Someone just said it perfectly- read this blog about What Teachers Do...Thank you, Sarah Blaine!
5 Mondays a week? Just enough!
Somehow my students a few years ago decided that what Mrs. Baker needed was a week of all Mondays, hence our current tradition: On Monday, we greet each other with “Happy First Monday”, on Tuesday, “Happy Second Monday”, ectera...on Fifth Monday, the 8th graders console me and assure me that we will all be together again soon, and remind me that weekends aren’t bad in any way. And that’s true- look at all the planning time there is in a weekend.
I draft lessons in the steam on my shower door in the mornings, maybe a funny vocab lesson, or a graphic organizer that moves those pesky percent problems onto the number line. During the weekends, my brain is always percolating up bits of lessons for the coming week. I do interpretive dances of the parent-graphs while walking the dog. I don’t get too excited about my birthday, or Christmas Eve, but some Sunday nights I am so ready for Monday morning I have a hard time sleeping.
Middle schoolers are my people. When I bounce out of bed and zoom to work I know there will be a room full of eye-rolls when I unleash my perky approach to Monday on their poor, sleepy heads. Despite our fundamental lack of common enthusiasm, they will be game for anything I throw out.
Ready to work before the bell? No problem.
Think-Pair-Share using all the right vocabulary? Yup.
Saying “I’m glad we cleared that up.” When they’re screaming “I told you so!” on the inside? They got that...mostly.
There are certainly kids with behaviors that push me to get my Gandhi on. Blurters, chatterers, girls who give the stink-eye to everyone, 6-footers with no impulse control...but even those kids respond with a little attention, praise for great work, and a firm hand. Those are often the most rewarding relationships, assuming we both survive each other.
What’s wonderful about adolescents is the quirky back-and-forth between childhood and adulthood. Mature one moment, and comparing favorite stuffed animals the next, they are always willing to go with me wherever I think the lesson needs to go. Wearing sticky-notes around the room to compare heights or saying “whee” and “grrr” in unison as we play a dice game are no problem, if its goofy, they’re in!
Someone once remarked that the only really great toy for a cattle dog is a 100-acre, working cattle ranch. That’s how I feel about my classroom, the best toy ever!
As a middle school math teacher*, I have given an untold number of homework assignments. This year as the parent of a 7th grader I have been on the other side of that coin. My vague dissatisfaction with the whole concept of HW has now jumped into sharp focus.
My 7th grader had EveryDay Math in elementary school and, as a middle school math specialist, I was impressed seeing his relationship with math as a tool to be applied creatively to achieve a series of tasks. I couldn’t wait for him to hit 7th math (not at my school or in my class) and really show his stuff. He was my ninja!
Instead? I watched a year of answer-getting. He approached each HW with dread, dragged it out to far longer that it deserved, learned very little, and applied almost none of the wonderful approaches he learned in Elementary. Traditional HW made an accountant of my ninja. What a waste of his divergent approaches and autonomy as a problem solver! I was finally the mom of the kid who was “too bored to excel”. As a teacher, I’ve always heard that excuse with one eyebrow secretly raised.
So what did I really see from the kitchen table side of 7th grade HW?
· My son didn’t know what HW was for, except 40% of his grade.
· There was very little room for multiple approaches. Each time I tried to show him another way, he’d shoot me down, saying he HAD to do it one way. He was focused on two main things: hand-calculating every computation and saving paper.
· The text (Holt CA edition) stuck to a very narrow range of problems and they adhered exactly to the 3 example problems of that day’s lesson. Boring.
· The HW was far longer than he needed to cement the lesson’s concepts. Boring.
· Did I mention it was boring? Especially the hand computation of arithmetic that an adult would probably have used a calculator to complete. Boring.
· The month after CST testing, the HW became interesting, divergent and he sailed through it- re-ninja’d! I appropriated about half of the assignments- they were great! None of them were from the Holt text.
What am I going to do next year?
· Assign it, Mon-Thurs...not too boring!
· Differentiate! One of my summer self-HWs is start building my resources. HW needs to have an element of choice, from a range of simpler “drill and kill” for the emerging learners, to a few complex, brain buster problems for the students who are already competent in the skill. I’m working on a list of resources to use what’s already out there (ie Mad Minutes àPizzazz àMath Counts). I hereby solemnly commit to create not 160 HWs a year, but 160 menus of HW. It has me a little anxious! Determined, but anxious.
· Give a time limit. This year, families signed off at 30 minutes for students who opted for it. Full credit was given. Treating every student fairly does not require that they are all treated identically. This is what I learned as the parent of a 7th grader.
· Stick to self-correcting HWs (send home a key or checking technique) so that students can be held responsible for coming to class already knowing that they have correct answers. Stubborn problems will be dealt with quickly.
· Maintain peer review structure; Students Swap, Look and Sign almost before the tardy bell rings. (I must say, I’m starting to get this one down!) No instructional minutes should be wasted checking HW. We just quickly see which problems gave trouble, have teams log points and compare work and move on. Warm-ups in the first 5 min of class can be used to work on a problem area if needed.
