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Saturday, August 24, 2013

A little bit of what I intend as thoughtful pushback

I went to Steve Leinwand's global math presentation this week. It was thought-provoking and worth the time. You should go watch it. I asked a question and got an answer that helped me grow.

So, Steve's all like, hey teachers, you need math smarts. Check! You need good tasks. Check! You need effective instructional practices. You suck at these!

These are his major recommendations, as I understand them. And they are very good. Everybody, listen and heed.

1. Students do more justification as a regular part of math class. Note: this doesn't mean "proof" as I clumsily tried to ask about during the session. Proof, of course, has a precise meaning in mathematics with a level of ironcladness that we're not talking about here. Rather, this is more informal, could be written but often verbal, justification. Which is just as well, as far as I'm concerned. The word "proof" scares K-12 teachers more than having class outside, chaperoning dances, and unannounced classroom observations combined.

Practically, this means students solving fewer problems, but being required to write about their process and reasoning.  Additionally, student responses ought to be normally followed up by a request for justification.

2. Ask students to estimate more often. Before solving or mindlessly applying a formula, students are explicitly asked to estimate a reasonable answer. Fine. Awesome. Takes zero time. If you're not already doing this, get with it and start.

3. Collaboration centered around classroom video. The recommendation is, everyone tapes him/herself regularly, and clips are randomly selected at staff or department meetings to watch and critique.

Review: I'd be fine with this. I'd be all, look at how amazing I am, bitches. Let me hear your critiques; I am eager to learn from them. I wish Steve Leinwand would come observe me, so he could see one teacher asking kids to explain the reasoning behind their answer (which is evidently rare in the classes he observes) and approve of me and everything I do, and maybe adopt me. 

95% of my colleagues would not have been fine with this.  And I'm pretty sure that where there are strong unions, you can't make them.  And where there aren't strong unions, life sucks anyway.

Case in point: central Virginia. I worked with some great teachers this week. Whip smart. Love their kids. Doing their wholehearted best to do the best thing. In a nutshell, good people. This year, the high school teachers will be teaching 6 classes a day instead of 5, with no change in salary. Computing...20% increase in workload, 0% increase in pay. 

Talking to more people locally, evidently this is a trend in Virginia. Where unions and contracts are not commonplace features of school employment as they were in New York. School boards can basically demand whatever fuckery, and rely on compliance, because, teachers are part of their communities and are committed to their work and don't want to do something else or move.  So they're taken advantage of. 

But then, to suggest they collaborate with nonexistent time in their work day is a bit laughable.

Don't kid yourself, it's a 20% increase, because it's 20% more children, when you teach children as opposed to teaching a subject. There are 8 periods in a day. So, 3/4 of their work day, they are executing carefully-as-possible planned interactions with kids. They have two other periods to spare. One is lunch. Humans require a meal in the middle of their day. It's civilized. The other is given over to a duty, like study hall or checking hall passes or whatever. They probably have one hour after classes end when they are expected to be available to help kids. Then, they need to leave and pick up their own kids from daycare, because they are humans who have lives. Our active-on-twitter friends take a ton of time to plan instruction outside their normal workday because they are math ed nerds. And they're awesome. But can we expect more than a small fraction of our colleagues to travel the same course? Not really.

When are these folks supposed to collaborate? When are they supposed to do the cognitively demanding work of figuring out how to get another person to understand something? When exactly? Leinwand, from what I've seen, brushes these concerns off. He says, teachers typically teach 5 out of 8 periods a day, and can find time to collaborate if they really want to. But at least where I live, these are real questions and not excuses. Act like teachers are kicking back and drinking coffee during luxurious planning periods, and you'll lose them.

Please note I'm not arguing with the premise. But we need to acknowledge the dearth of and fight for collaboration time. Which I don't believe will happen without funding that gives professional educators more time in their day not in front of the children. In places that do this right like Japan and Finland, teachers spend half as much time in front of students as American teachers - and they spend all that extra time: planning, collaborating, developing lessons, and generally kicking our asses. Policy matters. Funding matters. Yelling louder at classroom teachers isn't going to solve this problem.


  1. You hit the nail on the head with your comments regarding the need for collaboration time. Fortunately, my teaching partner lives three doors down from me. Teachers must be treated as professionals instead of the scourge of educational existence.

