Friday, August 8, 2014

Where is the value in play?

This week, Kathy and I presented at the Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics Conference. We adapted our previous workshop on games to focus specifically on the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice. (Here is a PDF of the session PowerPoint.)

We used the grouping by one of the Common Core authors, William McCallum, to make the Practices more manageable for the participants. Then we concentrated our attention on Standards 7 and 8 (what McCallum refers to as "seeing structure and generalizing"). I shared how some preservice teachers had synthesized this pair into three key elements to look for while doing math:
  • Noticing: recognizing patterns by breaking things down and identifying basic structures;
  • Building: creating new knowledge by connecting ideas to what is already known; and
  • Generalizing: identifying ways to create general methods/formulas
By intentionally narrowing our focus in this way, we hoped to model the importance of highlighting learning opportunities that occur during play.

Participants were given the opportunity to play three games. Two of the games, Race to 100 and Roll a Square, provide opportunities to examine the structure of our place value system and how the structure can be used to create methods for solving double-digit combining and separating problem. We asked participants to explore the games as teachers - keeping in mind scenarios that might be used to highlight Standards 7 and 8.

I provided the following as a model scenario:
While playing Race to 100, I saw Alyssa start on 14 and roll a 10. She ended on 24. What if she rolled 3 more tens in a row? What would the Rekenrek look like at the end of each roll?
While rolling four tens in a row is unlikely, we can use the shared experience of playing the game to provide learners with a chance to notice how our place value structure can be used to build a strategy for adding 10 to a number.

By playing the games before using them with learners, the teachers can be intentional about looking for opportunities to highlight "learnable moments." Then, teachers can use reflection time to talk about scenarios they observed during  game play (during planning, during the lesson, or even imagined). This can be as simple as sharing the scenario and adding one of the questions (from this PDF) associated with the Practice Standard(s) the teacher has decided is the focus of the lesson.

Too often we do not take the time to debrief around games and make explicit some of the mathematical practices that occurred. Is it any wonder that our students respond, "Nothing," when asked by their parents or guardians what they learned in math class today. Let's not leave learning to chance and assume learners will use the skills that will help them to improve their mathematical practice.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Am I Enough?

I am a perfectionist. Somewhere in my past, I internalized the message that my worth was tied up in being perfect. I do not blame the adults in my life for this message. Chances are they were dealing with their own perfectionism. The fact is that I thought I had to do everything perfectly, which has had a negative impact on my life.

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown explains that perfectionism is one of the ways we try to protect ourselves from expressing vulnerability. The problem is, it is through vulnerability that we connect with others and access our ability to change and grow. My own struggle with perfectionism has at times left me feeling isolated and kept me from trying new things. As educators, if we are not able to appropriately express our vulnerability, then we risk passing along "gifts" like perfectionism to another generation of learners. (If you have not watched Dr. Brown's TED Talks on Vulnerability and Shame, they are worth your time - especially as you think about setting a classroom culture for the coming school year.)

Part of the problem, is that we are fighting against a culture of perfectionism in education. Here are two examples from this past week. (Be forewarned: one of the problems with being a perfectionist is that I read perfectionism into things where it might not exist. I will readily engage in a conversation in the comments if you think I am wrong about these examples.) First, I read a review of the book, Building a Better Teacher. The reviewer ends his piece with, "Learning on the job just shouldn’t cut it anymore." This seems to suggest that teachers ought to be perfect from day one. Then, I watched Campbell Brown on The Colbert Report. Her new project, Partnership for Educational Justice, is working to help "students fight laws that keep poorly performing teachers in their classrooms." While this sounds "common sense," it ends up creating expectations that teachers be perfect: perfect in their teaching; perfect in their implementation of district plans (even if they are pedagogically unsound); and perfect in student learning (even though they have little control over this aspect of education). Therefore, teachers are expected to be perfect from their first day to the day they retire. As Dr. Brown's research has shown, this push for perfectionism can inhibit teachers' ability to collaborate with peers, connect with students, and be innovative in their teaching. Is this really what we are after in education reform?

The woman who performed our wedding was the campus minister at Western Michigan University when I did my doctoral research. I think it is safe to say that my individual work with her helped me to overcome some of the perfectionistic tendencies that threatened to interfere with me completing my dissertation. She helped me to see that I am not called to be perfect but gracefully imperfect. This is the message I try to pass along to the teachers I work with. For me, graceful imperfection entails: (1) awareness when things go wrong; (2) acceptance so I don't resort to blame; and (3) adjustment so I can grow from the experience.

I still struggle with perfectionism. Now, however, I try to give myself permission to handle the struggle with grace. Hopefully, this post fits into that category.