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My friend, Nolan Schmit, is a teacher and composer extraordinaire. What I know most about him is his commitment and dedication to the students he serves.

Today, I read a post that Nolan wrote in response to this viral story: Abington dad’s letter becomes matter of principal. (I purposefully chose THIS link, rather than the other incredibly sensational posts I’ve seen about it.) As is typical of stories that elicit an emotional response, it was shared widely, and outrage grew as quickly as the story made the rounds.

My first thought after reading this story was: Yay! Parents who want to (and can afford to) take their children on learning trips are awesome!

My second thought was: schools don’t always have the option of defining “excused” and “unexcused” absences on a per case basis. It doesn’t mean that those types of family trips are discouraged… just that it’s how they’re defined. I know this all depends on the school and district.

Nolan didn’t leave it at that. He responded today with what I think is a justified perspective, and I wish that those who are seething with outrage would consider the position that schools are in when it comes to students and absences. I asked Nolan if he would consider reposting/guest blogging here, and he agreed.

Nolan Schmit - nolanschmit.com

Nolan Schmit – nolanschmit.com

Nolan’s response:

OK. I’ve got to say something. It doesn’t take a lot to get me fired up, but it takes a lot for me post something like this. I feel the need to be an apologist for public education, especially when misinformation is floating around.

I posted part of this on a friend’s page, but am reposting it here.

There is a photo going viral from a guy named Mike Rossi who is upset with his kids’ school because he took his kids on a vacation during the school year and the school wrote him a letter saying the kids’ absences are not considered “excused” absences. Rossi wrote a letter back to the school to “slam” the school for being so rigid and to tell them how educational and valuable the trip was. Many people are treating Mr. Rossi like a hero for “sticking it” to the school and, by extension, the government for being too intrusive.

Let me first say I am in favor of kids having these types of experiences, because THEY ARE VALUABLE and open up the world to kids. Travel and other opportunities for enrichment are needed, desired and invaluable. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I’m on Mr. Rossi’s side on this part of the issue.

To be fair, though, he can’t blame the school. Public education has been under fire for decades and people have DEMANDED that there be accountability. Because of these outcries and the subsequent results at the ballot boxes, we ended up with NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND.

The good part of NCLB is that it has encouraged improved practices in the classroom and has made teachers much more aware of how to reach ALL kids. I’m a better teacher now than when I started and it is not simply due to experience, but some great professional development that resulted from the mandates of NCLB.

The bad part is that schools are put in an impossible position on several fronts. First, it is impossible for 100% of students to achieve the same level of proficiency on any skill or topic on a given date. Punishing schools for this is beyond crazy. That’s like firing your kid’s coach for incompetence because she was unable to coach your kid to run the 400m in under 52 sec.

Second, TODAY the measure of success established FOR schools, right or wrong, is standardized testing. Kids pass the test = good teaching. Kids fail = bad teaching. We take no mitigating circumstances into account. For instance, a child can arrive from the Ukraine with NO ENGLISH skills in third grade and are expected to be at the same level of proficiency as their English speaking peers by fourth grade. This is INSANE. There are many teachers fearing for their future, because when a kid misses school, they miss the content being covered. While the trip may be invaluable, the content covered in class is the ONLY content over which the students will be tested and, in some districts, the only measure by which teacher success is determined.

I empathize with schools, because they have a job to do. Schools don’t have the right to tell parents what to do with their children, but how can schools do the job of educating when kids aren’t in class? You can’t say, “We demand that our kids score well on these tests, will fire you if they don’t, and we can pull our kids out of school as much as we want. If they don’t learn, it is STILL YOUR PROBLEM.”

You can’t have it both ways.

If you vote people into office who have no clue how to craft legislation as it relates to education, this type of thing is the result.

I’ve been in public education for 22 years. I am not a stereotype. I am not owned by a political party. I don’t hate home-schooled kids. I don’t hate private and parochial schools. My liberal friends would call me conservative. My conservative friends would call me liberal. I care about one thing and one thing only. I want every student that comes into my classroom, no matter what their background, beliefs, skin color, religion, life philosophy, culture, race, sexual orientation, economic status, skill set, degree of physical and mental wellness, talents, limitations, interests and ambitions, to treat others with and be treated with kindness and to be able to learn to the best of their abilities. That’s it. I am not unique in this respect. The vast majority of my colleagues feel the same way. Kids are why we got into this profession. We want to give children the tools to live a rich, fulfilling, healthy, purposeful life.

I would prefer that schools were free to allow more opportunities for enrichment, but enrichment now takes a backseat to test scores. We’ve voted, we’ve made our beds and now we have to lie in them.

Our society has put all the educational eggs in the assessment basket and forgotten what constitutes real learning and the impact other life experiences have on the total education of a child.

