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Pockets of Wonderfulness

chat archive

Moderator
Welcome to this afternoon's chat with NCTM President Cathy Seeley. Some questions have been selected from those submitted in advance, and Cathy will respond to as many questions asked during the hour as time permits. Additional questions may be included in the chat transcript posted on the NCTM Web site.

Our first question is from
Great Bend, Kansas

I would like to share more ideas with other math teachers, but I am a secondary math teacher and the elementary teachers are so defensive. If I tried to suggest a change of presentation for concepts, they act like I am being critical of their teaching. We have excellent elementary math teachers but they do not often see how their teaching impacts future math learning, and I believe there needs to be more collaboration between elementary and secondary math teachers.

Cathy Seeley:
Collaboration across levels is often challenging. Perhaps creating an environment where both elementary and secondary teachers are learning from each other might help. I have seen great growth in districts where cross-level visits have occurred. Often a secondary teacher can learn about organizing a classroom differently, or at least can see what the life of an elementary teacher is like. Likewise, an elementary teacher visiting a secondary mathematics classroom can get a better sense of where students are headed. Cross-level visits are a nice entrée into doing professional development across levels. It's all about building relationships first.

Question from
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

I am the math coordinator and only upper level high school math teacher in my school. It makes innovation easier and harder. My director gives me a lot of room to implement new programs and ideas, however it's hard to carry out a particular innovation without the support of other teachers who have experience doing so.

Cathy Seeley:
One thing I am increasingly coming to believe is that all our work to improve schools has to involve building relationships among teachers and between teachers and leaders. In a small school, you have the potential to work with a small number of teachers. I suggest focusing on doing work cooperatively, like developing plans or curriculum guidelines as a team, and working on the relationships. Then as you continue to identify needs and problem areas, perhaps you can approach them from a team perspective, where everyone feels part of the solution. Good luck!

Question from
California

There are teachers who teach math in my school, but I feel like I am the only math teacher. I have been privileged with very good training and a math education and have offered help to people who are not as well trained or confident about their own mathematics, but for some reason, they have no desire to change or improve or accept help. I thought we were here for the kids, but most think that since we are a high API school, they don't need to do anything to improve the quality of the education programs or their own professional growth.

Cathy Seeley:
With high API (Academic Performance Index) indicators, or whenever achievement is satisfactory to the community, it's challenging to make a case for doing things differently. However, you have identified that there are indeed needs and that there is room for improvement. Initiating some kind of cooperative learning opportunity might be valuable, especially if you can get support from school leadership (principal, instructional assistant principal, etc.). When we learn together, we strengthen our relationship and often can engage in discussions about what is working and what could be improved. This is a challenging environment, but well worth the effort to improve.

Question from
Marion, New York

As the only teacher with a math background in our small elementary school, and as a teacher leader, I have found two things immensely helpful. The first is the foundation that an administrator can lay for change and her ongoing support. The second is patience for change to take place. Change at the elementary level often is confronted with a distrust of change and anxiety about math knowledge. I have had better success with a well mapped out plan for change implemented with small steps.

One of the best things we have done is to sponsor teacher involvement in the state math conference where they can see models of other elementary teachers making change happen.

Cathy Seeley:
Implementing change in small steps is a wise approach if it is possible. Also, I really like your idea about involving folks in the state's math conference. Many people in New York are doing interesting and positive things, and learning from others in a non-threatening environment can open the door to other learning opportunities closer to home.

Question from:
Painesville, Ohio

I am the math coordinator for our district. Attending workshops I do gather information I want to share with the teachers. I try to write newsletters to share some materials, and I organize workshops after school. Usually, the teachers who attend are the ones who are implementing the standards. It is hard to get some teachers to attend, or read, or make changes. I wish administrators could build in time during the school year for workshops. We have two workshop half days that are two and a half hours, and usually they do not allow time for teachers to talk together. Speakers are hired.

Cathy Seeley:
This idea of administrator support is critical. Optional professional development will often be appealing to a certain group of folks who are on a certain path and it only gets you so far. But getting school-level or district-level leadership commitment can help move you well beyond pockets of wonderfulness to a coordinated, cohesive program. Without a bit of leadership from somewhere, teachers are often content to do whatever they are doing in their own classrooms, whether it is to make changes or to remain the same.

