Monthly Archives: May 2014

Seeing Our Curriculum In Action, Part 1

This afternoon, @davidwees shared a link to an intriguing article in the following tweet:

Curriculum Tweet

Sadly, the article is for subscribers only, but the web site does provide a very brief summary that was enough to get me thinking today:

“What We Know

  • No evidence that different curricula give different outcomes.
  • Limited evidence that ordinary CAI improves learning.
  • Strong evidence that using effective teaching strategies can make a difference.”

With what little insight this gives me into the article as a whole, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been writing digital math curriculum for 5 years, and in that time I’ve had the privilege of visiting numerous classrooms to see our lessons in action. Based on these observations, I believe teachers have a much greater impact on student learning than any curriculum materials in their hands.

If you’ll recall, my first team and I were very passionate about how we conceptualized the lessons we wrote. We poured our hearts and souls into making them the best we could. However, our curriculum is not designed to do the job for the teacher. It has a role in delivering content for sure, but so does the teacher through a variety of factors including classroom layout, routines, questioning techniques, and instructional pacing, to name a few.

There are two caveats here. First, I make no claims that the lessons written by my team will deliver amazing results if taught well. I would like to think they do their job well, but I am clearly biased. Second, I’m not claiming, in general, that curriculum materials make no difference with regards to student learning. Given the choice between an old-school textbook or any one of a variety of other curriculums such as Investigations in Number, Data, and Space or, ahem, our curriculum, I will gladly take either of those over an old-school textbook. I might, perhaps, still be able to get good results with an old-school textbook, but the job is going to be much easier for me using instructional materials that match my beliefs about how people learn and the ways in which I engage with my students.

So thinking through all of this today reminded me that I have some pretty extensive observation notes that I took during several classroom visits four years ago. I read through them again this evening, and I think four years ago I was clearly seeing a lot of what I’ve just been talking about.

That got me thinking. Why not share my notes here? That way others can “see” what I was seeing. I also figure it helps me share more about my job like I promised in my first post during this blogging challenge. So for the next few days, I’ll be posting notes from various site visits I’ve done to see our curriculum in action.

In case you’re worried, nothing in these notes gives any identifying information about the school or the teacher. Also, I recognize that having a stranger observing in the classroom can put some teachers on edge. So I can’t generalize that what I saw in my observations is indicative of how these teachers teach normally. However, I still feel the observations are valuable, especially since I saw patterns as I observed in multiple classrooms.

Sadly, my notes do reveal some warts with regards to a few of our lessons back then. Thankfully our curriculum has  gone through a round or two of upgrades over the past few years, so I don’t feel as bad since I know they have been tweaked and improved over time.

Other than fixing some language mistakes, I’m leaving these notes as they were written. I don’t want to change the voice of the “me” from four years ago. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text providing a bit of commentary.

Lesson Observation

To give you some background about this first observation, I was observing a multiplication lesson in a 4th grade classroom. The topic of the lesson was introducing students to the doubling and halving multiplication strategy.

If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a simple example: Let’s say you don’t remember the product of 6 × 7. What you can do is halve one of the factors, like 6, to get the expression 3 × 7. You might have this product memorized, or you might quickly be able to count by 3s or 7s to get 21. From there you just need to double that product to find the product of 6 × 7. This is a very handy strategy, but also a very sophisticated one. In this lesson the students are meant to explore the idea of halving a multiplication expression by halving an array.

As you’ll see, the lesson does not go smoothly, partly because of issues with the lesson, but also because of issues with the teacher’s delivery.

Class Begins

Students got their computers from the laptop cart with minimal disturbances.

The iPad was just introduced a few months before this observation. At this point laptops were the primary tech device in classrooms.

The routines in this room were not as smooth as others I’ve seen, but students managed to get computers and log in without any prompting.

Warm Up

The teacher started the lesson by projecting the Knight Game on the board and having the students take turns coming up and filling in the missing blocks. The students quieted down and participated readily.

The Knight Game is basically a matching game. The students would be given a number, and they had to select different arrays containing that quantity of objects.

This game was actually in the Prior Knowledge section of the lesson. The teacher chose to play this game instead of a Bingo game that was actually the intended Warm Up activity. Considering she didn’t have a full class period to teach the lesson, I think it was a good choice to start with this game instead.

Students’ computers were open in front of them during the game. I saw classes at other schools where students lowered the screen to a 45 degree angle while the teacher was teaching. This isn’t sufficient because I saw many students accessing internet games and music even with their screens lowered. The students just sat low in their seat to see their screens. Someone on my team made a good suggestion that students lower their screens, but also turn their computers so they face away from the students.

The computers had software to prevent students from accessing external sites, but in nearly every school I visited, these elementary students broke through it in no time.

The teacher had the students come up one at a time to fill in the missing parts of the bridge. This was slow and very time-consuming.

This game could have been a great review of arrays and the meaning of multiplication, but the teacher never questioned the students about why they chose the answers they picked. A lot of good discussion and review was missed.

