May 14, 2015

Wish for Respect

We walk into the meeting to see some extra faces in the room. The email said we needed to meet for ten minutes to go over next week’s testing procedures and then we would be able to work with our content teams. Twenty minutes pass and we are still discussing changes to the plan that wasn’t fully formed before the meeting. We start previewing possible videos to use in an assembly. Side conversations begin to break out as people strive to use part of the hour for productive discussion. The hour ends with several loose ends still undecided and no time to meet with content teams. I wish our time was respected.

Two weeks later meetings are cancelled so “we can do grades” - a task that all teachers are expected to complete during prep time. I wish collaboration was respected.

Two weeks after that we spent an entire hour confirming that data entered into a spreadsheet was accurate. It was. We won’t act on the data until the next week. I wish I was respected.

As part of my participation in the teacher's cabinet I am writing a memo and giving a presentation on Use of Time. I am lucky to be on a 9th grade team where I have an amazing amount of common planning time. However, it is not used effectively. Part of the goal of the teacher's cabinet is to show that teachers have ideas and should have a voice. I wish my voice counted more when determining how to spend my common planning time.

April 30, 2015

Budgeting Thoughts

I hope you've had time to imagine what you'd do if you had to make some budget cuts in your district. I find this more interesting than the "If someone gave you an extra $100 to spend in your classroom what would you buy?" questions.

During her introduction, the mayor said:

  • Transportation is not efficient, they zigzag all over the city and bus people within the 1.5 mile 'walking distance' as set by the state. Part of this is related to school choice at the elementary level but it's not an option to change for next year (placement decisions have already been announced)
  • There are four custodian positions currently open, we could also contract out after school cleaning
  • Opening our district to multi-city school choice would provide revenue (other cities would pay Salem if one of their residents attended school in Salem).
  • Class sizes are small. She asked if that was true in reality or just on paper. (You know my classes are absurdly tiny. If you didn't know that - my classes are absurdly tiny.)
Before we even got to dinner, I spoke up and requested that we stop paying outside consultants to run bad PD when we have people in district who could run good PD. The cabinet is about promoting teacher leaders and this would be a great way to do that. In our dinner we thought through that a bit more and I realized that I could teach four blocks and use my fifth block as a PD (and prep for PD) block. If I could get a schedule where my duty period and that block lined up I would have half a day to visit other schools. This sounds so awesome. I would love to visit classes and work with teachers during their common planning time while still teaching four classes. I doubt anyone would approve such a wonderful thing but I can dream!

The rest of the recommendations my dinner group came up with:

  1. The middle and high schools start at the same time and are a couple blocks apart. Why not bus them together? There's an age issue but we hypothesize bus monitors cost less than doubling routes. (Another group suggested centralized bus stops; K-12 can't take the same bus but they can wait at the same stop and can walk a couple blocks to get there.) Future plan: re-evaluate school choice for district elementary schools to cut down on cost of busing kids across the city but this needs to be done equitably.
  2. We think it would be totally cool to let kids from other cities come here and pay for it. We have stuff to offer (the high school has an awesome tech department - we offer certificates in auto, electrical, culinary, child development and maybe one more thing). We have kids who live in Lynn who come to school and try to stay under the radar anyway, why not let them be up front about it?
  3. Don't fill the open custodial positions. We can teach kids to pick up after themselves and take pride in their school.
  4. Cut some para positions (schedule 2 kids who need extra support into the same class). When we made this recommendation to the mayor she shared that para salary is not a huge expense (we hardly pay them anything, much less than neighboring districts) but if they're full time and get health insurance, the insurance can cost the city as much if not more than the salary!
  5. Cut extra programs if they haven't proven effective. Is the thing they run during February vacation just free babysitting?

That's six recommendations (including the one before dinner) for how to change things! Shockingly, we struggled to come up with five non-negotiables and the other groups didn't even get four. 