Thanks for letting me ramble, but when I see or hear misinformation being spread, I feel obligated to stand up for truth and facts.

Peace.
N

under: Guest Post
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I was reading an article today about influential people, and one specifically caught my attention. Serena Williams had written about Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative,  and she mentioned Stevenson’s beliefs that “every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

There are those who believe in “justice” as punishment and shame… as if those are the deterrents to future mistakes or crimes. In my experience (personally and with others), shame doesn’t prevent someone from choosing the wrong path. It only serves the desire to avoid getting caught. Shame doesn’t necessarily lead to better actions or choices.

What has helped me as an individual to avoid repeating mistakes is grace, forgiveness, and compassion from others and from myself. When I realized that my mistakes weren’t part of my identity, and that I could learn  from my mistakes… THAT was a time when I experienced true growth.

I grew up in the religious dichotomy of “an eye for an eye” and “forgive others as you have been forgiven.” As a young kid, that was tough to reconcile. Personally, I viewed punishment as something to avoid at any cost, because I wasn’t certain about forgiveness. Again, that didn’t always translate into doing the right thing.

As a parent and an educator, however, I see the cost of a punitive society on our children… children who grow up to be our neighbors. I often ask myself why we, as a society, tend to enjoy the suffering of others so much. If we didn’t, people like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich wouldn’t have careers or celebrity. This is nothing new, though. For centuries, audiences have reveled in the “delights” of others’ suffering. Schadenfraude can be fun, right? A little snark never really hurt anyone, did it? When you’re the recipient of people shaming you, it does hurt.

Decades ago, a person with a past could move to another city or across the country and no one would have a clue. That’s impossible now. A single mistake can now be broadcast in real time and shared with millions within seconds. How does this allow us to learn from mistakes, especially in our youth? Even worse, what if our “mistake” didn’t really happen, but someone with an audience said it did? How does a person recover from that? Beyond the internet trolls that will pounce on anything, how do we shape our own reactions when something goes viral now?

In her TED Talk, The Price of Shame, Monica Lewinsky says, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” I think often about this young woman who has felt the wrath of shame to a degree that most of us couldn’t ever imagine. Was she shown grace and compassion?

How does all of this translate to children? How are children treated in their schools when they make mistakes? How do we as educators react to those mistakes?

I can’t imagine who I would be today if every mistake I ever made was broadcast far and wide for anyone to see. And I doubt many of you reading this would be able to fathom that kind of public attention. It’s not enough for us to tell kids to avoid social media or posting everything in their lives. That’s not the world they live in today.

What we MUST do is become the models of grace and compassion OURSELVES. We must show them what it looks like to forgive. That even, in the midst of a seemingly unforgivable offense, that we can show compassion. That all human beings are worthy of grace, even when we hate what they might have done against us.

Again, back to my upbringing… I remember learning “love the sinner while hating the sin.” There are a multitude of sins that might be considered heinous (and I am not the one to define what is considered a sin and what is not), but if I don’t have room in me to forgive and give grace, then how can I expect forgiveness and grace for myself?

I’ve also been thinking about Marilyn Zuniga, a teacher who was suspended because her students wrote get well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The reaction to this news was swift, intense, and full of outrage. This story went viral… yet I wonder… what lesson about compassion does this really give to kids? If we teach children to be forgiving and compassionate, shouldn’t we be less concerned with who deserves their forgiveness and compassion? Is “forgive others as you have been forgiven” only reserved for those whom we deem deserving of forgiveness and compassion? Or are we back to “an eye for an eye?”

As an adult, I find this all troubling and extremely confusing. I can’t imagine what kids are trying to glean from our examples.

I remember reading articles about restorative justice in schools, specifically about how damaging zero tolerance policies are to students (this one is very good). In my experience, those who advocate for zero tolerance generally don’t want to apply the same types of policies to themselves or their own children, yet it’s ok for “those other kids.” In our school, I love that we don’t have blanket policies regarding student behavior and mistakes. Each situation is unique. Each child is unique. A standard policy cannot possibly account for every situation, nor should it.

With my students this year, we have looked at what apologies are, and how our mistakes are ours to own. When one of my students apologizes to another, the last thing he asks is, “will you forgive me?” We are prepared to understand that we don’t have to be forgiven… yet my students always answer “yes.” When I asked them why they always agree to forgive, one little guy responded, “because I want to be forgiven if I make a mistake.” From the mouths of babes…

I always want to strive to be the person who considers that there is good in everyone, and that all are worthy of being more than their mistakes. As a teacher, I HAVE to be that person; otherwise, I have no business working with children.  I want to be the one to reflect on my own reaction to someone else’s transgression, real or perceivedand be the first to offer grace and forgiveness. I haven’t always felt this way. It’s been a personal journey of several decades, and I wish that I could go back to the students I had when I first started teaching to apologize for my lack of compassion. I wasn’t that person yet.

