Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Losing a Student to Tragedy

Caring about the education of each child who walks into the classroom should be a given for every teacher, but what about students? Should it be expected that each child who enters the classroom cares about the education of every other child in the room?
You know what? Lose the word “expected.” Does this ever happen? Do other teachers encounter students who inherently care about the learning of every other student in the room?

For the first five or six years of my career, I would have easily answered that question with a loud and emphatic no! Students may be willing to help other students, to work in groups, to speak to and disagree respectfully with every other student in the room. But care about their learning? No.

Not, that is, until Parker Archie Moore walked into my ninth-grade Algebra 1 class. At first glance, he looked like the typical alpha male.

 I teach at a junior high with grades 7, 8 and 9. Parker was well known in all three grades, the good-looking, athletic, popular and charismatic kid that girls had crushes on and all athletes looked up to. It seemed he was talented at everything. What I soon learned was that Parker was so much more than talented and could never be defined as anything close to typical. Parker was a special kid.

I first noticed how maturely he carried himself. On the first day of ninth grade, he introduced himself to me and shook my hand, “Mr. Adams, I know we have seen each other around school a lot and joked around in the hallway before, but I wanted to officially introduce myself. I’m Parker.” I laughed and told him to sit down.

Of course, I knew who he was and, of course, he knew me. I first thought he was trying to earn some brownie points with the teacher, or maybe he was an “Eddie Haskell” type student. Boy, was I wrong!

Parker started to distinguish himself as a top student right away. He followed directions to the smallest detail; he listened intently and took notes even when not asked. He ensured the group rules used in my class were being implemented correctly in his group because he trusted me when I said this structure would lead to more learning for him and his classmates.

His work was neat and methodical. He was not afraid to try new things, experiment or admit when he did not know how to solve a problem. But how he interacted with others really set him apart from most students.

With Parker, social circles did not mean much. If he saw someone who did not have a pencil, it did not matter whether they were friends; he would open his binder and give them one of his extra pencils, never expecting to see the pencil again. If someone in his group was confused, he would stop everything to lean over and talk them through whatever they needed. He encouraged others to keep trying because “That’s the only way you are going to learn and get better.” Who is this kid?

One day, I was walking around the room and noticed him writing his number down in another student’s planner. These two were not buddies, did not have the same friends. As a teacher who knows my students fairly well, I knew they were from different worlds. Parker said to him, “If you have trouble tonight, call me. Don’t give up.” Wow.

A similar situation happened later that semester. After class, Parker came up to me and asked if a particular student was attending Want Help Wednesdays, a math help session I held after school for struggling students. I replied no, but I had been trying to encourage him to go. Parker asked, “If I can convince him to stay, can I stay after school, too, and help him? I think he trusts me, and it might help him get over this hump.” Wow.

Parker did persuade him and came to WHW to help him. A few weeks later, Parker again stayed after class to ask me another question, “I seem to be doing pretty well. Do you need some help on Wednesdays after school? Baseball doesn’t start up for another month or two, and I think I could help out while I have the chance.” Wow.

Parker continued to impress me with the generosity of his attention, time, class supplies and smile. His smile was never missing. If he did well on a challenging problem, he smiled. If he struggled, he smiled and took it as an opportunity to get better. If someone in his group struggled, he smiled and offered to help. Parker’s outlook on his life was all about opportunity: the opportunity to learn, play, excel and help others excel.

In discussing the art and philosophy of teaching, I have told colleagues, “I am not here for the ‘A’ students. I am here for the ones who need me most.” I can say with confidence that Parker did not need me to succeed, but I sure needed him. He inspired me to be a better person, teacher and role model.

A few years later, when Parker was a senior in high school, his mom reached out to me about Parker’s college choices. He was debating whether to follow in his sister’s footsteps to Gonzaga or continue his education and football career at Linfield College.
I attended and played football at Linfield, and she wanted my perspective on its size, location, educational quality and the team. This was a no-brainer for me, as Linfield was the best decision I could have made for my college experience. I asked her to send Parker my way.

When Parker came back to my classroom, he filled the room with his smile and greeted me once again with a proper handshake. Only this time, his hand was much bigger and stronger. He sat down and regaled me with stories of his high school classes. The good ones, the tough ones and those he wished he could take again. Not to improve his grade, because he earned an A, but because he felt there was more to learn. Wow.

He asked me if I still had Want Help Wednesdays, and I explained it had expanded into a school-wide program in the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now we have teachers from other content areas, and we help everyone with whatever they need. Parker expressed that he wished our school had that when he was here. When I asked why, he said I bet it would have helped a lot of students in my grade. Wow, again.

