Against the Grain, Part II

In my last post I kind of beat myself up over my struggles in my first year of teaching. I think everything I said was true. I didn’t do the kinds of things that I knew were good practices. I wasn’t the kind of teacher that I had set out to be. But that wasn’t the whole picture. I wasn’t a horrible teacher in that first year. Here’s (ala Fox News) the other side of the story.

There were two glimmers of hope in that year of growing pains. Two instances that when I looked back on that year let me say to myself: “See, you really do know how things should be done. You can do this better next time.”

  1. My unit on area & perimeter with my 6th grade honors class.

We were using CMP, so this was the “Covering and Surrounding” book. The content isn’t what was important; it was the project that I embarked on that just happened to take place during this unit. One of the new teacher induction tasks for year one was to do a “practice” inquiry. This involved choosing an area that you wanted to explore, doing a little research, and implementing something in your classroom and gathering evidence to see how it went. [Side note: although at the time I thought this was lame, in fact this was SO much better than the whole BTSA rigmarole, I can’t even begin to explain the difference adequately.] I chose to explore something I already knew a little about–group-work. I figured, why not do something for this inquiry that I really want to do anyways? It was wonderful. I explained to my little, adorable 6th graders what it was we would be doing; that we would be working in groups for this new unit (up to this point they had been mainly working in pairs or individually). I taught them how to move their desks into groups of four. We practiced. And I rewrote a lot of the textbook tasks into task-cards that were more open ended and less directive. The work these kids produced was fabulous. It was great. Still, I was too chicken-shit to try this with my 8th graders.

  1. But then we came across a problem in my 8th grade book that was familiar. I looked ahead to the upcoming problems and, lo and behold, there was The Border Problem.

The thing was I had seen video of this problem being taught at PCMI the summer before. And this was a HUGE thing for me. I had a template for how this lesson should be taught. I didn’t have to imagine how to transform it from the book to something better all on my own. I didn’t have to create something from scratch. I just did what the teacher did in the video. Which is exactly what I did with the exception that I had a document camera, so I had students come up and put their work under it, instead of writing on an overhead. And this too was amazing. I had students who had been giving me grief all year long produce such beautiful explanations that it hurt my heart. How could I have waited so long to let them be this awesome?

I learned a lot from that single lesson. I learned that it was essential to give students opportunities to do challenging problems and then share with one another their great mathematical thinking. There was simply no excuse not to do this anymore. I had done it. It had worked.

Fast forward through the next four years and I’m doing better each year. Still haven’t perfected it yet though. Guess I’ll have to keep trying.

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6 thoughts on “Against the Grain, Part II

  1. Pingback: The importance of the imagery of teaching | Overthinking my teaching

    • As far as I know, no.

      Which in internet-land means, probably it is…somewhere. I don’t know where though. I don’t even remember the details of what teacher/researcher, when, where, etc.

      Check out Christopher Danielson’s blog post for a possible resource for the video though. He thinks he knows which one I’m talking about. You can click through his comment to the post. Good luck finding it. If you do locate it online, check back here and share the link!

      • I’m not sure if it’s the same video, but I saw one of this lesson (Border Problem) done by Cathy Humphreys. I’ll see if I can find the link somewhere in the remnants of my grad school notes.

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