When she did help students, instead of asking them to think about the multiplication shown in the array, she just said, “Count the circles to help you find your answer.” The student would count 12 circles and then pick an answer that had 12 in it.

It was obvious that the teacher was not familiar with the big picture of the multiplication unit (or this lesson for that matter). Had she known, she could have used better messaging with the students throughout the lesson.


After playing the game, the teacher moved into the Engage activity. Unfortunately, this was the time that the DTP froze and she wasn’t able to load the activity she needed.

DTP stands for Digital Teaching Platform. This is the name of the software that delivers our content.

The teacher decided to wing it on the white board, while waiting for technical help. While the tech person fixed the technical problem, the teacher demonstrated how the problem 7 X 4 could be solved using the doubling strategy.

This didn’t seem effective because she had to work on a small white board that was on an easel in the corner of the room. The students were far away at their desks. It would have been better to call the students up to sit on the carpet around the easel so they could see and be more immersed in the conversation.

Once the DTP was up and running again, the teacher played the opening movie where Robin shares the doubling strategy with Andy.

I’m assuming because of the time she’d lost, the teacher chose to skip discussion of the movie. Instead she simply told the students they would practice the doubling strategy in the Explore activity.


Students opened the Explore activity and got to work. This was a disaster. The first screen in the activity has students working with the graphic organizer. It became clear in the first minute or two that the students in this class had never used the graphic organizer before.

This is a tool used in many lessons in our curriculum. The fact that it was new to these students showed me that this teacher had not used our curriculum that frequently with her students.

They were supposed to drag something from the bank, but the students had no idea what the bank was or where it was on screen.

They were also supposed to duplicate what they dragged from the bank. The students figured out the duplicate button, but many had no idea why they were duplicating. They just did it and went on answering questions.

Some students answered the questions on screen without ever interacting with the graphic organizer at all.

The teacher stopped the lesson after a few minutes. I thought she was going to demonstrate how to the use the applet. Instead she reviewed the meaning of the term double. This was important, but it did nothing to help the students succeed with the interactions they were unsure of how to do on screen.

Most students seemed to ignore the text in the questions, and instead they just solved the multiplication problems that were shown. This meant they were not engaging with the big ideas of the lesson.

I went computer to computer listening to students and helping them use the graphic organizer. When one student got to a screen that asked her to explain how she used Robin’s doubling strategy, the girl said, “I didn’t use that.”

After a few minutes, the teacher stopped the class and told them she was going to open up the rest of the activities for them to do including the Independent Learning, Mastering Skills, Take It Further, and the games.

As students finished the Explore activity, they moved on to the next activity. I saw that some students would start the Independent Learning, but then they would close it and move to the game instead.

This seemed to be a common problem in the schools I visited where the teachers opened up too many activities at once. Without proper classroom management routines, the students were free to jump from activity to activity, not really caring what they completed or how well they completed it.


The teacher skipped the Summarize activity altogether, preferring instead to have the students work independently through the various activities she had opened for them.

This concerned me so I offered to do the summary. The teacher agreed. I had the students stop their work and join me on the carpet so we could go through the Summarize activity of the lesson.

I’m not going to pretend that I pulled off a fantastic summary. I completely winged it, but I did make an effort to address the concerns I saw as the students were working and I tried to bring some closure to the lesson.

I did feel that the Summarize activity (and lesson as a whole) was too challenging as designed. The students saw that the halved fact was related to the original fact, but they lacked the ability to do the halving and doubling themselves by the end of the lesson. Also, when the lesson transitioned from multiplying by 6 to multiplying by 8, it jumped into the example of 8 X 7. Unfortunately when we halved this to 4 X 7, that multiplication fact was still too hard for many students to solve mentally so the usefulness of the strategy was lost on them.

I did go back and explore the lesson after this experience. I understand its goals a bit better, but it’s clear that it requires a fair amount of planning and a lot of finesse for teachers to pick up and teach it well.

I feel that more time should have been spent on how to halve a fact rather than verifying that the halved fact equaled the original fact. The verifying step was too advanced and didn’t translate into a practical mental math strategy for solving multiplication problems through doubling.

End Lesson

At this point I would normally say “Whew!” because there’s so much text, and to acknowledge those of you that made it all the way to this point in my post, but I only wrote a small chunk of the text today. The rest I just copied and pasted which is sort of like cheating, but whatever. Anyway, this wraps up my first lesson observation. I look forward to sharing another one tomorrow.


It’s My Birthday, And I’ll Blog If I Want To

It really is my birthday. Whereas the argument could be made that there are worse Mondays than the one I shared yesterday, no one can dispute that today is my birthday, nor the fact that I have chosen to blog.

This blogging challenge has been an amazing experience for getting me to write more on my blog. I haven’t really planned too much about what I’m going to write about. I basically let my mood take me each time I sit down at my computer. As a result, I’ve been surprised by some of the topics I’ve gravitated towards as well as the amount of writing I’ve ended up doing.

