January 29, 2017

What Can I Do?

I don't enjoy politics. I never watch political TV shows and I mostly avoided reading about politics before this year. This past week has been intense - it's hard to look at social media but it's also hard to stay away (please try to find some balance as part of your #radicalselfcare). There are a lot of ways to make a difference on any issue (you have a voice, use it wisely) but let's talk about specifically standing up for education.

We can stand up individually and share what we know about any edu-jargon that's being used. For some of us that means informing ourselves from reputable sources first (the charter schools in my district aren't the only types of charter schools).

We can share experiences as a group - I'd love to get our inside #MTBoS projects like one good thing and day in the life to a broader audience.

We can join and be active in our professional networks because the 60,000 members of NCTM could be a powerful force. They are already tracking policy changes (did you know there is a monthly capitol report? I just discovered it!) and have had representatives in closed door meetings with high ranking politicians in the past. You may have noticed people tweeting about being on committees in the past and wondered how to get involved. Mostly it seems that NCTM selects people by nomination - either someone on the committee knows you or someone else nominates you - but you can also volunteer! I wish the latter system was the norm. I've been asked to be on a team (last year) and a committee (the next three years). While it is an honor to receive an invitation from Matt Larson and I was appreciative enough to accept, I wish that someone who was excited about these topics rather than merely willing could be serving instead. (I'm really throwing myself under the bus here... I promise I did a good job, enjoyed working with my team and will be an enthusiastic helpful member of EMC.) There are 15 committees and two positions open up per committee each year. Read about them, check them out and volunteer for the ones that interest you! I received my email for EMC in October but I don't know if that is when all the requests go out. There's not time like the present to fill out that form though! Especially because...

If you've already served on a committee then you can apply to be on the board! Those nominations are due by March 1 so this is more time sensitive. NCTM is looking to work with MTBoS people - they've made that clear by attending TMC, merging with the Math Forum and asking advocates of our community to serve on their teams. NCTM is not the perfect organization (yet!), but it's the professional organization for our career of choice and we should be making it work for us. Yes, I definitely wish that capitol report was an RSS feed, but both @NCTM and @mlarson_math were impressively responsive even over the weekend as we asked questions about this process (shout out to Carl for setting a reminder to have this discussion).

We know so many people think they're an experts on education, just ten days ago Trump called it a very easy subject (I don't pretend to know if that was genuine or sarcasm, feel free to form your own opinion around minute 12:50). We need to work together to stand up for our students and inform the public around the important issues in our field. Please leave a comment with what you're committing to do and if you need help!

I'm committing to completing my year in the life of a teacher project but I'm wishing there was something we could start doing with all that material sooner than this summer when the year ends. I'm hoping someone will take my "quotes like a page a day calendar" idea and turn it into something cool. It could potentially work with one good thing as well...

January 7, 2017

TMC Site

In high school I took a tech ed class that included web design, CAD, java and architectural design. I enjoyed the class so much I arranged with the teacher to do an independent study on the web and architectural design topics the following year. While I think I might have enjoyed continuing my studies in either of those topics to lead to eventual careers, I love teaching and am glad I ended up here. However, it's still fun to get the chance to dive back into those worlds on occasion. When I was in high school websites were a lot simpler, google didn't even exist back then... I made a website for my dad's office using only text files in notepad and saved it on floppy discs. So beyond the opportunity to walk down memory lane, doing some web design forces me to learn new things like CSS. As a teacher I appreciate opportunities to stretch my brain and exercise my problem solving skills. It's fun to be the student again for a while and remind myself what it's like to be trying to understand something new.

So, check out TMathC.com (newly updated to not have any proprietary words in the domain) and let me know what needs fixing. Kudos go to Glenn for the wiki and the majority of the content, my job was mostly to copy and paste from the old site once I got the layout adjusted to my liking.

p.s. This is my second post this month, I might be getting back into a routine! Join all the eager bloggers who resolved to write more this month/year on Explore MTBoS.

January 1, 2017

Best of the Math Teacher Blogs

Happy new year! I hope the first hours of 2017 have treated you well. As you reflect back on 2016 we hope that you'll join us in recalling the posts which most moved you and share them for "The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2016." Submission form here!

