Thursday, November 5, 2015

I am creating my own problems

Seems odd, right? How can a veteran teacher (20 years in puts me in that category) constantly create situations where he shoots himself in the foot? I do not mean once a day, but at least once a class period. You can see it starting. The frustration. The confusion. I guide them. I answer their questions (most, not all) and walk away. I leave some of their questions unanswered and defer to the group to help. Again, I walk away. The frustration increases....

Could I stop this? Could I sit down with the group and walk through step by step how to solve the problem? Could I keep them happy and quiet? Wouldn't that make class run smoother?

Yes, but I do not take the bait. I ask more questions. Harder questions. Questions that make them think. Questions that challenge the way they are use to looking at problems.

Some students do not like this scenario. They prefer I give them the answer. "Just tell me the answer! Why won't you help me?" I guide them to look at an area I notice is moving in the wrong direction and walk away. Again.

The bottom line is, I will not give in and simply provide them answers. They need to be able to work through scenarios and get it on their own. Often times, this leads to a rather chaotic classroom. I know things would be smoother if I kept peppering them with answers. The order would be kept. The room would be quiet. The students would be momentarily happy.

But again, I am choosing not to do that. I want the struggle. I want the frustration. Therefore, I need to handle the outbursts that accompany that from middle schoolers use to being given the answers. I want them thinking...

So, I will constantly be looking at ways to appropriately challenge the students in my room. ALL of them. Even the "low group". I will continue to push and prod and irritate and question. And walk away.

Because answers are great, but the journey is so much more rewarding. In time, I hope my students see that.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A New Trick From An Old Dog

For starters, I know I am not very old, but I could not think of a better title. This was the first one that came to mind, so I stuck with it...

Our first day of school was today. A day to meet the new students, give them your syllabus, assign seats, and give them your list of rules. Well, this year, I decided to try something different. When the students entered my classroom this year, we moved right into a group activity that I found on Open Middle. If you are a math teacher and have not checked out their site, I highly recommend it. They picked their group and dove right in. I had 6th, 7th, and 8th graders talking about math while reminding each other how to handle the Order of Operations. I spent the time circulating, listening to their conversation, answering questions, and wondering why I had not started any of my 19 other First Days of School this way.

I was still able to discuss my expectations with them, but that was after watching them work in groups for almost 30 minutes. We were able to discuss what we did behavior-wise without referencing them as "rules". We simply discussed them as common sense. I discussed with them that no one ran around the room, but I did not tell them that Rule #1 was "No running". We were able to have group discussions in appropriate volume voices without being read that Rule #2 was "Use indoor voices". I do not know why I waited so long to take this approach!

By taking a chance starting my year with something new, I believe I gave my students a great first day of math in my room. We were able to discuss math sitting in groups while working on grade appropriate tasks that challenged the students. In addition, I was able to get a feel of where the students are after returning from summer break by listening to their questions to each other and how they responded.

What a great first day. This "Old Dog" will definitely file this new trick away for future years. Many thanks to my PLN for pushing me to do this!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Did I Do Enough?

My son's baseball season is finally over. Yes, the season that started in chilly late March finally ended this weekend with a lost in the sectional final for all-stars. As usual, my son had a very good season, helping gel together a team most people did not predict to finish second in the league. He batted fourth and had to pitch a lot, neither of which he has had to do before this year in his young baseball career.

Then, he was fortunate to be picked for All-Stars. This was about another three week journey of games and practices. His team played very well, just fell one game short. Losing is hard. Losing is not fun, but it builds character. He rolls his eyes when I tell him that, like any 10 year old would do.

What I realized while watching him play was I may never get to coach him again. See, he is joining an elite soccer team in the fall with established coaches. They play both fall and spring, and he was asked to join the team after a tryout earlier this spring. I will need to learn to walk to other side of the field when games start!

I do not think I am handling this realization well that I may have coached him for the last time.

I have been his coach since he started soccer, basketball and baseball. I have been there to teach him the little "game within the game" scenarios for several years and will miss that.

Then, it also struck me: What if I did not prepare him enough? What if I could have done more? I know there is still a lot about being an athlete he needs to learn, but I am hopeful I have given him enough of a foundation:

1. It is always about the team. Always. No one is more important than the team.
2. We win together. We lose together. No one person is blamed when things do not go our way. That includes umpires/referees/officials.
3. You play the game the right way. Always being fair. If you were out, tell the umpire. If you dribbled out of bounds, tell the referee.
4. Always give your best effort. Sometimes that will be enough to win, sometimes it won't, but don't ever sell yourself short.
5. Never publicly criticize, or "show-up", a teammate. If they made a mistake, follow it up with encouragement. Never criticism. He knows he made a mistake, he does not need you to point it out.
6. Have fun. Playing sports is fun. Playing them at the level my 10 year old can play them makes them even "funner". That's right, I just said that.

