Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Category: Challenges (Page 1 of 2)

A Structural Change, A First Step and a Unicorn Factory

I spent another day thinking about TMC related things, and I’ve decided to write some thoughts on the off chance that what I have to say might be valuable. Lots of people have very strong feelings about this, and I am trying to honor all of those people and their feelings while also offering some thinking about structure. Just so we’re clear, I don’t know what happened, or what may be in the works, or why anyone would want to read this. Let me go further to say that I am not really interested in keeping TMC nor am I attempting to minimize any harm that was experienced in order to revive #TMC19. The reason I keep thinking about it, and why I’m writing now, is that the model of teachers organizing on twitter to create their own PD is both powerful, and timely. Given today’s climate I think the biggest issues facing math education are going to come around ensuring equitable learning in a country that is very diverse and very unequal. The strategies to address these issues simply aren’t going to be one-size-fits-all solutions, and hard for typical PD to address. The kind of PD that would be best is going to be teacher-centered, with space for connections and reflection, organized collaboratively, and…well… look a lot like TMC. TMC’s concept and precedent, as well what I imagine are at least a bunch of dope presentations, are the things that could make a salvage attempt worthwhile. Of course large parts of the organization should change in order to make people feel safe and supported, and to make it a space to include educators of color, and to make it a place that could lead to the kind of change that math education needs. So much may need to be changed that it might not even make sense to call this future thing TMC. To emphasize that point I will stop using the phrase TMC in this post, and instead use the term “Unicorn Factory,” in order to keep this post future-focused.

Separate planning from the mission

When I look at the past few weeks I think more organizational structure would help. The Unicorn Factory structure would have at least two bodies a board who builds the organization, and one or more planning committees. The Board could ensure that UF is carrying out it’s mission and supporting the sub-committees that plan individual conferences. Right now it seems that the board of TMC is essentially doing both things. The “lean” board has the benefit of keeping business in a tight circle, it also makes it hard to know when you are living out your ideals, or rewriting them. Having separation would let a planning committee lean on an outside entity when one is needed. For example, if the planning brings up an issue that seems to threaten whether they are really living out the equity portion of the mission, they could go to the board who could provide a space and a process to look at the issue. If a matter is really complex, this board could take on the thorny issue so the planning committee can focus on making UF happen. During the actual conference I can see the need for a board that functions in this way as well. While the committee is focused on day to day, having people from the board on hand to talk about big picture ideals would really help. This way if you wonder where lunch is, and what the direction of the conference is taking in the next five years you aren’t directing it to the same person.

Organizing the board

So then what? Well if people think a group of educators can help bring on a change in the world through Unicorn Factory, and that change wouldn’t happen, any other way, here are some thoughts on the next steps. (This is basically how my old school found their union rep).

  1. Find a 3-5 person nomination committee who are impartial, i.e. not interested in being on the Unicorn Factory board, or planning UF, or presenting at UF.
  2. That committee could put out a call for nominations for the board that I just described.
  3. The nomination committee could filter through different nominations, reaching out to everyone who was nominated, seeing who is interested, and then creating a process for holding an election.
  4. Then the nominating committee holds an election with the fair process they describe
  5. Then that new board can look at a number of things. I’d think first would be norms and community agreements for their own functioning, followed by confirming or editing the mission, and then deciding whether #TMC19 could still happen and who should plan it.

Again, I’m just putting this out there because I hope it would be helpful. Apologies in advance if this may be poorly timed, insensitive, or disrespectful in any way.

My Reflections on Reimagining High School Math at #TMC18 #rehsmath

I was super lucky to do the Reimagining High School Math morning session with Sadie Estrella. This session first came to be with a conversation on the eve of the TMC deadline.

We spent the next 20 minutes polishing up a draft proposal. A few weeks later we found out we were accepted and we started planning.

