Hold Your Tongue!

For nearly thirty years I have been a teacher. I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach young minds how to read, write and compute. I have been able to teach them about our country and its origins and about the wonders of science. I taught teamwork and the value of fitness. I have watched their little minds absorb what I had to say and regurgitate it when asked to prove to myself and others that they had indeed learned what I had to teach. I had the greatest job in the world!

The job was much better than what I was technically trained to do in college (financial analyst), and the working conditions far exceeded what I had experienced at either Ford Motor Company or Nissan Motor Manufacturing. Alright the compensation at the beginning was a bit on the light side (my accountant actually fired me and told me about Turbo Tax) but the non-compensatory benefits were awesome! I got all the hugs I could handle and opportunities to see real growth. Let’s not forget the summers either! As I stated before…..it was the greatest job in the world!

Then one day my world came crashing down. I came to the realization that I was NOT an effective teacher! I had become a problem in my own classroom. I was actually detrimental to the learning of my students. Don’t get me wrong, my lessons were top notch, my planning superb, my presentation style was not to be outdone. People gave me compliments and the parents at school wanted their children to be in my class. But I knew, deep inside, I was inhibiting my students. I was stopping them from reaching their full potential and stealing their bright futures……..In short, I TALKED TOO MUCH!

But the truth is that everything I had to say was important (well maybe not some of my corny jokes). I mean it was really cool stuff. Kids needed to know it so that they could grow up to be successful, right? But I noticed that my kids waited for me…..waited for the instruction, waited for the inspiration, waited for the direction and waited to be told what to do and how to plan. Worst of all, they waited for me to show them how and what to think.

In my quest to be the best and impart the most I had killed inquisitiveness, curtailed “out-of-the-box” thinking and removed the struggle of learning. I was assuming I knew what they were telling me, but did I? Did I really understand their thoughts and their needs? I was spoon feeding my kids into dependency and failing to make them take responsibility for their own learning…….This needed to stop NOW! But how could I change? I mean I had a lot of time invested in my “stuff” and my style.

I began with a promise to myself to say less and listen more, to question more and accept less at face value. It has been a struggle! I mean really? Don’t I know more than an elementary school kid? I continue to struggle with it. You might even say that I am continuing in a program of purposeful mutism. If I can make my students think more and struggle more they make more connections and have more enthusiasm for what they are doing. And guess what? The same experiences that I worked so hard to choreograph in the classroom are usually experienced by the students’ own doing. I didn’t even need to get in the way! So….until I retire I’ll continue to “hold my tongue” and let the kids talk! I challenge you to do the same.

Hello Twitter…The Power of Social Media for Teachers

So… I’m not exactly a “young pup”. The reality is I’m closer to an “old dog”. Does that mean I can’t still learn new tricks?

Recently while working with a group of sixth grade teachers the topic came around to how we would teach the multiplication of decimals. I checked the text to see how they wanted us to teach the placement of the decimal in the product. As I expected, it was just as I was taught long ago…count the number of places to the right of the decimal point in the factors then start at the right side of the product and move the same number to the left. Simple enough.

Wait a minute! Where’s the understanding for the students in that little procedure? How could they make sense of that? I didn’t like what I was seeing. I needed a better answer for my students, an answer they could make sense of in all situations dealing with decimals.  I’m fairly self-aware when it comes to my abilities and I knew that there were people far smarter than I that I should be getting advice from. These people think on a level that makes my brain hurt. Luckily for me (and anyone in our district) we team with some of these really smart people, so I “bang” out my email and ask for advice from Robert Kaplinsky.

As expected, the answer came very promptly. “Off the top of my head I really don’t know.” Followed up with “Are you on Twitter?”

Twitter? Now I’m not completely in the dark, but Twitter-land is not somewhere I visit nor am I comfortable in. I did know that you “tweet” you don’t “twitter” and I knew there were something called “hashtags”– only because I have children who are 20-somethings and I’ve heard them talk and make jokes about them. My skill level was at DOK zero when it came to Twitter.

My talented friend “asked/pushed” me to send him a tweet with my question and told me he would forward it to the “Math Twitter Blogosphere” (#MTBoS). Alrighty then, whtatever THAT was. Really? at this stage in my life I needed to somehow join the social media revolution? I was just fine living in the Stone Age of communication skills. I was in my own little world but that was okay, they knew me there! Then that small little voice…..Growth Mindset, Growth Mindset….darn you Carol Dweck!!!

So steeled by my resolve for having a growth mindset I began. I set up my account, created myself a “handle” (@coachsievers) and sent my first tweet to @robertkaplinsky with the aforementioned question about decimals. That was at about midnight. Off to bed proud of myself for moving out of the familiar into the uncomfortable. Maybe I wasn’t so old that I couldn’t learn a new trick or two. But what would it yield?

I have no idea when Robert “re-tweeted” my question. Maybe he stays up later than I or maybe he got up earlier.  His “re-tweet” must have given me some sort of instant “street cred” with the MTBoS community because by 6:00 AM I had at least 15 answers or suggestions for my problem! The number and brilliance of people involved in the discussion of my question was fascinating. There were some “heavy hitters” of the math community chiming in. Here were like-minded people trying to help me help my teachers reach their students with some sort of construct that had real meaning, not just a rote recitation of “do this”. As the day went on more people chimed in, brilliant people with idea after idea, some affirming my first thoughts of rounding to whole numbers and estimating, and others providing different ideas. I had struck gold with this community and now I was convinced of the power of Twitter and social media in general.

