Dear Parents – I’m Sorry For What I Said When I Taught Middle School

I loved teaching 7th Grade so much! 12 to 13-year-olds understand my humor better than most (not sure what that says about me) and I thought it was such a great time to get kids excited about learning math again.

That being said they also aren’t always easy to love – especially at home. So I sat in more than one parent meeting offering advice, telling parents about “homework time”, supporting their pre-teen, and all kinds of other nonsense that I thought was super helpful at the time.

As the mom of a middle schooler now I’d like to apologize for everything I said. Turns out I know nothing about raising preteens! After surviving the first month of middle school I’d like to apologize for a few things.

I’m sorry I thought you didn’t buy them paper.

I have already bought 5 packs of filler paper. None of it has made it into a notebook yet. It lives in his backpack until it becomes so crumpled it’s unusable. I’m sure he tells his teacher I don’t buy him any paper just like your kid told me.

I’m sorry I didn’t help them with their locker more.

Don’t get me wrong – I helped them learn to open their locker and unjammed it when it wouldn’t open but I didn’t really help them learn to use it. I didn’t explain enough about what to get and when, how to keep it organized, and how to check yourself to make sure you had what you need. Day 4 of school I had to make Jackson a checklist for the inside of his locker so he knew what in the world he was doing. I should have done that for your child.

I’m sorry I told you to have structured homework time.

I believe I even said, “even if they don’t have homework have them do something academic during that time”. Our evenings are a DISASTER. Jackson doesn’t get home from football practice until 7:00 (and later if they have a game). Our structured homework time usually goes like this “Jackson let’s rush through your homework while I shove dinner down your throat and you shower all at the same time”. All the while he is crying because he wants to be outside playing with his friends. I should have just told you to do whatever you can to survive (and not assigned any homework).

I’m sorry I didn’t keep you more updated on what was happening at school.

I know middle school is the time of independence and I treated it that way. I began to encourage kids to email me about missing assignments, questions about work, and other issues instead of their parents. I wanted my students to be the leaders in their learning (and I want that for my son too). But I do miss knowing more about what’s happening and being a more active part in school and what’s going on.

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you more how awesome your child is.

Middle school is hard. Middle school parenting is harder. You are doing a great job and I know that because I got to spend 7.5 hours a day with your child. As a parent, I feel like I am failing a lot. I see the attitude, the not wanting to do homework, and the power struggle. I don’t see him asking questions, engaging with his peers, and being a positive active kid at school. I should have told you more about all the good that was happening at school so you could hear just how awesome the human you are raising is.

I’m sure there are a lot more things that I haven’t even realized yet that will come to me as our middle school experience continues. For now, I will keep learning and struggling. Most days I am positive that teaching 120 middle schoolers was way easier than raising 1 of them. When I return to the classroom one day I will surely be a better teacher and more understanding now that I truly understand the parent’s perspective.

I’m really sorry for what I said before I knew.

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Mathematics as a GateKeeper – My Story

This may surprise some people that are online friends and acquaintances but I am super socially awkward. That awkwardness paired with my anxiety means I spend countless hours worrying that I said, did, or thought the wrong thing and will forever be an outcast as a result.

Don’t worry this blog post isn’t about unraveling all of those issues but it is key to understanding the many ways in which the math classroom served as a gatekeeper for me in social situations and how in many ways math only contributed to my issues as a preteen rather than helped them.

You’ll also need a basic understanding of how I grew up. I was raised on a family dairy farm which for those of you not aware is a 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week job. We lived 25 minutes from the town where I went to school which was a long way when your parents had a lot of chores and work to do and although I am now so thankful for my upbringing and the opportunities I had as a result – as a 12 and 13-year-old girl I wanted to be like the other kids and not a farm kid.

The other girls in my class had families that vacationed together (we couldn’t take family vacations because someone had to be at the farm to milk), frequently hung out together after school and on the weekends (I didn’t want to ask my parents to drive me back and forth to town), and were involved in lots of activities (again the distance and time issue).

