Reflecting on Presenting at #NAISAC13

One of the things I love best about learning is sharing that experience with my students. After all, learning is what I ask them to do each day. I learned so much from presenting at the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Annual Conference, and it’s great to share the process with my second graders.

Today, for example, two of my students had to present something to the class. One shared with the class the adventure of her Flat Stanley, and the other presented a book report. It was important to let them know that what I am asking of them isn’t arbitrary, but something their own teacher engaged in last week. I didn’t talk about the topic of the presentation as that wasn’t pertinent to them, but I did briefly talk about the process.

The session at the conference was called “Revolutionize Your Professional Development.”

Description of session from conference program.

Description of session from conference program.

I presented with Kim Sivick, Liz Davis, and Shannon Montague. We all teach in different states, met initially through social media, and all had different reasons for wanting to present on this topic. One thing that we all had in common, though, was that we were passionate about this model of professional development, and wanted others to bring it to their schools.

Kim is a founding member of edcamps and on the edcamp foundation. Liz was instrumental in getting edcampIS to happen and has been involved in many other unconferences. Shannon and I have both helped organize edcamps, and Shannon recently organized PD in her school using the unconference format.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of risk involved when collaborating with four educators from four different parts of the country, but we trusted each other and we trusted the topic.

I remember that we all had this grand idea that we’d run a mini un-conference in order to inform, persuade, and have participants experience the process itself. The beauty of unconferences is that people get to partake in the conversation, not just sit and listen. We wanted to model good teaching practices and move away from the ‘sit and get’ lecture format that large conferences and other professional development workshops tend to favor.

During our first google hangout, about halfway through the meeting, after we had talked about resources, chart paper, and getting people moving out of their seats, we realized that we were possibly headed in the wrong direction. We needed to think about who our main audience was, and what our space would be like.

We all worked on what we thought our strengths were and started there. Liz suggested the framework: “What, So What, Now What.” We worked on our parts and played with google presentation, so that we could collaborate on the same document. Then once we were more or less agreed on our slide deck, we transferred them to Power Point and shared it through our dropbox accounts.

I was happy to give the ‘So What’ part of the presentation as I am a person who will dive head first into anything if there is a clear and meaningful purpose. I can list many reasons why I believe in this format of professional development, but I’m not an expert, so I pulled experts where I could. Daniel Pink for motivation, Carol Dweck for mindset, Roland Barth for collegiality, and Sir Ken Robinson for teacher leadership and bottom-up approaches to things (in which he used the word ‘revolution’). We couldn’t be happier. Just for good measure, I threw in a quote by Albert Camus for people to reflect upon when they were leaving. I knew it might have been a little much, but there are those who love philosophy. Besides, the quote fit, which was what was important.

“Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”

I also agreed to try and go through our slide deck and try to give it a uniform look, while respecting the content of my colleagues. I’ll share my thoughts about Power Point in a later post, but all four of us came from the same place, so that was easy.

The four of us met several more times virtually, gave each other feedback, revised, edited, and finally met in person the day before to make our final tweaks.

I have to say, I was anxious. Public speaking is not my strength, but I believe strongly that I  have to push myself to do what I ask my students to do. I also believe that in order to get better at it, I have to do it.

Well, I’m glad I did it. To spread the word of something I believe in, to collaborate with such amazing educators, to push myself to try something new, to have my school recognized, and to learn, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m glad to be back in my classroom, but glad to know when I say to my students, “I know what I’m asking you to do is hard, but it’s rewarding,” I can say so truthfully.

Thanks to Kim and Shannon for uploading our slides.

Elite New York “Pressure Cooker” Schools are Rethinking Homework

An article about homework in this weekend’s nytimes couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time, as I continue to search and explore ways to make homework (now called “home learning” in our second grade classes) be meaningful.

Sending a worksheet home, so that it can be returned the next day for the sake of compliance is not the message I want students to get. If I have to assign it, and kids have to do it, it has to have purpose beyond that. Being prepared to share something in class with their peers is valuable.  So is practicing various skills as long as there is immediate and meaningful feedback. Unfortunately, over the course of a regular busy schoolday, one often doesn’t have a chance to check a child’s homework until after the end of the day, so by the time a child receives feedback, was the home learning task really that successful?

