Tired of the Fixed Mindset

The school year is over. I’ve spent the past 5 days recovering from one of the most difficult years I’ve ever taught. I have done a lot of thinking in the past five days as I start to regain my energy. I look back and see a beat down and exhausted person pleading for mercy. I was so tired…

…of watching students crumbling up their notes into a ball and throwing them, instead of using them to study.

…of watching young men and women punching and slapping each other.

…of them avoiding accountability and always putting the blame on others.

…listening to screaming – in other people’s faces, in my face, and in general.

…listening to incessant cussing. Oh, the cussing.

…of students refusing to lift a pencil to do work and my encouragement falling on deaf ears.

…watching middle school students throw temper tantrums like toddlers because they are not allowed to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom when, in fact, they most definitely don’t need to use the bathroom.

…of breaking up fights and listening to threats.

…of disrespect. Blatant and malicious disrespect.

But, above all else, I grew tired of the fixed mindset.

The sad truth is that the students I taught exhibited these behaviors on a daily basis. The sadder truth? Every single one of my students has amazing academic potential. Unfortunately, the fixed mindset they have developed over time interferes with their learning. They have lost belief in themselves as learners. Their previous failures have damaged their egos and their self-esteem in the classroom. Therefore, when the content becomes difficult, instead of making an effort and trying, they resort to other behaviors.

And at the end of the day, I don’t blame them. Even though I get frustrated with them, they are not the ones at fault.

I understand that these students did not develop these mindsets on their own. My students’ families – spearheaded by their parents – and neighborhoods have instilled these mindsets in them. Their past teachers, classmates, and other school faculty were not able to help them establish a growth mindset that helps them overcome failures, either. The result? A student body devoid of a single growth mindset.

My students are at an age where most of what I say will be trumped by their peers (or at least that is what Erik Erikson has taught me). Despite that, I still wanted to encourage my students to rid themselves of their fixed mindsets! So, I introduced my students to Carol S. Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, We read passages that exemplified both types of mindsets and discussed the consequences of each. I was determined to open their eyes to what they were missing.

Well, I’m afraid I fell short. My students are moving on next year; many of them with the same mindset they had when they started this school year. When I first realized this, I felt as though I had failed my students. But, wait. I already knew that my encouragement to an individual with a fixed mindset is going to have very little weight, let alone a teenager with a fixed mindset. So did I fail, or did I learn a very valuable lesson that I can blog and share with other educators?

Mindsets are formed early. As educators, we need to start teaching the benefits of a growth mindset often, as early as kindergarten and before! And educators need parents, more than ever, to instill a growth mindset in their children. If parents do not get on board in encouraging their children to grow mentally and emotionally, how are teachers ever going to succeed in expecting a growth mindset in the classroom?

What will I do differently next year? Talk about the growth mindset early and often and to everyone I meet! Our students need to know that they are capable of so much! The first step in reaching their goals is believing that they can and realizing their potential. Hopefully, this will give them something to believe in and hold on to throughout the challenges that middle school will present to them.

This Teacher Builds Sandcastles

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine you are at a beach on a beautiful, sunny day. The calm breeze and the rolling waves create a harmony that fulfills your soul.

Your mission on this gorgeous day is to build a sandcastle. Not just any sandcastle; the tallest, strongest and most ornate structure you have ever imagined! You spend all day working on the sandcastle, sweating, and pouring your heart into this masterpiece. You walk away at sunset, beaming with pride and satisfaction.

You arrive at the same beach on the very next day and see that your sandcastle has been destroyed by the waves that rolled in with the high tide. While some remnants remain, the castle that you left standing yesterday is no longer there. You begin again and spend another full day, starting from scratch, on your craft. But it doesn’t last for long.

Day after day you return to the beach and rebuild your castle. Some days are better than others. Yet, you spend nearly 200 days doing the same thing with similar results. How do you feel?

Would you say you have made progress? Are you frustrated that any progress you make daily is ripped away each night? Who are you frustrated with: the sandcastles, the waves, yourself? Or something bigger?

________________________________________

I have spent the past 189 school days building sandcastles in a high-poverty school. I have worked harder each day this school year than ever before and yet I see similar results today, in June, as I did last August. Some may say that, by definition, what I do is insane. And I’m here to admit…they might be right.

My students are living in generational poverty. Due to circumstances beyond their control, my students and their families face many more of life’s obstacles than the norm. Teaching and learning in a high-needs school has many challenges, too. But the biggest challenge to me is the tide.

