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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

If you could wave a magic wand...

If you could wave a magic wand...

Related Tags: 6-8 Middle School
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Hi, all, This is my first post. So, please allow me to take just a second to provide a little background. I was a classroom mathematics teacher for 24 years and then mentored teachers in a math coach capacity. Recently, I have begun work with a team of educators who create instructional materials and provide support services to middle school math classrooms across the country. This brings me to this post's subject line. If you could wave a magic wand and be granted one wish for your classroom/school/district that would help you teach even more effectively and, consequently, help your students learn even better, for what would you ask? Would it be some type of resource, access to a new technology, a curriculum change, a type of professional development, or perhaps a logistic/organizational change of some sort? Or is there a trend that sounds quite promising -- something you would like to implement in your classroom/school/district? While mathematics education is my passion, I'd love to hear from middle school teachers in all disciplines/capacities. Here's looking forward to a lively and enlightening conversation. Thanks!

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Sybrina's picture
Sybrina
Former Classroom Mathematics Teacher and Math Coach

Hi, Erika,

First, I want to thank you for your dedication to special needs students. You have my upmost respect. It seems that teachers at all levels, whether it be elementary, middle, high, or special ed, have a certain something that fosters success with students at their level. After a year of team teaching an inclusion Algebra 1 class with a special education colleague, I am in awe of teachers who have the gift to work with our most needy students.

Thank you for your honest, poignant and, most likely, far too common thoughts. You are so right that morale can make a huge difference.

You said that the year started on a real "high" as a result of last year's results. So, I was wondering what was morale like this time last year? Were the mandates, protocols, etc, in place last year? If so, and morale was better, what do you think has made such a difference?

Thanks, Erika, for replying. I hope we continue the conversation.

Tom Bronson's picture
Tom Bronson
Middle School Math (including Alg I, Geo, and Alg II) from Tampa, FL

The educational level of expectation for math teachers in Florida is, in a word, sad. I have been doing a lot of studying of the Singapore style of teaching math and agree with many elements of their philosophy. The two most key elements of their philosophy are: Math teachers need to understand well beyond the level of math that they are teaching and we need to stop jumping on every band wagon that comes down the pike.

In my lifetime, we have had New Math, Chicago Math, Everyday Math, and a few others.

So, my wish?

We get back to basics. Make sure teachers are prepared to TEACH the math. Teach the kids to think and problem solve. Every new style of teaching math that has come along focuses on math as discrete concepts. When a teacher understands the interconnectedness of the mathematics, they can present it that way. If a teacher barely understands the math to begin with, he or she will never be able to communicate it.

Okay, I will descend from my soapbox now.

Sybrina's picture
Sybrina
Former Classroom Mathematics Teacher and Math Coach

Hi, Tom,

Good to hear from you.

You hit a nail on the head with your concerns about understanding mathematics beyond the level of a teaching assignment. There have been two developments here in Ohio that I believe have a chance to make a significant difference: 1) moving away from a generic K-8 certificate in place of licenses for smaller grade bands that include areas of specialization and 2) hiring math coaches/specialists in many elementary and middle schools, finances permitting. What about in Florida? Have similar changes been tried in Florida middle schools?

I also love that you include critical thinking and problem solving as basics. Singapore Math certainly provides a nice structure for students to use when they approach problems. Speaking of Singapore Math, I received a flier in the mail today about a Singapore Math conference from July 12-15 in Vegas (from SDE:Staff Development for Educators). Not sure what your professional development monies are like in these days of budget cuts, but thought I'd mention it.

Feel free to re-ascend your soapbox anytime. I really appreciated your perspective. Thanks for joining in the conversation.

Sybrina

Tom Bronson's picture
Tom Bronson
Middle School Math (including Alg I, Geo, and Alg II) from Tampa, FL

I attended the Singapore training in Vegas last year and took a primary teacher, two intermediate teachers and another middle school teacher with me. We then attended every session that we could that pertained to our level of instruction. I split my time between Early Primary and Middle/High School because our game plan was to bring back as much as possible to our school. Upon our return, we were able to work with the faculty to not only get their level of mathematical understanding a little higher, but also introduce them to the Singapore model. The Primary and Intermediate levels still use the Everyday Math books as a resource, but they teach the concepts through the thinking/problem solving approach that Singapore has perfected. It's wonderful. I hope that school districts move towards the math specialists or push their teachers to get the necessary training to understand (well) beyond their level of instruction. I am confident that Universities aren't going to change their requirements, because they don't want to scare people away. So, it's up to the teacher or the school districts. If teachers, schools, or districts are comfortable with mediocrity, we'll continue to get it.

