Saturday, October 29, 2011

Filling Up the Love Tank

I am in Napa Valley this weekend hanging with my girlfriends from high school.  We have been friends for 40 years and we get together twice a year to "fill our love tanks".  It is a weekend of good food, good wine and unconditional love between old friends who have been through the adolescent years together (good, bad, ugly) and as adults have built a sacred circle of friendship.  We counsel, discuss, encourage, support, laugh, cry, hug, and just "BE" without any expectations.  As I get my head and heart ready to head home today, I can't stop thinking about the things that fill my love tank in my daily life, which in turn leads me to think about my students and their love tank

In my personal life, my tank is filled by the usual suspects: family, friends, pets, spirituality, gratitude, music, exercise, hobbies and writing.  Sacred family time everyday, sacred writing time every morning, and sacred exercise time every night allow me to maintain sanity and live with gratitude in my heart for all that I experience.  They also provide me with the strength I need during the times that my tank is emptying out from multiple holes that cannot be stopped up fast enough.

In my educator life, I also have many things that fill my love tank.  Exactly a year ago I attended my first Classroom 2.0 Live Saturday class.  That one action has snowballed into many other actions and has changed the entire make up of my classroom and what I do as an educator on a DAILY basis!  I began attending the weekly classes every Saturday learning from incredible educators from all over the US and the world.  I could not learn enough from the presenters who shared what they knew and their resources so freely.  The next stop came after months of encouragement from the presenters,  I opened my twitter account @teachteKBeck.  Again a small thing that has lead to huge changes.  A few months later, the birth of this blog.

I see myself as a newborn in this process of building a professional learning network, yet the process makes so much sense.  I began with a will to fill my love tank by learning how to integrate technology and new teaching strategies into my classroom.  Then I began following the people who were teaching me and took, took, and took more.  Although I am predominately a taker, I am slowly becoming a sharer.  It is a natural path that all of my mentors on twitter have traveled.  And as I "follow" (on twitter) their path, I move forward in my learning and sharing and growing as an educator.

In the past I filled my professional love tank by attending summer institutes.  Now, with my PLN I can fill my tank any day, any time, any where.  Just as I found kindred spirits at the writing and math projects, I have many more in my PLN.  My learning has increased exponentially, and even though I have not met members of my PLN face to face, I feel closer to them than most of my colleagues that I see everyday at my school.  The educators I learn from on twitter push me to close my eyes and leap.  I have blind faith that I can trust and try new things with my students.  So far, I have not been let down.  They push me, I push my students and we are all better for it.  I model how to learn from mistakes on a daily basis.  I also admit to my students that I am trying something new and I am not sure how it will work but we will see together.  I tell my students "I don't know" all of the time.   I have so many places to go for help that I have no fear in trying new things.  Interestingly, my students openly admit when they do not know how to do something knowing that we will work through it together.

So, What I worry about is my students and what fills their love tanks.  Middle school is such a hard time for kiddos and I see so many students with very low tanks.  Now that I have found the unlimited professional love tank filler, I want to help my students find as many ways as possible to fill their tanks.

In my math classes we are creating math blogs where the students begin by sharing a "passion paper" (The Passion Driven Classroom).  My plan is to help students connect what we are learning in math to their passion on a monthly basis.  I have also integrated the first Classroom 2.0 Live Saturday webinar I attended by Karen McMillan on Paper Blogs.  Wow, I have come full circle in a year.

Looking forward to continually filling my love tank and my students love tanks!  I would love any ideas!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How am I going to stop the cycle of failure?

I have had a blessed teaching career!  However, this year has been a struggle that I can only compare to what I experienced my toughest years of teaching.  I leave school everyday wondering how I am going to find the will to want to come back in the morning.  Every morning I wake up re-energized and ready to fight for my students one more day.  I am back to the day to day fight for survival in the classroom which makes me feel guilty (I'll explain more in a little bit).

The past few years have allowed me to pretend that I was reaching all of my math students.  Before this year, I had a mix of students and because my high and middle students were succeeding, I pretended that the small percentage that were not succeeding were just those kiddos who don't and won't get math.  Of course I provided advisory periods, before and after school help, and lots of encouragement.  But in the end when they still struggled and did not show proficiency on standards I could let it go because it was not a "significant" number of students compared to the ones who were being successful in my classes.  Although I did rationalize it away, the fact that they were not succeeding gnawed at me, unfortunately not enough for me to address the issues.

