Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

My Reflections on Reimagining High School Math at #TMC18 #rehsmath

I was super lucky to do the Reimagining High School Math morning session with Sadie Estrella. This session first came to be with a conversation on the eve of the TMC deadline.

We spent the next 20 minutes polishing up a draft proposal. A few weeks later we found out we were accepted and we started planning.

As we started to plan we had one overarching goal: to have people leave prepared to DO something. Reaching that goal meant a few things would have to happen. Participants would have to talk honestly about their schools or districts and what needed to be reimagined there. Everyone’s school is different, and we’d find it impossible to predict what changes were needed in each school. Schools are also full of people, and any change is going to involve getting people on board. This meant that we wanted people to practice the experience of pitching their idea at TMC before they go home while thinking about all of their social dynamics.

We started planning early to get an idea of how to make this unstructured session happen. In trying to build a session around ideas that we don’t know, it’s kind of like trying to plan a meal for Chopped without knowing what the secret ingredient will be. We did a couple of twitter chats ahead of time, just so we could harvest some ideas from people in the #MTBoS. The more we talked with other people, however, the more it became clear that we couldn’t really gather enough information to pretend to be the experts about any of the possible ideas. My list of potential ideas went from 5 to 15 to 50+. It was clear that we couldn’t expect to narrow the focus to a central idea like de-tracking, for example.  Instead we focused on giving people lots of time to think about their situation and their idea, and how they can go about making change there while we’d do our best to help them feel supported.

On the first day we did an affinity mapping activity with post-it notes. Our group used as many post-its as they could to answer the question above, and then we moved them all around into groups afterwards. We took pictures of these and put them on this google doc:

TWITTER STORM GOOGLE DOC

We called it a twitter storm because we wanted twitter to help us brainstorm resources. If you look in there you will see each of the clusters and then some relevant resources below it.

On day 2 people thought about their school and the ideas that would make the most difference there. The next day everyone wrote out descriptions of their idea and took turns giving each other feedback. Ideas were as a varied as we’d expected. Everyone had a different idea for their school which reflected their different backgrounds (private, public, urban, rural, etc). A thread emerged connecting the ideas. Each idea was just the first step towards some larger cultural change. The larger change that everyone wanted was some different. Maybe a shift away from forcing everyone towards calculus, or a shift towards more collaboration, or a space for teachers to do more risk-taking. These cultural shifts echoed the conversations we have on twitter and in a number of places about how math education should change. It was probably predictable that larger culture change was beneath the surface of each idea, just as it was predictable that the ideas would be unpredictable. However these unique, unpredictable ideas created by each individual represented a realistic set of first steps towards the kind of larger math changes that fill all of our imaginations.

People left preparing plans to meet with teachers at their schools, or to start online initiatives, or to create math jams where teachers could get to know each other. The last idea already happened:

Every person had a different way to get people back home to start to think differently about high school math, and I’m excited to hear what happens with them. I’m also excited to help more people think about the change that needs to happen in their school/district some in the future.

Here are our slides:

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1yNv-NDBBZy9UR4CIws1AgxXv7DjzfN3DWAsWeuWYTOY/edit#slide=id.g3d745c0250_0_0

 

Three big things that make me scrap my admin posts. Scary relationships, word salad, and the minutiae trap.

3 years ago I became an assistant principal at my school. While I am still a teacher of one class each cycle, my main focus is on leading the math team and the support staff and also overseeing the programming and scheduling for the school. It sucks writing about admin stuff for a lot of the reasons that makes blogging challenging for anyone. Last year I tried to do more blogging about admin stuff but ended up hiding most of those posts somewhere else because they didn’t feel right. There are 3 specific things that has made it hard for me to blog about my admin work like I blogged about my teaching.

Relationships are hard to write about safely

Relationships are key to any kind of school effort, but writing about staff relationships is rarely appropriate. As we talk about school change, the conversation quickly talks about what people think about the change, or what people think about other people, or what people me. If any of those relationships are keeping you up at night, how do you get the ideas out on your blog that all your co-workers know about? When I wrote about students I used pseudonyms and changed details Those tricks don’t seem to apply as it’s too easy to figure out. Even if I try to mask the name, one would have to guess which of the 8 teachers I’m talking about, as opposed to which of the 90 students I taught that day. A potential staff slip up is more dangerous than with my students. My relationship with those 8 people will go on a lot longer than the kids who I probably won’t see after this year. Longer relationships are longer, and full of complex, tangled details. It’s hard to fully describe the full picture of a co-worker relationship while trying to tell a story of why today was a success, or why the meeting went terribly wrong. I could ask the co-worker if they mind that I write about them, but that isn’t really fair. As their administrator, they would probably feel like they have to go along with what I’m saying, and potentially harbor discomfort.

