Time to Emerge

Thank goodness that so many people I follow on twitter are at a fabulous conference this week. It has given me the motivation I need to emerge from my summer hiding and begin getting ready to go back to school which starts in just 3 short weeks. It has been a fabulous summer filled with some much needed time to focus on my own two kids and take a break from the daily pressures that come with the regular school year. However, it is time for me to get out of summer mode and start attacking all those “I’m going to be a better teacher next year” projects that I have been putting off.

New Challenges

I have accepted some new challenges for the coming school year that I am equally nervous and excited about.  I agreed to teach two collaborative Pre-Algebra classes.  It is a new idea we are trying where the kids 6th grade special education collab teacher is going to loop with the kids.  This means a few different things for me:

1)  I will get to work with absolutely hands down the best special education teacher I have ever known.  I have never had the pleasure of teaching with him but I am so excited for the opportunity we will have to really push some kids that are struggling learners.  One of the goals I have is to prove that Steve Leinwand is absolutely correct when he says that we have an instructional gap not an achievement gap.  This group of kids got off to a fabulous start in 6th grade with a phenomenal teacher and their special education teacher.  Now if I can take that progress and build I am hopeful we will see a real difference in their so called achievement gap.

2)  I am going to have to get more innovative than ever before.  In addition to the students I will teach that are identified as having an IEP I will also teach a very large population of English language learners.  I feel like every student that comes in my room deserves the best I have and I worry that it will be hard to meet all of their needs daily but I am also excited that I have the opportunity to meet their learning needs.  Although some teachers dread teaching such classes and look “down” on it, I consider it an honor that my administration feels that I can really help these kids.  I just hope I can live up to the expectations. 

New Leadership Roles

I am also equally excited and nervous about some new leadership roles I will be taking on.  I agreed to serve as Math Department Chair for the coming school year which I am hopeful will be a great way to not only serve my school as a leader but will be a chance to improve instructional opportunities for all learners.  This role will be a challenge for me though.  I am not always thick skinned enough and know that there are going to be times that my colleagues may not agree with or like the direction we are going.  I am planning on doing a department book study of the NCTM book Principles to Actions that I know will open up some unpleasant discussions for some but I really hope that I have the ability to start an open dialogue about some of the productive and unproductive practices discussed in the book.

With the implementation of the new Kentucky TPGES evaluation system I will also be serving as a Peer Observer in our building as well.  I am really looking forward to that role for selfish reasons.  I love getting in classrooms and learning from other teachers so I am incredibly excited to spend time in a variety of teacher’s rooms in order to help them grow while I learn from them at the same time.

I have no doubt that the next year will be a mixture of both success and failure as I continue to push myself professionally.  I already have lots of things I am planning on sharing so I hope you will follow along, provide feedback, commentary, thoughts to ponder, or just support as I begin another year’s journey with 120 fabulous 7th graders!

18 Years to Achieve Greatness

When the bell rings tomorrow afternoon it will be the end of my ninth year of teaching. That means I will officially be 1/3 of the way through my 27 year teaching career and that scares me to death. I’m a third of the way in and still am not a great teacher.

How I Got Here

It was my junior year of college when I switched my major to education and shocked nearly everyone who knew me. The natural choice for me was a degree in public relations and marketing. I was an accomplished public speaker, served as an Ambassador for the University of Kentucky and managed the P.R. for my family business for years. Everyone just knew I would find a successful life in the corporate world and live happily ever after.

I still don’t know why I changed my major to education. I honestly did it on a whim one day after getting very frustrated with a Journalism professor and it was the best decision I ever made. Don’t get me wrong, there were days when I had my doubts. My student teaching experience was TOUGH. I look back on my journals from those four months and laugh about I frustrated I was and how I didn’t think I would ever make it as a classroom teacher. Turns out I just had an amazing supervising teacher who knew what she was doing. Ms. Hack was just ensuring that I was prepared when I got my own classroom. During student teaching I encountered all kinds of trials and tribulations and as a result my first year teaching was actually pretty easy and from there the last nine years have flown by.

