New year, new school, new me

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The next chapter of my career begins next week.

I’ll be teaching at a new school.

After a rewarding ten year tenure at my previous school, I made the decision to start anew. The move needed to happen for several reasons, both personal and professional. Moving on wasn’t something that hit me one day when I woke up. It was a slow, revealing process that took me over a year to fully accept. For anyone that’s been at a school for that long, you understand how bittersweet it can be to relocate. I left home.

First, the interview process.

I underestimated how much I would learn about myself. Over the course of four interviews and three demo lessons, I actually became a better teacher. I was presented with questions that I, being on several interview teams, was accustomed to asking candidates as opposed than being expected to answer myself. I was asked to respond to the question all math teachers face. I was asked to share the percentage of my lessons that I consider to have a low floor and high ceiling. I prompted about the nonnegotiable aspects of my classroom. I even experienced a progressive interview that consisted of pitching a course Shark Tank style, round robin meetings with several teachers, and a written reflection of the whole process. This really opened my eyes to what an interview can be.

All of the interviews put me in a position to think deeply about myself and my core values as a teacher. I do this regularly, but not in a way that forces me to formally present it to a stranger. In the moment, I discovered personal feelings and ideas about teaching that I wasn’t aware that I had. Who I am kidding, it was only my fourth job interview…ever.

I was fairly picky about my new school. Jokingly, a member of the interview team at my new school mentioned that it seemed like I was interviewing them. Well, I knew what I wanted. I knew that once I was in, I was in for the long term. I understood the level of commitment that I was making to myself and my new school – and I didn’t take that lightly. I wanted to be sure that my new home was the best place for my abilities and future contributions.

I wore so many different hats at my previous school (it was a small school by traditional standards). I created and maintained our GAFE suite and school website while supervising many after school activities including the intramural sports program, bicycle club, robotics team, tech team, among others. I was on several professional development committees and the LPP team. Not to mention the many other short-term commitments that came up that I volunteered to spearhead. All and all, I was considered a lead member of the staff, I played a central role.

Why do I bring all this up? What does it mean? It means that after securing my position in the spring, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time this summer pondering the rare opportunity that I now have. I’ve been coming to grips with the overwhelming idea of reestablishing myself as a teacher, teacher leader, stakeholder, and contributor. No one knows me. I don’t know most of the systems and structures to which I’ll be adapting. I don’t have seniority. No one cares about my history. I’m at zero. I’m just the new guy that teaches math.

And that is precisely why this dramatic change will elevate my career. I have the rare opportunity to rethink my practice from a rookie’s perspective. Surely there will be a period of adjustment. The transition has already proved to be challenging in many ways. But, at the same time, my classroom will be as fresh as it’s ever going to be. I can reevaluate my assumptions. The bonds I make with students, colleagues, and the overall school community will be rooted in how I build my new reputation. I’m painting on an blank canvas.

Looked at in a certain light, I’m a new teacher again…except that have 10 years of experience to guide me. This blank slate provides me with a unique advantage over my development – one that I hope allows me to contribute greatly to my new settings. I hope this perspective enables me to invigorate to my classroom and my school. Plus, talk about timing, because luckily I’m going to be chronicling the first year of my adventures at my new school for the day in the life of a teacher book project.

Here’s to writing the next chapter.

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Note: My new school referenced my blog. I am led to believe that it played a role in the hiring process.

Summation notation, but way more

I’ve been rethinking all of my lessons this year. My hope has been to get my students to reason more. To think independently. To not be sponges. I’d like to think it’s been working. Here’s a recent lesson on summation notation that showcases this shift.

To open things up, I gave them this.

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Super accessible and relevant to summation notation. In the past, I would have chosen a bell ringer that was closely connected to a prior lesson (i.e. review) than the current one. I wanted to provide remediation. I’ve learned this year that a relevant bell ringer is pivotal to any lesson.

