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.

Reflecting on My First Year Experience with Open Up Resources

Please let me disclose up front that I am a user/fan/evangelist of Open Up Resources (OUR) and have absolutely no affiliation with them whatsoever. I do, however, have enormous respect and gratitude. Statements here are opinions and reflections on my experiences. Your mileage may vary.

2017/2018 was the best school year in a long time. I learned a lot; I was organized; I felt prepared; I tried several new things; and most importantly, I left school June 14thexcited to return eight weeks later to build on the year’s successes and improve any mediocrity and shortcomings.

My school dove into OUR headfirst and didn’t come up for air until at least Christmas. My district provided training all along, but given my course load, I was not able to attend the large majority of training as desired. I wrote about my initial experiences here. I finally got into a groove and became much more efficient in preparing for my Open Up classes. Rather than preparing daily as I had done September through January, in February I started batching my lesson preps. By April, I built my PowerPoint for an entire week in one file. At the close of each day, I deleted the slides covered and saved the rest of the file for the next day. Because I used Variable Random Grouping each day, I needed a new seating chart slide anyway. I finally began importing the pre-made slides provided by Open Up. I imported the slides I wanted and just edited my student sheets using textboxes for more efficient printing rather than duplicating them into my homemade ppt. Send me a message and I am happy to grant you access to my files. Samples may also Files may be accessed through the PowerPoint I am preparing prepared and edited for TMC18.

Here is a simple graphic of the way I think OUR looks. Move clockwise, beginning with the Warm-up.

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The job of synthesis is to connect every aspect of the portion within the lesson as well as to connect new learning to prior learning. If there is ever any ambiguity about connections throughout the lesson, they are hammered home during the final synthesis. If the final synthesis is skipped, there is an obvious hole in the lesson. Each portion of the lesson is also synthesized as one lesson phase transitions to the next. The relative sizes of the circles in my graphic are indicative of the amount of time allocated to each portion of the lesson. Lessons follow this consistent pattern throughout the course.

I like how the Cool-down bleeds into the Warm-up in the graphic. Fairly early on through the year, I began reviewing the Cool-down at the beginning of the next class. This allowed learners to review my feedback on the Cool-downs as well as to access newly acquired knowledge for the prior day’s learning experiences. That is a example of how I made OUR my own.

Another example of making OUR our own at my school is a sixth grade math teacher came up with the idea to have learners place completed Cool-downs in green, yellow or red folders depending on their individual confidence levels. The information gleaned from the placements was telling in a couple ways. It was easy to spot false confidence. It was also helpful to see at a glance how students were evaluating their own learning. We still sorted and wrote meaningful feedback on the Cool-downs each day.

Here are errors that I made this year that I want to spare anyone else from making.

  • Notice the graphic. Without the synthesis, the lesson has a big hole in it. Don’t shortcut that, rush it or heaven forbid, skip it. Be explicit as you make connections. What we as teachers think is obvious, may not be to learners and frequently, they just need that small nudge forward to make the desired connections.
  • Give at least 5 minutes for the Cool-down. Some kids can demonstrate understanding with more time. If they don’t nail it, you need to figure out what you missed along the way. This is valuable information and not a step that you can afford to skip.
  • Keep the pace up from the very beginning. Trust the curriculum. Concepts will come around multiple times from multiple angles. It works well. The authors are geniuses. Respect and trust it.
  • Focus on student work and having students share their perspectives on your cue. Sequencing student responses is an art that I am far from mastering, but it is valuable to student learning.
  • Allow enough time for assessments. Learners are actually excited about showing what they have mastered.
  • Score assessments with an open mind and an open heart. Learning is a process and you are looking for progress toward mastery. This material is challenging in a whole new way. Don’t defeat learners before they get a fair chance. Fairly recognize progress.
  • Stay organized. The curriculum makes that easy. Follow the OUR sequence even if your district thinks they know better. They don’t.

I am most excited about the improvements I plan to make this coming school year.

