My 2018 in Books

I was really pleased with my reading habits this year. I read more than I ever have. In 2017, I read 26 books. Given some demanding life commitments that I knew I had this year, in January I set a goal of reading 20 books. As of right now, I have finished 30. Yay me! (And thank you NYPL for being amazing.)

So when I read Patrick Honner’s post Books I Read in 2018 where he summarizes his year of reading books, I was inspired to write this post. He also inspired me to request On Writing Well from the library. Thanks Patrick!

Most of my reading this year revolved around race. This continued the trend from last year as it’s something that has been on my mind a lot. In addition to reading about race and getting closer to my own whiteness, I was more conscious of the race of the authors I chose to read this year, ensuring that authors of color made up a large percentage of my reading.

Nonfiction | This is usually where I live when it comes to reading. The most impactful were:

  • Messy by Tim Harford. I’ve always believed that disorder and randomness are highly underrated. This book helped me to better see why.
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. As a white man, it helped me understand how my own ignorance and privilege has contributed to our racialized society. Written for white people, it was unapologetic and bold.
  • Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. Chapter 10 was probably the most important chapter of any book that I read this year — and maybe ever.
  • Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. During late summer and early fall, I read a string of books centered around living with less. Less stuff, less ideas, less commitments. Both well-written, these were two of my favorites.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Easily 5 stars. I knew next to nothing about Apartheid, so (once again) my ignorance was on full display here. I savored Noah’s superb storytelling all the way to the end like a good meal. I was sad that it had to end.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. This was such an engaging book from start to finish. This is technically a self-help book, but it didn’t feel like it. It’s more of a reality check; it’s woefully pragmatic and I love it.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. While I haven’t finished this yet, I already know that it’s special. Both vivid and powerful, he shares a lived experience in a way that feels like an obligatory read for anyone in this country.

Fiction | I told myself that I wanted to read more fiction as compared to last year. I succeeded! Last year I read 3 books and this year I read a whopping…5. I’m trying to get better. Notable were:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This really made me think. It took me to places that I never knew I always needed to be. It transformed something that’s in the news every day — young black men who are targeted by the police — something tangible for me. Reading it was a visceral experience. I read it before the movie came out and still haven’t seen the movie, but I want to.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read this near the end of the year and the timing was perfect because it tied together so many social issues and stereotypes. It centers on one African woman’s journey in — and out of — American culture. Plus, the writing was stellar.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Having taught several autistic students through the years, and never making an effort to truly understood their experience, this book was fascinating and informative. It provided such a clear and unadulterated look into the perspective of an autistic young person.

 

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End of the 2017-18 school year

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Another school year in the books. As with each passing year, a lot happened in 2017-18. Bullet points seem appropriate.

