Saturday, August 06, 2011

Is Gutting Necessary?

My husband and I have been debating what to do about our bathroom. You see, we have this lovely pink tile in our bathroom (as pictured when we first bought the house 10 years ago). Our house was built in the late 1950s and they were rather fond of covering the walls with ceramic tile (we had seafoam green tile in the kitchen, but we redid our kitchen two years ago and it's gone). We first started having issues with the tile after being in the house a couple of years and we had it removed from the tub area, regrouted the counter tile, and had new tub walls installed. Now the tiles in the back under the window are falling off. They've been loose for a couple of years, but in the last few months, we have lost a couple. So, we brought back the people who worked on the kitchen and got the owner's insight on our options. We could fix the issues we have (we have issues with the sink also) as a stop gap, but ultimately, we will need to do something about the tile. I'm not particularly fond of the tile (I don't hate it as much as I hated the green, but it's not up there on my favorites list either), so this gives me the chance to do the colors in the bathroom the way I'd like to. We will end up pretty much gutting the bathroom and doing it all, although we will keep the toilet (it is in good shape and won't hopefully be need in major repair anytime soon).

So, what does this have to do with teaching math? Earlier this summer, I had posed the question "What does your math class look like?" I am at a point where I am ready to make some changes in my classroom and how I teach math on a daily basis. I guess I'm asking myself the same question that we were asking about our bathroom - do I totally need to start from scratch and revamp what I am doing, or can I make some changes and keep some of what I've done in the past? Between my twitter twin @druinok and myself, we posed the question a couple of times on twitter - trying to see how other people structured their math classes other than the rather common "bellringer activity, go over homework, teach new lesson, do problems on new concept, and maybe an exit slip as students head out the door" process most math teachers use. Most of the answers that were different involved flipping the classroom. To be honest, I'm not really certain that's the way to go. First of all, not all of my students have access to the internet. We have about 50% on free or reduced lunch. Secondly, getting students to do outside class work is a struggle on many fronts. Finally, I'm just not buying it. My skeptic's radar is up with this one. I can't really explain it beyond that. I just don't feel like it jives with how I feel about teaching.

When I left to head to Orlando for the Institute on Reasoning and Sense Making, I was still very much of a mindset that I needed to gut my teaching structure. I wasn't really sure how I was going to make that happen, but I felt like that's what needed to happen. I attended two really great sessions Dan Meyer presented and I was still thinking I needed to gut my classroom. Maybe trying to find as many real world connections and bringing in great visuals was the way to go. The next session I attended was presented by Henri Picciotto. I had picked his session based on the title, that he was a classroom teacher, and I remembered that @cheesemonkeysf had said some good things about him. Picciotto's session was different than Dan's. It was based on more "traditional" types of activities, although he did bring in the use of manipulatives which is somewhat unusual for Algebra 2. I left his session somewhat confused. The two gentlemen's sessions were somewhat on opposite ends of the spectrum ("current" vs. "traditional") for me. But yet, both were at an institute touting reasoning and sense making. I was struggling with making sense (pun intended) of this.  On the last day of the conference, I attended two more breakout sessions, one by William Thill, and the other by math faculty of Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois. Like with Piccotto's session from the day before, both sessions used more "traditional" activities. So by the end of the institute, I was rather confused. What exactly was I supposed to be doing in my classroom?

Well, although I cannot exactly pinpoint when in the last couple of days it has become clearer to me, I feel I have a more definite direction to head. When I attended William Thill's session in Orlando, there were a couple of things that caught my attention: I was engaged so much throughout his session I barely took notes and Bill wasn't that much younger than me (although I misjudged a little...) and was using a more traditional approach. We had two brief conversations in Orlando, one immediately following his session when I had let him know that I would be blogging about his session and later on Saturday about blogging and Park City Mathematics Institute before the closing keynote. As I reflected on the Institute as I headed home, I thought that Bill might be able to help me with my gutting dilemma. Bill and I exchanged a couple of emails where I asked him some rather lengthy questions about incorporating reasoning and sense making into the classroom as well as about a "typical" day in his class. Through our exchange and really taking the time to read and digest what was said, I believe I finally have an answer.

