Friday, December 4, 2015

Learning Math Through Flawed Teaching

Our staff has been working towards implementing the math CCSS for the past few years. Not only are the standards different from the previous state standards for math, but the practices require teachers to provide different structure and instructional approaches.

One of the reasons that I was drawn to teaching was because I received such incredibly bad instruction in math. As a new teacher, I knew that I’d have to develop a whole new approach to math; one that was very different than I was provided. I wish I knew the name of the book that I read in 1978, my first year of teaching, to help me with my 2nd graders. I only remember that the whole book was devoted to developing number sense. I spent many evenings gluing beans on popsicle sticks to create manipulatives to help my students when they calculated problems. As a primary grade teacher, I continued to provide my students with many opportunities to solve problems using manipulatives and helping them to make sense of what they were doing.
This week, I posted an essential question at school in the hopes that teachers and students would consider various responses. Teachers expressed frustration at even understanding the question. So in hopes of providing some clarity, I worked directly with a few to help them see how their students demonstrate modeling math, measuring, and calculating change. I began to realize that a major problem was the mindset of the teachers when approaching the question and choosing a work sample to post on the bulletin board. The sense that the product has to demonstrate perfection, was an obvious barrier.

There is no place for “perfect” in a classroom. Not only are the students learning, which puts them in a constant state of change, the teacher is continuously learning. Both will experience moments of exhilaration, but almost never, perfection. When I came to this understanding, I decided that I would model imperfection (as I do unintentionally every day). 

I wanted to pose a math problem that the children encounter frequently. Our PTA is running a Santa’s Secret Shop next week, so I recorded myself posing problems with two different groups of students.  As you watch these, you’ll see the dumb things I did as a teacher. With the two 3rd graders, I could have posed the question and given the money to them in such a way that would have provided either a little more challenge or a little less challenge. Not knowing the students’ abilities in math, I didn’t realize that one was so capably different than the other. They didn’t really learn from each other. In the 2nd video, the three 5th graders were chosen by their teacher who also recorded the scene. I didn’t tell her not to talk until after she began to help them scaffold the problem. I also didn’t prepare to provide them with multiple tools to solve the problem. There are many more flaws to my instruction; too innumerable to list. But what matters is that I gave the students an opportunity to solve a real world problem, struggle to find the result, talk through their thinking, and use tools strategically. They manipulated numbers into parts and had to demonstrate their understanding of operations to solve the problems.. The students were asked probing questions and the 5th graders had the opportunity to learn from each other as they explained their thinking out loud.

These recordings of students working can provide great insight for their teachers even with all of my missed steps. Let’s all go forward providing  our students with many opportunities to solve problems. Don’t worry about perfection. Think about all that your students will learn as they struggle through problems. Consider how much more you’ll know about them.  

Monday, November 30, 2015

Conferring for Growth; Reading in the Wild Book Study

Wild Readers and Learners

I am thrilled to be a participant of this #D100bloggerPD book study. This group of educators is redefining learning together by sharing our thoughts with all who will read and learn from our reflections. +Kristin Richey is our leader and launched the study of Donalyn Miller's Reading In The Wild  in her blog, Reading and Owl of the Above The book is broken into long chapters peppered with short vignettes. "Conferring; What's the Point?" is a vignette that follows the chapter, "Wild Readers Share Books and Reading with Other Readers" reviewed by +Leah O'Donnell in her blog.  I understand Donalyn's thinking that a vignette on teachers conferring with their students should follow that chapter as Donalyn is clearly passionate about talking with her students about their books. 

Conferring, What's the Point?

I chose this vignette to focus on because the act of conferring as a teacher is closest to what I do as a principal. As I talk with teachers about their work in the classroom, I attempt to address the teacher's goals and give feedback to move him/her forward.  I have studied conferring as it relates to my work, over  the past few summers as a participant in cognitive coaching seminars. The coaching conversation requires active listening and the ability to hone in on the other's issues that are a struggle for them. A successful cognitive coach helps the other to construct new learning just as a teacher should in a conferring session.

Donalyn Miller, in this chapter asks, "Conferring, what's the point?" She comes to a conclusion, but I'm not so convinced that, if asked directly, she'd concede that conferring is her strength as a reading teacher. Miller writes that the reading conference is a time to meet individually with students and assist them with their individual goals and to connect with them. However, the conferring that she describes in this vignette, sounds more focused on relationship building than addressing student needs and goals. Her early teaching struggles with using the time devoted to conferring sounded familiar. As do many teachers, Miller had a hard time managing time, often spending too much time with one student and not getting around to more than a couple a day. Managing the conference notes were an additional challenge. Like many of us, she has tried systems that worked for others, but not for her. 

