Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An exhilarating conversation

Sebastian: Daddy, do you want to know what happened in school today?
Me: Of course I do.
Sebastian: My teacher was subtracting and said, we can't do 2 minus 8. So I raised my hand and said, "yes we can; it's negative 6." My teacher said, "you're ridiculously smart."*

I made a quick decision to ignore the fixed-mindset compliment and instead focus on the positive by focusing on the negative (so to speak):

How did you know 2 minus 8 was negative 6?

Not the best explanation, but the thinking is there.

At this point, you're likely thinking that I'm a math teacher, so I'm probably patting myself on the back for having taught Sebastian how to subtract in this case. I have not. About a month ago, he started asking me what negative numbers were, and I talked him through a conceptual explanation (something like counting down from three, then beyond zero). I was excited not because he was doing 'advanced math' but because he had applied his conceptual knowledge to this new situation.

So I thought to myself, I wonder what this kid can do. I remembered a story my parents told me (about asking about square numbers at an early age) and wrote this on a piece of paper:

0^2 = 0
1^2 = 1
2^2 = 4
3^2 = 9
4^2 = 16
5^2 = ___

10^2 = 100

...and I read it aloud:"Zero squared equals zero; one squared equals one; two squared equals four," and so on, ending with "what do you think is the value of five squared?"

When I returned a minute later, this is what the paper looked like.

 Three things jumped off the page:
1. The kid got it. Nice!
2. His explanation focused on how he knew the answer was 25, not on how he knew what "squared" means. We call this a "what-how" explanation...not nearly as strong as a "what-why" explanation.
3. He decided to go one step further and write 20^2 = 200. I love everything about this, even though it's not correct.

I asked him about the 20^2=200. How did you figure that out? He explained: If 10 squared is 100, then 20 squared is 20 times 20, which is 200. I asked how he knew and he said that 20 was twice as much as 10 so it was 200 instead of 100. I asked him how he could check it and he said, "I could count by 20s." I stayed silent. He started counting by 20s and, when he finished ("...320, 340, 360, 380, 400. Four hundred!") he said, "I don't want to cross it out, so I'll just write 200 plus 200."

My heart sang. And then things got even better when I thought: Let's see if you can do these, too. These might look like your typical exercises, but, given where Sebastian is mathematically, they're at least one step above your average "now that you've seen one solution, try five identical problems."

Sebastian counted by 6 (aloud) to get an answer of 36. Then came 7^2, and he said, "I need to add 7 to 36." I asked why.

He tried it out. He got halfway through and stopped. "Wait," he said, "first I need to add six dots and then seven dots, so I need to add thirteen dots."

How did you get thirteen?

His response was somewhat messy. There was a lot of what-how talk thrown in there ("I need to add seven and six, so I need to add 13, so I know that four more gets us to 40, and then...") and a lot of false starts where he was trying to get to the answer while talking through his method, but his answer boiled down to this: "It was six groups of six but if I add six dots it will be six groups of seven. Then I need to add seven more dots so it will be seven groups of seven."

There are so many beautiful things about this response. The kid is seeing groups in his mind. He's understanding the nature of multiplication. He's using the concept of multiplication to make connections between two multiplication problems. He's using a pattern he discovered to determine that he even needs to multiply in the first place. He's up at 9:30 at night doing math because he (and his dad) just can't get enough.

He then spent about 10 minutes going down a rabbit hole, coming up with various answers that were not the actual value of 7 squared, partly because he was accidentally adding 13 to 30 (not 36) and partly because he was thinking really hard and his working memory was filled with a lot of things and he kept trying to decompose 13 different ways to make the addition easier.

The only helpful nudge I gave was to point to 43, point to 36, and say, "if it were 10 more than 36, what would it be?...but you added more than 10, so it should be more than that..."

At one point, I made what I consider a critical mistake. I said something like, "you're doing it right, but 36 plus 13 is not 43." The second half is fine, but the first half reinforces the idea that there is a 'right' strategy. I should have instead validated that his strategy made sense or that his strategy seemed like it was based on solid reasoning. That's OK. I like Sebastian's mistakes here, and I like my mistake too - if I had not said this, I don't know that I would have reflected on this idea.

He figured it out from there: He laughed at his handwriting-based mistake, used his tens and ones chart, and quickly got 49.

I asked him how he could check to see if he was right and he said, "I could count by sevens, but I don't know how to count by sevens." Then he counted by sevens anyway, and when he landed on 49, his face lit up.

Feeling confident, we strapped on some wax-and-feather wings and tried to see how high we could fly: 14^2. Here are some action shots:

That last picture is his sticks-and-dots representation of 14+14+14....+14 (14 times), and his tens-and-ones chart that he used to figure out what 14 tens and 56 ones added up to.

