Thursday, March 31, 2011

How do math teachers in training view learning?

The following is an example of one of our in-class workshops for Teaching and Learning Middle Grades Mathematics. This activity comes at the end of a unit on mathematical learning theory.

Teaching Mathematics Workshop (Learning Math Anchor Charts)

Connection - Schema Activation [10 minutes]
Read NCTM's Learning Principle and make connections to our previous readings

Concentration - Focus [5 minutes]
Simile Survey - providing a vision
Anchor Chart Models - previous and partners'

Construction - Activity [35 minutes]
Develop a group anchor chart on the whiteboard that makes our thinking about learning math visible
Learning Math Anchor Charts - Work in Progress
Consolidation - Reflection [10 minutes]
Learning Math Anchor Charts
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Describing our visions - presenters were offered choice to be on camera or off (sorry about the sound quality)

Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

Does Test-Prep Make Sense?

If you drop by a Michigan middle school mathematics classroom this September, chances are you will find yourself in the middle of test-prep instruction. October brings the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), our high-stakes standardized test, and schools want to ensure that their pupils are adequately prepared. The test-prep instruction usually entails one part content, one part test-taking strategies, and one part cheerleading.

This is not the relationship between instruction and assessment conceptualized in the Teaching-Learning Cycle. The role of assessment is to gather data about learners’ progress toward predetermined educational goals. Current educational policy stresses standardized tests, however, which stresses out administrators and teachers. Consequently, the MEAP becomes master of instruction rather than partner.

I rallied against this test-prep situation (and other standardized testing practices) for years, to no avail. The stakes were too high for anyone to consider an alternative. It was at a Michigan Reading Association Conference that I found a possible answer. (I learn a lot at this conference.) Patrick Allen led a session on developing deep, long thinkers in the time of standardized testing based on a book he had co-authored, Put Thinking to the Test. I thought that these ideas could reframe test-prep.

Put Thinking to the Test applies the research on proficient readers to taking tests. In other words, it treats standardized tests as a specific genre which readers can make sense of using well-documented comprehension strategies. Each strategy is addressed in a chapter demonstrating how it can be applied to a standardized test. From the table of contents:
  • Ask Questions

  • Create Mental Images

  • Draw Inferences

  • Synthesize New Learning and Ideas

  • Activate, Utilize, and Build Background Knowledge (Schema)

  • Determine the Most Important Ideas and Themes

  • Monitor for Meaning and Problem-Solve When Meaning Breaks Down

Even in test-prep, teachers can focus on fostering thinking rather than memorizing facts or practicing skills.

As a result of reading this book, I now have concrete approaches that teachers can use to return instruction to its rightful place in the Teaching-Learning Cycle. I share these approaches in the classes I teach for preservice and inservice teachers and in professional development workshops. I would love to share it with you, but first I need to know what questions and concerns you have about what I have written thus far. After all, asking questions is one of the essential comprehension strategies propelling our thinking forward.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What does a mathematics learner look like?

Today my Teaching and Learning Middle Grades Mathematics course ends a unit on learning mathematics. This follows a unit on doing mathematics. At the beginning of this unit, we took a simile survey that asked respondents to complete the following:

Ideally, a mathematics learner is like a(n):
a. Inventor
b. Sponge
c. Mechanic
d. Computer
e. Reporter
f. Explorer
  • Choose the simile that you believe best describes a mathematics learner and explain your choice.
  • Choose the simile that does the worst job of describing a mathematics learner and explain your choice.
  • Is there another simile that does a better job than these of describing a mathematics learner? If there is, then what is it and what makes it better than these?

This survey is based on an instrument I used in my doctoral research to measure beliefs about doing, learning, and teaching mathematics.

How would you complete this simile survey?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Whose job is it anyway?

I woke this morning and found this tweet from Alfie Kohn in my Twitter Stream:
It immediately reminded me of the article I wrote with my GVSU colleague, Dr. Pamela Wells - Are They Wrong? Or Did They Just Answer a Different Question?

