Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Pollyanna by Choice

I'm actually eager to share the good things that have been happening in my Conceptual Math class since my last discouraging post.  I've never had a Conceptual course go this well, and I'm mourning the fact that the state is getting rid of the class after this year.

But today, I think I need to talk about what's been really weighing on my mind lately.  I'm hesitant to write about this because I don't like to publicly comment on this sort of thing, but...  here goes.

Last week, a student of mine murdered someone.  Yep.  It's a bit surreal for me so typing it is still uneasy.  I don't live in a neighborhood where shootings are common place, so I'm still wrapping my head around it all.  I wasn't there so I'm left interpreting the news story and various first and second hand accounts that have come out about that night.  But it seems that he was having a fight with his girlfriend.  An innocent neighbor in the area came out to intervene and was walking back inside when my student shot him four times in the back.

Obviously, I'm devastated for the family of the man who was killed.  The news reports say his fiance urged him not to go outside, because she had a bad feeling.  It was his son's fourth birthday.  I can't imagine the loss that they are feeling.  And any sympathizing that I might do with my student feels like a betrayal to that man's life and memory.

But here is my problem...  I liked this kid.  I really did.  He was a kid with some issues...I knew that.  But, prior to this weekend, I would've argued that he was redeemable.  And I certainly wouldn't have seen him as someone capable of this sort of thing.  I've been stunned by it.  And, strangely, disappointed and disillusioned as well.

A few days ago, when I was talking with an administrator and a colleague about the students we have that seem like they are just never going to get it...the value of what we are offering them...I started to brag about a student who had graduated a few years ago.  A student who, I had thought, had secured himself a job, built a family, and found a way to be a positive and productive member of society despite all the signs during his high school years that it would never have happened.  Then, my administrator interrupted me to let me know that student had recently been arrested and was in jail on domestic battery charges.

Then he chided me for being a Pollyanna.

And it's true.  I've always been drawn to the lost causes that pass through my classroom.  Those kids who seem to have had everything going against them in life.  They didn't choose to be born into families that are full of drug abuse and sketchy values.  It's not their fault no one read to them as children or instilled in them the value of an education.  They decide early on that they aren't intelligent, that school isn't their thing...and they try to figure out their place in a world that looks very different than the world I'm trying to sell them.

But I see something in them...some sort of potential or spark.  And I hang on to that even when there is much evidence to the contrary.  A former colleague of mine used to dub me Glinda...because he said I came floating into our classroom so sure that all of little ideals and dreams could be achieved for these kids.

And then something like this happens...and the bubble is burst.  And I can't help but wonder if my idealism and hopes are misguided.  If nothing we do really makes a difference.  If they walk through our doors the first day of their Freshmen year, and their destiny is already laid out before them.  We have our students who are from the "right" families.  And it doesn't seem to matter if they have good teachers or poor teachers...they find make their way through high school building their resumes and preparing for the next step.  They move on to college and they find their place in life.  And then, there are the others, who aren't from the "right" families...who find themselves jumping from job to job when they can't handle the expectations that adult life requires of them...and all too often, they find themselves behind bars.

I know there are choices they make too.  I know they get their on their own.  But it seems so self-defeating.  Their climb is all uphill.  I've listened as groups of these students peruse the online jail websites looking at the mugshots of their friends and family members, recounting stories of who they know and the time they've served.  And it's hard not to question whether anything we do makes a difference anyway.  And if I'm a fool to see this "potential" where statistics and probability suggest that very little is likely to exist.

But what else can I do?  I'm a teacher.  If I stop believing in the unlikely...stop hoping that these kids can crawl their way out of their circumstances into a better future for themselves...why would I get in my car and drive to work each day?  What would be the point if I'm only there to help the ones that are destined for success no matter what I do?

At lunch this week, a colleague whose philosophy of teacher I admire greatly remarked on all of it.  She said, "I can be cynical about education policies and even my administration, but I refuse to be cynical about my students."  And I guess that's where I am.  I realize that I may not be living in reality.  I know that all of my efforts aren't likely to make much difference for the trajectory of many of these lives.  But I will not stop believing...and trying.

So...I'm a Pollyanna, I suppose.  But that's a choice I make each day when I walk into the classroom.  And when I stop making that choice, I hope I choose to stay home and let some other Pollyanna take my place.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Crashing in the Classroom

I've been wanting to write for a few days.  I haven't quite gotten the hang of the idea of bringing my failures to paper and working through them.  But I've been struggling for several days and need to find a way to gain some clarity to my thoughts.

