Bringing the Ron Clark Academy to Lexington ~ Week 1

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It is no secret that i was really pumped after listening to Kim Bearden, cofounder of the Ron Clark Academy speak in Lexington in early August.  If it was possible to move my family to Atlanta I am telling you I would be on the first plane to join the excitement (if they would even have me)!

After reading Kim’s book as well as Ron Clark’s I knew that I needed to find a way to bring some of what they do into my own school.  I am not going to steal their thunder or tell you exactly what they do because I am sure i wouldn’t do it justice but I am going to try and describe weekly what my team is doing to bring a bit of RCA to us.  If you are interested in learning more I HIGHLY recommend any of Kim and Ron’s books

Friday Town Hall Meetings

We slightly altered our Friday afternoon schedule to include an extra 30 minutes at the end of the day to have a little team town hall get together before the weekend.  Our plan is to be flexible with this time to use it as needed to address issues on the team while also strengthening the core relationships on our team.  A few things that we are going to strive to do in this 30 minutes are:

  1. Introduce our “Essential 55” rule of the week.  These have been adapted from Ron’s book.  We are introducing a new one each week and then are using our team incentive system to reward the kids for adopting the rule.
  2. Team building activity to build camaraderie in heterogenous groups amongst kids that don’t usually have classes together.
  3. Honor a “Golden Equestrian” Award winner each week who exemplifies the qualities we are striving to impart.
  4. Help students develop the “soft skills” needed to be a citizen in today’s world
  5. Deal with any team issues that may arise as a whole group.

Week 1 

Our first experience with this took place last week with what I thought was a great deal of success.  Here is a quick run down of what we did!

The essential skill of the week was:

To always address staff and adults as sir and ma’am.  So far the kids have done great with this.  I have never heard so many sirs and ma’ams used in my life this week in my class.  We have randomly been rewarding students with our team “e-bucks” at our discretion.  (We did make sure to emphasize that rewarding for this was a teacher decisions and wouldn’t be done each time and would never be done if they asked!)

The team building activity was:

The Human Knot

We had the kids count off my 8’s to do this so they were mixed up amongst classes and groups.  We did a little competition to see who could get finished first.

The rest:

We went over a few team housekeeping things and stressed to the kids what a great first 3 days of school we had.  The 1st “Golden Equestrian” will be awarded this week and I can’t wait!

In the future:

I am interested to see how this grows and develops over the course of the next year.  I hope the kids will really buy into and get excited about our Equestrian Award.  I hope that we will be able to teach them skills such as hand shaking and making eye contact that we know they desperately need in order to participate in the “real world” one day.  In my head I see having community professionals coming in to help us, a large etiquette dinner to help them practice their skills, and a chance for them all to give a formal presentation or make a video resume of some sort.  I am sure it won’t be perfect.  I am sure I will get frustrated.  I am sure there will be times when the teachers on my team will want to kill me but in the end I think it will be worth it!  Thanks RCA for the ideas and inspiration and a huge thank you to Allyson, Zoey, and Adam for believing in me and going along with all the nonsense I come up with.  There are few people who would agree to do the crazy things I come up with (like spray painting plastic horses gold at 9 p.m. Allyson)!

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Tomorrow

Tomorrow over 100 of you will step into room 406. Some of you will be excited to be here, others will be nervous, some of you will wish you could be anywhere else. What you may not know is I am just as nervous and excited as you are. I have spent my summer nights planning for you, imagining ways to get you to grow to love math, and trying to make myself better than I was last year. And tomorrow I will get to meet you for the first time. I will get to see the faces that I have spent the last 8 weeks looking forward to meeting for the first time.

Seventh grade can be tough. You are trying to find out who you are while slowly turning into an adult. You are learning to navigate parents that you feel don’t always understand you, peer relationships that seem to change as quickly as the weather, and plenty of feelings and emotions that you are not always ready to process. I cannot fix any of those things for you over the course of the next year. I cannot promise that every day will be perfect in my classroom, that I will always be as patient or kind as you need me to be, or honestly that you will even like me every day. What I can do is promise that I will TRY. I will do my best to spend the next 177 days giving you a chance to experience math in ways that you may never have before. I will try and be fair. I will try and care for you when you are having a bad day or are frustrated with me. And I promise that no matter what happened yesterday I will treat you each day like the only you I know is the absolute best version possible.

Tomorrow we will introduce ourselves, make paper airplanes, solve a cool math problem and maybe a few other surprises but most importantly tomorrow we will start building our classroom family. The family we will turn into within my 4 walls will support each other, cheer at each other’s successes, sympathize with each other’s mistakes, laugh together, have fun, and sometimes maybe even be upset with each other. However all of those things, good and bad, will lead us to achieve our most important goal…growing together.