  1. Teachers. Don't cut teachers. Another group said teacher salaries, our district is already well below surrounding districts so it didn't even occur to me that they would consider that (they weren't) but it is worth saying.
  2. Admin. I learned that one of our elementary schools just got an assistant principal and I didn't want them to lose that position. Another group said to cut admin, specifically at the high school. I didn't consider how many positions we have that are considered admin (athletic director, head of special ed...) and paid on a very different scale than teachers. Each school needs a minimum of principal and assistant principal; I'm willing to sacrifice anyone beyond that if needed (and hand some duties over to teachers to reduce class size by having us teach less courses?)
  3. Curriculum coaches and lab classrooms. If we're going to take on our own PD we need to keep these resources available. How cool is it we have lab classrooms? I love learning about new exciting things happening in my district!
  4. Whole programs like music and arts. The mayor specifically said they wanted to do distributed cuts rather than chopping an entire program. That's essential.
  5. Social/emotional supports like counselors. High poverty rates means a real need for supports. Kids have to come first and they desperately need those resources. 
What would be on your list? Anything make your list of non-negotiables that's on my chopping block? Or vice versa? Most of the time I feel like math is math, but other times I wonder exactly how different my situation is than yours. Do share!

April 29, 2015


Salem has a budget problem this year. Some grants are ending, state funding is down and costs continue to rise. We need to make up a substantial deficit to balance the budget. The mayor invited us (the members of the teacher cabinet) to weigh in this evening. Our TeachPlus leader set us up in groups and assigned us the task of identifying our five nonnegotiables (things that absolutely should not be cut) and our five recommendations for places to rethink. I was surprised which aspects of this activity were challenging, so I don't want to take away your chance at discovery. Tomorrow I'll share some of the items we discussed. For now, consider what your own recommendations would be if there was a budget crisis in your district. 

April 28, 2015

Algebra Review

We're just starting fourth quarter. The third quarter benchmark test results are in. The kids didn't do well. Now what?

For once, we're going to take some drastic action to remedy the situation rather than try to patch over gaping holes in the foundation. Scratch quadratics and statistics. We're spending the rest of this course really building a solid foundation. Our focus will be:

Solving equations and inequalities
Linear functions

It's not that we haven't taught these topics (and more!). It's that we haven't taught them to the point of recognition and retention. When I say "graph this linear function" kids can dutifully flip to that note card and with some guidance complete the task. They can do a couple more with minimal assistance. Then they can do the same process forever independently. Unless there's a pause. Say, 24 hours between class periods. Then they go back to needing some guidance. By the end of the week they're pretty good. They take the test on linear functions. They do okay. We move one. When I mix linear functions in with the exponential ones I'm shocked to discover they're already rusty. When we get to the benchmark test, all the topics are mixed together. There's no guidance. There's not a lot of success. Now, I could complain about how awful the benchmark test is all, day but the test isn't the point. I already knew this was an issue when I mixed linear and exponential functions. So what do we do?

On the one hand, they just need more practice. Lots of practice to make the thought "I need to graph an equation, I'm not sure what it looks like, I should make a table!" automatic. Part of what's preventing them from getting lots of practice with that thought is how loooooooong it takes them to make a table. They need practice evaluating functions (basic facts are weak). But the way to practice that is by doing it, and making a table is a great way to have repetitive practice with a purpose.

But, kids are only willing to do random practice for so long. And I don't blame them. It's boring and it's not helping them to build connections. So we need something more. And that's where you come in - I got a few (great!) suggestions from Twitter but I have a whole quarter to fill and I've already used my best stuff the first time through. Equations and lines. I'd happily take data based stuff so we can mix some stats in with our linear modeling, or exponentials/polynomials if they reinforce something more foundational. I'm considering factoring numbers - radicals - factoring expressions as an arc. I'm open to ideas, what've you got?

April 26, 2015

When Blank Stares Work - #tmwyk

It's allergy season so I'm exhausted most of the time. I was checking over J's math homework rather half heartedly when she said she didn't know how to do the angle ones without her reference sheet. The first one was a pair of intersecting lines with a sixty degree angle given. I asked what a straight line would measure in degrees. She stumbled a bit but I continued staring at her (partially waiting her out but partially unable to come up with a good hint because allergy haze) and she eventually settled on 180. So I drew a diagram with only the sixty degree angle and the adjacent (supplementary) angle. Then I asked her how many degrees should go there to get the 180. She fumbled, I stared, she started counting by tens from sixty, keeping track on her fingers. She declared "12." I stared. She said "60+12=180. That makes no sense." I stared. Realization hit, "120!" "Great, go finish your homework."

Staring blankly at kids isn't going to win me any awards for most effective teaching strategy, but sometimes it is the best thing we can do. Tonight I used it because my processing speed is so slow I couldn't come up with a helpful response faster than she could help herself. But extended wait time and letting kids ask us for help rather than continuing the conversation as soon as they have responded really does work. I need the occasional reminder to slow down. I wish it didn't have to come in the form of immune system overload, but I'll listen nonetheless.