Here are a handful of brief takeaways from all of this:

1. Sebastian was able to do all of this math because he has been taught everything in a highly conceptual way. From the concept of subtraction to the concept of multiplication to the visual representation of multiplication that allowed him to find the link between 6x6 and 7x7, everything that he has been taught set him up for success here.
2. To take #2 a step further, I would argue that he was able to do math he hadn't yet learned explicitly precisely because he has not been taught a series of procedures. Teaching kids a bunch of procedures means they know those procedures but don't know how to approach procedures they have not been taught. "But his tens and ones are an example of a procedure!", you say. You're right, but this procedure is backed up by his conceptual understanding. When he learns the standard addition algorithm (with the corresponding conceptual understanding), it will be a natural extension of what he has already figured out.
3. To all you engineers out there complaining about how your child's common core math homework is far too complicated, a. in many cases, you're probably right, and b. you're looking at otherwise simple problems seemingly made complex by nonstandard strategies; it may be worth it to also check if your kids can do something you wouldn't have been able to do at their age because of their developing conceptual framework.
4. I'm grateful that Sebastian has teachers who have embraced the Common Core math standards and have committed themselves to teaching things conceptually.
5. Hearing and pushing kids' thinking is a lot of fun.
6. Kids, in general, are capable of more than we often give them credit for.
7. Notice how this "real-world" math was so engaging!
8. More than a handful.

Special thanks go to Sebastian for his hard work, to his teachers at Elm City College Prep Elementary for doing such a great job teaching him mathematical concepts, and to Joseph "Compadre" Yrigollen for his encouragement via text message while all of this was going down. Thanks also to you, loyal readers, for indulging me in a long-winded monologue about the virtues of talking math with your kids.

*The use of "you're smart", while clearly well-intentioned here, is dangerous because it discourages mathematical risk-taking, particularly in relatively high performers who want to preserve their image of being "smart", and discourages relatively low performers from trying - if another kid is just "smart" then no amount of effort is going to get me there anyway. Beware the small phrases that reinforce fixed mindsets!

"We can't do X" is troublesome because it implies that, in math, there are things we can and can't do. The less arbitrary rules we impose on math, the better. After all, even the famous "can't divide by zero" edict really just means that dividing by zero is problematic. I mean, of course you can take a pile of money and try to split it equally among no people. Of course you can take a pack of M&Ms and put them into piles of zero M&Ms. It's just problematic, which is not always a bad thing. Every case of something you "can't" do in math seems to come down to constraints anyhow.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Seven for Sebastian

Hey everybody,

I haven't written in a long time because I've been spending most of my time listening. Also, I've got this quote stuck in my head from Jorge Luis Borges: No hables a menos que puedas mejorar el silencio. Don't speak unless you can improve the silence. I've been following what is happening in Ferguson (and, by extension, America) and have read a few great, thought-provoking books, and I spend most of my non-coaching working hours listening to different ideas about how to make our school better. I'm enjoying all of the listening and learning a lot; it just means I haven't gotten to write much.

But since I'm writing now, let me share a few stories about my son. Barbara often gets to be the star of this blog, but Sebastian gets to be the star today. Yesterday was my birthday, but I haven't written since his seventh birthday, so this one's for him. Here are seven stories so you can get to know him a bit:

1. He came to me one day and said, "I commented on a YouTube video." I was scared and asked him for the details, and he shared that he had commented on a video showing a 'time travel tunnel' that set people's cell phone times back a minute or two. He wrote that the electric lights probably created a magnetic field that interfered with the cell phones' operation.

Preparing, just in case

2. He likes to climb up the walls and do pull-ups on the door frame, and every time he jumps onto my bed he jumps straight into a forward roll.

3. When I told him that I saw the Administrator of NASA Charlie Bolden at the train station, he later asked, "So Daddy, did you eavesdrop on NASA?" For the record, I did not, but I loved his choice of words.

4. He carries his older sister (age 8) on his shoulders and walks around the house. They are inseparable, to the point that he often says, "I'm going to go to Barbara's room now because I don't want her to be alone."

5. When we were at the zoo last week, he said, "Is that a bear?" and I replied, "Nope. Chuck Testa" and he thought it was the funniest thing in the world because he spends his time watching YouTube videos by a couple of lovable goofballs who taught him who Chuck Testa is.

6. He told me a story about how his teacher had him walk to the board to write something and he couldn't reach, so she picked him up so he could reach. He concluded with, "and that was my first time ever being picked up by my teacher." He is way small.

7. This summer, we visited my cousin Sarah's science lab, where she set up a sweet visit with demonstrations and the like, and after one of the experiments instead of a simple "good bye," Sebastian went up and gave the guy a big hug.

With all the good and bad in the world, I'm just happy I get to spend plenty of time with this little guy.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reflections on Montreal: 1,4, and 5

Avid reader Kerri writes: 

"Considering that I will be taking my 11 year old daughter to Haiti in the summer, where french creole is the language, and which we know none of...I'd be interested in all of the above topics but especially 1, 4 & 5."

