Year 4 of teacher may have whitewashed my metaphorical fence and replaced several damaged boards, I can still see some of the graffiti and burn marks from year three.
I live on Kilian Betlach’s Ledge to this day, but year three was the one that I had purchased a glider and leaned back before the leap when I put a note in my day calendar three months into the future that read “If you still feel this way, you need to find a new job.” Year 1 was manic and amazing. Year two sobered me up and I focused a bit too much on what I wasn’t doing, but it was a good battle. Year 3 was the one everyone said gets easier and I spent it feeling like I had been run over by Optimus Prime (childhood crush, so rather devastating, really).
I spent Year 3 feeling like I was tilting at windmills. No matter what I tried I couldn’t get [enough of] the students to care and grading seemed like a farce and what the hell was up with the textbooks? While I’m sure that my bizarre belief that everything would magically get better that year contributed to the feeling of purgatory, I believe that the true cause of my despair came from finally knowing enough to see the flaws in systems I had blindly adopted from my more experienced peers and my years of experience as a high school student. It’s like someone gave me paper and a few directions with three pictures and told me to create a 200-step origami crane.
So what made me return the glider and take a two steps back? The same things that kept me a math major in college: turning off the “I suck” mental track and reading way too many things on the internet. I can’t even say where it started, but I think my early Google searches were “Teaching Algebra 1” and “Algebra 1 failure rate” which lead to some articles and district websites from the Midwest about how they were addressing the high failure rate. Then I started finding blogs of math educators. In this reading I noticed a lot of them mentioning some guy names Dan Meyer, so I figured I would check him out.
Big mistake on a Sunday night. Huge. I don’t even know when I went to sleep, but the morning started and I practically assaulted my principal at 6am (he gets in early like that) and begged him to read a few posts and please please please let me figure out how to implement that type of grading system in algebra 1 and I’ll align it to the state standards and I just have to do this since it’s the only thing that’s made sense to me all year.
That was December of 2008. My principal–being the intelligent, rational person he is–gave a green-light to test it out in some algebra 1 restart classes we had decided to implement in second semester (read:the first semester of algebra 1 for students who got less than a 50% in the second semester). Over winter break I ripped apart the state standards (think Civilization tech tree with individual skills grouped by the standard they go with) and aligned them with my district’s Alagebra 1 textbooks. I got a colleague on board with me and we dove in that second semester.
There was definite fumbling in the beginning and some “oh, wow, never do that again” moments, but the conversations in those classes changed from “I failed the chapter 3 test!” to “I can’t solve multi-step equations!” I recognize that that seems so small, but it was as though someone gave me another 20 folding directions for the crane–it was hope that I could do this teaching thing and effect positive change.
Year 4 brought about a big class-shift for me: four Algebra 1 classes became one Algebra 1 Support class and the rest was fleshed out with Precalculus and two classes of the PreCalc-alternative. A part of me cried for joy after seeing that line (trig and I have deep love) and the other part wondered what would happen to all the work that had been done that year. Luckily, my colleague and I got the other Algebra 1 teachers to agree to adopt the standards-based-grading we had developed based on Meyer’s system and he also took up the Algebra 1 Czar mantle and helped keep the classes rolling.
As I was more or less out of the main Algebra 1 world (and classes that have official state standards), I turned my attention this past year towards using the grading method in the upper-level classes. I chose in the end to keep the regular tests and use the skill-assessments as my quizzes. I kept a chart on the wall showing the class averages in the skills. I had lines during certain times of the year 15 students deep next to my desk waiting patiently for some help on a quiz skill or to get one to retake because they had already hauled someone out of line earlier and requested peer-tutoring. I was so happy on those days it came out a bit like maniacal laughter, but by then the students were used to my special brand of crazy so they more or less ignored it.
The world is by no means sunshine and unicorn tails (I do live in Washington), but having affected change in my classroom and at my school in this one way I feel capable of making other changes. I also know enough about myself as a teacher to know that I need to pick one big thing for Year 5 to focus on (eliciting student thoughts is in the lead atm) and to be patient about the changed. Patient only learning a few more folds on my crane every year.
So that’s where I’m at now. Mentally, at least. Physically I’m at PCMI in Utah, but this Institute deserves several of it’s own posts and will get them after I finish and post my grading manifesto (lest Sam Shah become vexed).
Lastly, this post is dedicated to Dan Meyer. I am not sure I would have made it out of Year 3 without his blog and the inspiration it gave me to get off the ground and jump back into the good fight. My work is once again, as put by Noel Coward, “more fun than fun.” I couldn’t ask for anything more.