Question from:
Arlington, Virginia

What can we learn from the new PISA test results? It seems that once again the United States is not doing so well. What are we doing wrong compared to the rest of the world?

Cathy Seeley:
The new PISA results confirm what many of us have feared—that our mathematics programs have to focus on problem solving that goes beyond straightforward word problems and that we have tremendous inequities in our educational system that deny many students, especially those in urban, rural and low socioeconomic settings, the opportunity to learn a comprehensive mathematics program. Too often our least successful students never get the opportunity to struggle with problems that take a bit of thought. The PISA test included nice problems that were fairly sophisticated and often complex. This is a wake-up call that we need to ramp up our efforts to help students learn to use the mathematics procedures they are learning to solve a wide range of problems well beyond the routine word problems we often see.

We are considering doing a chat in the near future around these PISA results and the TIMSS results that are to be released this week, so be on the lookout for a future chat along these lines.

Question from:
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

I, with the support of our lower elementary teachers, have been successful in implementing the Everyday Mathematics program in our lower elementary classrooms.

Cathy Seeley:
This is one of the potentially effective programs that calls for a lot of teacher learning and support in order to make it as successful as possible. Often, implementing a new program can give you a nice vehicle for working together, as well as for learning mathematics and mathematics teaching strategies. If you can build in time to work together and keep on learning around these materials and teaching strategies, you have the opportunity to make great gains.

Question from
Oakdale, Louisiana

Our district is implementing a program of professional development that has created challenges and frustrations, along with success. My job includes roving through four schools and more than 50 classrooms each week trying to develop "Pockets of Wonderfulness" in isolated classrooms as an outside expert coaching and modeling strategies while the teachers are meeting within professional learning communities on a weekly basis. The fact that accountability within federal guidelines of grant money given for the position required me to pre- and post-evaluate teachers' strategies being implemented gave teachers the wrong impression making it difficult to reach some. Teachers find PLC meetings too rigid, distracting, and time consuming, as well as being overwhelmed and overloaded with classroom accountability paper tasks, leaving little time, energy, and desire for planning quality implementation.

What HAS worked is for TEACHERS to hear/see TEACHERS who are currently in a classroom implementing the strategies, and parents whose child has benefited testify how incredible a difference it makes. Teachers do peer observations as well as redeliver strategies during faculty meetings sharing relevant information across the grade levels.

Other leaders and I have planted pockets of seed notions/ideas and modeled strategies for our math teachers. Peers trained within the school have sold many others. The "Pockets of Wonderfulness" is where it all begins. Success for our district has been defined when the pockets begin to network/share their findings/discoveries day by day in a natural sense, not a forced, rigid sense. Planting, cultivating, harvesting a Pocket of Wonderfulness takes a season. Filling the apron and keeping the apron full will take many seasons.

Cathy Seeley:
Starting with pockets of wonderfulness is a good start. Now, figuring out how to go the extra mile and get folks working together is an important next step. How can these individuals within the school get more growth from their students by building on what each other is doing? It may be like going from growing apples on a tree (to keep your botanical metaphor going) to growing apples in an orchard. The orchard will give us a much richer harvest. But in the case of students and learning, I think we can say that being in the orchard can also yield even bigger and better apples.

Question from
Baltimore, Maryland

Being the only geometry teacher gave me independence in selecting teaching strategies and topics to be taught in pedagogically correct sequence. My administrators are very supportive and give full freedom to try new techniques and strategies.

Cathy Seeley:
This is a nice setting in which to make change. And how great to have administrative support! It sounds like you are able to continually improve what you do in the interest of student learning.

Now, how about connecting with the algebra teachers? Together, can you make even greater gains in terms of connecting the content, expectations, and teaching approaches used throughout the high school math sequence?

