Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Crossing The Teaching/Learning Divide Together!

Those that read this blog know that I have dedicated most of my professional life to the improvement of school leadership in general, school cultures, and most importantly my content discipline – mathematics. 

As a Chicago kid, I began my first teaching job out of college in 1973 in a very rural place called Stillman Valley, Illinois. I was the math teacher for grades 7-12. Yes, THE math teacher. For those readers from more rural areas you know what I mean! I initially took the job in the northern middle part of the state because I was also offered the boy’s freshman basketball and head boy’s baseball coaching positions. And I loved to use chalk! 

But soon enough I knew why I was really there. I had known since I was 17 years old and declared that I was going to be a math teacher – right there in our high school newspaper! Teaching was my passion. Math was my best subject and only later in life did the leadership stuff follow.

However, I also realized I did not really know enough mathematics to teach middle and high school math very well, at least not to all of my students. I was too raw to understand my teaching role in crossing the teaching/learning divide with students. During the 70’s there not only had been a “Back to Basics” mathematics movement, math wasn’t yet considered as necessary for everyone. You might find it hard to believe, but back then less than 50% of students were allowed to take Algebra 1 before high school graduation. And even of those 50%, far fewer actually passed the course. And to be completely revealing, algebra was a pretty boring course for most students.

I found this cultural mindset very disturbing personally – even then while in my twenties. I wanted my students to love math and find it exciting just the same as me. And, more importantly I assumed they all wanted to have a chance to go to college – at the very least Rock Valley College, our local community college just a few miles away. And in my world, mathematics (especially algebra) was a vital key to getting there.

So, I had a dual dilemma: How could I open the doors for more students to learn the mathematics needed for a chance to go to college (especially students who did not like math very much), and how could I convince my Principal and my community this was an important issue? High School mathematics (at least algebra and geometry) wasn’t for everyone they kept assuring me. From my perspective the lack of access to a college preparatory curriculum seemed like such a social injustice. This dilemma such a long time ago, is not so far fetched today is it? 

I lost on both counts during my six years at Stillman Valley. First I did not know how to teach differently than the straight lecture approach I had learned in undergraduate school. In general I only knew enough to study what was in my textbooks. I had to let the textbook do my thinking for me. And as the only teacher in the school, there wasn’t a lot of collaboration going on. Thankfully I had a mentor – Al Foster, willing to talk with me – a long distance call back then on a 4 party line! Second, I did not have the political skill or savvy to convince the community that college was not a threat to their sons and daughters. 

No doubt, there were a few victories along the way. More kids started taking math classes and the school district added a math teacher! We started a math club and a math team that rocked out! I met with many parents in their homes to change their mind about college – I was my own little crusader for a while. And I gained a lot of respect for  my elementary school colleagues and how hard it was to teach mathematics in elementary school as well.

Several themes emerged for me in those early years:

1. As teachers we never have enough wisdom – Of course back then we did not have the Carol Dweck Mindset research that supported the need for every teacher to embrace a growth mindset. And that there should be a deeply held belief that we can and should work to improve our own knowledge base every day as we seek out ways to cross the teaching/learning divide. 

2. Math class must be fun and engaging – I always thought that math teachers should think like an elective class teacher. You know, imagine students (K-12) didn't have to take math! What if it was optional? How could we make them want to be in math class?  How could we engage them in learning mathematics? Back then I remember being so inspired by Zal Usiskin’s (of the University of Chicago) teaching that mathematics needs to be applied and have relevance for students.

3. The textbook cannot be the sole authority – Many of our professional colleagues on the Mathematics At Work™ team are textbook authors, including myself. And I believe in what we write. And yet, this summer, a great friend and colleague - Rick DuFour - during one of our panel discussions at a PLC At Work Institute explained to the audience “If you take away the work, you take away the learning” for the teacher and the team. In my early years, I had become so book dependent, that my own learning became stunted a bit. The textbook is and should be a great resource, but just that – one of many resources used as your own knowledge and understanding of how to present the mathematics content develops and matures.

4. As teachers we need to collaborate and work together – Although I had no understanding of what this meant back in the 70’s eventually by the mid 90’s we knew beyond the shadow of any doubt, that the best strategy to achieve the expectations of mathematics standards was to create schools and districts that operate as professional learning communities. I just knew that I missed the opportunity in those early years to grow my own skill due to the lack of relating to and learning from the knowledge and skills of others – on a daily basis.

5. Every child has the right to be prepared for college – This social justice issue was ingrained in me. I am not sure why. Only that I observed a K-12 system that essentially sorted students out as early as 6th grade and that it was my beloved discipline – mathematics - that was often the root source of that injustice – especially among minority groups of children. I was too young at the time to understand it really. But I knew it wasn’t right. And, as a math teacher how much power did I have to change it? Was math really only for the selected and talented few? Was algebra for all just a catchy phrase?

