Surviving this next school year with three infinite resources.

When it comes to student learning this next year, imagine that students missed an episode of a good T.V. show.

Teachers are apprehensive about teaching this next school year, and rightly so. Even setting aside concerns about infection and reinfection, it is unclear to many teachers what it looks like to reboot student learning after this last school year which—for worse and occasionally for better—was unlike any previous year.

The good news is that this next school year will be, in several crucial ways, exactly like any other year.

More good news is that while many of the most helpful resources for teachers are finite and nonrenewable, teachers have several resources at their disposal that are both infinite and infinitely renewable.

Time is a resource that is very helpful but finite and nonrenewable, for example. Many teachers had less instructional time with students last year and many of those teachers will try to teach grade-level standards this next year in spite of time lost in the previous grade. 

I asked teachers in my last newsletter how they were planning for that task, and teachers came through, suggesting several infinite and renewable resources, each of which can make teaching easier next year.

Infinite Resource #1: Your understanding of this challenge.

Last year, student learning conditions shifted categorically—from in-person to remote, synchronous to asynchronous. That required categorically new solutions.

But if you’re all back in the classroom this next year, learning in the same room at the same time, it’s worth wondering if your challenges are in a different category from other years or just at a different point on a continuum.

Michael Pershan takes the latter perspective and it puts him more at ease:

When I taught at a school with fairly strict tracking for a place of its size, I would always end up with a few of the lowest track classes in my schedule. These were extraordinarily difficult classes to teach, for just a whole host of reasons: their expectation of failure, the challenging behavior, the unaddressed learning accommodations, and shaky understanding of the previous curriculum.

The case I'd make for why we shouldn't freak out about learning loss is because from the perspective of a classroom teacher, we already are handling situations like it all the time.

Last year’s categorical shift asked teachers to devise new technological and pedagogical innovations. This year’s continuous shift asks you to do the same work of differentiating your instruction as always, just differentiating across a wider band of student experiences than you have in past years.

Infinite Resource #2: Your affinity for students.

Teachers who believe that a positive and strong relationship with students is a medium for social, emotional, and mathematical learning will have an easier year than teachers who believe the work of teaching is only to support mathematical learning.

Here’s Jodi Donald in the comments:

What helps my students "catch up" is not so much about the math but my commitment to establish rapport between the students and me and create a safe learning space where kids can talk math, learn from each other, and use mistakes as learning opportunities.

Additionally, your belief that students have lots of mental images and early ideas that you can recruit to help them learn math is going to be even more helpful this year than it has been in previous years. It will require more effort to start with abstract and formal knowledge (like formulas and procedures that students didn’t experience last year) than to start with the sensory and intuitive ideas students were developing all throughout the last school year and then use those ideas to help them develop abstract and formal knowledge.

For example, starting with “Which is steeper?” offers students an entry point and offers you many more resources for instruction than starting with “Calculate the slope.”

Infinite Resource #3: Your understanding of math.

A teacher who believes that math comprises a lot of small ideas—each one carrying the same mathematical load as any other, each one an essential prerequisite for some other idea—will experience a lot of unnecessary burden this next year. If math is a house of cards, then every individual card needs your full attention.

However, teachers who understand that math is about a small number of very large ideas will find it much easier to help students connect their previous learning to learning they may have missed last year. In particular, many teachers should be happy to have a) standards that treat math as a story, b) an understanding of the progressions of large ideas across grades, c) a curriculum that emphasizes different storylines in math proportional to their size and importance.

When it comes to student learning this next year, imagine that students missed an episode of a good T.V. show.

This hypothetical T.V. show is a good T.V. show, which means that the characters are well-developed. They behave in ways that are interesting, dynamic, sometimes surprising, but ultimately true to their nature. 

This also means the story makes sense from one episode to the next. There is an “A” plotline that runs through the entire season. Then “B” plotlines that run across smaller arcs of episodes, and “C” plotlines that often start and end in a single episode. The T.V. show has spent much more time on “A” plotlines than “C” plotlines.

The characters and story are so well-developed that someone can miss an episode, jump into the next, and learn everything they need to know—especially for the “A” plot—from a short “Previously on Math Class” preface to the next episode.

For example, one of the big plotlines in our middle school math curriculum is the different ways we can represent equivalent ratios, which eventually gives rise to a new storyline with linear relationships.

In the Grade 6 episode of our curriculum, a student generates equivalent ratios in Pizza Maker.

In the Grade 7 episode, the student sees what those equivalent and nonequivalent ratios look like on a graph in DinoPops.

In the Grade 8 episode, the student sees graphs that are linear as well as proportional in Turtle Time Trials.

If a student missed any of those episodes, teachers can open up a screen from that lesson and offer a short “Previously in Math Class” preface that catches students up on the main characters and their “A” plotlines from the missed episode. That’s only possible if we understand math as a story and understand whether a particular plotline is an A, B, or C plotline.

I won’t trivialize the challenges of this next year. Teachers and students deserve many resources they may not have, time and political leadership perhaps chief among them. Those resources are finite and nonrenewable.

But beliefs are ideas you can cultivate without respect to time. I have developed some of my ideas about math, students, and learning much slower than my peers, and other ideas much faster. You can develop them on your own in a room while reflecting on your day, while reading something like this, while chatting with your colleagues.

Those beliefs are infinite and infinitely renewable, and each one will support your work during this next school year, a year that, in many important ways, will be just like any other.

🎁 What Else

  • Achievement for Good is a new project that seeks to create assessments that are culturally affirming, particularly of Black and Latino students. Their leadership team and advisory board make it a project to watch IMO.

  • RIP Robert (Bob) Moses.