Posted by: rdkpickle | 07.31.2014

we all crave the real stuff

I’m gonna let a couple of other people say the things I’ve been thinking about.

“Learning how to be present with the big, scary openness of not-knowing is no small thing. That is why we zone out, check our phones a hundred times an hour, play video games, watch TV, assault-eat, numb out, zone out, distract ourselves. We all crave the real stuff, but connecting with it feels like sticking a butter knife into the electrical socket.” – Elizabeth Statmore (@cheesemonkeysf) – “The Organism Moves Towards Health”

“It’s so much better to enjoy where you are than worry about where you’re not. Wonders are everywhere, so if you don’t see this one, today, you’ll see another. Promise.” – Pam Mandel, via Chris Guillebeau – “A Free-Range Life: On the Road with Pam Mendel”

The best parts of #tmc14, for me, were the quiet moments – powerful connections made through meaningful conversation. I focused on slowing down and listening, truly and intentionally. I tried to practice asking better questions. I watched people I admire like a scientist, jotting down mental field notes on the strange and spectacular specimens. It was pretty great. Some of those up-until-4-am chats won’t be forgotten by me, not for a long time. That was the real stuff.

Post-tmc, my mind is on the upcoming school year. I’m thinking about culture building and status and the 150+ teenagers that will walk through my door in just about a week, nervously beginning their high school experience. It’s a pretty big responsibility to steward these young minds, but lately instead of seeming overwhelming it feels like the only possible thing that makes sense for me to be doing with my time.

[This is as close to a recap as I can muster.]

Posted by: rdkpickle | 07.25.2014

things i am not sure about

when to be confident + when to embrace humility
when to share + when to listen
when to be supportive + when to be critical
when to work alone + when to seek help

What a talented, weird, thoughtful group of teachers we have here in Jenks for #tmc14. Today I spent a lot of time thinking about listening, status, fear, justification, identity, and more.

I don’t think we have something magical that couldn’t exist elsewhere. (Meaning: we are not “the best teachers!!!” But we are all teachers who care about getting better at what we do, which counts for a whole lot.)

I do think we’ve learned to learn from each other in ways that are hard to explain / duplicate. (For example: To be living through a task as a student, analyzing it as a teacher, listening to / noticing teacher moves made by presenter, and reading others’ thoughts about it in real time on twitter is a whole brain-body kind of experience.) Tomorrow I aim to ask better questions, engage more deeply, slow down, and sink in.

In almost every session today we spoke about exposing, discussing, honoring multiple approaches to the same question. Perhaps the teachers here are 150 unique solutions to a pretty worthy task. I am watching all of you very closely – keep teaching me.

(another thing I am not sure about: posting at 1 am. good. night.)

[Edit: Justin Lanier @j_lanier pushed me to expand on my thoughts a bit via twitter. Here's what I wrote:

confidence/humility - when is it appropriate to carry each inside the classroom (to "sell" an activity or a topic to students, to share vulnerabilities about how things are going) and outside of the classroom (danger in thinking you have all of the answers vs. being cripplingly unsure of the value of your work)

share/listen - as a part of this community. what do i have to offer? what do i miss out on learning by worrying about what i can uniquely contribute?

supportive/critical - how to support friends/colleagues as they grow in thoughts about teaching when i may disagree with choices they make or things they say because of "where" they are in that process. also how to step back and put everything through my brain twice (like in sessions here) when things are moving at breakneck pace. not just nodding in agreement at a nice soundbite but stopping and saying, "huh, what assumptions are being made here? do i agree?"

work alone/seek help - in my planning process, this year + in the future. why is it hard for me to be truly collaborative/let people in on what i'd like to do or make]

Posted by: rdkpickle | 07.18.2014

if you want

I have no idea why I’m still awake and reading old emails at nearly 2 am but I came across this old gem from FHS a couple years back and it was just too good not to tuck away for posterity here.

if you want

Excited to see many of you at #tmc14 next week.

Posted by: rdkpickle | 05.27.2014

a beginning

So the year ends much like it began, quickly and without a lot of fanfare. I took a long walk on the trails in my neighborhood today, not unlike the one I took exactly one year ago when I decided to make this move. During this year I grew in ways more complicated and surprising than I could have pictured when I invited the change. Battling anxiety and depression while teaching was “a daily exercise in vulnerability” that took the unwavering support of family, friends, and colleagues both old + new, real + virtual to face. A sincere thank you to those of you who got me to this finish line.

