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.

What Is EdCamp IS?

Earlier this summer, I met with some educators from Boston, Philly, and Raleigh who had attended and organized EdCamps before. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of them until we met. Since this year’s National Association of Independent School’s Annual Conference was going to be in Seattle, they thought it would be great to have an edcamp with a focus on independent schools (IS) on the Saturday following the big national conference. Those I met, the ones who have done this before, were from out of town. They needed a few local people to help and organize the event. Once I learned what edcamps were about, I had to say yes.

So what is an edcamp? I learned that edcamps are ‘unconferences.’ Don’t worry, I also had to look up what the term ‘unconference’ meant. Basically, unconferences are free participant driven conferences where (in this case) educators come with the goal of sharing and presenting something they’ve learned. They also have the option to attend sessions and learn from others. There are no official keynotes. Teachers assemble in the morning and time is given so people can write down what they’d like to share (perhaps it’s an innovative way to use a tech tool in a meaningful way, a reflection on what is considered a best practice, a discussion led by many different teachers on a hot topic in education, perhaps a response to one of the featured speakers from the official conference). These are posted on a schedule. Then everyone moves to the sessions that interest them most.

One hope, is that by scheduling EdCampIS after the NAIS conference, we can get educators from across the country who are here for that to attend. How are these conferences free? Often they involve sponsors to provide space, lunch, t-shirts, etc., however, we are going to have participants lunch on their own as there are lots of great eateries and one of our association schools is providing the venue. We may just need to find a coffee sponsor for the morning gathering. It is in Seattle after all.

Save the date: Saturday, March 3, 2012 at The Northwest School in Seattle (a ten minute walk from the Washington State Convention Center). For more information go to our wiki page.

It’s too soon to tell how many people will attend, but hopefully word will start spreading. In the meantime, you can check out this video of EdCamp Philly. It’s a great overview of an EdCamp event.

You can also check out other EdCamps around the country at the official EdCamp Wiki.

Don’t forget to click on the NAIS conference link above. It’s an official conference, so there are some great topics covered, and a diverse array of featured speakers including: Bill Gates, Amy Chua (Tiger Mom),  and Sarah Kay (I didn’t know I liked poetry slam until I saw her TED talk). I haven’t had much time to post lately, so I’ll include it below. Hopefully both the NAIS conference and the EdCampIS ‘unconference’ will bring many of you to Seattle this winter.

Begin With Ourselves

Diversity can be a touchy subject. It can make people uncomfortable. Diversity, however cannot be ignored. We need to talk about it.

Today, as part of our in-service days, we had a facilitator guide us on beginning that conversation. It was a great start because it wasn’t a session led by someone who had all the answers, but because it was someone who helped us talk, begin to refine, and help us agree on how we define various terms. She started us out with 7 terms:

  • Diversity
  • Cultural Competency
  • Multicultural Curriculum
  • Inclusivity
  • Privilege
  • Equity
  • Multiple Perspectives
All of these can have multiple meanings, and all are important in beginning an honest, safe talk on diversity. An example that came up was a possible hiring practice in an independent school. If it says on the job description: Masters degree and 5 years of independent school experience recommended, is the school potentially ruling out diverse voices that come from a public or parochial school?
For some, diversity brings up the notion of “been there, done that,” but really, diversity is an ongoing endeavor. It promotes social justice, takes away assumptions and prejudices, and teaches us that there is value in what is different. Our school values states that we “actively cultivate and awareness and respect for diversity in all its forms.” Before we can do that with our students, our families, and our greater community, we need to begin with ourselves.
Our facilitator began with an excellent TED talk which I’ve included below. It really is worth the 18 minutes.

5 Things I Did for PD this Summer

An indepentdent school IT director from CT,  Lorri Caroll is another educator who blogs. I also found her through twitter as I continue to try to grow my professional learning network. I’d recommended reading her blog from time to time as she has some amazing insights. She also runs the weekly #isedchat on twitter every Thursday 6pm on twitter. Her recent blog post titld 5 Awesome things I did for PD this Summer inspired me to do the same.

If you want kids to be life-long learners, I believe you have to model it yourself. Summer is a great time for relaxation, but I also managed to find some good PD in that time.

