A Middle School Math Teacher’s Most Important Job

If I had a dollar for every time this year that I’ve heard the phrase, “Can you switch my seat?” I would be able to take my wife to a nice restaurant and treat her to a fancy meal.  Seating charts strike fear into the hearts of middle school students, especially when the core of an instructional strategy like mine is (insert daunting music here) group work.

A teacher’s most important job?  We have many of those–caregiver, instructor, leader, guide, confidant, etc.–and I could also list several things I want my students to be able to do because of my leadership.  But, according to the voices of the colleges and workplaces of the changing world, there are two main skills that will lead my students to success.

They must learn to collaborate and communicate.

I teach mathematics.  In my middle school years, math was the dry accumulation of calculating and solving word problems with prescribed algorithms or steps.  I sat in a desk, in a row, and watched the teacher do math problems for 50 minutes.  It was dreadfully boring and I’m pretty sure I learned nothing, other than how to draw a really cool logo for my band.  Back then, the most important job skills for high-reward jobs were work ethic, ability to tie a tie, effective sales techniques, and the ability to press the “snooze” button no more than three times.

Now, according the Workforce Readiness Report Card, our kids are looking at some serious competition.  Well, so were we, but this time it’s global.  Our children must be prepared to communicate and collaborate globally and digitally.  Which means, when you’re talking about the average middle school student, we have some work to do.

Over the next week or so, I would like to add an entry for every idea that I’ve come across to make this happen, especially if I’m planning to implement it next year.  I will also look eagerly for comments on this site and on Facebook for other ideas that I hadn’t thought of.

It is this author’s idea that we must start teaching our kids to work together productively from the elementary years.  We have to get them to start seeing problem-solving as team effort, where we all have common goals and a common interest in the outcome.

Then, we’ll need to somehow convince the politicians and administrators.


Why the SMART Board May Have Been a Dumb Choice

Their hands are up! They're engaged! Even if they're only yelling, "my turn!"

The teacher across the hall just received a long-awaited gift from our school’s technology department–a SMART Board!  It felt like Christmas as the students and teachers in our hall watched the technician open the boxes, unwrap the components, secure the board to the wall, connect the teacher PC to the interface, press the power button, and stand back proudly as the shiny, new technology came to life.  Then, well, that’s what I’m writing about.  What’s next?  Now what?

Every time I walk into a classroom where a SMART Board is installed, I see engagement and livelihood in the classroom.  It seems that the improved functionality of the technology made teaching so much more interactive and exciting!  Gone are the days of standing behind the computer to advance slides; here are the days of touching the screen, drawing and writing notes with the electronic markers, and saving everything for the good of the teachers’ evaluations!

The students are sitting in their desks or at their tables watching the teacher do technological magic tricks.  Every once in a while, the teacher invites a student up to interact.  The student touches a few places on the screen or writes an answer on the board with those fantastic markers, and then bows and returns to her seat.  Then, the teacher thanks her volunteer from the audience and resumes the magic show, er, I mean, interactive lesson!

And that’s it.  This is where I’m confused.  SMART has a tagline on their corporate homepage that suggests that “millions of students and teachers around the world who use the SMART Board interactive whiteboard…help improve learning outcomes.”  I don’t think this is over the top or overblown.  I do believe that SMART Boards are being used in ways that actually do help.  I just don’t think it’s happening very often, and certainly not with “millions of students and teachers.”

Every new toy gets old.  Every new method of displaying lesson media is going to get boring.  Every technological solution in education has the potential of being overused or, in the case of SMART Boards, misused.

Please don’t think that I’m suggesting that every SMART Board be torn off the walls and sold at rummage sales to support the athletic booster club (although many boosters could use the money); on the contrary, I am suggesting that too many schools, districts, and teachers are using the SMART Board as standalone, all-in-one technology.  Too many classrooms employ this fantastic technology as the be-all-to-end-all of educational technology.  The reason for this blog entry is to suggest that the installation of a SMART Board is only the beginning.  Or, perhaps somewhere in the middle, since the beginning should have involved some sort of plan.

I’ve seen incredible things done with SMART technologies.  I’ve seen classrooms (usually in high school or higher education) where the SMART Board was simply the communications hub.  The research suggests that the key to truly improving student learning and achievement is making sure that students are actively participating in not only the lessons, but also the communication and collaboration of a true learning experience.  If technology is going to be part of our 21st century classrooms, it needs to be authentic and it needs to evolve.

I have a scenario that I’d like to describe briefly; I’ve never seen it happen firsthand, so I will need to walk you through my, um, dream.  Since my collaborative groups are generally in groups of three (no more than four), each group has the iPad as the interface to the rest of the class.  The SMART Board at the front of the room is the place where the teacher can share what each group is working on and lead discussions from the presentation of each group’s screen.  Software such as ClassSpot makes this possible in real-time, and works to allow students to see how global communication looks in the “real world.”

