Consistency = Success

This is a parallel story.

Last year, I spent a frustrating year teaching mathematics. Frustrating because, despite what I knew to be good practice, my students’ test results were not stellar. In fact, much of the time, my class averages were below every other class on the team. In the data-driven environment in which we teachers work, that is not a good feeling.

Still, we continued to work consistently addressing standards.

As I prepped to close out the school year, I printed the growth report in mathematics for my students. And here was the surprise: 78% of my students had made high growth! Of the 78%, half were lower achieving, but their growth in Grade 3 had been significant.  If the growth had been high, those consistent teaching practices had been successful.

Now the parallel part of this tale:

This week, I had been feeling pretty low about my fitness and conditioning achievements. I belong to a fabulous gym where the owner, Sherri Sarrouf, and all of the trainers, encourage each member to be the best they can be. This is the most supportive fitness environment I have ever been part of – me, the queen of gym-avoidance; I love going to the gym!

So I emailed Sherri and told her I had a concern that I wasn’t moving forward. And Sherri, being the caring person that she is, wanted to meet with me asap.

Sherri had some data for me too. I had beginning BMI data taken when I first joined the gym. Sherri did a BMI right then and there. I lost pounds, I gained muscle, my metabolic age went down, fat – down. The evidence of success was right in front of me.

I have been consistently going to the gym – mostly because it is so FUN – and the data was there to show I was making progress.

So just like staying the course in mathematics last year, staying the course in my personal life, that consistency, had made a difference. Sometimes growth is subtle.

Consistency = success.

The New Math

It’s been a long, strange journey from where I started as a teacher to the present. I say this because I’ve just finished a month of work with some wonderfully talented third grade teachers on our District’s Common Core Math curriculum maps. When I think back on the way I used to teach, I’m reminded that the “old days” were not always the “good old days”.

When I started teaching elementary school in 1987, math was a matter of following the workbook pages from page 1 to page n.  One day, kids are doing the addition facts for 12, the next day (having mastered addition and subtraction skills, of course), on to subtraction with renaming in 3 places.  No particular mathematical understanding on the part of the teacher – or the students – was necessary. Just do it.

If there is one thing I’d like to ask a former student, it is “how did you survive?”  There is possibly a support group for my former students who either learned to be mathematicians in spite of me or despite my pedagogical “skill”.

One thing I’ve learned about mathematics over time is that there’s a huge difference between the ability to remember and perform the process and the comprehension of the skill. As frustratingly painful as it can be to build understanding over process, as many times as that fragile understanding is undermined by well-intentioned helpers, it is through understanding that students become mathematics thinkers.

Measuring up to the challenge of teaching mathematics, even in elementary school has gone way beyond the ability to eek a 40-minute lesson out of a teachers’ manual.  Teachers need to understand the math themselves and become empathetic to those who cannot do so. It is a heady challenge for one who was considered a math underachiever.

As we educators unpack new Common Core Mathematics standards and uncover what it is that students really need to know in order to understand the mathematics standards, we are challenged to go beyond our old ways of teaching. It it far more important to reach levels of understanding than it is to use up all the pages in a math text.

And that’s a good thing.

The Uncommon Common Core

Our District has a committee is working on unpacking the Common Core for Pre-K to 8 this summer. I volunteered – begged really – to do this and, lucky for me, I am part of the committee.

Even with all of the expertise on this committee, there are struggles as we dig through seemingly simple standards only to discover that it’s more complicated than it appears from the surface.  What will be important at one grade level may not be emphasized (notice I didn’t say it wouldn’t be important) at the next — I have to say that the way these standards are built shows much thoughtfulness into the process of becoming mathematically literate.

Here are some of the pieces that I think are strong:

  • The standards are very specific. It is quite clear what skills and concepts each grade level will be responsible for.
  • There is a place for fluency with computation and it is spelled out explicitly.
  • Topics are explored in depth and students are expected to demonstrate understanding. Rote processes are not going to be enough; if a student is using the standard algorithm (for example), then that students needs to be able to explain how and why that algorithm works.
It is gratifying to see this committee complete the shift begun almost 10 years ago – the shift to thinking in terms of “standards” and not what page of a text is covered.  Finally a curriculum guide that recognizes the expertise of the teacher in choosing the appropriate materials to use when teaching — which doesn’t mean nothing is provided for those who want that support; but it is freeing for those of us who have felt hindered by a particular program or product being used district-wide.
It is going to be a massive undertaking to update guides, update assessments, and provide support for teachers who haven’t had the opportunity to look at these standards in depth.  It is an uncommon opportunity.