I can’t wait to meet you tomorrow.

Mrs. Powers

Becoming Enlightened

I had the opportunity to hear Kim Bearden co-founder of the Ron Clark academy speak today. It was an amazing presentation filled with ideas and creativity for my classroom. However, the line that stuck out to me most was not a classroom game, or song, or story but a simple quote, “Broken teachers can’t fix broken kids”. Wow. Drop the mic. That one statement had an impact on me perhaps more profound than any other advice I have gotten.

Broken

By a lot of measures last year my life fell apart. This was eye opening for me in a lot of ways. First of all I learned that there are people you come across everyday who seem to have it all that are barely holding it together. I focused too much on what I didn’t have. I focused on my shortcomings. I focused on everything that was going wrong and not on what was going right. Don’t get me wrong by all accounts I was still a “good teacher, mom, and friend” but in my heart I know I was only going through the motions. I was surviving day by day. I became increasingly negative. I didn’t share that negativity much but it was inside me eating away like a cancer. People saw the always outgoing and fun Brooke but I only saw myself withering away internally.

Change

I was determined to straighten myself out over the summer. You know “find myself”, “seize the day”, “carpe diem”, blah, blah, blah. It was a great intention but I had no idea how to do it, and then when I thought I was changed and had bottomed out more changed. My hardest change by far was saying goodbye to my co-teacher Joe as he moved on to follow his own dreams. I was happy for him but inside, to be honest, I was bitter. I saw all that we had built and developed and imagined it slipping away as I worked to find myself with a new collaborating teacher. I saw myself doing the same things I said I wasn’t going to anymore. Those old negative thoughts started taking over again and I didn’t know how to reclaim control of all those dreams I had of changing the world.

Today

Then came today and I heard that quote; “Broken teachers can’t fix broken kids”. I can’t tell you how monumental that was for me. My goal is to change the world for these kids but how am I going to do that if I can’t even change it for myself?   The next words out of Kim’s mouth were the missing piece to my puzzle, “It’s not what happens to you but what happens through you”. That statement right there is magic. I have to leverage all that energy that is inside. I have to take those negative thoughts, the bitterness, the angst, and turn it into an energy that does nothing but raise these kids up. That is where my magic is. We can all fill pages and pages listing our shortcomings, failures, and defects but that does us no good. However, if we can take all those things, all that yucky stuff that we hate and put that energy into these kids we become more enlightened and empowered than we’ve never been before. I look at all the good I was able to do last year when I was just trying to survive and am honestly excited about the mountains we will be able to move this year when just the motions stop and the lifting up begins. I am telling you something amazing is getting ready to happen.

Your turn

My question for you is this. What is holding you back from truly raising up the kids in your classroom this year? I challenge you to reflect seriously on that and figure it out and then figure out how you can channel what is holding you back into enlightenment in your classroom. Thank you Kim for doing that for me.

177 Days

The last 177 days have more than changed my life. I started this year with an idea that I could help make math better for students that have never enjoyed it before. I started the year with a belief that all students could learn math at a high level and a dream that I could use this year to prove that to the doubters. Most of all I started the year with hope. Hope that I could dedicate each day, each moment to making a difference in kid’s lives.   Since that start 177 days have passed. Some days were nearly perfect while others nothing went right. Some days I had abundant patience and others I regret being too sharp with my words or not understanding enough of a student’s situation. Some days I felt like a master teacher and others it didn’t seem I was any better than a first year teacher on their first day of school. In the end though no matter how each individual moment, lesson, or day went as a whole these 177 days have been life changing for me. I will never again be the same teacher I was 177 days ago.   I will push myself harder next year and keep going. After these 177 days I can never turn back. I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to thank those that made the last 177 days possible.

 To my students,

I will never forget the look on your faces as you sat through my first class making paper airplanes and listening to my crazy stories. You looked half excited and half afraid that you ended up in room 406. I can never thank you enough for going along with me for the last 177days. Thank you for sticking with me when the lesson was boring or when I changed my mind about what we were going to do 5 minutes in because I had an idea. Thank you for always making every day special. I hope I told you enough that I believed in you because I do more than you will ever know. Even more than that I need to say thank you to you for believing in me. Being your teacher has been the greatest honor of my life. There are so many things I want you to remember about our class and none of it involves 7th grade math content. These are the things I want you to remember the most:

Math isn’t hard

No one is born good at math

When things get tough watch a Kid President video

The key to success is….(I’ll keep that our little secret)

You are special

When in doubt eat a corn dog

No one likes banana onion yogurt OR Kim Kardashian math

And the number one thing I want you to remember is that hard work beats just being smart EVERY TIME. You all have proven that to be true again and again. Never let anyone convince you otherwise.

