Approach: Mary Hurley's approach to teaching has her own learning at its core. "I try to figure out what works. My approach is to spend a chunk of time sorting out what I think is important and having that as my set of goals. Then I need to figure out what works given the context I’m in, meaning mostly who the kids are that I’m working with this year. Additionally, figuring out what are the constraints the district is imposing on my principal this year, then me as a teacher is an important part of it. So it’s pretty pragmatic."
Example--Math Groups: An example Hurley cites of the embodiment of her practice is the development of math groups: "The math groups came out of a previous semester, and really a previous year, of not being really comfortable with just small little revisions to try to get through the combination of the pacing guide, district benchmark assessments, state standards, a curriculum and what I know about math already from my own experience and understanding and study. So being uncomfortable with how I had structured the classroom to work propelled me, seeing that it really wasn’t meeting my needs as a teacher and kids weren’t really enjoying math. And if they weren't enjoying math that meant that they didn’t really pursue deeper questions. I felt that we were just getting through it. That’s not enough. I realized it wasn’t enough to make it work for this set of kids or that set of kids, or revising this or that—doing my warm-up differently. It was going to have to be something bigger than that. As always, I had to acknowledge that this was going to be something I wasn’t sure was going to work. It was going to be a big shift. So that’s when I started thinking in the past in different circumstances—and this is where I think some of it takes a depth of teaching where you’ve got a lot of different experiences—what in the past could I bring to this current set of pacing guide, standards, benchmark tests. The math groups I had used that particular structure in a very different setting (middle school math program a couple years ago) using the CPM program and thinking about the kind of learning community it built. I remember thinking there’s nothing inherent in what I’ve got to get these kids through this year that would exclude doing it in math groups. So I thought I’d see if it would work. That’s how that change in the structure of math time came about. I realized it needed to be a more generative period of the day where kids are generating questions, where they’re feeling good about the work and I’m feeling good about the work. Because otherwise, I was dying on the vine and the kids were dying on the vine."
Hurley continues, "Of course, any revision has got to have as a measure the kids doing better. But then you ask what is the measure of kids doing better. Benchmark scores to me are more valid than other kinds of testing because they come more frequently and are based on the material that you covered. If I was going to use that resource--because we had to do the six week assessments--I realized I had to reign myself in and follow the sequence on the pacing guide. My tendency is more to look at how math ideas develop in the classroom and to build on those capacities. For example, teaching fractions, decimals and percents as a whole idea—as being parts of wholes and that they’re all related makes sense to me as a teacher and when I’ve done it before seems to make sense to the kids. But, in the benchmark assessments fractions are assessed in one benchmark test, decimals are in another, percents are in another. So I don’t get to teach it as a whole package the way I like. I was willing to let go of that and let the math groups satisfy me and satisfy the kids. BUT, they had to score well on the benchmark. It was also listening to kids that first semester and seeing that when you have kids ranging in age from 8-12, and you’re covering two curricula, 4th and 5th grade, that kids are really going to have to be more self-reliant as math students and understand themselves as learners, rather than relying on the teacher to get through it no matter how brilliant the lesson. So math groups—math groups and math partners—lent themselves really well to that pretty complex situation. Based on what we found out from interviewing the kids, it didn’t appear to make any difference whether it was the kids who found the math curriculum really challenging and who were struggling, or the kids who breezed through it. The math groups seemed to satisfy something intrinsic about themselves as learners across the board."