Monthly Archives: May 2014

Pondering Teachers as Curriculum Designers

A few weeks ago I posed the following question:

Is it the job of teachers to design their own curriculum?

I only had one taker, @Mr_Kunkel. Here’s what he had to say:

If there was just one really good curriculum I would say sure. There isn’t. The problem with mass marketed curriculum is that it never meets the diverse needs of all classrooms. I have never found a textbook that was great. They all try too hard to do too much.

I think the power of what we do here on the interwebs, the MTBoS, is that we crowd source the curriculum. We are all capable of coming up with some good lessons. I think the curriculum of the future will be a good indexing of all these lessons that teachers are creating. Some how it would be great to combine them and track them by CCSS. Some people are trying that using their virtual filing cabinets. Actually, a really good virtual filling cabinet would be my ideal curriculum. Forget the books.

I knew I wanted to revisit this topic, but every day I kept putting it off, mostly because I’m still not entirely sure what my own answer is to the question.

While I kept pondering, some of the folks I follow on Twitter serendipitously took up this topic a few days ago. Here’s what they had to say:




And then today I came across (and participated in) this conversation that hit on the issue from a slightly different angle:




It’s nice to see others struggle with some of the same things I do with regards to this issue.

It seems clear that curriculum materials are wanted and needed, whether they are written by publishers or other educators. Many consider them a valuable resource. As @crstn85 points out, “a good book has logical order/units.” Someone has laid the groundwork for the teachers. They’re not starting completely from scratch.

We then get into the gray area of the “implemented curriculum” as @mpershan puts it. What is changing from the written curriculum as the teachers prepare their lesson plans and teach the lesson to their students?

From what I’ve read, the teachers I follow on Twitter couldn’t fathom using curriculum materials as they are written. I don’t disagree with them, but I am curious how many teachers do put full faith in their curriculum materials and use them verbatim. I also wonder if any districts require this.

I’m reminded of Response to Intervention. One of its key tenets is fidelity of instruction. If you have fidelity then it means teachers are “consistently and accurately applying a research-based curriculum.” One implication of this is that teachers need to avoid contamination or pollution, meaning they don’t pull together materials from a variety of instructional resources. In order for RtI to succeed, teachers need to get with the program and stick with the program.

I’d like to add a second question that is of particular interest to me, how much effort is it taking for teachers, individually and collectively, to adapt the materials they are using? As I wrote in the second Twitter discussion, I feel that numerous wheels are being reinvented in numerous classrooms across the country. I felt this within my own school district. No need to even think about the rest of the state or country.

For example, I taught 4th grade in Texas. This is one of the two years that students learn Texas history. The other year is 7th grade. This is important to note because most of the instructional and resource materials available outside of our state-adopted textbook were often written for 7th graders, not 4th graders.

The teachers across my district all had the same social studies standards, and yet each 4th grade team in each school was reinventing the wheel on a weekly basis designing lessons to teach those standards. When I would talk to these teachers at trainings, I would hear about the different types of lessons going on in different schools. It frustrated me because it felt really inefficient that we were planning in such isolation.

My last district had 33 schools. It seems ludicrous to think that the 4th grade teams across the district were creating 33 campus-specific lesson plans for teaching the exact same social studies standards. And I can assure you that these lesson plans were across the spectrum in terms of quality.

Now extend this idea to the entire state of Texas. We have roughly 4,000 elementary schools in this state. Assuming that all of the teachers on a given 4th grade team plan together, which I can guarantee you they don’t, that means there are potentially 4,000 or more different lesson plans being written each week to teach the exact same social studies standards.

Let’s say it takes 1 hour to plan a week’s worth of social studies lessons. That means 4,000 man hours are being spent each week to cover the same standards. A school year’s worth (36 weeks) of lesson plans at one school may be 36 hours of work, but with everyone reinventing the wheel at their own campus, this jumps to 144,000 man hours. That’s a huge jump!

I know I’m making some assumptions here, and my numbers are not precise, but that doesn’t change the fact that when a lot of people duplicate effort like this, it adds up. My motto as a teacher, which I was able to live up to with varying degrees of success, was work smarter, not harder. This redundant time spent lesson planning sounds very much like the latter.

One idea that comes to mind to save time is to do what @j_lanier recommends: put together a crack team of great teachers together, give them time to write, and you will get great instructional materials. Districts have done this. Even the state of Texas has done this. And it has failed.

The state of Texas failed pretty spectacularly in fact. Several years ago, districts across the state started adopting a program called CSCOPE. The idea was to give teachers sets of exemplar lessons for teaching all of their content. However, it was also meant to become a bank of lessons. I’m not sure of the logistics, but the idea was that as other wonderful lessons were written, they could be added to the CSCOPE library. Teachers could then pick and choose which great lesson to use in their classroom.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the program never materialized. There was no choice, just the one set of lessons. Teachers were handed their CSCOPE curriculum, and they were told to teach it the way it was written. These were well written lessons, so why change them? This backfired big time, and in 2013 CSCOPE was eliminated.

So the state level may not be the best place to create and distribute quality lessons. Maybe it should be done district by district? Making 1,000 sets of lesson plans sounds like a lot (this is about how many school districts there are in Texas), but it’s significantly better than the 4,000 sets I was describing earlier. The benefit here is that districts can tailor the lessons a bit more to the needs of their population of students.

At this point I can really only speak to my experience, but I have seen this backfire as well. As I said, my last school district only had 33 elementary schools, a far, far cry from 4,000. The district provided scope and sequences and lesson plans for all subjects, and yet teachers were still resistant to using them. The instructional materials still felt like they were coming from “on high” and didn’t reflect the realities within our own classrooms, even though the people who wrote the materials were skilled teachers from our own district.

So I guess we’re back to the idea of writing lessons plans school by school and teacher by teacher. And then what it comes down to is the amount of time each teacher has to gather materials (textbooks, workbooks, lesson plans found on blogs, etc.), review those materials, and craft lesson plans that meet the needs of their students. And we all know how much free time teachers have to do this.

And it’s not just about time actually. It’s also about how resourceful the teacher is in locating quality materials and how strong the teacher is at making important pedagogical decisions when picking and choosing and tying it all together. This definitely leads to variability in the quality of the resulting lessons. Which leads us back to wondering if teachers really should be curriculum designers.

And maybe there just isn’t a right answer to this question. I feel like I’ve talked in circles and I’m no closer to having a clear idea of what I think the answer is. If you’ve made it this far in my post, thank you for following me down the rabbit hole. The great thing about having this blog is that I can revisit topics again. This is clearly a topic that demands more attention, and maybe next time I’ll be one or two steps closer to an answer.


Public Relations Advice on the Common Core Debate

The other day I wrote about the public relations problem facing the Common Core math standards. Posts from frustrated parents have been popping up on Facebook and Twitter for months claiming to show “Common Core” worksheets that are so confusing an electrical engineer or doctor can’t even figure it out.

