A cold, lifeless 27-page booklet

At this very moment, 109 of my students are sitting in various classrooms around my school. They’re sitting in rows. They have a 27-page booklet in front of them that has 37 math problems printed in it. They have a graphing calculator. A pen. A pencil. They’re not looking at one another. They’re working in isolation, like robots, focusing only on their booklet. The clock ticks. They have an unapologetic three hours to squeeze all of their ideas out of their heads, into their hands, and into the booklet. A teacher displays the current time on the board.

And the rooms are quiet. They’re deathly silent as a matter of fact. Silent of any life. Void of any creativity, any debate, any togetherness. Vacant of anything that can respectably be called a meaningful assessment of their mathematical abilities. The rooms are absent of what so humanly filled my students’ hearts and minds all year.

In other words, the rooms are empty.

On this day, in these waning afternoon hours of June 21, 2019, a beautiful journey that delighted, surprised, confused, empowered, angered, created laughter, caused tears, produced smiles, forged bonds, and changed lives, reaches its final turn. Yes, it ends today with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet.

I tear myself away from writing this post to visit them one final time as their teacher. To inject some of warmth into these hollow rooms is the least that I can do. I need to be there for them once more. There are seven rooms. A bold, red piece of paper is taped to the outside of each declaring it a TESTING ROOM. I open each door and stand in the entryway. I’m there for a minute, maybe two. I’m waiting for nothing in particular. I don’t speak. No words would dare attempt to capture how I feel. Many of them look up, see me, and smile. Some smirk because my beard is missing. I grin. Pleasant thoughts sooth me. I’m happy. I’m proud.

During my visits, I’m told on three different occasions that I cannot be there, I cannot share the space with my students, no matter how brief it is. The voice is annoying, like a gnat. I shoo it away and maintain my presence. While this voice is a lonely one, emanating from a single body, a body that doesn’t understand the bonds — the love — that I have for the young people in those rooms, it is also the blaring siren of a stolid, tyrannical system that is engineered to maintain a strict distance between everyone and everything that operates within the system. It’s only fitting that I am confronted with this siren — this force — now, in these final moments, because it has been trying to disparage the closeness that I share with my students all year long. I guess it couldn’t let go until the very end.

But the bottom line is that nothing was going to remove me from those final moments with my students. Bring my AP. Bring my principal. Bring my superintendent. We went through too much together. I belonged there.

I crawl back to my desk. The exam is coming to an end. So are the algebra 2 experiences of my kids. Attempting to capitalize on the moment, other teachers brought in water and snacks for their students. Candy is common. Others dished out high fives and personal notes as students walked into school. These various forms of nourishment serve as one last round of encouragement, a hopeful send off that the kids can collect enough points to satisfy New York State.

I feel guilty because I just couldn’t bring myself to do any of these things. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I did, but something in me resisted the urge to pour more energy into this lifeless day. I couldn’t contribute to building up an event that means so little. It’s bad enough that our 10-month campaign to better ourselves terminates like this, with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet. I couldn’t make this apex moment any more sour by advocating for a higher score.

I remain in the building until the end. Not because I have to or plan on seeing any of my students or hearing how things went. I don’t care to discuss the exam with them or anyone else. Not now. There will be a time and place for that in this score-hungry, pass-rate driven mess of a school system. Hanging around till the end of it all just seems to me like the right thing to do. To see my students off, however vicariously.

I wrap up my thoughts, try to bring closer to this disheartening day. As I leave, I walk around to each of the rooms that housed my students just minutes before. I peer in. They’re still empty.

 

bp

My beard was a thing this school year

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It was after school last Friday. The room was filled with over 50 excited students. There was a buzz. Most all were standing. Some on chairs. Phones were recording. Having waited 10 months for this moment, the room was bursting with anticipatory energy that easily spilled out into the hallway. The sense of community was staggering and unlike anything that I had ever been a part of. Unsure what was happening, other teachers walked in.

All of sudden, out of nowhere, a loud chant breaks out among every student in the room. “Cut it off! Cut it off! Cut it off!”

Where was I? Sitting on a chair in front of it all. Their chant was being directed at me. Or at least at the student standing next to me who had the clippers.

What was happening? My beard was being shaved after 10 months of untouched growth.

