Saturday, September 20, 2014

I'm still here

In the summer, I always forget how insanely busy the school year gets, and how quickly it kicks into gear.  Even now, I'm keeping myself up later than I normally would because I know that blogging (at least once a month) is so important for my reflection with so much going on.

This is my first school year with a baby.  Being a dad in the summer has been awesome -- I just love it and I love my daughter.  Now that reality is back, there is suddenly competition between school, family, and self (things like sleeping and taking a true break at lunch).  Thus far, I like the first two too much, so self hasn't been winning, as I spent the second week of school sick.  I didn't think I was sick enough to stay home (except for the end of the day last Friday where swallowing became incredibly painful with my sore throat and I went home).  That said, I forced myself to get 8-10 hours of sleep / night most of that week and actually recovered, so I actually rebalanced in a time of need.  My wife, a physician assistant, works an irregular schedule with mostly 12-hour shifts.  With lots of work days scheduled in September, it has been hard not getting to see her as much until late at night, but that should improve when she goes to 80% time in October.

The other weird thing this month has been living with my parents or in-laws who generously have driven 4.5 hours across Wisconsin to stay at our house and babysit Josie multiple times.  They have been so helpful with both baby support and helping around the house, so it will be interesting to see what things are like when we are more reliant on daycare and on our own.  Despite all of the help, it still goofs up your rhythm when there are other people living with you, so it might take a while to establish a regular routine.  It also will be interesting to see what happens to the house and yard without family around as we try to survive the fall.  Thankfully grass stops growing so much around this time of year...

I was taking Justin Lanier's Math Is Personal online course as we ended the summer.  I feel awful for committing to it when an end of summer trip and the start of workshop week at school completely stole my time away and led to an early dropping-off.  Twitter has been mostly abandoned except for responding to at-tweets and posting out an occasional thought with my free hand while bottle feeding Josie.  I haven't read any blogs since the year started until tonight, and even now only made it through most of my must-reads.  I personally haven't written a post in about a month until now.  I know my participation in this community is incredibly valuable for me, yet it has taken a major backseat.  My only wins here have been already implementing a few new ideas for Stats from Paula and Anthony with my eye always open for more.

Stats has been my metaphorical baby since I took it from my mentor teacher Rob during my student teaching 3 years ago.  This year, Rob was willing to try teaching a section of Stats with the new curriculum I've been (and still am) redesigning.  This is the first time someone has ever taught with curriculum of my design without me in the classroom, so it is both incredibly exciting and a bit terrifying (I don't exactly design for exportability like a textbook company).  We chat almost every day at lunch between my 2nd block class and his 3BC block class about how things are going, how we explain different concepts, and the big ideas behind things.  We share resources constantly.  Rob yells at me when I make up new things the night before and forget to mention it to him.  It's great.  That said, I'm most excited for the end of the semester when Rob (an excellent reflector) can look back with me and discuss the big ideas of the course and how effective or ineffective the design was in teaching those ideas.

In the first unit, I used almost all recycled material from the past two semesters (this is a highly unusual must finally be getting fairly good!).  However, I ripped out two sections that got moved to other parts of the course and replaced them with a project to collect data and design an infographic to tell the story of their results.  Most groups were out collecting their data on their hybrid (work from home) day Friday or on their own time over the weekend, so we get into the meat of the project work Monday.  I intend to show no mercy to bad posters -- my grading reflects a growth mindset of revision, so somehow I feel like I have a license to give feedback like they're college design students.  Hopefully the groups understand that I can have high expectations, they can learn a lot, AND they can earn a strong grade for their efforts, even if it takes a few iterations.

I am also part-way into designing a completely new unit sketched in an earlier post.  The plan is still to teach hypothesis testing and culminate in a debate for the best method to do statistical decision making.  One of my math co-workers, Jen, also happens to be an English teacher and formally teaches speech and debate, so I will continue to bug her as I structure the details of this.  She has already suggested breaking the debate into a few smaller debates, such as a day for the "best way to teach hypothesis testing" and a day for "the best way to do hypothesis testing in practice", since they may have different opinions.  As for the content, I am going to start with a basic introduction to hypothesis testing using StatKey for all calculations (randomization test) to keep it simple.  Then I will teach normal curve calculations, the central limit theorem, confidence interval calculations via the normal curve (and its associated assumptions), and finally p-value calculations via the normal curve.  This sandwiches the material in the big idea while providing enough scaffolding to get into inference calculations with the normal curve as a model.  I'm feeling optimistic about it, except that it needs to be done in a week and I hardly have homework or videos yet.  Don't expect another blog post for a while :(

This class has been a bit of a surprise for me -- I didn't think I would get so into it.  Both Jen and Rob have sections during other periods of the day and we're constantly dialoging about the class.  Rob has been experimenting with a mastery approach to quizzes while maintaining a single-shot test as we've always done.  Jen has been pouring her efforts into applications, examples of Geometry outside the classroom, and interactive activities.  I've been investing my time into content simplification, boiling the material to its essential elements for the most straightforward explanation.  We finished our first unit test on Wednesday.  Rob and I in particular have been frustrated that our results have been so poor given all of the effort we have invested, but we both had great discussions with our classes and we're both continuing generally down the same paths we have been on.  My students had a few ideas, some conflicting, but the one that stood out the most to me was a request for harder homework.  My big goal for the upcoming sections is to pick out a small number of very challenging problems that students can work on together in class.  I think my next step to implementing these well is to get more whiteboards around the room.  I teach in Jen's classroom, but I think she would be on-board if I showed up with a big stack of pre-cut tile-board Monday.

