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.