn from me or through other resources until they feel confident enough to finish the project (or test if they prefer that sort of assessment).

The organization of each unit is pretty simple. (and I use the word unit loosely as we mostly group units by strand of mathematics) Introduce the CCSS standards, walk students through how I make standards into objectives, have students break the objectives into learning targets through the questions they have. (a KWL chart) Next introduce the project and show how it meets the objectives. Show students resources we have that will allow them to learn the target skills  necessary to meet the objectives and allow them to choose how and when to learn those skills. (Still individualized learning and not personalized (or vice versa I always get those confused), but giving a lot of voice to the students).

The important thing is the student choice. They don’t actually have to do the project. They can learn all the skills from me and then take a test, they can learn all the skills, from another resource such as Khan Academy or CK12 and take a test. They can learn on their own and then do the project. They can learn on their own and then do a project of their own choosing. It doesn’t matter as long as they check in with me at least weekly and are working towards the goal as measured by mastering learning targets.

We will see how this shift in learning goes. Oh and did I mention we are also going 1 to 1 and shifting towards Standards Based Grading? I actually don’t think I could do this without those two elements, but first things first changing the culture of the classroom. No more work turned in for a grade, instead steady feedback on a long-term project.

Education and Politics

I usually like to stick to education on this blog, but I thought I’d take a little foray into politics. This 2016 election year has been interesting to say the least. I’m generally a Democrat but I have spent a lot of time with Republicans and I believe I understand the lure of the Republican platform. Who would not be excited about lower taxes, a smaller more efficient government, and people with values?

There are of course differences between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans want government to do as little as possible and private enterprise to do as much as possible. This whole social conservative movement that has erupted over the last 20 or 30 years is not part of the original Republican Party. It’s something that I think some politicians have used energize the base, but is not really part of the real conservatism.

Democrats on the other hand see as government as a tool of the people. Democrats don’t necessarily see government is evil, but they know that government can do evil. What they do want government to do, what they believe government does best, are those things that individuals can’t necessarily do. The government should protect people from the powerful, protect people from being exploited, force the powerful to do what’s right, fund and share large project that help the country as a whole, but aren’t necessarily direct money makers

The differences are pretty basic as far as I can see. Republicans see a problem and they try to shine a light on it and create incentives for the free market or private enterprise to fix the problem. Democrats see a problem and they want the best solution to be found and implemented.

Now if the problem is building an infrastructure, such as roads, or water systems, or even delivery of education, I think the government is the right entity to provide that solution. These are huge projects that benefit everyone, even those people who don’t use them on a regular basis (this in my mind makes me a Democrat). So yes, our collective will, the government, should be the person who leads the development and financing of these projects. On the other hand the national government shouldn’t be making small detailed decisions like where should the stop sign go, or how much fluoride should I put in the water, or exactly what should be taught during March of the school year in a local elementary school. These decisions are best left to the local people.

Take for example the Department of Education. It was created by the Carter Administration. only a Democrat would think of elevating the Department of Education to a cabinet level position. On the other hand only a Republican would think of pushing the limits of those powers. In 2000 Bush decided to use the Department of Education to help underprivileged schools. It is no surprise that for many years students in underprivileged neighborhoods had schools that are failing; they often have buildings that are falling down, they have less equipment, many have less effective teachers, and students generally don’t do as well or learn as much as their more privileged peers.

With the Republican mindset of a government that doesn’t do things, but encourages businesses or people to do things it makes sense to Start No Child Left Behind. If you start with just the general idea of schools are bad, let’s tell people and require the people make them better that doesn’t sound like a bad thing does it? And really it isn’t, it’s not bad to shine light on the truth. And the truth is that schools and students in underprivileged neighborhoods get the short end of the shaft.

The problem is the execution of the policy. Politicians are more often than not lawyers, not educators, they don’t understand how education works. Like most people they went through school where the teacher taught, they took the test, if they passed the test then they must have learned something. So NCLB is set up that way, give kids a test and if they pass they learned if they fail they must not have learned. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the teachers didn’t teach and the schools aren’t working.

After Bush came Obama and Democrats. Democrats see government as needing to fix what is wrong. Since Republicans were so nice to shine a light on the problem Democrats decided to institute a fix.

The Obama administration followed No Child Left Behind with Race To The Top. Race To The Top took the idea that these schools were failing and we need to institute researched based policies to fix them. This sounds good to me except for the part where research says basically anything you want it to say and so politicians / lawyers devised the solutions that would somehow fix education.

There are a lot of problems with schools in our poorest neighborhoods. the best teachers often leave as soon as they can, resources are woefully inadequate, buildings are falling down, often community support is lacking, and the culture can be counterproductive (If you don’t see education as a ticket to a better life you don’t value education). Unfortunately not every school faces the exact same set of problems so a solution has to be created for each school and each district separately. There can’t be one set of instructions for everybody. And the policies that were picked sounded good, but rarely worked.

The real fix for education is a simple compromise between the Republican and Democratic approaches to the problem. There needs to be a light shined on the issues facing schools, but it has to shine on all of these issues, lack of support, lack of money, lack of community, all of that stuff has to be brought to light. We can’t depend on the goodwill of businesses or nonprofits or community volunteers to fix these problems, we have to as a people, as a government entity, decide that we value education and provide the necessary support. Those supports include wraparound services, building the support structure necessary to make education possible.