Question from
Kings Mills, Ohio

I have often felt frustrated when colleagues (not all of them) tend to be very "old school." They give notes for the whole bell, assign homework, test or quiz every once in a while. Since I teach in a fairly affluent suburban district, our average student scores on state tests are usually pretty good. It's hard to make an argument for change. However, I think we could do so much more to reach ALL kids.

Recently, I joined forces with a couple of my colleagues to work on an evaluation project. I proposed that we write standards-based lessons for our precalculus students because that's the class we all have in common. I was hoping to draw upon my experiences over the past year writing lessons at the state department of education. So far, it is going very well.

We are putting our heads together to design student-centered activities using discovery of key ideas building on what they already know. That obviously forced us to deal with those concepts the students should, but often don't, know from previous classes.

In general, we are quite pleased with the results. This class of students is performing much better over this material than students in previous years. I'm also pleased because these two teachers really like teaching this way, and will probably continue designing instruction in this way. Also, a Geometry teacher down the hall saw some triangles we had hanging in our rooms and asked about the assignment. He is going to implement something similar when he introduces similar triangles and the 30-60-90 and 45-45-90 triangles.

Progress—hurray!

Cathy Seeley:
"Putting (y)our heads together" is a great way to move beyond pockets of wonderfulness. And it sounds like your success may even be a bit contagious. Keep track of your success, and be sure to share your evaluation project in various ways—perhaps through presentations at a state or regional conference. Even better, why not write up your results to share in the Mathematics Teacher? Learning from each other is one of the best ways to keep building on our own learning so that students can keep learning from theirs.

Question from
Edinburg, Texas

I am a math resource person for my district. I have the opportunity to see those pockets of wonderfulness. My position gives me the chance to share the good things I see with the other teachers and administrators who I work with. An example is from a teacher who was using an illustrated math dictionary with English Language Learners in the classroom. She was making an illustrated word wall with the vocabulary being used in the class. I took that idea a step further and made full-sized posters to hang in the hallway of the school. Now all our middle schools and one of the high schools have adopted this initiative. Now not only will the ELL students see the math vocabulary posters (word, definition, and picture) but so will all students. Our bilingual department really appreciated this initiative because it addresses their needs. This idea started with one pocket of wonderfulness and blossomed into a schoolwide and districtwide initiative. I have heard that the elementary school may begin to do this as well.

Cathy Seeley:
I love this story! You took a pocket of wonderfulness and you brought it into the spotlight so that others could learn from it. You are in a great position to do this kind of sharing and scaling up of good practices. Tying what is going on in math class to the needs of English Language Learners is a really important way to expand classroom practice to a bigger scale. The more you can bring together teachers around sharing their ideas, the more likely you are to be able to build a coherent, cohesive program across the grades. Thanks for sharing!

Question from
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The biggest challenge is time...Time to meet with other educators, time to REALLY examine ideas and/or student work and time to observe other educators.

Yes, I have been frustrated trying to implement a wonderful idea. I now realize that my excitement about ideas is not immediately shared by others. My goal is find ways to ignite my excitement in others.

Successes include convincing math educators to take typical textbook problems and enriching them and continuing to encourage being standards-based ALWAYS!

Being the only math teacher in a school would allow you to implement ideas that were innovative, but how would you improve the ideas without collaborative feedback? So, this situation would make innovation harder!

Cathy Seeley:
Time is absolutely the biggest challenge to all improvement efforts in our schools. You've correctly identified the benefits and limitations of being in a one-teacher situation. Most teachers are in somewhat larger contexts and have the opportunity for collaboration. But if we don't tap into the potential for working together, we may as well be teaching in a one-teacher school. We can learn so much from each other! I come back to seeing if we can generate a little leadership from an administrator, supervisor, or lead teacher to get folks committed to doing something together. I keep thinking that starting with a shared learning experience (a required group workshop, perhaps) is not a bad way to start to build those relationships that can lead to real collaboration.

Question from
Phoenix, Arizona

As I moved through graduate school with excellent professors, and mentors after that, I experienced many pockets of wonderfulness. And I was in a position to help others experience them. I remember a colleague literally running down the hall to me a few years ago saying, "Look at this, look at this work. I've never seen an approach like this." It was a great moment for the teacher—and obviously the student.