Teachers have been valiantly, and sometimes argumentatively, trying to defend the ways in which math education has evolved since these parents were students in elementary school. Where once the focus was on direct teach, a limited set of algorithms, and countless repetition, now the focus is on developing number sense, strategic thinking, and broader reasoning skills.

While teachers have a lot of education research to back up their teaching methods, parents have their children to worry about, and they are scared that the instructional changes brought about by Common Core are going to be detrimental to their children’s learning. And this brings us to the PR problem facing the Common Core math standards.

Frustrated, scared, and angry parents have waged a battle in social media to bring attention to their concerns and scare other parents into action. At the same time, this serves to discredit the experience and expertise of teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, when the issue boils down to pedagogy vs. children, the human element is more compelling. A parent scared for his child’s education is going to foster more sympathy than a teacher arguing the merits of modern math instruction.

I’ve been wondering what can be done to “fix” this problem, so I chatted with a friend of mine who works in public relations. This topic was admittedly outside her normal scope of work, but she raised a few interesting strategies that I want to share here.

A Singular Message

One of the most effective ways to wage a PR campaign is to have a singular message that is used by everyone involved. I feel that the frustrated parents have been successful with this. Their message is simply: “Common Core math instruction is so confusing, intelligent adults can’t make sense of it, much less our children.” Sure there is a lot wrong with this message, but the fact that it is repeated over and over gives it power, and that matters more than the truth of the statement.

My concern is that educators are too fragmented to develop and deliver their own singular message. We have some arguing with parents about how math education has changed in the past 20-30 years. We have others saying that the parents don’t know what they are talking about and should trust the teachers to do their job. We even have teachers who, for various reasons, are saying that they aren’t fans of the Common Core standards either.

Our message is fragmented and too varied to be as effective as the one put forth by the parents. How do we change that?

An Important Voice

My friend recommended finding someone who can serve as a respected “voice” in education. Someone whose words shine a spotlight and draw attention to issues. They may not create converts immediately of course. However, where we fail as many voices, we might find success by choosing the right person (or several people) to deliver an equally strong message as the one used by the parents, one that is supportive of the modern methods of teaching math in schools today.

I’m not sure who this person should be. I’m afraid that the Common Core standards are very much politicized, so having a politician be the voice would backfire. Honestly, the first two names that come to mind are Bill Gates and Sal Khan. I have my doubts that they would want to give the kind of message that is needed, but I can’t deny they are the kinds of people that these parents might stop and listen to.

A Parallel Message

I spoke about this a bit in my previous post. Whatever message is used to counter the frustrated parents, it cannot be worded so that it is against those parents and their viewpoints. Having an “us vs. them” dynamic is not going to help educators reach the outcome they want.

The message needs to be a parallel message. If parents have the space to share their views on how terrible Common Core math is, educators need to also have the space to share their vision of how math is being taught today and what benefits it has for children.


Long essays on the merits of today’s math pedagogy are not going to win over these parents. First of all, a lot of this writing is ending up in education websites and magazines that parents won’t see in the first place. Secondly, you want to keep your message simple to connect with as many people as possible.

My friend said one thing that might help is some kind of infographic(s) that illustrate the hows and whys of math education today. They need to be published in mainstream outlets so that the general public sees them frequently.

One of the biggest issues with the criticisms by the frustrated parents is that they are based in ignorance. Ignorance of what is going on in the classroom today, and ignorance because that’s how they feel when they are confused by an assignment and it is making them doubt their own math knowledge.

These parents are basing their arguments on how they learned math as kids many years ago. They are not aware of all the research that has been done to help improve teaching methods. So they cherry pick certain math topics, often whole number computation, and construct a narrative that teachers are making these “simple” skills way more complex than they need to be.

However, there are many, many adults who would be quick to tell you they are “bad” at math. If they aren’t confident in their own math skills beyond multi-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, and possibly division, then what makes them think their math education was so amazing all those years ago? Shouldn’t they want their children to grow up to feel “good” at math?

Finding simple ways to illustrate and educate these parents will go a long way towards warming them up to what is going in schools and the benefits it can have for their children. And they have to see these things countless times. In addition to having a clear, consistent message it is crucial to have that message get out there as often as possible. A drop or five in the bucket won’t solve the problem. It’s going to take lots and lots of drops in the bucket.

One example that I’ve seen shared over and over by @trianglemancsd is 1,001 – 2. It’s a problem that can be solved using traditional methods, but it highlights why we encourage students today to think more critically about what they are doing. Why go to the effort of writing this problem down and crossing out all those zeroes? Just count back 2 and you’re done. I’ve seen a similar idea presented with 100 – 98.

Or better yet, contextualize it. Your favorite basketball team is currently leading 52 to 48. How many more points does the other team need to catch up? Oh, you counted up from 48 to 52. Interesting. Why didn’t you line up the numbers and subtract like you were taught?

I wonder if there is an effective way to present these kinds of problems visually to get parents to think first, and then give them an a-ha. Maybe a simple mental math solution and some tagline like, “There’s always more than one way to approach a problem.”

I would love to have some TV commercials that present a problem and then show various students solving the exact same problem using different strategy after different strategy. And again, end with a tagline that highlights this idea of the diversity in ways of thinking about math. This is what we’re trying to foster in our children. It’s also something they do naturally.

So there you have it. Advice from someone who works in PR about how we can try to overcome the bad publicity dogging the Common Core math standards.

Anyone out there want to take this and make it happen? Summer is starting so you have the next 3 months where parents may not be worrying about this issue quite as much. Use this time wisely and you can be ready on the first day of school next year to kick off your own PR campaign to inform and influence the parents at least in your own school if not farther afield.


Brian and the Case of the Missing Receipt

Memory is a fickle thing. Mine about drove me crazy tonight.

A few weeks ago, I took our VW Rabbit in for routine maintenance. An unfortunate side effect of this was that our car stereo wouldn’t turn on anymore. The mechanic said he couldn’t fix it because it was installed by someone else and he didn’t have the necessary tools.

Back in January we had the car stereo replaced at Best Buy. I called them up and made a reservation to have the stereo checked out. (On a side note, they didn’t have any appointments for a week. A week! It was very sad driving my car in silence for that long.) When I arrived at Best Buy, the guy at the counter asked if I had the receipt to show that they had installed the stereo.

I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, it’s in the computer bag.” I went out to the car, opened the trunk, and started digging around in my computer bag, but the receipt was nowhere to be found. This had me puzzled because I was sure that’s where it would have been because I brought my computer bag with me last time and stuffed the receipt in one of the pockets in the bag.

Since the receipt was clearly not in my computer bag, I thought maybe I had put it in my glove box. That’s where I normally store receipts after work has been done on the car. That way if I ever have to go back to the mechanic, I know all of my receipts are right there.

No dice. The receipt wasn’t in the glove box either. Now I was stumped. I even looked in the pockets on the side of the car doors, but still no receipt.

