You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

 – by Krista Taylor

We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.

What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?

Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously.  Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.

I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.

Every year we have students who aren’t able to attend our camping trip because of an inability to pay for it. This year, Christ Church Cathedral  provided Gamble with a generous $2,500 grant to help cover the cost of camping for these students. This meant that, for the first time ever, our neediest students would be able to join us. You never know where you’ll find angels.

Ensuring that these students participated in this experience, however, was not a simple process. We first had to set parameters on how the money would be disbursed. It was immediately divided into four amounts of $625 in order to fund students in each of our four middle school communities. But then what? How do we decide who receives it? How much should each family be given? Should behavioral concerns be taken into consideration?

This is a harder conversation than it initially appears. My team sat down together and spent several hours hashing out the details of a plan that felt fair and compassionate. We knew that families should be obligated to contribute some of the money – both to honor their dignity and to ensure their buy-in to our program. We debated the merit of using the funding to support students who were likely to be behaviorally challenging at camp. Did they deserve to go as much as another student who also needed financial support, but was better at following expectations? How much should we give each family? How could we use the money to reach the greatest number of students? Here are the parameters that we ultimately agreed upon.

  • Behavioral issues would not exclude students from receiving funding – in many ways, it is these students for whom the experience is most important.
  • All families would be required to pay a minimum of $20 toward a student’s camp costs
  • We would send out a robocall to all families asking them to contact us if they needed financial assistance
  • We would then contact each of these families individually and begin the conversation by asking how much of the cost they could contribute

It was Jack, our principal, who helped us develop this final piece as a means of determining how much support each family should receive. He advised us to trust our families — to let them know that we were trying to help everyone who needed help, and to trust them to come through with as much of the money as they could. Having these conversations was remarkable. Some families who initially asked for assistance, ultimately were able to come up with the entire amount when we offered them a few days extension for payment. One family who had recently experienced homelessness, divorce, and mental health issues, has two students in our community, and thus, double the cost. They found a way to scrape together half of the money. Other families needed more.

During one of these phone calls, Justin’s mother confided that she didn’t think she was going to be able to make the payment this year. When I asked her how much she thought she could contribute. She quietly said, “Honestly, right now, I don’t have anything.” My heart hurt as I replied, “We’re asking all families to make a minimum contribution of twenty dollars. I paused, desperately seeking words that wouldn’t instill shame. “Can you do that much? If you can, we can cover the rest.” She broke down and tearfully said, “Yes. I think I can find a way to come up with twenty dollars. Thank you. Thank you so much.” “You’re welcome,” I practically whispered. I’m not even sure we actually said good-bye before hanging up. I cannot even imagine the humility that it must take to admit that you have so little that coming up with twenty dollars is a challenge, but I am grateful that she was able to honestly share her reality with me, so that I could help. And I am even more grateful that I had funding with which I could offer the help.

These conversations were uncomfortable and somehow, simultaneously, both uplifting and heart-breaking. We quickly realized that we didn’t have enough funding to cover every student’s need. Beau was casually discussing this challenge with his in-laws, Nancy and Kevin Robie, over dinner one evening. They surprised him by saying, “How much would you need to send them all?”

Honestly, we didn’t know; we hadn’t had financial discussions with all of our families yet. If they each needed the full amount, it would total just over a thousand dollars. When Beau hesitantly shared this information, they miraculously said, “Ok. We can do that.” You never know where you will find angels.

Being able to say yes to every request, and not having to pick and choose between families, was a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it turned out that we only needed an extra $327, and with the support of both the Christ Church Cathedral donation and this private one, twelve students were able to go to camp who wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. But there were two students who stood out as being the most profoundly impacted.

Unlike Justin, who has an involved parent and has always been able to pay for our field experiences in the past, Micah and Derek have never been able to participate in any of them. Both of these students have uninvolved parents, both clearly come from financially unstable households, both have cognitive disabilities, both exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom, both struggle with academic content and focus, and both are somewhat ostracized by their peers.

