My two cents (Week of Feb 1, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 18th post in the series.

Monday (Feb 1)
With 12 inches of snowing falling and falling throughout the day, this would have been a surefire snow day. Low and behold, we had professional development (a damn good one too, I might add).

Tuesday (Feb 2)
Taking the advice from my cogen, who said that I should not go hard on the first days back from break, we had a light class. I was very excited to unveil, in honor of Black History Month, the “A Mathematician and Me” writing activity.

Wednesday (Feb 3)
An unusually relaxing day. Strangely, I found myself caught up with grading and emails by midday; I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself.

Thursday (Feb 4)
During office hours, I encouraged a student to “take over” and lead the session, which was essentially was tutoring on this week’s Turn In. I faded into the shadows of Zoom and let take over; she did an incredible job fielding questions and leading students to answers without explicitly telling them what to do.

Friday (Feb 5)
Reflecting on my week, I held back tears in the afternoon as I wrote several of my students emails expressing gratitude for their hard work, willingness to participate, and the connections we’ve created during remote learning this year. Having finally made time to do this, it was extremely cathartic; when some of the students replied with kind sentiments of their own, I felt the tremendous weight of the year land on my shoulders and couldn’t but get emotional.

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):

My two cents (Week of Jan 25, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 17th post in the series.

Monday (Jan 25)
In aiding so many students in makeup work both in class and during office hours, my throat felt like sandpaper by the end of it all. Had probably the most successful day grading and entering grades that I’ve had all year.

Tuesday (Jan 26)
In helping a student with makeup work, I realized how uncomfortable it made me to ask him to complete missing assignments…given that I knew next to nothing about him. I told him this and asked him to tell me something meaningful about himself; he told me he liked soccer.

Wednesday (Jan 27)
More one-on-ones with students today. I went out of my way to learn something else about the student from yesterday; he’s really into the game Warzone on PS5.

Thursday (Jan 28)
Thankful to have had the chance to tell a colleague the extent to which I respect him. Took a break from make-up work in 8th period and had a great conversation with two kids about ageism.

Friday (Jan 29)
Found myself in a perfunctory mood for most of the day, though it ended on a high note when I recorded the semester one recap show for the podcast. A women of color expressed her frustration with me during a breakout room during the school-wide RSJ session.

Dear S, (Student Letter #8)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the eighth post in the series.

Dear S,

It’s been a while. Hope you’re doing well. We haven’t spoken in over five years and I’m not sure you even remember me. Maybe you do. We interacted a lot. You were in my Algebra 2 class. I think you were in both of my robotics electives, too. In fact, for two years, you were one of the leaders of the robotics club. The truth is, you knew more about robotics than me. And you were definitely more passionate about it.

While you may not remember me, I remember you. What I remember most about you is that you were one of the first students in my career who challenged me. Not in a bad or rude way, but in a way that made me question myself and my motives. It’s not like pointed any of your words or actions directly at me. No, you were merely insanely curious about the world and what you could do to better it. If anything, you were looking past me. Way, way past me. I saw the classroom, grades, lesson plans. You saw the world.

You were someone whose love of reading and books. (Looking back, I’m smile when I think how horrible you were about renewing your library books.) You read things that I would have never thought of picking up. Your interests were vast and varied. Somehow you were able to see the interconnectedness of it all.

What I really appreciated about you, S, was how your reading compelled you to seek out knowledge from those around you, like me. Now I never had any answers to your insistent questions, but you still sought them from me. I realized this back then and I realize it again right now: your questions uplifted me. They nagged at me that I should be doing more. Like I said before, you challenged me. You were assertive, creative, and chased down ideas with passion. You set your sails and harnessed the wind. I floated through my days and prayed I would reach the shore.

Though I was much taller than you, I often felt small whenever we spoke. Not all the time, just sometimes, like whenever your environmental and moral consciousness revealed itself to me. You had grand ideas. Most teenagers do (albeit about things not much bigger than themselves), and this was not shocking to me, but yours were far more grounded and tamed. For instance, while we were learning right triangle trig, your mind was focused on developing an app to help the homeless folks you walk past each morning on your way to school. While I was teaching the class about function transformations, you were rethinking our school’s recycling program. And while all the other students were worried about passing exams, you organized a hackathon at our school.

Sharing these moments with you helped me see that students are much bigger than the chairs and desks they inhabit. Their hearts and minds have ambitions that go far beyond my curriculum. Thank you for pursuing answers to your questions with me, although I probably did more to distract you from finding them than I did in helping you. Thank you for the inspiration.

For what it’s worth, I wonder how you’re faring these days. In the middle of dual pandemics, what are you thinking about? What are your passions? Where are you?

I wonder.

Mr. P

P.S. Thanks for all of your creative closings to your emails and Friday Letters. All these years later, I’m just now learning to appreciate these valedictions as a means of creative expression in ending a written correspondence. As the writer, they seem to leave a good taste in my mouth after I hit send…and I can only hope they do the same for the reader. All yours about cat advocacy still make me smile.