The Regents and the Absolute Power They Hold

At the end of school year, a colleague and I were chatting. He was telling me about a student of his. The student had poor attendance. All year, she had attended his math class just a handful of times. She was part of the classroom community, but only in theory. Her name was on the roster and my colleague knew who she was. That’s where it ended. Math class wasn’t a priority for her.

My colleague worked tirelessly to help her make it to class. He called home, tracked her down outside of lunch, offered incentives. But his efforts brought no change to her patterns of attendance.

In June, after 10 months together, her class was scheduled for a Regents exam. Like all state exams, the Regents is but one narrow way of measuring student understanding, but you wouldn’t know that from how much weight these tests are given by the powers that be. Despite their flaws, these tests reign supreme. We kick and scream, but in the end, all of us in the public domain bow to their authority.

Given her lackluster attendance and utter disconnect from the class, this student should have been shielded from the domineering influence of the Regents. She should have been exempt, unmoved by its control. Simply put, since she had little investment in whatever outcome awaited her, the Regents should have been meaningless to her.

But no. What happened on the day of the Regents? She showed up. Bright and early.

What’s interesting about this story is not how the student believed she could be successful on the exam with such little preparation. Instead, what I find fascinating is how the Regents accomplished something that the teacher never could. Despite her teacher’s Herculean efforts, nothing he did moved the needle. His efforts were mere child’s play when compared to the swift and unflinching dominance of the Regents. He practically moved mountains to get her to come to his class and nothing worked. The Regents snapped its fingers and she arrived promptly.

Hearing from my colleague how the exam cast its spell over this student was disappointing, but it wasn’t alarming. I’ve seen it happen many times before. For these students, in these instances, the Regents wields power that arrives every June like a savior: it instills undying hope that grades can be rescued if a 65 is earned. This power is absolute and supersedes anything their teacher might have done to support their growth in the months leading up to that ominous day in June. The teacher becomes a footnote.

While this phenomenon wasn’t new for me, because of a two-year, Covid-inspired hiatus from the exams, it did serve as a gloomy reminder: I matter very little when stacked up against the institution that is the New York State Regents. It commands a level of respect from students that I can only dream of achieving. It always attracts a crowd eager to oblige. It achieves more on paper (literally) than I ever have in my pedagogy.

Remote learning made me feel small. Now, with the return of the Regents, I remember how small I actually am.


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On National Board Renewal

Back In 2018, I used funds from the New York State Shanker Grant to apply for National Board Certification. It was a demanding, multi-year journey that triggered all sorts of valuable reflection. Fortunately, after spending the good part of three years taking a math content test and writing mounds about my teaching, the powers that be at National Board felt I met their standards. I was granted certification. The cost was around $2000, all of which the Shanker Grant paid for.

I had mixed feelings about the process, which I summarized in a blogpost. One of my biggest takeaways from the National Board application was an improved understanding of how every decision I make in the classroom needs to be matched with clear intentions. I’m often overcome with pie-in-the-sky thoughts, and National Board forced me to get granular and think about the purpose of every little thing I do. It’s simple, but I also enjoyed the platform that certification provided for reflection. I love to write about my teaching and the NBCT structure gave me a new, interesting way of doing it. It’s done for oneself. Achieving certification also came with a more tangible benefit: being awarded my final salary step by the New York City Department of Education.

Despite my takeaways, I expected too much from National Board. Don’t get me wrong, their math standards are comprehensive and, taken collectively, set a high bar for teaching that’s worth striving for. But going in, I thought meeting them was going to be a game-changing experience for my career. This just wasn’t the case. Instead, I found getting certified to be pure introspection and refined self-analysis. In this way, I think the value of being an NBCT is somewhat overrated. It’s a worthwhile process, but not something that should place me in a separate class of teachers. I walked away from certification pretty much the same, with a few added perspectives about my teaching. In itself, this isn’t bad. It has its place.

Anyway, certification is good for five years. In year 3, they give you the option to submit a renewal application (you can also do it in year 4). Renewing is much less work than initial certification, but is still nothing to laugh at. Instead of 40+ pages of written commentary, renewal requires about half that: 18 pages (and far fewer forms!).

