We have a lot to learn from skateboarders

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Last week I was sitting in the park watching a skateboarder. He was alone and clearly practicing his moves, trying to get better at a variety of different stunts. I must have watched him for 15 minutes and, I estimated that he nailed about 20% of his attempts, probably less.

As I watched him fail over and over again, I couldn’t but realize the rarity of his public display of failure. But in most other situations where we are around others, let alone perfect strangers, this is far from the norm. Rarely do we openly display our imperfections for everyone to see. If anything, we hide them to protect our image. Yes, in the public sphere, your weaknesses are yours and yours alone. We are only allowed to put our best foot forward. Otherwise, we’re uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassed.

Not skateboarders. In the skateboarding culture, public failure is not only commonplace but its desirable. Falling off your board is a necessary means of getting better, no matter if everyone in the park is there to witness it. You do it. You inherently admit weakness. Sure, getting better at maneuvering a skateboard requires lots of room and public spaces (like parks and empty parking lots) are the most convenient and accessible places to do so. Nonetheless, the willingness of skateboarders to outwardly showcase their shortcomings is fascinating to me.

My intrigue is heightened when I think about the culture of education in which I function. Students (and teachers) work in a system that often downplays struggle, placing lots of emphasis on correct responses. Case in point, its a regular occurrence for students in my class to erase their whiteboard work that hasn’t led them to a correct final answer. They refuse to be wrong publically — especially when all eyes are on them. This is certainly a reflection of my own inability to champion mistakes and struggle in my classroom, but its also representative of how formal schooling has made our kids feel and think about being wrong. If you don’t land on the correct answer, it’s not worth showing your process publically. No, you must keep that valuable part of learning all to yourself until you arrive at a “correct” answer when, only at that time, it is acceptable show your thinking.

There’s a lot we can learn from skateboarders.

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My NBCT journey…for now

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Four years ago I sensed myself reaching a professional climax. I finished my master’s degree a few years earlier and I started to level out. I had done a lot of little things as a teacher; I attended and facilitated lots of professional development, served as a model teacher for my school, led grade teams and the math department, interviewed teachers, mentored first-year teachers, ran after-school clubs. I’d been in the game for 10 years and I knew that I never wanted to leave. I find teaching students math to be a complex, unsolvable puzzle that is crazily addictive. So with this in mind, I began thinking about my next big challenge, my next big thing as a teacher. What would it be?

Whatever it was, I figured that it’d be something that could dramatically elevate my career. That meant it would probably be something that would require me to jump through some pretty big hoops to complete. I was still was very hungry to be a better teacher and I needed more than the in-school or out-of-school usual professional development to do the trick. I recognized the fact that I had a lot to learn, about the profession, my practice, and myself. I also wanted to reach the last for my salary step here at the NYCDOE and, because I see myself leaving NYC at some point down the road, achieve something that would be recognized by other states. After some deep reflection, I boiled my options down to two: an Ed.d or National Board Certification. I chose the latter in large part because the Albert Shanker grant paid for it all. Otherwise, it would have run me around $2000. Plus, I don’t know why but it just seemed natural for me to seek NBCT before an Ed.d.

I kicked things off two years ago with the content exam, which is component 1. It is essentially a college-level math exam, similar to the Praxis. Other than having to brush up on my calculus, I do remember having to learn the fundamentals of graph theory. As a math major, how was I never exposed to it in college?? Absurd. I’m pretty sure I got all those questions wrong on the exam. Plus, I left five answers blank because of my horrible time management. Despite my shortcomings, somehow I managed to earn a respectable score.

Thinking linearly, last year I submitted component 2. Its focus was differentiated instruction and the first where I actually had to write about my teaching. I had to showcase how well I could plan a unit, differentiate based on the needs of my students, and analyze student work in relation to the learning objectives I set and lessons/activities I planned. Out of the four components, this one was probably my favorite. Probably because it was the most cohesive. Sadly, I’m not sure I differentiated anything, but once again I earned a respectable score.

With some confidence, this year I pushed myself to submit the remaining two components. It was so much work that I still can’t believe that I finished them. Seriously. Component three required me to shoot video of two different lessons and analyze it. Four, by far the most confusing and stressful component, was clumsily duct-taped together by National Board to capture how I gather knowledge of my students, generate and use assessment, and how I develop professionally. In the end, I feel that I did ok, but just ok. Analyzing video from my class, while cumbersome, was far easier and engaging than anything that I was asked to do in component 4.

So it won’t be until December if I know I need to redo any of the components. But having completed all the requirements, I have been breathing much easier these last two weeks. And I remembered that I have a family! I’ve also been thinking about the extent to which the National Board application process has helped me grow.