Thankfully the guy at Best Buy still had a copy of my receipt in his files. He told me they destroy them after 6 months so he suggested I track it down when I get home. I told him I would. I figured I must have emptied my computer bag at some point in the past several months, and I just needed to look through my papers at home.

Of course I forgot to look when I got home, and I probably wouldn’t have ever looked for the receipt again except our check engine light came on a few days after the car stereo was fixed. So we took the car back to the mechanic, and surprise, surprise, the car stereo stopped working again. Someone suggested there might be an anti-theft device in the car stereo that shuts it down if it somehow gets a message that it might be stolen. We’re hoping that can be turned off because this is a pattern I do not want to repeat every time the car is worked on.

I called Best Buy again and made another reservation to bring the car in. Of course we had to wait another week for an opening.  At this point I’ve taken to playing music through my iPhone speakers while I drive. It’s crappy, but it’s better than nothing.

The reservation is tomorrow, and of course I procrastinated, so this evening I started my search for the Best Buy receipt. I remembered that at some point I had emptied the pockets in my computer bag and put some of the papers on a bookshelf in our bedroom. I went through the papers, but then I realized that they were from last November when I was getting ready to go on a business trip. I didn’t want to lug around papers I wasn’t going to need so I had taken them out of the computer bag. Since the car stereo was replaced in January, there was no way the receipt could be there.

My next stop was the desk in our kitchen. This is where I should point out that I hate filing. Instead of being a filer, I’m a piler. I have a place where I make my piles, and I know that that’s my go-to place for important papers. Making a pile requires almost no effort on my part, and in the rare event that I actually need something from the pile, it only takes a few minutes to flip through and find what I need.

I grabbed the pile on my desk and started going through it. I assumed at some point I must have added the receipt to my pile, but again, it wasn’t there. And again, I had the nagging feeling that the receipt should be in my computer bag. So, I went to my office, dug around in the computer bag, and came across a Best Buy receipt!!!!

Oh wait, false alarm. It was the receipt from when I had the stereo checked out a couple of weeks ago. D’oh.

I went through every pocket in the bag, wondering why I was so sure the receipt was in my computer bag, when it clearly was not in my computer bag. I even decided to go through my desk pile again to see if I had somehow missed it.

At this point I was extremely frustrated. I may not be super organized, but I am consistent. I don’t randomly throw things away and I don’t randomly put things down in our house. I have a place for important papers, and that is where it should have been.

I sat down at my computer desk and noticed some papers on the floor next to my computer. At this point I was desperate, so I flipped through a few of those. Then I moved the laptop bag I got for free with my laptop off to the side to look under it. I dug my hands in the pockets as I was moving it, and lo and behold, I felt paper! It was my Best Buy receipt! For real this time!

All of a sudden, it came flooding back to me. When I went to have the stereo installed, I didn’t want to bring my normal computer bag because it’s large and bulky. I knew I was going to walk over to Panera from Best Buy and I wanted something light and compact to carry so I threw my computer into the free, small laptop bag I got with my laptop. When my car was ready, I stuck the receipt in the pocket of the laptop bag, the same thing I would have done if I had brought my regular computer bag, and I came home. Unfortunately, when I took my computer out of that bag, I neglected to take out the receipt.

I felt a huge sense of relief for finding the receipt, but I also felt oddly validated. From the moment I was asked for the receipt a few weeks ago, I KNEW it was in my computer bag. Unfortunately, my memory assumed I meant my usual computer bag, not this other laptop bag that I used one time 5 months ago. So on one hand, I’m happy that my memory was strong enough to know where the receipt should have been this whole time, but I also wish the level of detail involved could have been a tad higher. Then I wouldn’t have wasted most of my night digging around my house in frustration. Thankfully I’m not one of those people who trashes their house when they’re frantically searching for something.


A Tale of Two Districts (a.k.a. The Hour I Can’t Get Back)

Today I participated in a webinar put on by Education Week called “A Tale of Two Districts: Making Curricular Decisions for the Common Core”. You can watch the webinar yourself right now if you’d like, or you can just download the PowerPoint presentation. Here’s the description of the webinar from their web site:

Two districts on opposite sides of the country faced the same problem: They needed new common-core curricula. They solved that problem in very different ways. The Orange County, Fla., district scoured the marketplace and found sets of materials from a major publisher that it believes meets its needs. The Long Beach, Calif., disenchanted with publishers’ offerings and short on money, wrote its own materials. Join leaders from each district’s curriculum-and-instruction office as they discuss their different pathways to common-core curriculum.

I guess I was hoping for a bit more from the webinar, something that was pertinent to curricular decisions regarding the Common Core standards. However, I can’t say that anything I heard today was particularly novel or eye opening.

Let me summarize this tale for you. One district, Orange County Public Schools, decided to be more thoughtful in how they selected textbook materials. Instead of letting just any teacher help review materials, they made teachers apply to join the review committee. Candidates had to meet minimum requirements like showing growth from year to year in student tests scores. They also needed to have taught for at least 3 years.

The district made a lengthy rubric for the teachers to use as they evaluated various textbook materials. Exciting in theory, but the multi-page rubric made me think that serving on this textbook review committee would be a tad tedious for me. In the end, I’m not sure what any of this has to do with Common Core specifically, but I guess I appreciate that Common Core got them to add more rigor to their review process.

The last thing they did that stood out was put a focus on digital components. Again, I don’t see how that’s particularly a Common Core issue. Sure, the market for digital products has grown parallel to Common Core, but I don’t feel that one has necessarily driven the other.

The other district we heard from, Long Beach Unified School District, went a different route. They created their own Common Core-aligned curriculum materials. (Here is math and here is ELA.) However, the reason they did it is not as sexy or rebellious as it sounds. It turns out that in California the next adoption cycle for ELA materials isn’t until 2015, and the next cycle for math isn’t until 2016. They had the option to purchase some supplemental bridge materials, but they didn’t think that was sufficient or worth the money. Instead, they decided to create their own curriculum materials rather than wait a few years to buy them.

I’m not knocking the time and effort that it probably took to make the materials. In fact, it sounds like it was a great learning experience for them, and they feel that teacher buy-in with the materials has been high. They attribute it to the fact that the materials were made by a select group of their own teachers. I hope that that’s true and not just an anecdote from one school in the district.

It sounds like teachers in this district can choose whether they use the district-made materials, but after hearing more from the speaker, I can imagine most teachers only find this to be the illusion of choice. For each district-made unit, there are a set of goals outlined at the beginning. Regardless of which instructional materials you use, you have to teach towards those goals. The reason for this is because all teachers must use the same district-created assessment materials at the end of each unit. The speaker did mention that they have collected teacher feedback, and they are going to revise the curriculum materials. I wish she could have gone into that more. I’d love to know more about what worked, what didn’t, and how teachers felt about it.