But it also brought to mind a cartoon John Golden drew for me after I shared with him a talk I heard at a leadership conference at the University of Michigan's School of Education. This was before Twitter, so he had to wait until I drove back from Ann Arbor to tell him about it. I do not remember who the speaker was, but I do remember the message: we need to be figuring out what learners are saying and not the other way around.
So what is your paradigm?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

When will they be ready to go on?

from Teaching-Learning Cycle
Assessments play a key role in the Understanding by Design approach to unit planning. They represent the way that I plan to monitor learners’ progress toward a goal. Therefore, I need to think carefully about what I am going to assess (objectives) and how I am going to assess (approaches) before the unit even begins. In other words, effective assessments require planning.

My first attempt at planning with the end in mind was a middle school math project I called the “Dream House.” I was also interested in using alternative forms of assessment and this project seemed a natural place to start. The summative assessment was a class presentation where each middle schooler shared a scale model of his or her dream house along with specific details like perimeter, area, and cost. This was a 9-week project that covered many of the Michigan state standards in geometry, measurement, and number & operation. And the grade on the presentation was their grade for the marking period. I made this video to model what the final product and presentation might look like:

In order to increase the likelihood of learner success, I set up assessments (I called them benchmarks) along the way. Again, I worked backwards in selecting and designing these assessments. I just kept taking a mental step back and asking myself, “What should they be able to demonstrate in order to do the next task?” and “How will I assess/gather data on their level of understanding?”

As you can see in the example to the right, my plan included some traditional forms of assessments (highlighted in yellow). Learners needed to demonstrate proficiency on the skills assessed by these quizzes before they were ready to move on to the next benchmark. Our school determined that 80% or better was required, but you will remember this did not figure into their final grade; it was merely to monitor progress and ensure success.

This video represents a sample of the eighth graders' efforts on the Name Plaque benchmark:

The planning and preparing for this unit took a great deal of work. Fortunately it was the first marking period in the fall, and I had all summer to work on it. Still, many of the quizzes I used were not developed from scratch but modified from our school’s math text. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel and slight modifications offered the data I needed to analyze understanding and make instructional decisions. After all, these were formative assessments.

I point out my use of textbook quizzes because I had a teacher assistant ask me if using existing curricular resources is “cheating.” Another education class had suggested that using such resources is shameful because teachers should and can create better materials for their learners. Maybe with more time and experience we could make better tests and quizzes from scratch. But why would we if what’s available requires minor, meaningful modifications in order to accomplish our goal? It just depends whether or not it fits within our plan.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How did my teaching go today?

I am willing to acknowledge that I may be wrong about this (which is one reason I am writing about it) but I think the experiment of using Twitter in a college classroom went well today. The other reason I am writing this is because we teachers often spend too much time beating ourselves up over flaws in our lessons. We have just as much, if not more, to learn from examining successes.

TPACK Framework
My idea started last week after listening to Dr. Punya Mishra talk about the intersection between technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge (TPACK) at the GVSU 2011 Technology Symposium (connect to his talk here). We have used Twitter with our teacher assistants (TAs), mostly outside the seminar, as a means to monitor what is happening in their placement, communicate information to them, and model how social networks can be used to develop professional learning networks (PLN). But Dr. Mishra got me to thinking about how to use Twitter IN the classroom in meaningful ways.

The goal for the experimental lesson was to consider ways to improve teaching by focusing on engagement. This reflects two elements of the seminar’s content knowledge (the content being promising practices that support TAs’ efforts to improve their teaching).  The first is the text we use in the class, The Teaching Gap. We like the book’s message that change takes time and commitment, and teachers should be at the center of this development. We also focus on Action Plans as a professional development approach that supports teachers in identifying and addressing teaching challenges.

