Monday, April 18, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Core? Part 5: Mathematics

Nothing unites the nation like an anti-Common Core math meme. Some of these memes actually pre-date the Common Core State Standards, like the one here.
This meme was once a form of self-deprecating humor posted by people (like myself) who do not excel in mathematics. The same meme floats around these days with the words “Common Core Math” replacing “How I see math word problems.” Its intent now is to conflate bad word problems with the Common Core State Standards. (Funny story, though—I went to grade school in the 70s and 80s, and I remember bad word problems being fairly rampant then, too.)

Then there are other [some real, some phony] memes of bad math questions that [some real, some phony] teacher gave a student to complete. They include problems like this one
and this one.
These problems typically appear on social media with a high level of parental outrage and public disdain for “whatever the hell it is they’re teaching our kids these days.”

With any school reform issue at any point in history, pushback from all sides is usually immediate and often hostile. Although most teachers and parents vocalize wanting children to have a better education than they themselves had, in my experience, we are often most comfortable with educational practices that mirror the ones from our past. Many of those old practices are not in the best interests of children these days, so getting any real reform to “stick” is tough.

One factor that causes education reforms (even good ones) to go by the wayside is this public reaction to change in schools. The public tends to believe Facebook memes and articles from websites with names like “stupidschoolpolicy.com” are accurate, and many school systems tend not to give the public good information about exactly which reforms are being implemented and why, and that contributes to the problem. Even when a system actively seeks to educate the public about reforms (as my school system has), those gatherings are typically poorly attended and are sometimes hijacked by audience members who do not come to understand something new but rather come with a political agenda to assert.  

Thus, the public is often uniformed (in the case of the Common Core standards, dangerously misinformed), gets its collective back up, and an approach to schooling that differs from what adults experienced as children is often viewed as ridiculous and sometimes even sinister.

The reason for the popularity of these memes (and for citizens’ willingness to repost them over and over without checking their veracity) is, I think, twofold and has very little to do with any specific reform and more to do with psychology.

First, parents do not like to feel like idiots when helping their children with homework. I know this feeling. It is an old friend of mine. It is the feeling in my gut of utter stupidity and uselessness that overcame me whenever my sons asked me for math help on any assignment after the fourth grade. “Sorry, honey. You need to ask Daddy that one. Got any writing homework? Mommy knows writing! And social studies! And science! But not math. And not the science with the math in it. But the other stuff? Yay!”

Curriculum reform for students is also curriculum reform for the public. If we are asking students to look at content through a new lens, then we are asking their parents to look at it with a new lens, too. The public doesn’t always like that because the new lens exposes what they themselves do not remember or, more critically, what they do not understand. A central philosophical tenet of “Common Core math” is that students learn to think like mathematicians—that they understand numbers and numerical concepts so well that they can manipulate numbers in various ways in various situations. It is a deeper conceptual understanding of mathematics than we have typically taught in schools, and my generation tends to be lousy at it.

You see, the reason I can’t help my sons with their math homework is not because I failed math. I passed math, sometimes just barely, but I survived. Years after my school days, I even scored in the 90th percentiles on my math Praxis test (yeah, I couldn’t believe it either, but I did study very hard, so there you go, kids: studying works!).

I know how to pass math tests. I know the basic terms, and I know the procedures for calculating numbers, solving equations, and even a little graphing. But I do not understand math. I cannot think about numbers in the way that someone like Matt Damon’s character does in Good Will Hunting. I do not have what my elementary teacher colleagues term “number sense.”

I cannot manipulate data easily, and I cannot play with numbers in a way that would allow me to create math problems, not even word problems (despite the fact that, as an English teacher, words are presumably my bread and butter). Number sense is the depth with which students need to understand numbers in the technology-based world we have created for them, and I am an elderly child left behind.

Understanding, it turns out, matters.

