Six and a Half Years: Part 1

Today marks my last day as the Elementary Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator in Round Rock ISD. After serving in this role for six and a half years, I’m resigning so that my husband, daughter, and I can move to Rochester, New York this spring to live closer to family. I wrote previously about our reasons for moving here.

Leaving this job is strange because it feels like my tenure in the role is just a blip in the life of our school district. Someone did my job before me and someone will carry on now that I’m gone. That’s the same for all the folks who take on a position in a complex system like a school district. We all have a window of opportunity to make an impact in the time that we’re a part of that system. The question I’m asking myself right now is what did I accomplish in the time that I had the privilege of serving in this role? Or more simply, did I use my time well?

Today I’d like to share what I consider to be my accomplishments over the past six and a half years. I’m also going to follow up with another blog post about lessons I learned along the way. I’m not one for bragging or tooting my own horn, so writing this post has been uncomfortable, but on the other hand it does leave me with a sense of satisfaction that I did make good use of the time I was entrusted with leading elementary mathematics instruction in RRISD.

Accomplishment #1 – I survived my first year on the job.

If you’ve never worked in curriculum, it’s important to know that it has a life cycle based around the adoption of new standards and instructional resources. It’s really busy at the front end when standards and resources are new, but it gets way more chill as time goes on. Everyone becomes more familiar with the standards. Units become more settled. Resources become more fleshed out.

As luck would have it, I happened to join the district and start in this role at the front end when everything was brand new. I started in July 2014 and that August, teachers were expected to teach for the first time ever:

  • using the newly adopted elementary mathematics TEKS,
  • using newly district-developed curriculum units that bundled those TEKS in meaningful ways,
  • using a newly adopted instructional resource, ORIGO Stepping Stones, and
  • using the newly launched Google site that housed our curriculum documents.
Our unit plans in 2014 were Word documents converted to PDF and housed in a Google Site. It was not the most user-friendly resource that first year.

Needless to say, teachers were stressed! I got a lot of frustrated (and some outright angry) emails and phone calls that year. Just a few months prior in the previous school year, teachers were using curriculum units that had been around for several years. They were comfortable with those units. Now it felt like suddenly those familiar units were snatched away, replaced with brand new units, with brand new lessons, in a brand new platform. With our new standards, the order of some topics got shifted around while others were completely removed from a grade level.

It was a shock to the system. It was a shock to me joining that system. It’s like I was dropped onto an airplane as it was taking off. Oh, and it wasn’t even a complete airplane. It was still being built as it shakily launched into the air.

It was a hectic year, to say the least. I told myself if I could survive that school year, every year after would feel easier by comparison. And for the most part, that was true. Every year posed challenges, but nothing as tough as that first year. Did I mention that in the first month of the school year I was told to develop and deliver a yearlong PD program for over 100 elementary math interventionists, on top of all the work I was already rushing to complete to get the remaining curriculum units and assessments written?

I should point out that I left my previous job to take this one because I was looking for something more challenging. And boy did I find challenge! So even though it was hectic, it was also exhilarating.

It’s also important to note that I didn’t do it alone. I survived that first year in large part thanks to Regina Payne. She was a life saver! At that time in our Curriculum Department two people were in charge of elementary mathematics, the Curriculum Coordinator (me) and the Curriculum Specialist (Regina). I am eternally grateful for Regina’s help and patience that first year. She knew where all the documents were, what work still needed to be done to get the curriculum completed for that school year, and she had a wealth of knowledge about how things worked in our district.

Regina and I in August 2014 before we knew the great things we would accomplish as the Dynamic Math Duo!

Coming into the role I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I never knew what was on the horizon until after I’d lived through a full year as the Curriculum Coordinator. It was a wild ride that first year, but I survived and went on to thrive.

