I have fewer desks than students. On purpose.

There is a growing number of shared public spaces that are popping up all over the world.

 

Cars, bikes, motorcycles, and pedestrians are forced to govern their own behavior. They have to make eye contact and acknowledge each other’s presence. There’s an inherent faith that folks will slow down and pay attention to each other. I bet they even greet one another way more than they would otherwise. It all makes for a more trusting and human experience. And, from what I’ve read, the number of injuries in these spaces has even decreased significantly.

Why can’t we operate on the same principle in our classrooms? Can we somehow use shared space in our classrooms to create a more personal and humanistic learning environment? Call me idealistic, but I’d like to think so.

That’s why last week I asked the custodian at my school to remove several desks from my classroom. I wanted to ensure that I had fewer desks than students. I didn’t want each student to have their own desk. Instead, because I have the room set up in groups, I have intentionally removed 1-2 desks from each group — but left the seats. The result is 6 groups of 4 desks with 5-6 chairs each. Here’s an example of one group:

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It’s a small change (unlike removing all street signs from a busy intersection), but the idea is that in order to navigate their group’s space, students must purposely engage with one another on a regular basis. It creates a more communal learning environment and helps them take ownership of their workspace (and our classroom). It can get messy because they rub elbows, get in each other’s way, and have to constantly negotiate how they should use the space. But in the end, I 100% welcome these inconveniences. (Honestly, living with the ungodly congestion of NYC, my kids probably don’t even realize these things.) They create a greater degree of collective energy each day. Ultimately, my hope is that they will be more mindful of each other, to be more present.

A side note: This line of thinking is also reflected in the large whiteboards that I began using last year to de-front the classroom. These are communal spaces around the walls of the room that students used to publically display their thinking at any time — unlike having one greedy board at the front of the classroom that screams for attention (and a lack of optimal engagement).

In some ways, I see desks as imposing segregation on my students (and me). Despite being organized into groups, desks still create distinct social spaces for students to think individually. There’s a clear end to my space and a start to yours. Can this subconsciously establish a greater sense of independence from others in the classroom? Tables would probably be the best physical solution for helping create a more personal, humanistic classroom, but I doubt that I’ll ever convince my principal to get me those.

 

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Why isn’t there more public-private collaboration?

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Definitively, I can’t say much about the success of my problem-based learning this year. Mainly because I’m still trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing.

Because of my ineptitude with the PBL structure I’ve adopted, naturally, I am seeking out others that are doing a better job than me with it.

Enter: private schools.

Or are they called independent schools? Or prep schools? Boarding schools anyone? I’m  confused on what to call them — I think it depends on the individual school, though. Either way, in my brief experiences with problem-based learning, it seems like these schools tend to use problem-based learning (or at least how I understand it) more than their public school counterparts. It helps that they usually have much smaller classes.

For this reason, I’ve been exposed to private schools in ways that I have never been before. This exposure has inspired me to get out of my classroom.

In October, I made the hike to New Hampshire and visited Phillips Exeter Academy. Then last week I squeaked out a visit to Horace Mann. The takeaways from each were awesome and unique. But as a public school teacher planning and making these visits all on my own, I couldn’t help but think about the generally nonexistent collaboration that exists between public and private school teachers. Maybe I live in a bubble, but in all my years of teaching (besides my recent experiences), I’ve never actually collaborated locally with a private school math teacher.

I do have a tendency to isolate myself, so I’ll own it. At the same time, there have never been deliberate, organized attempts by my bosses (or my bosses’ bosses) to help me learn from the private sector (or have them learn from me). And that’s a shame because there’s so much to learn from each other. Besides, I don’t care what anyone says, the public and private worlds aren’t really all that different. Math is math. Kids are kids.

Through all my complaining, I don’t want to discount online communities like MTBoS that help teachers from every school type learn from one another. Through it, I’ve connected with folks spearheading great PBL work like Carmel Schettino, Joseph Mellor, and Johnothon Sauer — all of whom I’m indebted to for helping me create and iterate my PBL classroom. That said, all of our interactions have been online.

There’s an annual Twitter Math Camp (free) in the summer that I’ve attended twice. There’s also NCTM conferences (not free) that I’ve never attended. NCTM may be regional, but neither one of these is truly local. The MfA Summer Think that helped plan last year is only for MfA public school teachers.

The closest thing locally I can think of that allows public-private collaboration is Twitter Math Camp NYC, which is local, free, and open to all. I have been once. But even TMCNYC isn’t deliberate about connecting public-private teachers. If it happens at the conference, it’ll be coincidental.

I don’t think things will change much. Most teachers, like me, live in our worlds — public or private. With the day-to-day grind that teaching requires, it is really hard to physically get out of our own classrooms.

But I’m not going to give up. I can dream. It’s fun visiting private schools and classrooms, and enlightening! And to speak to the individual, there are folks like Sam Shah and Michael Pershan who both teach at private schools (I think) and who are two of most thoughtful teachers I know. Best yet, they both teach here in NYC. I wish I could visit their classrooms. Maybe I should ask?