Remember that no matter where life takes you once you are one of my students you are one of my kids for life. There is always a place for you in 406. Thank you for the chance to be your teacher. I will forever be grateful.

To the Parents,

I am not sure I ever understood the trust you place in me until I had kids of my own in school. Although there were times when I am sure you were frustrated with me I hope you know that I tried my hardest every day to be exactly the kind of teacher I would want my own kids to have. Sometimes I shudder when I think about the things your child probably came home and told you. Things like we watched family guy in class (I promise it was 15 seconds and was a great lesson!), that we were gambling and playing the lottery, or that they didn’t have math homework again. Thank you for the kind e-mails thanking me for being a teacher, they always seemed to come at just the right time when I needed the encouragement the most.   I am afraid I do need one more favor from you though. Please help me keep up their positive spirit about learning math. I know math may have been hard for you in school but please don’t tell them it is okay to be bad at math. They like you may have had bad math experiences in the past but that doesn’t define their (or your) future! Remind them every chance you get that hard work always beats just being smart. They have proven that to be true every day.

I know I am not telling you anything new when I tell you how special your children are. It has been an absolute honor to teach them. Thank you for sharing 177 days of their lives with me.

To my administrators and co-workers

Thank you for always pushing me to be better. Thank you for the encouragement on the bad days and becoming more than co-workers but a family to me. To my teammates, thank you for going along with my crazy ideas, for agreeing to an unorthodox schedule to help me realize my own goals, for being my sounding board, and for being my safe place. To the co-workers who have become friends thank you for laughing with me, for keeping me grounded and reminding me that to be a good teacher you have to make time for fun.

 To Joe,

You took such a big chance when you decided to leave your comfort zone in 6th grade and come work with me in 7th and for that I will always be thankful. You have made me a better teacher than I could have ever been on my own. Thank you for listening to my ideas and sharing yours. Thank you for making me slow down when you knew I was getting in over my head. Thank you for having a good day when I was having a bad one. Thank you for picking up the slack when I lacked. I have had the chance to work with a good number of collaborating teachers and am sure there will be more of them in my future but I can without a doubt say that you are the most inspiring and dedicated special education teacher I will ever have the privilege of working with. Thank you for taking a chance on me.

 To Jackson and Embry,

Thank you for sharing your mom with 120 other kids who needed me too.   I have no doubt that it isn’t always easy having a teacher for a mom but you both handle it like champions. No matter what I am able to do in my life, the two of you will always be my greatest accomplishment.

In the end

I realize this probably seems like overkill to some. It isn’t like I am retiring, changing schools, or leaving the profession but I am coming to the end of a life changing year and to me that is profound in its own right. Here’s to the next 177 days and the next 120 kids.

Reflections on NCTM Boston

Wow it was a great few days in Boston for NCTM 2015.  I was thankful for a great crowd for our 8 a.m. presentation and hope all the participants went home with some great strategies for reaching their struggling learners.  I was able to meet some AMAZING and INSPIRING teachers that I have tweeted and blogged with over the last year.  Mainly I came home excited to get back with my students and implement some of the great ideas and strategies that I heard.  Here are my final thoughts on the sessions I was able to attend this year:

The Math Practices Have to Be Our Foundation

I have written posts before about how I ignorantly blew off the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practices when we first implemented the Common Core.  In my mind I thought they were secondary to the standards.  Throughout the last 4 years it has become very apparent that the opposite is in fact true.  If you start with the Math Practices as your foundation the standards will come naturally.  That seemed to be the theme of lots of presentations this year from Dan Meyer to Steve Leinwand everyone was focused on how teachers could be more intentional and deliberate about making the practices the focus of their classrooms.  As teachers if we are going to truly help our students become mathematicians we must bring the 8 Practices to the forefront of every class.  Although I feel like I have come a long way in implementing the practices I think this year’s NCTM made it even more clear that I have to do an even better job making them the focus of my classroom.

The #MTBoS is the Place to Be

I thought it was AMAZING that the #MTBoS had it’s own booth this year at NCTM.  A huge thank you and shout out to Justin Lanier and Tina Cardone for all the amazing work they did to organize it.  I had so much fun manning the booth for a while on Thursday and got to talk to so many fun people who stopped by.  Last year when I went to NCTM Nola I had no idea about blogging and was a Twitter minimalist.  It is crazy how much that has changed in the last year.  I was intimidated when I first got started by al the big names and long time participants but I am so glad I braved it out and found my place.  It was so evident this year at NCTM the reach that this group of people has had.  It is hands down the best PLC, professional development and support group I have ever been apart of.  I hope their reach continues to grow after this year’s conference.  It is an honor to be a part of such a fabulous group of teachers.

