Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Worst They'll Say Is No!

The school year was winding down, and frankly, it couldn't come more quickly.  The previous 8 months had been mostly online, and if you are an educator and reading this, you know what online teaching was like in the 2020-2021 school year.  I was exhausted and the last thing that I wanted to do was to start thinking about the following school year that would, hopefully, return to in-person learning, albeit with some sort of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  But with schedule planning for the following year in full swing and school leaders looking to make some changes to course offerings, my co-teacher and I were thrust into more planning than we had anticipated.  

At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, I met the teacher that I would be working with via Google Meet.  We talked a little bit about who we were as educators, expectations for the year, and how we would plan together through a screen.  I also explained that I was asked to co-teach algebra, a subject that hadn't even take as a course in 20 years, let alone ever taught it, but she assured me that regardless of my inexperience in teaching math, we would get through it and learn along the way. 

Over the course of the next few months, we developed a great relationship, realized how well we worked together, which only became better once we returned to part-time in-person teaching in April after 7 months of online teaching. I enjoyed math, for the most part, as a student, but my co-teacher's passion for math was infectious and made me truly love teaching math.  Not bad for someone that last had math, a trigonometry course, in 2001.  

As the school year was winding down, we were both excited and anxious about what the following year would bring us.  We wanted to continue working together, but it is never guaranteed when schedules are created.  We notified school leaders of our desire to work together, but again, we just did not know.  But a bombshell to scheduling created an opportunity for us that we did not see coming.  

For years, my school offered a course titled fundamentals of math for incoming freshman.  This was a class that was assigned to students coming from middle school that had struggled with math over the previous few years in addition to the standard math class for freshman, algebra.  The course would be scheduled on the opposite day of a student's algebra class so that they would have a math class every day.  Once a student passed the fundamentals class, they would earn elective credit toward graduation.  However, it was decided to discontinue the class for the 2021-2022 school year, but my co-teacher and I had an idea...

We knew the benefits of the fundamentals class for so many of our students and were disappointed that the class was eliminated.  We knew that many incoming freshman, especially after nearly a year and a half of online learning, would benefit from an extra math class.  So we came up with a proposal for our principal: why not offer our algebra class as a double block where students would have us every day and allow for us to spend more time with students on algebraic concepts?  And because it would be in the student schedules as two math classes, perhaps they could earn two math credits instead of the one math and one elective credit like the fundamentals of math class did previously.  So we walked over to our principal's office with our plan and hoped she would at least consider it.  

Our principal had questions, naturally.  How would we determine which students should receive the second block?  Would we make the second block class different than the first block in regards to activities, assignments, etc.?  Would a student that did not struggle with math in middle school be a good fit for the class?  Ultimately, we didn't really have answers to these questions and asked our principal what we would need to do to make our idea become reality.  After some brainstorming sessions and a couple of more meetings with our principal, we came up with a final plan:

  • Students would be enrolled in Pre-Algebra and Algebra, two separate course for scheduling purposes, as we could not simply place a student in two sections of Algebra
  • Allow us to evaluate incoming freshman in our classes for the first two weeks of school to decide which students would most benefit from a second math class
  • Students with strong math skills needed to be included as well to serve as peer leaders and to be a positive influence on students that did not have strong skills or confidence in their mathematical skills
  • The Pre-Algebra section would focus primarily on skill building through student collaboration and mathematical stations 
  • Student aides would be assigned to the Pre-Algebra sections that had previously demonstrated strong math skills and could serve as student tutors in class or as leaders of stations on occasion
It was ambitious to say the least.  In my 16 years of education, I had not seen anything like this in any of the schools that I had worked.  And while we had confidence that our principal liked the initial idea, we wondered if this was too ambitious or if was even possible to offer based on district policies.  We didn't have to wait long to get our answer though.  

Before we had even finished pitching our final plan to our principal, she was sold.  Ultimately, she loved the idea of giving students two math credits, getting students the extra help they needed, giving students with strong skills the opportunity to build their leadership skills, and in times of tight budgets, it wasn't going to cost any extra money to make it happen.  The only thing that our principal asked for was that we go out of our way to try outside of the box things with our classes and not simply use the class as a way to do our same lessons from algebra and treat it as extra time.  

Fast forward to this year, about five weeks in, our plan is a work in progress. We created two sections of Pre-Algebra with a wide variety of student skills.  The students selected were evaluated by us in Algebra for two weeks before we had counselors make schedule changes.  We had individual conversations with all students and many of their families about why we believed the second class would be beneficial, and out of the nearly 70 students we talked to, only two decided that they did not want to take the extra class.  In the end, we anticipate that more of students are going to earn the credit, more students are going to appreciate math instead of approaching it as just another class they don't like but have to pass to graduate, and better prepare students for geometry and beyond.  

