Sunday, April 24, 2016

Learning to Trust the Core: My Weekend with the #CoreAdvocates

I feel very fortunate to have spent the weekend with some amazing math educators from all over my state, digging into the Common Core State Standards. Even though the standards are in their sixth year and we've certainly seen a shift in many classrooms towards a new way of teaching, I think we've all seen that the kinks definitely aren't worked out and there are lots of people who are still reluctant. In all honesty, who could blame them? When you've been doing something for a long time in a particular way (not to mention being a student who learned a particular way), it's difficult to feel like you're being asked to reinvent the wheel. When a huge part of your evaluation is based on a multiple choice test, hard choices sometimes get made. You hope you're doing what's best for kids and try to trust your own professional judgement. 

[Brief aside: I feel so lucky to have taken the path I did to education. My graduate advisor, Dr. Jean Schmittau, was someone who was truly ahead of her time. She advocated for conceptual, student-centered teaching for decades before the words "Common Core" were ever utter together and truly pushed her students to think deeply about mathematics and pedagogy. Let's put it this of our assignments was to make a concept map that showed the concept of multiplication and it's relation to the body of mathematics as a whole. I had to go to Kinko's to get mine printed because it was roughly 5 feet wide. We spent almost a month of 3 hour classes trying to answer the question "What is multiplication?" and often we were given another week to think about it because a room full of people with pure mathematics degrees didn't answer her well enough.  She and the wonderful members of my cohort shaped me into a teacher who is always seeking to improve and challenge myself and my students. I was reminded of her in so many ways this weekend. ]

We opened the weekend with this big question:

Why are we here? 

Pretty existential, right? We were challenged to examine that question from 3 different perspectives and I couldn't think of a better way to share all that's swirling around my brain right now.

Why are we HERE? 
There is something so valuable for a teacher's soul when they are able to congregate with like-minded people in a neutral site. You are able to immerse yourself in a world that centers around what you're studying and have discussions that might be difficult in a place you are too "comfortable." It may seem small, but I think it's a huge part of what makes conferences so powerful.

Why are WE here? 
 A topic that came up over and over again this weekend was the idea that teachers need to "own the standards." It's a picture that I think holds a lot of power in education. If we truly "own" what we are teaching and examine it as practitioners, we will be cognizant of how these standards connect with the conceptual structures our students have created in their schooling. A huge part of this is creating teacher leaders and I was happy to be in a room full of them. I honestly believe that these people are the key to any real change- teacher leaders need to buy in to it and model that these changes can be effective. Ideas that teacher leaders can demonstrate are good for kids (and good for teachers) are the ones that spread like wild fire. 

One aspect that we discussed was the idea of thinking critically about our own instruction and that of our colleagues. My biggest concern about doing this as a department is always that people will feel they are begin "evaluated" if the proper level of trust isn't established beforehand. Teaching is so deeply personal and it takes trust in your peers to allow them into your room to reflect on both your teaching and their own. But what if you do? The trust, collaborative spirit, and sharing of ideas that could happen is almost unfathomable and contrary to the isolationism of teaching in the past. It's using the 21st century skills we ask our students to have every day.

One of the things I'm taking away from the weekend that I felt most passionate about was a really powerful tool to help start these conversations among mathematics coaches, administrators, and peers. 

This tool provides feedback on what I would consider the 3 most important aspects of any lesson: alignment to standards, appropriate selection of instructional strategies, and student opportunities to engage with the mathematics. Digestible language, jumping off points for conversations, and no wording that rings of "judgement" of the We discussed using it as a goal setting tool in our PLC's and as a tool to start to generate trust among a department. It's something I'm carrying with me as I continue to pursue teacher leadership in mathematics.

WHY are we here? 
I consider myself someone who is pretty well versed in the Common Core, as my master's
centered around conceptual teaching and I completed it right before the Common Core was implemented. We used the standards as our textbook. I've got to be on the savvy-iest end of things, right?
WRONG! But let's be honest, I didn't know what I didn't know.
The picture here rings so true to me....we examined the standards as a whole, not just our own grade level. And more importantly, we examined them from a perspective of 2 of the 3 major shifts- Focus and Coherence.  So often as teachers we are focused on the "checklist" of topics we need to teach, the day by day "calendar" we've created, and not looking at what's happening outside our own course. For this weekend, I hit "pause" on my high school teacher mentality and tried to examine the standards from a mathematics educator perspective. 

Here's my biggest takeaway from this weekend:

We need to learn to trust the standards. 

The key word I've started to imagine with the regards to the standards is this: design.  These were written, revised, and critiqued by people who have spent their careers immersed in mathematics education. These were designed intentionally to create a cohesive understanding of mathematics that balances conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and applications.  They are saying this: "Trust me. There is a method to my madness." These were my "ah-ha" moments: 
  •  Situation: A 3rd grade teacher who is introducing multiplication teaches how to "carry" because it makes it so much easier for students to multiply big numbers!
    • Explanation: This teacher is trying to do right by their students. They are trying to give them a strategy that will always work. However, in doing so, they're neglecting the coherence that is built in the standards to really develop students' conceptual understanding of multiplication so they can apply it later. Fluency with the standard algorithm for multiplication isn't expected for 2 more years (5.NBT) and if we introduce a "trick" like this too early it can actually be a detriment to the understanding our students are building. 
  • Situation: A teacher is so used to teaching surface area in 7th grade that they continue to teach it. It's in the textbook, right?
    • Explanation: The core of the major work in elementary school is focused on developing students' understanding of number and operation. Geometry can be a tool to do that, but it is regularly listed as a supporting standard. This doesn't mean it should be ignored; it just means it can be used as a lens through which you can refer back to the major topics. It isn't until 8th grade that a geometric topic is considered part of the "major work" and with good reason- the lower grades are trying to go deeper into content. As we advance in the grades, we can have a wider focus. Surface area formulas are not specifically memorized in any grade because it lacks the conceptual basis that the Common Core demands. Just because it's in our textbook doesn't mean it needs to be our focus.
  • Situation: High school teachers have always heard that there is supposed to be "less content" in the Common Core, but our courses seem to be even more jam packed.
    •  Explanation: The high school standards were not written to decrease the amount students learn each year. This was never their intention. By focusing on fluency in the younger grades, high school is able to become a time where concepts are connected. Mathematics is a story and high school is the time when we weave together all of the plot points.
These standards were not written arbitrarily. They have a plan and every teacher has a role to fill to make sure students are getting the most from the instructional shifts. We need to see ourselves as part a whole; we are a K-12 team that is created to support the success of each individual student. Synergy, synergy, synergy.

This is by no means comprehensive of all the things I'm leaving this weekend having learned, but it's certainly where my mind is focused right now. I feel so inspired to keep learning and leading and I'm grateful I was able to be explore so much this weekend!

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