  • First and foremost, my adventures with problem-based learning took up most of my mental real estate. That journey deserved its own post.
  • This was truly the year of the whiteboard. I had 12 of them wrapped around the edges of my classroom this year that we used every day. It was great.
  • I need to step my game when it comes to the cohesion and collective responsibility that my department shows for one another. Just like last year, I felt isolated this year. More than ever, this year I desperately needed support from colleagues that I didn’t receive. There are lots of reasons for this, but my own introverted nature certainly didn’t help matters any. Next year I hope I can be a better teammate and leader.
  • While PBL took off in room 227 this year, I’m very disappointed that my push to address racial inequities in my classroom stalled. I failed to build on many of the conversations that I started with my students last year. For example, my Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes initiative halted after Vivienne Malone-Mayes (No. 3). This was due primarily to my borderline obsession with implementing problem-based learning and all the struggles related to it. This issue is deeply personal and I’m very very dispirited that I let it trail off. Several of the kids even called me out on it near the end of the year. This only adds more fuel to the fire for next year. Specifically, with all this work on PBL and discussion-based learning, I’m now interested in exploring the intersection of those two strategies and the racially relevant pedagogy that I hope to espouse. I have a few books lined up this summer that I hope will help me think more about this.
  • I’ve begun toying with the idea of planning and organizing a ‘Math Night’ next year.  This is an exciting idea that I hope I can follow through with.
  • For the first time ever, I had my kids meaningfully write about the mathematics they were learning this year. It was a ‘metacognitve journal,’ a way of reflecting on their thinking about a particular problem that we solved. I only did one in late spring and it helped me realize that critical reflection like this journal must a component of my classroom moving forward, especially as I move to intentionally develop problem-solving skills in my students. I dramatically underestimated how long it would take me to grade them! Agh!
  • I checked no homework for credit this year. Sadly, this meant that the majority of kids didn’t do their homework. Am I ok with this? No. But I’m still not ok with checking it each day for points. #teacherproblems
  • This year I thought a lot about public and private school collaboration. I spent full days visiting both Phillips Exeter and Horace Mann schools. Both were worthwhile experiences. I hope to continue this work next year – especially with Horace Mann because of proximity.
  • In the spring, I was very close to having a parent observe my class. I was inspired by an NYCDOE survey that asked whether I’ve had any parent visit my class this year. Although it never happened, for the first time it made me seriously think about the inherent boundaries that exist between parents and the spaces in which their children learn. I may be opening a can with this one, but I would really like to have at least one parent in my room to observe instruction next year.
  • I got away from standards-based grading this year. As a result, I wasn’t able to help students identify and understand their strengths and weaknesses in any sort of accurate way. This should change next year.
  • Recently, a colleague of mine just spoke about getting kids to ask more questions in class and he mentioned the use of sentence starters. I’ve been exposed to them for years and never used them. I think they’re so inviting and accessible for students and can help elevate how they articulate themselves. I would love to try them next year.
  • I taught a math elective this year called ‘Explorations in Mathematics’ that started off strong but fizzled out after the first semester. Much of this had to do with programming.
  • One of the non-teaching highlights of the year was chaperoning a trip to Denmark in April. Along with 5 other teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators, we accompanied a wonderful group of 24 students on this unforgettable overseas adventure that included homestays with Danish families.
  • For the 2nd year in a row, I was nominated for a Big Apple Award. I don’t know why I was, but I am grateful and humble nonetheless.
  • I helped my school adopt the Math for America PLT model as part of our Monday PD cycle this year. This was a useful and engaging way to give teachers a direct say in the PD they experience. As far as I know, a first for school too.
  • I submitted the two remaining components of my National Board Certification. In December we’ll see what Pearson thinks of me.
  • Being the second year at my school, I found myself considerably less stressed about everyday happenings than last year. My sense of community grew.

 

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PBL v2

So my yearlong experiment with problem-based learning has concluded.

After attending Exeter Math Institute last summer, I decided to overthrow my units and use problems as the foundation of how my kids learned each day. Throughout the course of the year, week by week I wrote a bunch of original problems, edited others that I already had, and stole the rest. In the end, there were 349 problems which I would classify as mediocre at best. These problems (and other practice, including DeltaMath) were the vehicle that my students used to learn algebra 2…and be adequately prepared for the Regents exam on June 14. The 12 whiteboards wrapped around the walls of my classroom provided the platform for my students to dig into these problems each and every day.

It was idealistic, but this change was inspired to help my kids be more independent and interdependent problem solvers. I took a huge risk because I didn’t know what heck I was doing. Despite some early struggles, I stuck it out because I believed in the process and knew that real change would take time. I constantly adjusted to support my kids as they pushed themselves out of their comfort zones. There were tears. There were instances where I felt like I bit off more than I could chew. Despite support from my admin, I still felt alone because I was doing something so different, so radical, from the rest of my colleagues. It wasn’t their fault. I was hard to relate to. Mine was a messy, nonlinear pedagogical stance to teaching mathematics and, as such, others stayed away. In the end, although folks wished me well, I had no one to talk to about the day-to-day, nitty-gritty roadblocks that I ran into. Other than an independent trip to Exeter and an awesome visit from one of their teachers, I worked in isolation. This only intensified my struggles.