Thus, the second reason that these memes gain such a wide audience is the key one: In our society, we do not value process as much as we value product. We want a good result; we don’t necessarily care how that result happened. Both of my sons have a great deal of number sense (thank you, dear husband, for your DNA). They can solve complex math problems in their heads, and they can get the right answer often without having to write anything down. Thus, “show your work” directions for them in school were agony. “But I got the right answer. Why do I have to show her my work?” Oy, the number of times we had that conversation when Mommy just wanted to watch Oprah…

The reason we need to see a student’s work—the reason that a correct answer is not enough—is because we cannot see inside a student’s brain. We don’t know what he or she is thinking unless the student tells us or shows us what’s going on in there. We don’t always need to see a perfect essay or a correct math answer: we need to know what kind of process got the student to that point.
  • If he or she got the wrong answer, we can look to his or her process to see which parts the student understands and which parts require reteaching.
  • If he or she got the right answer and used a different process, we can see what we can learn from the student’s way that can help us in teaching others or if the student's way has pitfalls if he or she uses it in other situations.
By examining the student’s process, the teacher can see how well the student understands. The technological world in which our kids live demands that they value process as much as product even if the adults in their lives do not.

Academic problems these days [should] emphasize different ways of solving the problem so that students are compelled to think about concepts in more than one way. Those multiple modes show how well the student understands content, not just how well the kid can compute numbers. If you want your child to be more than a machine, then that intellectual flexibility is important: your child can do more than compute; he or she can understand a concept like computation and how to apply it in various contexts.

One Saturday each month, I coach our county’s candidates for National Board Certification. The teachers who undertake that process are typically overachievers, “teaching ninjas.” My elementary colleagues in those sessions have spoken about how tough implementing the Common Core math curriculum has been but also how amazing the results have been, specifically in that area of number sense. Our younger kids (with their fabulously young and open minds) are becoming more flexible and skillful thinkers about mathematics. Mommy and Daddy may feel stupid, but the kids get it. This is a good thing.

You can’t multiply the way the child’s homework directions are asking? That’s OK. Your child is learning to flex his or her math muscles in a way that you were never asked to flex yours. Instead of being angry at the question, support the child in attempting to flex those muscles just as you would support your child in training for an athletic feat that your ancient carcass can’t undertake either. Just because you don’t know how to do it does not mean that the teacher is wrong to ask your child to do it. The truth is, fellow adults, we’re not stupid; we’re old. But just because we’re old does not mean that we have to be rigid in our thinking.  

True, some problems are just bad questions written by a shady textbook company or by a teacher struggling to think about the content in ways her own education never asked her to think decades ago. But we can forgive that. That’s not really what bothers us. What bothers us is making ourselves intellectually vulnerable enough to admit “Hey, I did it, but I didn’t understand it” or “I don’t know, honey. I don’t remember. I don’t understand. Let’s ask your teacher to help us both.”

That vulnerability is the beginning of real reform. That vulnerability is the start of truly helping our kids to do better in school. That vulnerability is the sign that we are finally moving forward in making the next generation better than the last.
  • Process matters.
  • Understanding matters.
  • Knowing why you are doing something matters.
So here they are, the Common Core State Standards for Math.  As with the English standards, here is the lens through which I hope you evaluate them:

1.     Is there anything on this list that you do not want children to be able to do by the time they graduate from high school?
2.    Is there anything here that makes children less likely to follow the values their parents have instilled in them at home?
3.    When the Angry Ones say that these standards are dangerous, should be subject to a legislative vote, and need to go, which ones are they referring to? Which ones are scary?

[A word about organization: Visit the Common Core website to see the math standards in all of their glory. They are numerous and lengthy. What I am posting here are the Standards of Mathematical Practice, the overarching math philosophy that permeates the individual standards for each grade level and for each mathematical subject area (e.g., algebra, geometry, and so forth). This is a different organizational structure than the one that the English standard writers used, but as anyone will tell you: math isn’t English. They’re still easy enough to read and follow.]










Congratulations! You have now read the heart of the Common Core State Standards document. Is it what you thought it would be? Is it dangerous to children in any way? Have you been misled by candidates for the Board of Education who tried to make you think it was different than it is? Are they still trying to convince you that this curricular concern is a campaign issue for Board of Education members when it is not something that board members control? 