Jo Boaler Rocks

I was so excited to see Jo Boaler on the program for this year.  She has been the biggest difference maker in my class this year with her How to Learn Math for Students course.  Jo was as inspirational as I thought she would be.  In my opinion her research is a game changer in math education.  The most exciting news I thought she delivered was that How to Learn Math for Students would have Spanish subtitles available before the 2015 school year…how amazing is that for my ELL students?!

Mathalicious is the Greatest Teaching Resource of My Time

I realize the above title is just a matter of opinion but I truly have never had a resource quite as good as Mathalicious.  I loved Karim’s presentation this year which focused on the topic of “Why Math?”.  He made the point that when kids whine about homework and math class the question they are really asking is “why math?”.  I loved the points he made about checking to see if your lesson was about content or application and it made me reflect upon what my class is about each day.  His recommendation was to ask yourself every day what class was really about.  If the answer was math then that wasn’t an application lesson.  I don’t know how that Mathalicious crew has cranked out lessons as quickly as they have this spring but it is loaded down with amazing new lessons and NCTM was just one more reminder of how lucky we are that they have taken their application idea and run with it.

Steve Leinwand Drops the Mic

Per usual Steve Leinwand killed it.  He always gives the most hilarious and thought provoking presentations to me.  His focus like many others was on the math practices and the need for us to help kids become mathematicians.  I think I tweeted every other word out of his mouth but what most stuck out to me was his declaration that every class needed a “convince me, show me, explain, why, and how do you know” mantra.  Isn’t that what the math practices and us at teachers are trying to get at?

Favorite Tweets

I tried to tweet my most favorite blurbs of the week mainly for myself but in case you don’t follow me on Twitter these are the tweets I thought that were most note worthy.

“Rigorous math is equal time on procedures, concepts, and applications” Karim Kai Ani

“I do, we do, you do is not modeling” Dan Meyer

“If the text book says it is modeling it probably isn’t” Dan Meyer

“Kids have instant access to math facts.  Doesn’t that mean we need to change the way we teach?” Steve Leinwand

Where Do I Go From Here?

What a Year

In so many ways this has been a year of growth for me personally and professionally. Personally my life has changed in ways I never planned on but I have learned to adapt and find strength I didn’t know I had. Professionally this year has been amazing. It has been an honor to co-teach with Joe Payne for the first time. I have had the opportunity to teach the most amazing group of kids that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Kids that hated math, thought they were stupid, that didn’t believe they could succeed and kids that have completely transformed since August.

I don’t claim that I have been a perfect teacher this year. Joe and I have learned so much over the course of working with these kids. We have tried things that worked and things that didn’t work. We have had ideas that we never followed through on, initiatives that we started and then fell to the wayside, and some ideas that were so bad that I won’t mention them out of embarrassment. However, through it all the kids have grown leaps and bounds. I’ll never forget those first weeks when on Math Talk Monday or Tough Pattern Thursday the silence was deafening. The days when the kids lacked not just the math ability but also the confidence to go out on a limb and try something without fear of being labeled a failure yet again. However we kept going and pushing and hoping that it would get better. I laugh at those days now when on Thursdays the kids fight over who gets to say the pattern or on Mondays when their ideas for Math Talk are so plentiful that I run out of space on the board to write them down.

The “GAP”

Quantitatively the kids took the MAP test last week and I won’t lie I was nervous. I don’t judge my student learning based on standardized test but I also know that others do. In order for me to continue to think outside of the box and teach the way I know is right for these kids I needed them to give me some solid data to stand on. I’ll be honest, I told the kids that. I told them I needed them to show the world that a different approach to math could change lives and then I awaited their scores. They killed it. I was nervous I won’t lie but the kids were confident, they went in that computer lab and just nailed it. I left school that day pretty much feeling like the teacher of the year.

My high from the day quickly dissipated as I began to fully analyze the results. Don’t get me wrong as a class the results were amazing but taking another look I began to realize that I had to do more.   You see the groups I did well with were not the groups that traditionally teachers fight over teaching. By far the greatest results were with my populations that were labeled as ELL, Special Education, and Socio-Economically Disadvantaged.   In fact, every subgroup that we tested that is traditionally thought of as a “GAP” group out performed our non “GAP “ group. In a lot of ways this wasn’t surprising to me. I know that my heart lies with teaching struggling learners but for some reason this data hit me hard. It convinced me more than ever that these kids need us. I don’t think they need our content knowledge, or teaching methodology, or research. They need our belief and confidence that they can and will be successful in math. These kids aren’t dumb. They have had poor math experiences that have led them to a dislike of numbers and by beginning to shift that belief you are opening up a world of opportunity to them.

