July 6, 2018

Shower Skills

I don't remember exactly where, or from whom, I learned about the term "shower skills" but I'm actually surprised that I haven't blogged about it yet because it's something I've returned to again and again in my teaching career.  So here goes!  A few years back, and by now it was probably quite a few, I attended a professional development where the presenter shared about this concept:

You know how you can take a great shower on Monday, and be completely, thoroughly clean? And then you might not need to shower on Tuesday?  And then, depending on how active you are, and how hot it is, you could probably go another day or two without showering as well?  But, eventually, no matter what, you know you will need to shower again?

Well, some skills/routines/procedures we teach our kiddos are the same way!  We can teach them fully and completely on Monday, and they might stick through Tuesday, and even Wednesday or Thursday, but eventually we will need to review and even reteach them.

This can be hard to remember as teachers, especially when we feel like we did a really excellent job teaching something the first time.  Of course, not every skill is a "shower skill" -- many things, if taught well, can be mastered relatively quickly and never need to be fully re-taught again.  But there are a surprising number of routines, rules, and procedures in our classrooms that can fall under the "shower skill" umbrella -- skills like sitting correctly on the carpet, putting the heading on your paper, and lining up quietly.

Yet, too often, we get frustrated and annoyed, or even angry, with our kiddos when they don't follow through with the procedures that we know we've taught them.  We get indignant that they aren't tracking the speaker and nodding along, or they aren't responding to the quiet signal the way it was taught, or they aren't answering in complete sentences.

Now, before taking out my frustration on my kiddos, or reconsidering my career choice, I've learned to ask myself -- is this something that could be shower skill?  Maybe all I need is to do is reteach, remind everyone of the expectation, and do a little follow up.  It's surprising how many times a short reteach lesson will clear up the issue without harping, yelling, or punishing.

This approach also leaves more time and energy for really teaching well those skills that require more attention and differentiation. Win:Win!

NOTE: It's much easier to think (write) about this topic during the summer, but I'm hoping that this will be a good reminder once I'm back in the school year! 😎

April 28, 2018

Learning for Pleasure

For years, the debate about reading homework -- “daily reading logs” versus “weekly reading responses” versus “reading for pleasure" -- has raged among educators and parents. Each side has its own strong arguments and the truth is there is no right or wrong, so I won't even attempt to join the fight. However, I've recently been thinking about how our discussions about homework in other subjects differ from the reading conversation.

It is not uncommon for schools to assign 20-30 minutes of nightly reading, in addition to the standard "10 minutes of homework per grade." Even schools that don't assign "any" homework often still require some type of reading outside of the classroom. What message does this send to kids and families?

Math homework is easily as debatable as reading homework -- from “assign only review” to “provide immediate practice of the day's objective” -- yet I've never heard "math for pleasure” thrown into the mix.  In my experience, most writing homework is given a specific assignment, like writing a book report, biography, or research paper. And I've definitely never seen "nightly science, in addition to..." on any homework sheet. Why is this? What does it say about the purpose of homework?

Essentially we've created a narrative that reading doesn't count as homework, because reading is more important than the other subjects. Students should read for the sake of reading, to improve as readers, and to be more successful in their lives. Teachers, myself included, pass around infographics (like this one) about how far behind a student can fall if they "miss" those 20 minutes per night, but there are no infographics about the importance of getting 20 minutes of math per night. While I'm certainly not arguing that reading isn't important, it also isn't the only thing that's important.  

It's possible that the emphasis on reading started because as a society, we have traditionally accepted that some people are "just not math people" and "some people can't write."  Of course, as growth mindset work has taught us, there’s no such thing as a "math person" and anyone can learn to write. So I’ve been thinking... how we could apply the same line of thinking to math homework, writing homework, even social studies and science homework, that we're comfortable applying to reading.  