1. Taught summer school. I’ve read about problem/project based learning, 90 minute class periods, multi-aged classes and such, but never tried it. So I took a three week teaching gig with the Summe Institute for the Gifted and boy, did I learn a lot. Some of which I’m going to try and incorporate in my classroom this school year.

2. Attended the ISTE conference. I was blown away by the shear size of it, let a lone the incredible amount of learning that took place.

3. Participated in our school’s Summer Plannng Institute. It was incredible. Change is hard, but I believe our school, through this institute hit critical mass interms of developing a culture of professional learners who share, are clear, trust one another, and want to get better all the time. I love it!

4. Read A New Culture of Learning which is one I highly recommend (it reframes how one might look at things). Short easy read, but powerful insights. Partook in the twitter book club for this book, and looking forward to a follow up webinar by the author.

5. Learning how to use social media responsibly. The riots in London last week were sobering, but a good reminder about how we need to teach responsible use to our children. How can we do this if we don’t engage in social media, blogging, etc. ourselves. A silly post I made had almost 15,000 hits. Then I got a call from for an interview. I said yes, because even if they misquoted me to sound ridiculous. I would have learned something. I think I played it too safe. They did not use any of our conversation. Still a good learning experience.

But wait… there’s more. Maybe another time.

Still Learning #isedchat

In the book The New Culture of Learning, which I briefly posted about a week or so ago, the authors conclude that the fusion between the two elements of information and experimentation, and the resulting transformation of both, is what defines this new culture. In a sense, it’s learning through play.

This past Friday, I concluded a three week teaching stint for SIG at The Overlake School. I have done a lot of reading about longer 90 minute classes, multi-age groups, process-based curricula, etc., and these past three weeks gave me the opportunity to experiment with those ideas.

It’s true one can learn a lot through reading, or be inspired by watching. I have to agree with the authors, though, that until you do it yourself, fail, learn and try again, play and experiment, the other kind of learning isn’t transformational.

My challenge for the coming school year will be to make sure my students are not only inspired to learn, but are given opportunities to experiment as well. I also want to try and have a good balance which focuses on both the processes as well as the skills.

One of the many reasons I blog is that I’m intrigued by the pros and cons of social media, something I’m still learning a lot about. And believe it or not, it was a tweet I responded to that led me to the summer gig. Aside from my own personal learning, it was great to meet and work with some wonderful educators and kids.

I’d love to write and reflect more about my experience, but I’m in the middle of nowhere and just glad there’s currently a small wifi signal so I can post this. So much for those who insist iPads are only consumption devices.

The new culture of learning is about mindsets and motivation. Hopefully, I can teach kids that.

Great Professional Development Resource

It’s been a couple of weeks since I was at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference, and my head is still full of resources and information. Today, I got an email from them with a few statistics about this year’s conference.

“More than 17,850 educators and exhibit personnel attended ISTE 2011, held in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Convention Center June 26-29. Conference highlights included:

  • 13,336 registered attendees
  • 4,562 exhibit personnel
  • Dozens of workshops with more than 2,611 tickets sold
  • An exhibit hall the size of 5.5 football fields featuring 1,423 booths and 501 companies
  • 149 registered journalists from around the globe
  • 1,025 attendees sent more than 3,000 letters to the U.S. Congress
  • Among the attendees were 1,152 presenters and 940 international attendees from 63 countries”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was daunting. Also in that email though, was a link to their ‘white paper’ on Coaching. ISTE’s webpage summarizes the details of the paper like this:
    • Situation: Effective use of technology is essential for teaching and learning in a global, digital age.
    • Problem: Many teachers do not know how to design and support technology-rich learning environments.
    • Solution: Coaching, combined with communities of learning, is a highly effective job-embedded professional development model
    • Result: Teachers experience technology as an effective tool for professional learning and develop the skills to powerfully use technology to improve student learning.
The paper’s content highlights include:
    • Introduction to three coaching models that provide highly effective professional development
    • 10 tips for leveraging technology, coaching, and community
    • 5 key benefits that result from the integration of technology, coaching, and community
    • Introduction to the NETS×C
You can download the whole paper here. It’s really a great read for all teachers/administrators who are trying to make changes in tech to better enhance student learning.

