May 30, 2016

Seeing Structure

This weekend I visited my parents and my mom asked if I could teach her how to crochet. I was happy to do so! Obviously teaching math and teaching crocheting aren't the same, but just as obviously I can't help but make connections.

My mom chose to learn how to make a hat I'd given her, a hat that happens to be a rather advanced project. Is it crazy that she is starting with the hardest project I've made in a decade of crocheting? Sure. But she has enough transferable skills from knitting that it's not insane. We started out knowing that it may not be a perfectly even final project, but it was interesting for us to work on and it's the thing she wants to make so she was motivated and willing to persevere! 

Before she could start the hat she needed to learn some basic skills. The pattern required chain, double crochet, slip stitch and front post double crochet. When I learned to crochet I was made to sit and chain for a long time (the most boring stitch, you just pull a loop through another loop). But for my mom it wasn't worth the time to learn to chain an even tension foundation row when the goal was a hat worked in the round. It would've been essential if the goal was an afghan worked in long rows but for a hat she never needs to make more than three chains in a row. After she felt comfortable with the chain, I didn't even teach her to single crochet, we went straight to the double crochet. No point when it wasn't in the pattern. After practicing those stitches a bit we jumped right into the pattern! When we hit a new stitch in the pattern we stopped to practice with some different yarn and then went back to the project. 

I translated the pattern for her. Being able to read "[dc in next dc, two fpdc in next fpdc, dc in next dc, fpdc in next fpdc] around" isn't important right now. Instead I read the pattern to her in unabbreviated form, and we worked together to figure out how the pattern should look so she didn't have to count out each part. But, I hadn't made this pattern in five years so I didn't remember exactly how it should look. We were crocheting by following the steps blindly rather than seeing the big picture. Since we didn't see the structure, she made a mistake and missed a stitch which might have been caught earlier if we knew what it was supposed to look like. I didn't understand the structure so I missed some mistakes until we were on the next round and we decided there wasn't enough time to start over. But she learned a lot trying the challenging hat and I left her with an easier one to make until I visit again which seems super easy in comparison! 

My school has been working with LDC and a big part of their structure is to show students what their final task will look like at the beginning of each unit. The teachers have found students to be more engaged in the units and understand the objectives better. I would love to see one of their units in detail. What my evaluator took away from this is "writing objectives as 'I can' statements engages students" which is a vast oversimplification. I understand that having a task or project (that beautiful and functional hat) as a goal makes the work seem more worthwhile. I'm not entirely sure how that looks in practice unless you have the ability to run a full PBL program. An interesting idea to ponder while crafting!

May 29, 2016

Parenting as a Teacher

I returned to Twitter to ask for blogging ideas again. I asked for a quick prompt that I could write after going to the theater Saturday night. I think David thought he was being funny because this is no simple question! But then I ended up writing it anyway Saturday night, into Sunday, after I published my much quicker post.
The more I have thought about it the more I realize that this is the wrong question. The correct question is, how has being a teacher affected my parenting? I understand this is impossible to answer accurately since I wasn't a parent before I started teaching but it is much more accurate in terms of the direction of influence. My teaching has changed very little since doubling the size of my household - I've had a decade of experiences to shape how I interact with teenagers. That decade of experiences absolutely influences how I approach parenting.

What I let go, what I address immediately, what I return to later. These are all decisions that I've made a million times in my classroom and I've found a balance among them that works.

At school I have a support team built in, at home I built one up (my friends and other kids' parents are good, professionals are great).

I've taught students in foster care, parentified kids and other kids who have had to grow up faster than their peers. I've learned to recognize the difference between maturity and independence. It's still rather impossible to navigate successfully - all teenagers demand opportunities while simultaneously avoiding other responsibilities. Jordan likes to tell me that kids do [insert thing she did or wants to do]; sometimes I need the reminder, sometimes she's delusional.

I could tell you that watching her do homework made me realize something about the work I assign, but that's not true. Or that hearing the way she talks about her teachers makes me want to change, but that's not true either. I like knowing more about how the middle school structure works so I can relate better to my grade nine students' culture shock. I also like knowing the middle school math content so I can tell my students with confidence that they've seen something before. There are some small improvements in the other direction.

