Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Author: Carl Oliver (Page 3 of 41)

Close The Schools, So We Can Do Our Jobs.


3/9 – 20 Cases: On Tuesday morning, the day after De Blasio stated mass closures are not on the menu, I got a call from a student Michelle, who I thought was calling to thank me for finding her iPhone charger last week. She was calling because her mother has a health condition and is worried about Michelle bringing COVID-19 home. Any other day I would remind Michelle that graduation is around the corner in hopes of nudging her to push past the fear to come to school. Offering this kind of tough encouragement didn’t seem appropriate when the threat is very real. While I searched for words, I realized that I really can’t guarantee that she wouldn’t get sick at school or during her commute, and I also didn’t know how to guarantee she could finish what she needed to graduate. We finished our conversation and I began looking through my plans for the next few weeks of classes and started trying to imagine how kids could finish a multi-part project online, so I’ll be ready when other students like Melissa make the same decision.
As a teacher, I plan activities that stretch out over weeks each cycle. I’ve built big projects and planned ways students interact and collaborate as they learn. The eerily empty class I taught Tuesday, left me with stacks of unused worksheets, hollow discussions, and the question of how what could be translated to an online session for students who couldn’t be there. Unlike usual absences, I can’t assume that students are going to rejoin the class in a day or two. My whole approach to planning for their learning would change. At the same that my teaching is morphing into a dual and remote learning, there doesn’t seem to be any forgiveness in what is expected. Graduation dates, state testing dates, and the consequences our schools and our students face for underperforming haven’t changed, which adds considerable weight to any changes we are considering. If schools were to shut down, I could focus on making the most of this different model, but until then it’s like the captain of a sinking ship having to make sure every students in the water can get a life preserver while also having to bail water and keep the boat afloat for the students who are still on board.


3/11 – 44 Cases: A student was huddled around my desk arousing enough suspicion for me to jokingly ask, “Hey, what are you doing?” They turned around and I saw the student using my desk size hand sanitizer dispenser to fill up their portable container. “I ran out and nobody had any so I figured I filled up.” I wanted to be able to joke in that moment as humor is the bedrock of all of my student relationships, but I couldn’t hide the genuine concern that flashed across my face. The student stopped pumping. “My bad, but don’t worry, you have enough and I have enough.” They capped their 3/4 full container, and I replied. “Thanks. Don’t worry we just ordered more.” We laughed nervously, and I hoped that our school’s order isn’t delayed.
Perhaps the first job of schools is to provide a safe place for children and that is also difficult. Our school has been running out of supplies like hand sanitizer, and cleaning wipes, and our vendors are out of stock. The supply we need is a Coronavirus test, but those are unobtainium at this point. New York isn’t providing fast testing for the virus, so no one in the school can say they are not infected or contagious, even if they are symptom-free. De Blasio has said children aren’t “at high risk”, but children can get sick and infect their loved ones, even if they have washed their hands and sanitized their laptop. If we can’t ensure that schools won’t be places to spread the infection, then we are imposing suffocating anxiety and perhaps deadly harm for the vulnerable people who need those schools services.

3/12 – 95 Cases: On Thursday we had a student who had to go to the hospital. A typical teenage injury, that requires a member of school personnel to travel with EMS to the hospital and wait in the ER until the parents arrive. As I typically help the nurse figure out who should go, I went down the phone list to see who could help the student I kept hesitating. “They are pretty old, so is that person, and they have pre-existing conditions. What if they sit next to a person with COVID-19 who is waiting to be assessed?” As the disease spreads, the closer it gets to the school. Today’s routine trip the hospital feels like Russian roulette, and the emotional labor is palpable. Someone agreed to go, but I felt really bad about it. Their close friend is pregnant. “I’ll be fine, right?” they asked. I froze, my hesitation providing my answer. Luckily I got a text that the nurse found someone else to go. We both shared a deep sigh and exhaled most of the anxiety.
As an administrator and a teacher, I also have to support all the school staff. The emotional tension of trying to make learning happen amid all of this uncertainty is increasing in proportion with NYC’s growing number of COVID-19 cases. It is hard to have a safe learning experience when we don’t know that everyone isn’t going to get sick, or isn’t already sick. NBA player Rudy Gobert looked perfectly fine playing basketball, and showed no symptoms, despite testing positive and infecting others. Sustaining morale is a serious job, as this situation is wearing on the mental health of everyone in the school community. Lots of daily operations are now fraught with more emotional weight making the day really hard. Also making the days hard is the lack of change in what our charge is. We worked hard making to get students to graduate, and as our plans are impacted more each day, we have yet to hear calls for schools to have time for more long-term planning. The future is also lacks clarity around standardized assessment expectations, and school accountability metrics, as each day sees our goals become more and more unrealistic. If meeting the needs of the vulnerable populations is important, we need to acknowledge that meeting everyone’s needs just became much more difficult, and we need time to adjust, not a mandate to stay the course.

