Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Clog: Bringing along the stragglers

The Thinking Classroom experiment may be a success. The white board contact paper is starting to gather dust in the corners, the kids trust the fancy randomizer, and there are consistently good days. I’m all ready to write a post about successes or a sort of “growth” post about my what I’ve learned the most (spoiler alert: it’s about managing flow). It’s just, well…there are these two kids who I’m worried about.

On Wednesday we started on an open middle problem and two of the four pairing had a student sitting down, facing away from the board, and looking at their phone. Paul likes to mind his own business, and isn’t too interested in talking with me or any student. Denisha has flirted with pursuing a GED, with support from her parents, but decided to give this year one last shot, but so far hasn’t earned any credits in any class that didn’t her performing music.  They both didn’t hear the full explanation about the class during registration, so maybe this isn’t what they expected. I am aware with both having behavior issues in previous math classes which have escalated to administrative interventions. While both of their attendance is around 50%, it surprised me that neither have had an even moderately successful day working with their groups.

On Wednesday, Paul was struggling in a grouping that made me question throwing out the randomizer. He was paired with a student who has had excellent attendance, and is pretty bright, but isn’t really a big “includer.” This student has a tendency to stare off into space, deep in thought, before emerging with an answer that he can’t seem to communicate without writing it on the board. Paul had been paired with this student before and didn’t seem to be contributing anything, even though I asked. It seemed then that Paul wasn’t being vocal then, but his body language showed he wasn’t even participating. I had to try even harder to get the marker into Paul’s hand, but he was said he “don’t learn like this.” He seemed sad that he wasn’t able to pull the answers out of the air like his groupmate and wanted me to sit next to him and tell him what to do.

The randomizer also placed Denisha in a pairing that wasn’t ideal. Her partner was probably the third least talkative kid in the class so I knew I would spend a lot of time over there getting the conversation going. The two were both quiet, Denisha seemed detached. Denisha’s partner seemed quiet because they weren’t clear about the next step in the problem, while Denisha seemed like she was trying to hide and not be seen. If I visited, she would look up and confidently assert that she knew what they were doing, but wouldn’t be able to answer any questions about the actual problem. After some questioning it seemed like she wasn’t aware of what the problem was or what her partner was doing to figure it out. When I wasn’t nearby she would zone off or get sucked back in to her phone as if she was waiting for us to go over the assignment.

Both of these students seem to struggle asserting themselves in math and are also uncomfortable with collaborating around a task. The tasks that I am giving out seem like they are pretty “low-floor,” but Paul and Denisha are not accessing or engaging with them in up until Wednesday. They don’t seem to feel safe in this environment. One of my big goals in this experiment is to create a culture where students spend more of their time feeling safe, but it seems like these two students are spending most of their time avoiding feeling “dumb.” It’s tempting to want to blame the victim here. To imagine the kids could have been more successful if they attended regularly, or to assume that these kids would “get it” if they “just got on board.” I think I should do more to meet their needs (and am open for ideas here). I’ve tried using more manipulatives and am going to work more on having students interact socially before they start working on math, but it’s hard to see if it is working or not.

On Friday I had a pretty successful day with Paul. First I explained my new grading system for the class in very clear terms. I then re-explained the whole philosophy of the class again to connect their grade to the class. Then we had the weekly quiz, which Paul would was unprepared for. Paul, and another student instead worked on quizzes from earlier weeks that they missed. Then I had those students work on a problem maximizing the area of a rectangle given a  perimeter together using manipulatives. Paul was much more confident in working with this new partner, and was more vocal when I asked them to explain why they thought a square isn’t a rectangle. We ended with a conversation of what he needs to do to earn credit. I think it was a big step forward for Paul. Denisha wasn’t there, but maybe I have an approach that I can try with her. Not changing the expectations, but being as clear as possible about them, providing more ways to access the problem, and keeping to work to build confidence.

