Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Metacognition and Common Core Math

I'm sure you've seen it by now. There's some picture floating around Facebook about "Common Core" math with the "Old Fashion Way" and the "New Way" to do math. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

Yes, lots of people are losing their minds over this. And you know, it might look confusing at first, but it doesn't take much to figure out that this is a way to introduce metacognition to students to help them with their mental math. You do this in your head and you don't even realize that you do it. This blog post is the best explanation I've seen of how you do it all the time. When you go to the store and buy things, you don't bust out a calculator or get a pencil and paper to do it the "Old Fashion Way" carrying your ones and such. You make the numbers easier to manage in your brain.

Who taught you to do that? Did you learn to do it on your own? I mean, maybe you did. Maybe a parent told you. I know I learned it at school. If no one ever taught you to do that and you never figured it out on your own, people doing mental math must look like freaking wizards. Which is exactly what a lot of students who into high school math without learning mental math see their math teachers.

Math isn't the only place where students need mental exercises. We do it in English and Language Arts as well. How do you make inferences? When did you learn how to make them? Someone taught you or you picked it up naturally. Some students make it to high school completely at a loss of how to make inferences without being walked through it.

Yes, there are "easier" ways to do math using pencil and paper. However, the purpose of assignments in school is not to find the right answer. The point is to teach students how to find the right answer. If the purpose was finding the right answer and nothing else, you never would have had to show your work back in algebra. But you had to show your work so your teacher could see if you made a mistake along the way so they could help you fix it. Learning mental math is the same way. And practice makes perfect, so get used to seeing it for awhile.

I'd also like to point out that the example being passed around was likely made up by someone who doesn't actually teach this method. The first thing someone teaching this would say would be to cancel the twos in the ones position.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What's with all the professional development?

With the abundance of snow days in my district this year, it has been brought up by multiple parents across social media that professional development days should be used as make up snow days. A common thread is most of these assertions is that teachers don't need all this time without students.

But do they? Disregarding the weather issues going on in my state, the professional development days do serve a vital purpose in the education of your children. Professional development can be used in a variety of ways. It can be a time to take continuing education type courses in all types of subjects, meet with fellow teachers to analyze current student learning, and even catch up on planning and grading for classes we're teaching.

The majority of a teacher's work week is spent in direct contact with students, teaching and conferencing with their classes. Most teachers get a planning period, but that time isn't generally enough to get copies, plan lessons, and grade all the student work. It's true that we can always take work home, but most of us are parents as well and have a limited amount of time to spend with our own children as it is. That time also doesn't allow us time to grow and learn from fellow educators the way professional development courses can.

The majority of professional development can be taken care of during the summer, but the best teachers are those who continue to grow, learn, and change throughout the year, not just during the summer.

Professional development opportunities should not take precedence over student learning. Using too many substitute days to attend courses isn't good for students, especially if those days all happen directly before end of course testing. It can be frustrating and inconvenient when professional development days create havoc in a parents' life by making them have to take a day off work. Ultimately, the professional development days help students in the long run. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How do I get the whole story?

Kids remember the darndest things. Or they remember things in really odd and unflattering ways. This happens to parents all the time. It happens to teachers as well. 

At some point, your child is going to come home with a really strange, possibly shocking story involving their teacher. It's going be easy to jump to conclusions. For example, my son came home and told me that his teacher told him he needs to brush his teeth in the morning because his breath smells bad.

I immediately jumped to conclusions and thought she'd singled out my son and made him feel bad. He was already brushing his teeth in the morning. I started trying to figure out how his fantastic Pre-K teacher would think that's okay to tell my son. I got a little irrational while talking about it with my husband demanding to know how she'd even know since he's in the afternoon class. I went through his normal lunch trying to figure out what would make his breath smell so bad.

At after school pick up the next day, I waited a bit to talk to his teacher only find out they sang a song all about why you should brush your teeth, including how it makes your breath smell good. I got irrational over nothing.