Best PD for Teaching IS Teaching

It’s been a while since I’ve taught during the summer, but this one particular program I started at yesterday intrigued me. First, the objectives of the classes were not written the way  State Standards or Core Curricula are written. For example, one of the objectives in one of the classes I’m teaching is for the student to ‘explore the different ways to employ creativity techniques in the development of a new invention.’ Second the classes are 90 minutes long which really allow for project/problem-based learning activities. Third, these are all multi-aged classes, so I’m seeing kids from ages 5 to 12 throughout the day. Not having committees, faculty meetings, regular email communication with parents, homework to assign, and unbelievable amounts of autonomy to reach or adapt these objectives to the actual kids I’m teaching, I have had time to play with, use, and have kids use technology in the class already. Finally, the program is only three weeks long, so there’s a lot of interesting thought that goes into planning out the courses. There are a lot of books about regular classrooms and how important it is to set the tone and expectations for kids in the first 6 weeks. I’ve only got three!

One can read and see examples of project/problem-based learning, but until you have a solid 90 minute block and figure out how to utilize that time best to suit the needs of the kids, it’s just a theory. By nature of the schools I’ve worked in, I haven’t taught a multi-aged class in over a decade. It’s been a lot of fun (and it’s only been my second day on the job). I am also loving the objectives being so open-ended and relevant to kids’ lives. While objectives for basic skills can be and are appropriate, it is evident that these kids are getting basic skills instruction and practice as part of their project/problem-based objective. Just thinking about the ‘real-world’ product that kids will create as a final assessment has been fun for me. Making the material relevant to them now, not someday in the future increases their motivation incredibly.

Professional Development can happen in so many ways. We can have workshops, attend conferences, teach other teachers, or coach, but in my mind, I think the best way to become a better teacher is to keep trying new ways to teach and adapt to your students.

In our own schools, it is possible for us to develop professional development like this. According to Douglas B. Reeves in his book Transfroming Professional Development into Student Results, he notes that not only does a school have to have vision for this kind of PD, but also implementation. Without implementation, the vision “not only fails to achieve the intended objectives but also engenders cynicism and distrust.”

Reeves also criticizes most schools for what he calls “Institutional Multitasking,” and that we need to FOCUS: Focus on teaching, curriculum, assessment, and leadership. Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009) stated that the largest effects in teacher improvement were found for programs offering between 30 and 100 hours over 6 to 12 months. We’d have to use all our faculty meetings and in-service days throughout the year just on one topic to reach that goal. So what is one of the biggest factors in supporting this kind of PD? The schedule. Marzano (2009) notes that school “leaders must be the architects of systems and schedules.”

Finally, Reeves talks about recognizing our biases and being willing to fail. “School leaders have a particular responsibility to respect research integrity, particularly when a teacher-researhcer expresses disappointment that a planned intervention was ineffective.” Teachers have to get over their fear of being wrong or making mistakes. It’s how we learn.

This summer job that I’ve got is a great one. Including the work I’m doing prepping for each class, I’m spending about 105 hours. That definitely puts me in Darling-Hammond’s range. Unfortunately, it’s not over 6 to 12 months. The systems and schedules for the next school year, may determine how effective our school’s PD is. I will have to build in my own to maintain what I’m currently learning.

We had a guest speaker talk about the campus's Green initiatives. These kids are examining native and invasive species on the campus's wetlands.

Blogging Heads 15 Tips

Recently, my head of school suggested that he was almost ready to take a leap and start blogging. He just needed a little nudge. Hopefully this post will help.

Here are just a few tips:

1) Decide on purpose: to share what you’ve read both to teachers and parents, to share resources, to highlight your school, to be reflective and tell stories about the realities of school life, for personal professional development, to take a risk, to learn, etc.

2) Keep it related to education. – I’ve heard that nobody wants to read about what you had for lunch (unless of course it somehow relates to school).

3) Not everyone will like what you have to say (or care) – that’s okay, some will.

4) Keep it professional: don’t name anyone unless they don’t mind; I’ve learned that “transparency” is not the same thing as “say anything”; if you mention another school, do so because you like what they’re doing;

5) It’s okay to comment on issues and write your opinions: some issues are going to cause disagreement – that’s good, as long as the discourse is civil

6) First, read some other blogs written by Heads and Principals: Here are a few suggestions of Independent School Heads to start (there are other independent school blogging Heads and plenty of great public school ones that I’ll share another time):

21k12 (I like palindromes) – by Jonathan Martin: Head of School at St. Gregory’s in Tuscon
Peak Experiences - by Michael Ebling: Head of PK to 9th grade Summit School in Winston-Salem
Compass Point - by Josie Holford: Head of Poughkeepskie Day School

These three hosted a session called “Blogging Heads” at the last NAIS conference in DC, which I followed remotely. You can read a summary of their panel discussion here.