My one chance to try and hang out and be normal with the other kids was at school each day but once the all-important middle school grades hit there was another hurdle standing in my way – math class. 7th Grade was when our school began sorting us very clearly into the haves and the have nots of math and lucky me straddling the gate between the two. I remember being determined to make it into Advanced Pre-Algebra as a 7th grader. If I didn’t it would be just one more way that I was different than the “cool kids”.

By some luck, they let me in but it meant that I had to go to a 2 week Pre-Algebra camp that summer – yes that’s a thing. I remember feeling really bad having to ask my parents to drive me back and forth to school every day for those 2 weeks (there was no bus) but I really wanted to do whatever it took to be normal and get in the class. It was clear early on that I was struggling but I was determined to make it.

I made it through Pre-Algebra that year with a C and against the teacher’s recommendation went on to Algebra I in 8th grade where the wheels fell off and I wasn’t allowed to move on to Geometry in high school. I would have to retake Algebra I. Dream over. My only chance at being in the “cool kid group” over because of math class.

I was pretty much done with math after that. I did well enough because my parents expected good grades. I remember being bored a lot because I knew how to do the math but simply looked at it in a different and that wasn’t ok in the 1990s. I also know I completely shut down in regards to trying to understand what was happening which really came back to hurt me once I started Pre-Calculus and had no idea what was going on.

If you could have polled my teachers I would have been voted “least likely to be a math teacher” instead I was voted “most likely to be a talk show host” (there’s something that makes you feel intelligent!).

I went to college became an agriculture teacher and lived happily ever after until I realized that I was explaining math to kids in my ag class that were struggling in the traditional math classroom and that I wanted to help them have a fate different than mine. I didn’t want them to give up on it like I did.

So I went back to school to teach math – this time feeling like a success rather than a failure. What a difference that shift in mindset made.  For the first time I really began to understand what was happening and the why behind the math I was doing. I remember the first year I taught Algebra I when I would spend my evenings studying so I was on top of my game for the next day. I myself area models that year for the distributive property to teach polynomials and my world was rocked. For the first time FOIL went back to being something that belonged in the kitchen rather than something I memorized to pass a test.

I have realized in the years since then what a gatekeeper my math experiences really were for me. I have no regrets about where life has taken me but what would have been different if my mathematics education had been more positive? What if I had been encouraged in math rather than being held back? What if I had felt successful rather than always feeling behind? Would I have thought about a career in engineering, as an analyst or in data science? Would I have approached college mathematics classes differently – pursuing them rather than doing my best to avoid them?

How many kids are sitting in classrooms just like me? Desperate to be in the “good math class” so they can be with the peers they so desperately want to be with and then devastated when the fall short? There has to be a better way to keep kids from feeling as though math the gatekeeper that is stopping them from reaching their goals.

 

Something Bigger – Keeping Our Book Project Going

It started as a simple idea…Kevin and I were older and more established when we got engaged. We didn’t need sheets or pots and pans so we thought “let’s find some teachers and let them register for school supplies”. We thought we’d give away some markers and glue, feel good for a few weeks and move on.

Then my friend Erin asked if she could register for books for her high school Freshman to take home and own. Most had never owned a book of their own or read books where they could see themselves in the characters. She selected racially diverse books with characters and storylines kids could relate to and let each student ask for 3 books from list.

It makes you feel like your story doesn't matter when you don't see people who look like you in the stories.

Generous friends, family, and strangers from around the country filled our garage with books…over 400 of them. Enough that each of Erin’s students got to take home 3 books before summer break that they would never have to give back, that they could keep forever, and that would hopefully set them on a path to start reading more.

The day we gave out the books I had to try hard not to cry. The kids, 15 year olds, struggled to understand that they didn’t have to give the books back. They made plans with Erin about how to keep their books safe until they got home so that they weren’t taken by other students. They brainstormed about how they could “trade” books if they finished reading one of them before summer break. It both filled and broke my heart at the same time.

