Saturday, February 24, 2018

Gap Week

This academic year has been busy. Thanks to a colleague and time spent over the summer, we've worked through five units of math. That means 5 sets of essential questions, 5 sets of enduring understandings, 5 projects, 5 rubrics, 5 opportunities to hit the sweet spot of content and project design.

Each unit was far from a home run, but I was particularly proud of the way kids started to evidence their math in each of the projects. It was work and it took encouragement, but it was there.

Then, a convergence of events created the conditions that it made it impossible to begin Unit 6. The quarter ended, EduCon happened and Unit 5 ended before Unit 6 was ready to go. I was once the kind of teacher who would stay up all night and solve that, but I'm too old to pull all nighters and they don't generate good results, either.

Instead, I planned a Gap Week. We had just covered operations with fractions and multiplication of mixed numbers was particularly weak. Likewise, we needed to review solving for an unknown, as well as some measurement and geometric concepts that will show up on the statewide test this spring.

Volume seemed to satisfy all of these needs. And it gave us an opportunity to build boxes (see above). We also practiced multiplying mixed numbers, a challenge for many (in large part because mixed numbers should just stay improper fractions, according to my mathematical son, Charlie). We looked at what happens to the volume when you increase the length and width, but leave the height alone. We scaled and made boxes larger and smaller. Some of us even thought about what might happen if we had to find the volume of a triangular prism.

The inquiry and hands on approach to this unit also led to impressive results from a traditional school perspective. Even though I teach in a project based school, I still give quizzes in math. There are two reasons for this - first, the kids love them (go figure) because of the instant gratification of knowing that they get something (or don't) and secondly, it gives me a barometer on who is getting what and where we need to bolster skills for the project. The Volume Quiz showed that not only were the students enjoying themselves and asking great questions, they were also learning some math. To date, it is has been the highest scoring quiz of the year in each of the classes. And not because it was terribly easy.

Now that I am deeply immersed in Unit 6 on data analysis, I look fondly up our volume gap week. And so do the students. In as much as we want kids to engage deeply for sustained periods of time with math and our essential questions, it was nice to have a week of fast paced, hands on learning that connected so many of the skills we have practiced earlier in the year.

Where might you insert a gap week in your curriculum? How might you connect skills and concepts to give kids a way to explore and create?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

How do we face our fears?

This year's essential questions revolve around Bravery. It's hard to tell which came first - the question or the manifestation of so much bravery. Certainly, bravery in school is a thing.

I think about my brother with dyslexia who had to show up at school every day when he couldn't read to get yelled at by his teachers. That took bravery. Or my mom who went back to school at night to become a nurse while raising seven kids. More bravery. Or my older son who started a new school in 11th grade - joined the teams, made friends and volunteered. Or my younger son who will stay up until 2:30 to finish a paper, go to school the next day and stay after for theater rehearsal. You guessed it, bravery.

These overtly brave actions are typically easy to spot. They are experiences that shape us and help define our experience, but they are not the only manifestations of bravery. Not by a long shot.

School was closed for two days this week. Philadelphia is in the grip of extreme cold and winter weather. It has taken some bravery to venture outside at all, and yet, we've shoveled, walked the neighborhood, run errands and otherwise found ways to get outside without facing death or frostbite.

Most of what I have done in the last two days is read kids' work. Without intentionally looking for bravery, I found a great deal.

  • The 5th grader who misunderstood the project and did all of his initial planning and research with a not-useful lens. He argued a little with me about the problem and then redid the work to turn in a rather lovely project.
  • The 6th grader who found herself in the middle of an ugly exchange at her table and was able to graciously and calmly smooth over the misunderstanding. She, too, turned in an exceptional project.
  • The kid who really hates math and struggles to understand most of what we do who uses tools (Google, his trusty calculator and his positive spirit) to do what he can and stretch his thinking about math.
  • The student who told me she really doesn't understand decimals but used her creativity and writing ability to make sense of the decimals she needed to use for the project.
  • The girl who cried during every assessment last year who showed up for Math Lab, worked outside of class and turned in her project over break because she was proud of her work.
  • The sassy 6th grader who put a plug in her project (which had lots of merit on its own) for more points of "We also learned how to ESTIMATE by our beautiful intelligent math teacher Ms.I  (LOVE MATH)."
I could go on and talk about a student who got lost every day on her way to school in September and now walks out of her way to pick up a classmate who is learning to walk to school without her mom. Or the kid who struggles with executive functioning who told me that he had figured out how a block of time each day could be structured to get his work done. Or the student who used to need to visit the nurse every day before lunch who no longer needs to go. Or the kid who uses art to say brave and important things...

