The Standards for Mathematical Practice

The Standards for Mathematical Practice are eight simple descriptions of active learners in the mathematics classroom. Essentially, they are the habits of student mathematicians.
1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
4. Model with mathematics.
5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
6. Attend to precision.
7. Look for and make use of structure.
8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

My favorite, and the most important in my mind, is number one on the list. Getting students to make sense of a problem and persevere is half the battle. If a teacher can get students to approach a problem with an open mind and a commitment to solving it, the other practices will fall in place. The biggest challenge and maybe the biggest strength of the Common Core is the push to get students to persevere in problem solving.

So often, students want to know the procedure or list of steps in solving a problem. Their one and only goal is to get the right answer. They don’t appreciate that there is not always one way to get to the correct answer.

What would it be like if students didn’t view math as a list of steps? What if mathematics was not viewed as a one way street that you follow from point A to B? How would students discuss problems if they viewed math as a box of tools that they can use in multiple ways to solve a variety of problems? I already try to foster these ideas in my classroom, but it can be difficult when students have been through years of “this is how you get the right answer.”

My daughter is in kindergarten this year. I am hopeful that by the time she is old enough to be a student in my algebra class, she and her classmates will be those “student mathematicians” that the Common Core promises. Hopefully, they will thrive from solving problems in creative ways.

How do we get from point A to point B?

I am fortunate to teach in a school and a district where the Common Core and PARCC assessments have been the topic of discussion for a while.  I think I have a pretty strong understanding of the standards and the assessments. I wonder if other teachers feel they have the same understanding.

As we make the transition to the Common Core, my main concern is how we are going to get from point A, the standards, to point B, the assessments.  At point A, we are discussing the content standards and the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  We look at domains and clusters, and try to make sense of what that means for our current courses. From the perspective of point B, we preview a few released prototypes of a test that is supposed to be much different than our current assessments. The missing part, which is most important to me, is what is going on between those two points. What is instruction going to look and sound like as we take the standards and implement them to prepare our students to demonstrate their understanding on these new assessments?

When I ask this question, I often get the general answers like students will be problem-solving, applying the mathematical practices, writing and critiquing arguments, reading more non fiction, etc. What I am really looking for is how does all of this translate to daily instruction and how do teachers get students to transition to being more active and curious learners, who can take on a new style of assessment. How do we take our current style of teaching and our current content and adapt it to reach the new expectations?

We can easily take the Common Core and incorporate it into our language and curriculum guides, but the challenge is making it real and alive in classrooms. I wish we were moving from point A to point B with more discussion of happens in between. If field testing is around the corner, I hope we begin to have those discussions sooner than later. For some teachers and students, the new way of thinking may be a difficult concept to make reality.

OMG: What Have I Become

I was doing my lesson plans the other day, quite proud of the lesson I was generating. With a smile on my face, I began to anticipate the questions my students would ask.

Then I thought…..if I am observed and my students are asking questions instead of responding, that would probably result in a negative evaluation.  Thus I redid my lesson plans to match the company doctrine that responses are what is desired, not inquiry.

The robotic programming of teachers is underway. Look at all the scripted curricula out there. Snap finger students do this, tap the desk students do that, but no stimulus for creativity in today’s curriculum. The saddest part is that as we the teachers are being programmed, so are our students. The future of society is in program mode. The most important thing teachers can do for students, and the critical element that drives our economy, does not show up on a test score.

The Little Things

Today we had a thunderstorm.  Those of you not in Southern California might be thinking, “And?”  You need to know that rain here is an actual news story, and thunder and lightning are certain to be a leading story in this evening’s news.  In fact, it is the number one story on tonight’s six o’clock news.  Before today’s storm, I have heard thunder exactly three other times, each time only single claps.

It is so rare, in fact, that my first year here, the Kindergarteners were so upset that they had to debrief with them and one of my eighth graders climbed under his desk.

But today it’s been raining and thundering off and on since a little after 10:30.  The first thunder-clap happened while my kids were writing, and I had to explain what it was.  Once they realized it, they begged me to let them go outside to try to see lightning.  “I’ve never seen lightning before,” one of my eighth graders confessed.  Several others nodded in agreement.  “Please,” they implored.  “I want to see what it looks like!”

Now, I am from the Midwest where the sky goes green-black and tosses hail mercilessly upon the earth.  The light rain and occasional grumble from the sky did not impress me.  However, it is a Big Deal to kids who wish longingly for rain under the endless sunny sky.

So, we went outside, and I helped them find the best vantage point to find lightning.  They chattered with excitement, breathing in the fresh air, and waited patiently to catch a glimpse.  Finally, it happened:  a bright flash of light right in front of them followed a few seconds later by a loud boom.  They clapped their hands, danced around, and tried to figure out how far away the lightning was by using calculations they’d heard about but never used before.  It was more than a little magical.

