Saying vs. Doing

img_2469Something I am continually working on as a teacher is saying less.  This became even more important last year, when, after teaching 4th grade for many years, I became a 2nd grade teacher.  The attention span of the 7 year old is pret-ty short.  And I quickly learned that they have little to no interest in long, thoughtful lesson introductions that connect what we’re going to study today to the previous day’s work. I wish I could illustrate for you the bored stares, the poking of the person in front of them, the taking books out of the classroom library baskets next to the rug and thumbing through them, the vehement “can I go to the bathroom?!” crossed-finger silent gesture that my sweet 7 year olds were throwing me last year as I fumbled my way through learning that I needed to get. to. the. point. Fast.  With 2nd graders, it’s all about shock and awe.  You have to jump right into it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this “say less” thing, as I move into the new school year.  The first few days of the year in my classroom have been filled with wordy explanations of classroom routines and procedures. Are you yawning yet? I am. As critical as I know it is to teach my students how to properly unpack and pack their backpacks, it’s extremely uninteresting to me, and to them.  I spent the first few days of school feeling a bit uninspired by all of this procedure-teaching.  The best moments of each day, I noticed, were when we were DOING: singing the Shark Attack song together, playing hospital tag during outdoor play, building patterns with unifix cubes.

I started thinking about math teaching.  When I teach math, I want my kids to DO — I want them to discover the way our number system works, explore the properties of operations, engage with each other, and wrestle with mathematical ideas.  It’s quite active.  It does not look like me telling them, “Here’s how you solve the problem.”  But when it comes to teaching classroom routines, I’m doing the opposite.  I’m telling them, “If we all go to the closet at the same time, we’re going to have a problem.  Here’s how we’re going to solve that problem…”  In my deep boredom with the teaching and practicing of classroom routines, I started wondering about what it would be like to let my students DO more, right from the get go, instead of teaching them how I want them to do it preemptively.

I realize this is classroom management 101 anathema.  Anyone who read The First Days of School by Wong and Wong (shudder) is thinking, “Disaster!”  But I honestly wonder.  Just as in math, I don’t teach my kids procedures because I want them to think about what makes sense, maybe when it comes to classroom routines and procedures, I could let them DO first and discuss what made sense and didn’t make sense later.

Taking an approach like this would definitely involve a higher tolerance for classroom chaos than I presently have.  But even that element is not that different from math teaching.  Over the years, I’ve developed a high tolerance for messiness when it comes to math teaching and learning.  I know I used to feel anxious when it seemed like kids weren’t “getting” what I wanted them to see in the math, but over time I’ve been able to develop the part of my teacher self that sees kids’ struggles as part of the road to making sense, and to not get freaked out by the chaos that sometimes ensues on that road.

I know that content-wise, classroom routines and procedures are not the same as math.  If kids don’t know how to move around the room or get their materials quickly, learning time is wasted.  Maybe it does make sense to teach classroom routines explicitly.  But I think doing so this year has brought out for me the tension around my desire for control versus my desire for exploration and sense making in my classroom.  So this is an important thing that I’m going to keep thinking about:  How can I continue to create a classroom where doing comes first, and saying comes later?

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First post: What We Notice

Studying student work is important.  It can tell us so much about what students know.  It’s our jumping off point for future lessons.  It gives us a window into the minds of our kids, especially the quiet ones from whom we don’t hear much in class.  I personally enjoy studying student work in the peace and mental quiet of my own home, in my classroom at 4 pm, or in any place that is not a room filled with children shouting, “Can I go to the bathroom? I’m done.  What are we supposed to do now?  He hit me. Is it almost time for lunch?”

And yet, I’ve noticed that when teachers get together and study student work, it can sometimes be hard for us to see what kids know and can do.  We often see what they don’t know.  Why is this?

