Monthly Archives: May 2014

Thinking BIG: A Problem Solving Framework

Heads up: I’m pretty sure this is the biggest blog post I’ve ever written. 

This past week the TFA cohort from my school – 10 teachers –  met with our Manager, Matt, and the Executive Director of the Arkansas Region, Jared Henderson.  Jared has a background as a business consultant instead of education and shared his expertise with us Thursday night.  This meeting was one of the greatest PD events TFA ever provided with me – I learned a skill that I can apply in my work as a teacher or when I encounter any problem.  I wish every Corps Member had this opportunity to delve into a problem about their community and create a strong action steps – and it sounds like they want to provide this development to everyone in the future.  

Jared presented us with a framework for solving HUGE problems.  He used this same framework as a business consultant to solve and think about problems including increasing the high school graduation rate in Louisiana.  Our problem: How can we improve the reputation of Central in the community?  We’ve seen negative perceptions of our school in our community for a whole lot of reasons that we broke down and everyone had something unique to add to the discussion.  We worked to brainstorm solutions and prioritize those that we felt we could take action on. The steps we went through with us were:

1. Write down reflections on the problem we have.

2. Write down the contributing factors to this problem.

3. Write down possible solutions to those factors – at this stage any idea is a good idea. (We did parts 1-3 on our own independently but talked about them in small groups to share ideas before we moved on to part 4)

4. Create an impact matrix – a graph of Feasibility v. Impact of all the ideas you have.  This is where you evaluate your own ideas.

5. Review the ideas as a team (we marked ideas we thought were highly feasible and had a high impact. Without prompting, we grouped some ideas together that were similar)

6. Create a RACI chart of tasks to determine responsibilities.  RACI stands for Responsible (Who is responsible for the task), Accountable (Who is making sure things happen & checking in with the Responsible person), Consult (who will you consult), Inform (who else do you have to keep in the loop). The RACI chart we were given is below.  

My biggest thought was about our after school programs – for 9-12 most of them are punitive for failing a state test or students participate in sports.  I believe students should have positive activities and events and we just don’t have that culture now.  Other people came into the meeting thinking about communicating with the community and within our school.  A couple people brought up an aspect of professionalism that could be improved with both expectations and dress code.  The biggest thing we saw with a potential to make school more positive was working to reinstate spirit week or even spirit days.  

The session after 2 hours led to a lot of great ideas but we put a pause on the work.  All of us just needed some time outside of the office after a day of teaching to gather our thoughts. We have a gathering tomorrow afternoon to create the RACI chart and determine what we want to do and who is going to do it.  I’m excited about what this means for us, new TFA teachers that join us next year, my school and Helena  as a whole. I’m looking at using this tool with my school and within the math department to start thinking about small actions we all can commit to helping improve our standard of excellence – I see a structure that has endless potential to organize a conversation about the challenges we face and how to confront them.  

Another good thing about this meeting: We decided to create a weekly coffee shop at a colleague’s house.  Every Tuesday, coffee and friends.  I’m excited to see people frequently I don’t see because our campus is big to help make stronger friendships.  


If you are looking for more description on the beginning (steps 1-3) here is the document we worked on independently before the meeting.  

And for making it through this monster post, smile & enjoy my current favorite song Pharrell’s Marilyn Monroe.



Professional Saturday: PrBL Adventures

Last Saturday was my final TFA-Arkansas Saturday professional development.  I was asked to share with other math teachers about how students problem solve in my class.  I was given SUPER short notice so I made  list of a few talking points and certainly didn’t feel qualified or well prepared for my 5 minute presentation.  I gave it my best and it was an opportunity for me to learn about where I’m getting better.  

I focused on how I ask questions to students, examine student work as a class using my document camera, and allow students to work on problems BEFORE I teach.  I’d share more than that with you, but I winged it.  I don’t think anyone really gained as much as possible with the short notice and my self doubt, but I did have an opportunity to reflect on these strategies in my room to make them better because I talked about it for an hour and made myself believe I was an expert.  Time to keep moving from good to great 🙂

I also attended a session on Problem Based Learning led by Cody Whitesell of the New Tech network (@Cody_Whitesell).  I’ve read a bit about PrBL and what it means in the classroom, but after participating in Cody’s brief demo – an Algebra 1 lesson on radicals – I have a much greater understanding about what PrBL looks like and what it means.  (The picture didn’t come out well – there are 2 plots of land measured in “Zots” and we are determining if Farmer Joe should buy the third).  We worked in groups of four in an introduction to the problem – brainstorming what we know and what we needed to know.  

Some highlights from our activity:

Everyone was working and I left wanting to KNOW more about the problem – I still feel a little unsatisfied with the problem left unfinished.  

“Get [students] lost and frustrated as a facilitator”

“I don’t care about the answer to the question – I care about why you made that decision and if you can back it up”

I see such potential for engagement and true understanding.  This has motivated me to implement some version of PrBL next year.  It is the next logical bump from the talk I gave earlier in the day about questions.

Questions I still have about PrBL:

1. How would this look on a one classroom scale?  Everything that was mentioned seemed to be a whole school approach – like creating procedures and independent work.  It seems like the all day consistency would help students.

2. What would my Principal (or instructional coach) say if she observed my class?  I think more students would be engaged in their work but it would harder to find the standards.  For example, in the lesson we worked on we never once talked about radicals – the standards we focused on.  


Here is Cody’s Presentation – it is an explanation of PrBL if you want to delve into the theory.