The drawback is that it’s been somewhat intellectually and emotionally draining. I still have several important topics (to me at least) that I want to touch on, but I’ve been feeling a bit wiped out the past few days. It doesn’t help that my writing has taken away from my usual leisure time and led to some later than usual nights. Thankfully my husband has been supportive despite not getting to spend as much time with me as usual. He’s the best.

So what to write about today? A friend of mine talked at lunch today about coming up with a 5 year plan. I’ve entertained the thought of a 5 year plan before, but I’ve never set pen to paper. However, seeing as it’s my birthday, it’s a perfect time to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’d like to go.

In this post, I’m going to stick to mostly talking about where I’d like to go because at some point tonight I’d like to go to bed.

For the past year or so I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to go back to public education at some point in the future. So why not envision how that would work in the next five years?

While I would love to be an instructional coach for a year or two, I think the job I’d like to work towards is becoming a principal. The funny thing is when I was a teacher, I couldn’t fathom becoming a principal. It sounded terrible. You didn’t get to teach kids, and you had to deal with all the discipline issues and parent issues that come up every day. Why would anyone subject themselves to that?

But over the past 5 years, my views have changed. (This is part of the “where I’ve been” that I’m going to gloss over in this post tonight.) Going back to teaching, while satisfying in many ways, would be going back to what I’ve already done. Going back to become a principal feels like moving forward. I’ve realized that I want a role that is larger than just one classroom. I want to help steer the ship of an entire school. It terrifies me in some ways, and I know it would be challenging, but that’s what I’m drawn to. Why do something easy?

It’s a good thing this is a 5 year plan, because I can’t start right away. My husband is currently in school and has about another year left. The earliest I could start a principal certification program would be fall of 2015. That gives me a year to find a program and submit an application.

I’m thinking of enrolling in the program at Texas State University. Because I already have a Master’s degree, they’ll let me take a lighter course load to get my certification. As much as I think I would learn a lot in any class I would take, I will gladly accept a shorter program if it saves me money. College tuition is not cheap!

If I’m lucky, the program will only take me up to 2 years. That puts me at 3 years into my plan. So then I guess those last two years I could be working my first job as an assistant principal somewhere?

It all sounds so easy! I love painting my future in broad strokes. There are plenty of small details in there that I need to work out, but that’s the rough plan I have in my head. The important thing will be refining it sooner rather than later. The last thing I want is to “all of a sudden” be turning 42 five years from now wondering when I’m finally going to make a clear plan for my future. Considering how quickly time flies the older I get, the more that’s a real possibility and not just a joke.


The Monday-est of Mondays

Today was a Monday, that’s for sure. I’m hesitant to call it the “Monday-est of Mondays”, but it was Monday-ish enough, and I like the title, so I’m going to stick with it. If I ever happen to blog about an even worse Monday, I’ll address the titling problem then.

I was appropriately dressed in one of my Monday t-shirts. This is a bit more chipper than my "Angry Day" shirt.

I was appropriately dressed in one of my Monday t-shirts. This is a bit more chipper than my “Angry Day” shirt.

It started feeling Monday-ish around 8:15. I had just gotten home from dropping our foster daughter off at daycare. I still needed to eat breakfast, get myself ready, and chop up some veggies for a salad before leaving for work.

It’s all the salad’s fault that my morning didn’t go smoothly. The salad was not a normal part of my routine. Someone at work had an unexpected hand surgery, so we decided to put together a supper to take to her house. I signed up for salad.

I told myself on Sunday night I should be prepared and chop up the veggies the night before, but of course I also told myself, “No, no, no, you can do it in the morning. Don’t worry about it.” My laziness won out (though I still blame the salad), and chopping veggies took longer than I would have liked this morning. Whereas I normally leave for work at 8:45 in order to arrive by 9, today I was leaving at 9 in hopes of getting there at 9:15.

Leaving late for work is a perfectly Monday thing to do, but to make it a more Monday-ish Monday, I was sitting at a light about halfway to work when I realized that I’d left my phone at home. I immediately had a dilemma. I could turn around and go get my phone, which would make me even later to work, or I could continue to the office and live without a cell phone all day.

I chose option C. I finished the drive to work, ran in to drop off the salad that had made me late in the first place, hopped back in my car to drive home, and worked from home the rest of the day. All in all, I probably made the most time consuming choice – poor decision making is a hallmark of Mondays – which mean I didn’t log in to my work computer until nearly 9:40am.

This set me up for an even Monday-ier Monday than usual. Because I got to work so late, I knew I’d have to stay later to make up for the lost time. Unfortunately, I had a physical therapy appointment this afternoon that took me away from work for about an hour, so that meant even more time spent working in the evening. All told, my work day ended today around 9:30pm, ten minutes shy of 12 hours after I started.

There are still 2 hours left in this Monday, but I’m hoping that the day is finished having its way with me. There’s no need for it to be greedy. There’s always next week.