As we started to plan we had one overarching goal: to have people leave prepared to DO something. Reaching that goal meant a few things would have to happen. Participants would have to talk honestly about their schools or districts and what needed to be reimagined there. Everyone’s school is different, and we’d find it impossible to predict what changes were needed in each school. Schools are also full of people, and any change is going to involve getting people on board. This meant that we wanted people to practice the experience of pitching their idea at TMC before they go home while thinking about all of their social dynamics.

We started planning early to get an idea of how to make this unstructured session happen. In trying to build a session around ideas that we don’t know, it’s kind of like trying to plan a meal for Chopped without knowing what the secret ingredient will be. We did a couple of twitter chats ahead of time, just so we could harvest some ideas from people in the #MTBoS. The more we talked with other people, however, the more it became clear that we couldn’t really gather enough information to pretend to be the experts about any of the possible ideas. My list of potential ideas went from 5 to 15 to 50+. It was clear that we couldn’t expect to narrow the focus to a central idea like de-tracking, for example.  Instead we focused on giving people lots of time to think about their situation and their idea, and how they can go about making change there while we’d do our best to help them feel supported.

On the first day we did an affinity mapping activity with post-it notes. Our group used as many post-its as they could to answer the question above, and then we moved them all around into groups afterwards. We took pictures of these and put them on this google doc:


We called it a twitter storm because we wanted twitter to help us brainstorm resources. If you look in there you will see each of the clusters and then some relevant resources below it.

On day 2 people thought about their school and the ideas that would make the most difference there. The next day everyone wrote out descriptions of their idea and took turns giving each other feedback. Ideas were as a varied as we’d expected. Everyone had a different idea for their school which reflected their different backgrounds (private, public, urban, rural, etc). A thread emerged connecting the ideas. Each idea was just the first step towards some larger cultural change. The larger change that everyone wanted was some different. Maybe a shift away from forcing everyone towards calculus, or a shift towards more collaboration, or a space for teachers to do more risk-taking. These cultural shifts echoed the conversations we have on twitter and in a number of places about how math education should change. It was probably predictable that larger culture change was beneath the surface of each idea, just as it was predictable that the ideas would be unpredictable. However these unique, unpredictable ideas created by each individual represented a realistic set of first steps towards the kind of larger math changes that fill all of our imaginations.

People left preparing plans to meet with teachers at their schools, or to start online initiatives, or to create math jams where teachers could get to know each other. The last idea already happened:

Every person had a different way to get people back home to start to think differently about high school math, and I’m excited to hear what happens with them. I’m also excited to help more people think about the change that needs to happen in their school/district some in the future.

Here are our slides:


Three big things that make me scrap my admin posts. Scary relationships, word salad, and the minutiae trap.

3 years ago I became an assistant principal at my school. While I am still a teacher of one class each cycle, my main focus is on leading the math team and the support staff and also overseeing the programming and scheduling for the school. It sucks writing about admin stuff for a lot of the reasons that makes blogging challenging for anyone. Last year I tried to do more blogging about admin stuff but ended up hiding most of those posts somewhere else because they didn’t feel right. There are 3 specific things that has made it hard for me to blog about my admin work like I blogged about my teaching.

Relationships are hard to write about safely

Relationships are key to any kind of school effort, but writing about staff relationships is rarely appropriate. As we talk about school change, the conversation quickly talks about what people think about the change, or what people think about other people, or what people me. If any of those relationships are keeping you up at night, how do you get the ideas out on your blog that all your co-workers know about? When I wrote about students I used pseudonyms and changed details Those tricks don’t seem to apply as it’s too easy to figure out. Even if I try to mask the name, one would have to guess which of the 8 teachers I’m talking about, as opposed to which of the 90 students I taught that day. A potential staff slip up is more dangerous than with my students. My relationship with those 8 people will go on a lot longer than the kids who I probably won’t see after this year. Longer relationships are longer, and full of complex, tangled details. It’s hard to fully describe the full picture of a co-worker relationship while trying to tell a story of why today was a success, or why the meeting went terribly wrong. I could ask the co-worker if they mind that I write about them, but that isn’t really fair. As their administrator, they would probably feel like they have to go along with what I’m saying, and potentially harbor discomfort.