In the days since we have heard feedback from the kids like, “I’ve never read a whole book and I read that one in a day”, “I didn’t use my phone the whole weekend”, and “I already read 4 books”. It struck me how many of these kids had probably never been able to identify with any of the books read in their classrooms. I also thought back to many of the students I taught who hadn’t been able to check books out of the library for years due to fines and lost books. When your family is choosing monthly whether to pay the light bill or the electric bill paying $16.00 for a lost library book isn’t a priority.

I left the high school that day knowing this project couldn’t end with this group of kids or this high school. So here I am asking for your help again. Kevin and I are going to continue collecting as many books as we can in order to keep these book gifts coming. Although I am not sure how many books we will collect or how many students we will help I know that kids are worth us taking the risk.

We will continue collecting and organizing the books in our garage and paying the expense of getting the books wherever they need to be. We’ve created a book list for middle and high school here with the help of Project Lit and my friend Erin. For now we have decided to focus on middle and high school students as there are quite a few book programs currently for elementary students and Kevin and I are just two people. Maybe one day we will be able to expand – a girl can dream.

If you want to order a book off the list it’ll be shipped right to us. If you have copies of these books that you’ve read and loved that you want to donate send me an email at lindsaybrookepowers@gmail.com and we will help you get it to us. I encourage you to write notes to the kids in the books if you want to, everyone needs a kind word from time to time and maybe your words will help change a life. If you have suggestions of a school that would benefit from books send that to me as well. I don’t know how long it will take for me to get enough to deliver to a school again but I have faith that we will get there.

Maybe we are crazy but I also know the best ideas come from just a touch of crazy. I also know that kids are worth it. I hope you’ll help me spread the word and let’s turn this into Something Bigger.

Filling Your Own Bucket

So many people I talk to have been dealing with burnout lately. Unfortunately I haven’t been immune to that either and am the first to admit I haven’t been on the top of my game lately in many ways.

This week’s #OpenUpMath chat dealt with self-care and really caused me to pause and reflect on what was causing this funk that I have been in.

I have been lucky enough to go to a lot of conferences lately and meet a lot of awesome people and that is something I definitely don’t take for granted. The only problem is I was there working not learning and didn’t spend anytime actually attending sessions.

One thing I have figured out about myself as of late is that I am definitely someone who has a need to keep learning. It is what feeds me. I want to be one of those people who gets their inspiration by running (if you ever saw me run you’d laugh) or meditating (hello talking to myself for 10 minutes waiting for “meditation time to be over”) but it just isn’t me. I draw my inspiration from learning new things.

But I am also realizing that in the past I have learned and drawn inspiration from things that make me “feel good” and not necessarily  things that help me grow or push my thinking. When I am at a conference I go to too many sessions because I know the speaker, because everyone else I know is going, or because it is something familiar to me and not nearly enough because I know it will challenge my status quo.

Thank goodness for Twitter and the edu people there who have really started pushing me beyond my comfort zone and into becoming a stronger leader who recognized my many shortcomings and faults. Two weeks ago #OpenUpMath chat was about books for professional learning and this week it was about self-care and the timing of those was just what I needed.

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I am committing myself to dedicating time each day to read books that push me beyond my normal thinking. Just saying I am going to do it isn’t enough. I said two weeks ago I was going to start and didn’t so I am going past that and literally putting time on my calendar each day to study and sharpen my own brain so that I can be better for the people and communities I serve. (In other words it’ll be less meetings more readings!)

What are you committing to do to fill your own bucket? I’d love to hear!

More Than a Mission: AKA How You Know We Have a Problem in the Edu World

At least once a day (but usually many more) someone comments on my ridiculous drive to work hard, do all, and see all in regards in education. I’m the first to admit that more often than not I find myself pushing past the point of exhaustion to get one more task done, read one more edu blog, or watch one more hour of our Kentucky legislature. This week alone I came home exhausted on Tuesday from an amazing experience with Open Up Resources at ASCD to a full inbox, a backlog of tasks, a National PLC meeting one evening, and National Book Study the next. This weekend I have another PLC meeting on Saturday and a Book Study on Sunday – no rest for the weary right?