Accomplishment #2 – Suggested Unit Plans

A tension I felt early in my time as Curriculum Coordinator was about how much and what kind of support to provide teachers through our curriculum. Some teachers wanted me to leave them alone, feeling like I was stepping on their toes by providing lesson plans in the ARRC. (That’s the name of our district curriculum. It stands for Aligned Round Rock Curriculum.) Others felt like we didn’t provide enough support because we didn’t have a lesson ready for every single day of the school year.

At first I leaned toward providing less. Teaching is a craft. I didn’t want to interfere by presuming I could tell teachers which lesson to teach everyday. Nor did I want to interfere with their ability to be responsive to the needs of their students. I felt that a good balance was to provide a sampling of lessons and ideas in each unit, but I wasn’t going to write daily lesson plans.

One day I was forced to reconsider my feelings about providing daily lesson plans. In a meeting, one of our district leaders shared how challenging it was for some teachers to plan quality lessons for every subject when their entire team was made up of teachers with only 1-2 years of experience. Even more problematic, these teams of novice teachers are often located at campuses with high turnover rates, which happen to be campuses with more students of color and more students living in poverty.

As I considered what to do, I thought about the metaphor of a teacher as a restaurant employee who not only serves as the waiter, but also as the chef, meal planner, grocery buyer, etc. If it’s unreasonable to expect one person to do every aspect of running a restaurant, much less do it well, then the same goes for a teacher running a classroom. If my goal was for all teachers in my district to teach high-quality, standards-aligned lessons, then I decided it was my responsibility to provide those lessons for teachers who were not in a position to plan them on their own, especially considering the variability of experience and all of the many other responsibilities on their plates.

That’s easier said than done, of course. This was a mammoth undertaking! As Curriculum Coordinator, I’ve been responsible for developing, revising, and maintaining about 90(!) math units across 6 grade levels (K-5) along with 3 grade levels of an accelerated curriculum for talented and gifted students in grades 3-5. Not only is that a lot of units, but it also meant writing A LOT of lessons.

Before I took this job, I spent 5 years developing digital math curriculum at a private company. I know what it takes to develop high quality daily lessons: it takes teams of knowledgeable people and it takes time. When I took on this project, I didn’t presume I could get it all done in a year. Rather, in my first year I brought together teams of 3-4 teachers to develop only 3-4 suggested unit plans per grade level.

That was it for year one, and it was still almost more than we could handle! At first Regina and I led planning meetings together, but quickly it turned into leap-frogging. She would lead one meeting and I would lead the next because as it turned out, each meeting created a lot of work she and I had to continue doing on our own after the teachers went back to their classrooms.

On each collaborative planning day, we tackled just one unit. The teachers worked with us to do the heavy lifting of unpacking standards, developing a flow of concepts across the number of days in the unit, and planning ideas for lessons.

Here are notes from one of the very first units we planned with our 3rd grade collaborative in the fall of 2016. We wrote these as we unpacked the standards at the start of our planning session. If you’d like to see the whole planning document for this particular unit click here.

After unpacking standards and planning the flow of the unit, we would examine existing lessons that were written in-district as well as lessons from our adopted resource to see if they could be used as-is, whether they needed revisions, or whether we needed to write a brand new lesson from scratch. Each planning meeting ended with a lengthy to-do list of resources and lessons Regina and I had to create ourselves.

It was a ton of work, but it was all worth it once we started getting feedback from teachers on the first units we posted. Very quickly teachers started asking for more! They were loving the daily lesson plans, especially when we included outside resources created and shared by members of the greater math education community, such as:

One of the teachers in that 3rd grade collaborative came to our next planning meeting and said, “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever hit every standard in a unit before. It felt so good!”

The final product looked something like this. You can check out the full suggested unit plan here.

It took 3 years, but we now have suggested unit plans for almost all 90 elementary math units. There are a few shorter units that I just never got around to because of time and/or budget, but we’re close!

