The mess of non-thematic units and why they excite me

For the last two years, I’ve adopted a problem-based, discussed-based approach for algebra 2. The whole curriculum is interleaved, meaning that big ideas are parsed and revisited over long periods of time (weeks or months) to improve retention. At any given time, students are learning small parts of a few different units. This allows for extended exposure to the topics that my kids learn. This is not how a curriculum is commonly viewed because, with this model, there are no traditional units. By “traditional” I mean thematic (e.g. Unit 6: Logarithmic Functions). Instead, these thematic units are broken down and served piecemeal to students over long stretches — mainly through problems. The sequencing of this model is indiscrete and quite messy.

As evidenced by that bewildering opening paragraph, I find all this terribly hard to communicate with others. I made my best effort to describe it here. It is often referred to as spiraling. I think Henri Picciotto does a good job of articulating it.

Thematic units have the advantage of being simpler…and easier too, I think. They are a slow-moving mass of closely-related topics that stays for a little while and then leaves when the next one comes along. Everything in them is directly linked and, therefore, these units make it easier for students to draw connections between mathematical concepts. At the same time, they encourage the isolation of facts and skills. Because related ideas are all lumped together, these units offer an easier pathway to a deep understanding in a short amount of time. Or at least the illusion of deep understanding.

These units make everything easier for the teacher, too. Thematic units and their associated lessons are far easier to plan and execute. The whole process linear; the focus of each lesson is based on the previous. There’s no untidy looping in and out of concepts, no systematic revisiting of big ideas over time. The concepts march in a clean, single-file line.

This is my guess as to why textbooks and traditional forms of curriculum have adopted thematic units. Seen in this way, they make the most sense both for the student and teacher.

But easier doesn’t make it better, right? When learning is hard, when it places a higher cognitive demand on the learner, isn’t it more meaningful? By helping students learn something small, then forget it, and then recall it after a reasonable amount of time — and iterating this process again and again over the course of the school year — can’t we help ideas cement? By not blocking out content, and instead spacing out practice and frequently assessing on the same topics at greater depth, do we help students better retain it? There’s research that says yes. Make it Stick by Paul Brown really helped me understand this.

There’s no denying the challenge that this creates for teachers. Tracing how concepts mature over the course of weeks or months is not easy. Adjustments to the sequencing can be tricky, too, because concepts are so tightly intertwined. I’ve been personally building the lessons and sequencing for two years and its still not right. Granted, I only work on it during the school year — and pretty much on the fly. Nonetheless, at least compared to traditional units, I’ve found it far more demanding and unusual to plan. And I haven’t even mentioned the loneliness — I have met no teachers during this time who are doing similar work with their curriculum. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be disciplined enough to sit down and formally document my sequencing for other teachers to understand — and to start a conversation — but, I’m not worried about that.

I begin another school year in two weeks. I have realized that coupled with the fact my students retaining more information than ever, the messiness of interleaving has awakened and excited me these last few years. (I could do without the loneliness, though.) After years of marching in a single-file line, interleaving has made my curriculum work more of a dance. It’s interesting and lively. It moves. It sways. Fortunately, I work under an assistant principal and principal that given me the autonomy to do this. They decided to accept the consequences of the risks that I inherently took on when I decided to throw my units out the window. They trusted me even though none of us fully knew what I was doing. I think that I was at the right place at the right time because I’m not sure many other schools or departments would be on board with such a break from the norm of traditional units. My students and I have learned so much.

 

bp

Moving down

At the last faculty meeting of the year, my principal honored a few teachers who were moving on from our school to become administrators. They were becoming assistant principals at other schools. It was joyous. There were reflective speeches, congratulatory hugs, and bittersweet goodbyes. These people had spent years and years in the classroom, one was even a co-teacher of mine for three years. But now, in the name of school leadership, they were leaving the classroom to serve students on a broader scale.

This is natural. We teachers often find ourselves so well-versed in classroom affairs that our influence expands. Our impact seeps out of the walls of our classroom and into the larger community. Or, if this hasn’t happened, we know that it can with some persistence. Often our principals make us believe, too. We then spend lots of money to go back to school, suffer through long nights of rewording essays, all to earn a piece of paper that says that we’re fit to lead a school.

This is commonplace and part of the gravitational pull that exists on teachers. It’s a force works to drive us out of our classrooms. We’re promoted, but we become one step removed from our students. We move up.

img_4784-1.jpg

Now I’ve known for a long time that I’m a classroom lifer. I have no ambitions of becoming an assistant principal or principal. A progression up the educational food chain is natural, but never something that interested me.

So as I sat there during the faculty meeting thinking about how my colleagues were moving further away from students, my own career flashed before me — especially these few years. While the pathway of these people had taken them up, away from students, mine had actually brought me downcloser to students.

img_4786.jpg

I don’t think this downward movement is the norm — at least it wasn’t for me. I had to really work to move down. I’ve had to reflect, find myself, and then change my entire approach to teaching. I had to learn to be aware of my kids in ways that were foreign to me. And attending to my students’ lives in a personal way — to, paradoxically, not see them as students at all — is what has pulled me down to them. I’ve grown as an educator to affirm my students as sons, daughters, brothers, step-sisters, nieces, and nephews — as young people, as confused young adults, as budding leaders. This mindset is fueled by emotion and it’s not encouraged by the state, nor by the tests, nor by the curriculum. But it’s the single biggest reason why there’s a distinctive oneness that I feel when I’m with my students.

Just like it takes years to move up towards administration, it took my whole career for me to move down towards my students. It’s not a depth that I would have been prepared for early in my career, just like no new teacher is ready to be an assistant principal.

I get now that my career hasn’t been about reaching as far out as I can, despite all that has been fed to me all these years about success and impact. Instead, it has been about appreciating that my career will probably never extend beyond the walls of my classroom; it has been about understanding and tending to the depth of my students. It’s been about moving down. 

 

bp

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

img_4267-1

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.

bp