As a team, we have also been changing our common assessments to make them shorter, more focused on essentials, and clearer to students.  We also clarified a policy on bringing notes into the test that is slightly more liberal than I previously interpreted our policy.  The purpose is to avoid a focus on memorization of non-essential elements and practice higher-order application.  The discussions are long and philosophical, but very powerful in deciding what we really care about teaching to our students.

Independent Math:
This is a class where students use the ALEKS software in a computer lab to work through Algebra 2 topics at their own pace.  One of the major evolutions of this class started a couple years ago when we stopped requiring a certain number of topics to be completed each day (5) and switched to a weekly number.  This was then tweaked to have different targets depending on overall progress, since topics were much easier at the beginning than they were at the end.  Eventually, we had the ability to offer work-at-home (hybrid) days to juniors and seniors who showed exceptional progress.  This class is extrinsic motivation at its best, and I hate that aspect, but can't get over how well it works.  Depending on their current total progress, most students have been completing about 35 topics each week, either to avoid extra work time assigned over lunch or to earn days off the following week (it is particularly nice that the class is at the end of the day).  ALEKS usually doesn't let students "complete" something unless they can correctly do problems 2-3 times in a row, and every Monday recent learning is reassessed, so students are held accountable to actually learning the material.  Rob Newshutz, a second-career-teacher-in-training is student teaching with me during this period.  Together, we can tutor many more students and offer occasional direct instruction on common mistakes or concepts.  It has been awesome working with him.

Student teacher:
Speaking of Rob N., it has been an interesting year having a student teacher.  It seemed strange that I was going to teach someone who is my dad's age, but I realized quickly that it isn't what I do.  Instead, I get to co-reflect each day with someone else who is trying to figure out how to teach math to young people.  I ask Rob all kinds of questions, and then I walk away and ask myself the same questions.  I realize that I don't have answers for most of them.  My big question about everything is WHY.  WHY are you doing that?  WHY does this added value to student learning, and how do you know?  It helps me get back in the rapid-learning mode that I was in when I was a student teacher which has been awesome.  Also Rob happens to know a frightening amount about math and software engineering, so I get to learn things every day on the content side just through conversation.  I've learned so much in three weeks already.

5th grade PBL pilot:
Over a year ago, I went to a seminar on split screen innovation with a few coworkers.  The idea was to have classrooms, or entire schools, in a district with completely novel approaches to teaching so that there was constant, deep, internal innovation in teaching and learning.  I was super excited and wanted to do anything I could to bring cross-disciplinary project based learning into our district.  Thanks to a grant opportunity with the state, our district started a pilot in 5th grade where two interested teachers switched grades and started a fully project-based curriculum together.  I have been able to be involved with some of the planning early on, but during the year, I wanted to stay involved without taking time away from my own classes or my family.  I requested to make working with assessment a duty assignment for me for the year (also piloting a different approach to duty assignment).  Though my bosses didn't consider it the ideal solution, I was granted my request for the year.  I am now working with my student assistant during my prep period to create mastery-oriented assessments that will be connected to the MasteryConnect software.  Students will be able to take short quizzes on their iPads and know roughly where they are at with material.  Teachers can also fill out simple rubrics and pour the results directly into the system, so it is more than just multiple choice.  We will try rolling out the first attempts with this starting with math this week.

Digital Learning Coach
I loved being a DLC the last two years, but I REALLY love having fewer meetings to attend every month and no paperwork (okay Google Docs work) to account for teacher progress on technology goals.  As much as I miss this job, I appreciate the extra time I now have to focus on my students and my family.

This season, we're getting everything moving much sooner and in a much more focused manner than we have in the past.  When we created the team two seasons ago, I started out mentoring with one other person.  By the end of the season, we picked up a small core of parents who joined us.  Two years later, before the season is even starting, we have eight adult mentors committed to leading along with me.  I am transforming my role away from the direct teaching and supervising of kids to serving our adult mentors and newly elected student leaders (something we didn't really have a year ago) so they can teach and support everyone else.  We have plenty of capable brains and bodies, so I need to make sure everyone is being utilized effectively.

One component of this is our new Leveling / training system.  Each sub-team, led by their adult mentors and elected student leader, will put on training events for missions in their area.  Everyone on the team will receive level 1 and 2 training as soon as possible to make sure everyone is brought into the team culture and knows enough of the basics to jump in and be helpful at any point during the build season.  In the past, too many people didn't understand very much and were either bored, misbehaving, or frustrated that they were unable to participate.  I hope the structure of the sub-teams and the very specific checklist-nature of the missions and levels will help us get past that.

Our biggest struggle is programming.  After lots of early problems with LabView and C++, we are comfortable enough to make the jump to the most common language, Java.  In addition to a new language, we are going to try to adopt the common "Command-based" framework for structuring our code.  Besides a high bar of complexity that makes it hard for students and mentors to learn, it is impossible (as far as I know) to test code without a robotic electrical system to play with (of which we have only one assembled and working and we rely on this one for our main robot).  Thus, as a programmer by training I am working with a couple students to try to figure this whole thing out before our preseason competition in early October.  Making progress...

Well, I guess there is a lot going on.  I'm glad I finally wrote most of it down.  Maybe if I do this in smaller but more frequent chunks I won't have to write a small novel!