Anyhow, the result of all this was an uplifting, rejuvenating, and stressful school year. I have some major takeaways that will inspire next year’s work, PBL v2. I’ll let them breathe here.

  • Don’t think that students will value my perspective on learning simply because I say its valuable and worthwhile. There was going to be a natural struggle involved with learning through problems, but I did a poor job of setting them up for dealing with it. Next year, the first 1-2 weeks will be all about helping them meet my expectations. This may include modeling how they should approach the problems using prior knowledge and independent research, encouraging uncertainty, showing them how to document their thinking, and how to use classmates as resources. I also want to present the research behind how and why I’m structuring their learning experiences.
  • A more diverse set of instructional routines to discuss problems. This year I used student-led Harkness discussions, rotating stations (group speed dating), Desmos Activity Builder, structures unique to the specific problems, and traditional, teacher-directed lessons that focused on anchor problems. Before the year began, I was worried about having the right problems as they are so pivotal in this setting. As the year progressed, I realized that I overlooked the pedagogy behind implementing the problems. Even with a focus on small groups, uniform Harkness discussions simply won’t cut it for a class of 30 every day. While it is and will continue to be a foundation of what I do, students quickly tire of the routine. I’m also thinking that exploring the use of protocols may be worthwhile.
  • Better engagement during group work. On most days, I gave students lots of freedom when discussing the problems of the day. For much of the period, they were on their own to construct their own (with guidance from me) understanding of the problems and the related concepts. Trust was baked into each day’s discussions; their thinking inspired the success we had each day. Some days were great, but on plenty of occasions, they did what teenagers do: be lazy. I’m wondering what else I can do to foster more consistent engagement during these small group discussions.
  • More metacognitive journaling. I did one in the spring and I liked it. They chose a recent problem and analyzed their own thinking around it. They told the “story” of how they arrived and understood the solution. They were a lot to grade though. Maybe one per marking period?
  • Be better with parents. I need to have a much more transparent and stronger relationship with my parents. I almost got around to inviting one into my classroom. Nonetheless, I need to clearly communicate how students are learning, why it’s important, and how I will support them along the way. Some parents had reservations about my approach and they definitely didn’t hold back from sharing their thoughts.
  • Use standards-based grading. Because I didn’t have explicitly defined units for students, when they encountered the problems, they didn’t have the crutch of knowing they were working on “section 2-4,” for example. They needed to use the context of the problem (and work done on previous problems) to discern what to do. I really like this because it made more challenging for students, but it handcuffed me when because I couldn’t find a way to accurately identify and document their understandings on exams, other than a vague, overarching percentage like “74%.” I thought deeply about this a lot and decided I will need to sacrifice a little PBL to assess meaningfully and authentically. Next year, I still don’t see having units, but I do think I will attach concepts to problems, at least to start. At the start of the year, when I give them their problems, I will also give them an exhaustive list of concepts that the problems elicit over the course of the year. I will number the concepts (eg 1-52) and each problem will have an indicator showing which of the concepts the problem connects to. Maybe over time, I can move away from this and students can make the problem-concept connection on their own. Either way, with well-defined, itemized concepts, I should be able to assign qualitative measures to each student’s understandings (needs improvement, developing, proficient, mastery). Whew.
  • The above would allow for more meaningful retakes of exams. With “corrections,” this process was a joke this year. There was no meaningful learning and we were all simply going through the process of applying an informal curve to their exam grades. With SBG back in the fore, this means that my post-exam procedures will look more like last year.
