Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why are frameworks important in education?

Almost two years ago GVSU selected me for the first joint appointment between the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and the College of Education (COE). As you might imagine, I was anxious about the appointment – anxious in both senses of the word. I was excited to explore everything this new opportunity had to offer, but there was also a lot of anxiety about a change in circumstances. In particular, I was worried about teaching new courses focusing strictly on education instead of math education.

Organizing and Managing Classroom Environments (ED 310) was one of those new courses. My COE colleagues gave me a lot of support, but I remained nervous. At this same time, ArtPrize came to Grand Rapids and a group of artists put a giant peace sign made of rocks in the Grand River just outside the building where I was teaching. I came to see this symbol as a reminder that I had nothing to be nervous about. I had the support and experience necessary to be successful.

Unfortunately, my learners in ED 310 remained stressed out. They were in their first teaching practicum and finding it difficult to organize and manage their classrooms. I explained the need for a firm foundation that I equated with a succinct teaching philosophy. This resulted in a workshop called “The Six-word Teaching Philosophy” based on an NPR story I heard about six-word memoirs.

Like all effective workshop teachers, I began with a model. My Six-word Teaching Philosophy is “Engagement that fosters capacity and agency.” The ED 310 learners found the activity interesting but not necessarily helpful. They needed something more concrete. So I explained how a teaching philosophy represents a framework and used the peace sign in the river as an analogy.

My presentation went something like this:
This fall, GR hosted ArtPrize. Works of art sprung up all over the downtown area and some were invisible unless you looked at them from the right perspective. Such was the case with a peace sign just north of the Fulton Street Bridge. I failed to see it when I was walking on the Blue Bridge, but from the 6th floor of the Eberhard Center it became visible. This reminds me of the need for perspective when creating our classroom management plans. We design our plans based on a theoretical vision – a framework.

As September turned to October, the river began to rise and I noticed something interesting about the peace sign. While the water around it was turbulent, inside the peace sign was calm. I began thinking about how a well-constructed and enacted management plan based on a firm framework can maintain serenity within a classroom setting.

Later in October, after several consecutive days of rainfall, it appeared that the peace sign was gone. As I walked over the Fulton Street Bridge, however, I noticed it beneath the surface. Again, I see this as a metaphor for teaching. When I am overwhelmed, it may seem that things are not going according to plan. In reality, the problem may not be the plan but the very nature of teaching. Given time the waters of standardized testing, parent-teacher conferences, whatever… will subside and the framework remains.

Sure enough, in November the river began to lower and the peace sign once again became visible. An interesting phenomenon accompanied this change; the peace sign was actually causing turbulence. This reminds me how setting boundaries and expectations can sometime ruffle feathers of pupils, peers, and parents – especially if they are different from what is typical. The trick is to determine what is flack and what are legitimate concerns needing attention.

Here, a learner interrupted my presentation. She saw the last picture differently. “I think of it as creating ripples. Maybe having an impact on learners and colleagues.”

I thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “It’s important to connect frameworks to our own vision in order to make them useful.” I thanked the learner, said I would add her idea to my metaphor and then went on with the presentation. What I said after didn’t matter. The point was made.

I don’t know for sure if the presentation made a difference in their anxiety level. After all, teaching is a stressful career. The learners began to use the metaphor, however, and some included their own version in their final project. What’s important is that they saw the power of frameworks in instructional decision-making. Whether we are talking The Teaching-Learning Cycle, Understanding by Design, Conditions for Learning, or the Gradual Release of Responsibility, we need a framework in order to organize and examine our practice.

One might think that the story ends here. Then you can call this the epilogue. When I returned to the COE in the following Fall, I noticed that the peace sign had taken a beating. I wondered how this fit into my metaphor. I decided that it meant that our teaching experiences (tests, administration, professional development, …) take a toll on a teaching philosophy. And that it may periodically need updating.

Amazingly, within a few days, artists were out putting it back together. This was a reminder that we often need the support of others to keep our practice fresh. I have found that community at GVSU and with my new professional learning network on Twitter.

That is why my Twitter icon is the peace sign in winter. I hope to keep updating it (the icon and my philosophy) as seasons progress. And I hope you find peace in your practice.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What does it mean to do mathematics?

My MTH 329 class just finished the first unit of Teaching and Learning Middle Grades Mathematics. The focus of this unit is on the NCTM Process Standards. Yesterday we spent a considerable amount of our class period reflecting on what we’ve been doing so far.

We start the workshop with a schema activation/connection that asks the learners to review a simile survey taken the first day of class. One part of the survey says, “Choose the simile that best describes doing math and explain your choice.” The similes to choose from are: climbing a mountain, conducting an experiment, cooking a meal, reading a book, working a puzzle, or playing a game. In reviewing their original choices, I want my learners to consider how their view of doing math has changed and why.

The focus/concentration for the workshop is to create an anchor chart representing what they think it means to do mathematics. This chart might hang in their future classroom as a constant reminder to their learners what it means to be a mathematician. (My colleague shares his experience with anchor charts here.)

During the activity/construction phase of the workshop, groups of four work together to develop a rough draft anchor chart. The first group builds on the simile idea and develops a chart showing doing math as working a puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle represents a different aspect of their vision of doing math.

Group two decides that they want to make a chart that would appeal to middle grade learners. They use graffiti as the theme and begin searching Urban Dictionary for terms they could use for the Process Standards. At one point they discuss whether or not the chart is appropriate (culturally sensitive) and decide that it is because it is intended to engage and not to mock.

