Tag Archives: #MTBoS30

Pondering Teachers as Curriculum Designers

A few weeks ago I posed the following question:

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

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

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

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

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

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




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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Public Relations Advice on the Common Core Debate

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

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

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

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

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

A Singular Message

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

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

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

An Important Voice

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

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

A Parallel Message

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brian and the Case of the Missing Receipt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Arguing With Parents Is Counterproductive

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

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

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

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

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

PR Issue

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

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

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

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

Silly Parent

Helpless Parent

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

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

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

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


Where The Rubber Meets The Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Year In The Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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