Meditations on a Cogen (No. 10) • Wednesday, December 22, 2021

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 tenth post in the series.

Back to Zoom
The last week has been chaotic. After having few students in class on both Friday and Monday because of Covid protocols, it was decided that we transition to remote learning for the three days leading up to winter break. Like anyone else at my school with a pulse, I anticipated this and last week asked my cogen students if they were good to meet on Zoom. I emailed them yesterday and 4 out of 6 confirmed that they could make it. We were on.

So, this afternoon, after a wild couple of days, my cogen found itself back on Zoom. I say “back” on Zoom because the memories of last year’s all-online cogens showed up immediately in my mind when I logged in today. I held 24 cogens last year, all of which were on Zoom. Participating in a cogen online triggered mixed emotions for me. Obviously, I’d much rather be in person. The conversation is more dynamic and nuanced. Not to mention the snacks! At the same time, last year’s cogens were my first and made me an adamant believer in them. In this sense, holding them online today felt strangely natural and, dare I say, homey.

I opened Zoom ten minutes early and caught up with a student who showed up before our scheduled meeting time of 2:45 p.m. I asked him how the transition has been for him these last few days. Like a lot of students, he lamented about his boredom and yearning to get back into school. We chatted about our upcoming break. He was going to Rhode Island to spend time with family. At one point he asked me for advice on a personal matter that I vowed to follow-up on.

Our non-academic chatter served as a reminder for me that cogens aren’t just a place for teachers and students discuss classroom matters. They’re for getting to know each other, too. At cogens, teacher-student relations can be nourished without the demands of curricula and instruction.

When the other three cogen students arrived, he and I were in the middle of a playful discussion around the ethics of napping (smile). Feeling encouraged by our banter, I invited the rest of the crew to give their two cents on the napping debate. It was fun. I mentioned that I took a 10-minute power nap before 7th period today and the kids were rendered speechless. How is that possible? Why would you even want to do such a thing to your body? The only naps they know of are the multiple-hour variety and those that result in unintentionally waking up the next morning wondering what happened. One student, speaking as if it were part of his religion, said point-blankly, “Mister, I don’t believe in 10-naps.” I laughed harder than I did all week.

In Limbo
Given the whirlwind of this week, I was curious how classes were going for them. How are their teachers going about things? What have my colleagues done so far that the students have liked? I was transparent about my desire to steal ideas and adapt them for our class. I also wondered if the students could give me any advice on how to approach our new in-person/remote dilemma. If we remain in limbo — teetering between the classroom and Zoom based on Covid numbers — what are some tips they can offer me?

Above all else, the kids stressed the importance of checking in with my students. Many teachers, from their perspective, have a singular focus: work getting done. This was true of the last two years, but also this week. Disappointingly, the students struggled to offer me examples of things they enjoyed from their class over the last few days. The lone highlight came from a teacher who played Christmas songs for the class and did fun trivia based on them. I appreciated their honesty, but I was left wanting more examples of what the students saw as exemplary teaching moves. Maybe I need to be more specific? Perhaps next time I ask something like, What’s something you did in Chemistry this week that you liked? What about ELA?

Curious what “checking in” meant to them, I asked the students if they could illustrate their point with some examples. What does it look like when a teacher checks in? I did a few Zoom polls today in class to catch the mood of the room and the kids were in agreement that those were a great example of how to do it. One student commented that ours was one of her liveliest classes because of the polls. They also liked how I used the chatbox to refocus the class and grab their attention. I did this by asking 10 students, say, to respond to a given question. Both the polls and the call-and-response in the chat added an interactive component to our time together that they enjoyed.

In terms of the big picture, one student suggested that on certain days I assign the class independent work and use my time to conference with individual students. I liked this because it could work whether we’re online or in person. An idea that added more structure to it was to have a 4-day work week. The students said that the 5th day could be used for more intensive check ins and independent work. This made me think of Shraddha Shirude and how she modified her curriculum to make this structure work for her.

Dreaming and thank you
Wishing I had spent more time discussing this, I closed today’s talk by asking the group to complete the upcoming math journal assignment with a critical eye. I co-created this assignment with the first cohort of cogen students back in November and formally assigned this week. It’s due January 7. I told the cogen that after we come back from break I’m going to need their feedback on it. I want to use their experience completing it to make it better and more relevant for all of my students. I asked the cogen that they dream big, as all recommendations on editing it will be welcomed.