Accomplishment #3 – Spreading the Word of Numberless Word Problems

As I mentioned earlier, in my first months on the job I was tasked with developing a yearlong PD program for over 100 math interventionists. At one of our first sessions together, Regina Payne introduced the interventionists (and me!) to numberless word problems. I was so taken by the idea, I wrote this blog post to capture the story she shared about how she got the idea and how she implemented it for the first time.

As we planned PD for the interventionists, we used the IES Practice Guide “Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for Elementary and Middle Schools.” One of the recommendations in the guide is to “include instruction on solving word problems that is based on common underlying structures.” I decided in my free time to create sets of numberless word problems organized by the CGI problem types. I posted them on this blog so that anyone could use them. I also continued writing more blog posts and eventually presented about numberless word problems at various conferences. I now have a page dedicated to numberless word problems on this blog which you can visit here.

One of my favorite posts about numberless word problems is this one where I talk through my process of writing a problem from scratch. You can read it here.

Today my numberless word problem resources are accessed hundreds of times daily, and I love to read all the tweets I’m tagged in and the ones tagged to #numberlesswp where people share their experiences using them in their classrooms. I’m thankful to Regina Payne for introducing me to numberless word problems and I’m proud that we’ve been able to get the word out about them not just in our district but far beyond as well.

Accomplishment #4 – Redefining Math Instruction in Grades K and 1

My first day on the job, way back in July 2014, I stopped by a summer PD session led by one of our veteran instructional coaches, Mary Beth Cordon. She was leading a session on teaching number concepts in the primary grades. As I sat down, she handed me a copy of Kathy Richardson’s book How Children Learn Number Concepts: A Guide to the Critical Learning Phases. I read a little and was intrigued so I borrowed the book to continue reading. Little did I know how much Kathy Richardson would influence my work over the next six and a half years.

The biggest influence she had on my work in RRISD was after I attended her leadership institute in the summer of 2018. After a week of learning from her, I was left with a profound feeling of disequilibrium about teaching math in the primary grades. Here’s an excerpt from a blog post I wrote shortly after the institute:

There is a HUGE disconnect between what [Kathy Richardson’s] experience says students are ready to learn in grades K-2 and what our state standards expect students to learn in those grades. I’ve been trying to reconcile this disconnect ever since, and I can tell it’s not going to be easy… I’m very conflicted right now. I’ve got two very different trajectories in front of me… Kathy Richardson is all about insight and understanding. Students are not ready to see…until they are. “We’re not in control of student learning. All we can do is stimulate learning.” Our standards on the other hand are all about getting answers and going at a pace that is likely too fast for many of our students. We end up with classrooms where many students are just imitating procedures or saying words they do not really understand. How long before these students find themselves in intervention? We blame the students (and they likely blame themselves) and put the burden on teachers down the road to try to build the foundation because we never gave it the time it deserved.

If you’re interested, you can read the full blog post here. I spent the next six months mulling over these ideas and talking about them with anyone who would listen. I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed to restructure our primary grade math units to give students more time to really dig in and explore mathematics concepts. Here’s an excerpt from a later blog post where I talked through the changes I was planning to make:

I made the units in Kindergarten longer to give students time to “live” in the landscape of these concepts. This goes hand-in-hand with the new instructional model I’m proposing based on the work of Kathy Richardson. Now a typical day will include a short opening activity that’s done together as a whole class. The bulk of math time will be spent in an explore time where students self-select activities that are variations on the core concept of the unit. During this explore time, the teacher’s primary role is to confer with students and continually nudge them along in their understanding. Each day there is a short lesson close to help students reflect on their learning. Here’s a link to a sample suggested unit plan to help teachers envision what a unit might look like in grades K and 1. (Note: If you encounter a link you can’t access in the document it’s likely due to copyright that we don’t control.)

If you want to read more about the changes I ended up making in Kindergarten and 1st grade, you can check out that post here. These were fairly revolutionary changes compared to the way math had been taught, so I didn’t spring them on everyone. Rather, I talked with our Curriculum Director, Darrell Emanuel, about getting teams of teachers to pilot the units. He was gracious enough to sweeten the deal by offering to buy additional manipulative kits for each participating classroom so teachers would feel like they had everything they needed to teach with these units.

