Hope & Despair

I recently saw this article, and I thought the “reason for despair” and “reason for hope” conceit was good food for thought to get me blogging again. This year, I find that I am constantly vacillating between hope and despair. Instead of talking about the state of education in general, I want to talk about the different aspects of my job.

 

Teaching AP Calculus AB

Reason for Despair: My school does not traditionally do well on the AP exam (last year, 20% of students passed the exam, and in the last five years, only 21% have passed). This year (my first year teaching Calculus), the class size has increased by 40% from 25 to 35 students (compare to two years ago, when we had 37 students and TWO sections). My school switched schedules this year and as a result, I have about 15% less class time. Almost all of the AP-specific professional development has been designed assuming everyone teaches with a lecture-based, test-prep, rely-on-the-book mindset. In lieu of that approach, I have been developing a lot of my own resources, and it can be exhausting. My students are strained by jobs, other classes, and applying for colleges, and I sometimes struggle to get them to put the necessary time and effort into their coursework.

Reason for Hope: I moved with my students from Precalculus to Calculus, and I love these kids. When I ask them to quiet down, they do! When we discover something, some students act like their minds are blown. And even though we have long block periods, the bell sometimes sneaks up on us, and some students groan when they have to leave. We’re working on class shirts, and I regularly get to spend time with my students talking about Calculus after school.

Calculus is beautiful and fun and designing this curriculum has been a surge of creative energy for me. There are some great opportunities for discovery-oriented activities (e.g. the power rule), but there are tons of opportunities for surprising connections. I have deviated from the traditional sequencing in a few significant ways, and the response has been really positive from my students. I started the year with integration (using area) and derivatives (using slope) side-by-side, which made the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus feel truly Fundamental. We did Split 25 and discovered that e is weird and magical. We did the chain rule one day and u-substitution the next. We skipped limits at the beginning of the year, and instead we’ve felt the need for limits by acknowledging that “dx” – the magical calculus number that is both greater than zero and approximately zero – doesn’t really make sense. I want my students to see Calculus as something that makes sense AND is wonderfully confounding, and I am feeling successful thus far.

 

Teaching Mathematical Foundations

Reason for Despair: These students are all also enrolled in Algebra 2, but are in my class for extra support. I don’t know how many of them are passing Algebra 2 when they struggle with basic arithmetic. I sometimes struggle with why they have to take Algebra 2. I have never had students so new to English before, and I speak no Spanish at all. I have never had students who hate math so much or are so comfortable being blatantly disrespectful. Our Algebra 2 teachers are rarely on the same page, but I have a mixture of their students. I constantly struggle to find a balance between giving students support in the basic skills they lack and helping them become fluent with Algebra 2 skills/concepts. There is no curriculum for this class, and I am exhausted trying to create materials all the time. I am not sure that my efforts are always worthwhile because I don’t know if this class will or should continue to exist in the future.

Reason for Hope: I am learning so much about how to work with students who limited English proficiency. I am gaining some classroom management confidence. I get to experiment with teaching elementary and middle school skills mixed as embedded remediation. I have become fascinated by how students do and don’t retain information over time, and in my district’s Math Vertical Team, we have started to map out a conceptual strand from k-12 and are going to think about how to remediate along the way. Since I don’t have a curriculum, I can be responsive to student strengths/weaknesses. My students have definitely learned that a fraction bar doubles as a division sign, and that a line has a constant slope. I’ve gotten to work with Algebra tiles and the area model as a way to think about multiplying and factoring polynomials, and I love the puzzle-y nature of the work and the strength of the connection between Algebra and Geometry. I’ve started to think deeply about how to best intervene and support students with learning gaps, even if I don’t have answers yet.

 

Being Lead Teacher

Reason for Despair: In a department of 21, we have 15 new teachers, many of which are younger than me and new to teaching. We started the year still looking for two math teachers, we have already had a teacher quit, and we were not fully staffed until Thanksgiving. While other departments are refining unit plans and performance tasks, we are still just starting from scratch in a lot of places, especially in Algebra 1. I feel like I’m repeating and restarting a lot of the work that I did last year. We simply do not have enough collaborative time, and we have not had a department meeting since October. Most of our PLCs – the only scheduled collaborative time – are not structured to include all teachers of a given subject.

Reason for Hope: For the first time, we have an administrator who used to be a math teacher. Our department meetings have had an really awesome energy. Our PLCs are way more productive with long blocks, and I have gotten a lot better at collaborating with coaches/administrators and sharing what happens in a meeting with the people who weren’t there. Because of my work in Foundations, I feel really tapped into Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 skills/content. I purchased a ton of notebooks with the department budget, and lots of teachers have tried interactive notebooks with positive feedback. I finally figured out a coaching cycle structure that works for me: unstructured group co-planning. I feel really good about the materials I left behind for precalculus teachers.

 

School Culture

Reason for Despair: I could go on and on about this, so I’ll keep it brief: initiatives and pressure comes top down; overworked teachers with too little prep/collaborative time; not enough teachers; too much teacher turnover.

Reason for Hope: I could probably go on and on about this too: new teachers are open and energetic; we’re more focused on understanding mathematics than passing tests; I have adequate autonomy in my classroom and curriculum.

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