Celebrating Astronauts and Teaching Excellence

When the last transmission for the International Space Station ended, the crowd in the middle school auditorium cheered wildly. The applause went on for over three minutes – more than 500 people swept up in the tremendous emotion of the moment. There were students, parents, and educators in the room, and every one of them was moved. The adults, understanding the magnitude, were using words like “spine-tingling” and “chills,” and looking around I could see that almost all of them (including me!) had tears of joy in their eyes. It was one of the most powerful educational events I have ever experienced in my 30+ years of public education. It was perfect, and it was symbolic of so many things we do right here in MBUSD.

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It all started when one of our five Elementary Science Specialists, Ms. Joanne Michael, applied to the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program to win a slot for ten minutes of ham radio time with an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) as it passed in range of Manhattan Beach. MBEF, Northrup Grumman, and her local radio club all supported her in the application process. She got the word in December of 2016 that she had been selected, then started doing the work to make it happen. She found fellow ham radio operators who would volunteer their time. She selected students of all grade levels to ask the questions, and prepared them to ask their questions in a strong voice using radio communication techniques. In order to communicate with someone in outer space, she figured out how to get an antenna mounted to the top of the MBMS auditorium. She took care of all of that, and the zillions of other logistics that all needed to happen just right to make the event work.

Early in the morning of the planned conversation, Ms. Michael went over to our middle school auditorium, which was large enough to accommodate all of the Meadows Elementary School students, many of their parents, and other guests anxious for this experience. She worked with her fellow ham radio operators, making sure the equipment and back up equipment had the best chance of working. There was so much that could go wrong, and there was just a single ten-minute window while the space station, travelling at 17,500 miles per hour, would be in range of her radio signal. Two of the last four schools had not been successful in reaching the ISS. Astronauts have interruptions sometimes! Technology has glitches sometimes. So much could go wrong. But not on this day.

Four hundred Meadows Elementary students walked to MBMS (no small feat in itself!) and gathered in the auditorium with their parents and other educators. Ms. Michael wore her astronaut suit that day. Of course she did! She made sure the 500 people in the audience knew to be perfectly still and quiet during the 10-minute talk. She made sure everyone knew this whole experiment just might not work, but that failure is how people learn. She reminded them that instead of clapping or cheering, they should give the sign language sign for applause or hooray, by raising their hands in the air and shaking them. (We have several deaf and hard of hearing students in MBUSD). She showed them the big screen with a red dot that moved over China, then Japan, then the Pacific. The dot was the ISS, and the circle around the dot showed when we would be in range for a conversation.

As the right edge of that circle hit southern California, she asked everyone to be quiet, and the ham operator started talking over the intercom, “NAISS, NAISS this is Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Silence. He said it again, “NAISS, NAISS this Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Silence. Four more times he called, “NAISS, NAISS this Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Then, after the seventh call, a voice responded.

“Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo this is Paolo Nespoli on the International Space Station.”

There were muffled noises of excitement in the audience, and as I turned to the audience, all hands were in the air waving vigorously. The silent applause was deafening and joyful. We were communicating with an astronaut in outer space! That’s when my eyes first starting misting up. It was such a moment, and every person in the room was completely engaged and would not have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.

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The ham operator turned it over to Ms. Michael, who greeted the astronaut, then immediately let the students take the stage and start asking their questions. Here were some of the questions:

  • How do you get picked to be an astronaut? Over.
  • How do you eat without your food flying away? Over.
  • How long did it take you to get to the ISS? Over.
  • How do you take a shower in space? Over.
  • Does anyone ever get sick in space? Over.
  • What inspired you to be an astronaut? Over.
  • Can you see the hurricanes and the wildfires from space? Over.

Astronaut Paolo Nespoli called students by name. He answered their questions efficiently, but he filled his answers with interesting examples and stories. He made it personal, and you could tell that he loved this part of his job. The audience was perfect during the entire time. The sound quality was very, very good, but we were all watching the screen showing the ISS moving over Los Angeles, and then going in a southeast direction. It would not be long until it went out of range.

As I was witnessing the last few minutes, I was overcome thinking about the power of great teaching. This entire experience was happening because of one teacher’s efforts. Ms. Michael’s passion for science and for teaching science was behind everything we were all experiencing. She had invested hundreds of hours in making this happen, and she had gathered countless volunteers to invest similar amounts of time. And all of those hours were invested with no guarantee of how it would come out. Great teachers are risk takers and optimists. They try new things hoping that it will work out wonderfully and figuring out how to make lemonade when it doesn’t. Great teachers make connections with students and help the students to play an active role in the learning experience. Great teachers are models for how to be lifelong learners. Great teachers show their passion for a subject and inspire students to catch that passion.

On September 8, Joanne Michael gave us all of that and more in one of the greatest teaching and learning experiences I have ever witnessed.

