Carl's Teaching Blog

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Author: Carl Oliver (Page 4 of 34)

#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.

Hitting The Darn Send Button – #TMC17 Keynote: Slides, Summary, and Takeaways

I still feel kind of weird saying this but, I just gave a keynote at Twitter Math Camp! Actually I gave it a day ago, but I had to process the whole thing, travel home, and help @BwalkerQ get his blog up and running. So anyways, here is the stuff from the presentation for anyone that is interested, and a little explanation of my process after that.

Presentation info




Forgot to put this up easier. Thanks to Sadie Estella for recording this!

Part 1 & Part 2

Desmos Activity:

The people at Desmos gave this one some extra juice, so I can’t share the activity builder yet, but if you want, you can go through and participate it in here.

MTBoS Roll Call

This website links the pictures of people with their first time posting on #MTBoS. This is a temporary thing, as the data is going to get stale, which you can see in the missing profile pictures, so check it out while you can!

Pre MTBoS Interviewees

I was super lucky to be able to interview Andrew Stadel, Christopher Danielson, Michael Pershan, Sam Shah, Dan Meyer, Fawn Nguyen, and Sadie Estrella. whose quotes are included in the presentation in that order. They were super generous with their thoughts and their time. I didn’t mention them on the slides because I wanted people to focus on the words, and not where they came from, but I am very, very grateful.

MTBoS Data

For this talk I used a chrome extension to scrape information from twitter’s website. Twitter doesn’t have a way to get your old tweets, unless you just want to download your own tweets. The scraper led to some errors, and my data isn’t all that great, but if you’re interested in playing around with it, I have a database that I can query with other questions.


Sharing your teaching online in a community like the #MTBoS has lots of research-supported benefits. Potential new educators are often hamstrung by lots of barriers, the biggest of which seems to be feeling like they are not ‘Whatever’ enough (Witty, photogenic, cool, smart, etc.). Data on #MTBoS hashtag shows that these problems haven’t stopped the #MTBoS from growing much larger especially in recent years. A set of interviews with teachers who shared years ago described a community of support, comfort, bravery, and a commitment to reflection, feedback and learning. Lastly, my own journey to sharing online illustrates how important connecting with people are, and asked the audience to think of new ways to make connections for other members of our continually growing community.


My whole plan was to make a big twitter chat, and it worked! Except that the twitter bots came on strong at the end and after the #pushsend hashtag started trending. It got more popular than anyone imagined, way too quickly, and now we have to figure out ways to make sure people’s voices didn’t get lost. Seemed fitting.

I got Sketchnoted!

This whole process left me feeling very vulnerable, and also very supported. Thanks to Lisa, Tina, Kate, Ben, All the people I mentioned earlier, and everyone else who helped me with this. I learned a tremendous amount from the process of making this talk and I’m forever grateful.

My 2 Cents on this whole #MTBoS thing

So there I was enjoying time with fellow TMC newbies at a dinner. We had just finished singing Moana’s theme when my attention was drawn to my phone by a recent new blog post that read like a charge to fracture end of the group that I was happy to be dining with, or at least the name that the group has called itself for the last 4 years. I had trouble making sense of what this was, and naturally assumed it was a broadside at the whole thing. So I replied…

…and then my phone died. And my phone backup charger was at the hotel.

Because of that I had some time to think and reflect as I waited for the check, and to get on the bus, and to get up to my room. Reflection seemed good, so I kept reflecting, and decided to write this post instead to organize my thoughts.

First off, I’m going to assume the best of intentions behind Dan Meyer’s post. The name #MTBoS is confusing. If the name was easier, it would make it easier for people to understand what is going on. There is a larger world of Math teachers who exist outside of the hashtag and perhaps creating a new one will help those teachers connect to the ones who are currently inside of #MTBoS, and because we all think #MTBoS is great for teaching, that influx will help improve math teaching as a whole. That is my positive ‘reframe’ of the claim, I think it makes sense.

However, the post “Let’s retire #MTBoS.” can be heard as kind of inflammatory, and perhaps be interpreted as having some potentially stark conclusions. It is hard to interpret what someone else on the internet is saying, and instead of trying to psychoanalyze why this came out, and how it came out, I’m going to talk about the only interpretation of this that makes sense. That this is a strongly worded tweet and post to start a conversation that will eventually lead to a community-wide decision about a contentious issue.

