Here I Stand

I’ve heard it. I’ve said it. I’ve lived it. The equations section of Unit 4 of 8thgrade Open Up Resources 6-8 Math curriculum is a beast. It ramps up so quickly with little to no practice and students are lost. They are frustrated and giving up. So are teachers. So was I, until I got my head around it. Sheer conjecture, but this is my take on the whole thing.

This curriculum is designed for 8thgraders. All 8thgraders. We have three distinct levels of math classes in 8thgrade at my school. The Open Up curriculum is only being used for students who are currently at, barely at or below grade level. There is a narrow group of learners using this wide-ranging 8thgrade curriculum. Most of these learners have never truly been asked to perform work that is on-grade-level. This is the first time. They are lost and struggling and giving up.

We are taking a curriculum intended for acceleration, remediation and everything in between and using it exclusively for corrective and remedial instruction with enough access for on grade-level students to make progress. We are working hard to deliver the curriculum with fidelity. Our students are being challenged with grade-level material for, perhaps, the first time. They, in all likelihood, will not get it all. That’s ok. For many, this is their first exposure to grade-level material. Maybe they’ll get it the next time. We need to focus on the fact that students finally have access to grade-level material. We, as teachers, need to be careful not to let our well-intentioned actions take that away from them. When we take the opportunity for students to solve equations containing distribution and fractions and negative numbers and variables on both side and exchange it for 6thgrade-level equations, we are cheating our students.

And there I am, taking work that is at grade-level and breaking it down into bits and pieces that my students can understand and taking it off grade-level. I’m reading to them rather than having them read the problems themselves. I’m giving in. I’m using a curriculum designed to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners with a group of learners who, for the most part, don’t want to be there. I have got to do better so my students have a chance to do better. I’ve started giving out Life Savers to students for getting a good start on activities. Hopefully, only I catch the connection there.

Students do not know how to put in the sustained work required to do the learning that needs to be done to get on grade-level. They do not know how to reach longer-term goals on their own.  Rather than getting frustrated with the students and the curriculum, we as teachers, need to rise to the challenge and be the bridge that finally gets these students access to grade level work. Yes. It will take multiple years, but I would rather be the start of their access to grade-level work rather than the continuation of subpar standards.

There is so much immediate gratification in the lives of students that gets in the way of the time it takes to do the work required to reach longer-term goals.  None of these students fell behind in the last year or two. Fact is they were never caught up to start with. This is just the first time they have ever even had the chance to see and do work that is on grade-level. They are 13 and 14. Yes, they are going to struggle. Yes, we are going to struggle right along with them.  We owe it to them to finally challenge them with what they deserve. All students deserve access to grade level content. Period. Taking Martin Luther out of context, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

martin luther at luther college

Tracking is the start of all this below grade-level activity. We say we want all students to succeed, but how can they? There is no way to “jump the track” they are assigned to if they do not have a crack at the actual expectations of the grade. At-grade-level progress needs to be accessed and assessed for all learners. Watering down standards and short-changing learners who have historically struggled will never get them where they should be. Please honor our students by honoring their access to grade-level material. It is probable that many may not get it, but some will. Chances are, the ones that don’t get it weren’t going to get the watered-down version either. At grade level material gives all students a chance to meet and exceed expectations. Expect great things from yourself and your students.

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