Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Author: Carl Oliver (Page 2 of 32)

Clog: Back on the VNPS horse

We haven’t used VNPS since the first class where some kids send like they weren’t having their needs met. We have done some journal prompts and those were particularly insightful. One student wrote a really thoughtful response about how she liked doing “the problem that we worked on in groups on whiteboards.” She detailed how talking about her thinking with the group helped her and seeing the ideas on the board really helped her understand why her initial thinking didn’t lead to the right answer. These details came straight from the heart, as I didn’t even ask for any of this. After reading that response how could you not decided to give VNPS another try.

What were the real issues that arose last time? One issue was some students felt that being in groups triggered their anxiety. Given our population doesn’t always mean students have time to build community, I can’t guarantee I can just run enough ice breakers to make everyone comfortable with each other. This time I have kids the options to work independently, but they have to be able to share out. Another student also had trouble working on a prompt that I only delivered via spoken words. To help with how they receive information, to I decided to give them the task on paper. Aside from that I kept everything the same.

When class started I decided to set up the VNPS I noticed a few things. Everyone was approaching the possible with more seriousness and focus. Unfortunately, some students who had the paper were just sitting down and doing the problem on their own instead of talking with their group. Instead of having a prompt for all students, next time I’ll have to project the prompt on the whiteboard, or tape one to each whiteboard so as to have students look at it visually. Taking the problem may help demarcate where each group is supposed to be. The need for separation arise after one of my whiteboards disappeared when I was on paternity leave. Two of the groups were crammed together on the front whiteboard and they somehow merged to become a mega-group while I was across the room. The mega-group ended up with a lot less participation from all students. Next time I need to either have clearer boundaries, students writing on the windows, or someone needs to return my friggin whiteboard!

Clog: First Day VNPS Anxiety

Today was the first day I got to teach a class this year! I’ve been coming in to school daily since mid-August 15th, so there was quite a bit of anticipation for actual teaching. The class that I’m teaching is called Problem Solving. This class was largely developed out of the Crossing the River with Dogs book by another teacher but has been, and continues to be, heavily adapted. The first section that I plan to teach in this 8 week course is Draw a diagram. Specifically, the Farmer Ben problem. It’s where you have to count up the number of cows and ducks that Farmer Ben could have if he had 22 animals which have 56 pairs of legs.

Before we got into a problem, we started in a circle. My plan is to do a circle kind of sporadically through the class, in order to build community and support my school’s restorative justice initiative. Once we sat in the circle I asked kids to think of a problem they solved and then choose one of three questions out of a hat:

  • What helped you understand the problem?
  • What was the process you took to solve it?
  • What were other ways it could have been solved?
  • How did other people help you solve it?

In retrospect, I probably should have started with something fun like “what are you watching on Netflix.” Instead we heard everyone listing all of the problems in their life on the first day of class. A few people harped on their personal flaws, or biggest mistakes, or some other horrible things that happened to them, and how they worked their way out of it. It wasn’t a mood lifter, probably going to have to tweak that for next time.

Next we counted off into groups of 3 and started doing VNPS using the Farmer Ben Problem. I wanted kids to think and to be a little uncomfortable, and that definitely happened. There were a few things that left me wondering whether I was setting kids up for failure.

One of Peter Liljedahl’s shifts for creating a thinking classroom was about reading the problem out loud instead of putting it up in words. Hopefully it will underscore the importance of paying attention and listening. Immediately after I finished reading it people asked me to read it again. After reading it the second time one student asked me to read it again and he had a look on his face like I just asked him to walk across fire. “I read it once, that’s why you need to pay attention,” I said, ushering him towards his white board, “you have to ask your group mates.” A few minutes later it was clear that he was standing on the side of his group mates while the other two members of groups were barrelling towards a solution. I checked in with the group and those two students knew just what they were doing, but that first student was silent and making a face that said “I have no idea what’s going on.”

Meanwhile, another student was making a face that said “I suffer from anxiety. Working independently on math problems was my sanctuary. Now my heart can’t stop beating, and I just want to go do the problem on my own.” This left me a little stumped. The student and I spoke after class, but I struggled to help this student connect the group work we are doing, to any real world that she has imagined. If anyone has any ideas of how to tweak the VNPS for these two students, let me know in the comments.

My first ever implementation of VNPS went very well for the majority of my class. Kids were talking and thinking together with a familiarity and comfort usually reserved for weeks into the cycle.  Some groups didn’t want to stop working after the time ran out. It is definitely something I am going to have to keep doing and keep tweaking. Next time I do it, I might use a 3-act of some kind that could have us do Act 1 in the circle, and Act 2 on the whiteboards.

