Friday, August 16, 2019

Never Stop Learning

Last week I presented at and attended the Mathematics Educators Convergence, held at Columbus Academy.  In addition to meeting some great math teachers and hearing presentations from Fawn Nguyen and NCTM president Robert Q. Berry, I left with a lot of great ideas and activities, some of which will take some time and planning to incorporate into my classroom, and some that I will be able to use this year.  It's still fun (and a little annoying) to see an activity that sparks the question, "Where has this been hiding all this time?"

This will be my 30th year of teaching, and I can't imagine not spending at least part of my summer actively trying to get better.  Whether it's reading some research, doing some math, or attending a conference, getting better is part of the job, and I honestly don't understand teachers who have to be forced to do professional development of any kind.  PD that's imposed from the outside can be hit or miss; searching for and participating in relevant PD is on the teacher.  We want the kids to become life-long learners, to have an inner drive that makes them want to improve for the sake of improving.  They won't believe it's important if we just dust off old lesson plans we've used for years, lesson plans that require us to tell the kids to pretend Desmos and the internet don't exist, or lesson plans that include a daily worksheet with word problems that have gasoline selling for 89 cents per gallon.

If I ever honestly believe I have nothing else to learn about teaching, it will be time to retire.  The kids deserve better than that, and I intend to work hard to improve every year.  Even year 30.  God willing, even year 45.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Point of Assessment

It is rare that I give an in-class quiz or test.  Most of the work I have the kids do is either online, or some sort of a project-like assessment that they can work on at home, and I often require that they have their work peer-edited.  If this sounds more like what students would do when writing as essay in their language arts class, you're right, since that's where I got the initial idea to run assessments this way.

The question that I asked myself that led me to this is: What is the point of assessment? 

Is the point of assessment to determine how well the students understand the material so we (the student and teacher) can make a plan going forward to help the student continue to grow where they're good and make better progress where they're falling short?  Or is it to make that determination under the pressure of demonstrating their abilities in a specified 45 minutes?

I answered in the former.  Even if there is some kind of end-of-course test (from the state department of education or from the College Board or wherever), practicing with the time constraint while alleviating the pressure in a low-stakes or no-stakes situation in the classroom will give you a better read on how the kids are doing. 

Yes, there are situations in life when the pressure of a time constraint is very real and very important.  Assessment in a classroom shouldn't be one of them.  Not if we really want to know how well they understand the material.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Location, Location, Location

Last week we were on vacation at Lake Erie, visiting many of the same places we have for the last 33 years, including Cedar Point.  Looking at the list of things we did, it occurred to me that we could have done most of them here at home:

have donuts as many mornings as possible
ride roller coasters (we live near Kings Island, so this is possible at home)
go out to eat one meal every day
visit local shops
just relax and do nothing
have ice cream as many evenings as possible

The only things we couldn't have done are lake-specific and not available at home:

go to the beach
go to the lighthouse where we got engaged 30 years ago

But it got me thinking. If we can do most of the vacation things here at home, why do we go so far away to do them?  Why does it not feel like vacation if we get donuts every day unless we are at the lake?

I'm thinking it because location plays a large role in our ability to relax and take a mental break.  Don't get me wrong, donuts at home are great.  Every day would be awesome, especially if they were actually good for me. But it wouldn't be as relaxing as eating them on a picnic table next to the Marblehead Lighthouse.

This need for relocation is probably true for our students as well.  Taking a "brain break" in the middle of class is good.  Taking the break in the hallway is probably better.  Taking a break outside is probably even better.  Changing the routine every once in a while is good.  Including a change of location as part of the change of routine is probably even better.

So, as you're beginning to plan your year, you may want to consider occasionally relocating your class as a nice vacation from the norm.  And if your students offer to bring in donuts as part of the vacation, say yes.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

From the Beginning

Ask anyone.  The first few days of anything are vital.  Whether it's orientation at a new job, training camp for a team, or the beginning of the school year, a lot is riding on those first few days.

I tend to be very intentional about establishing the culture of my classroom during the first few days of class.  This has evolved over the years, and is currently a mix of discussions, videos, and activities that set the expectations for the year, which are:

  1. The primary purpose of the class is for the students to improve their ability to think critically and creatively.  
  2. To achieve (1), the class is run through collaborative discussions, not lectures.  
  3. To make the discussions run well, the students must
    • serve others before themselves; in other words, prepare well enough each night so that they can be helpful to others the next day, and learn the material well enough that they can be helpful to others whenever needed
    • don't let their ego get in the way; in other words, when they understand a topic, gently and humbly help others, and when they make a mistake or don't understand, humbly admit it and ask for help
    • do the work; regardless of the support they receive in class from me or the other students, no one can learn the material for them
    • (As a note, thanks to Brian Kight for the help in clarifying the sub-statements here.) 
Whether or not this is effective for any given class is not immediately evident, as it takes a while for the kids to really buy in.  As a teacher, I wish I could get some more immediate feedback from an outside observer on that first day, but let's be honest, every administrator and other teacher is way to consumed with getting their year started well and doesn't have time for this.  I know I wouldn't.