Teacher buy-in is a tough nut to crack. Teachers are obviously over worked, so it makes sense that they can’t all make their own curriculum materials, at least not in the quantity required for an entire year’s worth of teaching. However, if the school or district administration provides ready-made curriculum materials, you don’t have to wait long to hear teachers complaining about it.

If I heard the guy from Orange County Public Schools correctly, his district employs 12,000 teachers! How in the world do you get teacher buy-in at that scale? From how he made it sound, teachers in the district are required to use the adopted curriculum. This sounds very authoritarian, but the reasoning he gave is that they have a lot of mobility in the district so they want to ensure consistency for students that change schools.

Where teachers have flexibility is with the supplemental instructional materials that they use for intervention, remediation, enrichment, etc. It sounds like they have a list of materials and teachers can pick and choose what they’d like to use.

I wonder if this district has systems in place to verify that the core curriculum materials are being taught across the district and with what kind of fidelity. I also wonder how happy teachers are in this district. Considering the number of teachers, I’m sure opinions are across the spectrum, but I would still love to know more about how successful these policies are and how they affect teacher morale and their sense of autonomy.

So in the end, the webinar did get me thinking about a few things, but I can’t say it was really worth the hour of my time. Basically I learned that districts still have to make decisions about instructional materials, just like they’ve done for forever. The only difference is that Common Core has possibly made districts more careful and thoughtful about the choices they are making. All in all, that doesn’t sound so bad.


Arguing With Parents Is Counterproductive

Earlier this afternoon, @fnoschese shared a link to an article called “Common Core and Its Disrespect for Parents”. If you are a teacher or a parent, the article will likely get your hackles raised, but for very different reasons.

Teachers feel that the Common Core standards and their relationship with quality math instruction is being misinterpreted by parents and the media. For one thing, the types of math instruction that are being criticized existed long before the Common Core standards, and they will continue to exist if the Common Core standards are ever abandoned. Common Core did not invent mental math, estimation, number sense, manipulatives, or alternative algorithms. However, it is clear from the wording of the standards that they embrace these things.

Parents, on the other hand, feel that the rug is being pulled out from under them because their children are bringing home assignments that do not match what the parents did when they were in school oh so many years ago. Interestingly enough, most of the issues with Common Core math standards and the accompanying instruction tend to be focused on elementary school concepts. I’m not hearing a lot of parents complaining about the methods used to teach solving systems of equations. Hmm, why might that be?

Also, I have to point out that for years there have been vocal parents against various types of math instruction. Do a Google search for “Math Wars” and you can learn all about it. I think the Common Core standards have given these critics a rallying point to add to their ranks and make their voices louder. Their criticisms are not new, but they are definitely more prominent today.

Anyway, the part of the discussion on Twitter today that really resonated with me was a tweet by @PaiMath:

PR Issue

Sadly, at this point the issue is so politicized that it is very much a public relations issue more than a pedagogical one. It reminds me of when teachers were the ones up in arms about No Child Left Behind. The trouble is that the wording of NCLB was extremely clever. You couldn’t be against No Child Left Behind because then what does that make you? Someone who wants to leave children behind?

When politics and public perception get involved, language matters a lot. I learned at a conference put on by the Texas State Teachers Association that it is all about how you frame an issue. The presenter told the story of how in order to fight against NCLB, the National Education Association had to frame the issue differently.

Their words had to be carefully chosen so as not to sound like they were on the opposite side of NCLB. Their slogan became “Great Public Schools for All”. It is a positive statement that sounds like a parallel message to NCLB, no opposition at all, but it gave the NEA a platform from which to share their own vision of great public schools.

I feel like we’re at that point with the Common Core standards. Teachers and schools have to be very careful not to be adversarial against parents because that is not a fight we are going to win. @fnoschese made two good points about this:

Silly Parent

Helpless Parent

Since the criticisms from parents often focus on elementary school math, we have to be very careful because this is math that parents, by and large, feel comfortable doing. There’s a reason we’re not debating teaching methods related to topics like the Pythagorean theorem or quadratic equations.

In whatever way this issue gets framed by educators, it has to be inclusive of parents and acknowledge the skills they bring to the table regarding working with their children. Right now it feels as though parents and teachers are putting themselves in separate camps which I can’t imagine is good for the children in the middle.

Maybe the issue needs to be reframed in a way that acknowledges and fosters the critical partnership between parents and schools/teachers. It’s not about what one group knows or doesn’t know, it’s about how the two together can effectively support children throughout their K-12 experience. It has to be a message that transcends math because honestly, we all do care about more than just a child’s math education.

I wish I could say, “A-ha! Here’s our catchphrase that frames it all beautifully!” but it’s not coming to me off the top of my head right now. Maybe I’ll think of something clever in the shower tomorrow morning. But I do think that our energy needs to be spent (re?)building that partnership with parents instead of engaging them in Facebook and Twitter arguments that only serve to entrench them more and more deeply in their view that they are right to be scared and angry.


Where The Rubber Meets The Road

The past few days, I shared site visit notes from four years ago when I visited classrooms using our digital math curriculum. It was an eye opening experience. One of the biggest things I took away from it was that despite all the careful planning on our part, including numerous debates over the math content itself as well as numerous review cycles to hone the pedagogical flow of each lesson, teachers weren’t necessarily using our lessons as intended.

In some respects that’s fine. We weren’t writing a bible, but a suggested flow for how a teacher and her students could work through the material each day. I’m a-ok when teachers go “off book” because they have a better vision for working with their particular class. However, it was frustrating to sit through some of the observations because what I was seeing “off book” wasn’t effective instruction.

I want to elaborate by focusing on one specific area today: the intended flow of one of our lessons vs. the actual flow I witnessed in several classrooms. Here’s the typical (intended) flow for one of our math lessons:

Engage (5-10 minutes) – The purpose of the Engage activity is self-evident in its name. It is a whole-class activity to grab students’ attention and get them started thinking about the math concept of the day before sending them off to work in the Explore activity. Its motto: Keep it short and simple.

Explore (15-20 minutes) – In this activity, the students work alone, in pairs, or in groups to explore the day’s math content. There is no expectation of mastery during this activity. We want students to be learning as they are working through the activity. If they are in a state of learning, then it is not reasonable to expect them to master it at the exact same moment. I like to think of the Explore activity as a shared experience that the class is able to draw upon in the next phase.

Summarize (10-15 minutes) – As you can tell from the names of our activities, they’re somewhat self explanatory. After students have worked through the Explore activity, the class comes back together to debrief and summarize what was learned about the math concepts in the day’s lesson.

Now, here’s how this flow played out in numerous classrooms:

Engage (15-30 minutes) – The class is presented with a scenario, usually through an animation, and then the teacher leads the students through a discussion. (And now this is where it goes “off book”.) As they are discussing, she starts doing a direct teach of all of the content in the lesson to prepare the students to be successful during the Explore activity. During this time, the teacher is doing a lot of talking, going way “off script” of what is actually presented in the activity on the computer. She asks questions as she talks, but the students are quiet and not very engaged. They often look bored.

