Sunday, September 3, 2017

Year 5: Opening Week

Well, not really.

Yes, it is opening week.

It's not REALLY year 5.  This week I began my 11th year as a classroom teacher.  I taught for 2 years in northern New Jersey, 7 years at an urban/suburban school outside of Pittsburgh and now I'm starting my second year at my most recent school.

It is, however, year 5 of this blog.

I spent the last 4 years writing a reflective post every day that I had contact with my students (and a few other posts as well) with one specific goal in mind: I want to be a better teacher.

I made the decision early on to make the blog public and link it to my name.  This was primarily because I knew how fragile the public face of a teacher can be.  One angry parent putting words in the right place can ruin the career of someone who had been changing lives for many years.

I've seen it happen.

As a teacher with a public blog, public Twitter handle, I knew I was taking a risk.  I also knew that having the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head would force a level of mindfulness into the blog that I wanted.

It forced me to focus on me.  When a lesson went wrong, it wasn't because the kids were crappy.  Kids are kids.  If a lesson was bad, it was because I could have done something better and I was determined to do so.

Over the last 4 years, the only times that I have written about specific students were when they were amazing and I wanted to shout praise from the internet rooftops, or when a negative interaction with a student helped me to turn my eyes inward in order to improve and ensure that it didn't happen again.

That has always been my goal.

Over the years, there have been several times when I have felt as though I was sugar-coating my experiences and reflections out of fear of administrative or parental reprisal.  At the same time, I have not had any administrators ever ask me to take the blog down.  I attribute this both to having excellently understanding administrators in this regard and my own constant awareness of my intentions in writing.

As I look back over the last 4 years of this blog, and as I begin to embark upon another year of reflective writing, I can't help but notice the changes that I have undergone as both an educator and a writer.  I think it's safe to say that my colleagues who have known me for a while will agree that I'm a different teacher than I was when I began this adventure.

I also like to think that I'm a better writer, although I still frequently fall victim to hapless ramblings and I will probably never stop putting two spaces after a period.  (Sorry, English teachers.)

I am not sure that I need the same things from this blog as I did when I began writing.  I still see the value of reflective practice and especially in such a public forum as this one.  With three days with students already having lapsed, however, I'm not sure I feel the need for it to be daily.  I haven't quite decided where I come down on this, except that I already missed a few days.

With all of that said, I still find solace and comfort in putting my thoughts down, sending them out into the void to be read or ignored by anyone.  I will continue to do that until such time as I am unable to reflect upon my own practice.  I would hope to continue to receive feedback from those who choose to spend their time reading my words.  I welcome feedback and questions and I acknowledge that I am not perfect.

I am not a master teacher.  I am merely a man who teaches and wants to be better.  I will make mistakes and errors.  I believe in a growth mindset and am willing to learn from my errors.  I am deeply thankful to my readers for accompanying me on this journey for as long as you are able.

So, about that first week...

The students joined us for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week and I wanted to make those as positive as I could.  I know how much time is spent on the first day going over classroom rules and expectations.  I wanted no part of that.

Last year, I began my classes by asking a seemingly simple question: What is a sandwich?

I LOVE this question, as anyone who follows me on Twitter probably knows.  It is a question that everyone can answer, but with a strange twist: everyone knows what a sandwich is, until they are asked to define it.

"Meat and cheese between two pieces bread."
What about peanut butter and jelly?
"Something edible between two pieces of bread."
What if it's only 1 piece folded over?
"Something edible between bread."
Does it have to be bread? What about an ice cream sandwich? Is an open-faced sandwich a sandwich? If it is, does that make pizza a sandwich?

And so on.  The students get deeply frustrated, but in a way that doesn't allow them to give up.  They argue about it for days and for the rest of the year, I'll be asked "yeah, but is it a sandwich?"

This activity is designed as a low-entry, high-ceiling thinking exercise.  It requires students to examine their own thinking and preconceptions, articulating them in a way that allows them to be understood by others.

