Teacher aesthetic

Yo, mister, where you going after school? You going to a party or something?

That’s what one of my students asked me when he walked into fifth period recently. His comment was a reference to what I was wearing that day. I had some nice slacks on, a tailored navy blazer, a crisp white button up, and clean white sneakers to bring it all together. Noticing my stylistic efforts, his initial reaction was that I had to be dressed so well because of an after school event that required me to look the part. I had to be going to a party or somewhere similar. Otherwise, why look so nice?

The truth is, I wasn’t going anywhere after school. I had nothing particularly interesting going on that day. His remarks flattered me, but my attempt to look fresh was nothing more than an effort to look and feel good while teaching my students. They were my party.

That said, it was a conscious act. I say this because we teachers often forget that content and pedagogy emerge from and are enacted by a body. As the leaders in the classroom, how we function in educational spaces with students is not purely intellectual or academic. Personal aesthetic matters, too. We must remember that we are thoroughly seen by the young people we teach. We are walking visuals of our personality, of our beliefs. Whether it’s a Star Wars t-shirt or a pair of Timberlands, our attire is major part of how we communicate who we are and what we value. We are more than what we wear, but our bodies and the clothing that adorn them can’t be downplayed as insignificant in the learning process.

Teachers respect students in a lot of different ways and I think how we present ourselves aesthetically is one of them. I believe that, without saying a single word, how I dress signals to my students how I feel about being with them in classroom. When I take the time to coordinate colors or make sure my shoes or belt or socks play well off each other, I’m saying that my students are worth that extra attention to detail. For me, this also means that I have to go beyond a shirt, tie, and dress shoes. No offense, but they’re vanilla and just not me. I’d rather show up in a hoodie under a blazer or pair of cherry red pumas or a patterned trousers — items that show more of my personality. I find that being authentic through what I wear holds artistic and emotional significance for students. They easily pick up on my authenticity which in turn helps them determine not only the type of relationship we will have, but also what and how learning will look like in our class.

Of course, this respect lands in different ways amongst my students, resonating more with some than with others. But given my urban context and the esteem that this form personal expression often holds with youth of color, I’m convinced that my personal aesthetic makes a considerable difference in my relatedness and the effectiveness of my pedagogy.

In For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin captures the importance of aesthetics in the classroom perfectly in a chapter called “Clean.” I could quote the entire chapter because it’s so damn on point, but I’ll settle for this passage that gets to the heart of the matter:

While many may not see what style has to do with teaching and learning, I argue that the art of teaching the neoindigenous requires a consideration of the power of art, dress, and other dimensions of their aesthetic. Teachers often fail to understand that the bleak realities of urban youth and the drab physical spaces they are often confined to contribute to an insatiable desire to engage in, and with, artistically stimulating objects and environments. The wearing of the matching outfits and the euphoria that comes with being recognized for one’s self-presentation serve as an escape from a harsh reality. (p. 167)

Framed this way, how I choose to express myself stylistically means more than blindly covering my body and arriving at school. It adds another dimension to my practice that will never show up in a lesson plan or observation report, but makes a huge difference in how I reach my students.

This is even more true at my school because my students wear uniforms. Aside from my bias against uniforms, or at least the uniform policies that I’ve witnessed, my interest in looking good is a way of showing students that one can thrive in academic spaces while simultaneously embracing personal aesthetic. School isn’t intellect or bust. You can look fresh, authentically express yourself, and thrive in academic spaces all at the same time. Unfortunately, because of uniform, my students don’t have these privileges. Their individuality has been erased and substituted with a bland polo shirt with a school logo on it. But, unlike my students, I have the freedom to decide how I clothe my body. And, for me, exercising this liberty is intentional. In a small way, I like to think that it serves as a kind of model for not sacrificing yourself while in the pursuit of academic success. You can be professional and look good doing it. You can keep your cool (read: swag) while bettering yourself and those around you.

In thinking back on my student from fifth period, I’m reminded of remote learning and how, for the most part, none of this mattered. I could don my Panama hat from time to time, but I was largely reduced to a profile picture and virtual background as my primary forms of personal expression. Thankfully, our physical appearance and the weight it holds in the classroom has returned. I heavily rely on this dynamic to connect with students and help learning take hold. It’s yet another reason why I’m glad I escaped the torturous grip of remote learning and why I never want to go back.


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Sunrise


A sunrise is a time of rebirth. A moment of renewal, rejuvenation, and hope. A fresh start. It reconnects us to daylight, ourselves, and each other. It’s where light overtakes darkness and we begin again.

The first month of school has been a sort of sunrise for me and my career. I feel brand new. The immense joy I’ve experienced these past few weeks has filled my heart and also sent it racing with excitement. Reuniting with students, my classroom, and my colleagues has restored my faith in teaching and learning.

