Resisting the expectation that content must supersede humanness

Any halfway-decent teacher understands that knowing our students is essential for success in the classroom. Heck, most would agree that it’s the most important thing we can do.

Prior to this year, I saw my students, but I never saw them. I never looked beyond who was in front of me. Outwardly, my passion for teaching and learning shined, but subconsciously I remained detached from the personal lives of my students. I had empathy, but always accepted surface-level excuses that naturally rise to the top when there’s an underlying issue. Not doing homework? Consistently late? I would accept a lack of effort, forgetfulness, or laziness (whatever that word means), say that they needed to be better, ask more questions in class, or attend tutoring. I would rarely follow up. Sheepishly, I always sidestepped the tough, emotionally-charged questions that were, and are, always there.

This year I find myself saying things like, What’s really happening? Or, Why are you hurting? What’s bothering you? I want to listen. The result has been a lot of tears. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many students break down right in front of me. These have been tough conversations, but needed ones. They have brought us closer and created an intimacy that I’m appreciating more each day.

Looking back, I avoided asking these types of questions — and listening to confessions of pain and struggle — because I was utterly classroom- and performance-oriented. Outside of their knowledge of the Common Core Standards, I had no gauge for the individual in my room. With 120 students, how could I place emphasis on the individual? Efficiency and rigidness are inherently demanded from high school (math) teachers. While these two qualities serve the content well — optimizing the passing rate on some standardized exam or similar non-humanistic end — they work to divide student from teacher. They force us to assume that content doesn’t emerge from bodies. They force us to overlook the student who is crumbling under the pressure of being a parent to their younger brother.

A colleague asked me when I have time for these types of interactions with students. We are already expected to do so much and our curriculum is so dense, how could we possibly serve as pseudo-guidance counselors, too? Adding on, he thought that the humanities were where teachers and students looked inward and reflected. No disrespect to him, but his concerns were symptoms of No Time Disease. I mentioned that it’s not about having enough time…it’s that I now make time. In class, after-school, whatever. I now expect these conversations. They’re important to me because my kids need it — especially in math. I build in time to simply listen.

I get the weight that he was putting on content. Besides, its why my students and I were even brought together in the first place. We probably wouldn’t cross paths otherwise. But while my students and I are bound by mathematics, and use it to venture to the edge of knowledge together, our humanity dictates how we interact with it. There’s a sort of duality at play here and math is but only half the story. For my entire career, this was lost in the midst of the pressures to perform and digest content at alarming rates. Beyond replying to emails about homework late into the night, giving high-fives, or writing a recommendation letter, I never felt the need to invest my self into the social and emotional capital of my students. I never chose to join their struggle. Maybe it’s because I’m old and a parent, but it’s different now. I’m learning how to resist the expectation that content must supersede humanness. I’m learning how to play an active role in their personal lives.

I’d be remiss if I left out how stressful this has been for me. In a way, it’s been like turning on the light in a dark room. With a determination to learn and listen, an explosion of information is now available for me. But I can’t unhear things. They stay with me. They cause me to lose sleep. My efforts to truly see my students as more than just students, to better understand them, and to help them cope, have added yet another layer of complexity to the messiness that is teaching. And I thought that this job couldn’t get any harder.

 

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Parent-teacher conferences

Parent-teacher conferences used to be a grueling affair. On top of saying at school until 8pm, I used to prep my room, jazz up bulletin boards, and print 3-page progress reports on every student. I even created slideshows, cleaned my desk, and put out a graphing calculator. In a way, it was a way for me to show parents just hard I was working to serve their children.

Three years ago, I became a dad. With this dramtic change in lifestyle, all of my shenanigans around parent-teacher conferences — and parental interactions — went out the window. Mainly because my students were no longer just students. They were now sons and daughters.

Naturally, I saw parents and guardians differently. I gained the type of empathy that only a parent can have because I was one now. I connected to their struggle in raising a child. I internalized their 24-hour campaign to unconditionally parent another human being who is responsible, kind, and mindful. It is the toughest and the most important job in the world — and becoming a dad was the only way I could grasp this. I was a teacher, but I now had conversations parent-to-parent. I was immediately closer to these people who raise my students and it made a world of a difference for me.

As a parent, I’ve learned that parents don’t need us teachers to impart knowledge to their kids. They need partners. Partners that will help shoulder the load in helping their child navigate this messy world. They also need us to close our laptops. And to read behind the lines. Sure, a 3-page report broken down by standard and a slideshow may do this for some, but most parents I meet just want an honest, two-way conversation. What am I noticing at school? What do you see at home? How might we move forward together?

Tonight and tomorrow are parent-teacher conferences at my school. Here’s how I’ll meet with parents:

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There’s no desk that separates us. No screens. Just a circle of chairs and eye contact.