Will She Know Her Colors By The Time She Goes To College?

Becoming a (foster) parent after having been a teacher has been an eye opening experience and a bit of a challenge. As a teacher, I only had my students for less than a year of their life. And when I taught the same grade for multiple years, I saw the same slice of life over and over again.

Not so with parenting. We got our foster daughter at 19 months. We now have her at 26 months, and we could very well end up with her for her 3rd birthday, 4th birthday, and beyond. In the nearly 7 months that she’s been with us, I’ve seen tremendous growth and development. It’s fascinating, and I love it! Most notably, she went from a vocabulary of 1-2 words when she arrived to showing off new words on a daily basis. She’s even starting to experiment with two-word phrases, and last weekend she said her own name for the first time ever. I was in heaven.

The position I find myself in now is: how much should I go out of my way to “teach” her? And how much can I just let her pick up by living with us?

Case in point: colors. Over the past month or two she has developed a conception of colors as an attribute of things. My husband and I figured it out because she randomly started calling blue things blue. I had already used colors words regularly in conversation, but I definitely ramped up their use after that.  The odd effect is that now she doesn’t say blue as much. Instead, everything is purple.

I think it’s partially because she prefers purple to blue, and partially because colors are freakin’ complicated! I’m telling her to pull from a list of 6 words (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple) to describe the thousands (millions?) of shades of color she sees in the world. How confusing must that be for her?

“Yes, I know this pile of crayons all looks like completely different colors, but trust me that all of these are green.”

I don’t agonize over this or anything, but I do wonder if I should be doing more to “teach” her colors, or if I can just continue using color words when I talk and assume she’ll pick up on it over time. If I do start over thinking it, I stop and ask myself, “What are the chances she’s going to go off to college at age 18 without knowing her colors?” Yeah, that sounds ridiculous.

I feel that regardless of what I do, she is going to eventually know her colors. So then I wonder, does it even matter which route I go? Is there some benefit to actively working on teaching her color words? How does one go about actively teaching color words to a toddler anyway, especially one who can lose interest in a topic almost as soon as we’ve engaged in it?

If I don’t actively teach her color words, is there some benefit to her putting it together herself as she hears the words spoken around her? I mean, really, think about it. She’s putting together the English language on her own in her brain. I’m not giving her lessons. If her brain can do something as amazing as that, I think it can eventually sort out colors.

I know the situation would be much worse if my husband and I didn’t engage with her, play with her, read to her, and talk to her as much as we do. Sadly, we have no idea how much of this attention she was getting before we got her. We often wonder if her speech delays are related to not being talked to enough from birth.

I have a feeling this tension of wanting to teach her new things versus letting her learn from experience is going to be around from now on. My gut is leaning towards experience at the moment, though I’m learning it can be quite messy.

Today, for example, I took her out to blow bubbles. Her first attempts at doing it prior to today were pretty miserable, but today she was able to blow bubbles about 60-70% of the time. The other 30-40% she tended to blow too hard or (gross as this is) touch the bubble wand to her mouth and break the film. The thing that I enjoyed the most was her determination to try again and again and again despite multiple, and frequent, failures.

It’s also interesting how oblivious she was to the mess she was making. Nearly every time she pulled the bubble wand out of the container, a good amount of solution splashed out with it. It was splashed all over her hands, clothes, and legs, as well as all over my hands, and yet she was engrossed in blowing bubbles for nearly 30 minutes. I, on the other hand, wanted to go wash up after about 2 minutes.

With the exception of telling her she shouldn’t touch the wand to her mouth, I kept my own mouth shut about technique. The teacher in me had a lot of tips and pointers she could use, but instead of sharing them, I let her figure it out on her own and guess what, she had fun “learning” for 30 minutes. I’m pretty happy with that.


The Not So Hidden Curriculum

Recently I read an article by Scott Samuelson called “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”. Either right now or as soon as you finish reading this post, you should go read the whole thing. It’s not terribly long. Basically it’s about the importance of schools teaching a wide variety of subjects, not for the sake of “future employment and technological progress,” but because we live in a society of free people who should all have access to a well-rounded liberal arts education.

Traditionally, the liberal arts have been the privilege of an upper class. There are three big reasons for this. First, it befits the leisure time of an upper class to explore the higher goods of human life: to play Beethoven, to study botany, to read Aristotle, to go on an imagination-expanding tour of Italy. Second, because their birthright is to occupy leadership positions in politics and the marketplace, members of the aristocratic class require the skills to think for themselves. Whereas those in the lower classes are assessed exclusively on how well they meet various prescribed outcomes, those in the upper class must know how to evaluate outcomes and consider them against a horizon of values. Finally (and this reason generally goes unspoken), the goods of the liberal arts get coded as markers of privilege and prestige, so that the upper class can demarcate themselves clearly from those who must work in order to make their leisure and wealth possible.