I learned: I can face 5 am wakeup calls and a 1st period full of teenagers without coffee. It’s harder to be “on” in a class every day with no drop days – and hardly a chance to get ahead on planning. My questioning techniques need some work; what works with 15 students doesn’t cut it with 30. Sometimes, getting something done quickly is better than getting it done perfectly. Students will frustrate and invigorate, notice the small things, and I will bump into them every time I leave the house this summer.

I have books to read, movies to see, places to go, music to enjoy, friends to catch up with, and plenty of work to do.

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Posted by: rdkpickle | 05.04.2014

louie

I’ve been a big fan of Louis C.K.’s comedy and his show, “Louie,” for a while now. The sketches where he talks to his two “daughters” (played by actresses on the show) are always my favorite. See, for example, this great quote when his girls are complaining about being bored on a long car trip.

 

I find his voice and perspective interesting and so I was definitely paying attention when he piped up earlier this week on twitter about CCSS (Common Core State Standards) and the standardized testing initiatives that have accompanied a push (particularly since early 2000s and NCLB) for greater accountability through testing.

At first when I saw this, I cringed. I’ve heard so much misplaced fear-mongering criticism of CCSS in the past few months that I’ve started to get my back up every time I see some new Facebook post going around about some poorly designed math task claiming to be CCSS-aligned. Other thoughtful, intelligent math teachers and education stakeholders have written plenty about these tasks and the subsequent social media reaction – and their words are worth your time.

But Louis C.K.’s criticism, and the dialogue surrounding it since then, have struck a different chord with me.

Here he is on Letterman Friday night, where he briefly talks about the issue. (Starts around 0:48)

 

The way I understand it if a school’s kids don’t test well, they burn the school down.

And the tests are written by people that nobody knows who they are. It’s very secretive. They have to prepare for these tests for a long time. A lot of the year is about the test. Teaching to the test they call it, because they decided there’s a new way kids should think and we’re going to prove they are thinking it by having them pass these tests – or we burn the school down.

Anyway, my kids kind of panic – which is okay! My mother was a math teacher and she taught me that the moment where you go ‘I don’t know what that is,’ when you panic, that means you are about to figure it out. That means you let go of what you know and you are about to grab on to a new thing that you didn’t know yet. So I am there for them in those moments. I go, ‘Come on, just look at the problems.’ Then I look at the problems and it’s like ‘Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?'”

Audrey Watters did a great job chronicling the debate on twitter (worth reading the entire thing!) and responded with her own take today:

One more time, folks: “So it sucks, I agree, that comedians – famous comedians – get to wield this subversive rhetorical power while teachers are ignored for making similar arguments [...but] Louis C.K.’s Twitter rant might have been the most important public, political argument we’ve seen about the CCSS so far.”

Tomorrow my Algebra 1 students take their End of Course (EOC) exam – the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test given for Algebra I/II, English I/II/III, Biology/Chemistry, and US History. The math test is more than 50 questions long and we have blocked about 2 hours into the school schedule each day this week to administer all of the EOC subject tests. I will never see this test. After my students take the test, I am not allowed to talk about it with them. I am also not allowed to talk about it with my colleagues. Schools are required to:

Implement policies and procedures to prohibit all personnel from obtaining knowledge of test items or passage content before, during, and after testing. Discussion of the test content or specific test items with students, parents, or professional colleagues is prohibited to protect the validity of the test.

(If you’re bored, please enjoy reading the entire 70 page Test Administration Manual for the End of Course exams.)

The state requires that these tests count as 25% of a student’s overall semester grade. From what I understand, although I will at some point have access to my students’ raw scores on this test, the state dictates how exactly these raw scores translate into their exam grade, tells me what to enter, and keeps the calculation of that conversion under wraps.

So the test matters for the students – it has a very real impact on their overall grade for the course. It also matters for the teachers:

Under Tennessee’s teacher evaluation legislation, value-added scores count for a portion of teachers’ overall evaluation scores. For teachers who receive an individual growth score (often referred to as teachers in “tested grades and subjects”), value-added scores count for 35 percent of the final evaluation score. For teachers who do not receive an individual growth score (teachers in “non-tested grades and subjects”), the school’s value-added score counts as 25 percent of the overall evaluation score.