Here is where the pedagogical piece intersects. We know learners need to have a purpose in order for an activity to be meaningful. Therefore, I told the TAs to imagine that a colleague had developed an Action Plan asking for support in writing plans that would engage more learners. (An improvement would be to have a mock Action Plan – I just can’t help seeing what is missing). It was their job to watch his instruction and offer him, or his representatives, feedback after the lesson. The other pedagogical intersection was that the lesson was a video of one of the American lessons described in The Teaching Gap. Thus, it was a connection to the known – a pedagogical imperative if learning is going to occur.

The technology overlapped the content knowledge and the pedagogy in two ways. We accessed the video via the internet and used Twitter to take notes on our observations, questions, and ideas during the lesson. We chose an unused hashtag, #e3pd (ed 331 planning dialogue – shortened to make it easier to tweet), and then projected the video and the Twitter stream on a split screen.

Split Screen Reenactment

As the TAs tweeted, I noticed that some were not showing up on the list. I soon realized that because they had protected accounts their tweets were on my personal stream but not in the list. I quickly began quoting and retweeting but it became obvious that I was not going to be able to keep it up throughout the lesson. This is another thing to think about for next time.

Once I stopped retweeting I began noticing trends in the Twitter stream. The TAs were identifying some of the same actions and offering the same advice. Many of these were issues and ideas that we had discussed throughout the semester. They also began communicating to one another (and me) in pure backchannel fashion. And there was a record of it for us to look at later. If you had been in the seminar, you would have seen me smiling.

The lesson ended and the TAs immediately wanted to offer the teacher feedback. I told them he was unavailable but three of his representatives would be meeting with individual groups. As luck would have it, these TAs meet with me prior to seminar to discuss planning engaging lessons. I coached them ahead of time to be open to ideas but to push back with some of the constraints we had discussed earlier (time, classroom management, culture, …). One of the groups welcomed a representative saying, “Oh, you must be Mr. J’s student teacher.” I will stow this nice touch away for next time as well.

I walked around eavesdropping on these dialogues. It was great to hear the TAs offer ideas and support their point with successes from their own experience. One representative/student teacher took copious notes as she listened to her colleagues’ suggestions. (I need to remember to get a copy of those notes to see exactly what she wrote.) The reflection for the activity was for TA’s to tweet one final subtle shift that the teacher might consider incorporating into his planning to improve engagement.

The last piece of business was to get feedback about the experience. A couple TAs said they had been skeptical about tweeting during a video but they were now sold. Tweeting allowed them to remain engaged in an otherwise non-engaging lesson by bring their thinking to the surface. (Fostering metacognition is another example of how the lesson landed in the TPACK framework’s center.) We discussed trying the same approach while watching a German or Japanese lesson. They also appreciated that there was a record of their thoughts available to examine latter.

John gathered the tweets in Twapper Keeper and we may do an analysis at some point. What I observed in real time reminded me of the work Deb Roy shared in the second part of his TED Talk.  You can watch it here.

Looking back on the experiment, I remain pleased with the outcome. There are certainly things to improve, and I wonder if it will be as meaningful the second time.  Was it the novelty that made it so engaging?  How can I maintain this TPACK momentum?

Now that you have heard my story, I would be interested in your perspective.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What is a teacher worth? (Why teachers like me support unions)

I want to share a Letter to the Editor that I recently sent to a couple of Michigan newspapers. It reflects my current frustration with how little we value teachers and their efforts. We must make our voices heard.
Full disclosure: I'm a teacher. My wife is a teacher. Both of my parents taught. And my maternal grandparents were teachers. I am aware I am biased on this issue. However, that does not negate the following facts.

I have read comments lately suggesting teachers are paid too much. Sometimes, the rationale behind these comments is that teachers are simply glorified babysitters. So let's consider this for a minute. Babysitters make anywhere from $4-10 an hour. Let's be conservative and use the lower amount. Classrooms now have about 25 kids per class. School runs from around 8 am until 3 pm, but teachers often get an hour planning and a luxurious 30-minute lunch. So seemingly, they work 5.5 hours. The school year is 180 days long. Doing the math I learned thanks to a teacher, that totals to $99,000 per year. Of course, we will have to pay someone else to do the planning, assessing, and other duties that teachers do beyond the school day since that's not in a babysitter’s job description.

