Casually Retired, Year 1

As the beginning of The Second Year of Me Not Teaching draws closer, I find myself pondering my situation. My decision to “retire” at the end of the 14-15 school year remains completely right and wise, and I am so grateful on virtually a daily basis to be able to “be there” for and with my family. It’s pretty damn wonderful.

What surprises me however is how much I continue think about teaching and learning, about schools and education. That I am still quite invested in growing professionally in spite of the fact that I do not currently have a job, have a classroom, have students, have colleagues. That I get excited when I read insightful blogs or arrive at a personal aha moment, yet am frustrated because the conversations I crave remain elusive. I feel more informed, better equipped, a tad wiser, and inspired. In my imagination, I am able to move assertively and confidently toward becoming the teacher I really want to be.  I still want to Be the Change, to make a difference.

Just not full time. And not yet.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and learning and doing this irregular blogging thing. Periodically I wonder why I bother, feel like I will remain invisible/insignificant forever, but then remind myself that for now it’s enough to be interested (even if uninteresting). Whatever I’ve gained from my time reflecting this past year seems to have become the foot wedged in the teaching-learning door, keeping it decidedly ajar.

So I’ll continue to post what I find interesting, inspirational, and insightful. Someday someone somewhere may be glad I did. For now, I am glad that I can.

Random Acts of Mathness

I finally found Fawn Nguyen’s  current blog! SUH-WEET. I feel like I’ve struck MTBoS gold…again. I’ve decided to read it from her first post forward.

This is not going to be about what an freakishly amazing and intelligent teacher she is, or about how reading her blog makes me waver between feeling incredibly inspired and feeling incredibly inferior. Nope, none of that.

On 11/6/14, she shared  this problem that she had given her students to wrestle with. The problem intrigued me, so I thought I’d try it; I even averted my eyes from the photos of student work so that I would not be influenced. (Want to do the problem, too?  Spoiler alert!  More photos ahead!  Avert eyes!)  In the few minutes I had before leaving for an appointment, I made a sketch and threw down some variables for the missing lengths.

I noticed that the two right triangles were similar and the requested area was a trapezoid. I wondered if it would be possible to express the variables in terms of one of them; I can easily express “a” as “10 – b”. Could I do the same for “x”?



I looked at the similar triangles first.




Nah. Still two variables after I simplify. What about working with the triangle with the known area?


Also a bust. My time was almost up, anyway, so I quickly fiddled with the area formula for the trapezoid, which does not use x, but does still have a second variable, A.


As I copy my work neatly for this post, I am VERY AWARE that by this point I already had everything I needed. Between my time interruption and my attention on trying to use only one variable, I missed that tidbit.

When I again had a few minutes the next day, I started over with a fresh sketch, this time keeping all three variables as I worked.  I revisited the similar triangles and the known area to record everything I knew to be true. I felt these were key. Using the proportions and the ax = 48 fact, I guessed that 6 and 8 were reasonable options to try for “a” since the options for a + b = 10 were limited. Confident, I tested them out….



…and arrived at a lovely WTF moment. Maybe I need to let go of my assumption that the measurements are whole numbers? Apparently 5(9.6) = 48, but that’s not helpful in my proportion.

I looked at my proportion set up again, this time circling both cross products, and…AHA!

image(Finally, right?) BOTH products = 48. Duh.  So b has to be 3. (Remember, I missed this previously… If 16b = 10x – bx and 48 = 10x – bx, then 16b = 48.  So what.  Now I have two ways so solve this problem!) This is probably the first time I have ever put cross products to good use. (I refrain from introducing this memorized-process-to-get-the-right-answer to students because I rather they’d focus on what’s-the-relationship? instead.)

Figured out what x was (just for kicks..and to validate my proportion) and subbed in 3 for b in my trapezoid area equation to find the solution. Ta DA!

