This is my space to rant and rave, vent and vex about education, my passion. I am calling it "Mining for Hidden Gems" because of the above quote and because as a teacher, my job is to look for those gems. The real valuable ones are not usually on the surface. You have to dig deep to find them.

I am also borrowing from Katherine Bomer's wonderful book Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching From the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing. It has changed the way I look at not just student work but students themselves and all people around me.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Mathematical Thinking

It seems to be socially acceptable, even among educators, to admit that we don’t like math or are not good at it.  I know that none of us would say publicly that we are not good at reading.  We may say we don’t like reading but that does not mean that we can’t read or comprehend a text if it were part of our job.  So why is it all right to say “I hate math!” or “I am not a math person”?

If math is problem solving, logical thinking, drawing conclusions, providing proofs, checking for reasonableness and justifying an answer, shouldn’t all of us learn to be good at it?  Can anyone go through life not needing these skills?  Can we afford to treat mathematical thinking as the domain of only a few, if we aim to have a democratic society where every member is contributing his or her share?

We are lucky enough to live in an age where the computational part of math can be done using machines, much faster and more accurate.  Machines can also remember all the routine formulas and algorithms.  We can program them to do whatever we want them to do.  But that is not all there is to math.  Only humans can do the thinking part of math. 

We are wired for communication.  And for at least 10,000 years we have needed to measure and communicate about time, quantity and distance.  We developed language and script to communicate our thoughts and feelings.  We developed the language of math to solve problems and have a way to communicate our solutions.

Every day children sit in our classrooms that will take on a future none of us can even imagine.  They may dream of working in fields where mathematical thinking is indispensable.  Is it right for us as teachers to take that opportunity away from them, because we decided that math was not going to be the focus of our careers?  The choice should not be:  You are good in math, you should become an engineer.  It should be:  You want to be an engineer?  Then you need to become more proficient in math. 

But there is more at stake than a choice in careers or access to higher education.  The opportunity to learn to reason and problem solve is the right of every human being, man or woman, rich or poor.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Simply Teaching

Teachers, like gardeners, are in the business of building beauty.  It's a messy job.  You have to get your hands dirty and you never know if or when the seeds you are sowing will sprout.  But we do it for love and we do it to add something positive to this world.  So why is it that we are so stressed out?  Why do we walk around with the weight of the world on our shoulders? We feel under-appreciated and over-worked. And we forget that this is supposed to be the best job in the world!  I know teaching is complex.  But does it have to be so complicated?

What does it take to teach effectively and in a way that is fulfilling?  What kind of attitude will get us through the bureaucratic mandates passed down by those who don't really know our kids and the realities of our classrooms?  Is there a critical lens that we can use to evaluate the myriad resources, tips and strategies that are thrown our way? As I was searching for the smallest set of guiding principals that would answer these questions, I thought of the work of the Ruhi Institute.  The mission of the Ruhi Institute is to raise capacity in all segments of a community to perform simple acts of service.  One of these acts, is that of teaching spiritual and character education classes to children.  The "teacher" is anyone who has a desire to perform this service, of any age and educational background.  Because much of this work is carried out in parts of the world where access to formal education and sophisticated resources is limited, I thought I would see how they go about training otherwise inexperienced people, sometimes as young as 14 or 15, to become teachers.  I found that they use two ideas to prepare the mindset of the would-be volunteers:

1.  "Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value."

2.  "Whose ariseth among you to teach . . ., let him, before all else, teach his own self, . . ."

In my job as an instructional coach, I study a lot of theory and research about best practices in education.  But I really believe that these two principles can be used by all teachers to fight through the clutter of these ideas, bring the joy back into our practice and sustain us when we are faced with challenges.

The first one refers to the need for an almost religious belief in the essential giftedness of each and every child.  For some students, their gifts are easy to see.  They are right there on the surface.  They shine in the traditional classrooms we have set up.  But for others we have to dig a little deeper to find them.  Sometimes, those gifts are not what is needed here and now but it is a gift nonetheless.  This kind of mindset will help us not lose hope in our students.  It will guide us in putting assessments of all sorts in their proper perspective and will motivate us to look for strengths and find ways to leverage them against weaknesses.

The second idea will keep us as teachers in a constant posture of learning.  It puts us in this loop of learn, do, reflect, repeat.  When we embrace this never-ending cycle of learning, doing and reflecting on our practice, we no longer search for cure-all strategies.  We approach new initiatives and approaches as ways to refine our practice and add to our repertoire of tools.  We also become better at our craft because we begin to guide our students as one who is also learning.  (see also Where To Stand in the Classroom)

As an experiment, I have been trying to examine the challenges of my work with these two ideas in mind and I find that although the frustrations do not completely disappear, they do help me put things in perspective and keep me motivated to do what is best for my students on a daily basis as well as in the long run.

Teaching in the American public education system is hard work.  There are many demands on a teacher's time and energy that do not always translate into better teaching.  But dealing with these demands is the price we pay for the privilege of teaching children and building beauty.