Holy Hybrid: November Reflections

As of 2020, I have decided I never want to be a school administrator. 

A lot of people assume becoming a division or school leader is what most teachers aim to eventually do.  Being an administrator is related to being a teacher, but it is actually a very different  job. The best administrators spend several years teaching, but they also possess and enjoy employing other skill sets in the realm of organizational communication and management. It is admirable work, and I am delighted to be working with a talented leadership team who truly understand their roles and are capable of executing all that is needed at this time. 

Meanwhile, I have never been a ladder climber, and I really only like taking responsibility for myself. Most administrators I know miss the day to day interaction with students and spend most of their time in meetings occupied with the management of adults and money (I am NOT to be trusted with a supply budget). In the era of COVID-19, they are also busy managing spaces, protocols, and germs. They hold literal lives in their hands now, not just minds. No thanks. I prefer to focus on the kids and play the role of an experienced, supportive, sometimes ornery, faculty member ready with an idea and an opinion if you need two more cents. Instead, I’m going to leverage my 15 years in the game by pursuing a claim to the title of Master Teacher.

This is part of the reason I am back on campus teaching hybrid.  I know I said I did not want to teach in person.  In July and August, I didn’t.  But I actually started feeling a little FOMO as other schools went back and colleagues talked about the struggle. Virtual teaching was getting a little…comfy. I began imagining strategies and solutions and wondered if they would work. Of course safety comes first, and I am taking many levels of precaution. There is more research now, and to be honest, I am in a school community where there has been enough partnership, transparency, and communication so that I generally do feel safe.  I am not being asked to do things I am not comfortable with, and if I was, I know how to get in my car and go home. For now, accommodations are being supported, and there is a team mentality to getting all of the work done within the constraints of our different situations. And today, when I watched one of my students, a new kid, make strong inroads on a friendship, I knew that for him our opening was a gift. 

As I examine this perverse desire I felt to be a part of the madness, it dawned on me: a master teacher is a master learner, and this has been the professional development of a lifetime. I have absolutely felt gratitude for the professional challenges I’ve faced over the last eight months.  When this is all over, I will be better at what I do. Iron is forged in fire and diamonds are created under pressure.  We don’t grow when we are comfortable; we grow when we are placed into situations that require our transformation.  The pandemic has required me to adapt everything that I do in ways I could have never imagined. It isn’t that my methods are perfect or that they even work half the time – it is the effort that feels the most gratifying. I am more flexible, more nimble, more experimentive, and more willing to put myself out there in front of everyone while the record light flashes, and that would have never happened if everything hadn’t fallen apart. 

As a master learner, I must demonstrate not just my outcomes, but my process. My approaches, my attempts, my risks, my errors, my failures, my questions, my resilience, my persistence – the whole damn journey.  I hope to write more about the things that work in due time.  I need to try them out more before I make any recommendations. Most days I feel like I am winging it, and that’s okay. When KAMI has a bug or Zoom goes out or the HDMI cable is bent, I just tell the kids the truth. I think they appreciate the honesty and hopefully they are taking away the real lesson – that it’s alright to try, that it’s alright to fail, and that we will figure out how to succeed together. 

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Math Collaboration and Differentiation While Distance Learning

Have I mentioned I am also a math teacher?  Well, a 6th grade math teacher.  Seriously.  I only like teaching 6th grade math.  The main reason is that 6th grade math is the math we use every day – equivalent fractions for cooking and percentages for taxes, area to measure homes and basic algebra to figure out party supply amounts.  They leave my class with the ability to buy carpet and tip appropriately.  That’s life. 

People are surprised when I say I teach both middle school math AND humanities.  They either think I am a unicorn or I REALLY believe in interdisciplinary education.  The truth is that since I started off as an elementary grade teacher, I have always taught math, language arts, and social studies.  And I am really glad that so far I haven’t had to choose a favorite. 