As my math students, for example, seek to solve a complex problem, every step of the process would be done in collaboration and using the interface where the teacher could incorporate “discussion breaks.”  Since the iPad (or other tablet–I’m an Android man, myself) would be wirelessly connected to the Internet, students would be expected to find the necessary tools and develop an effective strategy to solve the problem.  Once they’ve done this, they will develop an engaging and logical method to communicate their results.  This could be done easily in one 70-minute block!  Especially if the students are used to doing things this way and know how to self start.

Instead, I see teachers using the SMART Board as I described above and I picture something that is not existent in collegiate or corporate America, much less corporate world.  It’s not always the teachers’ fault, since most of us do not work in tech or the corporate sector.  So, if I have to point fingers, I will point to states and districts.  This is a PD issue.  And it’s an issue for a separate editorial.

Back to the title: was the SMART Board a dumb choice?  I’m going to say yes, only because of the way that it was brought to bear.  Without a plan, without training, and without supplement, it was nothing more than an expensive, fancy toy for teachers (and the occasional student).  If we are to justify the funds that we need for instructional technology, we must be smarter about how we approach and implement them.  We must be ready to show real power to boost student achievement and motivation using these magnificent tools.  To do so, we must be prepared to use these tools in the same ways that our colleges and top employers are using them–to solve real problems.


Buyer, L. (2008). Smartboard changes classroom. ABCNews Online. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=4278772&page=1#.T4rhrVFSSnw

Bad Tradition: Tests in Classrooms

I watched my students take a math test the other day.  It was one of those tests that seems to take the entire 70-minute block.  Some finished early, others took the entire time, a few tended to need another day.  They were stressed, I was bored, and the entire day seemed to be a general energy drain.

So, as I watched, I had two thoughts.

First, I was still a little upset that my students are forced by the North Carolina Standard Course of Study to memorize geometry formulas.  I completely understand the need to discover them and to understand how to use them to solve problems; but memorizing formulas is so…1900s.  I spent over a week on practice problems and quizzes to make sure this memorization thing happened.  To many of my students, it became the focus.  Must. Memorize. Formulas.  Little robots being programmed to receive and compute.  Incidentally, North Carolina is the only state out of three in which I’ve worked that forces this upon students.

Why?  Why, in this new era of information and knowledge are we wasting our time trying to get mostly resistant students to memorize formulas that will be useful to them only very occasionally?  Again, it is very important that my students know how to use a formula (a tool) to solve problems; it is totally ridiculous to make them build a library of those formulas in their heads.  Many students have technology in their back pockets that allows them to, within seconds, find those formulas.  Those who don’t have the technology within arm’s reach are not far from a computer or iPad or other resource.  In the 21st century, forcing middle school students to memorize formulas is 20th century archaic nonsense.  It made sense for us, the old folks; it makes no sense now.

Second, why are my students wasting an entire block taking a test in class?  Of all the things they could be discovering, creating, synthesizing, inquiring about, performing, analyzing, solving, and collaborating and communicating on, why are they sitting in their desks, silently filling in bubbles?  I’ve challenged anyone to give me one example of a job where any student will be expected to take a summative assessment of their [test-taking] skills.  Other than the pre-employment skills tests, there is no such job.  No boss will come to an employee and say, “Mya, I need you to answer these 36 multiple-choice questions by the end of the day.”  Won’t happen.  Ever.

What will happen is the expectation that Mya can take on a complex task, use her reasoning and critical thinking skills, find the necessary tools to attack the problem, collaborate effectively with people to help her, and communicate the results of her work in an effective and legible manner.  This is what I want my students to do in class.  I want them to face real-life problems and use the skills they discovered (not rote memorized) to work through those problems.  After they’ve had a prescribed amount of time to come up with a solution, I want them to collaborate on a creative, engaging, and effective way to communicate their findings.

So, what about tests and quizzes?  Well, they are necessary for individual evaluation of progress and knowledge.  There is a place where these tests won’t interrupt the precious class time I’ve described above: the INTERNET!  I recently signed up for a free testing site where my students can take quizzes anywhere there happens to be a computer or mobile device with Internet access.  One question popped into my head while I watched my students begin to doze off mid-test: Why aren’t we all using this online testing miracle?

The question is rhetorical, I guess, since I already know the answers.  There are several excuses–some due to misunderstanding, some due to being stuck in tradition, and some due to unwillingness to break into technology.  What about cheating?  If by cheating we mean looking up or finding resources to come to an answer, I don’t understand the concern.  What about grading?  Well, most online test applications do that for you, regardless of the type of question, depending on the type of application you use.  What about the fact that not everyone knows how to use this type of assessment?  To put it bluntly, it’s time to learn.

My principal is always encouraging teachers to take on leadership roles using progressive teaching techniques.  Next year, my goal is to not only integrate the Internet into my math lessons, but to push this paradigm shift into practice.  Next year, my students will test online, using the technology available to them to seek the resources necessary to help them find relevant tools, and save our precious class time to investigate and use mathematics.

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