My introduction to Donalyn Miller was many summers ago when I read The Book Whisperer. I encouraged many teachers to read that book as it supported what has been affirmed repeatedly by research; if you want to develop a child into a reader, you need to provide them with time to read and a wide range of literature. Much of Reading In The Wild digs further into "how to" create people that make reading a priority throughout their lives. As a wild reader myself, former primary grade teacher, and mother of two wild readers, I know that talking about what you're reading furthers comprehension of the material. Individual time given to another in which conversation is focused on that person, is bound to secure a relationship. The teacher/student relationship can be necessary when the work of learning is tough. However, as readers, we've developed the ability to use strategies that help us to struggle through very tough literature. The conferring time should focus on strategy work; not just comprehension of the reading itself. Teaching and reinforcing use of strategies across a range of genre should make use of the precious time of the reading conference.  

A couple of years ago, I attended a TCRWP (Teachers' College Reading & Writing Project) coaching seminar led by Lucy Calkins. She provides a roadmap for the conferring conversation that also requires the teacher to listen actively and find the area that the student may struggle. The "research" that the teacher does while the student reads or talks about the literature provides the "teaching point" that gives the student information to advance as a reader. The teacher may guide the student through using a particular strategy. The teacher and student may make a plan that will reinforce the new learning and continue to move the student forward. Teachers are encouraged to keep the conferring conversation under 10 minutes to ensure that the teacher meets frequently with all students. The teacher might give the student feedback or encourage the student to self-assess. 

We often give advice rather than feedback. In order to give good feedback, we need to see what the reader does- (making reading visible to us). We should give feedback to students on what is working and not working. What strategies were used to what benefit? To what degree did the student persist? We have to know what students typically do and don’t do when reading. Since it’s often difficult to get into the heads of readers, we might want to ask questions that invite the student to self-reflect. The talk that is generated is likely to move the reader forward.

Management Systems

Donalyn Miller provides some valuable thoughts regarding management of the conferring sessions. She is very honest about her struggles to find a system that works for her style. One that she describes was used by many who worked with the TCRWP. The teacher prints package labels with her students' names printed on each label. The teacher writes her notes directly on the label and then affixes it to the student's folder. Donalyn uses a system that I have seen used successfully. The teacher records the conference or portion of it on Evernote or Notability. Typed notes can be added to each session.

While I found some fault in Donalyn's conferring methods, there's no denying that her efforts to present reading to her students as the "gift of a lifetime," is genuine and borne of the best of intentions. Every teacher should read this book and make the methods work based on knowledge of her students.

Want to catch up on the #D100bloggerPD posts thus far?  Click here to access the links and view the schedule for future posts. Next up on December 2nd is Pershing School's fabulous literacy coach, +Meg Hanisch . She will take on Chapter 4; "Wild Readers Have Reading Plans."

Monday, November 2, 2015

Making Learning Visible

Our school’s Halloween parade route has been the same for 20+ years. Kids and staff walk around the  block. About two weeks ago, it occurred to me that it would be safer and the kids would be easier to view if we held our parade at the large park across the street from our school. I was so excited as I watched the parade that I had finally gotten this right on my last year as a principal. I wish getting our staff to see the impact of their efforts was as easy.

A little more than a year ago, I had the pleasure of hosting Doug Reeves in our school district. As our principals and superintendent had a conversation with him, he was asked, “If you could pick one book that we should read that would improve learning, what would it be?” His response: Visible Learning For Teachers by John Hattie.
Reading and re-reading that book as well as attending a two-day conference has convinced me that I can’t retire without the teachers at Pershing School looking closely at their impact. We collect evidence of learning through various test measures, but we have not really looked at it in light of the impact of teaching.

