Tag Archives: capturing thoughts

End of an Era

My digital curriculum job is dead. Long live my digital curriculum job.

As of January 7…or maybe later this week…or maybe retroactively January 1, I will no longer work for Time To Know. It’s the end of an era.

Time To Know has joined forces with McGraw-Hill Education, and as part of that relationship, I am becoming a McGraw-Hill employee. In case you didn’t know, Time To Know is a digital curriculum company based out of Tel Aviv, Israel. Most of the employees are located in Israel, and they will continue working for Time To Know. Those of us working in the United States, however, were offered to McGraw-Hill. Sort of like a dowry. Thankfully they accepted us.

In the end, I think it’s to my benefit to work for a company based out of the US, not to mention a corporation like McGraw-Hill which is able to offer employee benefits a start up like Time To Know could not afford. But before I get all chummy with my new corporate overlords, I’d like to reflect back on the past three and a half years I worked at Time To Know. It’s been an incredible experience (for the most part), and I can only hope that my time spent at McGraw-Hill will be just as rewarding.

Top 5 Reasons I Enjoyed Working at Time To Know

1. Discourse

One of the reasons I loved this job immediately is because I got to argue with people about teaching and learning. In my years as a public school teacher, I found that most of my co-teachers did not like it when I challenged their ideas. Not that I went out of my way to say they sucked or anything. I just naturally enjoy talking out lesson ideas and figuring out how to improve them. That means if I disagree with something and think that it’s not going to be best for the students, then I will stand up and say so. Yeah, that didn’t go over so well usually.

The Original US Team

No grudges. No matter how intense the meeting, we always came out as friends.

But at Time To Know? They encouraged it! I remember numerous heated meetings when I first started working with my team. The best part is that we knew that we weren’t arguing because we were mad at each other, but because we wanted to design the best instruction we could for the teachers and students. The culture at Time To Know encouraged passion and collaboration in a way I never experienced as a teacher.

I’ll be honest, you needed a thick skin to survive on my team. The first time I had to present a lesson I wrote, I was defensive, I was flushed, and my pulse was going a mile a minute. It didn’t help that the review meetings were nicknamed “shredding” because it was often the case that they would offer so much feedback that your lesson felt shredded to ribbons and you were left with a lot of rewrites. Those meetings, tough as they were at times, taught me a great deal about the power of collaboration. You can accomplish amazing things if you can get people in a room who believe in the same mission, speak their minds, and honestly listen to each other.

2. Travel

As a public school teacher, I was lucky if I got to travel to Dallas or Houston for a conference. At Time To Know I’ve traveled to Dallas and San Antonio, but I’ve also traveled to Israel, New York City, Ohio, and North Carolina. At this point I’m a bit tired of travel for work, but boy was it a great run while it lasted. Traveling to Israel is probably the highlight of my years at Time To Know. If I’m counting correctly, I’ve traveled there 5 times and I had a blast each time. Of course I was there for work, but I fit in plenty of sightseeing to make it worth it.

Jerusalem- The Old City

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Israel before I took this job, and it was never on my radar as a place I’d ever like to visit, but I have to say, if you ever have the chance to go, you should definitely take it. It’s surreal to drive down the highway and see every other exit is a place from the Bible. The country is just sopping wet with history. I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Megiddo (the site of Armageddon!), and Jerusalem, to name a few places. The great thing is that it isn’t a large country so you can see a lot in a few days.

Floatin' along

Floating at the Dead Sea while on a work trip. One of the coolest things I’ve ever done!

Be sure to go to the Dead Sea. It’s unbelievable. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot sink. Your body wants to float and it will fight you. Even trying to tread water, you’ll feel your feet being pulled out from under you and up to the surface of the water. There’s something magical about it that captured a feeling I haven’t had since I was a kid.

The Bianca - the most amazing pizza I have ever tasted

The Bianca – the most amazing pizza I have ever tasted

And of course eat plenty of delicious food. It’s one of my favorite reasons to travel after all, and Israel is one of my favorite places to eat.

3. The La-Las

LaLas

The La Las

In my office in Austin, there were at one time 6 of us on the math team and 4 amazing ladies on the Language Arts team, nicknamed the La-Las. I can’t imagine what this job would have been like without them. Whereas the math team was usually quiet and deep in thought, the La-Las could usually be heard laughing and telling stories. I’ve never met four people who enjoy working with each other as much as they do. Their specialty was bringing the whole office together for good food and good company. They organized birthday lunches, taco salad potlucks, Thanksgiving feasts, and white elephant gift exchanges. And they made great traveling companions. We’d meet up every evening in the hotel lounge to decompress and laugh together.