Being in year 3 of my certification, I had a decision to make this past school year. Did I want to renew? With no Shanker Grant to pay for it and no salary step to earn, was renewal worth my time? Was it worth the money? (Renewal costs about $500.)

Despite a busy year, I dampened my expectations this past spring and dove in. My desire to move out of New York in the coming years and the continued lure of having an interstate certification was something I couldn’t pass up. I was also excited about using the application as a vehicle to explore two key developments in my teaching these last several years: student writing in mathematics and cogenerative dialogues.

I’ve written about both extensively here on my blog, but doing so through National Board this spring brought me even more clarity on these practices and how they have shaped my teaching. I’ve invested so much time into them that using renewal to continue to unpack their influence on my teaching was helpful. This clarity helped me better understand myself and reveal why I do what I do. In addition, as I move to submit speaking proposals and hold workshops on both student writing and cogens, writing about these practices so plentifully through National Board will be vital to sharing them with other teachers (I hope).

Reflecting on the process, renewal was far less demanding than initial certification. National Board’s goal, I think, was to have candidates showcase two aspects of their teaching that demonstrate continued growth. They called these “Professional Growth Experiences,” or PGEs. Centering two PGEs in the context the NBCT standards simplified the application and made it more meaningful than what I did in 2018. While a couple of their prompts were ambiguous, I found the renewal application to be fair and digestible. Working on and off for several days a week — an hour here and two hours there — it took me about was 8 weeks to complete the application.

That’s what I think. Come December, I’ll find out what National Board thinks. They report that around 90% of renewal candidates meet National Board’s standards and earn renewal status. Well, here’s to not being an outlier!

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Meditations on a Cogen • Post-School Year Reflections

During the 2021-22 school year I’m having weekly co-generative dialogues (or cogens) with my students. In an effort to help me process these talks and document progress, I summarize and write reflections after each cogen. This is the 28th and final post in the series.

As the last post in this series, here are my final reflections and takeaways on my experiences holding weekly cogens this school year. A lot happened. There is a lot to think about.

Time
A primary concern I had at the start of the year was time. Last year — my first year holding cogens — fitting cogens into my schedule was a breeze. But with the rigid agenda of a traditional school year returning, how could I make time to hold weekly cogens?

In the end, I worried about time often this year, but not in the way I originally thought. Finding time for my cogens turned out not to be an issue. I simply built them into my schedule and prioritized them over other demands. In October, we adopted Thursdays after-school as our meeting time and, other than a few exceptions, it stayed that way. Given the 23 students who were part of the cogen, it was shocking that our meeting time didn’t need to change.

The bigger issue was student attendance. I constantly racked my brain about it. Would the students show? How many would remember? Though I reminded the students about our sessions regularly, I asked myself these questions every week (mainly during the first few weeks of a cohort). Surely, the chemistry of certain cohorts made them less prone to forget about sessions. But because cogens were new for my students, I wasn’t sure how serious they would take them. Attendance each week felt like a crapshoot.

Maintaining interest
Even when some kids forgot about the cogen, however, the future of the cogen was never in doubt. What kept my students coming back week after week? Perhaps it was the 5% extra credit they got for attending, but I doubt it. On an exit survey, 86% of cogen students reported that they would “Definitely” or “Probably” still have joined without the extra credit. (Many also confirmed this during the cogens themselves.) Several students praised my having snacks for them. At the end of a long day, it was nice to have something to munch on. Many others said that being heard and helping the class were big draws for them. On why they decided to join and keep attending, here are student comments that I found to be representative:

  • Because you’re a teacher willing to ask us for help instead of the other way around.
  • I saw it as a great chance in not only helping myself but also helping my classmates.
  • Mainly just to see what it was about.
  • The manner in which you approached me about it made me feel special.
  • I liked how we all got a say in whatever we were discussing. Even for the quiet ones, you would always invite them into the convo for feedback.