Taking ten minutes out of our humanities class might seem frivolous in this age of accountability and testing, but I disagree.  It bought a lot of goodwill, enthusiasm, and a visit back to a younger age when everything was fascinating and worthy of study.  We still accomplished everything we needed to, and we shared an important moment in their lives.  Sometimes looking at lightning is more important than what we’ve got planned in class.  Not always, but sometimes, and it’s important to embrace those moments for the things they teach.

Martyrdom and the Art of Holding the Power Structure Accountable

We do so love those Hollywood movies and TV shows about teachers who succeed despite all the odds, especially when they are set with challenging populations.  We watch real-life teachers like Jaime Escalante and LouAnn Johnson put their personal lives and even health at risk because they spend all of their time and money on saving and teaching their kids.  We cheer them on, think not very nice things about the other teachers around them who seem to have given up, and feel darn good at the end of it all that there are teachers like that in the world.

What we rarely do is question WHY anyone has to go to those lengths to educate children.  Why must a teacher spend her own money for supplies and materials to use in the classroom?  WHY is it more important to sacrifice one’s own family and husband for the sake of lesson planning and correcting papers, and WHY do we feel good when we see that teacher on the screen doing just that?  WHY are systems not designed better for students and teachers so that the extreme measures are the exception rather than the norm?

Why do we insist on repainting the old, broken system and calling it New and Improved?

The next time you see one of those feel-good teacher movies, ask yourself where the central office, politicians, and administrators are.  Ask yourself what is getting in the way of the teacher doing his or her job (hint:  it’s really not the students).  Then, ask yourself what you are willing to do to hold administrators, central office, and politicians accountable for their part in any failure of our school systems.

I am willing to do my part, but I will not end up divorced, in danger, and penniless to prove my worth as a teacher.  I do not have the authority to change a system where English teachers see between 150 and 200 students each day, where the total budget for classroom supplies and materials for a teacher are around \$200, and where I am told what, how, and when to teach concepts BUT held accountable if it does not work out.

Fortunately, I do not have to.  I work in a school where the stakeholders left the broken system and created one that supports student and teacher growth through best practices.  However, too many of my colleagues do not have that luxury, and kids and teachers are suffering.  It is time to put pressure on those in power to make the changes necessary to support good teaching and learning.

Just One Thing

My partner teacher this year is a brand new teacher, and he is feeling decidedly overwhelmed and nervous by the task ahead of him.  He has all these big ideas about the mathematics classroom he wants to create, but he has limited time and resources to make it all happen right away.  My advice to him was to first, breathe, and second, to give himself permission to be imperfect.  No one, no matter how smart and talented, is going to master teaching their first year.

One of the best things anyone ever did for me as a new teacher was to give me permission to focus on just one or two manageable goals for the school year.  It didn’t mean I didn’t try my best at everything I did, but I put my best thinking and effort on learning more about and implementing strategies in just one or two areas.  As an inner city teacher, I spent my first two years mastering classroom management.  I read articles and books, and I picked the brains of countless generous people on listservs.  As a result, the lessons I put together were more successful and therefore my kids more successful.

I kept up the practice of one or two goals each year, and it focuses my own learning for the year.  This year my goal is to help my students persist with more challenging text.  My students are voracious readers who read at or above grade level.  However, anything where they have to work a little for the meaning causes them to groan and give up in favor of easier text.  I want to give them strategies to work with more complex texts while helping them see the rich payoff this type of reading offers.

What are your professional goals for the year?

“Michelle Rhee’s Big Stick?”

Michelle Rhee, Superintendent of Schools in the District of Columbia recently fired 161 teachers for incompetence. She wields a big stick, but is it good management?

Management seeks to achieve certain goals. In the case of education the goal is to better educate our children.

If this goal is achievable whose behavior do we have to modify to reach that goal?  By what means?

Rhee feels that to alter the behavior of pupils we must alter the behavior of teachers. They way to do this, she feels, is through strict discipline and coercion: The big stick.

There are unintended consequences to this approach. Seventy years of strict centralized discipline and coercion created in the Soviet Union an efficient machine for gaming the system. False entries were made  and store shelves were empty as a result of the big stick running the economy. The Soviet government put its own needs ahead of the needs of its citizens, just as Michelle Rhee puts the current  needs of the educational system ahead of the needs of  its children and those who see the needs of children are met.

In communist economies the statistics would meet the plan even though the production didn’t, and that is what our educational system is now doing.

If Washington wants to achieve adequate yearly progress or heads will roll, the statistics will soon show that goal is being met. These are the fruits of strong centralized management vigorously applied.

Education is unique in that that the factors which produce the product arriving at school are, largely beyond the scope of those being held responsible for the quality of the the product. An education system which ignores the influences of parents and meets the need of the state,  is not a Race to the Top. Ms. Rhee and President Obama should rethink their policies lest we end up with a communist system of education.

Summer Vacation

Who has a summer vacation? I have a packed summer, some of which is education related, and a whole lot that is not.

1.  On July 12 (who’s keeping track?) I will finish my series of hoop jumps…err…classes to get my ELL certificate and clear my California credential.  Know what I learned?  Quality teaching with embedded literacy strategies is what’s good for EL students.

