Category Archives: Baxter

Welcome to the Math Kitchen

A couple of weeks ago, at an ATOMIM Dine & Discuss launching our Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had book study, Tracy Zager shared the following quote:

The front and back of mathematics aren’t physical locations like dining room and kitchen. They’re its public and private aspects. The front is open to outsiders; the back is restricted to insiders. The front is mathematics in finished form—lectures, textbooks, journals. The back is mathematics among working mathematicians, told in offices or at café tables.

Front mathematics is formal, precise, ordered, and abstract. It’s broken into definitions, theorems, and remarks. Every question either is answered or is labeled: ‘open question.’ At the beginning of each chapter, a goal is stated. At the end of the chapter, it’s attained.

Mathematics in back is fragmentary, informal, intuitive, tentative. We try this or that. We say, ‘maybe,’ or ‘it looks like.’

-Reuben Hersh, Professor Emeritus, Department of Math and Statistics, UNM

Tracy explained at the meeting that restaurants and theaters have a “front” where everything is presented perfectly to the public and a “back” where the chaos happens. This is the metaphor that Hersh is using. Too often our students are only exposed to the “front” of mathematics and none of the “back.”

I recently shared this at a BMTN meeting when a colleague coined the term “math kitchen.” And then she said, “Put on your apron – it’s going to get messy in here.” It made me think about how often my students want to have their math papers be perfect. Every mistake must be erased. Nothing can look messy. Am I alone here?

Another colleague said that she used to make all of her students do math in pen. That way they had to cross out mistakes. They couldn’t erase them. I think this is a brilliant idea.

Too often I hear my students say things like, “I remember doing something like this” or “I’m trying to remember what my teacher told me” or, God forbid, “I never learned this before.” What are we doing to our students that makes them think that they should have memorized or learned before what we are trying to teach them now?

So, in the spirit of exposing students to the “back of math” I say, “Welcome to the math kitchen. Grab a pen and put on your apron. It’s going to get messy in here.”

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Year 5, Day 1

Today was the first day of school. Okay, that’s not entirely true. We had a whole week, last week, of teacher workshops – and they were all great. Even the insurance guy was hilarious – and that takes some skill, right?

So, let me clarify. Today was the first day with my new advisory. I’ll admit I was nervous. I couldn’t quite figure it out. I’m typically nervous meeting new people, but I know what that feels like. This felt different. And then I realized that “my people” weren’t going to be there today. They’ve all graduated and gone of to wherever it is they’ve gone off to. So that was part of it. Then my husband/colleague said to me, “And they’ve always been there.” Wow. That was it. That thing I was feeling. I was going off to school to meet 16 new Baxter students and the people I had come to really depend on weren’t going to be there. So this was my transition day. Graduation didn’t make me sad. Today made me a little sad.

And then I met them. We played my silly, stupid name game which, even though some of them hated it today, I know they will appreciate why I made them do it at some point in the future. We spent an hour together, just us with a couple of Baxter Ambassadors (returning students who know the ropes), getting to know each other, getting the rundown of today’s schedule. Then we met up with four other advisory groups at the park and did some fun team-building activities, led by other Baxter Ambassadors and fabulous colleagues. The afternoon held a couple of workshops about Baxter, in mixed advisory groups, and a “Genius Session” about a cool thing that other faculty wanted to offer.

This week is just for the 9th graders. There will be a total of six workshops, two Genius Sessions, a Scavenger Hunt, building a float, and a little bit of testing. I like that we are giving time to develop them as a group – an advisory group, a workshop team, and the Class of 2021. They come to us from all over southern Maine. In this advisory group I have students coming to Portland from as far away as Bridgton, Alfred, and Auburn and as close as Portland, Westbrook, and Scarborough. It’s worth the time to help them get to know each other. They leave their hometown friends behind to come to Baxter. That’s kind of a big transition. And each one has their own reason for coming to us.

Every year we get to iterate the start of school. Every year it gets better. I am grateful to work in a school that learns by doing and reflects on how to improve next time.