To celebrate, I watched the video Fawn linked at the end of her post, in which Mike Lawler also uses similarity  to find the solution, but via a different path, which is cool to see.  Check out also Mike’s student’s area solution, as well as a completely different area solution by Mike that employs a system.  Holy Multiple Pathways, Batman!

This task is such a poster child for rich problems.  I shared it with my entrepreneurial daughter. She doodled around a bit, dusting off had some long-idle knowledge, determined the exact question she needed to ask me, solved it, cheered, and then demanded another one. EXACTLY what I want for all my students.

Patootie Pain

I have decided to do a little self-assessment by taking a worthwhile geometry task and applying to it some of the pedagogical wisdom that I have gleaned from readingreadingreading math blogs these last nine months. Ratchet the thing up a notch or five. Just for kicks and giggles, just to see if I could.

Alas, this post is not about my glorious modifications. It is about a snag I’ve hit. An obstacle in my path. A wrinkle in my plans. A pain in my patootie.

While I’m really excited about avoiding cleaning the garage applying my newly-acquired insights, I decided it would be responsible of me to first consider the purpose of the task– for whom is it appropriate? What prior knowledge will come into play? What new knowledge will be constructed? And..

…what Standard does it meet?



I go through these stages wondering why I bother.

Sometimes, I have answers; other times, I wallow in the murky waters of I Don’t Know.  It’s not a happy place.  (You know what the F stands for.)

Why do I bother to write a blog?  Why did I even start a SECOND one, for heaven’s sake?  I don’t have a classroom, I’m not an advisor or coach or pre-service instructor, so I’m not really in a position to Be the Change.   I’m not anything education-related, no one is interested, this is not creating the connection I crave.  Blogging doesn’t even count toward PDU’s.  Practically no one reads what I write and I’m pretty damn sure everything I say is boring and/or has already been said much better by others. People who already work all day and yet they manage to maintain interesting, thought-provoking blogs.  I don’t write often enough because writing is a time-sucking struggle for me (although I strangely enjoy it); I feel like I kinda suck at it, my posts are too long and lack visuals, that my expectations are waaaay too high, so I end up avoiding it while half-baked ideas get piled up in a scrambled mess in my brain.

My answer usually boils down to this:  I blog because it helps me clarify my thoughts, to move my teacher-self forward, even if I don’t have somewhere to go.  It really is just for me.  It would be really, really nice if my reflective efforts serve a higher purpose, and maybe someday they will, but for now, it’s nice to complete some thoughts, get them organized a bit,  just to make room for more.

Good enough.



The Goats Need A Plan

Reflecting on Chapter 5 in Alfie Kohn’s thought-provoking book, The Schools Our Children Deserve.

(To the tune of Raindrops on Roses)

Verbatim instructions, the students are pouting,
Feeling complicit, anxiety mounting,
Watching for cheating, can’t help, don’t you see?
This is what mandated tests mean to me!

Some kids who do try and some kids who don’t care,
What if I mess up? Will my data compare?
We’d rather be back in our class joyously,
This is what mandated tests mean to me!

When the kids quit, when they stress out,
Think that failing is bad,
I simply remember we all must comply,
And that makes me feel…
So mad.

Teaching and learning are extremely complex endeavors, becoming even more so when considering the wealth of information on how the brain works, multiple intelligences and different learning styles, readily available and ever-expanding technology, as well as the push for students to have “21st Century Skills.” Education – and all that it entails – needs to evolve in order to stay vibrant and relevant. Instead, it is becoming severely restricted.

I am reminded of a recent lunch-time anecdote; for some reason, we were talking about goats. One teacher explained that he used to tether his goats to a enormous truck tire out in the field. The goats would do their thing and eat stuff, but it was impossible for them to wander too far off, if so inclined. Mandated high-stakes testing and the inflated importance and controlling nature of CCSS have effectively tethered teaching and learning.