Class Improvements
Cogens are just conversations if they don’t result in action to improve the class. I’m proud of the class improvements we made this year. They were diverse and met the moment. In a year where we all were searching for answers, my cogen delivered. Some improvements we made included:

  • Developing DeltaMath goals to motivate the class (link)
  • Creating DeltaMath exam reviews (link)
  • Changing exam review strategies (link)
  • Holding in-class “DeltaMath days” (link)
  • Group quizzes (link)
  • Ungraded, “feedback” quizzes (link)
  • Restructuring after-school tutoring (link)
  • Key revisions of the metacognitive journal assignment (link)

Other ideas we had came up short. For example, the “Weekly Planner” we devised back in December was good in theory, but had no staying power. I used it for a week and then ditched it. I’ve learned that if my cogen is productive, then many of the solutions that get brought up will fail or simply never get implemented.

Coteaching
About halfway through the year, the cogens began striving for more. It wasn’t enough to simply talk about improvement; the cogens themselves had to be the change. Thus, the cogens evolved to be a space where we planned and taught lessons together. We accomplished this three times during the year. The first was a game of Bingo. For the second, we created an original board game called Infinite Levels. The third was a lesson that introduced rational exponents.

Each lesson took effort and took 3-5 cogens to make a reality, but I found designing, planning, and teaching alongside students exciting. Sure, my students don’t have the experience or command that I do, but that’s what made our partnership work so well. They delivered fresh, practical, and student-forward ideas about content and pedagogy that were often in my blindspot.

Looking forward to next year, the success of our coteaching leaves me wondering: How do my current instructional routines limit my students’ potential for taking ownership of their own learning? What inherent constraints have I placed on their learning without even knowing it? How might coplanning and coteaching with my students break the glass ceiling that exists in my classroom?

The development “on-demand” cogens
In the spring, the consistency and progress of my weekly cogens inspired me to create a multi-day lesson using a series of “on-demand” cogens. Based on the lesson, which was rooted in the historical mistreatment of farmers of color, I recruited particular students who I knew could support the design of the lesson. We met three times over the course of two months. There were so many layers to the lesson that I wrote blog posts after each cogen to help me sort it all out.

The cogens proved to be invaluable not only to the lesson itself, but also to my understanding of cogens and how to employ them. For the last two years, my cogens only happened weekly and were standard issue. While weekly cogens are now a mainstay for me, this new, “on-demand” variety of cogen helped me see how to use cogens to address specific needs in the classroom in a more spontaneous and nimble way.

Next Year
For my weekly cogens, there are two changes I’m looking to implement next year. First, I’m going to make them slightly longer. On the exit survey, many students said they wished the cogens were 45 minutes instead of 30. Increasing our meeting time would enable us to talk about more, hear more perspectives, and get more done. I wasn’t pinched for time this year, but still felt guilty asking the students for more than a half-hour each week. But given their feedback, it seems they desired a longer cogen too.

Second, I’m going run the cogens without offering extra credit. With the cogen culture that I know is possible, I want to try developing it without holding a carrot in front of my students. By offering them extra credit, not only am I inflating their grades (however little it may be), but I may also be assuming that they won’t attend without it. Besides, both last year and this year, most students told me in-person and reported on the exit survey that they would have attended the cogens without extra credit. Removing the carrot will be a big jump for me, as I use extra credit as a the cherry on top when selling the cogen to students, but I’m confident it‘ll work out. I hope this doesn’t blow up in my face.

What if…
The lasting impact of my cogens on my practice lies in how they systematically marry my knowledge of teaching to the learning profiles of my students. Cogens help me tailor my pedagogy to my students, empower them, and keep them engaged in learning. I do wonder, however, how much more impactful my cogens would be if I weren’t the only teacher doing them at my school. Whenever the makeup of my cogens changed, which was about every six weeks, onboarding the new kids took considerable thought and energy. As the year went on, this took away from the cogen’s effectiveness.

But what if cogens were normalized across all (or most) subjects and classes at my school? What if students were routinely a part of cogens with other teachers? This would mean that wherever students go in my school, they would already understand the purpose of cogens. They would know the different forms cogens can take (they need not only happen after class, like mine do). They would be well-versed in how to support their teachers in building community and making learning meaningful.

I don’t think this is a lot to ask of my school. A belief in cogenerative dialogues and a willingness to pilot them in our professional development plan is all it would take. This would give cogens the opportunity to take hold in others’ classrooms, give students the opportunity to be heard, and ultimately have a say in what happens in the classroom. By normalizing these nontraditional academic spaces for students, it would also make everyone’s cogens stronger.

