Teachers: At what are you an expert?

This is the second in a series of reflections that came out of a fantastic sit-down with #MichED -ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller). Melody asked a question that followed up by mentioning that teachers have a really, really hard time answering: What parts of your professional work would you consider yourself to be an expert?

You see, the teaching profession makes it’s members uneasy by self-promotion. And it’s understandable. Teaching is a complex skill set. Teachers are renowned for having very, very broad sets of abilities as posters like this indicate:

Just a teacher

Technology adds even more lines to this poster. So, with so many different nooks and angles to the work, it can be very understandable that teaching is a profession that makes it’s practitioners feel as though their efforts are stretched a mile wide and an inch thick. It’s hard to feel like an expert at anything under those circumstances.

But we need to. We need our expert teachers to not only be aware of their areas of expertise, but also be willing to advertise it. There’s a lot of teachers in this state. Lots. Like… tens of thousands. It shouldn’t scandalize us that each teacher has strengths and weaknesses. And some teachers have lots and lots of strengths. Every profession has it’s hall-of-famers. I could name a few that I’d nominate for a public school teaching hall-of-fame. Duane Seastrom… Eileen Slider… (Did you just think of a couple that you’d nominate?)

And teachers have a darn good perspective on this. They know who the good ones are and what they are so good at. “Kids never act out for her.” “The projects they do for him are amazing.” “She gets amazing growth out of students with disabilities.” But chances are, those teachers aren’t blogging about it. Chances are they don’t have business cards that say, “Mrs. Taylor, instructional designer, classroom manager.” Chances are they aren’t promoting the practices that they use that work. Chances are they aren’t standing up in staff meetings showing 5-min video clips of the awesome things their students are doing. Because teachers don’t do that.

What is it about teaching that makes it’s practitioners uncomfortable declaring their strengths and advertising them?

I have my own half-baked ideas. (Comment opportunities for dissent, if you’re in the mood.) For one, teacher evaluations are really time-consuming and we really haven’t figured out how to do it yet. What are the best practices? How important is student achievement? How do you measure positive impact of a teacher on an unsuccessful student? These are really, really tough things to measure. This is a symptom of our inability to collectively agree on the exact role that the teacher plays in the education industry. I can all think of the teacher whose in-class practice is pretty good, but it completely uninvolved in the community. I can also think of teachers whose instructional and assessment practices aren’t stellar, but they do a wonderful, wonderful job of reaching out to the marginalized students and keep them coming to school. I can also think of teachers who are inept in supporting the struggling students in their classroom, but because they coach three sports help keep an different population of struggling students eligible so that they can stay active on their teams. All three of those teachers are playing roles that are tough to evaluate. Obviously, we want every teacher to be hall-of-fame quality at instruction and assessment, but how do you isolate the “mandatory” skill set?

From the other side, collective bargaining has put pressure on teachers to not really separate themselves in any major way. If we find ourselves with a handful of teachers who are exemplary teachers, it’s very short logical leap to those teachers deserving some sort of reward for being so good at what they do. Naturally, there’s a very reasonable desire on a whole lot of different levels to shield the teaching profession from this. We want this field to become more collaborative. Not more competitive. So, to protect against that the unions have stayed far, far away from emphasizing outspoken greatness of individual teachers.

That doesn’t mean that greatness doesn’t exist. It just means that greatness is staying contained. We don’t want that. We want greatness to spread. And given the technology, given the pressure, given the difficulty of being a teacher, it is becoming more and more reasonable for teachers to begin identifying the exemplary practitioners and trying to figure out what of their skills can be displayed and transferred.

There are three things that I believe to be true. 1. It’s possible for every teacher to be a great teacher. 2. Not every teacher is currently a great teacher. And 3. It is in the best interest of every student in America to be in the classroom of a great teacher just as often as possible.

So, I’ll ask again: What parts of your professional practice would you consider yourself to be an expert at? What do you do really, really well that you could demonstrate to mentor up a young or struggling teacher? What are the things you do that are so good that you’d be willing to share them on the open educational marketplace of ideas? Feel free to reply in the comments section. That way if you have a weakness in the area that matches with a person’s stated strength, you can reach out to them and open that conversation.

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Student Blogging: Off and Running

After the encouragement of a few folks (among them, Hedge (@approx_normal), Zach (@z_cress), and Jennifer (@RealJMcCreight)), I decided to move forward with my admittedly medium-rare idea to have a class start a blogging community. I needed their encouragement because I hadn’t ever SEEN anything like this done before in math class. I’ve seen examples at the elementary level. I’ve heard about English teachers doing this, but the benefits of active engagement in a blogging community to a class of math students was purely hypothetical.

