In this episode Math Teacher, Tara Crebs, shares with us how she's adapting her strategies to fit the needs of her students. She is doing her best to engage and encourage her students during this time as well as implementing self-care to prevent burnout. Tara vulnerably shares with us what it's been like for her and how she's taking care of herself.
In this episode we discuss:
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About our Guest:
Tara has taught at Montoursville Area High School since the 2009-2010 school year (11 years!). She currently teaches 9th - 10th Algebra IA, 9th-10th Algebra I, 12th Consumer Review. Prior to teaching, Tara spent 7 years as an admissions office counselor and Associate Director, then spent 9 years as a stay-at-home mom to two boys.
Welcome to the Get More Math Podcast, where we support teachers in their quest for long term student gains. This is a podcast for teachers to share their passion for math education, learn best practices from experts in the field, and swap ideas for student success. This is community. This is Get More Math. Welcome back to the Get More Math Podcast! I'm Derek Maxson, the President of Get More Math and I'm joined as always by Josh Britton. He's the founder of Get More Math. Josh, tell us a little bit about this episode of the podcast.
Well, thanks, Derek. Today we're gonna talk to Tara Crebs. She's a high school math teacher in Pennsylvania, and she's gonna be telling us about, sort of the phases she's been going through from the first couple of weeks where the students simply had no responsibilities to a period of time where there was only to be review and no new content. And then, finally, most recently, she's been trying to include some new instruction, even as she continues to review old content. She has lots of good ideas, and also she's very transparent and shares with us what it's like to be going through this period as a teacher who cares about her kids and is trying to do right by them.
Let's get right to the interview and listen in on what Tara and Josh have to say to us today.
Well, good morning, Tara. Thanks for joining us today.
Hi, Josh. It's nice to be here!
So we've been exploring what it's like to be a teacher and what it's like for students during this time of extended remote learning. We really appreciate you joining us today. Maybe you can start by just telling us a little bit about your responsibilities.
I am currently a high school teacher at Montoursville High School. We have approximately 650 students-ish in a small rural area of Pennsylvania. I currently teach 9th and 10th graders Algebra IA, which is sort of like the first half of the Algebra I curriculum in one year. Then I also teach a full year course of Algebra II with mostly ninth graders. And then I also have a senior level course called Consumer Review, which is basically financial literacy for seniors.
Great. How long have you been doing that?
I have been teaching since 2009. So I believe that's about, I think this is my 11th year.
Excellent. So let's start by rolling back the clock and talking a little bit about what your typical school day might look like pre-virus, if you will.
My teaching style is a little different. Based on the courses that I was teaching my Consumer Review class for seniors, the ability level in that course was very varied. I had some students who had only previously had Algebra I and Geometry experience mathematically and then other students that had gone through Trig and Pre-Cal. And so to balance the curriculum in that particular class, that was quite difficult to make it challenging enough, but also doable enough. And so I typically on those in those classes, would teach throughout the week, but then on Fridays, I would use Friday's as my free day, and that meant lots of things for students who were completely caught up and knew what they were doing. We watched math movies and did basic math skills reviews, and they worked completely on their own and Get More Math was an excellent opportunity for them to do that and be able to practice at varied levels. And for my other students, it was an opportunity for us to get some tutoring and caught up on makeup work. So that worked out very well in my Algebra classes. Again, I structured those differently. My Algebra IA class was typically built for students who struggle a little bit with all levels of academics, but primarily math. And so that was the class that I used to Get More Math program with the most often. We used to Get More Math almost daily in that course. I would teach for a little while and then we would practice, Get More Math, and I really almost stopped giving homework even in that class, because I was primarily relying on the in-class practice.
Great. Well, let's talk about then what it's like to transition into some remote instructional environments obviously changes a lot of stuff. Let's start with your expectations. What is your district expecting teachers and students to accomplish right now?
