We are not Intramural...

Here's an analogy and the most recent joke going around my department:

Some of our kids get upset when they don't get all A's (understandable). My students are not all "on-level". In fact, most of them are not. In English class, they are accessing high school content at modified levels based on their independent and instruction reading levels as determined by the Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI). These reading levels range from pre-Primer through High School, and the teachers adapt their materials accordingly. Students that read at the pre-Primer level can still get a grade of A in English by doing the work and improving their reading and writing skills.

Math is a different beast. Students are learning high school math content. You cannot change the Algebra 1, Algebra 2, or Geometry standards. You can modify the methods used to teach the content. You can create guided notes with picture support for vocabulary and explanations written in language they can access based on their independent reading level. You cannot, though, teach 5th grade content. Factoring trinomials is factoring trinomials.

To break the news to students used to getting straight A's, my colleague uses a sports analogy. She explains to them that math content is the same in public schools as it is in our school. Their grade and understanding reflects how they are doing in comparison to what they know and understand about the standards. The same standards being used in public schools. The sports analogy is this: If you were grading athletic ability, an A would mean you're an expert, the best in the field...like a professional athlete or a gold medalist. A "B" is like a college athlete, C - on a high school sports team. A D or F would be like an intramural/club player, someone not quite good enough to make the team. Students know that they are below level in English, and this analogy helps them understand better their progress in math. We are not trying to bring our students down, but give them a realistic perspective of their achievements. The downside of going to a school where everyone is deaf, is that the only people to compare yourself with are others who are fighting the same language battle as you are.

The joke stemming from this analogy has nothing to do with our students: my colleague and I regularly tell ourselves (especially on rough days...) "We are not Intramural!" We are continuing to look for ways to improve our methods of teaching and assessing. We are trying to make high school math content accessible for our students. We are looking for ways to improve their retention and make math more applicable to their lives. If I get to a point where I don't care about those things and am just going through the motions - I have become intramural. I hope that never happens, but if it starts trending that way, I hope I leave teaching. The kids deserve better than that.


Writing Across the Curriculum

The Writing Committee at my school developed a task for this school year to help encourage writing across the curriculum in hopes of improving our students' writing abilities. (Students who are deaf, on average, are significantly below grade level in reading and writing. Some suggest it stems from lack of access to the phonology and patterns of spoken English, upon which the written form of English is based. Others suggest it is a symptom of language delay stemming from lack of access to a full language during the critical period for language development. Many oralists have cited ASL as the cause for low literacy rates among deaf people, but other research has shown that a strong foundation of ASL can actually support English reading and writing ability. It's all about language).**

Anyway, each class is required to submit 4 writing assignments for each student (one per quarter). Not too demanding, but there is an additional requirement that the writing assignments be of specific genre. I have, thus far, asked some students to provide a narrative "math autobiography", explain/describe the steps they took to solve a problem/how they would approach an unfamiliar problem, and (for my calculus student) compare and contrast optimization and related rates problems.

I see the benefit of writing in math class. I see how it can become an informal assessment of conceptual understanding. Some of my best math students, however, can explain to me the steps taken to solve a problem in a way that shows conceptual understanding, but cannot translate that into an English paragraph because they get so stuck on spelling and grammar. Their strength becomes a weakness because they cannot express themselves through writing. They get frustrated, write the absolute minimum required and/or refuse to do it.

I don't think the Writing Committee believes that this writing across the curriculum will be a "silver bullet" to solve the problems with our students' writing. I don't think that the way it's being implemented is helping at all, though. I don't know how to make it better in my classroom. I don't know how to have the students use writing to learn math when they aren't comfortable writing. Normally, teaching through writing is recommended for students who struggle with math and achieve in writing...letting them use their strength to support their weakness. I have students that are the exact opposite...They need so much assistance/instruction in their writing, that it no longer becomes about math, but about the writing.

Question for readers: Do you use writing in your math classroom? How? What strategies do you use to support your students with low literacy?

** Disclaimer: I am not trying to say that all deaf individuals have low literacy levels. Nor am I saying that all of my students are in this category. I am just seeking to provide some background information to give context for this conversation.


Class Sessions, Instructional Days, and a Conversation I Never Thought I'd Have at my School

Last week was the tail end of SOL (Standards of Learning) testing for 1st semester. We're on a 4-block set-up, so some classes are finished after 1 semester, and the students take their state End of Course multiple choice assessment. If you follow me on twitter, you might have noticed that my Algebra 2 class was one of these semester-long courses, and that the kids took their SOL test last week. None of them passed on the first go-round, but 3 were in what the state calls the "bubble". A score of 400 is required for passing, but the students who score between 375 and 399 are permitted an expedited retake...they are the "bubble". Those three students took the test (different form) again on Friday morning and scores came yesterday. One student improved by 52 points! Well into the passing range. The other two both improved, but not enough to cross over that 400 benchmark. I was pleased with their scores because with many students in the retake bubble, their 2nd score is lower than their first...the tests are often much more difficult than the first test.

