Narratives in the classroom

I like to think of the relationships I have with students as stories. Each story — just like each student — is unique, having its share slow starts, funny moments, ups and downs, and dramatic pauses. Some are less eventful than others, or take a longer time to evolve, but they are stories nonetheless.

Unless I’ve taught a student before, their story usually, but not always, begins in September. It’s then when our relationship consists of nothing more than my name on their schedule. We’re strangers. But over the course of the next 10 months, a lot changes. Histories and passions and fears and hopes and interests are revealed, all expressed (or not) in myriad ways both during the 45 minutes we are granted each day and after it.

How and when these things develop over time determines the shape of the arc of each relationship. Some arcs are wide and far-reaching, others are more straight and direct. There are those that bend only through content, which is fine, but the good ones veer and loop through the many crevasses of life. Many arcs come to a solemn end at the close of the school year. A few persistent ones continue to curl and twist long after June.

For me, because teaching is so relational, each of these mostly 10-month arcs makeup one of the most important aspects of teaching. When I think about this, questions emerge. For example, how am I thinking about the bonds I create with students, both personal and academic, as something that matures, little by little, over the course of the school year — and beyond? Instead of focusing on distinct moments I share with them, how can I view my relationships with students longitudinally, where these moments come together to tell the bigger story of our work together? Over the course of many months, how I can strategically piece together and, dare I say, sequence conversations and other shared experiences that enable me to connect with a given student in effective and affective ways?

Suppose today I learn, somewhat randomly, that one of my students made breakfast for their sister. Let’s say it was eggs and bacon. Let’s also say that learning this was the consequence of a 5-minute conversation at the end of class in which I asked them about their day. Maybe a couple of days later I ask if they’ve made breakfast since then. If so, was it the same thing or something different? Why? Was it good? Maybe after a week or two of casual moments discussing food and their chef-life nature, I learn how they’ve been watching cooking shows since they were nine. Or maybe in a Friday Letter I share that I made eggs and bacon for my wife and it reminded me of them and their sister. As we laugh, one of their responses leads to something deeper, like how when the student doesn’t eat breakfast, they get headaches.

Then, after seeing how disengaged they are during class one day, they tell me they have a headache…and I guess right that it’s because they didn’t eat that morning. They were running late and almost missed the bus. We talk a week later, in the middle of class, while everyone else is working, and learn that their headaches sometimes trigger migraines. These migraines can be crippling and even keep them from attending school, which explains why they missed school the day before. During a few of our tutoring sessions after school, we chat about other causes for their migraines. Every couple of weeks I informally check in on them and if they’ve experienced any migraines, and while doing so, we branch out to other areas of their life, like their love of softball, which helps them cope with the ongoing stress that their migraines cause them. I make it known that I want attend one of their upcoming softball games…and eventually do. That opens up a world new talking points for us, like how they want to study sports journalism after high school.

I could go on here, but I won’t. It’s but one simplified, somewhat exaggerated example, but it’s how narratives can be created in the classroom and how I tend to nurture them. They’re not always rich with detail or result in frequent check ins, but they do require my inside-out, intentional pursuit for them to materialize. Framing each relationship as an ongoing set of daisy-chained exchanges like the one above sets me up to deliberately and continually see each story through to its conclusion. As they mature, I become part of and invested in each narrative. I have buy in. Each one is a thread that when picked up, followed, and woven together with the 25 others in the class, creates a fabric of humanity that makes it possible for me teach my students mathematics. Steeped in a system that too often reduces my students to test scores and accommodations, knowing their stories leads me to knowing how to teach them. For me, it comes down to stories over statistics. I don’t always live out this creed, but I try.

Because remote learning — and its endless Zoom links — has made it impossibly hard to have meaningful interactions with my students, their stories have largely gone unwritten this year. I wonder sometimes about all the moments I’m missing because of the pandemic, all the 5-minute conversations at the end of class about eggs and bacon that lead to so much more. I wonder who my students actually are.

