Friday, November 30, 2012

Second Chances

When I started to teach, I felt like I was nearly the same age as my students.  I didn't understand them and I felt unpopular and uncomfortable.  I went home every night with backaches and sore feet.  People told me to write about my experiences, that I would be grateful later.  People told me the first three years would definitely be awful.  People told me not to smile for the first three months.

I didn't write, or not often.  I did smile, from day one on.  The first three years were hard, no doubt, and it never helped to have someone tell me that was regular.  It took me a long time to learn things - much longer than it had ever taken before.  The gap between my ideas about how things could go and the reality of how things did go was enormous.  I cried in the teachers lounge every week as my colleagues passed in and out.  I feel asleep sitting up on Friday nights around 8pm I was so tired from the week.

In this new job as a coach, there are more parallels to teaching than I can describe, but the many connections between this work and my work as a teacher don't change the fact that I'm in my first year of this job.  It's brutal just like teaching was.  I get yelled at and scolded; I feel insecure and even though I was a teacher just a few months ago, much of the time I don't understand the teachers I'm working with.  

But now, I am writing about it.  I'm getting cut down to size and then I'm learning things fast, practicing being compassionate with myself as I inexpertly move towards understanding.  I still cry, but its with impatience instead of despair, because I know I can do this.

I'm getting my sea legs, I can feel them.  It's happening as I remember to set limits.  It's happening as I remember to be curious about what my teachers are feeling.  It's happening as I feel generally, fundamentally acceptable even when everyone I work with complains about what we're doing.

My compassion for my teachers and my self-acceptance are going hand in hand this time around.  My writing is calling forth my vision and my resilience.  I don't know what I'm doing all the time but I know I will.  I have faith now, and a meditation practice to lean into.  Plus I'm 32 instead of 25 and I have just enough perspective to know that when it comes down to crying on the job, it's really not all that serious.

Thank goodness for learning, for learning faster, for learning harder.  For love and friendship and perspective.  For dancing.  For vegan, gluten free chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin pie.  For you and you and you.

If you haven't entered the enchanted forest and found your power animal, do it now.  It'll save your Friday.  Somehow I think this is an important note to end on.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Inquiry with a capital "I"

A huge part of my new job as a coach is to facilitate weekly inquiry team meetings with the algebra teachers I'm coaching.  In some schools these teams are made up of just algebra teachers, because there are so many, and in other schools they are made up of a combination of algebra teachers and other math teachers who aren't teaching algebra.

When I started this job, I had never heard of capital "I" Inquiry, despite the fact that it's been a citywide mandate for a few years.  It seemed pretty simple: look at student work and make instructional decisions based on it.  We were told that teacher teams might be resistant because they'd been made to do some less useful version of Inquiry by their schools to meet the city mandate, or because the teachers who didn't teach algebra would push back on looking at work of students who weren't their own.

In my actual experience, it's just been hard to get down to the business of doing it.  My teams have been legitimately baffled by other parts of the program and we've spent a lot of time just problem solving, delving more deeply into the work of planning on the unit and lesson levels and just using our time together to get more familiar with the performance tasks and formative assessment lessons we're using.  There have been so many things we're doing for the first time that our Inquiry work has just been put on the side.

My boss insisted that this week, I start an inquiry cycle with my team.  Here's what this looks like, according to the Inquiry Team Handbook, p.13
We start in the orange part of this diagram to set up our stage.  In our case, the team is already defined as the school wide focus group, and the long term goals are already defined by the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards.  This week, the team defined it's target population.  Each of the four teachers selected two students, who (based on student work which they shared with the team) are on the cusp of success: students who are just below passing, but who have good attendance and are making an effort.

Over the course of the next four weeks, the team will define a concrete and measurable short term goal for the target population to reach before Christmas break and then begin the green cycle, strategically intervening based on the evidence of student misunderstandings, using student work to assess the success of those interventions, and re-engaging each week to close the gap between the target population and the short term goal.

In the new year, we will start a new green cycle, either re-iterating around the same short term goal if we haven't been successful, or coming up with a new one.

The big idea here is that by focusing on the needs of just a couple of students that are just outside the sphere of success, teachers will better meet the needs of all their students.  I have to be honest: I have not done this before, so I haven't seen it work, but I'm very curious.  What I know is that looking at student work is remarkably rare.  Teachers make statements all the time about what their students are and are not capable of and get optimistic or discouraged about what's coming based on experience (essential, useful, relevant) but not on concrete evidence.  Teachers know many things about their students, but if they aren't looking at student work to determine whether or not students have learned something new between when they entered the classroom and when they left it, they are missing out on something essential and the students are suffering because of it.