By 1980 NCTM released a 29-page pamphlet titled an Agenda for Action. Click here  and go to the link provided. You will see that the 8 recommendations from 35 years ago still stand on solid ground today. And they are embedded in the writing, beliefs and the deep teaching of our Mathematics at Work™ team. Somewhere during this time, I decided to dedicate my career to those tenets – and to the hope they provided for all children.  

Almost a decade later in 1989 The Mathematical Sciences Education Board, and the National Research Council under the leadership of Lyn Arthur Steen released Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics Education. You can read and review the report at this link 

This report, along with NCTM’s Curriculum and Evaluation Standards in the same year, has shaped our Mathematics At Work™ thinking and belief structures over the past 25 years. And represents the fundamental foundation of our thought leadership as expressed in our professional development series, Beyond the Common Core: Mathematics in a PLC At Work™ being released now.

Last week we launched our Mathematics at Work™landing page with Solution Tree, our work being released certainly stands on the shoulders of the giants and the thinkers in front of and all around us (a paraphrase borrowed from Newton), allowing us to stand taller and see further because of that thought leadership.  It is our hope that somehow, we provide a shoulder for you to stand taller and see further as well. As you pull children across the teaching/learning divide – one by one.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Growing Your Fixed Mindsets Mid-Year!

Happy New Year Everyone!  

As we reach mid-January though, it really isn't our new year in education is it? For us, it is Happy Mid-Year! And our main task as we transition from one Semester (or term) to the next, is to ask, how are we doing, and what mid-course direction do we need to take to best improve and impact student learning?

I have often referenced Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s application of Fixed and Growth “Mindsets” of students in the classroom (2007), but now Dweck applies her mindset theory to us as teachers.  The critical question, it seems to me is this: If I have a fixed mindset about my ability as a teacher, is it possible for me to make mid-course directions and grow in my ability to teach over the rest of this 2014-2015 school year and beyond? Can I really have a “New” year?

The answer is good news: A Resounding YES!

The following excerpt (boxed in) is taken from the Marshall Memo – a weekly K-12 educational research brief I would encourage readers to check it out. The author – Kim Marshall – does a terrific job addressing a variety of educational research summaries each week.

Here is what he had to say about Dwecks’ recent article, Teachers’ Mindsets: Every Student Has Something to Teach Me in Educational Horizons, December 2014/January 2015 (Vol. 93, p. 10-14),

By the way, at the end of this blog, is a link to a mindset "test". Sixteen questions. See how you do!

In this article in Educational Horizons, Stanford professor Carol Dweck applies her “mindset” theory to the problem of teacher attrition – almost half of new teachers leave the classroom within five years. All too many teachers, she says, have a “fixed” mindset about the profession – either you’re born to be a great teacher or you’re not. Here are some of the agree/disagree statements Greg Gero of Claremont Graduate University used with teachers to ascertain their mindset:

The kind of teacher someone is, is something very basic about them and can’t be changed very much.

Teachers can change the way they teach in the classroom, but they can’t really change their true teaching ability.

Some teachers will be ineffective no matter how hard they try to improve.

No matter how much natural ability you may have, you can always find important ways to improve.

Every teacher, no matter who they are, can significantly improve their teaching ability.

The value of trying new teaching methods outweighs the risk of making a mistake.

I discuss problems in my classroom teaching with others in order to learn from them.

Teachers who agreed with the first three statements had a “fixed” mindset and often got discouraged when they encountered difficult students and learning problems in their early weeks in the classroom. “So,” says Dweck, “instead of rolling up their sleeves, using every resource at their disposal, and assuring themselves that they could only get better, they probably concluded that they didn’t really have the talent in the first place or that the kids were intractable – and fled.

Teachers who agreed with the last four statements had a “growth” mindset. They cared more about learning than about having a good reputation as a teacher. They didn’t believe that a perfect, error-free lesson defined them as a good teacher. These teachers behaved in strikingly different ways than those with a fixed mindset:

They engaged in more professional development, read more professional literature, and constantly picked up ideas and teaching techniques.

They observed other teachers and volunteered to have well-regarded teachers teach demonstration lessons with their students.

They confronted their teaching problems head-on and asked for feedback from supervisors and colleagues.

Teachers with a fixed mindset feared being judged negatively and were reluctant to be observed by others or collaborate with colleagues. They assumed it was their job to go it alone and that innate talent was the most important factor in success.

Dweck says that teachers stuck in the fixed mindset see underachieving, unmotivated, disruptive students as threats to their self-concept as good teachers. “But in a growth mindset, those students are challenges,” she says; “they’re opportunities to hone your skills, increase your understanding, and become a better teacher.” Growth mindset teachers believe, “Every student has something to teach me” and some even tell their students, “Every time you make a mistake, become confused, or struggle, you make me a better teacher.”