Asking the students to dream got me thinking of my own: How great would it be if I co-designed an assignment with each cohort of cogen students? If it’s not an original assignment, maybe we co-design a new version of a past assignment? If we can pull something like that off, each cohort would be in a position to critique their predecessors’ assignment and then go on to make their own.

Before we left, I profusely thanked the students for their time. Part of me can’t believe we actually made this week’s cogen happen. All I can say is that I’m seriously blessed with some amazing students.

bp

Last year remote learning broke me, what will happen this time?

The text arrived yesterday at 7pm. It was from my department chair. He was informing the math department that school was closed for the next ten days. The “Situation Room” at the New York City Department of Education decided that their Covid threshold had been met and we needed to shut our doors. Remote learning was back.

Initially — within the first few minutes of reading his message — my reaction was indifferent. Closing our school was inevitable. Covid was spreading like wildfire and this was a necessary step for everyone’s safety. What had to be done had to be done.

Over the next half hour, there was a frenzy of emails and texts asking teachers to create Zoom links, notify their students, and jump headfirst back into a harsh world that caused me so much harm. As my phone rattled and binged displaying texts from colleagues wishing each other well, dread swept over me. I was hesitant, but decided to open my laptop. As I did, an unsightly number of emails filled the screen. After 10 minutes of gazing at an unwanted reality, my body felt heavy. The heartache from last year was resurfacing. I grew somber. My eyes watered.

Naively, when the year began, I figured I was done with remote learning. Years from now I saw myself looking back at the 2020-21 school year with terror, grateful that I never had to experience anything like it again. I see now that I was wrong.

Despite knowing our return to remote learning was inevitable, I couldn’t bring myself to reply to my department chair’s text message. Nor could I gather the courage to reply to any of the emails from school leadership about prepping Zoom links. I left them all unanswered. If I did respond, I knew I would be complicit in accepting our return to remote learning. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I ignored every message and request.

Feeling that remote learning was dragging me back to its dark lair, I spent the next hour reading some of my recent blogposts about the experience (here, here, and here). Though satisfying, I think this made my mental state worse because the posts find me relishing the freedoms that in-person learning has granted to me this year. It’s like what happens when you guilt eat a bunch of chocolate after a breakup. It feels great in the moment, but afterward you feel horrible. After I gorge on my posts, I look at the clock. It’s 8:30. I go to bed.

This morning, still unable to fully accept that remote learning has made a comeback, I wait until the last minute to create Zoom links for my classes. Deep inside, something in me believed that all of this would just go away if I refused to acknowledge it. I know this is foolish, but I couldn’t help it. Ten minutes before the start of 1st period, I create the damned links and add them to our school’s shared spreadsheet. Doing it felt like an out-of-body experience.

And how did today go? It was a struggle. The kids were all over the place. I had no significant plans and spent each period meekly checking in with students, asking about the transition back to Zoom and what they’re hoping for during our shut down. Some students joined sick and from quarantine, receiving their essentials like food and water from family members in isolation. Others were in an empty home, bored out of their minds. Many were angry that we were once again resorting to Zoom links and communicating through a chatbox. Just like me, the flashbacks to last year came without warning for these students. In 3rd period, a girl cried pleaded, “I feel robbed. When are we ever going to get to have a normal school year?” A few hours into remote and worry had already taken hold. And this was from the students that were actually present today. There were so many I didn’t even see. I’m concerned even more for them.

As for me? How did I hold up? My morning classes — which I teach alone — were a nightmare. Feeding off last night’s energy, I had little motivation. I was fully present, but empty. My students sensed my dreariness and this made things worse. It was evident to them and me that my light — which radiated during the last four months — dimed and went out today. Behind a turned-off camera, I teared up during 3rd period. I was afraid.

As the day progressed, I tried to fully own and understand the shadowy figure that remote learning turned me into this morning by finding myself in the stories my students shared during class. My co-teacher in 5th period helped as she joked and lifted up silly moments that I failed to notice because I was trapped by my own feelings. In my other classes, I worked to show appreciation for the students who unmuted themselves. One student in 7th period had her camera on for the entire period and another in 9th showed her baby sister on camera, whom we talk about often. I showered both with public gratitude.

A year ago today I wrote, “My crusade for student engagement resulted in many minutes of silence today in both 1st and 9th periods. I get frustrated as hell, but, right now, who can blame them for wanting to hide…” The symmetry between then and now is absolute.