I launched the math pilot units in grades K and 1 in the 2019-20 school year. I hosted professional development sessions in the summer to help the pilot teachers understand the “why” behind the new units and to familiarize them with the changes to instruction. I also connected with the instructional coaches at campuses teaching the pilot units to ensure there was additional support on site. Within the first month I visited classrooms, and I met with teachers to answer questions and offer support. I created collaborative documents where pilot teachers could drop in ideas, tips, and questions, to try to create a sense of community among the teachers as they utilized these new units. I also shared a digital photo album so they could see what the lessons and activities looked like in other classrooms and at other campuses.

Even with all of that support, there were still bumps in the road, but after observing classrooms and talking to teachers, I feel affirmed that we’re moving in the right direction. Here’s an excerpt from an email I received from a Kindergarten pilot teacher last spring:

I hope you are doing well! I wanted to offer some quick feedback on the timing and activities of the pilot while it is relatively fresh on my mind.

I felt like there was a strong variety of activities in the units in the first semester which made conferring easier. In the second semester I had trouble getting as many independent activities going in the More, Less and the Same unit. Overall we ended up spending more of our time on whole class activities during that unit which made conferring more of a challenge. My students did show strong mastery of the more, less and the same concepts in the unit and I felt like that unit could have been shortened by at least a week to leave more time for Joining and Separating quantities.

Overall I feel like our kids will be headed into first grade with a very strong number sense.

Accomplishment #5 – Math Rocks

I planned and facilitated many, many, many, many hours of professional development over the past six and a half years.

Out of all of it, I’m most proud of Math Rocks, a 7-month long professional development program Regina and I designed for teachers to dive more deeply into their practice and to build positive identities around mathematics for themselves and their students. Math Rocks had two goals:

Goal #1 Build relationships

We wanted participants in Math Rocks to build relationships around mathematics with one another, with their students, with colleagues at their campus, and with educators outside of our district. In addition to many in-person meetings, we also asked each participant to create a blog and a Twitter account so they could share the great things they were doing in their classrooms and so they could connect with other educators.

Goal #2 Be curious

We also wanted participants to be curious throughout the program: about mathematics, about their students’ thinking, and about their own teaching.

One of my favorite moments that exemplifies these two goals was leading a book study of Making Number Talks Matter in our first year. Each participant got two copies of the book, one for themselves and one for a book study buddy, a colleague on their campus they could invite to read and discuss the book with. In addition to fostering relationships on campus, we also built relationships outside of our district as we joined a national book study hosted by the Teaching Channel. One of the facilitators, Kristin Gray, even hosted a virtual session on number talks with our Math Rocks teachers.

Math Rocks ran as a district-level course for four years. I’ve written several blog posts about about our experiences which you can check out here. Regina and I led it for the first two years, and a team of fantastic instructional coaches led it the next two years. Word of mouth about it was so positive that I was invited to lead it at individual campuses, which is one of the reasons instructional coaches stepped up and took over leading it at the district level. I ended up leading Math Rocks at three campuses over the past few years, which was a great experience because I learned the importance of adapting the course to meet the needs of individual campuses.

Accomplishment #6 – Amplifying Educator Voices

We have amazing and passionate educators in RRISD, and it was important to me to help get their voices heard within and outside of our school district so that others can learn from them.

One of the ways I did this was by regularly encouraging them to apply to speak at local, state, and national conferences. For some, this was outside their comfort zone, but I’m so proud of them for taking a risk and doing it anyway.

Not everyone wants to lead professional development sessions and not everyone would get to attend anyway, so I looked for other avenues for sharing educator voices such as inviting teachers and instructional coaches to write guest posts on my district math blog. These became the Teacher Talk and Coaching Corner features on the blog.

