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Consolidation: what I learned in a year

16 August 2015

From July 23, 2013

. . .

The past month has brought many milestones. The residency ended, and last week we officially graduated from BTR. I have lived in Boston now for more than a full year, and I have a job lined up for the coming school year. To cement my learning from this impactful year, and to potentially advise those about to begin the BTR journey, I offer the following list of my conclusions about teaching.

1. Take the long view

Coming into this year, I had this impatience, a condition which seems endemic to 20-somethings and exasperating to the real adults who choose to work with us. I wanted to see concrete results in every hour of teaching. I wanted to be proficient at skills I had never seen or tried before. When a single interaction with a student went poorly or a lesson felt flat, I would roil with the frustration that I had wasted learning time, failed to connect with a kid in the ‘right’ way, failed to properly capitalize on my students’ potential for learning.

Part of the beauty of the residency is that it allows you to see the full arc of a school year before you have to plan for one yourself. I learned, as instructors Kati Delahanty and Jess Madden-Fuoco told us early on, that no one interaction with a kid makes or breaks your relationship with him or her. Last November, I was repeatedly hounding the same student to pick his head up off the table during the mini-lesson, fighting regularly with a kid who tossed racial epithets at another student, and finding little success in either battle. As it turns out, it’s okay that it took me several interactions to learn how to deal with these difficulties successfully. For one thing, it was my zeroth year of teaching, and I was learning a skill that I had never attempted before: I needed practice in setting boundaries and communicating clearly. Second, I needed time to get to know the individuals involved in this situation. Instruction and classroom management are both rooted in relationships, and with students as with any new person in your life, it takes time to learn how to interact comfortably with them in a variety of contexts. Third, what matters most in the end, to me and to the students concerned, is not how I handled any individual moment, but the aggregate effect of my actions over time. Students form their opinions of teachers based on patterns of behavior, and your effectiveness at any endeavor is contingent on what you consistently do. Though I failed many times at convincing my one student to pick his head up, and insisting that the other to speak respectfully to his classmates, part of what they needed to see was my persistence in each situation. The student sleeping in class needed to hear me repeatedly say “I know you can do this. I want to see what you think about this problem.” The child lobbing hurtful language at another needed to see me shut down every occurence of his harassment over multiple weeks in order to understand that respect was not negotiable in my classroom.

While it is valuable to constantly seek improvement, this year taught me that in teaching, it is crucial to breathe, think about the whole year, and remember that as long as you keep thinking and keep trying, many things will get easier come January. Or March.

2. Think about achievement as its component skills, not the whole vector.

Some teachers talk about students as “high-achieving” and “low-skilled” as though they are mutually exclusive, permanent categories. I found that math (and life in general) is separable into distinct skills: each individual’s level of proficiency varies widely from one skill to another. A student may have incredibly strong number sense that allows him to perform many calculations in his head, but struggle with the symbolic logic of equations and algebraic manipulations. Another student may track details with precision, but struggle to plan for the big picture of a project. Summing all of the individual parts of mathematics achievement to categorize kids as “high” or “low” hides the diversity of resources in every classroom, and masks the fact that on different days, across multiple types of assignments, any ordering of students according to proficiency will change wildly. This is important to remember because it ties into the effort-versus-ability theory of learning. When students are consistently labeled (explicitly or implicitly, through grouping within classes or separation into distinct classes) as “high” or “low”, students and teachers begin to believe that the students in the “high” category are innately and permanently high-achieving people, implying that their success is somehow related to their overall quality as people, not the quality of their work or the strength of their effort. Looking at individual skills allows teachers and students to recognize strengths and develop areas of weakness, without letting either be a judgment on the worth of the child or his potential for learning.

3. Going off-topic isn’t just allowable; it’s important.

Sometimes the best classes are the days when children explain to you—and the captive audience of other children—how to make fried Kool-Aid. Kids need to tell you about the assorted things they are thinking about, and when tangents are allowed, kids make connections between their funny stories and the math, and those connections to narrative and humor act as neurological cement for content learning. Off-topic conversations provide an opportunity to explore and practice important skills not directly related to the content objective of the day. The day we all heard about fried Kool-Aid, I watched students practice taking turns when speaking, asking clarifying questions of each other and altering their vocabulary to hone in on their meaning. Going with kids into their tangents sometimes lets you learn about their families, their homes, and their worldviews, while giving them a chance to learn about you. At the heart of it, allowing students’ off-topic thoughts gives credence to all of their thoughts and feelings about the world, which makes them more likely to trust you with their thoughts and feelings about math.

4. No one has to do this alone.

Being part of BTR is incredible for many reasons, the cohort primary among them. Participating in this community of talented people lets me know that none of us does this work alone. My weaknesses are balanced by others’ strengths; students need multiple types of adults in their lives to be successful; no one of us has to be everything all the time. Together we create a movement.

5. All classes should be smaller. (This also makes true inclusion possible.)

A few times this year, I had the opportunity to see what happens when students who are accustomed to sitting in classes with 25 other students suddenly find themselves in a room with only six or eight people. Something fundamentally changes. Students who typically drum on tables incessantly find it easier to stay calm. Students who avoid work in big classes to mask their confusion feel a sense of accountability in the small class, and grow comfortable asking for help. Gone is the pressure to perform for “the group,” the fear of saying something that the invisible majority won’t approve of. That constraining filter is replaced by a sense of security that allows students to work at their own pace, advocate for their personal and learning needs, and look out for each other. Because attention to individual needs is so much more feasible in a small class, it is also possible to differentiate for a wide range of skills and abilities. I taught a ten-person class this year that included two students with significant cognitive delays, two English language learners with language-based disabilities, and one student with the reading comprehension of a graduate student. By building accommodations into the routines of the class (i.e., directions were always written down and read aloud) and giving students choice within instructional activities, we were able to create an environment in which every student made progress in their mathematical understanding and their linguistic expression of their ideas.

6. Special education is awesome because it is an incredible source of knowledge.

We learn by studying extremes and anomalies; we learn about the brain by studying people who have had major brain surgery or significant accidental brain damage. I learn about learning by teaching in a special ed setting, where all the children have an “atypical learning style” (insofar as any learning style can be described as typical). Special ed is a place where I spend a significant portion of my time thinking about what is happening in each kid’s brain to make him/her speak and act and do math the way s/he does, which teaches me so much about learning and thinking that I might never pick up on with “typically developing” kids.

7. Teachers have brains.

Teachers have hearts and bodies that need caring for, but to keep this profession (and true education reform) alive, we need to create spaces that attend to teachers’ interests and intellects. Teachers are interested in their content, in how kids learn.  They are passionate about leadership or community building or sports or the environment or government.  Teachers need space to develop those interests within and in tandem with their instructional practice.

8. Make it about the work of the day.

Know the mathematical point of the day, and continually refer back to it. When a student is braiding her sister’s hair instead of working, I have to remember not to chide her for being distracted, and instead ask, sincerely, “So what do you think is happening in this problem?” We then have a conversation about the math instead of fighting about her behavior. Focusing on the math of the day is also relevant when students have low skills in areas aside from the specific math objective of the lesson. If the objective of a lesson is for students to solve an equation based on a word problem, my immediate focus is not on whether students are able to read the words in the problem. If the objective is for students to interpret and solve a word problem, my priority is not for students to be able to perform calculations mentally, so the use of a calculator is appropriate.  By focusing on specific objectives for specific lessons, the hope is that my students will practice and learn a number of skills that will eventually come together.  Accommodations are a means of scaffolding students’ difficulties with all of the skills not directly related to the objective of the moment, so they can focus on making progress in that specific area.

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