Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Secret to Math Genius

Not everyone loves math.   It’s very likely that you, dear reader, don’t love math.  I continually hear stories from educators about difficulties in math, avoidance of math, and even avoidance of math teachers.  But in my experience, some of the most forward-thinking, passionate, connected teachers, people you really should hang out with if you want to ponder the important questions in education – are math teachers.

Recently, I met with the Math Department Heads in our district.  The energy, the excitement, the rapid exchange of ideas, and the commitment to student learning above all, lit up the room - and made it very hard to move through the agenda.   The trouble, one teacher said as I tried to refocus the group on our agenda, is that we don’t talk anymore in our classrooms.  Why?  Because they have all made commitments to reduce lectures and increase students’ talking, practicing, figuring out, reflecting, manipulating, developing, creating  – and have created some version of the “flipped classroom” with lectures posted on website, moodles and blogs.   Below are some of the shifts they are making in their continued quest to ensure success in math for all students:
  • Moving from passive to active learning.
  • Moving toward personalized learning (using technology and peer learning to make this possible).
  • Moving from “quizzes” to “show what you know” (this may seem like a small shift but the difference between answer my questions to share your knowledge is vast).
  • Moving from silent rows (and hoarding answers) to encouraging and organizing students to “talk math” and to help each other.  
  • Moving away from teacher telling to student learning.  
  • Moving away from kids “running the gauntlet” of teacher expectations as one teacher put it - to ensuring that every student can get 100% (retests are the norm).

Their stance is met with some resistance from students who can’t quite believe them when they say - yes, you can do it again, yes, you can talk to each other, the answer, as one teacher puts it, is just “the dessert,” if you want to 100% you can get it - it’s up to you.  But their incredulity shouldn’t surprise us.  Don’t most of us believe that 100% in math is reserved for “those” kids?  The geniuses?  One teacher told a story of a student who was failing miserably.  Finally, after observing the (surprising) success of peers, the student asked, do you really mean we can redo anything (in other words, that failure isn’t the point?).  Yes, the teacher said.  Again.  (But it’s hard to really believe these ideas that are at odds with the way things have always been done.)  The student redid the test and got 95%.  Now you know my secret, the student said sheepishly to the teacher.  

Imagine if the secret math genius in each student was allowed out?  In our district, led by such extraordinary teachers, it won’t take long for math phobia to be as quaint as a fear of falling off the edge of a flat earth.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Making Miracles Happen: Teachers, Kids and iPads

Guest blogger:  Heather Pedersen

I am an elementary Student Support teacher with 33 years of experience.  I have always used a variety of approaches and resources with my students, and most recently an iPad.  I could tell you how valuable this tool is with my struggling students.  I could tell you how much my students, through a variety of apps, love to practice decoding long and difficult words that I really didn’t think they were ready to read.  I could write several paragraphs, if not pages, about how much I love using the iPad and what a positive effect it is having with these vulnerable students but what I really want to talk about is one particular student at our school.

Susan (not her real name) is a grade 2 student who is a selective mute.  She has been with us since kindergarten.  There have been significant developments over the past 2 ½ years in that she will whisper to a select number of classmates and allow them to relay the message to the teacher.  She also uses limited gestures such as thumbs up/down and a wave but she has yet to speak directly to an adult.  With the arrival of an iPad 2 to school, the team felt it was an opportune time to make a big move. 

About 4 weeks ago, Susan and 3 of her friends were asked to plan a puppet play with the idea that I would video it using the iPad.  The girls were all very excited but our little selective mute told her mom that she wouldn’t have a speaking role because I would be there.  It was then decided that her mom would video the puppet show in hopes that she would participate more fully and speak.  Our plan worked and to our great pleasure, Susan agreed that her teacher and I could watch the taped show.  This was the first time Susan openly allowed an adult in the school to hear her voice.  A few days later I introduced the same group of girls to the app Puppet Pals.  They were all very excited, including Susan, who quietly giggled as we listened to the way the app distorted their voices.  I left the girls to it, and before long there were about 4 different puppet shows taped that Susan fully participated in.  They were all very excited for me to watch them.  This was a huge step!   Determined to capitalize on momentum, we have continued to explore ways to provide opportunities for Susan to speak through a variety of iPad apps.  We have been amazed at the successes! Susan has allowed classmates to video her reading a Reader’s Theatre and to share this with various adults in the building.  For the first time we are seeing Susan’s true personality, as she is quite the actress!  We have also been able to assess Susan by using the app ShowMe to have her tape herself reading a passage and answering comprehension question. 

I think the biggest and most significant step yet was taken using the app ITalk.  One Friday afternoon, as Susan and her best friend were leaving my classroom, I wished them both a happy weekend and thanked them for working with me.  I asked if they would like to wish the same to me, and they agreed.  Both girls spoke into the ipad, and then played it back for me.  I was thrilled to hear Susan use her words and her voice to communicate weekend wishes to me!  Since then, she has used the same app to ask the secretary for chalk and to say good-bye to our principal. 