This was all so unexpected. In September, I met a student in my third period class and noticed that he had a pretty nice beard. It was thick, mature. He seemed to take it seriously. I’m not sure why, but I asked him if he would consider not shaving it (or trimming it) for the duration of the school year. If he was on board, I promised that I would match his effort and leave my beard in its natural state until June.

It was the second week of school and I didn’t know this kid a lick, but he didn’t even think twice about my offer. Unbelievably, he wanted to do it. Right then and there I vowed to not shave or trim the hair on my face for the rest of the school year. The next day I made it public and told all of my classes. Of course, being so early in the year, my students and I barely had a relationship at that point. They probably didn’t think twice about it — it was just a random thought, an off-center commitment, a promise that would surely be forgotten by their new, overzealous math teacher.

As the year unfolded, my beard got longer. And longer. It was untamed. Raw. I didn’t use any fancy oils. It started growing sideways off of my face. I think in late February was when it really became a thing for us. So while the original student’s mom made him cut his soon after our pact, mine started to build momentum. We talked about it in class, like how my family felt about it. I started to strike up conversations with random bearded men on the street and on the subway, getting tips. I unknowingly joined a club that I never knew existed. This was all unfamiliar to me but never felt strange — it always felt right.

As June approached, I started thinking about the end of the year. What was going to happen to my beard? My face had been through so much. Was I going to keep it? My beard (literally) grew on me. I really liked it. It gave me character. I considered it my “wisdom beard.” I enjoyed stroking it and pretending I was Socrates.

On Wednesday of last week, I knew what had to be done. In a decision that was somewhat last minute, I brought my clippers to school. My students were going to cut my beard. It was the natural thing to do.

While it began as a playful agreement, my beard blossomed into much more than the growth of hair. It was symbolic. It was a physical manifestation of all the growth that my students and I had experienced this year. Like my beard, our growth was of the type that required a long stretch of time to develop and mature into its full form. You can’t grow a beard like what I had in a week — sideways growth and all. Our bonds were no different. 

And it’s not like I could take it off when I wasn’t in school. My beard was with me everywhere I went this past year. It was with me before school, after school, at home, on the weekends. It was a part of me. In this way, the hair that slowly crept out from my chin and cheeks signified the closeness that I had with my students. The connections we shared this year transcended school, transcended the learning of mathematics. Like my beard, their stories and histories and passions and pain stayed with me long after the school day ended. My kids took me to unfamiliar territory, like my beard did. In terms of culture, community, and togetherness, my kids set a new standard for me. This is humbling.

More than my curriculum, more than my pedagogy, more than my colleagues, more than anything else, it was my students who were the definitive part of my growth this year. They were my beard. Every hair.

Friday was the last day of classes. They were no longer my students. They were leaving me. My beard had to go.

 

While I am getting so many compliments on how much younger I look now, I hate destinations. The journey is so much more fun.

I miss my beard. I miss my kids.

 

bp

 

 

Sidewalk Math @ EdXEdNYC 2019

So I’m going to do something that I haven’t done in 13 years: present at a edu conference.

Other than being terrified and nervous and overwhelmed, with no idea how this is going to turn out, I’m pretty excited. I’m also thankful to EDxEDNYC for giving me this opportunity to share my experiences with Sidewalk Math tomorrow. I can’t way to see what results as we chalk things up outside Hudson High School for Learning Technologies.

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I’m selfish about writing

As teachers, we are constantly being pushed to write. At any given time, we have mounds and mounds obligatory writing. Things like lesson plans, student evaluations, and email(!!) are always lurking, waiting for us after we collect our exit tickets. Our students leave, we sit in front of our computer, and we’re attacked. Most times, at least for me, writing becomes a chore.

But despite all the rudimentary writing that’s required in teaching, there is hope. Some of us find the motivation to expand the walls of our classrooms through our writing to help start (or join) a larger conversation around tracking or teacher tenure, say. The focus here is on the bigger picture. Often times this includes writing about educational policy. Things like Op-Eds come to mind. Some teachers — and this is becoming more and more common — even contribute to the larger teaching community by assiduously writing a book. Yes, a book!

There is a definite lure to this sort of writing. It can affect change that goes far beyond writing a lesson plan for a superintendent’s visit. Our written words can motivate. It can trigger tough, but necessary, conversations with one another. It helps us to unite teachers from different schools and districts. From some of us, and this has to be said whether we want to hear it or not, it also feeds our ego. It amplifies our own voice.