You get the idea. We face our fears all the time. We must, or we become crippled and stagnant. Most of the time, it is not super fun. We don't feel like icons of bravery, we just get up and do the work that needs to be done. We learn new things and we apply them to our old habits with the hope that something good will happen. Fortunately for all of us, often something good does.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Does Bravery Look Like?

I've spent some time in the last few weeks thinking about bravery. To begin with, our faculty decided upon the theme of bravery for the Essential Questions that will drive the curriculum for the year. This is exciting from the perspective of middle school and the perspective of math - both require bravery.

Recent events in both my personal and professional life have required me to show bravery, so it has been interesting to reflect upon what bravery is and how we access it.

I asked some people what their experiences with bravery looked and felt like. It was a curious lesson in assumptions, because what I guessed people would say and what they actually said were vastly different. But a common thread in all of these discussions was a sense of vulnerability in showing who we are, exposing how we think and exhibiting what we create to others. 

As we ramp up for a new school year, we must do all of these - show who were are, expose how we think and exhibit what we create to others. This is scary for students, but in some ways more terrifying for teachers.  

Reflecting on my own experiences with bravery - and observing outstanding acts of bravery in the students I am fortunate to know - I noticed some themes. 

We show bravery when we break things. I'm thinking of bad habits and unhealthy relationships. Why do we hold on to these when we know they are dumb? Because they are comfortable and we know them. Breaking out of ruts and routines is really hard. Anyone who has ever tried to stop smoking, cursing, calling that friend or biting their nails knows this. 

But knowing that the habit is bad and actually breaking it are two different things. The process of breaking a bad habit or signing off on an unhealthy relationship takes work. We must find active ways to change our thinking and our actions so that we can move beyond what is making us inert.

For students, this can mean breaking out of ruts with work habits. For teachers, it can mean ditching the reliance on a text book, walking away from routines that "have worked in the past" and relinquishing "control" of the learning. This is scary stuff and facing it requires bravery. 

We show bravery when we build things. Part of breaking a bad habit is building a new one. Often, we need to build new mindsets in order to build new curricula, new relationships and new ways of being. 

When our faculty convened last month, we had lots to build. There are many teachers who joined us over the summer, so we had to build some understanding about who were are and what we're about. We also needed to build some culture around how and why we work. What are the priorities? What do we value? It was challenging. And required some thoughtfulness about when to be brave about sticking to your guns and when to be brave in embracing someone else's idea. 

When interacting with students, questions to consider throughout the year then become: How do we show bravery when creating curricula? How can we build curricula that bravely empowers students to actively learn and meaningfully shape knowledge into powerful ideas that enable them to create things themselves?

We show bravery when we can be ourselves. An important part of bravery is authenticity to the people we are and the things we are good at. While we can develop new habits and skills, they must be consistent with our beliefs and strengths. What works across the hall might not work in your classroom. 

Showing who you are always requires bravery. Teachers must model this so that students know this kind of bravery is not only necessary, but valued. Students need to know who they are so that they can develop a lens for what they are learning and see how it might apply to their lives specifically. Especially in middle school. But also in every school.

We show bravery when we bend a little. It is easy to feel like we have all the answers. The better we are at something, the greater the risk of believing we know it all. Being open to the ideas of others and adopting their ideas as our own requires bravery. When we bend our thinking, our beliefs or our habits to reflect new knowledge, we show bravery, but also a deep respect for the bravery in others.

As humans, our default isn't typically bravery. Knowing that fear is a big motivator for most of our actions - both the small ones only we notice and the large, showy ones we put on display for others - makes it easier to spot bravery when we see it. When your introvert son gets on stage to sing and act in front of hundreds, when the teacher across the all tries something new and a little bit messy, when students show up for school on the first day with a frightened look and squared shoulders, when kids point out injustices to adults in power, when you have yourself convinced that you'll never be able to do that thing but you find yourself doing it anyway.

Bravery looks different for all of us. But the prevailing image I have of bravery is that green look you get from wanting to throw up which is covered up the pink flush you get from embarrassment followed by the warm glow of relief when you did the scary thing anyway.

What does bravery look like for you?