After all the students had asked all of their questions, Ms. Michael got to ask a couple more. Finally, as the back edge of the circle had gone east of Los Angeles, she proudly signed off from Manhattan Beach. We heard the astronaut do the same, and it was over. There were a few seconds of radio and auditorium silence, then the crowd erupted in loud, joyous cheering that went on for what seemed like forever. They were cheering for Ms. Michael. They were cheering for science. They were cheering for space exploration. They were cheering for our ham radio operators and everyone who made this happen. Most of all, they were cheering because they were all part of something incredibly unique and special.

As the cheering died down, and we all returned to our lives here on Earth, I was and I still am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful for Ms. Michael and for all of our teachers who pursue teaching excellence every day. I am grateful to MBEF for providing the funding necessary for elementary science specialists and so much more. I am grateful for astronauts who realize their power to teach and inspire. Finally, I grateful to work in MBUSD, where we are so fully committed to pursuing teaching excellence to inspire and support all of our students.

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To see the entire experience, click here. The actual conversation experience begins at the 28-minute mark.

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2017 Thoughts on Advanced Placement

Back in 2015, I wrote a blog entry on AP classes.  This entry is an update to that post.  In the last two years, we have ramped up our focus on student stress here in MBUSD, and we are not alone.  We have joined other districts with a similar interest through Stanford’s Challenge Success initiative.  We study the issue with 6 other high performing districts across the country in the 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium.  So please allow me to give you some of my thoughts about AP classes and student stress.

First of all, I am a fan of well-taught AP classes. I taught AP US History for eleven years, and I loved it. I considered it to be a thinking and writing course using US History as the content. I strongly believe that any student who wants to go to a four-year college should take at least one  Advanced Placement class during their high school career. There is research behind that.  Advanced Placement is as close as you will get to college rigor and it will give students a feel for collegiate rigor. When taught well, AP classes go far beyond memorization, instead focusing on writing, analysis and problem-solving. Right now, 62% of our graduates (up from 48% in 2010) take and pass at least one AP class and exam before graduating. While that is a good number reflecting outstanding progress, I would like to see that number be more like 70%. That is the percentage of our graduates going directly to a four-year college.

On the other hand, one of the biggest concerns that our Board, our counselors, and I have is students who overdo it with Advanced Placement classes. It’s hard to define what “overdoing it” means. Students have different abilities and some are able to tolerate more than others. Using my version of common sense, taking one Advanced Placement class a year is excellent, taking two Advanced Placement classes a year is considerable, and taking three is really the equivalent of taking a full college load while also taking high school courses and all the activities that go along with that. In my mind, taking three AP courses is extreme. This year, our high school limited the number of AP classes a student can take in one year to four.  I believe that’s still too much, but I like the initiative.  Unfortunately, I believe this cap actually encouraged some students to take four AP classes instead of three this year.  We will continue to examine this very important topic.  I strongly believe that one or two AP classes in the junior and/or senior year is a great number for any student wanting to be prepared for four-year college.

I encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes in the areas that they are passionate about. If you know you are going to pursue liberal arts, take your AP classes there. If you are leaning towards the sciences, take your AP classes there. Or you can take my advice to college students on which college courses to take – find the best teachers you can and take their courses. Great teachers can make anything interesting. Students should choose wisely. They are giving up some of their own time by taking too many. And I want students to have as much time as possible that they can call their own.

I heard a telling story this year from a parent who has actually read some of these ideas that I write!  He told me that his daughter was ready to to take three AP classes, but that an admissions officer from a college told her that she should take four.  The father was upset that the admissions officer gave the advice, and the daughter reluctantly took a fourth AP class.  She did well in the class, but did miss out on a class she would rather have taken.  The reward for taking that fourth class?  She got into many excellent schools, but did not get into the school of the ill-advising admissions counselor.  Students should take interesting classes, mix in the right amount of challenge, and not focus on maxing out a transcript.  It will be OK.

I have mentioned before my appreciation for Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2015), who states, “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.” We should all encourage students to pursue their passions as much as possible while they are in school. What kind of passions am I talking about? Music, acting, arts, athletics, thinking, problem-solving, friendships, building anything, worthy causes, and any other great use of time. Our job as parents and educators is to help our students find and pursue those passions. We cannot do it for them. All we can do is encourage. And if they have no time of their own, there is no time to pursue those passions.

Thank you,

Mike Matthews

The 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium is comprised of Eanes (TX), Edina (MN), Highland Park (TX), Manhattan Beach (CA), Palo Alto (CA), New Trier (IL), and Westside (NE) school districts. The mission of the 21st Century Superintendent’s Consortium is to develop the whole child, preparing learners for a successful life beyond high school.