I’ve never been interested in any of that. I write for me. This blog was born 5 years ago and each post is almost always an intellectual or emotional purge. A brain dump, if you will. I squeeze my thoughts from my head down to my fingertips and tap them out on my keyboard for no one other than me. Is that bad? Maybe. Is it selfish? Definitely.

But I don’t really care. I’ve found that writing for myself helps to clarify what I think I’m thinking and to better understand my own complexities. This is not unlike what Marcus Aurelius did in Meditations. I’m always better teacher after I write. (To get all meta, this post in itself is a great example of this.)

Twitter, originally popularized as a micro-blogging platform, serves the same purpose for me. When I tweet, most times it captures a moment — something that I’m thinking about or want to write more deeply about. I usually carefully construct my tweets. If there are replies, I don’t mind connecting with others, but I usually tweet for reflection. A micro-brain dump.

I’ll even extend this to non-blog, non-Twitter writing. I especially enjoy the hand-written reflections and Friday Letters that I write to students, which have become more and more important to me through the years. Student recommendations letters are also a refreshing change of pace for my writing. While I used to view them as a burden, I’ve come to appreciate their reflective nature. It is there that I can formally channel all of my thoughts into a single student and summarize their experiences with me.

I’ve stretched my reflections further by auditing an English class at my school. Instead of planning my own engaging lessons or replying to the 217 emails that I get each day, I selfishly attend everyday 7th period, take notes, study for vocab quizzes, the whole nine. I’m a student again! It’s a fun and reflective class — and there’s plenty of writing. Right now I’m crafting a profile on my colleague Patrick Callahan. I’ve admired him and his work for a while. Writing about him is not only helping bring me closer to him, but also to the teacher that I want to become. The class involves research and structured reflections that I wouldn’t otherwise do or make time for. I’m thankful for it.

 

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Dear M, (Student Letter #3)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 3rd post in the series.

Dear M,

I’ve had you as a student for two years now. I’ve gotten to know you well. It pains me think about your struggles because your feelings towards math have soured while in my class.

Last year was good for us, productive. It was the first half of the two-year track for algebra 2 that you were involuntarily placed in by our school. You worked hard all year. Asked lots of questions. I found you very capable. Little did I know what was bubbling underneath the surface.

This year I assigned the Mathography in September. In yours, you opened up about your strong dislike for math through the years and how being placed in a two-year course against your wishes affected your self-worth. It made you feel inadequate as a learner of mathematics. Given our experiences last year, I found both of these things surprising. I should’ve known. That’s on me.

I made a focused effort to listen to you more this year. During our talks — all during class time mind you — you’ve helped me feel the negative emotions that can come with learning math. From jump, you shared your frustrations about the class, about our school. Being a small crop of seniors in a sea of sophomores and juniors taking the class, you looked inward and wondered why you were so bad at math. M, you are not bad at math. We made you believe that.

Hearing your story firsthand and seeing your tears hit home. I told you that for the last two years I lobbied for our school to reform how we track students in math classes. No one has listened to me. While we do a lot of things right here, tracking has created a social hierarchy within our school that is hurtful and unjust. It shames students and reinforces stereotypes about math that you know well. You are a product of this system. I’m sorry for being part of the problem.

But my weak apology and efforts to advocate for systemic change on behalf of students like you don’t matter. Not at this moment. Not now, in late April, when you’ve all but given up. I had my chance to do something different, to help you engage, to help you find a purpose to our class, and I didn’t. We had a few small wins, but nothing consistent. No lie, I get frustrated with you — like I did today with the quiz. I can’t escape my own flaws, M. I wish I could. I’m being pulled in so many directions during class, the needs so great and so diverse, that instead of being creative and resourceful, I indirectly place blame on you. Again, this is on me.

Now you’ve lost interest in achieving anything meaningful through math. Respectfully, you come back each day to spend another 45 minutes in a haze of confusion. While never rude, you’re in so much pain that you laugh and make a self-deprecating joke anytime I approach you about grades or hand back assessments. I want you to know that this eats away at me.

I can only hope that somebody down the road can help you reconnect with math. I know it won’t be me and I’m ok with that. I hope that when you discover success through math, you relish it in all its glory. Stay in touch.

Sincerely,

Mr. P