Did you catch that? If your course isn’t a tested subject, other teachers’ growth scores count towards your evaluation.

The state of Tennessee plans to phase out TCAP testing as new, CCSS-aligned assessments come in. We were supposed to begin giving PARCC tests next year (check out some sample math items here – only recently made available), but are delaying at least one more year. In the meantime, my math classes this year gave field tests of “Constructed Response Assessments,” which best I can tell is a test that exists only to prepare our students for the coming PARCC tests. Woohoo!

As a teacher, I find myself caught in the middle. On the one hand, it makes sense to have a common set of ideas for what we expect our students to learn in math class during their K-12 education here in the United States. That’s what I see CCSS as being – a set of guidelines allowing for common vocabulary when we want to talk about what we teach and when we teach it. The Standards for Mathematical Practice touch on the how. The discussion of what good math teaching looks like (what when AND how) is nuanced and challenging and there are tons of smart, dedicated teachers trying to figure it out every day.

On the other hand, we have the assessments that accompany these standards. And the focus on “gaming” the tests and achieving higher scores as an end all unto itself makes little sense to me if it actually compromises the quality of that math education. It brings to mind this Uri Treisman quote from his wonderful keynote speech at NCTM 2013:

I get the power of high-stakes accountability – it’s a blunt instrument wielded from a great distance. But we as a math education community need to remember the children in our care come first, and we have to moderate the effects. This is the hardest challenge for our profession.

(Sound at all similar to…?)

So on the eve of this very important test for my students, I sit here and read as the responses to Louis C.K.’s criticisms roll in. Diane Ravitch has plenty to say here, and Ilana Horn’s post was tweeted out by Louis himself! I continue to be thankful for the opportunity to be connected to so many thoughtful and intelligent educators through our little twitter-blogosphere.

Posted by: rdkpickle | 04.20.2014

perspective

Sometimes it’s nearly 10 pm on a Sunday night and I’m doing things like reading “Seven Ways to Re-ignite the Spark in Your Relationship!” and mentally search-and-replacing all the parts about a significant other with teaching math.

I do think it would be worthwhile, at some point, to do something like catalogue all of the coping mechanisms used this year (consciously or not) to pull myself back tiptoe by tiptoe from the brink of burnout. “Try to keep problems in perspective!” “Try to relax after work!” “Take action to deal with problems!” “Plan ahead and prioritize!” “Recognize one’s own limitations!”

I can remember in my first year of teaching there was one student in particular I really connected with. She told me she never saw herself as more than a “C student” in math and had never enjoyed the subject. But she came to love my class, to love the “why” behind the problems, and the confidence that came with having a safe space to try, struggle, and learn. On one of my worst teaching days in my first year, I can remember getting so frustrated with a class that I skipped lunch and walked outside the school and called my mom. In tears, I confessed that I felt mediocre at best, didn’t know how to engage several of my students, and hated the exposed and vulnerable feeling that comes with being in charge of a group of teenagers as a lesson rattles off the rails.

She told me to focus on just one student. If I could just see the difference I was making for that one student and follow that story through in my head from beginning to end of the year, I could see how what I was doing day-in-day-out – the millions of in-the-moment decisions and details that were swirling in my head and threatening to drown me – could all add up to something that was worth it.

I was angry that I was tearful and thankful to have such an amazing mother but ultimately her words did stick with me for the rest of that year. I remember finding a four-leaf clover while I was on the phone with her, kicking at the grass and feeling tiny, and thinking it was a sign.

My first class of students from my first school are about to graduate college. I’ve spent another “first” year at a school feeling like I have tunnel vision, with no sense of how all of the days stitch together into a bigger story for my students. I’ve spent a lot of the time doing things like “trying to keep problems in perspective!” and “trying to relax after work!” and “recognizing my own limitations!”

I have to remember in the process of surviving this year I have grown in uncountable ways. Hilbert’s Hotel can’t find enough rooms for me. And as I finally make it to the end of the year, I feel myself gaining a perspective that sheds new light on what this year’s story really was about.

 

Posted by: rdkpickle | 02.06.2014

six months in.

Don’t give up on me just yet!