Yeah, it's a crazy mix. We live as I mentioned, in a rural community, and we are not a district that had the capability prior to this situation to offer our students one to one technology access. We have quite a few students that don't even have consistent Internet access. And so our district has decided that our level of teaching is going to be titled "enrichment." Which means, I believe today we actually finalized our third marking period grades, and that is going to be it grade-wise for the year. And anything that we offer for the remainder of the year is considered enrichment. And so that varies by teacher, basically, what we're offering. For myself,. I have moved on to some new material just because I feel like in a math curriculum, in particular, who knows where we'll be able to start the year next year. But most certainly I want to prevent losses in the material that they've learned. But I also want to somehow maybe get them ready for what might be expected. In the next course that they take whatever that looks like in the future. So right now, no grades, but we are sort of offering class every day and, working mostly with the kids that are responding to that.
So what does it mean to offer a class?
So for me, I am doing three: Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I am pre-recording a lesson using Zoom. I am pulling up like notes, more power points that I would have used in a class, and just hopefully keeping it to about a 15-minute lesson quote-unquote. And then I am attaching PDFs for the kids. They're doing all sorts of crazy stuff that I don't even understand. Some of them are printing it, writing it, taking pictures, sending it back to me. Some of them are, just doing it all on their phone. Some of them have styluses and are writing right on their computer screen. And, I mean, it's really amazing the ways that they've found to handle that. So that's happening Monday, Wednesday, Friday. They're submitting those things to me through Google Classroom which has been a good experience for me as well. And then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'm using those as my Get More Math days, and so it's a combination of mixed review for the most part. But then, as I'm teaching new skills, obviously they can access Get More Math every day, right? So so that's been fantastic. They're typically doing the mixed review only on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And then watching some of your webinars have been so helpful to realize that I could assign new material that I covered, but immediately push it to the mixed review so that they're able to not just do those and get stuck on those if they didn't understand it. And then ultimately we were only able to have one sort of face to face interaction per week based on other teachers in other curriculum or other courses having to try and meet with their kids to. So every Wednesday I have a Zoom session that's live with each one of my classes, and so that's been interesting. Like we've done everything from play hangman at the beginning when the kids were not sure what was going on just to sort of keep them engaged and get a chance to see each other to now we're at the point where we're doing things like graphing together. We're doing Get More Math together like I can pull up my screen and show them some of the problems. So once a week meeting with them three times a week, having them do a lesson and then twice a week minimum doing Get More Math,
That sounds pretty good! It's a nice balance of trying to make sure you're retaining what you've attained so far and then also in a measured way, pushing forward. Would you say that overall, your expectations for the couple of months where we're going through this, you've taken what 50% of that content or 20% of that content and started making lessons out of it? Are you gonna be able to cover all of your curricula?
No way. Absolutely No way. I mean, we lost an entire marking period of content. I think I had five units left to cover. I will be thrilled if I get through three. I'm more likely going to get through two. When we first went to not being in the school building, I don't even know what to call it, in the beginning, it was literally just two weeks off. We had no plan in place, and at that point, kids were not tied in. Teachers were not tied in. I mean, we really didn't know what we were doing, and then after that, it was starting to figure out what we're doing. So realistically, we lost at least three weeks, maybe four, of any type of practiced instruction. And then when we did decide to go back as a district, our first implementation was only review. You can't teach anything new because we might get sued by kids who can't access it. And so we weren't allowed to teach, like, literally not allowed to change anything new only review. So Get More Math was my savior. In that time, I was able to spend most of my time at home learning new technology like Google Classroom and how to do Zoom. And still know that my kids were getting review because they were able to access Get More Math and just the fact that I could interact and catch them online every once in a while and send them a message was just awesome. It was a bright spot for the day.
That's great. So did you sort of monitor who was logged in and maybe shoot them a note occasionally? Is that what you're saying?
I did, and I'm still doing that. It's been really fun to catch them when they're online and be able to send a message to them.Even if it's not even about the math problem. just to let them know that I am I'm on with them is a fun thing.
That's great! One of the things that is super interesting to me is that the asynchronous nature of a lot of what people are trying to do. You know, I'm totally accustomed from years and years of teaching to have everything march in time, like we're all the same place at the same time, doing the same thing. And now you could have kids, you know, watching your video lesson late at night and doing some practice in the morning and then doing some more practice in the afternoon and then do a little more in the evening. And it's very strange to me to have my kids or have the students out of sync with the teachers. That seems to be one of the biggest differences. I know they're remote, and that's a huge difference, just to have them working at all different times. I'm curious to know, like in a typical classroom scenario, when they get stuck, when they have a question, they raise their hands, right, or ask the kid next to them or something like that. How are you fostering discussion in both remote, but also asynchronous scenario?