When these instances happen, it's important to keep a cool head and ask calmly what happened. Oftentimes kids have these weird filters that make no sense to adults. Sometimes starting out with "You know, Johnny said the craziest thing..." instead of an accusatory tone can keep help you get the whole story without the teacher getting defensive. You'd be surprised what kind of things students spout off about their parents. Keeping an open mind and remembering there's probably a perfectly good explanation can save a lot of stress and embarrassment for all parties.

There are "bad" teachers out there who may speak or act in a manner you don't find appropriate. If that is the case, discuss that situation with the teacher in question. If the behavior doesn't change, involve administrators as needed, but always try to discuss the issue with the teacher first. 

What are some crazy stories your kids have come home with? What really happened?

Friday, December 6, 2013

What are your thoughts on homework?

As a parent and educator, I believe homework is vital and serves an important role. However, and this is a big however, there can be too much, which defeats the purpose in the first place.

My son is four and attends Pre-K at a local Catholic school. He has homework once or twice a week and overall, it has been a positive experience for us. You're probably thinking I'm crazy for appreciating homework at the Pre-K level, but there are some advantages to it. First, it reinforces the idea that learning happens at home as well as at school. It helps students practice skills they've already learned. If done correctly, kids have fun while practicing school concepts at home. Importantly for our family, it gives us a guideline of what is age appropriate "work" to do. I teach high school, but that doesn't mean I understand the ins and outs of what's appropriate for a four year old to be able to master.

Homework can be done wrong. Homework done the wrong way is what creates headaches and nightmares for parents, as well as students. Homework is not the time to learn new material. Homework is for additional practice and nothing more. At the younger grades, homework should be more about creating good habits than overloading students with too much work. We get maybe 10 minutes total of homework a week and it's only 10 minutes because my son gets distracted or spends time talking to me instead of writing what he's supposed to write. We don't push too hard and he doesn't resist. It's a good set up for now.

Even if a student isn't being asked to learn something new at home, lengthy homework, especially at the younger grades, can really damage a student's confidence and love of learning. After being at school for several hours, another hour of homework is unreasonable for anyone, but especially young children.

As a teacher, I use homework as a time to practice skills we're learning that need more practice. I'm not in the habit of making busy work. When students do busy work, I have busy work to grade, as well as the expectation that I make more busy work. Who has time for that? No one. Not my students and certainly not me.

When it comes to doing age appropriate work, I have no idea what four year olds are capable of. Yes, I know my son best, but I also see the epic Facebook-crafting that makes me think my child should be composing symphonies. Instead of beating myself up that my child is not the next brilliant genius, I'm having fun watching him grow and increase his skills. It's also important to remember that not every parent knows what to do to help their children become lifelong learners. Without assigned homework, some students may never do any reading or writing at home at all.

If homework is creating headaches and drama in your household, it's time to talk to the teacher and discuss more reasonable expectations. If your kindergartener is stuck at the table for an hour every day, that is not appropriate. Even though the teacher is the educator, you ultimately do know your child the best and you know when they are exhausted and frustrated. If things don't change after talking to the teacher, it's time to talk to a school counselor or administrator and talk about how you can ensure your child is successful.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What's the deal with Common Core?

You've probably heard about it in the news. Common Core is a newest buzzword with parents, despite being heavily discussed in the education world for more than three years.

Judging by the posts I see on Facebook, Common Core is the new thing to blame for all the ails of education. Parents post pictures of worksheets and complain about how horrible Common Core is.

Let's start with what Common Core is NOT.

Common Core is not:

  • a set, assigned curriculum
  • assigned worksheets
  • a way to remove autonomy from the states
  • about added homework and stress for students and parents
  • "Obamacare for Education" or whatever that means (oh, Facebook...)
In 2001, George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law. The act was designed to ensure 100% proficiency in the entire nation by 2014. That's next year. That's right, by 2014 all students were going to be perfect! You're perfect all the time, aren't you? Surely every child in the United States of America, the greatest nation on this here planet, can be perfect, too! NCLB wasn't the beginning of the Accountability Movement in education, but it was a heavy straw added to the breaking back of education.