I sit in despair when I think about these things. I struggle to accept how the arcs of their stories, of our relationships, are unmistakably flat, linear, and uneventful. There are implications buried in this struggle for me and my teaching, the affects of which I probably won’t comprehend for a long, long time.


Group quizzes for remote learning

Much of my teaching boils down to a handful of trusted, go-to activities and structures. Group quizzes (and exams) are one of them. When we were in-person, I did them all the time. The set up I had worked really well to get students talking about math and hold them accountable to the their group. But when remote learning hit last spring, I forgot about them (just like I did with traditional exams, of which I haven’t given one). They just didn’t seem feasible.

That changed in the fall when I asked my cogen about their other classes. I was interested in what things their other teachers were doing that worked well for them as students. One of the members mentioned a group quiz that their physics teacher did. Intrigued, and remembering my love affair with group quizzes, I followed up with a series of questions. I also asked the rest of the cogen what their thoughts were. I gave my two cents and, in the end, we decided that it would be a good fit for our class. I had to make it happen.

It took a couple of weeks — and another conversation with my cogen — but we uncovered a structure that we liked. Fundamentally, it’s very similar to how I structured my in-person group quizzes. Here’s how it works.

It involves Desmos Activity Builder.

Compared to options like Peardeck, which a lot of other teachers are using these days, Desmos is a great platform for my group quizzes because of the mathematical backdrop it provides. It hosts a suite of mathematical tools that are priceless when it comes to helping kids learn and also helping me to assess where they are. And, as any teacher who uses it knows, Activity Builder goes well beyond graphing. I can ask students to annotate a given graph or worked example to highlight a particular part of it, for instance, or I can have them type out an explanation of why secϴ<0 in quadrants III and IV. I can see all of their work in real-time and capture particular responses to showcase. I haven’t even fully tapped into Desmos’s capabilities, but there’s no way I would use any other platform.

Probably the most important aspect of the quizzes is how I grade them (which is the same way I graded them when we were in-person). For the quiz, each student receives two grades: a math grade and a teamwork grade. It is this dual-grade system that really makes the group quizzes come to life and promotes engagement.

The math grade is pretty obvious, but there’s a wrinkle to it. At the end of the quiz, I only grade one random student’s quiz from each group. The score that person receives on the quiz is the score that everyone receives. The kids don’t know who that is until after the quiz is over. To “end” the quiz, I use the pause feature in Desmos Activity Builder (which is incredibly smooth, I must say). I typically end the quiz with 5 minutes left in class so students will have time to complete the teamwork grade.

For their teamwork grade, each member of the group gives every other member of the group a grade from 1-4 based on how engaged they were, their communication, and how much they contributed during the quiz. Each student does this using a google form.

On the form, each student chooses their group members’ names from a dropdown and assigns each of them a teamwork grade (they complete the form separately for each group member). Along with a grade, they must also provide written feedback to each group member. After class, I average all the teamwork grades a student received and that becomes their overall teamwork grade for the quiz. I also copy and paste all the feedback a student received from their group and email it to them. The feedback remains anonymous, of course.

[Side note: I think placing on an explicit grade on teamwork sends a message to students that it’s not just about understanding the math. It shows that the ability to work together is valuable — or at least valuable to their teacher. Our grades reveal what we think is important. Our students discern this.]

Let me tell you, my breakout rooms are usually dreadfully quiet. I suppose they’ve gotten better in the 5 months since the school started, but they’ll still not great. But anytime I do a group quiz, they’re buzzing. Almost everyone is unmuted, there’s always a screen being shared, and some groups even use group texts to communicate. Not knowing whose quiz will count for everyone’s grade while also getting graded by their peers for participation creates a culture of collaboration — at least for a day. I hide it when I visit their breakouts during the quiz, but I’m blown away with giddiness at how much they’re activated and helping each other. It’s really something.

I’m grateful to my cogen for helping group quizzes manifest in a remote setting. Without their ideas, confidence, and encouragement, I’m not sure I would have worked to find a way to make this useful assessment a reality.


