Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Asilomar Reflections: Lucy West

Don't make fun of me for being nerdy, but the California Math Council (North) annual conference is one of my favorite events of the year. Who can pass up a weekend at Asilomar State Beach talking about interesting math and teaching topics with some of the biggest names (and nicest people) in math education? I can't believe I missed it last year.

This year, as is true for the other times I've gone, I learned a LOT. The Friday night keynote speaker, Lucy West, was particularly impressive. She talked about academic discourse and its necessity in a math classroom. This is already one of my core beliefs about teaching math, but I liked her talk because she confirmed/affirmed some of the things I already do and also raised a couple of new points that I hadn't thought of.

Things I'm already doing:

  • First of all, her thesis was that if kids talk about math, they learn more and better. As I said, this is one of my core beliefs and I structure pretty much everything in my classroom around this. How can I get them to talk? How can I get them to listen? More importantly, what can I give them that's actually worth talking about and listening to? Ms. West emphasized the role of both teaching and listening, both of which I try to scaffold on a daily basis. I think my kids are getting better at it (although their listening could use more work than their talking). They're taking a group test even as I write this and I'm generally happy with the quality of their conversations, especially given that they're 9th graders who have only been working on this for 3 months. 
  • There were certain "teacher moves" that Ms. West pointed out in videos and I was really happy that I already do most of them. I'm a huge fan of "Talk with your partner/team, now share out with the class what you talked about" and the "Who can rephrase what _____ just said? ... Great, now what's another way of rephrasing it?" I'm also into the accountability move of "You're not sure? Who else wants to explain it, and you'll rephrase what they said."
New ideas (sort of): 
  • We all know that teaching is a painfully isolating profession. Even at my school which supposedly is highly collaborative, I am the only teacher teaching my subject, so I have nobody to plan or debrief with. I have maybe seen 2 minutes all year of another teacher teaching. Maybe. Ms. West compared teaching to surgery: if you watch Grey's Anatomy, all the doctors (interns, experts, everyone) are always excited to be in on each other's surgeries. When there's a new procedure, they all want to help out with it or at least be in the viewing gallery. I learn SO much when I watch other teachers or when other teachers watch me. I would love to see another teacher try out some hot new activity or teaching move, even if it fails. I know that if I hadn't been in a teacher ed program where we looked at what it means to have math discussions (or if I never had a teacher ed program in the first place), I would still be lecturing everyday because that's the only kind of math teaching I ever saw. I didn't know there were other options out there--and I imagine that many teachers don't. Who knows what else I'm missing by not talking to or seeing other teachers. All those teacher moves that I learned are things that I saw other people doing. And it's so crucial that observations happen frequently. I always meet math teachers at conferences who are still lecturing all the time and who can't even conceptualize how to incorporate discussion because they're only hearing about it for 45 minutes at a conference. They go home and try to use the ideas, but it fails because not only did they get such a small glimpse, they have no one to support their trials (and inevitable failures). To see what it actually looks and feels like--and how to do it well--you need to see something over and over and in different contexts. 
  • This brings up another of West's points. A lot of the terrible ideas in math education came from a really good place, but ended up being adapted into something awful. Her example was "the walkthrough," a practice that had positive origins. Teachers and administrators decided together what kinds of things might be observed for in a snapshot observation, and they followed observations with conversation. This is quite the opposite of walkthroughs I have experienced where administrators would come in for >5 minutes with a checklist: Are there objectives on the board? Are kids using the textbook? Are there state standards on the board? Then they would leave. These things (and many of the other things they look for) are related to components of good teaching, but on their own do not create or indicate good teaching. The evolution of the walkthrough is like a bad game of telephone. I see this happening all the time with groupwork and complex instruction (structures and philosophies that are very near and dear to my heart). Someone watches a video or sees a good math problem at a conference so they take it back to their school. And it flops. But there's so much that goes into good groupwork that takes so much time, so many deliberate decisions, so much more than just trying to imitate 10 minutes of video. I know that I never would have learned all that I have if it weren't for two specific supports. First, at my previous school my teaching schedule was designed so that I could observe a veteran teacher teaching algebra during my prep period. I got a day behind in the curriculum so I could see Estelle teach a lesson on Monday and then I would teach it on Tuesday. We would have