Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Function Junction, Part 2

When I started as curriculum specialist at Robert Adams Middle School in Holliston, my goal was to develop and deliver a curriculum that made sense to students. The raison d'ĂȘtre of math and science is to help us make sense of the world around us, so it is pretty crazy that most students experience math and science as subjects in school that don't make sense and need to be memorized. The students that do well in math and science are the ones that take what they learn in the classroom, and make sense of it on their own. I strongly believe that the curriculum should be designed to encourage and enable all students to do that.

If something makes sense to you, you feel confident about it. You feel like you are standing on solid ground and that you are capable. That is an awesome feeling, and when you experience it, you want to experience it again and again. So, instead of memorizing things in isolation and relying on procedures to solve problems, you start integrating things into conceptual frameworks and reasoning through problems on your own. This changes the entire dynamic in the classroom and how you experience learning in school. Instead of being taught, now you are constructing your own understanding and driven by a sense of autonomy.

This is what most teachers want. We don't want to stand up and lecture, and spoon feed little isolated facts to students all day. Doing that day after day sucks the life right out of you. We teach that way because we don't know what else to do and it seems like the only way to get students to learn anything. Over time, the walls go up and we convince ourselves that this is the only way to teach, that students need it. This, of course, warps how we see and think about students. It also warps how students see and think about themselves.

Developing and implementing a curriculum that makes sense to students may seem like an easy and straightforward enterprise, but it isn't. First, there isn't a curriculum that you can just buy off the shelf; we would have to develop something from scratch. Second, there isn't a model that you can point to and follow for creating a sense-making curriculum; no school that I'm aware of has developed one. Third, no one at the school (except me) believed that a sense-making curriculum was even possible because we had all developed the core belief that some students simply aren't capable of making sense of some math and science concepts. We didn't want to believe that, but our experiences had led us to that conclusion.

This means that, as we set off on this journey to a sense-making curriculum, we were blazing a new trail through unexplored territory without a mountain or a compass to guide us. Using a sense-making curriculum as our goal wouldn't help; it would be like setting out for Xanadu without having any idea where Xanadu is, what it looks like, or even if it exists. A mountain needs to be something that you can see on the horizon, and a compass needs to be something that you can and will rely on when you are lost and can't make out the forest for the trees.

In Holliston, I was hired to help the staff develop a math and science curriculum based on Power Standards. This was tremendously helpful because it set the expectation that we were going to be writing our own curriculum, and I felt that Power Standards could serve as an effective compass. However, to be an effective compass, everyone would have to trust in the compass. There would be times when we'd be convinced that the compass was guiding us in the wrong direction and want to turn back, but we'd have to trust in the compass enough to keep going. Developing that level of trust was going to take time and evidence.

So, until the Power Standards compass came online, I'd have to function as the staff's mountain and compass. One of the first practices that we implemented at the middle school were weekly grade level department meetings. Once a week, all of the seventh-grade math teachers would sit down during a 45-minute common planning period to discuss curriculum, share practices, and write, score, and analyze common assessments. Our teams actually had 90 minutes of common planning time a day, but by contract, the administration could not mandate what the teachers did in that time. It was rare for teachers to meet to discuss curriculum, but through the Power Standard work we were doing, we were able to convince them to meet voluntarily.

I would drop by some of these meetings and listen in on the discussions. I would listen for any issues that the teachers were having (pain points), and occasionally offer suggestions. Some of these suggestions were based on curriculum units that I had developed in the past. Initially, about a third of the teachers were willing to try some new curriculum, and about a third of them were willing to let me come in and teach a model lesson or coach them. Few school districts employ coaches, and most coaches can only work with teachers that volunteer. Imagine being a member of a professional sports team and telling management that you know what you are doing so you'll be skipping team practices and just showing up for the game. That is the norm in schools. Coaches are told that they need to build trust and relationships with teachers before working with them.

While we were working on developing Power Standards as our internal compass, I wanted teachers experimenting with some new units in order to establish a mountain. My hope is that teachers would try a new unit and then be surprised by how well students performed in it. This would begin shifting some of their core beliefs about what students can and cannot do, and give them a goal to work toward. Unlike the goal of creating a sense-making curriculum, which is too abstract and distant for them to see, this goal would sit on the horizon and lead us to the more distant goal. This work was fairly successful because, by my third year in Holliston, about two thirds of the teachers were volunteering to use my curriculum and about half of them were open to coaching. I had established a goal that most teachers were willing to step outside of their comfort zones in order to achieve.

Selecting the appropriate curriculum for teachers to try in that first year was critically important. The curriculum had to be short and it had to be relatively aligned to their current beliefs and practices. In other words, it couldn't be too radical. But it also had to be effective; they had to be surprised by the outcomes they achieved with it. Administrators often talk about going for low-hanging fruit in order to develop trust and confidence with the staff. You need short-term wins to increase buy-in. But I believe that those short-term wins need to be eye-popping, and the results need to exceed what the staff feels is possible with orthodox methods. If you accomplish something that the staff knows they could have done just by rolling up their sleeves and working together, then you aren't really providing any cognitive dissonance. You build some trust and confidence in the leadership team, but you aren't convincing them to wander into unknown territory with you.

I'm going to throw some numbers at you. These numbers are just a way for me to establish some relative scale, so take them with a huge grain of salt. I have curricula that I have used and refined over the years to the point where my student outcomes look like this: 0% don't get it | 10% get it, but only enough to pass the test | 90% really get it and hold onto it. The normal breakdown is 33% | 33% | 33%. If teachers take my curriculum and use it, 1% will achieve a breakdown of 15% | 10% | 75%, 9% will achieve 25% | 25% | 50%, 40% will achieve 25% | 35% | 40%, and half will achieve 33% | 33% | 33%. This means that half the teachers won't see any gains from using my curriculum and 40% will see some gains, but it will be within the margin of error so treated as noise. 10% of the teachers will see student outcomes that rise above the noise, but only 10% of them will be inspired enough to come bug me for more curriculum. If that is your first tack into the wind, you're going to find yourself sitting in a dead zone.