CLOG: Good Day Today! …And My Somewhat Excessive Randomizer

Yesterday I posted about how I began my Thinking Classroom experiment. The experiment actually started in the 2nd week of november, so at this point I’m actually 3 weeks in to it. Today I actually had the best class that I’ve had so far. It wasn’t a perfect class, but it was good enough to make me forget some of those rough days that happened along the way. There is a lot to write about, and I may not get around to it, but I will start with a digression to talk about my randomizer.

The Randomizer

Before my first class I made a randomizer that basically assigned seats to random numbers, and assigned those randomized seats to students. It was basically one that Joel Bezaire described. My school has really unpredictable attendance, however, and also has kids show up late. I needed a randomizer that wouldn’t assume that we would have the whole roster there and be smart enough to take any number of kids each day. Based on the kids in class the sheet should figure out how many pairs are needed, and then assign the random seats. This thing does all that automatically whenever a new kid is inputted into this google form that I have kids fill out (and I can also decide how many kids I want to have in each group).

It works like this. Kids fill out a google form with their names and click sign-in. This also helps me keep track of attendance and lateness. Then as the names come in, the spreadsheet puts today’s group on the right. It also automatically adds more groups as needed, and some blank seats in group “N” in case we need to form a new group. Check it out in the video below.

Bonus: If you use google slides, you can paste the two columns from the spreadsheet into your google slides, then select that you want to “link to the spreadsheet” so it will automatically fetch the new results. This way you can automatically pull up the random seatings by clicking “Update” in the slides and avoid having to even open up the spreadsheet.

This is what my random groupings table looks like in google slides. You can click the ‘update’ button at the top and the table will pull in any new kids that weren’t added before

If you want to try this out without doing the spreadsheet wrangling, I made a version that should be pretty easy to plug your classes into. All you basically need to do is:

  1. Make your own sign-in sheet with 3 questions: Name, Period, and “Sign-In” or “Sign-Out”. It should look like this one: Randomizer Sign-In Sheet.
  2. When you’ve made your sheet, click on the responses tab and click on the green square that allows you to view a spreadsheet. Make a new spreadsheet and call it whatever your heart desires.
  3. Go to the Randomizer Spreadsheet (Here you can see the results of the sign-in sheet, as they come in from the form above, and you can see the results come in.
  4. Go to the “Randomizer” tab of the spreadsheet above, and click on little menu on the right, then select the option “Copy to” and choose the sheet that you made in step 2.
  5. It should almost be working, There is this one cell on the randomizer that is highlighted in orange that will have an error message. Click inside it, and confirm that it says “=arrayformula(‘Form Responses 1’!A:E)”. [Note: you shouldn’t have to alter anything, you should just have to double click and then press enter.]

So that’s my randomizer, let me know if you think it is useful. I can go more in depth about how it works but I want to say a little bit about why I think the class was better.

Today’s Firsts

Today’s class was a highlighted by a few small firsts. It was the first time that I tried to do a mid-work-time consolidate. This was an idea that I talked to someone about at NCTM Seattle and it was a move that would make a lot of sense. I wanted the kids to work on two sets of visual patterns one linear, and one quadratic, so I wanted to stop after the linear one and make sure everyone felt confident thinking about how we go about describing linear patterns before moving on. Once students got through with the linear set I could consolidate what we’ve all done as a class before moving on to the quadratic set of patterns. I was just about to do this mid lesson consolidation when I decided to roll out another first.

Almost all of the groups were at a linear equation for the first set of visual patterns except for one. This pairing was a girl who had only been in the class once before and another kid with better attendance whose work usually gets presented first and is kind of shy. Both students could use the confidence boost of figuring it out. They explained the equation in words, but somehow got stuck when it came time to write it on the dry erase contact paper that was attached to the storage closet in the back of class. While they were going back and forth about what to say I just sort of drifted away. My attention turned towards the front of the class where the two other groups were sitting idly with their linear equations locked and loaded. They would need to do something while we waited for the big consolidation, so I asked them to do a different problem as they waited, which was a first. For one group, a visual pattern that I had on the board got them immediately engaged. The other group was asked to look around the room at a problem they hadn’t done but others had. (In retrospect, I should have just given that second group the visual pattern as well because I think that group wasn’t as engaged in the consolidation later). In a few minutes we were able to do the halfway consolidation, with all groups feeling confident that they can handle any visual pattern I can throw at them.