So, with that in mind, I decided to leap (and then look at where I was once I landed.)

curious? alg2point0atphs.wordpress.com/

I decided to leap…

I sold it to them in this spirit: Algebra II is the last math class that Michigan specifically requires high school students to successfully complete in order to graduate. That makes Algebra II the series finale. This is the last season. A sitcom that they have been watching daily since 2004 begins it’s final season this fall. They have spent more than a decade learning different kinds of mathematics and Algebra II is where we show off how it all fits together. We are able to reveal where it was all leading.

The blog acts as an extension of that. If they are going to take anything of value from the dozen years of math we lead them through, they are going to have to internalize their experiences. The blog is going to give them an opportunity to make visible a portion of that internalization.

Here are the structures I am using:

I am requiring a single post per week, along with a single meaningful comment on another person’s blog per week. A post should be between 150-500 words (because they asked). This is designed to enter them into the world that I know exists for more bloggers than just me. That is, becoming observant of the world around you thinking what you might write about. (The first topic I asked them to write about was the most enjoyable math-related experience they can recall in math class.)

They are required to follow all of their classmates’ blogs. This ensures that their WordPress homepage readers are displaying recent posts.

I have a rubric that I will be following to hold student’s accountable for actively participating in the blogging community.

 

Already, this has allowed us to consider a variety of different relevant topics that are not normally relevant to a math classroom, but are darned interesting to talk about. The value of pictures and story-telling in conveying meaning, the consideration of audience, the use of images and movie clips, digital citizenship, etc.

It has worked to make the class more holistic, which needed to happen if we are really going to take the series finale approach to this course. There’s value in that because the last 10 years of math class haven’t just been about math content. They’ve been about math habits, problem-solving techniques, specific tools, vocabulary, and a variety of technology. To focus purely on content would be to miss an opportunity to help them make sense of all of those experiences.

And to solidify those things is to provide a springboard to launch the students into an opportunity for spin-offs once this required Michigan math series has reached its conclusion.

Here are the handouts I used to introduce the blogging community to the students. None of these handouts stood alone. All of them were given as part of a large-group question-and-answer session, so keep that in mind as you read them and notice details left somewhat vague.

Handout 1

Handout 2

Handout 3

For the start of this school year, I am excited about…

It’s Labor Day and in Michigan that means that school starts tomorrow. Every school year comes with its own challenges. It also comes with a great deal of excitement.

I am excited to be getting a second try teaching Algebra II (which is coming in two different versions: Algebra II, the one-year version and Algebra IIA, the first year of a two-year version). The first try was clunky and unorganized. Having three sections will help as it is nice to have multiple tries at the same lesson, which wasn’t the case the first time around.

I am excited to be starting geometry again. Last year’s course got really backed up because of the incredibly intense winter that easily cost us a month’s instruction.

I am excited to (finally) make Desmos and Geogebra a regular part of my instruction. I am glad that teacher.desmos.com exists. (Does anything like that exist for Geogebra?)

I am excited about the chance to explore the possibilities for student math blogging. My school’s one-to-one program makes that possible. I am very thankful for that.

I am excited to meet a new group of young people. I am also excited to get a chance to work with some students for a second year, as we worked together to learn geometry last year.

I am excited about the new teachers that we brought into our community this off-season. So far they have brought a lot of energy. Energy is nice to have around, I’ll tell ya.

I am excited for a couple of my colleagues who accepted new positions for this school year. I’d say both moved upward and in a direction that will serve them and their educational communities very well.

I am excited to roll out the math club this year at our school. Our first task will be to design and test the m&m’s project.

There is a lot to be excited about. What are you excited about? I hope to hear back from you. Drop me a comment (or a link to your own blog post).

My advice to the newly “en-Twitter-Blogged” (reflection on #edcampmm )

Today I got to meet a lot of folks at EdCamp Mid-Michigan in Charlotte, MI. Some of them are seasoned tweeters and bloggers (Elizabeth Wellfare – @ealfoster or Tara Becker-Utess @t_becker10, for example) and some are just starting out. A couple of people got set up with their very first Twitter handles today. Welcome. I talked to a couple folks who are interested in starting their own blogs (or rethinking the way they use the blog they already have).