When we considered how to best use our donations, these two students came to mind immediately. However, ensuring their attendance on the trip was no easy task. We sent home our permission form packet with each of them multiple times, and yet the day before the trip, neither of them had their forms turned in. We repeatedly called home trying to get everything in order, but hadn’t been able to reach anyone. Finally, the day before the trip, Micah’s mother came in to sign the paperwork, but she did not turn in the required twenty dollars.

On Tuesday morning, the day of the trip, Micah came into my classroom just before school started – all packed for camp; although with a blanket roll instead of a sleeping bag – and said dispiritedly, “Ms. Taylor, my mom didn’t pay.” I said, “I know, Micah, we have to call her again.” When we called, she told us that she had given the money to Micah, but he had lost it. Perhaps true; perhaps not. We reminded her that she had to pay the $20 in order for him to attend. Finally, less than an hour before we boarded the bus, she came to the school office to pay and noted that she had been at work when we called, and upon overhearing her end of the conversation, one of her customers handed her a ten dollar bill. You never know where you will find angels.

Micah tentatively asked, “So I can go now?” It was such a relief to be able to say, “Yes.”

Derek’s situation was similar. The day before the trip, he had no money and no forms turned in. That evening when we finally reached his mom, she indicated that she had no money to give us, but that we could call his father. We had been teaching Derek for a year, but had no idea that his father was in the picture. When we reached him, he indicated that he’d come to the school and pay the $20 the next morning. In addition, he’d go out that evening and purchase a sleeping bag and flashlight for Derek so that he could come to camp fully equipped. Early the next morning, Derek’s dad was in the office as promised. He paid the $20; the grant provided $119. You never know where you will find angels.

Derek arrived at school with a giant smile. “Ms. Taylor, I get to go! I’m going to camp!”

At camp, we had the opportunity to see these children contribute in a way that they aren’t able to demonstrate in the classroom. imageWhile Derek was canoeing the first day, a canoe flipped over and headed downriver without its boaters, only to wind up lodged in the bank quite a ways downstream. After a teacher spotted it and pulled the group over to try and retrieve it, Derek was the first to volunteer to hike down the bank with a parent chaperone to dump it and bring it back to the group. He did this without complaint and took tremendous pride in his ability to assist the group.

Micah canoed the second day, and we had another swamped canoe. This time it came to rest in a marshy area of the river. When Micah’s boat caught up to it, he immediately jumped out into waist-deep water and started helping to get it flipped over, emptied, and righted. This is no easy task – especially for someone who has never been canoeing before.

Both boys noted that one of their favorite parts of camp was being on cook crew. (Over the course of our four days together, every student participates in cooking a meal for the 55 people at camp.) This is no easy task, and initially I believed that they enjoyimg_1050ed it because it allowed them to contribute to the good of the group. This was certainly part of it. Both boys noted in their journals that they felt good about doing tasks like hauling water from the pump to the campsite, and cooking food such as sausage breakfast sandwiches and vegetable soup.

But it was more than that. At camp, students are not permitted to go anywhere without a buddy; this means that pairings happen frequently and fluently. Both boys struggle with social inclusion at school, but at camp they were overheard gleefully exclaiming, “Why does everybody want to be my buddy? People are all the time asking me if I’ll be their buddy!” Being on cook crew is a group task, and it requires everyone working together, often in pairs or trios. In order to be successful at the task, everyone has to contribute and everyone has to be included. Micah and Derek were wanted and needed by the group, and they felt great about that.

All of this warms my heart. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. It, of course, was not. Derek needed constant prompting to get his packet work completed, and Micah stayed up until 3:30 one night talking in his tent – apparently to himself.img_1064 But at camp, Micah and Derek were also able to shine. Their classmates had the opportunity to see their strengths. Their teachers had the opportunity to see their strengths. But, most importantly, they had the opportunity to see their own strengths. Helpfulness, perseverance, belonging . . . those are beautiful qualities to witness unfolding. You never know where you will find angels.

And yet, this still isn’t the end of my story. On our last day, I had separate, but similar, heart wrenching conversations with each of them. Mid-morning, Derek asked me if we were going to pack lunches again that day. I told him that we were, whereupon he asked me if we had to eat it there, or if he could take it home with him. He was disappointed when I told him that we had to eat at camp.