Explore (15-20 minutes) – The students finally have the opportunity to get their hands on the content on the computer. Their eyes light up! The teacher may have given away some of the big reveals or “a-ha” moments that students were supposed to uncover on their own during this activity. However, the students were so bored and inattentive during the direct teach, that this is still an engaging activity for most of them.

Summarize (5 minutes, if lucky?) – If the teacher has any time left at the end of the lesson, because she spent so much time up front teaching all of the content, she will pull the students back together for a quick summary. During this discussion, the students are very talkative and engaged. Too bad there’s so little time left at this point in the class.

So let’s debrief a bit about this. The reason we intend for the Engage activity to be short and simple is twofold. First, the students are eager to get on the computer. They know they are going to work on the computer in pretty much every one of our lessons, and so as soon as the lesson starts, the teacher has a limited window of attention before the kids get bored because she made them wait too long.

Second, the lesson is engaging for a teacher differently than it is for a student. A teacher will watch one of our opening movies and immediately see what content is being taught that day. This triggers her prior knowledge of the content and she’s ready to get started telling the students all about it.

And this is exactly what happened in many of the classes I observed. The teacher had all of this content in mind right as the lesson began, and she couldn’t help but share it all with the students before they got started on their work. A discussion that should have lasted 5-10 minutes easily became a 20-30 minute direct teach.

Now look at it from the student’s perspective. The students just watched a movie about a brother and sister building a clubhouse. They might see some math in there, but they also might be thinking stuff like, “Wow, I wish I could build a clubhouse,” or “I like my clubhouse,” or, “It was so funny when Robin had to wear the chicken suit because she was wrong.” What they are thinking about and what the teaching is thinking about are generally on two very different levels and drawing on two very different pools of prior knowledge.

This has quite an impact on the dynamic in the room. The teacher is direct teaching everything at the beginning of the lesson, trying to convey her pool of knowledge to the students so that they can be successful when she sets them loose on the computers. The students, on the other hand, are passively listening to her. From my observations, they are quiet and don’t really have a lot to contribute because frankly, they don’t know much about what the teacher is talking about.

Contrast this with the Summarize activity. As I said before, our goal is for the class to use the shared experience of the Explore activity to debrief and summarize the day’s learning. This works because the students finally have a personal experience with the math content that they can draw from to engage in a discussion with the teacher and their classmates. And this is exactly what happens. Those quiet students who were doodling in their notebooks during the direct teach, all of a sudden have observations to share and questions to ask. Unfortunately, when the teacher monopolizes so much class time to do a direct teach for 30 minutes, this rich discussion tends to get cut.

So we end with the question of why does this happen? My team, as far as I can tell, clearly spelled out what we think should be happening in each lesson, but that isn’t stopping teachers from doing what they think should be happening in each lesson. My guess is that many of these teachers were used to using the direct teach model long before they encountered our curriculum. And regardless of anything they were told by the lesson materials or our instructional coaches, they went with what they were used to do doing.

In the past, they probably couldn’t fathom talking for a few minutes and sending their students off to complete a set of practice problems. So even though our Explore activity is not a practice set – it is time that the students are learning as they engage with the concepts – the teachers viewed it as an activity they needed to prepare the students for. And in order for students to be ready, the teacher had a lot of front loading of content to accomplish.

This comes back to my question from the other day about whether teachers should be curriculum designers. I think I’ll wait and share my thoughts on that tomorrow since this post is already lengthy and I’m past due to go to bed.


A Year In The Life

Something I wrote yesterday was supposed to turn into a blog post for today, but as it turns out, I’m kind of tired. I blame being out in the sun for several hours. So instead, let me tell you about how today made me extremely happy.

This afternoon, we went to a first birthday party, but not just any first birthday party. This was the first birthday of the foster child we brought home from the hospital last May when he was only 2 days old.

He was such a small, fragile baby – 5 pounds 13 ounces at birth. For the first few weeks, my husband and I were terrified of breaking him. We took care of him for the first 5 months of his life.

The first two months are a groggy blur, but things definitely picked up in the last three. I couldn’t get enough of seeing him smile and hearing him laugh. At the end of our 5 months together, he was placed with his uncles in California.

Having to give him up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through in my entire life, but I’m thankful his new dads have kept in touch through photos, Facetime, and occasional trips to Austin since the CPS case is ongoing.

A year later, he is as healthy as can be and weighs about 24 pounds. No fear of breaking him now! At this point he only weighs a few pounds less than our current foster daughter who is a few months past her 2nd birthday.

He may no longer be our baby, but he is still a part of our lives and our hearts. Being able to see him today to celebrate his first birthday put a smile on my face for hours. Here’s to many, many more birthdays to come.


Seeing Our Curriculum In Action, Part 4

Today I’m sharing the last set of observation notes from when I did site visits four years ago in classrooms using our digital curriculum. If you missed the previous three sets of notes, you can read them here, here, and here.

This set of notes is a bit different than the previous sets because I did more classroom hopping. I also attended a meeting that included several folks from my company and several folks from the school. I thought about skipping this set of notes altogether, but there are some interesting nuggets, so I thought I’d go ahead and share them.

As always, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I have left my notes as they were written so you can “hear” my thoughts from four years ago. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text.

Site Visit Notes

This visit started with a meeting between some folks from our company, the instructional coaches assigned to the school, the principal, and the school’s own ELA and math coaches.

Here are a few interesting points from this meeting:

Pacing – The math coach was a little concerned about the scope and sequence for math. She didn’t understand why decimals were taught with place value. The teachers are used to teaching decimals with fractions.

I explained that decimals are related to both place value and fractions. Therefore we have lessons about decimals in both topics.

Standards – The math coach thought we were teaching content that was below grade level. I did not understand how that could be the case since our lessons were written to their state standards.

She gave the example of decimal addition. She said that we only used grid models in grade 4 and that teachers were expecting students to use the standard algorithm and line up the decimal points. I explained that the standards explicitly said to use grid models in grade 4. Then in grade 5 is when they explicitly said to use the standard algorithm. She disagreed.

Since my team happened to write these lessons, I am intimately familiar with these standards so I was able to list the standard number and what it said, almost verbatim. She looked through the printed standards in her binder, found that I was right, and said, “Well, teachers still expect to teach decimal addition using the standard algorithm.”

Lesson Structure – The math coach said the teachers were unsure of the math lesson structure where students explore first, and then the teacher teaches. She said the teachers are used to teaching first, then giving students an opportunity to practice what they learned. She said the teachers are getting used to it, but it has been a learning experience for them.

