Sunday, August 19, 2012

I Still Suck at Teaching (and how I'm going to fix that)

Disclaimer: I'm writing this post in response to Sam Shah's and the mathtwitterblogosphere's initiative to get more teachers blogging. If you're a new math blogger like myself, you should check them out.

I once heard someone say that when you enter your sixth year of teaching, you'd feel confident with your ability to teach. That you would "know what you're doing". Well I'd like to thank Dan Meyer, Steve Leinwand, Fawn Nguyen, and Andrew Stadel who, through their expertise and great ideas, have proven to me that I still suck at teaching.

There are two big ways that I will be improving my teaching this year. The first is the use of standards-based grading. I was first introduced to SBG through Shawn Cornally at ThinkThankThunk. I've also been influenced by Robert Marzano's Classroom Assessment and Grading That Works, a presentation by Grant Wiggins (Understanding by Design), some blog posts by Dan Meyer, and a bunch of emails back and forth with Fawn Nguyen and Andrew Stadel (two great teachers who are also trying to unravel this beast).

Everything about SBG makes perfect sense. It helps students retain what they've learned by allowing them to self-monitor, re-learn, and re-assess. It also helps me, the teacher, focus on what is essential. The biggest issue will be acceptance (from administration, students, and parents) of the grading process (how do I assess, how do I assign a letter grade). I think everyone is so entrenched in the tradition of point systems and letter grades, that this will meet some resistance at first. The trick will be properly explaining it (which I'm attempting to do here).

The other big change for this year will be the use of more problem-solving sessions, especially in the three act format as explained by Dan Meyer. I found out about Dan through his TED talk and I was immediately blown away. I then found his blog and 101qs website and started using his format with great success. It's amazing to me how student motivation can be intensified through the use of proper media and real real-world problems. (I say real real-world because I've found that many textbook examples of "real-world" are made up. How do they get away with that?) I've made my own three act lessons here, but my favorite is Andrew Stadel's File Cabinet. To me, this is the standard to which all other three acts should be judged.

As the year progresses, I will be sure to use my blog to report on these changes. It seems like these are very new concepts for many people and we're all trying to figure them out at the same time. Sharing this learning is the best way for all of us to become better teachers (and maybe not suck so much).

Nathan Kraft

Two things:

1. I briefly met Dan Meyer in Philadelphia at the NCTM conference in April. He suggested I start blogging. I thought he was crazy.
2. I've also been very influenced by Steve Leinwand. Even if you're not interested in SBG or Three Act Lessons, you should watch this very short video and think about your own practices. He also has a great book called Accessible Mathematics which expands on what he says in this video.


  1. I love the brutal honesty in your title, but, really we are ALL trying to "not suck so much" at teaching because it's just so dang hard!

    Thanks for the link to the Steve Leinwand video. There it is - the "magic bullet" - only there's so much more than one bullet, isn't there?

  2. I suck, you suck, we all suck. I'm so excited that you started this blog, Nathan!! Thank you for your candor in this post and for the mention. (Holy cow, did I not just see my name in the same sentence with... ) Blogging and twitter really helped me suck less at specific things, but I still have so much more to learn and improve. Blogging is first and foremost for you, but inevitably others will find nuggets of ideas and gems of humility that we all could have more of. You and Andrew, through our emails, have helped me so much to breathe real life into SBG for me. Our conversations matter! Welcome to the blogosphere, my dear friend! <3

  3. Will be starting year 8 and I certainly fit the description in your title. But I will continue to be working at improving so I do it less. The Dan Meyer Ted talk you mentioned was quite an eye opener for me as well. I started to use some of the 101qs problems this spring with some success. And as a previous commenter mentioned, thanks for the Steve Leinwand link. I had not seen that video before.
    Best of luck for the new school year and am looking forward to reading about how things progress.

  4. HEY! You stole my title! It's been a blast trading ideas, giving/receiving feedback, and preparing structure for the upcoming year. You and Fawn rock! I think you got some solid stuff here. Although the Decaying Average seems like a lot for both students and parents to keep up with, I think it has strong potential and will be interested to see how it works out. I'm sure it will go well. Go kick butt this year man! By the way: MORE TUBA stuff! Now, let me enter my cryptic code to post this comment.

    1. I have a tuba solo at a concert in a couple of weeks. Not sure what kind of math lesson I can get out of that. Maybe graph number of times I practice against the tempo I can play it.

    2. "Why do I get the feeling that there might be a disproportionate number of tubaists among math teachers?" asks the math-teaching former tubaist.

      (Thank you, internet, for confirming that tubaists is a word. I didn't want to defer to "players of tuba".)

  5. My daily goal is to "suck a little bit less than I did yesterday". Sometimes I win, sometimes I don't. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  6. I gotta say, I definitely put your blog in my google reader for the title, love it! But I'm also interested in following along the adventures of others new to SBG. I like your explanation for parents, short and simple. I need to make one today actually, so it was nice to see an example. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Awesome candor and content in this blog! Starting year 5 of teaching, year 2 of SBG and year 1 of blogging/tweeting. Looking forward to learning, improving, and contributing. Anyway, if a teacher thought they had nothing left to learn, then they probably shouldn't have influence over others' learning.