disapproving kitty

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Real Meaning of Irony

Dear Ohio Leaders*

It's testing season again for my elementary school students. I don't know what content is in these tests, because I'm not allowed to know. I'm just their teacher. I do know my students, though, because I am their teacher.
I know what they can do. I know how well they can read, how well they can write, talk, analyze, construct, synthesize, and evaluate. I know how well they can use mathematics and solve real-world problems using their skills. I know this because I evaluate them every single day, and we use that information together to improve tomorrow. I know what they can do.
But you say you don't trust me to honestly report that, because...? I don't actually know. I don't know why you've decided that Ohio's parents don't trust their kids' teachers because I have a feeling that if we took a poll, we'd discover that they trust me a lot more than they trust you. I have absolutely nothing to gain from saying a child is capable of something when she isn't. You, on the other hand, have lots and lots of financial support to lose unless you can "prove" that children who aren't actually failing are -- according to a testing company.
If schools are failing, then you can open charter schools, at taxpayer expense, enriching the owners of those charter schools so they will continue donating to campaigns to support your re-election. You know, charter schools like the honest, upstanding and effective ECOT. Tell me, how many tax dollars have gone towards that swindle?** If you can convince the public that their tax dollars should be used to pay for high priced testing, because teachers aren't to be trusted, then you can continue funding testing companies. Who can then go on use that money to lobby you. It's a neat little circle of taxpayer dollars, all swirling into private hands, with zero benefits to children.
What do I get if I honestly evaluate my students with tests that truly measure what they need to know? All I get is the ability to plan tomorrow's lessons.***
With mandatory state testing, I don't even get that. I NEVER get to see the questions and the kids' answers. No teacher ever gets to deeply analyze what those results mean in order to better teach students. Teachers, children and parents get NOTHING out of this testing except many lost hours of real teaching time, stress, frustration, tears, fearfulness, anxiety and prescriptions for ulcer medications. For 9 year olds. This testing, which is supposed to improve education, does nothing but make it worse. I suppose, though, we could use the situation to teach the meaning of the word "irony."

The only people who seem to be profiting are people who are benefitting YOU.

I'm fighting every day for my students.

Whose side are you on?

An Ohio Teacher

*Specifically, ones who have had their elections helped by donations from charter schools or others who profit off of mandatory State Testing. If you aren't one of these leaders, then thank you. Keep up the good work.
**More about charter schools in Ohio here
***If I'm lucky, I get notes at the end of the year saying "Thank you for teaching me this year!" from the kids. Those are precious.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Zoetropes and Other Fanciful Things

I spent the better part of a Saturday at a professional development seminar about strategies for teaching gifted children. (Do I know how to live, or what?)

During one section, the leaders were talking about how we need to expose students to topics, ideas, culture, art, anything they have likely never seen before. They showed us a terrific short video of a zoetrope at Disney, featuring characters from Toy Story.

Everyone at my table perked up because we used to teach optical illusions, and our students loved it. So many teachers and administrators, though, would see what we did, and look at how hard the kids had worked, but they wouldn't get it. The most common response to nearly everything we did was "It must be nice to only get to teach the fun stuff. I have to teach the standards."

Zoetropes are just "fun stuff." That's not "real" learning. "Real" learning is diagrams and labels, worksheets, tests, and practicing their facts. It is reading and taking notes, class discussions, and making the map, the booklet, the letter to the editor, the approved project. Real teaching is what is in the standards.

The leaders asked what we thought about showing kids this zoetrope. I replied with something much shorter than this, but it's what I meant:

When a lot of teachers (and administrators) see this, they think "that's a neat magic trick." Or they may consider it cool art, but that's it. There's no other "real" educational value to it, and we shouldn't waste time on that in school. It's "play" and it's "trivial." It's not meaningful work.

That isn't true at all.

