How does it feel to be a gifted child in our educational system?

This is a speech given by a high school junior outlining his experiences as a gifted child in the current education system.  It is full of great information and an eye-opening look into the perspective of a student.  https://youtu.be/2QQVC_lEASA

Don’t be the bus!

So, I was coaching a teacher a few days ago and she was having difficulty trying to figure out how to manage a classroom of all gifted children.  This teacher is a fantastic secondary teacher who consistently follows Harry Wong’s philosophy of classroom management.  She uses Wong’s style in a low income/high poverty school with great success.  However, Wong’s regimented style runs counter to successful methods for teaching gifted children and it fails to address their social/emotional as well as physical needs.

The teacher and I had a long conversation about how to support the overexciteabilities of these students.  We talked about changing the teaching from a didactic classroom to a coached or consultative classroom.  After many years of being incredibly successful at what she does, I heard her say that she is really uncomfortable changing her whole way of teaching for just one class of students.  Basically, she came to the conclusion that the students were just going to have to mold to her way of running the classroom.  After all, isn’t that an important skill to have in the “real world?”  Don’t we have to adjust and adapt to our surroundings when we get a job?

After hearing these very reasonable arguments, I asked her the following question:  Why does our high school and middle school start their school day at 7:30 and 7:20 respectively, when all research shows that adolescents physiologically struggle with early school days and would be better served starting at 10 am?  When there is NO evidence showing that this is optimum for the students we serve, why do we do it?  Of course, the teacher answered, “Because of busing.”  Transportation has always determined this issue even though it isn’t in the best interests of the people we are supposed to be serving – the children.  I then made the following assertion to the teacher about her management style, “Don’t be the bus!”  I told her that if she needs to change her style to meet the needs of all of her students then she needs to do just that.  If she is uncomfortable – too bad!  If she stays within her comfort zone and doesn’t change, and all of her students are uncomfortable, then she is “being the bus.”  She isn’t doing what is right and serving the needs of her children, but rather keeping herself comfortable.  As Iyanla says, “If you are comfortable, then you aren’t growing!”

I think it is really crucial for all educators to continually reflect and remind ourselves, “Don’t be the bus!”  We must make sure that we are meeting the needs of the children that we have in our classrooms.  We can’t keep doing the same things in the same ways over and over again and expecting different results.  I’m excited to be involved in education at a time where information is so easily attained and collaboration with others is readily available.  This is a chance for us to be creative and change our “one size fits all” educational model, because, quite frankly, that model didn’t really fit many people any way and it certainly won’t prepare us for the future.

Connecting/Integrating Curriculum

Somehow in the past few years, education has moved away from integrating all the content areas focusing instead on teaching each subject in isolation.  So many elementary schools that I visit have a dedicated math time followed by an ELA block, etc.  Jr. High and High schools do the same thing, so that most children go through their days and years seeing no commonality among the areas of  learning that we, as educators, deem important.   I know that this new trend is most likely due to the dependence on testing as a means of funding.  Most states only test math and ELA, so in response to low test scores, we have to focus on teaching to the skills required for the test.  However, by doing this, we are missing out on true learning.  We DO need to integrate the contents that we teach, but we just need to keep a critical eye on whether they stay rigorous.  Whereas ocean’s week in the past lead to an amazing 3-D hallway display did nothing to further our children’s knowledge about oceans, ecosystems, adaptation, or cause-effect.   If you do try to connect your four content areas (Math, Science, Social Studies, and ELA), just make sure you don’t fall into creating crayola curriculum (colorful, but with no real learning attached).

As a secondary teacher myself, I was fortunate to work with a team of teachers that took integrating all of the disciplines seriously.  We worked hard to understand each others standards and made sure to design the learning to maximize interdisciplinary connections.  Elementary teachers are lucky that they can work to connect all contents throughout the day and not have to depend on other teachers to keep the connections alive.  Whatever teaching situation you live in, I highly encourage you to look at ways to bring the four content areas (and any more, if you can) together!  One great way to do this is to start the year off with a coordinating theme.  My sister (an amazing History teacher) and I designed some lessons using our book, Help Wanted at Mount Vernon, as an anchor text.  There is a lesson for math in which you focus on learning the 8 mathematical practices, a lesson for ELA where you examine the rules and norms of your school/classroom using word choice and primary documents, a lesson for Science in which students learn inquiry, observation, and inference skills in order to apply them to engineering, and a history lesson that teaches historical thinking skills for secondary students and primary students.