I am encouraged by what this process is already drawing out of my teachers.  It's hard for them to bring in student work.  It's hard for them to identify or articulate what the mathematics is that their students can or can't do.  It's hard for them to be willing to break down the overwhelming task of teaching 100 students all of algebra, and instead articulate one goal that they will get two students to accomplish in 4 weeks.  But I am excited to see what happens: even if we fail miserably, even if our interventions are vague and our evidence is muddy and our results seem bleak - I think this is the process through which we will learn how to study student learning and productively respond to improve it.

The inquiry process with my teacher teams is working its way backwards and holding me more accountable in my parallel work with them as a coach.  Having done just this small bit this week with my teachers, I have finally realized that I need to do the same thing as a coach: articulate my short term goals for each teacher and use evidence to inform my decision making about what to focus on with them and how to best support them in growing as teachers.

Pep talk, anyone?
Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Learning to Coach

I like sharing what I learn. It's something I think I've developed enthusiasm for as a teacher. I notice it in a lot of different domains - contact improv, meditation, group dynamics and really anything in the realm of the meta cognitive. It helps me to articulate my ideas. I get excited - it really feels like they mean something. At the same time, while I appreciate the enthusiasm I bring to conversation, sometimes I may not listen very well, and as a new coach I think I have been vulnerable to a certain insensitivity to the impact my thinking expression has on others.

Tuesday I practiced applying a new idea: as a coach I've been struggling I figure out what I'm supposed to say to the teachers I've been talking to. I have these questions I base my conversations around, with varying degrees of formality, but I haven't felt very comfortable knowing what to say when teachers respond. I realized last night that I probably was like this with kids and math a handful of years ago. It's simply experience that's helped me understand what a next good question can be. So I came to work today with a readiness to explicitly practice extending that comfort into this new domain. Here's what I experienced:

I would never expect a kid who was uncomfortable with their two times tables to be able to solve equations with fractional coefficients easily. I would never blindly assume that a 9th grader was familiar and fluent with the concept of equality or ratio and proportion. I would prioritize getting the kid to articulate what they were thinking, ask them lots of questions, enjoy what they were saying, listen for the patterns that they themselves might not know they were finding, and celebrate the moments when they were doing something hard and not giving up, making sense of something on their own terms, learning in any context. I would praise them for deep thinking even if they were wrong in their conclusions and challenge them to the next edge of their thinking before saying goodbye.
So I did that today with my teachers. I trust that they are thinking and working hard to make sense of the magnificent mess of a problem that teaching is. I looked for evidence of their decision making and reasoning. As I'm writing this I'm reflecting on how much perseverance I'm seeing in these teachers as they problem solve and how powerful that is since they are responsible for teaching that practice to students. All in all it was a good day. I was looking and so I saw things! I was curious and so I discovered things. I was organized and so I remembered things.


I have learned how to do this and a whole lot more that no one held my hand and taught me. I was nervous and unprepared when I started working with teachers - hoping against hope that my boss would tell me what to do or that I could just copy what my coworkers did. It didn't happen. I figured a lot out anyway. Reading helps. Talking helps. Supervision helps. Writing helps. Time spent mercifully readying myself to learn new things, to be imperfect and learn from it, to feel my growth edge, though I may want to be so much further along, and pushing myself that way, that way, inch by inch moving, developing, expanding...that helps too.

All of that means something important about all of you and all of those that you teach and work with. I'm not conclusive about the meaning - maybe its that we don't need as much help as we think, or that our students don't either; maybe it's that we can relax a little more as we learn and just dig into the learning; maybe it's that things take time to figure out, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm still working that edge.
During a long chat later that night with my old colleague and dear friend Bobby, I got to practice listening and also got to articulate a bunch of new ideas. (Thank you, Bobby!) One of the big takeaways was this: things are funky all over the place. If there's a problem you can be sure your classroom, your school, your student, your teaching, etc is not alone. You, it and they come by it honestly. Do the best you can and move on.

Live each moment like the world is full of possibilities and you're just about to take them on. Live on that edge all the time. Be fearless and merciful, curious and persistent. There's urgency and there's also the necessity for rest. I hope you all get it this weekend and over the holiday.

