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!
Without further ado, here is my photo diary of my time at NCCAT with the amazing middle school math teachers of Caswell County Schools:
Want some of the resources I shared with these teachers? CLICK HERE or go to the Math Resources tab up above.
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. 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 most precious commodity in this world is time. I have come to the realization that as much as it may not seem, it is an unrenewable resource for which there is no replacement or equal. Just like an investment stock, we need to know where we are investing our time and how it is being spent. Take a look at my “time” portfolio:
There are 1,440 minutes in a day. To examine how I use my time, I have chunked those minutes into 3 categories: work, home, and sleep.
Well, I try to devote at least 7 hours – 420 minutes – to sleep, everyday. Sleep is necessary for me (not everyone) to function the next day with a smile on my face. I feel it is important to be a smiling, happy person by appearance because nobody deserves a grumpisourus. Does it happen anyway? Sometimes. Not gonna lie. But I try to make those days few and far between.
If 420 minutes are devoted to sleep each day, that means I have 1,020 remaining minutes to spend with the people I love: my family, my coworkers, and my students.
Let’s examine my time at home next. I get home around 5:30 – 6:00 during the week after a 30ish-minute commute (which is when I usually make phone calls to friends and family). My husband and I usually eat dinner within the first hour I am home (30 minutes) and then on two (or three) days a week we go for a walk or a run (another 30 minutes) as we are training for a half-marathon in October. So we get 60 minutes of undivided attention per day. When you look at that as a fraction 60/1,440, that’s pretty sad. Less than 5% of my weekday is spent with the love of my life (but I guess you can say we make up for it on the weekends). After our run, we come home and veg out in front of the TV. Sometimes I grade papers and sometimes I fall asleep. But that wind-down time is still a valued part of our day. Even if our focus isn’t on each other, we enjoy just being next to each other on the couch, watching our favorite TV shows or a good baseball or football game.
So now let’s evaluate the real chunk of time: my time at school.
I arrive at work at 7:00am every day. I plan and prepare for the day until the bell rings at 7:45, and then I have my game day face on ready for the day.
From 7:45 until 11:20am I am 100% committed to the students in my classroom. I put all of my morning energy – created by my 1 or 2 cups of morning joe – into guiding, modeling, molding, teaching, correcting, facilitating, smiling, comforting, assessing, reassessing, and celebrating my 7th graders. It is so much more than “teaching math.” From 11:20 – 12:15 I meet with other educators and academic facilitators (planning time is hardly to “plan” anymore) and then at 12:15 I am back downstairs in the cafeteria with my 7th graders again, going full-throttle until 3:15 when the final bell rings. And even then, I am with them for another 10 minutes as we walk to the bus lot. So, let’s see, from 7:45 to 3:25…everyday, Monday through Friday, I am spending a grand total of 460 undivided and completely devoted minutes with my kids. That is 40 more minutes than I devote to sleep and 400 more minutes than my husband gets from me.
Before I head back home I stay around school to contact parents (10-15 minutes), grade papers, clean my classroom (sweep and erase pencil graffiti off the desks), and set up my SMART board slides for the next day. And then I’m on the road towards home by 5:00, for a supreme total of 10 hours, or 600 minutes.
Week Day Time Break Down:
Sleep: 420 minutes
School: 600 minutes
Home (“awake” minutes): 320 minutes
Devoted & undivided time to my husband: 60 minutes
Commute: 60 minutes Grand Total: 1,440
Am I ok with the way my time is used? I guess my answer to that question most of the time is: yes. I realize time is precious. Sometimes it is used wisely, sometimes not. There are days when I feel that my minutes are being valued, and there are times when I feel that my time has just been wasted. But at the end of the day, I have to look at my professional and personal goals. I think that if you look at those goals and you realize that your minutes are not being spent at accomplishing those goals, then you need to adjust those minutes somehow. Keep reevaluating until you feel your time is the most wisely invested commodity out there.