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They’re graduating

Our seniors. My advisory. They’re graduating. On June 3. Tomorrow.

We’ve spent lots of time together, building this school. We’ve spent one and a half hours together every week for the last four years, plus 10 minutes every morning. We’ve learned together and grown together. When we first started together, we came from all over – from Kennebunk to Topsham to Lewiston and everywhere in between. One of us even came from Owl’s Head. Some of us knew each other, but mostly we didn’t. It was awkward.

I’ve worked with other advisory groups in the past, but they knew each other. They lived in the same town, or at least in the same local district. This time it was different. Would my same, silly “get to know you” games work? Which, of course, in the past had been more for me than for them. Why not try, anyway?

So, I explained the rules of my silly name game. You will introduce yourself using an adjective that begins with the same letter as your name. I modeled what I meant: “I’m perfect Pam.” Then we’ll go around the circle and you have to name everyone before you and then yourself. They looked at me funny. They wanted to build the furniture. I told them that we needed to know each other’s names before we could try building IKEA furniture together. They humored me and played my game, even though they didn’t quite get it and thought it was stupid (they tell me now). And we built some furniture. That was in September of 2013. Two days after receiving a building occupancy permit.

Since that time we’ve had lots of conversations. About important things that were happening in the world, about decisions that we needed to make at school, about nothing in particular. We laughed and played games and had “TED Talk Tuesday” and played “Dancing Queen” whenever someone turned 17. We built our community. We became “PRawson and the Funky Bunch.”

And now they’re graduating.

So, thank you, for being the Funky Bunch: Awesome Aidan, Brianna Butterfly, Brilliant Ben, Eccentric Eddie, Ethan “Wheat Thin”, Evil Eli, Glitterific Gracelyn, Goofy Gabe, Ironic Irial, Jazzy Jenna, Loopy Lizzie, Marvelous Maddy, Nick (who likes chips), Novel Nicholas, Sassy Seham, Tenacious Tucker, and Terrible Theo (who hates mayo).

Remember that you built more than just a school. You built a very special community.

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#CollegeSigningDay

On Friday, May 5, Baxter Academy celebrated its first #CollegeSigningDay. While it’s true that we graduated a class of 49 students last year, our first graduation, this year’s senior class has been with us for 4 years. Plus, it takes a bit to get organized around these celebrations. This year we were ready for it.

These are the schools that our soon-to-be graduates have committed to:

  • Bennington College
  • Bishop’s University
  • Catholic University of America
  • Concordia University
  • Cornell University
  • Eastern Maine Community College
  • Florida Institute of Technology
  • Green River Community College
  • Goucher College
  • Hampshire College
  • Johnson & Wales University
  • Maine Maritime Academy
  • Marlboro College
  • Mercyhurst University
  • Mt Ida College
  • Mt Holyoke College
  • NASCAR Technical Institute
  • New England College
  • New England School of Photography
  • Parsons School of Design
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Rochester Institute of Technology
  • School of Visual Arts NYC
  • Simmons College
  • Smith College
  • Southern Maine Community College
  • St Joseph’s College of Maine
  • St Michael’s College
  • Stonehill College
  • Union College
  • Unity College in Maine
  • University of Maine
  • University of Maine, Fort Kent
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • University of Massachusetts, Lowell
  • University of Rochester
  • University of Southern Maine
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute
  • Wagner College
  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Word of Life Bible Institute
  • Xavier University

Among the group of those who stated majors, there are 23 science, 16 engineering, 8 creative design, 7 liberal arts, and 4 business. Of the 20 or so remaining: One is apprenticing with a Master Plumber, two are starting a game design company together, one is designing and producing storm chasing instruments, one is continuing to build his music production & performance skills, and the rest are taking a gap year or are undecided on their major.

I will always be grateful to these pioneering students for taking a risk to build a new school, not knowing where it would lead them. Well, it’s led them to some pretty great places.

As the hashtag says, the world #BetterMakeRoom.