I do not know if there is an educational thread in this post, but it was something I needed to get off my chest for a couple of days now. I am glad I get to watch him play still, but I will miss the time we got to spend together being at practices and games. It will be tough to walk to the spectators' side of the field in a couple of weeks, but I think I am ready to pass the torch to his next set of coaches. They are getting one special kid and a heck of a player. Thank goodness he is like his mother.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

All Apologies....

Sometimes things hit us like a bolt of lightening. Things we should have figured out right away is apparent seconds after we need the answer. We get a very quick "Ah-ha" moment.

For me, there was no quick "Ah-ha" moment. No, I would be talking with my daughter who would mention how she was struggling with her fitness, so I would chime in: "Solving that would require practicing the skill."

My son would mention how he could not bunt the ball exactly how he like. My response, you guessed it, would be: "Have you practiced it?"

So, I was running the other day after reading several blog posts from my favorite writers. I had an internal dialogue going about how I wish I could write like these other bloggers. Yes, I was talking to myself. Those of you that run consistently know exactly what I am talking about. That is when the lightening bolt hit me. No, not literally, since it was a clear day. But, figuratively speaking of course...

I need to practice to get better. I need to practice the very message I keep sending to my kids. So, after delaying all day, I have run out of excuses, so I sit and write....

I am excited about the opportunity this up-coming school year to teach Algebra again. See, about four years ago we stopped offering the course to our advanced math students. I confess that I was probably the main reason for it. As I am the only 7th and 8th grade math teacher in our small public school, I did not want the "bad test scores" making me look bad. I am very embarrassed to admit this. Yes, fours years ago, I believe I was the reason we stopped offering this challenging curriculum to our students.

Now, I still provided some advanced work to the 8th graders who could work at that level. I supplemented the current curriculum when I could, but I knew it was not enough.

Needless to say, I am happy that we are bringing this course back. In addition, we will be offering an accelerated course for our 7th graders as well. This time, I am not so concerned about how they do on the dumb state tests they will have to take. Maybe that is a sign that I have "grown-up" in the last four years. I think it is because I am so over the whole test craze disease has swept education the last several years.

My kids might do well on those tests; then again, they may not. I do not care. I will be continuing a course that never should have been interrupted. To my students who missed out on taking Algebra, I apologize. Who says adults can't "grow-up" even when they are old.

What have you regretted as an educator? Please share....

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No Longer a Pipe-Dream...but now what?

Well, the word came officially during a meeting on the second to last day of school: "I expect every 3rd through 8th grade student to have ChromeBooks for next school year." The statement came from our Superintendent during a teachers' meeting where we were discussing solutions to a separate problem. But, as he uttered those words, I could not concentrate much on what the remainder of the meeting was about. All I could think about was how having this technology would change so many things in my classroom. Changes I have been looking forward to since this discussion started a couple of years ago. Now, what was once a pipe-dream is really going to happen...

Immediately, my mind began to formulate several reflective questions:

1. How will this change my instruction?

If my students are going to have the ChromeBooks with them all the time, then I need to maximize their usage in my room. I did bend the rules in the past and allow students to use their phones for data collection, video creation or accessing our Google Classroom account. But, now everyone will have this technology at their finger tips, and I need to take advantage of it.

2. How will this change my assessment of student learning?

I will need to increase student choice now that this technology will be readily available. I always thought I did an okay job in the past, but I will really need to kick this up a notch for next year. I think if I constantly share the learning goal with them, and give them time and space to show me they understand the concept, we should be good to go!

3. Is there an assumption that teachers will know how to best use this technology?

This is what I have spent the most time thinking about. I am afraid that some in the district will see this as a "technology problem" solved by simply providing the ChromeBooks to the students. I am afraid there will not be proper teacher guidance on how to use them effectively to increase student learning in our school. I may need to offer my services for a PD day on this. I am by no means the best person in my school to give this PD, but I think many would benefit from getting everyone in the same room to discuss things prior to the students getting them. My message would be: It is not for us, it is for our students' learning!