All the groups had their confidence tested when they were faced with a non-linear visual pattern, and they were all able to use a recursive strategy and explicit strategy to find further patterns. It was actually pretty impressive seeing the group from the back of class with the most intuitive strategy to figure out what the equation was.

It was a pretty good day, I am not sure how I am going to get the kids who weren’t here (about 1/3 of the class) up to speed on what they missed. Any ideas?

 

Teaching about Social Justice Through Problem-Based Learning #NCTMRegionals Seattle

Thanks everyone for coming! Here are the slides and a link to the google doc.

Below is the google doc full of your ideas that we only temporarily destoryed:

#NCTM Regionals Social Justice Ideas for Math Class

 

CLOG: Thinking Classroom Intro and First Class

Today I am about to get started on my Thinking Classroom experiment. I’m probably more nervous than I should be, so writing this will help. This post is to both organize my thoughts, and serve as a nice opening to a series of posts that I’ll write as this experiment unfolds. Today I am going to talk about what I’m going to try, but first I’ll recap how exactly this experiment came to be in the first place.

How this came to be

I was at the NCTM Regional in Kansas City, heading to an early morning shift at the #MTBOS booth, when the security guard informed me that the vendor area was closed. Naturally, I checked twitter, and saw a few tweets coming from a Peter Liljedahl session, so I headed over there to catch a little bit of the end. I proceeded to have my mind blown. Turns out the Thinking Classroom had dozens of great ideas behind it, and not just by the VNPS stuff:

 

Having a classroom built around thinking was my plan for years! 3 years ago, I stopped calling my classes algebra and started calling them Mathematical Thinking, to signal that this is going to be a different experience. Liljedahl’s research laid out a 10 point plan for making the class into the experience that I hoped to create, with research and charts to back it all up. The biggest headline of the 10 point plan was the Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces, which I had piloted last year. The session gave me some ideas about notes, assessment, and how the teacher provides more problems for the students as the class progresses.

After the talk, I headed back to the booth and talked with Joel Bezaire who had also done some Thinking Classroom stuff in his school. He made it seem really realistic. He told me about Dry Erase Contact Paper, the kinds of problems he uses, the spreadsheet that randomizes kids, and some of the blog posts he used. He also helped me think of ways to make it work at my school, which is not traditional and I don’t have as much time with my kids who all have really different abilities. In another stroke of luck, Peter Liljedahl was doing a session around the corner at the infinity bar after I finished talking to Joel. He was super nice and answered my questions until well over his allotted time. I also was able to download a lot Dylan Kane’s Blog Posts about the thinking classroom before my plane home took to read on the flight home. The fact that all these stars aligned made it clear that the universe wanted me to try the thinking classroom this cycle.

Fast forward to this morning. Things seem pretty much set. First off I have students! 11 students signed up for my class for this cycle, and a few more will trickle in which is good. This means getting kids into groups won’t be too hard, and I can save some of the whiteboard paper I would have used for a class of 30. As each kid signed up I showed them this video from Alex Overwijk, and explained some big ideas. “We’re going to do group work, and we’re not doing a whole bunch of worksheets. Instead, we’re going to maximize how much time you spend in class thinking…” Once class actually starts, I’ll need to reiterate the main ethos of what the class is, while also getting them immediately working. In the past I usually started class with a speech about me, my syllabus and how great our time together will be, but this is always boring and dry. Instead I’m going to explain a little bit about what we are doing, use the randomizer, and then get into some visual patterns and some function notation.

