Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The First Day v. 13.0

It turns out that even if I can't think of a way to start, the first day of school still happens. And yeah, as of this writing, it's also been over a month. Life happens, blogging gets tossed by the wayside. It's my 13th year teaching and, for the first time, the first day was supremely anti-climatic, but it was anything but business as usual.

The last couple of years I've switched the beginning of my year to something totally different: I don't cover any content the first day of school. I did a version of this last year and it ended up being reasonably successful so I expanded it. I've tried things a couple of different ways over the years and here's the conclusion I've drawn: taking the time to establish my classroom culture trumps any amount of content I can cover in the first three days of school. 

I'm on a mission these days. I'm a math teacher by trade and someone who loves cognition by training; I like working with students and I love learning more about how to do this job better. Over the last couple of years I've had the chance to combine all of these things and this year I'm tracking. 

Math anxiety is a real thing and I'm on a mission to systematically eliminate it from my classes. I'm not trying to ignore it. I'm actually trying to get rid of it. But first, I have to figure out what it is and how it affects my students and to do that, I have to know how they feel about math. And to do that, I have to ask them. There's no way I'll know anything if I don't talk with them about it and this year I decided to show them how much their attitudes and beliefs about learning math might impact how much math they actually learn. 

On the first day we did an exercise I called "ONE WORD." I handed each student a notecard and asked them to write their name on the back and then on the front write a single word that describes how they feel about learning math and then I sorted them into categories. Negative words were things like hard, frustrating, hate, (makes me feel) stupid. Positive words were things like confident, fun, interesting. Neutral words were things like ok, nothing, idk (which I realize is not one word). You can see the distribution in the graph below with the y-axis being percentage of my students and the x-axis being the categories.



You, like me, might be surprised by that fourth category. About 12% of my students wrote down an algorithm or formula or procedure. When I clarified with those students that what I wanted was something that told me about how they feel about learning math, they insisted again that they wanted to write down a formula. I'm not sure what to make of that yet. 

I do know that some of the negative words made me really sad. Really and truly. How can a single subject make students feel as though they're legitimately stupid? What happened along the way for them to believe less of themselves as human beings because of their performance in one subject? One student that I interviewed about his card, which read "HATE," said to me, "I figure I just will never do math good, so it doesn't matter. That's why I hate it. It makes me dumb about everything." I was floored.

As we move through activities and exercises the goal is going to be to change this distribution. I'm, hopefully, going to completely get rid of those procedure words. The last thing I want my students to believe about math is that it's all formulas. After all, math should be all about discovery, good decision making, power through efficiency. Even more than that I want my students to know that math and intelligence, like intelligence and everything else, are not so closely linked that either is unchangeable. Can I prove it to them? I hope so.

Here goes nothing. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

What I Didn't Know I Wanted But I Got From Teaching

There are a lot of things in this op-ed piece that stand out: valuing teachers, high expectations, high support, giving students an opportunity, and of course the incredible progress of students in these schools. But one thing jumped off the page at me:

"... teachers hardly seemed to notice when I ducked into their rooms, midclass, to watch them. They are obviously used to having observers. They welcome it, as a way to improve."


When I interviewed at my current school almost 18 months ago I really didn't know what I was looking for; the circumstances of me stepping foot on that campus were more or less accidental. I wasn't looking for a job. I was at a place that I loved and that loved me back. As the interview(s) progressed both ways, something that one of the faculty said stuck with me,"If you want to be a better teacher, you should want to come here." It was what I was looking for. In the last year and a half the opportunities for improvement have been made available at a breakneck pace. The intensity that it takes to try and keep up has been monumental. I have never worked so hard in my life; I have also never loved it so much. The opportunities for improvement are endless, waiting to be found, in every moment of every day. I can't keep up, there's no way that I can seize every opportunity that presents itself, but I'm trying. It's by far the best thing I've ever done in my life. It is a fulfillment of a calling I didn't know I had 18 months ago.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Can I Be Real For Just A Second?

I spend a lot of hours trying to figure out how to simultaneously get more into my students and get more out of them. It's a strange paradox, actually, because to get more into them, I need to get more out of them first, and vice versa. Think about it. It's true. It's also enough to make your head spin if you think too hard about it, and believe me, I've thought too hard about it. Sometimes, it literally keeps me up at night trying to figure this stuff out. And then I realize I can't. Not overnight anyway. There's too much to think about all at once.

I haven't posted in a couple of weeks months for a variety of different reasons. It's partly because the school year has rocketed past the getting-to-know-you phase into the oh-so-that's-who-you-really-are phase and so now I'm knee-deep-approaching-waist-deep in solving and working through some challenges and struggles that my students are faced with. They're not really afraid of me anymore, which is simultaneously what I want and what I don't, but as a result I'm seeing a whole lot more personality, slightly less compliance, and many many more ways into their minds trying to get them to understand that math is worth learning. It's both gratifying and terrifying and part of the reason I have the best job in the world.

