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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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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Villians vs Heroes (A call to action.)

Incredible.

First, a little context:

My granddaughter is über-prepared and excited to enter Kindergarten in a few weeks.  Her 5th (unicorn-themed) birthday falls 22 days after the state cut-off date, so last May she had to demonstrate end-of-year proficiency  in order to enter Kindergarten 22 days early.  Yes, END of year.  She is (without any bias whatsoever, right?) a happy, curious, enthusiastic learner.  Like many kids, she’s a sponge, soaking up everything in her path, freakishly observant, perseveres like nobody’s business, memory like a steel trap.  Sings at the top of her lungs, too.  Just the other day, she was reminding me her bedtime was 8 o’clock and asked me what my bedtime was.  I told her usually around 10, and she comes right back with, “That’s two minutes after my bedtime.”  Not the right time unit, but definitely knew the difference was two.  Damn, girl.

She also confided this little gem:  “I hope we don’t have to do math in Kindergarten.”

WHAT????!!!

Somewhere in her short life-time of learning, she has developed an idea of what “math” is, and she already dreads it.  This is the girl who counts to 100 just for the hell of it, points out patterns she sees, and makes numerical comparisons.  Her parents did not drill her with flash cards or give her a barrage of worksheets to complete; they merely helped her learn the language and meaning of numbers by counting with her—steps up to the top, apples on the page, carrots on her plate.  Some other ideas, like patterns, developed in pre-school.  Yet she does not want to do math in Kindergarten.  Incredible.  I was so floored I did not have the sense to ask her more about her concerns, a missed opportunity I hope to rectify soon.

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Speaking of incredible, The Incredibles 2 was a summer movie that did not disappoint.  There’s a connection here, trust me.  (Small spoiler ahead.     Skip a bit if you need to.)

In the movie, Mr. Incredible is trying to help his son, Dash, with his homework.  Which homework?  MATH, of course, and everybody is Super Frustrated.  Dad wonders if new math has been invented since he was in school, and Dash informs him that he is not doing it the way the book says to do it.

Is this funny?  Sort of, maybe, I don’t know.  It IS definitely something that many (most?) people relate to, a shared, all-too-familiar reality, an inside joke.  Oh, goodie; math, the dreaded subject that has the power to unite us through misery, generation after generation. Hahaha?

On the way home, my husband just knew I was going to bitch about address that scene.  If “doing math” is perceived as a frustrating, required chore in our culture, even to an almost five year old, doesn’t that say something is definitely NOT RIGHT and CHANGE is urgent? How can our culture jokingly, begrudgingly accept this as normal, even perpetuate it?  If so many learners, from toddlers to great grandparents, from educators to policy makers, believe with conviction that “real” math is the drills/rules/tests/memorizing you do in and at school, (and you are either good/fast/smart/superior or bad/slow/stupid/inferior), while simultaneously denying “real-ness” to any mathematical reasoning beautifully and successfully applied outside —or even inside—school, doesn’t that scream volumes that something is MOST SERIOUSLY DEFECTIVE and EFFECTIVE TRANSFORMATION is effing imperative?

There’s plenty of resources and information available explaining to how we, as a society, evolved into this detrimental not-really-learning culture.  You can’t blame kids or their parents; look at the learning experiences they have had! Unfortunately, there is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle going on with school and home experiences that is stubbornly impervious to healthier, alternative messages.  Status quo is a powerful, yet strangely invisible super villain, my friends.  MTBoS  participants, Desmos, and Illustrative Math , are just a few of many top-notch super heroes fighting the good fight (FOR FREE!), but lets face it, many more are needed in order for new visions to gain a foothold and gather enough momentum to become the established, embraced norm in our schools, homes, and communities.  

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In an effort to arm myself with information and a vision and thoughtful strategies to BE THE CHANGE, a teaching friend and I have started reading Creating Cultures of Thinking.   It inspires and resonates with me.  FWIW, below are my take-away notes on the first two chapters.  I happen to have time right now to process at this level, which feels luxurious and worthwhile and helpful.

 

 

I know you are busy because you’re educators, yet I invite and urge you read this book and examine your beliefs.  This is a call to action, folks, worthy of your precious time.  Please share your thoughts, insights, learning stories, and/or questions with me as you go, and if you are in a classroom (any content, any grade) describe the shifts you are consciously making and their impact on classroom and school culture.  Involve others as much as you can, including me!  If you live within driving distance (say an hour or so from Wilsonville, OR), I would be delighted to get a cuppa or glassa with you and dig into hidden messages and visible thinking. 