It's really, to be honest with you, been a huge issue for me. That's one of the things that I thrive on, right? As teachers, you are counting on your students to interact with you and let you know what's making sense. And when you are number one, recording a lesson, you have no idea if what you're saying is making sense to them and then for them. First of all, with it being elective for them to participate, I'm not even sure how much effort they're putting in. It's not like this magic wand just got waved over all of my students and the ones who weren't paying attention in class are now mesmerized by my recording and taking notes, and getting it, alright. It didn't just happen that way. It's still the same kids. They're just in a different environment. And so for the ones that are actively participating and really seeking to get the most out of this or the ones whose parents are making them do it or the ones who are bored off their rockers and have literally exhausted every other option, you decide, "I guess I'll do some math." The way they're interacting with me is mostly through Gmail and through phones. Phones have been wonderful. I can't believe how many kids are taking a picture of a problem that they're working on and texting it to my Gmail. Just, as a matter of fact, 10 minutes before we got on this morning, I had a girl take a picture of a proportional equation to solve in the Get More Math program, and she sent a picture of it to me, and she's like, "I know I'm getting this right, but its not there!",
You're bringing it all back for me. A day wouldn't go by in my classroom where at least one kid told me, "I know I'm right, Get More Math was wrong."
Well, I was able to write it out on a piece of paper and screenshot it with my phone, send it to myself in my email, and then I responded to her with some suggestions on, "are you trying this right? Like is this what you did? And if you're not, you can check your Gmail." I'm on with you, right? So I haven't responded to see what her, or checked in to see what her response is, but I hope it gets the desired result.
So this conversation reminds me of this funny software idea I've had for a math software. I found myself as a math teacher almost all day, I'd say over 60% of my interactions with kids regarding math problems were simply me asking the same question. "So what did you do next? What did you do after that? What was your next step?
You know, it might begin with, "well, how did you set this up? How did you think this through? What was your first step?" And so I almost never tell them what to do or what they did wrong. And I could see it. I could see it coming on the third step. They forgot their negative. But I am not gonna do that. I'm just gonna ask them questions. So I thought of writing this app were like every time you hit a button that teacher says, "Well, what did you do next?" Maybe that would be the solution for you, you know because that's most of the discussion that I always had anyway. It's funny, but I like what your approach was. It sounds like you're like a two-phased approach. You do have the complete help, but prior to looking at that, have you thought about it, right? That's the point you're trying to support with regular classes.
It's been very interesting having kids turn in their work and having the ability to comment on their work. I have a total of 109 students under my care this year, and I do not have 109 students participating in this online a conducive environment. So it has given me the opportunity to interact with more of them individually. So I'm getting their homework assignments and able to comment on their work much more detailed than I ever have before. And you're right, I'm finding myself seeing the same exact, common mistakes over and over and over again. And so there's this little feature in Google classroom where you can create a comment bank. And so I have quite a few saved phrases for some of the assignments, because, it's really been very, very helpful.
Do they have math symbols in their comments?
Not that I have found. So if anyone who knows how to access that... I'm responding to their work in two different ways. The unit that we were working on before we left in Algebra was radicals. And so a square root symbol is not something that you find, right? And so I'm using language like, "Oh, your answer here should be two root seven" and writing out the word of, root. But as we're simplifying radicals that have variables in them and exponents, it was becoming quite cumbersome. And I'm sure, that they were not reading all of the text. Whereas if I was able to write it on their page, I think it would have been much more succinct, and they would have maybe taken a look at it. So for some of those, um, assignments, I've actually been downloading their work as a PDF, writing up it and then saving it and then emailing it back to them so they can see the written work and the text.
When you say, writing on it, do you mean you print it out as well or do you mean you sort of write on it on your screen?
