Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

TL;DR: Chris Emdin is a really good speaker

Thursday was Brooklyn-Queens day, the NYC-specific holiday that excuses students from school, and gives the teachers a professional development day. Our school was attended the 7th annual Transfer School Conference along a thousand or so other transfer school educators. These are high schools that serve kids who needed to transfer from their original high school for many dozen reasons. Our schools are spread out all around the city, so there was lots of warm greetings among distant friends as we filed into the auditorium of Brandeis High School for the keynote.

My colleague and I were talking about the conference when I saw that the opening keynote would be delivered by Chris Emdin. Chris Emdin is a rising figure in education who recently secured a position at Columbia, speaking gigs at TED, SXSW Ed and every in between, and a New York Times best seller. When I saw his face looking out at me from the program, I immediately rolled my eyes. His research is great, and his #HipHopEd message is important, and I heard he was  a dynamic speaker, but I was skeptical. On that morning, I figured he would be talking at an elementary level, giving the stock overview of his recent book. I had just left a session about technology that I already knew about, so internally I wasn’t very excited. However, I was probably as excited as most teachers are at a school PD. Whatever discernable excitement seemed to leave the room once the organziers called for people to stop their side conversations and find a seat.

Emdin stepped up to the podium, checked the sound and began to talk about the importance of the work of transfer schools, but also the need for us to really think about the work we do. He quickly won me over with his opening statement about the meaning of the word “Transfer”. As educators we need need to be constantly changing, or “tranferring” ourselves as we face new students, new challenges, and new opportunities. This process should specifically broaden our ability to allow students to bring their culture into the classroom and the school and see their culture validated and connected to learning. This all resonated with our school’s vision, and my colleague next to me was on board as well. It wasn’t clear if the rest of the crowd had gotten interested.

Emdin left the podium and began walking across the stage seeking to engage more listeners. He defined what he calls #HipHopEd. No, it didn’t involve having kids write lyrics about quadratics, or synthetic division, but more about teachers actively seeking to understand and embrace their student’s culture. He doesn’t profess to actually liking all of the music the kids listen to these days (he’s more into Biggie than Kodak Black), but he is aware of it. Educators should study the culture of their students and recognize when you’re operating from a “perch of superiority.” I took away that teachers quest for respectability in the classroom can quickly turn into a culture battle, when just as quickly it could turn into a chance to understand the cultural gap and seek to bridge it by bringing the student’s culture into the classroom As educators begin Emdin’s “Transfer” work, it sounds like the first place to start is with yourself, and with your relationship to the culture of the student’s you serve. He was very passionate at this point, but I took my eyes away to write the following in my Evernote: “HipHop Ed is about changing yourself to meet the needs of the community you serve.”

Emdin distilled his message with clearer and starker language as the talk went on. Like explaining something to a kid who keeps getting the wrong answers, no matter how many examples you create. Maybe we weren’t a good crowd. It seemed like no one disagreed with him, but we weren’t jumping on our feet either (at least not yet). It was probably that Emdin was really, genuinely worried that we wouldn’t leave there inspired. Deep down he knows the important work we do, and he was going to keep pumping us with energy until he was sure that we knew it too. This conference was not his only possible speaking gig for this PD day, and it certainly wasn’t the most lucrative. He jumped on this conference because he’d rather be with people doing this kind of work. His passion showed as he veered pretty far off script. We only went through 3 of his prepared slides! Instead he crafted new ways to describe the urgency of the problems we face and the solutions that are within our grasp. Stories, analogies, and metaphors kept coming rapid fire, followed by incrementally increasing applause.

Emdin then stepped down from the stage. At this point he was striding back and forth in front of the orchestra pit, pausing to emphasize key points. One point was about acts of violence done to students by our education system. The acts of violence that happen to students who leave the school system thinking there are limits on what they can become, that their community is garbage, and only some far away privileged group can pursue their dreams. This is not physical or verbal violence, but perhaps more damaging. These kind of messages can be heaped upon kids by some bad teachers, but also by unwitting good teachers. If you’re a good person, working for a bad system, and can’t direct students away from that systemic harm, then you’re condoning the ‘violence’ being done to these students. Good people can unwittingly do bad things, or lead to bad results. It’s a tough message to hear, but opens up a useful line of thinking. What kinds of things can I do as a teacher to disrupt the systems that hurt our students?

Emdin began walking further and further along the front of the stage and eventually up into the crowd. More and more of the crowd nodding along, more and more fits of applause. Someone even stood up and screamed!

