Friday, January 31, 2014

Did I get my money's worth?

The following is not intended to be an endorsement of any product.

UPDATE: 2017 - This year the tumbler cost $42.40 (including tax) and a grande is $2.20 (including tax).

In December, I got a tumbler from Starbucks that allowed me to get free coffee every day this January. The tumbler cost $30 plus tax. My last free grande is shown to the right. I still get a $.10 discount when I use the tumbler but from now on I need to pay the regular $1.95 plus tax for brewed coffee. This got me wondering: did I get my money's worth from the purchase of this tumbler?

Will you (or your students) help me answer this question?

Wait. You need more information - such as? Go ahead and share what you need in the comments.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What did you learn?

Another day of classes canceled. That's two this semester, or one-fourteenth of our face-to-face meeting time. Immediately, I began considering ways to make up this precious time but then I began to see the Twitter complaints of some of my students who were getting extra assignments from their other professors. This isn't intended to be a criticism of either my students or my colleagues - just an observation. And it raises the question: what do I want my students to learn from my class?

It was a question that I was recently discussing with another professor who is also teaching preservice elementary teachers. We came to the conclusion that, if we are honest, much of the content (mathematical and pedagogical) in our course does not last until our students have their own classrooms; this is both horrifying and freeing. I try to concentrate on the the freeing. Although we have content proscribed by a common syllabus, we can take the advice of Mike Schmoker and Focus on what we think is important. I want to make the most of the limited time we have together by focusing on building the capacity to learn new things and the desire to do so.

And then I found out Pete Seeger died, and in all the tributes I was reminded of his song, What Did You Learn in School Today?

It is not enough for me to identify what I want my students to learn, I also need to be aware of what they are actually learning. In the song, the hidden curriculum, intentional or not, is made visible and the possible consequence made implicit. While I never want my students to non-critically consume content, unintended consequence to my instructional actions always need to be considered. I might have designed what I thought was the perfect experience to replace today's missed class. However, the result might have been a blow to my efforts to foster a positive affect toward learning how to teach math.

I guess I can live with the choice to let today's learning be in the hands of the learner.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Not so easy, is it?

Deborah Ball, Dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education, chairs the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness (MCEE) which was tasked to make recommendations to the Legislature about teacher evaluation. As part of her testimony before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees, she took some time to make the point that the work of teaching is often misunderstood and harder than most non-educators imagine.

The example she gives comes from fourth grade mathematics - multiplying two two-digit numbers (4.NBT.B.5). First, the teacher must be competent in the content. For example, what is the product of 49 and 25?

From Dr. Ball:
Obviously one wouldn't want anyone teaching third or fourth grade who couldn't do that. But, in fact, what skilled teaching involves is responding when students don't understand the material...
Knowing the mathematics is not enough. Teaching requires more than simply marking students' answers right or wrong. To be effective, teachers must be able to diagnose students' misconceptions in order to provide the support necessary for students to develop mathematically. Dr. Ball provides three examples of possible errors teachers might encounter from students multiplying 49 and 25:

When she asks the legislators how the students might have arrived at these answers, ... watch for yourself (it starts at about 2:30).

Dr. Ball does an effective job of pointing out that teaching is more than knowing and sharing content. However, this example focuses almost entirely on the "upper-half" of the Teaching-Learning Cycle: Assessment and Evaluation. Developing a plan for addressing the student-misconceptions and implementing that plan with a class of fourth graders raises the level of difficulty even higher. I hope these lawmakers now understand that there is more to teaching than what they experienced from the student-side of the desk.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why would you want to teach?

While teachers in America often come from the bottom of the academic barrel...
This quote is from a U.S. News piece reporting on a talk Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, gave to a group of parent leaders. While Secretary Duncan is not responsible for the above quote, he did say:
Both South Korean and U.S. citizens believe that the caliber of teacher matters tremendously, and the great teachers make a huge difference in children's lives. The difference is: they act on their belief. We don't. We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.
Unfortunately, the first quote ignores the reality of the situation (see these excellent pieces from Jeff McQuillian and Matthew Di Carlo) and Duncan's  words minimizes the great teachers already in the profession and efforts to improve the practice currently underway. The problem is, the talk does impact the walk (or at least those who might take the walk).