If this is to be a conversation, and eventually a decision, then we should have a conversation about process. If things are going to be decided, it’s good to include the stakeholders in the decision. At least in part. With the internet it’s very easy to put out a conversation to talk about an idea, but how do you come to a decision? What are the norms of the group and how does everyone’s opinion get heard? The internet is rife with really bad examples of this.  Other online communities have conversation full of strong positions, selective listening, name calling and worse. If this community is going to go the process of conversation and making everyone feel heard, it will probably require some kind of clear process that can make sure people don’t feel hurt. On my device-less bus ride home from dinner I saw that emotional hurt on the faces of a lot of people that perhaps could have been avoided. If this was to be a conversation, it happened in a way that left a lot of collateral damage, and brings up a number of questions about process, decision making and leadership in this community that probably need to be addressed alongside this particular question about our less-than-inclusive acronym.

We do have the opportunity of enough people being in one place to bring up one or all of the issues that seem to have been brought up. Perhaps there can be a way to start this conversation in the #TMC17 flex sessions or something else and perhaps skype or periscope or webinar or other technology. If not it will have to live on the internet which will probably be difficult and lead to misunderstanding. Either way I will probably save my best my arguments for the name #MTBoS and for how large conversations like this should go down for another time.

But I will say this.

The #MTBoS is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. It’s made me want to engage in this ongoing process to be a better teacher and a better person. I think that name, while slightly antiquated and unpronounceable, means something. The fact that people in many Math Ed circles are using the term #MTBoS seem to make a testament to that. It is hard to guarantee that those same people will immediately jump on board whatever the new term decides to be.


So I wrote most of that last night, and I decided to sleep on it and then send it. Then I had this stupid hotel alarm clock go off at 6 in the morning, so now I have time to include this story as well that is like 80% relevant.

After I finished my bachelor degree at Michigan State University, which was amazing and I loved it, I ended up screwing up some paper work, requiring me to wait a whole year before starting my whole year of student teaching. That was two full years before I could actually start teaching. “I could get a Masters in that time!” I thought, but not at MSU unfortunately. They didn’t have a “1-year certification + Masters” program, but some other schools did. Instead I applied to HGSE, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a few others. After getting my acceptances, I narrowed it to HGSE, and another, less intimidating school visited and came back torn. My Dad weighed in with very terse fatherly advice. “You don’t ‘not’ go to Harvard.” I ended up going to Harvard.

So I went to HGSE, and it was a little elitist, it largely wasn’t. It was largely amazing, I met some of my best friends, cut my teeth in the teaching, and met the woman who became my wife! There was some discord that year about how some people in the program faced different treatment. A program asst director heard the frustrations and offered this advice, “If you don’t like the way an organization is going try to change it, if you can’t change it, then you got to move on.” During the program some other students and I sat down and came up with a proposed change to the program that we thought would help. It might not have fixed it, but I like to think it helped a little bit.

First off #MTBoS is not Harvard. #MTBoS does not promote 1% acceptance rates, I get it, it’s a bad analogy. Sorry about that. Bear with me.

#MTBoS may not intend to be elitist, it’s not Harvard AT ALL, at the same time it can freak people out. So you mean to say the person that you saw speak at your district’s PD session is there? Just chatting away about daily stuff with the world?!? Of course that is crazy. At the same time ny outsider of any conversation asks the question, how do I jump in, how do I join, how do I engage with this? So a problem could arise. If I have placed those people on a pedestal because of their talent and track record, I’m going to conflate the question of “How do I join with them?”, with “Am I as talented and established as these people?” So then the question errantly becomes “Am I talented enough to join?” or “Does my track record warrant my joining?” No one is asking those questions, but it exists in the heads of people on the outside of anything. Of people about to go to Harvard, and people about hit the send button. If this is happening in the minds of people on the fringe of the #MTBoS it certainly isn’g because people in the #MTBoS are making basking in their status as an “elite” group. Just yesterday at Twitter Math Camp, there was a whole conversation about how not “elite” and deliberately welcoming they are trying to be. So if something isn’t working, despite all of our best efforts, the next step it seems is to unpack the reality of why it isn’t working. That conversation is important whether that was the intention of Dan Meyer’s post or not, and will need to include the amplification of voices that aren’t often heard. Any scenario without a conversation, where we can surface any feelings of elitism being felt by the fringes of our community will not help at all.

Side note: I’m giving this whole talk about #MTBoS and in the process I ended up downloading every tweet that ever was posted to #MTBoS. I’m going to talk about it tomorrow but if anyone wants to like analyze the information in hopes of helping this conversation, feel free. Just so you know, the replies, retweets, and likes data didn’t work, and there is a chunk missing from January to February of 2015

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.

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