_______________________________

Update: I taught the first class and it was pretty interesting. The class was small in number with 4 kids of 11 kids (there was really bad weather last night, so it’s possible that people couldn’t make it in). The small class size could have been a good thing since it lowered the chances for a wide scale revolt. I made this randomizer that is basically the one Joel Bezaire described, with some modifications for my small class size, unpredictable attendance. The scary thing that comes along with small class size is the lack of different kinds of thinking. What if the small groups only come up with a couple of answers? Today the class all went through the visual patterns and came up with a few different ways to solve it. In the future, it will be hard to ensure that all of the different kinds of thinking that need to be elicited will actually show up. Maybe I’ll have to write up imaginary group work and post it somewhere else in the room as a “shadow group.”

The math wasn’t that substantial today, but we did plow through it. All the kids say they liked it and thought it was a fun. I am not clear on how we will introduce precise mathematical vocabulary and notation. Function notation will be the first thing we’ll see how it goes. Maybe I can just roll it out!

What’s my role in the inevitable conversation about race in math education, and the #MTBoS?

First off, I’ve experienced the #MTBoS as a very welcoming place. Its certainly very white, but I’m used to that. At three I moved to an entirely white neighborhood, was the only black student in my class through 5 years of elementary school, and I went to primarily white MS, HS and Colleges (MSU, Harvard & Columbia). I can count the number of black males in my undergrad math education classes on my thumbs. When I reflect on how I made it this far, luck is the main answer. A slight turn of events could have led me to a trajectory that is out of this profession, or towards incarceration, or left me dead. A busted tail light and a cop with a mean streak could have easily ended my life because those are the values our country espouses, but I was lucky. My parents were also lucky, and wanted to risk giving their kid an education in a good school in the suburbs. Because of all this luck I became a math teacher and an assistant principal, and have become very comfortable with learning in primarily white spaces along the way.

In most of these spaces, conversations about race is avoided, or serves to further existing beliefs. When it comes up it feels like you are simultaneously on trial, the expert witness, and the lawyer presenting the case to a jury that you may need to ask for help later or just tension friends with. One day in middle school Dexter Adams was saying to a rapt audience about how his parents drove through Detroit and heard gun shots. I spend the night at my Grandma’s once a month, and I know that those sounds were probably fireworks or cars backfiring. After some deliberation, I remember deciding it wasn’t worth it to reply. It’s anxiety provoking.

It’s even more anxiety provoking in college where you’re trying to sub-consciously prove you’re not the affirmative-action case that people seem to think you are. Speaking out is a 3-ring circus. If you’re making a point or sharing your experiences, be sure to 1) get the point across, lest they miss it and go out and ruin kids lives, 2) be positive enough to ensure they won’t hate you for challenging their long-held beliefs, only to wind up a partner on a project later, and 3) be entertaining enough that they can’t exercise the privilege of checking out. It’s hard to do even if you have great teachers and classmates, which I’ve been lucky to have. It’s still hard to garner the emotional energy to have these conversations in my primarily white school now, where I swear everyone is on the same page.

I was introduced to the #MTBoS through friends I had met that I wanted to keep in touch with. In posting and sharing the things that I wanted to work on, mainly PBL and PrBL, I was able to quickly find a number of people with great ideas, abundant resources and welcoming positive energy. Despite everyone’s different contexts and perspectives, everyone is willing to chip in because we are all fighting this larger, asynchronous, guerrilla war against traditional math education. Conversations about race, social justice, the whiteness present in math education have come up over time and they are handled well. When they happen, the conversations do a good job of unearthing the experiences facing us #MTBoSers, and the populations we serve, as we all navigate the systemic injustices that emerge in our classrooms. Maybe some of the conversations are successful because they result in people understanding someone else’s perspective, or further one or two people’s thinking about something. Along the way some people get upset, unfollow people, and send tweets to let everyone know they are checking out, “I came here for math, but what you’re posting now scares me…” But the conversation keeps moving forward. Forward towards giving all kids a meaningful math education sanitized of the white male privilege that has been baked in through so many years.

