Be careful what you ask for

It’s the beginning of the year and Jimmy is a student in your algebra 2 class. Your colleague down the hall, Mr. Math, taught Jimmy geometry last year. At some point during the beginning of the year, you and Mr. Math begin discussing students on your algebra 2 roster. Jimmy’s name comes up. What’s the natural thing to do? Of course, you ask him for insight into Jimmy. What to look out for, how to best reach him, what to expect.

I see the obvious value in sharing information about students. Teachers are essentially transferring prior knowledge about students to better serve those same students. But part of me has always felt that knowledge gained through a situation like this can actually do more harm than good.

When I ask a colleague for details about a student’s tendencies, regardless how they respond, my understanding of the student becomes immediately biased. In other words, the moment Mr. Math tells me all about Jimmy’s strengths and weaknesses, I suddenly have expectations of Jimmy. Whether I like it or not, Jimmy is not just Jimmy anymore to me. On a subconscious level, my approach towards Jimmy is no longer organic.

Maybe this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing.

While in the past I have openly turned to colleagues to gain details about current students, I am questioning myself these days. Is it worth it?



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Day in the Life: First Day of Classes (Post #2)

I’ve decided to chronicle this school year through my blog. It’s part of Tina Cardone’s Day in the Life book project. This is the second post in the series

5:15am | I wake up. Eat breakfast and drink coffee. I read for about forty-five minutes, and get ready to leave for school.

7:00am | I’m out the door – about 10 minutes later than I hoped for. My commute is 12 minutes. It’s humid this morning, so I’m easily sweating by the time I lock up my bike in the school parking lot.

7:15am | I walk in and “clock myself in” by moving my time card to the “in” column. I check my mailbox and there’s nothing in it. I’m new to the school, so I don’t know any of the office staff, but one them catches my attention to give me my daily attendance just before I walk out of the office. En route to my classroom I unexpectedly run into a teacher friend who participated in the NYU RET with me two summers ago. We were both shocked to see one another. We catch up for a few minutes and wish each other well on the first day of classes.

7:20am | I get to my classroom. I spend some time preparing for the day’s plan with the students: a get-to-know-their-teacher activity. I don’t like the whole syllabus-and-class expectations thing on the first day. It’s dry and the kids are going to forget it all anyway. Because no one knows me, I need for the students to have some sense of who I am. Plus, I want to spend some just talking with them, interacting. I prepare ten questions about myself on some slides. I add some photos. I’ll present the question (e.g. how long have I been a teacher?) and allow the kids do some fun, strategic guessing before I reveal the answer. I take care of some other odds and ends before I head out to first period.

8:05am | I make my way down to my first period algebra 2 class, which is down the hall. The class technically begins at 8:15, but I need to arrive early to get situated. The period 0 teacher is closing her lesson. When the kids arrive, I’m hurriedly connecting up my laptop to the SMARTBoard. I do manage to catch some of them at the door as they walk in. I welcome them and yield a warm smile.

I greet the students collectively. This class marks a milestone for me and I proudly let them know this. They’re special. They are the first class I’ve taught at the school. I run through the activity and it seems to get better over the course of the period. I feel the kids really get a sense of who I am and why I came to the school. They also learn about how I teach – as if I had a son or daughter the roster. I can tell that this hits home with them. This particular class is full of upperclassmen and they’re obviously excited about seeing all of their friends again. The energy in the room is great, something I hope maintains itself given that its first period. Around five students walk in late through the period and I take a mental note to get a late log set up.

9:03am | Period two and three are preps for me, meaning that I do not teach. It’s basically time that I can use to plan, get stuff done, etc. I hit up the library. There are students and a teacher that I don’t know. I had my period 1 kids create name tents and had them to give me feedback on the inside of it (e.g. Sara Vanderwerf), so I look at these and write some responses on each one. I print out three #ObserveMe posters to hang outside of the classrooms where I teach. I make my way back to my room during period 3 and get some work done. My to do list is slowly growing throughout the day. Probably the best teacher in the school is teaching in my room this period and he doesn’t mind that I linger at my desk in the back. Inside, I’m really stoked about this and am looking forward to taking some cues from him. I set up an email group for one of my classes. I manage to scarf down two tangerines.

