“No Rush”

Today, BPS has off for Good Friday.  I took the opportunity to go to a yoga class.  (I’ve just – just – started. Don’t judge.)  I think yoga classes must be the approximate opposite of many public school classes, and certainly of mine most days. As we waited for other students to show up, as we started the class, as we moved through the poses, the teacher kept reminding us that there was “no rush.”

No rush!?  Most classes I teach feel if not downright rushed, at least packed full.  Will we finish the project in time? Will the students complete the classwork fast enough to have the full discussion?  From the moment the bell rings until the end of class I am pushing students to do more. We don’t have time to waste, get to work right away! Finished early? Do this. Now this. You can go to the bathroom, but you’re going to miss out on the example/partner-work time/discussion. Let’s squash this side conversation immediately so we can get back to the math.

In some ways this seems good — we don’t want to waste students’ time. We want to be learning as much as we can. We want extensions for students who finish quickly. We want to expect lots of learning from every student. But in other ways, it feels unnecessary and inhuman. Does anyone benefit from packing every moment full? Do people do better work with time or with pressure? Probably a little of both. But for sure, nothing is actually so urgent about learning math that we should feel stressed, right? It’s not a crisis situation.

So one thing I’m thinking about is what it will look like when we focus less on learning all the topics we “have to learn” and instead focus more on learning, period, whether that be problem-solving, interpersonal, reflective, or social-emotional skills. I am imagining a classroom where not every day has to include a discussion. Where students can come back to the same rich problem several days in a row, deepening their thinking over time, working on the feedback pieces, the group interactions.  Where I don’t feel guilty for talking to a student about her new baby sister or his life in Sri Lanka because on some days (many days?) there is no rush.




An Illustrative Example – Version Kogs/Whole Child

So The Langster offered an example of why she wants to change/what is happening right now in her classroom with her people.  I feel I should do the same.  

Picture a 17 year old latino male who prides himself on being tough and awesome.  Let’s call him N.  And today, in my class, N cried.  And every time I think about him/the class/his situation later, I cry.  I should probably provide some background.

N has an IEP and his accommodations are around a communication disorder.  He has difficulty decoding text but is able to comprehend high level text of a variety of forms once the background information has been orally communicated.  He holds a large amount of number sense and is able to look at previous work and with prompting can push his thinking.  He is constantly singing (old school and new school stuff) and dancing.  He honestly will tell you he needs a break and when he just wants to move around.  He became an uncle two months ago and is quite proud that he is able to help his sister.  But, well, it has been quite difficult for N to arrive to school before 10am (even before the newborn) – so he has “self-directed interrupted schooling.”  But, he comes to school nearly daily just really late (as compared to our 7:45am start time).

N is repeating ninth grade courses and Algebra 1 with me.  While last year he made little progress towards the content objectives of Algebra 1, we worked on appropriate scholarly behaviors, like asking for brain brakes, asking for chunks of text to be read to, or asking for and using sentence starters in writing.  He failed the for the year in Algebra 1 and all of his other courses.

This year, well, N has been able to concentrate on concentrate on content objectives, like calculating and using slope, identifying key information necessary to solve, or solving multistep equations.  He holds a stronger mastery of how to ask for help appropriately and is able to look at his own work so he is able to move towards mastery of the content objectives.  And, boy, is he moving towards mastery.  While I see him roughly 60% of the time due to attendance early in the day, he is earning the highest achievement grades in that section.  He is able to look at his own work, reflect on his progress based on criteria for success and objectives, and communicate what he thinks he should do next.  N makes progress and mets content goals.  He is able to demonstrate mastery of the content objectives.  For term 1 and term 2, he earned a C- and B+ respectfully.  He is on track to pass Algebra and meet his IEP goals.  For this term he is earning a B.  

Now think about Exhibitions.  In Algebra 1, we have students think deeply about a social issue and use linear regression to model and predict various things.  (We’ll talk about this project in future posts…promise.) But N has been avoiding this project.  Last year, he started on the project but didn’t present it.  A lovely senior at my school has been an AWESOME community leader and has come to class to help with Exhibitions.  She somehow has awesome abilities to already know how to accommodate and act as a super positive role model (and says things like “just try and I will help you” and “you are able to do this; you just need to think about the small steps and not overwhelm yourself”).

Yesterday N had a tough day and didn’t make much progress with the exhibition project.  Today, my resident, my lovely senior volunteer, and I were determined to have N make more progress towards the end goals of this project.  We all had our roles and N made much progress!  Huzzah!  My lovely senior volunteer gave the community (mostly N) 30 minutes of work and left to eat her lunch and work on her own exhibition.  I sat with N to reflect on his work and think about his next steps (like continue to make a graph).  