I do write on it on my screen. I have access to a printer at home, which has been, a lifesaver for me to be able to scan and documents that Google Classroom won't recognize. So that's been fabulous. But the PDF homework assignments that they're giving me, I am able to download as a PdF and then draw on it. My handwriting is worse than theirs if that's possible...
Do you use a mouse to do the drawing?
I do. So I saw your webinar on that, external software stuff. But, um, yeah, it's just not in my budget at this point.
And I have to wonder like right now is all of that stuff is totally sold out too, you know? I was trying to order various things from Amazon and they're like, "Sorry, no."
Right. I'm getting better with the mouse. It's amazing.
Yeah, that's good to hear. It would drive me, I think up a tree. Let's dial back to your participation. This is an area of interest, for I'm sure all of us. You said you have 109 students. Some are electing to participate, some aren't. It's this fascinating place where they don't have to, and your district is clear about that. This is a time of enrichment. You want to support kids, you want to push ahead, but it's optional. So how many kids do you have participating?
It also varies percentage-wise by the class itself. So let's start with the seniors because they're in the strangest of situations and my heart goes out to them. I'm going to really try not to get emotional as I speak of this. So for them, they're communicating with me. They've been wonderful about that, but I only have four of 40-ish. I think it's maybe 37 students that are actually submitting any work. So you need to understand that this consumer review course is basically a course offered for students who are taking it as a second math for students that are going on to college. Or it is a math credit for students who are planning to go to a trade school. So it's not an academic college prep course per se. So that, to me explains a little bit about why my numbers are so low there. You're either focusing on another math course that they're enrolled in, or a soon as they heard optional they're like "Best Senior Year ever!" and they stopped.
They already know that you've finished up the grades?
They do. They do and I'm very transparent with them. Regarding that, however, I've got a couple of Fail Safe's, or, I guess, strategies that I've been trying to use with them to encourage them. Number one is I've been reaching out to six students a day. That's been my goal, using the telephone right? In addition to everything else that's going on, I'm trying to reach one student from each of my classes every day, and that started about a week ago. So the nice part there has been I get a chance to clear up any rumors that might be flying around. I get a chance to see how they are doing, see why they're not participating if they're not, and in some cases, it's literally been a matter of they were off the grid. I don't know what they've been doing, but had no idea what the plan was or like how to even access, the materials. So that's a legitimate actual situation that's been happening. But in the other situation, it's been more of I don't really see a point in this like, would you be putting lessons out there if you weren't getting paid for it? And I've gotta wonder if I would. And so in that light, I've really been trying to just tap into their desire to become better humans, as opposed to just doing school work because someone told them to and tapping into their desire to become independent learners and productive members of society. Man, that's a tough push for 17 and 18-year-old kids, but I've really had some of them respond in very good ways, you know, just reminding them that if they are going on to any type of schooling next year, it might be like this. We don't know what school is gonna look like in the future and being familiar with discipline and independent responsibility levels. It's just been a real push for me, not just for the seniors, for the underclassmen as well, but in particular for those seniors. And so the last leg of that little push to get them to do stuff is, I've started to bribe them.
When all else fails! So what's the going rate?
I have reached out to some of our local businesses and asking for some donations. So right now I've got a stack of, for my seniors, in particular, I typically do an end of the year, I don't know if anyone is familiar with Mr. Sticky's, but Mr. Sticky is like a sticky bun connoisseur in our area. I've reached out to them and asked them. Well, when we had real school, we would have like a sticky bun party on the last day of school, right? So now they're getting Mr. Sticky's Coupons. And for my other students, for my underclassmen, I am doing, I'll just say there have been some wonderful local businesses that have given me gift cards, you know, less than five bucks. Just today I mailed out my first group. I mailed out 10 different things, some for free sandwiches, some for doughnuts, some for coffee, some for just gift cards or whatever. And I let the rest of the class know through Google Classroom, that "hey, look at this kid! Highest number of Get More Math questions answered!" or, "Most assignments completed!" or whatever. So we'll see if that has any effect on them, I mean, I think it will be good for their spirits, no matter what, but if it has an added bonus of more participation, that'd be great, too.
