Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Day 6: No Homework

I'm not a fan of homework for several reasons.

  • Students don't do it
  • Homework, being the least favorite part of school, extends those bad parts into home life
  • If students are confused, there is no one to ask
  • Collaboration requires extra effort

I avoid homework as much as I can.  I know that sometimes it's important to continue a new concept, but that continuation must be meaningful rather than rote.

I discussed this with my classes as a means of explaining why we would be doing more homework-like practice in class.

I made up small packets for my classes, handed them out and unleashed the kids to work.

"Please use the whiteboards! Being up on your feet helps with blood flow and thinking!"

In the Integrated class, I had planned to have them work from the text book, but my planned introduction took a bit longer (read: the whole period).  I think it was worth it, however, since we had an in depth discussion about sampling methods, biases and survey design.  Several of those students are very excited to design surveys and bring their findings forward as policy change proposals.

I'm getting a better idea for the current ability level of my students and am gearing my questions towards where they need to move.  There is lack of familiarity with many requisite concepts.  I'm torn between "you need all of this info, we need to cram it in" and "you need to be able to think better, so we will focus less on content."

I'm leaning towards the latter.  Front-loading skills, rather than concepts, is a better approach for long-term learning.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Day 5: Numbers

Over the past 4 days, through the clever use of discussion, I've been avoiding what my students would refer to as "math."  Today I dove in.

My Math 7 and Pre-Algebra classes played the Zero Game from Julie.  It's a great way to help them review integer operations, absolute value as well as consider strategy.

Quick Rules:
     Cards are dealt 1 up, 1 down to each player.
     Black cards are positive, red are negative.
     Players can either get another card (or 2) or stay were they are.
     Player whose total is closest to zero at the end of each round is the winner.

After a couple of hiccups and false starts, the groups seemed to really enjoy the game.  Since my 2nd period only has 4 students in it, I played with them for the period.

It became apparent fairly quickly that my 7th graders are a bit rusty when it comes to number operations.  Thankfully, some brilliant teacher had them attach number lines to their notebooks that were easily accessible.

Even so, we have some work to do.  In the next few days, we will be covering Order of Operations and I have a pretty nice foldable for them to add to their notes.

In the Integrated Algebra class, I took a look at the textbook that they normally use and saw some good stuff and some...not so good.

They begin with a discussion of data interpretation, which I love.  They gave the following chart and question:

Before we got to that question, I asked them to just look at the data.  "What do you notice about it?"

A few kids noticed that the percentage of people using the internet during leisure time drops as age increases.  They noticed how women were more likely to exercise while men were more liked to play or watch sports.

When I asked them what they wondered about and what jumped out at them, a few commented on the slight uptick in playing sports for 65 to 74 year-olds from the previous group.  I asked them to speculate on why they thought that might happen and we talked a bit about retirement and golf.

Then I asked them the marketing question that was in the book.  The majority of students gave the answer that the book was expecting (18 to 24 and 25 to 34) because these groups had the highest percentage of users who exercise during their leisure time.

One girl asked if we could somehow include "Play Sports" in our calculations because those people would also use athletic shoes.  We had a brief conversation about whether or not we could and decided that there was probably overlap already and we didn't have enough information to do anything else.

One student made an interesting observation:

"The percentage of 18-24 year olds is higher, but there aren't as many of them as other groups."

Then the calculations began...

We had a fairly interesting discussion about the results and the implications.  "In addition to the fact that there are, numerically, more people in a different age bracket, why else would you might not want to market athletic shoes to the younger crowd?"

"If I suspend Kate for 5 days and Chris for 2 days, would it be safe to say that girls get suspended at a rate that 2.5 times that of boys? Could I say that boys and girls get suspended at the same rate?  If I suspend Kate for 5 days and Chris for 2 days and then for 2 more, could I say that boys get suspended twice as often as girls? Could I say that girls get suspended 25% more than boys?"

I think we are going to have interesting discussions in this class.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Day 4: Mistakes and Glue

I've decided I don't have enough to do, what with adjusting to a new school, new classes and new kids.  After years of watching other teachers do amazing things with foldables and interactive notebooks, I've decided to start that too.  I'm not going to go all out because I know how burned out I would get, but I plan to incorporate some elements.

I'm starting to creep on Julie, Sarah and Anna because they are brilliant and have a ton of resources and tips.

My integrated class doesn't really have a curriculum or standards, but it does have a text book, which I will be using for a sequence.  We will be starting the year with data analysis.  I plan for them to do projects as much as possible.

Since both Math 7 and Pre-Algebra start the year with a review of real numbers and their properties, I thought it would be a great time to introduce the Vertical Number Line.

