Sharing books with students

Amid the chaos of trying to teach math, something refreshing has been happening in my classroom this year. It’s something that’s below the surface and quiet. It’s not something that I planned for. And it’s probably not going to show up or help my kids on any standardized exam.

What is it? I’ve been lending books to students.

It happens in several different ways, and it’s always informal. Sometimes I’ll mention a book that I’m reading or have read in the past. Or sometimes a kid will see this sign that is posted in the hallway outside my classroom and sparks a conversation with me:

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Other times, I’ll be talking to a kid about something, think of a book that I’ve read that connects to our conversation, and recommend that the student read it. At this point, I’ll walk over to my bookshelf, get the book, and tell them to return it whenever. If they have the time to read it, great. If not, that’s fine too. I follow up with them periodically.

(Sidenote: Other than turning physical pages and reducing my screen time, the shareability of physical books is a big reason why I still prefer them over their digital alternatives. Sorry e-books.)

Sharing books with students is new to me, so I’m realizing that the joy of spreading knowledge and ideas through books is awesome in and of itself, but seeing a kid’s face light up when I say, “Hey, I have a book that *you* might like” is something different altogether. I’m triggering a relationship to that student and a particular book. This is powerful. It’s also personal and makes them feel special, as it should. In this way, I would like to think that we’re forging bonds through books.

Here are some of the reads that I’ve shared with my students this year:

All this makes me think of Joel Bezaire and Sam Shah’s book clubs that they’ve had in their math classes. Maybe one day I’ll take something like that on.

In the end, I’m convinced that me becoming my own personal library is most likely a result of my reading habits really taking off last year. Interestingly, one student even asked, because I read and talk about reading so much, why I teach mathematics. She inferred that I would be better suited to teaching English.

All the more reason to keep this up.

 

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Tell me how you’re doing. Make a graph.

Here’s a prompt that I’ve used with my students at various points this year:

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I’ll vary it by asking them to make a graph about their day up to that point. Like, if it’s sixth period, they’ll have to make a graph describing how they felt during periods 1-5. Or, if it’s a Monday, I may ask them about their weekend. When semester one ends in January, I also plan on asking them to sketch their feelings from September to January. There are so many possibilities. Come to think of it, it’s not unlike the #YearInMath hashtag that made the rounds on Twitter at this time last year.

No matter how I spin it, I’ve noticed that my kids almost always make a mad dash to one of the giant whiteboards around the room to make their graph as if there’s a prize waiting for the person finishes first. Trust me, there’s not. But they are so darn eager to reflect in this mathematical sort of way. Some are more playful than others, but they always kickstart a discussion.

 

Curious, several weeks back I asked them why they love taking on this task so much. One girl said point blankly, “because we’re not usually asked by teachers about how we’re doing.”

At the moment it struck me that she’s right. I’m guilty of this all the time. The bell rings and I immediate jump into all the work that I meticulously (or hastily) planned for the day. We are relearning how to factor because 80% of the kids bombed the exam. Or that we need to finish complex numbers because winter break starts Friday. Or because my AP is coming in and needs to see students “actively engaged in their own learning.” Or because I feel like crap and slept a total of 4 hours and I just need the period to be over.

There’s always something. Teachers know this.

Yup, there’s always something each day that encourages me to overlook the fact that there are humans in front of me, the fact that my kids come into room 227 each day with complex and varied lived experiences. Like me, they have their own agendas, their own issues — most of which I’ll never know anything about. This is important to not forget.

There are boatloads of things that I need to accomplish with my kids. While I know that I can’t cater to each of their 30 unique sets of needs, what I can do is honor who they are and what they’re feeling in the moment. We can take 3 minutes to slow down, breath, and reflect. I can consciously decide to acknowledge their frustration, their anxiety, their joy. Mathematically, these graphs are one (fun) way of doing that.

 

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Math ed conferences: let’s leave the host city better than we found it

This week at TMCNYC18, I had a very brief conversation with Michael Pershan. It was literally 4 minutes long. While short, it spurred some pretty deep thoughts for me…and a dream. (If you know Michael personally, or read his writing, then you know it is not uncommon for him to blow your mind.)

In the spirit of teacher math ed conferences, we talked about the nature of these growing set of gatherings. They’re everywhere nowadays, big and small. We, teachers, go to a designated location — usually by plane or car, but not always — stay in the area for a few days, learn, network, and collaborate. Sometimes we have breakthroughs, sometimes we struggle to find a session to connect with.

Though all of these professional experiences at the conferences, we naturally adopt the city and its many local communities as our own. We interact with locals, enjoy their local food and attractions, plan group outings, create memories, bond. Whether it is mathematically or socially, we generally take away a lot from being immersed in the host city.

But what do we give back? What’s left after we leave? What remains after we use the community for our own needs?