10:39am | Period 4 algebra 2 begins, my second class of the day. This class is in my room. I arrive in time to set up my computer and greet most of the kids at the door. This time the activity goes better than period 1. I’m more dramatic with the questions and the answers. I leave them on the edge of their seat on several occasions. Overall, it’s fun and engaging. Although, I come to the realization that I’m talking a lot.

11:27am | I have another algebra 2 class period 5 which is directly across the hall. This is an honors class. (I’m developing feelings tracking students that I haven’t finalized yet. More to come on this.) The start of the class is weird for me. After closing out my period 4 and seeing every student out, I look across the hall and expect to see all of my students in the hallways waiting for me to walk into the classroom – so that they can do the same. Instead, I see a full classroom of students sitting at their desks. I look inside and think, there’s no way those are my students. I even ask an AP nearby if period 4 ended, thinking that these students are from the previous class. They were my students. This blew me away. The students simply came in orderly, sat down, and patiently waited for me. What does this say about my previous experiences? I’ll always remember this moment.

I walk in and learn of a deaf student enrolled in the class (from her interpreter). That’s a first for me and sets a billion questions racing in my head. I have to gather myself as I haphazardly get my computer set up and greet the class. Again, there’s very good energy from this crew. I really like them. There are a couple of young ladies in the back that quietly talk amongst themselves all period. Mental note taken when I create seating assignments.

12:15pm | Lunch! The day has been a blur so far and I’m so glad to be able to sit, gather my thoughts, and eat. I run down to the AP’s office to use her microwave to heat up my food. Chicken meatballs, quinoa, mash, and a salad. It’s delicious and hits the spot. While eating, my to do list grows even more. Thanks Evernote. I meet up with the special education teacher that I’m co-teaching algebra 1 with during period 8 to finalize our plans.

1:03pm | My period 7 algebra 2 class is in my room. Things go well. This is much smaller group than all of the others and I like it. By this point, my throat is sore and my voice raspy. This is partly the result of a restful summer. Also, did I mention that I’m talking a lot? I realize during the course of the period that I have really positive feelings about this class. No sure what it is. Call it teacher’s intuition. Or maybe it’s because I know that it’s close to the end of the day.

1:51pm | My last class of the day is also in my room. Whew. By this point I’m not sure that I can make it across the finish line. My co-teacher walks in and we greet the kids as they walk in. Moderately sized group. I modify and shorten my question session with the kids. My co-teacher answers the questions as well. He then goes into course expectations and the grading policy. We’re pleased with the group and he gives me a run down after class about some of the students that he knows from last year and over the summer. (I have thoughts about this commonly adopted strategy to exchange info concerning previous students. Post coming soon.)

2:45pm | I sit at my desk, spent. The principal and couple of teachers come in and ask how the day was. This seems like a thing here. We check up on one another, especially new teachers. I like that. I’ve been made so incredibly welcome during this transitional stage of my career. It’s a family. I spend the next two hours providing feedback on name tents, making more to-dos, and hanging up my #ObserveMe posters. I leave school and arrive home at 5:33 pm. I conclude the day with a gingerly walk around the neighborhood and relax.

1.Teachers make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Sometimes we make so many it feels overwhelming. When you think about today, what is a decision/teacher move you made that you are proud of? What is one you are worried wasn’t ideal?

I was felt that my new students connected with me on the first day. The question and answer session proved to be a hit, despite my seemingly endless talking. Really proud of this since strong relationships with students are incredibly important. At the same time, I am concerned that some of the quieter students may have been put off by the whole thing. I saw some looks that were in realm of, “really?”

2. Every person’s life is full of highs and lows. Share with us some of what that is like for a teacher. What are you looking forward to? What has been a challenge for you lately?

Being a teacher means being always on from the moment you walk into the building. Not even lunch is sacred. It’s comes with the territory. I most look forward to interacting with students. Talking with them. Finding them. It makes me forget about all the other stresses that teaching can bring.

3. We are reminded constantly of how relational teaching is. As teachers we work to build relationships with our coworkers and students. Describe a relational moment you had with someone recently.

I asked the students to guess how long I’ve lived in NYC. The answers were all over the board. After I shared the answer of ten years, the follow-up question was how often I visit The Bronx. She didn’t know this, but I’ve lived in The Bronx for all of those ten years. My impression was that she wasn’t expecting me to reside in a borough not associated with being White. Instead, she figured that I may come to The Bronx to teach and go home to “another” borough. The conversation brought up lots of questions for me that I’m still wrapping my head around. More food for thought on my deep analysis of stereotyping and cultural relevant pedagogy.

