Unsolicited Advice

Photo credit: Abid Patel @abid_patel

Right now, I should be in Chicago.

4 April 2020

Tweet me! @jillkbroderick

I should be celebrating a professional milestone. I should have just wrapped my debut presentation at the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Centennial Meeting - NCTM 100! I should be surrounded by colleagues and new friends, reveling in what some have compared to "The Big Game" for math educators. Right now, I should be rubbing elbows with some of the change-makers in Math Ed: Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer, Robert Kaplinsky, Marian Dingle, and anyone and everyone from the treasure trove of the Math Twitter Blogosphere (#MTBoS). I should have had the opportunity to share my philosophy on how to help bring a traditional math classroom to the 21st Century by using digital supplements. Instead, here I sit in London, teaching students in a digital classroom - literally. The irony is not lost on me. To ground myself, I look at the photo posted above from the Google Teaching Theatre @ BETT 2020. In just three months, the ExCeL center has transformed from Europe's epicenter of ed-tech (BETT) into the new NHS Nightingale Hospital. Wow.

As the invisible war of COVID-19 made its way around the globe, the ground troops of the ed-tech world immediately assembled. The outpouring of resources has been phenomenal to a point where I sometimes feel like my Twitter page is similar to walking down Canal Street in NYC. I can pretty much find anything I want for the price I want (sometimes free!). There are items on offer that I didn't even know I wanted! While the intentions behind this are good and very much appreciated, I have been admittedly overwhelmed. I can't imagine how other teachers feel. Especially the ones who haven't been pushing a philosophy of getting rid of traditional notebooks and relying on digital tools like Google Classroom and Desmos!

This brings me to my worry about what is happening with Distance Learning. My presentation on Thursday would have debunked the myth of "going digital". I don't believe we can get rid of pencils and paper and whiteboards and markers. I don't think that an online class can offer all of the beautiful "a-ha!" moments that a physical classroom provides. The shift to moving digital needs to be preceded by a philosophical shift. What is the big idea? How relevant are our lessons? What kind of thinking is happening? Tools are only as useful as the hands that wield them. If we are not creating opportunities for students to recognize that math is everywhere, and how they can use the power of math to support their interests, even the most innovative tools will still fall flat.

Distance Learning removes a lot of the vital characteristics that make learning what it is (and what keeps teaching a pretty secure career). Like a text message or e-mail exchange vs. a real conversation, it can lack tone. It can lack spontaneity. And piled on with the external stresses of working from home, it throws a temptation of falling back into old-school teaching methods. Lecture-based, procedural, and one-size-fits-all. It's why I've always been skeptical about "flipped" learning in math. If we fall back into the bad habits of teaching students procedure over problem-solving, all of the great leaps and bounds that we've made in the progressive world of math education will be for nothing. We don't give up on students who struggle, so we can't give up on ourselves. We can still be just as creative, just as encouraging, and just as flexible as we are in the classroom. It just might take a little more time (doesn't it always).

Today wraps up two weeks of Distance Learning for me, and I have thankfully felt more wins than losses. I have spent an extraordinary amount of time building interactive activities to keep my students engaged. My venture into trying new programs has been admittedly limited. Sticking with what my students know and are comfortable with has been successful, but this is because we have used tools like PearDeck, Desmos, and Buzzmath in tandem with Google's G-Suite consistently all year. There have been a few re-directs via e-mail, but not as much as anticipated. The feedback from students has been positive, aside from the general lament over missing friends and 'normal' interactions.

The purpose of this website, "Goodbye Notebooks," has shifted a few times. The initial intention was simply to create a landing page for conference attendees to keep the conversation going. Since the cancellation of NCTM, I've decided to re-purpose and use today as an unofficial launch. In its "final" form, it will be some sort of aggregate of what works for me as a math educator/ed-tech aficionado. It will hopefully also include the newest iteration of my Google Innovator Project (shoutout to #SWE19). While that is all under construction, I thought I'd start the 'what works' with a Distance Learning twist, and include it here. Hopefully, at least one or two of my six loyal Twitter followers will appreciate this! So, please see below for my "big takeaways" after two weeks of Distance Learning. Hopefully there's a little something new to consider among the rest of the help & how-to guides that currently exist.


ZOOM: The New Classroom, Breakroom, Pub, Town Square, Living Room...

Newest colleague sleeping on the job after making an appearance in several class ZOOM meeting.

Can you park the car? DESMOS (teacher.desmos.com) "Central Park" offers students an interactive way to explore writing algebraic expressions.

Celebrating 'Spring Break' through the screen with a Shirley Temple!

Distance Learning Takeaways: MS Math Edition

JUST SAY NO! To lectures...

Of course, it is easy to fall into the trap of using video meetings to "explain" how fraction division works for students. But why? Video conferencing time is precious and is the only social interaction some of our students are getting. Let them talk to each other. Let them be silly. Use the time you have on Zoom or Google Meet/Hangouts to catch up on who you are as people. Use the first few minutes of a video chat to show off pets, or tell jokes. Then use the time to allow students to share their thinking, ask questions about assignments, and continue collaborating on assigned work with peers. There are already thousands of Khan Academy videos that show how to do something. Don't waste your own time (or theirs) on teaching the "how-to" unless you're allowing a student to walk you through, or better, the student is showing you themselves.

More below...

Leave a few cliffhangers

I have never been skilled at "wrapping up" a good lesson in one block. The same goes for trying to build a neatly packaged activity that students can complete in one sitting. No way! Be happy with leaving cliffhangers. Chunk work into manageable loads. Notice/wonder cliffhangers are a great way to lead into some of your video face-to-face meetings. You might even wind up with students who do some of their own digging and spark new opportunities for debate.

One-size still doesn't fit all

Flexibility is critical. While you shouldn't put pressure on yourself to create multiple lessons with multiple levels of entry, offering low-floor, high ceiling tasks is really important right now. It's also OK to lean on some of the great programs that are out there, like Desmos and Buzzmath or websites that offer rich tasks like YouCubed and NRICH. Giving kids a menu of options allows students to feel like they still have some choice.

Listen to student feedback.

What works for everyone else might not work so well with your class. My math students aren't hot on FlipGrid, even if I get a real kick out of it, and every other teacher loves it. I've taken their feedback to heart and will look for something else. Unless the tool is essential for developing understanding, be sure to read the room. Remember our practice standards! MP5: Use Appropriate Tools Strategically - this goes beyond calculators and protractors!

Finally, remember we are living history right now.

This is something a former colleague passed along to a member of our current team, and it resonates. While it might not be appropriate to ask students to chart the spread of COVID-19 (I know it's tempting, but at this point, we need to be sensitive to those who may be directly affected), it is OK to share the feelings and discuss what is happening. It is OK for a student to fall a little behind. Be flexible (a recurring theme you'll see here). It is still essential to show relevance in your lessons, but for now, keep it light and recognize we're all in this together.