Thanksgiving, here we come!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ragged, dogged blogging

I want so much to be blogging, to get your insight, to have the excuse to think through my own.  Nearly every night I think about it and it's the thing that doesn't have to be done on a huge list of things that do.  Or so I thought.  This week, I got knocked into such a high intensity experience of isolation in my work, that I have decided to prioritize being here.  I think it may be more important that I write with curiosity and passion about the things that I'm thinking about than to complete my checklist for work every day.  Here's what's on my mind:

1- As coaches, I have wondered if it’s our job to be supportive and curious and resourceful and positive, and at the same time be like advertising execs and the stereotypical brilliant wives of important men: secretly influential, so that teachers feel the ownership of their own ideas (truly) and we aren’t being overly dogmatic or pushy, but still getting the ideas out there.  This feels harder for me than teaching by a factor of at least 6.

2- Back in the summer, I was reading one of the UbD books and was intrigued by their use of GPA as a metaphor for planning backwards: that you must know where you're going to plan a route to get there.  In my experience, this is of course a very useful idea, but it was noticeable to me that no where in the book was there any mention of a starting point.  Using rich diagnostic materials and knowing what to look for in student work on those tasks is challenging, and using the information that comes out of those diagnostics can feel like realizing that you're trying to get from Brazil to NYC barefoot.  But I can't help but believe that this is an essential component of teaching, as it's only by knowing where we begin that the pathway to any end can be direct and useful.

3- Students all want to learn.  Teachers all want their students to learn.  Coaches all want their teachers to successfully work with kids so that they learn.  We are seriously in it together, and often our actions don't match these truths.  Damn.

4- You know that feeling that you get when you're about to do something big: take a trip, move in with someone, start a new job...For me, it feels like the whole world is opening and all sorts of possibilities that normally feel outside my regular realm of experience are all available to me.  I am capable of so much and I can't wait to experience what's coming.  I want to live on this edge all the time.  I want to live each moment like the world is full of possibilities and I'm about to take them all on.  Enthusiastic, strong, ready.

5- Sometimes it's important to just buckle down and spend way more time than I'd like doing work to prepare for what's coming.  I'll feel better being prepared, and it's just a true thing that education takes time to do well, or at least to learn how to do well.  Sometimes it's also important to just be present to whatever is happening, to enjoy it or feel it's discomfort, but to resist the temptation to distract myself with work and to practice radical self-acceptance.  Then it's cool to do both at the same time.

Sending you all abundance in every realm, acknowledgment for the incredible work that you do, no matter how imperfect, because this work that we do is impossibly hard, completely worthwhile and you're the only ones doing it.  Thank goodness.

Recent Ed Reading

With the renewed enthusiasm and clarity about math education that has come with my new position, I have returned to reading about education!  Here are the things I've been reading, some of which I'm still in the midst of...

The Power of Teacher Teams, Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles
I found out about this book because New Visions gave a copy to all our principals.  I am finding it a useful and compelling read about the shift schools and teachers are making, and often need to make, in order to improve education.  So far my favorite parts have been learning why teacher teams don't always work and what to do to change that.  I feel like these women are experts and are bringing their vast experience to the table.  Really powerful if you're working on teams, facilitating teams, think that you school should have teacher teams, or just generally are interested in improving how teachers in your school think about teaching and thus improve teaching.  (Ch 3 linked)

The Power of Protocols, Joseph McDonald, Nancy Mohr, Alan Dichter, Elizabeth McDonald
Great resource for understanding the importance of protocols and a good starting toolbox of protocols and how they should be facilitated.  This is a great companion to The Power of Teacher Teams because it offers support for some of the concrete tools required to work effectively with teacher teams.

Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam
As referenced in this blog already, this text is one of the driving forces behind the project that I'm working on for New Visions.  I'm currently reading the chapter that's full of startling statistics about all the various educational reforms that have had literally zero measurable impact over the last 50 years or so.  Yikes!  He's advocating for some very concrete change around the way we look at student work and it's riveting to read his articulate and passionate words.  Highly recommend this one.

Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom, Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart
A nice book to alternate with the Dylan Wiliam book, this is (so far) much more concrete and written for the classroom.  On it's own, I wouldn't read this one, but together they make a nice recipe for making sense of Formative Assessment.

The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nutall
I just started reading this yesterday, but I'm excited.  The author is a serious thinker and unapologetic about articulating his understanding about teaching and learning.  He's committed to lifting the veil and in the first 20 pages (starting with the preface) presents some very compelling perspectives on teaching, and the common misunderstandings around how to do it.

