Monthly Archives: April 2014

Heaven, I’m in Heaven

The other day @mythagon asked me about my take on curriculum writing. I immediately thought, “Awesome! That’s one less blog post topic I have to come up with for #MTBoS30.” Not that coming up with blog post ideas has been that challenging so far, but seeing as this is only post 6 of 30, I may feel differently in a week or two.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking throughout the day of how to write about my take on curriculum writing. I think I’ll start by talking a bit generally about how I feel doing curriculum writing, but I have a feeling I might need to do some follow up posts to fully flesh out my thoughts. (Yay! More blog post ideas I can pull out of my pocket as needed.)

In general, I think curriculum writing is tons of fun. When I first started working at Time To Know, I often described my job as taking everything I did as a teacher, cutting out one small slice of the countless responsibilities I had, and then focusing on just that one slice all day, every day. That alone made it a dream job.

To put the cherry on top, my team at Time To Know loved to argue and debate about pedagogy. One thing that always bothered me as a teacher was that having a strong opinion about pedagogy (which I totally have) often resulted in hurting other people’s feelings more than it did fostering dialogue about how best to serve our students. Not so with my Time To Know team.

I remember the first unit we cracked together was about geometric transformations for 4th grade. (By the way, cracking is what we called unit planning. The goal of our initial planning was to “crack open” the topic to analyze it from different angles.) Over the course of a day and a half, we had numerous heated discussions about how to present the concepts, when to use off-computer activities vs. on-computer activities, what the ultimate goals of the unit should be, etc.

I kept thinking to myself, “I’m in heaven!” I could never have had such engaging, intense discussions with any of the teachers I worked with during my 8 years in the classroom. Well, my friends Paula and Courtney would have been up for it, but that’s about it.

If you stood outside the room listening, you would have thought that by the end of that cracking meeting my team would be ready to go its separate ways, but that wasn’t the case at all. We were all so passionate about developing these lessons that we argued and fought for what we thought was right, but we were also professional enough not to take it personally.

We understood that we were arguing so much because we all had the best interests of students in mind. Once the meeting was over, we walked out of the room, started talking about life outside of work and made dinner plans for that night. None of the tension from the meeting was carried out of the room into our personal relationships.

As a collaborative, pedagogical effort, curriculum writing is extremely satisfying to me. I’m a fairly introverted person in general. I love time to myself to decompress, and I love my husband for understanding that about me. However, there’s something about working collaboratively with a team that I click with that invigorates me so much. If I could find a team like that at a school, then I’d be in heaven yet again.


I Think I Can…I Think I Can…I Think I Can

A side effect of #MTBoS30 is that other folks are also taking part in the challenge, which means there are lots of posts available when I filter by that hashtag. Instead of writing my own post for today, I’ve spent the past hour now reading and commenting on other people’s #MTBoS30 posts.

Oops. Time to get to work.

Speaking of work, I felt like I was drowning in it today. As I mentioned before, I’m leading a team that is converting our grade 4 and 5 curriculum from our old system to our new system. Unsurprisingly, this entails a lot of work. And today, instead of really focusing on getting some of my own work done, I spent most of the day managing all the other people on my team. Here’s what I’ve got on my plate:

  • One writer is writing practice activities that for one reason or another are missing from existing lessons. There aren’t a ton of missing activities, but I do have to review each one before it is sent to production.
  • Two writers are writing a total of about 23 performance tasks across both grade levels. This is brand new content so I review their initial ideas, help them refine them or take them in a completely different direction, and finally I have to review and clean up their storyboards before they go to production.
  • One writer is writing short fluency activities for both grades. Thankfully she picked up on it very quickly so I haven’t had to look over her shoulder very often. Yay!
  •  Two reviewers are going through all the metadata for all 350 lessons to ensure that it’s all up to snuff.
  • A production team is handling the conversions, and they email me regularly to ask questions about how to handle issues that crop up. Some questions have simple answers and some questions, not so much.
  • A review team is about to start doing a pedagogical QA of all the lessons that have been converted. I had to put together a training with my co-worker Meredith, and we delivered the training this afternoon. I learned that in an hour and a half we did not manage to cover close to everything they need to know. I’ll be helping them a lot as they get started and doing a lot of review of their work to provide feedback and assistance as they continue.
  • Oh, and I have my own work. The original unit assessments are being reworked and guess who is in charge of that.
  • Oh, and none of these people live in the same town as me. Actually, come to think of it, none of them are even in this state. Thankfully I’m used to it after working for Time To Know for 3 years. They’re based out of Israel.