The posts
Since this is the last post in the Meditations series, commenting on all these posts seems fitting. Despite a recent ChalkBeat article that references them, I’m pretty sure these posts were boring to the average reader. They were long-winded, unpolished, and sloppy. Yet, despite being off the cuff, I thoroughly enjoyed firing up WordPress after each week’s cogen and pouring myself into a new Meditations post. It was stimulating and reflective. Long after the students left, the posts helped me replay the cogens and make sense of what we discussed. Many weeks, I actually listened to the audio recording of a given cogen as I wrote.

In what was a long, tiring school year, I’m glad I followed through on my commitment to these posts. They will no doubt be a resource for me in the years ahead.

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The Pre-student

Any good teacher understands the importance of getting to know their students. It’s a vital part of what we do. It allows us to craft our instruction to meet student needs, form bonds that improve learning, and make teaching personal.

While getting to know students who are on my roster is essential to successful teaching, I often wonder about the student who isn’t in my class, but will be in the coming school years. This is the kid I see around school that I don’t know, but who I will eventually teach. What about them?

I consider them the Pre-student.

The Pre-student is any student who is not in my class…yet. They might be that student who walks past me at the same time every day as I greet my students in the classroom doorway. Or perhaps we paths cross regularly at school events or extracurriculars. They may tag along with their friend during my after-school tutoring sessions. The Pre-student could even be the kid who I meet and chat with once while covering for an absent colleague. These are just a few ways that I come across the Pre-student, but at a small school like mine, these kinds of encounters happen a lot. Truth is, any student at my school who I don’t know has the potential of being a Pre-student.

I view the relationship I nurture with each student as a story, a personal narrative that writes itself over the course of a school year. For the Pre-student, the introduction to their story happens before they even sit down in my room. In this way, the Pre-student offers me something invaluable: not having to wait until they’re in my class to establish a relationship with them. Our relationship is a proverbial ice-breaker. It’s a low-stakes opportunity to establish common ground before they enter my class and there are suddenly so many other things to worry about. Through these students is where I catch glimpses of my instructional future.

As a teacher, my Pre-student relations have a nontrivial and underrated impact on the start of the year. By establishing them, it means that, come September, we’re not starting from ground zero. At a time when so much is brand new, it means that we won’t be strangers. Building relationships and getting to know students takes so much effort, so doing some of that work beforehand gives my beginning of the year dealings with students a leg up. Ironically, although they happen outside my classroom, these early relationships also help form the basis of my efforts to build community in my classroom.

What’s also special about these relationships is how they create a context that deemphasizes traditional teacher and student roles. Unlike that of current students, there are no strings attached when it comes to my Pre-students. No grades, no assignments, no nothing. This blissful state of detachment is liberating and frees us to simply connect. This has been especially valuable coming back from remote learning since interacting with Pre-students wasn’t possible or, if they were, happened a lot less frequently last year.

Interestingly, the same dynamic that makes interacting with the Pre-student so freeing is the same one that can make relationships with them feel strange. For me, most of teaching and learning is transactional. Everything I do with my students has some prescribed end goal, some tangible output. If there isn’t a deliverable that accompanies an exchange between me and a student, as is the case with the Pre-student, then it can feel odd establishing such a relationship.

It’s worth noting that when I say “relationship” or “relations,” I don’t mean anything other than putting a face to a name along with knowing a personal detail or two about them. Usually, these long-distance relationships don’t foster anything more than that. For many of my Pre-students this year, I only know their name, an experience we’ve shared, and a salient detail about their life. Initiating such a relationship takes minimal energy; it requires me to simply identify a student who I don’t know and ask them their name. Maintaining it is just as simple because small talk is a necessary part of it. In a day and age when teachers never seem to have enough time for anything, caring for a Pre-student relationship is not a big ask.

As the sun sets on this school year and I look forward to the next, several Pre-students come to mind. I look forward to seeing them again and acknowledging them by name. In a sea of unacquainted faces that will be waiting for me in September, my Pre-students will offer me a needed sense of familiarity. In them, the future will become the present. Our preestablished kinship will not only make getting to know my students more manageable, but also make the start of the year friendlier, brighter, and more hopeful.

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