One of my first moments of seeing the power of visuals in math learning came over a year ago, in June 2016. I was teaching fifth grade, and I gave my students an open-ended math task on a green sheet of grid paper with two different right triangles printed on it. I chose this task from several I’d gathered at a math conference that March.
This task held the promise of a different, and I hoped better, way to teach math. Until then I had been teaching each lesson pretty much as it was written in the curriculum guide, following along as best I could and finding myself unsatisfied and discouraged year after year.
What does it really mean to be an instructional leader?
Ever since I was in graduate school, studying to become a principal, this was the lingo of the great leader—be an instructional leader. At first I thought this meant I had to be the best teacher in the building, and when I walked into classrooms, I might show a teacher a few moves. But every time I went into a classroom that was “someone else’s classroom” (who, by the way, I was also in charge of evaluating), getting up and interrupting the teacher’s lesson with my own brilliant ideas never seemed like the right move. Over the next eight years, I often wondered whether I was being an instructional leader. If this is the gold standard of being a principal, of course that is what I was aiming for, but how was I to know if I had gotten there?
“Visible Thinking has a double goal: on the one hand, to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and, on the other, to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them.” (visiblethinkingpz.org)
Too often, I have been guilty of repeating my old story as a teacher—the story where I play the lecturer or spoon-feeder of information, and students take down notes ferociously without processing or sharing their understanding, curiosity, or emotional responses. Weeks later, on a test, I find out what they understood or didn’t.
“I like it the way it is.” As a writing teacher, I groan inside when I hear my students say this. It’s the verbal equivalent of that giant, capitalized declaration etched into many of my students’ writing pieces: THE END. Whether uttered or written, whether delivered with a scowl and arms crossed or offered hesitantly, the message is the same: This piece is not changing. This work site is closed, and no renovations will be made. No “revision”—no “reseeing” of this writing—is happening, period.
In this research journey, where I have been trying to map successful literacy workshop practices onto a math workshop, I have been considering the element of choice a great deal. From a very young age, children are taught how to select “just-right books.” The emphasis is on choice. Choice matters because it increases engagement. Choice matters because it encourages ownership. Choice matters because when our children leave us, we need them to continue choosing to read whether we are there or not. We teach them to choose books so that they will continue to choose books for their entire lives.