Vote for people who do not try to mislead the public, who know what they're talking about, and who know the actual duties of a member of the Board of Education. 

*****

Full Disclosure: Any post about the current election season will reiterate my earlier disclosure: I support Jim Fazzino for the Elkton seat on Cecil County Board of Education, and my husband is his campaign treasurer. I additionally support William Manlove for the Chesapeake City seat on the Board of Education. As you make choices this campaign season, evaluate everyone’s agenda in this situation and determine for yourselves who is giving you factual information and whom you believe to be trustworthy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Core? Part 4: Language

I’m not into grammar-shaming. One of the unfortunate consequences of social media (which I mostly love and adore) is that an elite has formed within it of people who (either aggressively or passive-aggressively) mock posts that involve misspellings or poor grammar usage. I’m an English teacher, and I love language, but I don’t go there.

Different audiences require different levels of formality. If you are sending your college professor your final project, then, yes, make sure that communication is perfect. But if you are excitedly uploading a shot of the first sonogram of your baby, don’t worry--your ol' Auntie Sharon won’t snipe at you because you forgot the comma in the caption. I just want to hear about the baby, OK? I’m your friend. I make plenty of mistakes myself, and there is no reason for me to get my metaphorical panties in a bunch about your sweet and friendly posts.

Sure, when people with whom I disagree can’t spell, have no idea about antecedents, and seem to have never met a form of punctuation that they won’t abuse horribly, I make fun of them in my head (or with my friends), but I don’t hold them up for public ridicule. Even when they are despicable people who deserve ridicule in every way, I don’t do it.  

Of course, my day job is to teach the English language to the children of America, and that’s not always the easiest task. Texting has wreaked havoc with capitalization and punctuation, and the amount of information and text types to which students are exposed vastly outnumber the ones that any of us ever navigated as children. I love English, but teaching it is an ever changing challenge.


Americans often collectively throw up their hands in the air in despair over the state of grammar in the nation, and we judge children particularly harshly in doing so. For example, my sister once sent me a photo of my niece when she was in kindergarten. She is smiling and holding a sign she wrote that says "I am byootfl." Do you understand the sentence she wrote? Her writing not only demonstrates that she deals in facts (she is, in fact, beautiful) but also that she has a great deal of “letter sense.” Say the word “byootfl” out loud phonetically. Sound out each letter. See? She got it right. She understood which letters make which sounds, and she put them together well.


But that's not how we're supposed to spell the word "beautiful." The English language is what is “wrong” here. We’re Americans, so let’s do what we historically do and blame the French, whose word caused this problem: “beau,” France? Really? What’s the “a” for? Pull it together, s’il vous plait. Many people, when looking at this photo would think that my perfect niece is wrong, that she needs correcting, that maybe that she’s dumb and doesn’t know the word “beautiful.” (Call that perfect angel “dumb” one more time and see Auntie Sharon get all up in your face in a hot second.) Actually, she’s just following the rules of the language. For her to get it “right,” we have to teach her to unlearn the clear phonemic awareness she has and help her to understand that the exception is the rule for that word. Oy, language. It's a challenge.


Then, as they get older, we give kids cell phones, which by their nature make communication lightning fast, and soon after, we start bemoaning the state of America’s youth because they are abbreviating sentences like “Where r u?” in that speedy forum. Calm down, everybody. The kids are alright, but they do still need to know the (often illogical and elusive) rules of the English language to be successful in life even if they don't follow those rules in informal situations. Thus, I don’t do shaming; I do teaching. This brings us to Part 4 of our Common Core State Standards extravaganza, the Language Standards!


As with my previous posts about Reading, Writing, and Speaking & Listening, my goal is to show you the actual standards to see if you agree with the Angry Ones candidates for the school board that these guidelines are evil, un-American, and out to conform your child to “Obama’s socialist state.” (I am not kidding--their followers have posted that phrasing more than once on my Facebook page.) Grade-level versions of each one are available on the Common Core State Standards website, and I encourage you to read them for yourself. 