There is nothing wrong about saying the #MTBoS is a community that started with lots of white people. That is a result of the system that we live in. If all the math programs, and all the teacher programs are primarily white, it follows that math education twitter will also be primarily white. The danger is whether we don’t questing the role that whiteness plays in determining the culture of math that students experience. Math has been a vehicle that reproduces societal inequalities while being billed as meritocratic and immune from biases. If the #MTBoS set out on the journey of reshaping our students’ math experiences it was certainly only a matter of time before they must deal with the latent white male privilege. This is now complicated because, the #MTBoS, and math education, is primarily white.

In looking at the #MTBoS’s whiteness the most important question to me is: “Can this primarily white group of math educators effectively practice anti-racism?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’d argue a serious consideration of this question would further the conversation than the “Why aren’t there more educators of color?” The second question is kind like asking “Why is the Canary dead?” while the first question is like asking “How do we get out of this deadly coal mine?” White Privilege is a large intractable villain that’s buried deep beneath our society like those tunnels in Stranger Things. Fighting it is going to be forever and take our whole lives, and that of our kids. Focusing on easily measured successes like the number of POC may trick people into thinking that the battle is a finite one, when it’s really an infinite one. It’s a battle that will require lots of persistence and collaboration, much like long battle that currently being waged by the #MTBoS against the traditional math system. Traditional math education is part of what is currently impeding many POC from becoming math teachers, so it is no surprise that there aren’t many who could immediately join the #MTBoS in this fight. “Can this group of mostly white kids take on this big insidious monster that no one even sees, knowing that we might not look like the people who should be facing it?” Just like in Stranger Things, it may not be the perfect team, but it may have to be the perfect team.

As someone who doesn’t participate much in conversations around race on #MTBoS or on the internet, here are three things that I think should be considered by anyone:

1) We are all from really different contexts. Conversations are happening across a number of racial, political, geographical contexts, making it difficult to provide the necessary backstory to go along with what is going on at their school.

2) The work is messy. It’s hard to know whether a social justice lesson that worked in one context won’t get you a visit to the superintendent’s office in another district. And it’s hard to know what to say when the student who beamed during that lesson divulges that they overheard the n-word in the teacher’s lounge yesterday.

3) This is people’s jobs. We are all professionals, most people’s real names and institutions are stated. Most people don’t know how to have conversations and feel like they are assured to be safe when a parent, or a student, or a superintendent might see what you’re posting.

So it’s hard to engage in a conversation that crosses many contexts, about work that is hard in nature, on a platform that poses actual risk. All of those problems get amplified when you are a person of color and talking about race in a primarily white space. Does the person reading this tweet really understand the way I experience race in my context? Am I confident that the solution I tried with my kids will work in other people’s classrooms (and not cause unintentional harm)? Am I being viewed differently than the white parties in this conversation, and could that change the way I am viewed professionally? As someone fully aware of the thin sliver of luck separating my trajectory from so many others, I worry about that luck running out every time I open my mouth.

For me personally to be involved in a conversation about race I’d need 3 things. The number 2 thing I need is what I’ll call a brave space. A teacher I know shared an article with me after her school had some tough conversations about race at their school meeting. The article (which I can email) basically says that the idea of a safe space is a myth, as safety is usually preserved for the majority culture. This is more or less what a grad school program director told me as they defended a white student who offended the people of color in one of my grad classes. Race was born out of violence and it’ll probably take some violent conversations to face it, so a promise of safety could serve to stymie whatever could come out of the conversation. The 3rd thing I’d need is the same thing I’ve always gotten from #MTBoS, and that is constant support and positive energy. The likes, and the retweets of people who you might not be following yet may be the 1st thing that needs to happen. The 1st thing I need to happen is to not have my baby daughter having a 103 fever, and my other daughter not insist that I show her spiderman videos whenever my laptop is open. I’ve wanted to get on #ClearTheAir, or respond to some of the email chains that I’ve been on, but there just isn’t enough time, or at least not yet. Maybe after October.

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