Two Lessons From Master Teachers

Every year we scour our standardized test scores wondering what we can do so that our students look as good on paper as they appear when we are assessing them day-to-day.  I hate that standardized testing, in this case MCAS, is considered the measure for success.  I think of some of my colleagues who took the National Teacher’s Exam — does that test still exist — a grueling all-day summative paper assessment by which prospective teachers were judged to be worthy or unworthy of hiring.  People I admired performed poorly on this test — the single measure used to judge employability.  In the same way, I dislike the high-stakes tests that judge our students and judge our teaching effectiveness. Should one measure be the end-all of whether or not students are learning?

Off of the soapbox now, the topic I’m considering is what magical intersection of ideas and conditions will help my students acquire mathematics?  And that’s what this section of the blog is about.

Once upon a time – at least 15 years ago — I was a participant in a summer course designed by Math Solutions and developed by Marilyn Burns.  Marilyn Burns is not only a master mathematician, but she is a master teacher — and unlike other experts/consultants in education, she puts her money where her mouth is: she actually teaches the lessons using the methods she advocates by volunteering in public schools in her area of California.  Right there she had my respect — no theoretical ivory tower.

One of the presenters said something sage that has stayed with me all these years.  When we are shifting the teaching of mathematics, or any topic for that matter, to a more constructive, meaning-based model, it can take up to 5 years for our students to “get it”.  The presenter, whose name has escaped me, told how her school in Texas had adopted using replacement units for basal math texts — unit based on deepening students’ comprehension of mathematics. And while the test scores (remember them?) were disappointing at first, after several years, there was a delightful, vindicative jump showing that students had not only acquired math concepts, but were now flexible in applying them.

Isn’t that what we h0pe for? The current frenzy of testing and accountability of teachers for what students can and cannot show in a single-shot standardized high-stakes test, doesn’t allow us much time for developing a program in a methodical way.  Lesson #1:  Things take time.

The second lesson was an idea planted in my brain by a brilliant and gifted mathematician, Andrew Chen of Edutron.  I had the privilege of being a student in one of Andrew’s Intensive Immersion Institutes, a mathematics class to strengthen/clarify/stretch mathematical thinking for teachers.  Andrew’s words, that our students are just as bright as their suburban and high-achieving counterparts, were like a breath of fresh air.  Generally urban teachers are told either outright or through insinuation, that they can’t be as good as counterparts in less troubled teaching environments — or the students’ test scores would be higher (how insidious is that!).  Here was an MIT mathematician telling us that our students (and teachers) can achieve much, but sometimes other things (socio-economic ills for example), get in the way.  Lesson #2: Don’t give up on students or yourself.

Both of these ideas have been in the back of my mind as I’ve been working with our Math Resource Teacher and Coach to tweak the third grade teaching resources this year.  As we develop materials that work for our kids, we’ll use this space to document some of the things we’ve learned about teaching mathematics in an urban school system.

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