Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

How this political atmosphere is changing me (and this blog, and my twitter)

This Sunday feels like a good time to write about what’s happening on my blog. I haven’t written as much as I would have liked over the past few weeks, so I feel a little explanation is due.

We have not had any actual classes for the past few weeks so there has been any actual teaching since my last class log. Most of those class days were spent floating around the room helping kids, so there wasn’t much to blog about earlier in January. There was also a lot of administrative tasks needed for the individual scheduling for students. (It’s a super cool network of google spreadsheet that I may blog about later on my other blog). … Oh and it was my wife’s birthday. So we had our first baby-sat date night at Olmsted, which was really nice. I plan to write more with the start of February, where I won’t be inhibited by my lack of classes to talk about, my administrative demands, or my frenzied last second search for birthday presents. So I guess that’s the only thing that’s going on with this blog about teaching and learning.

Oh wait. I actually didn’t mention that other thing that happened towards the tail end of January. Technically it was a November thing, but most of the work that I took on didn’t start until mid-January. I really underestimated just how much time I would need to devote to this. What I had to do for this thing was curl up into the fetal position on my couch/floor/classroom, scroll through the as much internet news as I could, and try to convince myself that the world wasn’t imploding. This has been taking up pretty much most of my time for the past two weeks. It started just around the time that my colleagues and I watched the inauguration during lunch.

My colleagues and some students watching the inauguration during lunch

Since the inauguration my attempts to figure out what is going on have been voracious but not necessarily successful. I’m diving into all the political news I can handle, both to try to harvest any optimism from news of the resistance, and to try to make sense of a Trump voters view point. Finding actual information is really hard. There are active disinformation campaigns, information that isn’t made public, and my need to parse through boring information so I can know about typical government procedures. This frustration would make me give up. In the past I’d ignore political news and go about life assuming all is well. I can’t do that now. Partially because of the switch that flipped on election and the healthy paranoia I’ve developed about the world around me around me (I think I learned this from my dad, who listened to Rush Limbaugh on the ride home after work every day even though he hated Rush Limbaugh). The other reason I can’t bury my head in the sand is genuine interest. I really do want to know what all of us Americans thinks about America. Why is it so hard to figure out what prior actually think?

https://twitter.com/JustinAion/status/822848618881306624

The day of the Womem’s march I was slated to teach saturday school. The trains were crazy, so I took a cab with a particular chatty cabby. I asked him whether the march was causing traffic problems, and he replied with “Women! Why are they marching??? They already have everything!!!” To which I replied with a swift punch in the face a heavy-handed discussion of places where male privilege operates. When I got out of the cab I was a little disgusted. I was also struck by how little conversations like this happen. This was the only conversation I had about any political issue with someone I didn’t agree with in maybe 8 months, and it was an election year! Even though I’m off of Facebook, apparently I’m still in the echo chamber that prevents me from understanding what’s driving the people outside the chamber.

Over the past few weeks it’s become clear that I am going to need to develop more faith in America if I am going to be my normal, optimistic, not-paranoid self. I also have learned that the media isn’t helpful, and if it is, it will be very hard to find. But at the same time, I’m surrounded by Americans who perhaps help me restore that faith, or at least help me understand exactly how much further we still need to go. Maybe the next step for my own sanity is to start talking about politics. (*gasp*)

Which brings me to my blog, and my twitter. Both of these are venues to have conversations about America, Democracy, and the political actions that shape them. While I am an educator, and am only interested in this blog and the twitter for developing myself as an educator, I can’t ignore isolate my profession from the world we work in. Education is indistinguishably intertwined with the needs of the public and the way that public is governed. We as a people must democratically decide how to fund our schools, where to build them, and what to teach in them. When students arrive, we must show them how this democracy works, give them experience operating within a democratic system, so they can grow up to lead our democracy into the future. This is a lot of work, more than can be handled in a civics class, work that math teachers can and should be sneaking into their classrooms. This could be modeling what it means to be an active citizen. It certainly means having active discourse about important ideas, and finding ways justify those ideas and defend arguments. It means pushing students to see things from multiple perspectives, cooperating on meaningful tasks, and communicating that work with others. This is all just good math teaching. With only a slight lateral shift, we can help students apply these principles while discussing current events, systems of iniquity, or even the ideals of democracy and in the process make our mathematically proficient students into mathematically proficient citizens.

