After-school professional development 2

Guess what, dear readers? Today’s after-school professional development meeting was wonderfully productive!

Today, we shared lesson ideas with each other in small interdisciplinary groups. We were given a specific protocol for sharing our lessons and giving/receiving feedback. I got some very helpful feedback from my colleagues on my lesson.

I think I know what made this meeting so different from last week’s meeting: it was planned and facilitated by teachers. I’ve heard similar stories from my friends: one friend told me about how her school’s experiment at letting math teachers plan their own PD meetings was so successful that even teachers from other disciplines were coming to their meeting.

It seems reasonable that this would be the case. Administrators are under pressure from higher-ups in the district to design professional development around the flavor-of-the-month trend in education; teachers are under much more practical pressures–they want to teach well and not spend every waking moment working. Also, letting teachers have a greater sense of autonomy seems like a good idea.

After-school professional development

This blog post is about the professional development meeting that we teachers had after school today. We must attend these meetings and, except when we get to meet with other teachers in our disciplines, they are usually dreadful.

Before I unleash my vitriol, I should note that it’s very difficult to plan meaningful professional development for teachers; it takes a lot of effort and time. It’s also very difficult to have teachers enthusiastic about meetings when they are forced to attend them. And finally, trying to get teachers to concentrate at the end of a long day of teaching is extremely difficult.

That said, today’s meeting was not productive for “structural” reasons. Here’s a blow by blow account of what happened.

(2:15 pm) The meeting begins with the assistant principal asking us to write for a few minutes in response to one of these three guiding questions:

1. “What works?” vs “What is your personal philosophy of teaching?”

2. How can our school, committed to promoting the understanding of all learners, help teachers contribute significantly toward achieving that goal?

3. What role does teacher/peer observation play in identifying the underrepresentation of key strategies and processes and existing student achievement and performance gaps?

Wow. Where to begin? First of all, #1 doesn’t make any sense. Am I supposed to respond to one question or the other, or am I supposed to respond to the juxtaposition of the two questions? I don’t know what the question is getting at, and so I have no idea how to respond. Question #2 is such a huge question that I feel completely paralyzed by it. If I am really supposed to answer question #2, I would need more than a few minutes or need the scope of the question to be narrowed down significantly.

So, I settle for question #3. I write for a few minutes and then the assistant principal asks us to share our responses.

(2:20 pm) One teacher shares his response to #2. He makes the suggestion that having time in our meetings to share lessons with each other might be beneficial. Another teacher makes the point that it’s even better when lessons are shared between teachers from different disciplines. The conversation then devolves into teachers venting about things and about whether instituting a protocol for sharing lessons would be helpful or make the process seem too formal. In the end, only one person gets to share a response to the three guiding questions.

(2:40 pm) Assistant principal moves us to the next task. We are to read a handout entitled “Investigating the Key Jobs of Teacher and Student,” write comments on it, then share our responses within our small groups. Since the handout doesn’t have anything to do with the previous three guiding questions or the previous conversation, this action sends (to me, anyway) the message that what we just did wasn’t very important. I’m wondering what those three guiding questions were supposed to guide us to. I’m also very curious to see whether the suggestion about having time to share lessons with each other actually gets picked up in future meetings–there have been lots of other suggestions brought up in previous meetings that seemed to get lots of assent but no action.

(2:50 pm) The four teachers in my group have been reading the handout silently up to this point. One teacher in our group brings up a question about what to do when all of our students perform poorly on a test. It’s an important question, but one that is not really related to the assigned task. Nevertheless, our small group has a discussion on this topic. When the principal asks for the small groups to share their responses, we hear some very general comments about teaching. The handout seems to have had little impact on the discussion. (The handout puts various teaching strategies into three categories: direct instruction, coaching, facilitative and constructivist teaching.) There is no discussion about whether some of these strategies are “underrepresented” in our classrooms.

(3:04 pm) The assistant principal introduces a representative from a local credit union who wants to help us teach students more financial literacy. The meeting ends with some announcements.

Each of us was given an agenda for the meeting. The agenda lists these outcomes for the meeting:

By the end of this session, participants will:
(1) Consider the degree to which teaching styles and strategies promote high levels of student understanding.
(2) Identify areas where particular strategies and processes are underrepresented in existing classrooms.
(3) Discuss correlations and gaps between identified teacher behaviors and student responses.