  2. Well said, Kate. I really like your thoughts about collaboration and the need for more of it--specifically, the idea that we need to be given more *opportunity* to collaborate in meaningful ways. This is a topic of conversation in almost every one of our weekly faculty meetings, and it's never taken seriously. There seems to be lots of time allocated to interrupting my classes with assemblies, meetings, entertainment for parents, and field trips, but NO time at all for me to plan cool stuff with my colleagues (math or otherwise!). Collaboration is a main focus of my classes for my students, but I never get to collaborate with my colleagues to create cross-curricular projects, etc. My fellow math teachers would love to collaborate before school, but we're tutoring or have some kind of duty. We'd love to collaborate after school, but we're tutoring, have some kind of duty, or going to a faculty meeting. The idea that I would collaborate more "if I really wanted to" is not ok--I already use my *free time* to collaborate as much as possible. When I'm not teaching math, I'm teaching Advisory, Electives, and Study Hall. These are supposed to be my "free" periods--that is "free" of teaching Math. And lunch? I usually have lunch/recess duty, and when I don't I'm meeting with students. I've spent WAY too many weekends at school with my colleagues for it to be funny. Unless my school decides that this is an important aspect of teaching and learning, there is little chance for it to change.

  3. As far as the recommendations go, I try to get my students to justify their estimate, so they are not just writing down a random number or copying the answer to the estimate. I also try to give them a few estimation techniques, too - round to one digit, tell the direction the number should go "almost double" or "about a quarter" etc.

  4. One idea that has been discussed at my school (an independent day and boarding school) is the idea of periodically having folks (like administrators) cover classes so that course teams can meet during the day. We seem SO scared of ever letting our teenagers have free time during the day that the idea of simply canceling a class once in a while is seen as impossible. This might free up some time but it is hardly a cure. The other problem I see with the video idea is that (alert - I am about to generalize a bit here) MOST teachers I have worked with are pretty private about their classroom practice and would see a video camera as an intrusion and would not be all that positive about the possible benefits of an open forum where their colleagues comment/critique said video. A storehouse of videos of teacher strangers might be REALLY useful for in house professional conversations about teaching techniques.

  5. mrdardy, I've seen the "administrators cover classes" idea work for very short projects. An administrator will gleefully cover a class, like, one time. But, once a week? Even once a month? Administrators are busy people, too.

    The only extended collaboration time that we were able to pull off consistently, at my previous school, involved teachers giving up their after school help-kids time on Fridays. The meetings rotated by grade level. So, all the Algebra 1 teachers this week, all the Geometry teachers next week, and so on. While we managed to get together, it was another thing to make that time productive. None of us really had any idea how to structure it to make it worthwhile. We tried "bring an activity to share that worked for you", we tried "let's focus on a topic that is hard to teach". Nothing felt really great. I'd say 3/4 of the attendees weren't that invested -- they just showed up because they had to, and listened politely until they could leave. This is the sort of things administrators are supposed to help with.

  6. On average teachers at my school teach 7 out of 8 periods. Thank you for taking this problem seriously, because every time someone suggests something really awesome that teachers 'should' be doing in all their spare time it makes me want to cry from exhaustion.

  7. "teachers typically teach 5 out of 8 periods a day"

    Where is he getting THAT data from? I can't think of a single school in my state (and I was part of a school improvement committee once so I've seen a lot of them) with such an arrangment.

  8. Don't know. That is how things were arranged at my public upstate NY high school though. The three non-teaching periods were 1 duty, 1 lunch, and 1 just for planning. It might not last long, though, as budgets get ever more meager and they have to figure out ways to teach the same number of kids with fewer teachers.

  9. I am very luck that I teach at a middle school with a built in team planning period daily (45 min for core teachers, 60 min for encore teachers). M and Th we meet with our house teams (a math, sci, ss, ela, and sped teacher who teach the same students). T, W, F we meet with our content team (7th math for me).

    It' really not enough to just have time to collaborate. People need to actually do it effectively. I have had content teammates that were great to collaborate with and other that contributed little to the team.

    Our middle school is the only school in the district to still have this built in team planning time and I truly hope it never goes away because it is one of the most important aspects of why our middle school is so great for kids. The teachers have the time to plan and collaborate and that benefits everyone, especially our students.


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