So here we are at the end of the quarter. 9 weeks have passed. The school year is roughly 1/4 complete and I'm caught between where we were when school started and where I want to go by the end of the year. There's a whole lot of year left. The despair starts to set in around now. So does the tiredness. And then today happens.

You guys. I think it's working. I don't know how or why, but I think it might be.

Remember my creativity problem and my goal of teaching students to talk about math? As I keep, almost desperately, trying to fix one while reaching towards the other I'm finding that the two are related. The more I try to fix the first, it seems the more the students do the second

Today we did an activity in Desmos, created and supported by the amazing educators on the Desmos team. And the students loved it. The engagement level seemed to go through the roof. But more exciting than that they're starting to talk and gesture and explain things to each other. They're listening to each other and learning from each other. On top of that, their level of discussion is growing. They're starting to be able to articulate what they are thinking and relate it to what they're doing. That's a small and simple sentence, but for me it's everything. And I almost missed it. I did miss it, actually. I was so wrapped up in the execution of the every day and the dozens of other teaching tasks that teachers do that I didn't notice. It took someone else to tell me for me to notice it. And that was important, too.




Monday, September 5, 2016

Write to Survive

I was lamenting to a friend of mine about how I can't seem to get myself past worksheets for practice in math class. Even though I have access, and regularly use, a variety of digital and hands-on tools for my students to practice applying their knowledge, I always seem to regress back to worksheets and problem sets because I feel the need to see their written work as evidence of their thought processes. He casually said to me, "Sounds like you have a creativity problem," and before anyone cries foul, he really didn't mean it in a critical way, it was just an observational solution to the problem. At any rate, it stuck. It didn't hurt my feelings or anything like that, but in the end I just realized he was right. Realizing he was right is one thing, doing something about it is quite another.

Spontaneity and creativity don't come naturally to me and it's almost amusing to me to think about how to be spontaneous when the very nature of it is to not think too hard about it at all. This week I took a brief detour from my original plans when I was chatting with a colleague of mine who teaches English and he was telling me about a writing exercise they were doing in his classes: writing fairytales. The cogs in my head started to spin. Remember my post about clear water? Shouldn't writing about math come as fluently as speaking about it? What if I implemented both strategies? Would it work? We had reached a juncture in the lessons as we prepared for the launch of our first major project when I could actually take the time to do a writing exercise. It was either that or wait a few weeks. I decided to be spontaneous. I asked my students to write a fairy tale incorporating some mathematics. Not story problems, not stories about math, but stories with math.

And I got mixed results.

I became impressed with the conversation that was happening. One group talked about a story about a kid who was in a bike race who decided that by riding through the center he would travel less distance than by traversing the circumference of the track and they proved it using the circumference formula and its relationship to diameter. Another wrote a tribute to Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the wake of Wilder's death. In that story, the conversation stemmed around the idea that the factory had shut down and was abandoned after Wonka died and that a group of children wanted to bring back the magic. They couldn't measure the pipes and so their solution was to pour heated chocolate, let it cool, and then take measurements of the cooled chocolate. All pretty interesting stuff. At least when they were talking about it.

As it turns out, talking about math and writing about math are two different things and that's probably why I got mixed results in these writing exercises. It's incredibly valuable stuff. I didn't think that the two were that different but maybe it's just the difference between speaking and writing anyway and has nothing to do with mathematics at all. I'm hoping to find that out this year but fluency, speaking and writing clearly, is still the goal.

Spontaneity makes me incredibly uncomfortable because I don't like it when things go wrong, but on the other hand, maybe creativity and spontaneity are related. Maybe I struggle to get past worksheets and problem sets because they're predictable and I can tell if something is going wrong. Or maybe I'm just stodgy. But in the words of Mr. Wonka, a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.

Friday, August 26, 2016

In The Eye of the Hurricane There Is Quiet


I was talking to a friend of mine and describing how sometimes my life feels like I'm standing in the eye of a hurricane and I'm this weird sort of spectator to all the things that are flying around me. It's surreal on some days, watching the wind blow by. Sometimes my classes feel that way, too, especially here at the beginning of the year when I barely know my students' names

This week  I started watching, learning, observing my students to get a sense of their personalities as a class. I spent time in each of my math classes just watching them interact with each other. We haven't done much yet in the way of computation. They've taken some notes and done a little practice and I've done a lot of peering over shoulders and pointing out successes and mistakes. Nothing particularly exciting but a lot of learning for them, and me, by observation. What I'm hoping to develop is a little classroom culture. I've been told that I'll establish and create a classroom culture not necessarily by the things I say I'll do but by the environment that I create by just doing the things I do. Humbling. Implicitly creating classroom culture. Scary, but true. Given this recent piece in The Atlantic I've been doing a lot of thinking about the culture I create and I have always struggled with this because I'm just not a cheerleader. I don't rah-rah math (although I do love it and am enthusiastic about it) and I don't fake-rah-rah accomplishments that don't mean anything. It's a tough position sometimes to be who I am and create positive culture, not because I don't want to but because who I am leans towards really hard work and being willing to try anything once, hardly characteristics that come naturally to high school freshmen. It was time for something new.

