Burn 5 minutes

I think early and often about relationships, classroom culture, and how both affect learning — and learning math in particular. Last year I wrote about how I try to resist the expectation that content must supersede humanness. I’m getting better, but I’m still prone to neglecting the social fabric of my classroom in favor of shoving content down the throats of students. I have seen and felt this from other teachers, too. But this content-vs-humanness predicament not entirely on us. The pressures from our district, our administration, and parents are real and seem to be getting worse. As more and more demands and expectations are placed on us, we’re faced with few alternatives other than to place a firm emphasis on content and move on.

On top of all that, learning is hard. It’s devilishly tricky to fuse new knowledge with old.  And there’s a ton of hidden baggage that our kids carry, too. About math, about learning, about what kind of student they’ve been told they are. This only adds to the complexity of the work.

But neuroscience tells us that our brains need strong social connections in order to flourish. To help someone learn, to help them consolidate what they now know with what our curriculum says is important, requires a relationship. It calls for an honest, unconditional exchange of self on behalf of the student and teacher. Surely this involves sharing an understanding of math, but for me, our relationship must exist outside of math and outside of the curriculum. I work with my students to acknowledge the gravity of this and why I’m so serious about the bond we share. Our relationship is an intimate one and does its best work when deep, trusting bonds can be created and nurtured between teacher and student. That’s what I believe, at least.

Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier, though. My ambivalent struggle to balance the weightiness of content with authentic relationships is ongoing. In my wonderings, the opening of class has been a focal point. I view it as a critical time for my students, a moment of their physical, psychological, and emotional arrival. As such, I see value in engaging them as humans before I engage them as emerging mathematicians. It’s an opportunity to plug into one another again. The past 24 hours have chewed us up and spit us out and now we’re back here, together, hoping to be better than we were yesterday. Before our energies shift and get tangled in math, I’ve come to savor this magical reunion that I have with my students each day.

I show this by moving our opening conversation away from math. After the Bell Ringer, no matter what’s on the agenda, I deliberately pause, find eyes, and ask how everyone is feeling. We popcorn out about our lack of sleep or celebrate how someone caught the bus this morning by the narrowest of margins. We then fill the next few minutes with informal dialogue. House talk. It could be about a thought-provoking book, a funny moment from the hallway or cafeteria, or how someone’s new baby sister is doing. I will often ask students to share something kind they did for another person that day. Or something that has made them think. It’s can be a lot of things, but no matter what, it captures what we’re thinking or feeling at the moment. It’s a casual check-in with nothing on the line.

Unscripted, it lasts all of five minutes. Then we’re on to discussing homework or whatever else is on tap. I know some of my colleagues call for every second of every period of every day to be a one way street to math or whatever else is being taught. This is fair. But in a content-driven school system that, despite lionizing social-emotional well-being of students, still manages to exclude it from its bottom line, this is my push back.

Last year, I read Matthew R. Kay’s Not Light, But Fire, a book on a mission to help teachers bring meaningful race conversations into the classroom. One of his prerequisites is building conversational safe spaces with our students. Like me, he also uses the start of class to “Burn Five Minutes,” as he calls it, to reorient students to the space and connect with them as humans. His rationale is far more eloquent and polished than what I’ve done with this post, so I’ll close with an excerpt from chapter one:

[When I burn five minutes, I] acknowledge students are thinking people who hold opinions independent of my curriculum…I show them that I find them worthy enough to warrant five minutes speaking as equals. (At the beginning of class, no less. Consider the difference between an athlete being asked to start a game and being invited to play in “garbage time” at the end when the outcome is obvious. That’s the difference between starting class with informal conversation and mopping up extra minutes with it.)

This time commitment is minimal, until one steps back and considers that five minutes a day becomes nearly two hours of informal chatter over the course of a month. This banking of conversational democracy buttresses all other classroom dialogue — students can take more risks, and our classroom culture can survive more mistakes, because students are less likely to consider our respect for their opinions either disingenuous or capricious. We build with them every day, and not just about things that they will eventually be graded on.

 

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What if teachers were encouraged to be students?