Now I can hear some of you complaining that this is too much money given that you consider teachers part time civic employees. So let's consider paying teachers what we pay another "part time" civic employee - a Michigan legislator. They make around $70,000 per year and about $900 per month for expenses. Not a bad amount for "part time" work.

But wait, there has been a lot of yelling recently that we must reduce government debt so our precious children and grandchildren will not be saddled with this burden. They are our future, after all, and an investment in ensuring that America will go on after us. A precious investment, you say? Then maybe we should pay teachers like investment bankers.

You get the point. A teacher is worth much more than the average $58,000 we pay them - even when you add in benefits. So the next time you think that teachers are paid too much or that their unions are unnecessary consider these examples. When we pay teachers as much as investment bankers or legislators or even babysitters then maybe the time for teacher unions has passed. But until then be grateful for the bargain.
While this letter was fairly easy to write, it was extremely difficult to submit. The last thing I want to do is add to the damage being done to a profession I feel so passionately about. My fear is that my passion (and some tongue-in-cheek points) will be misconstrued when placed in a section that far too many people read literally - the opinion page.

full list of blogposts supporting edusolidarity. (google spreadsheet.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are multiple-choice tests capable of evaluating learning?

"The writer's [teacher's] job is not to judge, but to understand."
Ernest Hemingway

Last week, I returned to writing about the Teaching-Learning Cycle (T-LC) by considering whether or not we can reclaim assessment from high-stakes tests. Recall that evaluation follows assessment in the T-LC: What can learners do? What are they trying to do? What comes next? Staying with the theme of standardized tests, I want to explore the idea of using multiple-choice items to evaluate learning.

My favorite example of this comes from the 1983 NAEP math survey. I had recently started teaching middle school math when the results for the item shown to the right came out. Only 24% of the national sample of thirteen-year-olds answered this item correctly. Nearly as many of the learners answered (c) 31.33. This is the first time I remember examining the other possibilities and wondering, “What were the kids that selected these other responses thinking?” [This question continues to fascinate me and resulted in this article that I wrote with Dr. Pam Wells.]

Using the evaluation framework, I assume that most of those answering 12 can find the remainder of the division problem and are trying to use it to answer the question. The kids answering 31 might be finding the correct number of buses by estimating the quotient or rounding it to the nearest whole number. And the 31.33 answers suggest that these thirteen-year-olds can do the division correctly but forgot to keep the context in mind. In fact, this focus on making sense of the situation seems to be what comes next for all of those who chose (a), (b), or (c).

You will notice that I did a fair amount of equivocating in my evaluation of the different responses in the previous paragraph. This is the problem with multiple-choice items – we cannot be sure why the test-taker selected one response over the other. Was it based on understanding? Or was it a guess? Or was it an intentional effort to undermine the assessment process? Only by looking at a group of responses can we begin to reduce such errors and be more confident in our evaluation of learners’ thinking. That is why I do not like using multiple-choice items as summative assessments but use them to track the progress of classes as a whole on content we are exploring.

Still, I believe I can improve the question so that it is easier to more accurately evaluate where learners are fluent and where they are approximating. One possible way is to replace 12 (which I consider the most unreasonable answer) with “I’m not sure so any choice would be a guess.” This does not add to my evaluation burden and because the item is formative the learner is more likely to be honest if they know I will use the information to inform instruction and improve their likelihood of later success.

For even more data, do as Karen Bailey suggests (in this PowerPoint) and simply add “Explain” to the end of the item. Some possible rationales are shown to the left. These responses are fascinating and certainly can improve our ability to evaluate their thinking and tailor future instruction to support their continued growth.

It will require more evaluation effort to look through and make sense of open-ended responses and teachers need to decide if it is justified. I once heard Grant Wiggins ask of assessments, “Is the juice worth the squeeze.” But this question should apply to the test-takers as well as the evaluators. Why should we subject kids to an assessment if the task does not truly measure what was intended?

