When I first began teaching, I put a lot of effort into each of my lessons. I would spend hours writing plans and creating worksheets. In my immaturity, I rarely shared my lesson ideas with colleagues because I felt that, if I was the one who put all of the effort into the lesson, no one else should reap the rewards of teaching that lesson. In turn, I rarely asked others for lesson ideas or suggested collaborating to develop lessons. Twelve years later, my perspective has completely changed. Now, I see the tremendous value in collaboration and lesson sharing and am working with my district to ensure teachers are involved in these practices.
In order to facilitate collaboration, our district has provided teachers with common planning time which allows teachers in similar content areas to work collaboratively on lessons and activities. Initially, this was challenging because teachers wanted to use the time to work on their own tasks. However, with a bit of guidance, teachers have discovered how to really utilize this time. The math teachers work on grade-level lessons three days per week; one day is focused on differentiated instruction activities; the fifth day is a group discussion about how everything is going. Using this method, teachers aren’t working in a “silo” to create all of their own lessons like I once did. Instead, they are discussing how they can develop lessons that will benefit all of their students. As an added bonus, the teachers have learned that some stress is alleviated when they can “divide and conquer” some lessons that are more time-consuming to develop.
We’re still working on the best ways to share lessons more easily. Fortunately, there are several tools on the internet that allow you to do this. File sharing websites such as Google Docs and Wiki-Teacher allow teachers to share content with those within their school and others outside their districts. Some sites allow schools to develop their own internal sharing site so teachers can easily upload the documents they have created collaboratively. Why not look at some of these sites for lessons created by teachers all over the country? No need to reinvent the wheel! Don’t make the same mistake I did early on...remember that, as teachers, we are all in this together. Use common resources to give your students the most diverse experiences possible.
Here’s a little vignette from last spring. I was in a group of parents waiting to collect kids from a “new school” visit. The teacher was wrapping up the day with an outdoor game where kids left and rejoined a circle based on some algorithm. Physical math in the sunshine, with lots of happy noise and an improbable amount of focus.
I exchanged who’s, where’s and how old’s with the parent next to me and we talked briefly about work. She then said, “You know, I think I’ve done it all wrong. I have an MBA in marketing, I worked for a major hospital group, and I had my own company for a while. But I really wish I had been a teacher.”
Now those of you in the trenches may say that was the spring weather talking. Who wouldn’t feel that teaching was blessed work, when the task was an outdoor number game on a gorgeous day?
But teachers: know that the meaning underlying your work is envied by many, MANY ordinary civilians. Your most mundane everyday activities have the potential for purpose that few jobs can offer.
We are in awe of you – your endurance, your attention to the details that matter, your endless patience when asked to handle the same problem over and over and over again. All in the same day.
But in that same day, something or several somethings may have happened that have lasting significance. And that is what we find most awe-inspiring of all.
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Last month I attended the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences Forum (CBMS) on Content-Based Professional Development for Teachers of Mathematics in Reston, VA. The CBMS is an umbrella organization representing seventeen professional societies, including math education groups like NCTM, NCSM, and TODOS; associations of mathematicians, such as the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society; and other math-related groups. This is the third CBMS forum I've attended. Two years ago the focus was the Report of the National Math Panel. Last year we concentrated on the emerging draft of the Common Core State Standards. The goal of each forum has been to generate discussion and distill policy recommendations for decision-makers at the federal level. With a focus on teacher professional development, last month's forum tackled what is arguably the most important lever for improving math performance. The speaker and panel presentations are available on the CBMS website. I just want to share a few quick highlights:
- Several speakers used different terms – structures, trajectories, content progressions – to describe the same idea. The Common Core State Standards is built on content and skills that connect from year to year. The objectives should not be considered in isolation. They are part of threads that run, for instance, from Base Ten Number and Operations through the Number System and into Algebra. Understanding those interconnections is critical for teachers, and one of my breakout groups recommended incorporating the trajectories into math teacher education. Elementary teachers need to see where the content they're teaching will be leading their students. And middle and high school teachers need to follow the threads back to what their students learned in 3rd or 4th grade.
- Teachers are learners too. Kind of a "duh" realization, but we often neglect to apply basic learning theory when we're working with adult teachers. We need to respect background knowledge, provide appropriate scaffolds and supports, and connect procedures to meaning. What we do to ensure successful instruction of children, we should also do for teachers in pre-service and professional development.