While my school has dozens of hard-working, highly-effective, and empathetic teachers devoting hundreds of days to building them up, the students are torn back down every time they step onto the bus. I am here to tell you, first hand, that the tide is stronger than what we can build in eight hours. The tide is stronger than the education system.

If we want our masterpieces to stand tall and firm, the public education system must change. The social justice system must change. Our nation’s views on poverty, success, and everything in between must change. As long as we keep ignoring the issues that keep our impoverished students at a disadvantage, students and teachers will just have to continue to build sandcastles…that is, until we run out of sand.

My Photo Diary: Another Great NCCAT Experience!

Please bear with me as I indulge myself in some reflection on the awesome experience I had at NCCAT (North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching) a few weeks ago. (I apologize for not publishing this blog post earlier…life happened.)

I was approached by Jonathan Wade (@NCCATWade) back in the fall of 2014 and was asked to deliver professional development (specifically, Middle Grades Math C & I) to some teachers from Caswell County, North Carolina. Without hesitating, I said “Sure!” We got the ball rolling in early December and, before I knew it, it was Super Bowl Sunday and I was on my way to the Cullowhee NCCAT campus for an amazing three days of math PD!

I spent weeks brainstorming for this 3-day workshop with Caswell County’s middle school math teachers. At first, I had no idea what I would need to bring to the table to help these teachers. I put myself into their shoes and asked myself, “What PD do I need as a middle school math teacher?” (Well, the answer to that question happens to be a long, long list.) But it wasn’t until I spoke with the lovely Elizabeth Standafer, one of Caswell County Schools directors, that I was able to put my finger on what these educators really needed:

  • Guidance in evaluating the standards (Critical Thinking)
  • The forum to communicate as grade-level teams and vertical teams
  • Uninterrupted time to create year-long pacing guides and outstanding assessments
  • A facilitator to guide teamwork and collaboration

I couldn’t believe it! The Four C’s! Once I realized that the Four C’s are just as critical to educators as they are to students, the rest of the planning was a piece of cake!

From: Conections Academy

Without further ado, here is my photo diary of my time at NCCAT with the amazing middle school math teachers of Caswell County Schools:

Woke up to a dark, cold and gloomy NC morning. (Pretty typical for a February morning.) Fortunately, we stayed warm inside NCCAT's headquarters!
Woke up to a dark, cold and gloomy NC morning. (Pretty typical for a February morning.) Fortunately, we stayed warm inside NCCAT’s headquarters!
We started off sharing our current Glows and Grows as educators.
We started off sharing our current Glows and Grows as educators.
We practiced team-building and collaboration with a Spaghetti-Marshmallow Tower Challenge!
We practiced team-building and collaboration with a Spaghetti-Marshmallow Tower Challenge!
Getting started with the tower creation...
Getting started with the tower creation…
Getting there!
Getting there!
All hands on deck!
All hands on deck!
After I spoke briefly about the Common Core, teachers got their hands dirty in evaluating ALL of the grade-level standards, and grouping them into cohesive units of study!
After I spoke briefly about the Common Core, teachers got their hands dirty in evaluating ALL of the grade-level standards, and grouping them into cohesive units of study!
After the teachers grouped their standards into  units, they began developing their year-long pacing guides.
After the teachers grouped their standards into units, they began developing their year-long pacing guides.
If you could change anything about education, what would you change?
Reflection Time: If you could change anything about education, what would you change?
More planning and assessment creation!
More planning and learning about assessment creation!
The best part about PD at NCCAT? Uninterrupted to COLLABORATE as a TEAM. This is extremely important to today's teachers!!
The best part about PD at NCCAT? Uninterrupted time to COLLABORATE as a TEAM. This is extremely important to today’s teachers!!
Teachers worked in vertical teams (Grades 6-12) to evaluate math standards beginning at the Kindergarten level! This was a special activity  for the teachers to engage themselves in.
Teachers worked in vertical teams (Grades 6-12) to evaluate math standards beginning at the Kindergarten level! This was a special activity for the teachers to participate in and discuss. 
Which standards are taught in Kindergarten? How do those standards serve as a foundation for what is taught in 1st grade and beyond?
Which standards are taught in Kindergarten? How do those standards serve as a foundation for what is taught in 1st grade and beyond?
One last opportunity to reflect and communicate: What was your BIGGEST take-away from NCCAT?
One last opportunity to reflect and communicate: What was your BIGGEST take-away from NCCAT?
BIGGEST TAKE-AWAY!
Most common take-away? The NEED for uninterrupted time to collaborate and plan!
They are fabulous...simply fabulous. Thanks for 3 great days of learning and growing as educators, Caswell County Middle School Math Teachers! You ROCK!
They are fabulous…simply fabulous. Thanks for 3 great days of learning and growing as educators, Caswell County Middle School Math Teachers! You ROCK!

