Quotes and thoughts

Not all teachers are effective, not all teachers are experts, and not all teachers have powerful effects on students (Hattie, 2009)

My thoughts: Experts are not necessarily effective. Effects are not necessarily powerful. Power does not necessarily come from effective experts. There’s a venn diagram somewhere here.

While an unprecedented number of societal responsibilities are being thrust on educators today, one fact is undeniable: it is their responsibility to teach students the academic knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to succeed as adults.

My thoughts: Pressure. Triggered.

The law considers teacher in loco parentis – in place of a parent – in the classroom. In most educational decisions, teachers have much greater authority than parents.

My thoughts: Pressure. Triggered. Again.

While we are not suggesting that promoting continuing education and rewarding teacher experience are nonbeneficial, it is unlikely that these practices will significantly and sustainably improve core instruction.

My thoughts: Makes me doubt whether grad school tuition was a good use of my money then.

Additionally, three out of four teachers report that their evaluation process has virtually no impact on their classroom practice.

My thoughts: Word.

Ultimately, the goal of education reform is not to improve teaching but to increase student learning.

My thoughts: Interesting. My mind got a bit blown, but I’m too distracted and too tired to tease out exactly why right now. Will come back to this at a later date.

Bad decisions made with good intentions are still bad decisions.

My thoughts: I super appreciate the blunt honesty in sentences like these. There should be more honestly and transparency in general. And society needs to develop themselves into people who will be A) open enough to reflect on this honesty and B) supportive enough of each other as we each work through it.

All quotes are from Best Practices at Tier 1 by Gayle Gregory, Martha Kaufeldt, and Mike Mattos.

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The story of my job search

Getting that first job can be a tough experience. For me, it was mainly because I had no experience. I’ve had previous jobs before, but I got them through networks like my college campus, or connections, like family friends. I’ve written resumes and submitted them, but I’ve never really had to interview, or do follow-ups. So I thought it would be a good idea to write and reflect about my job search history.

Three months before graduating from teacher credential school, I started sending out applications for jobs all over the globe. It was 2009 and the recession’s effects were taking a toll on any civil servant job. Teachers were getting pink slipped left and right, even those who had been with their district for 5+ years. It was a rather grim time.

My credentialing program took some initiative and encouraged their pre-service teachers to expand their credentials. Some of the people in my program got added credentials in foreign languages, science, P.E. I think I was the only one who got one in math. My credentialing program also spent a good amount of time training us on job application processes, resume writing, and interviewing (if we were ever so lucky to land one).

Fast forward to August 2010. At that point, I had sent out nearly 200 applications on Edjoin (the US’s major job posting site for all types of jobs in elementary and secondary schools, public, private, and charter). I got a total of 4 interviews that summer:

  1. An upper elementary position in Roseville, where 16 people were crammed into one dinky room. The door was to my back and there was just enough space for me to step in and sit down. I had apparently interviewed well, and was on their final list, but they were looking for someone with more experience.
  2. A long-term sub position in Lancaster, for which I drove 10 hours in one day.
  3. An English tutoring gig in Hong Kong [interviewed over Skype]. The English tutoring gig accepted me, and it seemed to be the best option at the time, so I had booked a flight everything.

Then, exactly 5 days before I was to board that plane, I got a call to interview for a public middle school math teacher position. I thought I should have disclosed that I had an offer already, but I didn’t say and went anyway.

It was the easiest, most candid interview I’ve ever had. The principal and I talked for over an hour. I didn’t feel awkward or stiff like the other interviews. I didn’t even get that feeling of needing to impress anyone. The principal asked pretty much the same questions that the Roseville panel did, but for some reason, I didn’t answer in exactly the same way. My practiced, pat answers for classroom management and engaging students and families felt less robotic, even if the meaning in my answers were the same as before. I was just able to be a bit more comfortable about it. He did ask some questions I had never been asked before, not in a previous interview and not for interview prep. Here’s one that I remember the most:

Principal: What is the one word you would use to describe middle school students, and why?