Last year, my school did intervisitations. It was nice, we visited each other’s classrooms and met afterward to debrief. I mainly visited English and AP Environmental Science, and having spent months sprinkling myself into these classes, there were plenty of takeaways. One of the biggest, though, had nothing to do with taking low-inference notes, thinking about questioning, or any other activity that usually finds its way into a typical intervisitation.

I wanted to learn what was being taught. Being haphazardly obsessed with learning, I couldn’t resist myself as I started to see my colleagues’ classes as avenues to knowledge. Best of all, the knowledge was served hot, fresh, and free each day. And it was accessible. It was there. All I had to do was walk in and sponge it up. (Thankfully, I work with folks who are open to this.)

So as I journeyed through my colleagues’ lessons, picking apart assessment strategies, my student-like curiosity began to overthrow the teacher in me. I started to wonder. The more classes I visited, the more questions I had. In world history, why was the Roman aqueduct an engineering marvel? In science, how do the eating habits of certain animals evolve? In English, how do you write an effective profile?

As my school’s ocean of knowledge revealed itself, I dove in headfirst. I audited one unit of grade 10 English near the end of last year. This year, I’m taking physics for more than a semester. I’ve cashed in one of my two free periods to become an unofficial student.

It has been fun. I attend class every day, scribble down notes, do homework, sweat over exams. I’m sitting on tables thinking about the inclined plane with students who I teach in algebra 2. Instead of being tethered to my computer for 45 minutes, I now use 8th period to wrestle with ideas, lose myself in unfamiliar problems, mess up, and fill my time with ah-ha moments. It’s thrilling.

This renewal of thought that comes from being a student again makes me think. What if teachers were required, as part of their teaching load, to take a class at their school?What if teachers were encouraged to be students? What if we sat alongside some of our own kids in a class and learned with them?

The initial reaction, mainly from rank and file folks like myself, is probably, we have so many things to do already, how could we have time for this?

While that sounds a lot like a symptom of No Time Disease, I get it. I’m voluntarily giving up my prep period to take a class. It’s a tradeoff that I find worth it, but which can’t be expected from the average joe. But what if taking a class was built into our schedule? What if we taught one less class so that we could then enroll in one?

In addition to having a more intelligent teaching corps who is more capable of making connections between disciplines, this may also serve us well with how students see us. If they are able to see us (literally) first not as teachers, but as learners, as humans grappling with new knowledge as a means to better understand ourselves and the world, then maybe they will be more apt to do the same. Maybe.

 

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My 2019 in books

My 2019 was filled with lots of great reading. Managing to squeeze out 33 books, I purposely allowed my reading habits to wander, to let them freely take me wherever. There was a little of this, a little of that, a solid, if not random, blend of genres and subjects. If I walked into Barnes & Noble, as I often did to find a book, and something struck me, I whipped out my phone and placed an immediate hold at the library. After it arrived, I would do my best to dig in, but most of the time something else had already stolen my attention. I got around to most of them eventually, with a few collecting dust for months and eventually being returned unread.

No matter what I read, as the months passed I tried to remain cognizant of the racial makeup of the authors. I was always glad when I felt the stern peck of my social conscience whenever I mindlessly read multiple white authors in a row.

Earlier this month, I aptly gifted books that I read this year to a handful of colleagues. I matched each recipient to a book based on who they are and the unique connection that we share in and out of the classroom. In my own cheezy way, I found it comforting to pass on some of what I read and learned from the past 12 months to folks that deeply respect. It was like giving part of me and my growth. For personal reasons, I denoted these books (the ones that made the lists below, anyway) with an asterisk (*).