Ask and ye shall receive! I'm so glad the two of you have this chance to travel together - it will definitely be one of the most memorable experiences she'll have from childhood, and hopefully will continue to strengthen the already-strong bond between the two of you. I can't wait to hear how it goes and all you learn while you're there!

1. How being a clear outsider in a new setting builds empathy (involves power structures in the US)

First, it's impossible for me to give an honest account of what it is like being a stranger in a strange land without noting that, here in the United States, most of the country's structures are set up so that I, as a straight white male, feel 100% comfortable. When we crossed the border back into the United States, I instantly felt more comfortable, which I'm not sure I would feel if I were somebody else. Many African Americans have reported feeling this same sense of relief upon entering Africa, because they feel like for once they are not seen as unwelcome or "other" by legal, political, and/or social forces.

Second, traveling as an American is never the same as being an immigrant to America. As Americans, we are sometimes looked down upon due to various stereotypes but, more often than not, we are welcome as tourists. There are no real long-term pressures to conform, and there is nobody actively seeking to have us removed from the country.

With all of that said, there is something really powerful about looking around and knowing you don't really belong here. This manifests itself in hundreds of very small ways: Being in a restaurant and realizing that you don't know what to order because you don't understand the menu, people asking you a lot of questions that you don't know how to answer, walking down the street and not even having a sense of what anybody else was talking about around you, not being able to make small talk with the people who cleaned our room or the receptionists or cashiers or anybody else, really - we weren't able to adequately express our appreciation for all the nice things people did on our behalf or our interest in the lives of others. On this trip, because we spent much of the time walking down the street, hand in hand, I suppose we looked like I might have the answers to some of these questions, all asked in French:

Which way is the insectarium?
Which way is the lake?
At what time do the parking meters stop charging?

My answers to #1 and #2 were "that way" (in English), and #3 was "je ne sais pas". But I was also asked a handful of other questions that I didn't understand, to which I replied, "je ne parle pas francais." It's one thing to be able to say, "hey, I'm sorry, but I have no idea" and another to basically end the conversation.

In any case, being unable to communicate with people in the way you'd like happens to be a great catalyst for considering the plight of others. (Caution: It's not the same; it's never the same. I wouldn't ever say, "yes, I know exactly how ___ feels because I, too, have felt this same way while traveling.) Feeling out of place is a good reminder that there are millions of people who feel out of place in America. Remembering that we're feeling out of place by choice makes this even more powerful - think of the people who feel out of place and have no choice in the matter.

This is all a fancy way of saying that stepping out of our comfort zone is generally a good thing, particularly if - like me - your comfort zone is really comfortable, because it reminds us that all this comfort is something we often take for granted.

But wait - wouldn't this be possible without international travel? Couldn't we just go to another part of the United States, or even another part of our own city?

4. My obsession with language and, in this case, inability to grasp even the most obvious dialectical differences (involves some technical linguistics and, ultimately, why we went to Montreal over, say, Toronto, or another part of New Haven)

I spent the summer of 2001 in Puerto Rico, studying music and dance (because college is great), and while I was there I met a man named Ali who sold scented oils on the streets of Old San Juan. He was born in South Carolina and called himself a citizen of the world, and we had a couple conversations that have stuck with me. The vendor next to him was from Argentina (call him Carlos), and Carlos and I had been talking about Argentina because I had spent a previous summer working and traveling there. Ali asked me about my travels and I asked him about his, and at one point he asked me why I did all this traveling. I replied that I wanted to get another perspective about how people lived in different places, and he said, "well, if you really want to see how people live and experience the world differently, you don't need to come all the way over here. Go to the American South. Stay with a black family in Mississippi. See what their life is like."

Ali's point is a great one. Did I (do we?) travel far away to forget that there are immense differences at home? Was I uncomfortable with the prospect of experiencing firsthand the sense of being an outsider so close to home?

Probably. But there's also something else: I love language in general, and the Spanish language in particular. I wanted to learn to speak Spanish really well. I wanted to hear the differences in how people spoke Spanish in different places. I found it fascinating that people in different places could have the same thought - the same word in their head, even - and that their mouths could consistently produce the sounds in such unique and beautiful ways. I wanted to be surrounded by a bubble of language.

So that's why our family went to Montreal: I wanted us to be surrounded by another language. Yes, we went to some fun attractions and had fun at the park and ate poutine, but this was really because I wasn't going to be able to convince my kids to sit still on a park bench and just listen to people (also, because there is some fantastic stuff to do with kids in Montreal and I wanted the kids to get the most out of it.)

On this trip, as on so many others, I found myself obsessing over both the phonetic (how it sounds) and social (how people use language to interact with one another) aspects of language

In Montreal, "bonjour" is pronounced, at least 50% of the time, as "bonshour" (the j is not vocalized.)

Vowels after a nasal consonant are often nasalized and seem to be formed differently from what I've heard before, which I can only due justice by referring to the "main" as in "whatcha doin, main?"