In my students’ reflections in class today, I was reminded several times that remote learning is temporary this time around. Ten days, that’s it. We’re scheduled to be back January 3. This is supposed to console me, to give me solace, but hasn’t. When I see cases spiking, nothing communicates that remote learning is going anywhere. Ten days can easily turn into 20 which can quickly turn into 30. This concerns me because, well, like all teachers, I’ve felt the grip of remote learning. It’s strong, unrelenting, and unsustainable. Last year it broke me. What will happen this time?


bp



Meditations on a Cogen (No. 9) • Thursday, December 17, 2021

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 ninth post in the series.

A fear realized
With COVID cases on the rise, there was a noticeable shift in anxiety levels at my school this week. Every day I’m getting emails informing me that someone from our school has tested positive. I was asked several times to identify students in my class who may have been exposed to COVID based on proximity and where they sit in the room. Attendance has been getting worse by the day and everyone has started worrying about a 10-day shift to remote learning. These growing concerns had everyone on edge and put the cogen at risk. Would my cogen students be able to meet? Would be the cogen be unintentionally sacrificed?

Adding to the fury of this week, we had a “Community Day” on Wednesday. These are days where our school scraps the regular academic schedule and fills the day with events and activities that aim to strengthen the social, emotional, and mental health of the community. I love Community Days, but it meant that I wouldn’t see my students on Wednesday and therefore couldn’t remind them of Thursday’s (yesterday’s) scheduled cogen.

Classes resumed yesterday, and guess what? I forgot to remind them of the cogen. It literally takes 10 seconds to go up to the students during class and ask them about the cogen, but I failed to do this. With remote learning bearing down on us and Community Day throwing my Wednesday reminder routine out of whack, my mind was scattered in a million different places. But given that my current cogen students (the 2nd cohort of the year) are still new relative newbies, I think, deep down, I was also curious if they would remember on their own. I enacted this same experiment with the first cohort, too. Was our cogen routine enough where they would remember to come without a reminder from me?

So, without my reminder, how many students showed up for our regularly-scheduled Thursday cogen?

None.

My greatest cogen-related fear was realized: the students don’t come. One of them was absent, but of the other five students, not one remembered. Yesterday, after 9th period, after I pulled out my snacks and tablecloth, it slowly hit me that I was alone in the room. The silence of that moment was loud. For the first time this year, the cogen felt unimportant. It wasn’t a good feeling. The craziness of the week certainly had something to do with them not being there, but I also blame myself for not being more diligent in reminding them.

In lieu of the void created by their absence, I hung out in my empty room for about 20 minutes and sent the six cogen students an email. In it, I reminded them that Thursday is the day we agreed to meet and that I was eagerly expecting them. Fearing that the cogen is too much for them right now, I asked that they let me know if they are not able to honor the six-week commitment they agreed to. If so, I would hold no grudges if they wanted to back out. I just need to know so that I can try to find replacements.

That was yesterday. Today, in class, I touched base with four of them individually (two were absent), asked if they read my message, and checked in. All of them were gracious in our interactions, humbly apologizing for not showing up at our scheduled time yesterday. They all still wanted to be part of the cogen. Despite it being Friday, I asked if they had 10-15 minutes to spare after school today. I wanted to hold a quick cogen to revisit some of what we discussed last week and make plans for action. All four students said they could make it.

An improvised cogen
Only three students were present at last week’s cogen, so earlier this week I found the other three students after class and briefed them on what we discussed. We strategized around the weekly DeltaMath assignments and planned to implement a class-wide goal for completion that would, if reached, include an incentive.

When the students arrived after school today, I didn’t bother getting out the snacks or setting up our table. I figured we would stand. Right before we started, one of them let me know that he had to pick up his little brother and couldn’t stay. I was down to three students. Here’s what we discussed:

  • DeltaMath leaders. I asked them if they would be alright being my “DeltaMath leaders” and announcing/revealing the completion percentage for the class a few times a week and advocating for its completion. We said that Mondays would be the critical day because that percentage would reflect how much of the Delta was done on time; it would determine if we met our goal. It made sense for us to start this after the upcoming Winter Break. I asked the students to begin thinking of ways they’d like to own this aspect of our class. One student referenced an encouraging routine her math teacher used two years ago to help students complete it.
  • DeltaMath due date. A non-cogen student asked me in a Friday Letter this week if I could move the due date for the DeltaMath assignments from Friday to Sunday. This resonated because the cogen students requested this last week. I informed the cogen today that, starting with the next one, DeltaMath will be due on Sundays at 11:59 p.m. There were smiles all around.
  • Remote cogens. From the looks of it, I infomed the cogen that it’s likely that we’ll go remote in the coming weeks. I asked if they would be able to continue to meet because, if we go remote — even temporarily — I’ll need their feedback more than ever. The students nodded assuredly. One said, “I’ll be at home with nothing to do, so definitely.”
  • An adjusted meeting day. Next week Thursday is the last day before Winter Break and we won’t be able to meet. One of the students asked if we could meet another day instead. His proactive stance to us meeting was reassuring given the emptiness I experienced yesterday after school. I proposed after school on Wednesday of next week. Everyone agreed.