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Impressive

I spent today at Baxter Academy. Actually, I’m still here. See, I have a group of students working on Moody’s Mega Math Challenge. They have 14 hours to complete their solution to the problem. The clock starts ticking at the moment they download the problem. That was at 9:00 this morning.

I am impressed that this group, who in class is lucky to remain focused for 35 minutes (in a 55 minute class), has pushed through today with so much focus – I am assuming. You see, I’m not actually in the room with them. I make this assumption based on observations when I go and take some pictures or get a food order. I had to remind them about food, not the other way around.

Prior to today, they had done a bunch of work in class, on practice problems, getting organized, reviewing the modeling & problem solving process. One thing I learned from all of that is that we are definitely teaching these skills here at Baxter Academy. These students never once thought they wouldn’t be able to tackle any problem thrown at them. They would come up with a plan for what to do before the M3Challenge folks sent out their tips or hints.

Here they are, 8 hours into their day.

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That was four and a half hours ago. Now, with less than an hour and a half to go, it’s truly crunch time.

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My Favorite Games

My advisory students are now seniors. We started together four years ago, along with the school. It’s a humbling journey to spend four years with the same group of students, helping them navigate through high school, getting them ready for whatever adventure follows.

We do a lot of work in advisory – research about “Life after Baxter,” prepping for student-led conferences, creating and maintaining digital portfolios, keeping track of academic progress, and completing any required paperwork, for starters. Even though we meet three times a week for about 35 minutes each time, we still have some “down” time.

We like to play games together. We play Set, Farkle, and Joe Name It along with various card games. Taking some time to play and laugh together is important to building those relationships.

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Standards-Based Grading

There’s lots of talk out there, and especially in New England, about standards-based education. Whatever you think about standards-based, or proficiency-based, or competency-based education (they are all the same to me – just using some different words), the bottom line is that we teachers are now supposed to be able to certify that, regardless of any other factors beyond our control, our students are able to _________. Fill in the blank with your skill or habit of choice. This is tricky business. The tricky part is

  • not to distill learning into a checklist of discrete items that have no connection to each other.
  • to maintain a cohesive, robust curriculum with a clear scope and sequence.
  • to develop cross-curricular, integrated courses that give students rich opportunities to build those skills.
  • to build an assessment system that students, teachers, and parents have a common understanding of.

My school has put a lot of energy into creating a standards-based assessment (and reporting) system. Since we are still a new school, there is nothing to change except our own perceptions. We started out using the old 1-2-3-4 system, but ran into trouble with different interpretations of what those numbers represented and how students were able to achieve, or not. Some teachers maintained that standards in a course were global and that there was little chance for a 9th grader to demonstrate at a level higher than a 2. Other teachers defined course standards as local, so that students could earn a 3 or even a 4 on the standards within that class. Clearly, this was a problem.

The other problem is that any time grades are represented using numbers, people want to operate with them, or break them down further (using 2.3, for example). But those numbers represent discrete categories of performance or understanding. A 2.3 doesn’t make any sense if it isn’t defined. So we had to create a brand new system.

Each reporting standard – those big things like Algebra & Functions – has indicators that are connected to each level on the big scale toward graduation benchmarks. These are defined in a rubric. For any given course, we identify what the “target” knowledge & skills are, what level of the rubric we are targeting. For example, in the Modeling in Math class, the target level is Entering.

During a course, we report if a student is “below target,” “on target,” or “above target” for an assessment on particular indicator of a reporting standard. This way a student can be “on target” – meaning that the student is making solid progress and is doing what is expected in the course – but still not be at the graduation benchmark for that standard. After all, Modeling in Math is the first course that our 9th graders take. It’s unlikely that they will meet the graduation benchmark after just this one twelve-week class.

Report cards and transcripts report the big picture status toward graduation. So that 9th grader who was “on target” during the class has made progress toward graduation, but still has work to do to meet that benchmark. And that work could happen in a series of courses or through some combination of courses and portfolio, giving the student control over her education.

 

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