Saturday, July 23, 2016


Warning: This post contains spoilers for season 3 of Orange Is The New Black.  I talk about characters in season 4, but not specific plot points.

In the final episode of Season 3 of Orange Is The New Black, there is a hole in the fence at Litchfield Federal Correctional Facility and the inmates escape through the hole to enjoy a brief moment of humanity by swimming in a lake.  In the mean time, the guards have walked off their posts to protest their working conditions, benefits and salaries.

Since a prison cannot be without guards, the warden, Joe Caputo receives replacement guards from a men's maximum security prison.

This new crop of guards have very different attitudes and views about their roles in the system and are lead by the commanding, confident and authoritarian Desi Piscatella.
This introduction of the new guards drastically changes the dynamic for everyone in the prison environment, with that new tone being very strongly set by Piscatella.

Overall, I found Season 4 to be heart-wrenching in ways I haven't felt since Season 1, but what truly stuck with me was the stark differences between the old guards and the new guards in general, and between Caputo and Piscatella specifically.

Caputo believes that it is the job of the prison system to make sure that the inmates are safe and will be productive members of society when they are released.  He spends the season advocating for the inmates and attempting to get vocational activities into the prison.  He believes in rehabilitation.  It has taken him a while to get to this place, but there are flashes of it as early as Season 2, when he tells Healy "the least we should do is keep these women safe and clean."

Piscatella, on the other hand, sees his job as one of keeping order in a chaotic world. "It's my job to clear the path so you can do your job."  He frequently refers to the inmates as criminals and even thanks Red for reminding him of this fact when things start to get a little friendly.  While he begins the season with professional detachment (for the most part), Piscatella quickly throws up a wall of machismo and power, reasserting his dominance over the inmates time and time again.

As I seem to do with everything recently, I watched much of this season, and the dynamic between these two characters specially, through the lens of an educator.  Over the last year or two I've been struggling to answer the question of why we send kids to school.  It often appears that no matter how many people you ask, you'll get a different answer, but I think most fall somewhere on the spectrum between individual benefit and societal benefit.

This season pushed me more directly towards the idea of defining the role of the teacher within the educational system.  Again, I believe that every teacher will give a different answer to this, as would every parent, administrator, politician, student or man-on-the-street.

Is the role of the teacher to give specific information?  Is it to encourage students to form their own opinions?  Is it to enforce compliance to societal norms? Is our job to write the programs in their minds today that will be executed in their jobs tomorrow?  Are we supposed to be encouraging them to push beyond, or to be willing/able to do what needs to be done regardless of their passion for it?  Does being friendly preclude us from giving kids what they need?  Does giving them what need require that we be friendly?
Is it our job to shield our students from the horrors of life, or to prepare them for it?

I think there is merit to all of these to a great or lesser degree, and I in no way wish to be implying that one is a better goal than another.  I know what I see as my role, but I know amazing teachers who very strongly believe something else.

This connection came into stark focus for me at the end of June when I attended the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Urban Education's Summer Educator Forum.  The keynote speaker on the first day was Dr. David Kirkland.

Dr. Kirkland spoke at length about the role of education for students of color and students of low socioeconomic status.  He said something that has been rolling around in my head for a month now.

"I no longer believe in the school-to-prison pipeline. It's all prison." -Dr. David Kirkland

In light of this quote and the post I wrote at the beginning of June, I'm now asking myself the following question:

If my students view school as prison, what kind is my role as guard?

I don't want to be a prison guard. I want to be a teacher, but my desires mean nothing if my student perceptions don't change. I need to do everything I can to keep them safe, to help them achieve their goals.

I don't want to be Piscatella.

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Is A Tuna Melt Actually A Pizza?

This weekend is the fifth annual Twitter Math Camp.  It is a gathering of educators from around the country who come together to share, discuss and debate mathematics education in order to become better teachers.  The sessions are varied and valuable, but as a friend of mine has said, many of the most important discussions and conferences happen over meals and drinks.

Last night, the amazing Glenn Waddell organized a dinner for TMC newbies and veterans.  40+ educators went out into the streets of Minneapolis and took over an excellent pizza joint, the rule being that there had to be people at each table with different levels of TMC experience.

I was honored to spend my dinner with James Cleveland (5th timer), Stephanie Bowyer (2nd timer) and Henri Picciotto (1st timer).  Over the course of dinner, our discussion filtered down to a very important question:

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

The argument made by my esteemed colleague, James, was that it was not because if the meat is removed from the hot dog, that meat is still called a hot dog, making bun the additive identity of the food.

Cheese + Bread = Cheese Sandwich
Ham + Bread = Ham Sandwich

Hot dog + Bun = Hot dog

This, of course, begs the question: Is a hamburger a sandwich?

Hamburger + Bun = Hamburger

This seemed to be more a question of semantics.  Without the bun, can it be called a hamburger, or must it be called a hamburger patty?
Other questions concerned whether there needed to be bread at all.  Colonel Sanders has already weighed in on that point.
Even without bread, this sandwich brings the pain!

The discussion moved on from here, expressing the idea that a taco may also be a sandwich.  If the argument is made that a taco is a distinct food type with a rule about being open on one side, then a hoagie could also be considered a taco, provided the bread is not cut all the way through.

At the moment, James, who is from New York, picked up a slice of his pizza, folded it in half and took a bite.  I asked him how his taco tasted.

And then the fight began anew.

Our boisterous debate, in an already boisterous crowd, filtered over to other tables, many of whom thought we were insane.

They weren't wrong.

While insane, the discussion was far from pointless.  We developed a way to incorporate this debate into class.

Many teachers have interesting opening-day activities.  In the past, I've done the Marshmallow Tower and the Noah's Ark problem from Fawn.

In this activity, students are broken into groups of 4.  Each group works to develop a definition for the word "sandwich."  After a designated amount of time, the groups trade definitions, determine the validity of those from other groups, developing examples and counter examples.

The definitions are then passed back to the original groups to revise.

Eventually, the class is brought back together to come up with a consensus definition, with the teacher working to find counter examples.

This leads pretty nicely into necessary and sufficient conditions.

Standard of Mathematical Practice #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

At TMC14, Steve Leinwand argued that SMP3 was the most important of all of the standards, and I agree with him because Steve Leinwand.

So why sandwiches?  A sandwich is something on which no one has an opinion until you ask them about it, at which point they will murder your family to defend their definition of sandwich.

I know I'm late to this party because Christopher Danielson has written about this exact question before.

Stephanie has volunteered to use (was bullied by me into using) this activity in her classes this year and blog about the follow-up.  I hypothesize that students will be arguing about what constitutes a sandwich.

I am excited to try this question with my students as well.

Follow-up: I had this discussion with a teacher on my way to breakfast this morning and then again on my way to my morning sessions.  The following are some great questions that are pushing my brain is crazy directions:

Is pizza an open-faced sandwich?
Is an open-faced sandwich a sandwich?
Is an open-faced sandwich a pizza?
Is a calzone/stromboli a taco?
Is a salad an open-faced sandwich (with lettuce instead of bread)?
What is a salad?
Is a salad a soup?

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