Soon we moved the conversation to Linfield College. Why did I choose to go there, and what did I like about it? First, the education one receives at Linfield is hard to match. It is consistently ranked as one of the Top Small Colleges in America and Best Bargains for your money. The community around Linfield is centered on learning. The staff-to-student ratio is one of the best on the West Coast, so you can meet with a professor and not a teacher’s assistant.

Second, the location is great. Living outside Seattle, a four-hour drive to Linfield made weekend trips home do-able, but still far enough away that parents can’t drop in unannounced (smile). Plus, McMinnville is 45 minutes from Portland and Lincoln City. So trips to the city or ocean are close enough for quick getaways.

Third, the football team is more than a team; they are family. The goal of the coaches is to make you a better man first, then a better football player. This philosophy is exemplified by coaches who care about their players, their players’ lives and education. Team, Excellence, Attitude and Class.

I summed everything up for Parker by saying Linfield College is full of students like him, students who care about their learning and the learning of those around them, students who excel in the classroom and athletics.

Parker went home to discuss his choices with his family and consider his priorities. A few days later, I received an e-mail from his mom informing me that Parker had called the coaches at Linfield and committed. The next day, Parker came by my class again. We hugged, and I congratulated him on his choice.

This fall was the start of Parker’s second year at Linfield and his second year on the football team. I attended the homecoming game in October, hoping to watch him play. He had yet to crack the starting rotation but was making a splash on special teams.
In a conversation with someone close to the program, I heard coaches were excited to see what Parker could do in his future at Linfield. Later that evening at a restaurant, I ran into Parker and his mom. I gave him a hug and told him how proud I was of him. I asked him if he was happy with his choice to attend Linfield.

“Yes, I have met so many good people, and I am really enjoying it. I’m a little disappointed I’m not starting yet, but that just means I need to work harder.”
This past Saturday, after Linfield had won its sixth straight conference title, Parker entered the 7-Eleven across the street from Linfield a little after 11 p.m. A local man entered the store and stabbed Parker in the chest. Parker died not long after.

I read the news article on my phone Sunday morning. Shock. Disbelief. Sadness. Denial. Anger. Sorrow. Then again. Shock. Denial. Anger. Sorrow. And again.

I called his mom to offer whatever I could, but what could I do? I called Linfield’s coach, too. I cried.

The past couple of days have been a roller coaster of emotions. I had to leave school Monday because I could not handle being in the classroom where Parker demonstrated incredible humanity for his classmates.

I still remember where he sat. I still remember our conversations. It’s hard to be here. It’s hard to think about going to after-school help on Tuesday and Thursday.
I want to go home and try to sort through this terrible act of evil, but I have to get back into the classroom. I have to be there for the kids who need help, because that’s what Parker would do.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

To Reassess, or Not to Reassess

"If you don't understand what we are doing today, how are you going to be able to handle tomorrow?" That was my rationale for not accepting late work when I first started teaching. I had a no bend policy that I thought would force my students to be more responsible and learn more math.  I wish I could go back and apologize to those students that just needed a little more time, or had legitimate reasons as to why their assignment was not complete but did not want to ask for more time because they knew my strict policy.

It was a conversation with my third Principal in three years that started my migration toward where I am today.  He asked me, "What happens when you are late with your credit card payment?"  I pay a late fee.  "What happens if you do not renew your drivers license in time?" I pay a late fee.  "What happens if you are late to the dentist or doctor?"  I may have to reschedule, but I will still see my dentist or doctor.  "Then why do we expect adolescents to be on time, all the time?"  I had no response.

I reflected on my policy and started to accept late work for some assignments, and I saw students who would often show signs of no hope of learning, feel like they had a chance.  Now I have expanded the number and types of assignments I accept after the due date, but there are expectations and routines attached for which students understand and follow.

Later that year, I had a group of five students in Algebra 1 that entered my class lagging in the requisite knowledge and skills to be successful.  We started a small study group after school to work on numeracy, order of operations, rationale number operations and algebraic reasoning.  We played games, debated solving methods and challenged each other to justify their reasoning.  The growth in these students was only overshadowed by their camaraderie and new love of learning.  They asked if they could retake tests from earlier in the year, not for their grade, but just to prove to themselves that they could now demonstrate understanding.  How could I say no?

The excitement they showed at improving and the growing confidence they portrayed in class, led me to reflect on my, "You need to prepare for the test cause you only get one shot," policy.  I started asking other teachers what they thought about allowing retakes on tests/quizzes.  The responses then were similar to the ones I received on Twitter yesterday. I asked: What are some arguments for NOT allowing students to reassess on tests/quizzes? I'd like to hear all opinions.