7) You don’t have to write every day.

8. It’s a way to responsibly model an authentic medium that many of our students will or already use.

9) You may reach people well beyond our own school community.

10) Think of it as a discipline that motivates you: for some that’s running, gardening, knitting, volunteering – do it because you want to

11) Like those other disciplines mentioned above, don’t do it for extrinsic rewards. The intrinsic rewards should be good enough.

12) Don’t always expect comments or replies.

13) Don’t expect all your teachers to blog. Do encourage them to be reflective about their practice – whatever form that may be. Blogging is not part of a teacher’s job. It’s just one of many ways to share.

14) Realize that sometimes, you have to stop, and even though you set out to write 15 tips, sometimes 14 will do.

A nudge was asked for. The  book Nudge is a book about the psychology of choices.

The philosophy called libertarian paternalism is what the authors of the book say works best in designing choice architecture.
I’m just a teacher who likes to think about education and share what I’m thinking: I’m not a philosopher, psychologist, or even a Head of School. To blog or not to blog? I’ll keep you posted.

Are You A 21st Century Teacher?

This is a good list to keep teachers moving forward. I know I’ve got a lot of ground to cover. The list comes from the blog simplek12. It’s a little old (5 months), but I’m new to twitter, and someone I follow retweeted this, and it caught my eye. Trust me, I was very skeptical of twitter, but honestly the resources I’ve found via twitter in the two months since I began trying it out, have been extremely useful. I dabbled in myspace – useless. Facebook is really a social tool. Linked in just doesn’t work that well for me, but Twitter and blogging seem to work for my own professional growth. Anyway, you can find the list below with my comments in green.

“21 Signs You’re a 21st Century Teacher


Are you a 21st Century Teacher? Find out! PLUS if you can help me add to my list you may win a special $200 prize. Keep reading to find out how…

1. You require your students to use a variety of sources for their research projects…and they cite blogs, podcasts, and interviews they’ve conducted via Skype. Not there yet – remember I teach 2nd grade, yet this doesn’t mean this can’t be done.

2. Your students work on collaborative projects…with students in Australia. Also not there yet.

3. You give weekly class updates to parents…via your blog. Yes, and class website.

4. Your students participate in class…by tweeting their questions and comments. Again, I teach 2nd grade and am fairly new to this tool.

5. You ask your students to study and create reports on a controversial topic…and you grade their video submissions. Yes to the first statement, and I offer video submissions as an option, but haven’t received one yet. 

6. You prepare substitutes with detailed directions…via Podcasts. Cool idea, never thought of it.

7. You ask your students to do a character/historical person study…and they create mock social media profiles of their character. Not yet.

8. Your students create a study guide…working together on a group wiki. Boy am I feeling so last century.

9. You share lesson plans with your teacher friends…from around the globe. Just starting to do this. 

10. Your classroom budget is tight…but it doesn’t matter because there are so many free resources on the web you can use. Exactly.

11. You realize the importance of professional development…and you read blogs, join online communities, and tweet for self development. One of the main reasons I do it. 

12. You take your students on a field trip to the Great Wall of China…and never leave your classroom. The pyramids of Giza, King Tut’s Tomb, but Great Wall of China may come soon (one of my students chose it as part of her independent research project)

13. Your students share stories of their summer vacation…through an online photo repository. I don’t share photos of my students unless they’re behind a password protected page.

14. You visit the Louvre with your students…and don’t spend a dime. Did that with the Museé National Picasso in Paris before our visit to the Seattle Art Museum whem it’s collection was here. 

15. You teach your students not to be bullies…or cyberbullies. Definitely. One of the reasons I think kids should use tech early is so they can use it responsibly and respectfully. They need to learn how to use it as a tool, not a crutch, and they also need to learn to turn it off. 

16. You make your students turn in their cell phones before class starts…because you plan on using them in class. Not something of concern with second graders.

17. You require your students to summarize a recent chapter…and submit it to you via a text message. Pencil and paper still work for this one.