This is one of the first posts that truly did get at my reason for starting this blog. I began this post thinking I would defend multiple-choice items as a reasonable way to evaluate groups of learners from a formative perspective. While I still believe evaluation can be done using a selected response format, I’m not sure identifying what learners can do and are trying to do is as easy as I thought. What do you think?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Can we reclaim assessment?

Each month, a group of faculty members from the two colleges involved in teacher education at GVSU meet to discuss issues related to teacher preparation and professional development. Because of my joint appointment I am a member of this group known as the Professional Teacher Education Advisory Council (PTEAC). Two months ago, a colleague from the English Department brought up the results from the recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) for us to discuss.
My two homes in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the College of Education
Many of us were familiar with the results that suggest the United States is lagging behind other countries in education. Going beyond the results, we spent some time putting the data into context. (e.g. U.S. is much more diverse than top countries like Finland and Singapore.) I may come back to this point and what it means in another post, but for now, let’s just say that I see such comparisons as a distraction. Looking at sample PISA math questions, I can say that I want U.S. pupils to be able to answer them correctly. Whether they get more right than pupils in other countries is irrelevant.

A few weeks after this discussion, I attended a higher education conference put on by the GVSU Mathematics Department. One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Zalman Usiskin, opened the conference by addressing some of the same issues we had raised in PTEAC. While it was affirming to hear Dr. Usiskin’s presentation, I was inspired most by his words over lunch. He asked where I taught and I said at the university. He said, “You’re lucky then, because you have more freedom than K12 teachers. I don’t know why anyone would want to be a public school teacher under current conditions.” His words echoed in my head the rest of the conference.

During a panel session at the end of the conference, I listened as a parade of K12 mathematics teachers expressed their frustration with an educational system driven by standardized tests and their concerns about what the Common Core State Standards would add. Being a former middle school teacher I could empathize with their plight but I was somewhat disconnected now being in higher educations. It was then that Dr. Usiskin’s words hit me full force – I am lucky because of the freedom I have. What if I (and other teacher educators) used that freedom to provide cover for our K12 colleagues?

What I am proposing is that we reclaim the narrative related to assessment. Let the politicians and the newspapers have their standardized tests. We can reply, “Yes, those are the results and this is what they REALLY mean but they do not tell a complete story.” Here is where the collaboration between teacher educators and public schools comes into play. Teacher educators have the freedom and the resources available to help design reliable and valid assessments that assess the things local communities decide are important. Things like problem solving and critical thinking that cannot be easily assessed with a multiple-choice, standardized test.

What if schools came to colleges of education with a list of essential skills and processes they wanted to assess? What if the colleges of education used their experiences and resources to develop, implement, and analyzed the assessments? Could this provide the political cover schools need to reclaim the assessment narrative and return them to their proper role as preparers of democratic citizens (instead of test-prep factories)? Is this even possible? If so, then what comes next?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What does effective teaching look like?

This coming weekend is Michigan Reading Association’s annual conference. Yes, I am a mathematics educator, but I always find this conference interesting. It’s probably because the presentations are outside of my expertise and require me to consider how to apply the ideas presented to my area of focus that I find it so engaging. I enjoy the challenge.

It was at this conference in 2008 that I heard Peter Johnston speak on his research on word choice. He described how using words like “good” and “bad” to describe readers is detrimental to their development of effective reading strategies. Attaching these descriptors to readers suggests that reading is an innate ability that some learners are good at and some are not. There is nothing they can do to improve whether they are “good” or “bad” – they are stuck in a fixed position.

Here’s where I apply my learning from Dr. Johnston. Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding “good” and “bad” teachers. I cringe when I hear this because it sounds as though we are dealing with individuals possessing fixed abilities. Consequently, our only alternative is to replace “bad” teachers with “good” ones. There is no possibility for “bad” teachers to get better. This perspective results from word choice, however, and not from reality.

That is why I prefer to consider what effective teaching looks like. Effective teaching focuses on learning. Effective teaching uses formative assessment to evaluate learning, plan lessons, and inform instructional decisions. Effective teaching embraces a growth mindset toward teaching and learning.