Me: ::thinks for a moment:: I’ve never thought about this question until now, but I think I would use the word ‘searching.’ Middle school students are not little kids anymore, they are coming into their own and starting to be aware of things outside of their immediate consciousness. They are searching for what they are good at, who they get a long with, what their role in their family and friends circle could be. It’s a pretty exciting time to explore, but it can also be rather intimidating. Yes, I would describe middle school students as ‘searching.’

Principal: That’s a really good way to put it.

As the last part of the interview, I was asked to teach a mini-lesson on factoring a trinomial. Which is the usual. And I thought I did ok, considering that most of the math teaching I was doing up until then was 4th and 5th grade level stuff. Unfortunately, I made a mistake, and I didn’t realize it until I was already on the road home.

However, the next day, the principal called me and asked if I could come in for a second interview the following day. So it ended up that 3 days before I was to board a plane for my secured job tutoring English in Hong Kong, I found myself sitting in front of the principal and both assistant principals. The very first question I was asked was to reflect on my previous interview:

Principal: So tell us what your thoughts were on your previous interview. You can also do a summary of it for the APs.

Me: Well, first off, I would like to say that I made a mistake on the mini-lesson.

Principal: ::grinning broadly:: Yes, you did.

AP1: What happened?

Me: The mini-lesson was on a problem about factoring a trinomial. There was a common factor of 2 in all three terms to start with, and I had factored that out as my first step. But in the middle, I forgot all about it, and didn’t bring it down in the final factored form. The factor of 2 had dropped off the face of the problem when it should have been there and accounted for.

Principal: ::still grinning:: Yes, exactly right. If that had happened in your classroom, what would you have done next?

Me: Well, I would tell my students that mistakes happen, and mistakes are ok. It would be a teaching moment for me to help students understand how and why a mistake happened, how to fix it, and then how to prevent it from happening next time.

The APs asked me a few other questions about my other skills (Cantonese and technology), and whether I would be willing to coach clubs and sports (yes, math clubs and tennis or volleyball).

I was rolling onto the freeway entrance not 15 minutes after the end of the interview when the principal called me to offer the job. I said yes right way. I’ve been at this job and this school since.

Four years into my career, the principal who hired me retired. When he retired, he told me that he knew 100% that he would offer me the job from the moment I mentioned my mistake in the mini-lesson. That every other interviewee that year had also made a math mistake, but I was the only one who caught it and spoke up about it on my own.

My first principal, the one who hired me, has been my favorite principal to work with. He was always supportive, checked in on not just my classroom and how teaching is going, but with me. He made sure I had everything I needed, from something as small as a pen holder for my desk to something as grand as colleagues who I could work well with. He backed me up when parents complained about my classroom policies. He gave me opportunities to grow and develop professionally. I got into the habit of going to conferences and seminars because of that. My two favorite education quotes from a person I actually knew came from him. When speaking of behavior management:

“Manage the little things – the gum and food in class, tardies, dress code, cell phones – and most big behaviors – fighting, stealing, substances, weapons – will take care of themselves.”

When speaking of the workplace environment:

“No matter what, I’m on the teacher’s side. If they want a fridge in their classroom, get them one. If they don’t want individual codes for the copy machine, make that happen. The teacher is the first line of defense. When they know I’m on their side, then both them and I get to focus on fighting the battles that really matter.”

Since then, I’ve seen 2 other principals and 4 other APs. They all have their own strengths of course, but I have yet to learn as much from them as I did from my first principal. And I know that the fact I’m more experienced myself when I met these other admin has a role in how much I can learn from them. But still. No other admin has inspired quite as much.

What was your job search like? Are you living through a job search yourself right now? Share your stories in the comments below!

How to set up sub plans

I just had my first sub day of the school year. Instead of teaching, I spent 7 hours in a room with some of my favorite colleagues working on big picture items for my district’s Math 8 course.

During my first two years of teaching, I regularly took a sub day every 6-8 weeks, even if I didn’t have a full on cold or flu (like I do now). It was something my master teachers and pedagogy professors instilled in my cohort during teaching credentialing: It’s impossible to take care of everyone and everything that you need to in the classroom, when you don’t prioritize taking care of yourself.