So on one hand, I’m thrilled to have so many hands on deck helping accomplish this Herculean task. On the other, it’s putting my management skills to the test prioritizing the work and staying on top of what everyone is doing. As it turns out, I like being challenged, and I like seeing all these pieces and parts that are made separately coming together to make something much larger than one person’s contribution. Now I’ll just cross my fingers and hope we can meet our deadline.


My Day In Court

I’m getting home late from hanging out with friends, and I’d love to just skip my blog post for today…but I accepted a blogging challenge, and I’m not ready to fail at it so soon.

So today has been an interesting day.

It started out mundane enough. I spent all morning reviewing a performance task written by someone on my team. The first few ideas she had had were duds, but she finally got an inspired idea and I told her run with it. All in all I’m pretty happy with how it came out.

Then I had to go to court.

*dramatic pause*

My husband and I are foster parents, and today was a court hearing for our current foster placement, a 2 year old girl. We’ve had her for 6 months now, and as a foster-to-adopt home, we would be thrilled to adopt her. She is amazing and I love her.

Unfortunately, foster care cases tend to be pretty complicated, and they don’t always have the happiest of endings. I was anxious all morning waiting for the court hearing because of the nagging fear that the judge could suddenly decide to remove our foster daughter from our home to place her with mom, dad, a relative, anyone but us.

No one involved in the case even hinted that a change in placement was going to occur today, but that didn’t stop me from worrying. After having a baby we brought home from the hospital (our second foster placement) taken away after 5 months, I’m not at all looking forward to experiencing that grief again.

When I became a foster parent, I naively thought that my 8 years of experience of saying good-bye at the end of each school year to my students I’d spent all year bonding with would prepare me to say good-bye to a foster child. I was absolutely, completely, and utterly wrong.

So, the court hearing is over, and our foster daughter is still with us, but the case is murky and it doesn’t really feel like a win. It’s just another step on the crazy path of a CPS case. Don’t get me wrong, I am relieved that an adorable 2 year old is sleeping in the other room right now, but I yearn for the day this case is finally resolved (preferably in our favor).

To top off the day, I had a most interesting experience driving to the grocery store tonight. As I drove through an intersection, I was annoyed because the car in front of me was driving much slower than everyone else. I happened to see something as I was looking at her car, and I thought to myself, I must be wrong.

When the opportunity presented itself, I moved to the other lane and made sure to get a good look as I passed her car. I could not believe my eyes! This driver was driving on a 45 mph road with a hardcover novel propped up against her steering wheel so she could read while driving!!!

I ended up in front of her, and I checked in my rear view mirror periodically to see her still going slowly down the road, meandering along, not doing the best job of staying in her lane.

I was just floored. I’ve seen folks do that in heavy congestion when traffic isn’t moving at all or only creeping forward, but never in regular traffic like that. A friend told me I should have called it in, and it did occur to me a little too late that I totally should have written down her license plate number and called the cops. Hopefully someone else was more thoughtful than me, and hopefully she made it to her destination safely.


What Starts as a Comment and Ends as a Blog Post

Last night I read a post from @sophgermain asking “why your internet activity is anonymous (if it is) and why that is.” At first I started writing a comment on her blog post. Four paragraphs in, I realized I had a lot to say on the matter. So instead of posting my comment, I opted to turn it into today’s #MTBoS30 blog post.

