Friday, November 19, 2021

Is It April Yet?

As I write this, it is mid-November.  The weather in Southern Nevada has been trying to hold onto summer as much as it can.  Temperatures had been hovering in the low 80s still and nights, absolutely gorgeous, in the high 50s or low 60s for most of the month, but days are starting to get a little cooler.  Rain, while desperately needed, has been nearly non-existent.  The first quarter of the school year has come and gone, and we have already completed mid-term progress reports for the second quarter.  "No School November" is upon us, with a four-day weekend for Veterans' Day behind us, then a two-day workweek for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Before long, students will be completing semester exams and we will be on a 2+ week winter holiday break.  

I have always enjoyed long weekends and breaks, but who doesn't?  Sleep can be hard to come by at times during the week and getting a little more of it, even if it means "sleeping in" until after 7:00 AM, is always welcome.  Watching a favorite show on (insert streaming service), binging college football and/or hockey all day, or settling in to watch a movie (Halloween Kills, anyone?) are weekend favorites of mine, as are getting outside for extended walks that are hard to come by during the week, catching up on some yard work or cleaning, or spending the whole day watching over a pork shoulder or beef brisket on the smoker while prepping things like coleslaw, cornbread, baked beans, or any other barbeque favorites.  

This year, those breaks are even more welcome.  I know that I am not the only one that feels this way.  After the uncertainty of the last 20+ months, it's just different than before.  The hours seem longer.  The planning seems more tedious.  The time that used to go into grading is used to put out other fires that seem to pop up more often.  Turning on my computer and putting in work from home was rare before COVID, but now it is nearly non-existent; the last thing that I want to do is stare at a computer screen and do more work once I have walked through the door of my house.  And social media, the place where so many of us go to learn, to interact, to discuss?  I haven't scrolled through Facebook in a month and my time on Instagram and Twitter has diminished significantly.  

Nevada's state flag, showing the Battle Born
nickname and the state flower, the sagebrush
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
If you have been in education for more than a couple of years, there is a distinct feeling of tiredness that comes in the days before spring break, which for most schools comes in March or April.  While the fall semester is filled with days off like Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and in my home state of Nevada, a personal favorite, Nevada Day that is observed on the last Friday of October to celebrate Nevada's entry into the United States on October 31, 1864 (and because the nation was in the midst of the Civil War, Nevada is nicknamed the Battle Born State).  

The second half of the school year does not have these multiple days off.  Within a week or two of returning from winter break, most schools are off for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  In February, some schools get a day off for Presidents Day.  But otherwise, most schools do not get any extended weekends or multiple days off to break up the long grind of the second semester.  So by the time that spring break does roll around, people are tired, students and teachers alike, and that week off is welcomed with open arms prior to returning for a few more weeks before final exams and summer break. 

This year, I feel this level of tired in November.  There are mornings where it is a struggle to roll out of bed and get to school.  It is not for a lack of desire to be there, I enjoy the classes that I teach, the kids that I work with on a daily basis, and even though I have a few students on my caseload that are definitely some of the most challenging students I have worked with in my career, it makes each day different and interesting and I couldn't ask for anything else in a career.   

For most of the fall, I was waking up before the sun to get a 3-4 mile walk in before work, something that was as good, if not better, than coffee to perk me up for the day.  Lately, morning walks have been few and far between; that extra hour or so of sleep is more enticing and on a lot of mornings, absolutely needed.  However, exercise is still important and part of my daily routine; November 18th marked my 365th day in a row of some form of exercise, whether it was a walk, a ride on the Peloton, yoga, or one of my two nights of rec league hockey.  

My colleagues are expressing many of the same feelings, so if you are reading this, I can imagine you are in the same boat.  Just know that we are all in this together and like the last almost 2 years, we will get through it and be better for it.  It's hard to frame your mind around it because you are so tired, but take care of yourself, take advantage of the downtime when you have it, and keep doing what you do on a daily basis.  

Until next time...

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...