In terms of other differences between Parisian and Quebecois French, I have no idea. I looked it up afterward but I didn't recall hearing any of it firsthand; it is fascinating to think that these accents most likely sound completely different to native speakers of French, but I could listen to somebody for an hour and not be able to tell where they're from.

5. How we grappled with culturally appropriate code-switching and never quite figured it out (what we learned and didn't learn about being non-French speakers in a French-speaking city)

This primarily involves the social aspects of language.

Everybody we met spoke French to one another and, initially, to us. After three days, I never figured out the etiquette of how to tell people that we don't speak French or whether to let it become known through blank stares or badly pronounced, mis-timed ouis and nons. I understand about 50% of what people say to me, and about 10% of what is said around me, but when it's time to speak, I can't really communicate much other than "I don't know", "yes", "no", and "I am a pineapple." Throughout our trip, we tried greeting people with:
* "Good morning" (to get the point across),
* "Bonjour, good morning" (in an attempt to get our point across but show a little deference first), and
* "Bonjour" (which did not get our point across and was often followed by a French question, a quick yes/no reply or blank response from me, and then a lot of English.)

Then, after having an entire conversation with somebody in English, some folks would wrap it up in French, which seemed to be a reminder that, hey, we're still in Quebec, and the language here is still French.

In any case, though code-switching is something most of us to do some degree, this trip required a level of code-switching that I don't yet understand very well - it reminded me of when I was first learning Spanish and found myself in all Spanish-speaking situations, and I didn't know whether the more respectful thing was to butcher the language (look, I'm not going to force my language onto you) or not (look, I'm not going to butcher your language and pretend like I'm doing either of us a favor here.) My response to that set of awkward circumstances was to get better at Spanish really fast, but I don't know how much time I'll have to get better at French right now, or whether that's the best way for me to choose to spend my time. But next time we're here I'll probably figure out more of the rules, and we'll see where things go from there. 

Any advice here? Does anybody out there have a good way of letting people know you respect and love their language but have no idea how to use it to communicate?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Montreal: Choose your own adventure

Hello, friends!

The kids and I just spent a few days in Montreal. We had a great time, but that's not a very insightful post in itself. I have a lot of insights from this trip, but don't want to write 10 pages of insights. What do you want to know about?

1. How being a clear outsider in a new setting builds empathy (involves power structures in the US)

2. How direct experiences such as travel are so much more effective at building academic background knowledge than just about everything else (involves anecdotes about the trip that will stick, and why)

3. If I were to take a class to Montreal, how would we prepare? (involves Rafe Esquith)

4. My obsession with language and, in this case, inability to grasp even the most obvious dialectical differences (involves some technical linguistics and, ultimately, why we went to Montreal over, say, Toronto)

5. How we grappled with culturally appropriate code-switching and never quite figured it out (what we learned and didn't learn about being non-French speakers in a French-speaking city)

6. The nexus of circumstances that have led us to be so fortunate to be able to take this trip in the first place (involves why we will never take this sort of opportunity for granted)

All of the above, of course, involve funny and touching anecdotes about Barbara and Sebastian.

Vote in the comments! Or send me an e-mail! I'm happy to write about any of this but think putting all of it together defeats the purpose of sharing any of it. Let me know what you want to know, and I'm happy to oblige :)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


If you're curious, you can read my preamble to this project here.

I subscribe to the philosophy that simpler is almost always better. Keep that in mind as you read my macro-structure for teaching character in writing class.

Every Thursday in writing class, which is already #ThrowbackThursday, we currently play classic jams from the 80s and 90s (and some 00s, though that makes me feel old) - it's heavy on Destiny's Child, N'Sync, Backstreet Boys, and other staples of my late adolescence. We also invest heavily in teaching sentence frames (much gratitude to Doug Lemov for the inspiration) but we haven't yet put the two together with character - until now.

Assume the following:
1. Our kids know the names of the "big seven" character strengths and their definitions, with some level of background for each.
2. We have 10 minutes every Thursday for this activity, in writing classes of about 30 kids each.

We start #ThrowbackThursday by reviewing two character strengths (the ones we're focusing on) and a couple sentence frames (see below)

We then show a "protagonist card" (e.g. Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Frederick Douglass), two "sentence frame cards" (e.g. sentences beginning with "despite" and sentences that include the words "neither" and "nor"), and a "character strength card" (e.g. "grit", "social intelligence") and have students use the Rally Robin structure (whereby students take turns writing as many creative responses as they can) throughout the duration of the #ThrowbackThursday song that use the protagonist, one of the sentence frames, and the character strength in a grammatically accurate and plausible way. Does the song have a character-themed message? Of course it does! Does the song incorporate one of the sentence frames at some point in its lyrics? Maybe! 