Now, that EdCamp is over, we start the “now what?” stage of all the new stuff we learned.

What are we going to do with it?

How intensely do we want to attack it?

How is it going to be useful to us in the practice of constantly improving as educators?

All of these are fantastic questions. We discussed some of these issues already, but I want to offer a bit of encouragement and advice.

First, don’t be afraid to be selfish. (I believe Dan Meyer – @ddmeyer gave this same advice a few weeks back). By that, I mean that you are likely going to take a WHOLE LOT more than you give for a while as you start out in the world of twitter and blogging. That’s okay.

The first major idea is trying to decide what you want the Twitter feed or the blog to do for you and your professional practice. Sometimes the first step in that is seeing what other people are doing. How do they tweet? What do they tweet about? How do they use #hashtags? What do they blog about? What types of blogs/tweets are interesting for you to read?

Tweet and blog about the stuff you find interesting. Your blog and your tweets should AT LEAST be interesting to you.

Second, keep at it. When you first start tweeting/blogging, chances are that you (and a very few other people) are going to be the only ones reading. That’s okay. That changes over time. The more you write/tweet/interact/question/comment/favorite the more you will find people who are trying to do the same things you are doing. And THAT is what you want. You want to begin to form a network of people who are all trying to support each other in common goals.

Now, if you are brand new to this, follow me at @hs_math_phys. When you start your blog, tweet me the link to your blog. I look forward to reading your ideas and thoughts.

Finally, if you want a nice network of people who want to read your thoughts, check out The MathTwitterBlogoSphere homepage for a ton of GREAT bloggers and tweeters. Don’t let the name fool you, it’s not just for math teachers. There are takeaways for educators of all makes and models. They are good people.

Welcome to our world. Please don’t be a stranger. And Please, let me know what I can do to be helpful.

Why I’m not THAT worried about the future of math education…

A New York Times article by Elizabeth Green has made its social media rounds lately. “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?” has been tweeted/shared a couple million times by now, with good reason.

It’s actually a really good article with some good story-telling and relevant history, and all the data and examples to back up the title. It’s worth a read. (It isn’t a quick read, mind you, but a good read.)

As far as I can tell, the thesis of the article is in the middle of the piece:

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work.”

The “traditional way” that Ms. Green speaks of is summed up a bit later in the piece.

Most American math classes follow the same pattern, a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it a cultural script. Some teachers call the pattern “I, We, You.” After checking homework, teachers announce the day’s topic, demonstrating a new procedure: “Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

Green goes on to say that quite often teachers recognize the limitations of the traditional model, but have a hard time reforming it largely because of poor resources and ineffective training. From later in the piece:

Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones. Textbooks, too, barely changed, despite publishers’ claims to the contrary.

So, here we go. Sounds like a big problem, right?

Well…

I’m not that concerned. Ya know why?

First off, I don’t want to give the impression that I think that Green is writing untruths or is exaggerating. That isn’t where I’m taking this. American math education needs some serious work. But see, that’s where I get encouraged.

Let’s look at a specific bit of content. How about volume and surface area of prisms?

So, my textbook provides this:

Prism Clip

taken from Holt’s Geometry, 2009 Edition, Pg 684

 

These practice problems fit in with the “I, We, You” model that Ms. Green described in her article. Right on cue, the textbook appears to be pitching to our education system’s weaknesses.

But those weaknesses have entered a brave new world where teachers who have found models that work are not only willing, but also able to share them freely for anyone and everyone who might be looking.

For example:

Andrew Stadel’s “Filing Cabinent” is, by content standards, just another prism surface area problem. But, the situation he sets up is anything but ordinary.

Timon Piccini’s “Pop Box Design” asks a relatively simple question in a context that is approachable by practically everyone.

Dan Meyer’s “Dandy Candies” pushes the envelope on video quality, pushes the same content, and includes it in a blog post that discusses a competitor to “I, We, You.”

All those fantastic resources are available… for free. And the creators can be reached if you have a question about them.

A movement has begun. An (ever-growing) group of math teachers decided that it was one thing to discuss reforming math education and it was quite another to effectively reform math education. The group is getting larger. It’s inclusive. It’s welcoming. It’s free to join. And it doesn’t expect anything from those who join. Everyone does what they are able. Some share lots. Some steal lots. Some do both. The bank of resources is growing.