I joined the MathTwitterBlogoSphere almost two years ago. Dan Meyer posted on his blog to recruit new folks into the fold, and I decided to take the plunge. There was even a nifty website to help new members start blogging and using Twitter. (I couldn’t have joined a more helpful and welcoming community, by the way. Who else sets up  a website to get like-minded folks to join them online?) One piece of advice that I followed was using my real name so that people could know they were connecting with a real person.

So from the start, I technically didn’t keep myself anonymous. However, I did find myself avoiding talking about my job. I wasn’t keeping it a secret by any means, but I was still hesitant to bring it up.

I joined the MTBoS because I missed teaching and I wanted to reconnect with folks in the classroom. At the time, I had been out of the classroom for over three years, and I missed working with students. (I still miss working with students!) Maybe I hoped I could live vicariously through the folks I followed online? I can’t say that following blogs and Twitter has quite filled the void of working with students, but it has been incredible to connect with so many talented people.

Since I do work for an educational publisher, I was worried about talking about my job or the curriculum I write because I didn’t want these awesome people to think I was hanging around to hock a product. Considering how much I personally dislike most salespeople, the last thing I wanted was for people to think I was trying to be one!

I also wanted to do something that was for me. The work I do writing curriculum doesn’t belong to me. Sure, it’s something teachers and students use, and I do enjoy the challenge of designing lessons, but at the end of the day, the lessons I write are a product that belongs to a company, not to me.

So, moving forward, I am going to try to be more well rounded in what I write/talk about, which means talking more about my job and the work I do. I may even talk some about the curriculum I work on, but don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell it to you. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen how powerful it has been for teachers to reflect on their practice, and I want to see what insights I can gain reflecting more openly about mine.


Learning On My Own

Since I’ve been out of the classroom, I’ve been on my own to seek out professional development. As a classroom teacher, I had numerous district-mandated PD sessions before school started every year, not to mention in-service days throughout the school year. My district also offered summer PD for a couple of weeks every July, and because I’m a big nerd when it comes to learning more about teaching, I always took advantage of what they offered me.

Nowadays I don’t have a district planning and offering PD to me on a regular basis, so I have to do a bit more legwork to make it happen. However, the benefit is that I tend to seek out and find things I’m personally interested in rather than doing something dictated by my district or principal. (Not that I disliked what they offered, mind you, but there is something be said for making your own PD choices.)

Last year, for example, I took @joboaler’s online course How To Learn Math. Considering I have 8 years of experience teaching math, I felt silly telling my co-workers that I was taking a course with that title. However, the course was fantastic and I’m glad I took part. As a foster parent, it was particularly beneficial because it helped me think more about how I’m talking math with a kiddo every single day and how different that is from talking math with a class of students for about 60 minutes per day, 5 days per week, for only 36 weeks a year.

Right now I’m taking a course called Teaching Middle School Math with Sketchpad. I was kind of hoping to take the elementary school version of the course because I have an elementary school teaching background, but unfortunately there weren’t enough people signed up for that course to make. I’m actually happy I’m taking the middle school version because I think the elementary one would have been too much reaffirming of things I already know, whereas the middle school course is making me re-examine content that I took in school but I haven’t personally taught to kids.

Basically, I get to learn all the cool ways to teach these concepts and feel jealous that way back when I was in middle school, I was taught a very traditional approach where everything was step-by-step with little to no exploration. I won’t go so far as to say kids have it easy these days, but they sure do have a lot of tools available to make it interesting work!

In addition to learning how Sketchpad can help students explore math concepts in interactive, visual ways, I’m also learning how to apply it to my job. As I mentioned yesterday, I’m leading a team that is converting grade 4 and 5 curriculum into our new Digital Teaching Platform. Unfortunately, as part of the upgrade to the new platform, we did change some functionality, and I have had to periodically do some problem solving to ensure that lessons aren’t adversely affected.