This year has been a million different things. Challenging, impossible, exhausting… to name a few. And while I’ve just been busy trying to make it through each day with very little time for reflection, I know that once I’ve survived this year I will have 100000 things to say. Being in a new environment with different pressures, norms, resources, and students has given so much to chew on and so many opportunities to grow.

So, watch this space. I’ll be back. 

In the meantime, I’ll be celebrating small successes like:

  • fantastic “what if” student questions as we delve into factoring in Algebra 1… and proud exclamations of “this is easy!” after we tackled some (tough!) factoring problems
  • a surprise visit from “important people” on a day showcasing my 1st period’s ability to help each other as they worked through trig problems together on the whiteboards
  • a student who worked his tail off to master exponent rules and adding/subtracting/multiplying polynomials, then aced the test
  • casual conversations about what teaching might look like when I’m 65 (brought on by an offhand comment in class about how I’m destined to be a basket-case unhip out-of-touch teacher… one day)
  • excitement to the point of cheers after verifying a particularly tough trig identity on the board
  • a student telling me she loves my class because she finally feels like she understands WHY things work and not just “how to do it”
  • feeling comfortable in my teaching skin again

Yeah. Feeling comfortable in my teaching skin again.

There’s still plenty that’s hard. Plenty of ways I’m coming up short. But I’m back to waking up excited about what I get to do each day. And if you know where I was in the fall, that’s HUGE.

So once I make it through this year alive, you can expect several novel-length ruminations on: class size (guess what, it matters!), standardized testing pressures, schedule differences, engaging learners in classes where the spread in ability level is massive, teacher burnout, technology, what I wish high school math classes could look like if I ran the world, collaboration, how to better support new teachers in their first year, new routines I’ve developed, grading, …

See ya soon. Thanks for all your love this year.

Posted by: rdkpickle | 09.09.2013

can’t stop

Okay well it’s been a month and I’m still alive.

Things I spent the last month adjusting to:

  • Constantly changing rosters in the first week of school – at a private school, the students enrolled in your classes showed up for your classes. Here, my numbers are still changing.
  • Shorter classes (47 minutes is not enough time!) and a consistent schedule (every class meets at the same time every day – which overall makes things easier but makes a few things harder)
  • More of a separation between teacher and students – at FHS, my students stuck around in my classroom during breaks and after school for extra help, were emailing me constantly, and there were far fewer of them. With 150 new faces and no “extra help” period, I’m not having as many one-on-one interactions with students, about math or in general. And even if I were having the same number, it’d be a smaller percentage of my total students.
  • School clears out after the last class. This could be good or bad. I’m more likely to be able to get planning and grading accomplished after school (at my last school it was darn near impossible because there were always students around until around 6 pm, asking for help, coming by to chat, etc.)
  • Having to start from scratch with routines that were second nature (taking attendance, entering grades, printing/copying/scanning, email distribution lists – or lack of them – for students/parents, knowing who in the building can help you with each problem) as well as systems (class webpages for posting assignments/notes/answer keys, returning student papers in mailboxes, etc.)
  • Technology in the classroom – my school laptop dock is in the back of the room while my teacher desk is in the front. Also, I have a projector but no Promethean or Elmo, and I like copying guided/structured notes to save students from copying problems off the board. So I’m just projecting onto the whiteboard and writing the stuff I want to write in dry erase. It’s not ideal but it’s working okay.
  • Bringing my lunch. I was spoiled before.
  • Bringing my coffee. See above.
  • Classroom ambience – no wall to wall windows (boo.) But! No angry red parka! I have a thermostat in my classroom now (hooray!) And I don’t miss the artificial lighting of the cubes. Although (and I know this is maybe blasphemous) I actually miss the change of scenery that was the cubes, the common think-space with other awesome teachers. Or, maybe I just miss those awesome teachers. Yeah. It’s probably that.

I could write a lot more about how classes have been going and I surely will at some point but it’s late and I didn’t intend to post tonight anyway. I guess I just wanted to write something about the transition, maybe for future me in case I decide to pick up my life again and need to remember how beginnings feel or maybe for other teachers who are currently struggling.

