Not Giving Up…

I feel like giving up.

Maybe my brain has moved out.  

Maybe I’ve been in the game too long.

Maybe the last five years have just done me in. 

I’m tired of failing. I’m tired of getting it wrong.  

I’m tired of teachers who don’t listen and learn.

I want to just throw in the towel.


As I typed those words about my own frustrations with a personal pursuit, I began to think about my students.  I reflected on what I would say to one of them; what I have said to any one of them who has expressed a similar feeling.

I’ve asked them: What could you do differently?  What could I do differently that might make you successful?  In reality, of course, they have had no real idea of how I could help them. They shrug their shoulders and stare at the floor because they’ve failed…again.

I, of course, knew.  I knew that they needed more time.  I knew they ‘saw’ the answers but couldn’t show their work.  What I didn’t know was why? Why were they able to do the algebra in their head and ‘see’ the answer but not be able to write it down? I understand differentiation.  I understand modifications and better strategies. What I was doing wasn’t working.

What was I missing?

As you may know, for the last 5 years I’ve worked as an in-class support teacher for varying levels of high school math.  I have watched as year after year, class after class, for a total of 2,250 class blocks, teacher after teacher, teach Algebra from the logical left-brained sequential step-by-step process.

And year after year I’ve watch student after student, classified or not, fail their way through these classes.

Teachers describe them as lazy; they don’t do their homework but they get solid B’s on their assessments despite the fact they’re doodling on their iPads.  They end up with D’s because they’re missing homework and the plethora of zeros that get put into the grade book, that brings their grades down to almost failing.

I’ve watched as they try to listen to the lecture and they try to write the process down. But their mind wanders.

Teachers complain that they take too long to do their 30 math problems for classwork; that they don’t finish them.

Enter the Right Brain-LeftBrain Thinker.

Quite frankly, this is not a new idea; that some of us are more logical (left-brained) and some of us are more creative (right-brained).  But what is new to me, and I’ve been doing this for 20+ years, is the idea that kids with ADD, ADHD and Autism tend to share a very common thread:  they think… in pictures.

What is a right brained thinker?

We’re whole-to-part thinkers.  Show me the end and I’ll figure out the middle parts.  Step-by-step?  I can’t.  I can’t hold the picture in my head long enough while you go through the minutia for the left-brain thinkers.  I loose it. I move on. You say I’m not paying attention.  I want you to move faster.  Get to the end so I can go back and fill in the middle. I can’t help it.  It’s how I’m wired. I don’t do it to aggravate you.  I look up when I’m telling a story or answering a question because I’m looking at the pictures in my head.  I’m great with faces but awful with names.

I’m not broken.  I’m just wired differently.

I’m not fast at math.  I have to pull up the pictures I’ve stored in my head.  That takes more time than going step-by-step. But I know how to do it.  I just need more time.  I memorize the formulas and then go back and figure out why they work and how they were derived.

I’m not broken. I’m just wired differently.

True Story

GE Teacher: “Time’s up!”
Student:  “I’m not done.  Can I finish during lunch?
GE Teacher: “No, that wouldn’t be fair to the other (left-brained) students.
Student: “But my brain doesn’t work that way.”
GE Teacher: “Maybe if you studied harder; maybe if you didn’t daydream during class you’d be able to finish in the same time as everyone else.”
ICR Teacher:”You can finish during lunch or meet me after school”
GE Teacher to ICR teacher(aside):  “He/She doesn’t have an IEP.  You can’t do that. It’s not fair to the other students.”
ICR Teacher: “He processes slowly. (I didn’t know  at the time was because he thought in images).  I’m actually leveling the playing field so they don’t have an unfair advantage.”
GE Teacher: (silent)

It’s true.  Right-brained people take longer to process.
It’s true.  Right-brained people have a deficiency in organization and linear thinking: executive function.
It’s true.  Right-brained people are highly visual-spatial, non-sequential processors who learn by remembering the way things look and by taking words and math into mental pictures; think Albert Einstein, Temple Grandin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci.

How do we serve this growing population?

Right-brained people need teachers to teach to them differently. They need teachers who can present information in whole-to-part instruction.  Whole-to-part instruction needs to be added to the differentiation schema. They need alternate assessments and choice boards. They need extra time and fewer problems in math because visual learning literally takes more time to do.

They need to be taught how to speed-read.

Surprised?  Consider that a whole-to-part brain needs to see the big picture and fill in the parts.  Speed-read a chapter for the overview. Go back and scan for the details that fill in the whole.  Different? Yes.  Effective? Very. For right-brained people.

My hurdle isn’t convincing my readers.  My hurdle is convincing math department chairs that going slowly and ‘trying harder’ and not ‘day-dreaming’ isn’t the answer.  My hurdle is not being in a position to make the impact that needs making because 25% of Algebra students, nation wide, are failing algebra. I believe we are failing the students and I want to do something about it.

The answer is in changing the understandings of what’s best for kids to doing what’s best for all kids and teaching the teachers how to get them there. The answer is changing the paradigm of how right-brained students are taught.  It’s the challenge I’m embracing for this new school year.

This blog was inspired by the book, “Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child” by Jeffery Freed  & Laurie Parsons (1997)

My Summer Leadership PD, 2015

As a person who was a life long learner before I knew it was a good thing, I have always spent my time and personal monies to increase my understanding of my work, regardless of whether it was in education or my previous career in finance.

To that end, I recently signed up as a member of NJPSA’s Leadership Cohort 6.  As with all things, I’m never really sure whether I will learn anything really meaningful when I spend $700, but I must write that I was pleasantly surprised.  
 
The first of the cohort’s five meetings on August 6, was led by Dr. John Bormann, Superintendent of Rumson School District, NJ.  As I write this, I struggle to express how refreshing it was to have an instructional leader speaking to aspiring administrators and first/second year administrators without the educational babble. He gave us real roadmaps for implementing PLCs for unpacking standards to tighten the vertical alignment of our curricula; how to implement Webb’s Depth of Knowledge  (DOK) work that leads to construction of common assessments that result in meaningful grade-wide and school-wide data leading to real instructional change. 
 Wow…
 
The hours I spent in this professional development have added a new dimension to my ability to implement meaningful educational change
 
Don’t misunderstand. Teaching is a second career for me.  In my previous career, I was hired for my ability to implement corporate visions and bring new ideas to teams of people who needed to adjust to the merger/acquisition that brought in new leadership. My job was to expand our community and bring new people together into new and stronger teams.
 
This is not unlike accepting a new administrative position.  I know how to bring someone’s vision to light.  I know how to bring teams together. I know how to add value by being a critical thinking member of the team to make the implementation successful while supporting the mission and vision.
 
But the roadmap for implementing PLCs in an educational environment was something I didn’t  know how to do.
 
Before August 6, I didn’t understand how to lay the groundwork to successfully implement common assessments. I couldn’t really understand why department chairs can’t just ‘command’ that common assessments be constructed because I didn’t know why having a tight curriculum was a critical component of that process.  Or how important it is that each grade level completely understand the standards at their grade level as well as before and after their grade level.  I didn’t know how to teach teachers how to modify their instruction to bring their students’ critical thinking levels to new heights and depths.

As I reflect on my decision to be part of this cohort, I feel more and more sure that it will be time really well spent.   I also think it reveals why leadership doesn’t end at your own front door.  Leadership should go on so the talents that took leaders to the top don’t remain locked away with them.  Leaders who are able to make meaningful educational change should be willing to step forward so others can benefit from and build upon their learnings.  I am grateful Dr. Bormann chose to do so.

Video of Dr. Norman Webb explaining his new model for learning.
(YouTube, July 1, 2014)