 

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My frustration with snow days in NYC

As a teacher, I am about to do the unthinkable. I’m going to complain about having a snow day. In fact, I’m going to complain about most of the snow days New York City has had over the last ten years. 

Hear me out. I have numbers.

I started teaching in 2006 and I’ve taught in New York City my entire career. My first snow day was March 2, 2009, and while I don’t remember the 8.3″ of snow that fell, I do remember everyone’s reaction to it the next day. They were bewildered. While they felt it necessary to not be in school, everyone was surprised that the mayor decided to close the schools. This sort of thing never happened. Snow-day, shmow-day, New Yorkers went to school. Not being a native New Yorker, I had no idea what they were talking about. I was just thankful that I had the day off. I had no sense of history.

The following year there were two snow days, one of which I didn’t know about until I arrived at school. My commute at the time was an hour and a half by subway and I left for school before Mayor Bloomberg made the call to close schools. Needless to say, that was the worst snow day ever.

The following year, in 2011, there was another snow day. But this time it wasn’t just a regular day. No, no, no. Schools were closed despite the fact that the Geometry Regents Exam, an exam that’s only offered three times a year, was scheduled for that day. It wasn’t rescheduled. At this point, I started questioning the rarity of snow days that had been so boldly declared to me in 2009. They were becoming commonplace.

Over the course of the next seven years, we had 6 snow days. This includes 2 during each of the last two years.

I’ve enjoyed my snow days as much as anyone, but somewhere in the middle of being told that “our schools never close” back in 2009 and having 10 days off over the course of next nine years, I’ve grown weary. A lot of these days off have been unnecessary.

So on Sunday night when Mayor DeBlasio declared that he was closing schools on Monday, I immediately rolled my eyes. While getting group texts from colleagues saying things like “Yesss!” and “Enjoy!”, I couldn’t help but sigh. Not at my colleagues, but instead because our society’s sensitivity to challenging circumstances had once again trumped rational decision-making. The forecast wasn’t terrible. I saw predictions of upwards to 6″ for the city. By the morning rush, the roads were mostly clear. But, hey, we gotta keep the babies safe! 

Despite my frustration with yet another unnecessary day of keeping 1.1 million young people away from their schools, I enjoyed the day. Really, I did. It was almost mild. But when I got back on Tuesday, I wanted numbers. Thinking back to 2009, I was hungry for a history lesson on snow days. I started googling. After a while, I found this great post from The Gothamist from February of 2014 that details the history of snow days in New York City since 1978. Accounting for snow days occurring from February 2014 until now, here’s the breakdown per decade:

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In the last 10 years, there have more snow days than in the previous 3+ decades combined. There were only five snow days between 1978 and 2001, but 12 since then. This is crazy. 

Having experienced snow days that had no business being snow days, I can’t help but connect this sharp rise in snow days to our society’s increasing level of worry…ABOUT EVERYTHING. Parents, administrators, teachers, students — everyone is guilty of wanting the easy way out of snow. We relish snow days and put excessive pressure on the mayor and his crew to keep the babies at home. Ironically, despite longing for snow days, we teachers are the first to complain about having no time

This is bigger than snow. The rise of urgent care centers around city is another example. Got a scratch? Go to urgent care! Stub your toe? Go to urgent care! Tummy hurt? Go to urgent care! Worry and immediacy run our lives. 

As a people, we are more sensitive than ever. This isn’t a bad thing. In many ways, our heightened sensitivity helps us gain a deeper understanding of each other. The world seems to be getting tougher and tougher to navigate — especially for young people. That said, a downside of this has been the fear of making everyone happy and stressing out when we can’t live up to this lofty expectation. The dramatic increase in snow days over the last decade is a manifestation of the city’s awareness of the backlash that they’ll get if they make the tough choice to keep the schools open. We’re overly sensitive and it’s keeping our kids out of school. 

Despite all of my bitterness towards snow days, there is evidence that closing school due to snow has no impact on student achievement. But is student achievement all that matters? I’m not sure. 

The unthinkable is done. Let me check the weather for my next day off.

 

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The shortlist for my algebra 2 book study

I’ve been brainstorming about the book(s) that I want to read with my algebra 2 students next year. I plan on integrating them into the class as I would a standard. Having never done any serious reading in my classes before, I have a lot to learn. Ideally, right now I’d like to read one during the fall semester and one in spring. To make for a good balance, maybe I could select one nonfiction and one fiction. Here are the options I’m considering right now. It’a subject to change based on further reading, suggestions, and a major problem: there are no authors of color on this list.

0.Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos This is the most obvious choice for me. I read it a few years back and remember being impressed with the accessibility of the mathematical ideas and it’s overall readability. Ironically, a few students mentioned to me at the start of the year that they read parts of it during a program last summer. Plus, I recently attended a talk by Paulos at Math for America that I think encouraged me even more to bring this book I to my classroom.