Creating a Culture of Inclusion

March 31, 2017

I have written to you several times this year about our progress towards our Board goal of creating a culture of inclusion in our school district.  I have witnessed powerful events in our schools, led by students, parents, and employees, that celebrated inclusion and discussed its importance in our community.  Some of those events include:

  • MBEF sponsored Inclusion Grants for the first time ever.  This effort was one of the positive results of the horrific fire-bombing of the Clinton house last fall.   They generously donated the unused reward fund to MBEF for this effort.  Students, parents, and employees applied and have done extremely positive things for our community.
  • Facing History, a group devoted to addressing bias and helping teachers teach about issues of race, has spoken to all of our employees,  and had an in-depth workshop our middle school and high school history teachers.
  • The Anti-Defamation League is working with some of our elementary teachers on addressing issues of inclusion and bias. 
  • EMPact, a new community organization committed to helping Manhattan Beach become a more inclusive community, has developed a leadership group across all sectors of Manhattan Beach that will be a strong force for years to come.  MBUSD is proud to be part of the EMPact leadership team.
  • We have had wonderful elementary school celebrations, where students are recognized for their acts of inclusion.
  • MBMS is working with Dr. Brandon Gamble to discuss implicit and explicit bias and how to break the cycle with adults and students.
  • The MBMS Student Multicultural Union has held several student – led events to celebrate diversity on campus. 
  • There are many student clubs at Costa who have taken actions to promote inclusion, including the Black Scholars Union, the Gay Straight Alliance Club, the Jewish Cultural Club, the Latino Students Union, Friendship Circle, TEAM COSTA, and many more.  The Mira Costa H.E.A.R.T. program also promotes inclusion in a variety of ways.

But our work is not done.  In fact, I am sad to report that over the last few months, there has actually been an increase in reporting of name-calling, taunts, and slurs.  This is particularly true at the middle school level.   I am hearing this from school administrators, parents, and religious leaders.  While we take disciplinary action, educate students on the impact and meaning of their words, and contact parents when this occurs, I want us to be more than just reactive.  This is not who we are in the MBUSD community, and I want all of us to stand up and help make MBUSD a true place of inclusion.

We need to make it clear that our schools are safe places where all are welcome, and where hateful, derogatory, divisive, and discriminatory words and actions are not tolerated.  We need to say this out loud in our conversations at schools, in the classrooms, and at home.  Students listen.  If respect for and appreciation of differences are what they hear and what they see modeled at home and at school, they will learn.

One of the national safety mantras we hear a lot is “See something.  Say something.”  We have to make it clear to all students that being inclusive requires us all to say something when we see incidents of exclusion and discrimination. We cannot be bystanders; it is critical to report hateful words and actions.  It can be to a parent, teacher, counselor, or administrator.  It can be to our anonymous WE-TIP hotline (via phone at 1.800.782.7643 or via the web), or it can be to one of our two MBPD School Resource Officers or other peace officers. This is a great conversation to have with our children.  

As a parent, I try very hard to have regular conversations with my younger son about drug and alcohol abuse, safety, and kindness and respect for all others.  When I hear about a discriminatory event on the news, I bring it up to him.  I take full advantage of talking about these issues in our trips in the car together because there is no escaping the conversation!  I am now infusing the “See something. Say something,” mantra into our conversations.  And I’m not just talking about things that happen to him.  If he witnesses injustice or intolerance to others, I want him to say something to someone.  Doing nothing cannot be an option.  One of the simple non-confrontational actions our children can take is to reach out to someone who is targeted and just say hello or that they care about them.  There are so many ways to not be a bystander.

I hope you join me in talking with your children regularly about these issues.  We will continue to have conversations with our staff about how we can be of service to our students.  Together, we can work together and every day, make MBUSD a true place of inclusion.

Mike Matthews

 

Shadowing a High School Student

Students in Manhattan Beach are some of the highest achieving students in the nation.  They graduate at an extraordinarily high rate and go to fantastic colleges and/or careers around the nation.  But we have seen warning signs that indicate stress levels are higher than ever before.  MBUSD is a proud member of the 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium, comprised of similar high performing districts throughout the United States: Palo Alto, Austin, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Omaha.  These districts share the same concern about student stress. And we are all trying to do something about it.

Several Consortium districts, including MBUSD, have joined Challenge Success, a Stanford-based research group looking to partner with schools to help students develop skills to help them lead balanced, successful lives.  We have a committed team of high school teachers, students, parents, administrators, and board members who have been working with Challenge Success to help our high school students.  Rather than look for quick solutions, we are taking time to try to make sure everyone knows what it’s like to be a student these days.  Teachers and counselors are listening closely to our students, and we are more aware than ever.  One of the ways that we are trying to better understand our students is by shadowing them for an entire day.  We picked 30 students to shadow.  Parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators are paired with these students.  Each adult meets a student before she or he enters his first class, and stays by the side of that student throughout the day.

This week, I shadowed a junior student at Mira Costa High School, and I had a spectacular day.  Here are some of my observations from the day.