 

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Why we’re better together (crosspost)

*This post was originally published on the Teacher Voices blog at mathforamerica.org. It was co-authored by myself and the awesome Courtney Ginsberg.

Teaching is the most complex job in the world. We shape the future. We motivate students, deal with ever-changing expectations, and tackle mounds of paperwork. Through it all, we operate within a system that champions test scores over learning. This is a mere subset of the demands placed on us every day. If you’re a teacher reading this, you can no doubt think of many more.

Given this backdrop, no one would blame a teacher for focusing solely on their own classroom and their own students. Thoughtful teachers understand the urgency to serve the 30 smiling faces that walk into our classrooms each day. With that said, there is danger in not acknowledging the role we play in the larger context of teaching. When we fail to see our colleagues, both in our own school and out, as necessary partners in the work that we do with students, we become an island. Isolated, we create everything ourselves, work through problems alone, and have difficulty seeing beyond our classrooms. In this way, our potential, and our students’ success, is inherently limited.

As teachers of mathematics, the hallmark of improvement is the meaningful connections we make with other STEM teachers. These connections drive collaboration and inspire us to rethink what’s possible for our students, our classrooms, and our schools. Naturally, this is the setting where teachers become teacher leaders. We are empowered and unafraid to volunteer our time to lead professional learning courses or simply start a discussion on an interesting topic, like we do at MƒA. Occurring with little to no help from outsiders, these are the most meaningful types of professional development experiences.

This line of thinking contrasts the message that is often promoted from the top-down, which is for us to lean on “experts” to help us become better teachers. We are reminded to seek out these specialists and incorporate their models to better serve our students. This is a linear, straightforward approach to the challenge of teaching development. Go to the expert, learn from the expert, case closed.

While this sounds great and makes a lot of money for those in high places, knowledgeable teachers understand the reality: no matter how much success or experience you’ve had in (or out) of the classroom, no one is an expert at teaching. Many will claim otherwise, but becoming a better teacher isn’t linear – it’s more piecewise than anything. Different strategies are effective in different contexts with different kids. This is why teacher leadership doesn’t hang its hat on expertise. Instead, it relies on the collective knowledge and experiences of all teachers to push the community forward.

This type of collaboration amongst teachers happens every day. For example, several years ago, while co-facilitating an MƒA PLT with MƒA Master Teacher Mike Zitolo, Brian learned of their shared passion for classroom inter-visitations. Excited to learn from one another, they made unsupervised, grassroots plans to visit each other’s schools. The result was something that deeply impacted Brian. Mike’s methodical, know-why-this-is-important approach to physics was very different from the mathematics classrooms that Brian visited in the past (as well as his own). By immersing himself in Mike’s classroom, he not only gained a deeper appreciation for the STEM work that happens outside of mathematics, but learned how science can enhance how he teaches mathematics. The experience influenced Brian to publish a lesson that integrates a microcontroller into regression analysis.

A few years ago Courtney took former MƒA Master Teacher Phil Dituri’s workshop, “Making Group Work the Norm.” It sparked a real desire to collaborate more with her colleagues, so she spent time working through ways to incorporate them into her larger school community. She ended up designing PD for her STEM team to implement similar strategies. Shortly thereafter, Courtney heard MƒA Master Teacher Shannon Guglielmo speak at the annual MƒA MT2: Master Teachers on Teaching event. Courtney and Shannon attended graduate school together so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to reconnect. They talked and shared resources on her subway map theory, which led to collaboration around using statistics to solve community issues. This also allowed for deeper collaboration within their building as Courtney is working to set up inter-visitations for the 10+ MƒA teachers working at different schools within her larger building.

In both instances, teacher leadership wasn’t defined by the level of expertise of the people involved. It was developed through a genuine interest in learning from other teachers and a willingness to openly share knowledge amongst each other. This is the beauty and power of communities like MƒA. They are filled with teachers inspiring other teachers to be lifelong learners of STEM, who invariably work towards delivering the most meaningful and authentic instruction possible. In short, we lead each other.

To expand on the interdisciplinary STEM work that already has so many MƒA teachers engaged, many of us will come together next month for three days of growth. We will lead one another through a series of workshops that share our resources and best practices, all with the aim of leveraging big ideas in and out of the classroom. This teacher-designed, teacher-led conference, the Summer Think, will be the first of its kind at MƒA and will provide teachers a relaxing atmosphere to think in ways that is so hard to do during the school year. From exploring the social, economic, and ethical issues of climate change to infusing the design process into our classrooms, the conference will use mathematics and science as entry points to high levels of collaboration. With in-depth, multi-day workshops and a variety of support sessions all happening smack in the middle of the summer, this unique experience will embody teacher leadership.

Despite the resounding needs of our own students, our influence can and should extend beyond our classroom. Experiences like ours as well as those that will happen at the MƒA Summer Think demonstrate one simple fact: we’re better together.