Summer School Part 1: We do math together.

On June 4, I walked into a classroom that was mine, if only for a short-term, for the first time in four years. I had spent hours planning activities, lessons, tasks, and experiences for the 40 rising 7th graders I'd have in my two 2-hour periods of summer school math. These students attend a local middle school in the lowest performing district in our county, and some were "invited" to summer school based on demonstrated academic need, while others had opted in for something to do on the 100+ degree days of June. I knew it was going to be hard. A combination of my short-term tenure (2 weeks) and the lack of any real incentive for students to attend or engage (no credit recovery for 7th graders) in their courses set me up with pretty low expectations, not of the students, but of the impact I'd be able to make for them. In addition to being the teacher of record for two weeks, part of my role was also to support observing teachers from this school. The idea was that they'd get a chance to observe someone else's teaching (mine), watch and listen closely to students they have had or will have in class during the school year, and participate in reflective conversations around instruction, decision-making, curriculum, behavior management, etc; Then, those teachers would take over for the final two weeks of summer school, implementing some of what they'd observed while having the freedom to try new things.

I learned some things in those two weeks, some about teaching students and some about teaching teachers. I've held off on writing this posts for a number of reasons, and I feel like I can finally articulate a couple of them. The first reason is that, like all of us, I have a little bit of imposter syndrome. Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post about being a teacher without a classroom. Four years into this job, and I still have those gut check moments where I question my influence - should I be making suggestions to teachers whose reality is not mine? Who am I to say, "try this/that!" when the context in which I've tried it is somewhat artificial? So, I've been a little afraid that my reflections from only two weeks of teaching summer school may come across wrong in some way. Another reason I've held off is that I don't think my revelations are particularly novel. Although, as I have processed all of this, I've sort of come around to the idea that while my take-aways might not be earth-shattering to teachers, they might be validating, which is worth something.

I'm going to share my thoughts through the lens of the norms that we had in our class. I'll write a separate blog post for each of these norms, and try to put together some coherent thoughts for each of them. Our norms:

These norms were inspired by the norms we use in professional development at Illustrative Mathematics. I wrote a blog post here about the difference between norms and rules, and one of the important differences is that while rules are developed by someone in authority (teacher, administrator), norms should be created by the community of learners. In the summer school setting, I felt like I could start with offering some norms that would communicate my hopes and expectations with the flexibility to add to them or change them as we learned to work together.

We do math together.

One of the first tasks we did was Building Shapes from the Week of Inspirational Math/YouCubed. Students were given an 8 ft piece of rope tied into a loop and worked in groups of 4-5 to create 2D and 3D geometric shapes. The rules:

  1. All group members keep at least one hand on the rope.
  2. Do not untie the rope.
  3. Use all of the rope.

We started with 2D shapes, focusing on precision and justification. "This is a square because it looks like a square" became a starting point for students working with their group members to verify defining attributes. Justifications grew as groups negotiated ways to confirm what they had intuited, and working together started to evolve from giggling about having to touch each other's hands to high-fiving when they had successfully built a shape.

For some groups, the hardest part of doing math together was managing the dynamic of who steps up and who steps back when faced with a challenge. It was fascinating to listen to groups work through this and one group, in particular, ended up working in total silence which was fascinating. Gradually, groups attempted more and more complex shapes.

We came back to this task throughout our two weeks together, way more often than I had originally planned. But, when students are asking to do math together, you don't say no! By Week 2, several groups were successful in building an octahedron after lots of collaboration, frustration, and perseverance.

I love this reflection from a student after our first day with this activity (actually it was our first day, period!). She shared a challenge, how her group overcame it, and then described building shapes as "difficult, funny, and amazing". When kids do math together, it's all of those things, and more.


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