Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Takeaway from my terrible cycle? Spend more time making kids comfortable.

Clogs have been in short supply this cycle, largely because things were going terribly. I think I know why. But first, let’s talk about what terrible looks like:

When we do VNPS, 5 of 8 kids don’t want to go to the board. When they do, 3 of 8 question why they can’t go sit back down. At least 2 or 3 kids per class will getting on their phone while their partner is writing. After a problem is announced students wait with blank stares until I go over to them, then when I get to them I feel as though I am moving a boulder. Spread this around the room and it’s like a field of boulders. Ok, ok, my classes are small, so it’s like a small field…perhaps ‘lawn’ is the right word. But it FEELS like a field of boulders, and it feels like I’m doing the heavy lifting.

There are reasons why. We had interruptions. I was out for the opening of the class, and we had break immediately when school got started. All students are new to this kind of class, some are new to the school. Many students had bad experiences with math. All of those were true last cycle. Let’s play the sitcom flashback music and talk about why last cycle wasn’t terrible.

Last cycle was amazing. 8/10 kids would go to the boards, start the problems and keep working without much trouble. Enough kids got started that even when we had the most complex problems there was enough work around the room that people could get started. Instead of blank stares, students would talk to each other, and seemed more willing to collaborate. It was like the boulders had grinded themselves down to billiard balls and they were already rolling around. I just had to direct them where to go. Visitors come in to my class and change their whole approach. This cycle if a visitor came they would give me a sympathy look and head back down the hallway.

What was the difference?
One difference with the first class was, and I didn’t realize this until the end, MAD Academy. I was visiting MAD Academy one day and saw half the kids from my class were there making music or designing murals.  All the MAD kids knew each other well. They were used to entertaining each others’ ideas, and encouraging each other to pursue their creative visions. When my class started, these kids were already comfortable talking, sharing, working and showing their ideas, all stuff that helps with VNPS. This comfort quickly caught on with a couple other kids, and it ended up being infectious with most of the other kids, outside of a few kids who had other stuff going on.

wearecityas Alum @franckstagram (class of ’94) shares his art processes and Native American-inspired symbol series with MAD Academy students.

The big difference is comfort. The kids were comfortable. Making kids comfortable made the teaching with the #thinkingclassroom as easy as rolling a ball across a pool table. So why did I ignore this important step?

When I planned this class I was convinced that it wasn’t the comfort that MAD Academy had built, but that it was something else. This attribution error made me put even less emphasis on comfort building and more on getting started sooner. Big mistake. Failing to make sure the comfort was there for all kids, regardless of their background, or whatever else is going on outside of school crippled everything else I tried to do this cycle. After spending most of the cycle moving boulders all day, I am going to think hard before I do that again. Instead I want to be more effective at building rapport and comfort with each class.

Comfort was rarely a focus when I started a class. As a management-challenged young teacher my focus was the opposite of comfort, in hopes of keeping kids ‘in-line.’ This stance has shifted, as I include more icebreakers but only after I walk through the syllabus and all the rules. I’m sure this is as effective as websites that make you read the terms of service, and so I’ll space the rules out across the first few weeks of class anyways to make more time for comfort building. I also tend to rush through the icebreakers too as if there was is trophy for how quickly I could get kids to start “doing math.” This is a race to see how quickly I could start lifting boulders. Instead I need to spend my first days sanding those boulders down by doing some activities to get kids comfortable sharing and being vulnerable together. If you have any ideas for what those activities might be, let me know in the comments.


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  1. Last year, we started with writing (and sharing part of) math autobiographies. Giving students a chance to share with me (and letting them know that I wanted to hear their stories and was ready and willing to validate their struggles and trauma), led to many positive examples of trust that led to great growth. It also have students a chance to share their stories with others and that led to a lot more support and risk taking throughout the year.

    • Thanks to both of you…what kind of prompt(s) do you use when asking students to write Math autobiographies? Is this HW or in class? Thanks so much

      • Carl Oliver

        I used a math biography from the Core Plus textbook. But I usually just ask students some questions about their old experiences and they usually have a lot to say. There is also some options if you google “Mathography.”

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