Talking Math, College, and the Hard Work of Preparation with a ‘white buffalo’

Our amazing and wonderful College and Career Office took over our Friday PD to in the name of the City’s ‘College Access for All’ Initiative. Along side the powerpoint slides, and the brainstorming was a really powerful group of guest speakers…our former students! They arranged a panel of 6 recent graduates and asked them about their successes and failures in the post-secondary world, how we helped, and also what we could have done better. 2 students were doing well in college, 2 others were hitting bumps in their path through college, while 2 others weren’t in college at all. We were all understandably proud of each of the students as they described how we helped them with their current life. The students who were not in college pointed to the way that the school prepared them for adult responsibility through our internship program. Those in college were grateful for their experiences as well.

As the third student begins to give his remarks the art teacher leans over to me with pride and says “A black male in college!” “I know,” I replied, “it’s like seeing a white buffalo!” There are many more black males in college than there are white buffalo, but they are few enough that each one is sacred. The persistence rates at Michigan State when I attended were shockingly low, when something like 1 in 5 black male students, or less were actually making their way to senior year. It was a great source of personal pride for me to persist and finish in 4 years and I was quite proud to see Roger persisting as well.

Everyone was filled with pride as all of our students talked about the positives of their experiences. The mood changed when the graduates told us about their struggles. When it came time for students to talk about how unprepared they were in college this student’s comments sucked all the air out of the room. “I was very unprepared as a math student. You guys really need to make students aware that math in college is no joke. I got past the placement exam, but I failed calculus twice.” Roger spoke with the intensity of someone who was fighting for his life. “You guys really need to not be so nice to kids and hold them accountable when the aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing. Once they get in to college they are going to be unprepared, and those professors won’t give them any breaks.” As I write this I know that I’m not capturing how deep his words were. All the staff erupted in applause afterwards. The applause served as a commitment for us as a school to continue to hold students more accountable in order to make them better prepared for post-secondary success.

The struggles of college readiness

It is difficult to prepare students for challenging college math in a transfer school where students are struggling to just finish their high school requirements. Typically students arrive having finished over 2 years of high school, typically needing between only 2 to 3 semesters of math. That isn’t enough time to teach much math. This student only needed 1 semester of math credit when he arrived. While students only take a handful of math classes with us, we have to try and provide nearly all of the math classes that students could possible take in order to plug the holes in their transcript. This means we need to provide algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and math electives. This student took geometry and an algebra class designed to help students place out of remedial math. So we have a small window to meet students math needs, and our course offerings are thinly dispersed along the spectrum. We struggle to offer more challenging courses that go beyond the typical high school requirements.

How are we going to prepare students to pass calculus in college?

If students are going to be more prepared in college, we need to convince them to take more math, above and beyond what they need, because we know they are not prepared without it. Telling kids who are already over age that they need to take more math classesSounds as fun as feeding my daughter vegetables.

So how do we go about meeting this student’s call to action? After the talk I pulled Roger aside and asked “If you rewind the clock back to you when you were in high school, would you have taken an extra math class that would have been more rigorous in order to prepare you for college?” He was honest and said no. He would have been too busy socializing across the street in the park to want to do that. Back at school two years later, his current self desperately wished his younger self had that additional class as an option. Instead Roger’s past self took the bare minimum needed to graduate. While it is important that we give students what they need to graduate high school, it is important that we also get them prepared for life after college. That would mean we would have to get students who don’t want to do challenging math, like Roger, to do challenging math. That was the charge he left me with he left to talk with other staff. “You have to figure out how to get kids like me to take that class.”

#1TMCThing Coming up with a math department vision

School returns next week, and that means I should start piecing together some of the things I’ve learned from through out the summer. I’ve had a pretty epic summer, and was able to participate in a number of really cool things all of which would be good to discuss with the math department when we get back. There’s also the thinking about the thing I want to personally commit myself to for this school year, my #1TMCthing.

The ideas from Chris Shore’s morning session have come first in my head. One of the things he talked about the two-way communicator role played by those who support teachers. The top-down way of communicating to them the school administrations directives, and figuring out what that means for their classes. Just as important is the bottom-up responsibility of communicating the math department’s goals and needs to the administration, and the district. In two years of being the department head and the AP, I’ve managed to avoid both of these roles. Instead I focused on shielding the department from contentious parts of the admin plan, while also not really portraying a full picture of the concerns of the department to the administration and choosing instead to only talk about the rosy positive items. The math department doesn’t to be shielded. Challenged, as well as championed but not shielded. So how do I challenge the team to live up to the highest of expectations, while also championing their good work and looking out for their concerns?