When teachers struggle in using effective teaching strategies in their classrooms, it is not because they are “bad” or hopeless. It is usually because they lack adequate experience or support. These shortcomings can often be addressed through professional development programs such as Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Project.

Are there teachers who are resistant to seeking out support in order to become more effective? Certainly, but they are few in number and do not reflect the entire profession. Individuals maintaining a fixed mindset should be counseled to seek another profession. Effective teaching requires a willingness to grow. That’s why I will be attending this year’s MRA Conference – I still have plenty left to learn.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What was I thinking?

AKA: Making my thinking for my TEDxGrandValley Talk visible

Saturday’s TEDxNYED motivated me. Actually, it was Dr. Gary Stager’s Twitter-stream following his talk that inspired me to action. His tweets expressed my feelings exactly upon completing a TEDx Talk. There was so much more I wanted to say and a better way to say it but the format (which I love as an observer) is in many ways unforgiving to a presenter.

After my talk, good friend and colleague, John Golden, mentioned that I had seemed uncharacteristically nervous (we’ve done several presentation together). He was right; I was nervous and beginning to feel like I had blown an opportunity to make clear ideas I thought worth sharing. During the dinner celebrating the event, I connected with another friend and colleague, Sean Lancaster, who had also given a talk. He, too, expressed frustration regarding his performance and we commiserated together.

Not long after these conversations, I came up with what I thought was a great idea – TEDTalks Take Two: Ideas Worth Sharing but Better this Time. Using a digital camera we could record our improved talks and put them on the web ourselves.
Like many of my “great ideas” this went nowhere and once I watched the TEDxGrandValley videos I thought our talks went better than it felt at the time. I did not need a complete “do-over.”

Still, there were things I thought I could/should make clearer. And then it came to me – I needed a commentary. Yes, I am one of those people who actually enjoy listening to directors or actors provide insight into their thinking about their work. Therefore, I decided to write a commentary to accompany my talk that would make some of my thinking more visible.

First, here is my original talk from TEDxGrandValley:

Now, here is my commentary:

Before the talk:
I was fairly confident going into the talk. It was not my first presentation, and I was familiar with the content and the TED format. I like Sir Ken Robinson’s style and thought that I would emulate it by telling a series of one-minute stories.
I even went to the hall the day before to check out the space. The person in charge of technology said that there was a bit of a glitch with using the embedded video but they fixed it by running parallel PowerPoints on two different computers. I was asked if I wanted to run through the talk but I declined because I wanted to keep it fresh. This was a mistake.

During the talk:
The story about the phone call is true and it did have an interesting effect on my confidence. Maybe it contributed to my nervousness. In any case, from the beginning I was searching for words. I even forgot TED’s catchphrase, “Ideas Worth Sharing.” What was meant to take 30 seconds took over a minute – not a good start.

Yet I remained committed to providing the audience with time to activate their schema using the venn Diagrams. In a weird twist, the glitch with the embedded videos provided me with some extra time as I accidentally skipped over my slide introducing the Council on 21st Century Learning [C21L]. Two of their videos provide the backbone for my talk, however, and I want to give them their due. I hope this makes up for the unintended slight. I was grateful for the extra time, though.

C21L has another video comparing students versus learners that I decided against using because of time constraints, but it related to my first sustainability question, “Will this be on the test?” If you watch the video I did not include, you will see that I was trying to channel the student’s perspective regarding consuming content. With all the focus on high-stake testing, this idea of covering content is particularly pernicious.

In retrospect, I wish I had included a picture of Admiral Ackbar (from Star Wars) to go along with my belief that “When will we ever use this? is a trap. Probably just as well as it might have been too obscure and distracting. What is interesting is the number of times I have seen variations of this question/trap asked during recent observations of student teachers. The result is usually the same: teachers scrambling for an answer that students tear apart or don’t accept.