Vagueness of leadership writing

Writing about education leadership is pathologically vague. Tweets I’ve seen from administrators always sound kind of feel like word salad of educational jargon. A lot of these school leader tweets have this feel (which I am in no way meaning trying to hate on, btw.) I’m guessing she is trying to both describe a pattern she has noticed over interactions with a bunch of teachers and abstracting in order to get something across in tweet form. She can’t go too into detail about where this arose from or how it plays it out in her school, because teaching probably looks totally different at her school. Administrators work with systems and structures that are as unique as their fingerprints, and there just isn’t the time to explain all the necessary relevant items when you have something to get across. Instead the ideas have to extracted from the actual situation that happened, and written as an abstract life lesson that people can maybe apply to their life. I’ve noticed this in leadership books and a lot of other things. Stuff is pretty vague.

I’ve noticed it in own writing too. Last year I had to have a mediation with a couple of staff members and afterwards I wanted to write about it. If it was a conflict between students I could approach a blog post like this: it like “XXXXX and YYYYY had a conflict around ZZZZZZ. We used this protocol, it went pretty well!” I would be able to provide details about who X and Y are, and I can also point to where the task is online that they were working on. As an administrator working with adults, I can’t give too many details about X and Y without divulging their identities, and probably breaking their trust and ruining the relationships we talked about a couple paragraphs ago. Furthermore, Z is a task that really only makes sense at my school, which would require a whole separate blog post to explain, and my actually get us in trouble if fully detailed. So instead I wrote this post on my other admin blog. I instead use a metaphor about icebergs, I posted this a good week or two after the event so people can’t guess who I’m talking about, and it isn’t even clear what I did or why a protocol would be helpful in doing that. It’s super vague. Why go through the trouble of thinking out a reflection to wind up with something that feels as substantitve as soggy shredded wheat?

The Minutiae Trap

Given all of this, it’s easy to want to reflect on a lot of the stuff you can write about. Spreadsheets, compliance, budget allocations. These things are nice and sanitized, self-explanatory, and because they are so concrete they are easy to write about. They are also boring and dangerous. So Megan Roberts did a really good job of illustrating the dangers in a story I’m not sure I have permission to get into details with…but I can vaguely describe it. She was an assistant principal, and she was focused on a lot of these technical aspects. Programming, compliance, getting things done. Her colleague was more interested in building relationships, setting the tone and other “touchy-feely stuff”. Megan felt like she was doing more of the leadership work on her admin team. Then 9/11 happened. In the face of that crisis the school didn’t a leader to check boxes. It needed someone who could connect with everyone personally and let them know everything is going to be ok. It was clear to Megan that leaderships is more than just checking boxes, doing the spreadsheets and other things. The trap you can fall into with admin stuff is thinking that the things that are detached from everyone, and that fit into nice clear boxes which people can understand are the things that are important. This minutiae is not the leadership that the school needs when an emergency comes, but that kind of stuff involves the messy human relationships and the weird institutional quirks at your school that are hard to write about with any clarity.

So what am I trying to do?

I guess I’m trying to figure out how to not be the minutiae guy and have real relationships with people, people who I can’t blog about without being vague. Umm… Oh and there’s all that minutiae stuff that I do want to write about, just without falling into to the trap of thinking that’s all there is to this job. Any ideas on how to do this? Any bloggers out there doing it? Let me know in the comments.

Clog: Last Day of Class & the Class Survey Project

Monday’s class was the last of the cycle, and probably the class that felt the best. Yes, I know that this is kind of cheating. With the marking period’s end bearing down on kids, it’s kind of hard not to have a productive class. My constant thinking about Work Time over the past few classes set the stage for a outburst of productivity.

After announcing that this was the class I told the class that I will meet individually with each student. Once everyone knew what their next steps were, I was able to float from table to table for the rest of the period. Some kids were calling on me for help, some others were getting help from their neighbor, and everybody seemed to make progress. No students got lost, or seemed distracted, or battled the other ills that plagued the work time at the beginning of the project. All in all it worked out pretty well. At the end I handed out the last page of the project, which was also a little reflection about how the project went.