Here’s what came next.
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Again, very accessible. Last year Jennifer Preissel mentioned the “Stop & Jot” idea as a simple way of getting kids to write and reflect more during a lesson. Here, I gave them five minutes to express, on their own, what they wondered and noticed about the expression. After, they shared with their groups and we discussed as a class. By including “left side” and “right side,” I wanted to focus student responses. There were comments like “the +2 happens in every parenthesis” and “the number next to the +2 is going up by one.” Their observations led us to the brink of directly relating sigma notation to its expanded sum. In the past, I would jump right into defining sigma, the upper and lower limits, argument, etc. There would have been no exploring or thinking on their own.

Next, I ask them to move on to another example with the hope of finding a relationship.

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It worked like magic. They see the same pattern from the Stop & Jot and they start to generalize. They have no idea what the “E thing” is, but it’s beginning to settle in how the left and right sides relate to one another. They discuss all of this in their groups. I float around. Observing. Listening. In the past, I would show them how to find this sum and answer their questions. Again, no self-exploration and making meaning of what they see.

Now they are to dissect and interpret.

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This lacks clarity. Some students knew to write their interpretation next to the arrows, but many did not. As a checkpoint, we came back together and discussed.

Next: remove the right side.

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Things are flowing now. The scaffolds are working. They know the relationship and successfully express the sum. In the past: The students would probably be completing this problem, but instead of using their own insight to drive the work, they’d be following what I said was the correct procedure.

Finish it off.

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We come back together one more time to debrief and to address any questions the groups haven’t already. To bring things full circle, I mention the task from the bell ringer. “Ohhh!”

Lastly, on the next page, the proper names are reveled.

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We then have just enough time for an exit slip.

This lesson is heavy on notation and I didn’t want to bog them down with symbols. The goal was to find meaning first, then discuss representation. It succeeded. What I miss out on is working in reverse. Namely, using sigma notation to represent a given sum.

What I love most about this lesson has little to do with summation notation. It’s much bigger. It stems from the approach. Bottom up. Using their own insights to help them find meaning. Doing less and allowing them to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This lesson is a microcosm of how I try to teach nowadays, which is much different than in the past. It symbolizes my growth as a teacher, as a learner.

Here is the handout.

 

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End of the 2014-15 school year

Classroom Spring 2015

-1. Several weeks ago I began thinking about the end of the school year. I suddenly realized the startlingly amount of reflection that awaited me. Today is the last day of school and the only way for me to systematically get it all out is in a list. Here goes.

0. Leading up to this year, my school had a solid four-year stretch of low-turnover and highly stable school atmosphere. 2014-15 not only broke that streak…it was shattered and thrown it under a bus. Things were quite eventful.

1. With any change in leadership, one should expect adjustment in the day-to-day happenings. I found that I had grown too comfortable under previous leadership. Things and people change and I need to evolve with these changes so my productivity doesn’t stagger.

2. During and after vast transformations this year, my optimism was put to the test several times and, in some cases, folded. After scarring disappointments early on, it took a good amount of time to rededicate myself to the school’s mission. I let my frustration get the best of me at times – which I don’t regret. Live and learn.

3. What kept me going? What kept me from completely disconnecting from my school community?

4. The incredibly inspirational people around me. My students. My colleagues (in and out of my school). People I’ve never met. My family.

5. Teachers at my school are an awesome bunch. Despite the disarray abound, somehow they found a way to use their collective strength to keep us moving forward.

6. This was also my first school year blogging, which had a great deal to do with my naturally reflective nature this year. It framed my teaching like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I gained serious perspective by reflecting on my own practices via my blog.

7. I implemented standards-based grading. In terms of assessment, it’s one of the best moves I’ve ever made. I committed to it mid-year, which was tough, but it worked pretty much as planned. I had students assess their own retake exams, which was great, but I need to make a stronger push for retakes next year.

8. I helped plan weekly district-mandated professional development sessions for colleagues at my school. I found it both more engaging and challenging than I imagined before the year began. Professionally, this was an area of growth I didn’t expect. Thanks to MfA, I’ll be taking that a step further next year with my video club.

9. I absolutely struggled with four preps in the fall. The quality of my teaching was stretched thin and my students were shortchanged immensely.