If you are an elementary teacher, you could read the book once and then use each lesson as a leaping off point to connect the content areas (problem-solving, creative thinking, and inquiry).  If you are a secondary teacher and part of a team of content teachers, then you could arrange to read the book at one time (say during advisory or 1st period), and then throughout the day when you see each group of students, you can just focus on your part of the lesson.  However, the main focus in all of the classrooms is still problem-solving, creative thinking, and inquiry – a common theme to tie it all together!  Whether you are working with a team or by yourself, you can use the essential question – Why is it important to problem-solve, think creatively, and question?   All content areas can use this driving question all year no matter what unit or content you are teaching!

Why do we test the way that we do?

I think that I have been watching too much John Oliver lately, because I find myself questioning the very foundation of everything education holds near and dear.  If you don’t know who John Oliver is, or haven’t seen an episode of Last Week Tonight, I highly recommend that you check out his segment on standardized testing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6lyURyVz7k.  I love that his show has segments that dig deeply into controversial subjects and forces you to question public beliefs (with a humorous lens).  **Don’t watch John Oliver when children are around – he uses adult only language and content at times.**  Quite frankly, I like to be challenged, and I believe that we should always reflect on our systems to see if we are doing things because they work or just because we have “always done it that way.”

Along those lines, I am challenging why we assess students the way that we do in education.  For instance, why is it that we teach students a brand new concept and then expect them to master it immediately?  Oh sure, we give them some practice, and maybe a few nights of homework, a class discussion, and possibly an investigation, but then we expect them to have it down.  I mean, seriously, where in the world is that realistic?  Oh, you want to be a doctor, OK, day 1, here is a heart in a cadaver, day 2, perform open heart surgery.  Or what about sports?  Do we expect a 5 year old at their first baseball practice to throw from center field to home plate?  However, we expect to show a 5 year old words for the first time and then give them a reading test.  The worst part of that test is that how we judge not only that child for years to come, but also the teacher.  This seems like crazy logic to me!

Quite a few years ago, I had this epiphany while teaching a sophomore Geometry class.  Like the two years before, I taught chapter 1, then gave the chapter 1 test, moved to chapter 2, gave the chapter 2 test, and so on.  Right after Christmas break, when students were organizing their notebooks, a student mused while looking over his dismal score of a 62% on his chapter 1 test, “Why did I miss all of these questions?  These are so easy!  Was I sick that day?”  So, I thought to myself, well of course you know it now, because Geometry builds on itself and we have been using that stuff from chapter 1 over and over.  Is that student a ‘D’ student?  Really?  Instead, I changed the whole testing process.  At the end of a chapter, I gave a practice test that the students scored themselves.  I asked for feedback on what questions were missed and why and took those results forward into the upcoming instruction. However, I didn’t give a formal test. If it was a concept I knew we would do a lot, then I just refocused the students when it showed up, or I added review while connecting to new ideas.  Rather than teach chapter 1 and then test on it, I taught chapters 1, 2, and 3 then tested over chapter 1.  Shockingly, the scores were amazing!  Then I went even further to have a chapter 1 & 2 application project that students worked on and were given feedback on well before the chapter 1 test.  The test scores got even higher.  The only bummer was the very end of the year – because I couldn’t follow them into summer, but I tried to compact some things so that there were more application projects in the last few weeks to really practice the material.  It would have been a perfect system if I could let that last test go and move it to the next year, but, that was a pipe dream…

Over time, I gave that practice of “letting the test wait” up.  I cashed it in for taking a pre-test, scoring it yourself, then taking the “real” test.  I then allowed students to re-take tests on the material until mastery was shown.  I’m not even sure why I changed back to the archaic system of learn, test, learn, test.  It probably had to do with district made finals and benchmarks – or assessments being out of my control.  Our system just promotes failure, not true learning.  We ask children to take academic risks, but then punish them for actually doing it.  Everything has to be right now.  Learn this now, master this now, because we have to hurry, hurry, hurry.  For what exactly??  And we wonder why so many students don’t like school…

How can you teach creativity?