Towards the end of last year, I thought I’d give Kahn Academy a try, and while it worked for some, it didn’t achieve what I was hoping. What I did like was the immediate feedback kids were getting at home. Sal Kahn spoke at our regional conference this year and I was surprised how novel his ideas seemed to many teachers.  He isn’t the only one who’s been trying new things, but he’s been endorsed by Bill Gates and has also done a TED talk, so he’s definitely more visible.

So this year, my teaching partner suggested some other online tools which were more age appropriate than Kahn’s, covered multiple subjects so that kids could have some choice in their learning, used tech in a way that allowed for immediate feedback, and allowed us to still included elements that required kids to be prepared to share as well as take some responsibility to bring certain things back to school (even though it might not be daily).

Well, I wouldn’t call it a complete success after the first month. There were a lot of elements to consider, and some we have reconsidered.  Many things, however did work. There are elements that really seem to be doing what we hoped, and they just need to be revised and tweaked. In the classroom, my students have begun to start appreciating the idea of process and revision and not always about getting it right on the first try. It’s great that I can show kids that it is also how adults learn. We didn’t get it right on the first try, but we’ll see how the adjustments go, and report back. Thanks to all my students’ parents who provided excellent feedback in helping us refine it.

It’s nice, though, to know the most elite independent schools in New York (not that it should be a measure of anything) are also working on similar issues. We too, will be giving a “Home Learning” holiday on October 31st!

Again, in Math – It’s About the Process

Later this week I get to sit down with parents and together set some concrete goals for their children. It’s a great process as it allows us to focus and target as well as individualize what we think will be most beneficial to a particular child. To increase success and motivation, I would even include the child in setting their own goals.

Our faculty also sit down with our administrators and have a goal setting meeting and I only had one goal this year – to get better at what I do.  I then broke that one goal out into little goals, and I really don’t know how my one goal morphed into four pages – especially when my first bullet point was to simplify things. Nonetheless, I still only have one goal – to grow as a teacher. Anyway, one of my ‘sub-goals’ if you will, was to read one article from Teachers of Mathematics a month since math continues to be an area of curricular focus for our school this year.

The one I picked from the October issue was called Building Word Problems: What Does it Take? by Angela T. Barlow.

The first question asked by the author is why would we create our own problems when there are text books and other curricular materials out there. The reason is pretty simple. Because those materials (while they have value) were not written for every kid in mind and creating your own problems allows you to customize learning. Furthermore, many of those problems focus on a single strategy vs. having kids use what they already know. The authors also say we need to thisbecause “future citizens must be prepared to problem solve and apply their skills to new situations.” According to the article, there is a process involved that requires careful thinking. Here’s the process:

  1. Identify the mathematics goals.
  2. Decide on a problem context.
  3. Create the problem.
  4. Anticipate students’ solutions.
  5. Implement and reflect on the problem.

Every morning when the kids come in to school, as they are settling in, I have a math problem on the board. Increasingly, I’ve tried to make the questions more open ended or focus on the process involved. I thought I’d look at the process above and reflect on it here.

The goal was to add two two-digit numbers together, use a variety of strategies, have kids explain their thinking, not rely on algorithms that haven’t been taught, and perhaps get children to round numbers.

The context was just for them to be able to communicate their thinking.

The problem (not very creative) was something along the line of “Add 99 and 99 together. Explain your thinking.”

I anticipated many of my second graders to struggle with this one. I had used it much later in the year last year and noticed kids immediately relying on the traditional algorithm they had learned. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (algorithms are great tools, but they don’t always reveal how one thinks about numbers).

With some children I prompted with further questions like, “is 99 close to a number that’s easy to work with?” Many of the children didn’t hesitate, they tried to use what they had to solve the problem.

With that question, one child said, “Oh, 100 plus 100 equals 200 and you just have to subtract 2 to get 198.”

Another child said, “Well you just add 1 to 99 to get 100. Then you add the 99 to get 199, but don’t forget you have to take away the 1 you added, so the answer is 198.”

One child said they knew 90 and 90 was 180 and that 9 and 9 was 18. They couldn’t seem to add 180 and 18 together, so he just deconstructed it and said, “180 plus 10 is 190 and 190 plus 8 is 198.”

It’s not the greatest question, but it’s really nice to see kids grappling with two-digit addition long before we introduce them to the traditional algorithm. Not only is it promoting good number sense, but it also promotes creativity. They are not relying on a single strategy from a text. They are in fact teaching themselves how to solve a problem. They are becoming more resourceful. Upon reflection, the problem could be asked in a better way, but the outcome for most was a positive one.