In my visits to various schools, this has been a recurring theme in my observations. It appeared many of the teachers were not familiar or skilled with teaching using the pedagogical structure of our lessons (Introduce –> Explore –> Discuss). This is an area where the instructional coaches will need to continue reinforcing with the teachers. One thing teachers didn’t seem to grasp was how quickly the introduction is supposed to be completed. The allotted time is usually 5-10 minutes, yet I saw introductions go on for 20-30 minutes in many classrooms. A side effect of this was that some teachers are skipping the “Discuss” phase where the class draws conclusions about the concepts.

I started giving some additional commentary about this, but it got so long, I decided to turn it into a blog post all its own. Check back tomorrow where I will share our typical lesson structure and then discuss how I often observed it implemented in classrooms.

Special Education – The school has students whose IEP says they are performing at a first grade level. The teachers want these students to work on the computer like the other students so they don’t stand out, but what can these students be doing?

They admitted that using their old curriculum, they would have this same problem, and they would often go to their coaches for support. The trouble is that the coaches could give them other paper-based activities to do so that on-level students wouldn’t realize the special education students were working on different activities. The coaches do not have computer-based activities readily available like they do paper-based activities.

We mentioned the availability of our interactive tools (array and area multiplication applet, fraction modeling applet, etc.). Students can work on these tools during class, though the burden is on the teacher to create activities for them to do using the tools.

After the meeting was over, we went to go do some actual observations in classrooms.

We joined the third grade teachers who were doing walk through observations of the fourth grade classrooms. The purpose was to get an idea of what their students will be doing when they move up to fourth grade next year. The guiding question was, “What can we be doing this year to prepare them?”

It was impressive to see the school embracing our curriculum so early in the school year. Normally this type of observation would be done in the spring, not in November.

The teachers were very excited about what they saw going on in the fourth grade classrooms. Several of them wanted to get their students started on typing programs right away. Others were inspired to create some lessons that would involve work on the computer or using the computer to create a product (like typing a story).

The following are a few items that stood out to me during these observations.

Projectors – I noticed the LCD projector was sitting on a student’s desk about 6 feet away from the board. This meant the projection was very small. It didn’t help that the teacher hadn’t maximized the activity window. She was showing it the size that it first appears when the activity first opens. I did not find out why she didn’t enlarge the window.

We have always designed our lessons under the assumption that the screen would be projected large enough that the entire class could see it. Some of our fonts are small already, and on a small projection they can be difficult to see from more than a few feet away.

Typing – We require a lot of typing in our lessons, and watching some students slowly type out their answer to one open response question was painful to watch. The students persevered, but I wonder if we should ramp up the amount of typing required in the lessons as the year progresses. We did not consider this beforehand so lessons may include a lot of typing as early as the first day of the year.

By the way, when I say a lot of typing, even typing one complete sentence is a lot of work for many students, especially students who are functioning below grade level. One girl took about a minute to type, “I think she did that because she would…” After all that effort, she hadn’t even gotten to the part of the sentence that is her answer!

Perhaps we can partner with a company that offers typing software that students can do for 10 minutes a day? Or it could be an optional piece they could do at home?

Screen Directions and Feedback – I noticed students not reading the screen directions and/or feedback. This may be an issue of training the students of the importance of this feedback and how to use it as they give the question a second try.

I noticed a student “cheating” where he didn’t bother to read a passage. Instead he guessed, and when he got the answer incorrect, the system highlighted the paragraph that contained the answer. Then he would read and solve the question now that the system had told him where to look in the story.

We have to be careful that our ways of supporting students after they get a question wrong aren’t so helpful that students learn to guess the first time in order to get the hint/help that’s going to steer them to the correct answer.

Differentiation – In the class I observed the students were all working at their own pace. It was great to see that the teacher had set the students up to work so they could work where they needed to be. This freed up the teacher and paraprofessional so they could pull a small group and/or work alongside students who were having trouble.

Planning – I have noticed throughout my site visits that the teachers do not appear to be planning beforehand very much for their lessons. By planning I mean they haven’t gone through the core of the lesson to familiarize themselves with the flow of the content.

At this school I watched a teacher go through a Language Arts skill lesson. The lesson was teaching the four steps to figuring out the meaning of a word using context clues. There were four activities in a row, one activity for each step. However, he did the entire explanation of all the steps in the first activity, so he got frustrated when he went through the other activities because it kept repeating the steps he’d already stated. He thought it was a problem with the lesson being redundant, but really it was a matter of him not being familiar enough with the lesson before he taught it.

Despite any problems the school is having, overall the atmosphere is very positive and the staff seems very eager to make this work.

End Observation

Since we were doing our observations with the third grade teachers, I had to hop from class to class a bit too frequently. I never had the chance to observe a full lesson at this school. However, I did learn a few important lessons so it wasn’t a waste of time at all.

For me the most interesting thing was going back into schools in the role of a curriculum developer instead of in the role of a teacher. It gave me a much different perspective. As a teacher, I was always most knowledgeable about my classroom and my students, but not necessarily the goings on in anyone else’s classroom.

During these site visits, I had the opportunity to see a wide variety of schools, campus climates, classroom layouts, and teaching styles. As you’ve no doubt surmised, I wasn’t always very happy with what I saw, but I am appreciative of the experience. I learned a lot and I was able to share it with the rest of my team which helped tremendously as we continued writing lessons.


Seeing Our Curriculum in Action, Part 3

The past couple of days, I have been sharing observation notes I made during site visits to classrooms four years ago. (See here and here.) These were classrooms using the digital curriculum I helped write.

The reason I’ve been sharing these observations is to help illustrate the greater impact teachers often have on student learning than the curriculum materials they use.

So far I have shared two classroom examples where the lessons did not go very well. Today I’m going to share two more site visit summaries, but these are much more positive. (Yay!) By the way, I know I said I wouldn’t be sharing the positive story until tomorrow. I lied.

Lesson Observation

In the first observation, I observed another 5th grade class working on one of our geometry lessons. In the second observation, I observed a 4th grade class working on a lesson about compatible numbers for addition.

As always, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I have left my notes as they were written so you can “hear” my thoughts from four years ago. These particular notes had some cringe-worthy moments for me. I made sure to comment on them in the here and now. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text.

Observation 1

This classroom had a similar layout to the first classroom I visited, but with a little more room to walk around. It was still difficult to get to some of the students who were on the inside of the rows.

The layout I’m referring to is the one from yesterday’s post. Yesterday’s observation and the two from today all occurred at the same school.

The class had started this lesson the day before. The teacher started today with a review of what they learned yesterday which was the names of the polygons and the number of sides each polygon has. The students had written the words and definitions in their Math journal the day before. This school embraces the Math journal concept. Hooray!

During this review I saw students playing with their computers. Several students were using the zoom feature to zoom really close in on their screen so all you could see was a small corner of a picture. Other students were visiting music web sites and playing songs through their headphones.

One lesson I would take from this is that the instructional coaches should probably talk together about all of the good classroom routines they are seeing and share those with their teachers. Some teachers had great structure in their classroom and some didn’t. We need to ensure teachers are learning ways to manage the computers so students are able to pay attention and use their computers the way they are supposed to.