Status in the Classroom

In my last post, I reflected on my experiences with co-generative dialogues (cogens) this year. While writing it, because cogens attempt to bring teachers and students together as equals to improve the classroom, to I began thinking a lot about the role that status plays in the classroom. Specifically, my thoughts got tangled up in processing the social hierarchy that exists between teachers and their students and how this might impact teaching and learning. The post nudged me to dig deeper.

We teachers control students’ grades, all things pedagogy, discipline, and even when kids are permitted to relieve themselves. I’m not saying that all teachers are power-hoarding authoritarians who want to dominant every facet of the classroom. It’s not like that. I think most teachers are the opposite — they strive, at least most of those that I know, to be “student-centered” or “inquiry-based,” whatever those terms mean. All of the teachers I know strive to put the learner’s thinking at the forefront of our lessons. We have great intentions and students genuinely appreciate it.

But despite how liberal or student-facing our instruction may be, we still have institutional power over students. The way schools are set up, it’s unavoidable. Teachers are just doing their jobs. And this says nothing about the privilege we teachers (and school leaders) may have when it comes to age, race, gender, and class, which drive all of the above.

In the end, outside of standardized curricula and exams, which programs both teachers and students to not see one another as human, teachers have immense social capital when compared to students. Simply put, although we say we want students to own their journey, we make most of their decisions for them; school is a place where students are subservient to adults. And this is underscored (or even mostly true) in schools that are underfunded or serve marginalized groups.

In Educating for Insurgency, Jay Gillen captures this idea rather well. He states:

So the first part of the plan involves perceiving the students as the principal actors, the center of the action -- not the adults, and not the curriculum.

This requires a degree of humility on the teachers in particular. We teachers tend to think of ourselves as dominant in some way, creating the classroom culture and mood, setting goals, evaluating, and so on. After all, we know more about the subject being taught; we are significant. But it doesn't therefore follow that we are central.

The essential difficulty here is that we enter into the dramatic relation of the school or classroom encumbered by the frozen, unhelpful categories that pit the young people's wildness against adult control. Those categories or hierarchies of, at least, 'teacher' vs. 'student,' 'adult' vs. 'youth,' credentialed vs. not-yet-credentialed are so pervasively established that they give the starting-point of the interaction. (p. 147)

So, in the end, how does our status impact teaching and learning? Some might say that it doesn’t, that the weightiness of content abstracts our identities to the point where they affect little of what happens in the classroom. They may be right. I’m just not convinced.

Can I do something about it? As a small cog in a system that unabashedly views students as test scores, I don’t know.

But this year, in reading folks like Chris Emdin, Jay Gillen, and Ericka Walker, who all advocate for being intentional about student agency and ownership of the classroom, being conscious of my status and even striving to dismantling it is what I find myself leaning into. I believe co-generative dialogues is one way grassroots way of doing that. Student-led peer collaboratives (like tutoring) is something else that’s on my mind, though I’ve done nothing meaningful on that front as yet.


Co-generative dialogues

This school year has been a mess for me. It’s been full of isolation, questioning myself, and faceless students. I haven’t handled it well. Despite all my apathy, though, there has been one bright spot for me: co-generative dialogues.

Last summer, after I reread For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin, I began thinking seriously about co-generative dialogues. If you don’t know, a co-generative dialogue (or cogen) is a structured conversation between teachers and a small group of their students (~5) with the goal of improving the classroom community. These reflective conversations happen outside of class and result in a plan of action to better the classroom. The students of the cogen should be a diverse, representative group, consisting of a good mix of races, genders, achievement levels, and membership should change throughout the year. I’ve been keeping the same students in the cogen for 4-6 weeks before cycling in different kids.

I read Emdin’s book years ago, and I remember thinking that cogens were a great idea, but I also feeling like they were too “out there” for me. With everything I was already doing, cogens seemed like a bit much. They were too purposeful. I mean, I felt comfortable with my teaching. I had strong rapport with my students, they respected me. My class was enjoyable. Why did I need to have formal conversations with my students to know how to best teach them? Couldn’t I just survey them? Or use the results of my semi-annual teacher report card?