The Math Wars, Alan Schoenfeld
A summary of the history of the Math Wars by one of the guys who should know.  Great history! (article linked)

The Schoolmaster, Dana Goldstein
A portrait of David Coleman, the mind behind the common core.  Very illuminating.  (article linked)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dylan Wiliam

According to Dylan Wiliam, schools are missing the mark all over the world, and it's clear that teacher quality is the determining factor in student achievement.  After about 18 pages of that, he says, "Evidence suggests that paying teachers bonuses for the achievement of their students does not raise test scores...[Many economists] assume that people are motivated primarily by economic rewards and so offering cash incentives for people to try harder must surely increase results.  They forget that such incentives work only when people are not trying as hard as they can...The vast majority of teachers are trying everything they can to increase their students' achievement.  There is certainly no evidence that there are teachers who are holding onto a secret proven method for teaching fractions until someone pays them more money."

p.18-19, Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment

That mystery pretty much sums up what I've been thinking about this week.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Coaching Teachers

When I worked at my high school, I got made fun of for so frequently arriving to school with some new idea, enthusiasm, clarity or vision that was going to "change everything."  People imitated me and found my earnestness charming but unbelievable.  They were right to think so at that time - I was rarely able to apply anything I was so inspired by in any sustainable way.

In my new role as a Mathematics Instructional Specialist with New Visions for Public Schools, I see even more clearly that it is far easier to think about mathematics education, opine and discuss and argue, than to actually enact any measurable reform in a classroom.  Easier said than done pretty much sums it up.

At the same time, I have the support now, and I am the support now, that can turn inspiration into action, ideas into realities and old paradigms into new.  My hope is restored, and I treasure the shifts in my consciousness as they happen.

Tuesday I spent the day at a school where three of the four math teachers are new to the school, one is entirely new to teaching and one is new to teaching in NYC public schools, having taught for two years in Africa as a part of Peace Corps.  The fourth is the sole survivor of her former math department, and while she's familiar with the school and the kids she has a completely new department to support and be supported by.  In addition to the large adjustments all of these teachers are making this year, they have signed on (or been signed on by their principal) to be a part of the awesome project which the reason I'm there in the first place.

Our project, a2i (Accessing Algebra Through Inquiry) is bringing performance tasks, formative assessment and Inquiry (looking at student work to make instructional decisions) to the common core aligned unit.  We are providing a lot of support but we're also asking a lot in the name of student learning that they wouldn't be doing otherwise and they've been overwhelmed just orienting to everything entailed in their new jobs.  Every day I spend with them, they tell me how hard their work is, how much they are expected to do, trying to do, and I hear how unreasonable it is, how truly impossible the job of teaching is.  I see them doing their best, and I know they truly are doing their best with the understanding and resources they have available to them.  I also know that they are capable of far more than they think, far more than they know, and that as they learn and expand their thinking they will realize this potential.

This is why I blogged about two simultaneous truths the other day.  As I watch my teachers teach, I see both realities at the same time: the one in front of me, which is underplanned and overburdened, undersupported and oversimplified, and in which they are nevertheless (I am certain!) working hard and doing their best.  I also see that they could and should plan more, ask for (my) help, and do far more for kids than they are currently.  It's not like they have to teach for another ten years to be better.  They can be better tomorrow.  It might take an hour of planning.  It might take letting go of some idea they have about themselves as teachers or about education in general.

Again, it's easy for me to say as the observing outsider.  I know how imperfect my classroom was.    So how can I get high and mighty just by stepping towards the back of the classroom?  The two truths keep me humble and honest about what I'm seeing.

Teachers are pattern-making-machines just like kids.  They are making connections, doing what they're doing for reasons, and it's important to value where they're coming from and what they're thinking.  Teacher misconceptions come from observing unintended patterns or patterns that were perpetuated by their exemplars who also had misconceptions.  Teachers need to be given experiences in their professional development where the patterns they see assist them in making conclusions that drives their work to be more efficient and effective.  They need to be inspired, as I was, by the patterns they are finding, and then they need to be supported with scaffolding and structure and routine that helps them transfer that understanding into their own classrooms.  Transferring theory into classroom practice is a skill to be taught and developed.

All too often we educators assume that adults don't need the kind of structure that kids do.  Every teacher I know has experienced the irony of the two hour lectures in ed school about how people learn: better in groups and changing points of focus every 10 minutes or so.  When we're learning, adults need the same things that kids do.

So I'm learning as a coach to take my teachers under my wing; it doesn't matter what they don't know when they come to me, it doesn't matter why they didn't learn it before - it has become my task, my charge, to coach them.

On a juicy side note, the team of coaches that I'm working with is amazing, and through them I am learning so much about mathematics education, about coaching, about learning, about reflecting.  Our diversity as a group is always bringing out the perfect balance of multiple perspectives on things that helps us meet our teachers where they are and support them in making the next step.  Through their eyes I am learning better what best my service is and learning to see myself with the appreciation others have for me.  In turn, I see my sincere appreciation of my colleagues permeating them more and more fully.  We tell each other what we do well and it really sinks in.  Then all the stuff we need to do better just feels like a ripe and nourishing challenge.  THANK YOU.

