Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Day 30: Advocating By Accident, Instant Karma

I'm a math teacher.  I know that 29 comes after 28, but since I was absent yesterday, it felt dishonest to count this as Day 29.

My district has difficulties obtaining and retaining subs.  I do not wish to speculate on the reasons behind this, but know that it's true.  It means that when I'm out, I might not have a dedicated sub for the day and that my classes might be covered by a variety of other teachers.  I lucked out yesterday and got a single sub all day AND he happens to be a friend of mine.

A major advantage to being friends with your sub is that he/she can keep you updated on student progress and behavior throughout the day.  The students also know that I will get a full report.  For example, one of my students wrote on the board, knowing full well that he was not supposed to.  He wrote something along the lines of "TURN UP! MR. AION IS NOT HERE!"  I pride myself on having fairly good classroom management skills.  It's one of the few things that I think I do close to correctly.

I hate being absent!  I hate it, not because I mind being out of work, although I do, but because I never know what I'll come back to.  Last year, I came back from a day off and my sub had allowed my students to destroy, break, rip, or otherwise ruin every game that I had in the room, as well as a number of posters.  My students, who would NEVER behave this way when I am there, take full advantage of allowed chaos.  I was annoyed with them, but more so with the person who is supposed to be watching them.

Yesterday, my sub followed my plans, kept me updated on their progress and maintained order in my room to the point where I didn't know that I was absent.

In geometry, we went over the guided notes from the first section of the new chapter on logic.  We discussed conjectures and how I will expect them to justify their answers from given statements.  We talked about counterexamples and the difference between opinion and proper justification.

As an example, perhaps foolishly, I brought up same-sex marriage.  I did not do this to say that it was good or bad, but simple a controversial topic that was currently being discussed in the country.  I asked students to give me, without judgement, some of the arguments for and against that they have heard.  As I expected from this fairly liberal group of students, the main argument that I got in favor was "it's just the right thing to do" and the main against was "it's not natural and gross."  I asked the students to talk about whether either of these arguments can be backed up with anything other than opinion.  Both sides conceded that they really couldn't and that they could find counterexamples to both arguments.

I probably should have used a mathematical example, something that included an image of angles with the question "What can we tell about these? How do you know?"  I chose not to because those examples are in the guided notes that we went over.  Also, I wanted to help students draw a connection between skills we develop in class and how they might be employed in the "real world."  I think we spend time talking about where students will use the content but not enough about where they will use the skills.

The teaching of non-content skills was the subject of last night's #MSMathChat.  The point was not to stir up controversy, although it did, but to get students to begin thinking about supporting their arguments.  I don't expect to get angry parent phone calls, but if I do, I stand by my approach.  I was VERY careful not to advocate for one side or another, allowing the students to put their opinions out there without judgement from me.

Although, I will admit that when one student said we should make our laws based on what's in the Bible, I asked him if I should stone the female students to death for calling out...  That maybe wasn't the best idea.

On a much more happy off-topic note, today was one of the days where the warm-up was given to us by our reading coach in an effort to integrate the same vocabulary across the core subjects.  Today was about medical records for adopted children and a genetic disease.  The question was "If a child has a 50% chance of getting this disease if their mother has it, what are the odds that they will get it?"  Even the slowest of my students were able to understand the question and get the right answer.

So I extended it!

I drew a Punnet Square on the board and talked about genetics for 20 minutes!  We talked about inherited traits and dominant alleles.  The second question was MUCH better.

Three siblings are adopted together. If each child has a 50% chance of having FH, what are the odds that at least one of the three children has FH?

Clearly neither question was written by a math person or they would have used the word "probability" instead of "odds."  The correct answer for "odds" wasn't even available for the first question! (The correct answer for probability, however...)

The kids in both the geometry classes and the pre-algebra classes asked great questions about genetics and probability and we ended up in a discussion about dependent vs. independent events.  I don't like lecturing when it's about content, but I've found that when we talk about stuff that isn't "mathy" the students grab onto every word.  I think it may have something to do with the spontaneous nature of the discussion, allowing them to feel like their questions and concerns are being heard.  They see that they can be curious about something without being told "we don't have time for that."

The last class of the day ended up doing minimal work.  There were three students whose constant talking made it impossible for me to have the discussions that I wanted to.  I hate kicking students out for anything short of a safety hazard because I feel it undermines my authority in the classroom with the students and administration.  It also gives disruptive students exactly what they want, which is to leave class, or get attention.  After changing seats, asking the student repeatedly to stop, waiting, allowing other students to ask them to stop, I am ashamed to say that I gave up.  Instead of continuing the conversation into interesting topics, I gave the assignment for class and stepped outside to call the parent.

There was no answer.  I left a message.  As soon as I was finished trying to talk, the disruptive student put her head down and sat quietly.

You would think that, as the parent of toddlers, I would know how to deal with this behavior.  After 9 years in educations, I still don't know how to appropriately handle it.  Disruption for the sake of disruption.

I need to ruminate on this and try to contact her parent again this evening.

I am torn between not wanting to give up on a kid and not being able to allow one student to disrupt the learning of the rest.  I know that, as teachers, we are never supposed to give up on any kid, but the reality is that we have a very large number of students and a limited amount of time.  Sometimes, single students fall by the wayside either by accident or because they leap from the train, laughing the whole way.