Mostly this past month has just been a really gigantic reminder that teaching is HARD. Everyone keeps asking me how it’s going and because I am always honest I just say “it’s been a really tough transition” and they want to know if it’s because the public school system is different than the private school world or if it’s because I’m getting to know all new colleagues and rules and routines or if it’s because I’m teaching brand new courses or if it’s because I’m adjusting to living back at home again and I don’t know but the answer is YES. *AND* teaching is just ALWAYS hard.

Hopefully at least some of you can relate:

I’m hanging in there. I do not feel like I am doing amazing things in the classroom. I am barely finishing to-do lists for things that probably should have been done long ago. Time feels like my biggest enemy – I only make it about 3 hours into Saturday morning before I’m feeling full-on anxious about the week to come. I’m not really eating well or exercising and I’m having a really hard time getting myself to start things. I’m not feeling very inspired or motivated. I also feel strangely trapped by the high expectations of people who knew me and were so excited I was coming to teach here. I feel a lot of pressure, in general, from others and from myself. (Not just about school stuff.)

There is also a lot about the way I am feeling about things that started way back in the spring, so I can’t blame it all on the move. I do miss DC, and I do miss my old colleagues. I took it for granted how nice it was to have my work-friends also be my friend-friends.

I do wish I felt more like myself at present so I could be doing more to speed the transition along.

But it’s been a month and I’m still alive.

(I’ll let this doo wop cover of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” send you out.)

Posted by: rdkpickle | 08.09.2013

i was born here and raised here

This is not going to be a post about math.

(Consider yourself duly warned.)

Today was my first day of class at my new (old?) school. I was all energy and nerves and there were still some kinks in my day, but I made my debut. I got to meet the 100+ humans who will be sharing their time and brains and struggles and successes with me over the next 176 school days. I have one million and one things to do this weekend to be ready for next week, but for this week, today was the finish line.

I’ve already had some funny moments, I’ve had moments of self-doubt, and I’ve felt some of the good and difficult ways that coming back home will impact my work here. It’s really strange and wonderful the way my family and I are woven into this community – there are colleagues who (like me) graduated from this high school, colleagues who remember my mom volunteering at the school, colleagues who taught me or one of my three younger sisters, and I even got to see my mentors from student teaching at the district meetings earlier this week. There are students at the school whose parents are friends with my mom, students whose older siblings were friends with my younger siblings, and at least one student who remembers my name from when I student taught her older brother (class of 2013) back when he was in seventh grade at the middle school down the street.

The anxiety level in the school building and whole pace of life is just so markedly different – nobody takes themselves too seriously, but everyone just does their job (and does it well.) No big deal.

All week, I have been overwhelmed with the kindness of my friends, family, and new colleagues as I make this transition. I’m happy and at peace. Thanks for welcoming me home.

Posted by: rdkpickle | 08.02.2013

makin’ tmc trend, like

Well. I live in Tennessee now. (!!!) I spent the last two days in a county-wide new teacher “induction” and today getting to know colleagues at my school. School starts next Friday. *record scratch* Wait, what?!? School starts next Friday?

Very quickly, then, between unpacking boxes and unpacking standards.

Twitter Math Camp ’13, for me, mirrored my experiences on twitter this year – more about receiving support and drawing energy from an enthusiastic group of talented math teachers than about seeking out specific activities/ideas or challenging myself to contribute my own resources. I don’t mean that I didn’t learn a ton or grow professionally, just that I am so mentally between things right now that the biggest value of the four days spent in Philly was the caffeine jolt of energy from old and new friends to launch me into a new year at a new school with new courses.

I do regret not spending more time getting to know people I was meeting in person for the first time – Ashli, Michelle, Tina, Dan, Nathan, Justin, Heather, and a whole host of others come to mind. I’m not giving myself too hard of a time about it because, to quote Annie, “you have to take care of yourself first or you are not useful to anyone else.” On the other hand, I’m thankful I got to spend more time this year in my morning sessions around James, Jami, and of course Lisa – who caught me mid-panic attack in the middle of a presentation about live binders and convinced me everything was going to be just fine. Like last year, songwriting with Sean, David, Julie, Kate, and (this year) Greg was a highlight.

 

There’s a part of me that felt like I was in twitter jealousy camp even while at #tmc13 – it’s hard not to be awed by all of the amazing and unique members of our community. Thanks for your ideas, blogs, lesson plans, conversation, support, and friendship. See you in 2014. In the meantime, you know where to find me.

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