Spending time before department meetings in a short dyad has I think gotten a more collegial spirit among an excellent staff, with somewhat divergent ideas.

Cathy Seeley:
Sharing with each other is a great collegial habit and can open the door for more cooperative efforts of all kinds. The strategy of dyads to share ideas and learn different perspectives is a nice tool for seeing things differently. It also helps you build those relationships that are so key to improving what we do in a connected, cohesive way. Our student can benefit greatly when we work together.

Question from
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

I recently used an idea about volume of boxes and had a successful lesson day, but it was the third time I'd tried to use this idea and the first time I felt good about the lesson. The first time I had seen the idea, I liked it, tried it, and felt as if it did not work at all. I gave up on it. Then I went to a workshop at a state meeting and saw the same basic idea presented again a little differently. I tried it again with three classes that year and it was a so-so lesson, I still did not feel good about the outcome. But this year it fell into what I was trying to do with a group of special learners and my comfort and experience let me adjust it so it really became a great lesson. It takes time to make a lesson idea your own and for it to be effective. The problem is you do not always want to use your classes as trial and error.

Cathy Seeley:
Sometimes it takes several iterations of an idea before it works out the way you want it to. It sounds like you may now have a "pocket of wonderfulness" where good things are happening for a group of students. If you are in a situation where you can work together with another teacher to both plan and debrief your experience, you may be able to reach a level you are happy with a bit sooner. Thanks for persevering and for sharing this experience.

Question from
Edinburg, Texas

The difficulty I have had in implementing new and innovative ideas is the lack of support I get from the administration. It seems that my classroom activities are not valued by the principal unless my classroom is silent and all eyes are on me. The message that the students and I are getting is that quiet is the only way to show classroom management. In my heart I know that most students do not learn well in this type of environment. They need to be active and engaged in good conversation about the lesson of the day. I find myself falling into the trap of writing one thing for my lesson plan and closing my door and doing what it takes to get the job done. I have had many students come back to me and ask for help in their high school math classes because they are having difficulty. After sitting with them I find that they already know the content, they just needed to "talk it out" in order to internalize it. If only all teachers could give students that opportunity.

Cathy Seeley:
It is really challenging to work in an environment without administrative support for improving math programs. Each fall the Rio Grande Valley Council of Teachers of Mathematics has a Superintendents Luncheon where they talk about math. Perhaps you can connect to that group for next September to invite your administrators (administrators other than superintendents sometimes go). Also, NCTM publishes an Administrator's Guide that might be helpful.

Unfortunately, sometimes you have to close the door and do what's right. But it's much better if we find a way to work together with colleagues and administrators. Perhaps looking for some kind of shared learning opportunity through a workshop of some kind might help. This is a tough situation, but looking for colleagues is the best path in my opinion.

Question from
Austin, Texas

I am in a new school that is using a program I am not familiar with. I have seen a few teachers who seem to do really well with the program and who are seeing great gains from students. Other teachers seem to be just going through the motions of using it. I struggle a bit with the program, since it's so different from what I'm used to. I'd love to have a pocket of wonderfulness in my classroom, but I'm not there yet, and I think there may be more I could do. Any suggestions?

Cathy Seeley:
I keep coming back to the importance of surrounding yourself with colleagues who generate positive energy for teaching and who foster positive actions with students. Look for those who are being successful and positive, and ask if you can visit their classrooms or get together with them to plan your lessons. Find ways to connect, build relationships, and follow good examples. I suspect that you will soon be a contributor to the good ideas generated in your school. Enjoy this time of professional learning and growth!

Moderator
Thank you all for your participation in today's chat. Check the NCTM.org home page for the time of a possible future chat with NCTM President Cathy Seeley within the next few weeks about the recently released PISA and TIMSS results.

Good afternoon.

Cathy Seeley:
Thanks as always for sharing your ideas and good questions. I learn from all of you, which is part of my own collegial learning and stimulation. Thanks for all your good work, and have a great holiday break! We'll see you at the next chat.

Your feedback is important! Comments or concerns regarding the content of this page may be sent to nctm@nctm.org. Thank you.