As I look at the NAGC standards, they often refer to teaching creativity to our gifted youth, which makes me wonder – can you teach creativity?  If you can, how do you assess it?  Is there a way to define creativity?  Well, as it turns out the long respected work of E. Paul Torrance delves into that very topic.  He even has a test for creativity that used to be given in many schools before every one went nuts over No Child Left Behind.  He defined four (4) areas in which creativity can be measured, explored, and basically taught.  Fluency, originality, elaboration, and flexibility are the four areas in which creativity can be viewed as tangible.  There is even a circle test that you can give people and have them score themselves in the four areas.  Unfortunately, you need to be a licensed psychologist to assess the numbers, but I like to give the test as a great introduction to the four areas of creativity, their definitions, and how to start dialogue on the subject.   My favorite book on creativity that was introduced to me by Sue Gonyou (an educator that I deeply respect) is A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech.  I find myself constantly reading and re-reading the book and getting fabulous ideas and a whole lot of laughs to boot.  When I taught creativity to my group of teachers of gifted students, I assigned them to read a section of the book and then design a lesson off of one of the ideas.  The lessons were to be appropriate in any classroom from grades 3-5; however, the teachers designed lessons that could be used for most grade levels.  Some lessons take 5 minutes while others last multiple days.  Creativity is usually prevalent in gifted individuals; however, by Torrance’s definitions anyone can learn to be creative.   All of the lessons have a form of assessment attached (mostly to be used for self-assessment).  In order to create these rubrics, the teachers drew ideas from Dr. Richard Cash’s work in Differentiation for Gifted Learners.  I have posted the ideas on my website; they are titled starting with the words ‘creativity lesson.’

Are we testing too much?

So, I have been having some deep thoughts about the new move in education to over-test our children.  For example, the new end of course (EOC) exams for Algebra and Geometry are slotted to be 4 hours long each.  Seriously???  What type of information is that going to give us in the long run.  The SAT and ACT test (probably the highest stakes tests given as they for college entrance) are 3.5 hours long and test 3+ content areas and have an entire writing portion.  Either a child knows Algebra and Geometry or they don’t.  I’m sure the teachers could save the state millions by letting you know who does and who doesn’t get it.  By the way, who even cares if all people know Algebra and Geometry anyway?  We keep saying we want our children to be college and career ready, but really we want all of our children to be prepared for an Engineering track at a 4 year college.  Are those the only jobs available in Nevada?  What gives those jobs more value over any other jobs?

I tell teachers all of the time:  remind yourself every day, you teach children, not tests!  You teach children, NOT tests!  Right now my son will take the SBAC for his grade level – 5 sessions for both math and ELA, MAPS testing for math and ELA (which takes 1.5 hours for each), EOC exams for both Algebra and Geometry (8 hours each) and then there is science and ELA for EOC exams (no word on the time there).  Here is a question:  when does he get a chance to get to actually learn the material??

I spend my time training teachers on the educational research behind good assessment.  We know that assessment should promote learning, not just measure it.  This means there needs to be a balance between formative (assessment for learning) and summative (assessment of learning).  Right now, everything is summative and it is robbing children of the ability to actually enjoy education and learn.  Spoiler alert:  the same children that have done well on tests in the past will continue to do well, and the students who struggle in school will do poorly.  You can collect as much data as you want, put as many stars behind it that you can, and test these children to the brink of insanity; however, this is not going to change our educational system.   To quote my brilliant friend Carol, “We don’t want to have students fail because of us, and learn in spite of us.”

Here is something revolutionary, let’s quit spending money on testing (and believe me, it is big money), and put money where it will actually do some good – instruction.  Let’s spend money on training and supporting teachers in the classroom.  Let’s lower class sizes, and pay teachers for the time involved in planning lessons.  Let’s spend serious money on students and teachers in grades pre-K through 2nd grade so a sound foundation is built.  Let’s stop doing what is convenient for adults and transportation and do what is right for students.  I wish I were in charge of this very important world of education, but unfortunately, I am not.   I guess for now, I will just have to remind my child to ignore all the test data that he is bombarded with and go outside and have fun at recess!