Nonfiction |  A steady stream of hearty nonfiction titles kept finding their way into my hands this year. Thankfully, there were only one or two disappointments. For the first time, I even reread a book this year. Yay, me! Hopefully this becomes a trend. OK, here are the standouts:

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. With a goal of writing more this year, I found myself drifting towards books geared towards writers. These two surely evoked my inner wordsmith, offering new ideas and tips to strengthen who I am behind the keyboard. Dangling participles beware, I’m coming for you.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction* by Alan Jacobs. To couple my surging sense of authorship, I got all meta and spent some time reading about reading. Orlean’s exceptional account of the tragic 1986 Los Angeles library fire help to satisfy my growing fascination with public libraries. Jacobs’s book was a well-written page-turner, plain and simple.
  • Teaching Community* by bell hooks. Full of love and stuffed with all the emotion that is inexplicably absent from today’s classrooms, this modestly adorned book was so darn good that I turned it into a blog post.
  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions* by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. A lovely crossover, fuzing two ostensibly different worlds. As someone vaguely familiar with the principles of computer science, a lover of math, and an undisclosed technophobe, I ate it up and went for seconds.
  • White Rage by Carol Anderson was great. As a white person, this gem provided me a much-needed history lesson. It peeled back the many layers of white privilege that shapes the history of our country. It was a bit stilted and heavy on academic jargon, but still fairly digestible.
  • Why We Sleep* by Matthew Walker. This wins the Most Impactful Book of the Year Award. The importance of sleep is well known, and every study ever decrees its supremacy when it comes to healthy living, yet, after reading this, somehow I still think we underestimate it. Walker does an impeccable job at making accessible the complex world that we find ourselves in after our eyes close.
  • Becoming* by Michelle Obama. Easily the best book of the year. After I turned the last page and closed the back cover, I felt compelled, right then and there, to turn the book over and reread it. While I didn’t do it, I would have given anything for this beauty to go on for another 400 pages. Finishing it was a huge disappointment. Thanks, Michelle.

Fiction | As in 2018, I eked out five books of fiction this year. They were peppered in throughout the year and, desiring to create a shared reading experience with my students, I read one with a mentee over the summer. That was enjoyable. Of the lot, here are my two favorites:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Loath as I am to admit that I’ve never read this before this year, I must admit that it moved me. This is a special book with a special message. Both the writing and imagery were stellar. By the end, I was left hurt and confused because of how much our society mirrors Bradbury’s dystopia. Questions abound.
  • Dark Matter* by Blake Crouch. Reading this book was like eating a slice of pie after at the close of Thanksgiving dinner: I scarfed it down and felt completely satisfied. (Unrelated: Why all the food references, am I hungry?) I can’t remember now why I even started reading it because it doesn’t at all pique my interest, but, interestingly, its plunge into quantum physics jibed well with a fun and informative children’s book that the fam checked out from the library at around the same time.

 

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I collapsed in my classroom

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

That modest question was posed to me by a student in my 7th period class a little over a month ago. Only it wasn’t a game or a joke, nor was it some clever part of my lesson that day. I hadn’t planned to hear it, just as the student hadn’t planned to ask it, but it was a serious question.

He asked because I had collapsed. I was on my back in the middle of my classroom and he needed to know if I could see straight. Thankfully, though we would playfully disagree later, I answered correctly. It was three.

A few minutes before I successfully counted his sharp-cornered fingers, everything was normal. All 30 of my students were turned towards the twelve giant whiteboards that cover the walls of our room. They were factoring. Doing a damn good job at it too. Near the end, as I nonchalantly tilted my head to survey a piece of work on a nearby board, the walls instantly rushed to life and the room whirled uncontrollably. It was like an unfriendly 60-mph merry-go-ground, except without the horses, lights, and music. The abrupt velocity of the spinning rocked me. I had no time to grab a nearby desk and barely uttered a word before the side of my head smacked against the floor. 

An intense case of vertigo had mercilessly shoved me to the ground.

I stayed down for a few minutes. I had to. The walls, and now ceiling, continued to sway. I closed my eyes for comfort.

Slowly, after about a minute, the room started to stand still again. I overheard a kid say that I was playing a joke. After all, I did unexpectedly contract a severe throat virus just a few weeks prior. Someone soon realized that I wasn’t joking and that’s when I was forced to count fingers. My concerned student held them up four feet from my no-doubt expressionless face. I never imagined that counting three fingers from the hand of a teenager would be so satisfying, but it was. Almost cheerfully, I managed to sit up.