The vigor I’m moving with now is 16 months in the making. My energy levels have been intoxicating. I’m practically bursting. Most of my students think I’ve lost my mind or that I’m drinking too much coffee. But I can’t help it. My return to the classroom is a homecoming. It’s been too long. I’m finally healing and moving on from the hell that was remote learning. I’m back where I belong and all that was stolen from me is finally being returned.

I know schools are not going to close again because of Covid. Though I’ve been reassured, something deep down keeps telling me to hold on to this moment. To squeeze it tight, to cherish each class period as if the next day they’ll all be reduced to a Zoom link once again. After what I went through — after what we’ve all been through — nothing seems certain.

So that’s what I’ll do. Stay utterly present and savor every minute of every class and then go home tired. Tired not in a way that weighs me down, but instead in a way that lifts me up and fulfills me. Tired in a way that makes me feel alive. Because after so much darkness, after so much emptiness, I can finally see again. The sun is rising. It’s dawn, and the view is breathtaking.


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Building the thinking classroom in mathematics

I’ve known about Peter Liljedahl‘s work on thinking classrooms for a while. Since 2017, I’ve been using vertical whiteboards and visually random groups — the foundation of Liljedahl’s thinking classroom framework. My successes have been nothing to brag about, but they have done wonders for my teaching. They have transformed my classroom and how my students experience it. This is why I was thrilled to discover that Liljedahl wrote a book on how to build a thinking classroom this year. I couldn’t help but get a copy and all but devour it.

I must say, what a great read! The book has a wonderfully simple structure to it. Each chapter starts with a common problem facing teachers (e.g. note-taking). Liljedahl’s then uses one the 14 components of the thinking classroom to address it. The writing — chock full of his research — is clear and accessible. I couldn’t help but to see myself, my classroom, and my students on every page. Liljedahl got me rethinking a lot of what my students and I do every day.

For example, my Algebra 2 curriculum is problem-centered. This is inherent in a thinking classroom, yes, but Liljedahl emphasized that the method and mode of delivery matters when it comes to the problems. He suggests that teachers give the task verbally while students are huddled around them at a single board. He also recommends that teachers do it very early in the class period. I like both of these ideas, but have done neither of them in the past.

Also useful was reading his views on fostering student autonomy and mobilizing knowledge during a lesson. With the whiteboards, random groupings, and defronting of the classroom, I’ve had success in helping students passively and supporting them to depend more on each other during lessons. It really is magical. Liljedahl did a great job of refreshing this for me and helping me see how I can be better at it.

I also appreciated his ideas on advancing competencies like perseverance, risk-taking, and collaboration. I expect my students to rely on these skills so much, but never actually evaluate them or systematically help my students develop them. Liljedahl suggests co-creating rubrics with students to identify growth areas in a given competency. These rubrics can be taped to the whiteboards so that both the teacher and student can use them to evaluate the work being done in class. Such a great idea.

His thoughts on formative assessment also struck a chord with me. They consisted mainly of listing out topics and having students track their progress on them throughout the year. The whole thing has a standards-based grading flare to it, which I have done before. But for years I’ve struggled with integrating my interleaved, problem-based learning system with standards-based grading. The two seem to be at odds with one another, but I’m not giving up hope.

His suggestions around note-taking caught my attention too. Working on the boards can be great, but distilling group learning into personal record-keeping and individual knowledge is hard for me. Liljedahl calls for a heavy dose of graphic organizers to help with this, but I’ve never had the discipline to follow through with them. Maybe I’ll experiment. A suggestion he had to help students be more aware of their note-keeping was to have groups write notes on the whiteboards for a given problem. This can turn into a gallery walk to help generate discussion about meaningful note-taking. Also interesting was the idea of giving students a task three weeks later that requires them to use their notes. This would encourage and incentivize more thoughtful record-keeping.

Despite the whole of the book being riveting, actionable, and forward-thinking, I have a few reservations and desires for more. At the end of each lesson/task, for example, Liljedahl suggests that the teacher summarize solutions and highlight big ideas for students. He calls this “consolidating” (great name, BTW). I get that it’s important for teachers to bring it all together because we can see the bigger picture, but it’s also important that students share their own solutions with the class. It is empowering and promotes agency and pride in one’s work. Lesson summaries aren’t always about content.

I also felt that his homework component was weak and mainly a dressed up version of what most teachers already do. He renamed it “check for understanding questions,” but it’s basically just practice. He made a case that the renaming of it is crucial, but I don’t think it makes that big of a difference. Over the long term, kids know what it is. With that said, I agree with him that we (generally) shouldn’t check this type of work nor give credit for it. To be meaningful, it should be student-owned and operated. By saying that, I feel like a hypocrite because I do give credit for my weekly DeltaMath assignments (essentially practice). At the same time, I don’t check or give credit for the daily, non-DeltaMath assignments I assign (a small mix of practice and non-practice).