The measure for proficiency was on a state by state level with tests created by the states over standards also created by the states. So California makes their standards of "stuff the average students should be able to do by the end of the year" and tests them over it. Kentucky does the same, and New York, and Texas, and New Hampshire, and Florida and on and on and on. No two states are the same and no two tests are the same. This creates a problem when families have the audacity to cross state lines and students proficient in Kentucky are suddenly severely behind in another state. What's worse, the idea of "college ready" isn't stable across the country and countless students are accepted into universities, go in debt in student loans and promptly drop out or are kicked out because they just weren't ready, keeping their enormous education tab while they reassess their lives.

As 2014 edged closer and closer, the Common Core was created for a few reasons. First, the states needed to agree one reasonable expectations for grade levels that will create individuals who are ready for postsecondary education and the workplace. This agreement will help students who move between states first, but it will also make an ending point for 12th grade that students need to reach in order to move on from public school. Without cooperation, students moving between states are left to flounder while universities will continue to have more and more freshmen drop out because they can't handle the workload.

Instead of making sure that no child was left behind, the Accountability Movement of the 1990s created a further gap of haves and have nots. Parents who had the means could secure a spot at a charter school, private school or even public schools that are more selective in who they allow in. These students continued to learn at deeper levels, similar to the education you probably remember. Students at struggling schools, or "Persistently Low Achieving" schools were more and more focused on test scores to the detriment of the education the students received.

The expectations were leveled by grade creating a scaffold that students would build on each year in order to grow and develop. The expectations are not unreasonable. They're just different. Different is not inherently bad, but it does take some adjustments and getting used to.

Those "Common Core Aligned" worksheets? They're not endorsed by the government or required. Companies are looking to make a buck off teachers and parents trying to make sure that they are teaching the "assigned curriculum" that doesn't exist. The curriculum is not assigned. There are a set of skills a student must be able to demonstrate. In kindergarten, there is no "Do this worksheet because it's required." Instead, this is an example of a literature reading standard for kindergarten: "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1 With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text."

The same standard is built upon the following year in first grade with the following adjustment: "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.1 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text."

And again in second grade with a further adjustment: "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.1 Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text."

The standard grows each year until the final version of the standard in high school: "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain."

All four of those examples are the same literature reading standard, Standard 1, which I shorter for my students as "Cite text evidence." The skill is begun in kindergarten and grows to an actual, useful skill that is required in any English 101 classroom.

That's it. That's all the Common Core is. It's not a way to control the masses or brainwash your children. It's not a plot to increase homework or make children cry. It's nothing to do with irrelevant or tricky worksheets. It's not some socialist agenda designed to dumb down your children. If anything, the level of work required for Common Core will help your students.

There's a lot of misconceptions about Common Core and pundits aren't helping the dialogue by creating fear and misinformation about it. Teachers are still working to grow and adapt to the massive change in curriculum. The adjustment can only go as smooth as people let it. While people continue to kick up a fuss about Common Core without understanding what it is, the adjustment will take longer and it is the children who will deal with the consequences.

If you'd like to see more of the Common Core State Standards for various subjects and grade levels, this is an excellent source: Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Friday, October 4, 2013

My Kid Is Not Perfect

I received my son's first report card. As a teacher, I've prided myself on knowing how to teach and when to teach various things. My first fieldwork experience was with kindergarteners (22 of them), so even though I teach high school, I felt that I had experiences that could help me teach my son.

My son received all checks and his report started out glowing. His teacher talked about how he was sweet and hardworking. She said that sometimes he's disruptive with talking, but he's easily corrected.

And then she said that he was struggling with printing and letter sounds. My pride took a hit with that word "struggling" because I know what that word means in my teacher jargon. In my classroom, I use struggling for kids who are below grade level and in danger of being left behind. I don't use struggling lightly. Struggling is for kids who are missing basic skills necessary to master standards.

It stung. I've been doing everything right. We read every night. He practices writing at home. We always do his homework (yes, homework in preschool!). He loves learning. He loves playing school. He's said he wants to be a teacher, just like me.

But he's struggling.

The idea of a range of normal is just that, a range. There's early readers and late readers and kids who fall somewhere in the middle of that enormous spectrum.

Not every kid can be advanced and perfect at everything they do. It's hard to accept that your child isn't the best in their peer group.

