19 February 2018

I Went to a PBL School and Discovered How Little I Know About PBL

Altogether, I've probably attended at least 75 hours worth of professional learning and workshops on Project-Based Learning between my work with Pathways to Prosperity, various sessions at EdCampSTL, METC, and MORENet conferences, and training from THE Buck Institute for a week last summer and one day in December with my new school, the STEAM Academy. I've designed and/or implemented several projects that I thought were pretty good. I've seen the Most Likely to Succeed film 5 times. I have a great foundation on the general "how" and definite passion for the "why" of project-based learning.

I had AMAZING visions for what my students were going to accomplish this year! We started so well - I threw the curriculum pacing slightly out of order, found a project integrating Algebra, Geometry, and Architecture that I loved, had a friend come mentor the kids for a day, and took some really good pictures! I co-designed a project for our 6th graders that involved planning the purchases and recipe scaling for a Thanksgiving meal for all 80ish 6th graders in our building. My co-teacher was super into it! The kids worked together so well!

And yet, here I am in the middle of February, and I find my classroom and our school becoming test-prep central. Don't get me wrong, PBL activities are still happening in the building - our fine arts department has begun a cool Carnival themed unit called "STEAM Caliente" that I'm sure is going to be amazing for our students, but I feel entrenched in this anxiety and pressure to prepare my students to death so we can meet our goal of all students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" on our state tests in May.

If YOU were to ask ME the question, "How can I do PBL units and make sure I cover all of my standards," I would tell you to "make sure that you design your unit backward to ensure that what you want the kids to learn is at the front, and that as the kids work, the learning will work itself out." I would point out that your test-prep cramming is meaningless in the end anyway.

But here I am, feeling at a complete loss for vision for the task before me.

See the source image

Who's got a model for PBL that involves deep, interdisciplinary projects with kids who do well on their standardized tests AND also administer days worth of practice tests to generate predictive data for students' performance on state tests. Send me your links! :)

Back to that question that you would ask me - I would tell you that feeling uncomfortable is really good for you professionally, and I still believe that, but I've also found that it can be a lonely, humbling place. (But in the end, humility is great, too).

17 February 2018

Why Do We Keep Looking for the Next Best Thing?

The next MJ.
The next LeBron.
The next iPhone.
The next band.
The next app.
The next activity for your kid.
The next testing platform that will address all of your district's needs.
The next extension that completes your productive workflow.
Your next car.
Your next house.
Your next job.
The next friendship that finally completes you.
The next ___ followers on your Instagram or Twitter.
The next thrill.
The next church.
The next meal.


Let me drop this there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sun truth bomb on you from the writer of the book of Acts, describing the Apostle Paul's visit to Athens, Greece:
"Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new."
Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
Acts 17:21 ESV

Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
Acts 17:21 ESV

There's nothing particularly of moral or ethical weight to the statement on the surface; its simply descriptive of what the people of Athens often did to fill their time. Taken in some context, however, I see it as an indictment on the waste of what these men (and women) were filling their time with and giving their worship to. The beginning of this chapter states that the city was "full of idols," and as my pastor continued to preach last week, I stayed fixated on my own searches for "next."

I've spent a ton of time on this blog, in my classroom, in conversations with friends, scrolling newsfeeds and Twitter chats in search of any opportunity for "telling or hearing something new." In and of itself, new can be good. Innovation is obviously a great creative force. When the search becomes "nothing except," however, is where things go awry.

I put a ton of worth, identity, and effort in being known as a guy who is usually hip to new trends in education, new apps, new websites, new tech. Your thing might be bands, or sports, or cars, or styles, or celebrities. Whatever. There's an entire sub-culture on the internet and social media making people famous for knowing "next." People crave it!

And if people crave it, that means they worship it.

What's the mean for the classroom?

For me, worshipping the "next" thing in education leads me to neglecting what's right in front of me. Neglecting the kids in front of me. Neglecting the duties God has already called me to and made me responsible for. Maybe someday my job will be finding and sorting through "next," for educators to help them in their jobs. But for now, its important for me to be about not the next, but the present.

Next makes it hard for me to collaborate with others, because they might get more credit than me.
Next makes it difficult to have polished lessons, because you rarely use/do something multiple times to iron out kinks in your delivery.
Next makes me more time on my Twitter feed than in giving feedback to students and contacting parents.
Next leaves little room for someone else to have a good idea, because Next is best worshipped when I am the one who did that.
Next feels good when I get to share something new with a colleague, but instead of being helpful, Next just lords it over them.
Next needs an audience, so when I worship Next, I'm only content on a PD day if I am facilitating one of the sessions.

