Wednesday, January 30, 2008


This week and next week are going to be total losses at school. Compass testing this week - what a waste. Mardi Gras next week means we only have school on Thursday and Friday and there will be a dance on Friday. Not getting anything accomplished those days. So that makes things suck.

All that said, I had a comment question about TAP and my experience with it. My school is in their practice year of the Teacher Advancement Program - TAP for short. I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical about it at first and I admit that there are still things about it that I think are totally lame and inconvenient. The sixth grade teachers, the three of us, have a cluster meeting with the school's Master Teacher twice a week. In the beginning we were learning the rubric (if there is one thing I loathe about education it is all this rubric stuff) that covers all sorts of things that research shows make for good teaching. Now we're on to tracking student progress, teacher evaluations, and in our case we are implementing the G.I.S.T. strategy (I couldn't explain to you what GIST stands for if I tried, but you can imagine what it is about) and tracking student data as it relates to that.

Things that drive me crazy: standards and GLEs. Not exclusive to TAP, but I guess I should make my stance on the state Grade Level Expectations known. THEY SUCK. I hate the Comprehensive Curriculum, I hate the GLEs, and I hate the stupid standardized testing that is required by the state. Which is not to say that it is stupid to test kids, I just think the tests they take are stupid. The kids are not being assessed using real life situations, they are not being taught problem solving skills, and they are being force fed all sorts of math that (let's face it folks) no one ever fucking uses outside of a classroom. I happen to like algebra, but do you use variables and algebraic equations in your daily life? Do you ever need to know the associative or commutative property of multiplication? Do you ever need to know the difference between a supplementary or complimentary angle? Honestly? There is all sorts of cool math that kids could be learning and it isn't as tangible or testable as a bunch of multiple choice questions. Basic operations are important, number sense is important, spatial reasoning is handy, and just generally being able to solve a problem using common sense is a must. And the middle school math years are important in our system for establishing all that. But it's silly the way we compartmentalize math. Algebra, geometry, number theory, fractions, decimals, percents, everything in math is related.

I'm not entirely sure where this rant is going, except to say that breaking math instruction down into tiny little bits and they expecting kids to assimilate it all seems ridiculous to me. Why should I be force-feeding them abstract ideas out of the shiny-white-middle-class-perfect-world text book in a certain order when what they really need is the time to explore and make a lot of mistakes. Pressure on account of LEAP means that I have to figure out ways to make the kids think the way that the government thinks they should in order to pass a certain test. I'd be happy if they had the confidence to divide 36 by 12 without the crutch of a calculator. I'd be happy if actually knew what multiplication and division are used for. In sixth grade I have a large number of students (a majority I would even venture to say) who don't actually have a concept of what addition or subtraction or multiplication or division mean beyond scratching numbers down on paper or entering them into a calculator. I plug numbers into a calculator and an answer comes out - that's math.

This is me beating my head against a wall.

Anyway, all this is related to TAP because we are attempting to track students progress according to state standards. In my case, the math standards. And as a general rule, everyone in every grade should be teaching the same sort of thing in their math class at the same time and at the same rate and as you can imagine this is a preposterous idea. One, by the time I discovered this, I had already covered a lot of stuff that they wanted me to cover again. No way. My kids were sick of fractions and frustrated and it was time to do something else. Two, my kids are dumb on average. I am trying to sneak problem-solving into a curriculum that already assumes that the kids have problem solving capabilities. They don't. They've never had to think critically in math because as far as I can tell no one ever expected it of them. This is baffling to me on many levels, the most pressing being that problem solving is the entire reason for studying math as far as I'm concerned.

I can't teach kids to think if I'm expected to teach them to pass a standardized test.

Now that I've gone completely off track, let me come back to TAP by saying that I enjoy my Master Teacher very much and she has been a huge help to me as a mentor. She is also understanding that what happens on paper and what happens in an actual classroom are two completely different animals. It doesn't make me less annoyed by so much of the educational jargon and bullshit that I have to be able to digest and regurgitate, but it does make it easier to accept as part of the daily grind.

As for this rubric which the teachers are being evaluated on, I do believe that the time we spent going over it and the things I learned from that time was worth it for me as a first year teacher. It certainly prompted me to change and improve some of my practices and I do believe that it has made a difference for my teaching and for my students. I really don't know that I would have seen the improvements that I've seen from my first quarter teaching to today if I hadn't had the TAP meetings and the Master Teacher's guidance. I think I'd be a worse teacher - or at the very least, it would have taken me longer to figure out some of this stuff on my own. It helped me provide much needed structure and focus to my classes that I was missing because I was so wrapped up in the overwhelming newness of it all.

So while there are aspects of TAP that I find annoying, I can't say that the program is a total loss. Overall for me it has been a great help. But as I said before, I think I can attribute a lot of it also to our Master Teacher. She's an excellent mentor: encouraging, full of ideas, and very good at relating the rubric's mumbo-jumbo to the way things really work in the classroom. She may not be a math person, but she's definitely helped me to feel more at ease in my situation. Because knowing your content is easy but knowing how to deal with your students is the real challenge.

I don't know that this post really answered the question that was asked, but I gave it a shot. Suppose that a more detailed and thoughtful diatribe on the sorry state of math education in our system should be forthcoming. But we'll see about that.


mominem said...

As an Architect I use all of that stupid math stuff all the time. I even occasionally use the dumb Calculus I learned.

I have discovered over many years that knowing math is in fact important in every day life. It teaches people organized, abstract thought. People with a good math understanding are much better at problem analysis and solution.

I wish teachers understood better the relationship between real world problem solving and the ability to think at the higher levels of abstraction necessary for basic mathematics (as opposed to arithmetic which way too many people don't understand).

Ray said...

If a kid doesn't understand associative and commutative properties, how are they going to understand algebra? And if you don't understand algebra, then never mind college, you can't even be an electrician's apprentice (check the T-P job listings if you don't believe me). No electrician is going to want his life dependent on some kid who can't understand P = IV and can't relate what that equation means to the wires he's about to hook up to a breaker box.

Ditto an auto mechanic who can't do simple math involving torque.

If you want these kids to have a prayer of having a bachelor's degree, they need to understand algebra. If you want them to be architects or engineers or computer programmers or accountants or economists, they're going to need to learn calculus.

No, I don't use calculus in my daily work, but the stuff that I know at a gut level as a professional, that I *do* use, I could not have been taught without having the calculus knowledge as a teaching tool. I use back-of-envelope differential calculus all the time.

If you want them to know "real-world" skills like how to make change at Popeye's or how to make the corners of the sheet rock panels line up right, then teach to that level.

Anonymous said...

i also teach in a TAP school. i am about to enter my 3rd year of teaching so i'm also still relatively new at teaching. it is intriguing to see that with a good master teacher, you felt more confident in your abilities. unfortunately, that hasn't been the case with my master teacher. it's been the opposite actually.
keep writing! it's definitely interesting to see how other schools are incorporating it.