Is the fixed mindset fixed? No! says Dweck: “Research has shown that it’s never too late to develop a growth mindset about your abilities. The first step is to get in touch with your fixed mindset. We all have some of it tucked away somewhere, and it’s important to acknowledge that.” It says things like:

You’d be able to do this easily if you were a good teacher
You’ll never be as good as that teacher.
You’ll never be able to get these students to learn this.
If you take that risk and it doesn’t work out, you’ll lose your status/control/respect.
You see, you took a risk and failed; don’t try that again. Stick to what you know.
Why not face the facts; you’re just not cut out for this.

Start talking back with growth-mindset thinking:

Nobody is good at this right away. It takes experience
I really admire that teacher. Maybe I can ask her to observe my class and give me feedback.
Maybe other teachers have some good ideas about how to teach this material more effectively.
Maybe I need to find some new strategies or set different goals.

Marshall then states: “Dweck suggests taking the mindset test to get a handle on the specific areas where you can change your thinking about growth and achievement.”

I would concur. It seems to me, that in a profession and a professional learning community culture, that asks your team to pursue ways to improve our work, the hope rests in the possibility we can all become Growth Mindset teachers and leaders.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nothing More At Thanksgiving!

We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
                                                                                                   —The Alternate Routes Band 

How is your endurance these days? Less than a week until Thanksgiving! Yikes! Are you ready? I bet you are. I know I am. I need a break from the intensity and the pace of events this fall as the 2014-2015 school season unfolds, and I need some down time with my family too.

As I have written before, this is my favorite holiday. For educators it seems to come at just the right time of the year, when we become just a bit edgy and weary from the pace, the life, the energy required to be a great teacher, social worker, counselor, administrator, nurse, school board member, coach – whatever your school role may be.

And it gives us a brief moment in our lives to stop, reflect on how we are actually “doing’ in this 2014-2015 season, and to notice and give thanks to those we love, to the grace of life, to the opportunities (won and lost) in our path, and to join the table of joy and sorrow in our personal journey with others this year.   

It is no secret: Teaching and leading and educating children well, is not an easy task.

At a gathering of neighbors and friends last night, a teaching colleague (who teaches 2nd grade in a low poverty neighborhood) mentioned to me how some days have been good and some not so much. There have been victories with the students, and there have been setbacks too. Some days, the students just do not treat each other very well.

Since I spend the majority of my days helping teachers learn math content to teach students, I asked her what she thought really mattered in her class. She said: “To accomplish anything, they just need to experience being loved. In the end if I can get them to learn how to treat each other with dignity, then deep learning can take place and it has been a good day”. As she shared her classroom experiences, she seemed really tired to me, and ready for that break next week. 

Her comments reminded me of a song originally written in 2012 by the group Alternate Routes in response to the school tragedy at Sandy Hook. The song went viral this past February when NBC played the song as part of their opening ceremony at the Socchi Olympics. The TV show NCIS also used it to end one of their episodes last season. The song, Nothing More has a simple message. As we reflect this Thanksgiving, as we take a close look at all the people in our influence circle, our lives boil down to:

We are how we treat each other, nothing more”

No matter how good or bad our teaching and leading story is today, we will be judged down the road, we will be remembered 5 or 10 years from now by how we treated our students and each other. We will be remembered by how we chose to impact others – for good or for bad. By how we worked to get better in our relationships with others – in order to learn and develop our knowledge together, despite the pain that it can cause sometimes.

Expect nothing more from your collaborative team

The paradigm of engaging interdependently with other adults around issues of improved student learning is not easy. I know. I have loved my colleagues and my students, and I have been at odds with them at times. In the end though, how we treat the others in our personal and professional lives is what really matters if as the song says we hope to achieve deep learning with endless possibilities. No acadmic ceilings for ourselves, our students or our colleagues.  

You can see and hear the song on utube and I have also listed the words here.

To be humble, to be kind.
It is the giving of the peace in your mind.
To a stranger, To a friend
To give in such a way that has no end.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
To be bold, to be brave.
It is the thinking that the heart can still be saved
And the darkness can come quick
The Dangers in the Anger and the hanging on to it.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
Tell me what it is that you see
A world that’s filled with endless possibilities?
Heroes don’t look like they used to, they look like you do.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More

Long ago, my mentor, friend and colleague, Rick DuFour, taught me the importance of the ARTS for students and for our work with each other. Over the years, at the holiday season, I have placed together pictures and video from family events through that year. I usually set the “presentation” to a song that seems to create some emotions – laughter and tears - for our family, as we view the presentation. 

This year. I am choosing the song Nothing More (Because it is a surprise, I am hoping my family doesn't read this blog!). You should try it too. I dare you! Download the song (iTunes or some other place), get together 30-40 of your best pictures and then let the slideshow roll. See how it goes! If you are not sure how to do this on your computer, enlist a family member under the age of 30. They will know! Then play it for your family and friends and remind them of what is really important this holiday season…their heart! 

Happy Thanksgiving