But planning for a sub is not easy. There’s so much that happens in the classroom, so many routines and signals, on top of the actual lesson plan, not to mention classroom and behavior management that it’ll take pages and pages to note it all down. Assuming the sub that you get – a sub that is paid ~$100 per day, most likely without a teaching credential, nor have a teaching philosophy aligned with yours, nor required to arrive earlier or stay later to understand these pages and pages of sub plans – has the desire to read through it all.

Which is why I didn’t get a sub this time when I got sick, especially so close to the previous sub day I took to work with my colleagues. It’s not the first time I’ve done that. And it won’t be the last. And I’m not the only one. But I’ve made enough sub plans, and taken those days off enough times, to have a few do’s and don’ts to share:

  1. Don’t wait until the last minute to put your sub plans together. The best thing about counting out 6-8 weeks and regularly booking a sub is that the earlier I book the sub, the more likely I’ll actually get a sub in my classroom, rather than relying on my colleagues to cover my classes on their prep. Oh? I didn’t mention that sometimes (and when I mean ‘sometimes’ I mean approximately 1 out of 3 times) when I’m taking a sick day, there is no substitute that will pick up my job? Yeah, that happens.
  2. Do save your previous sub plans. Once you get going, it’s easier to build off of what you already have than to start from scratch all over again. Save the plans that you had previously for next time. Then you can just delete the content and keep the formatting. Whoever is subbed for you before might pick up your job again at a later date, and it’s easier for them to read something that is formatted familiarly.
  3. Do keep a page of general information that applies to all your classes throughout the entire school year. What so you teach each period/in each time slot? When is your prep? Who are the people in the neighboring classrooms? Who are the people the sub can call for backup? Is there a referral system? How would a sub use it? Is there a rewards system? How would a sub use that? Here is a free sample template I made for myself. It’s not fancy like the ones you can find on Teachers Pay Teachers. But it doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to be, and it needs to fit you and your sub’s needs. And it should be flexible enough so that you can either keep it in your sub binder/folder throughout the entire year without needing to print out a new one each time.
  4. Do keep all materials in a binder or folder marked ‘For the Sub.’ The general info page should go in here. Then the page for lesson plans, any master copies and answer keys, the previously mentioned rewards and referral system documents, and any seating charts or rosters of your classes. I also like to keep some extra binder paper for the sub to take notes of what happened in class.
  5. Do prep your students for a sub. I didn’t used to believe in this, but my Super Colleague does this all the time so I tried it out…and it worked really well for me. I had much fewer problems to deal with after I get back now that I prepare my students for a sub. It can be as simple as reminding them that the sub is a guest on campus, and they need to show respect to all guests. I also remind my students that the sub may or may not know the math they are learning, so they shouldn’t react poorly when the sub can’t answer their questions like I would normally do. We do an activity where we brainstorm some of the confusing or ‘unfair’ (to the student’s point of view) things that they’ve seen from a sub before, and we try to figure out why a person would react that way, and then role-play it with the proper way to react. When it comes down to it, I tell my students that they are not to argue back with the substitute in that moment – but if there’s anything out of the ordinary, then they can tell me when I come back. I usually just listen and don’t do anything about it – because the student’s point of view can’t always be trusted as complete or accurate, right?

How do you make your sub plans?

Fall morning routine

I love the GRWM tag. There’s something nosey and completely satisfying about studying how people get ready for their day. It’s a glimpse into the rest of their life, their mental state, their personality.

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Photo credits

My morning routine changes with each season. I would love to have so much time on my hands that I can film and edit a GRWM, perhaps some day, but for now, I’ll just describe a typical workday morning routine during the months of October-November.

5:00 AM – Wake up alarm. I might actually wake anywhere from 15-30 minutes before my alarm actually sounds. I might also fall back asleep for another 15-30 minutes. I would like to be part of a sleep study at some point to figure out what is going on with my sleep cycle. But my alarm is so early because I like to give myself that wiggle room to get out of whatever stage of sleep I’m in properly. I just feel so much more refreshed for the rest of the day that way.