Lingering thoughts
This week’s cogen almost didn’t happen. It was a last-minute decision to ask the students to meet today after their no-show yesterday, but I’m glad I did. The urge to get us together on limb was driven, I think, by my trepidation around the cogen becoming insignificant and fizzling out during these crazy times. The dialogue looked different today, but I’ll sacrifice that for the continuity it gave us.

All this reminds me of how hard it will be to preserve and protect the cogen during any school year, let alone one seated in the middle of a pandemic. There are many aspects of formal schooling that make cogens impractical and illogical. Maybe that’s why most teachers I know don’t do them; navigating these challenges is hard. I hope I can maintain.

As I continue to have cogens with my students this year, an honest, yet unsettling concern has begun taking residence in my mind: are the improvements we’ve made this year meaningful? In thinking about things like DeltaMath and tutoring protocols, have our changes been largely cosmetic? Would they have found their way into my practice even if I wasn’t holding a weekly cogen? These questions have started nawing at me. They are gently pushing me to move beyond my students discussing change with me and instead being the change during class. Perhaps this is why I’m pushing my cogen to take ownership of our new DeltaMath initiative.

bp

Meditations on a Cogen (No. 8) • Thursday, December 9, 2021

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 eighth post in the series.

Short staffed with a tablecloth
Of the six cogen members — most of whom are in their second or third week of cogen membership — three couldn’t meet today. One didn’t come to school because she was concerned about Covid and used the day to stay out of school and get tested. Two others are on the girl’s basketball team, which had a game today (they won BTW!). After today’s cogen, I looked at their schedule and realized that they have several more games on Thursdays this season. I’ll have to touch base with everyone next week and see if we can change our cogen day or otherwise make it work. If not, these two students may need to choose a replacement. That would suck.

Our meeting space each week consists of three rectangular tables jigsawed to make a larger rectangle. It fits six people comfortably, with plenty of room to dump our snacks in the center. I decided a few weeks ago to get a black tablecloth to dress things up a bit. I want the cogen to have curb appeal and feel important to anyone that’s around the table. The tablecloth is a simple and inexpensive way to do that; it transforms the space and elevates the status of those who are in it. This was the first week I used the tablecloth and there were already oohs and aahs from a few non-cogen students and teachers who saw us at the start of today’s talk. Two of my students from 1st period even asked if they could be part of the group. I informed them that all are welcome, but that participants are selected by their peers.

Every week that the cogen has met, I’ve spent the few minutes it takes to prep our table (cleaning and sanitizing it, this week throwing on the tablecloth). In thinking about our physical space, I’m making a note to have a cogen student take on the duties of prepping our table in the future. With dialogue that embodies co-creation and shared responsibility, it’s only natural that our physical space also reflects these principles.

We filled the first several minutes of today’s dialogue with informal chatter. I learned that one student recently got a new job. He’s working with a family friend and spends all of Sunday doing custodial work. We also talked about the trek another student has when coming to school and how the bus he takes in the morning has been busier than usual. We rapped about the benefits of arriving early so the transition from street to 1st period isn’t so rushed and disorienting.

As the conversation went on, it crossed my mind to ditch my planned talking points and subscribe to what was turning into an advisory. Were the students and I expressing a need to escape some stress? It reminded me of last year when this happened and how needed it was. Eventually, the mood shifted and our classroom appeared in bright lights. We carried on.

The weekly planner
The first thing on my mind was the weekly planner I used in class this week. It was the result of last week’s cogen discussion around homework. The planner was organized in a table and outlined the problems and concepts we were to study each day. I overviewed it on Monday and revisited it each day in class, hoping that it would create an arc of our learning for the week and, in lieu of “assigning” homework, give students the specifics of what we would be discussing each day. Interested to see if the cogen students benefited from it, I asked them.

Like most things, their reaction to the planner was mixed and came loaded with recommendations. They liked how it communicated the work ahead of time and how it was clearly laid out. On Friday I caught up with one of the students who missed today and she loved the idea of having a weekly calendar. I never posted the planner on Classroom, so they said I should do that next week. They suggested that I include exam dates, DeltaMath due dates, and other pertinent info on the planner. These are worthy criticisms. Next week I hope for an updated planner, though I’m still not convinced of its effectiveness.