Distance learning has offered some distinct challenges to my math teaching, but also some opportunities.  I find that with the right technological tools and creative planning I can maintain important pedagogical practices while serving individual student needs better.  There are many adaptations I have made that I hope to take back to the classroom. Now that we are all learning safely at home, I have been relying on the breakout room feature of our video conferencing platform to both improve the level of personalization I offer as part of our school mission and to continue the collaborative routines we built while on campus.

Our middle school math program is not tracked; we have heterogenous, mixed ability classrooms.  Part of our school mission is to also provide more personalized learning.  Differentiation is incredibly important because while a variety of learners are grouped together, no one should feel either held back or overwhelmed.  Having previously taught “advanced” or “conceptual” math classes, I get the desire to create homogenous classes.  It is easier to serve students who have the same background knowledge, learning styles, and needs.  There is a ton of evidence that this is rarely done equitably.  Marginalized populations are always underrepresented. It is also not necessarily the best model if the goal is a math community with a growth mindset.  I really want to make our current mixed groupings work, even though differentiation becomes more challenging with a greater range of learners. I see how different thinkers can inspire one another and how a lack of permanent placement leaves room for the exponential growth that can happen during a middle school year.  

It is now easier to separate children into groups based on their understanding of a concept and to change those groupings frequently. Because the space is virtual, they pay less attention to who is where.  There aren’t any tables or bodies to move when I want to bring the class back together or regroup them for a different activity. My hope is that things feel fluid and supportive of a growth mindset.  It is also easier to deliver personalized work to each child, again because they can’t pay attention to what the next person is working on.  Hyperdocs have been an essential tool. The decrease in peer pressure is really working out for students who need a little more time.  They finally have a chance to celebrate their growth without comparing themselves to others. 

 As a progressive educator, I typically don’t love to stand in front of the class and do direct instruction. I recognize that some children prefer it. PowerPoint presentations and modeled problems are definitely in the mix, but children are seated at table groups, I keep it short, and I try to move around so there is no front of the room.   I prefer to be the “guide on the side” while students collaborate on deep problems, providing support or enrichment as needed.  I try to leave space for students to discover mathematical principles and to become as interested in the “why” as they are the “how” of a procedure.  I am grateful that this type of collaboration is still possible in the virtual world using the breakout rooms.  My kids are craving purposeful interactions with their classmates.  We all win if their socializing leads to greater mathematical understanding. 

Here are some of my favorite small group activity resources:

Open Middle

Open Middle problems are great for encouraging conversation and debate in a math classroom.  They remind me of those awesome task boards by Marcy Cook.  I usually put these at the end of a lesson problem set for my early finishers or send kids who already know the concept I am teaching into a breakout room to solve them together.  Open Middle problems are great for explaining to parents the difference between conceptual and procedural understanding of math topics they may think their child is finished learning. 

3 ACT Math

The 3 Act Math format was developed by Dan Meyer.  I usually do Act 1 as a whole group, then send them into the breakout rooms for Act 2, then come back together to share ideas and do the big reveal of Act 3.   I love that these puzzles always relate to real life situations.  A super fun one compared the beats per minute of popular hip hop songs from different regions.  Several students were taking a digital music class and the process of using ratios to figure out which beats were fastest or slowest was a terrific connection.

MashUp Math

MashUp Math is a great resource for really well-designed explanatory videos, but also has an expansive offering of visual puzzles.  I used these puzzles as a primer for our algebra basics unit.  There were students who already knew how to factor and use the distributive property and children who ducked put their heads down at the sight of a variable.  These puzzles leveled the playing field and gave everyone the chance to have some reasoning fun with gummy bears and game consoles.  For introductory students, the focus was on where to start and how to use inverse operations to solve for unknown quantities.  For accelerated students, the challenge was efficiently explaining their automatic thinking, both verbally and in writing. They could also practice turning the pictures into expressions and equations with variables or making their own puzzles. 

How are you managing differentiation and fostering meaningful collaboration during distance learning?  What resources do you love? Post in the comments!