Last year we collected 55 posts for "The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2015" via tweets and submissions to create a book of posts from 2015 (11 stories, 11 tasks, 9 teacher learning reports, 24 thoughts about teaching). We raised $897 which will be donated to TMC.

This year we have 36 submissions so far. We hope to get more from David's #bestofMTBoS2016. It's not too late for you to submit your favorite post you read or wrote in 2016. Submission form here!

However, one of my new years resolutions is to ask for help. I have a bad habit of getting excited for things and then signing myself up for more than I can handle. So, in order to make this work we'd love some help. If anyone is able to volunteer to do any of these tasks please leave a comment!

  • merging spreadsheets for submissions and permissions
  • cross referencing hashtag(s) with the spreadsheet
  • cross referencing Michael's post with the spreadsheet
  • organizing posts into balanced chapters
  • moving information into pressbooks
  • editing html (match formatting, resize images)
  • editing text (light editing for length)
  • cover design
  • deciding how best to use the funds (the initial plan was to support teachers in attending TMC but we haven't figured out the details)

December 23, 2016

Changing the Conversation to Mastery

My district is transitioning to Standards Based Grading and I'm so impressed with how well planned the rollout is. Everything isn't going perfectly, but if you're familiar with the inner workings of any schools with limited funding you probably have seen them jumping from one bandwagon to the next, picking up whatever initiative has a grant and then dropping it for the next new thing. That's typically the case here as well, but I went to a planning meeting summer of 2015 (my reflection at the time) where administrators outlined a plan that they had clearly been working hard on. It's nearly 2017 and we're still on track! Just to be working on one thing for that long would be huge but this is a downright miracle.

At this point the elementary and middle schools have transitioned to standards based report cards since they were already using (sometimes confusing) categories rather than letter grades. The Algebra 1 team is using standards based grading but translating that into a single average so we can continue to use traditional report cards. Next year the 9th grade will be moving to standards based report cards and the following year the rest of the high school will join us. There are a lot of moving parts to make this transition, and some of the work is tedious (rewriting curriculum maps yet again to fit the new language) but the shift we are working on right now is communicating progress with students and changing the conversation to mastery rather than passing.

Right before report cards, and again at sports tryouts, I saw a surge of students coming after school to improve their grades. However many students were looking to get the 60% needed to be passing and therefore eligible for sports. Some students were aiming for a 70% because their parents don't accept less than a C. I do have students with high expectations for themselves who are aiming for the A but they're not the norm.

The Algebra 1 team took one of our common planning blocks to go visit the middle school. We saw an english classroom and a math classroom. We were looking for examples of how teachers communicated with students about their progress. We saw class data on the wall, student tracking sheets and posters highlighting the priority standards. I wasn't a fan of the teachers posting and talking about CCSS codes (A-REI.1.a). As a team we gave each priority standard a name that allows us to refer to them with ease and reinforce mathematical vocabulary.  We are working on a system to identify each skill, right now we're leaning toward 4A being our shorthand for Standard 4 Skill A but I'm hoping that would be limited to my personal data tracking. But even though we didn't agree with the labeling, we loved the bar graphs in classrooms showing the percent of students who had reached mastery. We also took ideas from the student tracking sheets we saw during our visit.

The idea of drawing a new bar on three graphs for every assignment sounded far too overwhelming. Not to mention updating them with every retake or late submission. So I decided to use the students' averages for each entire standard. My version. Then every week or two I'll update the class progress. Since the priority standards are my categories in my gradebook (as opposed to averaging tests and homework separately, I average all equations assignments) it's a quick process to count up the number of kids with an 80% or higher and update the chart. The units we have completed are colored in since students can only gain mastery by doing retakes. The units that are ongoing the bars are made of sticky notes since students may lose mastery as they complete more assessments. (Also technically they can't have mastery of the whole standard until we've assessed all the skills.) At the middle school they laminated the charts, wrote titles in dry or wet erase markers and made bars out of tape. I wasn't sure I'd like my charts so they didn't seem worth laminating. Maybe next year? Also I wasn't about to laminate the versions with the random line across the middle from the copier!

