June 23, 2017

Answering Their Questions

"What will happen if Donald Trump starts a war with the Mexicans?"

This question was left on a Post-it on my desk by two fourth graders back in October, following a discussion about the impending presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Although it was easy, among my liberal friends, to bemoan the fact that ten-year-olds were worrying about such a thing as a war with Mexico, I recognize now that this was an incredibly important question for them to be asking -- regardless of the specifics around this particularly polarizing election.

Being a citizen, we teach young people, means questioning our leaders, and considering the ramifications of policy decisions, and making choices. Yet too often, I think, we shut down exactly these types of questions from our students because they make us, the adults, uncomfortable. We don't want to upset parents or administrators; we don't want to get stuck in a political debate; we don't really know the answer ourselves.

Or we answer glibly or sarcastically, or with forced reassurance that everything will be okay. The danger of this is that our kiddos can't always tell the difference between sarcasm and honesty.  They learn that these questions have fast, firm answers --

"What will happen if...?"
"Nothing."
"It can't really happen."
"We won't let it happen."
"Don't worry."

The truth is there are no simple answers to this type of deep question. The truth is, also, that it's not a simple question. When I answered this specific question, in a conversation with my class later, I tried to explain that there is a process for declaring war -- that our military would take action and other countries would respond, that it could be scary and dangerous and people would die. I also explained that while our country has been in wars in the past, it's hard to know how another war would go, which is why it is a big deal to suggest that any country take this route to solve the problems it has with other countries.

It is difficult to find answers to questions about public policy without layering on my own political views and values -- and admittedly, I'm not always successful -- but I try. I try because I think my students deserve to hear an answer, even if it's imperfect. I try because I want them to know that I'm thinking about these things too. I try because if they never get an answer, they may stop asking. And we need our kids to keep asking questions.

We need to raise children who want to know what will happen if -- if we start a war, or if we cut healthcare, or if we raise taxes. We also need to raise children who aren't quick to decide if war is right or wrong, or healthcare is all or nothing, or taxes are fair or unfair. We need to raise the next generation to ask difficult questions of themselves and of their leaders. Then we need them to be able to ponder and petition, to concede and to compromise, to conclude and resolve, and then to reconsider.

And it starts with answering their questions.

January 5, 2017

Teaching On Stage

Teaching is often compared to other service professions -- like nurses and clergy -- and there are certainly similarities there.  Teachers work for the public (i.e. our students and their families). The results of our work are largely intangible, and while it can be very rewarding, it's often thankless work as well.  I've been thinking recently, though, about a different comparison I heard a few years ago. In many ways, the career most similar to teaching is acting.

Fourth grader teaching her Pre-K Book Buddy!
The preparation teachers go through before a lesson is similar to actors learning their lines.  We study and rehearse to ensure that we can deliver a teaching point precisely or present a math skill clearly.  We then perform our lessons for a critical audience and have to be ready to accept their feedback and tweak our performance for future lessons, innovating while teaching the same standard.  Like actors, we are often seen only as our final performance -- and most people never even know about the the hours of research for the role, the rehearsals, the costume adjustments, the staging, or the last minute script changes.

Like an actor in a play, teachers try to build a genuine connection with our audience while portraying a character. Stage actors, like teachers, have families, histories, and issues that they bring into their role. While this background makes us into the performers that we are, sometimes our personal lives don't mesh with our role.  I have days when I'm emotional or exhausted, yet when I step in front of my kiddos, I'm "on stage" -- I need to smile, speak calmly, and focus on the content I'm teaching, regardless of what's been happening behind the scenes.

I'm often reminded of this comparison when I'm overwhelmed by working late, stressful morning meetings, or personal issues.  The reality is that all teachers have good days and bad days, and children they click with and those they don't.  Being a "responsive teacher" means knowing that my students and I will all have days we don't feel like working our hardest or doing our best. It means knowing that my students' families and experiences are as important and inextricable from them, as mine are from me. I hope that, like a stage performer, my vulnerability, honesty, and life experience shine through in my performance and ultimately make me someone who my audience (students and parents) trusts, appreciates, and supports.

January 3, 2017

Eureka Math Myths

Student work from an Investigations lesson
For the past five years, I've been using the Investigations Math curriculum, both in first grade and in fourth.  So when my school district announced this year that we would be switching to Eureka math, I was a little apprehensive. Fortunately, our team was allowed to take this year to get to get familiar with new curriculum and make a gradual changeover.  As the math planner for fourth grade, it was my job to figure out to make this transition smooth.