Bonus points (utterly worthless bonus points, that is!) will be given for responses that incorporate a reference to the song that is playing at the time, but our debrief will focus largely on creativity, correct use of the sentence frame, and students' interpretations of the character strength being described (e.g. In your sentence "Despite her quarrels with some of the other members of Destiny's Child, Beyoncé showed a lot of social intelligence by speaking well of them even after launching her solo career," how does this action show social intelligence? Are there any other character strengths Beyoncé showed through this action? What have you done in a similar situation? What would you hope to do next time?)

For good measure, I'll ensure the debrief highlights the grit it took to continue generating increasingly ridiculous sentences, the social intelligence it took to let your partner have a turn when you really wanted to just write your next sentence already, and, of course, the character strengths exemplified in the student-generated sentences themselves. Throughout, we'll have a lot of fun (see zest.)

I don't mean to plant any ideas in your head, but allow me to highlight that I'm planning this before doing it with students (some may say "proactively"), it's a student-centered activ(e)ity, the character strengths align to both the song lyrics and the actual student actions during the activity, and this activity recurs every Thursday.* I should also point out to the hashtag-averse that all the kids are doing it, and its use gives us permission to play cheesy music under the guise of being "hip to the groove" (as all the kids are saying these days.)

Let me know how you would simplify or otherwise improve this macro-structure!



*For full points, here's one piece of relevant research: Seligman's research is not limited to character growth in the "Big Seven", but underscores the importance of using one's own "signature strengths" as levers to improve in the "Big Seven", which is the reason behind expanding our list of character traits beyond the seven that seem to get most of the air-time. Boom. Two points.

Preamble to #ThrowbackThursday

This is the first of two posts responding to an online course graciously taught by the inimitable Dave Levin through Coursera. It has been a good experience and has served to both refresh some of what I knew and push some of what I thought I knew. In this post, I'll put some of my philosophical thoughts out there; in the next post, which will serve as my final project, I'll describe a "macro-structure" for character development.

In the spirit of embracing the 'and', I want to highlight some issues I see with this approach to character education and why I believe it's the way to go. I hope your mental soundtrack is playing the last movement of 'Rodeo' by American composer Aaron Copland, because I'm going to start with the beef:

I see two primary issues with the approach this character education I've learned about here and elsewhere:

1. Using data from indicators of character strengths to inform decisions about what to work on often leads to a change in the indicators but at the cost of a distortion of the character strength it was designed to indicate, per the Campbell effect (see below.) So if we try to build, say, grit, by working on how well we keep working when we feel like giving up, maybe we actually just get better at looking like we're working for a longer period of time, or over-reporting how often we felt like giving up, or any number of things.
"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change, Donald T. Campbell, December 1976
(from this talk by Uri Treisman on equity and the opportunity to learn in mathematics education)
2. Any discussion of how strengthening one's character provides a better shot at success should include a healthy dose of acknowledging the reality of our world: We do not live in a merit-based world, and we do our kids a disservice if we point to low college persistence numbers and fault a lack of grit before financial stress, structural racism, alienation, social pressures, or any of the other very real causes that are often acknowledged outside of the front page. I know of many great teachers who walk this line effectively, and I want to make sure that teachers who are exploring character for the first time grapple with these issues before making the mistake of going in front of a group of kids and telling them that if they would only show more grit, the world would treat them more fairly. KIPP teacher extraordinaire and fellow graduate of the esteemed Rice linguistics department, Lelac Almagor, says this far better than I ever could here.

I fully believe what I've written above, AND I concurrently believe that an intentional emphasis on character education is the only way to go. 

As a parent, I can't let my fear of being oppressive or controlling (nor my fear of distorting and corrupting our family processes) keep me from looking out for my children's best interest, or from talking to my kids about the choices they're making, or from helping them to learn the value of hard work, honesty, attention to detail, playfulness, or any of the other things that make life more wonderful. I hope their teachers feel the same way, so that if Barbara works hard she feels like she's becoming a more hardworking person. If Sebastian says something unkind to another kid, I hope the teacher would highlight for him that this is not the way to live one's life. 

And, having been a kid myself (OMG, you too? No way), I can now look back on the cumulative effect of a lot of these small moments that, in retrospect, have had a huge hand in shaping the person I am today. What if my teachers had decided that they didn't want to emphasize character for fear of being paternalistic? Would I have learned the lessons I learned from countless hours spent studying for Academic Decathlon, or from avoiding my 3rd grade journal project, or from any of the number of things I initially thought were hilarious - only to learn later that they were hurtful to others? I'm glad they spoke up, and I'm glad they did so in a way that assumed I would learn from each experience, rather than assuming I was showing the signs of some immutable trait.

If you're still interested in reading about a small way to teach character that I hope will lead to some good things, read on...

Monday, March 3, 2014

Teacher development at Elm City Middle

At Elm City College Prep Middle School, as at most Achievement First schools, we spend a lot of time thinking about teacher development. As I've written before, I believe teacher development should be a school's first priority, not because we should care more about adults than we do about kids, but because the effort we expend to develop teachers leads to a much greater impact on students than a singular focus on individual students.

