Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Author: Carl Oliver (Page 1 of 41)

What I’m celebrating

I’m celebrating right now! I’m up eating pizza, watching tv and staying up late with the family because moments like these are worth celebrating. It’s valuable to fully experience joy when it comes. This year is proving to be the definitive example of that.

I’m celebrating Joseph Robinette Biden Jr winning the presidency. I like his middle name, I like the fact that his old home state of Pennsylvania delivered the final electoral votes. And I like that the country is going to be run by someone who knows how a government should run, and believes in why a government should run.

I’m celebrating Kamala Harris winning the vice presidency. She is the first woman to hold an executive position in the US. She is Black and Asian like my girls, and a symbol of what they can accomplish, and what glass ceilings they should look to shatter.

I’m celebrating because America told Donald Trump what they think of his toxic, selfish, rhetoric. In a race that seemed to be all about him, the 3 days that we had to wait provided a slow but steady progress of America turning it’s back on this administration, one ballot drop at a time.

But what I’m celebrating the most is the victory for the protestors. All of the people who were loudly in the streets during the spring and summer can now see their cause taken up. All the people who worked quietly to register voters and pay off the fines preventing them from voting got to see the record number of people at the polls. There will forever be this election to point to this moment and say “We did it.”

How do we pull kids out of these rabbit holes?

This is going to start like a political think piece, but I swear it’s about math curriculum and pedagogy.

Next to ‘THE TELEVISION’ in my high school textbook is a picture of Kennedy and Nixon having the first televised debate. At this debate Nixon showed up sort of

JFK and Nixon at 1960 debate

prepared, looking hot and sweaty, and perhaps a little rattled by the appearance of his opponent. As my teacher told the story, JFK spent weeks prior at Martha’s Vineyard relaxing and preparing for the debate. He showed up looking relaxed, tanned and screen-ready. He even had a makeup crew! JFK was prepared for the new medium of television and because of that he won the debate, and a lot of popular opinion. His control of that medium, led to control of the white house and the establishment of presidential debates as a critical part of any campaign.

If my daughter grows up to be a history teacher, she will probably have a section to teach about ‘THE RISE OF SOCIAL MEDIA’ they will probably have one of  Trump’s tweets. Trump is the figure here, because he is probably the first person to really master that medium, and hopefully no one will ever manipulate the public in that way again. Trump shoots off tweets faster than the fact checkers could keep with him, which I’m sure his followers loved. At the same time, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms were directing people to more and more content using machine learning algorithms. Delivering people things what they want from the universe of content on their platforms helped these companies sell more ads. As shown in the Social Dilemma, the technology can push people down rabbit holes, some of which can be dangerous and toxic. As the new technology helped people find more and more about his message, aided by targeted campaigns from Russian and Cambridge analytica, Trump shocked the world with his 2016 win. The rabbit holes kept burrowing deeper conspiracies like Pizzagate and QAnon continue to snare Trump supporters.

Today after math class a group of students started listing a group of conspiracies they heard online, too many for the teacher to counter. It sounded as though the students were delivering outrageous claim after outrageous claim, but could only back it up by saying “I saw it online”. These teenagers had been pushed down the same rabbit holes that are leading to much of the political extremism of our now polarized country. When faced with an actual argument, an actual opposing view, it sounded like the students faltered. Perhaps this is where math class comes in.

If we do it right, math class could address the problem of students we are losing to social media. In math class we talk about communication, argumentation, and proof from Pre-K to PhD with an emphasis on applying it in new situations with fluency. Often schools skip this work and focus on computation, but that is dangerous. Students deep into social media get fed post-after-post of things they agree with, where they may stop expecting ideas to proved with logical arguments. If we want schools to teach students to logically pick apart an argument, ask questions, write out proofs and to do it all with speed and fluency, then math is subject to teach it. Math class is be the place where students build the muscles to apply, analyze, and support what they learn in History, Science and other classes or at least it could be.

How envisioning the future helped us work together

As I write this we are all waiting for the results of the election. For me I’m trying to do something between waiting with bated breath for cnn.com to update. While I wait I will extend a little 3 day streak for blogging in the month on November. The thing that I keep thinking about is the activity we did to open a recent staff meeting.

Envisioning the good life

A lot of time was spent planning this particular staff meeting because we knew there was tension and anxiety in the air because, well… [gestures broadly at everything]. What was proposed to open the meeting was a visioning exercise that we each did mentally before engaging in small groups. We were each envisioning a future where our work has flourished, making positive contributions to our community and an overall good life. To fully imagine this we had to close our eyes and get relaxed and really try to immerse ourselves in the sights and sounds and smells of this future. After some time to think about that we brought our awareness back to the room and talked a little bit about it in small groups.

When our group got together to talk about this future it was one of the most interesting discussions that we have ever had in the school. We talked honestly about the things we were hoping for, but people also were able to discuss the things that we should change in order to really serve our students. The positive vision was so valuable that there was no resistance to the internal shifts we would have to make in order to move towards that vision. As we moved to the rest of our agenda, that future perspective pulled our discussion towards what matters and held us together even as contentious issues were brought up.

The interesting thing of thinking about that future was that no one described what they saw. We talked about how students would be their full selves, and how we effective we could be, but no one sketched out a game plan. Our tight schedule prevented us from describing what our futures with the color and the detail that a kid would if they were explaining what their ideal homecoming date would look like. This means that we were all talking about different futures, and that was ok. Trying to move towards all of our futures helped us all work together.

As I’m writing this and we are currently unsure of how this election will work it seems like taking a minute to think about a better future can help how I approach whatever news I get tomorrow morning. What will 10 years from now be like? How will my efforts to the communities that I’m a part of make our work more significant? How does what I do tomorrow impact that future?

