August 17, 2016

Teacher Prep Program

There was some twitter conversation today about quality teacher prep programs and the harm of alternative certification. I was quite surprised to hear that so many people didn't do a teacher prep program before they started teaching. I think it might be hard to imagine what you could stand to gain from going through a quality program if you've never experienced one. I was lucky enough to have a solid program at my undergrad institution and a stellar program for my masters which I completed during my second and third year teaching.

The biggest thing about my undergrad program (at wonderful Mount Holyoke College) was how much time I was able to (and required to) spend in high school math classrooms. My courses required observation hours at local schools. We were assigned specific things to observe for and reflect on each week. Observing during those classes meant seeing things in action. Making connections. Adjusting from my experience of adolescence to a broader array of possibilities to reference. My white, suburban, wealthy school experience is not the narrow definition of normal. For our licensure program we were required to observe in a variety of schools (urban, suburban and rural). I was lucky enough to spend a couple semesters observing at a school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. I saw that the kid who felt safest sitting in the cabinet and the kid walking laps around the room were still participating in class. And when the kid with the security stuffed animal let me hold her comfort object while zipping her coat I understood what could happen if you built a relationship over time. I was an independent child who was good at school and whose parents spoke the language of the system. Having the opportunity to learn these lessons while observing, assisting and eventually co-teaching meant I could focus my attention on the million other things happening in the classroom outside the content. It's simply not possible to devote that much energy to studying student actions and interactions when you're the responsible adult in the room leading instruction.

Another important aspect of my program: studying psychology. I took Psych, Adolescent Psych and Ed Psych. Were they repetitive? Sure. Do I need all the reminders I can get that teens are still developing their prefrontal cortex? Absolutely. I learned about brain development, ranges of normal and reactions to abnormal situations. I have taught students who have suffered trauma; knowing that the students who sucked their thumbs in high school had a (probably terrible) reason for still needing that self soothing. This knowledge prepped me to ignore such uncharacteristic behavior in the classroom (the last thing a kid who's suffered trauma needs is a teacher calling them out) and check in with the guidance counselor later. I learned about stereotype threat and behavior management techniques and attachment theory. I learned about how kids function in the world and how to read their needs from their actions (because the connection is frequently not obvious!).

I'm also thankful for formal lesson plans. Were they tedious? You bet! Do I write them now? No. Did they help? Absolutely. I've internalized the structure so I no longer need a full page of prompts to remind me to consider my students with different learning needs or to ponder possible misconceptions before class begins. And while I complain about having to post the objective on the board it's not because I don't have one, it's because the objective is for me. When I shared lessons with other students in my classes it was almost like getting more observation hours in. And, since my undergrad program was too small to be just math, I got to see strategies from different disciplines and steal from them too!

Most importantly, I had time to process all the information I was receiving and imagine how it would work in a classroom. I observed a variety of teachers. I had a variety of professors who had mostly all taught in K-12 classrooms. I learned what not to do from the sexist/racist teacher next door to my cooperating teacher. I endured the irony of a professor who lectured us for a whole semester on how important it was to not lecture our students for the entire period. By the time I reached my student teaching semester I already had a well formed teaching philosophy. And I'd written it out a few times. Yes, it's changed. Of course, there's nothing like being the only adult in the room to really test your skills. I've absolutely continued to learn by trial and error, but there were fewer errors and a lot less crying* because I was prepared before I started teaching.

*My college friend took none of the courses I listed above and then enrolled in TFA the year after we graduated. There were a lot of nights where she called me crying. And I talked her through all the things I'd learned that would help her through the next day. She was exhausted because she was teaching during the day and taking classes in the evening and then writing her lesson plans at night. There is not enough time in the day for that to be a good structure! Your brain needs time to unwind and process all the inputs.