The zoetrope connects to science of the brain, and understanding how our eyes and brain work together to create the illusion of movement. It's complex and rich and requires some fairly sophisticated thinking to understand. 

The zoetrope IS a form of art. Art is not trivial. I'll say that again: Art. Is. Not. Trivial. It is connected to all elements of society. There is precision in a zoetrope, perseverance, and great attention to small details. This particular zoetrope takes two dimensional art into three dimensions which connects to the math of shapes and figures. Zoetropes have been created in all kinds of media, from stick figures on paper to Tim Burton characters out of cake. Exploring how one subject crosses in unexpected ways with other subjects requires understandings of both. And even if it were not all those things, Art still would not be trivial. 

Zoetropes are a wonderful lesson in change over time, which is in nearly every grade level's social studies standards. The earliest zoetropes began as simple two sided pictures and begat the entire motion picture industry.

Students can learn to create zoetropes which requires research, creativity, math, perseverance and precision. Each of these skills is absolutely a part of our curriculum at every grade level. If we are not teaching those skills then we are doing something wrong. 

Finally, the zoetrope, or any other "weird" thing we might expose students to can capture the imagination of a child and inspire her to study, to create, to invent, or to find her own connections. For some kids, that weird thing is going to be the ONLY thing that lights a fire beneath them. To trivialize and dismiss content that does that for a child just because is it not what is on "the test" is a crime against our students. It is antithetical to the very notion of real education.

Teach the unusual. Expose students to a vast variety of ideas even when you don't know exactly where the connections will be. They will surface. You will find them. The students will create* them for you. 

And best of all, they will remember it.

And isn't that the point?

*The next slide was a picture of a simple zoetrope. A student had gone home, researched zoetropes, made one and brought it into school. On her own. Not an assignment. Because she wanted to learn. That is great.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Audience Participation Post (for math teachers)

I switched jobs this year.
I'm still working with gifted kids, but I'm "pushing in" instead of "pulling (kids) out." I'll admit, I was kinda skeptical and worried about how this would work.
There's a pretty steep learning curve some days.
And then, some days, you find an old email draft about trying some math website and at the same time circumstances require you to teach the entire 3rd grade class on your own so you figure, "What the heck, let's try that new website. What's the worst that could happen?" I mean, really, if it absolutely bombs, you throw on a Vi Hart video (if you've never seen Vi Hart and you teach 3rd - 12th grade, go check her out right now. Really. Right. Now.)
So I'm with this 3rd grade class that has a pretty wide range of abilities and I tried this problem from the website Open Middle:

Directions: Use the numbers 0 – 9, no more than one time each, to make the following problem true.
Jenny has ? ? ? marbles. Her brother has ? ? ? marbles. Together they have ? ? ? marbles.
After a brief check to make sure everyone understood the problem, we got out white boards and markers and started working. The kids naturally gravitated into groups. There were SO MANY good discussions about math! What did this problem mean? Where could you use a 0? What happens if we add to a 4 - digit number? 
30 minutes. 
Eight and nine year olds laid on the carpet and worked for 30. Solid. Minutes. On Math. No technology besides a white board and they didn't want to stop. It took 30 minutes before one group finally had an answer. I said that it was different than the one I got, could they find more? 
The kids who couldn't find the right answer spent those 30 minutes building their 3 - digit addition skills. That was the worst thing that happened. Really. 
The site has problems from many great math educators, and it's leveled by standard k - 12. 
This was the coolest thing I'd experienced in the classroom in a long time. The kids LOVED it. The gifted ones and the not-gifted ones, too. 
This is my first-ever audience participation request, but please -- if you teach math, just TRY one of these and if you want to, tell me what you think! I'd love to hear.
Happy Math-ing!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind

I heard a comedian once talk about getting a driver's license in New York, which consisted of some extensive training, hours and rigorous testing, and comparing it to getting a license in Ohio which is mostly the examiner saying "If you are taller than this line...."*

