Some inspiration from J Cole

And, dog, you know how come

Labels are archaic, formulaic with they outcomes

They don’t know, they just study the charts

Me, I studied the shows, the fans, study they hearts

J Cole, “Let Nas Down”

It’s incredibly easy for teachers to get caught up in student performance, in outcomes. This year, with the return of state exams, it’s even easier. Student performance is once again at the fore and so many of us are feeling the pressure to help our students earn a satisfactory mark.

I know next to nothing about the music industry, but as a growing J Cole fan, I can see a parallel between his take on the music industry in the above lyrics and my stance on teaching. Most schools, similar to music labels, obsess over the best possible outcomes. Schools and districts muted their chart-watching for the last two years, but it’s back. Students are once again being turned into abstract concepts, numbers organized meticulously by standard and test. How much can we make off of this artist? By when? How many students can I get to pass? By when? These are all questions rooted in the same premise that outcomes should be positioned ahead of the humans they’re designed to measure. If I align myself with such ideals, the hearts and minds of my students become secondary in my work. They are a means to an end.

J Cole is emphasizing the need to move beyond data and outcomes and focus on people and process. Similarly, instead of getting wrapped up in grades and student performance and achievement levels, I should carefully study my students — meet with them, listen to them, learn who they are. Like Cole, who “studied the shows” — a place where he engages with his fans — I find it invaluable to research my interactions with students. This means recording my lessons and the discussions with students and playing them back to help me discover my pedagogical strengths and weaknesses.

If I can do these things, or at least aim to do these things, my practice will prioritize those I serve. When that happens, the outcomes take care of themselves. As my students and I begin our arduous march towards the Regents and test-prep reigns supreme, I’ll do good to remember this.


Cogens for Social Justice • Part 3

This post is the final post of a three-part series where I explore planning and implementing a social justice-themed activity in Algebra 2. In addition to traditional collaboration with colleagues, a critical component of developing and reflecting on the activity is the cogenerative dialogues I have with my students before and after its execution.

Part 3: Post-Activity Reflections

The activity
After my second cogen with the students, I gave my activity a facelift. I transformed what was a straightforward, task-oriented activity exposing injustice in the farming industry into an immersive and celebratory experience that turned my students into farmers of color and me into U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The farmers had been “invited” to Washington D.C. to complete a USDA debt-relief application. I wore a suit and tie, just like Secretary Vilsak would, and explained everything to them on day 1, which included summarizing several recent NYTimes articles on the issue and showing a video from ABC News. Groups of 3-4 students were assigned to one of seven fictional farmers of color. To get to know each other and add context, each farmer read their profile out loud to the class right before they started their applications.

I allotted a week for the students/farmers to complete their debt-relief application. The application itself hinged on what we’ve learned about compound interest and exponential regressions, but I also mixed in average rate of change. I owe the math department at my school lots of credit for helping me get all the math straightened out!

Embracing the performative nature of the activity, I asked the farmers/students to wear name tags each day and added a refreshments table that I kept stocked throughout the week with snacks and water.

Name tags that my students wore each day to identify them as one of seven fictional farmers of color
My USDA refreshments table, positioned in the middle of the room

In the end, the activity worked out pretty much how I envisioned it. The students/farmers spent a solid four days working through the application. As they worked, I walked around with an “APPROVED ✅” stamp to certify the various parts of their application as they got them correct. It felt official! The fifth and final day took on a more casual, celebratory tone, which included me giving each farmer/student a laminated check in the amount of their outstanding loan balances that they computed in their application. This was the cherry on top.

Laminated checks that each of my students/farmers received when they completed their debt-relief application

The only part that didn’t work out as I had planned was the final act: watching I’m Just a Layman in Pursuit of Justice: Black Farmers Fight Against the USDA. We watched 10 minutes of it on day 4 and another 30 minutes a week later on the day before spring break, but I wish the film could have played a bigger role in our work. This was bittersweet. Next year, I hope we can watch (at least portions) of the film earlier in order to bring in details of the featured farmers into the problems. This way, the film can be an integral part of the activity instead of a supplement. A huge shoutout goes out to filmmakers Shoun A. White and Waymon Hinson for giving me access to the film. It is awesome and speaks directly to the activity.

The complete set of handouts can be found here.

