Loving What I Do

I recently had a conversation with my sister-in-law about TV shows. The fall lineup starts on Monday (a few shows have already begun) and she was so excited to start enjoying some of her favorite programs again.

I remember a time when I looked forward to my favorite fall TV shows. That time is a thing of the past. Now, I look forward to getting home at a decent hour so I can write lesson plans, grade papers, and do other miscellaneous tasks after I cook dinner and go for my daily walk/run with my husband. Sadly, one of my favorite hobbies, reading books for leisure, has become a weekend activity only. And I get to do my other relaxing hobby – crocheting blankets and scarves – maybe once or twice a week when I’m not passing out on the couch after an excruciatingly long day.

But missing TV shows (other than Survivor and Downton Abbey…I will NOT miss those!) is okay…because I LOVE what I do. I love setting my alarm at 5:15 so I can talk with other educators via Twitter in the the #BFC530 spark chat. I love getting to school early so I can clean my classroom so my students walk in to a clean and organized learning environment. I love putting 100% of my energy into my lessons and students’ discipline so that I know I am making a difference in their lives. I love making rigorous assessments that challenge my students’ thinking and makes them feel confident and accomplished when they get a C or better. I love collaborating with educators and administrators after school to bring technology to life into the classroom. I love making #GoodCallsHome to make hard-working parents feel successful in raising stubborn, emotional teens. Even though this is the hardest I have ever worked and I will dearly miss my fall TV shows, it’s ok because I am loving what I do.

Blogging: Work or Play?

My contribution to #WHSoc20!

#WHsoc20 Blog

diaryWhen I first heard of blogging, it seemed like just another chore for me to do in between grading papers, creating lesson plans, analyzing assessment data, and checking Twitter, However, blogging is more than just something I “do.” Blogging is a way to reflect, to grow, and to engage my teaching community.

I began blogging about two years ago just as I began my one-year-long “hiatus” from the classroom (although, I was still found myself in the classroom) and officially embarked on my entrepreneurial venture into the math education world as That Math Lady. At first, I used blogging just as a platform to promote my products, my ideas, and my inspirations. And then something magical happened. I stopped blogging for business, and began blogging for myself. 

I rarely kept a journal or a diary as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, but I can only imagine…

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Yes, Teachers, Size DOES Matter

Yes, teachers, size does matter. Size of the class, that is.

I started off teaching in a suburban charter school many years ago. I started off with a homeroom class of 28 students. My students were extremely well behaved, so 28 kiddos seemed like a piece of cake. One year, at the same school, we grouped our math classes and I took on an additional six students. I had students standing in the back of my classroom, sitting at my desk, and crammed in between two bookcases. But, as I said earlier, these students were mild-mannered, exhibited good manners, had strong social skills and above all else, enjoyed being challenged in their math class. No problem.

Fast forward to a few years later and I take on a teaching role at an inner-city school. These kids, as much a I love them to pieces, are the antithesis of the students I worked with a few years earlier. They have no filter on what they randomly (loudly) blurt out at others, exhibit weak social skills – or lack them altogether – and above all else, feel most uncomfortable sitting in a math class. Last year, I witnessed a string of different teachers try to “teach” classes of 20-25 of these pupils. Three teachers came and left throughout the year, leaving these students broken, lost, and unmotivated.

I was approached by the newly appointed principal during my summer break and was asked to take on the role as the new seventh grade math teacher. I hesitated, naturally. Just last year I watched not one, not two, but three teachers be defeated by this cohort of middle schoolers. The job sounded impossible and like a true setup for failure.

The principal recognized my hesitation over the phone and interrupted my stream of ugly thoughts to tell me about the interventions the school would put into place to help teachers and the students. I didn’t hear much of it, to be honest with you, but I did hear the words, “smaller class sizes.”

I was sold!

