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.

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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! 

The Past, Present and Future Exploration of Common Core: Mindset

If you wish to read a blog that annihilates the Common Core, than this is not for you. This blog focuses on the standards ONLY, which does not include teaching practices or standardized testing.

In my last post, I discussed one of the front-running reasons why teachers and parents are disgusted with the Common Core: implementation. Now, I would like to explore our mindsets. We can’t change the past and re-implement these standards. But since they are here, how can we make the best of them and make them work for our students?

We have two options, really. We can fight to keep these standards, which will push our students’ thinking and their talents in math and reading to a higher level; or, we can turn our backs on these standards and our students, like Indiana recently did and South Carolina is planning on doing.

Are those really our only options, though? Instead of scrapping the Common Core altogether, how about we work together to make them better?! (Honestly, that is what Indiana did. Don’t let the Hoosiers fool you! They didn’t get rid of the Common Core. If you look closely, their newly proposed state standards are the Common Core, only revamped in areas that were of concern to them.) The CCSS are very ambitious standards. Are they perfect? No. But I think most educators would agree that we need some kind of uniformed standards amongst the 50 states that starts raising the bar for our students. So instead of dropping the standards altogether, let’s work together to fix them so we are all on the same level.

The other piece of our mindsets that is stopping us from fully accepting these standards is that they do something that past standards never did: not only do they require students to illustrate the “how” behind a problem, but also the “why,” and be able to explain this. This is something that young children in top-performing nations have been taught for years. In the United States, the Common Core attempts to teach our students to explain their thinking, and this is the result:

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Instead of helping our students PERSEVERE and THINK, parents (and some educators) are helping our students MAKE EXCUSES. Instead of TEACHING at higher levels, they are dismissing these rigorous questions as “inappropriate” and “too challenging” and giving their children a pass. Their reasoning? “This is not how I learned math (in this way),” which is usually followed up by, “…and I did just fine.” This negative and resistant mindset is handicapping our students’ education, and only making the Common Core more challenging.

Again, I began this blog entry by stating that I wasn’t going to discuss standardized testing. I’m not, and I sure do HOPE that parents and educators who are against the Common Core are not confusing the standards with the method by which they are measured. I understand the reasons many parents and educators do not support the testing system in the United States; but please let me make one thing clear: TESTING IS NOT SYNONYMOUS WITH STANDARDS. Don’t hate on the standards because our tests are frustrating and cause anxiety. The standards are not the tests, and the tests are not the standards. Apples and oranges, folks.

Where do we go from here? Now, more than ever, educators need to collaborate across the nation to find the best ways to teach to these standards. We need to band together against the nay-sayers and prove that these standards are important for getting the United States back in with the global competition. We need to urge politicians without significant educational backgrounds – at federal, state, and local levels – to remove themselves from education-related decisions. And we need to work harder than ever to clearly illustrate to our students that they CAN achieve success by reaching the grade-level goals set by CCSS, despite what others may say, and not only will they be prepared for college, they WILL BE READY for the WORLD when they graduate.

Got Estimation?

Mission Numero Tres of the #MTBoS (MathTwitterBlogosphere) Challenge is to

examine another math website out there and blog my heart out about it. (For all intents and purposes, let’s ignore the fact that I regrettably ran out of time to complete Mission #2 last week.)

I was sad to see that ThatMathLady.Com did not make the cut in the final list of websites to choose from; however, I found some stellar sites that were included in the list, such as Mr. Andrew Stadel’s Estimation 180!

This is the first problem on the Estimation 180 website involving height.

Estimation 180 provides such a wonderful, free service to teachers: math problems, which could easily be used as a class warm-up each day, that involve estimation! As a math teacher, you know that estimation is a skill that needs to be reinforced every year – and every day! – in order to stick. It is such a necessary skill that our students do not easily retain. Estimation 180 provides students with pictures and questions that requires critical thinking in estimation in order to solve. Then, with the simple input of some information into Google Forms, your students can find out if their estimation was correct or not.

There are approximately 180 estimation questions on this website; enough to cover 180 days of math classes (an entire school year for most!). I think this is a terrific site for students who are being introduced to estimation for the first time, reviewing it for the second time, or practicing it for the third, fourth and fifth times! Hey, you can never have too much estimation practice, right Mr. Stadel?