That quote helps set the stage, but this is the part that really resonated with me:

For the most part, the wealthy in this country continue to pay increasingly exorbitant tuition to private prep schools, good liberal arts colleges, and elite universities, where their children get strong opportunities to develop their minds, dress themselves in cultural capital, and learn the skills necessary to become influential members of society. Meanwhile, the elite speak of an education’s value for the less privileged in terms of preparation for the global economy. Worse yet, they often support learning systems designed to produce “good employees”—i.e., compliant laborers.  Then, money for public education is slashed, and tuition soars. Those in the middle class, let alone the poor, have to fight an ever-steepening uphill battle to spend their time and money on the arts appropriate to free people.

This immediately brought to mind “Social Class and School Knowledge” by Jean Anyon. This was an article I read when I was in grad school back in 2005, and it has stuck with me ever since.

A second reproductive aspect of school knowledge in these working-class schools was the emphasis in curriculum and in classrooms on mechanical behaviors, as opposed to sustained conception. This is important to a reproduction of the division of labor at work and in society between those who plan and manage (e.g., technical professionals, executives) and the increasing percentage of the work force whose jobs entail primarily carrying out the policies, plans, and regulations of others. These working-class children were not offered what for them would be cultural capital – knowledge and skill at manipulating ideas and symbols in their own interest, e.g., historical knowledge and analysis that legitimates their dissent and furthers their own class in society and in social transformation.

All the way back in 1980 and 1981, Anyon was writing about the exact same issue that Samuelson raises today. She referred to this as the “hidden curriculum” of schoolwork. On one hand, her article is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend you take an hour or so to go through it, but on the other hand, it’s sad that this is an issue that has not only persisted for over 30 years, but one that shows little sign of changing anytime soon.

In an era of high stakes testing, teaching to the test, and college and career readiness standards, it appears the “hidden curriculum” is not only alive, but also doing quite well.


Keeping Up With The Dr. Joneses

Would you want to go to a doctor’s office and receive the same type of treatment that was given to patients 40 years ago?

Of course not! That’s ridiculous.

Doctors have to keep up with cutting edge techniques, and so should teachers. We shouldn’t ever settle for teachers using outdated methods from the last century.

I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this mock conversation several times before. I understand the desire to push educational practice forward, and the argument here sounds compelling, but I can’t help but find the comparison between doctors and teachers to be naïve.

First of all, medicine is a huge money-making industry. You’re not comparing apples to apples. The amount of research dollars that go into creating new drugs and new medical devices is huge, way more than the amount of money spent on educational research. And the reason is because the amount of potential profits that can be generated is even more huge. Schools do not generate billions of dollars in revenue like pharmaceutical companies do.

In 2012 alone, the top 10 pharmaceutical R&D budgets (meaning this isn’t even a complete amount) totaled over $65 billion! While those companies are swimming in cash to propel the medical profession forward, research in the social and behavioral sciences – the means of propelling the teaching profession forward – has to regularly justify its existence. Sadly, in today’s political climate, it fails.

Here’s a quote from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor:

Funds currently spent by the government on social science…would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.

Yeah, because medical research totally needs another quarter million dollars. That’s like pocket change.

And from the same article, here’s Lamar Smith criticizing the National Science Foundation’s request for a scant $259 million in 2013:

“These [Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences] funds are better spent on higher priority scientific endeavors that have demonstrated return on investment for the American taxpayer.”

As a friend of mine, an assistant professor in the learning sciences, lamented on Facebook today:

“But hey, research on how people learn, why would that be part of our national interest?”

She was specifically referring to this article on the same topic from just this week.

This isn’t to say that educational research isn’t being done. It is. It’s funding is just significantly less than the amount available for medical research. Perhaps the teaching profession would have an easier time “keeping up” with the Dr. Joneses if the resources were there to generate sufficient evidence about what works best in educating our nation’s children.

It doesn’t help that the results of the educational research that does get completed doesn’t readily trickle down to the people who need it. I know there are some teachers out there who stay up to date on current research articles, but I would hazard a guess that it is a small minority of the total teaching population.

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers had pharmaceutical sales reps, like doctors do, beating down their doors to share the latest, research-proven innovations they should be using with their patients? Oh, there are plenty of sales reps that visit schools and try to get principals and teachers to buy new products, but there is a huge difference to point out.

Medicines and medical devices have to go through rigorous approval processes before they can go to market. The companies have to conduct research to prove that they work and generally don’t harm the patients. Gosh, wouldn’t that be nice in schools.

Companies who send sales reps to schools are under no obligation to research their products. When they do research them, they can conduct the research however they’d like. There are no national guidelines requiring them to do it in a specific way. I mean, really, more often than not that research is done solely in the interest of creating graphs to insert into marketing materials. The worst part is that there is absolutely no burden on educational companies to prove that not only does their product work, but that it doesn’t harm children.

(By the way, I readily admit there are some shady things that have gone on in medical research to get a product to market. Despite that, the key difference is that there are still regulations that are in place to protect the consumer. In the realm of educational products, no such regulations exist at all to protect our children.)