As you read the anchor standards here, ask yourself:

  1. Is there anything on this list that you do not want children to be able to do by the time they graduate from high school?
  2. Is there anything here that makes children less likely to follow the values that their parents have instilled in them at home?
  3. When the Angry Ones say that these standards are dangerous, should be subject to a legislative vote, and need to go, which ones are they referring to? Which ones are scary?

Well, Cecil County, that’s it for the English side of things. If you've been reading each of these daily posts, you have now read the heart of the controversy-generating, heartburn-inducing, paranoia-creating Common Core State Standards for English. I have one more set of questions for you:
  1. Are these standards dangerous?
  2. Are they not worthwhile goals for your children’s education?
  3. Do you honestly believe that, even if there were political motives and financial motives involved in their creation (and yes, those motives are part of all government policies, as you know), somehow learning the content of these standards endangers our nation in any way?


If you answered “Yes” to any of those questions, then I ask you to put forth what you suggest as the replacement for these guidelines. What should students learn in these four areas by the time they graduate from high school? Give specifics. If you cannot propose a coherent, research-based alternative, then step off. I am done with hysterical rants about conspiracy theories, and I am done trying to explain this situation people who refuse to acknowledge what the standards really are because they get more attention by spewing misinformation. I want children to learn to communicate well, and I hope you do, too.
*****


Early voting has begun! This is the lamest campaign slogan in the world, but here goes: “Vote in the primary: It actually matters this time!”

Math comes along on Monday! Math is a slightly less controversial part of the Common Core State Standards than English. The controversy with math lies more in which parts of mathematics students should learn at which ages. Nonetheless, I will still challenge you to demonstrate the sinister communist/Isis/kitten-murdering implications of 2x + 3x = 10.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Core? Part 3: Speaking & Listening

It’s Day 3 of our Common Core extravaganza! It’s also Wednesday, so in Ms. Thomas’ classes, that means it’s Touchstones Day. I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the writing standards of the Common Core State Standards are my favorite part of that document, and they are. But the deeper we go into Common Core implementation, the more I respect and appreciate the curricular piece that addresses the Common Core Speaking & Listening standards.

English class is not just reading and writing. Some people continue to insist that schools should just teach the “3Rs”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. (Don’t get me started on whether I want education policy decided by people who think that the words “writing” and “arithmetic” start with the letter R.) One of the best facets of the Common Core State Standards is that they describe English instruction in four domains: Reading, Writing, Speaking & Listening, and Language.

English class is communication as a whole. At the time that the state adopted the Common Core standards, Jean Clark, an instructional specialist with Cecil County Public Schools at the time, recommended that we adopt the Touchstones Discussion Project as our method of addressing those new Speaking & Listening standards in our county English curriculum. That program (founded by graduates of St. John’s College in Annapolis several decades ago) has added a depth and structure to student discussion that I appreciate more deeply each year. [Again, as I've said in other posts, standards are just standards; they are not curriculum. Touchstones is the curricular piece we have chosen to teach those standards in Cecil County.]

Touchstones has been used not only in public schools in the United States; it has also been used in diverse settings of all kinds to help people speak to each other with more decorum, focus, and depth. In countries such as France, Tanzania, and Jordan and in places such as community groups, prisons, and private boarding schools, Touchstones raises the level of discourse on any topic by raising the standards of behavior for that discussion. It’s a process that helps students grow over time, and it’s genius.

Of all of the Common Core State Standards for English, the Speaking & Listening standards are the ones we need most critically as a society at this point in history. Our local electoral political discourse shamefully mimics what is happening at the national level right now. I have given up hope that the adults in this country will ever stop screaming at each other the way we do on Fox News or MSNBC or on Cecil Whig comment threads. Hope lies in the children. Maybe they can learn to disagree with each other without needing to be mean. Maybe they can discuss actual issues with arguments and counterarguments instead of personal attacks. Maybe they can get it right. Maybe.

As I posted on previous days, below is an infographic showing one segment of the Common Core Anchor Standards. The anchor standards guide all of the Common Core State Standards. Grade-level versions of each one are available on the Common Core State Standards website, and I encourage you to read them for yourself. As you read the anchor standards here, ask yourself:
1.     Is there anything on this list that you do not want children to be able to do by the time they graduate from high school?
2.    Is there anything here that makes children less likely to follow the values that their parents have instilled in them at home?
3.    When the Angry Ones say that these standards are dangerous, should be subject to a legislative vote, and need to go, which ones are they referring to? Which ones are scary?



Ironically, I think that these standards are the most likely to send the Angry Ones’ candidates into a tailspin. These standards advocate teaching children not to use ugliness, poor argumentation tactics, and excessive volume when advocating for a position. So much of the Angry Ones’ public discourse and attention-seeking behavior depends on those very tactics. I want our children to be able to recognize those tactics and to rise above them. I want them to be better people. I hope you feel the same way.

  • Vote in the primary election on April 26. (Early voting starts tomorrow!)
  • Vote for candidates who live up to these standards. If we can expect this behavior of students, surely the adults can manage it, too. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Core? Part 2: Writing

Today is the second part of my series of short articles on the Common Core State Standards. Part of me says that I should just ignore the Angry Ones’ criticism of the standards because I don’t want my discussion of the standards to legitimize the notion that the Angry Ones would have any say about them if they are elected to the school board. The other part of me says that this is a great opportunity to explain elements of school reform over the past 5 years that many people (including some educators) have maligned. So here we go!

Before I discuss the writing standards, two reminders:
  1. The state of Maryland adopted the Common Core State Standards. No local member of the Board of Education can change that.
  2. Word for word from yesterday’s post: The Common Core State Standards (regardless of all of the drama they have generated) are merely content standards for math and English. The English standards also serve as the basis for the literacy standards for history, social studies, science, and the technical subjects. They are not a curriculum, they are not a method of instruction, and they are not trying to corrupt your family’s values. Anyone who says otherwise does not understand curriculum and instruction or is intentionally misleading you to get attention or to get elected.

Today, I am posting an infographic showing one segment of the Common Core Anchor Standards. The anchor standards are the overarching guide for all of the Common Core State Standards. Grade-level versions of each one are available on the Common Core State Standards website, and I encourage you to read those for yourself as well.

As with the reading standards I posted yesterday, look over the Writing anchor standards and ask yourself:

1.     Is there anything on this list that you do not want children to be able to do by the time they graduate from high school?

2.    Is there anything here that makes a child less likely to follow the values that their parents have instilled in them at home?

3.    When the Angry Ones' board of education candidates say that these standards are dangerous, should be subject to a legislative vote, and need to go, which standards are they referring to? Which standards are scary?

[To minimize the rise in blood pressure that the Common Core State Standards prompt in people who oppose my views, today I pasted them onto a peaceful blue skyscape. Namaste.]
 

The writing standards make the case that the Common Core State Standards are not attempting to teach students how to think like you or how to think like me or how to think like President Obama; they help students to learn to think for themselves, the most crucial aspect of any democracy. If you don’t like the idea of students thinking for themselves, then you need to search your soul and decide what you think an “education” is. I want an intelligent electorate comprised of people who think for themselves. I am willing to do the difficult instruction to get them there. I hope you feel the same way.


Vote in the primary on April 26! 


Full Disclosure: Any post about the current election season will reiterate my earlier disclosure: I support Jim Fazzino for the Elkton seat on Cecil County Board of Education, and my husband is his campaign treasurer. I additionally support William Manlove for the Chesapeake City seat on the Board of Education. As you make choices this campaign season, evaluate everyone’s agenda in this situation and determine for yourselves who is giving you factual information and whom you believe to be trustworthy.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Core? Part 1: Reading

As we close in on the primary election (APRIL 26), misinformation continues to emit from the campaigns of the Angry Ones running for Cecil County school board, Ron Lobos and Kevin Emmerich. Their joint campaign has fostered misconceptions about the budget process, made false accusations of wrongdoing by the school system, and misled the public not only about the Common Core State Standards but also the actual job of a board of education member.