Our work with teachers falls into four categories, seen through the lens of a science lesson on cell division:

Before the lesson, helping teachers to do the intellectual work to prepare for a lesson. This is a time to ask questions such as "What will a truly exceptional response to this question sound like? What misconceptions do we expect students to have, and what will they sound like? How will we follow up to get students to do the thinking required? How can we create cognitive dissonance to get students to confront their own misconceptions? Where and how can we help students find the joy in this lesson?" Here's where we take an initial "mitosis creates new cells", transform it into "mitosis is an ongoing process that creates new cells through the division of existing cells, initially faster than cells are dying and later, in adulthood, at approximately the same rate as cells are dying." Then we figure out how to ask questions to get kids there when their first response to "how does the number of cells change throughout one's lifetime?" is "You get more cells."

During the lesson, helping teachers with whatever it is they're currently trying to develop in their own teaching. This ranges from classroom management (I might send a signal to scan the room to see who is on-/off- task, or remind a teacher to smile, or whisper to a teacher that they should use proximity to get students A, B, and C back on track) to the broader category of holding a high bar for student outputs (I might ask a student to revise his/her response by using two of the unit's vocabulary words or by restating the answer in a complete sentence, or I might indicate that the teacher should ask a follow-up question to ensure students are building on each other's responses - "I wonder if anyone can add to that last response by using more precise vocabulary?") This real-time coaching is a key component in making sure the intellectual work teachers did ahead of time translates into a positive learning experience for teachers and students in the classroom.

After the lesson, looking through student work to determine how the lesson went and what we can do to improve for next time. This ensures that we're being honest about the impact a lesson had - an in-depth analysis of student work highlights the true impact of the lesson on student understanding in a way that is often overshadowed in the midst of a lesson by how the room "feels." Did students actually understand not only the process of mitosis, but also its function? Can they articulate this understanding in writing, without any "rounding up" needed from us? What are our next steps based on the writing we see?

Finally, about once a week, we work on the important parts of teaching that don't fit into a single lesson. How can we develop our capacity to promote an inclusive environment in which we are understanding and affirming our kids' identities? What do these unit tests reveal about what I should re-teach and how? What are best practices for grading/giving feedback to students/calling home about homework? How can we make the most of our time at school so we're not taking hours of work home every night? How can we motivate students who we're not currently reaching? How can I develop as an instructional leader? How can I give this critical feedback to a colleague?

This may sound like a lot of meetings. First of all, this doesn't mean four meetings a week. Usually it's one or two, and we don't get to do all of this with every teacher every week. Second, I think it's strange that so many teachers in so many schools are essentially left to figure all of this out on their own. These are not the dreaded "staff meetings" with a room full of teachers listening to a presentation - they're intellectually stimulating collaborative work sessions where teachers develop their skills while planning to help students develop theirs.

It's tough to pick a favorite part of this process, but for me it's a tie between 1) seeing the joyful rigor we've planned for come to life for kids during the real-time coaching part of this process and 2) looking at student work to see what students produced. The first is wonderful because it's great to see kids smiling and learning and saying brilliant things, and the second is great because it allows us to both celebrate kids' progress and figure out what we can do to help them continue to grow. I cannot imagine a better way to spend the day.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

This I believe (right now)

What follows is an interview with myself.

Q: This idea of interviewing yourself - it seems pretty vain. You probably think this interview's about you, don't you, don't you?

A: Good one. [High five] Let's get to the questions, shall we?

Q: OK, but one more meta-question first: Do you have any reservations about putting all of your thoughts and beliefs out there?

A: Yes. I've been wrong before, and there's a part of me that doesn't like being publicly wrong. There's a part of me that is scared I'm really ignorant in some area and will let that ignorance shine here. There's a part of me that is worried I will say something stupid that will make other people feel demeaned, and their lives and mine will be worse as a result. But I'd like to follow Rule #10 from a piece by Daniel José Older and remind myself that "the fact [I] will mess it up is not a reason not to do it."

Q: Got it. Next question: In what way do you admire Diane Ravitch*?

A: Whoa! That's pretty specific for an opening question, but I'll bite. Diane Ravitch has very publicly changed her mind about some pretty important issues, which is a difficult thing to do. She pioneered a lot of work that led to increased school choice and test-based accountability, then several years later stated that she now disagreed with most of the work that she had done. In order to come to this conclusion, she must have spent a lot of time examining the impact of her ideas and listening to people who disagreed with her...and when I say listening, I mean the kind of listening we don't see a lot of right now in education. There are lot of people trying to convince the world they're right, arguing their 'side',and working to break down the opposition with logic, charts, historical data, international comparisons, ad hominem attacks - basically anything that will advance their agenda and help them win a small battle in the long war to win over the public. 

