Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Every professional development workshop you've ever attended

I am in the middle of another week-long professional development program through GEAR UP, a great national program that brings more training, technology and funding to regions where few students are prepared for college. After 5 years of various trainings, each one claiming to be the most successful and innovative approach to teaching ever created, I now realize that they are all essentially rehashing the same ideas and using similar methods to make it appear new and exciting. These include:
  • Lots of exciting buzzwords and new terminology--especially anything that can be put into an acronym that sounds vaguely educational (i.e. LEARN - Leading Educators Analyzing Reading Nationally, and yes I just made that up)
  • Flashy PowerPoint presentations
  • Professionally printed, full color brochures for your prohibitively expensive classroom materials, which includes textbooks, student reproducible workbooks, DVDs, software, more brochures)
  • Tons of logo branded freebies that teachers love (pens, pencils, coffee mugs, keychains, stress balls, etc)
  • Very heavy books or binders that you will never actually read because the presentation itself was so life-affirming that you feel you already learned what's in there (read: nothing)
  • An extremely lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng presentation where the attending teachers do most of the work and then make mini-presentations to the other attendees about all the groundbreaking things they've learned
These past two days have been spent "learning" the 5E Instructional Model, first by the teachers acting as the students in a model 5E lesson on Monday and then creating a 5E lesson today. The 5 Es, so that you can again save yourself the trouble and stay home:
  • Engage - Apparently, you need to grab the attention of your students at the beginning of a lesson. I did not know this!
  • Explore - You could call this part [discovery, student-centered, cooperative, inquiry-based, constructivist] learning.
  • Explain - The kids explain what they learn in words.
  • Elaborate - Application and Synthesis from Bloom's Taxonomy
  • Evaluate - This is totally mind blowing--you need to check for understanding at the end of a lesson with some kind of assessment!
It's basically your ordinary garden-variety well structured lesson plan, with a new and exciting name to make somebody feel like they made a contribution to the art of teaching.

How many supposedly different workshops have you attended that told you to engage your students, have a more student-centered classroom, include more reading and writing, encourage collaboration and critical thinking and create meaningful, effective assessments? What's that you say? ALL of them?!?! At least this program isn't completely run by education profiteers.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Advanced Placement Summer Institute for Pre-AP High School Math: A one day training dragged out for a week

Two weeks ago I attended the 2007 Advanced Placement Summer Institute, sponsored by the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, TX. My department head told me this was one of the best professional development opportunities I would have for math, and so I attended the Pre-AP High School Mathematics course. With my department head's encouragement and my own natural curiosity, I was very excited to learn all sorts of dynamic new ideas for engaging Pre-AP students and challenging them to get to the next level.

After an intensive week-long institute, this is the only strategy I walked away with:
  1. Go to the College Board's AP Central website (free registration required) or look through a Pre-Calc textbook.
  2. Download Free-Response Questions from old Calculus AB and BC exams or pick out some open-ended questions from that textbook.
  3. Rewrite the questions to be appropriate for your subject.
  4. Repeat.
The whole process is very neatly summed up in an article called Adapting AP Mathematics Questions As a Pre-AP Strategy (from AP Central). There are various examples there; one for Algebra I or Geometry classes would be to take a Riemann sum problem, remove all the integral notation, and ask your students to find the area under the graph using rectangles. Basically you're keeping the graph or diagram and some of the original questions and tweaking it. That's it. This is the only thing we were shown how to do in FIVE DAYS.

If you're wondering how we managed to fill the week, our consultant (the most abhorrent word in education) gave us Pre-Calc and Calc questions and had us work them out in groups over and over again. He rarely even mentioned how we might adapt each of these problems--I think he just wanted us to practice our Calc, because that's all we did. Some of the other teachers I talked to were glad for the refresher, but I was so bored that when I finished Will Shortz's Simple Sudoku Volume 1, I started making my own sudoku puzzles to pass the time.

So we were shown only one actual teaching idea--not a complete lesson plan, nor something touching on multiple intelligences or Bloom's Taxonomy, nor any sort of guidance as to how to integrate this into an already overbooked curriculum. Is this all this guy does in his Pre-AP classroom--give his students enormously difficult problems and have them work in groups to solve them? My students' heads would explode (but probably not before mine)!