As educators it seems that we should be sharing strategies to live up to these ideals. As grateful as I am to lean on my extended network for real world contexts for multiplying binomials, I am now also grateful in hearing how to talk about the inauguration, or talk about immigration, or whatever the next executive order will be. Learning what they think helps me to gain more perspective, and will increase the usefulness of a class conversation if students want to have a discussion about these things. Posts like Michael Fenton’s recent one are encouraging. As I try to figure out how to inject more democracy into my teaching, my work with teachers, and my work as an administrator, it will be invaluable to have honest perspectives around these important issues as a part of my time line. Thinking about these things regularly helps inform my thinking, and prepares me to facilitate a conversation about an issue if it comes up in class, or in a parent meeting, or one-on-one with a student.

https://twitter.com/MyMathscape/status/824762528110608386
On Thursday I had such a meeting. A student who disappeared for months returned to school to enroll for this semester. This student is not a citizen. I remember a few years ago he was worried about not being able to go to college. Who knows what his worries might be. Based on what I have been reading, however, I knew that New York City was a sanctuary city, and our mayor was prepared to fight against deportation. I told him that there are a number of resources I could share, resources which I have seen shared across my personal network. The student relaxed, signed up for a full program, and is on track to graduate by June.

Being aware of the political concerns of others, and coming up with ideas for ways to help students understand political issues is now ready important to me. I am really glad to have people on my feed that post more than just math. In fact, I hope people could organize their talks about the intersections of math, politics and democracy into some kind of hashtag or regular chat. That’s a pipe dream, right now I’m going to keep trying to figure out what’s going on, and being really grateful to all the people sharing what they learn on the web. 

If that, or any of this sounds interesting to you, PLEASE let me know in the comments.

Clog: Last Day of Class & the Class Survey Project

Monday’s class was the last of the cycle, and probably the class that felt the best. Yes, I know that this is kind of cheating. With the marking period’s end bearing down on kids, it’s kind of hard not to have a productive class. My constant thinking about Work Time over the past few classes set the stage for a outburst of productivity.

After announcing that this was the class I told the class that I will meet individually with each student. Once everyone knew what their next steps were, I was able to float from table to table for the rest of the period. Some kids were calling on me for help, some others were getting help from their neighbor, and everybody seemed to make progress. No students got lost, or seemed distracted, or battled the other ills that plagued the work time at the beginning of the project. All in all it worked out pretty well. At the end I handed out the last page of the project, which was also a little reflection about how the project went.

Class Survey Project (Modular Project FTW!)

The big thing that I think made this work out well was that the project itself was really easy to understand. Some of my previous projects, like the road trip, are sequential. They’re like movies, complete with plot twists and everything. If you come in the middle, you’ll need to have a lot of things explained to you. The Class Survey Project was modular. The different steps were broken into parts that can be done independently. Students could enter into the project at any place as long as they understood the question they wanted to analyze. This was kind of like re-runs of a sitcom. You can watch whatever episode is on that day, as long as you know about the main characters. It also helped that students could choose whichever module they want. This allowed students to reason about the choice of the strategy they were employing, while allowing me a chance to scaffold their work on that section. With the sequential projects, the story-arc tells students what strategy to use, removing the students agency in choosing their approach. This was the first time I’ve done the project this way, so please check it out and leave me some feedback in the comments.

Download (PDF, 501KB)

 

Clog: Unfortunate start, unexpected finish

Class Begins

I had a cute exchange with my kid right before last period class on Friday. The kid was talking to a girl, and tried to appear tough, and then I appeared tough back, and he backed down, but it was cute. I walked down the hall and into my class and he went down the stairs and cut class. This student spent two weeks away from school to celebrate Christmas and he has yet to get started on the project after break.