Are we really doing what matters?  Hattie suggests that we focus on progress rather than achievement. We should insist that students make a year’s worth of progress for a year’s worth of teaching. Using assessments that shape learning, rather than measure it, will optimize good teaching.  When teachers focus on impact, they should define what success looks like for their students. Teacher clarity- being clear for students on what they will be able to know, understand, and do is a building block of visible learning.
 There is no single way to get a student from point A to point B. There are innumerable ways to teach or reinforce a skill or strategy. What matters is that the teacher knows whether or not what she did had an impact on the student’s growth. We have to ask students what they know and understand. Teachers have to look at what students can do to know their impact on learning. Collaboratively, teachers can sort student work and other evidence of learning. Through the collaborative conversations, they will learn from each other and be able to refine their teaching.

Hattie refers to “knowledge gaps” in his work. People are generally motivated to fill a gap in knowledge if they see that it is doable in the short term. Students need to be given information on how to bridge the gap. The pathway between the learning targets and how the student will know they are successful have to be transparent.

This all sounds easy and sensible. The difficulty lies in the distractions. There are demanding tasks asked of teachers that sap their energy as well as looming sanctions related to student achievement on state testing. I have the luxury of being able to live in the present on this last year of my career. While I’m going to push the entire staff towards increased clarity of what they are teaching and knowing the impact of their teaching, I am going to target several teachers and work directly with them until their self-reflection becomes better feedback than I am able to provide.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Collaboration is the Key to Success

People who work in an organization benefit from periodically looking back in time as they make plans for moving forward. A great advantage to working in schools is that every fall we have an opportunity to start over. On the opening Institute Day, Diona (assistant principal) and I did just that. We divided the teachers into two groups to make each group smaller and more manageable. Diona structured a game similar to  Taboo.   The purpose of the game was to generate some thought about various initiatives that our school and district have pursued over the past 5 years. Teachers were broken up into teams depending on where they sat.  Everyone was given 2 minutes to write down as many educational trends/buzz words that they could come up with and fold up their ideas and drop in the bucket.  When time was called, each team picked a person to start and that person got 1 minute to describe as many of the words as possible to their team in order to get them to guess the buzz word/trend. They got 1 point for every correct answer. The group discussed how ridiculous some of the initiatives were; those that had lasting value, but especially those that contributed to the success of Pershing School.

I led the group in the hallway. On the walls, I had posted artifacts from building meetings from the past 5 years. On these poster sheets, teachers had recorded the things that they needed to stop, start, and continue to do. The school improvement plans had evolved from these documents. Above the artifacts were two graphics that told the truth of state test scores over time. One graphic showed the entire district while the other included only schools on the same side of town. Our school’s tests scores had plummeted from 2002-2010. Scores were the lowest when I was assigned to Pershing School. Between 2010-2014 (the last ISAT scores available), Pershing School moved steadily upward and lined up with the other schools in the district. Below the artifacts was a timeline.
I asked teachers in the hallway to read the artifacts and the data and to record what we were doing as a staff on the timeline.

Following this exercise, we debriefed and drew conclusions. The groups noted various initiatives that strengthened classroom practice such as co-teaching, 1:1 technology integration and instructional coaches to support that, literacy coaching, RtI, and full-day kindergarten.  One teacher pointed to the upward movement after 2010 and said, “it matters who your principal and social worker are.” So true. But the biggest aha resounded through the group when they realized that the greatest impact on student learning was collaboration.

We restructured our elementary school planning time so that it included common plan time for every grade level.  Teachers meet together with the literacy coach for 70 minutes a week. Her work with them has evolved over time from strengthening the literacy practices in the classroom to her current work with them that includes a focus on writing across the curriculum. Teachers use common plan times to look at student data and work. For the past two years they have used the unpacked CCSS to determine if students were below, at, or above standards.

In a meaningful collaborative culture, all effort is focused toward improving student learning. The students become the collective responsibility of every adult in the school. Inquiry and examination of student work and behavior are the norm. Teachers with particular interests lead various efforts. Over time, we have seen our Pershing teachers take responsibility and lead RtI, implementation of best practices in math, literacy, and the integration of technology. Those teacher leaders have pushed and pulled other teachers along with them. Our PE teacher and nurse have developed a system that keeps kids moving and learning about healthy habits. They encourage all of us to attend monthly fitness nights and to join runs with the students. Egos are kicked to the side in this type of culture. It is our collective spirit that energizes the organization; students, parents, community members, and each other to give 100% to our students.

By the end of week one, grade levels committed to their plan to reach our school improvement goals. Students learned classroom expectations as well as started academic work.  We have 38 kids signed up for an October Frank Lloyd Wright Race and beginning their twice a week 7:30 am running club. We are off to a great start!