So why push myself so hard? Why sacrifice fun and family time for people I have yet to meet in person and may never get the chance to?

Because teachers and kids are worth it and they need someone to help be their voice.

When a Principal Gets in Trouble for Following Reading Research We Have a Problem

While I was at ASCD I had the chance to talk with a wonderful principal who was at a school in a district that adopted a “big box” (and also unaligned and low-quality according to EdReports) curriculum. His school serves a highly diverse population and many students that come from a low socio-economic background. Much like all of the great research Eduvaites has been putting together this principal saw the the curriculum was severely lacking in phonics instruction so they began supplementing.

You won’t believe what happens next…

The district came in and told them to stop supplementing. They were told that if it didn’t come in “the big box” they weren’t doing it. Insert shocked and angry face here!

I have to keep working hard spreading the word about aligned and high quality curricula so that principals like that can serve their students in the way they want without getting “in trouble” from their bosses.

When a Teacher is an Island We Have a Problem

Then there are the teachers that have no curriculum at all. I have met some of the most amazing teachers from around the country this year. So many of them are at very small districts where they are truly an island. There is no mandated curriculum, they can truly do whatever they want and they want to do amazing things. Do you know how hard it can be to do amazing things when there is no one to talk to or plan with?

These teachers have found a “home” in the Open Up Resources 6–8 Math PLC Community. They have been able to chat daily via social media and meet monthly via video chat with other teachers from around the country to plan, reflect, and think deeply. They aren’t alone anymore and that is priceless to me.

When Teachers Are the Vilians We Have a Problem

And I can’t forget my Kentucky teachers. They have been bullied, threatened, and thrown under the political bus for the last year here. Sadly I can’t do nearly as much to help them as I would like but I have been able to watch every minute of Education Committee meetings that have been broadcast and as much of the General Session as I can to stay informed and updated about what is going on in our state capital. Watching the corruption, lies, and backdoor dealings have affected my psyche greatly. My husband tells me frequently to just turn it off but I can’t. I have to stand up and watch for those who are teaching our kids and can’t watch for themselves.

When in 2019 We are Still Marginalizing Others We Have a Problem

As a part of watching all of our political coverage and learning from some brilliant voices like Marian Dingle I have also been doing a lot of reflecting on the marginalized people and voices in the education world. I have no doubt that there is a lot I have done wrong in my life that have contributed to this marginalization. I also know I am more privileged than I deserve and continue to do a lot of work on the language and work I do to ensure I don’t further the marginalization of others by making assumptions and or refusing to give up power.

On one of the last day’s of our legislative session I was moved to tears watching this exchange between Representative Charles Booker and Speaker of the House David Osbourne. I was a fan of Booker before as he has been a huge advocate of public education but this exchange taught me a lot more about marginalization and privilege. I challenge you all to watch it as Booker is called out of order and his microphone is eventually turned off for doing no more than speaking his truth.

I have to continue to work hard to recognize my own white privilege and do whatever I can to bring more awareness of marginalization to the edu space and Kentucky as a whole. We can and must do better.

We Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Why do I work so hard? Why do I go days without enough sleep or taking care of myself? Because all of these people and so many more deserve better. I may just be one person but I also have the best virtual community on the planet. Together we can’t stop, won’t stop.

 

 

It’s Not as Simple as Holding Back 3rd Graders

Thanks to the continued shadiness of the Kentucky General Assembly I have been watching hours of committee meetings and chamber sessions to stay on top of what our Legislature is up to this session. Needless to stay my mind stays blown and my blood pressure stays raised most days.

One of the bills that has really piqued my interest is regarding mandated testing of 3rd graders for math and reading fluency and then holding back every child that doesn’t meet the standard in one of the areas.  I get it – at first glance maybe this sounds great and like it makes perfect sense. Of course I want all kids reading and doing math on grade level. I’m not crazy.

