Saturday, August 31, 2013

Two Articles For Your Consideration

I recently read two articles that I would like to share with you...

The first is A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart.  This article showed up in my in-box from a student that I had in class last year.
Lockhart begins his article by suggesting that art and music education be mandatory for every student.  However, instead of giving them a blank canvas, we will make them sit through lectures and study colors and applicators.  The must work their way up the ranks from worksheets on the basics, to pre-paint-by-number, and finally paint-by-number.  Only a few exceptional students will be allowed to paint on a blank canvas.
He goes on to say that this is what we are doing in math education.  We are killing math.  Teachers tell students they have to learn the remedial stuff before they can do the real stuff.
I think he's on to something here.  Students need to see why it's important, yes, but they need to see how perfectly beautiful and fun it is too.

The second is The Case Against Algebra II by Nicholson Baker.  A few days after I received the first article, this arrived in my inbox from a fellow math teacher.
Baker suggests that schools no longer make Algebra II mandatory.  After reading this, I had to ask myself Is Algebra II really necessary?  Algebra II curriculum usually includes Complex Numbers, Factoring, Polynomials, and Nonlinear Expressions and Equations.  Can a person function in society without knowing these topics?
First, if school districts are going to eliminate the mandate to learn Algebra II, then Algebra I has to be an amazing experience for students.  Teachers have to be education rock stars, so that students see the importance and sheer joy of mathematics.  Students need to be inspired to take Algebra II, not forced to take it.  Refer back to the first article.
Now let's suppose that Algebra II is an elective.  The only students in the class are the ones who want to be there.  Now Algebra II will truly be Algebra II, unlike many districts where Algebra II is really a repeat of Algebra I will a few extra topics.  When we teach every student Algebra II it's not No Child Left Behind, it's Every Motivated Child Held Back.
Let's take a look at the students who want to take Algebra II.  They are now in a class that is rarely disrupted or slowed down to meet the needs of those who don't want to be there.  They can learn Algebra II in their Algebra II course.  They can learn Pre-Calc in the next course (rather than Algebra II again).  They can begin Calculus with a review of Limits rather than a review of Algebra I.  They can finally compete globally.
So what happens to the students who don't take Algebra II?  Will they become utter failures in society? I honestly don't think so.  Maybe if students aren't forced to take Algebra II, they won't hate math so much.  Maybe if they don't hate math so much, they won't hate school so much.  Maybe if they don't hate school so much they won't be absent as often.  Maybe if they aren't absent as often they won't drop out of school.  Maybe if they don't drop out of school they will become productive members of society.  Maybe if they all become productive members of society we will keep more jobs in America.  Maybe if we keep more jobs in America our unemployment rate will go down.  Maybe if our unemployment rate go down....
You get the idea.

See?  You can save the entire country just by making Algebra II an elective.

Seriously though, what are your thoughts?

Monday, August 19, 2013

In-Service Days

I've been thinking about my professional development lately.  In my opinion, the most effective PD for me have been the ones that I make an effort to be a part of:  Conferences,  Blogging, Twitter, The Global Math Department, and PARLO PLCs.  Do you notice what's missing from this list?  In-Service Days.

Not every teacher is exposed to conferences, blogging, twitter, the global math department, and PLCs.  But every teacher is required to attend in-service days.  This is where we can reach EVERYONE.  Why are school districts not taking advantage of this?

When I graduated from college, in my mind my education was over.  I knew everything about education that I needed to know.  And my employer only helped to encourage that type of thinking.

Although the in-service training that I am exposed to is informative, it doesn't help me become a better educator.  Here are the recent things I have been in-serviced on:  The Charlotte Danielson Model (how I'm going to be evaluated), Common Core and the SAS portal (a lot), gang awareness, concussions, and sanitation.  Nowhere in this list do you see anything on technique.  I've been teaching for 13 years and I have seen the same video on sanitation 13 times because the law requires it.  I have been in-serviced on the Charlotte Danielson Model for the past two years.  About three in-service days a year are geared toward curriculum.  But again, nothing on sharing good classroom practices.

I know that my neighbors are doing amazing things in their classrooms, and more than likely have some suggestions and ideas for me.  But I don't have the time to discuss this with them because we are too busy perfecting our curriculum.  I use SBG, but my colleagues on the other side of the building don't even know what SBG stands for.

Here's what I propose:  Make In-Service Days More Like Conferences.

Each in-service day is broken into 4 blocks that are about an hour each with 15-20 minutes between each block.    A few weeks before the in-service there is a call for presenters.  Teachers who have something they would like to share, submit a proposal to administration.  After the administrators pick the presenters, a list is provided to the entire faculty and they are able to sign up for the four sessions that pique their interest.

What if there is something the district is required to in-service their faculty on?  Make that one of the sessions and make it mandatory.

What's in it for the presenters?  Other than sharing their ideas?  Well, in our district we earn comp time for our last in-service day of the school year.  The presenters could be given comp time toward that.

What's in it for the administration?  It's less planning on their part.  The administration would only have to select who the presenters are and sit back.

Friday, August 9, 2013

STEMathon and PARLO

That's me taking part in my first ever presentation at the STEMathon conference in Harrisburg, PA.  My colleague, Suzanne, and me along with two researchers from PARLO, Nancy and Kathleen.    They plan to have another STEMathon next year, so keep your ears open.  

Here are the slides for our presentation:

PARLO stands for Proficiency based Assessment and Reassessment of Learning Outcomes.  So yes, it's a form of standards based grading (SBG).  But here's where it's more awesome that what many teachers are doing with SBG: it's grading scales is not based on a point system, it is based on student knowledge.

Many teachers using SBG use a 5 or 6 or even 7 point scale, where every outcome or assignment is graded on this scale.  The problem is that teachers need to look at an assignment and determine if it's 5 out of 7, or 4 out of 7, or whatever out of 7, and it's difficult to distinguish a 5 from a 6.  With PARLO there are 3 levels (it is not a 3-point scale).  The three levels are Not Yet Proficient (N), Proficient (P), and High Performance (HP).  From there the PARLO team leaves it up to you.  You can read more about how our district converts all these Ns, Ps, and Hs into a grade here.

FAQs and comments:

Are all your students learning different things at different times?
No.  You would teach class like normal using formative assessment :)  I only allow students to be academically all over the place once in a while on a Flashback day.  Read about those here.

SBG or PARLO isn't real life.  In real life there are deadlines and no second chances.
I beg to differ.  If a students fails a class, they are allowed to repeat it (next year).  But why make them wait an entire year to do so?  Let's have them learn the material right now, not a year from now.   When people are leaning something new outside of school, they are permitted to make a mistake, learn from it, and try again.  I'll use running as an example again.  I keep running the same races every year, because I am a work in progress, sometimes my time is worse, but I learn from those experiences and come out knowing more that before.  How about cooking?  If you mess up a recipe, you can try again.  You get the idea.
SBG has deadlines, not as many as traditional grading, but there are deadlines.  Every time grades are distributed, there is a deadline.  The ultimate deadline, the end of the year.

What about the unmotivated students who are happy with Proficiency?
PARLO is not a magic spell.  It's not going to magically make students motivated.  But I have used peer pressure to help out a little bit.  Here are a few of my strategies to 'motivate' students to become HP.  If there is an interesting activity that corresponds with an outcome I will tell the students we can try it once every student is Proficient.  This works wonders to get everyone Proficient.  I have offered class rewards for a certain amount of HP and/or P.  This year I plan to make the HP leaves for the Proficiency trees a different color that the P leaves.