Part of my answer came from this tweet:

 Vincent Velasquez 
This tweet was in the middle of a discussion about Khan Academy and the flipped classroom. The previous evening (I think), there was a lengthy discussion about applied mathematics and pure mathematics. What I took from that twitter discussion was that we have lost some of the beauty of mathematics when we try to find an application for everything we do. Although there are a lot of applications of mathematics, that is not all of its value. Between that discussion and the @Vvelasquez2 tweet. I think it all finally clicked in my head. I don't need to gut my class structure. I need to make some changes, but I don't need to completely and totally change everything. I had started to realize this as I digested what Bill was sharing in our email exchanges and this tweet helped me to put it all together in my head. There is a time and a place for what we do in the mathematics classroom.

So, what am I going to do? I am going to have structure with my bellringers as I had blogged about in July. I am going to work on getting students to the board as we go over homework problems. This will be new for me. I think I will choose specific problems for students to put up from the previous assignment and have them share how they solved the problem. I think from there, I will take another homework question or two if we didn't get them answered from the problems that were put up on the whiteboards. In the new lesson portion of my lesson, I am going to try some new things. One suggestion Bill offered in our email exchange was to select a two-four key problems to have students work through with little guidance and stop them at key junctures. His suggestion was to" have students make decisions first at those key junctures, compare with their peers, discuss what makes the most sense mathematically, and reach a shared resolution to a mathematically appropriate conclusion." I definitely want to start this with the earlier lessons first, which is material they should be more familiar with and evaluate how it goes from there. I also will work on incorporating rich tasks into my classes. The advice I have received from both Bill and Eric Robinson (he is the chair of the Task Writing Group for NCTM) was to start slowly and I intend to follow that advice. More importantly, as I do these reasoning and sense making tasks in my classes, I will blog about them so that I can adequately reflect on how it went and learn from my experiences.

In an odd twist, my remodeling experiences will begin at about the same time. I will meet with the owner of the company doing our bathroom remodel next week to finalize decisions on our bathroom. During the next couple of weeks, I will begin planning the first lessons of the new school year. Even though I am making only what may appear to be minor changes to what I am doing in class, it feels like some pretty big changes to me right now. I have done things basically the same ways for the last nineteen years. Change is not easy, but I believe that it is necessary so I can be a better teacher. It should be an interesting couple of months around here.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry - but I love the pink tile, so amazingly retro. lol! But, I don't have to live with it everyday. :)

I'm am very glad that you are not gutting your classroom. From what I have read, you are doing a really great job! Also, I disagree with gutting bc it implies that you are throwing out the old and bringing in the new. With all of your fabulous experience, you should never do that. : ) In fact, I think that it is the combination of many different styles of teaching that make a classroom engaging. Like the old Girl Scouts song, "Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold." Learn and incorporate what you are learning into your current class. Traditional isn't all bad - it is even necessary sometimes.

I also agree that you do not have to use tech to be innovative OR flip the classroom. Last year I flipped by having my students write definitions out of the book at night and then doing activities in class.
There was ZERO technology yet it was one of their favorite units and they did better on that test than they did all year. Who knew?

However, with your mix, I think that your bigger problem than lack of technology is getting them to do anything at night. The good news is that when my students did the flipped classroom they felt they were "getting away" with something bc they did not have "real" homework.

Honestly, you should just have your students sing everything. They can learn anything that way! lol!

Lisa said...

Thanks Julie for your comments - I really appreciate them, especially your support. I am hoping that with the changes I make in my classroom, students will be a little more motivated to do math outside of class. Part of what I am fighting are scheduling things. Many of my students work (because they have to financially) and when your homework isn't graded and others classes are giving graded assignments, many times students will choose the graded assignments first. Part of what I am fighting also is a lack of emphasis on education. Education is not highly valued in many of my students' homes. Some of my students will only do the absolute minimum to pass. When parents aren't placing a higher value on education, it is much harder to get the students to value it. Hopefully by making these changes in my classroom, students will want to do the math and feel like they can do the math on their own. We'll see.

I'll have to think on how singing could be incorporated in my class. Maybe on occasion...

6 foot 5 Bill said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Lisa!

I think the key thing is not only starting with small changes, but also making sure that when you make those changes, you're taking notes, getting feedback from your kids, and comparing to previous years.

Secondly, I think it's important to make sure you are always knowing your strengths in the classroom and capitalizing on those.

Another teacher will have different strengths and capitalize on those. I tend to be pretty skilled in moderating a class discussion and generating good questions that focus and push student thinking. Other teachers are masterful with their use of the blackboard as a tool to focus student attention.

