Thursday, May 12, 2011

I am failing at my goal of obsolescence. #edchat #mathchat

I am teaching grades 3-5 math only in a specialist model, but at heart I am still a middle school science teacher. I volunteered to move down to elementary two years ago to help out a school that I knew was a wonderful learning community by teaching math and science.

But somewhere along the transition, I seem to have lost track of my primary professional goal: to become obsolete.

Don't get me wrong, I love working with kids and I love getting paid. But early on in my teaching career, I had a first goal of making the class self sufficient so that it could function with or without me. This was a goal born of necessity rather than anything else: there is too much to do in a classroom and if you try to control and do it all as the teacher, you are doomed to fail. The students had to take up the mantle of driving the classroom and all of its routines and procedures.

Around my second year of teaching, realized that students needed to be in charge of more than the classroom administrivia: they needed to be in charge of the learning going on there! I decided that I would know I have been a good teacher when my students no longer needed me in order to learn. When they had internalized the reason why they were doing what they were doing and they had the tools at their disposal to answer their own questions and they didn't need me poking and prodding to learn things; then I would feel that I was doing a decent job as a teacher.

And in my role as a science teacher, I got very close to my goal. In the science education world, this is responsibility for learning is more easily transferred to the students' shoulders through inquiry. Investigative questions (assigned or self-developed) and student preconceptions are enough for most kids to have a reason to find something out.

But when I moved to teaching elementary math, all of that stopped. There are several reasons. First of all, the kids were now eight instead of fourteen. And secondly to my mind are the sheer number of math standards that students are supposed to master within a given year. I stared at the sheer numbers of standards and the testing schedule, and not once have I felt that I could turn over the reins of learning to the students. My classroom has become my worst vision of teaching: it has become almost exclusively teacher directed.

By district policy, I assign my students daily "math review" problems. I tell them the answers. I even tell them what they might have done wrong. I give them a whirlwind "conceptual" lesson (read that as a mini lecture). I tell them what to practice. Then I assign homework. So if that's everything that I am doing, then what are the students doing?

They're doing calculation practice and rote memorization of math facts.

Oh, I have definitely tried to weave my constructivist soul into this race to testing, but the sense-making activities that my students are taking part in are so severely stripped back from the number of experiences that I know they need in order to connect the dots themselves. In order to give them a modicum of constructivist sense making, I then guide them in trying to connect the pieces that they've done together into a coherent concept or skill.

My students can feel successful. Their parents will be pleased that they have covered so many of the standards and that their student is "doing" math. Ahh, but I know better.

At heart I am a constructivist. But I feel more like a construction forman and my students are the drone-like workers whom I am coercing into building from blueprints that they can't even read and that someone besides me has drawn up. Forget the idea that my students should become the architect and the planners: I am too busy assessing their ability to pound a hammer, use a saw, and weld metal to ever pay attention to whether or not they know why they are doing it... or even what the end product will be.

And what would be the "end product" of mathematics education? Certainly, it cannot be merely that my students are fast human calculators when faced with "story problems" that look nothing like real life?

This makes me sad. But given the testing schedule for mathematics, I don't know how I can extricate myself from the front of the room and give my students the time -- oh that precious time -- that they need if they are to become mathematicians in their own right.

I am central to everything my students do in their daily 70 minute math class.

I am failing to become obsolete to my students' learning.

I am failing to create self-motivated and empowered learners, but I see no way out save returning to middle school science.

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