  • The student I shadowed began his day at 7 AM in Advanced Placement statistics. I arrived 4 minutes early, and he was waiting for me at the door. I shadowed my student from 7 AM until 2:15 PM, when he went to a 3-hour soccer practice. In that 10-hour-plus period, there was not a single moment of downtime. He reported that after school, he had dinner with his family, did his homework, and did not get to bed until 1:30 AM.  Then it was back to a 7 AM class the next day.  5 hours of sleep is not enough.
  • The student I shadowed genuinely likes school. He has good friends, and he smiled throughout the day. He is comfortable with adults and speaks extraordinarily well and with ease.
  • For the most part, the time spent in the classes was split with a healthy balance of listening/learning/note-taking and active speaking and collaborating in the classroom. Most classes had moderate to very high levels of student engagement and talk during the lesson.
  • My student takes three AP classes. Taking three college level courses in one semester is a heavy load. Mira Costa currently limits AP classes at four. I think we should continue to examine whether three or four is the right number as a max AP load for our students.
  • He received three tests back on the day I shadowed. He took all of those tests on Tuesday (two days prior to my shadow day).  In his words, “Tuesday was a brutal day.”  Three tests in one day is not what we are looking for if we want to reduce student stress. Students really appreciate it when there are no more than two departments testing or having projects due on one day.  We are in our first year of that effort, and I encourage us to do a better job of making that happen for our students.
  • I thought the overall quality of teaching was very high. My student’s teachers know him well, and seemed to know all of the students in the class well.  Expectations are high in his classes, and there was a lot of time for wondering, questioning, creativity, collaboration, and interaction.
  • With the exception of one class, technology was not used much as a tool by students. I don’t really understand that, but it is real.
  • The student I shadowed is a choir student and a soccer athlete. Both of those activities are a great part of his day.  He is clearly passionate about both.  He spent his lunch at a choir club, then practicing with a men’s a cappella group.  The three hours of soccer practice speaks for itself.  I’ve always believed that if a student has just one part of her or his day that she/he looks forward to every day, the high school experience will be a positive one.

The next step is to work with Challenge Success to compile data from all 30 of these shadow days and report back to Mira Costa’s Social Emotional Wellness Committee.  The Committee can then discuss what we learned, and then look at actions we can take to help our students be increasingly healthy in their high school years and beyond.

Parenting – Giving Children The Tools The Need to Thrive

Twice a year, the superintendents and curriculum leaders from seven high-performing districts across the western United States meet to learn from each other and local experts.  One of our themes has been how schools can help students develop into healthy, happy, thinking, and self-reliant adults ready to contribute to our society.   We have worked with brain researchers, corporate leaders, and education researchers to help us develop policies and practices consistent with best practices and research.

On our most recent trip to Palo Alto, we heard from Stanford researchers coming at us from different angles on how to help students.  Denise Pope as well as teachers in the Stanford Design School spoke about best instructional practices, while Julie Lythcott-Haims helped us to understand best parenting practices.   I’m going to focus on parenting for this blog post.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult; Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success (2015), has seen the deterioration of self-efficacy among students in one our nation’s most selective universities.  While first-generation college students and students from less affluent homes continue to have high skills in the area of self-efficacy, those from more affluent homes do not.  One of the primary reasons, says Lythcott-Haims, is that parents just do too much for their children, and they do not let their children do enough for themselves.

Julie Lythcott-Haims
Julie Lythcott-Haims

All of us in the Consortium believe this is a message worth spreading. We are talking in depth right now about the concept of self-efficacy – described by Lythcott-Haims as believing in your ability (not your parents) to complete tasks, attain goals, and manage challenging situations.

It’s a great read, and I highly encourage it.
Here are some of the main pieces of advice Lythcott-Haims gives to parents that we discussed in the Consortium.
We parents, whenever possible,
  • Should avoid refereeing our child’s conflicts
  • Should avoid chauffeuring our children.  (Walking and biking are fantastic!) (I think this is a tough one)
  • Should not bring a forgotten item to our child.
  • Should never do our child’s homework.
  • Should give our child chores that make the household better.
  • Should not chart our child’s life.  There is no such thing as “my child has to . . .”
  • Have a wide mindset about colleges.  The counseling department at New Trier HS urges, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”
  • Listen to our kids.  Really listen.
  • Encourage our kids to have free time/play time/unstructured time
  • Lets our children see us enjoying free time/play time/unstructured time
  • Don’t stress self esteem for our child; emphasize self-efficacy.
  • See if our children can experience “flow.”
  • Encourage thinking at home
  • Encourage deep and persistent thinking at home
  • Let kids speak up for themselves
  • Let our children experience mistakes, failures, and curve balls.

One of my favorite moments came while Lythcott-Haims was speaking to all of us in a very public room at Palo Alto High School.  Students passing by stopped to listen, and they stayed because her message resonated with them.  Several students asked if there was any way that Lythcott-Haims could speak with their parents, because they would love their parents to hear her advice.  It was perfect.

Since I have returned from hearing her speak and subsequently reading her book, I have already changed a few things about how I communicate and interact with my 13-year old son.   If he doesn’t like it now, he certainly will later on!  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  I’m happy to be continuously learning about how to be the best parent possible.