4. My Team

Mathinators!

The Math Team – Pure Awesome

We tried coming up with a nickname like the La-Las. We were the Mathinators or something. It didn’t stick. And it was kind of dumb. We just weren’t as cool as the La-Las.

GoGoWall

Every time we released a lesson, we placed it on the Go-Go Wall. (Our office building was next door to a strip club, and their business office used to be in our office space. Super classy!)

What we lacked in clever names, we more than made up for in pure awesome.  Over the past three years the team I led produced nearly 100 digital math lessons. And when I say lesson, I mean an hour or more of content that involves a wide variety of interactions in the classroom from whole class discussion to individual exploration. I’m proud of the work we did. We were able to meet increasingly tight deadlines without sacrificing quality.

5. The Product

I know this should probably be number one on my list of things to remember about this job, but honestly all of my other experiences trump this. As much as I love our product, I’ve always been a bit sad that I’m making lessons I don’t get to teach myself. I know several thousand students have encountered lessons I’ve designed, which is just baffling to think about, but I can’t help but selfishly think, “I want to be the one teaching those kids with our curriculum!”

I guess that speaks well of our curriculum that it’s something I want to use myself. Nowadays there are so many digital products vying for students’, teachers’, and schools’ attention. Many are criticized for isolating students by plugging them into individualized programs. There’s also a fear that technology products are trying to replace teachers. Check out Dan Meyer’s latest blog post for an example from a charter school. What I love about our curriculum is that it has always been designed to keep the teacher as an important figure in the class. We aim to augment with technology, not take away or diminish.

And that’s all I want to say about our curriculum because I don’t want anyone to think this is turning into a commercial. Suffice it to say, I’m proud of the lessons I’ve written, and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of writing them.

Looking Ahead

T2K-MHE Team

Here’s to great success as McGraw-Hill and Time To Know join forces.

While my time as a curriculum developer at Time To Know is over, I embark on a new journey as a curriculum developer at McGraw-Hill…which is to say I’m basically doing the same job as before but my paycheck comes from someone else. I’m thankful that McGraw-Hill has faith in the work we’ve been doing, and they’re allowing us to continue without a lot of interference or unreasonable demands. If all goes well, I’ll continue to develop math lessons to be proud of, and it will be a good long while before I have to write another post like this one.

Flipping the Flipped Classroom

In an earlier post I questioned the trendy use of foldables. Today I want to question the flipped classroom model which is all the rage right now. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with this model, here’s a handy infographic you should check out.

So the basic premise of the flipped classroom is that the lecture portion of instruction is recorded in some way and students watch this lecture on computers at home for homework. Then, in class, the students work on more engaging activities (practice) because they’ve already “learned” the content of the lesson at home. The teacher, free from having to lecture, is able to walk around and help students with problems as they arise. Educators like to talk about transitioning their role from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” and this model definitely allows for that transition in roles…in the classroom only.

Here is my primary concern:

What is with the insistence on the lecture (direct instruction) model?

Teachers appear to be loving the ability to offer more engaging, open-ended activities in class now that students are watching lectures at home.

What was stopping these teachers from offering these kinds of activities before?

Why do teachers think students have to be told what to do before they actually do any math?

The use of instructional videos as “pre-learning” shows that the transmission model of education is in no danger of going away. In all these years, hasn’t the field of education learned enough about how students learn best to know that talking at them is not ideal? Don’t get me wrong, having access to these kinds of videos as a resource is great. If I’m working out a problem, and I realize I need to brush up on the Pythagorean theorem, then watching a 5-7 minute video might be super helpful. Why do we assume students need to be told everything they need to know about a concept or a strategy before trying out a problem or two for themselves?

Flipping the Flipped Classroom

If anything, I would rather suggest flipping the classroom in the other direction. First, start with an engaging problem. Look at Dan Meyer’s three act problems for one approach. Don’t spend a lot of time talking at your students from the get go. Have a brief discussion about the situation and then let them go. If it’s challenging, let them work in pairs or small groups to brainstorm together. If they finish quickly, give them some other problems related to the big idea of the lesson. Finally, pull the class together and debrief. Talk. Have discussion, not lecture. At this point, if you want to tell the students something, they are much more receptive to hearing it and asking questions about it. I have witnessed this first hand. Students are more talkative after engaging with content, not before. Students love to think and talk, but they are more readily engaged if they have some connection with what you’re talking about. And if you still want to make an instructional video, great! The students have struggled with the content, they’ve talked about it with each other, and they’ve talked about it with you. Watching a video might help cement ideas that they weren’t quite sure about yet.

