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Catching up on the blog...

How does a month go by without reflecting on what is and isn't happening in my classroom? Well this month's excuses include: getting sick, parenting (they still can't prepare their own food, come on, when I was 5...), teaching, prepping and grading for my UCLA class, getting sick again, general end of the year hullabaloo, grading finals, grading final projects (like this one and this one) and spending quality time calculating grades.

I did maintain a well used "to blog" sticky note, so there is that.

Like last year, I had my students write a self-evaluation-ish reflection as their last blog post for the year. I made small changes to the prompt and gave them 25 minutes to start writing in class. Also, like last year, reading them made me tear up. I would like to share a few of them, but these posts feel a bit personal and I don't want to seem too self-aggrandizing by linking to posts that were complimentary. To sum it up, while not all of my 86 students wrote me heart felt, lengthy reflections full of praise for the course, most of them expressed enjoying class. Just to repeat, many of my 8th and 9th graders enjoy math class. While I am well aware that there are always ways to improve my practice, this bit of feedback tells me that my attempts to make class engaging and joyful, are working (thank you MTBoS).

It would not be fair to assign my students reflections and not complete one myself, so here is my self-reflection for 2014-2015:

Looking back at my posts from earlier this year, I was quite nervous about transitioning to Standards Based Grading. After rereading, I now remember the spreadsheet based nightmares and worries about what my students, parents of students and colleagues would say. I am happy to report that my nightmares were unfounded. SBG was really a success. My students report feeling less stressed about grades and more focused on learning specific skills. Their biggest "like" was being able to retake quizzes and have more chances at demonstrating mastery if their first attempt didn't go well. Still, not without kinks, some students did express confusion about how their bar-chart of mastery would translate into a letter grade. I wrote a lengthy post here explaining how I am doing so and honestly, I am still learning. As I understand the process better, I am sure I will make changes, though I will say with confidence that the system this year was fair. Overall, I have learned a lot throughout the process and I think it has made me more thoughtful teacher and assessor.

On to more specific items to praise and others to polish...

Polish: I still want to include more PrBL, more Geogebra, assign more reflecting on class activity blog posts, all the while keeping in mind that I have only 135, 40 minute class sessions per year... Hmm... what content can I skip?? *maniacal laugh*

Polish: I took on too much by both interleaving course content and integrating Standards Based Grading. Since feedback is at the heart of of SBG, this means someone had to grade those frequent formative assessments and log their results in a spreadsheet and transfer said spreadsheet to Active Grade and create a handout for remediation and an alternate version of the assessment and then grade that one... that person was me - times 56. Perhaps then I chose badly to also make this the year to redo every homework handout to truly interleave the content... but I couldn't unlearn what I learned from Make it Stick. It convinced me that spiraled practice and frequent quizzing are key to remembering. So, I had to.

Prasie: Kids like games. Kids like having fun. Strange. It is very possible to have students motivated and engaged in learning all while also striving to also earn a trip to my prize barrel. In algebra, this means white board games, scavenger hunts, and solve crumple toss. Seriously, kids beg me to play Zombie Grudge. In Geometry, this year I finally found a flipped classroom that works.  We played "the game" for the entire last quarter. After doing a mix of whiteboard Stamp Game and team challenges for a week, I thought it might get old. I was very wrong. They loved the competition and they made every moment of class count for engaged, rigorous practice. Not to mention, Make it Stick, yet again in this post, but since at the heart of this type of class is essentially quizzing, kids were building their own retention while having fun and trying to earn badges for their team. During the, sometimes, slower paced team challenges I often overheard kids engaged in meaningful discussions (okay, arguments) about how to figure out a problem. What I loved was that these discussions promoted learning. I overheard statements like: "No you can't use the apothem formula because it's not regular" and "try drawing the altitude here."

For the last five years, I have finished out each school year teaching an additional class each Wednesday afternoon to a group of undergraduate math majors at UCLA. Lest you think I am a professor, let me stop you right there. This is not a giant lecture hall in which I stand and deliver eloquent, philosophical lectures... instead I lead a seminar of on average 16 students who are observing 2-3 hours per week in a middle school math class. Over the course of 10 weeks, we discuss their observations, I give 10 small lectures on best practices in teaching, and remind them of middle school math topics covered by Common Core via small activities and model lessons. I have loved getting to share with soon to be new teachers the glory that is the mtbos. Imagine being a new teacher and getting to click on Geoff Krall's  curriculum maps and instantly be linked to engaging math tasks. I remember my first year... it wasn't pretty. Mostly textbook, lecture and me desperately trying to get them to work quietly. I am so excited for them to be starting to teach math at a time when the exchange of ideas is open and easy: 3 Acts,  Problem Based Learning, Desmos... it's all available. Better yet, lots of teachers are wiling to give of their time to help a newbie out.

The best practices in teaching portion of my class is more general. Basically my thesis for the course is that being an effective teacher is nuanced and complicated. It isn't mastered by day 1. For me it wasn't mastered after year 1 or year 6 for that matter. From classroom management to leading discussions to grading philosophy, the richness of this profession is what makes teaching both one of the most challenging and stimulating professions. What other job has one dealing with a 12 year old's odd outburst in one moment to discussing the best phrasing for discussion questions with colleagues the next? As educators we have the great privilege of being part of a child's life.  We have an opportunity to be "an instrument of inspiration" and a source for calm, counsel and confidence. Teaching is more than getting students to master skills, it is building relationships with students wherein they will feel safe to take risks and want to learn.

However, this privilege is exhausting and the month of May can be a time when teachers feel burned out, unappreciated, tired and spent. My colleagues and I often share a commiserating nod as we trudge from class to class in late May. This nod is sometimes accompanied by a countdown update, such as "12 more days," or admonition of "we're almost there." These exchanges do not mean we don't love our jobs. It simply means we are human and while the adolescents are learning and growing, they aren't quite learning and growing fast enough. Teachers need summer to recharge. While summer beckons and May takes forever, I have my UCLA class added to my plate, Sure it makes my end of the year especially busy, but it jump-starts the other purpose of summer vacation for educators: to reinvigorate. Summer is also a time for learning and reflecting on how I teach in order to get pumped up about starting again in the fall. What new strategies can I try? What new procedures will make things run more smoothly? Will I give out birthday crowns or birthday cards?

The ten weeks I spend teaching Math 72 and thinking about best practices help me to remember that change is constant and important. Every September (or August these days) I get to reinvent myself. If something failed this year, I can polish it next year.

In closing, I am looking forward to starting Graduate School this summer. In less than two weeks (yikes), I leave for New York to start a Masters in Independent School Leadership at Columbia Teachers College. I am looking forward to learning, nervous about getting from the airport to my sublet, and excited to (hopefully) start a new focus for my career.