How will you show who you are, expose how you think and exhibit what you create?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Phrases From A First Year in 5th Grade

It is difficult to believe that May is almost over and the school year is winding to a close. As a mom of two teenagers, I am well aware that time passes more quickly than any of us would like. That said, this year went by too quickly. I find myself looking at the UbDs and thinking "can we squeeze a little more time in to do just a little more?"

In spite of the fact that this year WILL end - with all of the undone things of every school year and so many more - there have been some pretty large successes. For one, there is a school, where once there was just an idea. That's a big deal.  And I am really proud to have been a really small part of that endeavor. Along with that, there are many important things I have learned along the way.

In reflecting what I have learned, I started listening to the things I say each day. These statements frame my days, but also provide a way to think the things I have learned over the course of this year, my first in 5th grade. Things that I need to remember in the future and things that I will always want to remember about this first year of Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

Do the work. I say this all day long. Turning an idea into a school takes work. But so does running the school. I have worked harder this year than I've worked perhaps ever. And still there is work that goes undone and work still yet to do.

The students are working hard, too. They work to rethink the meaning of school and the ways in which they can be successful. They work to understand eachother and get along. They work because they want their families to know that they are capable and creative.

We all have done the work - on some days better than others - and we know that there will always be more work for us to do. And we like that.

Scale it back. Here's a handy phrase I use when students are getting a little loud. Or when an idea gets a little out of control. Sometimes "just enough" is the best path forward. This is hard to accept when there are creative ideas floating around. Or when there is important work to do. But scaling it back keeps things from getting out of hand. It keeps the classroom productively humming, while keeping the planning from being too burdensome. And it keeps the focus on the learning and not on the bling.

Let's get together as a group. I don't and never have had a "signal" to gather the attention of the people in my room. Other than "let's get together as a group." This handy phrase for when things are getting a little scattered, confused, disjointed or contentious - which happens with adults and students alike. Getting together as a group allows us to hear ideas, prioritize, better understand what is happening and build a community that is capable of doing the work.

I'm a teacher, not a doctor. On any given day, I am presented with a variety of rare and life-threatening medical situations. For each, I reply, "I'm a teacher, not a doctor." Most of the time, this results in a rapid recovery and speedy return to work.

The phrase helps me, as well, when I am prone to think that a problem is insurmountable. Problems aren't insurmountable. And often, they need teachers to solve them, not doctors. We are all gonna live.

Do you have any snacks? We eat. A lot. 5th graders are growing and get hungry often. Teachers are also growing and need sustenance. Snacks help us focus, they help us bond and connect over preferences and they make us feel good. Why wouldn't we eat them all day?

Can I? Students like to help. Some want to water the plants, some like to set up the projector, some like to take attendance, some want to facilitate discussion, some like to help others - and for all of the 45 different kids in my classes, there are at least 450 different ways people want to help.

The same is true for the adults. We all have skills and talents and want to lend them to our community. When students and teachers ask "Can I?," it is important to be able to say yes.

I am sad the year is over. In spite of the hard work, it was a joy every day. That sounds sappy, I know, but it is true.

There are many things I'd like to do different and better. There are many ways I might have proceeded that would have generated different and perhaps better results. But I am pleased with the phrases I have adopted and those that my students are using to communicate the work we do each day. These reflect our belief that what we are doing is real - not just an idea anymore - and what we do we go with one another.

In 5th grade, we have explore three essential questions: What makes communities work? How do I impact my community? How does my community impact me? I would argue that communities work because of common language. And that we impact those around us by the words and phrases we use regularly.

What are your phrases? What do they communicate? And how do they impact your community?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Momentum, yes! Performance, maybe..

We had some breakthroughs in math this week. It started on Monday when a student came in first thing to ask if I'd do some math with her during her Rover Time. Rover Time is a period in which students can pursue their own inquiry, practice skills, read, engage in discussion with others and present what they have learned to the class. The preferred Rover activity is to "research" - I'll blog about that later.

But on Monday, Deija asked for math. We had fun. A few others joined in. A good discussion ensued and soon they were sharing explanations and thinking.

I had planned to give a quiz on Friday, so this enthusiasm for math was exciting. Perhaps everyone would do well.

On Tuesday, more people were interested. Excitement was building. We did math during class, math at Rover Time, math at lunch and math after school. It was lovely to see students teaching eachother, encouraging one another, sharing strategies and trying over and over again. You can literally see the excitement and determination in their faces..

In some ways, this was the most exciting week of my teaching career. It was student driven, this thirst to get better. And it spread like a virus through our classes.

But then we took the quiz. It was ugly. I could talk a lot about the quiz design. I could argue that we might have made success more attainable - and those are things I have to ponder.