4. Teachers are always working on improving, and often have specific goals for things to work on throughout a year. What is a goal you have for the year?

Concrete steps towards my goals should begin the rollout of instructional routines and group norms next week. I’m adopting the Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes initiative from Annie Perkins this year, which I will present next week as well. I’ll be posting and sharing the success of a vast array of minority mathematicians throughout the year.

5. What else happened this month that you would like to share?




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Goals for 2016-17

This year will be an adventure, no doubt. Here’s what I’d like to focus on in my classroom.

Some of this year’s goals take precedence over others, so I’ve numbered them in order of priority.

  1. Emphasize mathematical structure by implementing two specific instructional routines on a regular basis. This summer I spent four weeks taking a course with New Visions for Public Schools where I learned about the instructional routines Contemplate then Calculate and Connecting Representations. I have lots of routines in my class, but these feel different since they provide an explicit framework for learning. David Wees wrote a great post arguing for these types of routines and  how they can impact teaching and learning.
  2. Bring more cultural relevancy into my practice. I’ve given so much thought to equity and identity this summer. It all began by reading This is Not a Test and my subsequent post this spring. For years I thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m doing a fine job honoring cultural and race in my teaching.’ I was wrong. I think I was always cognizant of equity issues, but I never took a deliberate approach to helping my students overcome stereotype threat, oppression, and other related issues. This summer I realized that I’m not close to doing right by my students.
  3. Honor my students through my lessons. This is closely related to #2. Sara brought this to my attention a little while back and it has stayed with me. I hope to take steps early in the year to learn about my kids beyond what they understand about content. Going beyond establishing relationships, translating this knowledge into tangibles that are evident in my lessons is the focus here.
  4. Develop interdependency amongst my students. I have thought out some group norms that I want to use for this. Hopefully the end result is a meaningful shift from relying on me to relying on each other.
  5. Strengthen my parental outreach. I have plans for a bi-weekly parent newsletter and an improved class website that provides a more transparent experience for my parents. Plus, I just want to put much more effort in making phone calls home.
  6. Get acclimated to my new school. I know that this will happen over time no matter what I do, but I am mindful of the process. This will be a completely new experience, and a significant part involves me discovering my role in the building and fostering relationships with new colleagues and students.
  7. Promote growth mindset through mistakes. My SBG does a fairly solid job because of the integrated retake exams, but I want attack this from the angle of honoring mistake-making as well. This goes beyond merely saying that mistakes and struggle are prerequisite to learning. I need to systemically embed mistakes into my lessons to fully convey and develop a risk-taking culture in my classroom.
  8. Homework. I need to get this right. Last year my system was pathetic. Admittedly, this is a work in progress, but I hope to find something that makes the most sense for my students. This may even include excluding.
  9. Assign projects. I’ve never been one who teaches through projects, but this year I want to take some baby steps in this direction. Maybe I don’t assign traditional projects with all the bells and whistles, but simple tasks that span a given unit and that go beyond homework.
  10. Assessing skills using a SBG approach. At EdCampNYC last spring, there was workshop that focused on this sort of thing. This seem far-fetched for me to accomplish, but it’s something that seems like the next logical step in the SBG process.



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New year, new school, new me


The next chapter of my career begins next week.

I’ll be teaching at a new school.

After a rewarding ten year tenure at my previous school, I made the decision to start anew. The move needed to happen for several reasons, both personal and professional. Moving on wasn’t something that hit me one day when I woke up. It was a slow, revealing process that took me over a year to fully accept. For anyone that’s been at a school for that long, you understand how bittersweet it can be to relocate. I left home.

First, the interview process.

I underestimated how much I would learn about myself. Over the course of four interviews and three demo lessons, I actually became a better teacher. I was presented with questions that I, being on several interview teams, was accustomed to asking candidates as opposed than being expected to answer myself. I was asked to respond to the question all math teachers face. I was asked to share the percentage of my lessons that I consider to have a low floor and high ceiling. I prompted about the nonnegotiable aspects of my classroom. I even experienced a progressive interview that consisted of pitching a course Shark Tank style, round robin meetings with several teachers, and a written reflection of the whole process. This really opened my eyes to what an interview can be.

