Growing pains

Today a student in my class was brought to tears. 

She cried because of my teaching. Specifically, the problem-based, discussion-based learning that I’ve adopted has been troubling her. She said that she was lost and hasn’t learned anything so far this year. Knowing the student, I politely disagreed, but she was having none of my excuses. On top of this, she’s also missed several days because of an illness. She told me more – and then the tears came. She cried, hurting because of the confusion and emptiness she felt for her math class.

It was after class and I did my best to console her, but I didn’t really know how to react. It’s not every day that a kid cries in my classroom. I tried to reassure her that I’m not out to make her life miserable, that I was on her team, that she should trust the process, that she needs the teacher far less than she thinks she does, that I would never abandon her or any other student. I offered tutoring. 

Tutoring?? The girl is crying!

It’s needless to say, but my response failed miserably. 

If I wasn’t already aware, this powerful moment shed light on how my own growing pains with PBL have transferred to the students I serve. I’m learning to teach again. They’re uncomfortable and worried. All in all, it sucks. 

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not overhauling my teaching is really worth it in the end. Do the perceived long-term benefits outweigh the hopelessness that may be creeping into the minds of my students? 

The video club 


This is the follow up to my post last summer that outlined my anticipation of a research-based, video-based professional development that I was to facilitate with the math department at my school. We coined the name of the PD “The Video Club.” So, with the extended arm of Math for America, I was lent a HD camera, omnidirectional microphone, and a tripod. The goal: analyze, interpret, and get better at responding to student thinking.

Here are some takeaways from the experience:

  • The entire department felt the PD was worthwhile and would love to do it again. Everyone was highly engaged throughout and over 80% of the group felt that this PD helped them gain key insights into student thinking. This was a relief. I believe in and value the work, I just hoped they would also find it worthwhile – which they did. Plus, I’ve never headed an initiative like this before, so I’m glad it was a source of growth…and not utter failure.
  • The department felt that the experience made us more conscious of the words and terms we use with students. For example, the use of the word “cancel” was recognized as something to rethink. We discovered that many students infer, for instance, that the common factors in the numerator and denominator of a fraction “cancel” out, when in fact they are a form of 1. “Cancel” made our students feel as if the factors just disappeared. This is subtle and a direct result of our utilization of the word in class. On a related note, a colleague mentioned that students’ mathematical abilities are a reflection of our teaching and that she witnessed her own shortcomings embedded in their thinking. Interesting.
  • The experience helped us develop better questions – or at least to habitually reassess the quality of questions that we ask our students. Questions should anticipate and clarify student thinking all the while pushing kids to make connections. There were instances where we spent all of 15 minutes debating a 7-second student discussion. This deliberate focus on the details of student thinking allowed us craft questions that addressed very specific areas of student understanding.
  • We realized that the more analysis we did of student thinking via the video club, the more we valued the process of analyzing student thinking. This lead us to create more opportunities for our students to discuss mathematics during class so that, in turn, we could analyze their thinking. This may have been the result of the tangible improvements in our planning and teaching that we made after each of the sessions.
  • Many teachers are mandated to analyze student work. It hit me early in the year that recording student discussions around a task was actually an elevated form of this. We weren’t interpreting written work to get at student thinking. Instead, we were watching and listening to them explain their thoughts, which is a much more sophisticated way of understanding student thinking.
  • This seems somewhat counterintuitive, but I learned a great deal about mathematics. Specifically, I learned more about how mathematical relationships and ideas are viewed through the eyes of my students. For example, I explored why it is so common for students to reference the Pythagorean Theorem when they see a triangle labeled with sides a, b, and c – no matter what the problem is asking. (Our dependency on those arbitrary letters may have something to do with it.) This type of perspective taking has proved to be incredibly powerful when it comes to developing impactful learning opportunities for my kids.
  • I came to embrace the openness of each session. I prepared prompts and questions beforehand, but insights from the team really led the way. Over time, instead of being a “facilitator,” I was just another member of the group who helped push the conversation forward. I learned that the uncertainly involved with this work is a good thing.
  • When I initially dove into this project, I was concerned about the amount of prep time required – especially since we were dealing with video. Anyone who has dealt with video knows that the editing process can be discouraging and straight-up unbearable. I was elated to find out that, from beginning to end, the process requires no editing. Sustainability!
  • Lastly, this experience afforded me an opportunity to lead my colleagues. I was empowered. And I’ve taken on other leadership roles in the building, but for reasons that I cannot seem to pinpoint, this one felt different. It may stem from my own personal belief about how this work provides exceptional hands-on improvement for teachers – and how rare this is.

I’m enthused to continue this work next year. MfA has been an invaluable partner and I’m pleased to know that I have their continued support!



HOT v. the most appropriate

Every now and then I’m confronted with the idea of asking higher order thinking (HOT) questions. A lot of teachers are. In fact, there seems to be an unhealthy infatuation with HOT questions in education.

Don’t get me wrong, HOT questions certainly have their place. They serve to connect ideas, broaden perspectives, and deepen understanding of the content being learned. I strive for HOT questions. Even if it’s indirect, the heart of any good lesson, I believe, revolves around them. They’re a must.

That said, there’s much, much more to questioning than HOT questioning. In fact, by placing so much focus on HOT questions, we can lose sight of how questions build off one another and their dependency on current levels of student understanding. What is the goal of the question? How will it lead to the next? HOT questions can be too demanding and, consequently, create a gulf between what is currently understood and what’s expected. Any question is entirely dependent on our students – nothing else. They must meet them where they are.

What I strive for is not necessarily asking more HOT questions, but finding the most appropriate questions given the context. “What” and “when” questions should not be frowned upon if they are frequently used during a lesson. Instead, we should be critical of the sequence of any and all questions we ask and how this sequence impacts students’ abilities to answer HOT questions.