Cultivating Mathematicians When You Aren't One

Saturday, August 29, 2015 / 3 comments

After writing my inaugural blog post, A First Grade Teacher Enters The Math World, I have spent some time searching for and thinking about mathematical leaders to follow in the primary grades.  It is easy to find leaders at the high school and middle school levels, and I have come across many in the elementary level, but there are far fewer who really specialize in the primary grades, at least far fewer who are vocal and make themselves accessible in online learning communities like Twitter.  Of course, I have learned so much from these higher grade teachers and leaders and for that I am so grateful, but sometimes it would be nice to be in touch with others who are working out the exact same things that I am.  (Like right now in my room, my goal is to get my kids talking.  It's tough at the beginning of the year!  I just passed off all of my near perfectly trained mathematical conversationalists to the second grade team.  You're welcome second grade!)  

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A First Grade Teacher Enters the Math World

Sunday, August 16, 2015 / 18 comments

  My name is Jamie Duncan and I am a first grade teacher in southern California. 

 I have been teaching for about 14 years, all of which have been spent in kindergarten through second grade.  The last 8 years have been in first grade.  I’ve been reading some tweets about us elementary folk being left out of the math loop, and it is true for many, so I thought I would weigh in and share my journey.
As most primary teachers, I have spent most of my efforts on language arts.  I think many would agree that the importance of literacy math in the early years of school.  It makes sense, right?  Kids need to be able to read to be able to do any other subject area?  It made sense to me at the time so that is why I put all my effort into being the best reading and writing teacher that I could be.  This worked out well for me as I didn’t have a “key to the country club.”  That is how Dan Meyer described students or people who “get math.”  I was locked out of the country club.  Nobody gave me a point of access.  Don’t get me wrong, I did my best to teach math as well.  I did what they taught me in school: I do, we do, you do and used manipulatives (all the good teachers used those) that I chose for my students because I thought they made sense or that’s what the curriculum company told me I should use.  Most kids got the answer this way, right?  They must understand it, right? Then common core came along, and along with it came performance tasks.  My kids could get the multiple choice items correct and some of the constructed response, but they bombed the performance task portion of the assessments.  What the heck was I going to do?  Oh don’t worry…  I can reteach it!  While I’m teaching new standards as well, no problem…  I don’t have to spell that out for you do I?  Please say no.
Sometime after Christmas break during a staff meeting our principal introduces Ryan Dent to the staff.  He is saying all kinds of crazy stuff like I do, we do, you do is backwards!  Seriously?  How are my little first graders supposed to come in and teach each other math they haven’t even learned yet?  He wants teachers to talk as little as possible and the kids to do nothing but talk?!  Classroom management nightmare, right?  This guy is nuts… but he is really passionate… Then something weird happens, I go to a training at the county office and someone else (who I know is not crazy)   says the same thing.  I guess I better learn a little bit more about it.
Later in the spring I attend my first Standards of Mathematical Practice training offered by Ryan and Kristian Quiocho at my district office.  I don’t know how else to explain the training other than it was like a giant epiphany.  A huge Aha!  Now it all makes sense.  I see it now.  It will take getting used to, but I get it.  
After the training I start trying out some of what I learned.  Success after success.  I guess these guys are on to something.  Later in the year they announce that our district is going to write our own math modules, but they want teachers from each grade level to come together and write tasks.  I figure, this is new for me, but I know I will learn a lot so I do it with another first grade teacher and we work ALL SUMMER, and by all summer I mean from the day school gets out until we went back.  We both felt like we had gone to college for the summer.
When school began I decided there was no better way than to dive in.  I gave students tasks, I watched them struggle (NOT RESCUING THEM WAS EXCRUCIATING), I used samples of their own work, students explained and critiqued the work of others, they made connections, they talked to each other about math, they wrote about math in their math journals.  I decided to use the same assessment I had used the year before to compare data.  This is what happened:

(3 is high, 1 is low)
They must have gotten lucky, but then this happened...

Seriously?  I went to college.  I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and took more classes after that and my kids are better teachers than I am???  My students learn better when I hardly say anything at all???  How are my kids able to figure out how to do this math without me telling them how to do it?  Then it hit me.  It was that thing Ryan and Kristian shared at our SMP training only maybe I wasn’t quite ready to fully understand it yet…  It was problem solving.  My kids can problem solve.  What is problem solving?  Simply put, problem solving is what you do when you don’t know what to do.
What was I doing while the kids are running the show?  I give them a task, I listen for common misconceptions, I choose work samples to fuel discussions, 

and I do my best to ask probing questions that focus on conceptual understanding.  (It’s easier to funnel them into the answer.)  As Phil Daro would say, “What is the math they need to learn here?”  I worked with my co-module writer to train other first grade teachers in our district on using the modules.  It was exciting to see other teachers open up and try teaching math this way.  It was even more exciting to read about their success in emails.
Then, I started to get more and more into math.  I watched this talk by Dan Meyer:  Hello integrating multi-media, real world tasks, 3 acts!  I loved it and was totally inspired to try some myself.  Ryan introduced me to Graham Fletcher’s tasks for elementary.  Thank you very much!

After all of this I begged my district to go to NCTM’s national conference in Boston.  For some reason, they said yes.  My district sent 3 of us to represent our district.  I was representing K-2, Ryan was 3-8, and Chris was 9-12.  (Both Ryan and Chris’s mathematical intelligence intimidates me, but I have made peace with that and I choose to look at it this way.  I am the lucky one, because I get to grow the most.)   I couldn’t believe it!  I was so shocked… and thankful…  and humbled…  and a little scared…  Teachers don’t often (next to never) get to go to conferences out of state!  I truly wanted to learn as much as I could and then use what I learned to help better any teacher willing to listen.  While I was there I was given the opportunity to learn from the very best.  I went to sessions by Phil Daro , Jason Zimba, William McCallum, Dan Meyer (I took a pic with him!  There was a line!  I’m not kidding.  Math nerds unite at NCTM), 
Marilyn Burns, Sherry Parrish, Ruth Parker, Karen Karpe, and Maria Blanton.  Not only were the presenters amazing to learn from, but I got to meet other professionals like Steve Wyborney who is just amazing.  All in all, it was phenomenal.  I wish I could share every last detail of the training with people, but it’s exactly how Dan Meyer describes math class in the beginning of Math Class Needs a Makeover.  (see video link above)  Our math team (Ryan, Chris and myself) took back the message that we had received at NCTM and reported to the district and used that learning to plan future professional development for our teachers.  I am soooooo looking forward to these!
I couldn’t be more pleased with the growth my students made last year.  They are my math superheros.  They taught me so much!  This year my group of students is very different.  My room is now the inclusive classroom in first grade and it’s more homogeneous, at least at the moment.  My math goal as of right now is to focus on meeting these kids where they are right now.  At NCTM Jason Zimba said, “Don’t let the standards be handcuffs for the children placed in front of you.”  So I’m not.  I’m also setting a goal to really work on my questioning technique with a strong emphasis on conceptual understanding.
As far as Literacy mathematics, I can’t say I agree anymore.  Yes, students need to be able to read to do just about everything else, but they also have to use reasoning skills.  They need to be able to choose tools to solve problems in and outside of a mathematical context.    They need to be able to analyze and critique the reasoning of others to help make decisions for themselves.  In the real world, people are not going to spoon feed them and give them everything they need.  They are going to have to problem solve.  Why not start cultivating this when kids are little?

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