Our school had a day off on Friday (and a day off today as well) for a long fall weekend. We were asked by the powers that be to use Friday for professional development. I chose to drive a couple of hours in the morning to go visit another school. When I did my last job search in the early months of 2010 there were a number of schools that caught my eye and the school I visited on Friday was one of them. The chair there was remarkably kind and helpful in setting up a too short visit that morning. Since I had kid pick up duty that day AND we had agreed to house sit for some friends to look after their dog AND my boy had an ice skating birthday party to go to (there is a theme here about how life unfolds in the dardy household) I did not have quite the leisure I had hoped for. I arrived at 8:30 ish for a warm, quick chat with my host, I saw a Geometry class, then I saw a Precalculus class, then I saw an AP Stats class. A nice follow up chat and lunch with the chair, then I was off to home.
I always enjoy seeing classes – it is a part of my job as a chair that unfortunately gets buried under other tasks. It is fun to pick up tricks from other teachers. In this case, the geometry teacher had a lovely way to highlight parts of the parallel line with transversals problems that they were working with that morning. She had spools of different color tape that looked like athletic trainer tape. She pulled off two of one color to highlight which lines in the diagram were parallel to each other and a different color for the transversal. It was SO COOL to see this way of making the relevant information in the diagram just pop out to the kids. It was also fun to see her improvise. The kids were checking their work from the night before and were having disagreements about measures they had taken. Out the window went the lesson plan for the day and out came a class set of protractors so that they could practice with their measuring skills. The teacher confided in me that some of her attitude about this was strongly influenced by her husband who is a woodworker. In the AP Stats class I was privileged to watch someone who was a real, honest to goodness statistician before entering the classroom. As a stats novice myself, it was great to chat with her beforehand and to watch her in action. I think that she convinced me to try an activity that has been previously pretty intimidating to me. The precalc class was fun to watch as well as the kids were hanging in there working through some complex polynomial graphing ideas.
I know that I have a tendency to look at my world and see the potential for excellence in the people around me. I know that I focus at times on what is not quite right instead of celebrating what is right. A visit like this worked wonders for me on a number of fronts.
1. It’s always great to reach out to more people to bounce ideas off of
2. It’s fun to watch kids at work – especially when I have no preconceived notions of who they are or what they SHOULD be doing
3. It’s rewarding to talk to others who are working through some of the very same struggles. How do we accurately place test kids who are new to a school? How do we balance ambitions for kids with their abilities and previous track record of achievement? How do we find TIME in the school day/week/year for meaningful problem-solving while still serving an ever expanding curriculum? The chair I met with is thoughtful, experienced, and intelligent. The fact that she is struggling with these questions as well makes me feel better.
I’m proud of my school, our students, and my colleagues. I believe that we can all be better than we are but I want to try and focus on what we’re doing right and I think that this experience on Friday can help me with that.
A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Ajna S Greer summer conference at the Phillips Exeter Academy. In addition to great mini courses, terrific connections, lovely food and drink, and just general all around wonderfulness there I was exposed to their Harkness table teaching. I had long struggled with the traditional rows and desks layout of my classroom and I remembered how I would utilize it as a way to hide as a student. Being relatively small in stature I was able to disappear into the classroom seating arrangement when I did not want to be engaged in class. As a teacher I want to avoid that. At my last school our desks were very moveable and I played around with a ‘pod’ system in my classes. The girls took to this system (it was a single gender school) and they took a certain amount of ‘pod pride’ in their group work. I played with group quizzes and I was feeling like I was moving forward as a teacher. I still found myself a bit frustrated by the lack of whole group interactions. I came to my current school in the fall of 2010 and inherited older desks that were not so flexible in their use. So, I prowled around campus looking for solutions and I found some old library tables that were sitting in a storage room on campus. My boss got our maintenance drew to help and over christmas break I removed all individual desks from my room replacing them with six rectangular tables. When my students returned they were taken aback by this new set up and by the new classroom behavior expectations I put before them. I simply asked them. I told them that it was understandable if I was the person who talked the most in class – not always desirable, but understandable – but my challenge to them was to make sure that my voice was not heard more than 50% of the time. I wanted them to talk to each other. I wanted them to toss out ideas and questions. I want them to interrupt me and to share their ideas. I want them NOT to interrupt each other when ideas are being voiced. In general, I wanted them to be active participants in the classroom not passive vessels waiting to be filled. I am the only math teacher in my school who has a room set up this way so when they get to me there is a learning curve. I encounter a number of different situations as they learn how to be a student in my class. There are social conversations occurring. More of them than there used to be. I wish that there were fewer of them, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay. There are students who are not sure enough of their ideas to share them with the class. So they try them out on their neighbors instead. I try hard to listen and pull those ideas out and toss them to the crowd. There are students who are distracted by their neighbors and want to just focus on me. I try to move people around so that this effect is minimized. The physical layout of my room means that some students have to turn around to see certain boards. I don’t know how to fix that and I am not sure it is a critical problem. Some students monopolize the class conversation. This used to happen anyway. I think that now I at least have the benefit of students making eye contact with each other. It is easier to listen to your classmate if you are not staring at the back of her head. Some students are quiet and more shy. I get that. I watched the TED Talk from Susan Cain about introverts. In fact, I shared it with my class and talked about the impact of the classroom set up. We had a great conversation about it. I know it’s not a perfect setup for everyone but I also hear back from my students that this setup has helped them put their own voice to their mathematical ideas. I have had students tell me that before my class they thought that their job as a math student was to know how to use certain formulas and know when to use them. After my class, I hope that they have a larger view of their job in the classroom. There is a learning curve at the beginning of each year and I hope that we are beyond it now as we head to week 7. I feel that I am more aware of my students and that I have a better sense of their level of understanding. I think that my students get better everyday at listening to a variety of voices in the classroom. I still spend too many days doing more than 50% of the talking in class but I think that I am still on that learning curve myself. I would not be so bold as to say that I am implementing Exeter’s Harkness style the way it is intended, but I think that I have found a way that makes sense inside my school.