That's why my head starts to explode whenever I start hearing about "reforms" that insist on all teachers doing the same thing in their classroom. Instead of creating "curriculum proof teachers," some lunatics with power and trying to impose "Teacher-proof curriculum."

Lisa said...

@Bill - all of the things you said here really resonated with me. The process of changing itself is intimidating, whether they are large or small changes. Starting small and reflecting on those changes made complete and perfect sense to me. So does playing to one's strengths.

What you said about education reform is really true. Although many math teachers teach following the same pattern, what that pattern in my class looks like is different than how it looks in yours. That's human nature. We are not robots who churn out students who all know the same things in the same manner. I suppose if people really wanted that, then we would have video links set up in each classroom and the same lesson (lecture style) would be broadcast to everyone. I'm pretty sure that wouldn't work as well as the powers that be think it would. The only thing it would ensure was the content was delivered the same way to everyone. Because we are human beings, we process it in our own manner.

Anyway, I didn't totally mean to get off on a philosophical tangent there. I try my best to stay out of the ed reform wars. It makes my head spin. I think that's why I struggled with this issue for so much of the summer. It was very much a philosophical issue for me and trying to get to the heart of it was difficult. I am relieved to have decided the direction I am headed and I feel like I am heading in a good direction. Ultimately, I think that's what's best for me and my students.

Mr. Gerhard said...

Hey Lisa, I feel as though you read my mind. I too have a house that had pink tile and green tile in two separate bathrooms. My answer gut them and start from scratch. As for the classroom, however, I like your approach of trying a few "tweaks" and improving on that. I teach Algebra 2 and Precalculus, and kind of feel the same way. Should I flip the classroom, try to make everything an #anyqs investigation (a little hard to do in Precalc), or stick with the "traditional" model? I tried some flipping last year with some success, and failure, but it was different. My goal this year is to try multiple techniques, and keep them on their toes. If something works really well, then I'll keep using it. Also, you can't forget the OGT prep. Good luck and I'll keep following and sharing.

Lisa said...

@Mr. Gerhard - I'm glad to hear someone is going through what I am. Between blogging and twitter, it has been really beneficial to not only bounce ideas off of others, but to see that I am not really alone in all of this. I am going to be incorporating OGT prep in my bellringers. That way, students are seeing it a couple times a week rather than just the last few weeks leading up to the test. I look forward to hearing how the school year goes for you!

cheesemonkeysf said...

I had an instinctive agreement with Julie that it's good that you are not going to simply throw the baby out with the bath water. I even agree with her echoing of that Girl Scout song. :) There are things you are doing that are *working* -- otherwise as such an obviously reflective practitioner, you would not keep doing them!

One of the most important realizations I've been coming to over the summer is that the single most important thing in teaching is that I be authentic. That means being authentically **me** -- with all my own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks.

But being authentic means that I will have to give up on the possibility of being anybody else in my own classroom.

That means I have to give up on the possibility of being Dan Meyer, Sam Shah, Kate Nowak, Henri Picciotto or . I am not suddenly going to develop Dan's passion for filmmaking and media or Sam's intrinsic curiosity about topology (sorry), or Henri's 30+ years of successfully getting independent school students to develop a deep and flexible understanding and fluency in mathematics.

That is the bad news.

The good news is that this frees me to leverage the unique things that **I** bring to my own teaching. That includes:

- what I've learned in 20 years of teaching traumatized people to meditate and learn to work with their fear of silence (or wilderness, or urban-ness),

- how to use understanding of one's own learning style to work with one's fear of mathematics,

- how to weave rhetorical and quantitative techniques to persuade others about things one cares passionately about,

- how to get the discouraged students to crawl out from under their desks and allow for the possibility of change and of learning

That doesn't mean I don't WANT to understand and use what I can from Dan, Henri, Sam, Kate, Frank, et al. I do. But in the final analysis, what we teach is ourselves. The magic of mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart contact that takes place in a classroom is exactly what CANNOT be bottled, videotaped, or shoved down a student's throat through Khan Academy.

So I'm glad that you have decided to start from where you are and to build on the knowledge and wisdom and humanity that you've cultivated over 19+ years of successful teaching. I hate to think of you wasting a single drop of that experience. As with your bathroom, enhance it, build out from it, find a way to make it work better than it does today.

But I would also urge you to value what you do well and hold on to that because we aren't given a longing to improve things unless we are also given a solid foundation upon which to build.

- Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

Lisa said...

@Elizabeth - So eloquently said. Thank you.