My class sizes this year range from 10-15 students. And I couldn’t be happier because teaching a class of 15 seventh graders is sometimes twice as challenging as teaching 34 fourth graders (at the other school). These students from inner-city neighborhoods need more patience, direct instruction, redirection, and many more reminders on appropriate social mannerisms. I can’t imagine what my classroom would be like if I was expected to “teach” an additional ten pupils. Probably chaos, to be honest.

So, for anybody who hasn’t taught in an urban, inner-city, Title 1, public school, don’t say “size doesn’t matter” until you walk in the shoes of a teacher who knows better.

The Reality of a Turn-around Math Classroom

When I made the decision 2 years ago to become a middle school math teacher, there were 3 things I knew I wanted to implement in my classroom (if possible):

1. Flipped Classroom Learning

2. Interactive Math Notebooks

3. Math Workshop

I was ecstatic when I was offered a job at in an inner-city TItle 1 K-8 school; however, I knew that, logistically, one of those elements would be missing from my classroom. (You can’t require homework to be completed through the use of technology if some of your students are homeless.) So, even though I went through the process to become “Flipped Certified,” I knew that I was having to put that dream practice on hold by taking this position. 

So that left two elements to embed into my teaching practices: IMNBs and Workshop.

I was excited to use interactive notebooks because I had heard about all of the success teachers have had with them. Not only do they, IMNBs, serve as a catch-all for everything students do in class (so students can look back at all of the artifacts they have created throughout the semester) but they also keep students organized and give them an easy way to study for their weekly & summative assessments. Bam!

The other element of my teaching practice, workshop, I knew would be a struggle to strongly implement. Let me explain why:

I learned over the summer that the cohort of 7th grade students that I would be teaching this year were 6% proficient on the 2014 state test. That is a tough number to look at. To be fair, those students had a tough year…three different math teachers (one of them being a long-term sub with very little at stake) and very little accountability for their actions. The number of referrals written for student behavior were outrageous. Very little learning took place in the math classroom. Foundational skills were lost, new concepts were ignored, and some of our students graduated the 6th grade knowing less than when they began the year. 

Whoa.

The first thing I had to do was set the norms and high expectations for these kiddos. This was not easy because it was something they were not used to having: norms and expectations. I take that back, maybe there were expectations in the past but these students didn’t know what they were. They weren’t notified when they had met or failed to meet those expectations. The only expectation they were aware of last year were to (1) show up to class, and (2) don’t cuss out the teacher. 

Expectations were explained and norms were put in place. Students took their Unit 1 pretest and scored in the neighborhood of 20%. Not bad. So Unit 1 began, as did Math Workshop.

Workshop in my class consisted of 3 or 4 stations. Independent Practice (practicing questions at the knowledge or application level), Partner Practice (on higher-level thinking problems), Small Group with the teacher, and Computers (a.k.a. online instructional videos). Students would spend 30 minutes at one station each day and rotate the next day.

While a few students thrived in this autonomous learning environment, many of my students struggled. It took me a few weeks to realize it, but I found out that they still don’t have the self-control to work independently, or the foundational knowledge and problem-solving skills to master this content on their own. I decided to let the numbers tell me if I should continue workshop. The students took the Unit 1 Post test last week and the class averages were the following:

Class A: 44%

Class B: 42%

Class C: 60%

Class D: 33%

Those may seem dismal to some of you, but I was THRILLED that all of my classes grew from averages of 20% five weeks earlier! (And if you met my kids, you’d be thrilled, too!) At the end of the day, however, those numbers just weren’t high enough for me to justify continuing Workshop at this time. I need to try something else, pull back on the reigns just a bit, and tighten up the classroom. And I realized that it is O.K. to adjust classroom practices, especially when you notice there needs to be improvement for your students’ success.

So I’m batting .333 for my dream classroom. That’s alright with me. The reality is, is that someday we will be able to bring back workshop and possibly even some methods of Flipped Classroom Learning. Unitl then, we will keep rocking out the IMNBs and keeping GROWING, because that is what education is all about!