At this point in the process, I am focusing my energies on their insistence that they could change the school system’s adherence to the Common Core Standards and their assertion that those standards are bad news. I submit two points for your consideration:

First, as board of education members, neither Mr. Lobos nor Mr. Emmerich would have the power to end the Common Core State Standards. In public forums, Mr. Lobos has said, regarding the standards, that “Change has to start somewhere” and that Common Core State Standards change would start with him. No, sir, it would not. Please stop insisting that Common Core State Standards reform is in the job description. Mr. Emmerich even stated at the recent NAACP forum that his primary focus for running for the office is to end the Common Core State Standards. Sir, that comment indicates that you do want some sort of job, but board of education member is not that job.

Second, the Common Core State Standards (regardless of all of the drama they have generated) are merely content standards for math and English. The English standards also serve as the basis for the literacy standards for history, social studies, science, and the technical subjects. They are not a curriculum, they are not a method of instruction, and they are not trying to corrupt your family’s American values. Anyone who says otherwise does not understand curriculum and instruction or is intentionally misleading you to get attention or to get elected.
In publicly stating my support for the Common Core State Standards, some of Mr. Lobos and Mr. Emmerich’s supporters have attempted to challenge me on my Schooled Facebook page. Bring it on. The trouble is, their supporters do not understand the difference between a set of content standards and a curriculum or method of instruction, and when I explain that difference to them, they become, at the risk of sounding redundant, angry. Two of his supporters ramped up the venom so much that I had to block them from that page, not because I wasn’t willing to spar with them (I was) but because I would not allow their personal attacks and nonsensical tirades.
There has been enough nastiness coming from that camp, so I am going to keep these posts simple. Over the next several days, I will post an infographic each day showing one segment of the Common Core Anchor Standards. The anchor standards are the overarching guide for all of the Common Core State Standards. Grade-level versions of each one are available on the Common Core State Standards website, and I encourage you to read those for yourself as well. As you read the anchor standards here, ask yourself:
1.     Is there anything on this list that you do not want children to be able to do by the time they graduate from high school?

2.    Is there anything here that makes a child less likely to follow the values that their parents have instilled in them at home?

3.    When Ron Lobos and Kevin Emmerich say that these standards are dangerous, should be subject to a legislative vote, and need to go, which standards are they referring to? Which ones are scary?


I believe in the intelligence of the public, and I believe that your answers to each of the questions above will be thus:
1.     “No”
2.    “No”
3.    “I have no idea” and “None”
So, Cecil County, here they are. The Anchor Standards for English are divided into four categories:
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking & Listening
  • Language

Today’s graphic shows the Reading standards. Here’s your assignment one more time: Read the standards for yourself. [Because of their tendency to make some people become unnecessarily rage-filled, I pasted them onto a tranquil seascape. I hope that helps readers who are hostility-inclined to remain calm.]

Again,
1.     Is there anything on this list that you do not want children to be able to do by the time they graduate from high school?

2.    Is there anything on this list that makes a child less likely to follow the values that their parents have instilled in them?

3.    When Ron Lobos and Kevin Emmerich say that these standards are dangerous, should be subject to a legislative vote, and need to go, which ones are they referring to? Which standards are scary?
I take teaching, curriculum, and instruction seriously because those pillars of the educational process matter for students. Do not allow Mr. Lobos and Mr. Emmerich to make a campaign issue out of something that they don’t understand and that, if elected, they cannot control. Stand up for kids when you vote on April 26.


Full Disclosure: Any post about the current election season will reiterate my earlier disclosure: I support Jim Fazzino for the Elkton seat on Cecil County Board of Education, and my husband is his campaign treasurer. I additionally support William Manlove for the Chesapeake City seat on the Board of Education. As you make choices this campaign season, evaluate everyone’s agenda in this situation and determine for yourselves who is giving you factual information and whom you believe to be trustworthy.

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