The beauty of a commentary is I can provide a glimpse into my actions as well as my thinking. The “there’s an App for that” line was an opportunity for me to grab my iPhone which had my notes on it. I saw that I was running out of time and wanted it available just in case.

The “Why don’t you just show me?” question really gets at my frustration with the current system that fosters a consumer mentality. Students consuming what teachers are selling. This question is the crux of my argument that the current system is unsustainable. Students need to learn how to survive beyond teachers or textbooks always feeding them the information.

Again, the second video snuck up on me. I guess there is something to be said for rehearsal.

Kathy searching for answers (or Nessie)
John suggested that I use pictures from my trip to Scotland to support the second part of the talk. I am glad he did because they provided a series of strong metaphors for the ideas inherent in teachers fostering learners instead of students.

Roslyn Chapel under canopy
Using Roslyn Chapel for the support example was a bit of a reach. In Scotland we saw a lot of buildings surrounded by scaffolding. They do not simply tear down historic buildings; they repair and rebuild. Sometimes the support became a part of the rebuilt structure. Other times it is removed once the structure is sound. This was the point I was trying to make. Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures of these scaffolds. Consequently, I went with a slightly different approach with the canopy. I think it makes the point, just not as well.

In introducing the workshop model, I had a quote from Jon Stewart that I wanted to use but forgot. “Creativity comes from limits not freedom… When you have a structure then you can improvise off of it…” Instead, I spent some time connecting to earlier talks – a mainstay of the TED format. But I still wish I had used that Stewart quote because it makes the point that creativity is not devoid of structure.

Kathy was not exactly happy that I included this picture of her in front of the “pile of rocks.” I convinced her that she always looks good and that it would be up only briefly. Besides, it was the perfect example of the role choice place in empowering learners and adventurers.

The ideas associated with the awareness, acceptance, and adjustment slide comes from my yoga story. You can read it here. No point to me repeating it in this post.

Apprentice Pillar
With the Apprentice Pillar, I intended to expand upon the story of the mentor’s murder of the apprentice as a cautionary tale of the problem with conformity in schools. I do not want my learners limited by me. A teacher’s role is to develop sustainable learners not unsustainable students.

At this point I was a bit panicked by how little time was left. I felt like I zoomed through the Gradual Release of Responsibility model. The Model, Mentor, and Monitor alliteration comes from Jeffrey Wilhelm. I wanted to give him credit. I also wanted to talk about how Debbie Miller uses the model to ensure that her classroom transforms from the teacher modeling in September and October to the learners doing in March, April, and May. By the way, the line about wanting my learners to make better pillars came from John.

The last slide worked out about how I wanted. I just wish I had ended with sustainable learners instead of sustainable students. Though I like the alliteration, it does not fit with the rest of the talk.

After the talk:
I hope that you can accept this bit of navel-gazing. We ask our learners in the mathematics education course at GVSU to do a lot of reflection. Often, it looks similar to a commentary as we ask them to annotate their work in order to make their thinking visible. A book I read recently by Dr. James Zull, affirms our commitment to reflection as being essential for learners to grow and become self-sustaining.

Putting together this talk in the first place helped me to consolidate my thoughts about where we are (consuming information) and where I think we need to be (creating understanding). Writing this commentary has further solidified my own understandings and strengthened my resolve to doing things differently. Thanks for humoring me as I try to make this thinking visible (if only to myself).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is it okay to skip this workshop?

Grand Valley’s teacher preparation program is fairly unique; it has preservice teachers engage in field placements over two semesters. The second semester represents a typical student teaching placement. In their first semester, preservice teachers spend the morning assisting in K12 classrooms and their afternoons and evenings taking seminars in classroom management, content literacy, lesson study, and content methods (in the case of secondary teachers). It is this last seminar, math methods in secondary classrooms, which I currently teach with my colleague John.

The seminar meets once a week for two hours. We use a workshop model (similar to the approach used in literacy instruction) for both class activities and home assignments. Our expectation is that the teacher assistants will put in five hours into the home workshops.