4. How will this change what I can expect students to create to demonstrate understanding?

As a math teacher, I need to break away from the old school thought of paper and pencil method for showing understanding. I need to be more flexible and allow my students to decide how they want to demonstrate their understanding. We will be learning as we go, but I guess that will provide me with several new blogging topics.

5. How will this increase transparency in my classroom?

I see this as a great way for our students to show the great stuff that goes on in our room. I am hopeful my students will create e-portfolios and/or vlogs to chart their learning next year. Since a number of our 8th graders are going to high schools outside of the district, I am seeing these as on-line resumes as well. The best part? My students will be sharing their products with a countless amount of people. That should increase their quality for sure!

As you can tell, this will be a summer of preparation for me. I am hopeful these changes will create a love of learning for my students. It may also reinvigorate myself as well, since I feel like I have been in a funk for the last several months. The equal access for all of my students to the new technology just might be the shot in the arm I needed!

Are there any other areas from above that I missed? Please share your thoughts...

Monday, May 25, 2015

Stop Pretending

I recently read a post by Bill Ferriter (Twitter handle is @plugusin) titled: "Here's What We Have to Stop Pretending." In this post, Mr. Ferriter does a great job of mentioning that we need to stop many unproductive truths in education if we want to see our profession improve. After some thought, actually several days of thinking, I have one area that as educators we need to stop pretending works. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest mistakes I see repeated throughout the country. Will stopping this cure all of our ails? No, but it is a start....

We need to stop pretending that we can copy and paste a success from one district and plop it into another. We seem to be so hard-pressed to find the "miracle cure" in education, that we are willing to just blindly copy whatever program a district/school/classroom has and mirror it in our own. We want success so badly that we assume this successful program can be copy and pasted into our own?

When will we realize that education can not and should not be carbon copied. We work in a community where humans interact constantly. With that interaction comes different thoughts, feelings, reactions and attitudes. These differences are what make our job so great and difficult all at the same time. These differences need to be taken into account when we try to just copy and paste a program that was successful elsewhere.

What would I like to see? I would love if education took a cue from the pharmaceutical world. We should provide a footnote after our success stories that explicitly list the possible side effects of using the program. We should be told that initially, only 75% of the kids were successful. We should be told it took 3 to 5 years of intensive planning and communication from the administration to have it be a success. I think we would get a much better picture of how hard it would be to replicate that program's success...

Does this mean I am against "borrowing" from others? Absolutely not. I think sharing ideas and successes is the great part of having a PLN and being connected. I think we just need to realize that the successes we read about should never be viewed as "quick fixes". There were years of planning and hard work that came before the success. You have to be willing to put that same amount of time in if you plan on being nearly as successful as the other one.

What are some things in education you think we need to stop pretending about?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What is a Mean Absolute Deviation?

The past couple of weeks have been filled with students working on projects ranging from measuring their height and shoe size for scatter plots, to students practicing standing long jumps for work in the area of measures of central tendencies. The 7th grade did a great job of working with the averages of smaller groups and comparing them to groups from a different class period.

This had me thinking of teacher evaluations and how our numbers might "stack up" against someone else's scores. Generally, we would be given the average of the scores generated from both announced and unannounced observations. The average of those visits would be put into a formula to determine my "effectiveness" as a teacher.

The above mentioned 7th graders also had to determine the Mean Absolute Deviation (MAD) from a set of numbers. This is where we determine how far the individual scores are from the average of the group. The smaller the MAD is, the less variability is in the set of numbers. The higher the MAD, the more variability there would be. I started thinking if this should be added to our teacher observations as well.

For instance, a teacher with a low MAD would show much more consistency than someone who did not. The teacher with a higher MAD may have spent more time planning for the announced observations than when someone just "popped in". In my opinion, this lack of consistency should not be taken lightly.

A teacher that is much more consistent, meaning a low MAD, would show much more consistency in their daily planning. In my opinion, this teacher would not just "put on a show" when it is announced observation time. I know this takes a great level of confidence, but I think this should somehow be added to our observation "score".

I apologize if this just seems like I am rambling, but I am trying to show my students how I would connect what we are working on in the classroom to a real-life situation.

Any thoughts on the addition of the Mean Absolute Deviation to our teacher observations?
Please share....

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tips for Pre-Service Teachers

For the first time in my almost twenty year teaching career, I have the privilege of working with a pre-service teacher for several weeks. Technically, he is a Practicum Student, so he is only required to be in my room for about 50 hours. During that time, he is required to teach a couple of lessons and get involved in as much of the daily activities of my class.

