This post has been rattling around in my head for months. Little bits of it have come out in various meetings, presentations, conversations and posts. Today is the day I try to string it all together.
I have found myself in many discussions lately on the topic of math. Student math “achievement” to be exact. When people are put on high alert to fix something, they begin to scramble, they feel an urgency and snap decisions get made. But I caution us to take a breath - take a moment to really examine, understand, grapple with and plan forward. It is difficult to make important decisions from inside the pressure cooker.
One switch for me, is that I would rather focus on student learning, rather than student achievement. If we look at the long view, is it achievement or learning that we want our students to walk away with? I hope it is the latter.
We all come at a problem from a different point of view and background. This is important. We need to be able to look at something from a circle of viewpoints to make the most informed decision. Most imortantly- we need the voices of the end users.
Here is where I come from- if we ONLY look at data, we are reducing our children to a number. Our kids are not a number, they are not a letter and they are not something to be "fixed". Don't get me wrong, data is a very important piece to this puzzle, but it can not be the only piece. What I try to bring to the table is the empathy piece. When I look at tackling a problem like student learning, I take a very human based approach- but I wasn't always this way.
About 10 years ago, I remember going to my principal to ask him why we didn’t have a particular web based math program for our struggling students. His response “Cori, a computer or a program isn’t going to help kids- only a teacher can.” This left me extremely frustrated! I knew other districts that used it and their students didn’t struggle like ours. The next year, I went to him again with the exact same question, where as, he gave me the exact same answer. I believe this may have happened three or four times before I just gave up. I was forced to figure out HOW to help MY students, thank goodness! I didn't know better, until I did. Hindsight is 20/20.
Well, guess what I now say like a broken record? When someone asks “Is there a program we can buy for the struggling students?” My response is “A program isn’t going to help those kids, only a teacher can.” Ha! #knowbetterdobetter at its finest. But I can't and don't stop there...
We are in the human business...the kid business. No one knows what makes our students tick, in terms of learning, better than us. Right? A computer, a teacher’s edition, a box of curriculum nor a packet of worksheets - knows our kids. If we want to grow our students we must know our students. Armed with that information, we need to have multiple strategies, skills and tools to meet them - because each one is so unique.
I was very blessed in the fact that when my principal wanted to change student learning, he knew we had to change our teaching. Beyond that, he provided us with training, resources and support to do different- and so we did. And the results were astounding!
So my response to the question- "How can we increase student math achievement?" is this..."If we want to change how students learn math, we have to change the way the math is taught. Not just taught, but they need a different experience.
Well, what might that look like? Rather than us force feeding them algorithms and steps that they nor us understand, let's provide them with opportunities to wrestle with math. Let’s provide rich tasks where there is sense making for the students. Let's give them a chance to play with and manipulate numbers rather than “beat the clock” on a timed test. Let us create a safe space for students to share different ways to solve a problem and a place where process over product is honored.
"We need to become comfy with the uncomfy and to step back a bit."
Allow for productive struggle yet be ready to guide and support students in mathematical discourse.
All of these ideas are the complete opposite of how I learned math- but guess what? I don’t believe I learned- I had no understanding- I just performed steps, like a robot, to get my good grades. Our kids deserve better.
So now what?
In order to teach math differently, we need to do what my principal did. We need to train our teachers in different. We need to flip some switches, change some mindsets AND provide them with activities, resources and ongoing supports in changing the classroom experience for students. Rather than putting kids on the computer or pulling them out for small group work on more of the same, let's put them at the center and craft lessons to engage, empower and enhance their learning experience.
I am only able to do better now, because I know better now. I can only imagine what kind of teacher I would have been, had I not been shown another way. If the only training our teachers receive in math is how to use the textbook, we are shortchanging not only our teachers, but our students. So, how can we fix student's achievement in math? We help teachers to understand and provide them with the supports to teach math differently. When they know better, they will do better.
What if we put money into professional development in this area rather than for some program that will just be a band-aid. Let’s show teachers the power of doing it different. Let’s give them what they need to then do it. And not a “one and done”...but ongoing support, job embedded support: coaching, co-teaching, observing and reflecting.
These all seem to be doable and easily scalable ideas- so why isn't it happening? I am not a decision maker and my voice is pretty small, BUT changing math experiences for kids and teachers IS a hill that I will die on.
I may not know or understand all of the politics, red tape or roadblocks that are holding this back- but one thing I do understand is the definition of insanity...
What does it feel like to have your heart break? For me, it is an aching pain and salty tears. I'm sure many of you have felt this. There is one such heart break that I just can't shake (and that is a good thing). This was a classroom heartbreak...
Teaching first grade was new for me. I had taught the grade before and the grade after, this couldn't be much different...little did I know. I will tell you, I only lasted one year in first grade. With hindsight being 20/20, I now realize that I was the one to blame for the "not so good" experience of that year. I had unrealistic expectations of these little guys and when those weren't met, I became frustrated. I was frustrated with the students and I was frustrated with myself. It was strange because that person had never shown up before, and at the time, I didn't know she had shown up then. Looking back, I don't even recognize that person...because it was in that class, I changed. And it was a heartbreak that did it.
I had never subscribed to the idea that "boys will be boys". I would cringe when I heard it. I had always thought that was an excuse that people used when boys struggled to behave or control themselves. I believed this to be true with Eric. Eric was all boy! He was silly, he was rough, he was messy, he was loud and he could NEVER stay in his seat. He would literally fall out of the chair multiple times a day.
But here was the thing about Eric, he was also kind, he was also sweet, he was also funny and he was also highly, highly intelligent. But what did I focus on? The silly, rough, messy, loud part that always fell out of his chair. I couldn't let it go. He should be able to pull it together, right? He should be able to "behave" and follow MY rules...and when he didn't, it was like a showdown.
I am wondering if anyone that knows me would even believe this, (let me rephrase that...I HOPE anyone that knows me would not believe this), but it's true. And I share this for a reason. I share this because I am not proud of that person...she wasn't around long, but for me, any time as that person, was too long. My hope is to get others to think about the effect that their words and actions could have.
I tried many things to "help" Eric keep control of himself, to make him fit MY mold of what a first grader should be. One of my brilliant ideas was a "happy face" chart. This had been suggested to me by a few others. They told me to make boxes (each box representing a certain amount of time in the day). I don't even remember the amount that each box represented, but I'm sure for a six year old, it was too long. At each time increment, I would draw either a "happy face" :) or a "straight face" :l depending on his behavior. Yes, a "straight face"- I mean, come on, drawing a "sad face" would just be cruel...little did I know.
So day in and day out, Eric would do his "Eric" thing and I would do my "Mrs. Orlando" thing and draw on his chart. Each day, he would take it home to show his mom. Was this chart helping? I don't even remember, but I can bet it wasn't. Each day, a new chart would be taped to his desk for all to see (WHAT WAS I THINKING?). I know what I was thinking- "Every day is a fresh start!"...little did I know.
One day I received an email from Eric's mom. I opened it and it shook me to my core. Typing about this right now is difficult, as I am trying to see the screen through the tears. Even though it is far in the past, it is still so raw.
In her email, she let me know that my "happy face" chart was destroying her kid. Her son. Her boy. Her heart. She let me know that because of the "straight faces" on the charts, Eric thought he was bad. He thought that I didn't like him. He didn't want to come to school. THAT is when I felt that ache in my heart, that pain in my stomach and that lump in my throat. I DID THIS. I broke this six year old. ME. I hurt this sweet, silly, intelligent boy and I was reduced to a puddle. I made this all about me, not even considering him. How could I have done this and how am I going to fix this?
I am so incredibly thankful that this mother was an advocate for her boy! That she was able to share with me what my actions were doing to him. I would have NEVER known.
That's the thing. I have had people respond to some of my #knowbetterdobetter blog posts with "Well the students don't really seem to mind if they ....". And my response is "How do you know? Who are we to speak for them? We have NO CLUE how our students are thinking or feeling unless we ask them and create a space where they feel safe and free to share." Do we do that? We have NO IDEA what the repercussions of our actions are unless we ask their families. They are the ones that are left to deal with the aftermath.
And guess what...once I knew better, you damn well know that I have done better. I NEVER- EVER want another child, another human, to feel badly because of me.
So how did I handle this situation with Eric? I started with a very heartfelt apology to his mother. I got real honest and I owned it. I told her about all of the wonderful things I loved about her son. I told her that I love having him in class because he brings so much. I also told her that I would be apologizing to Eric in class tomorrow. And that I did.
While the rest of the class was busy working on centers, I called him over. No doubt, he thought he was "in trouble". I knelt down on the ground next to him and I cried, just as I'm crying right now. I apologized for hurting his feelings and making him believe I didn't like him. I told him I, in fact, that I liked him very much. I let him know that his sense of humor always put a smile on my face. I told him that his incredible thinking and ideas blew me away on a daily basis. I let him know that he could come to me any time he felt that I wasn't on his side, because I was. We talked about the fact that he yelled out and fell out of his chair. He wasn't even aware he did these things. At that point I realized that his behavior was just part of him, it wasn't intentional, it wasn't defiant- it was just him. I explained to him why I was crying-that it hurt my heart to know that I hurt him. From that day forth, I looked at Eric and every other student, differently. And I vowed to do better.
Now did this six year old understand all that I was saying? Probably not, but I wanted him to know that I saw him for the great kid he was- and from that day forth...I was changed.
I think of Eric often- I attribute my attempts at empathy, to him. Because of him, I try my hardest to think about my actions from a circle of viewpoints. How might this effect others? Am I always on target? Of course not:
Perfection is a ridiculous idea. But what I can promise is that I am always trying, I am always reflecting and I am always growing.
Like Maya Angelou said "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, you do better."
I am so thankful that I now know better and strive every day to do better.
My call to action is this: Take some time to reflect on your day, your week, month, year. Think about your interactions with students, colleagues, staff, friends, strangers, family. Now think about those same interactions from the other side...put yourself in their shoes. This is how we practice empathy...this is how we can know better. Now go forth and do better. #knowbetterdobetter
A lot of my time is spent facilitating professional development. I present within and outside of my own district. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to present within my county and up and down California. Recently I was able to do so on the other side of the country. I tell you this because it is with each of these experiences that I gain new knowledge to grow forward. Every single one of these experiences has been unique. I believe the main reason is because we are in a "people business". When working with people, there is so much unpredictability involved and I kind of love it. Recently, my Superintendent friend posed a question on Facebook regarding PD plans. Reading through the feed, it seems like no one has yet to figure out the formula for complete success.
I do not have the answer, I wish I did. I would be in a very happy place because THAT is a crisis I would love to solve (and I would probably be pretty wealthy, too :)). What I do have are a few ideas based on my experiences.
Yesterday, a group of 60+ district administrators, site administrators, classroom teachers, RtI/Intervention teachers, student teachers and board members came together to learn and collaborate side by side. It was an incredible day filled with inspiration, collaborating, learning and fun. My head is still spinning today. One of my friends asked me what the difference was...what made it a success? I am not sure of the exact reasons, but I will share my thoughts. I felt that a blog post was warranted to answer the question.
Before we get into that, I would like to give you a bit of background. Last month, my team was tasked to run two identical trainings. The first one was a voluntary day for student teachers, the second was a "voluntary" day for our last tech adopters, who were "strongly encouraged" to go. The first day was incredible...they were eager to learn, soaked it all up and were incredibly positive. They went back to their master teachers and shared their learning. The second day, not so much. At one point, one of the teachers picked a fight with me, in front of the rest. Push back is fine, but this was done quite disrespectfully with full intent to cause a ruckus.
As I reflected on those two days, there was a clear divide between the group that wanted to be there and the group that didn't. So my question is, why do we force people to get "professional development" when we know they are not going to grow professionally from it...in fact, their actions may stunt others' growth? My other, more philosophical question is, why do people need to be forced to grow professionally? I don't have these answers and I don't have the power to make such decisions.
So let's move on and fast forward to yesterday. Let me lay it out for you.
We decided to pull together a specific group of teachers- these are teachers at our Title 1 schools and our Title 1 "like" schools. This was offered to the administrators, the classroom teachers, Literacy Coaches, RtI/Intervention teachers and student teachers at those sites. The purpose of pulling them together was to start a culture across those sites of sharing and collaborating. There is something magical when you get educators together that work with like populations. Like I said, Over 60 were in attendance!
We were incredibly lucky to bring out two of my favorite humans; Jon Corippo and Ed Campos, Jr. to work with our educators. This was important. The knowledge, credibility, relatability and inspiration factor of the presenters is key.
*Bonus- Our Assistant Superintendent of Ed services spent the morning with us. Two of our School Board members came by- One participated in all of the afternoon sessions/activities right alongside of our educators.
Full day professional learning with the overarching theme of "End of Average" based on Todd Rose's book. The focus of the day was on both ELD and Math. Math is a big push in our district right now. But if we want to create a change in math, we need to create a change in the way math is taught. This can not be done by buying a box of curriculum, purchasing a program or having a full district, publisher, blanket PD. Our teachers and students deserved better. We decided we wanted to start with a smaller sample size and if it was a success, we could grow it.
Prior to the actual day, we worked very closely with Jon and Eddie to plan both their mini-keynotes and break out sessions. The topics, philosophies and activities were carefully decided based on the need of our end users. There is nothing worse than a Professional Development planned by someone who neither understands instruction or current trends in education and/or are far removed from the classroom, teachers and students. We are fortunate in the fact that we are able to spend a lot of time in the classrooms working with teachers and students. While there, we can learn about their wants and needs as well as where they are currently and where they want to go. We used all of this information to plan out our day.
Check this out...it was on a SATURDAY! A Saturday. Why is this important? Because this means that the people who signed up and showed up WANTED to be there. This changes the WHOLE game. *They were given a very, very small stipend to attend but not enough to be the "make or break" on the decision.
To start a movement...to create a ripple...to shake things up...all for the benefit of our kids. These are our #Saturdayteachers as Jon called them. These are our change agents, they are our first followers, they are the ones that will take back what they have learned and start tomorrow...on fire. They will take risks and share forward so that we can bring others into the fold. They (as do all educators) deserve to be valued and validated by participating in worthwhile, meaningful, inspiring and relevant professional learning. One of the teachers there told her principal "This has been incredible...Let's bring Jon out to work with our whole staff, we deserve this." Good for her, because they absolutely do!
We had a clear vision, we had an administrator who let us run with it, we had teachers who were thirsting for it and we had money to put into it (and to be honest, the monetary part was pretty small, especially considering the amazing impact).
So...how do we know it was a success? Well how else...from feedback. Did we send out a survey? No. We didn't even get a chance to because throughout the day I was receiving hugs, kind words, texts, and emails full of "thank yous" and positivity. Twitter and Facebook have been filled with even more of the same. And guess what is happening?? A whole lot of #FOMO. People wondering what was going on, why they weren't included, how can they get in on the next one- THAT is how we build a culture of learning and sharing. And from the participants...they are asking for more...more...more.
So I am curious as to what the next steps will look like. I have my ideas, but I don't make decisions.
Will there be next steps? What will the support of these educators look like moving forward? I hope this didn't end yesterday. We should fan those flames and keep it moving and growing. It will be fascinating to watch and hopefully be a part of. Until then...
Mother, teacher, TOSA, GCE Level 1 & 2, Encourager of others.
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