Q: But Diane Ravitch has said some really terrible things lately, such as blaming school shootings on high-stakes testing and charter schools, and basically shouting her privilege through hyperbolic comparisons between slavery/child abuse and having students take tests for four days/other things that are not slavery or child abuse.

A: Exactly. I should mention that the way Ravitch currently engages in debate (or doesn't) is actually much more like the norm mentioned above, and much less like the open process that led her to change her mind. That's a shame - it's offensive, it weakens her argument, and it is demeaning towards those who have experienced (and currently experience) any form of slavery or actual child abuse. So I want to be clear that I'll limit my desire to emulate her to the realm of publicly changing one's mind and hope that she stops her ludicrous assault on reason and conscience.

Q: You mentioned wanting to be OK with changing your mind. Why don't you tell us what you currently believe, so it can become more apparent if you later change your mind...

A: Great; at the risk of changing my mind about any of this (which I'd be fine with; I trust myself to make reasonable decisions as I go about life, and that I'll definitely listen to more people, experience more things, read a lot, and continue to try to get better at my job, and that all of these put together will definitely cause me to change my mind on some of what's below), here's what I currently believe about education. I'm not going to name all my assumptions; you can probably tell what they are based on the below - or feel free to ask me and I'll happily share. 

Most education debates themselves aren't really worthwhile at this point because nobody seems to be listening. When people try to sound as if they've been listening, they often say things like, "we actually believe most of the same things," which only ends up being another tactic to try to convince the other side of the debate that my side was right all along. Even the concept of "different sides" is a strange one - it's as if one side really wants what's best for kids and the other wants, I don't know, fabulous wealth for themselves? No; every reasonable person in these debates wants what is best for kids; they just have different ideas about what this entails, or what aspects of kids' lives matter most, or how to get there, or - ok; there is a lot of room for disagreement. With that said...

Most people in education actually believe most of the same things. Preparing for a low-rigor test is a horrible way for kids to have to spend their time. Asking teachers to put any test first, rather than letting the test results be a byproduct of learning, leads to less learning (and, incidentally, poor test results.) Kids are super important. Teachers should be treated well and schools should be well-funded. Everybody should have access to great schools. Nobody in this debate is going to pop up and say, "well, actually, I'm not sure all kids should have access to great schools..." because nobody that I can think of believes that, and even if they did, they probably wouldn't say it out loud anyway. What some people do say is that poverty is such a monster that any work that schools do is just a drop in the bucket, going on to argue that a much more sizeable portion of our efforts should go toward eliminating poverty. I agree, though as a teacher and teacher coach - outside of voting and advocacy work - I'm not sure how this belief translates to how I should better do my job. I've also seen plenty of teachers who underestimate their kids' intellects based on out-of-school factors, so I'm generally wary of mixing the "how can we help this kid learn as much as possible?" conversation with the "this kid has gotten a really raw deal" conversation

Q: Wait, back up a bit. So no tests then?

A: I didn't say that. This is where I probably disagree most with some of my readers. I do think a strong, challenging, yearly test aligned to standards is a good way to keep tabs on which kids are falling through the cracks and to highlight which educational practices are leading to the best outcomes for kids. So yes, I support well-developed standardized tests. With enough data, it can tell us where some of the bright spots are (in terms of teachers) and can show which students need more support. I don't expect these tests to be perfect, and I wouldn't treat them as if they were, but at some point we should be concerned with which students are learning more or less than other students and what we can do to improve this, and that relying on millions of teachers' individual notes or anecdotes to determine this is even more flawed and much less efficient. I do think we tend to freak out too much over single-year test scores and should always look at a minimum of two years of data before making any real judgments, but ignoring the data altogether seems like a waste of potentially good information regarding what to do next.

Q: What is the biggest shift in mindset you've had in the past year or so?

A: Curriculum matters a lot. I believe there should be a strong curriculum, based on something like the Core Knowledge sequence (wait-don't leave!) There should be some leeway to account for differences - I mean, there's something really important about knowing one's own history, but everybody knowing everyone else's history isn't something we could really fit into a k-12 curriculum with any real depth. I like the Common Core standards in math - for their focus and coherence, and also for their explicit standards for mathematical practice - but I worry that these practice standards will continue to be treated as second-class standards. I love the ELA standards and hope we can continue to push for reading meaningful texts and basing our analysis on the texts themselves, not on the "choose an interesting assertion, state it convincingly, and have it validated" methods I used throughout high school English classes.

Q: Anything else? Maybe something controversial, to keep your readers on their toes?

A: Here's one: Developing great teachers should be the primary goal of a great school. 

Q: Shouldn't the goal of schools be to help students? 

A: Yes, but focusing on developing teachers seems to lead to more student learning than focusing exclusively (or even primarily) on students - what do you think happens when teachers become stronger? They can more effectively help students. Plus, they're happier (or at least I am; the times I've been learning and growing are the times I've been happiest.) A school that puts student learning first - which I'd guess is what most schools try to do - is using most of its resources (time, money, strongest teachers) to provide extra help to some number of students. In a school that puts teacher development first, resources go to developing teachers, who are then able to better reach a much greater number of students. 

