Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On Boundaries

Author's Note: This post acknowledges human sexuality and recognizes the existence of reproductive organs.


On Sunday night, I returned home from Origins, a 5-day gaming fair in Columbus, Ohio.  For those 5 days, the Columbus Convention Center was transformed by game rooms, vendor booths, demo stations and food booths.  Several restaurant in the area around the convention center modify their menus, renaming pretzel sticks to "Wands of Food Creation" and so forth.

For 5 days, Columbus became the Mecca for gaming nerds and, being with several great friends of mine, I was in my glory.

The games were incredible and I could write posts reviewing each one.  I may do that at some point, focusing on the educational games that I picked up for my classroom.  Unfortunately, it was not all light and joy.

As one might expect, there is a severe diversity issue with a demographic that could spend 5 days sitting around playing games.  The majority of the 16,000 attendees were white and male.

Yes, there was a considerable number of women in attendance.  Yes, there were a few people of color in attendance.  No, I don't have the exact numbers and didn't see everyone who attended.  By my estimate, not including women who were there with vendor booths, I would put female attendance at less than 10% and people of color at FAR less than 1%.

In addition to all of this, the last few years in the gamer and comic community has seen a rise in the "Cosplay is not Consent" movement.

I'm continuously aware of this issue and, on the off chance that someone's costume is great enough where I want to verbally compliment them on it, I'm very conscious about how I approach and address female cosplayers and gamers.

People derive power for their costumes.  They wear them because they want to, not because they are looking for a convention center of mediocre white men to drool over their display of skin.

This being my first gaming convention, I learned an incredible amount, not just about gaming, but also about my own style.  The group with whom I regularly game is made up of very good friends.  We know where our boundaries are. (Spoiler: There aren't really any.)  On the off chance that someone crosses those boundaries, no one is offended because we know that it was unintentional.  It is addressed, apologies are exchanged and we move on.

When gaming with strangers, however, my humor changes drastically.  It becomes much close to that which I use at school.  I want everyone to have fun and I'm unwilling to give that up for the sake of a crass joke.


This came into sharp relief during one of my morning games.

The group consisted of a good friend of mine and four other people, one of whom was female.  Early in the game, the woman did something that, for the rest of the game, when she referred to it, the line between intent and innuendo was blurred at best.

Since I didn't know her, I was unable to tell if this was intentional or accidental.  When she talked about it, I made side eyes at my friend, whose thinking was on the same lines as mine, but we made no outward sign.

Since she didn't know me, I was very aware that any comment I made may have either been received as intended, or pushed me into the masses of drooling, socially-inept male gamer stereotypes, focused on nothing but slaying dragons and gaping at breasts.

In addition to this, the woman at the table was dressed in a costume that accentuated her breasts.

Would a joke about her phrasing make her laugh? Would she appreciate it? Would it make her uncomfortable? Would my joke be the reason why she might not wear her costume next time?

For all of these reasons and more, I decided to keep my jokes to myself.

In the conversation about this situation with my friend later, we discussed how we wait for the others around us to set the line of appropriateness.  We wait for strangers to make a joke and, whatever it happens to be, we make sure that ours remain on the side of civilized culture.  This isn't because we are civilized, because Torg knows we aren't.

Part of it is a deep awareness that a large portion of the conference attendees aren't even going to consider the feelings of others, not because they are bad people because it simply wouldn't cross their minds.

I can't even imagine the experience of being a female gamer at a convention and I want to go out of my way to make sure I don't ever make that experience worse.


Another major piece of it is that we are educators.

Any educator worth their chalk recognizes that content is secondary to relationships.  We build rapport with our students and they learn better as a result.  We laugh and cry and joke with them because we are people and they are people and that's how those things work.

But we are adults and they are children.  They don't always know how to set the boundaries of what makes them comfortable and it becomes our job to do so.

There are teachers who never joke and laugh with their students because they draw a VERY clear boundary between professional and personal relationships.  There are other teachers who regularly spend time with their students outside of the class, involve them in their personal lives and treat them more like mentees and friends.

Both of these approaches, and everything in between are acceptable and their efficacy  is determined not be the approach, but by the person setting the boundaries.  I fall much closer to the latter category and recognize that the love I feel for my students is much closer to that of a father or mentor.  At the same time, I've seen many excellent teachers who have a distinct boundary of professionalism that they never cross. (Think: "Don't smile until Christmas")


The issue of boundaries at conventions is much more about those who cross them than those who set them.  Cosplayers, especially female cosplayers, are well aware of how they look, the thoughts of those who see them and what they are willing to accept from strangers.

As adults, they are able to set their own boundaries. (For the most part)


Part of the purpose of school is to help students learn the idea of boundaries and how to politely interact with other people.  Dress codes institutionalize this concept, for better or worse.