Later that day when I asked Micah what his favorite thing was about camp, he said, “Canoeing . . . and the food.” I asked him about the homemade vegetable soup that we had prepared the day before. He said he really liked it, and that he had never had vegetable soup before.   Then he said, “Ms. Taylor, are we gonna get to eat dinner here tonight?” When I told him no, he disappointedly said, “Awww, man!”

I smiled and laughed at his response, and then, in the next moment, caught my breath as I understood what he was saying to me. Every other student was over-joyed to get to go home and eat a non-camp meal, but Micah wanted to stay for dinner.  He wanted to have dinner at camp because meals at camp are predictable and nutritionally-balanced, and there is always more than enough.

I wanted to cry.

A few hours later, this feeling was compounded when Derek saw the remaining food that we were packing up to take back to school. He asked, “What are you going to do with that?” We told him that we would send it home with students. He said, “Really? All that bread? Can we take that cheese, too?”

Yes, Derek, you can take the cheese, too.

I already knew that these students had challenging home environments, but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until these experiences at camp. It was suddenly crystal clear that these children simply didn’t have enough to eat at home. They were experiencing food insecurity right before my eyes.

At camp, I had the privilege of being able to provide both Micah and Derek with four days’ worth of the security of regularly-scheduled, healthy meals. This was a benefit of our camping trip that I had never overtly witnessed before. This was the deep learning that was new for me this year, and this learning is equal parts gift and challenge. I know that for four days, these students ate heartily and nutritiously. I now know that this was a unique experience for them. I don’t know how to fix that. I, of course, already knew that poverty is a crisis that impacts many of my students, but never before had I seen or felt it in such a tangible way.

Four days is not enough. I also know that. But it is a beginning, and the provision of food creates a trust that may be more profound than any other. I’m not sure how to continue building on that trust, but I know that we have established a fragile foundation. You never know where you will find angels.

Hate PD? Try Voluntary Piloting.

-by Krista Taylor

Teacher professional development has a reputation for being notoriously poor.

voluntary piloting can't get enough

So often it is a top-down approach that is out of touch with the challenges of being in a classroom. But what if teachers took control of that and turned it on its head? What if teachers determined how they needed to grow and develop, and worked together to do so?

In 2013, during the after-graduation faculty celebration, my colleague, Josh, and I began discussing some of the concerns we had about our instruction. As the party wound down, and we began making our way to our cars to go home, we came to a powerful realization. Both of us had prioritized developing differentiation practices in our classrooms. Both of us were struggling with it. Both of us were frustrated with our perceived lack of progress. This discussion caused us to quite literally stop in our tracks. We spent the next hour standing on a street corner problem-solving how we could make the work easier and find greater success.

At Gamble, one of our long-time frustrations as a building has been how to support students to rise to the rigors of college preparatory, honors-level academics in an urban, public school where 70% of our students are eligible for the federal free lunch program. Like many urban, public schools, our students often come to us with below-grade level skills, poorly developed work habits, and a lack of academic buy-in. All too often, this combination of high expectations and low skills results in students with failing grades. How do we maintain high academic rigor for all students while also meeting students (especially our most-challenged ones) where they are? Is this not the crux of the conflict in most classrooms?

Although I teach 7th and 8th graders and Josh teaches 11th and 12th graders, we realized that we had both been working independently on finding solutions to this same struggle, and we extrapolated that there were likely others invested in the same work in other areas of our building.

We envisioned becoming a Montessori Secondary School where all learners are welcomed in classrooms, and where differentiation is so much a part of our instruction that it is no longer note-worthy to students. And classrooms where teachers are comfortable with meeting learners where they are and developing their skills, regardless of where that left them in proximity to standardized-test passage.

We had been unable to find a way to do this individually, but we thought we might be able to do it better with the support of each other and any other colleagues who might be interested in joining us.   We approached Jack (our principal) with the idea of launching a voluntary differentiation pilot program in our building, and, after hashing out some of the details, we were given permission to broach this topic with our faculty and to elicit support from the staff of CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program).

We began by issuing this open invitation.

