Friday, November 27, 2015

Finding great activities - an unending priority

Always finding the best way to teach math is an unending battle.  Finding ways for the students to truly discover high level math concepts is a difficult endeavor.

This past summer I was lucky enough to be part of a grant with UW-Platteville on STEM (along with 4 kick-butt co-workers).   We have done a number of things as a team to help make our school a better problem solving place.  One thing from the summer course was to do a STEM assignment in one of our classes - tape it, keep student data and reflect upon it.  I figured why not post it here too.

My project was to use ziggurats to help drive summation understanding.  It is a project I took directly from the summer grant.   And I am thankful that I was able to have the materials given to me versus me having to create the materials.  Making projects during the school year itself is a tough mission; that is why getting projects during the summer is so important.

So the project had plane views of different ziggurats (pyramids) which I combined with set of blocks where I wanted the students to calculate the number of blocks in 7 layers of zigguarat, but more importantly to create a summation that would represent the total too.

There were three designs, it was a challenge for the students.  Each group quickly calculated the number of blocks in the ziggurat, but to turn that into a summation proved more challenging.  Especially when the summation had to have an odd number in the sequence!  (It went 1 squared, 3 squared, 5 squared, and so on).

I have taught Pre-Calculus for a decade and this was the first time where I truly saw the "a-ha" moment with all my students working on summations.  And unsurprisingly it is the first time I have taught summations any way besides lecture and practice.  So why hadn't I done it?  Plain and simple - just time.

Finding and creating projects is time consuming, and I just had not had it before this grant - that is why professional development like this and time in our district is so important.  It is important for us to remember and ask for the time, without making and taking time we end up in a routine.  And that routine will rarely lead to improved teaching.  And small successes are the stepping stones to larger things.

Our school's larger thing now is our commitment to have all our students get a hand-on STEM experience - we do that by using homeroom time working outside of a class and a grade.  We were able to do this through a grant and community support and the results are looking great (STEM progress video).  It all starts with small steps - like the STEM class at UW-Platteville.

And while time is important, activities come from being fearless also.  I remind myself that sometimes I just need to make the time to try something new.  I need to say if it does not work it is okay, try, revise.  I just need to make finding great learning opportunities a priority.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Just too impatient for real gains

Big news in Wisconsin this fall, we have a (another) new power test this school year - the Wisconsin Forward Exam.   Replacing the long used WKCE and the 1 year used Smarter Balanced.  For years the WKCE was given and basically ignored by many educators, what do you do with a test given in the fall with results returned in the spring.  It never tested problem solving, collaborating, revising, either.  Then....

We worked for multiple years to shift to the CCSS and a new test.  A test which was suppose to be easier to use data from and provide a better picture of whether our students were learning the necessary problem solving skills.  Big change, new way - new things to do.  And then, boom, we moved away from the Smarter Balanced assessment after only one year (yeah the roll out was bad).  Maybe it is the right move, I am not sure, but it really shows how easily education drifts with the winds.

Now the Forward test is coming, and it has to hurry for spring; rushing  from the normal 12-18 months, it is being made in about 9 months.

Removed are the performance tasks from the Smarter Balanced, which did have some issues last year.  But the move makes sense because we all do so much scan tron work in the real world....
Now I had not been a fan of the Smarter Balanced assessment performance tasks.  But again - we don't revise, we don't correct - we remove, thus a new wind and another new direction.

So a rushed test, with a different format.  Good, bad I don't know.  Are we really going to have useful data?  Again, not sure.  But it simply shows we have no long term goals for real improvement.  We have no backbone for our vision and path.

Worst of all, we have armed a small, very small, but vocal minority of people whose rally cry is don't change.  Why work at the new things?  So initiatives simply disappear - we don't revise in education we replace.

This all is part of the perfect storm of education, it takes years in industry to run long range plans, you set it and hold it.  Little bumps are expected and dealt with - education does not have that resiliency.  And now for the first year our national scores dipped in over 2 decades - it is not isolated.

I truly believe that dip is because of the lack of professionalism shown the teaching profession coupled with a vision that changes with the wind.  We are simply not doing the right things long enough, we are just too impatient for real gains.

(FYI - I started this blog weeks ago - when the news was fresh - I was just raging too much to make a readable post until now)