Thanks for taking the time to read,

 

Mike Matthews
mmatthews@mbusd.org

 

The 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium is comprised of Eanes (TX), Edina (MN), Highland Park (TX), Manhattan Beach (CA), Palo Alto (CA), New Trier (IL), and Westside (NE) school districts. The mission of the 21st Century Superintendent’s Consortium is to develop the whole child, preparing learners for a successful life beyond high school.

Student Stress – My Speech to our Honor Students

This is a speech I gave to our honors students and their parents in the fall of 2015.

The 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium is a group of seven high performing school districts across the United States seeking to learn from each other, from current research, and from schools around the nation. 

 We are thinking a lot about students like you these days. 

 Who do I mean when I say “students like you?”

  • Amazing Young Women and Men
  • Intelligent
  • Hard Working
  • Passionate
  • Achieving
  • Extracurricular Excellence
  • Destined for Greatness
  • In short, it could be any student at our school.

 And if you are like most students like you, you are . . .  Stressed

 We’ve done surveys – you have told us that you are stressed.  The biggest reason – College admissions.  Second biggest – Parents.  Third – Teachers

 We’re trying to figure out what we can do to make it easier on you.  Not easy, but easier on you.  Your principal, counselors, teachers, and the Board of Education are all talking about what we can do.

 But college admissions is still the biggest stress you have.

 Let me promise you this: If you do this well throughout high school, you will get into a very good university that will give you all that a college can give you to be highly successful in life.  

 Our goal here at MBUSD is not just to get you into a great college.  It is, along with your parents, to give you all we can to be successful in life.  We want you to be able to provide for yourself or a family doing something you love to do.  We want you to have great friends and an amazing family, all of whom you can support and who can support you throughout your life.    

 And where you go to college determines very little of that.

 I know so many students who were excellent students in high school, and have become highly successful as adults.  They graduated from all kinds of colleges, and many started in community college. The CEOs of our biggest companies come from Harvard and Stanford, but they also come from San Diego State, Minnesota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, North Carolina and many more.  The name of college will not define your future.

 But remember what I said first.  These successful men and women had great habits in high school.  They maximized their intelligence.  They were hard working. They had great friends.  They had the tools they needed to be successful at the next level.  

 Need more convincing? Just look at Google’s Lazslo Bock: “It’s one of the flaws in how we assess people,” Bock said. “We assume that if you went to Harvard, Stanford or MIT that you are smart. We assume that if you got good grades you will do well at work… There is no relationship between where you went to school and how you did five, 10, 15 years into your career. So, we stopped looking at it.”

 You have shown us that you are high achieving.  That’s why you are here.  Congratulations.  We are so proud of you.  But I hope you find the time in high school to figure out who you are and what your interests really are.   I hope that you are finding the time to pursue the things that you know you love, to pursue the activities that define who you are, and to pursue the friendships that make life so wonderful.  And I hope you know that if you do that, you have a great deal of control over your own destiny.  No college admissions officer can take that away from you.  You are smart, you are doing what you love to do, and you will go to a place that wants you to be there.

 From Frank Bruni – Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be

Dear Matt, On the night before you receive your first college response, we wanted to let you know that we could not be any prouder of you than we are today. Whether or not you get accepted does not determine how proud we are of everything you have accomplished and the wonderful person you have become. That will not change based on what admissions officers decide about your future. We will celebrate with joy wherever you get accepted—and the happier you are with those responses, the happier we will be. But your worth as a person, a student and our son is not diminished or influenced in the least by what these colleges have decided. If it does not go your way, you’ll take a different route to get where you want. There is not a single college in this country that would not be lucky to have you, and you are capable of succeeding at any of them. We love you as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky, all the way around the world and back again—and to wherever you are headed. Mom and Dad

 

Keep doing great things.  Find and pursue what you love to do.   The rest of it will work itself out.

Congratulations to all of you.

 

 

 

 

Doing the Math!  Working to improve math teaching and learning in MBUSD.

Boaler.Math.Workshop.jpgLast week in MBUSD, over 500 people from around Los Angeles came to MBMS to participate in an all-day workshop featuring Dr. Jo Boaler, a world renowned professor of mathematics at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. We cohosted the conference with UCLA. All MBUSD secondary math teachers attended, and many of our elementary teachers participated as well. The thoughts of the day provide an excellent framework for the work we are doing in mathematics curriculum and instruction in MBUSD.

A major focus of teaching and learning in MBUSD has been around moving away from lecture as a primary teaching tool, and moving towards students being active in their learning. Teachers are transitioning their role from the “sage on the stage” to that of the “guide on the side,” working to coach, inspire, and support our students. This has been true in our implementation of Writers’ Workshop and Readers’ Workshop. This is also the essence of the Common Core Standards and the new Next Generation Science Standards that are coming out.  We are committed to aligning research in best practice to all of our classrooms. We want less memorization from our students, and more skills such as analysis, problem-solving, writing, presenting, and creating.