With this model you’re showing students that they can learn content without having to be told exactly what steps to take. Instead the role of a student is being problem solvers engaged in their own learning and processes, rather than passive recipients of information that may or may not “stick” or that they may not understand how to apply.

To question, how to question, that is the question…or something

Yesterday I read a post called Questions and more questions! on the blog in stillness the dancing. [UPDATE – Beth Ferguson (@algebrasfriend) updated and revised this post in 2016. You can check out the updated version here.]

After reading the post, I ended up writing a comment with the thoughts that came to my mind about questioning. After I posted it, I thought about how I had read a lot of great blog posts throughout the day, and I comment on a lot of them! I really enjoy thinking about what people have to say and sharing my thoughts in return. What I realized is that one of the primary purposes of this blog I just created is for personal reflection and a place to store my thoughts. So, going forward, I’m going to start copy and posting some of those thoughts here so I capture them rather than cast them about the blogosphere like seeds in the wind. Of course, I’m honored if any of my thoughts are the seed of a conversation elsewhere, but I don’t want to ignore my little garden patch of ideas here on my blog.

So, without further ado, and to extract myself from the gardening metaphor I stumbled into, here’s what I want to remember I said after reading the post on questioning. (And since I’m taking the time to collect it here, I’m going to organize and revise it a bit based on thoughts I had since I initially wrote the comment.)

A few tips I can give from my experiences with questioning:

1. Give away the answer. Sometimes I present a problem, and almost immediately give away the answer. That way when we’re talking about the process for finding the answer, the students aren’t hung up wondering whether they’re correct or not. Also it demonstrates that I care about more than getting the right answer. How we get the answer, especially if there is more than one solution path, means a great deal to me, and I want it to mean a great deal to my students.

2. Do your students understand the question? This may only apply to younger students, or perhaps students where English isn’t their first language, but I was surprised to find out how difficult it was for students to grasp “missing information” questions. For example, “Tom has $30. He buys some candies that cost $4 per pack. What information is needed in order to determine how much Tom spent?” It amazed me that until we had talked explicitly about this question type several times, my students (4th graders) completely ignored the part asking about missing information. They jumped right to the question, or at least what they saw as the question – How much did Tom spend? They couldn’t grasp that this question was impossible to solve without more information. It goes to show how much understanding language is wrapped up in understanding math.

3. Let students write the questions. I like providing students situations with lots of information and asking students to pose the questions we might solve based on this information. For example, I read a blog today where someone posted a worksheet showing the writer’s times on various legs of a triathlon. She also included her friend’s times on the same triathlon. The question she posed was whether she and her friend finished at the same time. I like the question, but after looking at the data, I couldn’t help but think of all the other questions you could ask using that same data. Students have to make all sorts of connections to their prior knowledge to look at a set of data and think of questions to ask. Of course they’ll likely start with very obvious questions, but with practice they can get very creative!

4. Ask, “Are you sure?” even if they’re right! Students are pretty smart. They realize that adults often ask this question to indicate that the student has made a mistake. Teachers should be asking this question regardless of whether the answer is correct or not. If you want a student to be confident in their answer, and more importantly if they want to be confident in their answers, this is a question they should hear repeatedly and learn to ask themselves.

5. Be a traffic cop. When you ask a question and a student answers, you can stop all momentum by saying, “Correct,” and moving on. But imagine if you say instead, “Oh, Zaida thinks the answer is 24. John, do you agree or disagree with this answer?” followed by, “Oh, John says he agrees with the answer of 24. Mary, why do you think both students are saying the answer is 24?” The student answers pass through you but you immediately pass direct them in the form of a new question to another student in the class. You don’t have to do this if the question is simple. If I’m teaching 5th graders and for some reason I ask the sum of 12 + 12, then I’m not going to engage in a lengthy discussion, but if the students are evaluating a situation using concepts we’re currently working on, then you better believe we’re going to talk it out, and they’re not going to think the answer is correct because I told them so, but because we built consensus as a class.

So those are my thoughts on questioning that I wanted to capture. I love getting involved in conversations with students and questioning them to learn more about their thinking and how they approached a problem. It fascinates me what goes in the brains of kids. They can be surprisingly clever and sophisticated; we just have to give them opportunities to show us how cool their thinking is.