In pursuit of a motivator
The next item up for discussion was our weekly DeltaMath assignments. The submission rates for these assignments haven’t been great. They’re designed as the main form of practice my students get each week, so with many of my students not doing it, their learning is suffering (not to mention their grade). I’ve adapted my instruction to include more scaffolding and direct instruction, but we still have a long way to go. Many students are flat-out not doing the DeltaMath assignments or doing it weeks after the due date. I willingly give them credit for all the work they do no matter when they submit it, but want to find ways to support them in getting the most out of the assignments. This means completing them by the due date.

I paraphrase all of this to the cogen. They concede that doing DeltaMath aids with their understanding of the weekly concepts, but they still struggle to get it done on time. A few anecdotes are shared illustrating their point. I offer two solutions that I’ve been mulling over during the last few days and ask them for their feedback.

The first is to instate a penalty on late DeltaMath submissions. Up to this point in the year, late work has not been penalized. The students nod. It’s a fair demand to have a late penalty. A couple of them say it would motivate them to do it on time, but the other student said the penalty wouldn’t matter at all — they would merely accept the late penalty. Being all gung-ho about the idea, I say that I’ve been thinking about a 25% penalty no matter how late it is completed. The students wisely suggest that I adopt a sliding scale that varies based on how late the submission. This makes waaaay more sense. Before we get too invested, I pivot to bring up my other idea.

My second solution does the opposite of the first: instead of penalizing students for not doing the DeltaMath on time, I suggest an incentive if they manage to complete it on time. What if I set a collective goal for the homework that, if reached, unlocked a reward for the class? For example, what if 75% of the class completed 75% of the weekly DeltaMath? Could I offer them a bonus problem on our next exam? Could I create “choice quizzes” for them that week, whereby I give them two problems (quizzes are normally just one) they get to choose which problem they want graded? Could they simply earn extra credit on the next exam? (I would like to avoid giving them outright extra credit and instead give them more options for the work we already do.)

I’m not a fan of rewards and extrinsic motivation — believe me. In my gut, I feel that whatever positive impact occurs as a result of the incentive will not be long-lasting. But like many teachers nowadays, I’m searching for answers to help my kids! Other than keeping a closer eye on their completion percentage, this one doesn’t require any additional work from me (DeltaMath gives the rates). This last point is important and I mention it to the cogen: pedagogical solutions have to be friendly to the students and teacher. I can’t be driven mad simply because it is a great motivator for my classes.

The cogen likes the idea and we spend our last 15 minutes discussing the ins and outs of what it might look like. We say that it would be fun if every day I announce the completion percentage to each class. (What if a student did this instead?) One student proposed that if the class goal is reached, it should be made slightly harder next week. If 75% is the completion rate and it is achieved, for instance, the following week the goal could be 80%. I loved this idea. It made me think that each class would need to have different goals and the first one needs to be based on how they’ve previously performed on DeltaMath. Another student expressed that only the students who helped the class achieve the goal should be given that week’s perk. If 75% of the class has to reach 75% completion on the DeltaMath, then only the students who were part of the 75% should earn the reward.

An important aspect of this incentive is that it is rooted in the collective achievement of the class. If the goal is 75%, one student mentioned that it might be demoralizing if only 72% of the class completes the DeltaMath. They wouldn’t unlock the reward and this might deter them next week. I honored this, but noted that the point of a goal like this is to have students encourage each other to get the work done. In that instance, if they would have pushed just one or two more students to get their DeltaMath done, the class would have achieved the goal. The incentive is engineered for students to push each other; one person’s fate is tied to everyone else’s effort. You won’t lose anything if you only worry about yourself, but you can earn more by working together.

I’m not sure which of the two solutions I’ll be implementing in the coming weeks (maybe both?), but I’m leaning towards the incentive-based option. There was more energy around it at today’s dialogue and it seems like a better motivator — for now. But I still want to run it by the other cogen students before I put it in motion.

An impromptu guest
During the last five minutes of our session today, a colleague walked into the room and I asked him if he wanted to join us around the table. He gracefully found a seat and even grabbed a snack. He sat and mostly listened, but it was a delightful way to close things out. Afterward, we talked about one of the students. My colleague remembered how the student was a knucklehead in ninth grade and how refreshing it is to see him in a leadership position like that of the cogen. I hope I have more colleagues around the cogen table this year.

As I leave today, I remember that I still haven’t set up and sent out my cogen exit survey for the first cohort. Ugh!

bp