Q: That sounds simplistic, and intentionally provocative.

A: Good catch. That's because I'm being simplistic, and trying to highlight a mindset of mine that has changed over the past couple years (and that is still evolving.) There's a lot more to it than putting more money in the PD budget and less in the tutoring budget, because...

Teacher development is really hard. Teachers lead busy lives and have a lot to do. Besides, helping a teacher to improve takes a lot of effort and skill. Sometimes I think I've done this somewhat effectively, and other times I know I haven't. At Achievement First, I think the teacher development we do is in the "decent" to "good" range - not in the "painfully bad" to "bad" range, which is where I hear most district- and school-based PD is elsewhere, but also not yet in the "great" to "outstanding" range, where teachers all develop really quickly and continue to grow through strong professional development opportunities. I do feel lucky to work at a place where we do this somewhat well, and where I get a lot of help and development; I just don't think we're knocking it out of the park quite yet. For what it's worth, Edward Brooke in Boston and the Success Academies in New York seem to be doing this better than anyone else at the moment. Uncommon Schools also seem to have a bit of a head-start here, though at this point I think we do largely what they do (just maybe not quite as well yet.) I have a pretty limited worldview here, and I'm sure that there are other public or private schools that are also doing great work in this area. If you know of any, let me know in the comments.

I should also mention that a lot of great teacher development is currently happening outside of schools. The Math Twitter Blogosphere (MTBos for short) is filled with great teachers sharing ideas and talking about curriculum and pedagogy. It's where I've learned the most about problem-based learning (which I think is the way forward in math instruction) but, beyond that, where I have learned the most about many of the broader societal issues I've mentioned here.

Outrage over the strictness of "No Excuses" schools is misplaced. Let me start by saying that I've been to a lot of schools that I wouldn't send my kids to. Some of these were "No Excuses" charters and others were (non-charter) district and private schools. My gut reaction was worst in schools where I saw kids treating each other (and teachers) poorly. In some cases (though not many), teachers were treating kids poorly. Mostly, though, teachers were letting kids do whatever they wanted, and kids weren't choosing to be really kind to each other...nor were they choosing to spend their de facto free time learning a lot. So to everybody who writes with outrage that  they would never send their kids to a school where kids are expected to follow directions, I wonder what they would tell the parents of kids who do choose to send their kids to a strict school. They're wrong? They shouldn't want what they want? They're being duped? This all seems really patronizing. Is it that hard to accept that some parents (like myself) actually want a school with consequences for not doing your work? I think my kids are fantastic, and I think the kids at our school are fantastic, and I also think that kids don't always make the best decisions for themselves. For what it's worth, I don't always make the best decisions for myself, either, and usually the natural consequences of my bad decisions remind me that they were, in fact, bad decisions. I'm not OK relying on natural consequences for kids that are several years away. 

Q: It sounds like you're blaming kids for the things that happen to them. This smacks of the worst possible form of respectability politics.

A: Good point. I think there's a place to both acknowledge that current realities work against many of our kids and still help every kid become his/her best self. See this post by a KIPP teacher and fellow graduate of the esteemed Rice University linguistics department for a much better explanation than I could ever give.We walk a fine line between, on one side, putting responsibility on children of color for the structural elements working against them and, on the other side, failing to teach any personal responsibility for fear of reinforcing existing power structures.

Q: But couldn't that be done in another way? Say, talking with kids about the choices they're making instead of simply assigning consequences?

A: What, you think we don't talk to kids, or listen to them? Where are you getting your information?

Q: OK, maybe there's some conversation, too, but Alfie Kohn says that consequences...

A: I'm going to stop you there. At this point, if Alfie Kohn actually believes what he writes (which I doubt), he believes that there should never be consequences for anything in school, many students (presumably children of color) have "no first language", teachers should figure out what to teach after students have arrived for class on the first day, and every individual teacher in America should have absolute freedom regarding what to teach.

Q: Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

A: No, thank you.

Q: Alright, thank you again.

A: No; I will not be out-thanked. Thank you and good-bye.

*Can we admire people for traits out of context? Admire the founding fathers despite their hypocrisy, Ender's Game without acknowledging its author's bigotry, or Comedy Central - despite the latter's inability to produce a new episode of Workaholics or Drunk History for some time now?

I hope we can, because if we can't, every time we look to somebody as a positive example, there is somebody ready to show us how they were wrong about something else, or how they were actually not great to all people. We don't want to take this too far and endorse a person's entire world-view while sweeping horrible character deficiencies under the rug (but Forrest was such a strong leader!) but I hope there's some middle ground where we can still learn from people other than Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Dom Basile, Rigoberta Menchu, and Jesus.