So you said one thing, you've said a lot of awesome things just now. I love what you're doing. I love your strategies. One thing that intrigued me right near the beginning regarding phone calls, you said, one thing you do is clear up rumors. That is interesting. Are you finding kids have fake information or that something's been circulating that's sort of utterly incorrect that you're having to kind of go around and stomp out?
I am. Absolutely. I mean, we've got this environment now where every communication that we're having as a district but also individually, is happening technologically, as opposed to face to face. And so there are all sorts of things that can be misinterpreted. And as a matter of fact in particular, I'm finding that it is a shame how many people don't read. So like, you see a post on the website coming from our district administrators saying one thing, and rather than reading it all in detail, you skim it and you think you know what it says and then you summarize it and send it in a text to someone else. And then they summarize it and share with someone else, and so very quickly you can see how that gets out of hand. And I have had lots of people not knowing what's going on. And also you have this other dynamic of parents working and not having the opportunity or not taking the time because they've got high school students who sometimes we treat as somewhat adults, and they believe their kids when they tell them school is closed and it is over, and I don't have to do anything at all. And the parents are not checking that for themselves and then being very surprised. So, unfortunately, some of those phones calls home have been not great.
When you say not great, do you mean talking to the students, those conversations or you talk to the parents and the parents are like, wait, what?
Yeah, so sometimes the parents, I mean, those are the phone numbers I have, right? And so I am typically originally getting a parent. And some of those conversations have I think, unfortunately, then caused bad conversations with their students, saying, "I thought you said this. And now I'm finding this," So, not loving that and trying my best to make sure that it's coming across as this isn't a guilt call. You know, I'm just showing you what's available and stressing on that. Though they have been very few and far between, but there have been quite a few parents who really thought "Oh, I thought they were. They're on their computer, so I assumed that they were doing all their things."
Something else, you said that's just intriguing to me. I'm thinking back. I taught for about 20 years and I'd say, I talked to one of my students on the phone, maybe twice, briefly. So you know when I made calls, I was calling parents because, of course, if I want to talk to my students, I just talked to them in person. So right, I'm just a little curious. What's it like to talk to a 14-year-old on the phone?
It's actually been pretty interesting. There have been a couple of times where the parent has said, Would you like to talk to so and so? And I just laugh. I'm like, "Well, only, if they would like to talk to me," and you know, I'm certainly not going, "I'm sure that, you know, Joey was not waiting by the phone to talk to his Algebra teacher." But there have been a couple of times where kids have been like, "Oh, my gosh, let me talk!" And it's been, you know, you have different relationships with some of your students, and, um, I miss seeing some of my students, I really, really, truly do. And to be able to talk with them and just hear their voices, and I think for them, to actually interact with me, I don't know. It's been very nice. It's been very nice.
That's great! I thrive on the in-person aspect of teaching. I loved spending time with 140 kids every day. For me, that was vital to my success. And so, like when I was out of school and working so many long hours to try to prepare for the next day the next week, what would motivate me was the fact that the next day I would be with those kids again, and I wanted them to do well. I wanted the room to go well. I wanted the day to go well. So that in-person part was key to my personal motivation. I'm wondering how it's going for you. You're stuck at home, you're getting these phone calls in, which is in a way, that some feed, some relational feed. How's it going making all these videos and grading all this PDS. Is it lonely?
It's actually been up and down, probably one of the most difficult seasons of my life. I think, I definitely hear you when you say that spending hours at home, doing the lesson plans and tweaking them and making them with the goal in mind of being able to share that with the students and going back and re-tweaking it right after you taught it so that the next time it would be better, right? Like that's who I am not because I love technology and lesson planning, but because I loved seeing their eyes light up and helping them understand more deeply and those kinds of things. And I'm with you 100% on. That's what I love about teaching. And when this first began and I was spending all of my hours just trying to figure out how to put the material out there for the students navigating through Google Classroom, it was very lonely. I was communicating with other teachers during that time, which was hugely helpful, doing group texts, doing group zooms, um, and then just even individually calling each other. And that has helped so much. I've also tried to put myself on my school schedule and that has helped a little bit. So my typical classroom day would have been I teach first period and then I had a second-period prep and then I teach third period and then I had lunch at 10:30.