18. You showcase your students’ original work…to the world. No, but I put them on our class website.

19. You have your morning coffee…while checking your RSS feed. It’s an evening thing for me, so no coffee.

20. You are reading this. This must be a bonus.

21. You tweet this page, blog about it, “like” it, or email it to someone else…” Another bonus.

Well I’m only just over the halfway mark, but it’s already growth from last year.  There are some other experiments I’ve tried this year.

Using donated old iphones for dictionaries next to traditional ones.

Those same iphones as web browsers when the other computers are being used. And kids using them as cameras to document their work.

Some great learning apps on the ipad (attained with Scholastic points) and those donated iphones (I got 3 – most parents give their old ones to their kids when they upgrade, but why not ask).

Having kids turn in projects in as a powerpoint deck (and learning some tips about design so we don’t end up with death by powerpoint) – They taught themselves how to use ppt in one 45 minute session where they were asked to simply play, discover, click, and figure out on their own what each button did. 

Assigning Khan Academy as homework.

And finally, using social media to share, learn, and grow as a teacher. You have to start somewhere. It’s been useful for me. 

Where’s the Math

After doing my taxes this past weekend, I realized that I did so without doing any math. I just put numbers into various boxes and trusted the software to do the rest. Perhaps the only math involved was having a sense whether those numbers I was entering seemed reasonable. This made me start to wonder about the math most adults do in their daily lives. How many people use the quadratic formula in their daily lives? Yet, when they learned it, did they learn it in a valuable enough way, that with that new knowledge, they can think in a particular way? How many know that when there are six people dining and you split the bill evenly, leaving a 20% tip, all you have to do is just divide the bill by five and have the sixth person cover the tip? If your student is working on 3-digit by 3-digit subtraction and on a post-test makes many errors, can you tell what directly caused those errors?

I ask that last question because as a school we’ve been examining several math curricula. One of them has an incredible technology component that includes computer based assessments. It’s amazing how quickly you get data back and the teacher doesn’t even have to grade the paper. Easy, right? Upon further reflection though, a child who might still get about half the questions directly involving 3-digit by 3-digit subtraction wrong, the data would simply just indicate that. Without examining the scratch piece of paper, interviewing your student, or observing the child in action, you wouldn’t be able to isolate whether or not the error was a simple fact error, errors with regrouping, inversion, or even adding instead of subtracting. If you were able to isolate what that error was, though, imagine how quickly you could help that child develop.

This month’s issue of the journal, Teaching Children Mathematics, contains a few great articles. One is called, “Action Research Improves Math Instruction,” which features elementary school teachers who, as part of a course they’re taking, embark on a “practitioner-based” research process in their classrooms. One of them, a 3rd grade teacher, looked carefully at 3-digit subtraction, read about the kinds of common errors children make on questions like these and decided to make her students ‘subtraction detectives.’ They had equations that were already solved, some with errors, and they had to practice finding and describing the error. The improvement in her students’ assessments improved greatly. The teacher didn’t know whether this was a ‘best-practice’ but it made solid sense to her and she gave it a try. The article mentions that “Action research addresses specific student needs, targets classroom issues, keeps teachers current, and discourages ineffectual methods.”

This year, our school has been examining several different math curricula with one of its objectives being a common scope and sequence. Today, we had a faculty meeting discussing the pros and cons of the different curricula, and I found the discussion rich and robust. We also asked ourselves some very important questions. We didn’t come up with any immediate answers, but I was really impressed when colleagues disagreed with each other, how the discourse remained passionate, but civil, and everyone made extremely insightful and thoughtful comments. Everyone seemed to be aware of their own biases as they spoke. I wondered, leaving that meeting though, and re-reading this article, if we needed not only to think of a common set of expectations, but if we could also find ways to examine student progress even more carefully and identify where gaps lie, or how their learning can be enriched.

Another article in the same issue called, “Professional Development Delivered Right to Your Door.” It listed the following as Best Practices of Professional Development: Professional Development must be -

  1. grounded in participant-driven inquiry, reflection, and experimentation;
  2. collaborative, involving a sharing of knowledge among educators and a focus on teachers’ communities of practice rather than on individual teachers;
  3. connected to and derived from teachers’ work with their students;
  4. sustained, ongoing, intensive, and supported by modeling, coaching, and the collective solving of specific problems of practice;
  5. related to other aspects of school change; and
  6. engaging, involving teachers in concrete tasks of teaching, assessment, observation, and reflections that illuminate the processes of learning and development (Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin 1995).