All of the above happened before I started teaching. Then I got a job, taught for a year and immediately started my masters! My mentor my first year told me that once you stop taking classes it's really hard to start again so the best thing to do is never stop. (I've heeded his advice and am about to move to the Masters+45 column!) I did an awesome program (Boston University's Mathematics for Teaching) that included three summers of taking math classes (where I was able to experience being a student again while marveling at the well crafted problem sets and sound bites like "exams are an opportunity to review") and math education courses during the year. I learned about the history of math education around the world. I learned K-8 strategies so I could recognize the difference between a trick and a method when kids showed me techniques that were different than the ones I learned. We researched an education topic in depth - I know so much about proportional reasoning and why students find it challenging! We did independent research on a math problem of our choosing - talk about perseverance! It was a wonderful program that recognized the challenges of taking courses while teaching, the courses were from 4-6 and we were encouraged to use lesson plans from our current teaching assignment to complete homework assignments.

Do I think it's possible to become an excellent teacher without a stellar teacher prep program and follow up? Of course. But I would never recommend it. It isn't fair to the students to have a teacher who is learning so much on the job. When we hire teachers we tend to rank teachers who successfully student taught at our school the highest, followed by teachers who successfully taught elsewhere, followed by graduates of any BU program, followed by anyone else. Experience matters. Real experience in the classroom is best, but a solid teacher prep program is a pretty good start.

August 10, 2016

NCTM Booth

Summer is winding down and as fall approaches, so does conference season!

As part of the #expandMTBoS project we want to continue inviting more teachers to engage in our community. And to continue increasing awareness for all the new projects that continue appearing! A booth at a conference is a great way to achieve both of these objectives.

There are four upcoming NCTM conferences and we need local volunteers, coordinators, people paying registration and booth staffers. Use this doc to fill in your information in the appropriate spot!

Why do we need a list of people paying registration? Reserving a booth at a conference costs money, quite a lot of it. However, exhibitors get perks, like free badges. Turns out that you get six badges with a booth and six registration fees costs the same as reserving a booth! NCTM has ever so graciously agreed to do the fund shuffling internally so we don't have to pool the money to pay for the booth. It doesn't matter if your school pays or when the payment gets there, as long as you know you're attending and paying the full price then please include your name on that list!

Not sure what you're getting into? Here's a detailed document filled with information on volunteering at the Boston booth. Each booth works a bit differently but it gives you some idea of how things work. Feeling like you can handle volunteering and even a bit more? Maybe you'd like to be a coordinator? All the resources to organize a booth are available in this folder.  All of these resources are also useful if you want to share about our community at other conferences!

If you're interested in organizing an NCTM booth please let me know ASAP so I can put you in touch with our contact.

Can't attend but want to help? If you have advertising materials (stickers, business cards etc.) for a project you'd like to share reach out to one of the local people willing to receive mail. If you have an idea for how to better use the booth space, leave a comment on the 2016-2017 planning doc.

August 9, 2016

Organizing and Decorating Day

I met up with my co-teacher this morning (yay yay yay she's back!) to start working on our classroom. I went through all my desk drawers and organized. Jordan checked the batteries in all the calculators. My co-teacher emptied out the file cabinet. We arranged the desks and hung up the posters. My brain still isn't in school mode, but at least my classroom will be ready once my brain kicks in!

PreCalc picture projects! I snapped this picture primarily because I don't think they will still be hanging when I go back. I tried poster tape and masking tape and one fell within the hour. I added duct tape. I might need to bring in the hot glue if that doesn't cut it.

Schedules for a regular day, advisory day and early release day. I hate not knowing what time class ends so it's worth giving up a board to the schedules (plus this is the board behind my desk so it's not easily accessible anyway). Maybe this will be the year I'll actually remember that Fridays are advisory days and we run a different schedule.

Bulletin board with space for extra copies for Algebra 1 (precalc gets an accordion file system, less visible but equally organized). I'm not sure how it will work this year because I have three levels of Algebra 1. Maybe if we do different things in each class I'll clip them by course but still put them in the same folder? (The folders are labeled by day.)

Every Girl, Every Boy poster. I'm the Gay Straight Alliance advisor but the gender and sexuality spectrums don't come up often in discussion so I like having some nod to my classroom as a safe space for students who are looking for it. It's always amusing to watch kids stop to read it months into the school year. It sparks a good discussion between the kids, I love when other kids call each other on their prejudices.