This year, the lack of student success is in my face each and every day.  As I stated in earlier blog posts, I have a class of 35 eighth grade pre-algebra students, 23 of which are the lowest eighth grade math students in the school (project class).  This class has taught me so much in the first eight weeks of school!  They teach me about patience, about fear, and that even though they have lost hope as math learners they want to somehow succeed.  I am going to spend more time writing about these kiddos, because these are the ones that are pushing me.  I am questioning so many things as an educator, as a parent, and as someone whose passion is life long learning.  One thing I know for sure is the reason I have been a classroom teacher for 20 years is because I am full of hope and faith.  Hope and faith come back to me as I sleep each night and allow me to eagerly take on a new school day no matter what happened the day before.

This Week:  We started our fractions unit and I thought equivalent fractions would be a "confidence builder" for my "project class".  I asked the students to write 5 equivalent fractions for two thirds.  Interestingly, about two thirds of my class could not do it, and did not even want to attempt it.  They completely gave up.

The Facts:  These students have been learning fractions rules since third grade.  Their brains are full of muddled rules that make no sense.  They have no confidence in their ability to be mathematicians.

Story Time:  My little sister was one of these students.  She was an extreme math phobe.  It took her four years of high school to pass algebra 1.  Luckily way back then, you could get your diploma!  She struggled in math in junior college but got through.  Not only did she graduate from college, but from Oregon State, a Pac 10 school (a dream of mine that was never fulfilled).  She still believes that she is a math idiot.  Remember the  "guilty" part from above... I mentioned my day to day fight... My sister had breast cancer at age 29.  Talk about a day to day fight (hence the guilt!).  I know that many of the kiddos in my "project" class have day to day fights in their lives that I have no idea about and some I do know about and wish I didn't.

What I'm Wondering:  How am I going to help these students?  Do I have enough time to make a difference and change their beliefs?  What am I going to do that will make a difference?  Will connecting math to real life situations help them understand math better?

What I Know:  Re-teaching the "rules" will not work with these kiddos.  They felt comfortable enough to let me know that they couldn't do it.  They want math to make sense.  They trust me not to make them feel stupid.  They know I want to help them succeed.

Next Steps:  Use tools.  Show the students that they have an innate ability to understand fractions by providing meaningful situations connected to their lives.  Keep building trust.

I have to give a shout out to my PLN!  If it weren't for my twitter tweeps, I would be feeling extremely isolated and alone.  Thank you for sharing your experiences and resources and learning!

Any ideas or suggestions would be welcome!!
I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Need Perspective on "Learning Tools"

I need some feedback on whether I am way off on this or not.  I teach middle school math and for the first time in 8 years, I am not also teaching science.  I have also volunteered to work with the eighth grade students who struggle the most in math to help build their confidence, teach them how to think mathematically and get them ready for a fast paced 9th grade Algebra 1 class.  This class was supposed to have the 23 lowest students, however, the other classes that period we too large so they added another 13 pre-algebra 8th graders so now it is a class of 36 math phobic middle school students. 

I am working my tail off to help these kiddos and make learning math a positive experience for them.  I am up against some interesting attitudes.  These kids have been failing math for at least the past three years or more.  They see math as a bunch of meaningless rules that are all mixed up in their brain.  They see themselves as stupid and have no confidence in their ability to think mathematically or "do" math.

When I spend time helping them by asking questions and guiding their thinking, they show me they can think mathematically, however I don't see the lightbulb go off or hear the "OHHHH".  They prove to me everyday that they have math understanding, but they are almost shocked and surprised when they realize they have it.  It is almost like the movie 50 first dates, everyday they walk in not remembering the success they had the day before - success amnesia.

So, my questions...
I am wanting to build their confidence by letting them use tools - calculators, computers, smart phones, iPods, etc...  It is my belief that if their lack of confidence and skills is getting in the way of their showing understanding on the grade level content standards then why not let them use a calculator?  If they use the tool to prove that they do understand, then they will eventually no longer need to rely on it.  I would combine the use with explanations of understanding and by having the students write exactly what is being put into the calculator.  I need the students to see for themselves that they can do it.  They have felt for so long that they can't be successful in math so they do not even try.  I'm getting pressure from my math department on a variety of issues - standards based grading, using tools, making real life math connections, using computer collaboration tools, etc...  Am I way off on this one?  Any other suggestions?

