Dear K, (Student Letter #1)

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 1st post in the series.

Dear K,

“They have never done anything productive in my class.”

That’s what I overheard another teacher say about you recently. Knowing the teacher, he meant no harm. He really didn’t. He was in the moment and, like most teachers, stressed out about something. But intentions are beside the point. His comment struck me as bold and unbelievable. It was around this time when I realized just how misunderstood you are.

I’ll admit, I was hard on you when we first met. You knew what you wanted and you let everyone know what it was. You were intense and playful. I didn’t like this. I found your energy disruptive. I found it troubling that I didn’t know what to expect from you each day. Would you be cooperative and work hard? Would you put your head down the period? These are the questions that came to mind when you walked in.

Over time, for whatever the reason, maybe I was tired, I slowed down. I talked to you. I learned you. I stopped judging you. Our chats, which have happened right smack in the middle of class, have helped me discover our mutual love of reading, of books. I’ve told you about my writing. We came up with the idea of sharing our favorite books with one another. Because I read and write so much and talk about my reading and writing so much, one day you jokingly asked me, “Mister, why don’t you teach English?” I laughed.

So I have to thank you, K. By letting me into your world, you’ve reminded me to seek out my students’ passions. Whatever they are, I need to find them. There’s so much that teachers can learn from students if they just ask. Meaningful teaching and learning don’t always have to be connected to an Aim and Do Now. You’re proof of this.

I think you’ll remain unpredictable to me. I like that. In fact, I’ve told you that I think you’re unpredictable, and you’ve said, “I need to change,” as if you being unpredictable is a bad thing. If no one else tells you, at least I will: don’t change! The world needs your freshness. People don’t see the world like you do; you refuse to conform and speak out when something’s on your mind. Don’t let others, even your teachers, make you feel that you need to leave your true self at the classroom door, either. Bring it every day. Yes, I hope more teachers learn to appreciate your joyful, yet fiery, presence. They’re really missing out.

I look forward to reading your favorite book. Do you think we can talk about it after class instead of when we should be learning how to factor polynomials? Just a thought.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

P.S. By the way, I don’t teach English because I don’t want to. I don’t want to read Shakespeare or Chaucer. I want to teach math. I love math. I also love to think about teaching math. And as William Zinsser said, “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper.” Reading and writing help my passion for math, learning math, and teaching math come alive. Also, reading takes me to far away places — sometimes through math, sometimes not. And I like being in faraway places.

 

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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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