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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I have a senior in my fifth period algebra 2 class

I have a senior in my fifth period algebra 2 class who, after failing 3 of the 4 marking periods, has lost all hope in earning credit for the class or passing the Regents exam. Neither is going to affect whether he graduates or not, so over the last few months there has been a slow, gradual decline in his effort and overall concern for our class. It’s come to the point where he comes to class and simply puts his head down for the majority of the period.

I’m horrible and very awkward at outwardly motivating students, but I’ve tried by encouraging him to take pride in his work and preaching the importance of finishing strong. During these one-on-one conversations, he smiles, nods, and looks right through me. He doesn’t care and is very open about this fact.

I’ve also called home. Nothing. I’ve asked other teachers in my school for advice how to reach him. However good natured, they laughed at me. I’ve made it personal by asking him for a copy of his college admissions essay, reading it, and being genuinely blown away. This yielded insight into who he was and a personal connection between the two of us, but there was still no change in his attitude.

So this is exactly the point in this blog post where I’d love to start transitioning into a description of something awesome I did to get through to him. That magic trick that, according to mainstream media and most politicians, all teachers are expected to perform with every student. Well, I haven’t been able to do that. He’s still very much uninterested in our class and I’ve done nothing to change this.

There are lots of issues surrounding his struggles, but I can’t help but look in the mirror. In many ways, I’ve failed him. I could’ve poured more energy into him and his situation earlier and more often.

I’m not proud of it, but there were days when his head was down and I looked the other way, when I made a conscious decision to focus on the other 23 students who were alert and attempting to understand (many half-heartedly) the mathematics at hand. In those moments, I mindfully refused to address his lack of motivation and interest. The truth is, I was at a loss. I just didn’t know what to do. I felt handcuffed. I was frustrated at him, at me, at the situation. I still am.

And I’m not tap, tap, tapping these thoughts out on my phone’s tiny screen on airplane while chaperoning a trip over spring break as a cry for help or to earn sympathy. At least I don’t think so. This just seems like a deed that needs to be done, for myself. It’s to hold myself accountable to never give up on this kid – or any kid like him.

Or it could be because I’m 33,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by 24 teenagers with nothing better to do than think about my students.

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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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