Regardless what direction we go in math, I feel like we met all those goals. I think the process was, and will continue to be an ongoing one. I feel very fortunate to work at a school with such caring and passionate teachers.


Knowing What AND How to Teach Math (then reflecting on it so you can do it even better next time)

The November issue of Teaching Children Mathematics features 3 very good articles. The first, “What Knowledge does teaching require?” by Thames and Ball mention that a clear description of such knowledge in research over the past 40 years has been rather elusive. Just because you know a lot of math or can do math very well, doesn’t mean you can teach it well. Of course, the authors do not doubt that you have to have a good grasp of mathematics. Whether you’re a math major, however, does not make a difference according to their findings. What they argue is that teachers need to “uncover the mathematical issues that arise in practice. By better understanding the mathematical questions and situations with with teachers must deal, we would gain better understanding of the mathematics it takes to teach.”

They broke up what they called, “Mathematical knowledge for teaching” into several domains in relation to teaching. There’s “subject matter knowledge (SMK)” and “pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).” Each of these two can be divided further into three sub categories each. SMK can be grouped into these three: common content knowldedge, knowledge at the mathematical horizon, and specialized content knowledge. PMK can be grouped into these three: knowledge of content and students, knowledge of content and teaching, knowledge of curriculum.

The authors also mention that these are some math skills good teachers or mathematics need:

  • posing mathematical questions
  • giving and appraising explanations
  • choosing or designing tasks
  • using and choosing representations
  • recording mathematical work work on the board
  • selecting and sequencing examples
  • analyzing student errors
  • appraising students’ unconventional ideas
  • mediating a discussion
  • attending to and using math language
  • defining terms mathematically and accessibly
  • choosing or using math notation

Just today, we introduced the children in my class to base 4. The purpose is to solidify the concept of place value and to understand the construction and deconstruction of numbers so that the children have a better understanding when taught the traditional algorithm. Just going through the list above, we did several things differently from last year. This year, I chose to create something that we could represent on the board. It made a huge difference – not only in understanding, but in engagement. Of course having kids interact with the board was great. So what if the architects decided that the board had to be a minimum of so many feet off the ground, I stuck a chair nearby and those who needed it, could step on and still reach. Letting the children give their explanations as to why they were rounding up groups of 4 and putting them in the next column seemed to help a lot too. Posing questions was also great. About halfway through the activity, one of my students raised her hand and said, “I think that with the materials we have here, the highest number will be 133.” She was absolutely right.

This article says that mathematical knowledge in the way that is required for reasearch in mathematics is not what is needed. What is needed is someone who has excellent “mathematical knowledge for teaching which itself is a kind of complex mathematical understanding, skill, and fluency used int he work of helping others learn mathematics.”

The second article, titled “Balancing Act” focused on high-quality professional staff-development. First of all, that development needs to be ongoing. According to the author, it needs to be focused on three essential things:

  1. Content focused on instructional design and implementation
  2. Process characterized by inquiry, observation, research, and collegial interactions
  3. Contextual support for job embedded professional training

This development has to be long-term and sustained in order to make a lasting change. If you think about those three criteria above combined with the need to customize learning to the needs of each individual student, there is no way that two classes will ever be the same, and while a textbook may be a useful tool at times, one must resort to using other tools as well. The author of this article says the challenge is to find the time to collaborate and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. The author goes on to say that textbook providers tend to provide training to teachers once they’ve purchased their materials, but that training goes away after a year or two and teachers, especially new teachers, need continual training. Another challenge that lies in changing how math is taught is the resistance many teachers have to changing what they’ve been doing for years. I have always been open to change, but I have to admit that I am resistant to thinking that a new textbook alone can be a panacea to improve the teaching of mathematics. You need to also know HOW to teach it.