I had the pleasure of meeting the author, Jose Luis Vilson, at the Teacher Appreciation Luncheon with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Dr. Jill Biden in early May. While we introduced ourselves, Mr. Vilson shared with the group that he had recently published a book. Based on Jose’s charisma and strong views on education, I immediately knew I would want to read this book.
I came home from that luncheon and ordered the book on Amazon. I love Amazon because you can conveniently get almost anything delivered to your porch…and fast! I had failed to realize, unfortunately, that my mom’s previous home address – 45 minutes away from my front door – was listed as the delivery address from a previous order. When I put two and two together to find out that my copy was sitting on a some lucky new homeowner’s front porch, and not mine, I just looked at my husband and he exclaimed, “Road trip!” We pulled up to Mom’s old house and my book was still in the mailbox! (Whew! Crisis adverted.)
So, to start off, getting this book was neither convenient nor fast. Despite the unexpected time and energy it took to finally get the book, I had a feeling that it would all be worth the read.
I was right.
This is my first year as a middle school teacher. It is also my first year teaching in an underprivileged, urban school. On the one hand, I wish this book would have been available to me before I started my new teaching position this year – it would have taught me a great deal! That being said, I would not have fully appreciated nor valued Vilson’s take on (inner-city) public education before being thrust into the experience first-hand. Our experiences in urban school settings are different and they are real. Real to the point of surrealism. Our students experience hardships that middle-class suburbanites and rural folk cannot relate to on a personal level. These kids come to school with worries far greater than what our lawmakers expect of them on standardized tests. I guess I say all this to make the point that Vilson understands all of this and preaches it in his own unique teacher voice. His observations are quick and he calls it as he sees it. It was comforting to read his vignettes and realize that I’m not the only one who feels this way and that this struggle is universal. This retelling of his struggles and triumphs gives me hope that there is even more hope for our students and the communities that support them. We just need to raise our voices.
Anyways, back to the book. There were two chapters in this book that stood out to me the most:
1. White Noise (On Behalf of Ruben Redman) This chapter, about a young man in a classic scenario of “wrong place, wrong time,” gave me chills. I know many of my students could easily be victims of this same scenario, and it just isn’t right. And, of course, there is little you can do to prevent this from happening other than trying to influence our kids’ choices positively. Yet, we continue to pour our hearts into their educational lives and futures, hoping that our efforts can help magically lift them out of their life’s circumstances.
2. Where the Hustle Comes From What do you do with the student who can’t see past the drama at home – whether it be absent parents, lack of food, sketchy neighborhood, gangs or some other instability – to focus on school work? How do you reach him and make him realize that the time he puts in at school can create opportunities to lift him out of his neighborhood one day and provide him with the American Dream? How do you show him that, although you may look different on the outside you look much closer on the inside, and that you want nothing but the best for his future? Can you reach him? What can you do? Well, Vilson lists some excellent tips for educators in this chapter, including ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE and DON’T TRY TO CHANGE THEM, GET TO KNOW THEM.
Other points of Vilson’s that stuck out:
There is a clear-cut dichotomy between schooling and education. Education is for everyone. Schooling is not. (What Happened)
There will be times when you let your students down. Times get rough and it will happen, sooner or later. But don’t let it affect you. Learn from the experience, get back up, and try to do better the next day. (The Homeroom is a Home)
Students NEED to know that underneath that mask of professionalism, you are a compassionate human being who cares for them. (God Got Jokes, Son)
Change in education starts with teachers, not with policy makers. (How to Drop the Mic)
Despite how hard you try, there may always be that 10% you cannot reach. [SIGH] (Every Day Above Ground is a Good One)
This book – now plagued with highlighter marks and jammed with make-shift Sticky Note bookmarks – will stay on my teacher’s desk next year as a reminder of why I teach and that, despite the many obstacles of NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core, standardized testing, or any other asinine education policies they throw at me, I CAN and WILL make a difference in my students’ lives. I always thought this, but now I know because Mr. Vilson says so.