Who will you be?

 

under: Personal Growth
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I teach in a school where I get to see children excited about learning. Every. Single. Day.

Is it always perfect? Of course not.

Do the kids sometimes get frustrated when they’re challenged with something difficult? Absolutely… but (stealing Tom Hank’s line again from A League Of Their Own) the “hard is what makes it great.”

When a child learns something new and rises up from a challenge, they find so much about what’s inside themselves. (We all know this. Should know this.) As a teacher, there’s nothing like seeing the satisfaction and joy on a child’s face when he/she has accomplished something that initially seemed too difficult. I love seeing how motivated my students are about what they want to learn.

Important to note… we don’t do traditional testing. (or grades, or homework, or grade levels, etc.)

This morning, my friend John Spencer shared an article and asked for thoughts: Does Student Motivation Even Matter? 

The article goes on to note that students actually perform better on tests when they are not motivated… as if this information should tell us something valuable. Students who are motivated to learn do not perform on tests as well as their peers who aren’t motivated.

Does student motivation even matter? Seriously

Do you care if kids care about what they’re learning? (Not what the curriculum tells them to care about, but what THEY actually care about.) Do you care if they are bored out of their minds? Do you care if they wake up in the morning and groan about going to school?

Do you care that they forget most of what they have memorized for a test after the test is over?

Do you care that we are producing automatons who have learned more about being compliant and filling in bubbles than about thinking deeply?

Do you care if these CHILDREN are basically little hamsters hopping onto their wheel to perfunctorily execute the “same old, same old” day in and day out?

I care, and I’m horrified. Have WE become those hamsters spinning the wheels in our own lives so much so that we don’t care if we suffer others to the same fate?

The homework battle, the incessant testing… these kids are becoming drones, and does anyone even care?

I don’t want that for MY life. Why would I even think that this would be ok for a CHILD?

Children should be running. Playing. Discovering. Examining. Creating. Singing. Dancing. Making mistakes with the freedom to learn from them… and that won’t go on a record to haunt them from one level to the next.

And for the record, when I write “children,” that doesn’t mean only primary aged kids. Have you talked with a high school kid recently? Some are so serious and stressed out all the time. Why do we do this to them?

As for me, I don’t want the kind of life where I am not learning something new and exciting every single day. I don’t want drudgery. In my current position as a teacher at Anastasis Academy, I’m extremely fortunate in what I get to do. I LOVE going to work every single day. I don’t wake up dreading the routine, because it’s different every day.*

That is what I want for my students… and for all children. I want them to find something that makes them happy. I want them to find and enjoy their calling. Not their job. Not their “have to.” Not their hamster wheel.

Too many kids associate “learning” with “painful,” something they must suffer through. Why have we reinforced this? Why have we allowed people who don’t have an inkling of what true accountability means to define it for us? For our children?

I want all kids to be able to experience learning the way that my students do. I want kids to care so much about the things they learn, that they begin to think deeply and ask questions.  I want all kids to be excited about learning something new and to know that school is a place where that can happen.

So, yes. Motivation DOES matter… but not if you think learning is something you could even begin to measure with a test.

 

 

*A lot of people will argue with me and say that my traditional schooling is what led me to the opportunity of finding my calling. Not true. I was one of those really fortunate kids in school, because I have a freakish memory. School was incredibly easy for me. I was able to learn beyond what was expected of me, because of my freaky memory. While other kids were forced to practice and drill facts over and over again, I was allowed to hang out in the library and read whatever I wanted. I was allowed to create art work for my school. I was allowed to spend time in the music departments learning more about music. As for my work as an educator… I had a lot of UN-learning to do to get to where I am now. An upcoming blog post will delve into this more. 

under: Teaching and Learning

This is part two of a post I wrote about the importance of context in learning.

Last month, my 5 and 6 year old students listened to and discussed “The Dream Keeper,” by Langston Hughes. I wrote it for them on the white board, and we left it up to display for the whole month. We talked about who Langston Hughes was, who might be the voice in this poem, what our dreams are, what our heart melodies sound like to us, and why “the Dream Keeper” would wrap dreams up for someone, “away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” Their responses were typical for 5 and 6 year old children.

One day, we drew what our dreams and heart melodies looked like for us. Each student imported a photo of the drawing into our Explain Everything app, and then recorded an explanation of what his drawing was about. On the next slide in the app, each boy typed the full poem and then recorded himself reading it – this activity was their decision. They wanted to have a typed version of the poem somewhere in this project file.