  • A nonlinear approach to learning mathematics. A huge plus of the PBL as I implemented it was that it gave me the opportunity to interleave concepts like never before. Not only did I marry concepts together in natural ways that are harder to achieve with discrete units, but I was able to space out concepts over the course of several months when it would traditionally be crammed into a three-week unit and subsequently forgotten. The most obvious example of this is trigonometry. We did many problems over the course of four months, each being a small step that got us closer to learning all the concepts from the unit. All the while, students were learning about other concepts as well. I can definitely improve my sequencing of problems but, again, since concepts learned are nonlinear, this makes recall more challenging for students and harder to forget.
  • One formal group assessment per marking period. These are just too valuable to not include on a regular basis. The kids love them. Plus, real learning happens during an assessment! They include two-stage quizzes, group quizzes, and VNPS quizzes.
  • Assign problems that will be formally collected and graded. In addition to the daily problem sets that are worked on for homework and usually discussed the following day, I want to give one meaty problem that’s due every two weeks. I’ll expect integrity and independent solutions, but students are free to research how to solve them using whatever resources they want. This will hopefully promote deep thought and a formal write up of math on a complex problem. I would love to have students type up their responses. I foresee using the Art of Problem Solving texts to find these problems, at least to start.
  • Using DeltaMath as a learning resource, not just practice. I was surprised by how big of a role DeltaMath played in my students’ learning. Given the lingering Regents exam, my kids relied heavily on the ‘show example‘ feature of the site to explore and solidify key ideas brought out by problems that we discussed during class.
  • Check homework randomly, I think. Because I didn’t check homework at all, the majority of students didn’t do it. Since the homework consisted of problems that were the centerpiece of following day’s discussion, it was a necessary component of the class. I wanted students to internalize that if they didn’t do it, they would be lost the next day. It’s ok if they didn’t understand, but they had to try. Well, that didn’t happen. Most kids just tried the problems in class the next day and set us all back. A colleague gave me feedback that students will give priority to things that have incentives, like points. I get it, but refuse to accept giving a carrot for homework. To compromise, I may check the homework of a random set of 5-7 students each day. Any student is fair game and, by the end of the marking period, every student will have roughly the same number of homework checks. I had tested this out in May and I think it triggered some initiative amongst students to do homework. I also like the idea of possibly administering a homework quiz that’s based on the previous day’s homework. If they didn’t do the homework, they’ll struggle…and I’ll offer tutoring for them to make it up.
  • Deliberately teach problem-solving skills. I had a flawed expectation that students would somehow become better problem solvers by simply solving a bunch of problems and have discussions about them. While that happened for some, at the end of the year most of my students grew minimally when it comes to their actual problem-solving abilities. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to get better with this, but I know purposeful reflection will play a big role. I will also need to help surface specific PBL skills for kids. I want to bring in the question formulation technique and problem posing. This is still up the in air…and I’m reading a lot about this right now.
  • Be uncomfortable. It’s a great thing. In past years, I unequivocally strived to have students that were comfortable and at ease with everything we did in the classroom. I hoped they would find what and how they learned as easy and unproblematic. If I’m frank, I did a pretty good job of that. This year, I landed on the cold realization that, in many ways, my students should be uncomfortable. How else will they grow? As this post showcases, I led by example.