None of these outcomes have been met, except maybe (1). The feeling that I get from the agenda is that it is mainly a showcase for educational garbledygook. The meeting is unfocused and incoherent. I feel like I’ve mostly wasted my time. I can feel a growing personal aversion towards these professional development meetings and educational phrases like “underrepresented strategies” and “continuous improvement efforts.” And judging by the looks of my colleagues, I don’t think I was the only one to feel this way.

Seattle judge rejects school board adoption of math textbooks

Here’s another sign that the “math wars” have intensified to a new level:  a judge in Seattle sides with a parent, a retired math teacher and a professor at the University of Washington by rejecting a decision by the Seattle School Board to adopt the Discovering Mathematics textbooks by Key Curriculum Press. You can read more about it in this Seattle PI article and response from Key Curriculum Press.

The criticisms for the Discovering Mathematics series seem to line up with criticisms of “reform mathematics” in general. There are lots of people out there who believe that one should learn computational skills before concepts, that learning through inquiry or discovery is flawed, that an emphasis on concepts automatically means a shunning on . “Back to basics” is a common battle cry that is heard, and people often quote statistics or anecdotes about how poorly students are doing in mathematics “these days.” However, we frequently neglect to take a longer view of things. As Suzanne Wilson points out in her book “California Dreaming: Reforming Mathematics Education,” one can retrace the movement of the math curriculum pendulum in our country from “reform” to “traditional” and back again as early as 1830. This is nothing new, folks. Can’t we figure out how to stop having the same tired argument over and over again?

Though my school has not adopted the Discovering Mathematics textbooks, I’ve been a fan for a long time. I love the Discovering Geometry textbook in particular–I have been supplementing our geometry textbook with activities from this textbook. So, I am clearly biased on this matter.

Nevertheless, I feel I have some credibility in this matter as a university professor, as a current high school teacher, and as one who successfully learned mathematics in the “traditional” manner. Clearly, teaching mathematics in the traditional manner works–I am an example of that. However, I strongly believe that this manner of teaching mathematics generally favors the students who are already good at mathematics. I am the type of student who will try to figure out the logic behind a procedure if I can’t see why it works, but most of the students in my classes are not trained (yet) to think in this way. For these students, it is important that I try to help them learn concepts and procedures and to develop the habit of mind that leads one to ask “Why?”

Here’s a more concrete example. I could easily teach my students a three-step procedure for solving any linear equation of the form ax+b=cx+d. They would probably be able to follow the procedure pretty quickly. It is much more difficult to help them develop an understanding of what the equals sign means, why one can add or subtract something to both sides of the equals sign, and an intuition for what steps to take to isolate x by itself on one side of the equation. My experience has been that this constructivist approach has helped some students develop a much richer understanding of what it means to solve an equation. This week, a few students could explain to me, without me telling them, why any value for x is a solution to the equation 7(x+3)=7x+21. Of course, getting to this point required lots of practice on solving equations.

I believe that most of the sentiments espoused by folks on the “traditional” side of the math wars boils down to a discomfort with what is new or unfamiliar. Many of the people in this camp are parents, teachers and professors who don’t like it that current reform math education looks different from the mathematics of their youth. It seems to me presumptuous that one parent, one retired math teacher, one professor of atmospheric sciences and one judge would know more about teaching mathematics than the school board.

This decision also scares me in that it sets a dangerous precedent–does this mean that more and more curricular decisions are going to be made through our courts?

Finally, I’d like to close this blog post with a call for more calm. I wish people would stop fighting about textbooks and curricula. By itself, the choice of a math textbook cannot be a panacea or poison that will fix or ruin student achievement. This year I have witnessed first-hand that textbooks matter very little. There are so many other factors that affect my students’ mathematical performance: attitudes towards mathematics and education, life situation, self-confidence, language skills, parental support, teacher’s skill, teacher’s content knowledge, classroom environment, etc. The choice of textbook seems almost insignificant when you think about all  of these things. In the language of asymptotic expansions, students and teachers have an O(1) effect on learning, schools have an O(epsilon) effect and textbooks are an O(epsilon2) effect. And even if the perfect textbook were written, it cannot teach itself; teachers would need training on how to use this miracle textbook and would want to use it. Teachers like to teach the way they were taught, teachers like to reuse things that they have used before, and teachers are under lots of other pressures to “cover” material that circumvent the recommendations of their textbook.

