Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Using Math Discussions and Collaboration to Engage Learners

        “Mrs. Mastel, we were so busy thinking about math we didn’t even realize we worked right through recess again!”  Powerful words in a 4th grade classroom.  Even more powerful when they are said with a smile and a shoulder shrug.
    How is an engaging mathematical classroom defined?  To answer this question, we need to ask ourselves three more - How does it sound? How does it look? How does it feel?
    In my classroom, it was what I heard students say about the mathematical ideas we were studying, the way they interacted with each other and the math tasks at hand, and the energy generated during the lessons that defined engagement.  My goal was the same every year - to create an environment that allowed my students to become a community of mathematical thinkers and collaborative learners.     
To help meet this goal, I kept these synonyms for engagement in mind – involve, engross, enthrall, fascinate, immerse, interest, intrigue.  It was seldom enough for students to look engaged, as in “just being busy with completing a task.”  I wanted to know what they were thinking about the math, what questions they had, and how they approached problem solving.
    In order to build a mathematical community, my students needed time – time to investigate mathematical concepts and ideas; time to organize their thoughts about math; time to think through their strategies; time to share their thoughts in a safe environment; time to listen and consider the thinking of others; time to reflect on mistakes and adjust their thinking; time to agree, disagree, and justify conclusions; time to feel safe to share and that their ideas would be encouraged and respected.  Any teacher knows, time is a commodity within a classroom.  Taking the time to provide my students these opportunities proved to be priceless as we became a learning community connected by our understandings and intrigued by the ideas of others.
    Math discussions (math talk) became an integral part of helping my students grow into a community of engaged learners. Using communication in the classroom to represent, explain, justify, agree, and disagree shaped the way we learned mathematics. Providing frequent opportunities for classroom dialogue engaged my students in critical thinking and collaboration, encouraged them to learn more, and allowed for deeper exploration of the mathematical ideas, strategies, and generalizations I needed them to understand.  
    As a result of the collaborative explorations, I witnessed my students become confident and competent in their understandings about math.  So much so that during a demonstration of a math talk about multiplication strategies during a Grandparents’ Day celebration, one of my students boldly acknowledged he knew his solution was incorrect but wanted the opportunity to explain where his mistake in thinking was.  The fact that this student had not been willing to share his thinking the previous year added to the significance of this moment.  His grandparents were not in the classroom that day, but his actions certainly impressed another grandfather.  I still remember his strong stature and pristine cowboy hat as he began to speak when we had concluded our math talk.  (It’s amazing how being a little nervous can burn images into your mind.  After all, this definitely was not what these grandparents experienced in grade school).  I still hear his words as if it was yesterday.
    “When I was a student, I did not let my teacher know what I was thinking.  I certainly would never admit my answer was wrong and then have the confidence to correct my mistake in front of everyone.  Whatever you are doing, it is definitely working.”
    This, along with a few other key moments I experienced as both a learner of math and a teacher, cemented my convictions about the definition of engagement in a math classroom.  Learning mathematics cannot be a passive activity for students. Learning mathematics is a process of making sense and establishing meaning, both individually and collectively. Collaboration and communication are critical elements in establishing an environment that engages students in mathematical thinking - engagement that leads to deeper understanding, productive discourse, and creative problem solving within our classrooms. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Stone Soup for BPS