Now What?

That leads me to where I am today which is a little confused about where I go from here. Our school schedule only allows Joe and I to teach one class together next year, which means I will have less opportunity to work with the students who have captured my heart. I know I want to have a larger impact that what I currently have but the question is how. Where do I go? What do I do? How can I help more than 30 kids, or 60 kids? I want to help all of them. I want to see every kids face light up when they figure out a pattern or first realize that 17 X 31 is really just 10 X 31 + 5 X 31+ 2 X 31. Where do I go from here?

What Curriculum Do You Follow?

By far one of the questions I get asked most frequently is “what curriculum do you follow?”.  I see numerous people post this question on Twitter as their district looks to adopt new materials and get so many e-mails from schools who see our math success and assume it must be a result of a book or math program we follow.  People always seem puzzled when I answer the questions with “none”. We follow no specific curriculum or math program where I teach.  We follow the Common Core Standards or KCAS in Kentucky but have the freedom to teach the material as we feel most effective rather than be married to a specific system.  I wont lie I felt a bit vindicated when Education Week posted this article about math programs and their Common Core alignment.  The article definitely helps validate my thoughts that there is not currently a solid Common Core aligned math “curriculum” to follow.  To be honest, even if there were I probably wouldn’t buy in and use it.  As an educator I feel that one of the most important aspects of my classroom is the autonomy to make decisions on how and what to use to get my students to meet the expectations of the Common Core Standards.  That how varies based on topic, day, student, culture and changes day by day.  I don’t think there is a way for a prescribed curriculum to do that.

So what do I do?  Well I use every resource at my disposal to create my own curriculum that is right for every student, class, and teaching moment.  The Common Core Standards defines “rigor” as having an equal emphasis on procedures, conceptual understanding and applications.  In math, we have always had an abundant amount of procedural resources (hello every text book in America).  Numerous conceptual understanding resources have begun to emerge thanks to the work of Dan Meyer and many others on things like the 3 Act Math Tasks that go so much deeper than the skill and drill methods of days past.  Eli and the Desmos people have taken that even further with their amazing online graphing calculator software and lesson plans like Function Carnival and Polygraphs.  However resources on the application piece of rigor have been few and far between.  We’ve all see the “wonderful” forced context and application problems in our text books but I have to believe the writers of Common Core meant applications as so much more than that.

Enter Mathalicious into my life and classroom.  Although I may not follow a curriculum I can tell you that Mathalicious is my go to resource for teaching math through application.  Last week we were able to learn about percents, not through “is over of percent goes above” or “the butterfly method” or “the fish” but instead by looking at coupons.  Most importantly we didn’t just calculate the value of coupons but instead studied the psychology of coupons.  We talked about JCPenney and what went wrong with their “everyday low price plan” and if people would rather get a good deal or a good price.  So instead of spending an hour drilling and killing percent problems we were able to practice percent problems in the context of the real work instead of in the context of a worksheet.  In my mind this is what math should really be about.  Math in the real world is not a series of skill based questions but instead is about using math simultaneously with other disciplines like psychology, sociology, science etc and using the math to solve real problems.

Coming up in class is my statistics unit with a huge focus on variability which we study through the use of box plots.  Yes I could teach it by giving students random data and worksheets with meaningless problems but instead we will learn about variability with the Mathalicious lesson “Wealth of Nations”.  We will look at wealth distribution in the U.S. and the ever growing poverty problem.  We will have difficult discussions.  There will be disagreement amongst classmates on how to solve the problem.  There will be shock about the inequity in America.  However more importantly, there will be learning, real authentic learning in the context of an actual problem that the kids and their families face daily.  I can’t put a value on those type of discussions and learning opportunities in my classroom.

If there is on thing that makes me a little sad in all of this it is that every student in America does not currently have access and the opportunity to have these math discussions.  Every student deserves to have the opportunity to use math as a prism to see the world, to use math to be better citizens, to use math to make the world a better place.  Every student needs access to Mathalicious in my mind.

So no, to answer everyone’s question I don’t use a curriculum.  I don’t use a text book.  I don’t have workbooks or an abundance of worksheets.  Instead I have the world as my curriculum and I don’t think you can put a value on what that is worth.  Maybe this is best summed up by what my students thought of “Wealth of Nations” last year best.

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Can you put a value on student’s calling math lessons mind-blowing?  I am pretty sure the answer there would be a resounding no.