Math in the Garden

Having a little fun with my harvest of volunteer pumpkins…. #howmany.

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The Elephant in the Room

As I have been preparing to start teaching in OMG just a few days, assessment has been on my mind; I want/need some sort of formative assessment to get a feel for what understanding exists within this new (to me) community of learners.  What sort of sense-making has taken place, what models do they use, what is their common language?  I know the scores on a textbook test being left for me are going to tell me diddly.  I have developed strong beliefs about what school should look like (and why)— students actively making sense of ideas, learning from and with each other, valuing, making visible, and actively promoting their thinking— and have focused much of my formal and informal professional learning on how to create such a culture.  Yet when it comes to assessment that actually supports my pedagogical ideals, I feel a tad undereducated.  And I need answers STAT.

It does not make sense to invest time in building a safe and equitable thinking and learning culture, to empower students to deeply understand and connect mathematical ideas, to develop and apply calculation skills meaningfully…in short, to make thinking and learning the currency of school, and then not let them spend it at assessment time!  Whenever we evaluate student work with points, grades, or even levels of proficiency (yes, I said that), we send a completely different message about what and who is valued and the purpose of school:  grades and “right” answers and the students who know how to get them.  This is NOT what I want!

What does make sense to me is assessment that is rather indistinguishable from the regular activities of learning, something that involves students in a meaningful and reflective manner.  Something that they actually value because it is FOR them, is designed to both reveal and represent their current understanding to them, not just me.  This IS what I want!

Crazy?  I don’t think so, I just need help in making it a reality.  I feel like there is a ginormous gap in education conversations around assessment (and it onerous sibling, grading).  Not sure of the reason for this deficit.  Overlooked? Avoided? Too mandated? Ignored? It concerns me that much of what little I’ve read assumes/accepts testing and grading as natural and necessary parts of the Game of School.  Sure, there’s some clarity around terminology— formative vs summative, assessment vs testing— as well as some examples of “how” (such as proficiency rubrics, or not using zeros) but not so much when it come to the really, really important question:

WHY?  

Figuring out Why requires us to deeply examine and unflinchingly question still-prevailing status quo practices and compare them to our beliefs and values.  My gut tells me that assessment and grading are not in line or caught up with current practices that are shared in progressive face-to-face and on-line education communities, and therefore, send a conflicting message that undermines change.

Of course, I may just be completely ignorant and you will now kindly steer me to some excellent resources.  Until then, I’m going to do what I always do:  Make Shit Up figure out/find out what assessment that supports, promotes, and honors a thinking and learning community looks like, try it out on some real, live students, and learn.

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Sometimes you send up a flare and the Universe notices.

Last post, I said I wanted to belong.  Guess what happened?

I was recently offered and (duh) accepted a longish-term sub job at a school where I have previously taught.  While the search for a permanent teacher continues, I will be teaching four different ‘levels’ of middle school math for six to nine weeks.  I am SO EXCITED for this opportunity to put into action many of the ideas, values, and beliefs I have reading about and reflecting on over the last three years!  I really do feel wiser, and that feels good. 

This past week, I’ve been cramming.  Carefully read three more chapters of  Creating Cultures of Thinking.  Finally perused  Geoff Krall’s thoughtful blog series  from the summer, which I kept meaning to get to but never did.  Have finally had a couple brief yet valuable twitter experiences. 😆 Revisited several pertinent and inspirational blog posts:  Mark Chubb’s “Never Skip the Close”,  Sara van der Werf’s “Name Tents with Feedback”  and Fawn Nguyen’s “First two days of school” .  I’ve reviewed the routines in Illustrative Math , a stellar curriculum I upon which I am planning to lean heavily.  (Need something similar for Algebra, hint hint!)  Somehow I hope to get in some training in Notability and Google classrooms as well.  I don’t start until the 18th, but much of my time before then will be given to prior commitments.  Most of my anxiety circles around wanting to be fully prepared hahaha, wondering how to deal with the early and long hours and exhaustion, and related to that, what I need to do to keep family time sacred and create/sustain a reasonable sense of balance.  

