Thinking critically about the phrase “my students”

The other day I caught myself thinking about the phrase “my students.”

We say it all the time. I quizzed my students twice last week. My students and I are going on a field trip. A few of my students always seem to come late to class. It’s ordinary and plain. We don’t even think twice about it. But this time I did.

Spurred by seeing former students in the hallway and new classes of students, the possessive pronoun “my” stood out to me this time. They are mine. Not literally, of course. But these young people who were once strangers are no longer distinct from me. They are mine. Our paths have crossed. I am now responsible for them. In the spirit of knowledge and personal growth, they are bound to me. They always will be. They are my students.

Thinking critically about this possessiveness is empowering. For me, it represents an extension of myself through my students. Who I am as a teacher — and as a person — will be duly represented in what we build together. I can ignore, but I cannot escape the metaphysical ownership I have over this situation. How I plan, teach, and learn about them will be reflected in our shared successes and failures. To think about this gives me great pride. It also affects me when it comes to non-teaching matters like how I speak to them and think about them and work to relate to them. Yes, rethinking the word “my” when it comes to my students contributes to a greater, more attentive investment in my students and myself.

 

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The mess of non-thematic units and why they excite me

For the last two years, I’ve adopted a problem-based, discussed-based approach for algebra 2. The whole curriculum is interleaved, meaning that big ideas are parsed and revisited over long periods of time (weeks or months) to improve retention. At any given time, students are learning small parts of a few different units. This allows for extended exposure to the topics that my kids learn. This is not how a curriculum is commonly viewed because, with this model, there are no traditional units. By “traditional” I mean thematic (e.g. Unit 6: Logarithmic Functions). Instead, these thematic units are broken down and served piecemeal to students over long stretches — mainly through problems. The sequencing of this model is indiscrete and quite messy.

As evidenced by that bewildering opening paragraph, I find all this terribly hard to communicate with others. I made my best effort to describe it here. It is often referred to as spiraling. I think Henri Picciotto does a good job of articulating it.

Thematic units have the advantage of being simpler…and easier too, I think. They are a slow-moving mass of closely-related topics that stays for a little while and then leaves when the next one comes along. Everything in them is directly linked and, therefore, these units make it easier for students to draw connections between mathematical concepts. At the same time, they encourage the isolation of facts and skills. Because related ideas are all lumped together, these units offer an easier pathway to a deep understanding in a short amount of time. Or at least the illusion of deep understanding.

These units make everything easier for the teacher, too. Thematic units and their associated lessons are far easier to plan and execute. The whole process linear; the focus of each lesson is based on the previous. There’s no untidy looping in and out of concepts, no systematic revisiting of big ideas over time. The concepts march in a clean, single-file line.

This is my guess as to why textbooks and traditional forms of curriculum have adopted thematic units. Seen in this way, they make the most sense both for the student and teacher.

But easier doesn’t make it better, right? When learning is hard, when it places a higher cognitive demand on the learner, isn’t it more meaningful? By helping students learn something small, then forget it, and then recall it after a reasonable amount of time — and iterating this process again and again over the course of the school year — can’t we help ideas cement? By not blocking out content, and instead spacing out practice and frequently assessing on the same topics at greater depth, do we help students better retain it? There’s research that says yes. Make it Stick by Paul Brown really helped me understand this.

There’s no denying the challenge that this creates for teachers. Tracing how concepts mature over the course of weeks or months is not easy. Adjustments to the sequencing can be tricky, too, because concepts are so tightly intertwined. I’ve been personally building the lessons and sequencing for two years and its still not right. Granted, I only work on it during the school year — and pretty much on the fly. Nonetheless, at least compared to traditional units, I’ve found it far more demanding and unusual to plan. And I haven’t even mentioned the loneliness — I have met no teachers during this time who are doing similar work with their curriculum. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be disciplined enough to sit down and formally document my sequencing for other teachers to understand — and to start a conversation — but, I’m not worried about that.