2.  For two weeks this summer, my friend and I are going to co-teach a camp for girls entering 7th grade through entering 10th grade.  We’re calling the camp:  “Raising Our Voices,” and the focus is on self-discovery and empowerment through writing, art, and movement.  It’s an extension of our writing camp last summer, and it will culminate in an exhibition for parents on the final night of camp.

3.  On Sundays throughout the summer, I’ll be co-teaching classes with the same friend for women, giving them tools for reflection and empowerment.  It’s an expressive arts modality.

4.  Currently, I’m sitting on our school’s hiring committee to hire anywhere from 6-8 teachers in elementary and middle school.  The process has already taken two weeks, and I anticipate another two weeks.

5.  Somewhere in the midst of all of this I’m going to work on the integrated units we’re planning for next year.  Cool stuff is happening at the middle grades at my school!

6.  Hopefully I’ll have time to rest and read a bit this summer.  I need to recharge my batteries and get ready for next year!

Authenticity in Teaching

I am on day three of interviews, and as I identify my favorite candidates and hear who my colleagues like as well, one trait is common among the top candidates:  they are authentic.

The degree, credential, and experience of the teacher mattered during the screening process, but in the interview, we want to see who you are as a teacher.  The teachers who have spoken candidly, showed their true passion for teaching, and lit up when they began talking about kids are the ones we like.  Don’t get me wrong–you’ve got to have the chops.  You can be authentic but teach a horrible lesson, and you won’t get hired.  I am talking about the difference between someone who clearly is knowledgeable but seems to be putting on an act and someone just as knowledgeable who shows who he or she is, take it or leave it.

I know many people are desperate for jobs, but in the end, a bad fit is a bad fit.  Be real and trust that what you have to offer is exactly what someone else is looking for.

Hiring Hints

One of the best things about my school is that a committee of teachers does the hiring.  Our principal participates and holds her own interview after we have narrowed down the candidates, then we sit down all together and select who our new teachers will be.  Even though it is summer, and even though it is a lot of work, we have no problems getting enough committee members because we are invested in who our colleagues will be.

This year we had at least 800 applications for our open positions, and it took us nearly a week to print them out, review them, and decide who would move on to the email screen.  We are finally holding interviews this week and hope to have someone hired by the end of next week.

As one of the co-chairs of the committee this time, I had the pleasure of receiving the emailed applications for our upper elementary and middle school positions.  As I printed out the applications then later reviewed them with the committee, some common mistakes among applicants came to light.  If you are looking for a job–teaching or otherwise–make sure you aren’t committing one of these job-seeking “crimes” in order to make it past the first screen.

1. Read the advertisement for the position completely.  Re-read it.  Pay attention to what the skills and requirements of the job are as well as how to apply.  If you fail to follow these directions, your chances of making it past the first screen are slim to none.
2. Do not email the contact person to ask them how to apply for the position when it is clearly written in the advertisement.
3. Make sure you spell the contact person’s name correctly.  After all, it is spelled correctly in the ad.
4. When you email documents to apply, do not send a blank email with just the documents attached.  Write a brief, professional note to the person who is receiving your documents.  It is just common courtesy.
5. If we ask you for just your resume and a cover letter, please don’t send us your reference letters, portfolio, and 15 other documents.  It slows down the printing process, and we won’t look at those materials anyway.
6. Tailor your cover letter to the specific school and position to which you are applying.  We have received cover letters with other schools’ names referenced in the letter, and generic letters touting direct instruction skills while we are a constructivist based school.  We are looking to see if you are a match, and if you do not care to sell yourself to this specific audience, you will not get through the screen.
7. EDIT.  Let me say it again:  EDIT.  Have someone else read your documents to make sure you haven’t left words out, made typos, misspelled things, or–true story, and more than once–failed to finish a sentence.  You are presenting an image, and the image you present with numerous editing errors is someone who does not care or pay attention to detail.  While we’re at it, edit your email as well.
8. Do not email the contact person two days after you sent your documents in to ask if we received them/if we have reviewed them/when you are going to be contacted for an interview.  If we do not answer, do not re-send the email every day or two.  This is especially relevant if the job has not closed for applications yet.
9. The sheer number of applications prohibits us from contacting everyone we do not decide to interview.  If you have not been contacted a week after the closing date, you probably won’t be called for an interview.
10. Please do not beg us to take another look at your application if we have already decided not to interview you.  Desperation is not attractive, and we have already decided you are not what we are looking for.  Begging only confirms our decision.
11. Do a little research on the school and its philosophy, especially if we put our website address in the ad.  You can learn a lot about who we are and what we are looking for if you spend some time on our pages.
12. Do not apply for positions that are not listed, just in case we are hiring.  If we have an opening, we have listed it.  If a position opens up, we will put out a new call for applications, and you will have to resubmit.

Following these common sense rules will give you the best chance to making it to the next round.  You have a limited amount of time and ways to make a positive impression on whoever is reviewing your application, so make it count.