The problem isn’t wanting kids to be proficient in reading and math by the end of 3rd grade, the problem is that the bill doesn’t address how to fix the plethora of issues that cause kids not to be on grade level in the first place.

First, there is no proficiency test written yet and no one seems to know who would write it, when it would be ready, or where the funding would come from for printing, administering, or scoring this mandated test. In the session the other day it was brought up that the group they asked to write the test said they had no one qualified to write the assessment. Cart meet horse.

Then we have the fact that no funding is included to better help teachers in making sure students are meeting grade level standards. Teaching is a science and teachers need up to date trainings and professional learnings yet our General Assembly has continued to slash funding for these opportunities. Most districts barely have professional learning funds at all much less the amount required to invest in this kind of training.

One also can’t forget about the curriculum disparity issue. There are districts across the state of Kentucky using unaligned and low quality curricula that do not meet grade level standards  or address the need for phonics instruction. The bill of course provides no provisions, mandates, or funding for this either. Luckily thanks to the OER movement there are more and more high quality curricula on the market at low or no cost available to districts but there are many districts still not using these options. I have recommended more than once that districts and Superintendents be held accountable for adopting and using low-quality curriculum but the legislature doesn’t seem to want to adopt a mandate like that…a quick look at companies that spend 8+million dollars lobbying legislators each year will give you a big idea why.

And then there are the other questions.

I also keep thinking about what happens when 50% of a school’s 3rd grade doesn’t meet 1 or 2 of the benchmarks. Do we hold back 50% of a grade level so that next year instead of 120 3rd graders we have 180? What if the next year there are then 270?

What if a student doesn’t meet the benchmark the 2nd year? The 3rd?

What about our ELL students?

What about students brand new to our country in 3rd grade?

What about the refugees I taught that experience significant trauma?

What about our students with disabilities?

See I don’t have the answers to all of these things but neither does our legislature. Passing a bill doesn’t miraculously answer these questions. Instead it puts another testing requirement on students who already have end of year state assessment and more pressure on already over worked teachers. I do think there are mandates and requirements that could benefit students and districts but those aren’t the ones legislators are willing to pass because that would affect those putting money in their pocket.

Here’s what I do know though – It’s not as simple as just holding back 3rd Graders.

Data Teachers Really Want – Hint: It Doesn’t Come In a Dashboard

I have been thinking a lot about data lately. Especially the difference in the data teachers want and actually use vs. the data districts seems to make their curriculum decisions around. I saw first hand how a district could be “wowed” by fancy data dashboards with a multitude of reports, settings, and options but I also never saw my district make great use of these reports. The question keeps coming to my mind – why do we adopt less than stellar curriculum at an excessive cost just for the bells and whistles that come on these data dashboards?

I know the data that I used frequently as a teacher to inform instruction and none of it came from a dashboard (with the exception of the Desmos Teacher Dashboard which is free and formative so totally different ball game!) However, since I am not currently in the classroom I don’t want to speak for teachers without asking what they are doing first so I took to Twitter to ask them.

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They had some awesome ideas about what they used in their classrooms to monitor student learning and achievement but none of them came in the form of a flashy data dashboard like I’ve seen some school district make curriculum decisions based on.

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So my sincere question is this – should school districts be making decisions influenced by the inclusion of data dashboards if it isn’t the data teachers really need and use?

As a parent it also concerns me that my daughter, who is a struggling reader,  uses a reading program that only partially meets expectations on Edreports but comes with fancy assessments and dashboards so was chosen my our district. I would gladly trade her having the opportunity to learn from a highly rated, aligned, and coherent curriculum that is based on science than her district have even more data to show that she is behind in reading. Perhaps with a stronger curriculum she wouldn’t be behind in the first place.

I’d love to hear others thoughts on this topic! I am still working through the disconnect between what teachers actually use and what school districts want in regards to data in my own mind as both a parent and a teacher so opinions welcome!