He had NONE OF IT.  I mean, I am not a miracle worker but I am typically able to have students think it was a good idea to do work.  Had my lovely senior volunteer taken away my magical powers?  Would N now only work for the lovely senior volunteer?  So we chatted as I redirected 6 other needy students.

N told me he refused to do any more of the project because he had done enough and that he’d just do the rest of the project next year.  I acted confused; “how will you do it next year if you are on track to pass the year of math?” I asked.  At this point, N held his head in his hands and cried.  He cried.  Tears.  A student who is the big tough guy had tears streaming down his face.  He quickly covered his face and I distracted the other children with my weird socks and some really bad puns.  I asked why he was upset about making progress and being ready for geometry.  He said eight words that will stick with me for a while: “I don’t want to move on to Geometry.”  I though quickly and took a stab in the dark of how to respond “Well, don’t worry – even when you pass Algebra 1, you’re stuck with me, because I teach Geometry too.  You’ll still have me regardless if you pass or fail the course so you might as well make as much progress as possible.”  He dried his tears and his paper, looked at me (and sang another song), carefully plotted his remaining points and worked until the bell.  

So, why did this make me so upset? Well, it seems to me that this student was trying to avoid passing my class so he didn’t have another teacher and thus sacrifice passing his first high-school level course.  I need to think deeply about how my practice moves students to change how they think about themselves and their roles in our class and school community.  

I am often reading bits and pieces about Whole Child Education.  Each day, I try to show my students that they are people that matter who have the right to feel healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.  But I don’t think that all students feel these attributes in all of their classes. I want to be able to rethink and restructure my classes so that more students are able to experience a great learning environment.  Because for real, my students shouldn’t cry as often as they do.



And my role is…?

“We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.” -Max DePree

I often wonder what my primary job is.  I mean, when I met new people and they ask me what I do, I tell them that I am a math teacher.  But I think it is a bit more complicated than that.

Sure, during the day, students come to me because their schedule says they need to be in some sort of math class.  I plan lessons about calculating slope, determining the area of polygons, or substituting and evaluating.  So, I guess that makes me a math teacher, right?

But I get more excited about planning how students interact with each other, explain their thinking in various forms, or revise their work.  I feel better about my day when students finish their math work quickly so we have the time to really talk about their work, give each other feedback, or explore other topics of interest.

I care more about students being able to form counterarguments rather than determine the y-intercept, talk about their learning needs rather than sit still long enough to take a multiple-choice test, or eat fruits and veggies rather than do their do now.  So, does that make me not a math teacher?  I mean, if I rather do things in my class that aren’t math, that seems weird.

So when my dear colleague said we should through everything out the window, start over and redefine who we are and how we teach, how could I say no?


An illustrative example

Today, one of my student teachers wrote and taught a pretty solid lesson.  We were introducing the standard form of the linear equation (Ax + By = C).  The notes asked students to determine the combinations of chairs ($35/each) and/or pillows ($5/each) someone could buy with $70.  This starting problem treated students like sense-makers in that it was largely accessible and students could go about solving in any way they pleased.  Plus, while the problem is slightly contrived, it is closely related to actual situations (as opposed to, for example, problems where students have to figure out the price of something when obviously if they were at the store, they’d just look up the price).

Why is it illustrative?  Because unfortunately, our schedule is such that we “have to” finish standard form by next Tuesday.  And therefore, after students found all the combinations, we had to finagle our way into the equation (which a few students generated, while most hadn’t yet abstracted that far).  And then we moved on to a bunch more scenarios (aka practice).

So when I talk about traditional math taught more creatively, this is what I’m talking about.  That was a pretty creative lesson, I think, where students were respected and engaged. What do I envision for next year?  Off the top of my head, for standard form equations, I could imagine students entering the room on the first day and finding various pairs of manipulatives with constraints at different tables.  Students would then spend awhile finding ALL the possible combinations.  Teachers would push students to represent those combinations in different ways — pictorially, tabularly, graphically, realizing the combinations were linear, and eventually representing them algebraically.  Groups would present their representations and as a class, come up with a general form of a standard equation.  Soonafter, we could apply standard form equations to systems, where they are more useful.

This is just one idea, but I hope serves to portray the goal for next year versus my current best efforts.


September 2013

Today, I’m thinking about September.  In the last two weeks, I was fortunate enough to get to visit two non-traditional schools Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield, MA and the MET School in Providence, RI.  Both schools are more student-centered and seem to do extensive work on social-emotional, scholar skills with students so that their community is calm, safe, and welcoming – qualities that are important in every school but even more important when asking students to constantly share their thinking.