Recently I was at a conference where I was working with a group of teachers to study some student work and consider what our next teaching steps might be if these were our students.  To give some context, we had never met the students whose work we were examining, nor did we have access to their teacher.  We just had the work. We put it between the four of us.  We put on our serious teacher faces.  We studied.

I’m always wary of the person who speaks first in one of these situations.  I’m wary to be that person and I’m wary of that person.  But someone’s gotta do it.  So that person (it wasn’t me this time) did it:  “Well, we can see that he really doesn’t understand the meaning of the equals sign,” she said.  I considered this.  It was true that the student seemed to be confused about the equals sign, I thought to myself.  The next teacher chimed in:  “It’s hard to get a sense of anything from this chicken scratch.”  Uh oh. Handwriting commentary gets under my skin.  I waited a little longer.  Next teacher:  “He subtracted where he should have added.  He doesn’t understand negative numbers.”

None of these comments are out of the ordinary for teachers studying student work, and I don’t think any of them are “bad.”  But they made me wonder why it’s often our default to approach students from a deficit perspective.  Until I recognized this in my own teaching (which took a while), I was guilty as well.  Maybe we default to this because it justifies our existence and importance as teachers — if there’s a problem, we have some work to do! If they don’t know something, we can fix it! We can be the Givers of the Knowledge.

The problem with this perspective, for me, is that a) I don’t want to see my students as knowers of nothing or heads stuffed with “misconceptions”* awaiting correction, because I don’t think it is true and I don’t think it honors kids very well; and b) I don’t want my students to see me as knower of everything and provider of correction, because I don’t think it’s true and I don’t think it honors teaching very well.  If I believed my job was just about correcting mistakes and telling kids how to do stuff, I might never have been interested in teaching in the first place.

Since I want to be a teacher who helps kids see their own power to make sense of math (and the world), I have to be a teacher who sees kids as having power and knowing things.  If I want to be that teacher, I have to approach students and their work by thinking, “What does this student know?”

Even with this approach, though, it’s not always easy to understand student thinking.  If you like reading research, this article by Jacobs, Lamb and Phillips nicely highlights how difficult it is for teachers to get good at studying student thinking and noticing what’s important.  They write, “Expertise in attending to children’s strategies is neither something adults routinely know how to do nor is it expertise that teachers generally develop solely from many years of teaching.”  They also say that the skill of attending to children’s strategies is regularly overlooked by professional developers.  In their study, Jacobs, Lamb and Phillips found that it wasn’t just processing capacity (e.g. all the kids in the room yelling your name as you’re trying to look at a kid’s work) that created challenges for teachers in noticing the right things in student work; it was that teachers actually need more instruction in noticing what is mathematically significant and need help developing “skill in finding those mathematically significant indicators in children’s messy, and often incomplete, strategy explanations.”

How can we get better at noticing what kids know mathematically?  Approaching students with the disposition that they have important mathematical ideas, that they are making sense of something, and that their ideas are meaningful to them, is a necessary, but not sufficient, first step.  It’s a goal I’m taking with me into my classroom this year (and every year) as I get ready to teach my 2nd graders.  I offer it up if you’re looking for a goal for yourself this year as a math teacher that doesn’t involve a lot of making copies, putting manipulatives in baggies, or even writing awesome tasks that will get your kids excited about math.  It’s more of an internal math teacher goal, but I like it.

 

* I can’t stop thinking about Rochelle Gutierrez’s talk at NCTM this April:  “Mathematics Teaching as Subversive Activity: Common Core, Social Justice, Creative Insubordination”  She had a lot to say about the weight of the words we use when we talk about students, and one of her pet peeves is the word “misconceptions.”  She said (paraphrasing from my notes here), “We often tell teachers ‘anticipate your students’ misconceptions.’  Students don’t have misconceptions!  They have conceptions.  They have conceptions until those conceptions bump up against something that causes them to no longer work.”  I loved this reframing.  I still say misconceptions, but this idea tickles my brain every time I do.  Passing that on to you.