Despite my son's struggles in the first term of preschool, it's unlikely that he'll struggle in the same way that many of the students I have known do. He may not be an early reader like I was, but that doesn't mean that I have failed in someway. Every kid is different and will learn at their own pace.

As parents, it's so easy to get hung up on the successes of our children that we forget that they are individuals who don't need to be measured against their peers.

The fact that so many of us Facebook craft our children's lives so that they appear perfect doesn't help. Hey, I'm guilty. I held my phone just right so that the part about disruption and my son's struggles wasn't visible when I posted a picture of his report to Facebook. When you find yourself feeling down on yourself as a parent, remember that just out of frame, others' lives aren't perfect either.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What to Do about Bullies

Bullying is a huge issue in schools. It's been an issue. It will continue to be an issue. Bullying will involve your child at some point in their lives. I get so many questions about bullying, I decided to tackle several of them at once. Bullying is persistent, aggressive behavior that is meant to emotionally or physically harm another individual. Bullying takes on many forms, from passive aggressive insults to outright physical assaults. All forms are serious and dangerous and need to be stopped.

How do I keep my child from being bullied?

Unless you lock them in a bubble, there's no way to shield your child from bullies. Even if you homeschool your child, there's the park, birthday parties and the eventual real adult world filled with bullies to deal with. Someone is going to attempt to bully your child at some point. Bully-proofing your child is important. Building up your child's confidence is the first step. Give them a happy, safe home to come to. Encourage them to advocate for themselves. Teach them the difference between tattling and advocating. Be there for them. If their attempts to stand up for themselves fail, be there to back them up. Realize that sometimes they have to fight their own battles and always be an open, caring person for them to talk to. You can't protect them from everything, but you can give them tools to help keep them happier.

Help! My child is being bullied!

Again, teach your child to advocate. Approach the teacher first and let them know what you know. Be as specific as possible. "Little Johnny is making my daughter uncomfortable. He pokes her and pulls her hair. It needs to stop." Don't vaguely state that Little Johnny is bullying your child, say what exactly is going on. The more specific you can be, the better. This part is important. Not all teachers will take action. Make sure you are recording when you talked to the teacher and what was said. Email is perfect for this. If the bullying is still going on, move a level up and seek out a counselor or administrator. The next step after that is the school board. Record everything and be as specific as possible.

Remain calm as you talk to each person. It is hard. Your child is being targeted and it feels horrible. Be firm. Be confident. Hold your head up and demand respect for your child's well being. Screaming and yelling won't get anything done faster, but that might be what you want to do. It's okay to have a strong reaction to your child being targeted. Staying calm will help you remember everything you want to say. If you need to, when speaking to someone in person, bring notes or index cards with important information. There's nothing wrong with having reminders to help you. I go into meetings with notes and you can, too. If you get flustered, take a moment, breathe and begin again. Your child deserves to feel safe and it's okay if you need to take a little longer than intended to ensure that safety.

I've failed. My child is a bully.

You haven't failed. Not all bullies are budding sociopaths bent on tyranny and extra milk money. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, from all types of families. Your child stumbled while learning to walk. They're going to stumble while learning to be a decent human being. Haven't we all?

If you are contacted about your child being a bully, don't go on the defensive. It's okay to be concerned. It's not okay to try to explain it away. Regardless of the reason your child may be bullying others, it does need to stop. If you explain it away to the teacher or administrator, you might start explaining it away to your child and they'll think the behavior is okay. Talk to your child. Impress upon them the importance of empathy. Remind them what it feels like when others are mean to them. Break out that old phrase "treat others as you'd want to be treated!" Just don't brush it off. Don't say "Well, kids will be kids." Yes, kids will be kids, but it is on us to make sure that they grow and develop into decent human beings capable of love and compassion.

The other parents are bullying me!

They probably are. I know people say that middle school is when bullying is the worst, but I'd posit adults are the worst bullies. There are mommy bullies, work bullies, frenemies and more. Hold your head up. Don't get sucked into the drama. It's hard to resist. I know. I've been there. Be a positive example to your child about how one deals with bullies. Be confident and avoid the people who cause the worst stress.

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