Saturday, January 19, 2008

Math teachers have got it goin' on.

I'm quite jealous of math teachers.

I thought about teaching math, back in the day, when I knew I wanted to teach something but had no idea what.* I love math. I didn't do any serious acceleration in high school, but I took AP Calc my senior year and loved it. (Got a 5 if you care about that sort of thing.) I've always been a history nerd, but it was always nice to take a break from the seemingly endless reading and writing to solve some problems. There's just something so addictive and satisfying about solving a hard math problem, isn't there?

My AP Calc teacher, Miss Hawes, greeted us the first day of class by telling us "You will all get 5s." She was serious. She was also terrifying. I loved her. Sure, we did a ton of homework and it was hard work, but she really knew how to teach math. She had that dry sense of humor that only math teachers can pull off--you know, where they're making a joke while explaining a very complicated problem and five minutes later you go "That was a joke!"

I'm reminded of her, and of my jealousy for math teachers, by stumbling onto Dan Meyer's posts about assessment. One of the things I always admired about Miss Hawes was the way she handled tests. On every test, you had the opportunity to do test corrections to receive points back on the test. The way it worked was that she'd hand back the test and announce 5 or so students (it was a class of 16) who were tutors because they'd done well. The rest of us would get tutored by them to figure out how to fix what we'd got wrong. She'd then set aside some class time and the tutees would be interviewed about their test, why they got it wrong, and prove they'd figured it out by doing a new problem for her. If they did well enough, they and their tutor would get points added to their test grade. If not, they could go back to their tutor and try again.

This sort of approach seemed like sheer brilliance to me then (and was I ever so proud of how often I ended up on the tutors list) and I still carry it around in the back of my head as "how assessment should be done." Dan's approach is a bit different, but the same idea that the student should be able to get credit for mastering a skill they'd not got at the test is behind it. I really admire the way he's broken his curriculum down into its elemental pieces, because I know that took a lot of thought for him.

So why am I jealous of these math teachers?

I don't know how to do this in social studies. My curriculum is content-focused, not skill-focused. I want it to be skill-focused, but I have to work within the reality of the dread end-of-course test. I do think I'm going to spend some time with my thoughts on essential social studies skills so that I can break them down into elemental, assessable piece and do a better job of instructing & assessing them in the future. However, I'm not sure how to integrate this with the rest of my curriculum. How do I deal with a reality of high-stakes, knowledge-based testing? How do I remediate whether or not a student knows standard VUS8b "transformation of the American economy"?**

I constantly struggle with this, and I haven't found any good answers.

* I'm not a math teacher because I cannot explain it to other people. I used to try to help my brother with his algebra homework. I'd look at the problem, solve it, and he'd ask. "What did you do?" "This." "Why?" "Cuz that's what I needed to do to solve it?" "How did you know?" "I just did." Not very helpful, huh? (Besides, I wanted to major in history anyway.)


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