Evolution does not mean a return to the good old days before standards and testing, a simple removal of the tethers. The challenge lies in knowing where to go and what do to once that freedom has been achieved.  For me personally, I find it difficult to imagine the future of education, to visualize what is possible and a path to get there. To move from known to unknown, from questions to answers, from tentative to confident, from alone to connected.  I can figure out some baby steps, but feel unprepared for the giant leaps that I know are necessary. Thanks to social media, I also know there are plenty of educators who already have the wisdom and vision that I lack, who have been researching, developing, freely sharing and even implementing ideas. You have to intentionally seek them out, but they do exist. Although growing in strength, their collective voice is still drowned out by proponents of “reform”- basics, standards, and testing. People who fear change, people who want control, people who lack vision.  People who need to let that failed idea go.

The standards-testing-accountability culture has become so pervasive that it doesn’t just hinder evolution, it holds productive change hostage. There is no choice about participation; compliance is required. Schools do not have the freedom to opt out (although students now do), to choose different, healthier priorities and cultures.  The collective wisdom and innovative ideas of educators ends up being pushed aside or ignored.  Instead of discussing pedagogy and diverse learners, teachers spend time comparing data, aligning lessons with standards, and developing common assessments. Instead of encouraging creativity, inspiration, and growth, teachers and students are compelled to prepare for tests. Instead of respect, standards. Instead of trust, testing. Instead of embracing the wonder and very human nature of learning, information (determined valuable by a self-appointed, ignorant, arrogant few) has been reduced to a required to-do list of how-to processes and must-be-memorized, easily-testable facts.

As if teaching and learning– and people–are that simple.


Kohn (in Chapter 5) and additional food for thought:

On accountability and control-

“Telling teachers exactly what to do and then holding them “accountable” for the results does not reflect a commitment to excellence. It reflects a commitment to an outmoded, top-down model of control.”

“Unfortunately, we humans just don’t respond very well when people do things to us rather than working with us. That doesn’t necessarily doom the whole concept of accountability. The idea can be valid and valuable if we define it as a sense of responsibility to oneself, to one another, and to the community—and if it’s nested in a support model.”

From Elliot Eisner (Stanford University) as quoted in Kohn’s book:

“The challenge in teaching is to provide the conditions that will foster the growth of those personal characteristics that are socially important and, at the same time, personally satisfying to the student. The aim of education is not to train an army that marches to the same drummer, at the same pace, toward the same destination. Such an aim may be appropriate for totalitarian societies, but it is incompatible with democratic ideals.”
Kohn on extrinsic motivation (aka grades)-

“The more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

“Researchers have found that people’s interest in a task ordinarily plummets when they are acutely aware of being evaluated on their performance—even if the evaluation is positive.”

Step 1

Like all licensed teachers in Oregon, I recently received a survey from the state about Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA). I jumped on this opportunity with both feet. Finally, they are asking teachers for input. Time will tell whether or not feedback from educators will fall on deaf ears.

Coincidentally, the fourth chapter in Alfie Kohn’s book The Schools Our Children Deserve focuses on standardized testing in the US, and all that is so very wrong and detrimental about it.  While he wrote this book just prior to the takeover of CCSS and SBA, the downside of high-stakes tests remains the same. For teachers, students, and schools, I can think of exactly zero up-sides.

The culture of standardized testing has quickly risen to be an accepted and unquestioned practice, an inevitable and entrenched part of our education system, packaged as a cure-all. Nineteen states, including Oregon. (Other states use other tests.) Forty-three states and D.C. have adopted CCSS, even when excellent standards were already in use, such as the NCTM math standards. Here is what I believed and knew about standardized testing prior to reading Chapter 4, with some quotes from Kohn sprinkled in.