I really don’t like that I said, “…the way they are supposed to.” It sounds very authoritarian. But, since I’m not editing these notes I have to live with how I sounded back then. Ah, to be able to go back and choose my words again.

The goal for today was to practice what the students did yesterday. Unfortunately, the teacher unlocked other activities before the Independent Learning activity, so it was confusing to the students. They had to go to the end of their train and then when they finished the Independent Learning, then they could go back to the beginning of their train.

Basically students saw activities listed in the order the teacher unlocked them. In this case the activity she wanted the students to go to first happened to be at the end of their “train”, or list, of activities which is kind of confusing for the students.

This teacher told me she was very happy with the geometry unit. She said it was giving students experiences they couldn’t have otherwise. She gave the example of teaching students how to use a protractor. Without the computer, she said she would have to go almost student by student to help them learn how to use the protractor correctly, but with the computer providing feedback she was free to go to the students who were having the most trouble. I think it’s topics like this and measurement where teachers see the value of T2K the most. Topics like multiplication and subtraction the teachers are comfortable teaching because it’s just algorithms, but with more hands-on topics the added value of the computer is much more evident.

I may not be editing my text from these site visits, but I can’t let that slip by. I, personally, do not see computation as “just algorithms”. I was referring to teachers who already feel comfortable teaching these computation skills because they see them as “just algorithms”. Whether they are right or wrong for doing that, this observation is about how those teachers would likely see greater benefit from our digital curriculum materials when they teach other topics like geometry and measurement.

During this class, I visited with many students as they worked. Most seemed to be staying on task working through the various practice activities.

The teacher had the real-time monitoring running so when one student was missing many questions, the teacher saw and went over to work with that student. (Unfortunately the monitoring was showing on the projector so every student could see who was having trouble. I don’t think the teacher intended for that to happen. It was a bit embarrassing for that student.)

As I listened to the students, I saw that many did not know what the word adjacent meant. Several had used the dictionary button to look it up, but unfortunately the definition it provided was not useful for a 5th grade student. I was still happy to see that the students had been resourceful! Maybe one day we can link to a more child-friendly dictionary.

Our company’s first attempt at a dictionary was linking to some dictionary web site, but it was the standard version. It was not geared towards math or elementary-age students.

Observation 2

This was a collaborative team teaching (CTT) class taught by one regular teacher and one special education teacher. One of the teachers in the room loves Time To Know, while the other teacher wishes it would go away.

This teacher is very behind schedule. This lesson should have been taught long ago.

This was my FAVORITE teacher to watch. She is the perfect example of what Time To Know is meant to do. The teacher taught just like she normally would, she just happened to have the computer as a tool as she did her job. It was amazing!

The thing about this is that I think she already is a good teacher; she just has a new tool to assist her. Other teachers I saw where the lesson did not go as smoothly were probably not great teachers to begin with.

The bluntness of the last sentence makes me cringe. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been critical of the teachers I observed, I clearly have, but it’s because what I saw this particular teacher do is what I would expect most teachers to do. She shouldn’t be the exception, and that’s what she felt like.

Again, the lines of responsibility are blurred. Obviously it’s not our job to produce good teachers, but it’s clear that our lessons are designed to be used by skilled teachers. It’s not just about knowing the math. This teacher also had great questioning skills, routines, and knowledge of how kids think. Teachers who are not particularly skilled are at a disadvantage, even more so when they don’t prepare for the lessons ahead of time. While making teachers better at their job may not be our responsibility, I think anything we can do in this area will go a long way towards the success of our implementation and our resulting reputation.

Not to mention that students deserve teachers as good as her!

The teacher started the lesson by asking the students what the word “compatible” means. She told a little story about how she and her husband are compatible. Then she gave students two examples: 6 +4 and 6+7 and she asked which expression had compatible numbers.

After discussing the meaning of compatible, she called the students to the carpet in front of the Smart board to watch the opening movie. She did a great thing here. She told the students, “We’re about to watch a short movie. Even though it’s fun and entertaining, we have math in our brains now. We just got done talking about compatible numbers. Listen for the math in the movie.” It was great!

Halfway through the movie she paused it and said, “What does being at a restaurant have to do with numbers and math?” The students responded that they would have to add up prices which can be hard if there are a lot.

She also asked the students, “What does it mean when it says two consecutive numbers? Does consecutive mean the same thing as compatible?”

After a student answered the question she said, “So Molly told her answer, Jake can you tell it again in your own words?”

“Those of you who have a Math journal, write your answer in your journal. If you don’t have your journal, I want you to look at the numbers on the board and find two more numbers that are easy to add together.”

Unfortunately this is when the lesson ran into technical problems. The teacher tried writing on the Smart board, but the text only appeared on her laptop screen. I tried helping until tech support arrived, but I wasn’t able to do anything. The tech support tried helping but couldn’t fix it either. This pretty much ruined the momentum of the lesson. I was so sad because she had been doing such a phenomenal job! Other teachers need to see this teacher. If we videotape anyone, I hope we can get a video of her in action. She was incredible!

This really is one of the sad points of having a digital curriculum – technical issues. They can seriously derail a lesson. This is an issue beyond my skill set seeing as I don’t code our software, but I do understand how negatively technical issues can impact learning. Thankfully, while I’ve been writing and revising math lessons the past four years, our programmers have been making technical improvements.

End Lesson

So to go back to something I said in the second observation:

She is the perfect example of what Time To Know is meant to do. The teacher taught just like she normally would, she just happened to have the computer as a tool as she did her job.

This really was our philosophy. The curriculum and digital tools were intended to blend into the classroom, assisting the teacher without taking over for her. As you’ve seen if you’ve been following my last few posts, this philosophy had some serious issues when it met reality. The teacher has so much impact on whether the lessons are facilitated successfully or not.

I think this is the crux of the issue I’ve been writing about the past couple of days. Regardless of what materials you put in the hands of a skilled teacher, she has what it takes to make it work and often make it look effortless. Rereading today’s observation, I was surprised to see the “me” from four years ago rattling off similar success factors to the ones I listed on the first day of this series:

It’s not just about knowing the math. This teacher also had great questioning skills, routines, and knowledge of how kids think.

As @Trianglemancsd so succinctly put it, it comes down to one thing:




Seeing Our Curriculum In Action, Part 2

Yesterday I started talking about the greater impact teacher’s have on student learning than any curriculum they happen to be using. To help make my point, I started sharing site visit notes I took four years ago while visiting different schools using our digital curriculum.

Rather than have a long lead in like I did yesterday, today I’m just going to get right to my notes. As before, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I’ve left my notes as they were written so you can “hear” my thoughts from four years ago. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text.

Lesson Observation

In this observation I was observing a 5th grade class using a 5th grade lesson about attributes of parallelograms. This lesson and the ones around it were about attributes of various quadrilaterals.