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To enlarge, click image

Additionally, we personally invited those who we felt would be most receptive. For example, Josh directly approached the intervention specialist on his team with whom he regularly collaborated, and I requested that both members of my newly-formed team join me in working on this.

Some people asked if they could earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for their participation. We took this request back to Jack who readily agreed to arrange this. A few other details were hashed out – how we would re-initiate the conversation in the fall, when we would schedule the first meeting, and what that agenda would look like.

Thus, from what started as a casual, street-corner discussion, a pilot project was born.

So, that’s it, right? Open the door to collaboration, the masses will come running, definitive answers will be found, and all will be well with the world. Well, no, not exactly.

Our group of volunteers met at the start of the year to establish what we wanted to accomplish together. Originally there were ten of us, but after this first meeting, we were reduced to just seven through self-selection. Initially this small number of participants felt very disappointing – where were the hoards of teachers flocking together to improve their practice? That was definitely what I had envisioned. However, in hindsight, I am convinced that our small size was one of the most critical components of our success. Joining our pilot was purely voluntary, and this ensured that only people willing to commit to doing this work in a positive and forward-thinking way joined our group. Those who didn’t share our vision opted out. This meant that while we didn’t have the numbers that I had anticipated, we also didn’t have the uncommitted, disengaged participants that I had worried about.

There is a large body of evidence suggesting that the way to shift institutional practices is to begin with the people with whom you have immediate buy-in. From their success, you will sway most others. This premise is known as the Diffusion Innovation Model and was initially purported by Everett Rogers in 1962. A large body of research supports Rogers’ theory that the spreading of new products or ideas is based on four factors: the innovation itself, human capital, time, and communication. After initiation by the “innovators,” the concept readily spreads to “early adopters” who ultimately influence the “early majority.” It is not necessary to address resistors, or the “late majority and laggards”, until there is a ground-swell of people on board who can carry them along.

voluntary piloting DOI
Left to Right: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards

Because our group was made up of volunteers who chose to work together in this way (our innovators and early adopters), we were free to develop into whatever it was that we believed would work for us. Although we were all teachers in the same building, we didn’t all work closely with one another on a regular basis. Our group represented a variety of grade levels and departments in our building – 7th and 8th grade, 11th and 12th grade, social studies, language arts, math, science, special education, and music. As a result, it was important that we developed clear expectations of our work together. The parameters that we established at our initial meeting were:

  • we would meet once a month
  • we would honor each other’s time by keeping meetings as close to an hour in length as possible
  • we would value our time together by committing to attend meetings
  • our focus would be on classroom differentiation as a means of growing all learners
  • we would conduct focused, non-evaluative observations of each other to improve our practice – we called these “Friendly Feedback Observations.”

In the beginning, we shared our successes and our challenges. We quickly discovered that we were already doing a lot. Just stating differentiation as an intention at our initial meeting in September had motivated each of us to work toward furthering our practice in this area. Some of our reported successes were small in-roads: providing read-aloud options on a more consistent basis, using a wider variety of instructional groupings, or allowing students with prior piano experience to branch out into guitar exploration during music class. And some of our successes were quite significant: providing weekly checklists/work plans that were uniquely targeted to students’ needs, or individualizing assessments such that each student received different questions on a physics test. But we had our share of noteworthy challenges too, and we still had a long way to go to develop what we wanted to see in our classrooms.

We noted that our challenges clustered into four areas: differentiation of assessments, differentiation of assignments, differentiation of instruction, and differentiation of expectations. By looking at it this way, we quickly realized that we were putting the cart before the horse by starting with the products (the assessments and assignments) rather than the students (the expectations).

Through our conversations, we also recognized that we were all struggling with feeling comfortable with meeting students where they were and moving them forward along a continuum, even if they didn’t ultimately reach the grade-level outcome. For all our nose-thumbing, anti-testing bravado, we felt pretty nervous about championing the idea that not all students learn the same thing at the same time and reach the same place, and somewhat blindly trusting that this wouldn’t have terrible repercussions on our standardized test scores.

It was critical to have each other to bounce ideas off of and to ensure that we were maintaining appropriate expectations coupled with appropriate supports for all of our students. Together we were able to do what none of us had been able to satisfactorily do alone. We noted gains – even incremental ones – we dug deep into what best practice could look like, and collectively, we had more courage to take risks.