1.  These tests are about power. Someone, or a group of someones, not in education wants to be in control; they want to control exactly what and how children learn, what and how teachers teach.
2.  These tests are about politics. Claiming that education needs reforming, that schools or teachers are sub-par, that kids are not learning, are unprepared for the future, etc., is a great platform for election that has been used for generations. And it works. “Excellence and victory are two completely different goals.”
3.  These tests are about profit, but not for schools. Testing companies, textbook companies (paper and online), “learning” apps, workbooks, and so on, are making a LOT of money.
4.  Related to #1, standardized testing of standards is an ill-informed, convoluted attempt to hold teachers and schools accountable and to rank them. Even if no style of teaching is endorsed, testing is “a vague desire to hold schools accountable coupled with a total ignorance of other ways of achieving that goal.”
5.  The data about schools and students generated by standardized tests is mis-interpreted and misused. School stats are published, and the community believes this is all that matters, ignoring or forgetting what really does. In spite of being promoted as criterion-referenced tests, the way in which data is published and used boils it down to norm-referencing both schools and students. It’s great fodder for back-to-basics special- interest groups, ignorant haters, and politicians.
They halt (or at least greatly hinder) genuine, honest, productive, informed conversations about teaching and learning because raising test scores has become all-important. Good test scores = good teaching/good school/good student. “Teaching to the test is completely different from providing good instruction and assessing it accurately.”
7.  Standardized testing creates a huge amount of needless anxiety in students, reducing them to numbers and labels that are harmful to them and their learning. Like all forms of numerical judgement, test scores create fixed mindsets about intelligence and generate status (or lack thereof).
8.  They require students to work and think in isolation. The testing environment implies that only what you do alone has value; in reality, people live and learn and work together. The oh-you’re-completely-on-your-own approach is not normal human behavior.
9.  These tests promote and validate data-driven, outcome-oriented schools and classroom cultures, snuffing out creative, student-oriented learning cultures and compelling even the best of teachers to prioritize content that will be tested. “Once teachers and students are compelled to focus only on what lends itself to quantification, such as the number of grammatical errors in a composition or the number of state capitals memorized, the process of thinking has been severely compromised.”
10.  Valuable learning time is significantly reduced and given over to review, test-taking strategies, practice tests, and the long test itself. Weeks. When preparing students for testing is a priority, some students are put into additional tested-content classes, or are pulled out of other classes to complete tests. The message for students is that we learn in order to take tests and that only the highly-tested subject matter.
11.  These tests are not valid. (I said this out loud once to a principal and got severely reprimanded.) People under duress have difficulty thinking clearly. This is a FACT. Many students manage their stress by doing the test as fast as possible, just guessing. (Flight) Others completely shut down. (Freeze) Even if they start out trying their best, the test is long and emotion eventually takes over. Other students simply don’t care because the test lacks personal importance. (Fight) None of these situations can possibly be an accurate measure of what a student understands.
12.  They test only what is easily testable and can be marked right or wrong. This is really detrimental to learning, as it elevates memorizing basic facts and procedures and devalues critical thinking, creativity, reflection, and conceptual understanding. “Right answers don’t necessarily signal understanding and wrong answers don’t necessarily signal the absence of understanding. A minor calculation error is interchangeable with a major failure of reasoning”, once again raising the question of validity.
13.  These tests are not useful to teachers or students. In spite of the lack of meaningful, timely, and valid information, test data is given a lot of weight because it is often mis-interpreted (such as using scores as evidence of growth) or used poorly (such as to sort students). Behaviorists “fail to see how the process of coming to understand ideas in a classroom is not always linear or quantifiable. Contrary to virtually every discussion of education by the Tougher Standards contingent, meaningful learning does not proceed along a single dimension in such a way that we can nail down the extent of improvement. In fact, as Linda McNeil has observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”
14.  These tests are not equitable because they ignore the human element, the individuality of people. “Standardized” assumes that every child is the same–learns the same, reads and processes information the same, has the same background, same culture, same values, same language, same reasoning, is ready at the same time, has the same testing skills….Standardized Test writers HAVE to make these assumptions or they would never be able to write a one-size-fits-all test. The writers and the tests define not only what knowledge is valuable (that which can be easily tested) but WHO is valuable, like anyone who is Really Good at taking standardized tests (whether or not they really understand content).
15.  Benchmarks feel (and may very well be) arbitrary, artificial, and mysterious to students (and even to some teachers.). See also #7 for their harm. I had a student once who was really happy with his score. For the first time in quite awhile, he “met expectations”. Then I had to break the news; the benchmark for passing in seventh grade had been moved up. You should have seen his face. All the progress he had made that year on his beliefs about himself and his capabilities were wiped out in an instant.
16.  Although SBA is a great improvement over prior multiple-guess tests, it is still a mandated, standardized test with an over-inflated importance.
17.  People who read the student-generated responses are most often non-educators. It is a job for them; they get very little training about exactly what to look for, lack expertise to accept responses that are legitimate but fall outside of what-to-look-for, and they are paid by the number of tests they score. None of this is good for students. Invalid: 3. Valid: 0
18.  Standardized tests, and those that promote them, assume (and perpetuate the myth) that teaching and learning is as simple as providing a list of what to learn (and a standards-aligned textbook, of course) and testing students against the list. So. Very. Ignorant. And arrogant. “In a broad sense, it is easier to measure efficiency than effectiveness, easier to rate how well we are doing something than to ask if what we are doing makes sense.”

