Friday, September 23, 2011

Time to Stretch

The thing that convinced me to leave the high school classroom was the chance to work with a bunch of precocious pre-teens and follow them through middle school, hopefully sending them off to the big bad world of high school a little better off than they were when we met.  This opportunity, coupled with meeting y'all has created a professional development explosion.  It was a perfect storm of honestly asking the question: "how can I make this matter?", a group of math educators willing to push back on ideas while simultaneously offering unconditional support, an administrator willing to let go of the leash and a group of kids who constantly push me to be better.

The tough part has been the assumed disqualification when it comes to conversations about pedagogy because the stuff I do only works for "my kids." Let's just say, I feel Shawn on this front. This year, the gloves have come off.  I have two completely heterogeneous classes with skills ranging from Advanced to Far Below Basic (see Jason for explanation) and 2/3 of the kids are less than proficient based on previous years' scores. So, basically, this year I have to put up or shut up.  And some things have to change.

Let me be clear:  I'm not changing my expectations; I still believe that all kids can do math. But my planning has to change.

In my experience, "advanced" kids fall into one of two categories:  Advanced duplicators and advanced thinkers.  Advanced duplicators are the kids who take copious notes, ask if "this is going in the grade book", want to retake tests minutes after turning the original test in and will do absolutely anything the teacher asks.  They are compliant.  Advanced thinkers will often be the kid who gets labeled as lazy and distracted because, well, they are lazy and have distracted.  Problem is, they aren't lazy, the lesson just sucked.  We ride the backs of these advanced duplicators because they are good for test scores.  They make up for everything that a teacher lacks because they don't necessarily need a teacher to learn skill duplication (see:  Khan Academy) and they are willing to do it because, well, that's what good students do, right?

I've spend the better part of that past five years trying to find ways to have students explore, invent and discover while maintaining fidelity to our state standards.  My focus has always been on pushing kids beyond--but I've ended up learning as much from them as they have from me.   My goals have been singular in that my planning has been framed by the question "how far can we go with this?"  I've really learned a lot about exploring the right side of the bell shaped curve.  Keep going until maybe only three kids get it. Forget Madeline Hunter, I'm using the Daniel Tosh lesson planning model.

Now it's time to look at the other side of the curve.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Time to Breathe

So, I planned on writing a really nice reflective post on the past school year which turned into a based-on-last-year's-experience-here's-what-Imma-do-next-year piece which became a Start 'o the School Year Here's What's Happening that morphed into a Dude, Do You Still Have a Blog? kind of thing.

I missed the deadlines. But I have a note.  Ask Alex.

Last year, the district bought my afternoons so I could get out there and work with other teachers in the most organic way possible.  It really looked like an opportunity to be part of something pretty cool in that there really wasn't a detailed description other than "let's try to get teachers talking about best practices."  The flexibility was what drew me to this but it also scared the heck out of me.  The problem was that I had "technology" attached to my name and began fielding questions like "how do I turn this thing on?"  Not what I signed up for. But, all in all, the conversations I had with teachers and administrators were very good.  Based on the feedback they received, the district office wanted to keep it going this year, but my site took a beating in the afternoons.  Class sizes were high and test scores were low due to the fact that the sections I'd normally teach were just absorbed by the other teachers.

I learned a lot about myself and the profession last year.  I learned that I love to talk about teaching and really trying to figure out the best way to help kids understand this thing we call math.  I also learned that many other teachers don't like to talk about it quite so much.  But I can't really blame them.  The system we are in has made many teachers feel like Big Brother is looking over their shoulder.  This creates quite a dilemma in that innovation is not a chance many are willing to take.  We've created a system where teachers want to be told what to do so that they are covered if it doesn't work.  Tough to grow in that soil, let me tell you.

I learned that I'm not really interested in being a "tech guy" although I do believe that technology has it's place and if it can be a conversation starter, then I'm for it.  Some of the things I saw in the classrooms I visited showed me that elementary teachers work their butts off.  I don't see how those people do it.  But it was also apparent that we need vertical articulation.  We have to have a common vision K-12 with respect to how we have our kids do math.  We have pacing guides, benchmarks, common formative assessments and even a standards based report card, but there's really not much continuity between how kids approach mathematics from elementary to middle to high school.  I think that needs to change.  We can spend all the time we want on unpacking standards and developing assessments, but somehow, it has to affect what happens in the classroom.  We have to go beyond using the ancillary materials that come with a textbook adoption and start teaching our kids to do math. Now, if that job opens up, I'm interested.

Even though there is a lot of potential with having a teacher have some flexibility in the schedule, my site needed a full time teacher and the district wasn't ready to make what I did a full time position.  So I'm back in the classroom full time this year.

More to follow; gotta get the kids to bed.