When interacting with students, a teacher is (or damn well should be) constantly aware of boundaries.  We don't want our students to be sexualized. We don't want our students to feel as though they can behave how they like.  We don't want them feel powerless and out of control of their own lives.

At a conference, it's easy to stay on the safe side of these boundaries by minimizing contact with others and simply keeping those jokes to yourself.

As a teacher, however, we MUST build relationships. Without relationships, a teacher is simply a verbal text book and, therefore, not a teacher.  Relationships require risk.  There is give and take, joy and pain.  The line is blurred and, arguably, must be.  Students need to feel safe, but they also need to be who they are.  Their personalities, needs, desires, hopes, fears and loves must all be recognized and addressed.

They are people.


Empathy is crux of a civilized society.  Without it, we are savages fighting over rocks.

Friday, June 2, 2017

It's The End Of The Year As We Know It, And I Feel...Confused

Today was the last day of my 10th year as a classroom teacher.

I spent my first two years in New Jersey before returning to Pennsylvania. After earning my M.Ed. at Duquesne University, I spent the next 7 years at Woodland Hills, just outside of Pittsburgh before moving to my new district at the beginning of this year.

In all of that time, I have experienced a plethora of emotions at both the start and end of the school year.  Most of those years have been a mixture of sadness at watching my students move on, pride at watching my students move on, and relief and joy at not having to get up at 5 am, worry about lessons, teen drama and being able to wear shorts, t-shirts and sandals.

The last student day approaches, building to a crescendo like the wind in an oncoming hurricane.  The winds of chaos increase steadily until that last day when garments are torn, teeth are gnashed, and everyone generally forgets that they are human beings.

SUUUUUUUUUMMERRRRRRRR!!!!!!

This year, however, didn't feel like that.  Yes, there was unmitigated chaos.  Yes, the hallways were a disaster of discarded papers, backpacks, hoodies, pencils and corny love notes.  Last night, I helped out at graduation and was honored to watch the seniors walk across the stage.

For some reason, it still didn't feel like the end of the year.

I don't have the sense of closure that normally comes with cleaning out my room, packing up my stuff and saying goodbye to my coworkers.  I wasn't alone.  Numerous people today remarked that they felt the same way.  It could be that without the typical 90 degree days, it doesn't quite feel like summer yet.

We had a few meetings and a cookout for our retiring principal, but then we all went our separate ways with casual calls of "have a good summer."

It's entirely possible that, since this district is a very small and tightly knit community with families interwoven for multiple generations that the separation between work life and social life is blurred for many of them.  Almost 75% of the faculty live in the town where we teach, are alumni of the school, or have multiple relatives who live and work there.  Knowing that the teacher down the hallway is your cousin and you'll be vacationing with them in a few weeks changes the dynamic drastically.

I am excited for summer.  I am ready to spend the days with my own children.  I am ready to attend the various conferences and do some travelling.

I'm also not ready for those things at all.

I feel confused about my feelings.  Rather than feeling as though I sprinted over the finish line, it seems as though I fell asleep during a movie and woke up during the credits.

I have no way to account for this.

It's a wildly unsettling feeling.


Regardless of how I feel, however, year 10 is in the books.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Day 179: Student Feedback

Today was "Bump-Up Day," a day for students to walk around the school and visit the classes and teachers that they will have next year.  The schedules are tentative, but I don't mind at all.  It gives me a chance to see the new students and make a first impression before they leave for the summer.

As of right now, my schedule for next year consists of Math 7 and Pre-Algebra.  Any student who was in Math 7 last year (all of my students) will be in Pre-Algebra this year, which will be interesting to see how they've grown over the summer.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to blame their last year's teacher for any gaps in their understanding...


There was interesting division between the 6th grade boys and girls.  The girls seemed eager to make a good impression while the boys seemed eager to show off on how silly they were.

All of this was good and interesting, but it wasn't the most important part of my day.

Bump-Up Day was after lunch.  Before lunch, we ran a shortened schedule where the students went to their regular classes for a grand total of 20 minutes.

Since the grades were due in yesterday and 20 minutes isn't much time to get into anything, many of the teachers were showing movies or having kids help to pack up their rooms for moving in the fall.

I decided that I had a golden opportunity and I took it.

When I students came in, I was sitting at the front of the class with a notepad.  I talked briefly about the importance of feedback and touched on several points that I had been attempting this year, such as discussion of process and the constant need for improvement.  I reminded them that this is true for teachers as well.

I asked them for their help in making me a better teacher and making the class better for future students (or themselves, in some cases.)

Specifically, I was looking for ways to motivate them, make the class more interactive and improve my grading system.  I made some suggestions and got their feedback.  They made suggestions and I kept notes.  Something came forward that was common across all of the classes:


"Homework should be graded or we won't do it."