And while each month, we celebrated our successes; we also took a hard look at our challenges. Halfway through that first year, we remained dissatisfied by the number of students earning failing grades. How could this be? We had worked so hard! How could all of our efforts still have not been enough to support students? Josh and Matt had further developed their co-teaching model providing additional interventions to struggling learners. Beau was regularly differentiating assignments into three levels to support all students in accessing the general education curriculum. Kim was creating five different student checklists every week in order to allow for individually targeted assignments. Steve had spent hours developing a differentiated science unit. How were our students still falling short of our expectations? What were appropriate expectations? How would we know when we reached them?

Fortunately, Barb Scholtz, CMStep Practicum Director, was supporting and challenging us in our reflective practice. When this concern came up, she simply looked at us, and with this simple question, re-committed us to our mission. She asked, “Well, are they learning?” When we answered with a confident, “Yes,” her response was, “Then, how can they be failing?”

It sounds simple, right? If they are learning, if they are progressing, then that’s all we can ask of them, right? But what about standards-based grading? What about content mastery? What about pre-requisite skills?

Nothing in education is simple. We know about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which notes that learning occurs just beyond the level of what students can do independently.

voluntary piloting zpd

We know about isolating the difficulty, or focusing on a new skill without adding in additional complexities.

And, perhaps, most importantly, we know our students. We know, as professionals, and as people who interact with them every day, what we can expect from them and how far we can push them. So, yes, if they are learning, they can’t possibly be failing. But too many of them were. What were we doing wrong?

So, back to the drawing board we went to try to find answers to our many complex questions. How can we inspire students to show what they know? How do we instill a work ethic in our students? What about the wooly beast of homework? How are our students’ developmental needs and socio-economic status related to each of these issues?

We turned to research to guide us. We looked at best practices in grading policies, strategies to improve rates of homework completion, and use of student self-evaluation tools.

We also invited one another into our classrooms for what we deemed “Friendly Feedback Observations.” We asked each other, as trusted professionals, to observe specific concerns in our practice and to provide both critical and supportive feedback. This not only elicited targeted suggestions for improvement, it also allowed us to see what we were each doing really well, and what techniques we could borrow to improve our own instruction.

We adjusted and enhanced our teaching practices again and again. Each of us did that a little differently. Each of us discovered inroads. None of us got it exactly right. But all of us made progress.

What I know for sure is that because of the commitment I made by joining this group, I pushed myself harder. When we began, differentiation was something that happened sometimes in my classroom, and, as a result, it was something that was somewhat uncomfortable for my students. Today, the vast majority of assignments are differentiated, and students expect this and discuss it openly. Those conversations sound like this:

“Is this assignment differentiated?”

“Do I have the right level?”

“Can I try Developing, and if it’s too hard can I move down to Discovering?”

“Do you think I should do Adventuring today?”

“I’d like you to try the Enrichment level. I think it will be more interesting to you as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.”

Differentiation is fluid, frequent, and has become the norm for my students. There is no stigma of cleverly-titled tracking groups like “Bluebirds” and “Robins.” Rather, each day, each student works at his or her instructional level for that particular concept in that particular moment.

This shift took three years, and it wasn’t just my classroom that was profoundly impacted by the work of our pilot group. Each of the participants experienced significant changes in practice, and throughout the course of the past three years, we have continued to review the research, implement shifts, examine our own data, and repeat this cycle again and again.

Have we found all the answers? No, not yet. Probably, not ever. But that’s not really the point. Our work with differentiation has grown so much. Those of us in that original pilot group have achieved our original vision of classrooms where differentiation has become a norm. We now, of course, have bigger hopes and dreams for ourselves. Meanwhile, other members of our faculty have followed our lead, and differentiation strategies are being implemented at different levels throughout our building.

But more importantly, through our research and discussions, we are challenging each other, and through our implementation of things we’ve discussed, we are improving our practice. And, more than that, we are supporting each other and helping each other hold fast to the dream of inspiring our students and guiding them to develop into well-rounded and educated adults. Isn’t that why each of us entered this field in the first place? And, in this intense time in education, it is so easy to lose that focus. But, through collaboration with each other, we can hang on to this lofty ideal.