I have a tendency to overthink (which may look at times like procrastination).  There are so many options and many decisions to make, and am working to gain focus and determine what my educational “big rock” priorities are (student relationships and student learning!), what would be nice, and what to let go, and what battles I can’t fight right now.  Decisions need to be made so I can move forward.  So far, this is where I’m at:

 

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Although students at this school know each other well— its a small-town K-8 AND its six weeks into the year— I don’t know them at all as people or as learners.  Nor do I know what sort of classroom culture I will be inheriting (although I have some sneaky suspicions).  I’m trying to figure out the right the balance between developing a thinking and learning culture and moving forward, deeply, with content.  Usually when you’re a sub, you have to work with the established culture.  However, since I am going to be there awhile, I definitely want to invest time in developing culture, even for this relatively short period, even though it may be dismantled when I leave.  

How could I not?  

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Want = Need?

Got some serious self-reflecting going on today about my so-called professional life.

Resulting in an important (to me, for me) insight…

What I WANT (professionally) is to BELONG.

I’m really not sure how to make that happen, what would be a good fit, what would make a difference.  Things I’ve been trying out (like this blog) seems to fall flat. Its difficult to imagine something else when you don’t know what else is possible.  Or maybe I’m looking for probable, because that sounds less risky?  Or maybe I have some belief systems that are getting in the way.

…and a Haiku:

 

                           Do others see me

                          as not legit because I

                          quit?  Do I?  Well, shit. 

 

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The Thrill Remains

Our experiences create our beliefs, from which spring our values, upon which we hang our decisions and actions and words.  

I wasn’t going to read it but I did.  I wasn’t going to write a response, but I am.  I wasn’t going to make it another opinion piece, but it is, with additional resources below.  

My life experiences as student of both music and math and as an educator have shaped my opinions about learning and inform my pedagogical philosophies.  I know first hand one can appear to be “successful” at math or piano by simply being compliant and willing to please, which can easily be mistaken for dedication.  When told exactly what to do, I could.  A’s in math, scholarships in music.  I also know first hand the thrill of realizing there was so much more, that instead of passively following directions, I could actively listen and notice and explore and question and make sense of and mess up and try something else and reflect and maybe most important of all, feel competent and joyful. 

Whenever anyone over-simplifies anything as intensely complex as teaching, learning, math, or music in order to justify a particular personal stance,  its a whopping red flag for me.  I cringe at math-music (or math-sports, etc.) metaphors that appear to convince but under scrutiny, fall apart.  I am skeptical whenever words like “drill”, “understand”, “practice”, “learn” and (good grief) “ingrained” are used liberally without any clear, consistent definitions by the writer, especially when said writer makes claims about what’s wrong with teachers (or kids) these days and here’s exactly how to fix it.  I am perplexed by beliefs that Only This is Right and Poo-poo to That (Its Not How I Had to Do It).  I know how easily the general public latches onto back-to-basics type opinions and then banters them about as utter truths, forgetting about bias, prejudice, and self-interest and heaping more myths and misconceptions onto the pile about teachers and teaching, learners and learning.  I cringe whenever motivations for transforming education are driven by competitiveness and better test scores.  And I feel quite, quite sad that someone who confesses to hating math as a child believes its OK for learning to lack pleasure— to the point of being painful— and that we should make our daughters (OK, sons, too) experience the pain we did, and expect them to be grateful for it. 

While some people have a NY Times op-ed piece or masses of twitter followers, I just have my nearly invisible little blog.  This does not mean my reflections (which give me clarity) and opinions are any less important. I’m just less influential.

I leave you with links to Mark Chubb’s response to the same op-ed piece that’s particularly thoughtful and constructive (and influential), and to Dan Meyer’s follow-up question that re-focuses an out-of-control discussion.  In my opinion, of course.  As always, any additional resources you find valuable and/or insights you include in the comments are greatly appreciated.