It's a great punchline, but it's also depressing when you consider how the same theory has been applied to education. Back in 2002, it's what the Bush Administration† established with No Child Left Behind. All kids had to pass a minimum bar as established by these one-size-fits-all tests. Makes sense to have minimum standards, right? I mean we had kids graduating that couldn't read for crying out loud! (Newsflash: we still do.) Districts poured money and resources into special ed and remediation. Some kids with special ed ID's were exempted from these standards, and numbers of kids with SpecEd ID'd soared. So did numbers of kids with anxiety and depression.**

Money also poured in to testing companies and into tutoring companies and the one place more money didn't show up was, you guessed it, gifted ed.
Gifted kids walked in the door able to pass those "minimum standard" tests. So nobody needed to teach them anything. They were going to be a tally in the positive column pretty much no matter what, so why waste time on them when the school was going to get slammed heavily for every child beneath the bar?
Gifted kids got left behind. 
That's the legacy of NCLB and it has been devastating to our students. We spent 13 years being encouraged to ignore the gifted in service of this backwards mandate. 13 years. That is an entire school career for a generation of children. 
ESSA came along and established that not all kids need the same bar but maybe they all ought to make a year's growth each year instead. It's still all determined by highly flawed testing and questionable statistics, and without doubt it's far too heavily driven by the testing industry (I'm looking at you, Pearson.) At least, though, educators are realizing that for the past 15 years the group with the least amount of growth each year, to the point of sometimes moving backwards, is gifted students.
While the new law is bringing about some needed attention to gifted kids and their needs, we also have a generation of now-veteran teachers who have lived for more than a decade in a culture that focused exclusively on bringing up the low kids as the Number 1 Top Priority. Above all else, get those students past the bar. Even today teachers will admit that the couple of gifted kids in their classroom just "aren't a priority" because there are so many other kids who are behind. The notion that the gifted children are likely even father behind on their "year's growth" than the other students are is simply not considered.
So we're ever-so-slowly moving the focus on growth for all, rather than a single target for all. It's an improvement, to be sure, but as an advocate for gifted children, it's still not enough. Because a year's growth for an average child looks different than a year's growth for a gifted child and we still aren't recognizing that yet. We have embarked on an era of differentiation and personalization but we're still using a single test as the measure of all our children and our schools. We're embracing "growth mindset" but not understanding (and even actively fighting against) the idea that valuing all students equally does not mean believing they can all do the same things. 
We have begun, in education, to recognize that gifted students deserve a year's growth, but we have yet to realize that simply setting that expectation upon overworked classroom teachers is not enough. Even with extra training, it is too much to expect a single teacher to oversee a year's growth for every child, including gifted ones, without support. The range is just too great. We have unparalleled support for struggling students (as we should). It's time we invested even 1/10†† of that in our gifted students, don't you think?

*It's an exaggeration, but not by much.
†The even more horrifying part is that Dubya seems like a solid elder statesman now, by comparison.
**Yes, I know post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, and there's a lot more going on than just testing, but I'm positive school stress has played a part.
††recently a teacher told me there are more gifted kids ID'd in her building than special ed kids, and they have 1/2 a gifted teacher and 7 special ed ones. 1/10 the support would be an improvement.

Monday, November 13, 2017

10 Reasons Not to do Improv in Your Classroom

1. I don't even know what improv is. What the hell are you talking about? I do not need another thing to learn. This isn't on The Test™. Go away.

2. Isn't improv, like, games and stuff? Unless it's a math game, I really don't have time for it in my classroom.

3. Acting isn't a serious career choice. Nobody actually makes it in acting. Okay, so like, 1 in a million. The rest are working as waiters in expensive cities and that's a terrible thing to doom a child to. Kids learning how to act is a waste of time.*

4. If I let my students do improv, I won't have control of the situation. Something really inappropriate could happen!

5. It's too complicated. Some references say there are only 3 rules. Some say 5. Tina Fey says 4. If nobody can agree on this, how could I possibly teach it?