 Here I Am

It all sounds like such a fairytale and in some ways it has been. The problem comes with the fact that I don’t want to be a good teacher I want to be a great teacher. In the last nine years I have immersed myself in degree programs, professional development opportunities, professional learning communities, and online and print resources to try and get great but I feel like I still have so much to learn and do before I am a really great teacher.   This summer I will do what I always do I will read, plan, attend PD, and brainstorm ways to be even better next year in hopes that sometime in the next 18 years I can finally find greatness. Every kid deserves a great teacher and I hope one day that is me.

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A Reflection on “Who or What Broke My Kids”

I Broke My Own Rule

I have a silly rule in my class that I don’t allow any vine videos to be taken in my room. The reason I always tell the kids is that too many things I say can be taken out of context in an eight second video clip. I always explain that if they want to secretly video my lesson for some strange reason to please video the whole class so their parents will know there is a method to the madness. After all, I have been known to do some crazy things in the 65 minutes the kids are with me all of which could be taken the wrong way without knowing the context of the lesson.

A few weeks ago I posted the piece “Who or What Broke My Kids” after an interesting day in class. Recently that post ended up on Hacker News, Reddit, MetaFilter, and a few other sites with a great deal of controversy regarding the methods and mathematics involved in my class that day. After dealing with the initial shock of reading what people were saying about the post I realized I broke my own rule. I gave people a written equivalent of a vine video and let them take my classroom out of context.

Classroom Culture Can’t Be Captured in Print

A great deal of the comments centered around the fact that no one could believe that I had a meltdown in class and “berated” the kids by calling them broken. I realize this is my own fault as I was the one who used the terms broken and meltdown however what the commenters failed to realize is that I spend weeks at the beginning of the year developing a classroom culture that encourages a free exchange of ideas between me and the students. So what seemed like a 10 minute lecture to most of the commenters actual went a lot more like this: “Guys, can we take a time our here for a minute… What is going on here…You seem really concerned about whether or not I think you are right…Do you think you are right…Which cards do you think definitely have a right answer…Do you think there are cards that don’t have a right answer…” etc.   I wasn’t angry with the kids I was disappointed that they wouldn’t trust their own instinct and reason on their own.

Why I Can’t Always Tell Them They Are Right or Wrong

A lot of commenters focused on the fact that it was a poor teaching strategy to not tell the kids if they were right or wrong. They thought the kids were just looking for guidance and that I was withholding that from them. I can assure you that isn’t what they were looking for. The kids wanted me to give them the answers and the whole point of the activity was for them to engage in that productive struggle we all talk so much about these days. Every teacher has had this happen, the kids were asking if they were correct and when I would give feedback they would switch around a card or two and say, “well how about now…now…what about now”. Kids are really good at getting teachers to give them the answer. I have done it myself frequently. We see them struggling and want to help but instead of helping them think we give them answers and bail them out. I was determined to not let this go that way.

 Despite My Best Effort I Can’t Predict How Every Activity Will Go

Another center of controversy was the fact that I should have been able to predict the lesson would go this way and frame it in a different way so it would not go that direction. I work with thirteen year olds who I love dearly but are terribly hard to predict. This was not at all their first experience with these types of probabilities. We had been working with the standards for a couple of days and the formative assessment data collected showed they were ready for a more challenging activity so we gave this a go. This was also not their first experience with this type of card sorting activity either. I am not exactly sure how I could have reframed it to help them without taking that productive struggle away from them but am open to suggestions.

In the End

In the end, I learned a lot from this experience. The whole reason I started this blog was to help me find my voice as a teacher. A great deal of the posts I write are more for myself than anyone else and I seriously doubted my decision to start the blog in the midst of this experience. Reading what people were saying about the post on some of the social sites was eye opening.   Some people thought if I wanted to teach this way that I should be at a Montessori school while others thought I shouldn’t be allowed to teach at all. Many thought the problem was the fact that I don’t teach math like it was taught when they were in school and that my job was to be the gatekeeper to information rather than a facilitator of learning. Some people said they wished I was their child’s teacher others claimed if their child had me as a teacher they would have their child removed from my class.   However, after taking the time to really reflect on the whole experience I realize this is exactly what I needed. I now know I do have a voice and it is a strong one. Although not everyone agreed with my methodology or thoughts they were taking about it. The goal in my class the day of this post was to generate discussion and I was not only able to do that in class that day I was able to do it in the blog world weeks later as well.