I'm having difficulty with the Conceptual Math class I described a bit before, and it's affecting my teacher mojo greatly.  With my year of sojourn in the world of English, it's been a while since I've had the opportunity to really sink my teeth into the craft of teaching.  I love the process of developing a curriculum map, creating assessments, researching and finetuning lessons.  That is my passion.  I feel more alive doing that than I do...well...teaching.


And that's where I've hit my wall this week.  Because when the rubber hits the road, I fall flat.  And I kept looking at pics of my TMC friends on my bookshelves to inspire me.

And it was equal parts inspiring and discouraging.  Because the people in those pictures...they can teach.  I mean, like really teach!  And I'm hitting brick walls all over the place right now.  Even though I feel like I'm doing everything the "right way" to try to set the class up for success.

I am perhaps being a bit too hard on myself.  But the moment that my ideals and the reality in my classroom come face to face, I meet with frustration.  I constantly overestimate their background knowledge.  Even when I'm aiming at a point that I think is so far below where they will be comfortable.


Our first unit in the Curriculum Map we put together is our Math and Finances unit.  The state standards we are aiming to cover are:

describe and illustrate how calculating costs, simple and compound interest, finance charge, loan payment and tax functions are used to solve real-world problems.
identify a real life situation that involves investing money over time; pose a question; make a hypothesis as to the answer; develop, justify, and implement a method to collect, organize, and analyze related data; generalize the results to make a conclusion; compare the hypothesis and the conclusion; present the project numerically, analytically, graphically and verbally using words, graphs, models, or tables (with and without technology).

In addition, we are aiming to thread these problem solving standards through all of our units of study:
use a variety of problem solving strategies (e.g., draw a diagram, look for a pattern, work backwards) to solve real-world problems.
choose the appropriate formulas to solve workplace problems and judge the reasonableness of the solutions.
integrate other disciplines into the study of mathematics through simulations, research,
 and projects.

(Forgive the formatting issues).  Have I mentioned, by the way, that I love the standards for this course?!?  The nature of the class is such that the students who choose it are students who have historically struggled with math and/or are not highly motivated.  Prior to adopting the Common Core, this class came after Geometry in our sequence for those who wished to forego or postpone Algebra 2d.

In any case, we thought that starting with the finance unit might give them a more immediate buy-in since they can see the relevance of this sort of mathematics to their lives.  But my collaborating partner and I knew we were going to be asking them to do a lot of group work this year, and we wanted to set a strong foundation for that.  Plus, a huge change in our school schedule this year meant that there complete havoc to our class lists in the opening week so heavy instruction was likely to prove counterproductive.

So, our first week went something like this:
Monday - Welcome. Introductions.  Review of class policies.
Tuesday - Placed in random groups.  The Marshmallow Challenge.
Wednesday - A recap of the Marshmallow Challenge followed by group discussions on norm setting.
Thursday - Revisit group norm discussion and develop classroom norms.  New groups.  A Building Blocks Challenge.  So far, so good.  And I was feeling quite confident.  Each day the cohesion in groups was increasing.  The participation getting stronger.  The observations about group dynamics my collaborating teacher and I were able to bring to their attention were solid and moving in a positive direction.  We seemed to have them.  Or so we thought...  Then came Friday.

Friday - We attempted to apply what we had decided about group norms to a math task.  And it all started to fall apart.  We gave them the Garden Problem.

We delivered the introduction of the problem a bit better in each class as we started to see they needed a slight bit of scaffolding.  I guess it should've been a huge tip-off when the opening bellringer questions involving calculating area and perimeter of rectangles let us know what kind of gaps we were dealing with.  But we discussed the opener and proceeded to scaffold the class as best we could.

The problem took up all of Friday and Monday.  For two of the three classes, it even dipped over into the start of Tuesday.  They struggled immensely with explaining their own thinking or using picture strategies to approach it.  We had to hint and prompt them all along the way.  Even then, only about one person in each group was engaged with the task.  I still think that after three days, they didn't totally understand what we had explored.


It went down hill from there...