I begin another school year in two weeks. I have realized that coupled with the fact my students retaining more information than ever, the messiness of interleaving has awakened and excited me these last few years. (I could do without the loneliness, though.) After years of marching in a single-file line, interleaving has made my curriculum work more of a dance. It’s interesting and lively. It moves. It sways. Fortunately, I work under an assistant principal and principal that given me the autonomy to do this. They decided to accept the consequences of the risks that I inherently took on when I decided to throw my units out the window. They trusted me even though none of us fully knew what I was doing. I think that I was at the right place at the right time because I’m not sure many other schools or departments would be on board with such a break from the norm of traditional units. My students and I have learned so much.

 

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Moving down

At the last faculty meeting of the year, my principal honored a few teachers who were moving on from our school to become administrators. They were becoming assistant principals at other schools. It was joyous. There were reflective speeches, congratulatory hugs, and bittersweet goodbyes. These people had spent years and years in the classroom, one was even a co-teacher of mine for three years. But now, in the name of school leadership, they were leaving the classroom to serve students on a broader scale.

This is natural. We teachers often find ourselves so well-versed in classroom affairs that our influence expands. Our impact seeps out of the walls of our classroom and into the larger community. Or, if this hasn’t happened, we know that it can with some persistence. Often our principals make us believe, too. We then spend lots of money to go back to school, suffer through long nights of rewording essays, all to earn a piece of paper that says that we’re fit to lead a school.

This is commonplace and part of the gravitational pull that exists on teachers. It’s a force works to drive us out of our classrooms. We’re promoted, but we become one step removed from our students. We move up.

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Now I’ve known for a long time that I’m a classroom lifer. I have no ambitions of becoming an assistant principal or principal. A progression up the educational food chain is natural, but never something that interested me.

So as I sat there during the faculty meeting thinking about how my colleagues were moving further away from students, my own career flashed before me — especially these few years. While the pathway of these people had taken them up, away from students, mine had actually brought me downcloser to students.

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I don’t think this downward movement is the norm — at least it wasn’t for me. I had to really work to move down. I’ve had to reflect, find myself, and then change my entire approach to teaching. I had to learn to be aware of my kids in ways that were foreign to me. And attending to my students’ lives in a personal way — to, paradoxically, not see them as students at all — is what has pulled me down to them. I’ve grown as an educator to affirm my students as sons, daughters, brothers, step-sisters, nieces, and nephews — as young people, as confused young adults, as budding leaders. This mindset is fueled by emotion and it’s not encouraged by the state, nor by the tests, nor by the curriculum. But it’s the single biggest reason why there’s a distinctive oneness that I feel when I’m with my students.

Just like it takes years to move up towards administration, it took my whole career for me to move down towards my students. It’s not a depth that I would have been prepared for early in my career, just like no new teacher is ready to be an assistant principal.

I get now that my career hasn’t been about reaching as far out as I can, despite all that has been fed to me all these years about success and impact. Instead, it has been about appreciating that my career will probably never extend beyond the walls of my classroom; it has been about understanding and tending to the depth of my students. It’s been about moving down. 

 

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Haiku #4

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing Haiku about my teaching practice. This is the fourth post in the series.

As my career has matured through the years, I have learned to embrace my summer more and more. These two months represent precious reflection time for me. For this reason, I outwardly defend my summer. I purposely stay away from any sort of teaching environment; I can’t genuinely reflect if I’m still in the game, making decisions, and in the flow.

Outside of the personal benefits, this time away from the classroom allows me to pause my teaching and check in with myself. This summer is no different. My thoughts about my teaching have been plentiful and will surely evolve and change over the next several weeks. But before they do, I wanted to gather some recent, and important, reflections with this Haiku.

Letters to know one

Muggy thoughts, discerning sun

Who will we become?

 

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Dear K, (Student Letter #5)

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 5th post in the series.

Dear K,

This letter is a few weeks overdue. I apologize.

We had some really enjoyable and unforgettable interactions this year, K. I don’t know where else to start this letter but by commenting on your insatiable curiosity. I mean, you are questioning machine. I love this. I swear, every time we talked or you wrote a Friday Letter, there was always something new and imaginative on your mind. And your hunger for knowledge was equaled by your thirst for answers. Whenever an open question lingered too long in your mind, you got antsy. You needed answers so bad that it made me feel guilty for being so appreciative of good questions. More often than not, you found the answers you sought. This passion for learning was exciting for me to be around.

We talked about so much this year. Like, SO much. Most of it was pretty random — based on whatever you woke up thinking about. A few times this year, though, we landed on the topic of formal schooling. You have strong, unwavering feelings about it and I loved going down this path with you.