The first step in problem-solving is to identify the problem. Done. Next: think about, read about, ask, talk, write about solutions. I’m moving on to Step 2. I think the answers may lie in turning our energy and attention to developing learning cultures in schools and classrooms, tapping into student strengths, and considering alternative forms of feedback that inspire and celebrate genuine learning.


(This same post is also here.)

I’ve started reading Alfie Kohn’s book “The Schools Our Children Deserve”. I highly recommend it to anyone who is willing to take a critical and productive look at education in the US.

Chapter 2 is about motivation. Here’s a super quick summary:

In the US, students, educators, parents, and community members tends to focus most on achievement (aka grades).  However, overemphasis on achievement

“1) undermines students’ interest in learning,  (2) makes failure seem overwhelming,                                                                              (3) leads students to avoid challenging themselves,   (4) reduces the quality of learning, and (5) invites students to think about how smart they are instead of how hard they tried.” (Kohn)

This  video presentation from Dan Pink is also about motivation. (No summary because you can just watch it. I had to watch and listen several times…the first time I was too enthralled with the animated format to listen closely.  What a creative idea!)

There are so many things to talk about here, but I’d like to nudge us in this direction:


Hot topic, I know. (Look at me, sticking my neck out!)

Dan Pink states, “To use money as a motivator, you have to pay people enough to take money off the table.”   That’s when people become very productive and creative.

Alfie Kohn echoes these sentiments–“When the point isn’t to figure things out but to prove how good you are, it’s often hard to cope with being told you’re not so good. Paradoxically, students who put success out of their minds are likely to be successful.”  (Emphasis mine.)

I recently realized (a-Ha!) that not only are grades The Currency used in the Game of School, they are also the wrong currency because they do not motivate learning or create equity.   Instead, grades/points/scores/levels motivate compliance and create status, anxiety, and fixed mindsets. (I’m being deliberately brief here to make room for other voices, and hopefully provocative enough to generate some discussion! )

Here are some questions for your consideration. Or, ask your own.
What is the intent of grades, from your perspective as an educator?                                      Do they meet their intended purpose?  Why or why not?                                                       What is the perspective from students?  Parents? Society?                                                      In what ways do grades impact learning?  Students?                                                                              What if grades were taken off the table?                                                                                        Do you agree with Pink’s, Kohn’s, or even my claims? Why or why not?

My answers to these questions will appear in a later post.  While I have the floor, here’s one more from Pink….
On autonomy: “You probably want to do something interesting; let me just get out of your way!”

… and from Kohn:
“We first have to recognize that for people to think about how well they’re doing is not at all the same as thinking about what they’re doing. These represent two very different mind-sets for parents, students, and educators.” (Emphasis mine.)

PS. I totally want to make a board game called The Game of School. Two versions, of course, version 2 being The Game of Transformed School!