Coming up with that question was a huge lightbulb moment in the conference and made me excited to come back to school. I want to change my role with the department, and perhaps change the department after that. The first step is to make sure that we are all clear on what the work of the department is. To clarify what that work is, my initial goal is to come up with a vision for the department. The vision can incorporate the needs of the school and the district, and also the realities that the teachers face. It can be a way to look forward at what we want math to be, and also help us create realistic checkpoints that illustrate what we should focus on right now. It should be cool. I just have to figure out how we go about our ‘vision crafting’. Here’s what I got so far:

  1. Figure out the administrative ‘asks’s for our math department. The exact nature of the demands will be hard to nail down, and I say that knowing that I am a member of the administration. In the past few years we have had some conversations about what the math department might want to do, but we haven’t come up with clear items that we want to ask that they look at. Looking at these will be constraining, but constraints lead to creativity.
  2. The next step is to come up with a process that genuinely surfaces the needs of the teachers. An honest process that brings up the genuine needs is preferred over the approach of my using my position as an administrator to push a prepackaged vision. If step one goes well, it should be clear what room things are required, and hopefully we can be genuinely honest about the rest of what we do.
  3. Next is tying our math work to the areas of focus for the school as a whole. Transfer schools always mean a widely varying student population, how do we deal with that as a math department. Add on to that, our external learning focus, our project based learning focus, and our Restorative Justice focus, and you have a lot of things that teachers have to consider. For the vision to be enduring, I need to be really sure that the vision is connected to what the school values.

That’s what I got so far do you have any idea about how I can do this? Please let me know in the comments.

Additional thoughts from the #TMCequity conversation #TMC17

During last week’s TMC conference a lunchtime conversation was held on the second day that gave people a place to air the thoughts that followed from Grace Chen’s keynote. During this conversation notes were taken, a hashtag was spawned, and a number of avenues for further conversations were discussed. The entirety of the conversation was captured in the notes from Norma Gordon. This post contains some additional notes and threads from the conversation that may be valuable to some people. If it’s valuable to you, please leave a note in the comments.

  • Tracking was a considerable problem in a number of schools. Black and Hispanic students make a disproportionate number of students in certain classes lower level. Many people present also spoke about the lack of Black and Hispanic in Physics and other advanced classes, in ways that were very disproportionate to the actually student populations.
  • Bringing up the issues among adults at their schools sounded difficult for many. Having a real conversation about the issue in play in all of people’s schools is uncomfortable. However, sitting there and letting it happen is also uncomfortable. How do you help your staff step up to the challenge?
  • “Pushing” and “Pulling” were terms used by a group of people. This was brought up by a teacher who worked at a school with primarily children of color before switching to primarily white students described. When he was working with Children of color, the pushing was advocacy for them. He was using his position of privilege to push their voices forward and up. Now that he is teaching primarily white kids, his advocacy work is one of using his position of privilege to pull in influences that they might not otherwise have seen or heard. Many other teachers referred to having to push or pull in their contexts.
  • Another teacher who works with primarily white students said began to challenge some systems that many students are taking for granted. When students bring up news events, teachers could use this as an opportunity to help students understand the unacknowledged privileges they benefit from.
  • Some teachers wondered what kind of things are microaggressions? On one hand,  what are the thing we may be doing that we can change. On the other hand, what are things that students may face outside of school and how can we help them respond to those things.
  • When and where can I use white privilege? When do I use it, when do I stand back, and how do I balance? When do I know how to validate or amplify or sit back and let others talk? Asking is the only sure way to know, so how do people know that asking is ok?
  • Someone pointed out that rape is a problem that needs be talked about among men in order to be fully addressed. Similarly issues of race needs to be talked about and unpacked among groups of white people to ensure that they won’t continue to affect our communities.
  • One teacher worked with her students on unpacking the stereotypes that students may have adopted around certain people or neighborhoods with students. Unpacking where these beliefs come form and how little is based in reality was valuable and sounded like an easier conversation to have with students.

Possible next steps

  • A number of books were listed in the google doc. Teachers having a book talk on twitter was suggested.
  • It might be good for us to also study stereotypes, and mabe use voxer to have a conversation, as spoken word may avoid the misunderstanding that can happen when only text is used.

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