That’s all I have for now.

A lingering thought. Years from now, I’ll probably look back at all this and realize that I was fighting a losing battle, that I was too idealistic, that my time with students could have been used more effectively. I’ll look back and see how foolish I was. Yes, foolish to think that I could somehow establish a subculture within my classroom of independent and interdependent problem solvers that relied more on themselves than on the teacher. A subculture that places little value of remembering a formula or procedure for a quick fix, but instead focused on the mathematical relationships, collaboration, productive struggle, and prior knowledge to own what and how they learned. I’ll laugh at myself and shrug it off as me being ignorant. I’ll recognize that my goals were too lofty and practically impossible in a day and age of teacher-driven learning, high-stakes exams, and point-hungry motivations.

With this in mind, I can’t help but quote Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

 

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End of the 2016-17 school year

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-2. I always enjoy writing my end of school year post. It’s a great way of wrapping my head around all that has happened during the last ten months.

-1. It’s the last day of school – what a difference a year makes! This time last June I was finishing off a ten-year tenure at my previous school, eager for a new beginning. Well, this year was eventful, to say the least. No lie, part of me is surprised that I actually survived it.

0.  I should start with how whiteboarding transformed my instruction this year. I’ve had small, desk-sized whiteboards for years, but usually only pulled them out for review. After Alex Overwijk’s session last year at TMC16, I knew that I had to use some VNPS and VRG this year. It only took until March, but I did. I dabbled with creating flow and it was  a game changer!

1. All the classrooms are shared at my school so this is a stretch, but I’m thinking of completely defronting my classroom next year. It probably won’t fly next year, but I want my desk in the middle of the room.

2. After I hit my groove with the large whiteboards, it was all downhill from there. We dry-erased ourselves to death. I was also lucky enough to have desks in my room that are dry-erase friendly. I also picked up these sheets, which came in handy while sketching trigonometric and polynomial functions.

3. Through all of this, I discovered the immense learning value and functionality in dry erase. Kids were far more willing to get an answer wrong, to take risks. They knew their work wasn’t permanent. In fact, not only was it easy to edit their work, it was downright fun at times. At a deeper level, they stopped caring so much about being wrong.

4. My standards-based grading ran into a wall this year. This deserves a post in and of itself. But to make a long story short: I made my SBG marks cumulative for the year. What a student learns (or doesn’t learn) in October is still reflected on their grade in June. This means that they had the opportunity retake any concept from any point during the year with no penalty. At the same time, they could also lose proficiency if they demonstrated a lack of understanding on a particular concept – even if they first learned in back in October, say. Most kids didn’t like the system, but I REALLY did. Hmm…

5. Three other bits about my SBG this year. First, as the year progressed, I began to drift away from SBG with my non-Regents (non-state tests) students. It got so hard to make their retakes a priority over my Regents students. This is a problem that I hope I address next year. Second, shortly after the year began, I started requiring students to reserve their seat ahead of time for retakes (instead of just showing up). Before this change, it was a mad house of 25 kids after school trying to retake their concepts. I limited it to 15 students and then it was ok. Lastly, I never found a way to for students who initially demonstrated proficiency to move up to mastery. My focus was on moving kids up from developing to proficiency. The solution may lie in not requiring them to tutor with me before retaking. We’ll see.

6. For the first time in my career, I wrote an end of year letter to my students. I write them all the time anyhow, so I figured why not end the year with one final letter. Each class got their own and it was almost two pages. I included a remark about every student in each class. It really hit home with the kids. One student even said that she was going to frame it.

7. I blame this on my first year blues, but I let too much go this year – especially with my first period class. They were off the wall for much of the year and I was pretty embarrassed by the lack of control I had. I gave them too much latitude early on and it came back to bite me. Across the board, I need to tighten things up next year.

8. Being naive, I attempted to have a parent newsletter. Just like last school year, it went strongly for three months and…flopped. Badly. I don’t want to give up on this idea, but it’s not looking good.

9. I need to call more parents. Maybe instead of a damn newsletter, I make an effort to call each and every parent at the start of the school year. And then follow up as necessary.

10. Being the first year that I’ve taught Common Core Algebra 2, I struggled in knowing what to exactly teach the kids. Let’s just say that I learned a lot of mathematics this year. And I was good until around December…and that’s when the pacing calendar went out the window. I was forced to omit two entire units.

11. For the past several years, I did my best to preplan entire units. I’m talking having detailed handouts for every lesson before the unit begins. Th goal was to think ahead and build strong connections between lessons and key ideas. Because of my struggles with the curriculum, I came to the realization that this practice actually causes me more harm than good. By trying to follow the road map that I constructed prior to the start of the unit, I didn’t leave room flexibility in my students’ thinking that naturally occurred as they learned new things. This whole situation makes me think of this nugget of wisdom that Patrick Honner dropped on me a couple of years ago.

