Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Assessments, Problem Solving, Questions for you!

In other news, this morning I had a math department meeting. We talked about the newest aspect of our DYO assessments: the Grade Level Competency Exams (GLCE). These exams are supposed to reflect the minimum a student should be able to do and still pass a class. They're about basic skills. 80% is a passing grade. (I find it really hard to make these exams with confidence. Should reading a clock be on the 9th GLCE? I want them to read a clock, sure. I recently discovered that they don't all know how, yikes. Does that mean it should become part of my 9th grade curriculum? That they shouldn't be in 10th grade without it?)

In the midst of all of this, we're trying to be more transparent about how our classes intersect, to talk about what we value, what we expect of each other and how what we teach works together. As a group, we have difficulty doing this when it's called vertical planning, but it's organic in this context. Interesting.

Then we answered the questions: Why is it useful to study math? What is the most important thing you teach?
All of us, unanimously, said problem solving and critical thinking in answer to both questions. We all were also clear that our students don't know that. They don't know that everyone in the department cares more about problem solving and thinking than anything else. Why not?
Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that we're so busy making these basic skills exams?

So I'm looking for some advice here.

1- What do your students think you think is the most important thing that you teach? What do you do to make that clear? In other words, what do your students know that you value, and how do they know it?

2- How do you all plan in a way that makes your big values transparent?

3- How do you assess problem solving and critical thinking?

4- Is it ever useful (and if so how and how much) to assess straight up skills without problem solving or critical thinking?


Hope your Wednesdays went by easily and that you felt appreciated and loved.

I was discouraged the other day about one of my 9th grades, and my colleague asked one of the students from that class to give me a hug and tell me how much she appreciated me. This student (code name MD) is the least likely of all of my students to want to do such a thing, and I cringed as I heard the question. MD was predictably resistant, making faces and "um"-ing. My colleague pushed her: "Jesse's having a hard day. She's been talking to me for the whole last 45 minutes about your class. She's worried about you guys and she really needs to know that you appreciate her." MD interrupted at this point, stamped her foot, and raised her voice to say, "She knows how much we appreciate her!" as if appalled that anyone could doubt it. It was the best affirmation I may have ever received.

I just realized that maybe you guys don't all do this self-doubting thing as much as I do. But if you do, let this be a gift to you all: the relationship that you have with your students does not go unnoticed, no matter who you are, no matter how inadequately you (think you) do your work. You work hard, you love hard, you get up every day and show up whether it's raining or you feel grumpy or whatever and you offer whatever it is you've got. They notice it. They appreciate it. They have no idea that you don't know that. Trust it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rejuvenation via PD

Happy Winter! I know for many it can be a dark period of the school year in more ways than one, and I hope that for this moment if not in general that you are happy, enthusiastic, hopeful, grateful.

I went to a mediocre PD workshop last night and it made me miss you all, and appreciate again how you have created your own PD, DIY style. You are so good at it! I've learned so much from you, been inspired and rejuvenated over and over.

Despite the anticlimax of last night's PD, I had three really cool experiences today I wanted to share:

The first: a new precision of compassionate humility.
Part of the PD last night was this 5 minute game where we were asked to locate consecutive numbers, arranged a la Where's Waldo, at speed. I felt, I think for the first time, utterly disoriented and confused doing an activity with numbers. My friends were being hilariously but half-seriously competitive. There was no reason to what we were doing, no sense to it, no one could help me do it better or faster, and by the end of the activity I felt the impulse to skip numbers. No one would have noticed. Why not?
Because I was not on the hook in any way, I could laugh: at the competition, at myself, at the anxiety. But it would not have been funny if I had been 15. And this gave me a window into what it might be like to be 15 and doing math when it doesn't make sense.
With this fresh in my mind, I was more sensitive to this possibility when my 10th grade classes today went into revolt mode when I asked them to evaluate expressions that I thought would be total review, easy-peasy. I changed my whole lesson plan on the fly to accommodate their actual readiness for the material, and it was awkward because I wasn't prepared but I didn't get frustrated with them because I was able to see it wasn't their fault and they were so appreciative. They just needed me to back up about 3 paces further than I had realized.

The second: remember how good it feels to stand up!
In my sweet 9th grade class today, there was a minor revolt. One kid raised his hand and asked for things to be more fun, to have races and competitions and make posters. OK. I hadn't realized how long it had been since we did that. So I passed out the worksheet I had planned and asked them to pick their favorite problem, do it, compare their answers with their group, then rewrite the problem as clearly and beautifully as they could on mini-posters and tape it up wherever they wanted in the room. They had a blast, made posters that say "my favorite math problem" and now they can see all around them what they already know about combining like terms, not only today but all next quarter. Duh. It was so freaking easy. For the 15 minutes they were making the posters they weren't doing new math. But I think they might remember what they did do a little better, and most certainly we had more fun than if I was forcing them to just do more worksheets. I can totally do this.

The third: pattern seeking machines
Bob & Ellen Kaplan say in their book Out of the Labyrinth that human beings are pattern-seeking machines. They talk about how students don't always see the patterns we intend for them to. For example, if the quadratics that students plot always have vertices with integer coordinates, then students are (understandably) likely to assume that all quadratics have vertices with integer coordinates, and then get baffled and thrown when they get one that doesn't. This phenomenon reflects well on students' cognition. And unfortunately for them, this happens all the time through well-intentioned scaffolding and careless textbook writing alike.
I tutored one of my students for two hours after school today. She could show me step by step what to do to solve two step equations. Her procedures were near perfect. I would not have noticed a problem had I just been looking at her work. But she couldn't explain anything, and her reasoning turned out to be entirely based on repeated exposure to those visual patterns, as opposed to actually understanding equality, inverse operations, solutions and true statements. Hopefully she's a bit clearer now.

The upshot:
Do whatever it takes to stay inspired. Be reflective because it's fun. Try new things. Love them. Love yourself. Be patient. Be honest.

You all rock my world. Happy 2010. May this year be the best yet for everyone.