Every one of Dr. Boaler’s ideas has been researched and observed. Here are some of the messages that she stresses:

  • Everyone can be successful at math, from elementary to high school.
  • We urgently need to shift teachers’, parents’, and students’ ideas about who can achieve in mathematics.
  • Parents who tell their children, “When I was in school, I wasn’t good in math either,” are doing way more harm than good!
  • The lowest achieving students are memorizers. The highest achieving students think of big ideas and connections. America has more memorizers than most countries in the world.
  • Formulas are great, but if you can’t explain or visualize them, you may not really understand the math behind them.
  • Brains grow when they are worked. People can become more (or less) intelligent based on increased (or decreased) use of the brain.
  • Rapidity does NOT have a precise relationship to intelligence.

In MBUSD, we are transforming our mathematics program through two major changes:

  1. Implementing shifts in mathematics curriculum and instruction, and
  2. Math courses and pathways. Let’s focus first on how we are teaching math.

CHANGES IN HOW WE WILL BE TEACHING MATHEMATICS

Here is how I learned math in high school.

  • Memorize your basic math facts.
  • Memorize key formulas.
  • Practice them on the homework.
  • Use them to do well on the test.

Using those skills today, I am still able to approximate square roots to the nearest hundredth, recite the quadratic formula, integrate simple equations, and compute areas of many traditional and obscure figures.  Quadratic_formula.svgBut I would never say that I truly understood math. In fact, after learning so much about math teaching and learning in the last three years, I understand math better now than I did as an almost math major in college (that’s another story).

I’m not going to go over all of the 8 Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), but let me discuss a few, which will show how different math teaching and learning are from just a few years ago.

SMP #1: Make Sense of Problems and Persevere in Solving Them

In my day, we did problems 1-39 odd. Today, we are moving towards classrooms where an entire class period may focus on one highly complex, multi-step problem. Students have to understand so much to do this, and at first, it is intimidating. In my day, collaboration was called cheating. Today, collaboration is a great way to solve problems together. Students will make mistakes.  Instead of just being wrong, students now learn from their mistakes, and go back to work on solving the problem. Oh by the way, in a good problem, there are multiple ways of getting to the correct answer. We celebrate different ways of getting it right.

SMP #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others

In my day, math was a pretty isolated and independent activity. You listened to the teacher, then you did you work. You learned later if your work was right or wrong. Today, we want our students to be looking at each other’s ideas and work, and actually talk about it. We want our students to use math vocabulary, review different solutions, and converse about what seems right, what is a good solution, and what does not work. Just as students discuss a short story or a historical event, they should be talking about math problems.

SMP #6: Attend to precision.

I have had a few people tell me they don’t like the new math standards because there is no right answer. Ummm, no, that’s not true. There is a right answer. There may be no wrong way of arriving at that answer, and we encourage multiple ways. But precision in math is still important: precision in the answer, in the terms you use, and in how you check your work.

CHANGES IN MATHEMATICS PATHWAYS

There are several goals in the new state math standards:

  • Fewer standards that are taught in more depth
  • All math pathways are geared to make students college ready

With that in mind, we have created two math pathways for our students, both designed to help our students to be prepared for college application and admission. Beginning next year, students in grades K – 6 will all take the same grade level math courses. This is nothing new for grades K-5, but it is new for grade 6. There will be GATE clusters in some of our Math 1 courses (6th Grade Math), but all students will be taught using the same standards. These new math pathways will be phased in over the next three years, beginning with next year’s 6th grade class at MBMS.

Then, in the 2017-18 year, beginning in grade 7, there will be two pathways. Both pathways can lead to students taking AP Calculus, AP Statistics, or other math classes well above the Algebra 2 requirement for college admission.

  • Students in the regular pathway will take Math 2 in 7thgrade, Math 3 in 8th grade, Algebra 1 in 9th grade, Geometry in 10th grade, and Algebra 2 or a higher option in 11th and 12th grades. Students can reach AP Calculus AB (1st semester college calculus) in this pathway.
  • Students in the accelerated pathway can take Math 2 and 3 in 7th grade (1 course, with two years of content), Algebra 1 in 8th grade, and can end up taking Calculus BC (2nd semester college calculus) as a senior.

The biggest change here is that, beginning with next year’s 6th grade class, Algebra 1 is the highest course our students will take in middle school. Our math teachers and math researchers such as Jo Boaler believe that we have rushed this in the past. Algebra 1 is designated as a 9th grade course by the California Department of Education (CDE). The CDE also cautions against accelerating students in math prior to 10th grade. However, our analysis of MBUSD student performance data indicates that we have had many students take Algebra 1 in 8th grade and go onto further math success, but less than two percent have similar success when taking Geometry in 8th grade. This recent research and analysis of student learning make us believe that both Math 3 and Algebra 1 are excellent destinations for our 8th graders. Nearly all of the comparable high performing districts have made this same change.

