End of the 2014-15 school year

Classroom Spring 2015

-1. Several weeks ago I began thinking about the end of the school year. I suddenly realized the startlingly amount of reflection that awaited me. Today is the last day of school and the only way for me to systematically get it all out is in a list. Here goes.

0. Leading up to this year, my school had a solid four-year stretch of low-turnover and highly stable school atmosphere. 2014-15 not only broke that streak…it was shattered and thrown it under a bus. Things were quite eventful.

1. With any change in leadership, one should expect adjustment in the day-to-day happenings. I found that I had grown too comfortable under previous leadership. Things and people change and I need to evolve with these changes so my productivity doesn’t stagger.

2. During and after vast transformations this year, my optimism was put to the test several times and, in some cases, folded. After scarring disappointments early on, it took a good amount of time to rededicate myself to the school’s mission. I let my frustration get the best of me at times – which I don’t regret. Live and learn.

3. What kept me going? What kept me from completely disconnecting from my school community?

4. The incredibly inspirational people around me. My students. My colleagues (in and out of my school). People I’ve never met. My family.

5. Teachers at my school are an awesome bunch. Despite the disarray abound, somehow they found a way to use their collective strength to keep us moving forward.

6. This was also my first school year blogging, which had a great deal to do with my naturally reflective nature this year. It framed my teaching like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I gained serious perspective by reflecting on my own practices via my blog.

7. I implemented standards-based grading. In terms of assessment, it’s one of the best moves I’ve ever made. I committed to it mid-year, which was tough, but it worked pretty much as planned. I had students assess their own retake exams, which was great, but I need to make a stronger push for retakes next year.

8. I helped plan weekly district-mandated professional development sessions for colleagues at my school. I found it both more engaging and challenging than I imagined before the year began. Professionally, this was an area of growth I didn’t expect. Thanks to MfA, I’ll be taking that a step further next year with my video club.

9. I absolutely struggled with four preps in the fall. The quality of my teaching was stretched thin and my students were shortchanged immensely.

10. I was entitled department chair in the spring. The math department had a tough year and we have a long journey ahead. I hope I am able to provide whatever leadership we need. That said, I passionately hate titles and the connotation that often comes along with them. They are hollow and irrelevant. I just want my work to be meaningful, collaborate, and help all of us reach another level.

11. Our robotics team made progress this year. We performed noticeably better than during the last two years of the program. Next year I hope to use class time (versus after-school) for competition preparation. This should afford the kids more time to build and tweak the robot. My robotics class expanded to include introductory arduinos along with the usual Lego Mindstorms.

12. My students did rather poorly on state exams. This is very disappointing given the amount of work both the students and myself have put in this year. So much so that I began questioning myself. How can I adjust to improve this result?

13. A woman leading a PD once told me “When my students don’t succeed, I look in the mirror and ask What could I have done differently?” This has stuck with me all year. It’s not about all the issues, setbacks, and lack of prerequisite skills that students bring into the classroom that hinders their learning. Instead, all that matters is what I do to meet their needs and get them to succeed. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But this perspective is key for me in my hopes of one day becoming a great teacher.

14. I could have been a better mentor. Despite many shortcomings, I have experience and insight that is conducive to the growth of colleagues new to this profession. I did a poor job this year mentoring a new teacher. She is wonderful and would never tell me so, but inside I know I could have had a much better impact on her.

15. I tried many new approaches this year to teach my kids. Just as importantly, I also implemented new ways to reach them. Whether it was friday letterspersonal notestwo stage exams, plickers, speed dating, problem-based learning, exit slips, or others, I can say that I have definitely made an effort to improve the happenings in my classroom.

16. Following up on a new year’s resolutionintervisitations played a significant role in my development this year. I discovered the need to not only get outside my classroom, but outside of my building, and explore the work of others. It helped motivate a colleague and me to apply for the 2015-16 NYCDOE Learning Partners program, which we were accepted. More to come!

17. I relearned how to be patient with my students. Big ups to my AP for pushing me to slow down the pace of the class and remind me to provide more scaffolding.

18. Goal for 2015-16: highly effective. Focus for 2015-16: to be better than I was in 2014-15.

20. Every school year seems to fly by when you’re at the end of it. This one was no different. It was a bumpy flight, but it was over before I knew it. Another one in the books.

Until June 2016.