Then we need to step back and let local districts decide what that means. If this sounds like education in the 1990s before Bush instituted No Child Left Behind, then you’re half right. It is except before No Child Left Behind there was no spot light being shined on these districts. Have you ever been to a school board meeting? Nobody shows up. The school board is there, the principles are there, the superintendent is there, and usually the union president is there. The only time the public shows up to a school board meeting is when somebody is winning an award, or somebody’s in trouble.

Obviously locally elected school boards are not really being monitored. So some sort of monitoring or justification for implementing policies and follow up on whether they’re actually working or not is necessary. And it might actually be good or better if it’s being monitored by somebody higher up, the state or the national level. It could provide more stability, often schools will go in one direction while a superintendent is running the school district and then that person moves on, somebody new is hired and the direction changes. Schools and education don’t work when you change direction every 2 or 3 years.

Schools and the people in our poorest neighborhoods need more than just edicts from a government power. They need the time and support to develop and implement their own solutions to their own problems. The Republican solution which seems to be telling people to doing stuff wrong and either fix it or get in trouble doesn’t work. The Democratic solution of implementing a fix designed in the White House or on Capitol Hill will not work. Each solution needs to be developed and implemented in each neighborhood, custom solutions for each individual problem. The government needs to hire good people and let them do what they are good at doing.

Doing Less

I’ve been teaching for a while now and I make a lot of mistakes. The mistake I think I make most is trying to do too much.

Dan Meyer says be less helpful. I say don’t try to teach everything at once.

His advice is probably better for most of you.  (Ok that was just name dropping)

 

Seriously though. At the moment we are teaching students to write and solve two-step equations. If I were working on my own I would have basically jumped into the two-step equations and let the kids struggle for a while wondering why they weren’t getting it. Instead my coach has helped me write lesson plans (read that as doing most of the work), while I’ve been teaching. While the lessons are ending up being mostly me talking and guiding students through examples, and I would like to do less of that, they have been more focused.

 

Small steps, first spend a whole lesson just exploring the connections between words and operations. Second, spend a whole lesson with one step word problems, (Use an Andrew Stadel video for fun and excitement [yes it could also have been a two-step equation lesson]). Third, just model two-step equations (I tried to jump ahead and solve, but that didn’t work). Fourth, reboot from yesterday, but now we can solve. Fifth, review of the distributive property and guide students through writing a two-step equation with distributive property.

 

Five days to do something I might have attempted to do in one day.  Are the students better prepared? According to the exit slips everyone is keeping up just fine. What I do notice is in my word problem for the daily warm up, students are still jumping right to the answer.

On Monday, 324 students went on a trip to the zoo. All 8 buses were filled and 4 students had to travel in cars. How many students were in each bus ?

 

Everyone wants to say 40 (or 40 1/2 ). So I go back and ask how did you get that? We write something like (324-4) / 8 = 40. I ask is that what is written on the board or is that how to solve the problem? After some thinking time we discover that what is written on the board is 8s + 4 = 324. The word and is easily seen as a plus not a minus. Finding the multiplication is a bit harder, but, as almost half my students are bilingual, I can point out that translating isn’t always a word for word thing, sometimes you have to get the meaning.  (Would you really like to put were on your word wall and say every time you see this word think multiplication?)

 

I’m really pleased that by teaching slowly, doing less. we not only have a stronger understanding of writing equations, but we are also teaching how to solve equations within the same context. Actually, I can point to the ease with which my students get the right answer and say, the right answer is like a grade of C, getting the right equations is like a B, and then being able to do everything backwards (writing a good word problem) is like an A. This works because some of the word problems we have seen while practicing have been very difficult to understand.

 

What is a Teacher Worth

Are we looking for the right people to be teachers?

 

You may have listened to Taylor Mali explain what a teacher makes,

or seen some meme on facebook, as a kid I saw it on bumper stickers.

So, is the idea that a teacher should be altruistic the best quality to look for in a teacher?

 

I’m here primarily because I love kids and want them to have a chance at a better life. Often I find myself getting upset when students don’t put in their best effort. Which is often exactly the wrong response.

 

Middle school students love when they can confound the adults in their lives. They love attention, even negative attention. And they especially don’t want to be known as people who care about anything. That would just be uncool.

Nerd!
Would a bit more emotional distance and focus on action research make me a better teacher?

 

Maybe my mistake is not caring too much, maybe my mistake is not understanding that these adolescent actions that punch (yes, punch) my buttons are really the beginnings of independence. I should be happy and celebrate them. I fail in that respect at least once everyday, with my students and my own kids. Maybe I’ll do better on Monday.

What is formative assessment

You know how it is, you try to blog once a week. You put it off during the week, because it is busy and you just don’t have time. Then Friday comes around and you put it off till Saturday, then Saturday is busy and you put it off till Sunday. The next thing you know it’s two weeks later.

 

I’d like to start a conversation with the 12 people who might read my blog, the 6 who read it through facebook, the random looks from G+, and the two who scan the title on twitter. If you wouldn’t mind chiming in.

 

Here’s my question, “Are multiple choice tests formative?”

 

My team and I, we write these CFA’s (common formative assessments) every week or two. they are the basis of the grades (Which is a question I’d like to ignore for now). The problem is we give them basically at the end of the teaching so they are really summative, though we often find we need to reteach.

 

We are planning a new unit next week and were given the green light to go more standards based grading. I thought it would be a good time to suggest that we move these questions around a bit more. We can ask them to warm ups, one-on-one conversations, exit slips, homework assignments, etc…
Then it occurred to me, are multiple choice tests ever formative? Can I use the right or wrong answers to inform my teaching?