Another kid asked me for water. “You know,” I replied, “last class you went for water and didn’t return.” “So do you want to me leave, like, collateral?” “Yeah leave your gloves on the table and get water.” I looked back 10 minutes later and her seat was empty and his gloves were gone. This student has missed a lot of class and has yet to start the project.

Rocky Start

For all of this week, and all of next week students are going to be working on their projects, so there will be a lot of independent work, which means Work Time. Today’s class began with self reflective questions on the board about the project. After Wednesday I began to form a plan to make Work Time as productive as possible. The plan for today was to was to precede work time with these questions to quickly assess needs. Unfortunately, timing is everything, and by the time I got all of the questions up on the board, laptops were out and projects were started. Kids were too distracted by the prospect of making progress, and their individual questions around that, to want to start on those questions on the board. I tried to get everyone to start it. Then one girl said, “Hey. Let me ask you a question about the data table…real quick.” This led to her neighbor asking a follow-up. Then a kid across the class verbally wondered why they can’t also ask a question. And so on… At this point it was like a bunch of kids sitting there saying “Let me eat my vegetables!!!” and I kind of caved on the questions, except to point people to them when I walked around.

Around the time I caved on the questions it became clear that the monster at the drinking fountain swallowed the student from above. My plans for structuring Work Time is precisely for those kinds of students. She had missed the last two classes, and had no clue about how to get started on the project. Theoretically she would have answered the questions, and in the process gone down the list of things she would need to do to be on track. Instead I’m assuming she walked in, saw everyone working and gave up. Perhaps actually writing the questions on the board takes too much time, I should make an actual handout that can help people go through the parts of the project, but not feel super redundant for kids who have been there the whole time.

One of the kids who have been there the whole time was still struggling with the project. This student was super focused today for some reason though. Once the class devolved into the typical work time set up, I spent a lot of time near his table answering questions and clarifying the project. I kind of feel like a crutch for students who aren’t truly independent learners. Given the kinds of math phobias students have before they come to me, it’s clear to see why they might need a crutch. The questions don’t help this student, because this student probably wants a much more specific and detailed sets of questions than what was on the board. What the student probably needs is a whole new conceptualization about himself as a math learner. This is something I have to figure out I guess.

Class Ends

After class was over the student above asked what the next part was. I said, “you make a histogram with that data.” He quietly walked over to the table where the project components were laid out. He then headed back past his departing classmates and sat back down at his desk and picked up his pencil. He worked well after school to start and finish this histogram. We worked for a full half-hour after school had ended. ON A FRIDAY. Oh, and all the while we were working, another student who also stayed working on her project. It was certainly unexpected, and inspiring to see students rising to the occasion.

Clog: Attacking Work Time with Questions

Yesterday’s blog helped me prepare for this class, as it ended up being 90% Work Time. The Work time was necessary because we are beginning working on our survey project. The students are working on this assignment, which asks that they work through a number of tasks independently. Structuring the time to work on these kinds of projects is a struggle, as almost all students have holes in their learning. Today also needed to be a better class than Monday. The class looked like the waiting room at the DMV as everyone was killing time until it was my turn to see them. There definitely needs to be new ways to help kids become more independent.

Starting with Questions

Today’s class I began with some questions that I wanted students to respond to on a small sheet of paper.

  1. Have you read the initial prompt of the assignment?
    1. Did you complete all of the previous work listed on the front?
    2. Did you complete the plan for the questions you will analyze on the back?
  2. Did you go online to get our spreadsheet data and set up your own copy?
  3. Have you made a data table? (The first item in the toolbox)

These questions took 2 minutes for students to read and start to answer. While they were on the board I went to each kid and looked at where they were at and confirmed what their next step should be. I made it around the room in about 5 minutes! The whole thing took about the time it would take for kids’ computers to turn on, but it made the class get focused very quickly on what steps they need to take.

The questions line up with each day of the project, which now provides structure for upcoming Work Time. Perhaps the rest of the days can have a big question for each day of the project, so kids can know how they are doing.

