A cold, lifeless 27-page booklet

At this very moment, 109 of my students are sitting in various classrooms around my school. They’re sitting in rows. They have a 27-page booklet in front of them that has 37 math problems printed in it. They have a graphing calculator. A pen. A pencil. They’re not looking at one another. They’re working in isolation, like robots, focusing only on their booklet. The clock ticks. They have an unapologetic three hours to squeeze all of their ideas out of their heads, into their hands, and into the booklet. A teacher displays the current time on the board.

And the rooms are quiet. They’re deathly silent as a matter of fact. Silent of any life. Void of any creativity, any debate, any togetherness. Vacant of anything that can respectably be called a meaningful assessment of their mathematical abilities. The rooms are absent of what so humanly filled my students’ hearts and minds all year.

In other words, the rooms are empty.

On this day, in these waning afternoon hours of June 21, 2019, a beautiful journey that delighted, surprised, confused, empowered, angered, created laughter, caused tears, produced smiles, forged bonds, and changed lives, reaches its final turn. Yes, it ends today with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet.

I tear myself away from writing this post to visit them one final time as their teacher. To inject some of warmth into these hollow rooms is the least that I can do. I need to be there for them once more. There are seven rooms. A bold, red piece of paper is taped to the outside of each declaring it a TESTING ROOM. I open each door and stand in the entryway. I’m there for a minute, maybe two. I’m waiting for nothing in particular. I don’t speak. No words would dare attempt to capture how I feel. Many of them look up, see me, and smile. Some smirk because my beard is missing. I grin. Pleasant thoughts sooth me. I’m happy. I’m proud.

During my visits, I’m told on three different occasions that I cannot be there, I cannot share the space with my students, no matter how brief it is. The voice is annoying, like a gnat. I shoo it away and maintain my presence. While this voice is a lonely one, emanating from a single body, a body that doesn’t understand the bonds — the love — that I have for the young people in those rooms, it is also the blaring siren of a stolid, tyrannical system that is engineered to maintain a strict distance between everyone and everything that operates within the system. It’s only fitting that I am confronted with this siren — this force — now, in these final moments, because it has been trying to disparage the closeness that I share with my students all year long. I guess it couldn’t let go until the very end.

But the bottom line is that nothing was going to remove me from those final moments with my students. Bring my AP. Bring my principal. Bring my superintendent. We went through too much together. I belonged there.

I crawl back to my desk. The exam is coming to an end. So are the algebra 2 experiences of my kids. Attempting to capitalize on the moment, other teachers brought in water and snacks for their students. Candy is common. Others dished out high fives and personal notes as students walked into school. These various forms of nourishment serve as one last round of encouragement, a hopeful send off that the kids can collect enough points to satisfy New York State.

I feel guilty because I just couldn’t bring myself to do any of these things. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I did, but something in me resisted the urge to pour more energy into this lifeless day. I couldn’t contribute to building up an event that means so little. It’s bad enough that our 10-month campaign to better ourselves terminates like this, with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet. I couldn’t make this apex moment any more sour by advocating for a higher score.

I remain in the building until the end. Not because I have to or plan on seeing any of my students or hearing how things went. I don’t care to discuss the exam with them or anyone else. Not now. There will be a time and place for that in this score-hungry, pass-rate driven mess of a school system. Hanging around till the end of it all just seems to me like the right thing to do. To see my students off, however vicariously.

I wrap up my thoughts, try to bring closer to this disheartening day. As I leave, I walk around to each of the rooms that housed my students just minutes before. I peer in. They’re still empty.

 

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My beard was a thing this school year

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It was after school last Friday. The room was filled with over 50 excited students. There was a buzz. Most all were standing. Some on chairs. Phones were recording. Having waited 10 months for this moment, the room was bursting with anticipatory energy that easily spilled out into the hallway. The sense of community was staggering and unlike anything that I had ever been a part of. Unsure what was happening, other teachers walked in.

All of sudden, out of nowhere, a loud chant breaks out among every student in the room. “Cut it off! Cut it off! Cut it off!”

Where was I? Sitting on a chair in front of it all. Their chant was being directed at me. Or at least at the student standing next to me who had the clippers.

What was happening? My beard was being shaved after 10 months of untouched growth.

This was all so unexpected. In September, I met a student in my third period class and noticed that he had a pretty nice beard. It was thick, mature. He seemed to take it seriously. I’m not sure why, but I asked him if he would consider not shaving it (or trimming it) for the duration of the school year. If he was on board, I promised that I would match his effort and leave my beard in its natural state until June.

It was the second week of school and I didn’t know this kid a lick, but he didn’t even think twice about my offer. Unbelievably, he wanted to do it. Right then and there I vowed to not shave or trim the hair on my face for the rest of the school year. The next day I made it public and told all of my classes. Of course, being so early in the year, my students and I barely had a relationship at that point. They probably didn’t think twice about it — it was just a random thought, an off-center commitment, a promise that would surely be forgotten by their new, overzealous math teacher.

As the year unfolded, my beard got longer. And longer. It was untamed. Raw. I didn’t use any fancy oils. It started growing sideways off of my face. I think in late February was when it really became a thing for us. So while the original student’s mom made him cut his soon after our pact, mine started to build momentum. We talked about it in class, like how my family felt about it. I started to strike up conversations with random bearded men on the street and on the subway, getting tips. I unknowingly joined a club that I never knew existed. This was all unfamiliar to me but never felt strange — it always felt right.