I can copy this next bit almost verbatim from yesterdays’ post: As you’ll see, the lesson does not go smoothly, partly because of issues with the lesson, but also because of issues with the classroom layout, the teacher’s pacing, and the teacher’s content knowledge.

Class Begins

This classroom has 27 students, and almost no room to move. The room is full of desks with very little room for walking around. Here is a rough layout of the desks. The students on the left side of the room were actually farther away from the board than it appears in this picture. They did not have a great viewing angle of the Smart board.

Classroom Layout

I’ll add that the room is much more cramped than it might appear in this picture. If you sat in the interior of one of those three prongs of desks coming out of the right side of the classroom, you had very little room to walk between your classmates in the same row and the desks of the next row.

This tight configuration has several implications. The teacher would have a very difficult time walking around to observe students working or to help them as they are working. Unfortunately, I only observed the introduction of this lesson, so I didn’t get to witness how she handles this situation.

The introduction (Engage) of our lessons is a teacher-led component. After this activity she would have theoretically moved to an activity where students worked on their own or in pairs. I did not get to see this, but based on the classroom layout, I was really curious how it would work in this classroom.

She actually spent the entire time up at the front by the Smart board. She has a very small area up in front of the Smart board in which to walk, if she wanted to.

It would be very hard to have students work in small groups in this classroom. The best she can probably hope for is having students work in pairs because the students are sitting next to each other.

What does this mean for lesson writing and our assumptions about classrooms? Should we provide alternate directions if a teacher can’t physically get her students into groups? What other classroom scenarios are we not considering when we plan our lessons and activities?

Since the teacher can’t get around much in this classroom, the instructional coach should probably stress using the real-time monitoring feature so she can at least see on her dashboard who is having trouble. Maybe that student can bring his/her computer to the teacher or she could make the effort to try and squeeze in to visit with the student.

One of the things that I really liked about our curriculum was that we provided the teachers instructional coaches who visited once or twice a week to help them learn how to use the curriculum effectively. It put the instructional coaches in an interesting position because ultimately they worked for Time To Know, but they also bonded with their teachers and became very loyal to them.


This was the only lesson component I got to see. She spent about 30+ minutes on the first three screens of the Engage, though the entire activity should have only lasted 10 minutes. I don’t believe she prepared ahead of time to teach this lesson today.

A consistent observation I’ve made when observing in classrooms is that the teachers take too long on the introductions. Perhaps the instructional coaches need to model for them how quickly the introductions should be.

You probably don’t know much about our lesson structure. I know I go into a little more detail in the next set of observation notes, so just sit tight until then and hopefully you’ll get a clearer picture.

The teacher had two student helpers pass out the headphones while she started the lesson.

Students were asked to keep their laptop screens at a 45 degree angle while the class went through the introduction. I saw several students playing internet games by sitting very low in their seats so they could still see their screens.

The students LOVED the song at the beginning of the lesson. They convinced the teacher to play it again. Some students even tried singing along the second time through.

It’s worth noting that this classroom also has sound issues in addition to space issues. The teacher had the windows open and periodically airplanes would fly overhead making it difficult to hear anything. At one point the teacher had a student close the classroom door, but another visitor in the room reminded her that the principal forbids the teachers from closing their classroom doors. This meant she couldn’t block any noise coming in from the hallway, which was also quite loud at times.

The Smart board makes the DTP even more interactive. The teacher was able to click things on screen with her Smart board pen and she could use the pen as an electronic marker to write on the screen. Note: You cannot use dry erase markers on most Smart boards. You must use the electronic marker feature if you want to “write” on the board.

The big drawback to this is that whenever the teacher moves to the next screen, anything she has written on the screen is erased. This is problematic because sometimes we have planned screens so the class writes something on one screen, and on the next few screens what they have written stays on the board while the questions or surrounding text changes.

We must learn more about Smart board functionality and what it means for designing teacher-led screens. We have to be able to design screens so they can be used with Smart boards and with regular white boards.

Students had their Math journals out and available during the lesson. The teacher would tell the students to add new vocabulary words to their journals. For example, in this lesson she told them to write “congruent” and “adjacent” in their journals.

Despite adding the words to their journals, the teacher did not go over their definitions. It was crucial for students to know what “adjacent” meant in order to succeed with this lesson. The teacher said, “Oh, adjacent, that’s a vocabulary word isn’t it? You probably should have learned it last year, so I’m not going to tell you the meaning.” I had to bite my tongue because I could tell the students really wanted to know what the word meant.

The teacher did say to the instructional coach at this point, “Maybe we were supposed to do the Prior Knowledge activity before this lesson?”

The Engage activity is well-designed if the teacher prepares for it and understands the geometry well enough herself, but it was clear that this teacher did not have a strong grasp of the purpose of the lesson or the geometry.

The lesson introduction guides students to the definition of parallelogram by observing attributes of parallelograms and non-parallelograms. The teacher became frustrated that the computer was not telling the students the definition right away so she opened a math book, went to the glossary, and read the definition aloud as students had to copy it into their Math journals. She did not talk about the definition with the students so they could figure out what it meant.

Is it our responsibility to make the teacher understand the math she is teaching? If it isn’t our responsibility, whose is it? If we can’t rely on the teachers having the requisite math skills, how do we ensure they are going to succeed at teaching our lessons? If students do poorly on assessments, the teachers will blame our program. We don’t want that.

This teacher does not have very good questioning techniques. There were many missed opportunities to engage the students and discuss the new geometry concepts. All she had to do was ask, “Why did you choose that shape?” or “How does that shape relate to the definition?”

End Lesson

Actually, I have no idea if this is when the lesson actually ended. This is when I had to leave the room to go visit another classroom. Sadly, I have no idea what happened after we left.

Reading over my notes, I’m a bit embarrassed about how harsh I sound. The teacher was gracious enough to let me in to visit her class, and here I am pointing out all these things that I dislike about how she was teaching the lesson.

However, I did teach for 8 years myself, and I couldn’t help but see that there are a lot of things a “good” teacher would normally do that were not evident during this observation. Sure, it seems like she didn’t prepare ahead of time to teach this particular lesson, but if those underlying skills were there – knowledge of geometry, ability to “read” the class to see that they really did not know the meaning of ‘adjacent’, and questioning techniques to reveal students’ thinking – it shouldn’t have mattered.

And if you think that’s not fair because I already knew the lesson so of course I would know to do all of this stuff, you’d be incorrect. I don’t think I had ever even seen this lesson before coming in to do this observation. My team did not write this geometry unit. At Time To Know, we had four curriculum writing teams, and we were roughly organized by strand (Go, fractions team!) There was communication between teams, but I did not get to see every lesson before it was produced and out in the classrooms.

And lest you think all I do is complain and dislike what I see (or at least that the “me” from four years ago does those things), check back in two days. Tomorrow’s post is, sadly, recounting another lesson that did not go as well as I would have liked, but the next day I have a much more inspiring story to share.