One week in, a conversation with myself about remote learning

In this time of sun-deprived isolation, pardon me as I indulge in a much-needed conversation with myself about remote learning.

Me: So, you’ve been doing remote learning for a week. How’s it going?

Remote Learning Me: I don’t like it. No matter how excited I am about breakout rooms in Zoom, being tethered to my MacBook and staring into a little green light for hours on end is torture. I’m buoyed by the details of personal interactions. A brighter-than-usual smile, a new backpack, a pair of slumped shoulders; it is the minutia that drives me and my teaching. Not having access to these subtleties have blinded me from my kids. I don’t see them and I can’t stand it. But it does present my teaching with a new challenge — which I am learning to savor. Plus, it beats sitting around refreshing the NY Times homepage 23 times a day. My apartment is a mess, but I need the structure, and so do my students. That said, my days don’t feel organized or even separate. They’re bleeding into one another, creating a very strange experience.

Me: Given the strangeness of it all, how are you approaching things?

Remote Learning Me: I let go a lot. While I’m fascinated by how I might reinvent learning for my students, hoping along the way that I’ll become a more robust teacher when this is all over, I’ve relaxed my curricular expectations. I’ve embraced that, at best, I’ll probably accomplish 40% of what I would have in a normal setting. We’ve been yanked in all directions by this virus. We’re all overwhelmed. There’s no way I am going to make the situation worse by shoving Common Core in my students’ faces.

Me: OK, then. What’s working?

Remote Learning Me: Nothing, yet. I don’t get my kids to work hard for me in person, so how am I supposed to work my magic when they’re concealed behind a screen, wrapped up in a blanket, eating cereal? That’s another reason why I’ve become far less aggressive with the curriculum. Anyway, pre-corona, I structured our Algebra 2 course to revolve around interleaved problems that I asked them to complete prior to class, which we then interrogated during class. The problems surface key ideas. I have no plans to abandon this structure, but helping my students have meaningful conversations is proving to be hard on Zoom. On more than one occasion this week, having asked them to talk about a problem, I entered silent breakout rooms, with every kid having muted themself. I couldn’t help but wonder what cereal they were scarfing down.

Me: How might you improve this?

Remote Learning Me: I envision using a lot of student work to guide their discussions. In person, we did this using giant whiteboards around the room. On Zoom, many students are working from computers, and holding up their work to the webcam is awkward and clumsy. So towards the end of the week, I began having students scan some of their work using Genius Scan and upload it to Google Classroom.

When we meet on Zoom, I want this bank of student work to be the backbone of class. Before we meet, I imagine sifting through their work and pasting a few of them in a Google Doc. I would then put kids in breakout rooms to debate the work, discuss errors, and agree on a correct solution. Ideally, then they have something tangible to latch on to even if they didn’t do the problem (all the while enjoying their cereal).

Me: So everything will revolve around the work they scan and upload before class?

Remote Learning Me: Nah, I don’t think so. I plan to leverage the work-based discussions often, but I’m also making short videos to overview certain problems that are less complex. Students would watch these on their own outside of our virtual class time. There are also problems that will require direct instruction. I hope to keep it to a 10-12 minute lecture, with time for the kids to practice an example or two in breakout rooms. This may also come in the form of a YouTube video (not me) that I direct them to watch before class. I’m also relying a lot on Desmos and DeltaMath — which now has instructional videos.

Me: Any thoughts on formal assessments?

Remote Learning Me: Well, stressing academic honesty, I “administered” a quiz on Friday. I posted a problem on Classroom and gave students a six-hour window to scan their work and upload it. Glancing over their work on Friday Night, I provided meager written feedback as a private comment on Classroom. It’s not perfect, but the quiz served its purpose: to put me on to what they know and what they don’t know. The results were typical of what I know of about students and I plan on making it a routine until something makes me change my mind. It’s not the best solution to the issue of asynchronous, at-home assessment, but I don’t want to give up and say that we cannot formally assess our students anymore just because we can’t do it in a controlled environment. Benjamin Dickman’s thinking around take-home exams comes to mind.

Me: Anything else?