Our biggest challenge remaining is to further reduce the breadth of material in our middle school and high school math classes. In my mind, these classes still have way too many standards to teach, therefore we rush through them, and when we rush, it is impossible to use high quality teaching techniques. I am pushing to have our math teachers teach just 8 to 10 big ideas during a math year, and go into significant depth on those topics.

So we have made many changes, all designed to help our students deeply understand mathematics through a balanced approach to math learning that stresses procedural fluency, application, and conceptual learning. We have course changes happening next year which should further help that goal. And we are working on changing our courses in high school, so our teachers are more able to truly teach math concepts, and not have to rush through them.

I am grateful for our teachers who have worked so hard to improve their teaching every day. It’s what our students deserve, and I am appreciative of their efforts. I thank Dr. Brett Geithman and Dr. Chad Mabery for leading so many parent workshops in math. I thank all of the parents who have given us so much input in this process. And I thank the Board for adopting courses and pathways that I believe are best for students.

Onward!

Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

2014-15: The Year of the Maker in MBUSD

2014-15: The Year of the Maker in MBUSD
Students are the core of all of our efforts in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. The 2014-15 school year has been a year of significant accomplishments for MBUSD students and staff, yet we remain steadfast in our determination to engage in continuous improvement. To provide MBUSD students with the 21st century skills they need to be successful in the world into which they will graduate, we are making sure that all of our students are at the center of our instructional improvements, our facility improvements and our plans for the future.
Making it Happen! On March 31st of this year, we cut the ribbon to celebrate the completion of our construction project at Mira Costa High School. We turned old classrooms into new classrooms. We built a new math/science building filled with state of the art laboratories where our students make science happen. We created new music rooms where our GRAMMY-winning student musicians create works of art every day. We now have a beautiful small theater where we can host 300 people for speaking and performing events. And in the middle of it all, we made a huge new collegiate-style quad where our students can enjoy the outdoors each and every day. And all of it was on time and on budget.
Making the Student the Center of Instruction! Our teachers have participated in and helped to lead five full days of district wide professional development this year. Our focus has been entirely on making classrooms places where students are doing, making, problem solving, thinking, and creating. I see it in our elementary classrooms, where teachers serve as coaches and mentors to students as they work to improve their reading, writing and math skills. I see it in our middle schools where our amazing science teachers offer hands-on science lessons where students can make their own meaning. I see it in our high school where students lead seminar sessions, direct and produce video production programming, and debate in our internationally acclaimed Model United Nations Program. MBUSD students are increasingly spending their time communicating, collaborating, creating and critically thinking.
Making Makers! One of the big movements in our country is the “Maker Movement.” It is happening in MBUSD, as all of our elementary schools have parent-led MakerSpace programs. Our students are creating robots, machines and inventions. We see it in our middle school with our Fab Lab Program, where students are creating using 3D printing and much more. We see it in our high school with our new Robotics program. All of these programs are rich in technology. Making gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their technical knowledge and creativity as well as their habits such as perseverance and resourcefulness.
Making the Grade! Our students, teachers and programs have received so many recognitions this year. As I mentioned earlier, our music program was named by the GRAMMY Foundation as one of the top programs in the nation. Both MBMS and Mira Costa High School received Gold Ribbon School awards this year. For the second year in a row, a teacher from our small school district has been named as a California Teacher of the Year. Congratulations to Maggie Mabery and Michael Hayden, the 2015 and 2014 California Teachers of the Year!Congratulations to Mr. John Jackson, the California Middle School Principal of the Year! And congratulations to all of us for helping conserve our planet. The state of California named MBUSD as a Green Ribbon District, because of our exemplary sustainability practices.
Making Plans for the Future! As our Mira Costa Construction Program is complete, we have turned our attention to the future. We are seeking to understand the needs of all our schools in terms of facilities that will serve the students for decades to come. How can our needs also serve members of our community? How should we upgrade our campuses and facilities? On July 15, the Board will adopt a Master Facilities Plan that will give us a roadmap to address our needs for the future.
Making a Difference! By investing in our students, our staff and our facilities, we are transforming great schools into extraordinary 21st century learning environments, where learning is student-centered and authentic. MBUSD is making a difference for our current and future students by providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college, career and life. I am so grateful for all our teachers, staff, leaders, parents, community members and students who all work together to make a difference now and in the future.
Thank you, and have a great summer.
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