You may be thinking to yourself, "There is no way that this would ever happen at my school."  My reply?  "How do you know?"  When it comes to any idea that you may have that you believe will benefit student learning, whether it is proposing a second math class, purchasing a site license for a great app, or anything, the absolute worst thing that can happen is that your principal will say no.  I fully understand that some school leaders may be intimidating to approach, which is very unfortunate, but as long as you have a good idea and reasons why it would benefit students, I would venture to guess that most would at least hear you out and now shut you down from the start.  And I am not saying that all ideas are going to be approved, but hopefully you will be given a reason for denial or feedback on how to make your idea better for potential approval in the future.  

Until next time... 

Friday, July 9, 2021

School is Not the Same as Education

A few weeks back, prior to the school year ending for summer break, I was meeting with some colleagues as part of my school's vision team. The vision team is comprised of my school's administration and a handful of teachers and staff to analyze what our school is and what we can do to improve multiple aspects of the school, such as daily attendance, course offerings, pathways to post-secondary education, and training, and much more. Conversations as a group are always enlightening and productive. And my principal loves the Google Meet breakout room feature, so small group conversations are frequent and just as enlightening and productive. However, something mentioned by one of my colleagues during a breakout session really sparked my thinking about something that sounds very simplistic, but it is much more layered and, in my opinion, deserves a little attention.

During a conversation about a variety of topics, most notably a discussion about how to better convey information to students and families about the academic pathways that our school offers or can offer, one of my colleagues said, "School is not the same as education."  He proceeded to explain that the phrases "go to school" and "stay in school" and bantered about, almost without thought, on a regular basis but that both phrases were very simplistic in scope.  What he meant by that was that a student could go to school regularly, earn passing grades and get their diploma, but is that student really prepared for whatever they pursue after high school?  Have we really provided that student with an education, or did that student just "stay in school?"  

This statement really resonated with me.  It's not because I haven't thought about whether students are prepared for life after high school when they graduate.  It resonated with me because with the exception of a handful of schools around the country, or even the world, I don't think we are truly providing students with an education, we are providing them with the opportunity to go to school.  It took my colleague's statement and his insight to really open my mind up to this thought.  Please allow me to explain further...

I have always taught high school, with the exception of a short stint as a middle school administrator, so my frame of mind is in the high school educational model.  When a student comes to high school, they are given a class schedule that includes some, most or all of the following:  English, math, science, social studies, physical education, health, and electives.  Throughout high school, students meet with their counselor periodically to review credits that are based on the requirements for earning their high school diploma; these requirements are based on state, district, and school standards.  But outside of a handful of students, do students really know why they are taking the classes that are required?  Are the classes that are required tailored to a student's preferences and interests for postsecondary education or career paths?  Oftentimes, the answer to these questions is no.  

As a result, schools are failing to fully prepare students for the future. Students don't know what they don't know about what is out there.  If a student wants to go to college, there is plenty of information available to them.  But what most students don't know is the vast amount of training and career options out there that don't require college.  Oftentimes, these "vocational" programs as they used to be called pay students to learn a trade, such as plumbing, and once they have completed the training, pay even more and include excellent benefits.  But while schools should have more information on trade programs and other choices for education and careers that don't require college, why should they stop there?  

Many schools around the country have specifically focused on career and technical education.  In these schools, students are introduced to a career path through classes beginning their freshman year.  Throughout their four years of high school, students complete the requirements needed for their diploma (math, science, English, etc.) and complete courses that will prepare them for further education or a career in their chosen pathway.  

I used to work in a school like this.  We had a variety of programs that students could choose from, including culinary arts, business and marketing, auto technology, building technology, and more.  Over the course of the six years that I taught at this school, I watched students invest themselves in their education.  Why?  Because they were doing something that they WANTED to do.  They weren't placed in electives simply because they had to have an elective.  They chose the electives that they wanted and many found that they really enjoyed learning more about a career pathway that interested them and prepared them for that career when they were done with high school.  Many of my former students walked away with a diploma and were hired into positions in high-end restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip, auto repair shops around the valley, had the upper hand in getting into an apprenticeship program with local construction unions, and much more.  

Many go to college and spend the first couple of years trying to figure out what they want to do for a career.  Sometimes, that leads to students spending more time in college, spending more money, trying to figure it out.  What if these same students had been given the opportunity to explore while in high school through a career pathway such as medical science, had more time with career exploration experts at the school, or got to listen to guest speakers frequently throughout their time in high school?  

We cannot afford to continue to encourage students simply to stay in school.  We need to give students a reason to "stay in school" and provide them with the tools necessary to change staying in school to getting an education and preparing them for their futures.  It will not change overnight and it will most likely start with tough conversations amongst stakeholders in schools and districts, but we risk students falling even further behind if we don't start making changes.  

Until next time...