Since 2014, I have had my students recite the Pledge to Improved Mathematics, a student-friendly version of the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practice as laid out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

This activity fits solidly into several of these goals and the kids seem to love it.

Last year, I taught 7th and 8th grade students.  This year, I teach the same.  This means that my current 8th grade already did this activity and the impact wouldn't be as a great.  I needed something else.

I began by asking them about mythology.  We talked for a bit about the various myths that they know and how ancient cultures impact modern ones.  Then, I asked: "Do any of you know what a centaur is?"

I passed around quarter sheets of paper with the above image.

"Draw pants on the centaur."

The ensuing argument/discussion raged for the remainder of the period and ran the gamut from "where are his no-no bits" to "the front ones are horse arms and should be covered by his shirt, not his pants."

It was a tremendous activity and allowed us to talk about user experience, as well as purpose and goals.

How can you even begin to solve a problem if you don't understand the need for a solution?

On day 2, all of my classes did the same activity: Sara Van Der Werf's "100 Numbers to Get Students Talking."

You can read the basic activity on her page because she explains it MUCH better than I could, but I wanted to detail the order in which my kids worked through it.

Iteration 1: They completed the activity alone, circling the numbers from 1-100, or as many as possible in 2 minutes.

Iteration 2: They completed the activity in groups of 3 or 4, with each student only allowed to circle a number after a teammate had circled the previous number.

Iteration 3: Same as iteration 2, except each kid used a different color pen.  This allowed them to see the patterns and develop a strategy.

Iteration 4: The students could use whatever strategy they chose, but there were two changes.  First, they couldn't go in the same order than the previous iterations.  Whoever was circling number 1 before was now circling number 2.  The second change was that no one was allowed to talk.

In between each iteration, I walked around taking pictures and put them on the board when the timer went off.  (I would post them here, but there are lots of faces and I don't have photo consent.)

I asked them what they saw.

The pictures all showed the same thing: engaged students working together on a task.  Their heads were together and many were confused by the pictures because they were so into the activity, they didn't know I was walking around.  Ultimately, it was a pointless task since we recycled the papers after each round, but they didn't care.  They competed with themselves to do better each time and fought for every second of the clock.

We talked about group work and what it meant to be engaged in a task cooperatively.

I saved the clerical stuff for the last day.  I used Standards-Based Grading in my classes and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to explain how it worked and why I use it.  The 8th graders had it last year, but I made some tweaks and needed to be clear on those.

For the 7th graders, this was an entirely new experience on top of being in middle school, an entirely new experience.  I had them read the syllabus out loud to the class and talked about what I expect from them and what they should expect from me.  I have been checking my email all weekend in case any parents had questions.  As of this writing, I've had no calls or emails for clarification.

I think this is going to be a good year.  I refuse to stress about posting every day, but will post as often as I feel I need.  Every day brings something new.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Spectrum of Teaching

When the universe was young, a race from the planet of Oa declared themselves the Guardians of the Universe.  They harnessed pure will power and forged it into rings of power that shone with green light.  The bearers of these rings could use their will power to create whatever constructs they dreamed of and became a police force, patrolling the universe protecting the weak.

This was the Green Lantern Corps.

Eventually, one of the most powerful Green Lantern broke from the ranks, believing that fear was a more powerful emotion than will.  He forged his own ring using the yellow light of fear and used it to impose order on the universe.

Over the course of various story arcs, the remaining colors of the emotional spectrum were discovered and harnessed.

In April, I received my 4th tattoo.  I struggled for months, deciding on arrangement, placement, style and purpose.  Unless I'm wearing shorts, this is my most visible tattoo and so, as expected, I was asked about it by many people at Twitter Math Camp last week.

I'm always happy to talk about things that I love (math, tattoos, comics, myself, etc.) but I don't feel as though I gave anyone an adequate reply.  My tattoo relates directly to my soul as a teacher, who I am, who I want to be and maintaining balance.