On Advanced Placement and Weighting

For the first time ever, we implemented a weighting policy in our high school. Advanced Placement classes will receive an extra grade point when we compute a student’s GPA. Students and parents may think it will provide an advantage in college admissions, but it won’t. We already do quite well in that area, and no student has been harmed by a lack of weighting. It will help a very small minority of our students who are trying to receive financial aid from seven or eight colleges in our nation. I resent the policies in those colleges, but I cannot change them. So we are now weighting.
One of my concerns and a concern for counselors and teachers in our high school is that we do not want this new weighting policy to encourage students to take more Advanced Placement classes than they should. We have read research on this, and the research contends that weighting grades is a reward for students taking AP classes, not an incentive for them to take more AP classes. We all hope that is the case.
Allow me to give you some of my thoughts about AP classes and student stress. First of all, I am a fan of well-taught AP classes. I taught AP US History for eleven years, and I loved it. I considered it to be a thinking and writing course using US history as the content. I strongly believe that any student who wants to go to a four-year college should take at least oneAdvanced Placement class during their high school career. Advanced Placement is as close as you will get to college rigor and it will give students a feel for collegiate rigor. When taught well, AP classes go far beyond memorization, instead focusing on writing, analysis and problem-solving. Right now, 57% of our graduates take and pass at least one AP class and exam before graduating. While that is wonderful, I would like to see that number be more like 70% or 75%. That is the amount of students that we see going directly to four-year college.
On the other hand, one of the biggest concerns that our counselors and I have is students who overdo it with Advanced Placement classes. It’s hard to define what “overdoing it” means.Students have different abilities and some are able to tolerate more than others. Using my version of common sense, taking one Advanced Placement class a year is excellent, taking two Advanced Placement classes a year is considerable, and taking three is really the equivalent of taking a full college load while also taking high school courses and all the activities that go along with that. In my mind, taking three AP courses is extreme. We have students who take four and five. I believe that is unhealthy and unwise, but I know some of our students and parents insist upon it. We do not have any rules at this time to stop it, but I know our counselors discourage students from overdoing it. I applaud their efforts.
I encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes in the areas that they are passionate about. If you know you are going to pursue liberal arts, take your AP classes there.If you are leaning towards the sciences, take your AP classes there. Or you can take my advice to college students on which college courses to take – find the best teachers you can and take their courses. Great teachers can make anything interesting. Students should choose wisely. They are giving up some of their own time by taking too many. And I want students to have as much time as possible that they can call their own.
I have mentioned before my appreciation for Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2015). He’s states, “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.” We should all encourage students to pursue their passions as much as possible while they are in school. What kind of passions am I talking about? Music, acting, arts, athletics, thinking, problem-solving, friendships, building anything, worthy causes, and any other great use of time. Our job as parents and educators is to help our students find and pursue those passions. We cannot do it for them. All we can do is encourage. And if they have no time of their own, there is no time to pursue those passions.
We will be analyzing our Advanced Placement numbers carefully. We will be watching in particular for new students taking at least one AP class. If that number increases, I will consider that a victory for all of the students and for the school. We will also stay vigilant in evaluating the number of students who are taking more than three advanced placement classes. If this number rises, I will consider it an unhealthy result of our weighting grades and we will have to consider how best to address that. In the meantime, let’s all encourage our students to find balance, and to find time they can call their own.
Thanks,
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

My Thoughts on Common Core Math

One of the major focuses for improving instruction comes in Common Core math. Our district is in the midst of adopting new teaching methodologies for our math teachers aligned to meet the demands of the Eight Standards for Mathematical Practices and the new standards in each grade. In spite of the politics that sometimes exists around the Common Core, I believe that if one actually examines the practices and standards, there is nothing unusual or out of line. What you will see is that the expectations are high. I embrace those high standards for our students.
Compared to the rest of the world, adults and students in the United States are not very good at math. I believe one of the reasons for that is that we are often taught that there is one way and one way only to solve a problem, and either you understand it or you don’t. That is just not true. There are many ways to think about solving even the simplest of math problems. We are often taught how to solve a problem using a proven method. We can get the answer, but the meaning can escape us. Even if you can solve a math problem, it does not mean you understand it.
I have always liked math. In elementary school, Rose Ann Hansen and I regularly competed to finish first in the class in all of the 100-question multiplication quizzes. She was a fierce competitor. I can still recite the quadratic equation, though I have absolutely no idea how use it. My wife and I sometimes compete at estimating square roots to the nearest hundredth. We are pretty close, but the difference is, she truly understands math. I was even a math major for a while in college, including successfully taking all the calculus classes. I gave up after my linear algebra class, where I could solve the problems correctly, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! I was able to solve the problem the way I was told to solve the problem, but unable to understand anything about what I had accomplished other than getting the right answer. I was doing math, but not understanding math. Finishing first, memorizing, and following procedural directions have their place, but they have little to do with understanding math. If we are going to compete internationally, far more of us have to truly understand math. That’s where the Common Core Standards come in: they are far more about understanding the math.
Common Core math seeks to help students always understand “the math behind the math” and how to apply it in real life situations by spending more time on concepts than our previous standards did. When these higher expectations are applied in the classroom, students will see problems that can look very different from what we parents saw in school. It will look different when are trying to help students go beyond memorization, and towards understanding. Here is a 3-minute video describing what these problems may look like, and why we are trying to teach students that there are multiple ways to approach a complex math problem.
If you want more information, there are many informational resources at achieve.org.
My bottom line: The Common Core Standards in mathematics can help us to be a nation that is far better at truly understanding math. I am 100% in.
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews