Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why do you want to learn to play the mandolin?

It was time to learn something new. That was my mindset when I signed up for mandolin lessons at Earful of Fiddle Camp. Even though I have had some musical training (piano and flute), I knew learning to play a stringed instrument was going to be a challenge. So I spent last week swatting mosquitoes and strumming strings, all so I might someday call myself a mandolin player.

Laurel and Michael
of Red Tail Ring
Oh, and as the sign says, we also got to listen to some old time music. On Tuesday, Red Tail Ring taught a workshop on harmony in the afternoon and put on a concert that night. Afterward, I asked Michael (he played the mandolin on a few songs) if he ever gave lessons. He said, "Yes." And then, perhaps noticing my age, he asked, "Why do you want to learn to play the mandolin? What are your goals?"

I responded, "Don't worry, I'm not looking to replace you." He laughed, but I could see that he was serious about knowing my musical aspirations. Perhaps his instructional approach would depend upon what I wanted to accomplish.

"I'm struggling with my fingering."

He asked, "You mean your fingers are tender?"

"They are," I said looking at the blisters on my fingertips, "but I mean creating a clean sound when I play."

He explained that the two were related. Once calluses formed, I'd be able to press on the strings with more commitment. However, we still hadn't addressed the original questions. He tried again, "Who do you want to play with or for?"

Now I got it. "Mostly with my family. My wife and son-in-law are here, too. You know, like around the campfire. Oh, and I'd like to be able to play for my grandson; songs like Puff the Magic Dragon and Itsy-Bitsy Spider." This made sense to him and we made arrangements to connect later in the summer to arrange some lessons.

At the end of the week, campers perform for the rest of the camp, friends, and family in an event called, Earful of Idol. When the group I played with finished our song, I was reminded of my conversation with Michael. I had been miserable most of the day trying to memorize the song. During the performance, I only played about half of the notes, and only half of those at the right time. My "bandmates" picked up the slack and the audience was generous with their applause, but I was ready to quit mandolin. There was no point continuing if I wasn't enjoying it.

That's when Michael's question hit me, "Why do you want to learn to play mandolin?" My purpose for picking up the mandolin was to have fun with my family. It wasn't to perform in front of strangers. Even the best audience couldn't hold a candle to this guy.

Vance wants more cowbell!
Maybe I'll be grateful I played at Earful of Idol someday - maybe not. (I do not subscribe to the "someday, you'll thank me" school of teaching.) At the very least, I gained empathy for students who "quit" math because the effort does not seem worth the experience. Whether it's music or math, learners need to find their own purpose in order to stay engaged in learning.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who deserves a seat at the table?

From ProCon.or
When it comes to discussions about issues in education, I would like to think I interact with an educated mind. It is important for me to try to understand different points of view without necessarily adopting them, and I hope that everyone engaged in the discussion will do the same. This was tested last week as I interacted with a Canadian mathematician involved in a group interested in influencing education policy in his country (some of the interaction can be seen here).

The exchange came about because one of his colleagues recently published a commentary focusing on improving math scores in Canada. What to Do about Canada's Declining Test Scores offers three recommendations but I was most interested in the first piece of "advice":
As a rule of thumb, teachers should be encouraged to follow an 80/20 rule, favouring direct instructional techniques over discovery-based instructional techniques. 
The rationale provided includes references to multiple studies that support the use of direct instruction. However, the commentary ignores any research that disagrees with the premise that direct instruction is the most effective method of teaching.

In trying to understand the perspective of this group of mathematicians, I got this regarding the use of qualitative research:
This stance reminds me of my brief time in debate during high school, where people disparaged the source rather than addressing the content. I don't like debates like this because they focus on producing winners and losers instead of solutions. Ignoring an entire branch of education research is limiting, especially if you want input into making decisions about education.

Which brings me back to the question, "Who deserves a seat at the table?" I would say everyone does (although, people who engage in antisocial behavior ought to have it pointed out, and if it continues be shown the door). Extending the metaphor a bit, this does not mean that cooks ought to feel obliged to try to meet every guests' suggestion about the meal or its preparation. While some guests may have more expertise than others in cooking, the cooks are the experts on their own kitchen and their own skills. The cooks need to decide what advice to take. Certainly, this might result in some unhappy guests, but it is likely impossible to satisfy everyone given that the table is open to all.

The same goes for teachers. Too many outside "experts" are telling teachers what ought to be going on in their classroom. Whether the experts are saying discovery-based or direct instruction, teachers ought to remember Hattie's (2012) overall findings:
The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers. (p. 14)
Therefore, I encourage teachers and students to think of themselves as researchers - experimenting to determine what is and isn't working to foster learning and why. It should be noted that numbers on a test do not provide enough data to answer these questions.

The Hattie quote comes early in the text. In regards to the remainder of the book, or any other advice related to classroom instruction, I would suggest teachers heed Aristotle - feel free to entertain the research/recommendations of others but do not accept them if they won't improve the teaching and learning in your classroom.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Who you gonna call?

Please excuse me for sharing another story about my father. I promise to return to writing about teaching and learning soon. But as I process Dad's passing and what comes next, it's hard to concentrate on anything else. Besides, this story seems appropriate for Teacher Appreciation Week.

Dad and Kathy at the house
The other day I was agonizing about cleaning out the family home. Dad did nearly all of the work last year. I just needed to finish the job. Some of the furniture was coming to live with us, and a few other pieces were going up to our cabin. The rest was either going to charity or to the dump. I had talked to a local charity about stopping by to pick up a few of the gently-used items, but I was struggling with making a decision about how to dispose of the remaining pieces.

There were too many choices. I could try taking it to the dump myself, or hire a dumpster, or call a hauling company to pick it up. Paralysis crept in and nothing was getting done. Then I remembered a receipt in my dad's papers for "Acme" Hauling. He had done some business with them during the initial clean-up - twice. Dad obviously trusted this company, so I decided to call.

It was the right call. The owner answered and he agreed to give me an estimate. As I was getting ready to say good bye, ...

Owner: I was sad to read about your dad's passing.

Me: Thanks. [I was getting good at this - keep it short and end the conversation]

Owner: I went to MSHS. My name is "John Doe" and your dad was one of my math teachers.

Me: Oh, hi "John". [Can I hang up now?]

John: I wasn't the best student in school. I got into a lot of trouble. But I liked your Dad. He always gave me a fair chance. No matter what happened the day before, each class was a fresh start. I never had a teacher like that before. It's probably not surprising that math was my best class in high school.

Me: [silence - I bet you can guess why]

John: Anyways, call me when you want me to stop by and give you an estimate.

Me: Okay. Thanks.

Later, I told Kathy that I had learned a valuable lesson that day: Trust Dad. Who would Dad call? When possible, one of his former students. Someone he had built a positive relationship with and prepared for future success.

Dad and the MSHS Science Olympiad Team
Thanks, Dad, for another life lesson.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What matters?

August 2014 - my dad, Charles, was diagnosed with a stage four, glioblastoma multiforme. Because Mom had passed away almost two years earlier and my brother resides in another state, Dad came to live with us. It made sense. Dad has had University of Michigan season football tickets for over twenty years, and cancer was not going to keep him from watching his beloved Wolverines. Although an aggressive treatment of radiation and chemotherapy left him weak, he went to every 2014 home game except for the night game against Penn State (its start time was after what had become his bedtime). The only other concern Dad had besides Michigan Football was that he not be a burden. When I asked him what his goals were during his time with us, he said, "I want you and Kathy to be successful." That was easier said than done. 

Having a stage four cancer patient in your home is difficult. When it's your strongly independent father, even more so. Kathy and I knew we were in over our heads, so we sought out and got support. Still, we were not being as successful as we had planned before Dad's diagnosis. In particular, my teaching was not getting the attention I typically give it. Feedback drafts were being given back later and later. And a teaching experiment I wanted to conduct was placed on hold. My Grand Valley colleagues and administration were extremely supportive and understanding, but I felt like I was not attending to Dad's wish.

December 2014 - my first grandchild, Vance Charles, was born. He and his parents live about an hour away, which means we get to see him quite often. Because my dad was having a hard time getting around, the new family usually came to our house to visit. Dad always lit up when he saw his great-grandson. One day, Dad and I even got to babysit. We had a great time, but when I returned to my papers and planning, I asked myself, "Am I being successful?"

After spending an amazing morning with my father and my grandchild, I hated that question and all it represented. In retrospect, I do not blame my dad for planting the idea of "success" into my thoughts. He was a teacher, too, and he was simply passing along the message that teachers get in our culture: "Your teaching matters more than anything else in your life." Truth be told, he didn't plant it. I had heard it before, but the present circumstances seemed to make it all the more powerful.