You can begin building this spirit of professional collaboration and growth in your building, too. Our group was dedicated to increasing differentiation practices, but any professional issue could serve as a focus for a similar discussion forum.

Here are what we’ve found to be the necessary components to making a program like this effective:

  • Grab the bull by the horns: whatever is the greatest challenge or frustration in your building or classroom, tackle that. Go ahead and look it in the eyes, and begin seeking solutions.
  • Begin by making it voluntary; there is no room for naysayers. Keep in mind that some people may need a personal invitation, but no begging. The people who decline your invitation are not ready to be part of the first-wave of your pilot.
  • Develop your objectives and procedures together. Focus on what you want from each other. What are your shared goals? How can you best support each other in achieving them? What limits and boundaries do people need to have respected? Along these same lines, any changes need to be approved by the group before being acted upon.
  • Hold structured meetings as a way to honor everyone’s time and energy. Avoid allowing this group to become a de facto lunch break or happy hour. Value the work to be done.
  • Resist the temptation to spend time complaining – while your group may not have a designated leader, you do need a facilitator who will lead the group toward the generation of solutions, and away from the slippery slope of negativity.
  • Brainstorm together – there’s no reason why people should be working on the same things in isolation. Do it together, and you’ll be more successful and more energized.
  • But don’t just brainstorm. Implement. Even if that means taking one baby step at a time. And, pick each other up when you fall. Because sometimes the ideas that sounded so great in theory, weren’t so great in reality. It’s easy to get discouraged, so be cheerleaders for each other.
  • Hold each other accountable for implementation. But remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. We used our Friendly Feedback Observations for this, but there are other ways.
  • Keep going. As you move forward, others will witness your success, and your influence will spread.

We have all been in those mandatory professional development workshops about which there are so many sarcastic memes.

voluntary piloting life and death

We’ve all rolled our eyes as yet another flash-in-the-pan initiative is rolled out with great pomp and circumstance.

voluntary piloting flash

We’ve all sat through umpteen meetings where concerning data is shared along with a plethora of quick-fix solutions, few of which seem realistic to implement in our classrooms.

voluntary pilot Oprah3

While these types of trainings are likely to continue, you need not allow them to dictate your professional growth. Think about what you want to work on in your classroom. Seek out like-minded educators in your building, and set aside time to work on this together. Dig deep. Find strategies that are feasible. Try them out. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. And repeat this process.

This work leads to powerful, uplifting, and beneficial professional growth. All you have to do is decide what you want to work on, find others who want to work on that, too, and get started.

Exeter Math Institute: Math or Social Justice?

-by Krista Taylor

“Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I’m sorry, what?

It was the first day of math training, and this was the initial task.   I had signed up for this professional development opportunity because Jack said it would be good, and because I have spent a significant amount of time over the past several years trying to improve my math instruction. Because, you see, I was “bad at math,” and that is not something that I ever want to pass on to my students. As a result, I have worked hard at becoming a better math teacher.

Math has never come as easily to me as other subject areas. In the 7th grade, I was “honors-tracked” in all subjects. I only stayed in honors through the end of the 8th grade, but by then the damage was done because my course of study in math had already been accelerated. I skated through Algebra II in the 9th grade, and very nearly failed Geometry in the 10th. At that point, I stopped taking math altogether. My advisor told me that I shouldn’t even consider taking Chemistry “because of all that math,” so science went as well. While that opened a lot of time in my schedule for terrific courses like Art History, and the History of the Theater, ultimately quitting math early did me no favors.

What irony then that teaching math has been a part of my job description throughout my career.

It wasn’t until I spent three years co-teaching math at Gamble with Katie Doyle that I began to feel a sense of competency. This was reinforced by the occasional proclamations of my own children when, upon returning home from work in the evening, I would hear, “I’m glad you’re finally home; I’ve been waiting for you to help me with my math homework!” Every time, I was tempted to turn around and look for whoever most certainly was coming in the door behind me. “I’m sorry, you’re waiting for who to help you with your math homework?”

