Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

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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.

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

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