Want some of the resources I shared with these teachers? CLICK HERE or go to the Math Resources tab up above.

My First Edcamp!!!!

I did it! I went to my very first edcamp, edcampWNC, yesterday…and now, I am HOOKED! I loved every minute of it and I can’t wait to share my experience with you all!

I have been reading about edcamps for a couple of years, now. I knew they were “informal” conferences of some sort for educators (who Tweet a BUNCH) but wasn’t informed much on the agenda, structure, purpose, etc. My PLN on Twitter talk about their favorite edcamps ALL the time, but since I had not yet shared the special experience, I couldn’t relate and, honestly, dismissed much of what they said. Well, dismiss no more! I am a proud edcamper alumni and I want to share my experience with YOU so that you can join me at the next one (or go to one near your home).

I first learned about edcampWNC on Twitter (I mean, seriously? Where else would @Thatmathlady hear about something related to education?) from my NC PLN. I think @jaymelinton is the first person I saw tweet about it, followed by @mrjamesfrye and then @curriculumblog. These are PLN members who I have followed on Twitter for a very long time and I really wanted to meet them face-to-face. So, I signed up for edcampWNC not really knowing where I was going or why I was going other than to meet these fabulous North Carolinian educators.

I drove 3 hours (yup, left the house at 5:15) and started my journey into the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. I pulled up to the North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching campus around 8:30 with some butterflies. I was on the doorstep of my first edcamp and I still had no clue what I was in for! But I immediately spotted @jaymelinton and @ashleyhhurley – and they immediately recognized me and greeted me so warmly – and I just knew I was in for a treat!

Breakfast was still being served, so I surveyed the room of NC educators, desperately searching for faces I may recognize from Twitter. I didn’t recognize a soul, so I grabbed some coffee and sat down on the floor next to a teacher who was hanging back and people-watching like myself. I’m not one to start up conversations with strangers, but I’ve learned that I can talk to almost any teacher about any school topic. Teresa (@NRMSLiteracy) and I chatted about her doctoral work, my aspiration and obsession with starting grad school, and this, that, and the other thing. Before I knew it, our first session was ready to begin! So, the cool part about edcamps is that there is no hidden…or obvious…agenda. The participants create the agenda on the spot in the first session. (We used Google Moderator to “shout out” and “vote” on ideas. I will DEFINITELY be using that in the future!) After 15 minutes or so, we had 16 unique sessions to choose from throughout the day. Wow, just like that. Now, I just had to choose which sessions I wanted to participate in. So many great choices! Can’t I attend them all!? Well, yeah, I could have! Edcamps allow you to move in and out of sessions as you choose. In fact, it is in the “Edcamp Rules” (See: The Rule of Two Feet). The “Rules,” – totally thought of Fight Club when Jamie read these off – which aren’t really rules, prevent you from wasting your time in a session that doesn’t work for you and promote genuine think-tank type of conversations.  

While I saw a few individuals duck in-and-out of sessions, most people who wanted to attend each session participated and were fully engaged in hearty conversations about…well, almost everything education! I went to sessions about implementing 1:1 blended learning, creating learning spaces, things that suck about education (and how to fix those things) and classroom management. I felt like the day was totally tailored to MY needs as a teacher. I needed to talk about ways to improve my classroom – both the relationships with kids and the furniture they sit in – and I wanted to know how other districts roll out 1:1 programs with success. To be honest, I felt like this edcamp was designed specifically for me! I can only hope other educators felt the same way.

But, the best part of my edcamp experience? It was the connections I made face-to-face with the other educators I admire and follow on Twitter. I have an amazing PLN on Twitter, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I really learned that I have an amazing PLN within my home state of NC. I realized during lunch that edcamps draw the best and hardest working educators together to share ideas  and promote growth within the profession. While we were there to learn, we were also there to share ideas to make our community of professionals BETTER! Do all teachers do this? No, not all. But can you imagine how much stronger our schools would become if they did?!  

Needless to say, yesterday’s experience at #edcampWNC was amazing. I have already signed up for my next TWO edcamps in the Queen City. I can’t wait for January and February to get here so I can do this all again!!