A Reminder that at My Worst I am the Best Some Kids Have

A Teacher’s Sob Story

I have not been on top of my game this year.  I have a plethora of excuses that range from finishing my research project to pressures of Common Core gaps or my own son beginning Kindergarten and the  extra parental responsibilities involved with that.  Whatever the reason I have spent most of the year feeling ineffective and tired.  I have considered leaving teaching altogether and maybe starting my own business or being a stay at home mom.  I have dealt with feeling like I short-changed the 120 kids I was responsible for teaching while also short-changing my own kids at home.  Don’t get me wrong, I tried my best everyday but for the first time in my career I felt like it was never enough.

 

How My Students Changed that Sob Story this Week

It started last week with one of my student’s from last year upset that a parent bailed on his track meet.  I promised I would come watch him at the county championship and bring my big shiny camera to take lots of pictures.  The day of the meet I was tired.  It had been a long day and the last thing I wanted to do was stand out in the 40 degree weather.  I missed my own kids who I had seen minimally that week but my husband reminded me that this kid needed me more so I went.  I hadn’t more than sat down in the full stands before my former student saw me from the track made his way through the stands to hug me and thank me for coming. He beamed with pride and gratefulness and for the first time in a while I knew that even on that bad day I had made the life of a child better.

Fast forward to the next morning when my students arrived for homework help.  I open my doors an hour early three days a week for students to get help, retake tests, do Buzz Math, or whatever else they want.  One of my students shows up faithfully nearly every time with a smile on her face ready to work on material she is struggling with.  Friday morning she arrived with a bigger smile than usual and beautiful flowers from her mom’s yard.  I can’t tell you how blessed I felt that this 13-year-old took time our of her morning to do something to brighten my day.  She told me homework help was her favorite part of school.  Even at my worst I was the best part of her day.

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Today I cried in my room.  It wasn’t even a pretty cry.  It was the I am completely overwhelmed by how blessed I am cry.   My students filled out their annual math K-prep test dedication.  I never expect the kids to dedicate their performance to me, sure there are always the few token kids that say me for lack of wanting to think about it but I always really push the kids to dedicate their performance to someone who has motivated them to do better in math.  I was overwhelmed when I read them by the kids that dedicated their performance to me.  It wasn’t the advanced kids.  It wasn’t the well-behaved angels that are always engaged and focused.  It was the kids that never do any homework, the kids that roll their eyes every time I speak, the kids that huff and puff and push back against everything I want them to do.   Those are the kids that picked me this year.

Kprep Dedication

 

They said things like:

She never gives up on me

She always let me know that she was there for me and that I was important

She loves us

She makes the boring stuff fun

I have never had a teacher like Mrs. Powers

She is weird but fun

I have a really big teaching challenge next year.  I volunteered for it and am looking forward to blogging about it but I also know it will push me to the brink. I will have to bring more to the table everyday.  I am nervous about it and worried that I will never be able to do enough for the kids I will teach but the 50 plus kids that dedicated their performance to me this year showed me that even at my worst I was the best they had.

Why I Taught the “Worst Lesson Ever Today” on Purpose

Here is a glimpse of what my students thought of my lesson today.  I can tell you that there were a lot more comments like the one on the left than the one on the right.Image

 

I estimate that more than 2/3 of the class declared it their “worst lesson ever” and I loved every minute of it!

The Worst Lesson Ever…an Idea is Born

I can’t lie, I am a little behind pacing wise and am working to get in the rest of the very important 7th grade probability unit before state testing and the end of the school year.  I don’t have tons of time to teach a lot of direct instruction type lessons on different aspects of probability and if you know me you know that isn’t my style anyway so I wrapped about 1/2 of the probability content into this one lesson.  Last week students were exposed to basic probability, probability on a number line and my favorite sample space and the fundamental counting principle through the amazing Mathalicious lesson “Pair-Alysis”.  They have no previous exposure to theoretical vs. experimental probability or the concept of a fair game and this is where today’s lesson comes into play.