He cautiously helped me to a neighboring seat. As I gathered myself, I looked around and noticed that the majority of the class was still glued to their boards. They were so immersed in the work that they hadn’t even noticed my collapse. I was still dazed, but deep inside, pride welled up. I was slumped in a chair, confused, with a golf-ball sized lump forming on my head, yet my students were assiduously lost in their work. Though brief and distressing, looking out at them at that moment was special. It was fulfilling and sustaining. I will always remember it.

As a student sprinted out of the room to grab my assistant principal, I tentatively reached around to turn off the background music that I had playing through the SmartBoard. Other than the handful of students who were aiding me, it was then that the majority of the class peeked over their shoulders and noticed that something was wrong. I was the center of an anxious huddle. As the kids unhitched themselves from the boards and grabbed their seats, it was evident that this was unfamiliar to us all. The buzz that filled the room just a few minutes earlier was now replaced with uncertain silence. With raised brows and gaping mouths, worry was painted all over their faces as I tried to explain what happened. Although clear and coherent, my words zigzagged and missed every ear in the room. I was at a loss. Thankfully, after about my third muddled sentence, my AP arrived and the kids were ushered out just before the bell.

Other than the lump on the left side of my head, I actually felt fine about 10 minutes after the fall. Nevertheless, I left school early, paid a visit to the hospital, and, per doctor’s orders, stayed home the next day. I emailed my students, even those not in that particular class, to let them know what happened. I needed them to know that I was OK and that I missed them.

Upon returning to school, I was humbled by the torrent of concern and support from my students and school community. It seemed that everyone in the building knew about my fall, even those who I don’t teach or know, and they were all coming up to ask me how I was doing. I received many warmhearted emails and notes. We share the building with a different school and one of their teachers even checked in on me. I felt overwhelmingly and undeservingly cared for. These uplifting interactions will stay with me for a long time.

It’s been weeks since I fell, and I’ve had no dizziness since then, but I’ve often thought about that day. I’ve thought about how none my students, in all of their years of school, have ever seen their teacher lying flat on their back during class. I’ve thought about how teachers are the implicit leaders in a classroom, and how problematic it could be for a student to witness their leader, their mentor, their guide, lose his ability to stand upright. I’ve thought about, having now unwillingly brought his experience to my students, how unsettled it makes me feel.

Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how fitting it all is. Given the business-like nature of school and the supremacy of results, vulnerability is not a welcome part of what we do. My stolid, paperwork-driven school system, which includes an impersonal curriculum and a lifeless 27-pages booklet, among other things, works against the humanism that is at the center of all teaching and learning. We’re there physically, but this machinery chases who we are out of the room and down the hall. I’m told that my whiteness, my maleness, my passions, my flaws, can’t influence what happens in room 227. We talk a good game about growth mindset, are quick to cite research and put up posters, but in the end, with so much on the line, being imperfect is a weakness. It’s hard to be human and function like one in the classroom. In my search for meaning in such a stale, emotionless system, in my belief that teaching is my calling, these thoughts weigh heavily on me. I interrogate them, pick at them, hoping I can discover and deliver my authentic, human self to my students each day.

Well, it’s safe to say I was human that day in 7th period. My vulnerability was so appropriately displayed. There was no multiple choice question to hide it, no “Do Now” to take the attention off of it. I was there, on the floor. All of me. And my students bear witness to it.

Two days after I fell, when I returned to my students, I couldn’t hold any of this back. A health scare forcibly ripped me from them and where I belonged. I was emotional. I stood erect and apologized to any of them who may have been affected by what happened, but mostly I expressed my deep gratitude for their kindness, compassion, and readiness during one of the neediest moments of my life. I told them that this shared experience has bonded us for life, which it will. Having been through this together, there’s a unique closeness that pervades our room now. I relish it.

Looking back, I could have never predicted where something so scary would happen to me. But if I could have, and being around family was not an option, I would have chosen my classroom, right where it happened. For it is there, of all places in the universe, surrounded my students, and continually swept away by learning and personal growth, where I feel most alive. 

 

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