By the time his talk came to a close, Emdin had the crowd’s support regardless of what people heard. This was very real because the last 5 minutes of his talked was peppered with interruptions that knocked out his audio for 10-15 seconds while someone tested the building’s PA system. He would be part way through delivering his final words when “BEEEEP….*click* ‘Test… Test… ‘ *click*.” Whoever was doing it did not know that it was during the keynote. Emding would have start back up again, summarizing everything he talked about, but before he could finish another interruption would stop his audio. We went through at least four of these interruptions, and each one was more visibly defeating. He got back on the stage, back behind the podium, and evem took off his microphone altogether. Then he said his final words and looked at the crowd, exhausted. He was then met with the longest standing ovation that I’ve ever seen at a PD.

Emdin didn’t sell any books after his session. If he had an organized book signing at a table nearby he would have sold dozens, but he wasn’t there for that. Instead he came from behind the stage and chatted it up with anybody who could talk to him until his ride came. The talk made me want to read Emdin’s new book after I finish all this other reading I have to do. That means he definitely won at least one educator over, because before today, I was not interested. After talking to teachers at my school the next day, I’m pretty sure he won over a hefty portion of the audience as well. Pretty cool PD.

What would you do with a million dollars?

I like the idea of a sneaky project, that creeps up on kids. For example, I’ve started a unit project by asking my unsuspecting students the following question on the board:

What would you do with a million dollars?

The project, linked here, leads students to learn about budgeting for an economics class I taught. Students reply to this with the typical fantasies.

I’ll buy a new car, and some new Jordans, and a new house!

But by adding a few caveats, we’re able to grab all of these kids wildest dreams and smash them against the rocks of reality. The main caveat is that students have to survive for 20 years off the million dollars, and they have to pay taxes. They first have to choose whether to receive the money all at once, or over 20 years. Kids immediately go to calculating the tax bracket and realizing that receiving all the money at once means you pay much more in tax compared to having the money split up over 20 years. At this point I tell students to opt for regular payments (although I imagine an interesting side story might be to take the money upfront and try to invest it in a stock market simulator to see if they can earn back the original amount).

From this point in, students have to figure out how to live on 50,000 a year. This is pretty close to the US national Median income, so it should line up with what they’ll make as soon at they enter the work force.

So then I ask them to think through what they would do with that 50,000 yearly amount, and make them budget how much they would spend on all of the following things:

  • Clothing
  • Household Products
  • Furniture
  • Utilities (heat, electircity…)
  • Inside Entertainment (Cable/netflix/music/videogames)
  • Phone
  • Gas
  • Health insurance
  • Life Insurance
  • Outside Entertainment
  • Anything else…

Once they come up with these numbers, I have them put it all in a spreadsheet that gives them little suggestions of websites to use to estimate all of these amounts. The final thing I have them do is write a little paper describing what they did with the money.

If I had more time I would have them actually learn the mortgage formula ahead of looking for houses on Trulia, and use the mortgage formula to estimate a range of houses they want to look for. My kids used the estimators on Trulia and Zillow, which assume a down payment, and also don’t let the kids use their brains, so I would like to not depend on those.

Clog: The circles keep going

We did our fourth circle in the cycle, and things are now rolling right along. These circles, which are covered in an earlier post, involve me and the kids sitting around in the circle talking to each other. The kids are all pretty used to the routine, and I keep coming up with ways to relate it to what we are learning. It isn’t going to stop any time soon, so what better time for a little update!

Structure

Each circle begins with a chairs in a circle, a talking piece (a ball or something), and each kid has a white board, a marker, and recently erasers. I sit near a piece of chart paper for to writing down the results of each students question to the group.

My prompts have involved kids asking questions of each other. So far I have done:

  • Week 1: What is a yes or no question you want to ask everyone, and predict whether 5%, 15%, 50%, 85% or 95% of the people will say yes.
  • Week 2-3: What is a question on a scale of 1 -10 you want to ask everyone, and predict what number people will say the most.
  • Week 4: What is a question on a scale of 1 -10 you want to ask everyone, and predict the distribution: skewed left, symmetric, skewed right.

These simple prompts lead to authentic responses. The questions asked are genuine in that they are from the people in the room, and the answers are genuine because they are from the people in the room. When it is time to work with other data, it helps to be able to pull examples from the chart paper that we all had a part in creating. Today for example, when I talked about the z-score, it was nice to use a question from the circle as an example instead of ‘dinosaur femurs’ or whatever.