But my bigger question is not so much HOW did this happen, but WHEN will it happen? I believe that we are doing many things right. We're talking about what we learn, we're building an understanding of the WHY of math, not just the HOW, students are engaged and motivated - and yet, throughout the quiz, I saw people struggle. 

They wanted to talk about what they were doing - with me and with eachother. They wanted to use manipulatives. They wanted to do fewer problems and take their time with each.

Quiz design is one thing, but what they will be asked to do in a few weeks on the statewide test in another. How can we keep our momentum for math, while building the stamina, the speed and the silence they'll need to "perform" on the test? In a perfect world, this wouldn't be the question. But in our world, it is very real. And I really need to come up with an answer.

In the meantime, I will mourn our performance on the quiz. But I will also celebrate the bigger wins of this past week. Of Deija identifying as a mathematician. Of Caspar and Sadia collaborating to solve some really hard problems. Of Kayla insisting that she "can't" only to prove to herself that she really can. And of Taylor proudly marching up to the office to show her work to the principal.

I am hopeful that the performance will come. Maybe not for this year's test, but some day. And I am thrilled that the momentum is here. That will make the difference for all of us.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

This Is Why We Fight

Yesterday was a hard day for me. Post-election, I was in mild denial about what would happen. And then, it happened.

At school, the kids were a little gloomy, too. They drew a sad face next to the date. They talked a little about their fears. And then they got to work.

I wanted to find a way to act upon our collective sadness and fears. Many people are marching today to stand up for equality and justice. I wanted to a find a way to remind my students that they matter. Their work, their ideas, their collaboration, their sense of community - all have an impact.

When I got home from school, I started writing progress notes to some of the kids who had shown leadership, kindness, determination or effort in the past week. It was a small act, but it made me feel a little better about things.

I sent a note of congratulations to a student who had formed and was leading a project group. She and I had met twice over the last week about issues and needs. I was impressed with her ability to prioritize and communicate with her group. So I wrote a note to her and mom explaining just that.

Her reply blew me away. She wrote:

"Thank you. Also they encouraged me in the group. Also now they are some of my good friends.
They really inspire me to work super hard during the day.
We need some glue and markers so we can design the poster and make it."

Knowing that we work and walk together, she knew that the group made the difference - for her and for the outcome. With humility and kindness, she recognized that everyone's gifts mattered and that she could not be successful alone.

As I look at images from across the globe today of people standing together for what is true and right, I think of what that can mean for people. I think of the potential we have as a nation to, in the words of a 5th grader, "encourage the group" and "become friends" and "inspire others to work super hard during the day." This is why we fight.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

And so we learn to appreciate each other...

A colleague was absent today. She is a favorite among the students and class seemed difficult without her - or so I heard.

Our sub was not accustomed to our school culture. She was strict - which is fair when you have to be the sub. But her strictness felt like meanness to some of my students.

I stopped in to check in with a student about an entirely different matter and was met with furious whispering. "What should we do?" "She is so mean!"

My advice was simple. "You got this. Stay calm. Do your work. Be kind and remember that the sub is new."

About five minutes later, I got some emails.

"There is a problem. Please come back," one student wrote.

"I just got yelled at and it wasn't my fault," wrote another.

My reply remained the same: "Stay calm. Be kind. Remember she in new here."

The reply from KP was the best: "I will stay calm." For her, this is real growth.

After the period was over, they all came to my class. "She didn't know our names! I want to be called by MY name not 'young lady!' I'm gonna tell Ms. Martin when she comes back!"

For all of us, this was a great opportunity to appreciate each other.

For all of us, we appreciate the awesome work that Ms. Martin does and we keenly felt her absence today.

For me, I appreciated my students for asking for my help and my advice - and for accepting it. Each of the frustrated students came back ready to process and move on. The irony is that a month and a half ago, they thought I was overly strict and did not see me as a means of help or solutions. Today, that changed a little.

For the students, they appreciated their school. We are not an overly "schooly" place. We care about each other. We help. We are allowed to be a little bit messy. When those parts of who were are were missing, we noticed just how much we rely on them each day.

I am not sure if the sub will come back. She indicated to another colleague that "the jury was still out" on whether or not we were a good school. I sincerely hope that she does come back. I'd like my students to have the opportunity to try again to face a new situation - this time with more tools and greater understanding. And I like for her to see the students as I saw them today - as people who care about their thinking, care about how they are treated and care about their school.