Monday, October 17, 2016

Teaching and Learning Math

Two years ago, the North Santiam School District undertook a series of meetings in every school in order to make parents more aware of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Core at that time had a great many critics, and still does, as people have a great many conflicting ideas about what the standards are and what they are trying to accomplish.  These standards were adopted by the vast majority of states, and sought to set a rigorous standard that all states would respond to, in order to improve education and hopefully gain consistency across most if not all schools in the United States, but many teachers and parents saw this as a Federal overreach, with a loss of local control that limited states and local school boards from setting appropriate standards.  The sessions with parents were a revelation, however.  We found that much of the issue was that parents simply did not understand what the CCSS were, and the discussions were great. It was gratifying to have parents confirm to us that they didn't have a problem with high standards--they just wanted to know what it meant for their own children.  They want to understand, so that they can help.

A common theme in every meeting was the difficulty in understanding what our teachers were--and are-- trying to accomplish in the subject of math.  The sense among parents is that their children are often taught multiple processes to solve problems, some of which are counter to the way they learned math. This distressed them, because often when they were helping their students at home they had only their child's statements about how to do it. This tension has been around for years, as knowledge of teaching mathematics has grown. I've experienced it myself as I have helped my own children, only to have them come back the next evening and tell me that many of the answers I'd helped them to arrive at were wrong.

My own math foundation was taught to me in the 1970's, including a couple of teachers in my early grades that had taught my dad in the 1940's. I am inclined to think I received a reasonably good education, but much has changed about our understanding of how people learn math since then.My experience was very drill-oriented, with memorization a very important piece of success. Now, our focus is on students learning a variety of ways to solve problems. A second and very important piece of our math teaching is the emphasis on student discourse (explaining processes verbally to each other). Research in recent years shows that students that are explaining and listening to each other are learning effectively as they do it. This is a huge departure from my own education, where we worked alone, often against long assignments of repetitive problems.

There are many parents who have the assumption that math is black and white, with one right way to do it.  I admit I had that mindset about math (luckily my teaching was in history!). This changed for me when I attended a session at a conference where we were asked to solve simple math problems, then share how we had solved them. I was astounded when people began to share. Even on simple math questions, there were a huge number of adults who had used a variety of methods to solve those problems. This changed my thinking, opening up a world of tremendous complexity in how students learn.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Parent's Role in Sports

I went to Stayton High School on Friday night along with other Stayton High School athletic parents to watch a video about what middle and high school age athletes want from their parents as they engage in sports. The speaker in the video, Bruce Brown, is a successful high school coach who spent many years interviewing student-athletes about their experiences, looking for what they enjoyed and didn't enjoy about their high school sports experience.  Of course I went in thinking that I was the perfectly detached parent, but that it would be of interest as both my boys play various sports. The video, of course, was very well done, and all who attended were able to complete a reflection sheet while they watched. In the course of the video, I have to admit that I spent no small amount of time reflecting on my own expectations of my boys, and will certainly change some things about how I interact with them from now on.

I think the most important thing that Coach Brown said in the video was simply to "Release Your Child to the Sport."  This has tremendous implications for parents. First, it means that their successes and adversity are theirs--and theirs alone. It means that when we talk to our kids about sports, that we don't bring our own expectations to the conversation, and that we support them in the sport and as a part of a team. Coach Brown made a great point when he said that sports is one of the few areas where parents have the freedom to allow this sort of complete freedom. We exercise tremendous influence and some control in their choice of friends, in their grades, in responsibly using their free time. But in sports, it is healthy only if it is theirs.

While Coach Brown introduced several  topics that made me think, one that was particularly worth mentioning is what he says student-athletes want from their parents after games. What they want is time and space. They don't want to re-hash the game with their dad or mom. They want anything else. He had two great stories about this. He told about a girl who had taken a scholarship at a school over a thousand miles from where she lived, despite having several local schools who had offered her scholarships. Her major reason? To get away from a dad who spent hours after each game talking about each play. Another boy ( a great athlete in several sports)  he coached would stay in the locker room long after the other boys had left--until he knew his dad had gone to bed.