If I’m honest with myself, looking back, I don’t think I was mature enough as a teacher to embrace cogens. I wasn’t prepared to amplify student voice that was critical of my teaching. In many ways, I don’t think I was ready to relinquish the status I have as the teacher in the classroom. Subconsciously, I thought the answers to my pedagogical questions had to emanate from me (or colleagues that gave me them). My ideas, my methodologies, my strategies, were central. I had instructional know-how, but I didn’t get that students often know what’s best for them. I invited them to the table as students, but not as decision-makers.

And that’s what cogens do. It creates space for my students to be owners of our classroom. I don’t think cogens create student agency as much as they unlock it. Cogens tap into the inherent expertise of students, both as young people and learners. Galvanized by this line of thinking, Emdin, and all the unpredictability that lay before me with remote learning, in September I made plans to have weekly co-generative dialogues this year. They were going to help me survive.

After spending some time getting know my students and letting the school year set in, I started my cogens in October. So far, I’ve had 13 of them. Each one has had 1 or 2 students from each of my four Regents-bound classes. We meet for 30 minutes every Friday (those are our school’s “flex” days). To show that I value their time and energy, all cogen students receive extra credit. (Points are our currency, right?)

Like I said, I’ve been admittedly pessimistic this year, but my cogens have been wonderful. They’re insightful, honest, and invigorating. Over the course of our dialogues, my kids have helped me to:

  • restructure how I assign and collect work from them
  • model scanning work for the class
  • rethink breakout rooms using the preassign feature in Zoom
  • create a participation structure for whole class discussions
  • reform how I grade quizzes
  • discover a way to make group quizzes work for remote learning
  • create videos to explain challenging problems

At the beginning, I was concerned that we might not have enough to talk about at the cogens. A colleague who did cogens before me shared this sentiment (thanks Paz for the talk). But as I got more comfortable with the discussions, I discovered more specific questions to ask the kids about our week in class. Finding patterns in our class became instinctual and naturally led to questions about the bigger picture. Usually, my queries and the resulting discussion were simply reactions to what they told me. We were problem solvers. I followed them.

Before I started the cogens, I figured they would be valuable, but editing our class through the eyes and ears of those who are actually experiencing it has been even better than I imagined. As my closest advisors this year, the students at my weekly cogens have been a lifeline of critical feedback. Theirs is the type of nuanced, lived-in feedback that no adult has ever given me — or even would be able to give me. When we talk, I’m learning from them. There’s a level of vulnerability that I operate in during our talks that I really appreciate.

Having these structured conversations has also kept me grounded. We interact as equals. They’ve kept me plugged into the student experience at a time when black squares on Zoom are all I have. And we talk about the class a lot, but we also go off the record and just check in about the week that was. These types of casual exchanges are rare these days. By the time our co-generative dialogue ends, I’m always filled with more humanity than when it started. And because they happen on Friday, the cogens are a great close to my week.

At this point, I’m convinced that cogens need to part of my teaching moving forward. In thinking about next year, it warms me to think about recreating my cogen for in-person learning. I imagine us sitting in a circle, however socially distant it might be, going and back and forth about our class, working to ensure that it is a communal space, aligned with all our experiences and needs. And because the precarious transition back to the classroom will be full of nontrivial decisions on how we move forward, leaning on and listening to my students through my cogens is going to be as important as ever. I can’t wait.

Though I’m convinced of the worthiness of these small-scale dialogues to transform the classroom and position students as decision-makers of their own education, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if other teachers — at my school, at least — had co-generative dialogues with their students. Instead of being a one-off with their math teacher, what if students were invited to be part of cogens in every class? If cogens became routine, if students were actively relied upon by their teachers to improve pedagogy and instruction, if teachers went beyond clichéd surveys to lively, in-depth dialogues with those we serve, what would it mean for our students and their learning? What would it mean for our school? What would it mean for teachers?


For further reading on co-generative dialogues (for me):