So we’re left with teachers and other educators doing their best to find what works, ever seeking the elusive “best practice” – the holy grail of education, that which will finally bring teaching into the modern era and legitimize today’s teachers as practitioners of the 21st century.

“But without at least some empirical evidence, education cannot resolve competing approaches, generate cumulative knowledge, and avoid fads and personal biases.” (SERC)

Lucky us.


Inspired by a Cop Out

I’m going to force myself to keep it brief tonight. Each day of this blogging challenge I haven’t really planned too much ahead of time about what I’m going to write, but each day I’ve found myself sitting down at my computer for one and a half to two hours writing that day’s post. I’ve learned I have a lot to say! And when I don’t start saying it until around 10 or 10:30 or maybe even 10:45, it means going to bed much later than usual.

This evening I got on my computer around 10 o’clock, but I ended up reading other people’s blog posts for the past hour. I can’t bring myself to start writing another long post for my blog that’s going to take until after midnight, so instead let me share a few good blogs I was reading today.

The Roots of the Equation

My unofficial blogging partner, @jacehan, is usually getting his posts in at the last minute like me. Tonight he wrote a short Cop Out post because he’s feeling tired. That gave me the idea of doing my own cop out post today. I have lots on my mind that I could talk about, but I also have lots of sleep that I’d love to catch up on.

Since I’m linking to his blog, I should probably link to another of his posts so you can see that he writes about more than just elevators and a lack of sleep. During this blogging challenge, the piece that has resonated the most with me is the one about being out in the classroom. This is something I was never able to be when I was a teacher, and it makes me happy to read about someone who can.

Wandering through math

I just discovered @Mr_Kunkel’s blog during the #MTBoS30 challenge, and I’m happy I did. I enjoyed his two recent posts – The Ferrari Ride and Zonk and the impact of time – talking about testing and more specifically the amount of time remaining in the school year after the tests are over. While some folks may be ready to throw in the towel, he is trucking along. He’s doing a great job of demonstrating that as long as you continue to provide engaging instruction, your students will continue to participate.

Learning to Fold

This blogging challenge has taught me that @mythagon is my one stop shop for what to read and listen to. Today she talked about the TED talk given by the author of xkcd. I passed that right on to my husband. Yesterday she shared a link to an article about the ‘Noticing and Wondering’ strategy. That one I read for myself, though I’ll likely share it with some folks at work. And the day before that she linked to another post where the author wrote, “A pyramid is like a 3D representation of a dilation.” That post was quickly shared with my coworker Meredith. Basically, I can’t go wrong with her blog, and you probably can’t either. Go check it out!

D’oh. This is not a brief post. I guess “brief” wasn’t the right word. Maybe I should have said I wanted to write a post today that is less intense than my other recent posts. This definitely fit the bill. While there’s some length to it, this was much easier and faster to write than other things I’ve written during this challenge. And, besides, I’m happy to share with others the great things I’m reading thanks to this blogging challenge. It’s a win-win.

Now, time for bed.


What Do We Do With All Those Lazy Teachers?

In some form or another, I see this question posed on Twitter again and again. I think the assumption is that connected educators who actively blog and tweet are in the class of awesome, engaged, and doing-the-right thing teachers while everyone else is in the class of sucky, lazy, or just-kind-of-meh teachers.

With the daily attacks trumpeting the failures of schools and, specifically, teachers, we should really be banding together, showing solidarity because we all know full well teaching is an undervalued profession in this country, and as a whole we are doing our damned best. Instead, numerous tweets and blogs from real teachers are serving to divide us and tear us down.

Those non-connected educators. Those are the ones worthy of scorn. They don’t try and they clearly don’t care about doing a good job.

We connected educators. We’re the awesome ones, the ones everyone should model themselves after. Don’t associate us with those lesser teachers. You should be proud of us.

I know I’m being hyperbolic and somewhat inflammatory. I’m not trying to call out any one educator. This is just a recurring theme I’ve picked up on during my past two years being a part of Twitter and blogging.

I want to play devil’s advocate today. Instead of asking about what to do with lazy teachers, what if we asked this question instead:

Are some teachers just trying too hard?

Obviously there are people who pour their heart and soul into their teaching job, but is that a realistic expectation for the profession as a whole? I know it can feel good to exceed expectations and be proud of your work, but can’t it be okay for some portion of teachers to meet expectations, do an adequate job, and feel content with what they’re doing?

I know there are negative connotations to some of those words, but think about it. If you have met expectations, you have done what is expected of you, what your employer agreed to pay you to do. For some people, that’s enough. They don’t want more from their job than that. And is it our place to judge them?

Full disclosure: I was one of the overly passionate, dedicated teachers when I was in the classroom. Every day I arrived at school 45 minutes to an hour early so that I had time to prepare. And most every day I stayed at work until 5:30 or 6 o’clock at night grading papers, writing plans, and the countless other responsibilities I had. Sometimes I stayed until 9:30 or 10 o’clock! I also worked at least one full day on the weekends, sometimes two.