As June approached, I started thinking about the end of the year. What was going to happen to my beard? My face had been through so much. Was I going to keep it? My beard (literally) grew on me. I really liked it. It gave me character. I considered it my “wisdom beard.” I enjoyed stroking it and pretending I was Socrates.

On Wednesday of last week, I knew what had to be done. In a decision that was somewhat last minute, I brought my clippers to school. My students were going to cut my beard. It was the natural thing to do.

While it began as a playful agreement, my beard blossomed into much more than the growth of hair. It was symbolic. It was a physical manifestation of all the growth that my students and I had experienced this year. Like my beard, our growth was of the type that required a long stretch of time to develop and mature into its full form. You can’t grow a beard like what I had in a week — sideways growth and all. Our bonds were no different. 

And it’s not like I could take it off when I wasn’t in school. My beard was with me everywhere I went this past year. It was with me before school, after school, at home, on the weekends. It was a part of me. In this way, the hair that slowly crept out from my chin and cheeks signified the closeness that I had with my students. The connections we shared this year transcended school, transcended the learning of mathematics. Like my beard, their stories and histories and passions and pain stayed with me long after the school day ended. My kids took me to unfamiliar territory, like my beard did. In terms of culture, community, and togetherness, my kids set a new standard for me. This is humbling.

More than my curriculum, more than my pedagogy, more than my colleagues, more than anything else, it was my students who were the definitive part of my growth this year. They were my beard. Every hair.

Friday was the last day of classes. They were no longer my students. They were leaving me. My beard had to go.

 

While I am getting so many compliments on how much younger I look now, I hate destinations. The journey is so much more fun.

I miss my beard. I miss my kids.

 

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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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Dear H, (Student Letter #4)

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 4th post in the series.

Dear H,

Yesterday afternoon, after school, as everyone tripped over themselves in a mad dash out the building for Memorial Day weekend, I quietly sat down to read my Friday Letters. Before penning any of my replies, I glanced through all of the letters, noting who decided to write this week. There were about 10 letters. I saw yours, and looking forward to reading it, placed it on the bottom of the stack.

After replying to all of the others, I finally got to your letter. It was written on a full sheet of paper, which was unusual for you, and it had a pretty traditional fold — halved three times. You started the letter with a brief response to my letter last week and thanked me for playing some good music during class. Then you grabbed me.

You were upset. You have written a Friday Letter every week since the beginning of the school year and you were upset that, because the year was coming to end, you would soon no longer be able to write them. You also mentioned that you have been felt seen this year. Not as a student, but as a person. You said that you appreciated my untraditional approach to teaching and how I work hard to get to know and support my students. You were bothered that in a month I would no longer be your teacher. There was more, but you know that already.

Before even finishing, I stopped. Feeling a surge of emotion preparing to swallow me whole, I looked up. Hoping to steady my thoughts, my eyes found the window and I focused on the balcony of a high-rise building in the distance. My mind couldn’t help but race through the challenges I’ve faced this year in reaching my students. Several key moments surfaced, along with several students — including you.

Through some stackable moments, I’ve gained so much perspective during the 2018-19 school year. I’ve openly shared this with y’all during class, but through my conversations with y’all I’ve learned to perceive my students so much more deeply than in the past. Heck, I perceive myself way differently, too. Mostly, though, I’ve been able to acknowledge and welcome the emotional side of teaching and learning, a side that the system says can’t and shouldn’t exist because our intellect should always be front and center.

But to hell with the system.

I’ve found myself attached to y’all in ways that are unlike anything I’ve known before. I’m bound to y’all through the human spirit, through love. A parental sort of love, one that extends beyond the Do Nows, uniforms, and exams. And this has changed everything. Like no other time in my career, I consciously deliver my authentic, flawed, sensative self to y’all each day. And I’m getting the same thing in return.

I’m so damn proud to be your teacher.

You should know that with this increased closeness has come earnest self-doubt and questions. And they cut deep. Mostly, I’m unsure about whether I’m in the right. Like, what purpose am I serving? Are my energies hitting the target? Am I too ambitious? Do I initiate conversations that are too aggressive, too forward? Should I be more practical, just like so many of the other stolid teachers that I feel so distant from? Should I play it safe and just teach? Does my personal responsibility to y’all even matter? Am I fighting a losing battle? Can I even make a difference, especially when there are so many factors that are outside of my sphere of influence? Despite all of the hope that I pour into room 227, my glass often seems empty.

I’m rambling. Sorry. My point is that, despite my haphazard uncertainty, your letter gave me faith that I’m fighting the good fight. You nudged me away from practicality. You assured me that my efforts to be an agent of change — to work passionately to understand and mentor y’all far beyond your abilities to create exponential models — have not been trivial. In short, your letter was so important to me. I needed it more than you know.

I did manage to finish reading your letter and write my response, but not without a couple deep breaths. Thank you for being so kind. Thank you for the inspiration. You have been a wonderful student this year, but an even better human. Know that I’m a significantly better teacher — and person — because of you.

Talk soon,

Mr. P

Haiku #3

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

It’s always during this time of year that I feel closest to my students. For 45 minutes a day for five days a week, we have helped one another shoulder life’s highs and lows. We have been through battles. We’re different people now than we were 10 months ago. We’re stronger, wiser. We’ve grown together. We’ve learned plenty of math, too.

And just as I feel the comforting embrace of these thoughts, like now, the Regents rears its ugly, formidable head. And then I am disheartened.

Compound interest

With a soaring rate is at

Odds with a scaled score

 

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