Somewhere along the way, the boys memorized the poem… completely unbeknownst to me. I only discovered this fact when we went to visit our “grand-friends” to make Valentine’s crafts with them right before Valentine’s Day. I mentioned something about our heart melodies, and the boys started reciting the poem. My jaw dropped! We never practiced memorizing the poem. We never practiced reading it aloud together, and they’re all at different stages in their reading. There are quite a few words in this poem that are challenging for many of them!

Why, then, did they memorize this poem? It was meaningful to them. They had some context of what the words meant, why someone might want to protect the dreams of another person, and how the world isn’t always kind. Every single one of them found some connection to this poem and their own dreams and heart melodies. Even now, a month later, they want to talk about that poem.

Did they learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance? A little. Do they know the connection to Hughes’ Dream Variations poetry and the structure of blues music? Not really, although they did notice it “sounded like a song.” Someday when they’re a little older and come across this poem again, they will already have a foundation to build upon. They have SOME context – in this case, an emotional connection – now for some very complex ideas.

Can you imagine what they’ll be able to do with this poem when they’re older?

I can’t always guarantee that each of my students will have an instant connection to what they’re learning. What I CAN do is help provide some context for each student… and that will look different for each and every one of them.

Most importantly, I think, is to remind ourselves (often) that memorization is NOT the most essential aspect of learning. A small step, yes; but as I mentioned in the previous post, a small child can memorize their ABCs. That doesn’t mean they can read or even tell you what sounds each letters make.

I always get a lot of pushback when I bring this up, but I’ll debate this with anyone. Yes, some foundational facts must be memorized in order to move forward with more advanced concepts, but memorization cannot be our only emphasis in learning.

So… in your school, where does most of your students’ time fall? Creating? Discussing? Evaluating?

Or is their time mostly spent on recalling information that someone has told them is important?

We emphasize to our students that which is most valuable by what we spend time doing with them.

under: Teaching and Learning
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Are You Even Listening?

Posted by: | March 12, 2015 | 2 Comments |

So, pretty women who are celebrities are keynote material for educators.

Or maybe we’ll hit the jackpot with a female celebrity of color. (2 in 1 with this one. Yeah!)

If you’re a teacher, you’d better be a white male.

If you’ve never read the #educolor tweets, you should.

If you cringe when you see a photo of educators invited to speak or share their voice somewhere… and the diversity scale is “less than,” speak up.

If you are planning conferences, and everyone you’re inviting looks like you… stop and check yourself. 

Because regardless of EVERYTHING that you say, your actions speak louder. 

Think about what this says to kids. To the kids you teach. To the kids other people teach.

If you’re someone invited to speak to an audience or have someone listen to your voice – THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU. This isn’t about you being unworthy. Of course you’re worthy; otherwise, you wouldn’t have been invited.

But look at the others invited with you.

Don’t get defensive and list all your credentials so we know why you deserve this. We get it. You do.

Things only change for the better if we demand that change. If we speak up for the voices that deserve to be heard, but rarely are invited to speak.

My friend, Rafranz Davis wrote this great book: The Missing Voices in EdTech: Bringing Diversity Into EdTech. Please go buy it. If you can’t afford $11.95, I’ll gift you a copy (I bought two). Seriously.

We have the power to ensure MANY voices are shared… MANY perspectives are heard.

If all you know is “same,” and you do not seek out “other,” you are part of the problem. And that speaks volumes to the children in our care.

 

If you plan to comment here… Stop. Think. Reflect. Then please add your comment. Thanks for “listening.”

 

under: Personal Growth
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I can’t read one more post or tweet about data-driven instruction today. I CANNOT.

What most people attempt as educational reform is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You can make the round hole bigger, but the square peg will just fall through. It doesn’t fit, and neither does the system.

Today, I read a wonderful post by my friend Eric Johnson – “Fighting For Their Lives.” Does anyone actually think kids like the ones Eric describes are able to do their best on a test that measures the most narrowly defined (and least important) part of what learning actually is?

Yesterday, I read a great stand by a teacher who is first and foremost a parent. Karl Fisch posted his letter to his daughter’s high school, which is also the high school where he works. In this incredibly well written and passionate letter, Karl and his wife, Jill, explain why they are opting out of the PARCC test for their daughter.

Two weeks ago, I was on an emotional and professional high with visitors to our school exclaiming their amazement of what our kids are able to do. They were pleasantly surprised about how much and how well our students of all ages can articulate what they’re learning. They saw examples that demonstrate how much these kids are learning, and they heard Anastasis alums talk about how their learning at our school prepared them for what came after.

The best endorsement I have from the educators who attended our conference is the number of times I heard, “I want to enroll my own children in this school RIGHT NOW.”

But yet, we don’t give homework at Anastasis. We don’t give standardized tests. We don’t give grades. We don’t rely on traditional data* to inform and shape our instruction. (No standard curriculum. No standard grade levels. We don’t do anything standard here.)