I hope this finds you all appreciating yourselves and your work, which is big and hard and worthy and honorable in whatever manifestation it's taking, as you continue to push your own growth edges.  I hope you are compassionate with yourself as you strive to learn, and that your practice with yourself encompasses your students with the same sweet drive to be huge and the acceptance of wherever they are right now.

Happy almost Friday.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Simultaneous Truths

It turns out, I believe, that two things are true at the same time:
1) Everyone is doing their best with the understanding that they have available to them.
2) Everyone is capable of far more than they realize, most if not all of the time. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My new job and an insight

Last Friday night I had the pleasure of talking about my new job with friends over Ethiopian food in Brooklyn. I am now a Mathematics Instructional Specialist with New Visions for Public Schools, currently in the process of wrapping my head around the many departments and projects that will influence my work in the next months.

So far my job mostly looks like me and my four colleagues discussing, reflecting, debating, often clarifying and sometimes presenting the big ideas we have around our work as coaches for math teachers in the Bronx. This is extremely fun and so far I really love this job – something I’ve never said before! When September rolls around my time will be spent traveling to six different schools, supporting the Algebra teachers develop their inquiry practices (looking at student work and making curricular decisions based on student needs they observe in the student work) and use performance tasks (sophisticated and rich problem solving activities) as their diagnostics, formative and summative assessments. For all of you math educators, there’s a whole lot more to say about all that, and I plan to return to this blog to say it. But for now, my dinner.

Once I started talking about my job, it took a long time – about 45 seconds – for my friends to begin reminiscing about how bad they were at math and how difficult it was for them in high school, even though they’re smart and had tutors and went to good schools. They commiserated for a few minutes while I experienced a familiar pang of frustration and intolerance that so many people are willing to publicly admit complacency with such a negative relationship to mathematics. I was especially annoyed because just a few hours before I had been disappointed to hear the same basic attitudes expressed at work by our non-math colleagues.

Painful though this moment was, the intensity of my emotion struck a chord in me, and my curiosity was piqued: people that I respect – educators that I admire and friends that I love – must be saying this to me for a reason, and it’s not to annoy me or invalidate my career. I’m humbled to say I think this was the first time I have ever been sincerely curious about the pervasiveness of this attitude in my adult communities. I have come to expect it to some extent in adolescents, who are developmentally designed to resist everything adults present to them, but theoretically ripe for transformation. But up until now I have always dismissed and been frustrated by this attitude in adults.

My friends and colleagues are bright, successful, beautiful and powerful people. I like and respect them each immensely. They are all well educated, capable, self-sufficient, and successful, each with degrees beyond college and multiple artistic talents outside of their careers. They have been highly successful in their work in hospitals, corporate banking, MTV and schools. In addition, I believe that everything I hear has some benefit: maybe there’s a new idea for me to integrate, or maybe I need to hear an old idea again. I finally wondered – which is it for me? Why is it that people keep saying this to me?

My first thought was that this is our large scale feedback and inspiration for the work we do. We all know that math education in this country needs work, and that’s why we’re all so excited to be doing it. I hope one day that my friends and colleagues will be excited to do math with me, and interested in the actual content of the math I’m teaching. Right now, I’m happy to be just a bit more interested in really listening to people as they tell me their experiences, trusting that there is more for me to learn about just how bad math education has been for people.

A few days ago began the resurgence of another familiar conversation in response to the NYTImes “Is Algebra Necessary?” oped. I feel like the NYTimes publishes an article like this every year or so, and each time we get pissed and feisty, quick to lash out with a slew of offended and defensive responses. For a second time in a week, I felt clear about this old dynamic: our more global community is simply acknowledging the imperfection of math education that is the reason most of us are math educators in the first place. Why is anyone surprised? Our job isn't to defend ourselves (we're working hard, doing great) but to be curious about what new insights we can gather from their testimonies, which can’t help but illuminate the experience of students in general.

On a side note, my boss Russell West, Jr. has a quotable response to the article which I’ll paraphrase here because it’s so awesome: “We agree with Andrew Hacker and will respond as Daniel Wilingham suggests: must kill school algebra to save school mathematics.”  That’s our internal tagline for the work we’re doing in schools.  Shhh!  It’s a secret.

I have so many revelations and insights and a deep longing to spread the good word about all of them, or at least get them "on paper" here. I hope my use of this real estate will contribute to the enjoyment and satisfaction of its readers.
Great to be back ya’ll.  Happy August!