I’m mixed. I think my expectations were too high. In many ways, completing the four components felt like merely formalizing the work I would do normally, so I found the NBCT application not as transformative as I hoped it would be. As of now, I don’t feel like I’m a vastly different teacher that I was when I started my journey to become NBCT. Assuming that I do get certified down the road, maybe that will change. I don’t know. But having now gone through the process, I know that many of my colleagues (both those in person and online) work much harder and smarter than I do and surely meet and/or exceed the NBCT standards. I just chose to complete all those damned forms and write 40+ pages of formalized commentary about my teaching — and spend a good chunk of three years doing so.

With all that being said, going through the NBCT process was undoubtedly worth it. The most valuable aspect of the NBCT application for me was how it served as a platform for structured reflection. It helped me be critical of my teaching in several big areas and hit me with prompts that forced me to rethink some of what I do every day and why I do it. I kind of do this now, but not nearly with the depth or rigor that NBCT requires. I like writing so I’m partial here, but maybe there was something to formalizing my reflections through those 40 pages. It did help tease out my ideas and compelled me to be more planned and meticulous with how I reach my kids. I don’t know, I think I need more time to more thoroughly put this beast in perspective.

But I can say that as I got closer to the NBCT standards, learned them, and began aligning my practice to them, I began to deliberately think about my teaching in ways that I never had. I was able to discover some weaknesses…like how little I leverage the unique perspectives and abilities of my students to further their learning or my abysmal efforts to work with the families of my students in any sort of meaningful way. As a result, I like to think that I developed some new strengths.

 

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Sidewalk Math

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Every time the weather gets turns favorable, I get inspired to grab some sidewalk chalk and do #sidewalkmath. It’s been a thing for me the last couple of years. It’s a great way to promote public displays of math (which we never see), get the general public thinking about math (which rarely happens informally), and work in some creativity in the process. I’ve been messing around with #sidewalkmath in the neighborhood where I live (here and here), and I’ve also had students take part the last couple of years.

With this in mind, last week I took the kiddos out to let them publicly showcase their mathematical prowess via the sidewalk. They were graphing trigonometric functions and the sidewalk was primed and ready to go. I numbered each slab in front of our school, paired them up, and gave them a trig function. I let them go. After they graphed their own equation, they had write the equation for another graph on the sidewalk.

 

 

I read somewhere that our school is located in the poorest congressional district in the U.S.  While the kids and I were out in front of our school sketching the functions, it hit me that the overwhelming majority of the people that walked by our math probably had clue what they were looking at. That’s disappointing for sure, but precisely why doing it was so important.

 

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It’s complicated

I’m not a big TV person, but I can get down with some Wheel of Fortune. It’s pretty fun to watch and Vanna and Pat are seemingly ageless…which blows my mind.

But as much as I like the show, this puzzle from last night’s episode bothered me:

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They didn’t choose English, social studies, or computer science. No, they mindfully chose math (and physics) to associate with “complicated.” This is exactly the sort of damaging groupthink that fosters fear, anxiety, and stereotype threat of mathematics in my students (and society) and makes my job so dang hard. We can be better than this Wheel. C’mon now.

 

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NCTM 2018 Annual Conference

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So this week I attended two days of the NCTM 2018 Annual Conference in Washington D.C. I’m so fortunate because my school has a funder, PDT, that fit the bill. This was my first NCTM Conference — and I’m pretty sure that without their generosity there’s no way that I would have been able to attend.

While I was overwhelmed with the massive selection of workshops, thousands of people, and the dizzying amount of corporate sponsors, I did my best to stay focused. I narrowed my takeaways to two, one big and one small.

Well first let me just say that, naively, I was surprised by how lackluster some of the sessions were. None that I attended were horrible, but there were several that I was very unhappy about. This was true also for my colleagues that attended. What can I say, I’ve been spoiled by MfA — where the quality of PD is through the roof. After a while, I just started looking for sessions facilitated by folks that I knew and could bank on, like Sara Vanderwerf. She never ceases to inject me ridiculous levels of inspiration.

Anyways, back the takeaways. This school year, while I’ve adopted a more problem-based learning approach in my classroom, I’ve been crying inside at the loss of my standards-based grading structure. By pouring so much energy into reimagining my classroom, I sort of gave up on integrating SBG with PBL.

Well, with that being said, it seemed as if the entire the conference was screaming SBG at me. I attended a session with Dave Martin (he was incredible) on differentiating assessments and SBG and I walked out knowing that I have to find a way. My kids deserve meaningful, accurate assessment. There were several other sessions that also forced me to rekindle the love that I have for standards-based grading. This was the biggest and most impactful takeaway.

On a smaller scale, I went to a session by Chris Shore, the pioneer of Clothesline Math. I have played around with Clothesline Math once before after reading about it online, but this was an opportunity to experience it firsthand. It was awesome! Interestingly, his focus was on functions, yes functions, on the number line. It’s such an intuitive tool for building number sense. I’m definitely making plans to bring the open number line to my students before the end of the year. In fact, I hope that it can become a staple.

 

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