#BikeSchoolBuilt: I’ll never look at my students the same way again

Bike School
At UBI overhauling a bike

Following a passion of mine, two weeks ago I ventured to Portland, Oregon and attended United Bicycle Institute (UBI). I took their Professional Repair and Shop Operation course and learned a good deal about bicycle mechanics, but learned even more about myself and my students. Because of this course, I will never look at a bicycle the same again. At the same time, I’ll never look at my students the same way again either.

Let me provide a bit of background. The course, and school, is highly specialized. You don’t go there unless you have a undying love for the bicycle. The tuition is not cheap, but you pay for what you get: a world-class education. They are only one of two schools that do what they do. People travel from all over the world to go to UBI. Out of the 19 people in my cohort, there were two students from China and two from Chile. The bicycle mechanic certification United Bicycle provides is recognized by most bicycle shops as a prerequisite for employment as a mechanic. In other words, if you want to learn about bikes, you come here.

With all that being said, I went into my two-week professional repair course with limited knowledge about bicycle mechanics and virtually no background in the field. I’m a high school math teacher. I mean, I do minor work on my own bikes, but that’s it. There were folks in the class not only with far more bike mechanical knowledge than I, but also much more hands on experience with regards to bicycle repair. Many of the people in the class were already bicycle mechanics, they just needed to be UBI “certified.”

I say all this to say the course was very challenging for me. Let’s get real. Simply put, I struggled.

I really didn’t expect to struggle with some of the concepts like I did. Before the course, all the wrenching I did on my bikes was fairly straightforward. When I enrolled in the course I said to myself, “Okay, you’ll learn some new things about bikes and you’ll apply them pretty smoothly.” My expectations were met with a cold, hard reality. I found myself falling behind the rest of the class and I got frustrated because I couldn’t keep up. I worked slower and needed extra time to process almost all of the procedures. Everyone else seemed to breeze through it all. I worked through breaks and after class to catch up. Despite my extra effort, I still felt like I wasn’t on the same playing field as everyone else. I constantly asked for help from the instructors and peers. On several occasions, I wondered wether I would ever “get it.” I also found myself questioning whether I even belonged in the class…I was obviously not as skilled as most of the other students.

In the midst of all my frustration, there was a instant moment of clarity. Being over 3,000 miles away from my classroom and taking a class that on the surface had nothing to do with my career, it struck me hard. I realized that my deep-rooted, I-want-to-quit frustration was what some of my own students experience on a daily basis.

I knew, in that moment, I would forever view my struggling students differently. Reflecting on my eight years of teaching in New York City, in that instant I suddenly understood that I never truly knew. I never knew what it felt like to struggle to the point of giving up. I never understood how it felt to be the one always falling behind. I never understood how it felt to have the course material flying by at the speed of light and barely being able to grasp the concepts, if at all.

Thankful for the struggle

Now I understand. As I sit here, I’m wondering how I taught for so long without knowing this. I’ve always been faced with challenges, but somehow the obstacles I faced at UBI were more personal than all the others. This is why they hit me harder and stand out like they do. In my classroom, I always tried to be sympathetic with my struggling students in years past. I always tried to do whatever I could to help them succeed. But its different now. I literally know how they feel. I can now relate to them in a profound way. That fact alone trumps many other teaching strategies I could employ in my attempt to reach them.

Despite my struggles during the course, by the end I felt much more confident in my ability to diagnose and repair a bicycle. After the culminating exam on the last day of class yesterday, I actually feel confident that I have earned UBI certification as a professional bicycle mechanic [UPDATE: I did receive certification!] Although, as important as my personal growth is, I know that I have a responsibility now to instill such confidence in my struggling students. They too can learn to persevere and battle through frustration. So, just as my ability to repair a bicycle has been enhanced, so has my confidence in aiding my students to use failure as feedback.

I don’t think one of the goals of United Bicycle Institute is to positively impact the students at a small public high school Brooklyn, but they did. I must give a huge amount of credit to the instructors at UBI Portland. Rich, Craig, Dan and Steve were amazingly patient, incredibly competent, and endlessly helpful. They were upmost professionals who wanted everyone in the class to succeed no matter their ability level. They did a masterful job. I learned a great deal from their approach that I will certainly take back to my own classroom. My students thank you guys in advance.

Oh, by the way, anyone need a bike mechanic? ;-)