While the American dream can be achieved through a college education, the PK-12 education often lays the first blocks of a pathway for success in life. We must not only applaud the student who chooses the traditional four-year college education, but we must also do the same for those who earn an associate’s degree, attend vocational training, enter the workforce, or serve in the armed forces. I too stand with the district’s collective commitment to ensure students are “choice-ready” upon graduation. So, this sounds great in “theory” – but, how do we structure our system to get there?
Professional development & learning communities.  Professional development is best served when it is intentional, ongoing and systematic, and these principles are manifested in effective Professional Learning Communities (PLC) (DuFour & Eaker, 1998; Guskey, 2000).
To that end, Bismarck Public Schools has committed to building a system working to ensure that students are college, career, and citizen ready. As a result we have been on a journey and continue our work towards being purposeful in constructing an integrated approach to meeting students’ academic and behavioral (social and emotional) needs where they are and set growth goals in order to personalize learning. Built upon a solid foundation of the five “rocks” - Professional Learning Communities (PLC), we are committed to a Standards Based Education (SBE), wrapped in a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) as well as an infusion of Project Based Learning (PBL) within a culture that values Data Driven Decision Making (DDDM). (Cue the Alphabet soup song for educators…)
Professional Learning Communities (PLC). I see great power in reflecting upon DuFour’s (2004) framework for professional learning communities (PLCs) to frame our collective work for ensuring students understanding: 1) What do we want our students to learn? (SBE) 2) How will we know when they have learned it? (SBE & MTSS) 3) How will we respond when some students don’t learn? (MTSS) 4) How will we enrich and extend the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency? (MTSS) Often I have heard these four questions accompanies by a “plus one” - How do we want to structure learning experiences? (PBL and good instructional strategies)
Question 1 + 1: 1) What do we want our students to learn? (SBE) How do we want to structure learning experiences? (PBL and good instructional strategies)
As we are well along our way with the implementation of a Standards Based Education we must continually focus our learning upon the type of learning activities and instructional strategies we desire students to be experiencing in order to meet the academic standards. To that end, I am excited at the emergence of the district’s vision to have a commitment to the centered on Project Based Learning that is fused integration of technology as the cornerstone for studies and authentic work that prepares students to enter the workforce of the 21st Century with the skill-set and proclivity for creativity. Some of our faculty have begun work with Project Based Learning (PBL) where there realization of the power that exists in forming partnerships with the community and local businesses for authentic application of academic work to questions, problems, and issues that occur in students’ lives beyond school. 
Question 2: How will we know when they have learned it? (SBE & MTSS)
 Multi-Tiered System of Support clearly outlines the needed focus upon measure the student achievement progress toward the clear learning targets (Standards Based Education) necessary for success on the culminating summative assessments (DuFour, 2004). In turn, formative assessments utilized in the classroom have the potential to be used by teachers, teams, and students as assessment FOR learning. These assessments should inform and influence the sequencing of instruction, modifications of the curriculum, differentiation of instruction, provide clear feedback in relation to the established standards and outcomes of the course, and students’ must self-assess and set goals for their learning (Hattie, 2011).
Question 3 & 4: How will we respond when some students don’t learn? (MTSS) How will we enrich and extend the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency? (MTSS)
Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). Many groups across grade levels have embarked upon training or attended several conferences and researching Multi – Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Within a Multi – Tiered System of Support a proactive framework based upon continuous improvement is provided that schools can utilize in order to help students in remediating skills and provide stretch learning opportunities for all students. There is CORE instruction for all, Targeted interventions for some, and Intensive tiered support for those that need it. A school structured around the MTSS framework works to provide a CORE learning for academic and/or behavior where at least 80 percent of students are being successful toward those learning targets (SBE). The CORE is comprised of the Curriculum (Question 1- What Standards we need students to learn), Instruction (Plus 1 - How we will structure learning and teaching), and Assessment (Question 2 – How will we know they learned it?).  In addition to a robust CORE instruction, the MTSS Framework includes Universal Screeners, Evidence Based Instructional Interventions, Progress Monitoring, and Data-Based Decision Making.
Building upon our Professional Learning Communities we are helping our system capitalize upon effective practices and refine “how” we utilize teaming of faculty across the district. As we learn forward, we must not only structure the adults to function in teams, but we will continue to manipulate and allocate “TIME” as a resource to students “as they need it.” To clarify, DuFour (2004) makes it very clear that not only is it important to manipulate the adult time to dive into the data and establish the Tiered interventions, but some students need to be back-scheduled into a small group setting to have teachers remediate (or enrich) skills – not merely provide homework completion or tutorial services (MTSS). To be effective, this time must be driven by the data and will require additional attention from administrators and teacher leaders to operate within the PLC framework in light of MTSS to match interventions or extensions to identified needs.
One may have already seen many of these existing and overlapping connections between concepts from the various initiatives – and likely many other synergetic relationships.  This is purposeful, as we are laying the background for the work necessary to prepare us with the knowledge and skill-set for teachers to integrate essential concepts and skills into student learning opportunities. This professional development must transcend from a series of professional development events to a systematic and job-embedded professional development process. We will use the PLC framework and various initiatives to be the vehicles to ensure the proper commitment for implementation of the instructional practices intended under the academic standards. Since education is not a cookie-cutter, and we must preserve our effective programs, as well as further harness our partnerships, community relationships, and innovations to prepare the next generation for the jobs and challenges of the future. Upon the solid foundation of these five “rocks” we are truly and intentionally building a system aimed to provide a “World Class Education” for all students.

To continue the conversation join me @dr_ben_johnson and #learnbps on 11/17/15 at 8:30pm CST