Mark Chubb: The Role of Practice in Mathematics Class

Dan Meyer: What Does Fluency Without Understanding Look Like?

“The circle must be broken.”

 

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I have read and re-read and started processing Chapters 3 and 4 (Language and Time, respectively) in  Creating Cultures of Thinking by R. Ritchhart.  Mind blowing.  (Download it on iBooks to read and discuss with me!)  I am beginning to see some recurring themes: beliefs, values, choices, and messages.  Passive vs Active student roles (my personal soap box).  Its about CHANGING THE PARADIGM so that students and teachers experience different learning stories.  (If interested, my visual notes are below.)

Serendipitously, Dan Meyer  recently blogged about teacher’s beliefs and how our own experiences as students shape our pedagogical choices.  He asks,

 “What experiences can disrupt the harmful messages teachers have internalized about math instruction?

I appreciate this question for two reasons.*  a) the numerous responses were varied and offered sensible ideas I recognize as useful and timely as I find myself gradually drifting toward a mentoring role and b) the question moves us beyond information/opinions about beliefs and pedagogy toward at least a partial yet practical solution to a very real problem: lack of significant and sustainable change.  If a person in education (any position, right? This is not just a math thing!) has not yet had a disruptive experience that “breaks the circle”, reading or being told about a different paradigm is not too likely to yield a shift in values.  If the horse isn’t thirsty, it’s just not going to drink.  Or it may believe a constant state of thirst is the norm and blindly accepts it.  Or the horse feels threatened by a top-down decision that it must drink this water, now. Or it might be really OK with a drink if it just could make sense of what the hell that meant and looked like and had genuine and ongoing support in making it a reality.  

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Change is imperative, and paradigm-altering experiences are definitely one way to get there.  Creating Cultures resonates with me because my beliefs already align with the author’s because, fortunately, I DID have a disruption in my learning experiences that impacted my beliefs. Cycle broken, singing now possible. Also, I tend to be rather reflective and highly interested educational cultures.  But that’s just me, and obviously everyone is different.  What if this (or another) book was assigned and the plethora information within it overwhelms me so I just keep doing what I always have done?  The wonderful suggestions solicited by Dan (video recording with reflective analysis, joining a math teachers circle, imagine something different and plunging in, becoming a learner to gain perspective, shifting from talking to listening, etc.) all seem to share a common trait:  these teachers are the horses that already recognized they were thirsty and went looking for water on their own.  It seems first-hand experiences are the most powerful, but I wonder about colleagues who are not at the point of seeking water (yet).  Not that they are intentionally staying away, they really do care (because they’re people, not horses); honestly examining individual or group experiences, actions, messages, and practices is an emotionally challenging endeavor and knowing so may be enough to want to avoid it. 

What I wonder is, what are possible, effective ways to invite horses educators over for a drink, so to speak, so that many more disruptive experiences can take place?

I invite you to share your suggestions in the comment section.  This is a genuine question I have, so I am looking forward to your insights!    

PS.   I find it interesting that for some commenters to Dan’s post, drill-based math instruction became the question to discuss.  Hot Topic #358.  Interesting reading, to be sure.  Like all other highly-debated beliefs in education, there seems to be too much polarized “This OR That” going on, and not enough This AND That, carefully and thoughtfully balanced to promote learning.  We’re not just emoji yellow OR Tardis blue— it is much more likely that most (if not all) of us are some lovely shade of green.  Which means instead of an all-or-nothing tug of war more productive discussions (and PD**) could focus on examining beliefs, with honesty and without threat of judgement.  Our beliefs shape our actions, our actions send clear messages, both subtle and obvious.  What messages are being sent?  Are they supportive of or detrimental to learning experiences students have today?  

*Also note how Dan’s question was open-ended and accessible to everyone, and how he refrained from sharing his thoughts until he had respectfully listened to other voices.  I see what you did there, Dan.  Smooth move.  

**If you’re part of a group that examines culture in your classrooms, department, or school you could call yourselves….Culture Club!  (If you don’t get that lame joke, you’re too young.  Look it up.)

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