Mission #1 for MathTwitterBlogosphere

I really enjoyed participating in Sam Shah’s New Blogger’s Initiation last summer; so much so, that I am now participating in a new challenge: the MathTwitterBlogosphere (MTBoS) Exploration!

Before I begin, I feel like I owe my Twitter and Blogging PLN – math folk and education folk – an apology. Months ago I made a personal goal on my blog to continue to reach out to my PLN via my blog and thru Tweets while going back to the classroom. Well, I haven’t done a great job of that. Life took an unexpected turn to Busyville. I’m not going to bring you down with the list of my series of unfortunate events that has kept me away from my computer, but I don’t want my PLN thinking that I just gave up on you after a year of meeting you all!

What could be some fancy word problems for this question?

That is why I am so thankful for Sam Shah (@samjshah)  and his team of amazing MathTwitterBlogosphere groupies who have started another challenge. This challenge will hopefully give me the motivation I need to get back into the blogging realm, despite my hectic new life (which will hopefully slow down after we celebrate my husband’s birthday, I’ve run my marathon in November, and the holidays come and go). All I can say is don’t expect too much out of me…this first challenge was sent out last Sunday. It is now Saturday. I’m writing this blog just under the wire!

This first mission of Team MathTwitterBlogosphere is to respond to a prompt. Easy ‘nough:

What is one of your favorite open-ended/rich problems?

I love this prompt for two reasons. First of all, it reminded me of a great warm-up that I used to do with my students all the time, but have forgotten to use in my classroom this year! Secondly, since I had forgotten it, I have yet to share it with my PLN! Until now…

This is probably the simplest math problem there is, but the students’ answers are usually the most complicated, rich, and unique answers you’ll ever see in a math class. Before asking the question, I give students a number, equation, data table, graph, or geometrical shape. Then, I ask them the question: What is the question?

Pretty simple.

How do you use it in your classroom?

First, you write on the poster (“The Answer is…” and “What is the Question?”) and cut a hole in the middle (mine is 7″ by 10″).

Next, hang the poster up on a white board and write various answers in the middle. Students can answer on sticky notes and place their sticky notes on the board OR use Expo markers and write directly on the board around the poster! This open-ended question is interactive, challenging AND fun!

Sometimes you can give equations that students need to apply to real-world scenarios…
You could create a geometry OR temperature question from this answer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whew! That blog post felt good. What’s next, Mr. Shah? 🙂

Creating Project-Based Learning Units

I have spent the past year daydreaming about engaging, fun math projects. A few short weeks ago, I accepted a STEM math teaching position and I feel like I can finally start living my dream! Here is an example of a math project I made for 7th grade. It is called A Dream Day at Carowinds (the local amusement park here in Charlotte, N.C.). If you like it, please feel free to download/use it and tweak it to meet your students’ needs, and make it FUN and ENGAGING for them!

 

 

Missing the Point

Teaching decimals to young students can be tricky. Learning them can be even trickier.

I have spent years teaching this concept to upper-elementary students. At first, I would grimace at the thought of starting the decimals unit. Through trial and error, however, I found an easier path to teaching this concept to mastery. It begins with the very first day when the teacher introduces decimals…it begins with missing the “point.”

Read the following sentence aloud to yourself: “Shannon went to the bakery and bought two cakes for $13.85.” Now, read that amount again. Did you ever say the word point? Why not?

We don’t read the word point in the dollar amount; instead, we read and say the word and. Thirteen dollars and eighty-five cents. Think about it: why do we use the word and instead of point?

The same rule needs to apply to all numbers that contain decimals. IT IS TIME TO LOSE THE POINT!

When we use the word “point,” the numbers after the decimal lose their meaning. For example, 13.85 is commonly read aloud as “thirteen point eight five.” This is true (because it is historically common), but what value does the eight or the five have? More importantly, can your students explain their values?

If we take out point and substitute it with and, we get a value. Now, “thirteen point eight five” becomes “thirteen and eighty-five hundredths.” Ahhh, so thirteen is the whole number, and I now have eighty-five hundredths of another whole.

While reading decimals this way may seem like more work and challenging at first, believe me, it will make application of decimals much easier in the long-run. Consider this: what do we expect students to master when it comes to decimals? Usually our list starts off with comprehending place value significance, comparisons, adding, subtracting, etc. Later down the road, you’ll want students to know conversion of decimals to fractions. If we teach students to read decimals CORRECTLY from the get-go, they will have much simpler tasks ahead of them.