You shared that, in your experiences, schools work to deteriorate the hearts and minds of young people. You mentioned that there is little creativity in classrooms these days. That “learning” is never the goal. Instead, over the course of their time in school, students just get better at satisfying the needs and wants of their teachers. Students are just jumping through hoops; students follow rigid essay structures and memorize stale formulas to determine x, but are never asked to find themselves. The school system strips away individuality and replaces it with conformity. Characterized by many as a “model” student, you offered yourself up as an example of this epidemic.

When we did talk about things like this, no lie, I forgot that you are as young as you are. You’re so wise.

Looking back, it’s these sorts of conversations that stand out. But it’s because of a very different conversation that I’m going to remember you for the rest of my career.

You know the one I’m talking about. It was the second-to-last Monday of the year and after reading your letter the previous Friday, I pulled you out of the library and we went to the lab. I knew there was a lot that you needed to talk about. I told you to spill the beans.

You proceeded to open some deep wounds. You shared a pain that you kept hidden for two years. Choosing to dress up your struggle as positivity, you had been out of your comfort zone for way too long. Outside of your parents, you hadn’t told anyone about these feelings. You were hurting. You were confused. You cried.

Though you always seem to find answers to your uncertainties, this was one instance where you were at a loss. And I wasn’t going to pretend like I had the answer. That was beside the point. You indirectly called out and I needed to be there for you…just like you had been there for me all year with your thought-provoking conversations. You needed to be heard. You needed a shoulder.

The more we talked, the more I felt the gravity of the situation. And, looking inward, the more I understood how much I overlooked you. I saw the side of you that you so eloquently displayed for the rest of the school — and I blindly accepted it. Given your depth of character and thought, I should have known better. But I failed to look below the surface. And with our constant stream of communication, I had so many opportunities. You wrote to me every week. We talked at length at least twice a week. As an unofficial mentor, I cannot help but say that I could have been better at recognizing your needs. I could have been better attending to your pain. You will never blame me, but I have to own this — at least partially.

Although we were the only two voices in the lab that Monday during 4th period, I heard so many others. They were my current students, your peers. They were also my former students. And their voices were loud. They were telling me that if you, K, a “model” student, a student who thrived in AP classes, a student that volunteered for leadership positions, a student that elevated my thinking, a student who served as role model for many, could keep so much pain suppressed for so long…then I needed to open my eyes. I was missing something. And it was a big something.

What were my other, less-vocal students telling me that I wasn’t hearing? What about the other students that I know well? How well do I even know them? What about my former students? How many of them went unheard despite spending hours and hours in my class? How did I let their pain go unnoticed?

This realization gave me pause. The walls collapsed on me, the rug pulled out from under my comfortable, privileged feet. I resorted to whispering my responses to you because my breath came up short. We both teared up. I was shook.

After our talk, you couldn’t go to another class. You spent the next period in the nurse’s office, then you called home and your dad picked you up.

I tried to follow up with you over the next several days, but I got the feeling that you didn’t want to talk about it. While polite as ever, your vulnerability made you shy away from me. If I’m honest, this bothered me because I know burying all this pain is part of the reason why you crashed. I didn’t have anything explicit that I wanted to say to you, I just wanted to check in. Send some good vibes your way. But I couldn’t force it. The year finished with us never again mentioning our talk in the lab.

Here, right now, in this letter that you’ll probably never read, I want you to know that I’m never, ever going to forget you or your story. Thanks to your courage in dealing with your discomfort and sharing this battle with me, I’m going to work even harder to uncover the needs of my students. I’m going to fight to be there for them — even if this means that I’m only able to reach only 1 additional student next year or 2 the year after that. The risk is too great.

In my own quiet way, in the coming years I am going to be thinking of you and wishing you well — wherever your journey may take you. I plan on anonymously passing on your experiences to other teachers and students with the hopes of inspiring us to be more mindful of each other’s presence. I learned so much from you.

I need us to stay in touch. Hang in there.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

P.S. I told you this already, but I deeply respect the relationship that you have with your dad. You talked about him so much in our talks and letters. I only hope that one day I can have a bond with my daughter that resembles the one that you two share.