Open letter to middle school administrators allocating fewer than 60 minutes a day and/or five days a week for mathematics classes…

Dear Middle School Leaders:

Learning takes time. That is fact without regard to subject matter or grade level. You are a professional in the field of education. You know that truth.

I hear from some users of Open Up Resources 6-8 Math from around the country about the amount of time allocated for math instruction daily. The lowest report is 39 minutes of math class daily. Another low mark is math class every-other-day for 45 to 60 minutes. Please carefully consider these questions. What is at the center of your master planning? Is it the students and their learning? Is the scheduled time currently allocated for academics in the best interest of students or can it be improved? Is your decision to allot minimal learning time grounded in research or is it merely convenient? Is it, as I have heard, the way it’s always been? That is not defensible. What is more important than your students’ learning? There appear to be institutions out there playing school rather than creating environments where students can authentically learn. Please make your business about educating learners and not about playing school.

I am being bold asking these sincere questions because your teachers cannot be. Your teachers love their students and they love what they do and they want to keep doing it. The schedule, however, is making the challenging job of teaching impossible. In the 13 years I have been in the classroom, I have had 60, 70 and 90-minute math classes. 90 minutes is way too long. 60 or 70 minutes work. That provides enough time for students to grapple with concepts and come to resolutions. Fewer than 60 minutes requires teachers to shortcut student learning experiences in favor of algorithms. Students are required to drink from the fire hose of math and they are ill equipped to do so. Surely, you, as the leader of an educational institution know better and are in a position to rectify the scheduling situation. Surely.

Please recognize that learning is a process and give your students time to go through that process. Please honor your teachers by giving them time to promote and support student learning the way they know, as professionals, is best. Days and minutes matter when it comes to developing conceptual understandings. Learning takes time.

Truly yours,

Sara B. Vaughn, M.Ed., NBCT

Home Communication Logs (HCL)

What can I do instead of homework to make a difference with consistently, under-performing students? I need something that will provide learners with the opportunity to intentionally think about and talk about math outside the classroom. I also want to make sure family members, as stakeholders in children’s educations, are kept up to date with what students are learning.

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To help address all of these issues, I developed the HCL—Home Communication Log. Students are required to discuss math outside of school for five to twenty minutes each day with an adult. Students then turn in completed logs each Friday.

So far, results are mixed. I still have reluctant students not turning in the logs. I even had a couple students copy somebody else’s log the first week. But, most of the submissions are good. Parents and children are talking about math daily, and without doing homework! I suggest that students review the lesson summary, from the student workbook (Open Up Resources 6-8 Math) if they are stumped about something to talk about with their selected adult.

After the first week I asked students, “when do you talk to your parents or special adult?” A few told me that they have dinner at the table every night as a family. My heart melted. I didn’t think families did that any more. A couple kids told me that mom or dad is not around in the evening so they had trouble with the log. I told them it was fine to talk on the phone with their parent. I also offered up staff members as special adults for students who have trouble connecting at home. I also told them to come see me before school or at lunch if they wanted.

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I know this is not perfect, but it is more than I have done in the past as far as homework. True confession: What prompted this year’s HCL is a devastating failure on my part last year. I had a student performing below grade-level and, here’s the bad part, because that is what I saw in her file, I didn’t contact the parent. I saw it as normal for that student. I made a terrible assumption that I am embarrassed and sad about. The parent came in and we talked about the situation and I apologized. I then tutored the student each morning she came in. I provided additional information for afterschool tutors as well as private tutors for this student. She still performed below grade level and didn’t grow a bit according to state test results. And it was my fault. I didn’t push her enough. I didn’t let her parents know that she was sandbagging all year. I failed her–my student.

So, fast-forward one school year. I now have 38 kids in one class. 75% of them were determined by the state to be below grade level last year. These learners are like the kid I let down last year. I know a simple Home Communication Log is not going to fix that, but neither is homework. That’s why I thought I’d try this log. Students at my school keep Reading Logs so I thought this would fit in with what they were accustomed to doing. Perhaps it is again, naive on my part, but if parents see their kids making progress, they can encourage them. If parents see their kid struggling to articulate what went on in class that day, that should alert parents to an issue and again prompt encouragement and/or action. But once again, the students that don’t turn in the logs are the same students who would not have done homework had it been issued. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are the same students having trouble making their paper and pencil make contact during class. I do my best to check with all 38 students throughout each activity. Much of my time is spent getting reluctant learners started. They want to hide in a class of 38, but I try not to let that happen. Truth is, if a reluctant learner is also a wallflower, I may miss him or her. It pains me to admit it, but it’s true. That happened, as I said.

So, back to the 75%. On a good day I feel like half of them make progress. Am I supposed to feel good about that? Is that enough? No. Clearly the answer is no. I am doing the best I know how to do, but my boat is taking on water and I feel like I’m bailing out with a sieve. I love my kids and that helps for sure, but love is not enough. I need more. My learners deserve more. Maybe they wasted time in earlier grades. So what! All that matters now is how we fix it.

So now back to HCLs. I’m toying with the idea of adding just 1 practice problem from the workbook to the HCL per day for next quarter. At that point it could be a spiraled question. I don’t know though. If you read this, please know, this is my processing process. This is how I think things through. Don’t take advice from me like I’m some expert. I’m just figuring out this teaching thing one day at a time like every other honest educator in the world.

I am going to continue to refine and adjust the HCL as I work with it this year. If you have suggestions, please let me know in the comments.