I won’t make any claims that all of this work resulted in me being the best teacher there ever was, but it was an effort I wanted to put in, no questions asked. It felt like the right thing to do in order to be the best teacher I could be to my students.

However, is that a realistic expectation for teachers as a whole? Absolutely not. While this was passionate work, it was still work, and it took its toll over time. I got burned out.

I doubt anyone would say that teachers need to put in the kinds of hours I did, but they do seem to make other claims about what a “good” teacher should do. Say, for example, joining Twitter and following blogs.

I won’t discount the benefits of doing these things (I’ve been doing them for two years, so clearly I see a personal benefit that makes it worth my time), but I will make the challenge that no teacher should be judged for not doing them.

As any teacher knows, your job is unlike most other jobs. You don’t get to do one job all day. You have two jobs – teaching and everything else. The bulk of your day, 6-7 hours, is spent doing the teaching job. You’re focused on and engaged with your students and that’s about all you have time for. The “everything else” part of your job – grading, planning, filing, photocopying, emailing, returning phone calls, meetings, etc. – fits into whatever time you have left.

This is where it gets tricky. How much time should teachers put in for this other work? Is there some magical amount that distinguishes the good teachers from the bad teachers?

Also, what exactly does this “everything else” part of the job entail? While certain responsibilities can’t be ignored like grading and report cards, things like planning and prep are gray areas. What kind of planning and prep makes you a good teacher? A bad teacher? An adequate teacher?

Is being a connected educator a required part of this “everything else” role? Is it realistic to expect that teachers should get online when they get home to engage in evening Twitter chats, read a few research articles, and comment on some blogs? Again, I don’t discount the benefits of these things. And I have no ill will to those teachers who choose to do them. My time on Twitter would be boring if you all weren’t there. However, is a teacher slacking because she goes home to eat dinner, spend quality time with her spouse and kids, and maybe watch some television before bed?

If you answered yes to that question, then I recommend this article. I channeled it in my previous post where I expressed my frustrations about the “do what you love” mentality. In the case of teaching, I think the mantra is slightly different.  Instead of “do what you love”, or perhaps in addition to, we have the mentality of “do it for the children” which is just as dangerous.

I feel that the teaching profession has fallen into a trap with this mentality. The article specifically refers to academia and those with PhDs. However, as you can see from this modified quote, it fits the teaching profession eerily well:

“There are many factors that keep [teachers] providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages…but one of the strongest is how pervasively the [“do it for the children”] doctrine is embedded in [schools]. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output…Because [teaching] should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.”

So if you’re a connected educator, and you enjoy participating on Twitter, writing your own blog, or reading other people’s blogs, then keep doing what you’re doing so long as you find meaning in it. If you don’t do those things, and you really aren’t interested in doing them, then you’re probably not reading this blog post right now, so it doesn’t matter what I have to say.


How Teaching Changed My Life

The other day I happened to see this tweet in my feed, and all of a sudden I felt compelled to respond to it.


I thoroughly answered the first part of the question, and one could assume the second part as well. Teaching changed my life by giving me a purpose and direction that I sorely needed. However, that’s more of a byproduct of why I chose teaching. How it changed my life didn’t really materialize until later.

I mentioned in my previous post how I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but what I didn’t know during all that time is that I had the completely wrong idea about what it means to be a teacher, especially a good one.

All through K-12, I was one of those students who was “good” at school. Everything came easy to me and I got As in all of my classes. Well, with the exception of a C in band one grading period because I was terrible about turning in my weekly practice sheet. That blip aside, my record was spotless.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that while I was “good” at school, I wasn’t actually a very good learner. Mostly I just had a great memory. I could remember what I read in books. I could remember how to spell my spelling words. I could remember all the steps required to solve my math problems.

And since most of my assignments revolved around remembering things, I was an A student. Sure, there might have been 1 or 2 critical thinking questions at the bottom of a worksheet, and I generally did awful at those, but since I got the other 28 basic questions correct, I was always assured an A.

If you look up the term fixed mindset in the dictionary, there is likely a picture of my younger self next to it. Growing up, I considered myself naturally smart, as did my parents and teachers. I didn’t do it consciously, but as a result, I shied away from anything that could possibly put that idea in jeopardy. Or I cheated. That I did fairly consciously and with much guilt. I couldn’t have people finding out I was a fraud, now could I?

Becoming a teacher taught me that I was wrong about so many things.

I learned that school shouldn’t be about memorization and worksheets. My job as a teacher is to create experiences that all of my students can participate in and learn from. I should be fostering many more skills beyond simple recall. My students should be modeling and problem solving and communicating, to name just a few.

I learned how to be a learner myself. I’m especially thankful I had the chance to attend numerous workshops put on by Pam Harris. She helped me realize that I can model and problem solve and communicate just like my students. It was a liberating experience.