Math for pleasure -- whether logic puzzles, critical thinking tasks, or math games -- would be just as valuable for our students as reading for pleasure.  Writing, too, could be assigned with the same open-ended direction that we provide for reading.  Students could write fiction stories, poetry, editorials in response to topics they care about, or simply journal about what's going in their lives. What if we asked parents to check that their children had successfully "learned for 30 minutes" each night before they sign their agendas?

Obviously any homework debate will eventually come down to accountability, but here I think we can also continue the same logic we've used about reading homework for years. Teachers know some kids won't do the homework at all, some will say they did even if they didn't, and some will get too much parental support, but most of us assign homework anyway.  We know that if we let the pendulum swing too far to the “never assign homework” side then we risk sending the message that the academic work is not that important. Likewise, if we swing all the way to the other side, we risk sending a message that school work is only to please a teacher or earn a grade - which isn't right either.

What we really want is students who see that the things they learn in school don't exist only inside the four walls of their classroom, who recognize that learning, even learning for learning's sake, can be enjoyable, and who pursue their interests with passion and determination.  Listening to most homework debates, you would assume that homework will always stand in opposition to these goals, but could it be that rethinking homework could actually get us closer?  I think it's possible.

December 28, 2017

Learning Long Division

Math was definitely not my favorite subject growing up... I had trouble remembering multiple steps to solve problems and never had a good idea if an answer was "reasonable." Nevertheless, one of my favorite memories of doing math in elementary school was creating and solving extended long division problems during indoor recess in 5th grade.  We would write up 25 or more random digits and then try to divide by 2 or 3 or 5, working our way across the entire chalkboard! It was so satisfying to simply "divide, multiply, subtract, drop down" and get a huge answer that I could feel confident was correct! I now realize that I had no understanding of why those steps worked or what that answer meant, but it felt "smart."

Now as a math teacher, I don't want my students to
blindly accept that a set of steps "just works" -- I want them to be able to explain how, why, and when any algorithm is useful and efficient. Last year our math curriculum intentionally avoided teaching long division in 4th grade to encourage students to use place value understanding and other strategies to divide.  I enjoyed teaching this way... I could explain why each method worked and observed students making logical connections between multiplication and division to solve complex problems.

This year, however, we are using Eureka math which does teach the long division algorithm (alongside other place value strategies) in fourth grade. As much as I loved using this method myself, I was anxious to make it meaningful for my kiddos. We began with mental math division (25 ÷ 5 or 18 ÷ 3), which required students to use multiplication facts to solve quickly.  I wrote the equations out using the long division symbol, but resisted reciting the "divide, multiply, subtract, drop down" mantra. Instead I asked the kiddos questions like "why do I write this here?" and "what should I do next?" and "what does this number represent?"

Then we added in using "place value disks" to represent the division (see above).  I demonstrated using the long division algorithm alongside the place value disks to help students see the connection. The kiddos totally got it!  My Teaching Fellow even commented how clearly she could recognize the steps of the algorithm within the place value model when it was taught this way!  

After two days of using the place value disks and word problems to provide context, it was time to go all in on using the long division algorithm!  Rather than keep everyone on the carpet for a traditional lesson, I allowed the kiddos to decide when they had mastered this new skill. When they felt confident with the algorithm (without drawing out the place value disks),  they could leave the carpet to start the Problem Set. Those who still felt stuck or unsure, stayed with me to keep practicing. I could practically see the gears turning in their heads and they pictured each step. When the lightbulb finally went off, they were so proud of themselves! 

Naturally, there were a few kiddos who were still struggling at the end of class. Rather than move on or wait another day to review, I offered to host a "Long Division Lunch Bunch." I ended up with 24 fourth graders eating lunch and doing long division in my room that day (I teach three classes so I offered the Lunch Bunch to all of them.) As the kiddos ate and worked together, I could see them gaining confidence!  By the end of lunch, most of them had the same satisfied, smart feeling I remembered from 5th grade. But this time, as they followed a set of steps to solve multi-digit long division problems, I knew they really understood what it means to divide one number into another and how those set of steps make their problem solving more efficient! 😄