12. My homework structure got better this year. Unit-based DeltaMath was good. Having students check the paper homework it was a success. I realized, though, that I gradually stopped lagging it. This may be related to the curricular issues, but found it hard to plan the homework each night. Next year, I might give the students homework on Friday and make it due the following Friday – with all lagged problems. Then again, I’m now toying with the idea of no homework at all.

13. My A.P. is outstanding. She was the breath of fresh air.

14. Dan Meyer was equally outstanding in his three-part PD series that I attended.

15. A huge professional accomplishment this year was submitting component 2 of my National Board Certification. Damn that thing was work. OMG. I just remembered that I have to submit two more of these next year.

16. Math for America honored me with a Renewal Master Teacher Fellowship. My growth during these last four years has much to do with their influence on my career, so I’m thoroughly pleased that I will be continuing to grow and lead through this dynamic community. On a semi-unrelated note, I co-authored a post on the MfA blog.

17. In March, I was named a Big Apple Award Finalist. Frankly, I don’t know how the hell this happened. I’m grateful though.

18. At the beginning of the school year, I had every student write me a letter introducing themselves. I gave loose guidelines of what I hoped they’d tell me and said that I would write each of them a personalized letter in return. Well, it’s June 28 and not only did I not write everyone back, but I didn’t even read many of the letters until last week. (Reading their letters after a year of getting to know them was pretty interesting, though.) Shame on me!

19. The Token of Appreciation was lost on two different occasions in two different classes this year. Nonetheless, it was still a great year in appreciating the small moments that exist between us.

20. As I stood outside my classroom door this year, I started dishing out high-fives to random students (and staff members) as they walked by me. It was spontaneous, fun, and a total mood-lifter. Also, my fifth-period class always gave me a round of applause at the start of class. I gave them an applause as they exited. It was strange – and totally unforgettable.

21. The estimation wall was a total hit. And thanks to the inspiration from Sara VanDerWerf, so were the random problems that I posted in the hallway. From students to staff, everyone was doing, and loving, mathematics. This is genius.

22. The Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes initiative was a huge success this year. At the end of the year, I even had a girl present a mathematician that she learned about on a school field trip.

23. I learned how far we need to go, as a school community, to deliberately address race and other social issues with students and staff. A lot goes ignored. Too much in fact. More to come.

24. I’m super excited for next year. I should be teaching the first ever mathematics elective at my school, which will be treat. It’ll probably be filled with kids that need a class and not because they’ve elected to be there, but I’m still eager to explore mathematics beyond Regents and A.P. exams, which is all they know. Also, I hope to kickstart either a mathematics or Educators Rising club next year. I’m on the fence about which it’ll be. The summer will help me decide.

25. The Day in the Life series that I wrote this year challenged my will at times, but I’m glad I stuck it out. It was a wonderful way to capture what was probably the most pivotal year of my career.

27. During a group quiz towards the end of the year, I took notes on student discussions and specific things that students did as they related to productive group work (explaining thinking, showing work, asking good questions, being helpful, etc). At the end of the quiz, I spent three minutes sharing one outstanding thing that I witnessed from each group. It helped push back against social status and helped show them what’s important…which isn’t to know lots of mathematics. I want to do more of this public acknowledgment of student thinking.

28. I learned a lot about my goals this year. Looking back at the goals I set back in September, I made reasonable progress on numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8. If I go ahead and say that I “achieved” those goals (which is pushing it), then that means I had a success rate of 4/10. Whatever. In the end, what I really take from all this is that my focus this year was far too broad. I wanted to change way too much.

29. If I’m honest, it’s the end of June and I’m bothered by the fact that I still don’t feel rooted in my school. While I feel the wheels turning in the right direction, right now I’m not completely invested in what’s happening here. I suppose this is normal given that I just finished my rookie year. But still.

30. Anyhow, year 11 is now in the books. Here’s to making 2017-18 great. See you next June.

 

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