Sketchpad can’t solve all of my problems, but it has come in handy already. For example, in a lesson on multiplying by 10 and 100, the original lesson included two Excel spreadsheets that acted as calculation machines. Students could use a slider to change the first factor while the second was locked at 10 or 100. They explored changing the first factor and watching what happened to the product. In our new DTP, we don’t want to have to send students out to a program like Excel, so I had to think of a way to recreate these calculating machines in another way.

We just so happen to have an applet in our content generation studio that lets us embed interactive sketches within lesson screens. What perfect timing that I’m in the middle of this 6-week Sketchpad course! I’m no pro at Sketchpad, but I was pretty proud of myself that in about 15 minutes I was able to create a sketch that exactly mimics the functionality of the Excel file from the original lesson.

Well, that’s a lie. It was more like 30 minutes. I encountered a problem with the slider I made. Despite everything *looking* like it worked, the value of the first factor multiplied by 10 or 100 was not giving me the correct product. (I can only imagine the conclusions students would draw if they used this version of my sketch.) To make a long story short, and because it really is hard to explain with no pictures, I called my co-worker Meredith and together we brainstormed and figured out that Sketchpad has an ability to truncate values which solved my problem. Yay!

I’m not sure I’ll have the time to become a Sketchpad expert, but I am happy to have it in my toolbox now. As new design challenges arise in my job, even if I can’t personally make something I want, I’m learning enough about the program to know if it could provide the right solution and to be able to talk to an expert to get it made.



I started this post by writing about how I felt bad that I haven’t written on this blog in a while. Then I remembered that I hate posts like that. My blog is here anytime I need it, and with everything else going on in my life the past few months, I just didn’t need it that much.

Now I do.

And thanks to @sophgermain starting a 30 day blogging challenge, I got the motivation to get going again. I’m not sure if I’ll succeed at #MTBoS30, but the idea was motivating enough to get me blogging tonight.

One thing I’d like to blog more about over the next 30 days is the job I do. I’ve written a little bit about my job since starting this blog, but for various reasons I always tried to keep my MathTwitterBlogoSphere life separate from my curriculum development life. I’m not entirely sure why, but now I’d like to change that. I see a lot of teachers benefiting from reflecting on their teaching on a regular basis (sometimes daily!), and I hope that I can gain my own insights by reflecting more directly on my work. I also hope it can give a small window into the world of curriculum design for those who are unfamiliar.

So for anyone stumbling on my blog today: Hello! My name is Brian and I am a senior content developer at McGraw-Hill Education. I work on a team developing the t2k math curriculum. I’ve been with MHE for a year and some change, but I actually started working on this curriculum back in 2009 as an employee of a company called Time To Know.

Looking back over the past 5 years, it’s hard to believe that when I started this job, iPads didn’t even exist! The educational landscape has changed so much in such a short amount of time. I remember my last year in the classroom, our school was just getting SMART boards. I never got one in my classroom *frown*, but I was over the moon with my document camera. That thing was amazing!

The reason I mention iPads specifically is because back in 2009 our curriculum was developed in Flash, and that really shot us in the foot when tablets started flooding the market. Over the past couple of years, Time To Know has rebuilt their entire Digital Teaching Platform so that it works on multiple devices – quite an impressive feat.

Now that they have completed their big task, I have the daunting task of leading a team converting our entire grade 4 and 5 curriculum into this new system. It’s quite an undertaking, but at the same time, it’s like visiting an old friend. When I first started at Time To Know, the math team was about halfway through writing grade 4, and grade 5 was the first full year of curriculum I helped write.

In some ways it’s exciting to see these lessons again, and in other ways there’s that awkwardness of revisiting pedagogical decisions I made just as I was starting the job. While the lessons have gone through some upgrades since I first wrote them, I can’t help but think of ways I want to make them even better.