Monthly Archives: September 2012

Folding big ideas into little origami

I read a blog post by Grant Wiggins today that got me thinking. When I first read the post, I thought it was extremely long-winded, but even still the message resonated with me, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

The gist of his piece is that too much is done in schools without asking the hard questions (or acting on them even if we are asking them).

  • Why are we teaching what we are teaching?
  • Why are we using the methods we are using?
  • Are they the best way?
  • Could they be better?
  • What are my assumptions about my teaching? About my students?
  • What are the unintended consequences of my actions?

Lately I’ve seen this topic repeatedly in blog posts and on Twitter. With its popularity, it seems apropos to question it:

Why are teachers using so many foldables as part of their instruction?

What are they adding to the students’ learning? Do the students understand why they are using these tools? Do they even realize they are tools? What are the unintended consequences of folding big ideas into so many different shapes of origami?

I’m not going to try to answer the question myself, at least not today. And by asking, don’t think I’m against them. I just want to pose the question because I think it’s worth asking. I’m sure folded things have been used in classrooms for decades, but they have seen a spike in popularity in recent years. Beyond being incredibly clever in and of themselves, what good are they doing for student learning? What harm?

How I got where I am today

Source: Brian Stockus

As I mentioned in my first post, I was an elementary school teacher for 8 years. Towards the end of my final year, a friend suggested I apply for a curriculum designer position at the company where I now work. At the same time, my principal offered me a position teaching one subject on a compartmentalized 5th grade team. This may surprise you, but in fact it was a tough decision! Those pesky “real life”, “adult” decisions usually are. Here’s how I got where I am today.

For me it came down to responsibilities. Let’s compare the responsibilities of being a curriculum designer and being a teacher.

Source: Nationaal Archief via Flickr
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Digital Curriculum Designer

  • Research different ways a math concept can be taught, as well as common student misconceptions
  • Analyze state standards related to that math concept
  • Write a math lesson
  • Incorporate others’ feedback after they review my math lesson
  • Simulate teaching my math lesson, followed by incorporating feedback
  • Review the lesson once it’s produced to check for bugs

All of this work has a process and flow that moves from lesson to lesson in fairly predictable ways. Oh, and I get an hour lunch and I can go to the bathroom whenever I want. Really, whenever I want. It’s okay to be jealous.

Elementary School Teacher

  • Teaching my students
    • Presenting lessons
    • Questioning students
    • Adjusting the flow mid-lesson to adapt to my students
    • Dealing with behavior problems that occurred during the lesson
  • Grading assignments
    • Grading the assignment itself – which took varying amounts of time. Multiple choice assignments are much faster to grade than say, reading student stories, grading with a rubric, and writing constructive feedback
    • Recording grades in our computerized gradebook
    • Analyzing student data to figure out who needed more help and/or how to adjust the flow of my instruction moving forward
  • Lesson planning
    • Figuring out which standards/concepts I wanted to teach the following week in several different subject areas – writing, reading, math, science, and social studies
    • Researching materials that I could use as fodder for lessons
    • Deciding if I would use materials wholesale, or modifying materials, or starting from scratch if I couldn’t find anything I liked
    • Making any support materials I needed for the lessons – Powerpoints, transparencies, posters, etc.
    • Photocopying any materials the students would need for the lesson
  • Communicating with others
    • Responding to emails and phone calls from parents, school administrators, other teachers, and district administrators
    • Attending weekly planning meetings with my team
    • Attending scheduled or spur of the moment ARD meetings
    • Attending faculty meetings
  • Miscellaneous
    • Leading a campus committee that met once a month
    • Morning or after school duty as assigned
    • Keeping my classroom clean – filing, putting things away after a lesson
    • Creating attractive bulletin boards to show off student learning
    • Attending professional development workshops, which leads to:
    • Writing sub plans (I don’t miss this one bit)

Hmm, when you break it down like that, it makes a lot of sense why I opted for the curriculum designer position. I basically took one slice of my job as a teacher and made an entire job out of it.

When I was a teacher, I constantly struggled to do it all, and I got burned out. Considering that out of my prescribed 7:30-3:30 workday, I was with children for about 6 hours 15 minutes, I was really only hitting one of my responsibilities for most of the work day – teaching students. Thankfully, I love that part of the job. However, in order to be prepared for such an extended responsibility on a daily basis, I had to cram everything else into the remaining 1 hour 45 minutes (of which 30 minutes was lunch) or I had to find more time.

Source: Brian Stockus

In order to do all the other responsibilities, and try to do them well, I regularly came in early, stayed late, and/or took work home. I know that as a salaried employee (vs. being an hourly employee) I’m not entitled to strict 8 hour work days. By the same token, however, why is it reasonable to expect teachers to work 10-12 hours daily for 9 months of the year, not including any time spent working on the weekends? Shouldn’t weekends be reserved for recharging or bonding with family members?

The sad thing is that I liked it! For me teaching is as much of a hobby as it is a job. Look at me now – it’s the weekend and I’m reading education blogs and writing my own blog post! Maybe I could have spent less of my free time doing teacherly tasks if I was more efficient with my time or if I was willing to cut myself off instead of getting involved in just one more thing in my classroom.

So, it seems like it was a no brainer why I took my current job, but like I said, it was actually a tough decision. Here are the factors that had me consider staying as a teacher. These are also the factors that would influence me to go back to the classroom in the future:

  • School leadership. I had an excellent principal. She was supportive and a problem solver. Instead of blaming my team when students didn’t perform well on a benchmark exam, she sat us down and asked what she could do to help. Campus leadership sets the tone for the school. There’s no getting around it.
  • Focus. I would be able to focus on teaching one subject. I wanted to be good at teaching it all, and I do enjoy teaching every subject, but I just couldn’t be the expert of all of them. If I had the opportunity to plan and teach just one subject, I could invest a lot more energy in high quality lesson planning (vs. some of the seat-of-my-pants planning I used to do).
  • Collaboration. Alternatively, I would be happy coming back if I found the right team of teachers. This is a tricky thing to do however because teaching is a very personal experience as evidence by statements such as, “These are my kids. I’m the only one who knows what they need.” Or “This is the way I understand the material so this is how I’m going to teach it.” I had a team once that met every week and wrote lesson plans together. Beforehand we each took one of the subjects and planned individually. Then we shared the plans during our meeting. So, if I planned reading for the week, I would share my plans, and if someone else planned math, they would share their plans. Then we would talk about the plans and make suggestions about how to make them even better. You were still allowed to personalize for your class, but it gave the entire team common ground. More importantly it distributed the work load so that I only had to focus on the intense planning of one subject each week.

What this says to me is that teaching needs to become less isolated and more collaborative. I thrived when I had others sharing the work load with me. That’s why this whole math blogging/twittering initiative was started and why it has resonated so much with those who are just starting to participate. Instead of feeling alone with your questions about how to teach a particular concept, how to incorporate technology in the classrooms, or how to deal with that student who won’t stop talking, you can share with a community of people in the exact same situations! This builds a lot of creative energy that helps sustain all of you and hopefully makes you more resilient against burning out. The last thing we need are good teachers like all of you becoming another statistic of leaving the classroom.