3/13 – 154 Cases: Friday’s staff meeting involved getting ready for an unclear future. I lead a quick session about putting information for students’ classes online and then tried to field questions. “What about students who can’t get online? Can we give them the computers from our laptop cart? Will having those laptops make them a walking target?” It was quickly clear that we didn’t have time to answer the questions around how to support learning while also having the added burden of finishing the meeting with time to prepare for class. After we broke I talked with one teacher who already had their stuff online. They were planning to use their sick days to stop coming to work because they didn’t want to risk coming in. I tried to convey that doing so is the right choice is for them, and for the larger effort of stopping the spread of the virus. Mentally, I add another name to our coverage list, including a teacher who has to pick their child up from college.
De Blasio said that schools are being kept open to provide social services for our most vulnerable students. The meals, medical services, and child care are important for a population of people who may need to continue working through any possible shutdown. The schools that we have designed to do a great job of that during the school year with a regular population. With a growing portion of the student population choosing to stay home, and with staff members as well needing to stay home as well, our schools are quickly becoming poor facsimiles of the institutions that are an important part of the social safety net. Schools do a very important job, but that isn’t the job that we can do right now because of the reality of this situation. Right now we staff have to face our own lives, which are changing dramatically outside of school. Inside school, we have to face uncertainty about whether we are safe because we don’t know about the nature of the disease, and whether our safeguards are going to be enough. We are also figuring out how to run a remote learning operation for all the students who aren’t there, while trying to adjust the learning experience for the students who are still coming.

3/15 269 Cases: I partially my name to the coverage list, as my daughter’s daycare closes for two weeks. My wife and I will have to split time between caring for our two year old, and working at our respective schools.
As I’m sitting down to think about the upcoming week, I can’t help but worry about our school’s ability to do the things the Mayor envisions. If we have to create a new educational method on the fly, while also fearing for the health of us and our loved ones, in a country facing shortages of supplies like masks and hand sanitizer, it makes sense to admit that we aren’t able to serve the role and find other ways to ensure that our most vulnerable populations get their needs met. The summer school model, or the emergency model of schools could work in the short term while teachers figure out how to best help the students who are not coming to school. For students who aren’t coming to school, let’s not demand that they come to school until we can ensure their safety, meaning having stocks of supplies and also having more testing, and faster testing available for all, not just celebrities. None of us are trained to manage an ongoing crisis. We’re here to help students learn, but going into a school where you fear for your health and the health of your loved ones and your students, isn’t a good place for learning. Let’s close the schools, and let the teachers try their hand at remote learning until we can ensure that the environment is safe enough for us to do our job.

Clog: The Math Toolbox #Mtbos2020

This seems like it’s my first Clog of the school year. Yes, it’s been a while, I feel genuinely lazy about it. The school year is fine, everything is fine (well, my kids take forever to go to sleep, but I guess that’s normal). I have another project that is taking up all of my writing brain, and our country’s news cycle is crushing my soul. There’s really no reason I’m avoiding blogging, honestly. I guess, I just need to do it. Which is why I’m excited to get started on this #Mtbos2020 writing challenge.