All of the interviews put me in a position to think deeply about myself and my core values as a teacher. I do this regularly, but not in a way that forces me to formally present it to a stranger. In the moment, I discovered personal feelings and ideas about teaching that I wasn’t aware that I had. Who I am kidding, it was only the fourth job interview…ever.

I was fairly picky about my new school. Jokingly, a member of the interview team at my new school mentioned that it seemed like I was interviewing them. Well, I knew what I wanted. I knew that once I was in, I was in for the long term. I understood the level of commitment that I was making to myself and my new school – and I didn’t take that lightly. I wanted to be sure that my new home was the best place for my abilities and future contributions.

I wore so many different hats at my previous school (it was a small school by traditional standards). I created and maintained our GAFE suite and school website while supervising many after school activities including the intramural sports program, bicycle club, robotics team, tech team, among others. I was on several professional development committees and the LPP team. Not to mention the many other short-term commitments that came up that I volunteered to spearhead. All and all, I was considered a lead member of the staff, I played a central role.

Why do I bring all this up? What does it mean? It means that after securing my position in the spring, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time this summer pondering the rare opportunity that I now have. I’ve been coming to grips with the overwhelming idea of reestablishing myself as a teacher, teacher leader, stakeholder, and contributor. No one knows me. I don’t know most of the systems and structures to which I’ll be adapting. I don’t have seniority. No one cares about my history. I’m at zero. I’m just the new guy that teaches math.

And that is precisely why this dramatic change will elevate my career. I have the rare opportunity to rethink my practice from a rookie’s perspective. Surely there will be a period of adjustment. The transition has already proved to be challenging in many ways. But, at the same time, my classroom will be as fresh as it’s ever going to be. I can reevaluate my assumptions. The bonds I make with students, colleagues, and the overall school community will be rooted in how I build my new reputation. I’m painting on an empty canvas.

Looked at in a certain light, I’m a new teacher again…except that have 10 years of experience to guide me. This blank slate provides me with a unique advantage over my development – one that I hope allows me to contribute greatly to my new settings. I hope this perspective enables me to invigorate to my classroom and my school. Plus, talk about timing, because luckily I’m going to be chronicling the first year of my adventures at my new school for the day in the life of a teacher book project.

Here’s to writing the next chapter.



Note: My new school referenced my blog. I am led to believe that it played a role in the hiring process.

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Day in the Life: First Day of School for Teachers (Post #1)

I’ve decided to chronicle this school year through my blog. It’s part of Tina Cardone’s Day in the Life book project. This is the first post in the series

5:45am | Rise and shine. I’m a morning person, always have been. I love waking up to the morning sun, birds, and fresh air. It’s usually the time when I get a good chunk of my reading and writing done. Right now I’m reading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Ya’ll Too by Cristopher Emdin. I read for half an hour, eat some breakfast. Drink coffee. Get ready to leave.

7:15am | I’m out the door. I bike to school everyday. The ride is brief, about 12 minutes, but The Bronx is notorious hilly. I think of it as a morning workout, my version of going to the gym or running. Today, before I head to school, I make a quick loop around to the library to return a book. I love the New York Public Library.

7:35am | I arrive at school far later than I ever would during the school year, but since there are no students today, I don’t care. I lock up my bike for the first time in the school parking lot. I plan to leave my U-lock attached to the gate so I don’t have to lug it back and forth from home everyday. This is a big change for me since last year I kept my bicycle in my classroom.

Last week I was at school and found a classroom that I’ll be teaching in to store all of my teacher crap, so I go upstairs to that room. Since I’m new and know no one, I have no other logical place to go. A colleague from the math department comes in mentions that there’s breakfast down the hall. Nice. Since I already filled up at home, I snack on a few pieces of honeydew and sip some juice. As everyone mingles, I introduce myself to a few people and greet my new math department colleagues, but it’s mainly a big reunion for everyone else after a long summer. Myself and another new science teacher huddle together near the center of it all and talk for a bit. I feel isolated.

8:03am | I head to the school library to prepare for the morning festivities. The principal opens things up. He’s the founding principal and gives everything the has to the school. Super committed. He introduces the new teachers, myself included. Everyone claps. He then gets into the school’s history and why we’re all here. His talk is inspiring. It’s essentially a pep talk and serves its purpose. I love listening to people speak and this is no different. The man has a presence that is unmistakable. He also addresses the school’s performance last year and reveals the school’s goals for the year: a renewed focus on relationships, concentrated effort on the lowest-third students, and the idea of teacher as educator.