The final group considers the anchor chart from a graph theory perspective. They had just been discussing a discrete mathematics assignment and it seems to find its way into the representation. That’s the Green Arrow up in the Algebra block. The color of each arrow has some significance, I think. (These are works in progress.)

These are rough drafts that I post on our classroom Blackboard site. The future teachers will make adjustments to whichever one they choose and make it their own for inclusion in the course portfolio. This is the reflection/consolidation portion of the workshop.

So what do I think it means to do mathematics? It involves collaborating with others in an effort to solve problems, making and revising representations for/of our thinking, trying to connect various ideas, and communicating the reasoning behind our thought process to others. In other words, yesterday doing mathematics involved making anchor charts.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

You do yoga?

AKA – All I need to know about teaching I learned in yoga

A lot of people are surprised when they hear that I do yoga. It is probably because I don’t look very bendy – and I’m not. Improving my flexibility is the main reason I started attending classes at a local yoga center. The amazing thing is that after years of practice, my flexibility of mind has well outpaced my physical flexibility. This is especially true when it comes to my teaching.

A good example of this happened several years ago when I first started yoga. I was in a class called Gentle Yoga. The instructor had us on our backs with both legs up in the air. While this was not a difficult pose I was struggling to keep my legs straight and vertical. As I looked around I was becoming discouraged when comparing myself to the others in the class.

I don’t know if the instructor saw me looking around or sensed my growing frustration but her next instructions seemed directed at me. She said something like, “Make sure that your eyes are closed so that you can bring awareness to you body.” I shut my eyes and became aware of how tight my hamstrings felt. After a little while, she continued, “Accept your body where it is right now.” This was more difficult for me. With every deliberate breath, however, acceptance became easier. Finally, she added the clincher, “Now grab what ever tool you need, a balance block or a stretching strap, in order to adjust your body and move closer to your desired goal. Please do not overdo it.” I grabbed a strap and put it across the balls of my feet. Gradually I pulled on the strap and my legs began to straighten toward the ceiling. It was a miracle.

After the class, I considered the power of those words: awareness, acceptance, and adjustment. I thought, “These are the exact words I need to share with the preservice mathematics teachers that I teach.” They were struggling to find appropriate activities to foster number sense in the young children they tutored. In reflecting on the preservice teachers’ efforts, I realized that they were either unaware or did not accept the current understandings of the children. Therefore, their activities were arbitrary and not adjustments. I finally had a framework that I could share with them that could make a difference.

Years later I encountered the Teaching-Learning Cycle. Remarkably, this educational framework reflected the lesson I learned in yoga. (I’ll discuss that connection in a later post, or you can in the comments.) For now, it suffices to say that this framework affirmed my thoughts regarding the power of awareness, acceptance, and adjustment in teaching.

I still go to yoga. I’m still not very bendy. Physical flexibility is no longer my main purpose for attending, however. I practice yoga because I still have a lot to learn about teaching.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How am I doing?

I spent that last few days completing a self-evaluation required of faculty in the Mathematics Department at GVSU. This is a chance to reflect on my work over the past school year in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service and communicate my efforts to my peers. As I reread the teaching section, I decided it might be interesting to share this portion of my self-evaluation on my blogs. Hopefully, it makes my thinking visible regarding my journey as a reflective practitioner. Well, here it goes...

I start each semester by apologizing to my students. I tell them that I will teach the course better next time because I learn more about what works and what doesn’t based on their feedback. This is an opportunity to model for future teachers a growth mindset toward the profession and it reminds me to keep looking for ways to improve my practice. This past year, I must admit, these improvements have been modest.
One way I continue to strive to improve is setting reasonable limits for my students and myself. The workshop model that I use for class activities and assignments offers a structure that supports these efforts, in terms of my students. Each workshop sets a one-hour time limit for them to engage in learning. At the end of this time, they are free to end the activity and move to something else. I want them to become comfortable with the idea that learning is an ongoing process that cannot always be accomplished in a single sitting. I want them to experience “learning lust” – the desire to keep going because they want to learn more and not because they have to complete an assignment. But mostly, I want them to practice having balance and boundaries in their lives. As future teachers, these are essential elements if they are to have a sustainable, successful career.
I am trying to apply the same idea into my own teaching practice. I find it easy to spend hours upon hours planning lessons or evaluating assessments. The more time I have the more time I use. This past year I have worked to set limits on both of these activities by setting time limits. I do not always stop when the time is up, but I have found myself being more discerning about how I manage my time. This is an ongoing effort that I will continue to hone.

School often teaches us to avoid (or hide) our struggles, but learning theory shows that challenges are a natural part of the process of developing firm understandings. What are you working on improving and how are you going about making the change? I'd be interested to hear how you reflect on your practice.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why the Change?

The fourth key element in The Learning Network’s original Teaching-Learning Cycle was labeled “Teaching.” This was confusing to me and to the pre-service educators that I coach. Based on their experiences on the other side of the desk, they tend to simplify teaching to what happens in front of a classroom full of learners; this is certainly an element of teaching but not the entirety of the craft.

In order to be explicit about what teaching entails I modified the diagram. I changed “Teaching” to “Instruction,” but I continue to use the initial description: “Amount of support needed for new learning to occur.” Sometimes that means a demonstration, and other times it means an activity that allows learners to engage independently in a worthwhile learning task. Sometimes instructions falls somewhere in between.

Instructional decisions depend on the plans the teacher develops as a result of his or her evaluation of assessment data. That was the reason behind the change – to enable pre-service educators to recognize the role of each element in teaching and not just associate teaching with instruction. And so far the change seems to be working.