· Clearly articulate why we do HW and what students are expected to gain by it, and make sure students and parents know why; all athletes and musicians practice, as do video gamers. This is tricky, as a recent meta-study, (see Visible Learning for Teaching, by John Hattie) shows little or no causal correlation, in any study, between HW and learning! I can feel myself evolving into a HW rebel in the future, and I’m scaring myself.
To sum up: I’m not really that into HW! I’ll let you know how my evolution evolves.
One day I was lamenting to my school’s academic coach that with NCBL and being in the dreaded “Program Improvement” category I had done nothing but teach to the test. I was starting to see that taking the 90 topics required in 7th math, and tactically reverse planning every lesson in the year to target a specific type of test question was making for lousy education. It was making me wonder where the line between drill and kill and downright malpractice was. She looked at my with all sympathy and said, “Oh, you want math to make SENSE? You must be a constructivist.”
You’d think after 24 years of middle school math, I’d be up on my ed-speak, but that was a new one. Yup, I’m pretty sure that making math make sense to a bunch of 12-year olds is the very reason I bounce out of bed every day and zip to work with a mix of mission, magic, and method brewing in my head. What discouraged me is that the math coach seemed to have put her finger on what she (very sweetly) saw as a failing on my part. Sense-making can lead to messy lessons that do not wrap up neatly in a 49 minute period. Students may even think about math that cannot be easily multiple-choice tested. They may even want calculators and a chance to debate with a peer before coming to a conclusion, which they can then write about.
Enter the Common Core: Ha! Now making sense is teaching to the test! I’m so excited to see the many web sites developing lessons for common core. (see my PearlTrees for more than you want on this) Even if my admin and some colleagues judge good teaching not on retention or understanding, but on test scores, the game has just changed to suit a constructivist like me perfectly. Common Core lessons are predicated on the idea that math needs to make sense, and that fewer topics taught thoroughly are better than a lot taught superficially.
For non-math teachers, wrapping you head around the CCSS can be a major task. Easier? Compare the old and new tests. You can see the differences immediately, and judge for yourself which set of tasks you want the future leaders of the country to be expected to tackle. If you like the new stuff, YOU may be a constructivist, tooJ
See a new CCSS style test at https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student/ and log in as a guest, even the lower grades will give you a chance to really think! (I do the 11th grade one for fun...I can’t help my self.)
In CA the oldtest is not very impressive, you can get it here, have lots of paper ready. http://www.wccusd.net/cms/lib03/CA01001466/Centricity/Domain/335/CST%20released%20test%20questions%202013%20Math%207th.pdf
Many students come to 7th grade with a pernicious problem. I call it “PEMDAS poisoning”. Many have incorrectly learned to over-rely on PEMDAS as a mnemonic and check list to compute long, multi term expressions. The convention of solving from left to right among the inverse operations, (square/root, or multiply/divide or add/subtract) is NOT learned by the majority of incoming 7th graders. The problem persists into high school. Students doggedly use PEMDAS as a check list and do not see the need to work from left to right. They are also unaware of other grouping symbols (vinculum, square root , absolute value bars…) other than parenthesis.
The problem is compounded by the teaching of order of operations in a vacuum; devoid of any context. Students are expected to simplify such expressions as 72 – (6+3)+15/3x5 as a form of Sudoku, a stand-alone puzzle that has no further application but to say they have done it. This takes away a students’ ability to use common sense to check her answer. If order of operations is embedded in formulas for compound shapes, or a model for solving story problems then students can rely on their grasp of what sort of answer is in the ballpark as a preliminary check for correctness.
I think the remedy is for educators to build context and teach from there. I have a series of questions that I'm developing to try it out, I'll let you know how it unfolds.
There is a great rant to accompany mine at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9h1oqv21Vs. Check it out!
I routinely have observers who say many lovely things about my teaching techniques. I'm grateful to have admin notice my students when they think-pair-share, or how our cold-call is slick, and the always popular exit ticket, BUT... It makes me crazy that no one notices that the actual object of my lessons is often CRAP!
As a PI 4 school, (be thankful if you don't know what that is- NCLB at it's worst) I have lost my autonomy in the classroom. I am expected to teach as my colleagues do, and if they aren't comfortable with an exploratory style of teaching and learning, then there is pressure on me not to do it either. I drill students on algorithms with no time to develop comprehension. It takes a while to get a room full of 12-year-olds to understand concepts and often needs messy lessons that take a day or two to bear fruit. In a climate of teach to the test and teacher uniformity, there is no longer room for me to teach for comprehension or retention of key ideas. I feel like a dog trainer on some days, especially with the most struggling students. Adding fractions CAN make sense, even to child who (still!) hasn't learned her times tables, but it takes time and lots of untidy manipulatives. Instead we do drill and kill and then are surprised when we have to start from ground zero a week later.
Hence, my title. Even with all the management and teaching techniques in the world, I dont' feel successful with teaching rules instead of leading students to understand the meaning in the math that we are studying. Crummy pedagogy is always bad for learning, and it makes me wonder where the line between teaching to the the test and malpractice is.
Common Core is MUCH more to my taste and I can't wait to implement. If we do have to teach to the test, (NCLB isn't going away) at least let us teach to a really good test!