So obviously, our kids aren’t really learning, right?

WRONG.

There is no sound bite in the world I can give you to explain what happens in our school.

There is no blog post that could ever adequately explain and describe how deeply our students think.

I know that Anastasis is not the perfect world. There is no such thing. But what I know is this…

CHILDREN ARE NOT STANDARDIZED.

CHILDREN ARE NOT MEANT TO COMPETE AGAINST EACH OTHER IN LEARNING. (I already wrote about that before.)

CHILDREN ARE NOT DATA POINTS TO BE PLOTTED ON A GRAPH. (Repeat this one over and over and over.)

If you want to truly reform education, stop trying to make kids fit into a standardized curriculum. Stop testing them over things that should never define who they are. Stop treating children as widgets the minute they walk into the door of their school. They are not packages rolling along a conveyor belt with a barcode affixed to their foreheads. You want to talk profits, inventory, and sales? Standardization is great for that… but our children do not deserve to be treated as such.

You want to reform education? Stop standardizing everything, and look at the amazingly wonderful and unique human beings who walk into your school. As Eric said in his post, for some children, school is the safest place they will encounter on any given day.

Help them feel safe.
Help them feel nourished, both physically and emotionally.
Help them feel important and valued.
Help them feel loved.

THAT is how you start to reform education.

It is about the KIDS. Anything else is a cheap, tired, and overused excuse.

And if you use the word, “accountability” when you try to debate this issue with me, you’d better be certain you can answer this question: how are you accountable to the children you serve? 

Do they feel safe? Nourished? Valued? Loved?

I can answer that question at our school, because that’s how our school was started– with the children at the center of our focus.

How does this play out academically? Come visit our school. Seriously. We have visitors all the time. Or go visit Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Kids know they matter in these places.

And on that visit… don’t talk. Watch. Listen. Ask questions. Reflect.

 

 

*By “traditional data,” I mean test scores. We use data at Anastasis all the time… it just doesn’t look like most schools’ data.

under: edreform
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What Spock Taught Me

Posted by: | February 27, 2015 | No Comment |

The thing I loved most about Spock on Star Trek is that, occasionally, his human side would show through. He was that logical being with no emotion for most of the series; but as the movies came out, we saw a side of Spock rarely, if ever, seen on tv.

Growing up, I was an extremely emotional kid who saw my sensitivity as a weakness. In school, the other kids called me “the smart kid.” My ability to be (seemingly) logical saved me many times from breaking down in front of other kids or teachers. Every once in a while, it would still happen, but I learned to keep those emotions in check for the most part. Spock was my model. Stay logical.

Over time, Spock’s character explored more of his human half. As I watched the movies, especially the ones where they spent time on the friendship between Kirk and Spock, I noticed how much wiser and “complete” Spock seemed. He was happier, even when his emotions caused him distress.

For so many years, I hid the part of me that feels too much. Sometimes, the world is a very overwhelming place when you allow yourself to feel.

But Spock seemed better when he allowed himself to feel, even though he was often ostracized by the other Vulcans because of it.

As a new teacher, I learned to distance myself from my students and show that tough, outer shell. That’s how I was taught to do it in my education methods courses. “Don’t let them see you be human.”

Is there worse advice for a teacher?

(Do you ever feel like you’ve “grown up” long after you’re considered a grown up?)

As a more experienced teacher, I now know I’m better when I show how I feel and allow that human-ness to shine through. I feel wiser. More complete. Just like the older Spock.

I don’t know how much actual influence Leonard Nimoy had on the evolution of his character, but I read somewhere that he wanted a chance for Spock to be able to explore his human side. I’m grateful for that, because somewhere along the way, Spock showed me the way.  The scene where Spock dies in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was sad and serene for me at the same time.

Leonard Nimoy was a very interesting person, and the more I read about him post-Star Trek, the more I appreciated his intellect and humanity. While many actors tend to rebel against their “defining” roles, he came to embrace Spock more and more, especially recently with the retooled Star Trek movies and his guest stints on Big Bang Theory. I’m grateful for the man as well as the character he cultivated.

Live long and prosper, indeed.

under: Personal Growth
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It’s All About Context

Posted by: | February 20, 2015 | No Comment |

Apologies to Meghan Trainor and her 2014 earworm… but it really is all about context

Have you ever heard a parent or teacher say something to the effect, “My child/student has regressed in the last 6 months. She knew this stuff last year! She passed tests and everything.”

Learning is fluid. Period. Brains are remarkable and in constant states of learning, unlearning, and relearning.  (Research in neuroplasticity is fascinating, and if you have any contact with kids, I hope you are reading about it.)

But here’s the deal: if your child has truly LEARNED something, she most likely won’t forget it or regress. While there are exceptions, most kids do not forget things they have truly learned.