So, can we please stop arguing so much about textbooks now?

Classroom atmosphere

Every class has it’s own character that is difficult to predict and change. What’s fascinating is watching how the atmosphere of a classroom changes when students enter or leave a class. This has been happening in some of my classes because of the new semester.

In the process of growing from 25 students to 31 students, my sixth period Algebra 1 class has gotten much rowdier. Most of this is due to a new student who is very loud and rambunctious. The first day she was in my class, she told me that she hates math and is only in my class because her “judge ordered her to go to school.” She loves coming up to the front of the room and bossing everyone around as if she were the teacher.

Today, she complained very loudly about being sick and wanting to go to sleep. Since she was so loud and full of energy, I wasn’t letting her to go the nurse’s office since she didn’t really seem that sick. She left class anyway. She came back later and apologized. I’m nervous about having her in my class, but I’m also glad I get to work with her. I need to find some ways to let her get rid of her extra energy; maybe I could give her some special responsibilities or leadership roles.

First day of spring semester

I survived my first day of spring semester!  Actually, I did more than survive–I had a good day today. I was nervous and excited to meet new students. I’m thrilled about getting to teach Algebra 2 and the group of students that I have for that class seems mature, fun and cooperative.

Today I spent each class period going over expectations and myths about mathematics. I also asked students to write out answers to a few survey questions. For example, I asked students about their goals from last semester and whether they had met them. I was pleasantly surprised by how many thoughtful responses I got–many were candid and admitted that they did not reach their goals because they gave up too soon or didn’t put in the necessary effort.

I also asked students, “What were some things that your math teacher did last semester that helped you learn math?” Some of the students had other teachers, others were in my classes. It was tremendously encouraging to read that students noticed some of the things that I was doing for them that helped them learn. Students appreciated that we take breaks during class, that I use the projector a lot to show things either on the computer or using the document camera, that I try to mix things up in class (working independently vs working in groups; doing work with pencil and paper vs doing things with manipulatives or other materials).

My workload will go up a bit. I still have three “preps” but it will take me more time to prepare for Algebra 2 than it did to prepare for the the intervention math lab.

End of first semester!

Wow, I made it through one semester!

I feel grateful for the experiences that I’ve had so far. There are so many things I’ve learned: how hard it is to get students to do homework, how much of an emotional toll teaching takes on you, how resilient young people are to adversity, how difficult it is to stay positive, how complicated the whole educational system is, etc. etc. etc. I could go on and on, I think.

I wish there was a bit more time to process my thoughts. I’m turning in grades one minute and preparing for the new semester the next. Ack!!! New classes!!!

Results of final exams

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of summative assessments and about my students’ performance.

I’m not thrilled about how my students performed on their final exams this week. A few of my students scored at the “proficient” level on the recent district periodic assessment; most of them scored in the “below basic” or “far below basic” categories.It’s really difficult to look at these results and not feel like a total failure. However, I do feel that my students are learning something–we’re moving in the right direction but we’re just not all at the goal yet. I’m still hoping that by June a lot more of my students will be in the “proficient” or “advanced” category.

So that I don’t feel so bad, I am also reminding myself about the three or four weeks of lost instructional time at the beginning of the semester. If we had three or four more weeks together, I’m confident students would have done better on their exams. Many of the questions that students got wrong were questions on material that we just didn’t get to.

Because students did so poorly, I’ve been giving students the opportunity to make up a large portion of points lost if they correct their mistakes (they have to include a written explanation of their work). If students make an effort, they can raise their grade on any exam to an A or B. I even let students work together and I offer help. But still some students don’t take advantage of the make up points. I know that I have to ween students off the make up points eventually so that they can get the problems right the first time, but at least for now I feel this scheme helps them learn more math, learn how to learn from a mistake, and not feel so bad about their exam score.

This experience is making me consider why I don’t offer exam make up points in my college classes…