Remote Learning Me: 

 

bp

A week ago

A week ago, I administered an exam to my students. It focused on the leading coefficient test, rational exponents, exponential functions, radical and polynomial equations, and the Pythagorean Identity. The class averages for the exam improved across the board, except for period 7. They struggled, performing 10% worse than they did previously.

A week ago, A-S expressed their frustration over their lack of progress in Algebra 2 this year. I’ve been working closely with them since September. We spoke in the hallway. It may have seemed counterintuitive, but I admitted that I loved being deep in struggle with them. They smiled with renewed energy. I did too.

A week ago, I was overwhelmed with finishing the Preface and Introduction to the book I’m editing that features my students’ writing from this year. I had a goal of finishing both by Friday to give to a colleague at my school who is penning the Foreword. I failed by two paragraphs.

A week ago, out of frustration, I chewed out a student during class for not being their best self these last couple of months. They have had a lot going on and I apologized afterward for not being my best self at that moment. They didn’t deserve that.

A week ago, I was scrambling to plan our discussion for our book study on Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. It was around chapter two and was the fifth “session.” I’ve had high hopes for this all year, but my lofty expectations were met with stale looks and respectful boredom from my students.

A week ago, I playfully bothered C-O about a drawing they had been working on that I sabotaged during class by inserting a huge horizontal line where the head was going to be. They were supposed to show me what they made of it, but forgot their sketchbook.

A week ago, I was looking forward to playing L-C in one-on-one basketball during open gym in the weeks ahead. I’d been attending the early morning sessions and reconnecting with my game.

A week ago, Y-P asked me whether I researched Muhammad Ali. I didn’t, but their excitement was enough for us both. I felt bad.

A week ago, we started circular motion in physics.

A week ago, I was prepping the metacognitive journals that my kids submitted. I had to remove identifying information for the peer-review. This journal was their third of the year. After giving them a once-over, they looked more polished and more thought-out than the others. I told J-C that I really appreciated the extended effort that they put into theirs.

A week ago, I exposed my students to this graph about this price gouging happening around hand-sanitizer.

A week ago, I was handing back my hand-written responses to the Friday Letters I received. The longest one was to C-I, who asked for advice on how to handle a delicate situation with a fellow teacher. I told her to be herself. That was enough.

A week ago, I had my sights set on seeing my students play in their baseball, softball, and soccer games this spring.

A week ago, I didn’t know that I probably wouldn’t see my students in person again this year.

A week ago, I wasn’t checking and rechecking the New York Times homepage 10 times a day, a sinking feeling eating me alive each time I closed my laptop or put my phone down.

A week ago, I wasn’t fretting over how to reimagine my classroom for remote learning, hoping that my students and I would stay healthy enough to even do it. I never thought that I would have messaged them on Google Classroom yesterday, saying, I will miss looking each of you in the eye because I rely heavily on the face-to-face moments that bond us each day. I will miss sharing the air with you in the coming weeks. We’ll make due. Stay tuned.

A week ago, I wasn’t wishing that I would wake up from this nightmare.

 

bp

Math Haiku

Last year, after chatting with some of my students about their poetry, I decided to attend a free poetry workshop at my local branch of the New York Public Library. The focus was haiku, a form of poetry that, despite not writing many, I’ve always found appealing ever since I was asked to write one in second grade.

Haiku is a succinct art form that forces you to be strategic in your decision-making. With 17 syllables to work with, there’s little wiggle room in a haiku. Because its syllabic nature is numerical (5-7-5), like math, it demands logic and efficiency. Carefully chosen words and phrases are the expectation, yet ideas must be surfaced and communicated with precision. Beautiful math is often considered elegant, and haiku mirrors this in its simplicity. Even then, because of its brevity, most haiku are open to multiple perspectives. It’s kind of hard to establish a context with 17 syllables.

After the workshop, with newly-discovered energy to unearth my inner-poet, I started writing my own haiku. It’s been quite fun. To have more of an appreciation for its Japenese roots, I’m reading about the history of haiku in On Haiku by Hiroaki Sato.