Before we did that, however, we initiated #MistakeMonday.  I talked a bit about growth mindset and the value of learning from our mistakes.  In later classes (after I thought about it) I showed the music video for Shakira's song "Try Everything" from Zootopia.

Have you see Zootopia? No??  Stop reading this and go see it now!

I asked the students to take 5 minutes and write about a mistake they made in the past week and how they can learn from it this week.  As the year progresses, I'll ask them to make them academic mistakes, but for now, it was anything.

I wrote about how I made my wife feel bad this weekend when there was no need.  It served no purpose except to make me feel better.  I should never try to improve my mood at the expense of someone else's feelings, especially someone I love.

I asked the students to share, if they felt comfortable doing so and many of them did.  Several mistakes were about leaving ice cream out or not putting away the dishes, but a few dealt with heavier issues, such as one girl making fun of her sister when she didn't need to.

My hope is that over time, students will feel more and more comfortable sharing their mistakes in class and we can, at least in some small part, do away with the stigma against mistakes.

The classes continue to get more squirrelly and challenging as the day goes on. There are a high number of students with IEPs in my last 2 classes and even with my co-teacher, it's becoming difficult to keep them on track.

It's still difficult for me to tell the difference between age-appropriate behavior and what needs to be addressed.

I didn't get enough sleep last night.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Robert Kaplinsky is a genius and a titan in the Math-EduWorld.  This year, he has called teachers to action by asking us to invite people into our classrooms and observe what we do.  We should also ask those visitors to provide us feedback on specific topics of our choosing.

Since I am, once again, a first-year faculty member at a brand new district, the timing seemed perfect.

The following is the email that I sent to the faculty explaining the concept and inviting them to participate:

Esteemed Colleagues, 
I want to thank you so much for the warm reception that I have received as a new member of the Leechburg faculty.  Everyone has been friendly and welcoming and I am deeply appreciative.  Transitions can be difficult, but you have all made it easy and wonderful.  I very much look forward to getting to know you over this year and the years to come. 
As we know, it's incredibly important for us to provide our students with actionable feedback.  Often, however, we forget how valuable it is for us as teachers. We are often expected to be experts from Day 1, but we know that's not true. Every day, we learn and grow and work to become better educators for our students. 
To this end, this year I am participating in a Call to Action from Robert Kaplinsky called #ObserveMe.  I am inviting anyone and everyone to come and observe my classroom (406) whenever you have the time, and provide me with feedback on what you see.  My goals this year are to improve the way that I interact with my students and promote student discourse within the class.  Every teacher has their own learning goals and I would encourage everyone (who is comfortable doing so, because this can be scary) to post something similar outside of your room. 
I welcome any questions that you may have and I very much look forward to working with all of you this year. 
Thank you again for making me feel a part of your family. 
-Justin Aion

The teachers that I've spoken to so far seem as though they may be open to this opportunity for growth.  Being vulnerable is incredibly difficult, especially in teaching where everything we do is scrutinized so deeply.

Last week, the new superintendent of our district encouraged us to experiment and make mistakes. She said that as long as what we were trying was intended to be best for kids, she was with us.  I hope that such administrative support will help teachers to take the risks that they have been afraid to take in the past.

I have posted the following outside of my room.  Dozens of other teachers have done the same!

Join us! Grow with us!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Day 3: Divergence

Over the last three days, all of my classes worked on the same activities.  Yesterday and Wednesday, the results were very similar.

Today, they were not.

As we progress, the current ability levels of my students are starting to become more apparent.  The activity for today was as follows:

Jack and Beth go to their grandfather's farm.  He raises ducks and sheep and currently has 9 total animals.  In the winter, he puts shoes on their cold little animal feet.  He has 26 shoes total.  How many of each animal does he have? 
Work with your group to SHOW how you found your answer.

I explained to them that I was much less concerned about the answer than I was about the method and their ability to share it.  (I can explain my thinking and try to understand others.)

The first thing that I noticed was the differences in method.

The Math 7 students took to the problem like ducks to water.  They dove in and really enjoyed drawing pictures to illustrate their methods.

The students in Integrated started with equations.  They knew that in math you're supposed to use equations, but were unsure of how.  Several of the groups found the right answer "in their heads" but had difficulty explaining their thinking. Even if they couldn't explain how, all of the groups found the correct answer and were able to talk about the method that they used, even if it was in vague terms.

The pre-algebra students seemed to really struggle.  Some of them struggled with the problem itself, but most struggled with the explanation.