Finally, the third article from this issue I liked was titled, “A reflection framework for teaching math” by Merrit, Rimm-Kaufman, Berry, Walkowiak, and McCracken. While these authors offer a guideline with 8 dimensions in their “framework for reflection, not every lesson will be ‘high’ on all dimensions.” Below are their 8 dimensions. As one reflects on a lesson, here is what to consider:

  1. Lesson structure
  2. Multiple representations
  3. Mathematical tools
  4. Cognitive depth
  5. Mathematical discourse community
  6. Explanation and justification
  7. Problem solving
  8. Connections and applications

After we finish working in different bases in my class, we will move on to addition and the use of traditional algorithms. There are some children, solid in their understanding of place value, who already know how to use the traditional addition algorithm where you carry (regroup) into the next column. If these children have already mastered this, how do I extend their learning while teaching the rest of the children the traditional base-10 algorithm for addition? At least I’ll have until after Thanksgiving break to ponder this.

My opinion on why so many districts have failed to implement a textbook series successfully is not because of the content within those books (as I mentioned they make a nice tool – and there are many online tools available for free, if one is willing to take the time to find them), it is because there hasn’t been sustained development in making better teachers of mathematics regardless of the text or tool. Whether it be Everyday Mathematics, Singapore Math, or other programs (each has it’s pros and cons), it boils down to how you use it with your students. The concepts behind the math may not have changed over the years, but the way we teach it, engage our kids, and make it stick certainly have.


“Management Does Not Lead to Engagement”

That’s what Daniel Pink said a recent blog post. The company twitter recently gave its staff something called ‘hack week’ which allowed them to do anything they wanted at work (instead of the normal work they did) – like google’s 20% idea. The same thing is happening over at FedEx.

Pink continues by saying, “[management] is a technology to get compliance. The only way people engage is through self-reliance.”

I think about this from two perspectives. The first from that of the teacher being the manager. How much autonomy do I let my children have? How much of classroom management is about compliance rather than self-directed learning? The second is from that of the teacher being managed. How much of it is about compliance? How much autonomy is given?

Recently, another teacher had a great idea to start a professional book club, and I used the opportunity to suggest Daniel Pink’s book Drive as a suggestion for a book. I sent out an email noting that it was completely optional, hoping to get about 5 people interested. It turns out that three times that many signed up. Whether they like the book, agree with the thesis, or not, I anticipate that we will get a great discussion out of it because people are reading it because they want to. Making it optional and giving people the autonomy to choose whether or not to partake almost prove’s Pink’s point that people will be more engaged to do something when they have a choice.

If management said everybody had to read this book, there would be eye-rolls galore, and little engagement. The same principle applies to teaching kids. We must give them some autonomy in their learning.


Alternative Approaches

Yesterday I went to an acupuncturist for the first time. Maybe it’s a gut feeling, but I think it might help my lower back pain in addition to physical therapy. The problem is that I can understand the physiology being the physical therapy, but I just couldn’t get my mind around the metaphors of Qi, meridian lines, blance, colors, etc. I want to know what that little metal needle does and how it is supposed to work. Acupuncture’s been around for thousands of years, but why isn’t there any conclusive scientific evidence? Why aren’t more people doing formal research on this?

In some ways, action research is to formal educational research what acupuncture is to western medicine. In the book, Transforming Development into Student Results, the section on how to create high-impact professional learning ends by suggesting that “some of the best new ideas are emerging from collaborative and alternative approaches to research.”

Action research in short is a reflective problem solving process where teachers collaborate to try different solutions to increasing student achievement. This practice “relies on a good deal of opinion and rhetoric that may not directly stem from the observations.” Hard statistical data becomes less important. Reeves recognizes that “it’s not a substitute for quantitative research, but a contextual lens for other research.” And school leaders need to encourage colleagues to try new things (even if it makes one feel uneasy).

Reeves identifies four obstacles to teacher leadership:

  1. toxic hierarchy
  2. compliance orientation (the test of effectiveness is a balanced combination of documented improvements in student learning and professional development)
  3. shooting the messenger (not all opposition to change is irrational – you don’t believe a text book alone will improve student achievement – ok, test it out. One group uses it and another doesn’t)
  4. disrespect (respect is conveyed when teachers are participants in, not merely consumers of, research and the professional learning that accompanies it)

He states that “just as high expectations of students are consistently linked to improved performance, teachers also benefit from the expectation that they can and will have a profound effect on the lives of students and colleagues.” This is consistent with Carol Dweck’s work about growth mindsets.

A simple protocol for action research includes:

Research question – inquiry about a link between a certain practice to student achievement

Student population – description of grade level, class, etc.