5:30 AM – Slide out of bed, put the electric hot water kettle on. If I feel like a hot breakfast, like toast or eggs, I’ll put that on as well before heading to the bathroom. I tend to buy whatever is on sale in terms of toothpaste and mouthwash, but I’m pretty particular about skincare. I wash my face with this Neostrata cleanser combined with this Foreo Luna Go. I started using the Go this summer, and because it isn’t rechargeable and is only good for 100 uses or so, I wanted to use up its battery before I went back to my Mini. Then I’ll use this, this, and this, in that order. My pores get clogged super easily, so I try to go light on products in the morning, although I do layer up on the Innisfree Soy Bean Essence.

5:45 AM – By this time, whatever I had going on in the kitchen is most likely done. I’ll put the final touches of breakfast together and then open up my laptop and put the news on. Lately, I’ve been watching the previous night’s PBS NewsHour.

6:10 AM – This is probably my favorite time of the day. I like the discipline of routines, but I also get bored easily. I make this work for me by letting this be whatever I need it to be. If I need some exercise, I’ll do some pilates. If I need to clean and pick up around the house, I’ll do that. If I got home late the night before and didn’t let Chin out to play, I’ll do that. Writing, journaling, reading, coloring, small chores like watering the plants, doing the dishes, making the bed, cleaning out my school bag, wiping down surfaces…whatever tasks that would clear my head and help me to focus on the heavier stuff, I’ll do that.

6:35 AM – Time to make myself look professional! I use this, thisthis (in the color sand to conceal and then later in light to highlight), this, this, this, and this. Also in that order. It sounds like a lot of products when I list it out, but I do it all super minimally. I also put my clothes out the night before, so I can get from lounging mode to 看人 (‘see people’) mode in 10 minutes or less.

6:45 AM – I’m out the door to carpool with a colleague. Spare the air and collaboration all at once!

7:25 AM – Our usual ETA to school. I unpack my bag, put away finished grading in the to-be-returned box, make the final touches to that day’s lesson including preparing any materials that might be needed, and then finally open my email to work on replies and Google Drive tasks until students start coming in for tutoring or when class starts at 8:45 AM.

What’s your morning routine?

A few dot talks

Math 8 Intervention – aka ‘Boosters’ – is on my teaching schedule for the 2nd year in a row. The class is a math elective (although not really), and the students in it are hand-selected in conjunction with their counselor, math teachers (current and previous) using a variety of testing, grades, and behavior data of both the qualitative and quantitative kind.

I have 10 students in Boosters so far and I have them during 1st period and advisory. Math skills are very much lacking, and my job is to bring them up to speed enough so that they can be independently successful on their own.

I use a pre-teach model for intervention. Meaning 60% of the time, I teach them that week’s most essential lesson(s) a couple days prior to when they’ll see it in their regular math class. We get to go slowly, since its such a small group.

30% of the remaining time, I do things that boost (get it? harharhar!) students’ basic number sense skills and reteach concepts they should have seen in previous grade levels. I got around to starting dot talks last week, and we do the routine a few times a week.

Here’s a slideshow of the first two times we did dot talks:

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I came across students double counting the dots for the first time ever. It was so interesting to me, that I just kinda let it happen during the first time with dot talks.

The second time with dot talks, we focused on just one set of dots and wrote numerical expressions to represent each.

The third time with dot talks (not shown), most students got the idea that you shouldn’t double count the dots by making more than one endpoint or vertex on each dot. But one girl just kept going with it, making more and more complicated shapes and seeing all sorts of things in the dots, double and triple counting everything.

In the end, I had to just tell her point blank that even though her shapes were fantastic, it was making the numerical expression very complicated. We needed to simplify the shapes so that the double/triple counting doesn’t happen and so we don’t need to adjust for it in the numerical expression by subtracting.

I’m not sure if that’s what the original dot talk people would have done, but I did convince the student to keep it simple. And thereafter, her number sense during regular math class has become much more clear and concise. Is there a connection? I don’t know. But dot talks are pretty awesome.

What are your experiences with dot talks? Do your students double count dots like mine did? How did you deal with that?

