Monday, September 6, 2010


(Warning: This is a very rambling post)

When I first got to school two weeks ago I found that I hadn't given my correct new address to the school, and so a bunch of summer mail was waiting for me - including a "Change in your schedule" notice. Seeing this I started to panic as I opened it.

Last summer I got a notice that said that my all-Algebra-1 schedule was changed to include one section of Topics (a.k.a. math for seniors that got passed on but still

don't know any math at all so let's do it all again). I had had a NIGHTMARE experience with similar seniors during student teaching and now thinking of doing this again in my second year of teaching freaked me out. I called my department head on her personal phone almost in tears, and she told me I could switch if another teacher was willing. One was, and I had one section of Algebra Lab (a second algebra support class for low-functioning students). I didn't plan for it all summer, the first nine weeks were pulled out of nowhere as I focused on getting my other four Alg 1 classes under control, and it was my most difficult class.

Fast forward to this year and I'm almost hyperventilating at the thought of juggling multiple preps again. I pulled it out...and it was all Algebra Lab classes.
I felt a mixture of excitement (I can concentrate on basics! Yes!) and fear (math-phobic students usually resent having TWO math classes). At the very least, I had one prep I could focus on so I was happy However, later on I realized the benefit to this plan: NO PTC!

PTC is my personal acronym for what our school calls a PLC. However, though with the best intentions by our PLC leaders, it is NOT a Professional Learning Community.

One of the VERY few things I dislike about my department is that we NEVER talk about teaching in our formal meetings. Ever. Twice I suggested we discuss teaching ideas, and both times someone said "Yes! Its better for the kids when we all do the same thing! Let's share what we do, and then pick one way and we ALL have to explain it that way! That is what is in the best interests of the CHILD." Um, really? That's the only reason to discuss teaching - to enforce more uniformity? Not to discuss pros and cons, to let teachers learn and experiment with different ways and then report back? Really? Hell, I shut up. I don't want someone deciding my way of explaining integers is forbidden after a ten-second explanation of why I do what I do. The one question I had for the school when interviewing was "Do you script lessons?" I want to learn from others, but the teachers in my blog reader share without demanding uniformity.

Okay, so in our "PLC" metings, once a month, we discuss tests. 1) Is everyone ready to test on the 15, give or take a day? Good! 2) Who is going to write the second quiz? This is a long chapter, we should make another quiz. You'll make it? Good! Okay, we're done. As you can see, we have a Professional Testmaking Community. For someone who's been quietly implementing some form of SBG with Dan Meyer-liconceptill checklists, these meetings are quite painful.

Here's a taste of what I mean. Last year, our department head and our district math head promoted the latest acronym AFL: Assessment for Learning. Sounded good, and was a pretty good idea, though not paradigm shattering enough to warrant a new acronym or the answer-to-our-prayers attitude some had (are they ever?). I attended the class, and learned about how we should build tests that allow us to target certain learning targets (SBG-like), and give students ability to track what they do and don't know (SBG-like again), incorporate alternative assessments (more good ideas) and give students a format in which to correct their tests and learn from their mistakes (scaffolding, good!). The smallest, most insignificant, piddly surface detail of all of this was that assessment questions should always have the learning target typed next to it. At our school, this took the form of a three-column table where the first column had the learning target typed in like "I can multiply matrices by a constant.", the second column had the problem, and the third column was a blank space to show work.

This is great, I thought! A lot of what attracted me to Dan Meyer's Concept Checklists was here as well. I attended most of the classes, and made plans to join another teacher for our final "project" at the best restaurant in the world, a.k.a. Wildflower Bread Company (where I am currently typing this post). We took a Saturday morning to identify key procedures the test should cover, pick through old tests to find questions that isolated these skills, make new questions when needed, add a few longer combine-skills questions, and type it all into the required format. It was harder than the old tests, partly because we only had two multiple choice questions instead of many.

(Sample conversation from the AFL class: District Math Head says "NEVER have more than 2-3 multiple choice or matching, they aren't good at identifying what students know." Teacher says "But the district final is multiple choice." DMH says "That's just so we can grade in 12 hours and send out grades, the sole purpose of a math class isn't to learn how to take the final." Surani thinks "I love you DMH!")

Okay, so back to the assessment my friend and I worked so hard on. The students failed it. They did badly. But there was ALSO lots of diagnostic information since we tried to isolate skills. The main reason to put a question on WASN'T just that it was on last year's tests.

So we rallied together! Realized that teaching for content and not for a test was going to take some real work! Analyzed the results of the tests so we could learn what we needed to go over again! Collected data, learned from it, and grew as a department!

Actually no. My department head took one look at the failing grades, and said "As long as DMH gives us a multiple choice final, we're making all OUR tests multiple choice."

Our test was thrown out. Old test came back. No one mentions the life-changing AFL acronym anymore, except to remind people "Don't forget! Write the test in the AFL format!" which means "Make a three-column table and copy-paste a long, obscure performance target from the state standards into each cell in the first column."

Meanwhile, my head exploded and I went home to vent on my long-suffering fiance.

AAaaaaaaanyway. See why I call it a PTC instead of a PLC? They're good teachers, good people, and many of them are good friends. Its NOT the teachers, its the structure we've grown to get used to.

So this year, in our school, instead of giving everyone an Algebra Lab that no one could really focus on, they are now given to two people. I teach 5, and another teacher has 3. He's an easygoing guy who never shows up to meetings, so I have appointed myself the unofficial Algebra Lab PLC Leader. I make sure to meet with myself AT LEAST twice a week to talk about teaching and learning. And I'm easy on myself too - I never start the meeting until I've shown up!

I still attend the Algebra PTC, and I rewrite quizzes and assignment sheets when asked to, but I no longer have to give their quizzes and tests in my classes. I can use my own assessments that I've thought about obsessively, rewritten as needed, focused to my personal list of standards/skills, and incorporate as much conceptual understanding as I dare.

Goodby PTC, and good luck!

~ Surani

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