1.Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. I read this two years ago. It’s timely and relevant. Centered around popular culture and things like social media and search engines, I think the kids could get into it.

2. Weaponized Lies by Daniel J. Levitin. I came across this book recently, and while this is on my to-read stack, it shows a lot of promise. I’m excited to dig into it in the next couple of weeks and pass judgment.

3. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Joel Bezzare has done a lot of work in his classroom around this book. I haven’t read it yet, but last year I did read the other book that he wrote a curriculum for, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. On the surface, The Housekeeper seems to be a tad more appropriate and interesting for my algebra 2 students. I look forward to reading it — and potentially stealing Joel’s curriculum!

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I’m a hoarder of student work

I’m fascinated with the charm of student work. There’s something really inviting that my students’ feel about being asked to analyze and discuss someone else’s mathematical thinking. For whatever the reason, there’s a lure to it. If I project some anonymous kid’s work as they walk in the room, for example, it captivates them from the moment they glance at the board. It’s so bad that many won’t even put their bag down at their desk before they begin thinking about the work. Whether the work has errors or not, it almost never fails to pique their interest.

Other than generating student engagement and learning, the class discussion around the work often helps me better understand the student’s line of thinking, too. I regularly struggle to figure out my students’ thinking. By pitching the work back to them (anonymously, of course), they help me figure out what’s going on in the work in ways that I would not have been able to otherwise.

As a teacher, this is gold. But deep down I can’t help but wonder why they get so into it. Maybe it’s because I’m not asking them to actually do any computation? Maybe they’re trying to figure out if they did the problem correctly themselves? Maybe it’s the specific samples of student work that I’ve selected that are just nuanced enough? There has to be an interesting psychological aspect to this that I’m unaware of. I think the human element that comes with using a person’s written work to learn math may be at play here. It’s not neatly constructed on MathType or Latex or Google Docs. No, it’s human thought presented in one of it’s purest forms. Let me stop, I’m getting too deep. I’ll save that research for another post.

Because of all this, I’ve been hoarding student work. For the last two years, I’ve been collecting everything that I can get my hands on. Quizzes, exams, journals, you name it. I’ve been scanning, studying, and filing it all away.

But how? Scanning individual papers can take forever. Well, I’ve found student work to be so useful that it has forced me to rethink my assessments for the sole purpose of being able to scan them more easily. The idea is that I use scanned student work (and not just the overall results of the assessment) intentionally to further student learning. As long as it doesn’t take forever, or even more than 30 seconds for an entire class for that matter, why give an assessment if I can’t collect and leverage students’ written thoughts?

The most obvious example of how I’ve adjusted assessments to help me easily scan written work is exams. I never make them more than a single page (front and back). When I first started doing this a couple years ago, it had nothing to do with scanning student work and had everything to do with being lazy. I refused to take more than a day to get the exams back to the kids and knew that I wouldn’t be able to live up to this expectation if the exam was three pages of problems. I rarely give multiple choice problems and, if I do, I still require work.

Despite my laziness, over time I saw the real value in my one-page exams as being able to scan my kids exams quickly. Given the multifunction copier at my school, my exams serve an important purpose: they eliminate the need for stapling. Without a staple, each students’ thinking is contained in a single piece of paper — and this makes them dump-easy to scan. Before I mark the exams, I simply place them in the document feeder, hit scan, and they zip through one-by-one. Voilá, 15 seconds later, I have a PDF in my inbox of every students’ exam. Done. The same works for quizzes, too.

As I mark the exams, I take note of interesting examples of student thinking and grab a screenshot from the PDF. These samples usually become the focus of the opener for our post-exam reflections the following day, but also become features of future problems. I’ve framed the student work in different ways, mainly based on what I’ve seen other teachers do.

There’s the classic, What do you notice? What do you wonder?

There’s also the clever debate prompt, Who has a better error?

There’s even Algebra by Example tasks that use an example (often an incorrect one) to elicit a Why…? and extend student thinking.

Although I fail to ask Why? about any step of the example, here’s one of mine:

Another is the simple question, What do you think? Here’s one I projected last Thursday, the day following their exam.

Generally, restructuring exams so that all student thinking fits on one page is not trivial. It requires that I include less content on the exams and can affect how bunches of concepts, and big ideas, are taught and assessed. But this also means that, since I’m grading less per exam, I can test more frequently in smaller pieces. The exams arrive in smaller, bite-sized chunks rather than in all-encompassing behemoths. This is better for everyone. The kids like having less stuff on exams get more immediate feedback. I’m grading less per exam. And on top of the benefit of scanning and producing a goldmine of student work, I love it because I can be more precise and granular about which concepts I assess and how I assess them.

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