His vision of grading in the thinking classroom was super interesting, but man was it ambitious! He honors the tension between students doing so much collaborative learning, but then using a bunch of individual tests to assess this learning. This feels disingenuous and I think he’s right. His research calls for a “data-gathering paradigm” whereby teachers collect lots and lots of data about a students’ understanding of content (instead of just things like exams, quizzes, and homework) to determine their grade. It goes back to standards-based grading, but this time the teacher triangulates data around observational, conversational, and product-based outcomes for each standard. Whether knowledge is demonstrated individually or in a group is also taken into account. It’s a highly complex structure that’s out of my league right now, but would like to test drive one day.

In terms of tasks, I was hoping that Liljedahl would go into more depth and show more examples of curricular tasks that can be used in a thinking classroom. I get that we should start the year with non-curricular tasks to build culture of thinking, but the curricular examples he showed were of the garden variety and kind of rudimentary (e.g. factoring trinomials). They didn’t help push me. Also, in terms of assessment, I wished he would have included some thoughts on structuring group quizzes or exams that utilize vertical non-permanent surfaces.

It was my impression that Liljedahl feels we should be using the 14 elements of his thinking classroom framework every day — especially the fundamental elements like the whiteboards and groupings. While I do love them as the foundation of one’s classroom (they are for me), in my experiences, it’s not a good idea to go hard with them every day. They’re radical enough to shock the system (e.g. the classroom), and necessitate different behavior from students, but when used every day, the kids grow tired of them. At least my did. Regardless of how interesting a task is or how engaging it is to work on vertical whiteboards, students need a variety of different approaches to learning. Things like speed dating, sit-at-your-seat whole class lessons, Desmos Activities, games, and plain old direct instruction have their place. They can and should be used under the right conditions. For me, my students are off the whiteboards 1-2 times a week in favor of more traditional learning experiences.

In the end, I think Liljedahl’s Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics does a lot for us math teachers. Not only is it highly readable and practical, but it gives us a model to break with the institutional norms that, in Liljedahl’s words, “have not changed since the inception of an industrial-age model of public education.” Given the nationwide return to in-person learning, it’s a book that can help us reimagine the math classroom for the better. It’s fearless and not afraid of upending a lot of what we take for granted — like students sitting at desks with notebooks in front of them. While these types of ideas weren’t new for me, they did refresh and reinforce a lot of what I’ve done in the past and help me continue to disentangle my own instructional struggles. This was extremely helpful at this moment. Couple this with how Liljedahl got me to see new possibilities for helping my students think, which included both small tweaks and sweeping changes, and his book is sure to be a reference for years to come.


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Some pre-school year thoughts on cogens

In June, at the end of the school year, a student of mine described our weekly co-generative dialogue as, “A meeting where you can talk to your teacher and other students about the class and what the teacher can improve on.” Another said, “It’s a safe space where we can talk about anything, but most likely about the class and how it’s going. The student gives feedback and the teacher tries to use that feedback in class.” When reflecting on the effects of the co-generative dialogue, a third student mentioned, “We had more control of how our learning was structured. We got to say our ideas about the class and actually have them taken into consideration.”

Those comments were the result of 24 co-generative dialogues (cogens) I had with 19 different students last year. Each session had 4-6 students, an occasional colleague, and me. We came together every Friday for 30+ minutes to find solutions to making my virtual classroom a success. I started my cogens in October and held them through June. They were both insightful and therapeutic. Midyear, I used a blogpost to reflect on my successes and share my motivations for wanting to keep them going after remote learning.

As I return to school this week, I’m excited to make a steep investment into cogens. Obviously, with in-person learning making its much-needed return this year, things are going to be a little different. Last year I remember thinking about how much more effective in-person cogens could be. The eye contact, the smiles, the shaking of the head — these small conversational details should elevate what my students and I accomplish this year in our talks. Rooted in natural, face-to-face conversation, cogens are not designed to be experienced through a screen and impersonal Zoom icons. After a year of doing them remotely, I finally get the chance to tap into their true magic.

This doesn’t mean I’m not rethinking them. One issue that’s staring me down as I type this sentence is timing. Cogens are worth the investment, but last year, with the flexibility of remote learning, we (my students and I) were able to schedule them conveniently and efficiently. We won’t have that luxury this year. Also, last year, a major obstacle for me was not knowing anyone else who was doing cogens. I was heavily advocated for them and knew their utility, but I had no one to connect to and share ideas with. This year, thankfully, I’ve found a small group of teachers through my fellowship at MƒA who will be meeting once a month to do just that. We’ll also be diving into the research behind this transformative spaces which, I hope, should sprout even more ideas.

In the end, the goal is — just like last year — to simply position myself as a learner from my students. To give them their rightful place at the table. If I can do this, if I can continue to push myself to view my students as key sources of intellectual, social, emotional, and pedagogical insight, then I think my cogens will work out just fine.


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