The Red Light of Rage:

When a student forgets a lesson, or doesn't complete an assignment, for the 10th time in a row, the red starts appearing around my vision, I need to stop and take a breath.  When a student casually throws out a racist or homophobic slur, or when they purposely try to hurt another student to make themselves feel better, the rage boils to the surface.  When a parent doesn't care that their child can't read, and instead is singularly focused on getting them in to college in 5 years and I can't seem to make myself understood as to why that's dangerous thinking, my fists clench under the table.

Rage can be constructive or destructive.  I am a fairly angry person.  I have tried to change this fact, but I've come to a realization.  The anger is a part of who I am.  It is passion and righteousness and fury and pain.

If I'm going to fight, I might as well fight for what's right.

My Red Lantern tattoo reminds me to direct my anger appropriately, to let it drive me to fight for my students.  I use it to advocate for the quiet voices and to lift up those who are shoved behind.  Rage cannot rule my life, but it can fuel the fires.

The Orange Light of Avarice:

In terms of teaching, this is the hardest for me to solidly explain.  The closest I can come is by recognizing that I refer to the room in which I teach as MY room and the students who go there to learn as MY students.  Neither of these is true.

The room is OUR room, one in which we learn and grow together.  The students aren't mine, or even ours.  They are their own people.  Yes, we take them under our wings, are proud of them when they do well and express disappointment when they don't.  Ultimately, however, they are not ours.  They need to be who they want to be, not who we want them to be.

Outside of the classroom, my orange light shines brighter and clearer.  I have a fairly strong social media presence and check my number of followers WAY too often.  I keep a reflective teaching blog that, while I say I write for myself, I'm delighted every time someone shares the link or tells me how much they like it.  I watch the number of views per page with the hunger of a starving man standing outside of a bakery, each new view singing in my blood.  I crave the validation that it brings.

I am greedy for it.

My Orange Lantern tattoo reminds me to calm down.  Clicks, likes, favorites and tweets do not actually bring happiness.  They may be jolts of satisfaction and a feeling of acceptance at having your ideas shared by friends and strangers, but it is fleeting.  Happiness and satisfaction take time.  Greed provides motivation and drive.  It puts a goal in front of us.  It's vital, however, that we don't develop a myopic focus on that goal.

Set a greedy goal, go after it with avarice, but not to the exclusion of all else.

The Yellow Light of Fear:

Any teacher will tell you that when they started teaching, they were afraid.  At the beginning, I was terrified that they would find out that I had no idea what I was doing. I was afraid that I wasn't going to have a good lesson or that I would say something wrong.  I was afraid that every time I saw an admin, they would remember that I worked there and would correct their error.

Over the last 10 years, my fears have changed and morphed.  I am still afraid of getting fired every day, but it's now a small background buzzing fear.  Now, my fears run more towards my students.  I fear that I'm not giving the education they need.  I worry that I'm not providing them with enough a space to grow into themselves.

Professionally, I am afraid of being left behind.  There is always a new technology, a new tool, a new strategy that someone I deeply respect is using to tremendous effect.

I fear that I will fail my students.

I fear obscurity.

My Yellow Lantern tattoo reminds me that fear is not something to be ignored.  It provides us with direction and guidance.  It can be a familiar friend when we are lost and can push us to conquer that which we thought we couldn't.  Fear is good, but we can not allow it to rule us.

The Green Light of Will:

Teaching is hard, you guys.  Like, super hard!  Many days, it takes an act of pure will power to get dressed, drive to school and do the best that we can for our students.  We are often besieged by students who don't want to learn, parents who don't understand pedagogy, administrators who are also besieged and trying to do their level best, and coworkers who are burned out and exhausted.

Every day brings another story of education injustice perpetrated by local, state and national government, taking away funds from the kids who need it the most and expecting teachers to work miracles without resources or support.

And yet, we persist.