Another element of the Singapore model that we truly need to implement in this hemisphere is the concept that memorization is done at home. I do a lot of acting and singing as a side career. I don't show up to rehearsal to learn my lines or notes. I do it at home. We need to instill that in our students. Thinking, manipulating, and problem solving are done at school. School is to learn WHY 6*7=42. Home is for committing the facts to memory. Now, granted, we need parental support for this but, as I've previously stated, if we set the level of expectation that parents will assist in memorization at home, there is a pretty good change that they will do something along those lines. If we expect the worst, we'll probably get that, too.

Tom

Sybrina's picture
Sybrina
Former Classroom Mathematics Teacher and Math Coach

Tom,

Sounds like the Singapore Conference was a wonderful experience. And, you absolutely did it the right way by going as a group of colleagues. So, glad you were all able to attend.

In my day, graphing calculator use was one of my main tools for engaging students. I gained so much by networking with incredible educators from other states and countries at technology and calculator conferences. My richest experiences definitely were those when more than one of us attended a conference.

Your comments about home support also rang true. My experience in the urban schools in which I taught was that parents wanted to help, but often times didn't know want to do. While we sought parental involvement, we also provided scaffolding and safety nets as needed.

Let me close by saying your students are so very fortunate to have you as their teacher. With your constant urging that they reach for stars, many are sure to at least land on the moon.

Sybrina

Tom Bronson's picture
Tom Bronson
Middle School Math (including Alg I, Geo, and Alg II) from Tampa, FL

I know what you mean about parental help, my 7th graders often exceed their parents' level of mathematical understanding. I won't even mention my eighth graders. We're currently working on using Logarithms to perform different tasks like calculating mortgages, pH levels, and carbon dating. So, needless to say, the parents could easily write themselves off as useless. Except for the fact that I expect my kids to go home and work with their parents on this stuff. Now, the kids that are nailing it day in and day out can live their lives parent free if they want. The kids that have challenges, though, are expected to go home, sit down with mom, dad, baby sitter, big sister, whomever, and work through the material. Even if it involves teaching the concept to them first. This same idea can be applied at any level. Now, granted, some urban areas have households where mom and dad work until well after bedtime. I imagine that's where the safety nets come in that you were talking about. Keeping a student after school for a little while to do the memorizing of facts isn't optimal, but it could be a reasonable substitute for mom and dad being elsewhere. In fact, that child may even respond better during class because of the fact that the teacher recognized a need, offered an option, and followed through.

Thank you for the compliment. We teachers are a special breed. Teachers gauge their success vicariously through the success of their students. It's our greatest (and often only) reward.

On a side note, you mentioned graphing calc conferences. Did you ever attend any T3 (cubed) conferences? I presented at a few regionals. I also attended the MELT conference at App State a number of years ago. One of the most amazing conferences I've ever attended.

Tom

Sybrina's picture
Sybrina
Former Classroom Mathematics Teacher and Math Coach

Tom,

Isn't it funny how I feel like I know you pretty well and we've done nothing more than exchange a few posts.

Isn't it also funny how parents would never say that they aren't good at reading, but seem to announce their lack of math aptitude as though it were a medal of honor.

The urban school that I mentioned was an alternative arts-focused school in a large district. Consequently, it was not a neighborhood school and students were bused from all over the city. Three safety nets that our principal built into the schedule were: 1) requiring all freshmen take a minimum of Algebra 1 -- yes, even our future actors, musicians, and sculptors -- but scheduling daily 80 minute classes to allow us time to cover Algebra while filling in gaps, 2) having study halls, monitored by math faculty, that were scheduled before lunch to allow for tutoring opportunities, and 3) having a 20-minute period in the middle of the day during which nobody (students nor teachers) had any assigned classes/responsibilities to allow for student/teacher interactions for mini-conferences and tutoring sessions.

