Presented without comment, Janelle Monae on Sesame Street singing about “the power of yet.”
Happy September, all. I hope your school year has gotten off to a great start.
A little peek into my room this year. Right wall (with assignments/agenda and corner of my desk), middle wall (with student desks – not always in rows, we move them to partners, or groups of 3 or 4 depending on the activity), and left wall (the nice whiteboards in the room). Not pictured: my desk area with printer, computer dock, Elmo document camera, and binders for my classes, front wall with 2 awesome posters and Promethean board.
These photos were taken right before the first day of school – a half-day schedule on a Friday.
This is about 1000x better looking than last year. I love it! :)
“Evolution is fascinating to watch. To me it is the most interesting when one can observe the evolution of a single man.”
I don’t really know if I can keep up this positive attitude + rested feeling, but here is hoping. This is so far from where I was last year. So far.
“It may seem to some that it took me too long to learn what I have learned, and that I made many foolish mistakes, and missed many obvious clues. I feel no guilt about this. I was trying as best I could to discover something difficult and important, and I suspect there was no path to it much quicker or shorter than the one I took.”
- John Holt, preface to how children fail
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.]
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]
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
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.
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.
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:
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.