Gradescope: A first glance

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Growing up my parents taught me to buy quality on two things: cars and technology (and I suppose cars is a form of technology). Spending most of my adult life in the California Bay Area continued to fuel my value for technology.

However, these parts of myself are in constant battle with my minimalistic side. I don’t have a TV, because I can watch everything I want to watch online. I don’t have a tablet because my smartphone basically acts like one. I haven’t gotten into the whole Nest/Alexa/Google Home trend because my home is small, and old, and has other more urgent needs in the update department (like all of the flooring and lighting).

When Gradescope came into my consciousness, it intrigued me to no end. Grading has always been my Achilles heel when it comes to the job of teaching. Math naturally has a lot of student produced paperwork. It’s barely 5 weeks into the school year and I have 27 assignments in my grade book. I’m super slow at grading – it takes me a little over an hour to deal with all of the homework assignments from one day. It’ll take anywhere between 3-6 hours for me to grade, comment, and record test papers. I readily admit to losing student papers, making typos, and making grading mistakes.

So the idea of Gradescope sounds like the perfect solution to my grading problems. I can scan them in batches, so even if I lose the hardcopy, the digital copy is there. And – it’s already happened this year – when a student sneakily edits their test to turn their answers into the correct one, I can always look back on the original scan to see if they are lying to me or not. Grading becomes more consistent as well. The build-able rubric helps me keep track of how I’ve graded the previous question.

But.

I really want to love Gradescope. And I’ll probably always scan student tests from now on, even if I don’t use Gradescope itself. But there are several things that I found rather annoying:

It took forever and a day to set the whole thing up. And then I STILL did it wrong because I didn’t upload my rosters with separate first and last names. Which means that I can’t sort students by ABC order unless I delete the entire class and re-upload the roster again.

The default setting subtracts points from the total, rather than counts up.I’m not fond of marking negative values to begin with. The culture I have in my classroom is to look for, then praise and reward, what is correct; valuing that over penalizing for what is incorrect. I took a grad class where we studied the research about how negative points discourage students from looking for and fixing their mistakes, while positive points end up helping students learn more from their mistakes. That class shaped the core of my teaching philosophy so the fact that Gradescope automatically uses negative points kinda is a turn off, even if the settings can be changed.

And I did change the settings. And I thought I changed it so that counting up is now my new default for each class, but I ended up having to do it every single time I upload a new test to score. I might have changed it wrong, and there’s a way to make it an automatic default, but by that time I was just frustrated with it and needed to step away from it for awhile.

For certain tests, I’m actually quicker and more accurate at grading on the hard copy than on Gradescope. Especially the short tests like our essential standards tests. Even the chapter 1 test was easier to grade by hand, because we had broken up the test into two shorter parts. Perhaps I’m more practiced at grading by hand, and not enough practiced at grading on Gradescope. I’ll have to try again with another test to be certain.

The feedback I want to give students isn’t as meaningful to them. I teach middle school, which means my students may treat their Gradescope feedback differently than say, a college level student. My students tend to just see the score and then stop looking at the rest. Which has led me to never write a total score on anything I give back to students anymore. Instead, I tally up their points on a separate roster and use that to enter points into my grade book. If I send students a score and a rubric of how I scored them, they may or may not know what I mean. But if I circle the exact point of where their mistakes were, or write comments like “Are you really sure 9=0 is a true statement? REALLY?” then it provides the type of feedback I want my students to focus on. I wish there was a way to overlay marks and comments onto the PDF scan in Gradescope. I think I would like that feature more than the rubric.

The work-arounds for grade based on standards is a bit convoluted. There should be an easier option for standards based grading. It should not need me to hack the rubric so that it fits what I need. Especially if the hack takes extra time to set up.

I tried to email results to my students and the email never went through. I’m sure there’s a way to fix this too, but again, when I got to it, I was so frustrated that I just ended up not dealing with it.

Technology is supposed to make a task lighter, less time-consuming, more automatic, and provides added value and clarity. As of right now, I’m not entirely sure Gradescope does that for me.

What’s your experience with Gradescope? Got any tips and tricks for me to use it more efficiently? Leave a comment if you do!