Teaching Mathematical Modeling

As I was preparing a unit on expressions (translating, evaluating, and simplifying), I decided to branch out and include a real-world “problem” to entice students to see the benefit of writing equations and expressions.  I ended up creating a video detailing a pretty involved scenario in which students would need to sift through possible constants and variables.  At the end of the video, I asked the question – How can you model a possible solution to this problem?   Because my 5th grade son’s teacher is such a great sport, she offered to test the lesson in her classroom and we certainly found some interesting results.  Upon being asked to generate a model for the problem, all the students started drawing these elaborate schematics and asked if they could create them in 3-D.  It became very evident that students aren’t quite comprehending the numerous meanings of math models.  Looking over Henry Pollak’s discussions on math modeling for the common core, I decided to make a follow-up video helping students see that mathematical modeling can take many different forms.   Here is the link to the original video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXBL79tlBg4.  I would love for teachers to try showing this video to their students and see if their misconceptions for math modeling are the same.  The youtube link for the math modeling video is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iew9nppByKs&feature=youtu.be.

Using objectives purposefully in the math classroom

When I was first asked to write my objective on the board in my classroom, I flat out refused.  I dug my heels in the sand and complained, “What for?”   It seems that administrators were convinced that statements such as, “Students will be able to ….”  was the latest and greatest idea for making students achieve unrealistic goals.  Personally, I didn’t see the point!  Did the students care?  Why was I writing something for the benefit of my administrators that only walked through my classroom about once a year.  One more thing to do in an already crowded day!

Many years into my career, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a professional development course led by Corbett Harrison and Kindra Fox, that focused instruction on the research of Wiggins and McTighe and their book, Understanding by Design.  It was as if a perpetual light-bulb had been turned on over my head!  Students need to know what they are learning and why they are learning it.  Also, we have to set our learning targets before writing our lessons, then we create the acceptable evidence of mastering that target, and only then should we plan lessons to achieve those goals!  I was doing everything completely wrong!

After one year in this professional development course, I was hired to be a trainer and teach other teachers how to bring Wiggins and McTighe’s research to life in all math classrooms.  I am completely passionate about creating essential questions that engage students and involve them in their own learning.  I love to get students enthusiastic about what they are learning.  In that vein, I created a video that is meant to “hook” students into learning about surface area and volume.  Not only does the video raise interesting and exploratory questions, but it also provides a driving essential question that can be used throughout an entire unit on 3-D Geometry.  Here is the link to the essential question video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJGpKnI-784, which is on you-tube.   I hope your students enjoy!

How can you combine linguini and trigonometry?

The other night, my son was discussing what he was learning in trig class and it made me reminisce about the days that I taught trig.   When I first started teaching that class, it scared me.  If you made the tiniest mistake, the students turned on you like wolves.  After a while, I got my groove and turned the class into a great inquiry-based course that I adored teaching.  One of my favorite lessons from the beginning of the year is an activity called linguini trig.  I adapted it from an article I found called “Spaghetti and the Sine Curve” that appeared in The Mathematics Teacher in the 90’s.  The whole lesson is an amazing way to show students how the trigonometric functions are graphed and it gives them a solid foundation in periodic graphs.  I decided to replicate the lesson on video (about 15 minutes long) for teachers to see how the lesson looks from start to finish or students could view it to solidify understanding of the concepts of graphing.  The link to the video on youtube is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9umDGwytyos.   I hope you enjoy!    Here are some documents you need for the lesson: graph template001 graph template002

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The CCSS 8 mathematical practices

As I spend time examining the Common Core State Standards for math, I am struck by how powerful the mathematics is in there.  What concerns me the most is that the CCSS was written by mathematicians who have a fantastic handle on what mathematicians need to know, but I think the documents lack a bit of down-to-earth verbiage for teachers and students.  When I read the 8 mathematical practices, I was impressed at how the practices discussed the habits of mind that it takes to be a mathematician.  The more I read it, though, the more I realized how difficult it would be in its current state to use in the K-8 classroom.  For the past two years, I have used the 8 practices in my classroom (grades 6-8) to not only drive my instruction, but to guide the methods that I use to help students become mathematicians.  I also have a version of the practices for the lower grade levels (K-3).  Over the course of two years, I feel that I created a student-friendly version of the practices and engaging lessons to help students use them every day in the classroom.  I have a narrated power-point to explain my lessons and there are documents to use in the classroom at my websitesmall_picture_8_practices.