And this isn’t legislated reform. There is a genuine desire for this. I spoke in Grand Rapids, MI this past spring and was amazed that the crowd that was willing to gather to hear someone talk about reforming math education. Nearly 100 folks crammed into a room to have, what ended up being a rather lively, discussion about how to engage all learners, push all learners, and keep as many learners as possible interested in meaningful mathematical tasks.

2014-03-14 12.38.33

They had to turn people away from a talk on effective math lesson planning.

So, Ms. Green is certainly right. Americans stink at math. But there is a growing group of teachers who are aware of the problem, interested in seeing it solved, and now, more than ever, there are places they can turn to, people they can reach out to (and who are reaching out to them). And it is all available for free on technology that practically everyone already has.

So, forgive me, but I am quite optimistic about where this might take us.

 

Student blogging has me thinking… (reaching out for help once again.)

I think I want to try student blogging next year in my Algebra II classes. I’ve only ever taught Algebra II once and I didn’t do a particularly wonderful job.

It was the sense-making that really got to me. My students were pretty good at learn procedures and algorithms, but the long-term retention was remarkably low. I have seen several examples of student blogging and feel like if I framed the discussion questions properly and encouraged the students to read each other’s posts, and comment. That could… COULD… open up a different mathematical thinking experience for the students.

If that were used to supplement the number-crunching practice, and the group problem-solving and exploration, that could potentially act as a way to deepen (or at least broaden) the thinking that the students were being asked to do. In addition, the opportunity for the entire internet to read and respond can add an extra-level of interaction. The students wouldn’t have to apply their real name if they didn’t want to. There is a chance for creative anonymity.

All of that being said, if you have your students blog, will you please comment on this so that I can pick your brain on what’s worked, what hasn’t, what to watch out for and what to definitely do! Links to other blog post would be much appreciated. E-mail this post to people you know who do this. I would love a rich, challenging comment section on this one. And trust me, if you don’t help me, I will make my own idea and learn this the hard way!

 

 

The Value of Face-to-Face

Today I got an opportunity to facilitate at EdCamp Mid Michigan, which was just the second time I served in any manner of leadership role at a teacher professional development workshop. The format was designed to be casual and conversational. Facilitators opened the conversation and the participants contributed for 45 minutes or so asking questions, telling stories, stating concerns and helping each other.

Sam Shah, a math teacher to whom I have received tremendous support developing a calculus class for next year recently posted a fantastic piece about the power of community. I encourage you to read the piece and reflect on how powerful a member of this sharing and learning community that you are. Each contribution matters, each “like”, each comment, each bit of dissent. We impact each other and we take it back to our classrooms.

And while I can completely embrace Mr. Shah’s post, I would like to offer a bit of a “yeah, but…”

Today’s EdCamp was a great microcosm of that greater community. There weren’t as many people, but each person was expected to contribute, because each person brings value to the table. They bring experiences, questions, concerns, anecdotes, advice… all of these parts are necessary for the community to flourish. The “mathtwitterblogosphere” or (MTBoS as it has come to be known) is a similar community. Some do a lot of writing. Some a lot of reading. But it is inclusive. (Shoot, if they’ll welcome me, they’ll welcome anyone.)

But EdCamp included one part that has been missing from my experience with the MTBoS: eye contact. That’s the one missing piece. The overwhelming majority of the teachers that I have communicated with through twitter and my blog are people who I have never met face-to-face. And while the MTBoS does it’s very best to facilitate conversations among folks all over the world… (I say that as though I have forgotten how remarkable it is that such technology even exists)… I wish that more could be done to create opportunities to get a chance to break bread with so many of the fantastic folks that I am meeting through twitter handles and avatar photos.

With that eye contact today, I tried (as Mr. Shah describes similarly in the aforementioned piece) to describe the value of the MTBoS to some math teachers who hadn’t explored the community much. I’m pretty sure I did a poor job. You see, one of the most important functions of face-to-face interactions is the power of facial expressions. Truth is, I am grateful for conversation because I often don’t know how well or poorly I’m explaining something until I see the faces people make when they are listening to me explain it. As I have moved out of my 20’s and into my 30’s, I am finding that I am doing more and more explaining to other people. The ability to look someone in the face and converse is one that I find incredibly valuable.

Bottom line: Thank you for all the support that you’ve provided MTBoS and thank you EdCamp Mid-Michigan for the support you’ve provided. I am thankful to be a part of both communities and hope that I’ve been a meaningful contributor. Today simply reminded me that while it is fantastic to embrace the resources and contributions (and amazing that it is even possible to do so) it is equally important to embrace the community that exists nearby me, too.