The plan was to have them tackle Glenn's Cell Phone problem next.  After all, it had been a "blazing success" on his first day.  We knew it didn't hit on tax functions or interest, but it was a chance for them to dip their toes into the finance side of things as a group on material we thought would be manageable for them.  After two full days, their posters had little more on them besides the name of the cell phone carrier they chose.  Their assumptions about how to do the calculations revealed serious problems with their understanding of...I don't even know...numbers...bills...the world around them.  We had to explain every little step to them.  To get them to create an expression/equation or make a table or graph was virtually impossible for two of the classes.  The third class could do so if we hinted them through the entire process.  Even though the daily openers had similar problems that we looked at as a group...I even showed them a comparison of two different cell phone plans as a table and a Desmos graph and hinted that such sort of mathematical displays were precisely what we were hoping to see on their posters.

By the time class started today, my partner felt that we were wasting our time staying any longer with the project and had each group present their basically empty posters so that we could move forward to the tax function direct instruction that was planned for the day.  The kids expressed frustration at not being allowed to finish their posters, and some even spoke to me after class about being mad about it.  But, I understood and didn't necessarily disagree with her desire to move forward because very little productive conversation was occurring in the groups...all of whom had one (if any) team member trying to figure out the task.

And suddenly, all of the good will we had built up feels lost.  The kids are frustrated and checking out and its week two.  And we are frustrated and at a loss.  This is a public blog so I don't want to describe specific interactions with students in much detail, but the sorts of mathematics that were confusing to them astounded me.  Then, I think about my Twitterverse colleagues who are doing algebra with their 6th grade students and I just want to cry.  What am I doing wrong?!?  Ugggh.  I seriously rethink my profession on a weekly basis sometimes.  Even though...I think I love what I do.

I'll tell you what I do love.  I spent the entire second day of the Cell Phone Project mentally retweaking the entire thing.  I wrote all kinds of post-it notes of how I would do it next year (if this class was still going to exist next year).  And I feel much more confident that my modified version of the task would would get us somewhere...and more kids would be engaged with the project.  But I also think I took away all of the open-ended challenge of the problem in doing so.

How do I scaffold and still keep things open, rigorous and challenging when many of my students are demonstrating a close to 7 year gap between their knowledge and what I'm supposed to be teaching?  And I'm a special education teacher. I should be able to handle this!  But it just makes me want to crawl back into the world of direct instruction where I can deliver the information and they can pretend to gobble it up.

By the way...I'm super excited about my modified Cell Phone Project.  Perhaps I should blog about that.  And then someone more talented than me can try to make it work with actual human students.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Final Preparations

So, today was our first day back of CE.  Or, as I like to call it, pass notes with my collaborative teachers all day fine tuning our plans for the year.  The professional development sessions themselves were relatively week.  We had a sales pitch for TechSteps, a review of risk factors for AIDS and Suicide, and then an incredible training session for Engrade since we are switching to it this year.  The Engrade stuff blew me away.  I think I'm going to like it so much more than GradeQuick, which was awful.

I also got bombarded with even more tedious beginning of the year Special Education stuff...which is poor timing as I'm trying to work with my partners to plan for my year.  Here is where things stand on the three preps I have this year:

Math 2 - This will be the first time this course is taught at our school.  The state seems to be using something very similar to the Appendix recommendations for course sequencing for Integrated Math.  We've been traditional for years so this is a new approach.  There are two general education teachers teaching this class this year.  One of them is my partner.  I was able to work extensively with the other at at training last week. We developed a very detailed scope/sequence for the year, with week by week objectives (although we realize that we will need to be flexible).  We will be working through the following units:

  • Real Number System
  • Quadratic Functions and Modeling
  • Expressions and Equations
  • Similarity, Proof, and Right Triangle Trigonometry
  • Circles
  • Probability
We decided to save probability until the end because they won't be tested on it this year, and it isn't as large of a prerequisite for their Math 3 course.  My actual teaching partner for this class and I were able to discuss a bit today about how to conduct the opening weeks of the year.  He wants to spend two weeks "reviewing" concepts from Math 1 by embedding them in an introduction to the TI N-Spires and Navigator system.