Vagueness of leadership writing

Writing about education leadership is pathologically vague. Tweets I’ve seen from administrators always sound kind of feel like word salad of educational jargon. A lot of these school leader tweets have this feel (which I am in no way meaning trying to hate on, btw.) I’m guessing she is trying to both describe a pattern she has noticed over interactions with a bunch of teachers and abstracting in order to get something across in tweet form. She can’t go too into detail about where this arose from or how it plays it out in her school, because teaching probably looks totally different at her school. Administrators work with systems and structures that are as unique as their fingerprints, and there just isn’t the time to explain all the necessary relevant items when you have something to get across. Instead the ideas have to extracted from the actual situation that happened, and written as an abstract life lesson that people can maybe apply to their life. I’ve noticed this in leadership books and a lot of other things. Stuff is pretty vague.

I’ve noticed it in own writing too. Last year I had to have a mediation with a couple of staff members and afterwards I wanted to write about it. If it was a conflict between students I could approach a blog post like this: it like “XXXXX and YYYYY had a conflict around ZZZZZZ. We used this protocol, it went pretty well!” I would be able to provide details about who X and Y are, and I can also point to where the task is online that they were working on. As an administrator working with adults, I can’t give too many details about X and Y without divulging their identities, and probably breaking their trust and ruining the relationships we talked about a couple paragraphs ago. Furthermore, Z is a task that really only makes sense at my school, which would require a whole separate blog post to explain, and my actually get us in trouble if fully detailed. So instead I wrote this post on my other admin blog. I instead use a metaphor about icebergs, I posted this a good week or two after the event so people can’t guess who I’m talking about, and it isn’t even clear what I did or why a protocol would be helpful in doing that. It’s super vague. Why go through the trouble of thinking out a reflection to wind up with something that feels as substantitve as soggy shredded wheat?

The Minutiae Trap

Given all of this, it’s easy to want to reflect on a lot of the stuff you can write about. Spreadsheets, compliance, budget allocations. These things are nice and sanitized, self-explanatory, and because they are so concrete they are easy to write about. They are also boring and dangerous. So Megan Roberts did a really good job of illustrating the dangers in a story I’m not sure I have permission to get into details with…but I can vaguely describe it. She was an assistant principal, and she was focused on a lot of these technical aspects. Programming, compliance, getting things done. Her colleague was more interested in building relationships, setting the tone and other “touchy-feely stuff”. Megan felt like she was doing more of the leadership work on her admin team. Then 9/11 happened. In the face of that crisis the school didn’t a leader to check boxes. It needed someone who could connect with everyone personally and let them know everything is going to be ok. It was clear to Megan that leaderships is more than just checking boxes, doing the spreadsheets and other things. The trap you can fall into with admin stuff is thinking that the things that are detached from everyone, and that fit into nice clear boxes which people can understand are the things that are important. This minutiae is not the leadership that the school needs when an emergency comes, but that kind of stuff involves the messy human relationships and the weird institutional quirks at your school that are hard to write about with any clarity.

So what am I trying to do?

I guess I’m trying to figure out how to not be the minutiae guy and have real relationships with people, people who I can’t blog about without being vague. Umm… Oh and there’s all that minutiae stuff that I do want to write about, just without falling into to the trap of thinking that’s all there is to this job. Any ideas on how to do this? Any bloggers out there doing it? Let me know in the comments.

Be more vulnerable, be more honest, and be ok with being less perfect. #MTBoSBlogust

#MTBoSBlogaust? Let’s DO this!

Why? A bunch of reasons, but we can start with 3. Be more vulneraable, be more honest, and be less perfect.