- We need to provide teachers with new ways to assess student work, particularly student understanding. Much of what currently happens in the classroom focuses on measuring skill and procedural knowledge. What kinds of tasks can provide windows into student thinking and strategic competence? There's much work to do here, but some of the presentations from the forum offer a glimpse of the possibilities.
A synthesis of ideas and recommendations from the forum should be available soon, so check back on the CBMS website next month.
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I’ve recently attended several meetings about the Common Core State Standards that have been adopted in NJ (along with 36 other states). The thought of the work required to implement the new standards is overwhelming, but I’m excited about the coherence and clarity that the standards will bring to math education. I realize there are plenty of people who disagree with the movement towards national standards, but I feel that this movement is best for the nation’s students. Shouldn’t all students be aiming towards the same goal? Shouldn’t all teachers have similar expectations for their students at each grade level? The standards aren’t taking away teachers’ autonomy. Instead, they are bringing more equity to math education and making our system more comparable to high-performing countries with educational systems that have proven to surpass that of the United States.
While I’m eager for the final outcome of these standards, I realize that the next few years are going to be a bit dicey. This week, NJ released a gradual release implementation plan, and while a 3-year roll-out is logical, there will still be challenges in terms of ensuring that students don’t skip content during transitional years. Expectations will require teachers to confidently deliver the grade-level standards while recognizing the need to include foundational content that students may have missed. While educators should teach to the standards, we must recognize that these standards are the core, but not the whole, of what must be taught. Teachers need to use their expertise and collaborate to ensure that students are provided with a comprehensive mathematics education. In several years, students will be fully integrated into Common Core Standard instruction. That’s the moment I’m waiting for – the time when students move through a coherent curriculum with limited repetition enabling a depth of knowledge that will allow for the appreciation of the beauty of math. A bit idealistic? Perhaps, but I’m one who likes to embark on new challenges with excitement about the outcome. Only time will tell if my eagerness is warranted.
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The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently released a 130-page online report suggesting changes to the education system to better prepare and inspire K-12 students to pursue STEM fields. One thing that I appreciated about this report is that the group (which included Google CEO Eric Schmidt!) suggested actionable items rather than doing a review of the literature and organizing general priorities, which seemed to be a common theme in the last half dozen or so reports of this nature that I have read.
A recommendation that particularly caught my eye is spending $325 million a year to boost the salaries of some 22,000 top-notch math and science teachers around the country. That comes out to an average of $14,772 for each, plus discretionary funds for the classroom, which is a big deal. However, what seems like an even bigger deal is that this means teachers would be assessed to be selected as part of this winning batch. I was scrolling down the report, looking forward to reading the recommendations of how to select these teachers, but unfortunately, this was it: "We recommend that the Federal Government undertake a rapid six-month study to address the issues in implementing a STEM Master Teachers Corps - including the selection process and criteria for the teachers and the organization and administrative structure."
The council would like the teachers to be "selected based on their demonstrated ability to prepare and inspire students." Now here's what I wonder: How can a teacher's ability to inspire students be measured? Thoughts?
photo credit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports
Data-driven instruction: it's definitely been a buzz word over the past few years. Most educators know what it is and know why it's important. Few, however, have ever learned how to analyze data to improve student outcomes. As the year begins, one of my most important tasks is helping teachers analyze their state test results. I consider this a bit of a professional development activity because it doesn't just say something about student progress, it can be a window to the strengths and weaknesses of a teacher.
One strategy that is successful is to analyze each teacher's class list and highlight strands where students struggled or excelled. This can help the teacher determine areas of focus for the subsequent year. For example, if 80% of last year's class failed the Geometry portion of the test, the teacher can work to boost his or her Geometry unit. Next year, those results can be analyzed to see if changes were successful. Another strategy is to analyze students' growth from year to year. Using scores from the past two or three years, one can analyze which students are trending upward or downward. Again, this allows teachers to reflect on their practices the prior year to see if any of their teaching methods can be improved.
Of course we all know that state tests tend to be a "snapshot" of student ability and cannot be the only piece of data used to inform instruction. However, this data is very helpful as the year begins and we have a class full of students whom we may know very little about. As the process gets more comfortable for you, start looking at chapter or unit tests in the same way. This will enable you to tailor instruction to a particular class or student to increase achievement levels.
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