Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Math Literacy

An article in the Washington Post this morning got me thinking about how we teach reading and how we teach math. It seems to me that we've made gigantic strides in our teaching of language arts (reading, writing, word study) in recent years. There are phenomenal professional books out there, many of them written by classroom teachers, or individuals who only recently left the classroom. There are some good professional books about math, but they are fewer and often written by large groups of professors or others removed from elementary classrooms.

We've got a lot to learn about teaching math.

Virginia Commonwealth University math professor William E. Haver, who is involved in the partnership, said elementary teachers need to know far more than the standard curriculum. With a depth of knowledge, teachers can help children understand relationships between numbers and solve problems in different ways. Without it, teachers often rely on memorization and aren't well-equipped to help struggling students.

"Elementary math isn't elementary," Haver said. "There are a lot of deep ideas there. Usually, if a child doesn't get the right answer, there's a fair amount of good thinking along the way, but it got astray at some point. If you can pinpoint that problem, you're better off."

I think this is a bigger problem than just our schools. Our society has math phobia issues. It's acceptable to be bad at math and to hate math. Saying the same thing about reading is taboo. It seems unlikely that we'll manage major change in education without similar change in society.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

To Grade or Not To Grade

It's the end of the second quarter for us. That makes it my least favorite time each quarter. Most elementary school teachers in my district will tell you that report card time stinks because it requires bubbling grades in eight content areas (an academic grade and an effort grade) and ten word study areas. Then comments also have to be bubbled in. It is very time consuming and mind numbing.

I, however, hate it with an even greater passion. I can't figure out why I'm doing it (aside from the fact that I'm required to as a part of my job). What is the purpose of these grades? My husband, a college professor, firmly believes that grades are what motivates his students to do the work. He's probably right. But, I think it's true because we've trained kids with that motivation. I want my fifth graders to work because they want to learn, not because I'm going to judge them.

Another argument is that we use report cards to communicate with parents. Again, probably true. But, does a report card really communicate effectively? Telling a parent that their child earned a B in math with a G (good) for effort doesn't really say much. It doesn't let them know that the student excelled in geometry that quarter, but is still struggling to understand how to multiply and divide with decimals. It does a much better job of ranking students and making it easy to compare them to one another.

I would much rather spend two or three times as long on a more effective mode of communication for parents than to use a report card. I'd rather have to work even harder to make my lessons engaging and relevant to my students than to expect them to do the work in the hope of earning an A. One of my goals as a teacher is that my students love to learn. I think grades are in conflict with that goal.

(I think I'm in the minority in this area and I'd love to hear others' thoughts.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Do as We Say and as We Do

I've been thinking a lot lately about one of the main reasons I love my school: the collaboration. Teachers here are always talking to one another and working together to improve their teaching practices and find new ways to help students. It occurs to me that we are modeling what we expect from our students. We often have our students work together to solve problems and to deepen their understanding and we work with them to make those collaborations effective. It's wonderful to be able to do the same.

My reflections on this are more elaborate at my most recent post on In Practice.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

During a meeting yesterday I warned a friend of mine that blogging about a meeting during it is like calling someone when you're drunk. I'm no longer in the meeting I feel a need to blog about, but it may still be too soon. However, blogging is cathartic for me so I'm moving forward with this even if I may say things I'll regret later.

I spent two hours today in a local screening meeting. We were discussing a student who has been at our school since head start. He's been on our radar as a student we are concerned about since at least first grade. He's very, very bright. I think that is actually part of the problem. Academically he is fine, as a result we feel like we're doing our job as a school. However, he has significant issues with social interactions. He frequently says things that are offensive, hurtful, even cruel. He does not understand that people are hurt by him. Many of us have been concerned that if he does not get help he will have serious problems in the future. We've been trying to get his mom to get counseling for him and/or the family. I firmly believe that he needs counseling and we will keep doing all we can to push for this.

This child is not easy to label. If he were we'd have dealt with this years ago. We discussed a wide range of possible ways to serve this child with an appropriate label: autism, emotional disabilities, or other health impairment. None seemed to fit. I'm fine with that. I don't feel a need to slap labels on students all willy-nilly. What matters the most to me is that we help students. I don't feel that I can give this child all he needs on my own. We kept returning to the idea of counseling. Again, I think that is critically important for this student.

But...I finally got so frustrated with the whole situation (he's in 5th grade, we can't keep waffling!), I gave a little speech.
In the past, when I've come to local screening, my goal has been to get a label for a child. This has nothing to do with our school. We will get kids what they need no matter what label they have, it's what we do. When I want a label for a child it's because I want to know that if they move or when they head off to middle school they will still get the services and accommodations they need in order to learn. I feel just the opposite with this kid. I don't care what label he does or doesn't have, I care that we figure out how to help him. I'm afraid that what we'll do is say that he doesn't fit any category, he needs counseling which his family needs to deal with, and therefore we wash our hands of this.
I don't normally do this sort of thing. In ten years I've been through a lot of local screening meetings. I've never felt a need to preach to the committee. I was close to tears today. In the end, I think we're going to create a 504 plan for this child (similar to an Individualized Education Plan but probably more appropriate for him). That's fine. But I'm still unclear on how we're going to help him. Maybe next week's meeting will answer that question for me.

By the way, it probably goes without saying, but this is a great kid. For all of the difficulties and challenges we face (he and his teachers) he has many wonderful qualities.