My initial plan was to teach Investigations for the first part of the year, going at slightly accelerated pace and skipping one or two units, but mostly teaching each Investigation with fidelity. However, as I got to know Eureka more, I realized that pulling in pieces from this new curriculum early on would benefit our mathematicians. We quickly incorporated some of the fluency pieces, including "Sprints" and "Application Problems."  As we have moved further in to the year, I've included a few whole Eureka lessons, and even entire Module (unit) in between our Investigations lessons. The results have been impressive: my kiddos are doing better, faster math than they were before and they are able to explain their thinking more clearly -- both verbally and visually!

Student work from a Eureka Math Problem Set
I've heard a lot of criticism about Eureka, especially about the level of rigor it demands, but from the training I've received and my own experiences, I think a lot of it is unsubstantiated.  Eureka is definitely an accelerated program compared to Investigations (and most math other curricula I'm familiar with), but this is a result of the curriculum's tight alignment to the Common Core standards (read more about this here: http://www.edreports.org/math/reports/series/eureka-math.html).  While I have had had to go back to second- and third-grade lessons to fill in gaps and meet the current understanding of my fourth graders, I've still found that the majority of my kiddos have been thriving with the structure of the Eureka lessons and the methods of instruction. Of course, it's hard to know whether they would have been prepared for the level of math was have undertaken this year without the strong background that I believe they acquired from Investigations in Kindergarten-3rd grade, but nevertheless, I think that Eureka has some really smart ways of teaching number concepts that will benefit all young mathematicians.

So, what are the myths about this new curricula?  How does it really play out in my classroom?
Here we go:

 (Disclaimer: This is just my understanding from the instructors I've spoken to and my own interpretations of what I've read.)

Myth #1: It's a script.

As the professional developer who led my first training about Eureka put it: "If you try to follow the Eureka Teacher's Guide like a script, you'll find that your students have not been studying their lines."  Just like other curricula, the Eureka Teacher's Guide provides a sample conversation between a teacher and students -- the text is not intended to be the exact or only words that teachers use when explaining concepts to students. The dialogue can be a guide for how to explain new concepts and the types of questions to ask, but may include more language than needed or may not be sufficient for any given lesson.


Myth #2: You have to do every part of every lesson / assessment.

The Eureka Math lessons are packed -- most include multiple fluency exercises, sample problems, and discussion questions. There are also times associated with each component of the lesson. Just like with the "script," most of these components are suggested to support the skills and strategies that are being taught in the lesson/module. According to the professional developers and planners I've talked with, the times are guidelines to prevent students from spending too long on any one component, rather than a mandate to fit as much as possible into one lesson.  I've also been advised that the bulk of the lesson should be in the Concept Development, with enough independent practice for students to try out new skills but not so long that they get frustrated or bored.

Even the assessments are designed to give teachers choices. Our district has been told that the Mid-Module and End-of-Module Assessments were actually designed to be used a test bank for word problems and multi-step computation problems. Teachers are encouraged to select only the problems they think will best assess their students' skill and understanding, and also to add additional basic computation or simple identification problems as needed.


Myth #3: You can't differentiate.

Yes, there is a reason that the Eureka designers laid out certain lessons the way they did and that they chose to develop concepts across grades and modules, but that doesn't mean that each class and every student will master those lessons and concepts in the same way and in the same amount of time. Of course, some differentiation will always be needed.  In fact, one of the great things about using a well-aligned curriculum is that teachers can go back to previous grades or Modules to see how skills were initially taught or practiced.  Especially in our first year of using Eureka in fourth grade, I've gone back to second- and third-grade lessons to see how concepts like fractions, standard algorithms, and place value develop. I've taught some of these earlier lessons to my whole class and others to a sub-set of students who needed more background.


Myth #4: You can't use hands-on, interactive or investigative approaches.

It's true that Eureka relies more on direct instruction than more constructivist math programs, but I've still found plenty of opportunities for my kiddos to use manipulatives and investigate concepts.  Again, sometimes these experiences are built into lessons from previous grades that can easily be brought up or revisited with older students; other times I've incorporated the manipulatives and games that I used with Investigations. If kids need to build, bundle, balance, or bisect... then by all means, they should!  Eureka does provide tools for students to visualize concepts, including individual white board templates, cut outs, place value cards, etc.. In addition, I've found that the Application Problems work really well for partners or small groups, while many of the Concept Development problems lend themselves to being "investigated" using a constructivist approach. Plus, online resources like Zearn.org can give students additional blended-learning practice with skills directly from Eureka.

So there is it ... my assessment of Eureka Math. All in all, I'm enjoying getting to know this new curriculum and seeing how it supports my kiddos' math learning.