already talked through the misconceptions, the pitfalls, the strategies, etc. so that I had an idea of what I was getting into. It's so different seeing a lesson in action than it is reading about it in a lesson plan. The second support is having other expert teachers coaching me in the moment while I'm teaching. At my old school department members came in for particularly challenging activities (challenging for the teacher, not necessarily the students) or if I needed help with a certain group of students. Sometimes other teachers would just bring their grading over and sit in my room to work. This happened for both veteran and new teachers. Currently I have an amazing coach who sometimes comes into my class (not as much as I'd like) and whispers little moves or ideas as I'm teaching. AND we plan curriculum and debrief together. In the first few weeks this year when she was in my room almost every day, I learned so much more than I did in all of last year. I can't come up with good ideas and teacher moves out of thin air. Learning about teaching has to come from seeing other teachers teach. 
  • Sticking to the medicine analogy, doctors have a common language with which to discuss their practice while teachers... not so much. When I talk to other teachers, even from my own school or department, we have different ideas of what a "warm up" is or what it means for kids to work in groups. It's fine for different teachers to be doing different things, but it's a huge challenge to have a conversation when you're talking about two different things but using the same words. 
  • This next idea was new to me, but made perfect sense. Ms. West said that when she goes into a new school, the quickest way to predict what classroom discourse will look like is to listen to how the teachers talk to one another. If teachers never talk together about math (or academic content), it's unlikely that students will. If teachers are competitive and protective of information, students will be too. This totally makes sense to me based on the two schools where I worked. Ms. West asked, "Think about the meetings you have to go to--do you look forward to them?" At my previous school, definitely yes. Our Thursday algebra meetings were the highlight of my week, partly because I really liked the other people I work with, but mostly because I learned a lot from them. We spent a lot of time doing math problems, looking at curriculum, and sharing ideas. Our kids did the same in class. The conversations at that school--especially in upper grades where kids had been working this way for years--were mind-blowing. The math was deep and the their communication was gentle and caring. At my current school, discussions look different. Most meetings are highly structured with limited space to discuss ideas. There's a time and place for everything and no time outside of that. We get a lot done in a relatively small amounts of time. The same is absolutely true of our classes. We have 2 months less of class time than other schools, but get higher test scores. Most teachers use highly-scaffolded lesson plans, worksheet formatting, etc. Everything happens in a very measured way, but we're always moving. I'm not saying that one approach is better than the other, (although I do have a personal preference for the former), but it is interesting how the students mirror the adults. 
  • Ms. West stressed the necessity of adults doing math together, which our department does not. It's unfortunately first because hey, math is fun. More importantly, it's unbelievably powerful to consider the experiences our students have in class. I'm always amazed at the behaviors I revert back to whenever I have to do math in a group. For example, I went to a session at the conference that was just doing interesting geometry problems (remember, I'm a geometry teacher). The two people I was working with are friends I met at Stanford who I continue to be very close with both personally and professionally. In general I am comfortable around them and confident in my abilities, but when got stumped by a system of equations (which was an algebra II level of difficulty) I instantly turned to hide my paper and pretend I knew what I was doing. I absolutely know that my friends would never look down on me for asking a question or for having trouble with that problem, but the math anxiety came out so quickly. If that's what's happening for me, a "mathematically successful" adult doing problems for fun with my friends, what must be going on for some poor little freshman who's never felt good about math and is working with kids s/he barely knows? It's so rarely that we as adult math teachers come across problems we don't know how to handle, but our students do every day. If there's ever any questions that students' emotions impact their learning, the answer lies in working on math problems with other teachers. 
During Ms West's talk I sat with many of my former colleagues, most of whom are no longer still at our school. We shot each other a lot of meaningful glances as Ms. West more or less named key features of how we worked together and what we worked toward. I am constantly reminded of how lucky I've am to have been a part of this group, even if it was only for a year. The things I learned and the connections I made continue to inspire and inform my teaching. My current department is great, but I don't always feel like we're in the same place, have the same values, or are working toward the same goals. How do I get back to a place where I believe so deeply in what my department is trying to do? 

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