Them: "There were 5 ducks and 4 sheep."
Me: "How did you come up with those numbers?"
Them: "That's how many you need to have the right number of shoes."
Me: "I get that, but my question is how did you KNOW that those were the right numbers? How did you get to them?"
Them: "They are the ones that work."
Me: "How do you know that other ones don't? Did you try other combinations? Did you guess and check? Was 5 ducks and 4 sheep your first try?"
Them: "Those were the numbers that worked. We checked them and they worked."

This conversation occurred with several groups in several classes.  It seems fairly clear to me that they are not used to having to explain their answers or reasoning.  This is actually expected and helps me to focus were I need to put my energy this year.

Interestingly, the younger kids were better at explaining their reasoning than the older ones.  I'm not sure if this is because the older students have been conditioned that their answers are more important, or some other factor, but it doesn't really matter.

I have my work cut out for me if I want them to be explaining.  I wrote out my own explanation and method, modeling the kind of work I wanted to see.  I made it very clear that it wasn't my particular method that I was looking for, but rather the fact that it was clear, ordered and logical.

The mother of one of my students told me that her daughter LOVES my class.  She's been thinking about sandwiches for 2 days now.

One of the other faculty members told me that she just loved how positive and upbeat I was, how it was a breath of fresh air.


I'm not kidding.

This year is off to a pretty good start.  I plan to take this weekend to sleep, plan, run, sleep and sleep.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Day 2: I'm Funny!

I always forget how much discomfort I have during the first two weeks of school.  The majority of it has to do with momentum.  This year, I'm teaching a class that I've never taught before and another that I haven't taught in 2 years.  I have no idea how to get started.

I was fortunate enough to get in touch with some teachers on the internet who gave me their course sequences, so I have a basic outline from which to work.  I also have a vast professional network through Twitter and my various conferences from which to gather resources.

I just need to actually do that.

"Proofreading" is also important.

Yesterday went so well, that I put a ton of pressure on myself to top it today.

We did our Estimation 180 warm-up and our Pledge to Improved Mathematics.  I'm making a conscious effort to model the kind of thinking that I'm looking and giving lots of opportunity for them to demonstrate theirs.  Then I asked them to tell me about bees.

This was a warm-up from a few years ago, but I extended it into a deeper conversation about patterns.  I had students work in groups on the whiteboards and was amazed by the work that they were doing.  I spoke about Growth Mindset and how I expect them to make and share their mistakes.  I'm prepping them for Monday when we will begin with Mistake Monday.

These kids are nice.  The youngest students that I've taught have been at the start of 8th grade. This year, I have those, but also ones who are considerably younger.  This difference is causing me to notice many things about younger students.

They are adorable!  I'm having to make a conscious effort not to constantly tell them so.  They are excited to learn and to show off what they know.  There's none of the cynicism that I have found in older kids.  Part of that could also be that they don't come from backgrounds that are nearly as rough as many of my former students.

I also had to talk to several classes today about how I call on students.  I explained that I don't always call on the first hand I see.  I want to give everyone in the room a chance to develop their thinking and I want to hear from everyone.  I pulled a girl aside this morning to tell her that I saw her hand up every time, but wanted to hear from others.  I didn't want her to get discouraged and I thanked her for her willingness to volunteer answers.

So far, the greatest discovery has been unexpected: they find me funny!

I get to be my normal goofy self, making jokes and using funny voices.  I get to dance and pretend to cry out of happiness.  Instead of rolling their eyes, they laugh.  Unfortunately, their age means that they don't understand many of the references I make, but  they laugh anyway.

In 10 years, they'll come back and visit me to tell me that they finally understand my jokes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Day 1: A New Sandwich

After the first year of this blog, I had momentum going and continued to the second year.

After the second year, I was moved from middle school math to high school science and felt that it was important to continue writing about that change.

This year, I have changed districts and moved back to teaching middle school math and again feel that it's important to continue.  So here we are!  Daily reflection...Year 4... Day 1...

Day one as a proud faculty member at a new district found me happy, excited and terrified.  I clearly took for granted all of the comforts of NOT being a first year teacher in my previous district.  There are new systems to learn, new procedures, new faculty and staff, new students, new curriculum, new commute and new cultural norms.

I am incredibly excited about these challenges!  More importantly, I am hopeful.

My schedule this year is mostly Math 7 and Pre-Algebra with 1 section of seniors for Integrated Math.  I also have 7 students on my roster who are coming up from the 6th grade for my class.

My room isn't even close to set up but it's good enough to function and do what I want.

I began my classes today by introducing myself and talking a little bit about my background and goals.  I had them recite the Pledge to Improved Mathematics and began a Warm-Up from Estimation 180.

I reiterated to them the value and importance of the ability to "explain my reasoning and understand others" and then set off on our Day 1 Task.