Class Survey Project (Modular Project FTW!)

The big thing that I think made this work out well was that the project itself was really easy to understand. Some of my previous projects, like the road trip, are sequential. They’re like movies, complete with plot twists and everything. If you come in the middle, you’ll need to have a lot of things explained to you. The Class Survey Project was modular. The different steps were broken into parts that can be done independently. Students could enter into the project at any place as long as they understood the question they wanted to analyze. This was kind of like re-runs of a sitcom. You can watch whatever episode is on that day, as long as you know about the main characters. It also helped that students could choose whichever module they want. This allowed students to reason about the choice of the strategy they were employing, while allowing me a chance to scaffold their work on that section. With the sequential projects, the story-arc tells students what strategy to use, removing the students agency in choosing their approach. This was the first time I’ve done the project this way, so please check it out and leave me some feedback in the comments.

Download (PDF, 501KB)


Clog: Unfortunate start, unexpected finish

Class Begins

I had a cute exchange with my kid right before last period class on Friday. The kid was talking to a girl, and tried to appear tough, and then I appeared tough back, and he backed down, but it was cute. I walked down the hall and into my class and he went down the stairs and cut class. This student spent two weeks away from school to celebrate Christmas and he has yet to get started on the project after break.

Another kid asked me for water. “You know,” I replied, “last class you went for water and didn’t return.” “So do you want to me leave, like, collateral?” “Yeah leave your gloves on the table and get water.” I looked back 10 minutes later and her seat was empty and his gloves were gone. This student has missed a lot of class and has yet to start the project.

Rocky Start

For all of this week, and all of next week students are going to be working on their projects, so there will be a lot of independent work, which means Work Time. Today’s class began with self reflective questions on the board about the project. After Wednesday I began to form a plan to make Work Time as productive as possible. The plan for today was to was to precede work time with these questions to quickly assess needs. Unfortunately, timing is everything, and by the time I got all of the questions up on the board, laptops were out and projects were started. Kids were too distracted by the prospect of making progress, and their individual questions around that, to want to start on those questions on the board. I tried to get everyone to start it. Then one girl said, “Hey. Let me ask you a question about the data table…real quick.” This led to her neighbor asking a follow-up. Then a kid across the class verbally wondered why they can’t also ask a question. And so on… At this point it was like a bunch of kids sitting there saying “Let me eat my vegetables!!!” and I kind of caved on the questions, except to point people to them when I walked around.

Around the time I caved on the questions it became clear that the monster at the drinking fountain swallowed the student from above. My plans for structuring Work Time is precisely for those kinds of students. She had missed the last two classes, and had no clue about how to get started on the project. Theoretically she would have answered the questions, and in the process gone down the list of things she would need to do to be on track. Instead I’m assuming she walked in, saw everyone working and gave up. Perhaps actually writing the questions on the board takes too much time, I should make an actual handout that can help people go through the parts of the project, but not feel super redundant for kids who have been there the whole time.

One of the kids who have been there the whole time was still struggling with the project. This student was super focused today for some reason though. Once the class devolved into the typical work time set up, I spent a lot of time near his table answering questions and clarifying the project. I kind of feel like a crutch for students who aren’t truly independent learners. Given the kinds of math phobias students have before they come to me, it’s clear to see why they might need a crutch. The questions don’t help this student, because this student probably wants a much more specific and detailed sets of questions than what was on the board. What the student probably needs is a whole new conceptualization about himself as a math learner. This is something I have to figure out I guess.

Class Ends

After class was over the student above asked what the next part was. I said, “you make a histogram with that data.” He quietly walked over to the table where the project components were laid out. He then headed back past his departing classmates and sat back down at his desk and picked up his pencil. He worked well after school to start and finish this histogram. We worked for a full half-hour after school had ended. ON A FRIDAY. Oh, and all the while we were working, another student who also stayed working on her project. It was certainly unexpected, and inspiring to see students rising to the occasion.

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