A Tale of Two Years

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Thanks to Charles Dickens for igniting my thought process.

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This is year two for me teaching 8thgrade math using Illustrative Mathematics’ curriculum published and distributed by Open Up Resources 6-8 Math. Year two is everything I had hoped it would be. I marked my Unit 3 assessments Wednesday and was pretty pleased with the understandings my learners demonstrated. I tallied the individual scores just to get a macro feeling of how the classes were doing this year on the Unit 3 formal assessment. I felt pretty good about student work, but mildly disappointed in myself. As I was marking, I wish I had some student copies from last year’s assessment to compare similarly situated learners’ progressions. (Year one people—make and save a couple student copies to look at next year for each assessment. I thought I was going to remember, but I didn’t.) I did find my teacher copy with the tally marks of last years’ results. Drum roll please…the scores are better. And more students are able to put their understandings on display on the assessment. And, dig this, I am a month ahead of last years’ pace. And the results are significant. [Timeline correction…Last year, I started Unit 4 on February 2nd. February 2nd!!!! This year, I started Unit 4 December 7th. That’s almost 2 months ahead and we have already had 7 or 8 days out of school due to weather issues. And my learners understand more and perform better.] This is all because it is year two. My class sizes are a bit larger than last year, but the mix of historical performance measures (skills, abilities, levels—all horrible words to describe children’s current placement) is about the same. This year-two teaching experience with this curriculum is a wonderful feeling. I attribute improvements to the following changes, in no particular order.

  • Focusing on not over-teaching is a giant change affecting pace issues of the past. This revelation came during summer PD sessions with the good people of Illustrative Mathematics fame.
  • I am also better at formative assessment on the spot so I am not waiting until I can look at a stack of cool-downs to know if students got the intended learning or not. I have better interventions, earlier.
  • This year I made a commitment to move along regardless of stragglers. If I have learned one thing comparing last year to this year it is that you are going to have stragglers no matter how slow and thoroughly you go. Slowing down only harms the learners who are ready to move. It’s like walking in a line with a class of students. No matter how slowly you walk, the end of the line gets further and further from the front. Continually stopping so they can catch up is necessary, but holds everyone back. I need to work at incentivizing the back of the line, aka the stragglers, so they want to keep up and be part of the learning group.
  • This year I am using the practice problems whenever I can. This may be as filler at the end of class or as a pre-class activity to review the prior day’s concepts. I also assign targeted practice problems as Unit reviews before a Unit test. I’ve also put in a Quizizz activity once in a while. I’m going to give the Kahn Academy practice problems a shot next. That retrieval/practice routine must be played out regularly.
  • The launch for each activity is better year 2 because I know where I am going. I know what the focus of the activity truly is and I know where the stumbling blocks are. I am not removing the productive struggle, but I am better with my instructions and communication to learners of the expected outcomes.
  • Both activity and lesson syntheses are better than last year in that they exist, usually. They are focused and tight. They tie to the lesson summary or they come with a note or a highlight on the activity page in the workbook to seal the deal. I am still working to improve all of this and it’s not nearly as good and tight as it reads here.
  • The professional development, I am receiving on the unit materials and elements, is better this year since I can actually attend the sessions. Last year they were not held at a time when I could make it without missing one class of each of my two courses during the day, plus I was sooooo far behind I was afraid to be gone.
  • This year I have the support of my nationwide PLC. I am also supporting other users of the curriculum so I get better and think more carefully as I respond to inquiries and participate in twitter chats. I also feel a sense of accountability to my nationwide PLC and this makes me prepare and research at a much higher level than I otherwise would.
  • I spend more quality time reflecting as I prepare Guru Zoom chats and draft the weekly #OpenUpMath Twitter chat questions. Nothing sharpens skills like leadership.
  • Taking some of the preparation off of me and putting it on students, by having student workbooks, is a positive change for which I am grateful. I am not certain learners took the copied version of the activities last year as serious as they do the official workbooks this year. I am also able to invest in better preparation because I am not making copies of the materials. Workbooks also save valuable class time not having to pass out papers.

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Just look at the understanding that is demonstrated here. This learner is testing algebraically as well as graphically to determine if the ordered pairs are indeed solutions to the given equation. And look! Going beyond what was given, she tests a point not provided (4, 3) that works in the equation to see that it is on the line. I cried–in the best possible way.