A few years back, I attended a panel discussion where a group of superintendents talked about (then) pending tenure reforms in Michigan. The audience was mostly preservice secondary teachers and one superintendent was particularly vocal about doing away with tenure. His point went something like this: "New, young teachers work hard. After awhile, though, around the time you get tenure, you often get married and have kids and then you might start slacking on your teaching. Without tenure, you'll have to keep working hard - no slacking off." I was incensed at this message that teaching was more important than family, but here I was giving it to myself. So, with the help of my friends and colleagues, I gave myself a break and made my family a priority.

Dad passed away earlier this week. Until the end, he and Vance had an amazing bond. Life is such an incredible journey, and we have so much to learn from our traveling companions. Dad taught me so much about being a parent, a partner, and a teacher. And I'm sure Vance will continue teaching me in the years to come. Together they have shown me what matters.

When it comes to my relationship with Dad, I firmly believe we experienced success.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Is there anything I can use? (What does it mean to TLAC, Part 3)

This is the final piece of a guest post from an anonymous teacher trained to Teach Like a Champion [TLAC] and to pass that training along to new teachers. In the first part, we gained some insight into what the TLAC training entails. The second part began to describe some of the issues the teacher had with the TLAC approach. Below, the teacher arrives at a conclusion about this approach to classroom management.

In the TLAC training curriculum, there is a real emphasis on the procedural, rather than the conceptual, which, as we math teacher folk know, is problematic. The suggested structure that seminars are expected to follow seems to resemble the worst of the Khan Academy lesson collection [i.e.: “First I’ll tell you exactly what to do and how to do it.  (Don’t stress too much about why, okay?) Now, I’ll show you what it looks like. And finally, you’ll try it out on your own - and you should do it just like me.”].

In my five years of teaching, I’ve made every effort to move away from this approach. (Okay, correction. The last four years have been focused on these efforts. My first year was spent flailing about, miserably.) I want my students, the 11-year old ones, to explore and to figure stuff out. I want them to determine, through trial and error, why this method works, and that one doesn’t. I even want them to consider that third method - the one that seems crazy and implausible. I’ve tried hard to move away from spoon-feeding, from communicating, “Do it this way and you’ll get the outcome that will earn you full credit, the ‘right’ answer.” Unsurprisingly, I can’t help but ask myself: Do I really want to model this sort of instruction to a group of impressionable first-year teachers?

The book claims that, “Lemov offers the essential tools of the teaching craft so that you can unlock that talent and skill waiting in your students.” There is a top-down feel to it all, with the unspoken message being: Doug Lemov has figured it all out. Don’t struggle, don’t grapple.  All of the deep-thinking and analyzing has been done for you. Trust in Doug Lemov.

Lemov’s taxonomy is not, however, exhaustive. There are undoubtedly more than five ways of breaking down a concept, as Lemov outlines in Technique 16: Break It Down. I am grateful that Lemov acknowledges the limit of his scope (“there are probably a limitless number of ways to break down difficult information and tasks,” he says), but I worry that the curriculum puts TLAC on a pedestal, and frames it as the end-all, be-all.  (Many charter networks have put TLAC on that same pedestal.) Consequently, it will be received as such. Only the sharpest of thinkers among these overwhelmed first-year teachers will look beyond the narrow focus of this dogmatic treatise that utterly fails to acknowledge the “grey area” that pervades all schools and classrooms.  

Part of me wonders why I must overcomplicate things. Lemov is trying to make it simple! This TLAC-inducted crop of teachers will receive repeated opportunities to role-play these techniques, and to make the wrong choices in a setting where their decisions are of no consequence. Think of how you struggled, Pat, back in the day. You would have been ecstatic to receive this book. Even today, when I read Lemov’s text, I often find myself thinking, “Huh. I totally do that, all the time. Look at how cleverly he’s named this thing that I do, that many teachers do, and found a way to articulate its essence to someone not familiar with thinking in this way.” TLAC has inspired me to adopt a handful of new techniques, and to look at my own teaching with a more critical eye. TLAC is, in many senses, brilliant. It is not, however, the answer - and Doug Lemov is not the messiah. The program’s limited scope, paired with its over-zealous proselytizing of one man’s manifesto as a catch-all solution to educational inequity, will be detrimental to children.