If you ask the question "When is it ok to give up on a kid?" the answer is, and should be, "never."  But taking a time-out to mentally regroup is sometimes necessary.  You just have to make sure you jump back into the fray, with redoubled efforts.


  1. You raise several important issues and answer with sound pedagogy. Calling the parent is extremely important, but i have found it more effective to tell the student to "please join me in the hallway, where together we will explain to your parent why you think it is appropriate to be disrespectful to your peers and to your teacher." When i get the parent or the answering machine I speak first and explain that i am concerned that ___________ chose to be disrespectful to herself, her peers and to me. I have your daughter ________ with me and i hope you will take this opportunity to explain why it is important to act in a way that shows self-respect." I try and avoid any sense of drama, but convey that i am "surprised by the choices you make in class." I think it helps that i call every family at the beginning of the school year, so i have made some connections that will be helpful in the future. I believe i have read that is a practice we share..the good news phone call. Love your blog. You are my new favorite teacher to watch and read about!

    1. Our population is such that IF I have a phone number, there is a 75% chance that it is disconnected or "has a voicemail that has not been set up." Parental involvement is, in my opinion, the number one problem with our district. I would love to see statistics about parental involvement at "failing" schools around the country.

      If/when I DO get through to a parent or guardian, I do pull the student into the hallway to discuss their behavior. I do, however, LOVE the idea of having the child explain their behavioral choices to the answering machine.

      I try to make good news phone calls as well and I have found that even general good contact, like I use through Remind101, has a positive impact.

      As always, I deeply value your input and I'm thankful that you think so highly of what I'm doing here. :'-)

  2. I think you're pretty eloquent in the final two paragraphs on the trade-off involved in sending a kid outside, sending a kid to the office, et cetera. I really like the image of the student's "leap from the train, laughing the whole way."

    Don't forget to make another try at contacting that parent!

    1. I've found that I often speak in metaphors, both in my writing and when communicating with students. The other image I like is when I explain to students how I see my job as teacher.

      "You come into school and tell me that you have a weird feeling inside your mouth that feels like sandpaper. I determine that you are thirsty and point you in the direction of the water fountain. Some of you require more step by step instructions and that's fine. It is not my job to find a glass, bring you water, tilt your head back, pour it into your mouth and massage your throat until your thirst is slaked. Only you can do all of that."

  3. I think Ms Judi has a great suggestion! It can help connect kids to their behavior when they have to describe it to their parents. Always good to allow them the privilege of having responsibility for their choices! Also, it lessens the chances of the parent jumping in to defend their kid when their kid is stating their own behavior. The focus should then be much more on the behavior in question than on "what the math teacher said happened." You are an incredible teacher!

  4. Man, oh, man. Thanks for posting about purposeful disruptions today. The fun part of my job is often getting to be a visiting teacher and do a model problem-solving activity for a teacher who wonders, "how might this look with my kids?" Sometimes I have to do those lessons in situations where the teacher-student dynamic is already strained for one reason or another. Yesterday was one of them. It was rough! And I didn't have the authority or know the routines to really enact any consequences, other than speaking to the students, stopping the lesson, and letting the (slight majority) of students who wanted to engage try to get their peers to shut up. Some of the kids I could tell just wanted attention and didn't think they could get it mathematically -- given time, maybe I could have showered enough attention on their mathematical behavior that they would use that in the future. Some kids were afraid of trying and only wanted to do stuff they knew wouldn't make 'em look dumb. Harder by a long shot to create a space where they might be willing to try what I ask of them because they know I won't let them look dumb, but possible. But plenty of kids just had a social/emotional agenda of wreaking havoc -- insulting me and their peers, trying to start fights, anything to avoid investing in the project of school and instead focusing on the project of feeling bad-ass. That's something I have no idea what to do about, other than making the learning community (more than half the class! yay!) as enticing as I can and giving the other kids opportunities to make conscious choices about whether or not to join it. But then what the heck do I do with them when they opt out? They can't stay in the room and I can't send 'em out every time I come to their school. Grrr...

    About calling home, a book I love and learned a lot from is "Multiplication Is For White People" (that's a quote from a kid, by the way, not the premise of the book). The author, Lisa Delpit, describes that there's a class difference in how parents perceive calling home. Teachers, who by virtue of their job, are middle class and have learned middle class values have a sense of school as being partners in educating children -- it's a joint effort. Working class/poor parents tend to have a value of everyone doing their own job: parents are in charge of home, home behaviors, home skills, while teachers are in charge of school, school behaviors, school skills. So parents being expected to help with homework or strategize with teachers about managing school behaviors is just weird to them, they're like, "Why are you calling me? That's your job! I have enough on my plate, thanks." I'm not totally sure what to do with that information, just that it seemed to resonate with what you're experiencing and was nice to think of as a different approach to the job of school and sticking to one's own domain, as opposed to not caring about the kid at school.

  5. "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

    I've had those conversations with parents in this district. It's always upsetting. I think that's why I try to connect with the kids as much as possible before I call home.

    On a similar note, I called home for a kids yesterday and when he came in today, he apologized and his behavior was stellar!

    Each kid is different and it can be hard to remember that there's no single solution.


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