I am wondering what social-emotional or scholar skills do I need to teach?  How do I teach them genuinely?  How do I balance the building of those skills/classroom community with doing math?  I’ve done this before, but never so intentionally, and I never felt like we had the time.  Throwing everything out the window means that I’m going to grant myself and the classroom community the time.

The social-emotional, scholar skills I am currently thinking about include …

– Working in groups

– Working alone

– Holding a math discussion

– Respecting the people and the space

– Peer review/feedback

– Revision of work

– Self-awareness around strengths and weaknesses

– Making good choices within more freedom

While it is challenging to pinpoint all the SE/Scholar skills, the how is even harder, at least for me.  My main ideas for the how right now include …

– Student generated anchor-charts with norms

– Self-reflection (but how to make meaningful?)

– Community meetings

– Anonymous suggestion/feedback box

So, brilliant readers, what ideas do you have for me?  What books should I be reading about this?  I know there are teachers who are way smarter than I am in general and particularly about this.


What Math?

So, I’m imagining (wishfully thinking?) that maybe someone now is reading this and wondering … what exactly are they talking about!?  So here’s an example of what kind of math I’m talking about teaching.

We will very likely start off the year with the Color Map Problem.  This is a famous math problem that asks, if no neighboring regions can have the same color, what is the smallest number of different colors required to color any map?

This problem is good in general and particularly at the beginning of the year for a few reasons.

1) It’s low threshold, high ceiling.  That means that students with diverse math experiences can comfortably enter the problem, and that the problem involves high level thinking and can go incredibly abstract/in depth.  These are the best kind of problems.

2) It’s not a familiar problem.  The Color Map is a discrete math problem.  Few students have encountered much discrete math before college, so the problem levels the playing field and doesn’t favor the students who have previously excelled at math.

3) You can go far with it!  After students color one map and figure out how to articulate their strategy, they can see if their strategy would work for another map, they could try a different strategy altogether, or they could work on how to represent their map in other ways (hey there, graph theory!).

Hopefully this begins to answer the question of what exactly we’re talking about.  And if you haven’t done the Color Map problem, find yourself a blank map of Boston neighborhoods or South America (or anywhere!) and see how few colors you can use.


Ideal Classroom Snapshot (I)

<Insert large number of qualifications and self-deprecations here.>

This is how I am currently thinking about my ideal math classroom.  It is and will always be in draft form.  This is informed by innumerable people, places, and books.  There were two books, however, that nearly caused my head to explode (in a good way) and actually caused me to start writing long rants about education in general and math education in particular.  They are worth mentioning.

The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn

ROLE Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom by Mark Barnes

Below, please find a working draft of my ideal classroom. It obviously doesn’t include all my thoughts but gives a basic picture that hopefully will give a context for what I’m taking about from here on out.

The Space

– Pods of tables for students to work in groups

– Comfortable area for students to sprawl doing independent work

– Bookshelves with references, math games, books, Sudoku, etc.

Primary Work

Students are primarily involved in solving rich problems in groups using whatever methods make sense to them.  Groups are completing problems that are similar enough that groups could learn from the other groups’ methods but not necessarily the exact same.  The problems are purposefully chosen to meet objectives for Algebra, but must be rich and meaningful above all else.

After students have their “rough draft thinking” effectively communicated, they review each others’ work, giving feedback, learning new strategies, and asking questions.  Whole class discussions about various strategies and connections between the strategies would inform group work.  Once feedback has happened, groups revise their work for “final draft publishing,” which could include writing up the problem or creating a video/podcast explaining their work.  There may be more questions/angles from which students attack the problem during this revision stage.

Once the problem has been milked for all the mathematical/reasoning it’s worth, students archive their final draft work.

Secondary Work

Students are secondarily involved in solving challenge problems that they choose from a huge binderful of women … I mean, problems.  They can work on these problems alone or in groups and again can choose their medium for explaining their final work.  Students also archive their final draft work on these problems.  The class goal is some undetermined number of problems solved/student over the course of the year.

Respecting Students as People

Movement is unrestricted (in a live and let live way).  Students may choose their groups, go to the bathroom or take a break when needed.

Grades are unimportant.  We may track student progress on the main Algebra, Problem Solving, and Work Habits objectives, but we do not care about grades.

Homework is minimal – only given when necessary and involving choice as much as possible.

Relationships are key.  The teacher is always noticing and giving feedback to students with the aim of helping them grow as mathematicians and people.  Student opinions are respected — there are several forums for students to voice concerns about the classroom, teacher, etc.

That’s it for now

As time goes on, I will add to this, I’m sure.  For now, what are your questions, concerns, questions, thoughts, reactions?