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

 

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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