"I'm going to write a question on the board.  It's an incredibly important question.  I'd like you to think about the answer silently for a minute and then we'll get together in groups and discuss it.  Are you ready?  It's an incredibly important question!"
One of the 6th graders wanted to call him "Frank."  Frank is confused.

The conversations that ensued were excellent.  The group of seniors came to a screaming match.  I was told later "I hated him before I came in" and while that may be true, they were making sound arguments and articulating their points well, if loudly.

The discussions were incredible!  One group argued that orientation mattered.  Their claim was that a folded piece of bread with peanut butter and jelly was a sandwich, but as soon as you hold it open side up, it becomes a taco, which is not a sandwich.

A small portion of the younger students thought it was a trick question and went WAY deeper than I wanted them to go.
I call this one "Sandwich as Allegory!"

Several of the 7th and 8th graders complained laughingly of mind-blowage!

The kids got a bit more rambunctious and squirrelly as the day went on, but nothing I couldn't handle with grace and aplomb.

While I very much miss my students from the last few years, I'm really looking forward to getting to know the new ones.  The faculty, staff and administration have been incredibly welcoming and supportive.  I think this will be an excellent year.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Teachers are often expected to be perfect.  From their first day in the classroom on their first year, they are supposed to have as much knowledge and expertise as someone who has been teaching for 30 years.

Yes, there are student teaching positions where you work under the supervision of a veteran teacher for a few months, but that's often the extent of the formal mentoring that teachers receive.  Over the last few years, I've had numerous discussions with other educators about the various short-comings of education programs.

The reality is that teaching is incredibly difficult.  It's difficult in a way that no one can fully explain and can only truly be experienced. According the National Education Association, an estimated 50% of new teachers quit the profession within the first 5 years.  There are multiple reasons cited for this, including geographic concerns and shrinking school budgets unable keep salaries competitive, but you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who didn't acknowledge that their first few years were insane.

During my first year in my current district, I went home crying at least 3 nights a week for about 2 months.

One of the major issues contributing to how difficult it is to teach is our inability to make mistakes.  On a conscious level, everyone knows that no one is perfect.  Everyone makes mistakes and we recognize that we should admit those mistakes when make them.

But teachers are often held to a different standard, and understandably.  No one wants another person making mistakes with their children.  We are entrusted with the future, the custodianship and the care of children. During the school year, kids spend more time with teachers than they do with their families.  No, we aren't given the nuclear launch codes, but it sometimes feels that way to a parent.

As teachers, especially those of us who espouse the virtues of the growth mindset, we know that mistakes are not only a basic fact of life, but are crucial to the learning process.  Without mistakes, we don't grow, we don't learn, we don't advance.

Making the mistakes, however, isn't enough.  We need to be able to examine them, see WHY we made them and reflect on how things can be done better the next time.

How can we expect our students to do this if we don't show them how and if are unwilling to do it ourselves?

One of the major reasons for this blog has been to shine light on the (many, MANY) mistakes that I make as an educator and as a person, for the purpose of reflection and growth.  I feel as though that process has greatly helped me along the path to becoming the teacher that I want to be and that my students need.

So where is this all going?

Last year, I undertook two major school initiatives.  The theme for the year was Go Forth and Be Human.  I dismissed my classes every day with that statement, reminding my students and myself that they are, above all else, people.  They are more than test scores, more than students, more than children. They are human beings.

The second, and arguably more successful, was #HighFiveFriday.  This started by accident around Thanksgiving and took off like a shot!  After 2 weeks, students began seeking me out for high fives.  It helped to build a community and good feelings.

This year, I will continue both of those, while adding a new one.  I want my students to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.  I want them to learn that those mistakes, when reflected upon, can lead to growth.  I want to remember this myself and be more willing to make, admit and learn from my mistakes.

This year, we will doing #MistakeMonday!

Every Monday, we will begin class with a basic writing assignment consisting of two questions:

  1. What is a mistake that you made in the past week?
  2. How do you plan to learn from that mistake this week?
I will also partake in this assignment and share mine.  As students feel comfortable, I will ask them to share theirs as well.  We are a community of learners and will utilize every resource we have to achieve our goals, including each other.  There will be times when a student may not know how to learn from a particular mistake, but there will be advice that others can offer.

I also plan to have a #MistakeMonday wall where students (who wish to) can post their mistakes and learning plans for all to see.

We share mistakes to demonstrate our vulnerability, the build empathy and grow as citizens.

It will be a long journey with (hopefully) many mistakes made along the way.

We are human beings.  We are not perfect and need to stop pretending that we should be.