Strategies

I have done this enough now that I am starting to get some strategies that help. One thing is that I want to control who all is talking a lot. Having the talking piece let’s kids know who is supposed to be talking. After everyone shows the results, and as I am writing on the chart paper, I’ll pick someone who had the highest or the lowest number and ask them why they said what they said. I can also use this as a way to have some kind of equity in who controls the airspace. I’ve also had a bunch of sample questions on the wall so that when kids inevitably say they don’t have a question, they can just pick one of the other ones. The question I was using were from the Census At School, since we are going to eventually use that data.

Next steps

So the thing that I want to work on is how to keep expanding so that at the end the circle will be a way for people to share their final projects and get feedback from their peers. For that I need to figure out a number of things like making sure the kids are comfortable listening to each other, and responding respectfully. I’ll also need to finish making my project. 

The other big thing is how much class time this takes. Seeing up the room so that we can get right into the circle is important. When we’re finished kids should quickly transition out of the circle and back to their tables. To make transitions quicker I have students pick up their folder or laptop or the next activity as they leave the circle. Another struggle is also writing the data and also facilitating the group. Maybe a student could keep track of writing the numbers that are produced after each question, but without making that kid feel left out. The white boards also seem like a ripe opportunity for student creativity, and currently all students do is write one number, and then erase it.

All in all, it’s going pretty well. I look forward to writing another follow up at the end of the cycle. If you have any ideas or thoughts, please let me know in the comments!

Clog: A Post-Mortem

My class ends. I erase the board, tuck the unused worksheets on top of the folders and head out into the hallway when I see Benjamin. He has not been to class once, so there is no way I can’t go call him out on it. “You know, the reason I’m trying new material is because you signed up for the class.” Benjamin was in my class last cycle, and when he signed up I told him I initial told him he couldn’t take it because I had already taken this course. Then I caved. Both because he’s awesome to have in class, and because I like coming up with new stuff. “Why not just repeat the class from 2 cycles ago…” Benjamin replied “it’d be easier for the both of us.” What Ben is saying there is that today’s class was a struggle. You know it’s bad when even the kid who hasn’t even been there for two weeks can see how bad it is.

Instead the class sucked

So I had an idea for a lesson. This lesson would fit right in with the unit where we finish talking about average median mode and start talking about standard deviation. In the past I have kids just do a huge mega table to understand the calculation side of it. What I don’t do is get the students to understand why such a calculation is important in the first place. So today I decided to make the new lesson. I thought that this lesson could involve the data that the kids generated in Friday’s circle, some practice with calculating the average, and the idea of “reliability.”

What I had them do was look at some bar graphs of the data from the last class. They could look at the bar graph and think about why the graphs show different ‘spreads.’ These bar graphs could then be used to calculate the average by looking at the values. They can then take that average and look at it in the context of the rest of the values on the graph and be able to make a statement about which graphs show the most clustering around the mean. I figured students would come up with their own ideas of which ones are clustering around, and then say stuff like “Graph A has the smallest range, so the numbers might be close to the mean” or “Graph D has most of the responses as one value, so that one is really close to the mean.” This would all lead to a magical debate, after which the class would realize that we need an approach to look at these data sets in order to figure this out. Then I would say “Well that’s why we have the standard deviation!!!” The kids would cheer, and high five each other, then I would get into the powerpoint.

So what went wrong?

Is it a bad task?

Maybe, I think the ideas could have been easily discerned from more cherry picked data. Just because I wanted to use data that the class generated doesn’t mean that the data will lead the kids to make the mathematical conjectures that fit my lesson objectives. The idea of using a bar graph to discern the average was a totally new concept. I thought it would be review but it ended up bogging down the conversation with questions of which average was right. Also, the question on the task wasn’t really relevant. I asked kids to say which numbers seemed the most “reliable,” e.g. If we were to draw a value from the set, can we say that the value should be close to the mean with some reliability? That was too abstract. I am using real data, I should lean on the context more. Maybe something like “If the mean was chosen to represent how everyone in this set thought, and everyone took these numbers really seriously, which set would have the most angry people in it?”

Does the class have the right culture? I don’t know, we do the circles, we have been doing partner work, we have also been doing boring worksheets and attendance has been sporadic. If I want to take kids on some kind of conceptual journey, I am going to need to structure the class so that this kind of journey is normal. Today whenever there was a space for conversation it was met with crickets and disdain. A little like the kids are saying “Dude, can you stop talking and just tell us the answer already!” This was especially the case with kids who weren’t there for most of the cycle.