Approximately two weeks ago, I saw this on Twitter:
I thought to myself, Wow! That sounds like a great opportunity. There’s no way on this good, green Earth that I’ll ever be selected (because, really, who am I?), but I’ll apply anyway. I took a chance as well as about 10 minutes to apply on my iPhone while cooking dinner one night, pressed “Send,” and let out a big sigh at the thought of such an amazing opportunity.
Fast forward to a few days later, I received the following email from the White House’s Deputy Director of Digital Programs, Kasie Coccaro:
Whoa! They selected ME?! I just couldn’t believe it! One of my dreams of meeting the Secretary of Education was going to finally come true AND I was going to also tour the White House AND meet Dr. Biden…wow. Just, wow.
After just a few days of security-clearance and itinerary emails, the BIG DAY was here! I did most of my driving on the day before, and stayed overnight in a hotel near Fredericksburg, VA. (I didn’t get too much sleep because I was so excited!) I got up early with the intention of meeting a few of the other educators for breakfast (through the power of Social Media, we had prearranged a meet-up before our White House tour), however, DC traffic ruined those plans for me. I checked the time as I parked my car and realized I had just enough time to get to the tour check-in gate, so I decided to head straight for the WH.
After a very thorough security check-in process, I finally walked in the doors of the East Wing, where tour guides were escorting everyone to the South Lawn for a very “special event.” Had no idea what this could be, since the local news program that was on TV while I was getting ready said that President Obama was going to be in Arkansas that day visiting the towns struck by the latest tornadoes. Maybe we’d get to see the First Lady? Sasha and Malia?
After waiting in the corral and taking pictures for about 15 minutes, the president’s helicopter came flying straight at us from the south and landed 50 yards away right on the lawn! Everybody starts looking at each other and saying the same thing, Yeah, I think we’re going to see the President. And we sure did.
After President Obama lifted off, and his helicopter – and escorting helicopters – were out of sight, we looked at our watches and phones. Wow! It is already 11:10 and we have to be at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (next door) at 11:20! Can you say, “shortest White House tour ever”? The dozen of us flew through the tour, glancing at this and peeking in to see that. Will I remember much of what I saw inside the house? Probably not. But having that experience on the South Lawn made it all worth it.
We got out of the tour and took a few more selfies in front of the White House:
And then it was time to head over to the Eisenhower Executive Building:
For those of you who don’t know (because I didn’t know) the Eisenhower Executive Office Building is where the VP and his staff work, in addition to several other White House department heads and operations. After another thorough security check-in process, we were given our official EEOB badges and made our way to Room 276. We walked in, charged our phones, and sat down to await the arrival of our first host, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
After Secretary Arne Duncan left, we were visited by several other education advisors, including Eric Waldo, the FLOTUS’s Executive Director of the Reach Higher Initiative. He spoke to us about this program’s mission to expose students to college-related experiences early in an effort to ensure ALL students know they CAN go to college. We also met with Kumar Garg, the Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (he talked about spreading the word about Maker Spaces and joining the WH in the Maker Faire later this year), and Rory Brosius, the Deputy Director of Joining Forces (US Military family support program).
After Rory left, it was time for lunch and a photo op with the Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden! We walked down the hallway to her office, were formally introduced to her, and then took pictures. After we snapped a few photos in her office, we went back to grab our cute, boxed lunches, which included a choice of meat or veggie (I chose turkey) on a fresh, delicious piece of multigrain bread, a granny smith apple, chips, and my favorite, cookies! (Sorry, I can’t help it. I’m a foodie.)
Dr. Biden was on a tight schedule and couldn’t stay too long, unfortunately. The WH staff still had one surprise left for us, though! Since the rain had cleared, they invited us back to the White House lawn to visit the Obamas’ garden and meet one of the WH chefs!
We took one last group photo before leaving the White House, and each other…
This day will be one that I will forever remember. I am so thankful that I was chosen to take part of this event with this amazing group of teachers. Not only did I have the opportunity to meet some historical leaders in the realm of US education, but I also learned a lot, and most importantly, I met some wonderful educators who have become the newest extension of my teacher-network. They are terrific professionals whom I admire and look forward to collaborating with in the future!
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 standardsare 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:
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.