6. Did I mention that improv is not on The Test™?

7. Teaching students how to think on their feet is another way of teaching them how to be better liars. Nobody will thank me for that.

8. School isn't supposed to be funny. This is work, dammit.

9. It's not my job to teach kids how to work together. Working together is not on The Test™.

10. I'm just not comfortable with it. The kids will see that. I can't do something I'm not comfortable with. Please just go away.

Well, now.

Got that out of your system?

Now I'm going to give you the one reason to teach kids how to do improv in your classroom:

Improv teaches kids how to communicate, how to collaborate, how to think critically and be creative all at the same time and requires no technology at all.**

I'm not kidding.

It does all that, and it gets kids more comfortable with public speaking, and with analysis and even with writing. And it's really, really good for kinesthetic learners. (And we're usually pretty bad at including those kids in our lessons unless we're the gym teacher.)***

Want to try some simple games? Try here. Push a little outside your comfort zone. Your students will thank you for it.

*Raise your hand if you've ever said (or thought real loud) "Didn't anybody teach this child how to act!? ARGH!" Yeah. I thought so. Me, too.

**We had our network go out today and I swear it was nearly apocalyptic for some of us.

***Yes. I'm totally aware that's more than 1 reason.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

An Open Letter to Jo Boaler and All the Growth Mindset Devotees

An Open Letter to Jo Boaler,

I'd like to start by saying I absolutely love you. I love your math problems that are written so our struggling students have a way to engage with the math. I love your insistence that a slow mathematical thinker isn't a bad mathematical thinker. I had the wondrous experience of teaching a girl a couple years ago who thought so profoundly about what she was learning that it would take days for her to process it and then come back to teach us about a way things worked that we hadn't even considered. This is a child who will some day invent new math. 

Because of you and other leaders in growth mindset, my district has been embracing it for all our kids, starting from the moment they walk in the door. Teaching math is a terribly exciting endeavor these days and you have been a big part of it and I am so grateful.

But I would very much appreciate it if you'd stop picking on gifted kids. 

Yes. You pick on the gifted kids by insisting, over and over, that they don't really exist. That really, everybody is equally capable. For example, in your latest missive:

"...labels and ideas of smartness and giftedness carry with them fixed ideas about ability, suggesting to students that they are born with a gift or a special brain."

The truth is that gifted children ARE born with a special brain. They are born with a brain that learns faster than the average brain. Concepts come easier, mastery comes more quickly and by the time they enter kindergarten, gifted children are able to understand ideas that children two grades ahead of them are just starting to learn. They hunger for knowledge at a different pace than the average child. They are different. 

You, and many others, claim that it's the label that does the harm because it separates them from other kids and it teaches them that they don't have to work, they're just "naturally smart." The label doesn't teach them that. Schools do that with or without the label. We do it through our insistence that children must always be with their age peers. They must always learn the same lesson at the same time at the same pace as their age brethren. It can take as little as a couple months for that kindergartner, so eager to learn when she stepped through the door, to learn that it doesn't matter how much she already knows, she has to do the worksheet. She has to complete ALL the problems. She has to chant and sing "B is for Bird! B goes Buh!" even though she's been reading since age 3. 

"You're so smart!" chirp the adults. "You can help Johnny with his letters, since you do them so well, and he needs a little help." And now our gifted child has learned that she is just "smart." And she has learned that her job in school is to teach the slower kids. And she has learned that being smart means never having to struggle like Johnny.

Her label didn't teach her that.

WE did. 

And we teach it over and over and over, every time we make her wait for everyone else to finish. Every time we give her more of the same kind of problem to solve so she will have something to do. Every time we give her a 100% with a big, shiny star on work that she breezed through. We teach her and reinforce the lesson that she is smart and that means never having to try very hard.