Which brings me back to the math training. I want to be a better math teacher. I want teaching math to feel as fluid for me as teaching English does. I want to be certain that I am serving my students in the best way possible. To that end, I know I need to keep working at math. So, I committed to four summer days of math PD.

Which brings us back to, “Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but you see, I think I’m in the wrong training. I want to get better at teaching math, not doing math!”

I wasn’t nearly that brave, so instead I did this. (Okay, with the group I was working with, and assistance from the teacher, I did this. It’s still pretty cool.)

Exeter math paper

I’ll admit it, as an adult learner, the math was interesting. We were working on problems from the 9th and 10th grade math curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Yes, THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Arguably the most prestigious 9th-12th grade prep school in the country. Tuition for boarding students at Exeter is $47,000 annually; for day students, it is a mere $36,500, and there are rigorous admission criteria. The average class size is twelve; the student-teacher ratio is five to one. THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Full stop.

The Exeter math program is unlike any math instruction I have ever experienced.FullSizeRender (9)

  • There is no textbook, only a binder full of problems.
  • There is no direct instruction.
  • There is no modeling.
  • There are no examples.
  • Nearly every problem is a multi-step, word problem.

 

The structure of the class is such that when students enter the classroom, they immediately begin putting answers on the board from the homework the night before. Then the group discusses each problem, assessing accuracy, determining alternate methods, revising the work, questioning the results. The teacher’s role is to provide a few prompts and probing questions to deepen the understanding of the group, and to correct inaccuracies. Once all of the problems have been explored, new homework is assigned to be analyzed the next day in class. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the instructional process each day.

But, at the end of Day 1, I found myself feeling aggravated. I wanted to get better at teaching math to MY students. My 7th and 8th grade students at Gamble Montessori High School in the Cincinnati Public School System. How in the world was spending 8 hours a day for 4 days completing Exeter math problems going to help me to do that?!

Exeter students are not my students.

Exeter students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. Seventy percent of my students are eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program. Exeter students must demonstrate academic excellence in order to be admitted to the program. Thirty percent of my students are identified as having a disability; many more struggle with significant skill gaps. Exeter students either live at school full-time or remain on campus until 8:00pm each evening. My students go home at the end of a 7-hour school day, and some of them experience significant stress in those home environments. Exeter students are instructed in class sizes of 12. My students are in classes with 25-35 of their peers.

Exeter students are not my students.

The second afternoon, during a break, I had a casual off-hand conversation with Sami Atif, one of our instructors who is a math teacher at Exeter. We were discussing the make-up of the student body at Exeter.

He said, “It’s a cultural thing.”

Taken aback, I defensively asked, “What do you mean, exactly?”

His response surprised me. “It’s about culture.  These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem.  I don’t think I ever questioned a teacher when I was growing up.  I wouldn’t have dared.  These kids don’t have that issue.  It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

The conversation lagged, the break ended, and we went on with class. But his words hung with me. I revisited them on the drive home, and at some point before I went to bed that evening, it hit me like a kick in the gut.

“These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem . . . It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.

Days three and four of the training were different for me. I was all in. Not just for me, for my students, too.   It helped, of course, that I was witnessing my own math development in action. I was thrilled on Wednesday evening to discover that not only was I able to approach nearly every problem assigned for homework, I was able to get to an answer that I was near certain was correct.

Here is an example: “Let A = (-2,4) and B = (7,6). Find the point P on the line y=2 that makes the total distance AQ+BQ as small as possible.”

IMG_0448 (1)

That was the change in me after three days of practice.

And I started to observe the instructors. This was far more than a curriculum; it was a methodology. The first thing I realized was that they never (never!) provided or confirmed an answer. This prompted more than one person to question whether the instructors actually even knew the correct answers! Instead they met questions with questions and provided guidance in the form of suggestions or references back to previously constructed knowledge.

By this point, I was writing down everything they said because I know from past experience that when looking to make a shift in practice, sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I was seeking a script, so I allowed the instructors to unknowingly provide it for me themselves. Here are some of their prompts:

“It looks like maybe you were thinking . . . “

“Are there any other ways to get there?”