Math Toolbox for Statistical Inference

I was teaching a stats class for this cycle as basically a push in to a literacy class. My job was to help the kids learning in this class be able to use graphs and other forms of data in their papers better. One thing we started to come up with was this idea of math toolbox. I wanted it to be a series of questions that kids could use to unpack the number that they would find in articles. Often we’d see kids copying any number verbatim out of a text book and using it in confusing or straight up wrong ways in their paper.

The math toolbox has 4 boxes, each with a goal.

  1. Find out what the number is
  2. Make sense of the number
  3. Think about what the consequences of the number are
  4. Predict what you think the number should be

Here’s an example:

Does it seem cool? I think it needs some work in a couple of different ways:

More writing: Kids could write more, but that would probably mean I should write more to help them. I should have each box armed with sentence starters and examples so they know how to use it, not just the four questions.

More Boxes and more verbs: Each box has it’s verb that the kids are working on, Find, Make, Think, Predict. Each of these are important for making sense of a number that one might come across, but perhaps there could be more. Maybe a “Argue” box where kids have to use the number to defend and/or attack a point. Maybe “represent” where they have to make a graph or other representation. Maybe “contextualize” Where they compare the number to other numbers to help make sense of it.

Any other ideas about this toolbox? Are there other verbs we could use if we want to make it longer? Let me know in the comments below.

Racial Affinity Groups and My Grandma

I’d always park my car right in front of the house at the spot on the curb where my brother and I sat to looked up at the stars when we were kids. At that spot I could for my straight line from my seat, through the passenger side window, straight down the path, and up the steps. If the weather was nice I could even see straight through the open door and see Grandma sitting in her chair. I would shut off the car, grab my stuff and walk down the path, which was just enough time for her to walk across the living room and greet me by the door. 

After I finished my Economics degree, but before I finished my math degree, and eventually left MSU I started hanging out with my Grandma more often. The magnetic pull of Chicago draws lots of Michigan State students to go party and hang out with recent grads. My girlfriend at the time was starting Teach for America in Chicago, but I was still at MSU to take the one class I needed to finally finish my math degree and then I had to wait for the rest of the year to then spend another year student teaching. I had lots of free time to think about the fact that my non-ed major girlfriend could be finished with 2 years of teaching before I ever start. My light also schedule meant that I could make time to drive into Gary, Indiana on my way down to visit Chicago for the first time without tagging along with my dad.

She’d greet me, give me a hug, and probably tell me to “shut the door and stop letting the cold air in”. After I briefed her on my agenda for the weekend, we’d kinda start hanging out. I’d sit in my grandfather’s old chair, which to me was new and exciting. When I was last there with my Dad, he would sit in that chair and I would sit on the couch, or if my mom and uncle were on the couch, I might just go hang out in the kitchen or go downstairs and watch tv. In fact on my first visit I instinctively walked over to the couch before Grandma insisted I sit in the chair that was closer to her. I felt honored, and a little anxious as I pivoted and walked past the TV, and sat in the big, plastic-encased chair. In that walk across the living room I realized a couple things. 1) I must be grown now 2) I don’t know what grown ups are supposed to talk about with their Grandma.

These days Grandma’s regular routine consisted of daytime television and church on Sunday, but she had certainly lived an interesting life up to this point. Born in rural Mississippi, after marrying Grand Daddy she had my Dad, went to Arizona for WWII, and then they all headed up north for more opportunity. Where better than Gary Indiana, a city so focused around factory work that it was named after the founding chairman of US Steel Corp. Her and Grand Daddy used the GI Bill to buy first brand new house on her block of Kentucky Street and Grand Daddy found work in the Steel Mill. Their move was part of the second wave of the Great Migration, where 5 million black people left the south to less prejudiced opportunities of the north over the next 25 years.