Finally, every two years elementary teachers are eligible for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST). In 2016, I nominated Deb Swyers, a 3rd grade teacher from Elsa England Elementary School, for the award. Not only did she complete the lengthy application, but she ended up becoming a Texas state finalist for the award. I was so proud and happy for her!

This year two of the teachers I nominated for PAEMST completed the application. That alone is a cause for celebration considering they did it while teaching during a pandemic. Our two applicants this year are Jessica Cheyney, a Kindergarten teacher at Double File Trail Elementary School, and Haillie Johnson, a 2nd grade teacher at Elsa England Elementary School. It will be some time before we find out who the Texas state finalists are, but I’m rooting for both of them!

Accomplishment #7 – Serving the Greater Math Community

As much as I’ve loved serving the teachers and students of Round Rock ISD over the past few years, I’ve also valued the opportunities I’ve been afforded to serve the greater math community within and beyond Texas.

In the fall of 2015, I was invited to become a newsletter editor for the Global Math Department, a group of mathematics educators who put out a weekly newsletter and host a weekly professional development webinar. I went on to serve on on the Board of Global Math Department from 2016-2018.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Global Math Department, it is an amazing FREE resource for the mathematics education community. You can check out previous newsletters here and subscribe here. Sign up for upcoming webinars and watch previously recorded webinars for FREE here. It’s good stuff!

Over the past few years, I’ve also been invited to join the planning committees for several math education conferences:

  • NCTM Innov8 2017
  • NCTM Regional in Seattle 2018
  • CAMT 2019
Working the NCTM Regional Conference in Seattle in November 2018

While I’ve learned that large-scale event planning is not my favorite thing to do, I treasure the opportunities I’ve had to work with other dedicated educators to plan and put on these conferences.

And finally, closer to home, I’ve valued the time I’ve been part of the Texas Association of Supervisors of Mathematics (TASM). I started as a TASM member way back in 2014, and after a few years I was invited to serve as their NCTM Representative.

Then TASM Vice-President Jerri LaMirand and I being recognized on behalf of TASM as part of the NCTM Affiliate Leadership Circle at the NCTM Annual Meeting in 2018.

That same year I was nominated and elected to serve as TASM Vice-President, a position I held from 2018-2020. During my time as TASM Vice-President, I planned our fall and spring professional learning events. I also made it my mission to find ways to create more opportunities for our members to interact professionally and socially at our in-person meetings and between meetings. At our October 2019 meeting, I launched the TASM Events Committee and invited members to join. That December we hosted the first ever TASM Power Hour, which has become a monthly virtual hangout where TASM members vote on hot topics to discuss. A couple months later, at our spring 2020 meeting, we hosted our first ever game night to give members an opportunity to socialize together.

TASM Game Night

Last spring I was elected President-Elect of TASM, and I was looking forward to serving in this role. Unfortunately, the pandemic led me and my family in a direction I hadn’t foreseen. When we made the decision to move to New York, it meant resigning from the TASM Board and saying good-bye to my colleagues. I valued my time as a member of TASM. Being a Curriculum Coordinator can be a lonely job at times. TASM was an invaluable resource for connecting me with other wonderful math leaders from around the state.

Closing Thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve been reflecting on whether I made good use of my time in my role as Elementary Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator (that title will forever be a mouthful). Looking back, I’d have to say yes. The job wasn’t always easy, and there’s plenty I didn’t get to do because of time or budget constraints, but in the end I’m proud. I had remarkable colleagues all along the way who supported me in my work and helped me accomplish some great things over the past six and a half years. While I focused on accomplishments today, I’d like to take some time in my next post reflecting on what I’ve learned in my time in this role. The accomplishments I’ll be leaving behind in my district, but the lessons I’ve learned I’ll be able to carry with me as I move on to new adventures.

1 thought on “Six and a Half Years: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Six and a Half Years: Part 2 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

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