The feedback
On the last day of the activity (today), I gathered the students together for one last cogen to reflect on it. Excluding my regular cogen who also helped me reflect on it, I met with a total of 9 students in two separate groups. All but one of the original 10 students were able to make it. Below is a synthesis of the students’ feedback from the cogen and a whole class survey I gave on day 5.

  • The group work worked. The students appreciated the size of the groups and how each group (and group member) werey all working on the same thing. My frequent check-ins and small group instruction enabled students to get their questions answered and helped keep their learning flowing. This made everything go better.
  • There was a nice balance between math and social justice. Both during the cogen and in the survey, the students reported that the math and social issue complemented each other well; each section of the application revealed a different aspect of the injustice and paired it with a different math concept. Several students said that they liked the variety of math topics the application required. Interestingly, one student told me that there was more math than she expected going in and that she appreciated this.
  • Isolating race allowed for a better understanding of the discrimination farmers faced. Students mentioned that because their Geometry project on farmers focused on so many factors (race, gender, education level, marital status, etc.), it become overly complicated and eventually took away from their understanding of the mistreatment of socially disadvantaged farmers. Because this activity took a simpler approach, students felt they learned more about the issue. Just 52% of students reported a connection between this activity and that one.
  • Choosing an alternative launching-off point was effective. Initially, I was going to use the Geometry project as a starting point for this activity (vertical alignment, yay!), but decided against it after the first cogen in the series. For these students (next year might be different), I’m convinced that this made a huge difference in how it landed with them. On day 5, when I did bring up what they did in Geometry, there were groans.
  • Role playing sparked joy and increased engagement. The lack of excitement during my second cogen caused me to find a dramatically new way of framing the activity: role playing. And it paid off! The students loved “being” the farmers and getting their loans paid off. Refreshingly, the cogen students sighed and grumbled when thinking about partaking in this activity any other way.
  • Students had a strong understanding of the mathematics and systemic discrimination in the farming industry. Before the activity, students feared that not knowing the math would prevent them from engaging with the social issue in a meaningful way. Both during the cogen and on the survey, students reported high levels of understanding of the math and the inequitable treatment of the farmers of color. Quiz scores on day 5 confirmed this. Teaching the required mathematics before starting the activity (as was recommended in the first cogen) was an important factor.
  • The problems could have been more clearly written. Students felt that several of the problems should be revised to elicit a clearer pathway of what they needed to do mathematically. Though the mathematics wasn’t new to them, it wasn’t clear when and how they had to apply it to the problems. The small group instruction helped me get over this hurdle, but students recommended doing an opening example at the start of class also.
  • Studying the farmers was worthwhile. Overwhelmingly, the students felt that studying the farmers in this way was an interesting and worthwhile use of class time. This was a pleasant surprise as I had serious concerns about the relevance the activity would have to urban youth. To elevate the activity and make it more relevant, one cogen student suggested that I find a local issue and integrate it with the farmers.

The takeaways

  1. Curriculum change. Over the course of my career, I’ve tried to tackle issues of race, gender, and other forms of discrimination in several ways, but I’ve always failed at interrogating and modifying my curriculum. As the bedrock of my instruction, it has been the hardest to modify. How could I teach to the Regents and make the curriculum antiracist? This activity was a personal challenge to find that intersection and one of the biggest reasons why its success is so important for my growth as an educator.
  2. Cultivating Genius. Gholdy Muhammad’s equity framework, as detailed in her book Cultivating Genius, was a driving force in how I designed this activity. Considering I never did it before, working through and applying the five pursuits of her framework, Identity, Skills, Intellect, Criticality, and Joy, was extremely valuable. My reflections on this dimension of the assignment deserve a separate post, which I hope to write soon.
  3. Cogen impact. I knew the cogens would be important to the development of the activity, but I think I underestimated how much I would need them. The students provided guidance both by what they said and what they didn’t say. Employing cogens in this context (before and after a particular lesson/activity) provided me with another model for how they can used to improve the classroom.
  4. Personal learning. I didn’t feel comfortable engaging with the systemic mistreatment of farmers of color without doing mounds of research beforehand. Like, a lot. Naturally, I learned so much about the issue. In this way, my students and I were at the edge of knowledge together for this activity. How refreshing.
  5. Simulating Justice. When my planning began, I saw this activity as being entirely informative. I wanted it to expose my students (and our school community) to a particular form of inequity. As my planning unfolded, however, my stance changed to be oriented more around justice. Instead of simply uncovering systemic racism, I wanted the activity to simulate justice and fairness. Though it transpired in a small corner of the universe located in a humble school in the Bronx, I wanted the activity to honor the love that farmers of color have for the land. Above all else, it had to celebrate their agricultural excellence and perseverance.