The assistant principals are up next. They do their thing and hit on lots of things from accessing email to observations. At this point it’s been over two hours with no break, so I’m fidgety and off-kilter. We take a 10-minute break at 10:30. I go back to the leftover breakfast and snag a muffin. More juice. I return to the library and the APs finish their presentation.

11:25am | Department meetings. This is the first formal meeting with all of my new colleagues. They welcome me to the team. I pitch in when they start reflecting on the goal from last year, precision of language. Specifically, the proper use of mathematics vocabulary. One way they addressed this was by using sentence starters. I mentioned that it’d possibly be good for us to have sentence starters that aren’t specific to any one concept. Things are running behind schedule, so we break for lunch.

12:00pm | The kitchen staff prepared lunch for the faculty. One word: amazing. The food itself, yeah, but the fact that they would prepare us food is incredible. Oddly, I think this is the first time I’ve ever had lunch that is usually eaten by students. It was so well-balanced and nutritious.

1:04pm | The math department reunites. We pick up where we left off and somewhere during the course of our discussion, I mention my work with facilitating the video club the last couple of years. The team seems intrigued by the idea and decided it would be something they’d want to try this year. The department chair gets pulled out which signals the unofficial close of our meeting. I briefly meet my co-teacher for my period 8 algebra 1 class.

1:40pm | The rest of the day is spent in the classroom prepping my room. I use the word “my” very loosely because I quickly learned that I’m only teaching 60% of my class load there and it’s shared with five other teachers. (So it’s not really mine, but for simplicity I’ll use the determiner “my” from here on out.) This is a drastically different experience for me because I’ve had my own room for the last seven years. Here’s to becoming a more mobile teacher!

I spend about two hours cleaning and decluttering the room. It’s a mess. There were books in there dating back to JFK’s presidency. OK, that’s a stretch, but hopefully you get my point. Next, I turned to the layout of the room. This is a high priority for me. I rearrange the desks and other furniture into something that feels much more inviting. After about 30 minutes of moving things around, I go with several “U” shaped groups around the room and moved my desk and cabinet to the rear. I also open up the shades to let more light in. A few people stop by and compliment the new look and feel that the room now has. I hope that the teachers sharing it will feel the same.

After detoxifying the desk, I organize it with some of my things. I like a tidy, organized work space. My productivity hinges on it. I hang up a few things around the room, sit a while to catch up on email, and call it a day. One more day before students.

5:37pm | I arrive home and enjoy some family time before dozing off to sleep around 10pm.

1.Teachers make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Sometimes we make so many it feels overwhelming. When you think about today, what is a decision/teacher move you made that you are proud of? What is one you are worried wasn’t ideal?

I felt really good after I arranged my classroom. When I initially walked in the room, the desks were in disarray and there was old, unused crap everywhere. It didn’t feel like a place where learning is supposed to happen. At the same time, because I share the room with others, it was terribly inconsiderate of me not to consult those teachers before situating the room. This may come back to bite me.

2. Every person’s life is full of highs and lows. Share with us some of what that is like for a teacher. What are you looking forward to? What has been a challenge for you lately?

When it comes to challenges, transitioning to a new school after a decade in my old one takes the cake. That said, I’m really looking forward to meeting the kids in a couple of days. Once I start building relationships with my students, everything else will take care of itself.

3. We are reminded constantly of how relational teaching is. As teachers we work to build relationships with our coworkers and students. Describe a relational moment you had with someone recently.

Today I spoke with a veteran teacher who joined the school last year. He and I were both reminded just how much of a risk we by leaving everything to reestablish ourselves in another school community. It was a great conversation that helped me keep things in perspective…and not feel totally alone.

4. Teachers are always working on improving, and often have specific goals for things to work on throughout a year. What is a goal you have for the year?

Here are my goals for 2016-17, there are several. I sort of prioritized, so the big ones are a strong focus on instructional routines, establishing a more culturally relevant stance as a teacher, and having my students be more interdependent via group norms.

5. What else happened this month that you would like to share?

I’ve been working on curriculum a lot during the last few weeks, particularly on the algebra 2 side of things. I’m adopting a somewhat new course sequence, so we’ll see how it goes.



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