Adding one more kid to the long line of other kids I've watched grow up hasn't changed my teaching. But watching a long line of kids grow up absolutely prepared me to be a better parent for the one that I let into my home.

May 28, 2016

Feeling Appreciated

I don't remember much about the PD now, two years later, but I know there was a list of strategies for leaders/managers. The conversation inspired this tweet. The only reason I remember it is because it's my pinned tweet. I know giving and receiving kudos is important and I need the regular reminder to acknowledge my students accomplishments individually. This idea, acknowledging hard work, is also an excellent answer to the question I posed recently about teacher retention.

I ended the day yesterday feeling like my head was spinning and I was totally overwhelmed. (Thanks to my friends who listened to me talk through everything!) Among other things I was conflicted because in the morning my administrator talked to me about maybe changing up my schedule next year to teach mostly Algebra 2 but the department head for special education talked to me both before and after that about being part of the language based disability program, as an Algebra 1 teacher. Where I end up will depend on who we hire for the open positions and I still don't like the feeling of uncertainty I'm left with. But I want to focus on the positive aspects - it's nice to feel wanted.

The reason admin wants to move me is so I can lead the Algebra 2 team toward a more investigative and student centered teaching model. He referenced my solid understanding of the standards, my years in the district and my work with the Algebra 1 team. When discussing with the special education consultant and department head which training to attend over the summer they acknowledged that I already know many of the strategies that will come up. It's nice to be in a position where people know what training I've already done. It was nice to have conversations about my strengths with people who have been in my classroom. It was nice to be recognized.

I can't do everything, and I really hope that my preferences are taken into account, but for now I'm going to focus on feeling appreciated while I wait to see what unfolds.

May 27, 2016

Color by Number with Polynomials

I started this blog when I was teaching geometry. We did a lot of drawing in that class, and also some coloring. But there aren't as many opportunities for coloring in algebra or precalculus. Yesterday and today we did a coloring activity in algebra 1. I thought it would be a bribe to get kids to do the work, no false belief that there was anything authentic about it. They didn't even care about the coloring and were happy to do the computations without bribery! The practice was a nice mix of skills and it was refreshing to have students focused even when it's finally getting warm out.

First, students multiplied two sets of polynomials. Then, they added or subtracted the products. Finally, they matched the sum or difference with a color. I thought students would multiply two, add/subtract and then take a break to color! I was proven wrong. Most students did all the multiplication first (some not even combining the like terms in their product until later), while some others worked each row but still saved the coloring for the end. Even for students who didn't want to color at all I still encouraged them to compare their answers to the bank as a good way to check their work - it's easy to make an error (mostly students were mixing up their multiplication and addition facts when they were going back and forth between the two so frequently) in these problems. I liked that there were several steps before students reached the polynomials in the answer bank so it was more like a check sum activity than a matching game.

I didn't have an electronic copy of this file, it was in my file cabinet. Obviously we can't give our kids anything without tweaking it so we scanned, used my co-worker's awesome pdf to word converter and edited to give kids more space to work. If it's yours, let me know!

Download .doc

May 26, 2016

Retention (of Teachers)

I was part of a panel of interviewers today, as I have been for the past many years. We have a math department of fourteen teachers and every year we hire at least one new teacher. In fact, I just made a list, and we have hired at least two new teachers every year since I started. Six years in and there are only four teachers remaining in my department who were here when I started. It only took two years for me to be in the middle of the department in terms of seniority. But if you look at the reasons why people leave, they're retiring, getting married, having kids or getting a job closer to home. We certainly don't want to keep people from retiring or choosing how to raise their kids, but I know that if we had a better situation then people would be willing to make the longer commute and convince their spouse to move here rather than the other way around.

Our district has the lowest pay of all the surrounding districts. But despite crazy turnover we have an amazing department. Our contract is always expired or interim. But every teacher in my school loves their students. Our students bring with them a variety of challenges. But they are the most wonderful kids, appreciative of teachers who genuinely care for them. Our administration is stuck in meetings too often to sufficiently support teachers who need alternate options for students. But admin means well and have great ideas if not great implementation. The "but's" help, however it's not enough. Meaning well and having good intentions doesn't make up for challenges we face. What can we do to improve teacher retention?

Want to come work at my school next year and help me figure it out? Because we're hiring!