Grab your cape and let’s go. 

We must settle for nothing less!

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Urgent Questions

For more time this afternoon than I’d care to admit, I’ve been attempting to organize my ongoing and somewhat rambling thoughts around teaching, learning, and mentoring.   Much of my reflecting goes on in my head and never gets formalized somehow via blogging or journaling; worse yet, I don’t have much opportunity to actually talk with other educators about these kinds of questions that, IMO, really, really matter.

This graphic is a product of my organizational efforts, and it became my first ever #MTBoS tweet. Amazingly, I immediately received a comment and a ♥️ . Well, that was cool, but I have more to say 😉

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It is my belief that these urgent questions (and their natural sub-questions, including WHY?) should be seriously, honestly, and throughly addressed, ideally as a school, or at least as individual classroom teachers. How we respond speaks volumes about our pedagogical beliefs, the culture of our schools or classrooms and, for better or worse, most definitely impacts students and their learning.

I invite you to consider any or all of these questions, and to share your thoughts in the comments. Or on twitter, if you can find my tweet! (Sorry, I don’t know how to direct you there…) Over time, I will do the same.  ♥️

No point(s) needed.

Once in college I was docked a point on a math test because I did not use the variable the problem told me to use. What a rebel.  My work was otherwise fine, mind you, just had the “wrong” variable.

I tell you this because early this morning, maybe a tad too early, I read Fawn Nguyen ’s recent post  “Scoring an Ordered List” ; at first I took what she was saying seriously because to me, everything she writes is solid gold. (You should probably read it to get where I’m going with this.) I gushed about her in my last post, for heaven’s sake.  Why is the great Fawn obsessing with points?  I started feeling some panic.  WHY WHY WHY is she obsessing with points?  I was flummoxed.

Then the caffeine kicked in and it dawned on me. She’s just messing with us. Having some fun with obsessing with points, and inviting us to join in, math-geeky.

Or maybe she’s making a point about points, in which case she has gone platinum.

Awarding and denying points is what many teachers do, across all content areas, even if other aspects of their pedagogy employ Best, or at least Better, Practices. Somewhere between arbitrary and intentional, they determine points per problem, points per quiz, per essay, per whatever. Preferably the points add up to something that can easily be turned into a percentage so letter grade convertions are a snap.

Why?  Because it’s what what they know, what they believe they are supposed to do, its what everyone expects. It’s another one of those pesky, unexamined “givens” in the dystopian Game of School. I don’t know if that’s the right use of dystopian here, but I like it so its staying.

Determine total points possible, deduct points for wrong-ness, calculate a score, assign a grade.  So math-y.

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You can find scores of graphics like these online, which supports my statement about the Game.   I find the emojis particularly unsettling horrifying.

This poster is hanging in a school I frequent: ‘Grades are not given, they are earned.’

Bull. Shit.

I digress. Returning to Fawn’s scenario, suppose a teacher decides that the problem was worth X points, and to receive said points, every number has to be in the correct location. Black and white, not even one shade of grey. That is certainly the way a computer program would determine whether so-called feedback should be “Awesome! You Rock!” or “Incorrect.” Of course this means that if Kat writes the numbers greatest to least, she would be told she is ONE-HUN-DRED-PER-CENT-WRR-ONG, striking yet another blow to her growth mindset.

An alternative (that I am sure Fawn and many other awesome teachers use) would be to skip the points, look at work holistically, and ask Kat a question or two. The goal is to understand her thinking, to gauge what she understands and where her misconceptions may lie. Kat either needs a reminder to read and follow directions with greater care or a conversation around the words least and greatest. Easy peasy.

Just for kicks and giggles, here’s another example: Suppose I’m checking to see if my students can correctly follow order of operations to simplify expressions. Dougie clearly demonstrates mastery of this skill— nothing out of order in his work— yet it contains a minor calculation faux pas or two. (Been there, done that. Lost points.) I am NOT going to deduct points or even determine he is not meeting expectations. I am going to PASS Dougie on that particular skill, period.

There’s a significant difference between 1) using student work to inform both the teacher and learner so meaningful feedback can happen and learning can continue, and 2) using student work in order to pass judgement. Which should be valued, empowering all students to think critically, creatively, to make sense of (insert content area here), or rewarding some students for “correct” imitation and memorization? The first requires, if I may, a balanced, healthy, and inclusive teacher-student learning relationship; the second also involves the student, but is unhealthy and detrimental to learning because it also involves power.