Each step we have taken in the past 4 weeks, leads us to more and more ideas, and there are apps to support all of them.  Her parents plan to take the Ipad home in the near future to video Susan’s show and tell.  Our hope is that she will share this with her class.  I am hoping that in time we will be able to ask Susan questions about her weekend or a lesson being taught and that she will answer into an iPad or perhaps an iPod.  The possibilities are endless!

Susan’s parents and the staff at our school are over the moon!  And I believe Susan is too.  Thanks to the Ipad, for the first time she is able to verbally show us what she knows.  She is able to participate in social interactions appropriately.  I can see by the smile on her face how proud Susan is and I can only image how liberated she must feel. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tell Good Stories!

Even at the best of times – and this is far from the best of times for teaching and learning in British Columbia – we find it easier to notice the few bad apples than the orchard of beauty.  Our brains are wired to pay attention to bad stuff, to look for information about what will harm us.   This natural tendency is severely abused in this age of abundant (abundant to the point of pain) information.  Not only does the sheer volume of information from far-flung places fill us with enough doom and dread to last a lifetime, but it is magnified through media.  If you want someone to pay attention to your information in the midst of this abundance, the best way is through sharing horror, bad news, and nasty rumours.  No wonder that, given the daily onslaught of negative stories, we think we’re going to hell in a hand-basket.

But of course, the opposite is true.  Peter Diamandis, in his Ted Talk, Abundance is our Future, reminds us of some of the good stories over the past 100 years:

  • Average human lifespan: 2x increase
  • Average per-capita income: 3x increase
  • Child mortality: 10x decrease
  • Cost of food: 10x decrease
  • Cost of transportation: 100x decrease
  • Cost of communication: 1000x decrease

We could tell good stories in education, of course.  Instead we wring our hands and moan about how education is “broken.”  We forgot, as we focus on the bad apples and dark spots, how much education has improved in a short time.  Consider even two small (huge) examples.

When I was in school, children were sent to the office for the strap.  When I tell students today they are appalled. Someone HIT children, they say.  HIT them?  That it is unimaginable to them gives you an idea of the scope of improvement. Shaming children was routine when I was in school; it hasn’t disappeared and we have work to do, but it is no longer sanctioned.  We should not scorn this as a small difference.

When I was in school, a boy’s mother fought to have her son included in school.  It was a hard fight, but she won.  We couldn’t believe it when the boy – he had cerebral palsy – joined our classes.  Our ignorance was massive.  We had no understanding of his condition, had no experience of anyone with physical or mental differences.  You may be assured that we did what children do: we taunted and excluded the little boy.  When I tell students today this story, they are appalled: how could you, they ask.  Didn’t you know anything? Were you ignorant?  Yes.  We were.  Bullying continues.  The media shares these stories endlessly so we know that.  But it is no longer sanctioned. We should not scorn this as a small difference.

But teachers, I know, are dreamers (I am a dreamer):  we are not satisfied with such small (huge) changes.  We want our classrooms and schools alive with rich joyous continuous dance-in-the-streets meaningful learning; we want each child, rich or poor, brown or white, tall or tiny, strong or weak, ordinary (if there is such a thing) or extraordinary to belong, to learn beautifully, to be safe - and loved.

But ironically, our great dreams (I have great dreams) risk destroying that possibility.  We are like the child who, after years of hearing that they've done it wrong - again - declares, “I am stupid.  I can’t learn.”  The gap between our dreams and the reality discourages.  We lose faith in our institutions, our colleagues, our selves.  Schools are broken, we hear.  And we nod.  Schools kill creativity.  Yes, yes, we say.  Schools need to change.  Yes.  We bring people in from around the world (at great expense) to help us change.  We are not good enough.  We give up.  We bow our heads.  We close our doors.  And we blame whoever is handy for the failure we feel.

How can our community have faith in us when they hear negative story after negative story?  How can we believe in our capacity – through our continued collective action – to make our dreams come true for children when our only stories are of what is wrong, when the constant cry is – not good enough?

Let us tell good stories.  Negative stories sap our strength – literally.  But good stories make us stronger, more able to meet inevitable challenges.  And we have good stories!  They spill out of every school, every classroom; the halls ring with them.   We shouldn’t save our stories to tell at times of crisis.   Let's tell the good stories that have brought us, in a very short time, from a system that educated a privileged few to one that is striving toward universal education.  And let us shout our stories from the rooftops - or on blogs and Facebook and Twitter and in newspapers and forums; let us throw open the doors of our classrooms and schools to show us to the world.   Let us invite others to learn about us, to learn with us, to learn for us so our already extraordinary progress toward our great dream is accelerated.

Let’s each of us tell a good story a day.  Imagine the power.