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

Please feel free to steal and or copy from this!


  1. I also have to defend what I do in my standards-based classroom, and I use a lot of nontraditional instructional techniques as well. I have found it's all about communication, which your e-mail does a very nice job at doing. I have found that I have to really overcommunicate the message about how thinking and learning should take precedence in the classroom, simply because parents have a very different vision of what "doing school" is based on their own experiences in a factory-model system. I think we have to defend ourselves every year because every year we have to convince a new set of parents with that vision of school that school should be done differently.

  2. Mrs. E
    You are exactly right and that is why I posted this to my blog, I have a feeling I will be using bits and pieces of it regularly from now on! Now I know where to look instead of searching my school emails. It was also a great process to stop and think about why I do what I do and actually write a "position paper". Another form of reflection to remind me of the reasons I do what I do. Also at this time in the year when there is frustration among the students and parents I refer back so that I don't give up and stay the course.
    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Just now stumbling into SBG I would love love love some resources. Where do you find guiding questions. I am feeling like my students... I don't even know where to start. If you have time my email is brittany.eversole@laurel I teach 8th grade math but most of my students are on a 2-5th grade level. I will continue reading through your blog but would love any guidance!