So, it begs the question:

If the first day and the first few days are so vital, how can we arrange things so that teachers - especially new teachers, but seriously, we all could use the help - can get feedback on their first day routine?  

Any ideas?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Soft Skills

It's common at this point to hear that we should be teaching the "4 Cs" in our classrooms: critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration.  These are sometime referred to as "soft skills", as compared to the "hard skills" that are more content-driven. 

However, many teachers shy away from emphasizing let alone teaching the soft skills, despite their importance.  Why?  Because the soft skills are harder to teach and harder to assess.  It's easy to check to see if a student can factor or find a derivative.  It's easier to tell kids exactly what they need to memorize and then check to make sure they've memorized it.  And I'm sorry, but the contrived word problems in math books don't count as evidence of critical thinking.  Most of the time teachers emphasize particular "types" of word problems, and the kids just memorize the key words and the process involved in solving them.  Critical thinking and creativity play no role in the solution of these problems, collaboration plays no role in memorizing the solution process required by the teacher, and the only communication expected is using proper mathematical notation. 

It's way more difficult to check to see if a student can creatively solve a complex exercise, especially since "creativity" may not strike during the allotted 50 minutes of an in-class assessment.  As anyone who has done any kind of research will tell you, days or weeks can go by without any progress being made.  Does that mean the researcher doesn't know how to think critically or that they aren't creative?  Of course not. It means that patience and perseverance are part of the package.

Patience and perseverance are also required if we expect the students to develop their critical thinking and creativity through collaboration.  As teachers, we need to get comfortable with working with the kids as they struggle through the material, and abandon the idea of delivering the material to them in nice, neat, lesson-sized pieces.  The struggle is less stressful if the kids work together, and in the process they practice the real communication skills they will need in the future.  It may seem like it takes longer, but there is still plenty of time to cover the content if we use it to work on the soft skills.

As teachers, we need to stop doing what's convenient and start doing what's important.  We need to stop focusing exclusively on the content, and start using the content to help the kids develop the soft skills.  In the long run, the soft skills will be more useful to the kids than the vast majority of the content we are required to teach them.  It can happen, and in fact it is happening in lots of classrooms.  The only question is whether or not we are willing to put in the time necessary to creating a classroom environment where all the students comfortably embrace the patience and perseverance needed to develop these soft skills. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Thinking Long-Term

So, a question:

What skills that students learn in your class do you hope they will still find useful five years after they have graduated from high school?

Let's be honest.  It won't be factoring, or solving a system of equations, or calculating a derivative by hand.  It won't be finding the symbolism in a novel or remembering the exact date of a battle from the Revolutionary War. 

Speaking for myself, the skills we focus on in my classroom are collaboration, communication,  creativity, and critical thinking.  The mathematical content of the course is merely the means through which we develop and practice those skills.  Not that the math isn't important, and not that the kids don't learn the math; it is, and they do.  However, if it takes them a little longer to become proficient with the content, that's fine, because it's an opportunity for them to work on perseverance, which will be far more useful to them in the future.  Rather than giving them all of the information they need to pass the next quiz or the next test, it is worth it to create the scaffold for them to climb as they work their way through the material, because in the process they will learn the mathematics more deeply and work on the more vital skills listed above. 

One of the issues is that so many of us focus on the short-term learning of the content rather than on the long-term learning of the 4 Cs.  Ironically, if we were to focus more on the long-term learning of the 4 Cs, the kids would actually learn the content more deeply and retain it longer. 

The question at hand is this: How do we convince teachers that focusing on the long-term is worth it?

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Enjoy the Journey

We can all get better.  All of us.  Better teachers, better spouses, better friends, better parents, better people.

The only thing standing in the way is our willingness to do the work.

The problem is that we get comfortable with who we are and with our accomplishments.  We get comfortable with being good enough.

"I've taught for 20 years, and my students are successful.  Why should I change?  The way I teach is already good enough."
Because you can be a better teacher, and your students deserve it.

"We've been married for 20 years, and we're happy as we are.  Why should I change?  My marriage is already good enough."
Because you can be a better spouse, and your spouse deserves it.

"My kids are grown and they're good people.  Why should I change?  My kids are already good enough."
Because you can be a better parent, and your children deserve it.

"We've been friends for 20 years and it's a great friendship.  Why should I change?  Our friendship is already good enough."
Because you can be a better friend, and your friend deserves it.

Growth stops the second we think we're good enough.  It happens in our students as well.

"I can get a 15% on my final exam and still keep my A.  Why should I study?  What I've already done is good enough."

We need to stop focusing on being good enough, and start focusing of working every day to be our best.  Will we ever get there?  No.  But the destination of "best" is not the goal.  Being constantly engaged in striving to be our best is the goal.  The joy is in the journey.