Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

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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.

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.”)

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