After just finishing my African American history class a year prior, I was really curious about the stories of our families history. In those stories was hopefully some clear direction for me and my future. It was disconcerting seeing my future playing out in my girlfriend’s Chicago classroom, while I had to head back to MSU and still be in college for one 3 hour class. In between our two worlds was Gary, where I’d often sit mulling over ways to earn a masters degree while in the same time that I would have spent doing student teaching. Especially if I could get trained in a big urban environment like Chicago, not the suburban internship placement near my parents house which MSU placed a lot of students. It was at this time I started to look at urban education grad programs at colleges other than Michigan State. Sitting in Grand Daddy’s chair, I could have used some guidance about whether I should leave the number 1 secondary education school in the country, and a place that was really good to me. This kind of life guidance I thought would be a great thing for Grandma to advise me on! I was hoping for something like Neo’s visit to the oracle like in the Matrix. I ended up having to answer my questions, so it was a lot like Jeopardy. It was also literally Jeopardy. 

We watched Jeopardy. We heard the clues, we guessed the questions, and congratulate ourselves if we got it right. then we watched the 12 o’clock news. Grandma wasn’t interested in telling me what to do, or passing along stories full of wisdom and guidance, or imparting on me some responsibility to uphold the family name or serve our black youth. That was for me to figure out on my own as she was trying to figure out the questions to Alex Trebek’s answers. Turns out, that was actually lot more fun. As the visits progressed I would help getting things out of tall places, driving her to run errands, and seeing whether the mail had come yet, without opening the door and letting the cold air in. I’d be lying if she did tell me lots of stories from the past. Lots of stories of me when I was a kid, or about Grand Daddy and the vegetable stand he ran out of his pickup truck when his shift finished, and what my Dad was like growing up. It’s not like she wasn’t taklative, she just never pretended that she could tell me what I should do with my life.  Besides, watching jeopardy with Grandma was entertaining enough to postpone worrying about figuring all that stuff out right then anyways.

Those days in Gary came to mind this week because I attended my school’s People of Color affinity group. As with most things recently, I was embarrassingly late. By the time I arrived everyone had settled in, and finished sharing in response to that day’s prompt…meaning it was immediately my turn. My mind went blank initially when looking at the prompt, “Choose the name of someone who valued you”, then I began telling a few stories of my time with Grandma who initially popped into my mind. She wasn’t super talkative, especially when it comes to life advice, but it was clear that she valued our time together. It was also clear how much I valued being in the group of educators, after the guilt of coming late subsided. The teachers made a welcoming space with flowers, candles, and a centerpiece which now has the name of my grandma. It was great, I left feeling great, and I woke up needing to write this. 

The meeting at school was surprising, as I expected to be dissecting different issues and indignities that were arising at work. Issues of race at work always leave me a little unsure. You can never know how these conversations will go, and I always imagine conversations of race will go terribly. It would be cool if there was a group I could go to that would give me the right thing to do/say, and provide straight answers for how to address racial problems as they arise at work. This meeting would give me no more of that than my trips to visit my Grandma would help me decide what to do with my life. What they both gave me was a feeling that I was valued and maybe that is the most important step. Race is so complex, and appears in so many forms, your coworkers might not be any more able to see the nuance surrounding you than my Grandma could parse through university policies. With some things, you’re ultimately the one responsible for working on yourself or your organization. It’s on you to understand other perspectives, and make decisions. The weight on your shoulders, can be made a lot lighter if you felt valued. In the face of The difficulties of racism, the thing that our group of people of color decided to use the first step of the year to support and affirm each other, and I’m ok if that is we keep taking that step over and over all year long.

After a few visits with Grandma, I started pulling out GRE flash cards during the commercial breaks. I explained to Grandma that this test was going to help me apply for grad school, so I could take summer school and be halfway through a masters degree by the time I started teaching. I would have also explained that I am going to apply to a few programs at other schools, including Harvard, where I could earn a full masters in the same amount of time. However, I could tell she was as disconneted from this whole process as she was to that unused microwave in the kitchen that she uses as cake holder. She pleasantly encouraged me to do my thing, without weighing in on what I should do, at least until the commercial break ended.

Two talks and an ear infection: Reflections on #NCTMBoston19

I’ve been super busy at school and at home so I haven’t had time to reflect on my time at NCTM Boston. I had a morning talk doing teaching for social justice in algebra. I have a similar talk to one I gave a year ago and am preparing to shelve. The talk was great, and we created a Google doc full of ideas.