It’s a simple idea that I hadn’t thought about until Michael and I chatted this week.  Perhaps inspired by our localized TMCNYC experience, we talked about why giving back the local communities (even if the conference itself is local) that we occupy for multiple days would be a worthwhile thing. How can we have a positive impact on the host city after we leave it? While it is unconventional, considering the exceptional amount of mathematical energy that exists at these conferences coupled with the fact that we’re all in the field of education, organizing such a contribution seems fitting. So why not? Let’s change the narrative about who benefits from these conferences. It need not be only us. These conferences afford us a great opportunity to acknowledge the privilege we have as math educators and use it to positively affect a local community in a very unique way: to leave a host city better than we found it mathematically.

But how? What would such a contribution to a host city look like?

We didn’t get this far. Remember that I said it was a four-minute conversation? AND that it was a dream? That said, I sort of imagine that this “contribution” would be integrated into the conference itself, like a session or series of sessions. Those folks who attend the session(s) would go out into a local community. Or not. Maybe the local community comes to the conference, like a panel discussion. Maybe we invite students. Maybe a small group of local attendees tackles some of the logistics and planning before the conference starts. Math on a Stick comes to mind. These all seem like really big ideas. Maybe too big, I don’t know.

What I do know that there are so many thoughtful and creative math educators out there (if you’re reading this, that means you) who attend these conferences. And I know that they would be about this life. They would want to give back. They have ideas.

After I shared sidewalk math (here and here) as a My Favorite on day 1 of TMCNYC, Michael suggested that that could be an example of a thing we use to give back to a host city. We could hook up with a local who knows a deserving (possibly underserved) community and then go tag up part of the neighborhood with sidewalk math. Someone at the conference called it guerrilla math. It seems very, very doable. And one that would present a local neighborhood with a cool, useful mathematical exploration AFTER we leave. Having been lucky enough to attend three math ed conferences this year, two of which were local, I’m going to hold myself to proposing this session at a conference in the near future.

Thanks Michael for helping me dream.

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Teaching is personal

We are invited to teach information as though it does not emerge from bodies.

~bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Often times I hear the phrase, “separate your personal and professional lives.” Of course, this catch-all phrase assumes a dichotomy and that separating our personal and professional lives is actually possible. It makes the issue a matter of black-and-white. It’s as if our home and work lives are completely distinct.

I can’t speak for other professions (I’ve only ever been a teacher), but I’m more and more convinced that this just isn’t so for teaching.

Teaching has always felt like a profession that does a great job of blurring the lines between the personal and professional. The work we do in the classroom is so humanistic in nature. We are in the business of helping other humans better themselves through learning. We help them uncover new ideas, connect it to what they already know, and reflect on why it matters in the long run. For me, these are the types of human interactions that require my full self to do effectively.

Similarly, my last post hints at how my professional life has influenced my personal life. I probably wouldn’t have made the decisions about buying custom t-shirts and using sidewalk chalk to make accessible math for my community had I been a construction worker or a dentist.

I suppose we can help students uncover objective facts neutrally. We can attempt to “remove” ourselves from the delivery of content. We could teach by focusing only on the purely academic (see definition 2) side of things. But by doing so, we disregard every human in the room.

And that’s crazy because every day in my classroom there are over 30 wildly diverse humans converging. Naturally, this explosion of knowledge and social and emotional capital cannot be forced to do anything that’s worth doing. As a result, I must learn who my students are as learners and people. I must plan for them, their dispositions, their vulnerabilities, their cultures, their identities, their families. I must take who they are as people into account (not just their studenthood) in order for me to acheive success. Over the course of a school year, I’ve realized that this happens awfully slow, like a tugboat pushing a barge, and often climaxes near the close of the year. At the same time, it also happens collectively and in unison — and this makes it beautiful. In a recent talk, Patrick Honner so eloquently said that teaching brought him “back to the edge of human knowledge…and it’s not lonely out there, because we’re out there together.”

Because we are bound to our students on this adventure to better ourselves each day, how can we be expected to be mindful of our students’ personal lives and lived experiences if it is expected that we forget about our own once we welcome them into the classroom?

Who I am as a person outside of the classroom universally affects what I do inside the classroom. If I am teaching genuinely, my two “lives” are inseparable. Do I forget this at times? Definitely. When I do forget it, I say and do things at critical points that separate who I am from my pedagogy. Usually, my decision is one that dodges conflict and that allows everyone to sit peacefully in their comfort zone. I don’t challenge the given.

As the inherent leaders of our classrooms, acknowledging and embracing our personal lives and attitudes in the classroom is critical to its ultimate success. This happens when we plan before students arrive and also during class. I don’t think most teachers realize when it’s happening. Many of us (myself included) place much of our energy on addressing our students’ needs and forget about our own selves in relation to that work. But just like our students, we too have personal histories, interests, identities, and biases. These things are deeply rooted in who we are as people and, consequently, who we are as teachers. As important and involved as teaching is, I’ve found that it demands that I purposely recognize — and integrate — my personal self as part of the process.

As teachers, who we are matters. A lot. In fact, whether we like it or not, our personal lives are already part of our professional lives. If we can do our best to welcome that into our practice by design, while it won’t make our work any easier, it may make what we do with students more relevant and forthcoming. Maybe.

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