This year, I did two major things differently: I stepped aside and let the students play a huge role in creating culture and rather than creating rules, I created expectations. The students from each class period got together in groups and decided on the kind of class they wanted to be. For at least 2 classes, I literally stepped aside. I left the room and watched through the window in the door as they talked and got to know each other and created a world in which they wanted to learn. I asked them to make goals for themselves, for me, and for the whole class. Every single class period was different. Every. Single. One.

Their classroom goals impressed me. They used words like, "collaborate," and "explore," and "make good decisions" and "be brave and ask lots of questions." Their goals for themselves I promised I wouldn't share. Their goals for me were to, "Promise to help us," and, "Talk to us about the things that we do wrong so we can do them better." I admit, for 9th graders, I was stunned. I'm working on getting the different goals for the different periods printed up so each student can have a copy. This is so new it barely has a sticking place yet but I think I like it a whole lot.

It's the second week of school so I really and truly don't know yet how this is going to look in 3 weeks or 9 weeks or 12 weeks. Will I have to start over in January and redo the entire structure? I hope not. But I have thought for a long time that before I can teach math, I have to create a place in which math is welcomed and this is the first time I've done that with intention.

I'll conclude with two things:
(1) What are your tactics for creating classroom culture with intention? I know that it has to be something I can maintain and that me being the authority all the time just isn't the way I teach. Beyond that, I am super curious. What works for you?
(2) I'm working up the nerve to post my first actual project of the year. It's an original creating and it's a bit like giving the new neighbors some cookies that might have been the result of a chemistry experiment gone awry, or they might end up turning out really good. Either way, it makes me nervous, but it's coming and coming soon.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Clear Water

So it begins.

Monday is the first day of school and thus begins my timid and small foray into the MathTwitterBlogosphere or #MTBoS. I've read a lot of math teacher blogs, and frankly have borrowed a lot of ideas from them, but I've never written my own. And there's good reason for that. It's because it's terrifying. There's a level of skin-thickness that has to come with doing this. After all, I'm going to lay ideas out there and see what comes back on them. Here's the thing, though: I'm pretty sure not all my ideas are good. I just don't really know sometimes which ones are and which ones aren't and if there's a wealth of intelligence and collaboration that far exceeds my own brain, I'm foolish if I don't take advantage of that. I guess there should be a little backstory before we get into my classroom.


I've actually been thinking about doing a math teacher blog for quite some time but couldn't make myself take the leap (see: terrified) until I read a thread of tweets on Dan Meyer's twitter feed and realized that I really needed to start doing it. Why? Because the discussion was how quickly teaching improves when you blog about it and take it seriously. The answer was 2:1. 2:1!!! Even if my base rate of improvement is slow, doubling it can't be a bad thing. So here I am.


And then there's the first day of school Monday. I'll spare you the gory details of what the first 10-12 weeks of my last school year was like and just jump to the fact that I'm a totally different teacher because those 10-12 weeks completely forced me to redefine, in the best possible way, what I do in my classroom everyday. It wasn't pretty, but then I spent the rest of the school year just becoming a teacher again. This year, I'm going to become a better teacher. I hope.


So what am I doing this year? What am I hoping to accomplish with my bright-eyed young freshmen? Well, if you know me, it's no big secret that I'm a huge fan of Hamilton: An American Musical, and as I explored more about it, I also became a huge fan of the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sometime over the summer I ended up watching an interview with Miranda and he said something that has been bouncing around in my head ever since. The question was something like, "How do you know what to write?" and his response was that writing is sometimes like turning on a faucet and watching rusty water flow out and you keep watching it flow and you keep working with that faucet and eventually, clear water comes out, and that's what you write down, the clear water. It stuck with me. Clear water. 


That's what I want for my freshmen math students.The more that I think about it, the more that I think we're wired to understand relationships in the real world. That probably sounds stupid because it just sounds so obvious, but I don't think it's as obvious as I think it is. Take, for example, Katie Ledecky. If you watched or read anything related to the Olympics this week you'll know who she is and what she's managed to accomplish. But the bottom line is everyone knew that Katie was going to win after probably the first 150m of the 800 free. Why? Because her rate of change (speed) was just simply faster than everyone else's. Most of us wouldn't describe it that way, but then I started to wonder if that's part of the problem.  Has the rat race of mathematics education potentially led my students, who come from 60+ middle schools across multiple counties, to stop wondering about things like, "How much faster is she really?" and to worry about things like, "But am I going to get the answer right?" Has the way that I used to, and sometimes probably still do, deliver math instruction totally and completely obliterated any sense of curiosity about the way that students understand math? Have I become the reactant that has caused the rust that is mucking up the chance for clear water? Maybe. This year, I'm aiming for clear water. I want to get rid of the rust and make space for the clear water to run and in the end I want the students to see both the rust and the water, because for them to see one, they have to recognize what the other is. To get rid of the rust, they have to know what's causing it and to get to the water, the rust has got to be run out.

Here's hoping. Anything is still possible in the anticipation leading up to the first day of school. Anything.