By Charlene Schwenk
As a teacher of 20+ years, I thought I knew everything about how to teach. I was the giver of all the knowledge. I would parade in front of my students, instructing them to listen, and I would teach them everything they needed to know. School wasn’t about developing the thinking of the child—but molding the child into textbook examples of knowledge.
Then—In 2005, I administered the fourth-grade math and science NAEP test (NAEP is often known as The Nation’s Report Card, measuring our student’s progress with their peers across the country). I remember giving the test and seeing the students struggle with question after question. I felt queasy and uneasy as I realized how unprepared my students were. I quickly understood that I did not have all the answers. Thus began a slow and deliberate change in my teaching. The culmination and crowning moment in that change occurred when former Gov. Bredesen crafted and drafted a plan that won Tennessee Race to the Top money, a federal program designed to support education reform in states. Tennessee used a portion of these funds to conduct statewide summer trainings, an unprecedented professional development opportunity for educators across the state.
After the morning session in my first summer training in 2012, I realized I had found what I had been searching for. I quickly embraced the teaching strategies suggested to increase the depth of knowledge of teaching. I began to read math books deliberately and defined my teaching around rigorous academic standards that afforded all students the chance to truly understand more than just steps to solving a problem. I researched to find math books to read that would help me complete the picture of classroom change. I found books, my favorite by Marilyn Burns, that helped me craft math lesson plans that worked. I began to purchase and develop my own library of used books on my own dime. I even purchased these books to help other teachers around me change their instruction to advance the rigorous standards. I frequented websites to keep up with the latest and greatest information.
In my classroom, everything became real world problems. My door became different angles, my tile floor became area models, and a number line became the border at the top of my classroom walls. We multiplied cafeteria tables to see how many students can be seated at one time. We found out the number of library books and divided them into sections. We found out that our walking track was 400 meters in perimeter. A sheet of paper is 3 grams. We saw pictures of real tombstones from the local cemetery and figured out the age. Subtraction problems were practiced with 10-sided dice. Our hallway became an area model.
My students no longer entered bleary eyed with wishes to be at home—they came in excitedly looking around to see what new math we might be doing. Special education students eagerly would call out answers without waiting to be called on, because they understood. My straight rows became groups of three or four students who worked together. We measured in seconds the speed with which a group could recite multiplication facts. Their perseverance and stamina in problem solving math improved so much, if I got close to a student to check on their progress—they begged me not to check it or give them any assessment until they were closer to an answer. Others would express amazement that 75 minutes had already passed by and it was time for the next class—I jokingly was told that I must have thrown my watch out the window because math time surely did fly!
Teaching the new Tennessee academic standards has taught me to listen to my students, to understand their strategies and their way of thinking about the math. The standards and those summer trainings helped me produce excellent lesson plans that were engaging, effective, efficient, and delivered with enthusiasm. I put away those math worksheets filled with 20 multiplying problems that used a standard algorithm. The standards kept me on my feet, following students who were developing their own thinking.
Roger Lewin said, “Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” I now know I cannot teach my students everything they need to know; I am their teacher for only 10 months. But I can help them exercise the skills they will need to solve problems and learn.