Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Category: Challenges

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.

Clog: Disaster Planning – Avoiding A Trainwreck

Most school days I set aside time away from admin stuff to prepare before classes. This planning doesn’t usually intrude on the rest of my schedule, as I only 3 days a week, but today was different.  A perfect storm of parent visits, meeting faux-pas, and email deluge combined with an lesson plan from the night before that I just wasn’t happy with meant that I had half the time to do all of the prep. It was time for Disaster Planning.

Disaster planning is my term for doing lots of last minute large structural planning for a class right before I have to teach. By large structural planning, I mean when you know the topics that are slated for today on the unit plan, but you don’t have finished materials about large chunks of the lesson, not just needing to print worksheets or grade yesterday’s homework. Maybe you don’t have a worksheet that covers the topic you want in the way you’d like, or you know a manipulative approach would be better, but you just don’t have a task that works. Today my issue was I wanted to students to see a variety of scatterplots, and the worksheet from last year used only examples of scatter plots of time series data, meaning the scatterplots were more like line graphs.

Full disclosure, I definitely do not think this is a good idea. This bad habit arose early in teaching on days when I would have a lesson planned the night before, but then in the shower I would have a brilliant idea and come to school and try to change everything to incorporate whatever the magical idea. “We’ll do a gallery walk!” While disaster planning is something I do more now, I never want to do it, and am certainly not recommending it as a good procedure. It is, however, something that has been happening enough that I can write some best practices and realistic expectations to those who tend to chase those last minute moments of inspiration.

Carl’s Disaster Planning Words of Wisdom

  1. “It’s going to be horrible and you shouldn’t do it.” Thinking through a lesson is as important as having the materials printed, don’t fool yourself into thinking that that it’ll end with a freeze frame high five. Understand that you made a mistake and try to avoid this situation again. Be honest with your class and let them know you’re doing something that might have mistakes. As class is going on take note of changes you should make before this material is used again, and make those changes as soon as you can after class.
  2. “Class structure  is as important as the materials.” Today I found a task online that covered on scatterplots and made copies, but that wasn’t enough. When I was first in situations like these, I foolishly thought having the materials in my hand made me feel prepared. You’re not really going to be prepared until you’ve thought through the timing, the possible questions, and everything else. Give yourself time to plan the structure. Stop working on the materials with time to spare in order to actually think through the way the learning should be structured. Maybe your kids will have to copy the last two problems off the board, but it’s better than having them go through a debrief that doesn’t cover all of the main points.
  3. “Lean on your routines.” If you have daily activites in your class, emphasizing them will make your class run smoother. If you have a great new idea that struck you on the way to work, don’t throw out the “Daily Do Now” or the “Thursday number talk,” instead incorporate it. Lack of consistency freaks students out. All of a sudden you’ll have management issues on top of whatever issues arise from your last minute whatever you planned. Instead, lean into these routines. Today I planned an extensive review Do Now because it would allow the class to get settled, and it would be a good review of the material that is leading up to scatterplot. The students were successful with the familiar routine and it lead smoothly into the class.
  4. “Brace yourself for pacing issues” If you aren’t really familiar with your materials it could go faster or slower, so have a back-pocket plan for either scenario. If it’s taking longer than you’ll have time for it may not be a bad idea to tie off the activity early and plan to address the rest on a later date. It may be a good lean on your routines and have an optional prompt for an exit ticket ready to go. If it is going fast and you have time at the end, you can also have an exit ticket ready to go, and maybe you an add an extra question (i.e. review a previous topic, or gather information to include as you discuss a future topic).

This marks my first #MTBoSblogsplosion post!

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