I appreciate ANY feedback my PLN can provide!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I can't believe I have to defend thinking...

I am posting an email I sent to a concerned parent this week.  I want to make sure I have it documented as I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would say.  I thought of this process as a "position paper".  I have had to write something similar the past few years as I work in a very conservative school district.  I have to battle each year to defend what I do in my classroom.  How dare I demand that my math students think!  Here are the major concerns of the parent: 

 "My concerns are this, He comes home everyday concerned about the "looseness" of your class, He doesn't feel he is being taught to, that they have to figure it out on their own"

"I understand that 7th grade is an adjustment and that every teacher has their own teaching style. I think that every kid should be taught to regardless of their level and wonder if there are any changes that can be made or if he needs another more straight forward class assignment. Ipods and cellphones are allowed? The class is very chaotic? Alot of independent study??" 

Hi Concerned Parent,

As an educator, my goal is to help students become literate citizens.  Math literacy is more than students being able to blindly follow a rule or set of procedures given by the teacher to solve problems.  It involves a deeper understanding and the ability to argue, prove, explain, and/or demonstrate understanding.  Therefore, I use research based methods (I would be happy to share my resources!) to facilitate instruction and learning.  I work to help students make their own meaning of the math standards/concepts.  The students have to prove their understanding rather than follow a prescribed set of instructions that become forgotten and meaningless once an assessment is over.  Their grade is based on understanding not compliance.

Everyone in my class is expected to think mathematically including me.  I work to provide an environment where I am not the answer provider but the question asker.  I will help and support all students as they work to make meaning and to understand a concept.  I will ask guiding questions to enable students to re-discover the mathematical thinker that lies within, but has been silenced and squelched by an obedient rule follower.  Not that rules are not important but they need to be the students’ rules not the teacher’s.  Math is not a discipline of blind faith.

I use standards based grading to involve students in their learning by informing them of their areas of weakness and strength.  Then they have a chance to work to improve and show me they truly understand a mathematical concept as opposed to regurgitating a rule or process they copied from me.  I expect students to prove their understanding by not only providing a correct answer, but by also providing evidence of knowledge.

I can understand a student’s discomfort with getting to know the way my classroom works.  In general, I follow the exact same pacing guide as every other math teacher at our middle school.  We are all giving our first unit assessment which is a common assessment next week.  We all teach the same exact standards.  I believe I am fairly explicit in my expectations and due dates.  I have 6 assignments each week: Math Book problems, Question of the Week, Real Life math problem solving, graphing and/or statistics, Analytical Reading and BuzzMath.  Two of the 6 assignments are specifically done on the computer: BuzzMath and Analytical Reading (Collaborize).  Since Monday’s are shorter, we use our time to look at Real-life connections to our math concepts.  The other assignments are given on Tuesday and are all due the following Tuesday.  Late or missing assignments are not counted against a student’s grade, however that does not mean they “do not matter”.  I do not assign meaningless work.  Each activity is tied directly to a content standard or to our school wide smart goal of “analytical reading” as it relates to mathematics.  Weekly quizzes are given so that I can assess where the students are with their understanding and provide feedback for all students and instruction for struggling students in a small group environment. 

Our daily routine starts with a warm up which gives the students practice and allows me to walk around the room and monitor where the students are in their understanding and ask guiding questions.  Then the last 35 minutes of class the students work on their assignments for the week and I monitor to help them when they ask or when I see a student has a particular need.  Yes, I allow students to use their cell phones and/or iPods as tools – calculators mainly as I do not believe a parent should buy a calculator when the student’s phone can be used as one.  On Fridays, if the students bring headphones they may listen to their music, another research based strategy that I can share with you.  The environment has a lot of activity because the students are choosing what to work on which is formally called differentiated learning and what I like to call “organized chaos”.  It may be louder than the typical classroom, but every student is actively engaged in learning mathematics.  I also have a mix of 7th and 8th grade students in the class and there are times when middle school students can be immature and inappropriate which I deal with immediately as needed. 

I would be happy to meet with you, have you come in to observe, or speak on the phone if you need more information.

Thank you for sharing your concerns,
Kristen Beck

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