So, thanks to Darren Shryock for putting the evening together. I will definitely put some of what I learned to use in the Gardner house, and I'm sure my boys will thank me for it!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

While I am very proud of the focus on instruction that we have in the district, and while it is always rewarding to be in classrooms and see our teaching staff truly working in new and engaging ways with kids, it is always worth remembering what the truly fundamentally important things are.

First, like all people, kids want to know that you care about them as a person. There's an old adage about teaching that goes "I don't care what you know until I know that you care". While education has progressed a great deal in the last few years through great research, people--including students-- by and large remain the same. We simply cannot get anything done with our students until we adopt a positive, welcoming and engaging approach to dealing with students. Parents often talk about the "feel" of a building. While it's not scientific, I agree that it is a real thing. It is the many small messages that people send that signals their attitude, their beliefs, that we all can read and decipher.

The only approach or response to this reality is to make the choice to send positive messages and trust it will pay off. The bamboo plant is a great example. Seeds are watered for over a year, with no growth seen above ground. Then, sudddenly, the plant will sprout and grow many feet in a day. Often  in my career I have stated to teachers that positive relationships must have positive actions and statements, and that it is always the teacher who must make the first step. Teachers, like all people, have absolute control over what comes out of our mouths and the actions we take. We can choose to engage students.  One of our principals once greeted a student every morning for three weeks as they came to school, and got no response from the student. Then the student had an issue and needed help. Who did that student come to? Of course, the student came to the principal.  Sometimes it takes time, but we lose nothing by our positive actions;  it's truly watering the bamboo.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Home Construction and Pathways

Some of the most difficult work we have going right now is the sustaining of our Career-Related Pathways. I guess if it were easy, everyone would just snap their fingers and do it. The work is of course made easier by our very willing and motivated partners, such as Santiam Hospital, Emery and Sons and HP Civil. They help in every way they can. Probably the greatest challenge for  SHS Principal Alan Kirby and myself is the myriad of requirements in each industry's workplace. When we work with home construction, we must labor through all of the challenges of that industry, and then mesh it with our school system requirements. The health care world is literally that; a whole new world with different systems yet again. It is dizzying, to say the least.

And yet it's fun. The idea that we can create in our high schools systems that allow students to learn about careers and actually have experiences in them is a concept that adds great value to our high school students' experience. I can't say enough about our partners.  Bill Martinak in particular is always ready, and gets on the next task immediately. A great person to work with.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The first week of school is always an exciting time for staff, students and families. For me, it always begins with a fast-paced and busy week, as minor adjustments--and some major adjustments--are dealt with in order to get schools into a smooth routine. By the second week, teachers know their students much better, students know their own routine, and we truly get down to learning.

The administrators also now get into their own rhythm, just like teachers and students. That daily routine has changed in the last two years, as we have shifted to a greater focus on classrooms. In the NSSD, we want principals to observe in every teacher's classroom at least once every two weeks. In addition, Assistant Superintendent David Bolin and myself observe classes with all principals at least every two weeks. Last year, when we began this routine, we struggled to keep other needs from intruding on this work, but this year we are now in the second year, and it feels like everyone is more prepared for it.

The work is supported by educational research that says that when it comes to student learning, there are two critical elements that have an impact. The first is the teacher, by far the most important factor. The second and only other significant factor  that impacts students is the administrator. There are many, many aspects of school and building leadership, but we know that to have an impact on student learning, we must be present in classrooms and engage with staff. So, we have made it our number one priority.  By the way, it's not a difficult or unwanted task; once we began to do it last year, we came to realize early on that it was perhaps the most enjoyable part of our week. We got to watch our great teachers, and they were always welcoming to us; perhaps most important is that we regularly were able to be present in the very heart of our work.

Today was the first day of the year when I visited a school. I probably chose to write about this today because of how much I enjoyed it. I observed with Mr. Proctor and Mr. Olson at Stayton Middle and Intermediate, and got to see great teaching and super students in a great school climate.  A very enjoyable visit!