Meditations on a Cogen (No. 22) • Thursday, April 7, 2022

During the 2021-22 school year, I’m having weekly co-generative dialogues (or cogens) with my students. In an effort to help me process these talks and document progress, I summarize and write reflections after each cogen. This is the 22nd post in the series.

Two Additions
Two new members (one from period 1 and one from period 3) join today and complete cohort 4. The group feels complete. I give my opening spiel to the new members, get them caught up on what we discussed last week, and then jump right in.

Reflections on the farmers
This week I ran an activity celebrating farmers of color and exploring the injustices they’ve faced for generations in our country. The activity hinged on compound interest, average rate of change, and exponential regression. I have had a series of separate cogens (here and here) dedicated to its analysis and development, but I want to make space for my regular cogen to reflect on it. I open the floor.

Overall, the students liked the activity a lot. They appreciated the effort I put into its design and the role-playing aspect that it had. It afforded them an opportunity to study a “real world” application and issue. They also liked working in groups and how the group work was structured. The “we liked working in groups” comment caught me off-guard because I don’t think I did anything special with its structure, but I’ll happily take the positive feedback.

Interestingly, two weeks ago, when I was still planning the activity, I showed it to one of the cogen students and she flat out told me that it sounded boring. Today, during our talk, she admitted that she had fun doing it. After she says this, I get all excited and immediately pivot away from her to ask the group about being urban youth studying the farming industry. Looking back, this was a missed opportunity to ask her why her feelings about the activity changed. (I didn’t realize this misstep until after post-cogen when I listened to the recording of our talk. Even worse: I think she was in the midst of explaining why when I cut her off.)

I rush to ask the group about it because, living in New York City, farming isn’t exactly the most relevant issue for my students. In fact, this dichotomy gave me pause while planning it and made me second guess if I even wanted to do it. If I wanted to study social justice, couldn’t I find a more meaningful issue?

We discuss this. One student confirms my suspicions and says that she would have preferred to study a subject more relevant to her life, perhaps something job-related. But three other students offer alternative perspectives, saying they thought the topic was interesting. One says that because she knows nothing about farming and the systemic discrimination that farmers of color have faced, the activity helped expose her to a world she would have otherwise not known about. Another student comments that he actually has ancestors who were farmers and that he was able to draw parallels between his family and those I featured in the activity.

Next, the students give me some feedback on the mathematics of the activity. They explain how the math got more challenging the deeper we got into the activity, but they were OK with the gradual increase in difficulty, especially since I was walking around helping them and they had their groups to rely on. They point out that some of the farm-related vocabulary in the problems (e.g. yield, acreage) made it hard to get to the math.

They offer up several suggestions to improve the activity for next year. First, I should open each day with a brief mini-lesson overviewing some aspects of what students will encounter that day. Ideally, the mini-lesson would include me showing them an example (or, even better, a worked example) using farming terminology. I made one attempt at this over the course of the four days, but my timing of it was off by two days. I definitely see opportunities for more modeling next year. They also offer a sensible recommendation that I condense the average rate of change part of the activity, which got redundant. Since the activity had four sections, one student wonders whether each day could correspond to a different section (I took an asynchronous approach this week). This could help everyone be on the same page and subsequently help with understanding the math. To help students who don’t complete a particular day’s section, I could post a short video that students must watch before coming to class the next day.

The dialogue is flowing and before I know it, it’s 3:10pm. My last question concerns tomorrow. Do they want to watch a documentary on Black farmers and their struggle with the USDA or be given more time to complete the last section of the activity (instead of doing it on their own)? They unanimously vote for more time. That was an easy decision.

Their feedback carries me over the time I wanted to allot to reflecting on the activity, but I’m incredibly grateful for their suggestions.

Our lesson
With the five minutes we have left, I want to update the kids on our lesson. Last week I promised to identify a topic so we can begin brainstorming ideas for how the lesson would look. We don’t have time to brainstorm today, but I inform them of the topic: converting radicals to fractional exponents (and vice versa). We’re about 4-5 weeks out from learning it, so this will provide ample time for (a) me to teach it to the cogen students and (b) us to plan the lesson together. Coincidently, I have a short video clip of me overviewing the topic from remote learning. I ask the students to watch it before next week.