We recognize this is a lot to ask of the teacher assistants (TAs) and begin the semester acknowledging the fact. The idea is that providing too much to do will help them to learn a valuable time management skill – prioritization. I like to think about it using Covey’s model related to urgent-important activities. Unfortunately, while we offered the rationale for giving too much work, support was lacking. I will do this better next time.

Consequently, some TAs shared that they were close to the breaking point. In an effort to address the issue, I sent them all the following email. I wanted to share it because I believe it addresses an issue many teachers struggle with.

It was brought to my attention today that many of you are stressed out. Now this wasn’t a surprise to me as this is a packed semester, and teacher assistants often find it overwhelming. However, the extent of the stress (including physical symptoms) and the cause of the stress (our five assigned workshops) are concerns to me.

We began the semester telling you that we knew we were asking you to do more than you could in the time available. This was an intentional decision in an effort to prepare you to make critical choices as to how you spend your time as a teacher. We wanted to provide a safe place where you could practice making those choices by prioritizing what is important to you and your learners without fear of punishment.

The choices you make also help us to determine which workshops are meaningful to you and which you consider unimportant. It actually helps us in subsequent semesters to select workshops to assign. Essentially, we are trying to put Conditions of Learning (such as responsibility, employment, and approximation) into practice in the seminar.

You all are successful students, however, and some of you are finding it difficult to skip a workshop. The mere thought of it brings on stress and anxiety. You skip it because time does not allow for it but you feel no sense of accomplishment or growth as a decision-maker as a result. These unintended consequences are not acceptable and must be dealt with immediately.

I do not want to reduce the workshop load since this ignores the realities of the time commitments you will face as a teacher. But that means there is still too much to do. So, from here on out, if you need permission to skip a workshop, please do not hesitate to email me. I will do my best to absolve you of any guilt you may feel for not meeting the expectation. Be assured, if I think skipping the workshop is not in your best interest I will be direct about it. Otherwise, I plan on affirming your decision and letting you move on to more important things.

Hopefully, as time goes on, your sense of guilt will lessen and you will find your need for reassurance to diminish. I will try to do my part by adjusting my responses from, “It’s okay to skip that,” to “I trust your judgment,” to “You know what you need to do.” Because I do trust you and believe that you know yourself better than anyone else.

In times of stress, I have a friend who reminds me that everything that NEEDS to get done gets done. The important part is to realize that there is more that I might WANT to get done but time doesn’t allow. And looking back on my life, I see that my friend is right. I have had to make some hard decisions and turn my back on certain opportunities, but in the end everything that needed to get done got done in order for me to get to this place. It is my hope that this is a lesson you’ll learn and remember from this semester.


I am passionate about this issue of making teaching and learning sustainable. Partly, it is because I see how hard my wife works as a first grade teacher. It also stems from memories of my mom (also an elementary teacher) responding to my questions about what she wanted for Christmas with, “Two more hours in everyday, two more days in every week, and two more weeks in every month so I can get everything done.” My dad, a high school math and science teacher, also worked hard but he suffered in silence. Mostly, I am passionate because I see committed and competent preservice teachers facing a system that chews up and spits out new teachers.

So, I offer the preservice teachers I work with absolution for their perceived sins of skipping a home workshops. In other words, I offer them permission to prioritize what they spend time on during their five hours of out-of-class. It can even be something other than the assigned workshops if it makes more sense to them.

Recently, I found that affirming preservice teachers’ critical thinking skills extends beyond homework choices. During a debriefing after a coaching session, a TA asked me about an upcoming lesson. The TA wanted to know if it was alright to skip a particular topic because of a time crunch. Before I could respond, the complete rationale for the choice came out. I smiled and said, “It sounds like you already know what to do. Are you asking my permission?” The TA responded with a nod. I assured the TA that it seemed like a sound decision.

What kind of educational system have we created where intelligent people do not trust themselves to make good decisions?

Not that you need it, but you have my permission to prioritize. You have my assurance that you can make good decisions. And you have my appreciation for the hard work that you do?