Continuous Improvement

How do teachers improve their practice? This is a question I have been asking for my entire career (over 25 years). During the past year, I was involved with a group of high school teachers, coaches, administrators, and researchers working on how to scientifically study how to improve. In our case, the focus was on improving student engagement, specifically in Algebra 1. Since this is seen as such a gateway into high school mathematics, if we cannot help students to engage, we are narrowing their future opportunities. So we tried this new (to me) approach called a PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act). You set a goal, decide how you will measure your progress toward the goal, make some predictions, collect the data and analyze it, then revise. These are meant to happen in short cycles, 1 to 2 weeks.

What did we do?

My small group focused on student communication. Students often seem reluctant to share their thinking, so we devised a protocol called “Structured Math Talk” during which students were given a task to work on individually for a few minutes and then turn and talk with a partner. The partner talk was by turn and timed. One partner talked and the other listened and then they switched. This is our first PDSA form. It turned out to be quite challenging to gather this data. We were teaching under different circumstances: some of us had 55 minute classes that met every day, some had 80 minute classes that met every other day, and others had 90 minute classes that met every day. Trying to figure out the right amount of time that constituted that 1 to 2 week cycle was a challenge. (Plus, I often forgot to have students complete the exit slips.) But, it was clear that our students were compliant. We asked them to talk about math and they did. We were concerned, however, that they were only talking to each other because of the structure we imposed. Would they continue to share their thinking with each other even when we weren’t watching? This was our revision for PDSA cycle 2.

Our data was showing so much success that we questioned our entire process. Are we asking the right questions on the exit slip? Do our students understand the questions on the exit slip?  Are we using the right kinds of tasks? Are we asking our students to engage in meaningful mathematics? So, we paused. We went to the ATMNE 2015 Fall Conference together. We read. We learned. We regrouped and refocused on the idea of productive struggle. That would feed the conversations, get our students to persevere, and push us to make sure that we were providing meaningful mathematical tasks.

What did I learn from this experience?

  • It’s difficult to document the small adjustments that teachers make every day, all the time. It’s difficult to be scientific about those small changes that happen in the moment. It’s important to develop a mindset of doing this, however, because that is how we can help each other improve.
  • I’m not sure we were asking the right questions. Not the right question to study, not the right questions of our students, and not the right questions to help us learn.
  • My students are generally willing to engage in whatever task I throw at them. It was never a problem for me to get them to talk to each other or to try something that they had never done before.
  • This process is an adaptation of Edward Deming‘s process cycle. My brother has done this work for 30+ years and is an expert in Lean management techniques.

What’s next?

The small group has expanded and we’re now known as the Better Math Teaching Network. Our first meeting is in July, a 4-day institute where I hope to share my new learning with others and learn better techniques for meaningful data collection. The trick, I think, will be to ask the right questions.

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2nd Annual STEM College Fair

college fair

Yesterday afternoon we hosted our second annual STEM College Fair. Last year we had representatives from five colleges and universities, mostly from Maine, come visit our school and talk with our students. This year there were sixteen reps from all over New England, large schools and small, liberal arts and technical, private and public, thanks to our amazing guidance colleagues.

The representatives had an opportunity to tour the building and eat lunch with some of our students, Baxter Ambassadors, who engaged in lively conversations about why they came to Baxter Academy and how they hope to continue their education beyond Baxter. After lunch there were some panel discussions that focused on the application process, what it’s like to study a STEM field at a liberal arts school, the benefits of attending a community college, how project-based learning connects to research, and what studying engineering at college is really about.  During the last hour of school, the fair was up and running with students in grades 9-11 (the 12th graders are pretty well set) roaming from table to table learning about what makes each program unique or special.

I’d like to think that in visiting our school, these reps learned what makes Baxter Academy unique and special.

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“That’s a Big Twinkie”

You know the quote. You can watch the clip.
twinkie

Yesterday I brought a box of Twinkies to class so my students could check Egon’s math. They measured twinkie dimensions and borrowed scales from the science lab. They made the classic error of not paying attention to units. And they argued – consulted – with one another. They didn’t quite finish during class yesterday. I predict that they will be somewhat surprised by the results.

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Crunch Time

May is an important time in the life of Flex Friday. It’s crunch time. Time for groups to figure out how much of their original project proposal they will be able to complete. With four Friday’s of work time left, what needs to get done and how will they make that happen?

One of the groups that I supervise on Friday’s was particularly productive this morning. Their project involves a lot of design and engineering. But they’re 9th graders, so it also involves a lot of trial and error.

Last week they realized that using the big white board in my room to brainstorm and design and share their thinking with each other really helps a lot. That’s progress.

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The Grant

So we got this grant. It’s big, for us anyway. And it’s a federal grant. We’ve tried for three years to get a federal grant and finally, we got one. We never had any start-up funds. We just jumped in and did it. What did we get this grant for? For everything that we’ve been trying to do and have to do anyway. Nice, right? It is. Really.

My part of the grant is to look at “Anytime, Anywhere” learning, streamline it, organize it, find ways to link our standards to it, and talk to the folks who are looking for ways to track it. This includes our snow day learning, Flex Friday, and alternative course work. And I get to work with a really awesome colleague to do this. Meanwhile, others will be working on dual-enrollment college courses, community service, and internships.

Because learning isn’t confined to the classroom. And learning math doesn’t have to happen in a math classroom from a math teacher. Learning how to write can happen in science class, because they are taught how to write in science class. We are working to be flexible because we are competency based. And that means that we look at evidence of what the student knows, not who the student learned from. Learning is organic and holistic.

So look for future posts about the progress of our Anytime, Anywhere learning curriculum development. It’s going to be quite a ride.

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What a day …

It was one of those days, like so many other days, when there wasn’t a moment to breathe and so much was pulling me in so many different directions. Today was the “official” Teacher Appreciation Day, according to the Google doodle, anyway. Yesterday was the day that we had bagels and I received some notes from kids and parents. Today was just hectic and crazy. Plus, we’re having a spirit week. You know, when kids (and teachers) are supposed to dress according to different themes every day and you pit classes against each other in “friendly” competition to earn meaningless “pride” points. Each morning my job is to record who is present in my Advisory and who dressed up. I predict that we come in tied for last. So far, we’ve earned 0 points, and I’m so okay with that. Can you tell I’m not a fan?

After all of this – the teaching, the lunch meeting, the guidance meeting (where I at least got to decompress a bit), the writing emails to parents, the updating RTI plans – today’s after school meeting is in content areas. That means that I get to talk about math & math teaching with a few really cool people. We’re trying to finalize our courses for next year so that we can have kids sign up. (I know, you probably did that at your school in February.) We’re still working out the kinks as we iron out issues with our proficiency-based, student-centered, balance between high demand and access for all. But that’s the good work, the work we not only need to do, but the work I signed up to do. And I am lucky that I get to do that work with good people.

So, happy Teacher Appreciation Day to all of you in the #MTBoS and beyond who keep doing this work for your students. And who every once in a while challenge me to connect with you. Thank you. I truly appreciate it.

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Classroom arguing

Today and last Thursday the same group of students was arguing with each other about the math they were learning. On Thursday, they stayed about 5 minutes into lunch to finish their argument. It was fun to listen to. They were so engaged and talking math and refining their understanding. Eventually, today, they called me over to hear their arguments and clarify any misunderstandings. Here’s the beginning of the exchange:

S1: “Let me ask you this, Pam …”

S2: “No don’t ask her that, you’ll just confuse her.”

S1: “Let me ask. She’s a teacher with a lot more experience with this stuff than we have. I bet she won’t get confused.”

My students make me smile.

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