Clog: …And we’re listening to Christmas music

Today I had to navigate a serious breach in decorum with a student in my in-person class. They were proposing something crazy, and I went along with it, and now I feel personally violated. During work time, the student convinced me to start play christmas music. CHRISTMAS MUSIC! It’s November 2nd! The halloween decorations are still up! I hung my head in shame while singing along to ‘This Christmas.’

How the year is going so far

The school year is going ok so far, so it made sense to try and write about it, which leads me to revive my class log. Lucky to have a chance to teach a class even though there are a lot administrative things I have to do. When there isn’t a global pandemic, teaching a class helps me understand what teachers might be seeing, and connect to students in a non-disciplinary way. As we worked on our staffing plan in light of Covid-19, my teaching a class became important in different ways as each new bit of information from NYCDOE was announced. At first it was good for me to teach because we needed to keep class sizes as small as possible. Then we needed more in-person teachers because about 40% were able to work from home with medical accommodations. Then, as >70% of students went remote, class sizes swung the opposite direction, and I was back teaching again for my regular reasons. If anything changes, teaching will still be a big priority for me. I think the teaching profession is going to be fundamenally changing as a result of all of this and I’m lucky to be able to see it with my own eyes. It’s not clear how it will be changing, but my ability to understand that change will be better because I’m teaching.

To plan the class we are working in a ‘pod’ of 3, on a couple of geometry that leads to a project of  building a handicap ramp. Each pod has at least one in person and one remote teacher. The three of us keep our classes tightly paced so whenever one student decides to stop attending in person and to ‘go remote,’ the transition is seamless. We’re using a combination of video lessons and straight up worksheets on Google Classroom. Nothing fancy. We probably should have spent the summer learning to do online platforms of some sort, because we were waiting to see if we will be in the building or not. Perhaps we’ll use more online platforms later in the year but it’s hard to tell if our students have the internet access to work on it, or if we have the time to learn a new thing.

Relationships with students have been pretty interesting, I’ve never had more than 4 students in the class. Our classes are 2.5 hours so I’ve really gotten to know the students. The longer classes help us reduce hallway passing time to once per day, thus reducing the number of groups that any person is exposed too. It’s a little too small though. I’ve combined with a different teacher to get more of a ‘real’ class vibe. It feels less like a small class than an animated tutoring session, so it’s working a different set of teaching muscles than I’m used to. The lack of a large body of kids to appeal to is particularly difficult. Having a large group that is working together and making decisions and learning is important for students to be a part of. Without it things can kind of feel weird. Such as when one of the two kids you have in class really wants to start listening to Christmas music two days after Halloween, and no one else is around to talk them out of it.

With all the new things going on in school and the world, it seems like capturing it is important. Therefore, I’m going to write about it in my blog more. Hopefully more blogging will get me out of my head and also help me be more present to the different things going on in and out of school. I’m going to write a lot in the month of November and we’ll see what happens.

What to do, now that the election is over

The election results have now had enough time to sink in and the results, are probably “permanent”.  “Permanent” is a relative term, of course, as this is 2020. A truckload of absentee ballots could be found inside an a shipping container in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida, and trigger more media speculation and delay. But for the moment it is time to wrap your head around the fact [Joe Biden|Donald Trump] will be President for the next 4 years.

Certainly there are lots of immediate geopolitical, and national consequences. Our participation in global climate change efforts will probably [lead to a boom in solar and electric|mean the world leaves us, and our fossil fuels, behind]. National efforts against the Coronavirus will be [bolstered by a coordinated national response|reduced to crossing our fingers and waiting for a vaccine]. It will be nice going forward to not be inundated with election ads and twitter posts, but it seems like reports of [Donald Trump not participating in, or being capable of, a peaceful transition|Donald Trump not participating in, or being capable of, working with a Democratic house and senate] are part of the political news in the months ahead. At this point, I’m [happy|disgusted] with the results, but glad this election is behind us. Whatever mental capacity I’ve gained now that it is over, is quickly being co-opted by all the work left to do in our schools after the spring.

A lot happened last spring. As Covid-19 shined a harsh light on the inequality that exists in the vulnerable parts of our society it was clear that the shadows of those inequalities are cast on our education system. At the same time, the brutality of our policing system demanded system-wide reform, which requires changes in schools. Schools are certainly part of the criminal justice system, and harm is caused to students through direct acts of  violence, and the normalization of silence. These things are pervasive nationally, but won’t have a national solution. Our national education secretary can’t be expected to come in and address this now because [their appointment will take months|she’s awful]. Furthermore, the constitution prevents the federal government from making sweeping change in education. To address these things, we are going to need that action to come from a place closer to home.

At this immediate point in history, when people around the country are are [reeling in jubilation|ill with disgust], it’s nice that we’ll have some certainty for a change. Yes, history is will be watching to see if [Joe Biden |Donald Trump] will bring about the change they seek, but now that they are in place, what are the changes that you can bring about? What are the books you could be reading, lessons you could be trying, feedback you could be seeking out? How can the values you want to see in our democracy, live in your classroom? Now is the time to go work with social workers to support students in need, or work with the deans at your school to have a more restorative discipline process.  Can you advocate for school policies more equitable and anti-racist? And can your students help? It may feel selfish or myopic to focus on your classroom and your own development in the midst of national chaos. Really it’s the first step towards sustainable long term change in our schools.

The election results are definitely [relieving|revolting], but they are also helpful, because now we can focus on things we can control. The problems that have been made so clear could be addressed with things that are within inches of our grasp. Those problems might still be around in the next election cycle if they fall off of people’s radar. This is still an important opportunity to push for the things that our students and our schools need.

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