National Boards, Reflecting and Writing

Ever have a friend that you’ve thought about often, but somehow lost touch?  Things come up, you mean to call, but somehow… you don’t. This continues, then it gets to the point where it seems too awkward to call. And unless someone reaches out to make the first move, the friendship just … fades away.

That is kind of what happened with this blog.  I’d think about it, but somehow never got around to making the first move to write.  It has been a crazy year for me (but aren’t they all?)  My mom passed away on the first day of school and for the first month of school I was just trying to … survive. Writing was not high on my list of priorities. Then as I came out of my fog, I meant to write. But I didn’t.

Then someone reached out. I recently received an email asking why I had stopped blogging. This person didn’t blame. Didn’t accuse. She simply reached out. And somehow, I was ready to hear what she had to say and ready to write here.

Despite not posting here, I have been writing this year – for National Board Certification. It was a  stressful experience for me (but mostly because I procrastinated and didn’t begin writing as early as I should have). It was also an incredible learning experience.  I started “planning” for it last summer. The portfolio requires 4 entries — with very specific requirements and questions to address. These questions were in the back of my mind just about every day in every class.

I did manage to complete the portfolio and am scheduled to take the test on May 20th. I’ll find out late next fall if I “passed” or not. Either way, I am very glad I did it. I chose to try to become a National Board Certified Teacher as I wanted to focus upon exclusively upon my teaching this year. I finished my masters last summer and wasn’t ready to begin the next one, so National Board’s seemed like a good fit.

It was a good fit. I was forced to video tape my classes and critically examine my practice. “Entry 2: Instructional Analysis: Whole-Class Mathematical Discourse” and “Entry 3: Instructional Analysis: Small-Group Mathematical Collaborations” require one to submit two 15 minute video clips of a whole-class discussion and small group discussions respectively. The video were painful to watch. Even more frightening was asking someone else to watch them in order to edit my writing for each entry.

Despite the fear factor, taping myself and my students and then writing about it was a great learning opportunity. It forced me to examine the way I respond to student statements and questions. To examine the way I  foster peer-to-peer communication about mathematics. To examine how I respond to misconceptions. To examine every thing each student says or writes for evidence of mathematical understanding. To examine how my feedback helps to develop and refine each student’s understanding.

I wish I could say that I had begun taping early in the school year as I had planned. But I didn’t. I did however think about each class as if I had. I guess I was taping in my mind. And reflecting upon each class as if I were writing about it for my portfolio. I can’t say that I drastically changed any of my practices for this process. I did however become much, much more aware of each comment I made and how that comment helped (or hindered) student understanding.

The effect this process has had on me this year really hit home for me recently.  A week or so ago, one of the students in my class shared an alternate way of answering a problem involving ratios. In response to his method, another student said, “That was nice evidence of mathematical thinking. Thank you for sharing it with us.”

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The Ways We Learn

Recently I asked people to list five verbs that describe the way they learn. There were 25 responses (including my own).  The top four verbs reported were discuss (8), read (8),  experiment (7), and practice (7).

I wonder how the way(s) in which we each learn influences the way we each structure our classes.

I also wonder if I incorporate enough different modes into my own classes. While I try to structure each class so that there is individual, small group, and whole class work/discussion time, I’m not sure there is enough time given to individual work. Then again, I want them discussing their work with each other. I’m sure there is a good balance. I’m also sure I haven’t found it yet. Something to watch closely next year.

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Perspective

There are approximately 1,059,000 high school teachers in the United States, according to a 2007 estimate.

There are approximately 90,000 members of NCTM.

Winter Kiss by mubblegum via Flicker CC-A-NC-ND 2.0

I have 87 people listed under my math teacher list on Twitter.

I have about 50 blogs listed in my “Math Teacher” folder of Google Reader.

While I value those I converse with on Twitter and what I learn from what y’all write, I have lately come to realize that my view of what “everybody” knows/has read is highly distorted.

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Measuring Success

The third year was… okay? Could have been better? Good? I think it was decent. I think.

By what measure do I judge how successful my year was? Student evaluations?  Grades on final exams? My students growth on standardized tests? Some other metric that exists only in my mind?

Student evaluations were mostly positive.

Mostly:

Those who disagree are eating away at me. Do I consider this a successful year- that most of my students felt comfortable asking questions in class? Is getting everyone to feel comfortable a reasonable goal? I don’t know. (The results were very similar for all of my five classes)

My final exam grades were… what I expected them to be. Most kids did well, a few did exceptionally well, and fewer didn’t do as well. While there was a surprise or three in the exceptional category, there were no students who didn’t do well that I didn’t expect. So, is this success? Knowing who knows what before giving a final? If I were a better teacher, wouldn’t I have caught and helped them all to do well?

Now for those standardized test results: My district uses the EPAS system; incoming 8th graders take the EXPLORE, frehsmen take the PLAN, sophmores take a released version of an ACT, and juniors take the PSAE (part of which is the ACT). We use this to measure individual student growth, growth by students in a particular course, and individual class/teacher growth. In the course I have taught for three years, on average my students’ growth has increased ever year. This is good. Did they grow “enough”? I have no idea.

As for my own metric… I don’t know. I think it was a decent year. I think that as a whole they learned to communicate their thinking, they learned to keep working at a problem even if the answer didn’t come right away, and they learned new skills. Oh, and we laughed a lot too.

Some of the free-response survey comments that help me to believe it was a decent year.

  • I liked that you didn’t just give us the answers and made us figure things out.
  • I didn’t like all the word problems; it’d be more beneficial if we did more worksheets.
  • I enjoyed working in groups because when our knowledge was pooled together, we could learn off of each other well.
  • You understand better when you teach someone else.
  • You are my favorite high school math teacher.

Okay, that last one was made by a freshmen, so I’m the favorite out of a sample of one. But it isn’t a bad note on which to end the year.

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