I wish you all a great year, full of productive mistakes!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: Ghostbusters

Last night, I went to see Ghostbusters.

To be honest, I was dubious. I think the majority of the roles that Melissa McCarthy has has have not done justice to her abilities. As a larger woman, she is often cast is roles that could be described as sloppy and gross. Her part on Mike & Molly was a notable exception to this.

As much as I enjoy her and Kristen Wiig, I didn't like Bridesmaids. It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly why, but it may have been simply the type of humor was just not my style. I'm not a fan of slapstick comedy or fart and poop jokes.

If I'm being completely honest with myself, I also have to say that I was dubious about a remake of the such an incredible film. I want to say that it had nothing to do with putting with women in the lead roles where giants of 80's comedy (and therefore, my childhood) forged their paths, but I can't be certain that's true.

There are WAY too many Ghostbusters fanboys complaining about the remake as a way to mask their thinly veiled misogyny. As a vocal feminist, I knew that I was going to have to see it before I could mount a review that didn't sound like "you can't fight ghosts with vaginas!"
"When I write 'they are ruining a classic', I TOTALLY don't mean 'having women do this drives a spike into my mediocre, fragile white male ego.'"

Before the movie started, the previews were for either teen romance movies, or animated children's movies. I couldn't help but wonder if there would have been different trailers if the headliners in the movie had been men.

From the very opening scene, I was impressed. There were subtle and clever jokes inserted into the script with such regularity that it would have been easy to miss many simply by laughing at the previous ones.

While I didn't find the movie to be emasculating, or as some basement dwellers have said "a castration festival", I did notice that all of the female characters were strong and smart while all of the male characters (with the notable exception of the antagonist) were foolish, useless, arrogant, immature, vapid or downright stupid.
"Which picture makes me look more like a doctor? Me playing saxophone, or me listening to saxophone?"

The Dean of the college where Abby Yates and Jillian Holtzmann (McCarthy and McKinnon) work is the definition of up-jumped incompetence, as underscored by Yates' line "you only got to be the Dean because the last Dean went to jail." He then proceeds to flip off the 2 female doctors and the female engineer in various ways for a full 30 seconds before donning his crocs and chasing them out.

I found this switch of traditional gender roles in movies to be amazing. The female characters can be seen eating (gasp) regularly and aren't anything close to caricatures of females. They were rich, deep, complicated and interesting. They had real problems that evoked empathy, many of which were issues that women deal with on a regular basis. Primary among these being the lack of faith from their male counterparts.

Dr. Hiess (Bill Murray), a famous debunker, comes to their office after a VERY public display of ghost hunting and blatantly asks them "Why are you pretending to hunt ghosts?"

This misogyny is even mentioned in a very meta way when the women are reading YouTube comments about their first ghostbusting enterprise and encounter the comment "Ain't no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts!"

The gender roles of traditional movies are also delightfully flipped when they hire Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) to be their receptionist in spite of his complete lack of qualifications and brains simply because they need a receptionist and he's gorgeous.

Wiig herself takes on the role of objectifier by constantly remarking on how attractive Kevin is (in spite of his clearly having the intelligence of a jar of mayonnaise), all the while being told to stop by McCarthy because they don't need a lawsuit.

In addition, none of this even touches the brilliance of the character of Jillian Holtzmann who is a brilliant, weird and hilarious character and is played insanely well by Kate McKinnon. It could easily be argued that she was, by far, the greatest part of this movie and worthy of a post all by herself.
Really, they should be salty hyperboloids, but tomAto, potahtoe!

If you take the objections to this movie at face value, pretending that they have nothing to do with putting white men in a subordinate role to women, it is still an excellent movie. It is full of cameos from the original cast. Weaver, Murray, Aykroyd, Potts (Janine), Hudson and others all show their faces. There is even a bust of the late, great Harold Ramis.

While there are clear homages to the original, including the firehouse, Ecto-1 and the idea of being thrown out of a college for being crazy, this movie stands on its own merits. It provides excellent writing, believable characters (the women, not the men) and shows solid and deep role models for girls and women.

There is a level of emotional intimacy and friendship among Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon and Jones that simply didn't exist in the original and is severely lacking from movies in general. Males fears of being perceived as gay often keep that from existing in other action movies, or limit it to slapping bro-hugs and fist bumps.

My only objection was the fact that the 3 white women were scientists while the black woman was an MTA worker, but even that could be seen as an homage to the original. In addition, for all of the horrific racism that Leslie Jones took on Twitter last week, she did an brilliant job and I loved every moment that she was on screen.

Women and girls need these movies to see what strong women can accomplish.
This is everything

Men and boys need these movies even more.

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