Not everything is rosy, however. Horizontal and vertical lines as well at the shifting of proportional lines (y=kx from 7thgrade) was horrible last year and no better this year for the most part. Why??? I know I did a better, more explicit job connecting points and coordinates and lines. I did better, but the students weren’t doing enough. I need to beef that up and I am going to go back through those lessons again and see what it is I am NOT doing. The lessons are good in the moment, but they are not sticking with learners. I have got to make them stick. There needs to be struggling retrieval and spaced practice. All those sticky things must happen more and better than I have been doing. I will also check with my Tweople and see what their experiences and remedies are This is one area that did not improve from last year, yet.

I am going to continue to tweak and ponder, reflect and revise. I pledge that to my self and to my PLC.

Look Who’s Learning

It’s no secret I am an Open Up Resources 6-8 Math junkie. I love what the curriculum does for learners. Today, I want to expand my definition of learners. I am a teacher, but I am also a learner. I have learned more about teaching, learning and math in the past twelve months than I learned in the prior 14 years. I have Open Up Resources 6-8 Math, Illustrative Mathematics and my international PLC to thank for that.

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It’s not just that I have quality material with insights spelled out for me. It’s not that my students are challenged and required to think differently than they ever have. All those things are good. And true. The fact of the matter is that this curriculum makes me a better teacher. I teach better than I ever have. I am more prepared and I have greater insights. I am a better listener. I want to hear how my students are interpreting the math. I want students to share their interpretations. As prepared as I feel each day, I seem to always see and hear and feel something new about the math my students are doing. I am learning. I am the learner and I LOVE IT. Open Up Resources 6-8 Math curriculum makes me a better teacher and learner. Every. Day.

I was starved for quality professional development ever since Common Core was rolled out. The minimal training received on Common Core was ill-conceived and not informative. I remember building fences with posts that were the supporting standards and rails that were supplemental or connecting standards. But I didn’t learn how what I was to teach was better for my students. Everything was theoretical. There was no comparison of how students were expected to learn differently or how I was expected to teach differently. I didn’t practice teaching anything. I was also not given resources with which to teach other than an outline. I learned much more about Common Core as I was teaching seeing my students make connections I had not previously considered. Because North Carolina gutted education funding on the heels of Common Core’s implementation, teachers were left to find and develop their own resources in order to teach and learn the standards. That took a while and I learned much through the school of hard-knocks. Eventually, I was seeing the connections and the wisdom of the sequencing. I was excited. Unsupported, but excited.

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Then Common Core got killed in the court of public opinion. Had Common Core had extensive, quality public relations communications, I like to think the educated public would have bought into the sequencing dictated by the standards. But they didn’t. The only public communication was parents posting homework problems without a context and calling the whole thing folly. There were even teachers that ignored the adoption of the standards and taught what and as they always had. Perfect strangers would come up to me in the grocery store line and see my teacher ID and say something like, “What do you think about Common Core?” expecting me to bash it. I wouldn’t bat an eye. I just said, “ I love it. The connections that students make all throughout the standards are solid. The insights that both students and teachers are gaining are profound. I hope the state has to courage to do the right thing for our schools and ignore the ignorant neigh-saying public. Why do you ask?” I typically didn’t get a response.

I want a do-over on the release of the Common Core Standards. I would start by rolling it out to the elementary schools for three years. Move to the middle schools for a year or two and then finally get to the high schools. Changing horses in the middle of the stream and then providing little to no professional development for teachers and no quality public relations education killed Common Core. Teachers were asked to implement without understanding. Teachers don’t do that. Teachers demand and deserve to understand why. That is a sad fact that was disregarded. We are now getting a do-over, of sorts, via Open Up Resources 6-8 Math, but better. It’s the third word…RESOURCES.

I am fortunate that my district is investing in teacher professional development with the implementation of Open Up Resources 6-8 Math. It seems the phrase Common Core is now somehow forbidden by the state. What we teach are the Common Core standards, but they are simply rebranded. Clever. But the standards are better than solid and it’s working so let’s just keep that little secret to ourselves. Open Up Resources 6-8 Math and the professional development I am receiving through Illustrative Mathematics are helping me connect my teaching to the standards with better understanding and execution than ever before.

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Now for the real purpose of this post. I am concerned there are teachers reluctant to change their ways regarding what they teach and how they teach it and some of these teachers are merely going through the motions as they roll out the Open Up Resources 6-8 Math curriculum. Teachers are learners too. Remember, you can’t get more out of something than you put into it. Just because something is good and nationally acclaimed doesn’t mean it will work without effort. Teaching is work. Teaching with Open Up Resources 6-8 Math is a lot of work. It is this work that is making me a better teacher and it’s hard. But my students are worth it. I am worth it. I am grateful that my district sees that we are all worth it.