“That’s a step I want to process more.”

“That’s really interesting.”

“Are there any other ways to look at this?”

“Are you convinced that you’ve found the correct answers?”

This strategy is known as “Harkness teaching” as it was first conceived of by Edward Harkness, an oil magnate who gave a significant donation to Exeter Academy for implementation of a teaching style that he described thusly:

“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

Oh, yes, Mr. Harkness, I, too, see your vision as revolutionary.

And yet I remain haunted by the question of “how.” How can I possibly implement this in my classroom – keeping in mind that many of my 7th and 8th grade students arrive with math skills that are expected from a 4th or 5th grader. What can I do to help them to reach this level of math confidence and comprehension?

What I didn’t realize initially was that this work had already been begun by Savannah Rabal, a junior high math teacher at our sister school, Clark Montessori. Savannah was out of town for the first two days of the training, but when she arrived on the third day, I began picking her brain for how she had done it. Her wise words, “Trust the Process,” provided me with hope in my ability to implement something similar in my own classroom.

Here are some of the expectations that she and her class developed for working with this type of instruction.

Exeter Savannah

So perhaps it is possible to do something like this after all – to provide my students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers solving high-level math problems through exploration, discussion, discovery, and critical thinking. I do not know yet exactly what implementation of this methodology will look like in my classroom, but here are my thoughts so far:

  • Begin with just 1 day a week
  • Provide direct instruction in expectations for the process; allow for student input and suggestions as we identify strategies for working together
  • Establish small groups that would work together consistently
    • Groupings could be heterogeneous, allowing stronger students to support those who are struggling
    • Groupings could be homogenous with differentiated questions, allowing strong students to work together toward acceleration, while struggling learners would be obligated to take risks and make attempts to approach the task without the support of their typically-relied upon peers.
    • Groupings could be a flexible combination of both homogenous and heterogenous groupings, allowing for the benefits of both options
  • Develop scaffolded supports to support student exploration and learning
    • Teacher prompts
    • Written structures such as guiding prompts and organizational supports
    • Pre-select appropriately leveled questions or design our own
  • Begin the process by working the problems together in class rather than expecting students to tackle them independently as homework in the initial roll-out phase

I’ll be honest. I am nervous as all get-out to even attempt beginning this process. There seems to be so many hurdles in the way. The challenges my students face with math content is just the beginning.

How on earth will I get my colleagues on board? They will not have the benefit of a four-day experiential training to elicit their buy-in; they will only have me (and Rosalyn and Erin, who also attended the workshop) waxing prophetic and showing them the materials that at first glance seem utterly ridiculous.

Even if I only implement this approach one day a week, it will throw us further off the curriculum content pacing that the district expects. How can I demonstrate that this is beneficial enough to make it allowable?

What will the parents think? Savannah already had this experience when a parent contacted her saying, “So, I hear you don’t teach math anymore.” Many parents are already wary of Common Core math, and already feel beyond their ability to assist with junior high-level math. What will they think when we throw this at them?

And what will happen when it doesn’t go as I have planned? In fact, the only thing I am certain of is that it won’t go exactly as I have planned. What then?   Will I have the courage to stick with it? Will my students? Will my fellow teachers? Will my administrators?

It helped to discover this excerpt by Elisabeth Ramsey in the Exeter “Introductory Math Guide – Written For Students By Students.” It feels a bit as if she was writing directly to me regarding my apprehension about implementation, “I learned one of the more important lessons about math at Exeter; it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Your classmates will be supportive of you, and tolerant of your questions. Chances are, if you had trouble with a problem, someone else in the class did too. Another thing to keep in mind is that the teacher expects nothing more than that you try to do a problem to the best of your ability. If you explain a problem that turns out to be incorrect, the teacher will not judge you harshly. They understand that no one is always correct, and they will not be angry or upset with you.”

And I continue to hear Savannah’s words echoing in my head, “Trust the Process.”

And Sami’s comment, after I acknowledged him for the powerful impact his words had on me, “Yeah, this is social justice work.”

So, remembering the feeling of: “I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them,” I am ready to take the plunge. I’ll let you know how it goes.