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! 

Needing Balance: We All Have Those Weeks

Thank you Avril Carpenter. I needed this.

We all have those weeks. You know, the weeks where nothing goes right? This week was mine.

This week was the 5th week of school (I teach at a school in Charlotte, North Carolina with a continuous-learning-calendar) and it was a rough one. The school week started off like any other. Teachers were told that we would begin DE Testing – a form of standardized testing – midweek. OK, no biggie. [Side note: I hate standardized testing, but it is a necessary evil (from what I’m told).]

In previous years during DE testing, the school day would be on “pause” in the morning, Tests would take place in each classroom around the school, and once students finished with their Reading or Math tests, the whole school would “unpause” and pick back up with the rest of the day. Well, this year, we tested students in their Reading and Math class blocks. Sounds like a great idea…except it made life extremely harder for the teachers. I won’t go into all the details, but many hours of instruction were unnecessarily missed this week due to testing.

In addition to that, one of my four block classes (that class) decided to start acting up beyond belief this week. They have been a bubbling volcano on the verge of erupting the past couple of weeks of school, and they finally reached their boiling point-of-no-return on Tuesday. [They are one of those groups who are more concerned with tearing each other down than building each other up, not to mention they don’t give one iota of concern about math.] That class, I have determined, is this year’s project.  I need to find a way to turn their attitudes around. However, this week wasn’t going to be the week to do that because I had bigger fish to fry…that’s right, the DE test.

On top of the DE test and that class of kiddos, I received some bad news from a project team that I am working on, had several students’ parents to call to inform them of their students’ failing math grades, had additional unplanned meetings throughout the week, and a half-marathon to train for.

Needless to say, I came home (on several occasions) this week frustrated and tired. I wanted to forget this week was evening happening and just go to bed. I probably should have done that or at least pound out some frustration on the treadmill. Instead, I made dinner, tried to stay awake to get some quality time in with my husband (because I feel guilty if I don’t) and, as a result, got into a heated mini-debate with my husband which left me even more upset and irritated. I went to bed so upset that I was still fuming when I got up the next morning. I began to blame my anger on everything – the ridiculous DE test, that contemptible class, poor scheduling, all of the time-consuming meetings, my husband – instead of looking at myself from the outside.

I stopped to think. Why had I let all these things get to me? Why was I letting it pile on now? And then I thought, what can I do to prevent this from happening again in the future

I quickly figured it out. (Jump down to This Week’s Take-Aways)

I don’t keep a journal or a diary, but I love to blog. Instead of waiting until the weekend, maybe I should have blogged about some of this stuff as it was happening. Maybe I should have skipped a few Twitter chats; or instead of watching TV with my husband, I should have read that book I was dying to finish, or I should have gone to bed so I didn’t start any arguments. Now, looking back, I realize that it is OK to take time for yourself when you need it most. Time alone in order to reflect, calm down, blog it out, etc…it isn’t selfish when you realize that taking care of yourself, in the end, will take care of your relationships with others.

I try to give my all to those who matter most to me all the time. And while I don’t see myself changing in that regard, I need to figure out a way to keep a healthy balance, especially when the tough gets going and the going gets tough. Lately, I have noticed many of my Twitter PLC commenting on a “healthy balance” as they approach the new school year. Keeping work, family and self-health in check is important, and I realized that first-hand this week.

This Week’s Take-Aways

1. Breathe. Not just to keep living, but to enjoy living. If I have learned anything from the year of yoga classes that I have taken, it is that deep breaths keep us focused on the present, which is what living should all be about.

2.  It is OK to say “No.” I have been taught this lesson multiple times in my life. Still haven’t learned it. Saying “no” to someone isn’t a bad thing, it is a necessary thing.

3. “What you allow is what will continue.”  This quote was tweeted by @Inspire_Us this week and I immediately retweeted it, thinking of that class.

4. “Sometimes you have to lose the battle to win the war.”  Another quote tweeted by @Inspire_Us this week that I really needed to get through this week. Every new day brings a new battle, and if you fight every one to the death, you won’t be left standing to win the war.

5. If you marry the right guy, he will support you through the thick and thin. I’m so lucky to have found my husband and I try to express this as much as possible. This was one of the hardest weeks I’ve had in awhile, and he never once complained about my irritability, short-temper, or inability to stay awake past 7 pm. Instead, he baked me banana meringue pudding. Now that is true love.