It Started So Innocently

Our lesson started so innocently with a game of rock, paper, scissors.  Students played 20 rounds of the game in pairs and kept data on how many times each player won in addition to the number of ties the group had.

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Once students completed their data collection they submitted it via their clicker so we had class data to examine.  Results were fairly evenly distributed and students quickly jumped to the conclusion that it must have been a “fair game” but when I asked them to prove why their arguments were week.  This led us to a rich discussion about how what we had just done was the “experimental probability ” but in order to prove the game fair we had to have the”theoretical probability”.  Students listed the sample space and determined that each player had a 1/3 chance of winning with the other 1/3 going to the “tie” category.

That’s Not Fair

So far this seems like a pretty boring lesson and rather unmemorable so I spiced it up in the next step by changing their groups to three people and having the groups identify a player A, B, and C.  This time scoring goes as follows:

Player A receives a point if all three players pick the same item

Player B receives a point if all three players pick a different item

Player C receives the point if two players pick the same item

After reviewing the rules most students thought this would also be a “fair game” assuming that player C assumed the “tie” probability from before and each person would have a 1/3 chance of winning.  As groups got finished I awarded the winning player (player C in every group every period) $500 in our team money.

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Once all the groups were done we compiled all the data again and a riot  nearly broke out.  Students quickly figured out, if they hadn’t already, that this was anything but a fair game.  They worked in their group to identify the sample space and compare their theoretical and experimental probabilities of the game.

The Worst Lessons are the Most Memorable

To say they were upset with me over their classmates winning $500 e-bucks in an “unfair” game was an understatement.  I think they really thought at the end of the day that I would give them all $500 e-bucks but that would have defeated the purpose of the unfairness.  In the end we had fun and although they may have declared this as the worst lesson ever I would bet it will also be the one they remember most. I don’t foresee them forgetting the concept of fair games anytime soon.

Who or What Broke My Kids?

I am Desperate

I am on a desperate search to find out who or what broke my students.  In fact I am so desperate that I stopped class today to ask them who broke them.  Was it their parents, a former teacher, society, our education system or me that took away their inquisitive nature and made math only about getting a right answer?  I have known this was a problem for a while but today was the last straw.  

A Probability Lesson Gone Wrong

It started out innocently enough working on the seventh grade Common Core standard 7.SP.C.5 about understanding that all probabilities occur between zero and one and differentiating between likely and unlikely events which I thought would be simple enough. After the introduction and class discussion we began partner work on this activity from the Georgia Common Core Resource Document (see page 9).  The basic premise of the activity is that students must sort cards including probability statements, terms such as unlikely and probable, pictorial representations, and fraction, decimal, and percent probabilities and place them on a number line based on their theoretical probability.  I thought it would be an interactive way to gauge student understanding.  Instead it turned into a ten minute nightmare where I was asked no less than 52 times if their answers were “right”.  I took it well until I was asked for the 53rd time and then I lost it.  We stopped class right there and proceeded to have a ten minute discussion on who broke them.

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If You Can Type the Problem into Wolfram Alpha and Get an Answer You Aren’t Doing Math

When did we brainwash kids into thinking that math was about getting an answer?  My students truly believe for some reason that math is about combining whatever numbers you can in whatever method that seems about right to get one “answer” and then call it a day.  They rarely think about what they are doing as long as at the end of the day their answer is “correct”.  Today they were given a task with no real correct answer and they lost it.  It did however lead us to have a very productive discussion about that fact that they are lucky, after all they live in the 21 century where they can solve any computation problem with technology with no issue.  The problem I told them lies in the fact that they have no idea how to interpret that answer.  We talked about the need for them to stop worrying about if I think their answer is right and to start worrying about whether or not they thought their answer was right.  I told them I was sorry someone (maybe me) broke their desire to think about math and instead taught them that math was a means to an end where there was always one right and one wrong answer and then I told them to try their assignment again.