Conceptual Math - This was the course I spent the most time working on today.  We decided to organize it into eight units, based upon the standards for the class.  This is a course that WV offers between Geometry and Algebra 2 for those who aren't ready to move on to Algebra 2.  For some students, it represents their fourth and final math.  It is a course that is being phased out as we implement the CCSS fully next year.  So, this will be the last year teaching it.  Our unit sequence will go like this:

  • Math and Finances
  • Math in Art, Architecture, and Nature
  • Similar Triangles, Pythagorean Theorem, and Right Triangle Trigonometry
  • Perimeter, Area, Surface Area, and Volume
  • Probability
  • The History of Math
  • Data Collection and Analysis
  • Functions:  Linear, Exponential and Quadratic
We also decided that we are going to open class each day with Estimation 180 to help strengthen their estimation skills.

Independent Study - This is the class I was most upset by when I was originally given my schedule.  Of course, my original schedule had me teaching it four times a day with no math classes.  Yikes.  Thank God that was revised (sometimes temper tantrums the most professional way of course).  Anyway...I'm a little bit excited about the class.  I've been working on my Classroom Management Plan (which is what our school calls a syllabus-type of document).  The students are going to have to submit weekly reports from their Engrade showing that they are completing work and keeping their grades up.  If not, I will provide the necessary support for them.  In addition, each student is going to pick one independent research/study project every nine weeks.  I'm requiring them to submit a proposal, design their own grading rubric, a four-week status report, and a final "proof of learning" culminating project.  I have no idea how it will go, but I'm a little excited for the chance to experiment.  I was almost disappointed to get my class list and see that I only have two students in each section.  Seems like a colossal waste of man power given that three other teachers will be similarly scheduled each period.

Anyway...that's just my State of the Nation speech.  I'm excited.  And trying not to let the envelope full of Sped nonsense that came in the mail today discourage me.  Much to do on that front as well.  I've already developed the agendas for monthly PLC meetings with my department for the entire year.  I'm hoping I can get my department on board and start moving it in a different direction - one that empowers rather than enables students.  We shall see...

It's going to be a good year.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

These People Are Crazy, Y'All!!

And yes, that title is a tribute to Hedge (@approx_normal) and Summer (@mathdiva77) who continue to school me on all things southern.  For example, unless you are uncommonly brave, do not under any circumstances mention this individual:

Ironically, this is my first blog since my post-TMC12 recap a year ago...and it's likely to be brief since I have so many exciting things I want to be working on right now in the midst of my post-TMC13 high.  For those who don't know, TMC refers to a gathering of the coolest and most passionate math educators you are ever likely to meet in one place at a now-annual teacher-led conference.  Twitter Math Camp was born out of math teaching discussions on Twitter but has exploded into one of the most powerful IRL experiences one is likely to have in the world of Professional Development. 

I could easily spend days recapping all of the incredible ideas and resources that I learned about at #TMC13, all of which is archived by the participants at an online site.  There were so many great ideas and I can't wait to see how my teaching transforms and grows this year as a result of all that I've learned.  But what makes this experience so unique and so special are the people involved.  They are...genuinely crazy.  Crazy in a way that I know...feel...understand.  And suddenly, I don't feel so crazy to have found them.  Here is a community of math teachers so passionate about what they do that no one is chiding me in the midst of my enthusiasm for something that "I need to clock out."  They get it!  Like, really get it. 

A group of us gathered near the end of the conference to discuss TMC 2014 and our concerns about preserving the incredibly unique atmosphere that exists at Twitter Math Camp.  A couple of comments struck me in that session as we were discussing what makes things so different at Twitter Math Camp than any other PD experience.  Glenn talked about the idea of the back channel conversations occurring on an equal footing with the "lead" conversations, an idea he expounds upon in his blog.  That insight for me really captured the uniqueness of this experience.  There is no artificial wall created between the math conversations occurring in sessions and the social conversations that occurred after hours.  The entire experience was one big ongoing conversation about life, teaching, pop culture, name it...a rich conversation that integrated what it means to be human and curious and alive with what it means to teach and inspire and to think mathematically.  Where else would ordering pizza evolve into a discussion of the value benefits of combinations of toppings vs. combinations of "presidents" (is it better to save money on several large plain pizzas or diversify with smaller more expensive specialty pizzas?  Yep, even our waiter was drawn into the discussion. 

I met some of the coolest people I've ever had the honor of knowing at #TMC13, people I'm honored and humbled to call friends.  People who inspire me to greater things. Someone else in that TMC14 planning session remarked that what makes this experience so unique is that the participants are unnaturally obsessed with teaching and mathematics.  I wish that had been my phrase.  For now, I'll just paraphrase in the language of my southern sisters and say, "These people are crazy, y'all!"