10. I was entitled department chair in the spring. The math department had a tough year and we have a long journey ahead. I hope I am able to provide whatever leadership we need. That said, I passionately hate titles and the connotation that often comes along with them. They are hollow and irrelevant. I just want my work to be meaningful, collaborate, and help all of us reach another level.

11. Our robotics team made progress this year. We performed noticeably better than during the last two years of the program. Next year I hope to use class time (versus after-school) for competition preparation. This should afford the kids more time to build and tweak the robot. My robotics class expanded to include introductory arduinos along with the usual Lego Mindstorms.

12. My students did rather poorly on state exams. This is very disappointing given the amount of work both the students and myself have put in this year. So much so that I began questioning myself. How can I adjust to improve this result?

13. A woman leading a PD once told me “When my students don’t succeed, I look in the mirror and ask What could I have done differently?” This has stuck with me all year. It’s not about all the issues, setbacks, and lack of prerequisite skills that students bring into the classroom that hinders their learning. Instead, all that matters is what I do to meet their needs and get them to succeed. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But this perspective is key for me in my hopes of one day becoming a great teacher.

14. I could have been a better mentor. Despite many shortcomings, I have experience and insight that is conducive to the growth of colleagues new to this profession. I did a poor job this year mentoring a new teacher. She is wonderful and would never tell me so, but inside I know I could have had a much better impact on her.

15. I tried many new approaches this year to teach my kids. Just as importantly, I also implemented new ways to reach them. Whether it was friday letterspersonal notestwo stage exams, plickers, speed dating, problem-based learning, exit slips, or others, I can say that I have definitely made an effort to improve the happenings in my classroom.

16. Following up on a new year’s resolutionintervisitations played a significant role in my development this year. I discovered the need to not only get outside my classroom, but outside of my building, and explore the work of others. It helped motivate a colleague and me to apply for the 2015-16 NYCDOE Learning Partners program, which we were accepted. More to come!

17. I relearned how to be patient with my students. Big ups to my AP for pushing me to slow down the pace of the class and remind me to provide more scaffolding.

18. Goal for 2015-16: highly effective. Focus for 2015-16: to be better than I was in 2014-15.

20. Every school year seems to fly by when you’re at the end of it. This one was no different. It was a bumpy flight, but it was over before I knew it. Another one in the books.

Until June 2016.

 

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Traffic Light


Traffic Light

I’ve seen and read about many “traffic light” strategies used in the classroom. In most instances, its a label we use for a strategy thats helps us gauge student understanding or receive feedback. Here’s another twist on it.

I’m using it as a formative assessment strategy that I fittingly call Traffic Light. (Very creative, I know.) I’ve laminated red, yellow, and green pieces of paper and slid them into another laminated piece of paper that I half-taped to the top of each desk.

During any given lesson, I mention “Traffic Light!” and my students hold up a color corresponding to their level of understanding at that moment. Sometimes I see a sea of green, sometimes a mix, and sometimes I see so much red that I myself turn red. Either way, I have found the cards to be an indispensable tool to keep a pulse on how things are going and, if need be, change things up on the fly. There are plenty of instances where I needed to re-explain something, regroup students, or change the approach to a concept. And, without this in-the-moment feedback from the kids, I probably would not have been aware that a change was necessary.

I must put out a disclaimer. When I first started using the cards, I found that some of the quieter students would hold up a green to avoid me eyeing their yellow or red card – essentially making them “stick out” to me. I had a talk with my classes about how their learning is dependent on their integrity. We also discussed honesty as it relates to their understanding and how this is a driving force of everything we do. I did find that all this helped encourage the kids to provide more accurate responses.

Besides the obvious benefit for me, their teacher, the students actually enjoy using Traffic Light. At the end of the first semester, I asked each student to provide me with one thing they thought went well and one thing they felt needed improvement in our class. I was surprised by this, but several students actually mentioned the Traffic Light cards.

Feedback Traffic Light

(“the new grading system for exams” refers to my shift to standards-based grading)

It could be the interactivity. Students get to, essentially, voice their opinion…and teens love to do that. It could also the message it sends: that I’m willing adjust any lesson based on how they’re learning – and then to actually adjust it. Who knows. I’m just glad they’ve taken to it.

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