Am I even teaching the right thing? Mean absolute deviation makes a lot more sense. Having kids do all this standard deviation business for a standalone 8 week statistics module may harm them if they only see it as a series of calculations.

What do I do now?
After talking with the push-in teacher for the class, it is clear I need to get more concrete. I’ll probably roll out the powerpoint, or skip standard deviation altogether and opt for the MAD. Lastly, I might curl up into a ball with a pint of cupcake frosting and hope that tomorrow I’ll wake up with the fortitude to teach my way out of this situation. (I’ll also probably think of some awesome come back for Benjamin too, and imagine my self saying whatever it is and picture him having a response like “Wow Carl, that one sentence has left me both smarter, and humbled. I want to be a better man.”)

Clog: Trying to get on board with Academic Circles and Restorative Justice

Today’s class was another time trying something new for this cycle: Academic Circles.
What is an Academic Circle
Circles come out of our school’s effort to utilize Restorative Justice(RJ) practices across the school. Restorative Justice practices in schools serves is an answer to the very real problem of the school-to-prison pipeline which is rooted in traditional school discipline systems. Because traditional school discipline is punitive, and because New York has a strong police presence in our schools, students who are often in trouble get directed out of the school community with suspensions and expulsions, and often into the juvenile justice system. These students, who need to learn self-discipline skills are denied the chance to learn it and instead learn that the school doesn’t want them as part of their community. At a Restorative Justice school, students are pushed to remain in the community and correct the negative effects of whatever bad behavior occurred. One of the things that typically happen is that students go to a restorative circle. In the circle there is a structured conversation with the people affected by their action and seek to repair the harm they have done to the school, thus restoring the school community to it’s previous state. To help make the circle process a respected part of the school culture, this year we’ve been encouraged by include the slightly different “academic” circles in our classes. I have seen circles in people’s advisory classes, humanities classes, and even science classes, but not in math. Well….not yet!

A typical academic circle consists of students sitting in a circle, with nothing in their hands, and a talking piece that is passed around to designate who can talk. Sometimes there can be questions that students draw out of a bucket and use as a prompt. In the circle you want to build community among students, and you want them to know that their voice matters. (There are probably better definitions of the circle out there, and I will try to post links if I can find some).

What I am trying

For math this posed a difficult test. In a class where there is a lot of calculation, and easily discernable right answers, it might kill conversation, and community, to have conversations about one problem, that it would be hard for everyone to provide interesting contributions. Given how real math phobia is, I decided to not have any calculation going on in the circle at first. There is also the need to produce multiple representations in math that are just as important as words. It might be useful to have kids be able to draw a quick graph or look at what everyone else is thinking and discern trends and patterns.

So far I have decided to focus on error and estimating. Each Friday for the first two classes of the cycle I had the students sit in a circle in class. The students each have a mini whiteboard and marker with which they can draw their answers. In later classes we can use these to draw graphs or express creativity, but for now they will be used to answer the questions. The questions for the circle were tricky, if I want everyone to feel successful. Instead of making prompts, I’ve asked the students to create the questions as we go around. For today’s class asked students to think about a question that can be answered on a scale of 1-10. One kids question was be “How do you like today’s music on a scale of 1-10.” Students will also make a prediction to what they think people will say. As they answer this, I am jotting down the answers on a board that is in the chair next to me on the circle as a little dot plot. This allows me the chance to jump in and point out when the data looks interesting “What makes this dot plot stand out form all the others?”

The kids seem to enjoy it, and the improvement in community is noticeable compared to last cycle. It gives them a chance to speak their mind (which is a bit much for some people), and it is a break from the regular. I also have the chart paper saved, so I have an interesting pool of data that I can use for a yet-to-be-designed lesson or activity. The yet-to-be-designed activity will be around the question “Based on the data how good are we at guessing what people will say?” and will lead into a discussion of inferential statistics. Another idea I want to do is collect a bunch of statistics around a topic and ask kids to pick a stance on the topic, and pick a different statistics that supports or challenges that stance. It is rough trying to involve everyone in the circle, with the bottleneck being my writing down the numbers. Perhaps, I could tap the numbers into my phone or some kind of laptop so I could write faster, and the kids can figure out the results form reading people’s boards. If you have done anything with Academic Circles, or RJ, please let me know in the comments.

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