What is more likely the case is that something was introduced without context. Kids- and adults- forget things they have committed to short-term memory that do not connect to something meaningful and relevant in their lives.

(OR… the context was only briefly visited because there wasn’t enough time to develop a real connection. Mile-wide curriculum that’s about an inch deep doesn’t leave a lot of room or time for context. But I digress…)

I’m on a math kick, so let’s use this as an example.

Young children who learn to count to ten do not actually understand counting. They’re simply mimicking a verbal pattern they memorized. Put 4 objects in front of a child who has just learned to count to 10, and he’ll point to each object, multiple times, and count to 10, not 4. This is a developmental issue, because the child does not connect the numbers he learned to say versus the number of objects in front of him.

If you put 3+2=5 in front of a child, she might memorize it easily, but if you give her the same number of objects to count, can she separate it into a group of 3 and a group of 2?

Children do not have context for numbers in print UNLESS they have something concrete in front of them. Even still, they need more exposure and experience with the concrete long before they begin to comprehend the abstract (number sentences in print).

I feel the same way about teaching music. Children should be singing songs and playing instruments long before they ever learn musical notation. You can memorize where the notes go on a staff and which note’s duration is a “ta” or a “ti-ti,” but if you have not had extensive experience with playing and singing those notes, you have no context for the notation. Some really brilliant man named Karl Orff believed this, too. (My fellow music teachers are laughing at me right now, because Orff is a really big deal).

Think about this: small children learn the alphabet song long before they’re able to make sense of the letters in the alphabet. You can recite the alphabet but not know which letters make which sounds. And you most definitely cannot read simply by reciting the alphabet.

I can sing hundreds of songs in various languages –  Italian, Portuguese, German, etc. – but I did not LEARN these languages. I memorized them and how to pronounce words in these languages. There’s no context there, other than what’s in the songs.

Those in real estate have their mantra, “Location, location, location.”

Educators should add to their repertoire, “Context, context, context.” Context helps kids make connections and move to deeper understanding, even if that deeper understanding happens down the road.

A recent example…

My 5 and 6 year old students have been using base ten blocks to help them think about adding and subtracting larger numbers. They know that, to subtract 35 from 50, they will have to swap out a ten for 10 ones. If I gave them 50-35 and taught them to “borrow,” some of them would remember HOW to do this, but they would not understand WHY. Most of them would not understand how to borrow and would become easily frustrated. Developmentally, they’re not in this place yet, but when working with the base ten blocks… every single one of them knows he has to swap a ten for 10 ones. There’s context there.

When I asked them to help me cover a wall with some paper, we learned that we had to measure the wall first. Our tape measure wasn’t long enough to measure the entire wall, so we measured in two steps. The tape measure ends at 120 inches. The second measurement was 58 inches.

I asked them to add 120 and 58. Blank stares. (Of course)

When I asked them what 120 would look like in base ten blocks (without actually using the blocks), they were able to tell me it was one blue (100) and 2 greens (10). I asked them to pretend the blue one was put off to the side for now. “You have two greens and 58. What does that mean?” They counted 58… 68… 78.

The said, “The answer is 78!” When I reminded them we still had a blue one off to the side, they were able to quickly say, “it’s 178!”

They did all of this in their heads without actually handling the base ten blocks. Because of our previous work with the blocks, they now have context about place value and adding larger numbers. Are they consistently able to do this? No. Not yet, and I want to really emphasize yet. They are 5 / 6 year old kids! But if they are able to get context in everything we’re doing – math and all the other things we learn every day – think about where they can go!

I could share so many more examples, but this post would never end. I will share a “part two” soon, because I have another wonderful example of poetry and context with my students.

under: Teaching and Learning, Uncategorized
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Backstory to this post:

Teaching in an inquiry-based school, we don’t isolate “subjects” as most traditional schools do.  The beauty of this model is that kids really get to make connections. Science doesn’t just happen at a certain time of day, and it usually involves many other content areas as well. I love when my students are able to connect on their own that music is science is math is history is communication… and so on.

Although we don’t teach subjects in isolation all day, we do spend some time looking at content areas on their own for supporting understanding.

Math is a great example of one “subject” in our school that receives some supplemental time. It still looks different, though, because we meet each child where he/she is and help to move more deeply into understanding.

(I started to type “move forward,” but that’s not necessarily what happens, nor should it.)

 

The FOCUS of this post:

The problem with math in so many traditional schools is that there is a push to move kids along, rather than guide them into understanding. If you memorize facts easily, you’re going to do well in math early on. The problem with how math is often taught – and how most people think it should be taught – is that we focus so much on the “abstract” — the written facts. My friend Rafranz Davis says, “experiencing math starts with the ‘why,’ not the ‘how.'” I love this! Multiplication tables and formulas, for example, are the how, not the why.