I am excited to finally be working with a pre-service teacher. The way I see it, I have had several tremendous teachers that helped me early in my career, and it is my responsibility to pass along as much of that knowledge as I can. Our main jobs as educators is to pass along our experiences (good and bad) to the younger generation of teachers. Pay it Forward, if you will...

I sat in the back of the room as the Practicum student started his lesson, four feet away from his supervisor from a nearby university. Earlier, in the morning, I asked him if he wanted me to stay in the room. He has a sub certificate, so he could be left alone with students, but he wanted my feedback on what I saw. It was during his lesson that I wanted to pass along the following to all pre-service teachers:

1. Be aware of time. Plan for more than you think you will need. An activity will rarely take exactly the time you think it will. Sometimes it will take less; sometimes it will take more. Bottom line, you need to be ready either way.

2. Watch your wait time before calling on students. This is still something I have to correct myself at times.. It is rewarding to call on the first hands that go up. It makes it seem like the students really know their stuff. But, this can be misleading. Maybe your questions are not high level enough if they can be answered in 3 seconds. What about the kid that is working through the problem, and is just not as quick as his or her classmates? If he or she knows you call on the first two hands, they will stop trying because they know they will never be that kid.

3. Don't hesitate to answer a question with a question. Redirect a question from a student to a different student. The right answers do not always have to come from the teacher.

4. Always provide a few challenging problems in an activity. Your students will appreciate the work.

5. Know the difference between groups (students) talking through their work, and just talking. Just because you can hear their voices does not mean they are off task. I have come to the realization that many of my students need to talk their way through math problems. I just smile because that was me when I was in their shoes. And for some, it actually is their shoes because many are wearing Vans or Nike!

6. Do not be afraid to adjust the groups if you see several students struggling with a particular part of the activity. Give them another shot at seeing some examples in a small group with you or a video to help. Get their questions answered and usher them back to their original group. Many students just need to hear things a different way to understand what is going on.

7. Be interested in their methods, not just their answers. Let students explain how they worked through the problem. Their explanation will solidify their own learning and maybe help a classmate or two along the way.

8. Try and stay for the whole day. It is very easy to just find a two hour window in the morning or afternoon to step into a classroom. I really suggest staying for an entire day. This gives you the opportunity to see the how the whole day ebbs and flows. You get to see how not having recess at lunch requires an alteration to the lesson plan for the 8th graders right after lunch. Those are the things you will never learn in an education textbook.

I guess I appeared to be very into providing feedback, because the supervisor asked me if she could read my notes. After reading through them, she asked if I would like a student teacher in the fall. I told her that I would love the chance to work with new teachers. It is all about paying it forward. When she left, I did not know if she was there to evaluate me or the practicum student!

I am sure I have missed a few tips for pre-service teachers. What can you add to the list?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Strategic Confusion

Have you ever had questions floating around in your head for a few days? As much as you try to find the answer to those questions, you just can not? You read, reflect and discuss the topic with others. Still, you can not find what you are looking for. The questions haunt you. They frustrate you. They challenge you...

As fate would have it, I stumbled across a post from @WHSRowe on twitter about Strategic Confusion. The title itself intrigued me. I was hoping this would provide me with the insight to begin answering my questions. As usual, through Rik's knowledge and transparency, I think I found the answers I was looking for...

I decided to try my own version of Strategic Confusion. I had just finished a unit on Scientific Notation with my 8th grade students. We learned how to divide and multiply numbers, write numbers in scientific notation and threw in some exponent work as well. Rik's post provided me the motivation to intentionally create a scenario for my students that forced them to take control of their own learning. How did I do this?

First, I asked them to bring their devices to class. Then, I provided them with some links through Google Classroom that would show them how to add and subtract numbers in scientific notation. These two topics had not been introduced yet. I informed them they would be required to provide me with a short write up describing the steps they took to learn this activity. In addition, they must provide me with 5 problems they create and solve to demonstrate their understanding.

What did I observe? I noticed a group of students that immediately began viewing videos on their devices. Others began looking through the notes I also provided through Google Classroom. They immediately began taking control of their learning. They immediately used the resources their own way to guide their learning. I was able to move around the room guiding students as they needed it.

I need to do more of this intentional strategic confusion to help my students learn how to work through situations when they face a difficult task. I need to explain to them times when I had to do the same thing. This is such a critical step to being a lifelong learner. If I am not preparing my students for a lifetime a learning, what is it I am really doing?