If you are going to build momentum and make progress, then teachers really need to see better results from these initial experiments. The key is coaching. You need to provide it and they need to accept it. I had two teachers who were open to coaching in my first year. I was also able to teach some model lessons in front of the entire department at mandated professional days and monthly curriculum meetings. Teachers feel more comfortable observing model lessons because they don't feel as though they are being critiqued and evaluated, and they can pick up some valuable instructional strategies just by watching you. It is harder on the coach or the curriculum specialist because you are essentially putting yourself on stage and saying watch while I show you how it is done. The teachers will nitpick your performance, but suck it up. Through word-of-mouth and a new hire, I was able to establish or maintain coaching relationships with four teachers in my second year.

If your coaching and curriculum are effective enough, then you will start to win over teachers and move them to higher levels of buy-in. But you won't move the teachers who start out as resistors and saboteurs and don't experience the results of your coaching and curriculum firsthand. And surrounding them with peers who do want to work with you won't help. When you work with individual teachers, they will start to take ownership in this work if the results are there, but they will see it as a way for them to become better teachers and for them to provide better learning experiences for their students within their classrooms. You may want them to recruit other teachers or to speak positively about your shared work in public forums, but they don't have any incentive to do that, and doing that puts them way out on a limb they don't want to be on. Instead, they will work with you enthusiastically in private, but do nothing in public. It will drive you crazy.

(I actually had a great relationship with the entire science department after my first year. We did some great curriculum work together, including a seventh-grade chemistry unit, and they really saw the potential of Power Standards. The conversations that we had around curriculum at our curriculum meetings were at an incredibly high level. But if there was one teacher present who wasn't in the science department, they would clam up. The one exception was a science meeting where we were meeting with science teachers from the high school and elementary schools. The Power Standards work at those schools were not going well and those science teachers wanted the district to change course. At that point, the middle school science teachers stood up for Power Standards. I was blown away by how articulate they were and how deeply they understood the work we were doing. Unfortunately, we had some key retirements and lost momentum the next year.)

My strategy for overcoming this was to work with an entire grade level instead of individual teachers. To do this, you need to be lucky enough to have an entire grade level of teachers working with you as individuals. I was lucky enough to have this working relationship with all three sixth-grade math teachers, so we implemented a sixth-grade functions unit. If you can pull this off, you accomplish three things:

  1. Teachers are able to experience what it is like to work with students who walk through the door with a solid conceptual understanding of the content. Helping them arrive at that conceptual understanding is rewarding, but it is a little hard to know how much they truly understand at the end of the unit. Building on conceptual understanding that is already there takes things to the next level and confirms that what the teachers in the previous grade level thought they saw and assessed was really there.
  2. The evidence becomes stronger if the gains generated through a sixth-grade functions unit are then amplified through a seventh-grade functions unit. The signal becomes so strong that it is hard to ignore even if you don't experience it firsthand. I had strong relationships with most of the seventh-grade math teachers at this point, but I elected to start with the sixth-grade teachers because I knew the seventh-grade teachers would be able to amplify the signal. My goal was to win over a few eighth-grade hold outs with this new evidence.
  3. Having a consistent curriculum demonstrates the kinds of outcomes you can achieve when all students are developing a solid conceptual understanding. If the students in one sixth-grade math classroom are building understanding, but the students in another sixth-grade math classroom are not, then the seventh-grade math teachers cannot build on anything. Once you see what is possible, you are going to want the teachers at the grade level below you to build understanding so that you can build on top of it, and you are going to want the teachers at the grade level above you to build on what you built so that it isn't wasted. Instead of taking ownership of the curriculum because it helps you be the best teacher that you can be, you start taking ownership of the curriculum because of what it can do for students. And this forces you to publicly advocate for this shared work.

This is as far as I got in Holliston. I left because another opportunity came up and I didn't think that my tacking was going to continue building momentum. As the work progresses, the level of trust and risk-taking required also increases, so you need to be able back things up with increasingly compelling results. To get those results, you need more people working together, and I wasn't getting the traction I needed at the administrative level.

I also feel like I made at least one critical mistake in the tack I took. The new units and instructional practices we were implementing were designed to establish a mountain, a goal for us to take ownership in and shoot for. That mountain was the idea that curriculum and instruction could be built for understanding, and that if we could get all students to develop a solid conceptual understanding, then we could do amazing things together as a school community. I was guiding the way through the first leg of the journey until everyone could see the mountain and we could find a compass, but there was still a really long way to go, and the compass is how we would get there. Remember, no one has walked this trail before, including me.

Jessica was the principal of the middle school when I arrived and she left after that first year. She was the driving force behind the Power Standards work. In the second year, I started having trouble figuring out how to make Power Standards into an effective compass, and when I couldn't figure it out on my own, I pretty much abandoned them. Without an effective compass coming online in the near future, the middle school math and science teachers were relying on me to guide them. That worked initially, but it began to feel that I had conned them into surrendering some of their autonomy and that I had no intention of giving it back. I had taken some expedient steps and steered us into a corner I wasn't sure I could steer us out of. Part of what I've been doing these past two years is figuring out the compass that I use to design curriculum so that I can hand it to someone else. I won't make that mistake a second time.

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