During a turn-and-talk, I started a conversation with someone sitting alone. They asked me about the Voyage of the Creole project, and how it qualifies as social justice and for a moment I was perplexed. It explores a historical event that illustrates and hopefully humanizes the people who were enslaved in the mid 1800s. The story can be inspiring or contextual for today’s society, but it isn’t about creating the immediate change today that I imagine this person was asking about. After a brief pause I said “the goal of whatever project isn’t to reach a certain objective of social justice, it’s about making students who are reflective and confident of how math can be a tool to examine complicated systems in our actual world and used to help make change.”

Defining a social justice project, and the larger goal of creating mathematically critical students was new for me. It wasn’t in my prepared notes or slides and the words formed as I talked. The distinction still holds true for me a month later, though. The goal isn’t for me to teach students about current events, but to help them to see and shape the world mathematically. The slavery project looked to me like an opportunity to connect math to student’s culture and identity. It was created at my old school whose students were largely black or afro-latinx. The social studies teacher on my team created a powerful unit on the middle passage and he suggested I connect to it in my math class. I found a story where kids were acting as a person that was enslaved, and needed to use math creatively to find freedom. Working on this project hopefully taught students a little history, and connected math to part of their identity for students whose ancestors may have been affected by the global slave trade.

Is that social justice or not? Perhaps. Trying to help students connect math to their culture and identity is an act of social justice, or perhaps a similar project around modern day slavery would be better at that process because we could immediately advocate for change in our actual world? If those two projects were sort of sitting on my desk and I had am choosing one to walk over the copy machine, I think the determining factor would be whether I could reach the goal that I rambled about earlier. Will it be really likely to help students feel confident using math to make change? In 20 years I want the students to confidently use math to face the myriad problems that this world will mired in. If those kids are in the middle of unit in history class that has them really engaged, and I have a chance to tag on and make a deep impact on how they see themselves, I’ll go with that project. If the kids would be more engaged in having a present-day context, it would be a no-brainer to use the latter project. At the end of the day, the teacher has the possibility to help students rethink what math is about through their contexts, how you can you make choices that can most impact the way students see math, and see themselves as mathematicians?

That exchange gave me a lot to think about, so thank you person-whose-name-I-forgot, and I guess thanks to the person who had been sitting next to you but left to go to another session. The talk is probably going to evolve into something else pretty soon, hopefully that will be more valuable. Stay tuned here

Right after that talk, I met up with my Co-Speaker Bushra Makiya for the second talk which went so much better than the disaster that it might have been. My laptop computer wasn’t projecting audio, and this was a talk with videos of student thinking, so we needed the audio. The technician came and couldn’t help, then what seemed like his supervisor came as well with no luck. The NCTM program committee member Kaneka Turner saved the day, letting us use her computer and hot spot. By the time we started using her computer, we were already 5 minutes into the talk. Because the room had bad service, we didn’t know the videos were going to be playable until just a few minutes before the videos were needed. We were crossing our fingers and hoping it would work the whole way. Thankfully, it did work out. Maybe next time we could bring a transcript and have participants act out student thinking.

Shortly after this my daughter had an ear infection so I had to cut my time in Boston short, but it was quite eventful. Also during my session the NCTM photographer guy stopped by and gave me a link to the pictures. They are worth checking out: https://www.schaeferpix.com/f1064671310

@Freakonomics should really work a little harder if they want to impact math education

I’m a big fan of Freakonomics. I read the book, I’ve listened to just about every episode, and I’ve been consistently subscribed to it longer than any other podcast that isn’t about math or house music. So I was jazzed when they decided to take on math curriculum. Based on earlier episodes about our political parties, the life of a CEO, and behavioral economics, I was really expecting something amazing. After listening to this episode I came away a little underwhelmed as it went to too little depth so they could support a pretty unoriginal, pre-determined solution.

There is a typical line of reasoning proffered by potential education reforms that support their innovations which seems to be used here. It goes like this:

  • Our education system is pictured as old and outdated.
  • The outdated system could be immediately fixed by the new solution.
  • The only thing stopping us from bathing in the revolution are those stodgy old educators, who need to adopt the solution nationwide.