  • My district is getting student workbooks, so I will not have nearly as much copying to do. I will still copy the Cool-downs, but I have those all set.
  • I am going to take my own advice and focus on sequencing student responses more deliberately and improve my process here.
  • I am also going to improve my syntheses. I really didn’t help my students make the connections and recap the concepts the way I should have last year.
  • I am going to keep my pace up in the beginning so I do not have to condense and shortchange my learners at the end.
  • I am going to use VNPS (Vertical Non-permanent Surfaces) every chance I get. Learners did far too much sitting last year.
  • I want to adapt some student tasks to Desmos so students have the opportunity to dialogue with other learners and critique their work. Desmos is well suited for this.
  • I have to work calculator use into the lessons. No calculators for learners at first for sure, but after my students have conceptual understanding, I need to teach them to use the tools at their disposal. I totally dropped the ball on that one and need to figure it out.

I could write for days about how jazzed I was each day as we learned math in an entirely different way this year. I could tell you how I learned something new each and everyday, not only about student learning, but also about math. You need to experience that for yourself though. Please be smart enough to do that the week or at least day before your students do. It will make you so much more efficient and effective than I was. I eventually got ahead of them, but not far. I am excited for next year for sure!

OUR made me love, adore, and treasure teaching Math 8 for the first time ever. It was fun. It was meaningful. It was amazing. I cannot thank OUR enough for bringing joy into my classes through quality curriculum. I would have never thought that possible, but I lived it.

After finishing the year, I am incredibly in love with OUR. I hate myself a bit, but that is true every year. No matter what I do, I feel like I could have, should have done more. However, OUR helped me give my learners more conceptual understanding than they have ever had. The stage is set for explosive learning in high school. This is both my prediction and prayer.

Best Review Day Ever

Today my intern planned a review for my OpenUp classes. (Gosh, that sounds so much better than my Math 8 classes.) I attended our vertical math PLC yesterday and @BethSize shared a review game they do in 6th grade where the kids play connect 4 with post-it-notes, earning them as they solve sets of problems as a group. When my intern had all these review sheets I thought, “what the heck? Let’s do this.” I checked with my next door 8th grade teacher neighbor to see how big the board was supposed to be. She didn’t recall, so we made up our own rules. Three teams of four. A 6×6 grid on a white board. Different post-it-notes for each team. No building from the bottom. Put your mark anywhere on the board. Teams solve a sheet of OpenUp problems harvested from problem sets and elsewhere in the OpenUp resources (goosing some up by adding solve or show or prove directions.) They are checked by me or my intern. If there is an error or two, we say something like, 3 of those are correct. Learners then return to find their own errors. Once all are correct for each member of the team and we ensure all members are on-board doing the learning, the team earns a sticky note. (High tech can be over rated.) A member of the team places the note on the board. We played three groups of 4 per board. We called it Connect 4, but once teams got four, they challenged themselves to get a whole column or simply the most stickies on the board. I teach middle school. We are very flexible.

The conversations and teaching, one learner to another learner, were out of this world!! Now, true confessions, we had two adults in the room so groups got quick attention and directions. That cannot be under emphasized. More adults is better. Period. Done. Who doesn’t get that? Oh, yes. The state of North Carolina.

The second OpenUp class was even better. We had time to reflect and resequence the problem sets for that delicate balance of success, challenge and learning. Intentional sequencing is so important and yields amazing results. Getting good at it is a work-in-progress.

This activity went so well with my OpenUp classes that I tried a variation on this with my Math 2 classes. They too have a Unit Test soon. I created MC problem sets off of SchoolNet and made a packet of questions for each of the 8 groups. Some packets were 12 questions, some were 4 and everything in between. It all depended on where the nice page breaks occurred in the printed versions rather than planned sequencing. This is designed for online, so the printout isn’t pretty. It’s easy to harvest–by–standard though, so vetting time is minimized. Because they got many more problems per packet than my OpenUp classes, I decided to do two groups per tic-tac-toe board rather than Connect 4. It worked. It wasn’t perfect, but for the seven out of the eight groups that worked, it was great. I told teams which if the questions were incorrect so they could go back since there were many more problems and they were all MC. (Easy to check, but still challenging/standard aligned questions.)

Unit 4 Practice Problems my intern compiled are here, though the ideal sequencing is not in the order the problems are presented here. This is Unit 4 of the Open Up 8 grade curriculum.

Everyone in room 209 has been working like crazy since we got back from winter break. Today we had fun showing off our learning.