Years ago while attending the CUE Conference in its very early years, David Thornburg proposed that, in the future, being successful would not be dependent on what knowledge you held in your brain at any given time, but rather your ability to access that knowledge when you needed it for your purpose. My venture into “Twitter-land” has proven his point. I did not have an answer. I had an idea, but needed validation and professional discourse to clarify. Emails and research would have taken me days if not weeks. Twitter made it happen in about 12 hours.

I will forever be grateful for @robertkaplinsky urging me to participate and lending me his credibility to get it started. I am truly humbled by the outpouring of assistance and willingness of some really smart people in the #MTBoS community to help me and my teachers as we try to help our students construct meaning of our mathematics.

So… If you haven’t tried it, jump in and play. You’ll be glad you did.

Disequilibrium

About November of the last school year I knew that I was not connecting with my students mathematically. Carefully constructed lesson plans with objectives, guided practice and independent practice brought the same results and they weren’t acceptable. Somehow the message wasn’t being received. As a class we had a severe need to develop fluency and our number sense was lacking. It would be easy for me to point to my students and accuse them of laziness or blame one of my colleagues for “not laying the foundation” but the truth is I needed a new approach. Somehow I knew that I needed a better way to help my students understand. I was in a serious state of disequilibrium. Thus began my journey to improve my ability to teach mathematics.

That brings me to a second story about my son. To this day he claims to be “no good at math”. I can trace this back to a game his third grade teacher innocently played called “Around the World”. In this game students stand and are challenged to answer a math fact from flash cards. My son never won the game, always beaten by one of two friends who were much faster calculators or better at memorization. I can recall clearly the days they played the game. He was always sad and down on himself. The point being, my son was convinced by that innocent enough game that he was not a math person. Sad fact.

I had attended Singapore Math training the previous summer but really had not taken the “dive”. I could see where number bonds and bar modeling made sense but I hadn’t implemented it. It was time. While seeking new ways to address fluency I came across Sherry Parrish’s book on number talks. I watched her YouTube videos and how she constructed her problem sets. It made perfect sense. Then I attended the NCTM Conference in San Francisco and was re-introduced to Dan Meyer (I had seen him at CUE the year before) and was able to hear Jo Boaler, Graham Fletcher, Robert Kaplinsky and Sherry Parrish speak. It was what I needed to change my approach to mathematics teaching.

I recently asked my son if he was happy with his choice of majors. He responded that he was, but really would have preferred one of the sciences but was sure he couldn’t handle the math. Here is a bright kid who’s path was permanently changed because of math facts. It was like a punch in the gut. How did I not see it? How did I not change it? He did not possess a “growth mindset”, his was definitely a “fixed mindset”. We worked and worked at math but he never enjoyed it and I wasn’t equipped as I am today with the tools and strategies to make it more interesting and understandable. I didn’t understand the damage that timed tests or innocent math games could do to a young mathematician. I didn’t know how to help him and question him and encourage him to have that “growth mindset” with regards to math. He never ventured to take advanced classes in high school and still hates math.

Now my son is very happy and very successful so it is not a tragic story, just one that drives me daily to promote the use of alternative tools to timed tests and math facts games that value speed over understanding and deep mathematical thinking. I encourage talking to students to try to understand their thinking and use what I learn to change and modify my teaching. I make them explain what they did and why. Sometimes I challenge a correct response to develop a sense of belief in themselves. I always ask if anyone had a different way to find an answer. I also try to be “less helpful” not rushing to help students but letting them struggle with a problem. I remain a crusader for talking in the classroom and try to create a sense of wonder and questioning about all learning.

Why This Blog?

Why, after 27 years of teaching am I dipping my foot into blogging? Well, I have had some very respected friends tell me I need to share why I am so passionate about understanding the thinking of students and why I crusade daily to help teachers understand what wealth of information they can get about their own teaching and the learning of their students when they encourage student discussion and defense of answers given. So let the journey begin here and let’s joyfully ride this roller coaster and experience the thrill it has to offer!

 

It was a simple third grade writing prompt that opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to dig deeper into my students’ thinking.

My son had written a piece in response to the prompt “Write about your dream pet”. He had received a particularly low score for his work so naturally I was curious as to what went wrong. As we began to review the paper I noticed that he had received no credit for writing to the prompt. I read the prompt myself and then reviewed his paper. Indeed he had not written to the prompt. He had not written about any pet he could have if the typical restrictions were removed. Instead he had written about a flying dragon that lived in a cave in a mountain. When I tried to explain to him that he had not written to the prompt he insisted that he had. I explained that flying dragons were not real and thus couldn’t be his “dream” pet. His explanation to his thought process brought everything into focus. He had dreamed of this animal the night before the writing exercise during his sleep and therefore it was indeed a “dream” pet.

Had I not probed his thought process I would have never known that he was not only writing to the prompt but was indeed quite creative in his response. I then began to question my own teaching. How many times had I done this to a student? How many times could I have clarified a student’s response by asking for proof or evidence or asked for an explanation? That was the moment when I truly understood the necessity of talking with my students to understand their thoughts. Understanding their thoughts via questioning gave me tremendous insight into my teaching and their learning.

Most of my probing and questioning and clarifying was in language arts, science and social science. I had not yet made the connection to math. I mean math was pretty straight forward right? Why question it? What good was talking about the solution? You get the numbers, manipulate the numbers with the proper algorithm and get your solution. Simple enough.

That was about eight months ago………and a separate post.