If you look around you’ll notice this idea sandwich everywhere. It’s surprising to see it used here as it violates the principles of basic research e.g. choosing your conclusion before you understand the problem. I won’t go into too much detail about the episode, you can listen to it here. In the episode there was a frustration with the Algebra II homework that host Steven Levitt was helping his 10th grader finish. He then does the whole idea sandwich to suggest swapping out data science for algebra 2 in high school math. There was a question for bringing this to school as a whole. Then a historical summary about math education’s origins. There also interviews with Jo Boaler, and the college board CEO, and Levitt’s cousin who taught a few years. All were ostensibly asked a version of two questions “High school math sucks, right?” and “How cool would data science be?” It seems like stacking the deck for data science, which is fine, as data science is cool, but there is more to what’s wrong with math than just the lack of regression models.

Later in the show they review research done with listeners of the show. They were asked what kind of math they use in their everyday life, and the results imply that data science would have brought more day to day utility. If your audience is full of people who earned high school diplomas, and higher ed degrees, accepting that premise is a bit premature. Everyday math benefits these people regardless of how much they’ve used it. Their career would be inaccessible without the education that their math scores allowed. Their knowledge of math made them competitive at colleges providing them a privilege to ignore math the rest of their life while keeping their benefits in tact. Many people don’t know how to parallel park, and don’t do so regularly, but their knowledge of parallel parking on their driving exam allows them the privilege of a driver’s license. Contrast all of this with someone whose struggles in math prevented them from attaining any of those levels of education. Perhaps they were in a school that didn’t offer advanced math classes, or only offered them to students on a higher track. Perhaps the student was in a class, but the teacher did not teach for equity, leaving many traditionally underrepresented students and special needs students behind. For many, math isn’t just a boring chore. It’s a glass ceiling, locking them into lower income classes while bestowing privilege on others.

I am not arguing for continuing the focus on algebra 2 so that students can take AP exams, I am arguing that math should be decoupled from the privilege society gives it. Earning high math scores is as important for your daughter to compete for scarce seats in colleges as it is for providing day-to-day value. This sucks. Math could be a subject of beauty and meaning for people’s day to day life like art or poetry, if it wasn’t militarized to help people jockey for position. However, competitiveness in education has made math appear solely as a measuring stick for students. Algebra 2 is a class his 10th grade daughter is taking when many take it senior year. This means she must have had algebra in the 8th grade or earlier, and must be in line for AP calculus or Stats, or both senior year. These other classes are pushed into lower and lower grades so that students appear more prepared for college. These students will beat out students from schools without that math preparation. It’s easy to imagine that if his daughter were taking a data science course right now, she would lose out on her competitive edge and face a similarly small pool of options.

Unless dozens of parents start an opt-out campaign, the idea for adopting the class that he proposes would be to talk with college admissions counselors about how to make it interesting, or talk to to current teachers about how to integrate data science into what schools are currently doing. This would be a really interesting route to explore and lead to an interesting episode. The show could pick up with part 2 where they continue the analysis of how math curriculum could change. The first step of that, would be to talk to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics who wrote a whole book about changing high school math, that is fully in line with the changes proposed in the show and could use the amplification Freakonomics could provide.

There are plenty of other avenues that Freakonomics could take with math education outside of the well worn “Idea sandwich.” There are so many good economics ideas to be discussed around high school math. Scarcity, opportunity cost, competition, etc. Freakonomics is also in a position to learn a great deal of these things. It would have been interesting to hear what the people at University of Chicago Lab school, as a high school, would think about replacing algebra 2, and what the anticipated parent response might be. It also might be interesting to talk to your University of Chicago admissions, and see how they would interpret a data science course on a students transcript who doesn’t go on to take any AP math courses. It would be really interesting to also talk to current teachers who are teaching data science and describe how different the classroom experience is with a current on-the-ground perspective especially considering all of the new stats and data tools that are becoming available (Desmos, CODAP, etc). 

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