Keeping abreast of new research and tools is obviously an important professional obligation, and my PLN keeps me going often when I need perspective outside my school/district, so I'm not suggesting that we neglect new things, or seeking innovations to improve our craft or our students experience. We must keep in perspective WHY we seek those things.  We seek innovation and change for our STUDENTS, not for ourselves.

Next must be more FUN - for STUDENTS.
Next must be more ACCESSIBLE - for STUDENTS.
Next must be MORE RELEVANT - for STUDENTS.
Next must provide MORE OPPORTUNITIES - for STUDENTS.

Otherwise, we're just spending all our time "telling and hearing something new."

08 October 2017

Why Are People STILL Upset with "New" Math?

You've seen the social media post like this, right?

My mom sent it to my sister (also a teacher - @jenbearden) and I to ask if we teach math this way. I've never personally really had to dip my toe into this specific debate because I've never taught 2 digit addition and subtraction to elementary kids, but I've had enough "common core" workshops and training to know that there are plenty of mathematical reasons for this to make sense to kids (and the excellent teachers to guide them in it.)

Just a few weeks ago we had a 6th grade parent at my school's curriculum night ask why our book had the kids performing so much estimation. The answer we gave was so that when the student gets a ridiculous answer to some other problem, they have a tool at their disposal to realize that they've made a mistake. Who likes avoidable mistakes? No one does. People can get behind that.

This "new math" matter came up again this week when I saw a teacher friend share her son's recent math test.

I haven't asked her yet, but I'm pretty sure her stance is that this is ridiculous.
My teacher friend is upset that her son had gotten 15% off because, in his model of 5 minus 2, he had not shown the subtraction by crossing out 2 crayons because "that's not how he thinks."

I get that argument, but at the same time, if all the classroom instruction had been, "show your subtraction thinking by crossing out sets," and he didn't do it, then it has to be graded that way.
It's a bummer that this kid got an 85%, no doubt, but did he do as well on the question as a kid who came to the same conclusion, but DID make the Xs? Perhaps the wording of the question is really the problem, and an oral explanation would have solved this whole problem, but it's not fair to the kid who DID do everything he or she were asked to get a similar score as the kid who did not.

There are classrooms everywhere in which teachers take off points for late work, formatting papers incorrectly, not using the right pen, or miscellaneous other pet peeves that are far more arbitrary than this student showing his thinking by crossing out two pictures. I'm defending those arbitrary deductions - I think they're often disgusting and seriously limit low-socioeconomic students who do not play the "school" game as well as others. I am appealing to you that there is a legitimate cognitive demand to show reasoning in the question that the student has not completed.

Let's step out of the math argument, because it tends to be polarizing, and step into the English-Language Arts classroom instead. Elementary teachers instruct on the use of punctuation and assess it frequently, I'm sure. If the screenshot above were a punctuation quiz and he had failed to use the correct punctuation because "he doesn't think that way," we're not having this conversation, right?

Image result for eats shoots and leaves book
TONS of people don't really understand how to use commas. One of my very favorite books that I randomly stumbled upon in college (and is now commonly on reading lists), Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is about all of punctuation, but grabs you with this idea of the horrible use of commas and apostrophes everywhere in English signage. (Side note: this book is a must read if you've ever wondered where in world to use a semi-colon.)

It's so obvious, my Grammarly extension is DYING to correct it for me. LOL
Where are the social media posts bemoaning ELA teachers who correct comma punctuation that parents don't understand.

"We don't do commas. Short, simple sentences worked good enough for me."
There's an implicit cultural assumption that parents and schools commit to when we open the doors, and parents send their treasures to use. Schools agree to teach children what the parents don't have the time, money, or intellectual resources to teach themselves, and parents agree to partner with us to get their kid to "success." (Although that definition is up for grabs, too. See Last Chance U on Netflix, and my post on the film Most Likely to Succeed, both produced by a talented man named Greg Whiteley).

Parents, its okay if you don't get the intricacies of the lessons your child's teachers have spent hours and hours delivering in a classroom. I don't think we're asking you to, either. Maybe we need to rewrite our contract. Maybe we're giving too much homework. Maybe we need to start writing ALL of our students individualized learning plans. Maybe we need alternative forms of assessment so this kid doesn't have an 85% for a momentary lapse in attention to detail. We can do all of these things.

Let's just finally stop blaming "new math." Please.