#1 Get in the arena. The “arena” metaphor comes from Theodore Roosevelt’s Man In The Arena speech, which I recently read in Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. My take away from that book is that people who want to do great things, and who want to be leaders, must to make themselves vulnerable. After my 3rd year of being an administrator I began to feel like I am becoming a leader in name only, so I need to get used to being more vulnerable. In so doing, I will also be helping to build a culture of vulnerability which was highlighted in another book The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyne. What that means is putting ideas out there that are not fully formed, that need to get figured out, and maybe a little risky. I’ll seek out feedback, and not hide from it. I’ll make mistakes and move past it. None of these benefits will happen if I avoid vulnerability and stay on Reddit or youtube or whatever

#2 Get this blog in order. I’m not just talking about brushing off my wordpress skills and adding a new theme or some other fanciness. After giving a talk at TMC urging people to #PushSend, I tried to make a concerted effort to blog more, and ended up blogging less. Why? Aside from having a new baby to feed, bathe, and play with, there was some confusion. See, I have a job of being an assistant principal, but this is a blog about teaching and learning. I only teach 3 or maybe 2 or maybe 0 days a week, and I don’t have nearly as much time to do exciting stuff in the math world. Or maybe I might, but those ideas aren’t as polished as my previous ideas tested against a full teaching load, more on that later. The other question is where do I write about my assistant principal stuff? All these things that I am actively working on in the AP world end up with no real home because I don’t think they should fit on this blog. Or at least that was the case in the past. For this month I’ll try to be honest about what I’m trying to do to grow proessionally. That means I’ll put everything on here, including my spreadsheets and my staff meeting plans, and then decide later if I want to keep doing this or make some kind of admin blog.

#3 Stop with all the perfectionism. #PushSend was very a pep talk for fringe members of the #MTBoS, but really, it was to be a kick in my own butt. I get freaked out whenever I have to click the big blue button, even though I know the benefits as well as anyone. The problem is that a reasoned, data-supported argument about pushing the button does little to sway the part of the brain in charge of the second guessing and the avoidance. The amygdala, a brain structure that represents the evolutionary state of maybe a lizard or a chicken, can takeover when things are scary and shutting off the process of higher functioning parts of the brain. This always leads me to double and triple check my posts before I send them out, or to doubt and re-write things, only to leave the post in ‘Drafts’. My amygdala is confusing the the blue button with an oncoming predator, and triggering me with the fight, flight, or freeze response. By pre-committing to post every day, I will hopefully interrupt that response, as now the stress comes from NOT posting. I am also going to shut down the idea that everything I write will be perfect, because I know nothing will get posted that way.

 

Clog: A Couple Stories from presentation week.

Story 1: learning through presenting

The first presentation of the day was a student presenting a math project about Misleading Graphs. This student clearly had no fear about this process. Earlier in the year he got on stage for the mental health panel and had also signed up to have 4 panels in one day. His confidence was as high as his substance as he was able to describe multiple types of misleading graphs and the news sources that keep making them. Even on the best presentations we have to keep asking questions that push the student. It is pretty rare when a student demonstrates total mastery over the math, the context, and the strategies the used. In this case, he didn’t really understand all the features he used on google sheets, and one graph that he made stepped over the line of being ‘misleading’ to just being incorrect. Presentations are great places to talk about wrong answers because you can really walk through the student about why it would be wrong, and correct any misconceptions on the spot.  Sometimes even the teachers have misconceptions. That’s a great thing about presentations is that there is space to really root out any misconceptions.

Story 2: a kid comes in and says “my teacher is in the hospital, so they sent me to you to approve my independent project.” Independent projects have become a thing of the past thanks to me and the rest of the team. We’ve asked that projects that to be presented to only come class projects to avoid getting things that aren’t on a high school level. However, someone gave him a green light but couldn’t finally approve the work that the student did, so I had to step in and help him finish. The paper was titled “Old Testatement.” I was worried.

His paper was actually super interesting! He asked two questions. Could Adam and Eve have populated the Earth in the 6000 years since being cast out of the garden of Eden, and could the the earth have been covered by flood of Noah’s ark (which we learned was originally told in the Epic of Gilgamesh) have actually covered the Earth? It was brilliant! He made an exponential model to describe the growth of human population from Adam and Eve’s 44 kids, and used the volume formula to find out that the earth would have required 3 times the amount currently in the oceans to be as high as it was described in the book.

The ingenuity and the curiosity on display wasn’t the best part. He actually became a different math learner during his presentation. He was vocal about how much he hated math class, and this disdain was what led his teacher to go along with this independent project idea.  He presented with three other kids, and offered to go first because  he felt his project was the “least worthy.” But when he finished the kids sitting next to him said he did such a good job that they didn’t know how to follow it. We also commented on how well he answered questions and explored his original problem. He left the room with his back straight and his head held high.

It was a great example of independent thinking and what is possible when kids are pursuing their own questions. Now the policy around independent projects seems like it should be reconsidered. Or, we should have more opportunities for kids to do modelling tasks where they pursue questions as opposed to doing it just because. Having a ‘mythbusters’ class where the kids try to model some historical story or other event could be really interesting. Kids could also try and compete with each other and come up with the best model possible.