You have like 11 minutes there? That's how I remember it.
I know! I actually had a full period, but it was from 10:30 until like 11:24 something ridiculous, 10:38. Then I would teach for the remainder of the day. And so after about the first month of just driving myself crazy trying to figure out how this looked for me. My health decided that I needed to spend that second period prep period as, like physical prep. So that has become, because I have so many Zoom meetings and that sort of thing, I'm pretty much prepping all the time, and so my prep period has been like, this is when I'm going to go get my shower for the day, like I am prepping me. And so I'm up at eight o'clock and I'm doing all of the emails and the follow up that it needs to be done from the day before and that I'm doing "me prep time" for 40 minutes and then I'm coming back and then I'm taking my lunch. But recently, that's been happening after I spent an hour going to these local businesses and getting some of their donations and those kinds of things. So I'm getting out of the house for about 45 minutes and on days that I don't then have afternoon Zoom sessions, I could just eat while I'm, you know, emailing and tweaking things, and so that those two breaks in my day have been wonderful for me to just have a little bit of sanity and then forcing myself at 3:30 to be done. Like literally turning off my computer so that I don't see it, and I'm not tempted to go back and do other things. And I take my dogs for a walk every day at 3:30. Every once in a while I'll have a chat with one of my colleagues during that time. Implementing that three things in my day has been huge.
It sounds like you're learning to adjust. Well, Tara, it's been really fun talking through what things have been like for you. Thank you so much for taking the time to explore it with us. It's helpful to the community. We're trying to foster a sense of here's what teachers are doing here, this is what it's like. So that sort of as a larger group, we can have a shared understanding of this particular strange place and time we find ourselves in. So thank you!
You're welcome. I actually have been thriving on hearing what other teachers are doing, but I think it's also extremely helpful for me to hear other teachers and their challenges as well as their wins. You know, their wins and the losses are helpful in different ways. So I appreciate what you're doing.
Well, thank you, Tara, for that compelling interview. Thank you so much for what you're doing for your students and your families. Josh, thanks for that time and for bringing the podcast to us. How would you summarize some takeaways, some action points for us?
I feel like Tara is sharing with us like a new journey for her, where she's making discoveries rapidly. It reminds me of learning to teach 25 years ago where week by week, day by day I was finding out what it's like to interact with kids, how to have high expectations, how to design a lesson. And it's interesting. Tara is an experienced teacher. She's a veteran teacher. But in the last month and 1/2, you could hear in our conversation all these new strategies she's implementing in order to reach her kids as best as possible in a sub-optimal scenario. I love some of the things she's discovered, like her use of bribery, as she said. I thought that was funny. But also it shows how she's really doing whatever it takes to get kids involved, to keep them connected in kind of, a friendly, humorous way, I guess. She mentioned a lot of other things like the importance of taking care of herself and how her prep time has actually transitioned into now her preparation for self. And she's not just allowing herself to work nonstop, which, of course, over time is gonna be counterproductive and break her down. But she's making sure she's disciplined and taking care of herself with her schedule. I loved her mix of little bits of lessons, times for interaction, PDFs sort of back and forth between her students. So it's wonderful to see all of the things she's explored and already implemented, and I'm sure that as we keep going forward, she's going to keep finding new ways.
Well, Josh, I think one of my takeaways to is every time that we have a podcast and I hear from another teacher about how they are engaging their students, I'm frankly inspired by it. And so I'm very grateful to our teachers who are going to all this effort to bring education in a very difficult environment. So thank you, Josh, for this interview today. Thank you for listening to the Get More Math Podcast. We would like to invite all our listeners to visit our website at GetMoreMath.com, where you'll find helpful information about how Get More Math can help you transform the math education experience through targeted mastery and cyclical review. We would welcome you to take advantage of our free trial, which is good not only for the remainder of this school year, but also for the 2021 school year.. If you think this podcast would be helpful to others, please share it and post on social media, or leave us a rating and review wherever you listen to podcasts. If you have any comments or suggestions for future episodes, please send an email to podcast@GetMoreMath.com. See you next time on the Get More Math Podcast.