As students began working, I knew a lot students need to understand the formulas in the spreadsheet. It was clear that a mini-lesson would help, but then I got worried. All the writing about Work Time yesterday had this side benefit that I was clear about ways where I would be over helpful. Today, when students would ask me questions I would be better able to resist from overloading them with help. Because I had been thinking about what I DON’T want to do, it was easier for me to stop myself before I relapsed into doing it again. With a mini-lesson, I would typically try to get everyone’s attention and have them all follow along, but today I would give a shorter mini-lesson that only appeals to the people who need it. This time I announced that I’d soon start a mini-lesson and they can pay attention if they need this. It worked out well, and I started the mini-lesson earlier and was able to finish it faster than compared with Monday. It went pretty well.

Pretty successful work time today, let’s hope there is the same success on Friday.

My Struggles With Work Time

For the longest time, I have faced a classroom situation that can only be described as diabolical. This type of situation started rearing it’s head early in my teaching, but now it seems to have turned into my nemesis. We have our run-ins at the end of unit, when I am managing the unstructured class time while students work through a multi-stage project. I call this situation Work Time and I hate it, largely because I’m scared of it. So today I am going to write about it.

A solid metaphor might be a good way to look at this. As a teacher, I have a lot in common with Beverly Hills Cop. I’m from Detroit, I’m resourceful, and my classes are a nice mix of humor and action. The metaphor extends beyond Axel Foley. Traditional teaching methods mirror the police methods of  “supercops” Taggert and Rosewood, which I try to avoid. Student success in this scenario would be arresting the bad guy, Victor Maitlin. The bad guy seems so evil, it seems like it would be easy to catch him, but it isn’t. Same thing with students success. Plus, when we have success it seems like there was a lot of needless collateral damage. Things feel a little unresolved, as if there needs to be another sequel.

Ahh, Work Time, we meet again…

If I’m Axel Foley, trying to get to student success while avoiding the Beverly Hills PD, then there is one more piece of this metaphor. The henchman that is always getting in my way. The big-boss-man’s right-hand man that seems to pop up at the worst times. The henchman is a sign that there is trouble, but that you’re also on the right track. In Beverly Hills Cop that henchman is played by this guy:Related image

This guy is Jonathan Banks. He plays a henchman that has the upperhand on Axel from the start (he’s also Mike from breaking bad). For my teaching, this henchman is “Work Time” and he shows up right after I assign a project.

The Scourge of Work Time

Because our school has a project based assessment system, we need to work on multi-step projects every cycle. That means students need to be assigned the project, and given time to work on it. The project typically starts off well. I have a collection of good tasks, and students have done a lot of pre-work. Yet once students begin working independently, some of the myriad problems of Work Time shows up and start to deal their damage.

  • Some students race ahead while others struggle to get started
  • At least one student wants me to walk them through every step
  • Students spend all day working through some issue where I wasn’t around to give them the two second re-direction they needed to get back on track
  • Technology of some kind doesn’t work
  • A kid who missed prior work now needs to be walked through both the project, and/or the previous assignments
  • I stop everyone from working to do an impromptu mini-lesson on the board that results in more confusion and eats time.

These projects always feel like they are going to lead to an easy road to students success. Unfortunately, I’ll turn around and “Wham!” I’m in a shoot out with Work Time.

How do I defeat Work Time?

I’m not sure how I’m going to defeat work time, but my plan involves lots of checkboxes. On my “Data Statistician’s Toolbox” Project, I gave kids a whole host of check boxes and scaffolding that can help them understand what they need to do. I put a list of previous assignments on the top of the project. The project is broken into modules, so students can work on any given part on any given day. Technology is the big problem, as a lot of kids need to use spreadsheet formulas to figure this out, but I can make a checklist of those too. I’m hoping these checklists will help. I also plan to have a regular check in for people, so they can tell me about their daily progress.

I don’t think this will be the end of the battle with Work Time, but it should be enough until the next ‘sequel.’

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