We’re off.


Meditations on a Cogen (No. 21) • Thursday, March 31, 2022

During the 2021-22 school year, I’m having weekly co-generative dialogues (or cogens) with my students. In an effort to help me process these talks and document progress, I summarize and write reflections after each cogen. This is the 21st post in the series.

Cohort 4
My cogen didn’t meet last week because of parent-teacher conferences, so this week is the first official gathering of the new cohort. This was their first meeting together, so I provided reminders yesterday. Thankfully, they all remembered. One seat from period 3 is unfilled (with a prospect in sight) and one of my period 1 students couldn’t make it today because of an appointment. She ran up to me during lunch earlier today apologizing for not being able to make it, which was super kind of her — and reassuring.

Despite the many cogens I’ve held this year, transitions are always tricky. I remember the first cogen changeover back in November and the anxiety I felt back then. The cyclical question of “Will the new students care as much as the old ones?” hasn’t gone away each time new students rotate in. In this way, new cohort kickoffs have first-day-of-school vibes. The students may have heard of the cogen from other students, but do not arrive convinced of its value. Trust and community aren’t inherent; the conditions need to be created for students to buy into this unusual space. This newness is exciting, but it takes work to help it all come alive.

I drape the tablecloth over the table and dump snacks out. I have a few items on my mind, but, on a limb, I ask the students about this week’s exam. It was yesterday. I haven’t finished grading them all yet, but I’m interested in how it went for them. This unexpectedly takes up the bulk of our time together.

Three of the students admit struggling, but the general consensus is that the exam was fair. One aspect of a problem on writing exponential functions using two points is criticized by the group because we only indirectly discussed it during class. I appreciated their honesty, because they’re right. When I probe students about their struggles, we get to talking about pre-exam review. What advice can they give me to help them feel better prepared for exams?

We first chat about about how I’ve used stations to review for the last few exams. The “review” has coincided with the end of problem set, so it hasn’t felt like review per se to me, but I think that’s how students viewed it. Each station was based on a different topic and equipped with dry erase sheet protectors for students to practice some given problems. A couple of cogen students refer to their chemistry teacher when they recommend that, instead of using stations, I create a review worksheet and dedicate the day before the exam to studying it in groups. In other words, instead of having stations with dry-erase practice, why not create a more permanent solution that students can study even after they leave class? They also recommend that I remain stationary during the review and allow students to come to me.

I’m on board with their recommendations and promise to try this strategy when our next exam rolls around. I do cringe a little inside when thinking about a review sheets and review days, however. In the name of the cogen, I’ll get over my discomfort. Perhaps there’s a way to remix the review sheet with the cogen’s help?

We shift gears and bring up the lessons that the last two cogen cohorts have taught (Bingo and Infinite Levels). What does this group want to do?

It’s an broad question and they hesitant to jump in. Sharing some personal reflections, I recommend that they teach a content-based lesson. The prior two lessons were based in a game, which is fine, but it would be interesting to try something new. Imagining I would use cogen time teach them an Algebra 2 topic first, I inform them we would then co-plan and co-teach a lesson about that topic to the whole class. The kids like the idea. They nod when I acknowledge that students have ways of explaining ideas and helping other students understand that teachers can’t match and this lesson could be a perfect illustration of that. One student sees us turning the lesson into a type of comedy show and using kids names in the problems. We end the preliminary discussion with excitement. I tell them that by next week I hope to have a topic identified.

With about 5 minutes remaining, I open up talk on another issue that may potentially be addressed by this cohort: seating arrangements. Since I can remember, I have been using a deck of cards to assign weekly, visibly-random groups. When students walk into class on Monday, I wait at the door with the deck spread out in my hands. They pick a card and each suit corresponds to a group. They can sit anywhere in the group, but have to be in that group all week. The next Monday we do it all over again. There’s a ton of reasons why I like this approach to seating, but I’ve been doing it so long that it seems natural to try something new — especially now that I have the cogen to help me think through it.

I ask the students how they feel about the random random groups, and they don’t feel strongly one way or another. They express concern about sitting with people they don’t know and I say that’s one of the chief reasons why I do it. I wonder out loud whether they could help me brainstorm a new way to seat the class. After just talking about lesson, we mention using the lesson as a vehicle to experiment with a new seating strategy. They appreciate this.

(After our cogen today, I search my blog and remember that I used to use four quadrants to assign seats.)