Do yourself a favor. If you are not required and don't need the professional development hours, skip this institute. Read the AP Central article above on adapting AP questions, borrow some Pre-Calculus and Calculus textbooks from your department, and then tell your district math coordinator that you just saved the district about $500 per teacher as you are now qualified to teach your colleagues at a reduced rate. You'll be Teacher of the Year!!

Caveat: I realize some people may have had a more productive and fulfilling experience at one of these institutes. Please leave a comment or email me and I'll be happy to share it here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why would I want to teach forever?

The title of this blog comes from something I wrote a few years ago (which I also hope to use for my book):

[Originally posted on MySpace, Saturday, November 05, 2005]

"...and that's why I Teach for America!"

A running joke among my fellow Teach for America alumni dates back to our initial training in Houston two years ago. During the closing ceremonies, they had a segment where some corps members came on stage and told an amazing story of how they had made some incredible impact in a student's life. Each story ended with "...and that's why I Teach for America!" The stories were great and inspirational, but that tag line was just silly.

And so it became a good thing to put at the end of some sort of ridiculous assertion or story in our own teaching experience (i.e. "Today my students told me that the most important thing they had learned this year is not to piss The Sir off... and that's why I Teach for America!") It serves as a little reminder of why we all signed up in the first place.

I had what would otherwise be considered an awful week, probably the worst I've had since leaving my old school, except for one of these genuine inspirational moments. I thought about coming on here to vent about what went wrong this week, but this is far more important and worth sharing:

It came just in the nick of time, at the end of the day Friday, from the same student I wrote about last week (codename Condoleeza a/k/a Condi). She wrote me a small handwritten note that she literally threw at me, saying "Here, I want you to read this," before heading back to class. Here is what she wrote:

You gave me the inspiration to start writing again.

"Inspirational Eyes"

Those eyes filled with inspiration. As we talked about my academics I couldn't help but wonder what lied behind those eyes. I felt like if there was a brick wall that wouldn't let me enter in his world while, all the time he made me brag about mine. Why should he take an interest, why should he care? I have not showed the same gratitude he has shown me. I have treated him like an outsider but, I still wonder why I should let him in if in a short time I would be gone and he would not even think twice about me after I leave out those glass doors. As I walk away would he wonder what has and, what will become of me? If I would be okay? If I were to start thinking negative would I find someone to confide in? As all these thoughts ran around my mind, I wondered what would become of him and know that at least I would have the memory of him being there for me.

As I turn back to take another glance at the place I spent my first 2 six weeks of school at I remember and hate myself that I forgot to say thank you. Til' I see those...

I want to teach forever.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The mission

Last year, the National Education Association (NEA) released a study that said almost half of new teachers quit within the first five years. As I enter my fifth year of teaching, I am not at all surprised. Teaching is mentally, physically and emotionally taxing and I have been close to quitting many times.

The same thing brings me back from the brink and to the classroom each time: the kids. I love my students. I talk about them constantly, I compare my friends and family to them (which they never ever get tired of, I assure you), and I feel like I have connected with so many of them that I can't imagine doing anything. I am going to go to grad school to study secondary math curriculum, possibly even next year, but the goal is to get back to teaching as soon as possible. I can't imagine a more exciting, challenging and important job as teaching—which brings me back to the mission of this blog.

I want great people to become teachers and stay teachers. This blog aims at young people contemplating their future, mid-career professionals thinking of joining our ranks, young teachers just starting out, and the many veterans who may be close to leaving. I will provide inspiration through my own stories and those of others, share teaching ideas I have used or learned about, and basically try to represent the best parts of our profession.

I also hope to open a window to topics like life in the Rio Grande Valley (the U.S.-Mexico border region in south Texas), Teach for America, alternative schools, and whatever else strikes me as interesting and relevant (as you'd expect from any blog).

I'm working on multiple projects at the moment that this blog will be a part of: a book about my experience teaching through Teach for America and the RGV, and a resource workbook for middle and high school math teachers. I hope to be able to share these with you as time goes on.