I explained my issues with that.
1) Grading homework doesn't encourage kids to DO it, but it does encourage them to copy it, defeating the purpose entirely.  They agreed with this point and acknowledged that they always copied someone else's math homework.
2) I care about proficiency, not compliance.  If you do all of the homework and can't demonstrate proficiency, you aren't ready to pass and homework points give you a false sense of success.  If you have mastered the skills, then there's no need for you to do the homework just to keep your grade from dropping.
3) If you're only doing homework because it's graded, you're missing the point entirely.

After some discussion, we came up with a new system that would encourage homework for those who needed the practice while not requiring it of those who don't.



The new plan is as follows:

Before each section/unit/skill, the class will take a brief (3-4 question, 5-10 minute) pre-quiz that will be scored on the 0-4 scale that I've been using all year.  Based on their pre-quiz score, students will be set along different assignment paths, each designed to hit specific concepts and reinforce previous ideas.

"If you earned a 0 or 1, this is your assignment list for the section.  If you earned a 2 or 3, these are your assignments.  If you earned a 4, you'll do these."

At the end of each section, we will have a skill quiz, as we have this year.  A major difference here will be that we will have more skill assessments that are shorter, rather than saving up several skills for a big test.

Students who do not score a 4 on their assessments will still have the opportunity to reassess, but the requirements to do so will be MUCH more specific.  They will need to complete specific practice problems and attend a certain number of seminar periods, determined by their score.  They will then get to schedule a reassessment to demonstrate their knowledge.




They also had several suggestions for changes to the warm-ups and various activities.  I wrote them all down.  I'm taking their suggestions very seriously and will be implementing as many as I can in the fall.

I am grateful for their feedback.  Maybe next year, I should do this at the end of each marking period.  I worry, however that they wouldn't give me honest feedback for fear of repercussions.  That just means I need to do a MUCH better job of fostering trust in my classroom.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Day 178: The End-ish

Today was hard.

I had an disagreement with a good friend at work and even though we patched things up before we left on Thursday, I spent the whole weekend thinking about it.  Today, that teacher was out of the classroom working on duties for the end of year so I didn't get a chance to have any further conversation.

In addition to that, today was the last day of the 4th marking period and grades were due by 3pm.  Regardless of this, and regardless of the fact that the students have been able to take reassessments all year on any topic, I had several ask if they could stay after school today for help and take reassessment tomorrow.

Me: "Grades close today."
Them: "Oh...I practiced it over the weekend. Can I take it today then?"
Me: "...Which skill?"
Them: "What do I need to make up?"
Me: "You're telling me that you spent the weekend preparing for this and you don't know what you need to make up? What did you study?"
Them: "..."
Me: **waiting**
Them: "So can I do it today?"


My schedule for next year looks very much like it does this year, meaning that I will have all of my 7th graders again.  They will already know what I expect and the classroom routines, so that's a HUGE bonus.  I am, however, going to be changing rooms, so my current room is packed up and mostly bare, making the end of the year feel depressing.

To top all of this off, I attempted to go over the assessments that the students took on Thursday so they could have feedback before the year ended.  Most of them ignored me and I couldn't bring myself to tell them write stuff down.

After school, a few students stayed to do reassessments.  They had arranged this ahead of time so all of my other grades were finalized.

In addition, another student stayed.  She didn't have any assessments to take, but was sitting quietly in a desk.  When I approached her, she broke down crying and opened up about the stress that she's been under at home and at school.  She suffers from many of the same anxieties and depressions as I do, so I knew where she was coming from.

I let her talk.

She had a weak start to the year, but at the beginning of this marking period, when she realized she had made a mistake, she made a serious effort to pick up the slack.  She has been working with a tutor before and after school almost every day and has shown remarkable improvement.

I am deeply proud of her and tell her so often.

As hard as my day was, her opening up to me made everything better.  I have to keep reminding myself that if I can help improve the life of one student, then I've done well.  It's a step in the right direction and I will keep it in the forefront of my mind for as long as I can.

Teaching middle school is hard.

I keep forgetting how hard it is to actually be a middle school student.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Day 177: Final Assessment

The 4th marking period is one of almost constant disruption.  A large portion of my schedule and that of my students is used to take standardized tests.  The 8th graders take the PSSA and I proctor the Keystones.  Students are shuffled around the school and normal classes become infrequent.  In addition, there are tons of end-of-the-year assemblies, trips, meetings and performances.

This means that my classes have only had 2 assessments.  We've been covering material, but the opportunity to formally assess those skills hasn't really been in the cards.

In looking over the assessments from today, I'm coming to some conclusions and asking myself some questions.

I think we need to be doing more guided practice.

I know that many of my students struggle with synthesis.  When given A and B, they often have difficulty coming up with C unless explicitly shown how.  Even then, it's often difficult.  When problems don't look exactly like examples, there is deep struggle.