Opening Up About Mental Illness In School

Our amazing guidance department has combined together to put on events for Mental Health month throughout May. There have been lots of events each day during lunch, and experts brought in to talk to the staff and answer questions. While all of the events are valuable, I think the most memorable event was the student health panel during our two town halls. There’s still programming left for next week, so maybe more good things were in store, but this panel looks to be the most memorable for a number of reasons.

First off the student health panel was great for the 9 students who were brave enough to sit on the stage and open up to the school. Some kids were shaking as the panels started, while others were bubbling with nervous laughter. Everyone was ready to do this, but ‘this’ was certainly not a normal event. Between these students there were some 20+ different diagnoses, including Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder to Bulemia to Depression, with many people having one kid. A counselor served as moderator and asked three questions:

  1. Introduce yourself, and as much about your condition(s) that you want to share.
  2. Describe your mental illness. How does it affect you, what do you do to cope?
  3. What are things at the school that help you?

Once the questions were asked, panel members took all the time they needed to explain their situation.

It was amazing to see these kids up there detailing their struggles, and their traumas, and their approach to handling it, in front of a huge group of kids. Each time a student responded to a question they were met with rounds of applause, and occasional cheering. The effect of the audience’s outpouring was visible as members of the panel relaxed and started to let their guards down. The audience also became more interested and more engaged as each person spoke, and cheered more when they finished. It was a great display of empathy on the part of the audience. The weeks of activities leading up to this, as well as the on going work of our guidance department, really helped to create this culture. Deep down, most kids have the capacity for empathy, even though they don’t show it. This event gave everyone a chance to put theirs to use.

At the same time, I’m aware that not every kid thinks kindly about people with mental illness. Stigma against mental illness pervades our society, so I’m sure it was operating in that auditorium perhaps among some of the quiet kids sprinkled through the auditorium. It’s not their fault. The idea of writing off or being hostile towards mental illness has a long history, and comes from a lot of different places. That doesn’t mean it makes sense. Especially now that we have the plethora of ways to treat mental illness. Some people, who could benefit from treatment, avoid it and live a much more difficult life without it, all just to avoid the label “Mentally Ill”. This kind of stuff is deep and hard to mandate that people change. Through the school’s work in creating this culture, hopefully there is an environment that will force people to question stigma and the ideas that come from it. In the auditorium this week, it was clear that the stigma was not in the majority and hopefully it will spark a change in the minds of the quiet kids sprinkled through the auditorium.

The kids requested a staff member be on stage, and I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a habit I’ve held since March of 2003 when I just left the hospital after a week’s stay following a manic episode. When someone asked me, “where were you?” I wouldn’t make up a story or change the subject. I’d say, “I was in the mental hospital because I have manic depression.” At the time it was practical. Life was hard enough trying to catch up with classes, I didn’t to create some elaborate story of my whereabouts that week. So I told people straight whenever it came up, and I continued to do so until I started working. Lots of fears kept me from revealing my illness to coworkers and all but a handful of students, at least until the town hall committee started looking for volunteers.

If you’re a teacher and you have a mental illness, let me say why it might be useful for you to share it with your school as well. When kids come back from a mental hospital, or share that they are going to therapy or trying out new medication, it is always helpful for them to know that an adult has gone through similar stuff, and was able to finish college and get a job, etc. It’s also valuable for you. Society forces us to hold so much in about our conditions, it’s rare when you get a chance to use your condition as a way to help someone. It’s personally uplifting when I get a chance to talk through the side effects of whatever a kid is taking, or get to point them to resources that can help them. My school is really supportive, so I may have a different view of things than most. In some schools stigma is the dominant voice around mental illness issues. This may be coming from the captain of the football team, and it could also come from some of the adults. It may not feel safe to be totally open around all the people of the school. Definitely pick your spots. But for one or two students it could be super valuable.

To close it out, here’s an email that I got from a student who sent this as I was writing this that speaks to how valuable opening up can be:

Hi, I really want to say thank you for being able to participate in the town hall yesterday. I really don’t really enjoy them, but yesterday it really had me appreciate it because normally I would expected that the student would be talking about mental illness. I never would of expected you to get up there and speck about your illness. I too deal with depression and anxiety disorder and I am on medication too. It had me appreciate that every one of us have own stories. I thank you again for being so bold and so courageous…

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