Probability Revisited

Things went so much better the second time around with not one student asking me if their answer was “right” (perhaps out of fear of another Powers meltdown).  For the first time I heard some really rich discussions that were sometimes correct and sometimes were not but the important thing was the kids were talking about the math.  There was a great discussion about the circle that was shaded in vs. the circle that was not shaded in.  The obvious answer was that the shaded in circle represented one and the unshaded represented zero but another group of students thought maybe the non-shaded circle was actually shaded in with white and would therefore represent one as well.  Fabulous.  Another group focused on the statement “it will rain tomorrow”.  One student had seen the weather and knew there was a 90% chance of rain the other had not seen the weather and though the probability was 50% since it would either rain or not.  They compromised and picked the middle but that’s not the part I cared about, I cared that they had a reasonable discussion about their thoughts.

Why Constructing a Viable Argument and Making Sense of the Reasoning of Others is Crucial

This may seriously be the most vital mathematical practice.  If students can’t share their ideas and understand the ideas of others is there any real point in them “doing the math”.  After our lesson redo I paired each group with another group to share their number line.  Their goal was to look for similarities and differences and explain their rationale about why they placed controversial cards where they did.  I heard some of most logical and articulate arguments we have had all year.  I think I heard, “I like what you did there, but…” repeatedly along with “I hear what you are saying”.  We brought it back together as a whole class to follow it up and each group shared the most interesting conversation that they had.

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In the end our meltdown and redo took more time than anticipated by me but it was time well worth it.  If we are to truly make progress in getting our students to understand the concepts presented in the Common Core to the depth intended we must help them learn to stop looking for a right answer and start looking for a right reason.  I still don’t know who broke my kids but I know it is up to me to fix them one argument at a time.

 

How I Motivate My Students on That Thing You Aren’t Supposed to Talk About

I feel like it is kind of taboo to talk about motivating your students during state and MAP testing.  I mean obviously it is just a test blah blah blah.  In Kentucky we are in the midst of starting our new PGES evaluation system and will begin to be evaluated on student growth next school year.  So although I get that it is just a test I also realize that I really need my students to take the test seriously.  I work really hard to get my kids to take ownership and pride in their assessments.

Powerful Post-Its

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Our MAP test is all about student growth.  The first year we gave MAP it seemed like every kid felt the need to ask if their score was “good” when they were finished.  I quickly figured out that I needed to give them something to work toward.  I started making individual goals for each student by looking at their past three scores.  This isn’t always the same as MAP’s student growth percentage but is really my goal for the student.  I also write them a little note on their post-it with their goal and then they stick them on their computer screen while they test.  When they finish their test they write their score on their post-it and turn it back into me.  Later, we have an awards ceremony in my class and every student that meets their goal is recognized like they won a grammy.  They love that part.

Dedicated to Greatness

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When it comes time for my students to take their state assessment I really want the students to take ownership of their performance.  I started having students dedicate their performance on the test to someone who had inspired them or motivated them to do better in math.  I hang them all over the hallway during testing week and I love reading what they have to say.

Sometimes You Need Some Magic

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(This is the point in the post that high school teachers should probably stop reading, you really have to live in middle school world to understand this one haha!)

Meet the magical math stick.  This dollar store purchase is a legend with the students that I teach every year.  It comes with its own legends of mythical math powers that are proven to take kids to proficiency and beyond and raise MAP scores more than 10 points.  Ridiculous I know, but trust me my kids love this thing.  It comes out of hiding twice a year for the spring MAP test and for our state K-Prep Assessment.  The kids love touching this thing for luck.  I only get to test 30 of my 120+ students during the state test but yet about 90% of them seek me out the morning of the test to get their two seconds of time with the magical math stick.  I know its hokey but they are 7th graders and they need a touch of magic from time to time.

In the End it is About Building Confidence

No matter what your method I really believe in the end it is all about giving that kids one last shot of confidence that you believe in them and that this is their time to shine.  How do you motivate your kids?