Anyway, enough background/babble about test scores. That's not the whole purpose of this post. Last week my principal sent a request to the high school teachers. He said that he was looking at lesson plans recently and noticed that some teachers had noted class cancelled for a variety of reasons (IEP meetings, early dismissals for sports away games, clubs, etc). He was curious to know how widespread the class cancellations have been this term, so he asked us to total (for each class): class sessions, instructional days (with the teacher present...not a sub), instructional homegoing days (we have 1/2 days with students on homegoing days...they get on buses at noon on Fridays/Thursdays), and then write a narrative about whether or not we feel there was enough time in the schedule to cover the pace of the class.

The semester is supposed to have 90 days. Eighteen of those are "homegoing" days. We had 3 snow days, and I was out for a few days for various reasons. When the calculations were finished,*  one class had only met 44 times due to student illness/absences. Another class had only met 68 times, with 64 instructional days! To top it all off, the class with 64 instructional days is one of the fastest paced math classes we offer: Algebra 2. The students struggle in that class without missing 1/3 of instructional days because there is so much information to cover and a strong reliance on what you remember from Algebra 1. When I saw the numbers, I didn't feel so bad about the students not passing the state test, but I was still sad that they missed out. Think of how much better it might have been...

Well, Friday afternoon we had a meeting to clarify the intentions behind the principal's request, and to talk about some data. I was one of the few that had already turned their stats in, so my data was brought up. The conversation that I never expected to have was about test scores. I know public schools have dialogue all the time about needing to raise test scores and some teachers are worried for their job if the students don't perform well. I also know that most public schools expect 90% of their students to pass the Alg1 SOL (or any...) on the first try. We don't have those expectations. First of all, I don't even have 10 kids in my class...so it's impossible for me to have a 90% pass rate. Secondly, they don't all have the foundation in reading or math to do well. I expect them to work hard and try their best, but I know that some kids just won't pass the first time. That's okay.

What I didn't expect was to be told the data about our pass rates...We then discussed the time data...powers that be are putting two and two together, thinking that one is the direct result of another and are now looking for solutions. What can we do so that kids don't miss so much class? Move clubs to after school? What about day students? Cancel away games? Students will leave. Cancel sports/clubs entirely? Students will leave. We were not being accused of not teaching, but we were being asked for solutions. No one has any. Administration is afraid that if kids are not passing tests they, their parents, or their local districts won't want to send them to our school anymore.

There's more to our school than getting kids to pass tests.

*Secretly I loved doing this...I was even doing it before he asked, because I knew one of my classes had lost a lot of time...I guess I like data


Further Discussions on Higher Education

Sarah got me thinking about different kinds of graduate level programs after she commented on my last post. I also posted a tweet when I found out the program I had been eyeing has been closed. Our dialog (and some other tweets that have gone back and forth since then, has prompted me to want to do more research to see what's actually out there.

I have come to a couple conclusions:

  • I do not entirely know what I want to study
  • I am afraid of making the wrong decision and finding out in 15 years that I am not marketable for what I actually want to do
  • There might not be a program out there that fits my ideal
The options I am looking at (so far) are either a M.A. in Deaf Education (with a focus in secondary math education), or a M.A/S in Mathematics Education (as long as there is a program that doesn't require me to a. have a BS in Math or b. student teach in order to get math certification...I already teach math...kthx).

Pros for the Deaf Education program would be that I would be learning more specific methods that would help me teach my students right now. Classes would be offered in ASL, thus further expanding my vocabulary and experience learning in the language I teach through. I would be with other deaf educators, or prospective deaf educators, having people to bounce ideas off.

Cons for Deaf Education include pidgeon-holing myself into only being marketable to residential schools for the deaf. I love residential schools, and I do see myself teaching at one for a long time (if not my entire career). I am concerned, though, about the future of such schools. State funding, standardized testing, and IDEA are causing more deaf students to be mainstreamed into public schools. Residential schools are decreasing in numbers, and some schools are becoming more specialized in serving students with disabilities. A specialized master's degree with a focus in Deaf Education might cost me a job teaching in a public school some day if that ever needed to be the case.

Pros for general math/math ed include expanding my math knowledge and knowledge of general math teaching strategies (that may be useful in hearing and deaf classrooms). It would also almost certainly ensure my Highly Qualified status should I ever decide/need to teach hearing students in a public school (middle or high school math).

Cons for general math/math ed are that the people in the program will most likely have no clue what kind of students I work with every day. There won't be the shared experience or language. It would require more investigating on my part to discover and decide how to apply the general theories and strategies to my specific context.

So that's the basic idea of what's been tossing around in my head the past week. I know that there are many factors to consider and most likely no "wrong" path, but I want to make an intelligent, informed decision before I go dedicate a lot of time and money to a master's degree.