At any rate, around the same time as the workshop, I came across Patrick Honner’s post about math haiku. Wanting to enrich the writing that I’m doing in my students, all the while bring my budding interest of haiku to them, I followed up with Patrick about his post earlier this year. He didn’t disappoint. About two weeks ago, I asked my kids to write two math-themed haiku. Teenagers’ creativity never ceases to blow me away. Here is some of their haiku:

 

to find the inverse
we must flip the y and x
then we solve the rest

 

life, like factoring
grouping ourselves to fit in
to find we’re alone

 

one plus one is two
two times two plus one is five
five, my favorite

 

if you need some help
ask the mathematician
who’s that? look within

 

the missing value
was fading in confusion
after being solved

 

squares have sharp edges
but they have 90 degrees
it is like summer

 

it is an odd plot
for the positive function
to graph negative

 

between the sequence
lies a common ratio
use the equation

 

allow math inside
a stream of numbers and facts
filling the silence

 

math is made for whites
that is the common stigma
that idea should change

 

bp

Dear K, (Student Letter #6)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the sixth post in the series.

Dear K,

You’re the only student from my first year of teaching that I remember. We met during first period of the first day of school. You arrived 15 minutes late. You knocked, and, amped up as I was on first-day jitters and a teaching license with ink that was still wet, I cheerily skipped over to the door. I opened it and you opened my world.

You stood there plainly, your stance rigid and unflinching. You were 16, but your six-foot-two, chiseled frame allotted you at least an extra decade of life. With a full beard and tight cornrows running straight past your neck, you looked weathered but strong. I would have sworn you had a 9-to-5 and a family. I dared myself to ask your name. Your voice was thick, yet strikingly casual. Receding cowardly into my whiteness, with stereotypes of young black men filling my innermost thoughts, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. Despite myself, I had a class to teach. I had a career to jumpstart. I welcomed you.

That was over 14 years ago. I don’t remember anything else about that first day — except that I’m pretty sure I was wearing an oversized shirt. Hell, my entire first year was a blur. Our encounter in the doorway of room 524 is a lonely memory that I cherish like a photograph of my youth. It stands out and, when I return to it, I can’t help but smile.

After we met, I spent the next year as your teacher and another seeing you in and around school. Despite functioning in a troubled school that did little to bring out the best in you, I’d like to think that our relationship blossomed. You were strong in math. We both had our struggles, you facing raging inequities that kept you one step behind and me trying to figure out what the hell I was doing, but whenever our paths crossed, we joked and talked like we were above it all. You were as cool as a cucumber. As a young teacher with an urge to prove himself, I envied your relatable nature.

This is random, but I remember that you had a nephew who attended our school. Y’all were a year apart in age and this constantly threw my mind for a loop! I’m still confused about how it’s possible.

K, I can’t end this without thanking you for the dumb amount of respect you extended to me. Whether in school or on the J train, it was always “Yoooo, P!”, a dap or a pound, and a charismatic smile to brighten my day. Anytime we spoke, I felt cooler and more relaxed immediately after. You gave this lanky, naive, overeager guy from Ohio a chance, and I’m thankful for you anchoring my career with such a strong bond. I still have a long way to go, but know that I am far removed from the cowardly, unjust, and colorblind stereotype that I thrust upon you in the doorway of room 524 all those years ago. Neither of us knew it at the time, but our relationship helped me interrogate myself, own my privilege, and be a better man, teacher, and human.

I don’t know why you were 15 minutes late that day, but I’m glad for it.

Last thing. You may not remember this, but one day, after months of noticing that you were always the last student to leave the room, I asked you about it. You moved conscientiously — especially at the end of class — and I was curious. We were alone after the bell, me standing by the door, you gathering your things at your desk. After all these years, I’ve never forgotten what you told me: Mr. P, I’m always the last to leave, but I’m gonna be the first to make it.

I had deep respect for the symmetry, grace, and decisiveness of your sentiment then — and I still do. Each year, I have one or two students who, like you, are the last to leave the classroom. They linger, at odds with the rest of the hurried bodies jostling for position at the door, and allow their army of thoughts to properly transition away from the moment. I want you to know that I share always what you said to me with them.

I don’t know where life has taken you, K, but I hope that you’ve made it.

Sincerely,

Mr. P