Because so many of us, educators and non-educators alike, were taught with a focus on the math facts, we tend to forget that the conceptual understanding — the “concrete” and “representational” aspects of numbers — is entirely more important than what we memorize. A lot of students who do well in elementary or primary math classes find themselves struggling in pre-algebra or other math classes that require an understanding of what those facts mean, how numbers are related, the underlying patterns in those facts, and how it all connects. <— The WHY

Flash cards, worksheets, and apps that only focus on drilling facts are not what our kids need. They do not show us what our children have learned and understand about math.

BUT… this is where so much time, effort, and concerns lie. If students do not have their multiplication tables memorized by 3rd or 4th grade, they’re labeled as behind their peers. As a teacher, this frustrates me immeasurably. Yes, we want kids to be fluent in their facts, but the problem is when we assign a date and time to when they must have these facts memorized.

You might have a child who memorizes easily, but doesn’t truly understand what the fact means. I once had a student who knew that 5×3=15, but did not know that 5 groups of 3 items was the meaning behind it. Another one of my students understood that multiplication was grouping, but she could not recall fluently each fact if put on the spot.

Teaching a K/1 class for the first time has reinforced my philosophy of how I teach math- they WHY comes before the HOW. An example from today sealed the deal:

I have four students, all boys, in my class. (I know. Yes, I typed “four.”)

Every one of these boys, ages 5 and 6, is in a different place in his understanding of addition and subtraction facts. Some can skip count by 7s. Some are still struggling with addition and subtraction facts up to 10.

Today, we did some problem-solving with an activity I found on MathPickle.com: Addition Boomerang. (Watch the video – it explains how the boomerangs work. Definitely worth the 5 minutes.)

I started with all 4 of the kids together and demonstrated how the boomerangs work. We started with one boomerang with a +1 to reach the target of 10. Then we changed it to +2 to the target of 10. The boys were seeing this as an easy activity, and liked the idea of going around the boomerang circle.

Next, I changed it to two boomerangs: +3 and +4 with the same target of 10. I asked them to find every combination, both successful and “fails.”

This is what we produced together:

Boomerang1

 

After we discussed other combinations, they determined that they had found all the successful combinations. Anything else we we might try would result in similar fails. This discussion was incredible, because some of them still don’t always remember the commutative property of addition. We often have to review that if 3+4=7, then 4+3 also equals 7. Epiphany moment!

After our discussion, I paired them up and gave them their own boomerangs to solve. One group had to get to the target of 20 with +4 and +5. The other group needed to get to 12 with +2 and +3.

Boomerang3

Boomerang2

Here’s the beauty of what I witnessed today. One of my boys who is very fluent in addition facts well past 10 struggled with this activity at first. He didn’t understand what we were trying to do. After working with his partner, he exclaimed, “Oh! I get it!” Exuberant smiles followed. Those facts he memorized are beginning to come to life for him.

Another one of my boys who is not fluent in addition facts to 10 whizzed through this activity. He was counting so quickly, his partner had to ask him to slow down so he could figure it out as well. I can still ask him, “what is 4+5?” and it will take him as long as it takes to put up 4 fingers followed by 5 fingers. But when I asked him which combinations would work in his boomerang, he amazed me at how quickly he could come up with different combinations, AS WELL AS explain WHY. This is a kid who would fail a standardized fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice math test on addition facts to 10. Give him a method in which to find a pattern or solve a puzzle, and he is able to show exactly what he understands.

When parents have come to me over the years with concerns- or outright nervousness- about where their kids are in math, I have tried to reassure them that a) kids don’t learn at the same pace, b) knowing facts is NOT understanding mathematics, and c) kids need a variety of activities that help them explore the relationship of numbers in meaningful and relevant ways.

Drilling facts, and even emphasizing facts over understanding of the concrete and representational aspects of what numbers and operators mean does a lot of damage to how kids view “math.”

So here’s my advice:

  1. Take a deep breath. Your child’s math progress does not reflect poorly on you as a parent. I promise.
  2. If you have taken your child to a math tutoring business*, remember that it is a business. They will find something (anything!) wrong with your child’s progress to sell you their services.
  3. If you really want to help your child understand the relationship of numbers, find activities that involve, but do not focus on math. Baking, building, measuring, counting, budgeting for groceries– all of these are great ways to involve your child in something that requires some skills and concepts without it being the only focus. Math facts, by themselves, can be tedious and tiresome for a lot of kids (especially for those who have been told they are “behind”).
  4. One of my students can count by 7s because he is a huge football fan. Ask him how many points have been scored with 6 touchdowns… he knows the answer. And he is SIX. Football matters to him, so groups of 7s and 3s are meaningful to him, too. What matters to your child? Build on that.
  5. Puzzles and patterns are fabulous ways to help kids make sense of numbers. If your child loves patterns, but hates “math,” there is a disconnect here. Find puzzles that your child might enjoy and do them together. Be patient, and don’t feed answers.
  6. Do a little research on Concrete-Representational-Abstract instruction (CRA). This has been my underlying philosophy of how I help kids learn concepts in math (and music, for that matter), and I’ve seen kids’ understanding improve significantly. This method connects the HOW with the WHY.
  7. If you’re teaching math, where is your emphasis? I know many of you have pacing guides, material/textbooks to cover, and even scripts you are required to follow… but are you helping your students understand? If yes, please add some of your resources or suggestions in the comments. (Thanks!)