When I showed the charts to my administrator I told him to look at the format but not the data. He was ecstatic about the charts. Then understandably concerned about the data. But we had a good conversation about how this is changing the conversation. If the bars were for passing rather than mastery the data would look much more encouraging. I wasn't sure how my students would react to the information but my C Block class was motivated rather than discouraged. It's interesting to note that my D block is a contained special ed group, they have 90 minutes with me every day. C block is an on level course but has a high percentage of ELL's. F Block is honors and with them I emphasized that everyone should be mastering every unit, but our first goal is to have 80% of the class mastering each unit. In the other classes the goal is to make progress toward that 80% as well but I didn't need to make a specific goal for them because they recognized they were behind. It's not a competition and it's not calling anyone out, instead I hope to create a class culture where everyone encourages each other to aim for mastery.

During the last class before vacation I gave students a motivational speech in disguise. We did some data analysis review in the form of looking at an imaginary student's scores. Data analysis handout. After they finished that assignment I handed back tests and gave them time to do corrections and other make up work. Most students took advantage of the time, an impressive feat on December 21 and 22!

Next up will be implementing the student progress tracker. When we return from break they will record their scores so far and check off skills as they master them. At this point I'm planning to give trackers out for this unit and all the units going forward. For students who haven't reached mastery in a previous standard then we can use a progress tracker to decide what they need to do to get there.

December 20, 2016

Weekly Homework: Digging Deeper

Note: this is a follow up to yesterday's post that I wrote back at the end of October.

In the weeks since I wrote that last post I have given a few more substantial weekly homework assignments. One was on cell phone plans, another on credit card payments and a third on bias in jury selection. I didn't love the credit card assignment, mostly because we haven't studied exponential functions yet so the calculations were tedious and the meaning got lost (low payments might seem good but you get killed with interest if that's all you can afford).

It was interesting that despite how "real world" cell phones are to kids, they didn't know the vocabulary of how a payment plan works. Some students argued that an option was good because it had more installments - turns out they thought that meant how many things they could install on their phone! After clarifying vocabulary we were able to have a conversation about how Option D is the cheapest if you have $225 to spare but that's often not the case so people who have less cash on hand end up spending more in the end.

Then over Thanksgiving break I finally found a good introductory assignment to racial bias when listening to Radiolab. This assignment looked a little different than the others because on the front I had to start with an explanation of how jury selection works. Then I pulled a short quote where I wanted students to focus their calculations. But to write the paragraph, and really to make their claim, I felt that students should have more context. So on the back (so it wouldn't distract them during their calculations) I pulled some quotes from a NYTimes article and suggested they listen to the podcast that got me interested in the topic in the first place. The assignment

I pulled these student quotes for a few reasons. They provided a chance to talk about all vs. on average in a few contexts (all lawyers are racist, all blacks sympathize with the defendant). A few people asked about when and where this was (60's in the south vs. 2016 in the north?) and it gave students the opportunity to rebut - there's still racism today, even in Massachusetts. Finally, two quotes reference different sections of the article and one references the podcast. I wanted to clarify the information that students read and heard as the vocabulary isn't the most student friendly (many of my ninth graders had a first language that was not English and several of them have language based learning disabilities). I'm considering switching my routine to going over the previous week's assignment the first class of the week and then immediately handing out this week's assignment so students can ask clarifying questions. But I really want them to try reading on their own. Maybe sticking with going over the previous week's assignment at the end of the week and then specifically asking students if they have clarifying questions about the current assignment is the better way to go. 

This week I had more students ask "Is there a right answer?" than any other week. I chose to interpret that as a sensitivity to the gravity of the choice while being overwhelmed with the information. I reminded them that there is never a correct choice to weekly homeworks as long as they provide reasons to support their claim. I also reassured them that this is complicated, which is exactly why people are researching it!

I would love suggestions for more articles similar to this one that would help facilitate discussions around similarly important topics. This week is about the (slightly less serious but still important to me) effects of spaying and neutering your pets - the kittens are reproducing at alarming rates on a farm! I'm feeling thankful that I teach where I do so I'm allowed to give assignments that support my crazy liberal viewpoints, and am also working to be mindful of the amount of bias I have. It's so important to me that students think for themselves and I do really mean it when I tell students that there is no right answer. But I recognize that there's inherent bias in the topics I choose and the data that I present.