In a week filled with terrific presentations from world-class scientists, lively and informative panel discussions, and the honor of meeting President Obama, the most memorable times for me will be the hours we spent on the bus. Where else could you hear 50 math and science teachers debating new standards, sharing lesson ideas, or explaining the pros and cons of their latest textbook?
Wednesday morning’s trip to the National Science Foundation (NSF) provides a perfect example. Boarding the bus at 6:45 AM — before most of us had had our second cup of coffee — I found myself sitting next to Leanne Yenny, a middle school mathematics teacher from Bozeman, Montana. Before long, we were immersed in a discussion of the UCSMP (University of Chicago School Mathematics Project) textbook series, which her district is considering, and of which I’m a co-author. Was it appropriate for midlevel students, she wanted to know, and how could she use it to challenge her strongest and fastest-learning kids? “Yes,” and “yes,” I said.
Then the topic turned to assessment, and I discovered that, over the last six years, Leanne had implemented a standards-based assessment system in which kids’ grades reflected what they had learned–not just what homework they had turned in, or how much partial credit they had scraped together on the test. Our conversation covered everything about her system’s underlying philosophy, from the most useful feedback helps kids figure out what they know and what they need to learn to the nuts-and-bolts of implementation in system-wide grading software. By the time we arrived at NSF, I was ready to propose a similar system to my fellow geometry teachers back home; I was also ready for breakfast, and that second cup of coffee.
After a day’s worth of meetings and presentations at NSF, we still weren’t done talking about teaching. It turns out that Leanne is one of Montana’s few practitioners of lesson study, the Japanese professional development strategy in which teachers collaboratively design a single lesson, then observe a class as the lesson is taught, and debrief to reflect on student thinking and ways the lesson could be improved. “What a coincidence!” I said, having recently helped form a Chicago-area group, the Lesson Study Alliance, aimed at promoting and supporting the effective use of lesson study. And off we went, discussing strategies, connections, and the benefits each of us had seen in using lesson study in our own schools.
Over the week, there were many more bus rides–and at least fifty times as many such conversations. Of course, there was “downtime”: talk about evening plans on Thursday, our excitement about meeting the President, or even just swapping stories about our kids. But surrounded by so many outstanding teachers, it was hard NOT to keep talking “shop”; and while I learned a tremendous amount from the mathematicians, scientists, and researchers who led our sessions, the off-line discussions were just as exciting, informative, and inspiring, and sometimes even more so. I look forward to keeping in touch with my fellow awardees now that we’re back in our respective states, whether by email, Skype, phone, or Wiki; and I hope that these first encounters are the beginning of many more conversations to come.
Paul J. Karafiol
Paul Karafiol is a 2009 PAEMST Awardee and the Mathematics Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Chicago, Ill. He is also co-author of the 3rd editions of Advanced Algebra and of Functions, Statistics, and Trigonometry.