In 1985, I graduated from Pepperdine University with a degree in Mathematics and Computer Science. I had earned a 4.0 GPA, was the Valedictorian, and could have made a bundle as a programmer. But I had done some tutoring and coaching during my four years in Malibu and made the decision to become a teacher instead.

Because both my parents were teachers, I knew what was ahead. I had seen firsthand how hard they worked outside the school day to be "great teachers" that made "a huge difference in children's lives." At Mom's funeral, a line of former students and parents came up to us to recognize her efforts. I was also aware of the teacher-bashing going on at the time. Comments like, "Those who can do. Those who can't teach." The vitriol was bad enough that my parents steered me away from education, although later Mom admitted she knew I'd be a great teacher.

When I shared with some of my former middle school and high school teachers that I was going to go back and get my teaching credentials, I was surprised by one person's response. "Why would you want to teach? With your grades and degree, you could do anything." Evidently, things were so bad in education, anything was better than teaching. I stuck with it, though. Probably because I saw how much my parents loved their jobs and cared about their students.

Not everyone does stick with it, however, and the number of people interested in becoming a teacher is decreasing. Why? Maybe because teachers continue to be unfairly maligned and scapegoated by educational authorities. Perhaps Secretary Duncan thinks this sort of rhetoric is going to bring in great teachers. My guess is it's more likely to result in more people asking great teachers and college students who would make great teacher the question: Why would you want to teach?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

How would you describe someone successful at math?

I try to start each semester with some activity that brings to light my preservice teachers' beliefs about mathematics. This typically entails using a modified version of a Simile Survey used in my doctoral work, but last August I attended a session at the Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics Conference that introduced me to some new tools. This is one of the tasks that Shannon Sweeny shared with us during the session:
Shannon gave me permission to use this instrument in my teacher preparation  courses, and I combined it with an article from Educational Leadership to create a productive workshop that got at beliefs about success in mathematics.

The teachers picked the five words their "elementary-self" would have chosen to describe someone who was successful at math. Then I asked that they write out the experiences they had during elementary math lessons that might have contributed to their choice of words. Next, I had them read the first part of the article, Afraid of Looking Dumb, that includes the following exchange between the author and a second grade student, Brenda.

Brenda: I feel like I'm not good in math, and I get scared. I feel like I'm the dumbest in the class in math.  
Me: In just math or other things, too? 
Brenda: Other things, too. 
Me: Why do you feel that way? 
Brenda: I can't do as much as other people. 
Me: When you start math, what do you tell yourself? 
Brenda: I can't do it. I'm scared. 
Me: What if you couldn't do it? 
Brenda: I wouldn't be smart in that subject. I should be able to do it. I'm scared that people will tease me. 
Me: What would it look like if you were smart? 
Brenda: I'd be a fast thinker, quick learner. The first time I try things, I'd get it right. 
Me: What do you tell yourself when I tell you that you're better than you think in math? 
Brenda: I don't believe you. 
Me: Do you want to change? 
Brenda: Yes, but how? How are we going to change our thinking? 
I asked the teachers to: (1) predict the five words Brenda might have selected regarding success; (2) identify the evidence in the dialogue that supports their choices; and (3) infer what experiences Brenda might have had that fostered her beliefs. As an example, I said, "I think Brenda might pick 'arrogant' because of the line, 'I'm scared that people will tease me.' This might be the result of having experiences where kids or teachers teased her or her peers when they made math mistakes." A fair number of the teachers remarked that they thought Brenda would have picked a lot of the same words as their "elementary-self." Consequently, in predicting the experiences that might have contributed to Brenda's view, many shared their own experiences in elementary math classes as possible reasons for Brenda's perspective.

This awareness that not much has changed in the teaching math since they were elementary students is an important step if we are going to begin doing things differently. I told them that I do not want to be having this same conversation with their students when they get to my class in 20 years. Don't get me wrong, it's an interesting discussion, but the semester would get off to a better start if everyone entered class believing they could be successful in math.