During my years as a teacher, with two years of grad school mixed in, my fixed mindset about my intelligence was shattered. I became a professional development junkie. I always wanted to know more about the best ways to teach every subject because I wanted to create experiences that were completely unlike what I had as a kid. I wanted my students to come away from my class thinking that they have the ability to learn anything they want.

In some ways, you could say that I got into teaching for all the wrong reasons. It could have been a disaster, but thankfully I had the right experiences to open my eyes to the true potential I had in the classroom. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.


Just Do What You Love

A couple of months ago, I was over at a friend’s house for dinner. We were catching up, doing the usual chit chat about what’s been going on in our lives. I was talking about how I missed being in the classroom and that I didn’t know for how much longer I could work as a curriculum developer.

My job has changed significantly since I first started five years ago. I used to work in an office in Austin with 5 other math developers and 4 ELA folks. We were like a family. Then strategic changes occurred in our company. The ELA folks were laid off, and our math team was pared down to 3 people, including myself.

One of the three of us left for another job and the other stayed on the team but moved up to Chicago. So now I’m a team of one. Well, technically I have coworkers in Seattle, Chicago, and Columbus, but I work by myself in Austin day in and day out so it feels like a team of one.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I thrive on collaboration so this has been a challenge for me, and not surprisingly, it’s made me reminisce (admittedly with rose-colored glasses) about how exciting and satisfying it was to work with kids every day.

At various points in the past 5 years, I’ve thought about going back to the classroom. I even applied for and was offered a job in my old district a couple of years ago. I’m loathe to admit it, but money was a big reason I turned the job down. There were other factors, namely becoming a foster parent, but for the purposes of the story I’m about to get back to, money is the key factor I want to focus on.

In all but one school district in my area, your pay as a teacher is determined by the number of years you have in the classroom. The sad fact is that I’ve spent 5 years working as a curriculum writer and it counts for absolutely nothing if I go back to the classroom. It may help get me a job, but it has zero impact on my pay.

If I go back to the classroom, I go right back to the exact same pay scale that I left. Sure, there have been some adjustments across the board to the pay scale in the past 5 years, but let me be blunt: The pay cut would be around $20,000. That’s not chump change. It would be irresponsible of me not to consider that on those days when I think longingly of getting a job in a school district.

And I hate that! With a passion!

If you read my post on why I became a teacher, you know that serving others is something I’m passionate about and money is not something that I love. However, what I do love is providing for my family. Thanks to my job, my husband and I have a mortgage on a home, we paid off all the credit card debt from my teaching years, we even paid off one of my student loans, and we are actively saving for retirement. As far as being responsible goes, we’re doing well thanks to my salary.

After all that back story and set up, let’s get back to the original story I started at the beginning of this post. After dinner I was talking through these concerns with my friend and her husband, and his response was, “You should do what you love. If I didn’t love my job, I wouldn’t be doing it right now.

Since he’s a friend I brushed it off, but later in the car, I told my husband that all I wanted to do was say, “Screw you! You are a software developer who makes a six-figure salary. You can afford to buy a car with cash. You work for a company that takes you on spa trips for company meetings and gives you iPads just for the heck of it.” (And I’m not talking a work iPad. I’m talking a do-what-you-want-with-it iPad.) “You have no idea what it’s like having to choose between doing what you love and having $20,000 more per year to keep your family in a stable financial position. You don’t get that schools don’t just give iPads away for fun or send their teachers on spa trips. We are lucky to get Sharpies, colorful post it notes, and a potluck lunch put together by parent volunteers during Teacher Appreciation Week.”

Lest you think this is an issue of jealousy, it’s not. As far as our financial position is concerned, my husband and I are happy where we’re at. Other than liking to eat out more than we should and my comic book buying habit, we’re not very big spenders.

It just irritates me so much that my friend’s husband gets to do what he loves and is so extraordinarily compensated for it. His salary is nearly 4 times that of a teacher in my area! I highly doubt he’s doing 4 times as much work as any teacher I know. Sure, I could have gone into the same field, but it just doesn’t interest me. I know what I love, and I hate that in order to do it, I have to live a life of sacrifice.

I want to end with a rousing, “It’s not fair!” but that’s lame because I know that life isn’t fair and it sounds like I’m whining. I also know the whole line about “doing what you love” is a crock because sometimes you just have to do a job whether you love it or not. How insulting is it to all those folks whose livelihood is provided by working at low paying jobs? I’m sure many workers who make low wages would love to be doing something else, but it’s a reality that we can’t all do what we love.

In my case, I know that deep down I could go back to the classroom if I wanted to. I’m at least 50% sure that we could make it work financially. I’m not stuck like many other people are. However, it’s not a simple choice, and this post was all about me talking through the complexities and frustration I have pent up about having to make this decision at some point in the future. I like to call these “real-life” decisions because they’re difficult and there is no correct answer. There’s just the choice you make, and it’s up to you to craft the story that shows it was the right choice in the end.