 

I’m fortunate to teach at a school** where we MAKE time for kids to explore and have those epiphany moments, whether it’s in their mathematic abilities, reading, asking questions, creating, building, or discovering their passions. (It’s a pretty awesome place to be a kid AND an adult who gets to witness it all.)

Above all else, I want to do what’s right for each of the children in my care every day. There’s a reason “Drill and Kill” became a thing in describing math practice activities. I don’t have any place for that when I want to help children understand.

(+10,000 points to you if you read all the way to the end. TL:DR is not in my vocabulary.)

 

*”math tutoring business” in this sense refers to corporate and for-profit businesses, not individuals.

**Shameless plug: if you want to witness in person what we do in our school, please join us at 5sigmaeducon.com next month!

under: Teaching and Learning
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When Reading Rainbow contacted me and asked if I would be willing to review The Rhino Who Swallowed A Storm, written by LeVar Burton & Susan Schaefer Bernardo and illustrated by Courtenay Fletcher, I was thrilled. I’m always looking for new children’s books, and partnering with Reading Rainbow is such a wonderful opportunity. RhinoSwallowedStorm When the book arrived, I showed my class the cover, and they were immediately intrigued. I read the title, and the questions started pouring out of them: “How can a rhino swallow a whole storm?” “What is this book about?” “Look at that rhino’s face!”

The official summary of the book:

When little Mica Mouse is scared by thunder booming outside her cozy home, Papa Mouse reaches for just the right story to comfort her. Hugging her close, he begins to read The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm. In this poetic book-within-a-book, a happy little rhinoceros is overwhelmed by a storm that sweeps away everything he loves. Swallowing the storm just makes him feel worse, so Rhino sets off on a whimsical journey toward healing. Along the way, he meets many friends, including a kind spider, a brave kangaroo, a wise tortoise, and an uplifting whale. With their help, Rhino lets go of the storm inside and learns to see the light in a world turned gray. Mica Mouse is soothed by the story and Papa’s gentle reminder that even though bad things sometimes happen, the world is full of people who care.

REVIEW:

I read this book to my primary class – all boys of ages 5 and 6. What amazed me was how instantly connected they were to the story within a story. They loved that Papa Mouse wanted to comfort Mica by reading her a book. Interestingly, they became caught up within Rhino’s story and only remembered that this was the story Papa Mouse was reading when they noticed the incredible illustrations on several pages that included Papa’s fingers holding a book. My students wanted to make comments after each page, as they were drawing comparisons to how Rhino’s friends helped him through his tough times to their own lives.

The story is so well-crafted, and the poetic verse of each of Rhino’s friends provides an additional layer of beauty to the story. Fletcher’s illustrations captivated my students! I watched their faces while they explored the pages of the book and noticed their expressions mirrored the colors and scenes on each page.  At the end of the book, there are discussion points/questions that led us to some revelations about ourselves, as we were able to compare our own experiences to those of Mica and Rhino.

What I love most about this book is that we are comforted knowing it’s okay to have feelings of  fear, anger, or sadness… but that we don’t have to face them alone. Through the wonderful advice of Rhino’s friends, we learn multiple methods of coping: asking a friend for help, singing a song… and that even a good cry can help  relieve the “storm” inside of ourselves.

Thank you to Reading Rainbow and LeVar Burton for sending us a copy of your book to review. It has become an instant favorite, and my class asks to read it again and again. We can’t wait to share it with the rest of the classes at our school, as well as all our friends in our Team Baldwin network!

My students wanted to share their thoughts about what they liked most:

RS: “I liked when Papa Mouse made Mica Mouse feel better by telling her a story. When I am upset, I like to ask my mom to help me.”

ZR: “I like the illustrations in the book. My favorite part was when the rhino swallowed the storm, because I really like the dark colors. This picture is what I feel when I get upset.”

BC: “My favorite part of the book is when Rhino’s friends helped him out of the big, black hole. That’s what it feels like when I am sad and my friends help me.”

NS: “I loved when the whale told Rhino good things. My mom does that to help me be happy.”

under: Reviews

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