I've also come to the conclusion that I need to be helping them to build the habit of using the resources they have available, specifically sample problems and notes.  Next year, I'm going to be much more deliberate about note-taking.  Instead of asking the students to bring their workbooks each day, I'm going to have them bring a 3-ring binder where we can put the pages from the workbook, collected into chapters.  This will make it much easier to keep sections together and to insert notes and examples between sections of the workbook.

I think with many of my kids, vocal repetition may be helpful.


We have spent 2 weeks working on properties of exponents, but I'm seeing lots of mistakes, and not ones that are similar or consistent.  In many cases, they are applying "rules" that we didn't ever talk about or use in class.

At the same time, I pulled half of the test questions from the review sheet and they were treated as unfamiliar.

There are other issues as well, such as the ability to determine whether an answer makes any sense.

"A store buys a ring for $120. If they mark it up by 150%, how much should they charge for it?"
"$18."

I know where this answer comes from.  They converting 150% into a decimal, but put that decimal in the wrong place, making it .15 instead of 1.50.  My issue is more that no thought was put into thinking "this makes no sense."

Does this come from lack of understanding, or rushing and not checking?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Day 176: Turning The Wipers Back On

I have made a huge mistake.


I stopped writing.  Since the start of the 2013-2014 school year, I wrote a reflective blog post every day that I was with students.  In that time, I only missed 2 days.  I know myself well enough to know that if I had taken a day off, I wouldn't start again.

The same thing happened with my running schedule.  I was consistently running 4-5 days a week.  I took a week off after my half marathon and didn't start again.

About a month and a half ago, I was tired and I took a break from blogging.  There were no excuses for doing so and no real reason, although several people told me I was allowed.  I should not have stopped.

Blogging has been a grounding force for me.  It has required me to think about my entire day, rather than just the pieces that stick out.  It has forced me to examine my teaching holistically, identifying strengths and weaknesses.  It shone a light on the ways I taught that needed to be improved and the ways in which I was succeeding.

Without blogging, I slowly fell into the teaching trap which is too common.  I forgot about my successes and focused too heavily on my failures and frustrations.


Robert was completely right. Blogging had been helping to keep me balanced.  I was writing about the bad, but also the good.  Without it, I was focusing only on the things that I was finding challenging and frustrating.  I was spending all of my energy on the students who haven't shown the kind of growth I was looking for.

I had forgotten those who HAD grown.  I had forgotten the relationships that I had built.  I had overlooked the students who come to me when they have things they need to talk about, those who will cry in front of me and no one else, those who see my room as a place where they can be safe.

Changing school districts this year has been nothing short of a tectonic shift.  The strategies and tactics that I used in my previous district have been of minimal use to me here.  I changed communities, curriculum, students, colleagues, administrators and assessment strategies.  I started woodturning.  I freely admit that I did WAY too much and when something had to give, it was blogging.

It shouldn't have been.

In a torrential thunderstorm, I turned on my wipers because I found the motion distracting.  I veered off the road.  I don't think I hit anything major, but I've had several near misses.  I have many changes that I need to make for next year, but I think blogging needs to stay.

I don't think I realized how much it was helping me.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Day 137: Critique Day 1

Falling solidly into the philosophy of "Go Big or Go Home," I've constructed another design project for the Integrated Math class.  This time, they are redesigning our school from the ground up.

The majority of my large projects have failed in the past due to my own shortcomings as a project designer.  I want to be able to say "here's the idea, now go!"

It NEVER works out that way.

It's also a super-jerky thing to do since, as a student, I HATED that level of open-endedness.

This time, I was a bit more deliberate.  I split the project into three distinct phases, with specific assignments and deadlines for each.

Phase 1: Research
In this phase, students began basic research and started compiling lists.  They were to think about the various rooms and facilities that would be in a K-12 school.  They were also to do research into laws around school facilities, including number of bathrooms, width of hallways, number of staircases, etc.

Phase 2: Design
Here, the students start with rough sketches of their school and, over the course of multiple revisions, refine them into a finished blueprint.  During this phase, they will be giving their designs to the other groups to critique while they do the same for others.

Phase 3: Cost
This is where the teams will determine the expected cost of their designs


I walked around the class today, helping them to formulate their critiques, but in truth, I needed to do very little.  They did an excellent job of organizing and formulating their idea.  In several cases, I also noticed groups making notes for their own designs based on what they say in other diagrams.

They will have the rest of this week to trade diagrams with other groups and will spend Friday writing reports to give to their classmates before revising and refining their designs based on feedback next week.  This process will happen 3 times before the final blueprints are due.



The idea here is not only to get them as much feedback as possible, but also to help them develop their own ability to provide meaningful feedback to others.

This was a great first day of that and I'm very proud of the work they started.
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