You mentioned students teaching their parents. An assignment that I gave to my students at the beginning of the year was to teach a specific graphing calculator skill to their parents. In Algebra II, it was often a point plotting, line fitting exercise. This allowed students a chance to practice calculator skills, for parents to see how their investment would be used during the year, and a chance for students to shine in the eyes of their parents. The assessment for both parties was to complete an evaluation form -- what went well, what didn't, what they learned... The responses often revealed quite a bit about attitudes toward math, parental education level, and the student/parent relationship. Wish I could take credit for the idea, but it came from a T3 Instructor.

Speaking of T3... Yes, I was very involved with the organization. I took a weeklong class at Ohio State (with Frank Demana, Bert Waits, Chuck VonderEmbse, and Greg Foley) in the summer of 1992. I assisted with several workshops the next two summers and became a T3 Instructor in 1995. As an instructor, I facilitated weeklong summer workshops, spoke at regional and national conferences, helped create a Biology and Algebra Workshop, and served as a committee co-chair for the 2001 T3 Conference in Columbus. My last official T3 activities were probably in 2002.

Speaking of pH levels, have you ever used CBLs and Vernier probes with your graphing calculators? If not, it might be worth looking into. And, I loved using the CBR with my students.

So, whos' on a soapbox now. Time for me to descend -- have a pup in need of a walk on a gorgeous Central Ohio day.

Sybrina

Tom Bronson's picture
Tom Bronson
Middle School Math (including Alg I, Geo, and Alg II) from Tampa, FL

I like your idea of working with the calcs at home. We own the calcs and we only recommend the students buy them, so I wouldn't be able to do that. I might be able to do something computer related, though.

I didn't really get involved in T3 until the late 90s, so I probably just gained the benefit of your wisdom instead of crossing you path. I loved presenting for them at regionals (programming, of course) and I still use many of the ideas I picked up from the workshops that I attended.

I use CBRs, but I haven't been able to invest in the CBL, yet. Soon, though. Especially if I can tie it into my Log unit. I've used them to tune Coke bottles and that kind of stuff. Never even thought about pH.

Oh, and I think you and definitely fell out of the same tree. :) I've said that exact same "badge of honor" quote (almost verbatim) about 1000 times. If I ever find the guy who invented the term "math gene", I am pretty sure I'm going to have to beat the genes out of him.

By the way, I've performed at the Palace Theatre in Columbus many, many times. I love your city. I especially love the Germantown area.

Take care.

Tom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger 2014

As an ELA teacher, I have no idea what you guys are discussing, but I'm learning just by reading the exchange. It's like being a fly on the wall of a meeting of great minds. Keep it up!
-Heather WG

Sybrina's picture
Sybrina
Former Classroom Mathematics Teacher and Math Coach

Tom,

First of all, I am in awe of the things that you are having your middle schoolers do. Kudos -- serious kudos!

I am so sorry that our paths did not cross during my T3 days. Are you still involved? My most commonly given presentation was an intro to parametric graphing -- entitled "ParaWHATrics?"

Speaking of your interest in programming, have you met Doug Smeltz? He was the colleague who created all of those cool fact practice programs for our Algebra 1 classes. He was one of the original T3 Instructors and is still very active with TI/T3.

One thought for getting a couple of CBLs might be contacting TI and see if you can't work out some sort of loan to test them out. Okay, this is our cyber-secret, but I was able to arrange a gift of a classroom set of TI-73 calculators for a struggling middle school when I was a coach there. One of the problem with CBLs is that almost every experiment requires a different set of probes. I can't help but believe that someone at TI wouldn't be able to help you out if you made just the right contact.

As for the student teaching parent calculator activity, maybe that would be possible on a back-to-school night early in the year. There were unfortunately situations in which we were using school sets of calculators and couldn't do that specific assignment. So, I always made it a point to model a cool (parametric) calculator-based activity on parent night.

So, you've visited Columbus?! It's interesting that I've lived here my entire life and am just beginning to truly appreciate it. My first dose of appreciation came at the 2001 T3 Conference during a gorgeous mid-March weekend and I was given the gift of seeing the city through our visitors' eyes. The second dose has come on a number of occasions when my husband and I have been vacationing down south. I have encountered many transplanted Ohioians who would give anything to move back to the state.

Think that's about it for now.

Take care,

Sybrina

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