I think I found a new addition to my class routine. I love that the students can use their devices to view videos in groups to guide their learning. This would give them an opportunity to hear a different voice explain the topic. I love finding new ways to tweak our culture of learning to increase student learning and engagement.

But most of all, stretching myself to try this activity helped me begin to answer the question that was rattling around in my head mentioned at the beginning of this post: How do I get my students more comfortable learning challenging topics they initially struggle with?

What tips can you share that I can add to my list?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What if I am doing it all wrong?

The end of the marking period is upon us. The second marking period has flown by, very much like the first. We are "officially" half way through the school year. This makes almost 20 years of being a public educator for me. But I have had this constant worry in my gut the last few years. I have never really been able to describe it, but I know it is there. This feeling resurfaces several times throughout the year, but is specifically present during report card and interim time. I never could put my finger on it, until I read this post by Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) on Twitter: What if I am doing this all wrong?

It was like he was hearing the "voices" in my head! That was exactly the question I was bouncing around in my head for the last couple of years. What if my idea of allowing retakes and redoes to my students is not welcomed by their high school teachers? What if those teachers expect things to be done when they are due with no chance of showing improvement? I know some of the teachers my students will have next year do not allow time to show that they have improved their learning on topics, so am I doing my students a disservice by allowing them to do that with me? Am I setting them up for disappointment in the years ahead? These are the questions the "voices" in my head keep shouting out...What if I am doing this all wrong?

I have noticed that several of my students do not always hand in their best work the first time because they know they can resubmit at a later date. Should I be requiring a better first effort or grateful that they understand that I am looking for improvement in their learning to be the main goal? Would I get that better effort on the initial submission if there was no shot at a retake on the activity? Again, these are questions that I am constantly asking myself...

I hear my colleagues' comments about our students: "They immediately want to know if they can make corrections. Shocker! They did not hand in great work the first time! How can they retake a multiple choice test?" I can not help but feel partly responsible for this because my students expect this in my room. The have learned that I will take multiple tries at mastery from them. They know I allow them to use alternative methods to show their understanding (even though few ever take me up on this!). Am I aiding in their struggle with meeting deadlines for assignments?

I firmly believe that students should be able to have multiple attempts to show their understanding of topics. I never want my students to realize that they now understand something, but the time has passed to hand in the activity. But, what if by doing this, I have taught them that deadlines are not important? How do I get them to complete an activity in a specified time period? There are times in life when things need to be done on time...So again I ask, what if I am doing it all wrong?

Feedback and comments are greatly appreciated...
Thank you for letting me argue with the "voices" in my head!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

My One Word: Growth

This post is very late in writing. Since the new year, I have read several posts by great educators sharing their "One Word" for the 2015 calendar year. It has been great being able to learn from so many people. Being connected has allowed me to learn a lot from so many of you, and I am extremely thankful for that.

My "One Word" this year is Growth. I wanted to choose a word that would keep challenging me every week and month of the upcoming year. I loved the idea of focusing on one word instead of a list of resolutions. These commitments generally get pushed to the back burner when life gets hectic and busy. This is why the "One Word" Challenge intrigued me. I think the word I chose allows me to branch out into so many different directions. The following paragraphs will explain how the start of this year has been a Growth Experience for me already.

I challenged myself to grow first in the area of conferencing with my students. I have been wanting to schedule time to meet with my students individually, but something always got in the way. To be honest, the excuses were usually self-created because I was convinced I did not have the time for it. Well, after the Winter Break, I decided to just jump in and do it. I decided to limit the conferencing to one class. I informed them that they would meet with me to be able to demonstrate their understanding of solving systems of linear equations. I quickly blocked out times to meet with all 21 students. This took about over four periods in addition to two lunch sessions. Needless to say, I had to plan activities for the students to work on while meeting with these students.

Overall, the conferences went well. Most of the students did a great job demonstrating their understanding of the topics. This was a big jump for me, but I am glad that I took this opportunity to change things up. I need additional time to process this experience, and I will write about this in more detail in the near future.

In addition to this classroom experience, I have used my "One Word" to push myself to more actively pursue my interest in obtaining a job in administration. I am happy to report that since the break, I have had two interviews: one for an Assistant Principal's job at a middle school. The second was for an Elementary Principal's position. I found out a couple of days ago that I have been asked back for a second interview for the Principal's position. I am excited about the potential growth in my learning this opportunity will provide me. I am excited for this great opportunity and potential growth opportunities it could provide me. I will provide a follow up later this week...

What have you chosen as your "One Word"? Please share!