Student achievement data – not just year-end tests, but also formative assessments, classroom observations, and other assessment tools that help identify changes in student achievement

Professional practices to be observed – focus on the two or three practices

If something you are doing in your teaching doesn’t work, why keep doing it? Try a new approach, but be thoughtful about it, reflect on it, and if successful, share it.

The final three chapters of the book focus on how to sustain high-impact professional learning which looks beyond the ‘train the trainer’ model (which Reeves claims sustains poor practice). A combination of assessment, ownership, and coaching is what he focuses on.

Stuck in Training

The final two chapters in the first section of the book Transforming Professional Development in to Student Results finish up what Reeves writes is wrong with today’s professional learning. I will take a break from posting this book before heading in to section two where he discusses HOW to create high impact professional learning.

In these two chapters he highlights the following things to be wary about.

Schools should invest not in brand name programs, but in people and practices.

Reeves states that the research suggests that “when it comes to instructional interventions, a few specific decisions by school leaders have a disproportionate effect on student learning.”

  1. Teacher Assignment
  2. Monitoring Practices (not just test scores)
  3. Time Allocation (implementation of most initiatives take more than one year)

In terms of time allocation, Reeves says the following ways time is misused in schools is common, but “absurd.”

  1. Pull outs where students are taken from a literacy class to get ‘extra literacy’
  2. Announcements (there should be no announcements over the school PA unless it is an emergency) – “Faculty and department meetings can potentially offer an environment for professional learning, but not if the first third of a meeting is consumed by oral announcements that could have been made in writing.”
  3. E-mail (forces real priorities to compete with ads and other distractions)

He criticizes many schools for talking about the importance of distributed leadership, usually at conferences where only senior leaders are invited. (Quite a departure from the norm, my school sent me and 6 other colleagues to this year’s NAIS conference).

Effective learning happens if we work towards mastery of fewer but essential disciplines which include: focus, repetition, and effective practice.

Reeves states that there are two essential questions every educational leader must address:

  • “If I require every teacher and admin to ‘get trained’ in my latest enthusiasm, what great ideas of last year am I going to displace?”
  • “Are the students in our schools better served by teachers and admin who have deep insight and knowledge of last year’s skills, or superficial exposure to this year’s fads?”

Finally, he lists 5 ways to assess your professional learning: Continue reading

People and Practices, not Programs

I recently finished reading a new book, Transforming Professional Development into Student Results by Douglas B. Reeves, and I have to recommend it highly. This provocative book may seem like common sense to many, but according to Reeves, most professional development for teachers in this country don’t improve teaching nor student learning.

The first chapter begins by comparing professional development to an autopsy – it provides us with plenty of interesting information, but it doesn’t help the patient.  Standardized test scores, for example, may provide us with interesting information, but if we look at it as an assessment of the past rather than a tool to inform the future, that data is pretty meaningless.

Chapter 2 states that high impact professional learning has three essential characteristics: 1) a focus on student learning, 2) rigorous measurement of adult decisions, and 3) a focus on people and practices, not programs.

1) Professional learning should not be evaluated on their popularity, ease of adoption, or buy-in from teachers, parents, or other stake holders. Professional learning should be selected by linking gains in student learning to teaching practices.

2) Student results need to be balanced with an analysis of adult practices. The decisions teachers and their leaders make should be observed.

3)People and Practices should be the focus. What is the best strategy to teach the measurement of length? Are our teachers using those strategies? Is what we know also what we do?

A good example of this can be found in three neighboring school districts, Seattle, Bellevue, and Issaquah in their attempts to find a better ‘math curriculum’. Math scores are down, and it seems that those districts are looking at ease of adoption, buy-in, and programs (text books) to get those scores up. Whose scores? The next group of kids? What about the ones who actually took that test, what are they going to do to help them?  A lot of energy goes into the analysis and choice of textbooks, but what if that energy were more efficiently spent?

Textbooks can be useful tools, but it doesn’t matter what text is used, teachers need to know how to teach what’s at the heart of those text books. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Smith, could have assigned the phone book (remember those?) and I would have read it cover to cover.

But wait – there’s more – a lot more. That’s not all that is wrong with Professional Development, according to Reeves. What I’ve noted are just from the first two chapters. I will continue posting more chapter summaries and thoughts in future posts.

You can read the introduction to the book here and view the table of contents here.