Most teachers that replied expressed that they may not necessarily believe the arguments but wanted to provide things that they have heard.

The most popular concerns from teachers starting with most frequent responses:
  • Will students put forth their best effort to be prepared if they can retake?
  • Do retakes prepare them for college/life?
  • Time, includes grading time, time for retakes, time to create multiple versions of an assessment.
  • Are teachers in the department doing the same and if not, then what?
All of these concerns are valid and deserve thought and reflection.  I struggled with them for sometime, but I kept coming back to this question, "Do I care if they (the students) know the material on a Tuesday in October, or do I care if they know it?"  The answer seemed obvious to me, so I started on a path of allowing students to reassess.

When discussing the art of teaching, I find myself saying these words more often than any others.  Structure Creates Behavior.  If a teacher wishes to create a classroom where students can openly discuss and disagree on topics safely, the appropriate structures need to be implemented.  If a teacher wishes to allow students to reassess without the above concerns becoming a problem, appropriate structures need to be implemented.

Below I will try to layout the structures I use, and I hope that other expert teachers will comment below with more structures. 

First, there has to be a "late fee" for not being prepared for the first assessment, similar to the "real-world."  In order to retake an assessment, students in my classes must complete a Retake Review.  These reviews are long enough to require an hour + of work, sentences and justifications.  Once completed, the student brings the review to an after school study hall, another "late fee" of lost free time, and we go over the review together. The student must correct all errors and prove they have a better understanding before being allowed to retake the assessment.  The retake review serves two masters. First, it is another "late fee" for capable students that may have made poor choices, or have extenuating circumstances. The second, it can be the added practice opportunity that struggling learners need to catch up.

Do reassessments prepare our students for college and life?  I'll answer a question with a question.  Do F's in math prepare our students?  Have you ever had a student earn an F and then say, "Oh, I feel more responsible now."?  And as I suggested above, what in real-life has an absolute deadline?  Late fees are the real-life consequence for not paying bills on-time, etc, the review is a late fee.

Time for all of this? I'm not going to lie, it does take more time. Each teacher must make their own decisions on time vs reward.  For me and my students, it's worth it.

Are the teachers in the department on the same page? If I waited for everyone in my department to get behind a good teaching idea before I implemented it, I'd still be sitting at my over-head showing three examples and assigning #1-39 odds.

Structure Creates Behavior.

Why I think, what I think

I probably shouldn't start my first blog post about being a math educator by sharing the fact that I never wanted to be a math teacher, and I am not particularly passionate about math per se.  I am passionate about teaching!  Like many of you, I take my job seriously and pride myself on building a love of learning in my students.

I majored in Middle Level Education: Multiple Subjects, and the requirements for this degree were strenuous to say the least.  I ended up about one class short of a minor in English, History, Physical Education and Art.  The Math and Science requirements were a little easier to obtain. Science required one Biology class and a middle level content test.  Math required less. A middle level content test.  That's right, I have not taken a math class since I was a junior in high school, and I am a math teacher!

"How could that be?" you ask.  My plan was to be an English/Social Studies teacher and hopefully teach a block class where I could engage the kids in large activities around our content. In fact, I thought my weak area after my undergrad was in English, so I enrolled in Grad School and earned an M.Ed with an emphasis in Literacy.  Still no college math.  Teaching math must have been meant to be, as my first job was taking over a classroom in which the teacher's schedule had English, Social Studies, Math and Honors Math all with 7th graders.

My math students performed well under my instruction, I think because I am not a "Math Guy." I did not use a lot of math jargon when introducing topics. We drew a lot of pictures about math because of my art background.  We wrote a lot of sentences about math because of my literacy background, and we debated the pro and cons of methods as I had wanted to do in Social Studies. That was it.  Once the administration finds out you can teach math, that's where you stay.  I have been teaching math now for 10 years, I have written math curriculum and assessments for my district, led PD on Assessing for Learning, led PD on Productive Group Work in Math and served on the Washington Education Transition Team for our current Governor.  All without taking a math class in college.

This fact is hard for some math teachers to know and take me seriously.  That is fine. Don't engage in a conversation with me about teaching because you view yourself as mathematically superior. I'll be over here teaching, learning and improving my craft.

I think math education on the whole is broken. I think the default teaching style in math is why it's broken. I want to learn more about math education and for that, I need the help of expert teachers like you!  I welcome any and all feedback.