August 8, 2016


I've mostly done my planning in word docs and on scrap paper, but last year I started using a notebook to map things out before vacations or around benchmark exams. I tried a few different layouts that I drew into my old notebook before settling on one to design for my new notebook.

Two week spread doc

Since we run an alternating day schedule two week cycles work better than single weeks. But there's at most five classes (per course) in a two week period. So I made a grid at the top for writing in dates, lesson topics and notes like early release days. Then the rest of the sheet is divided into five spaces for more detailed lesson plan notes (still not a lot of detail, that'll continue to happen in the word docs and smart notebook slides). This year I'll have three levels of Algebra - contained special ed, on level and honors. I'm not sure if I'll be able to plan them all together, but if I can then a whole month will fit on one two page spread!

Right now this is the only thing I'm planning to print to put into my notebook. I have the to do lists and lined pages that come with the notebook plus some blank pages (TMC notebook sheets I hole punched!). Is there anything else you would consider essential in your notebook/planner?

Block Scheduling

A couple days ago Peg found out that she'll be teaching on a block schedule for the first time. Then Hannah found out she is too, and she had some specific questions that I'll try to answer!

1) Is there a typical class structure/schedule you use for the 90 min? Warm-up, close, etc?

My favorite thing about having a long block is that there is actually time to have all the aspects of a class that we hear we're supposed to include but just don't fit in a 45 minute period. In my class there's some sort of do now on the board as students walk in (for PreCalc it's the daily SET, for Algebra 1 it varies). I check the homework while they work, then we discuss a few problems from the homework. Maybe there's a three question quiz. Then students get to do some work, with interspersed discussion. And we finish with time to reflect on the class and assign homework!

2) Is retention a bigger problem? If so, what, if anything, do you do to spiral/review b/w class days?

It is hard to be on an alternating block because if you have class on Friday you don't see them again until Tuesday. For my honors precalc kids I expect them to be able to look back at their notes and recall what we were doing last class. They do have homework but it's fairly traditional, a few problems to continue practicing what we learned today. At the beginning of my algebra classes I try to remind students where we left off to build in the connections more visibly. We also tried to have spiraling homework last year and are hoping to continue that throughout this year. 

3) Same question as 2 but for absences. I'm worried about students missing Thurs & not having math for a week

Absences are tough. Missing 90 minutes of class is a lot! We have a system where each subject has one day a week that the teachers are available ‬after school and so we all tell students that they should come after school if they are absent. However, they don't often follow through. I have a smart board in my classroom so I can save all the notes as a pdf and post them on my website. Some of my precalc students make good use of the website, and it's also helpful for me to be able to reference things when students do come after school. Otherwise it's just like any other class absence, have a place for students to get handouts they missed, encourage them to get notes from someone and make up any owed assignments!

4) What do you love about the 90 min & what do you think are best ways to make full use of the long period?

The best thing is how few transitions students have throughout the day. It's hard for students to go from gym to science to math and switch modes. Our block schedule means that transition only happens three times a day. Once they're in class the pencils are out, they found some paper, and they're yours for a solid chunk of time. You have time to do stations or projects or investigations. But remember, you don't have twice as much time as before just because class periods are twice as long! You have two class periods in one, so you need to make sure you're hitting enough content and not spending all your time making pretty posters.

5) Any suggestions for breaking up the time & keeping student engagement/energy high throughout?

It is a really long time to just let them work without any structures. You have time to do all the aspects of class - hook, formative assessment, discovery, consolidate, review - so do so! Activities that get kids up and moving are good from time to time, mostly I find a simple system for kids to self regulate breaks to the water fountain and bathroom is key. Even on days where I do want students to work through a longer problem set I have implemented structures to break up the time. I'll set a timer for 7-10 minutes and then use a random number generator to call on a student to share their work on a problem everyone has had a chance to work on. Repeat until you're done with the problem set or ready to close class!