Of all students in America, gifted children have traditionally made the fewest gains each year in school. Some gifted children walk in the door the first day of school knowing nearly all the material they are supposed to "learn" that year*. And when gifted children are introduced to a new topic, concept or idea it takes 1 - 2 repetitions for mastery once they truly understand it. That's it. 1 - 2. Other students in the same class, depending on their ability, can take up to 12. Imagine if I made you do the same task 12 times after you'd proven you could do it by the 2nd time? How would you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Bored? Fed up? 

Now, listen as I tell you that you are no different than any other child in the room and you all have the same capacity to understand everything as long as you try hard enough. Are you going to believe me, especially when you see that half the class has failed on their 6th attempt, while you had it on the 2nd go? When you almost always have it on the 2nd go and the rest do not? Do you think anybody believes that no one is different in that room just because you refused to label them? And how do you think the child who failed it again on the 12th try is going to feel? "Gee, if only I worked hard enough I could have gotten it a week ago." 

Denying that innate abilities exist in mental capacity is like denying that innate athletic abilities exist. I could have practiced basketball every day from age 4 on and done nothing but basketball to the detriment of all else in my life and still never have made it to the varsity team much less the WNBA. Not everybody can be LeBron James. I'm not discounting his hard work and his passion for his sport, but he also had a leg up in the genetics department. 

You accuse the labeling as the culprit, or the acknowledgement that some kids learn things faster than others as the problem. But even as you do this, you speak of the actual problem: "Students who grow up thinking that they have a special brain often drop out of STEM subjects when they struggle." YES! They do! You are absolutely right about this, that when they finally struggle -- after years of NEVER STRUGGLING -- they have no resilience! And whom, do you think, is to blame for them never struggling? It's not the label. It is a school system that NEVER REQUIRED THEM TO STRUGGLE. 

The solution isn't to quit labeling students. The solution is to give students challenges at their level every single day. Gifted children deserve to have material that challenges their brain to grow just like every other student does. You would not give our dear friend LeBron a 5' hoop to practice with and expect it to do him any good, would you? I don't think that LeBron needs a higher hoop because someone labeled him as a gifted player, I'd know he needs more challenge because he demonstrates his abilities every single game he plays! 

And despite the fact that I believe you are 100% wrong about gifted kids not existing (or that everybody is equally capable), I still believe that growth mindset is tremendously beneficial for gifted students. But they cannot develop that growth mindset unless they are given the challenges that will cause them to struggle and grow.

Growth mindset has much to offer, and I do agree with you that the majority of learners can learn to do challenging math or difficult work in any subject successfully. But please stop going overboard and making claims that gifted kids are harmed by being called gifted, or that they don't really exist in the first place. What harms gifted kids is not being challenged. Blaming the label is blaming the wrong thing, and I ask you please to cut it out. 

But please keep on with the fabulous math problems. My gifted kids love them.

*http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10029 has more on this topic, or you can find many articles about it via NAGC.org.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

TL;DR Kakooma, Krypto and KenKen

So, hey! A few nights ago, in the shower*, I came up with a bunch of ideas that I wanted to write about and I actually wrote them down. This is a small miracle in and of itself, so I'm not going to harp on the fact that one of the topics on the list is a total mystery to me. With luck I'll remember what it was I wanted to say.

I do remember this one, though, so I thought I'd start here. Uh, this is turning out longer than I thought, so if you'd like to just skip to the games, scroll down a bit. I won't be offended†.

It starts with a common complaint I hear from parents and from teachers, too: kids don't memorize their math facts anymore! They don't do flash cards or mad minutes or "around the world" (which is a dreadful game) and it's all about just "feeling good about doing math!" Sheesh. What a bunch of whiny snowflake children. When we were kids, we had to memorize our math facts! And walk uphill both ways to school.

