Sunday, October 9, 2016

Make Sense of Problems & Persevere in Solving Them

I have a problem and it is math. Common Core standards indicate that, as a proficient student, I should be able to explain the problem and look for entry points into it's solution.

The problem is a loud one and I have heard it from students, from parents and from colleagues. The problem comes daily in the form of questions.
  • "Can we do division today?" 
  • "Can you send home some math problems so that my son can practice operations with fractions?"
  • "How can we teach math in a project based, inquiry driven setting?"
While I am not certain that I have entirely explained the problem - even to myself - I do believe that the more I grapple with the problem, the more clear it becomes.

Solving the problem has become somewhat of an obsession. My first entry point was the Internet. Extensive searches did not yield the results I had hoped. I was able to see curricula from all over the nation & from all types of schools, but I didn't feel much closer to a solution.

It wasn't until I voiced my problem to a mentor that I started to make progress. She suggested I visit with some math teachers who are doing what we hope to accomplish. Armed with questions, my phone for taking pictures and a notebook, I visited SLA Center City. I sat in classes, spoke with students, asked questions and observed teachers. It was an exciting use of a rainy afternoon and I returned to school with ideas for solutions and for what to do next.

That evening, I sat down to write a unit plan, but didn't make much progress. I made a few decisions, but I was disappointed in myself for not finishing the job. I had a meeting scheduled the next day with the principal and he was expecting to see a draft of my plan.

With trepidation, I showed up at the meeting, which was also attended by our special education teacher and our school counselor. Feeling vulnerable, I shared with the group my struggle, what steps I had taken to solve my problem and my ideas for going forward. I expected some shame, but was met with encouragement, ideas for refinement and offers of help. Wow.

It would be dishonest for me to say that this problem is solved, but I have made some significant progress in the now. More importantly, I have learned a great deal about what it means to be inquiry driven and project based - for myself and for my students.

  • Inquiry is personal. One of the motivations for my math obsession is my son. He is 15 and loves math. We talk about math, we look for ways to apply math, we grapple with math. OK, he does more of that than I do, but he has made me more aware of students to whom math matters more than anything. I chose this mission - for this and many other reasons. And it matters to me. Deeply. 
  • Inquiry is collaborative. I spent a ton of time dealing with this issue alone, but it wasn't until I took my problem to a community of different thinkers that I got results.
  • Research is hands-on. I had to go somewhere, talk to others & ask questions. Sitting at my computer was not enough.
  • Answers lead to more questions. While I am getting closer to my goal, I have a long way to go. I have some answers, but I also have better questions. 
  • Perseverance can be fun. I am excited about my progress, realistic about the work that still needs to be done, but excited and energized for the journey ahead.
Going forward, I need to find ways to publicly model my own inquiry for students. I need to allow them to engage in collaborative questioning. I need to build in opportunities for hand-on research that lead to more and better questions. And I need to help all of us recognize that perseverance can be fun.