I will kindly request that you stop it. Please. Memorizing without understanding is pretty much useless. If you don't get how math works, or how to apply it, all that memorization isn't going to help you. If you're like a lot of people, you've forgotten a lot of it by now anyway. And even though, yes, you DO have a calculator with you all the time, if you don't know what numbers to put in, and what operations to choose, math facts aren't going to help you.

Common Core, despite its detractors (who I'm not going to link to because they don't deserve any more traffic than they get) is a pretty good way to teach math**. It's slower than the way we learned, but taught well with the time kids need to understand it, it's a better way. Common Core focuses on understanding how numbers work, what patterns exist in numbers and operations, and figuring out the relationships between all kinds of numbers. The plan is that developing this understanding and being immersed in math will lead students to knowing math facts.

This is where it kind of falls apart. With Common Core, students do seem to come out with this deeper understanding, and they have multiple strategies for solving problems (which is incredibly important) but many are still pretty slow on just knowing their math facts. And after a point, around grade 5, this starts to really become a problem.

Kids who have not internalized the patterns inherent in times and addition tables start to struggle, a lot, to understand fractions and later, algebra. If an equation has a 84 and a 7, a child who has a real understanding of how times tables work should immediately figure out that there is a 12 in that problem somewhere. Students who don't take much longer, tediously pounding out guesses or trying to apply an algorithm they don't really understand (and thus can't fix if they bungle the formula.)

You could think of it like this: my daughter knows how to spell and is familiar with a QWERTY keyboard. She mostly sorta knows where the keys are. But to sit and type out her ideas is tediously slow because the positions of the letters aren't just part of her. She still has to hunt and peck, which makes creative writing, a task she enjoys, into a slog. She understands how to make the words, but she lacks fluency.

That's where the games come in. Fluency games.

GAMES. Not flashcards or speed races that pit kids against each other (Hey! Let's all give kids more reasons to hate the gifted girl and pity the slow thinker! No.)

All three of these games improve mental-math fluency, are level-able and most of all, are fun. I encourage students to challenge themselves, not their neighbor, and focus on their own improvement.

Kakooma: 18 levels each with +, x, negative numbers, and fractions. Played solo. Timed. I don't recommend the app or the "pretty" version of the game, because it crashes.

Starting with addition: In each box (or hex, octagon, etc.) there are several numbers. Two will add up to a 3rd number. Click on it. Once you've solved all the puzzles at the edges, the answers will create a 2nd-level Kakooma, and you need to find which two of those add up to a 3rd.

Multiplication is similar, except that two numbers will multiply to a 3rd. For the 2nd level, it becomes an addition Kakooma.

Negatives is just addition, but it throws negative numbers into the mix. Fractions is also addition, but with mixed fractions.

KRYPTO: Level-able by increasing or decreasing the number values available, eg. 1 - 10, 1- 18, 1 - 25. Playable solo or with an entire class.

You can play this with a deck of cards, a set of "everything math" cards, or with a traditional krypto deck. If you'd like to print your own, here's a set.  You lay out 5 cards in a row, and then a 6th card as the "target." Players use all 5 numbers with +, - x and / to create an equation to reach the target.

For younger students, you can also level it by having students create an equation out of 3 or 4 of the cards. For older students, require them to correctly write out the single equation that uses all 5 numbers to reach the target. (requires an understanding of PEMDAS.)

KenKen: This game is a little different because it requires both fact fluency and logic. Think sudoku with math facts thrown in. It's a lot to explain, and the website does it better than I do, so just check out the link. There are a multitude of good apps, too. Goes from super-easy 3x3 to fiendishly difficult 9x9. For a gazillion printable ones, look here: Crazy Dad Inky Puzzles.

Try the games. They're fun! And if you're feeling brave, challenge your kid to beat you at them.

*Yeah, you probably didn't need to know that, but whatever, I already wrote about it, so there it is.
**It's not perfect, but that's another post.
† I'm well aware that this entire post could have been 10 words long. But I like to write, too, and I do know where all the letters are.