In brightest day, and blackest night, we power through to do what we can for the students in our charge.

My Green Lantern tattoo reminds me that I AM strong and capable.  It reminds me that my mind is a weapon that I can wield for good.  If I want to be a better teacher, I must start with the will to be so.

The Blue Light of Hope:

I believe that if you split all of humanity into their respective colors based on their driving emotions, a disproportionate number of teachers would be Blue Lanterns.  Teaching is the embodiment of hope.  The mere act of educating is investing in the future, imbuing it with the hope of a better tomorrow.  When we teach, we hope that our lessons have lasting effect.  We hope that our students will grow up to be happy and successful.  We hope that we have done right by them and by all who will interact with them.

This hope, however, isn't blind.  We don't cast these dreams into the darkness of the unknown with the expectation that they will land safely on the other side.  We work towards the other side.  We build the ledge further out in order to give those dreams the greatest advantage we can.

We don't just wish for a brighter future.  We construct it one day at a time.

My Blue Lantern tattoo reminds me that there is always hope.  The feedback that we receive isn't always positive, or even obvious.  Sometimes, we never know what has happened to the students who have passed across our rosters and through the doorways of the classroom.  None of that matters.  What matters is that we work towards that which we hope and we never give up on it.

The Indigo Light of Compassion:

I never had to worry about a family member overdosing on drugs.  I never had to worry about the water or power getting turned off.  I never had to worry about the police battering down my door in the middle of the night to take away someone I loved.

There are an infinite number of experiences that my students and I do not share, both positive and negative.  We are creatures of experience.  Who we are is a product of our environment and the decisions we make, even when those decisions are impossible to make correctly.

My Indigo Lantern tattoo reminds me that my students are human being with hopes, dreams and passions.  They have people who love them and situations that they can't escape.  They have issues that they tackle daily, any one of which I would find insurmountable.  They are paralyzed by problems that I would consider trivial.  They are human being and deserving of compassion.

The Violet Light of Love:

"Why are you still a teacher?" is a thought that all teachers have had, frequently about the grumpy coworker who complains about the kids every day, but also about themselves.  We wonder why we teach and can be swallowed by the dark spiral that comes from those questions. There are days when I have to lock myself in my classroom and recenter myself. I am not someone who teaches.  I am a teacher and I sometimes forget what that means.

My Violent Lantern tattoo reminds me that I love teaching and I love my students.  There are often days when both of these are hard to remember (usually Monday or the first day back from a break.) It is a constant and permanent reminder of the good that I wish to do and why I wish to do it. 

Mattie asked this question earlier today and it had me thinking.

Where do you fall? Where do you WANT to fall?

Which Corps do you belong to?

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.


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?"

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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Day 136: Guest Post

Yesterday, I had a couple of upperclassmen observe my Pre-Algebra class.  Following a discussion about their experience, I asked one of them to write up her thoughts for me.

The following is what she wrote without any edits by me.

Before I begin, I’d like to first and foremost state that I love learning. I truly do. There’s something valuable in everything, and no information is useless. There’s always something to learn, to improve upon, to be better at. Everything has a lesson. Even if the information is familiar, something new can be still be learned. There’s no reason not to listen, especially to a teacher. They deal with teenagers all day. The least I can do is listen to them and respect them. They have a lot to say and a lot to teach, and once again, all information is valuable. However, I think I underestimated just how much I’d learn within two days of observing Mr. Aion’s class.

I was grateful he’d even let me sit in his class while he was teaching to begin with. I really just wanted somewhere somewhat quiet to sit during my lunch period to read on my phone or just catch up on my homework. I’d had some good, thought provoking discussions during my study hall with him, so I was looking forward to the experience subtly. To be fair, though, I was on my phone, even if Mr. Aion was teaching. However, I still listened into the class discussion. Watching someone teach is a much different experience than being a student. It’s fascinating to see the students work through something and figure it out. I really enjoyed the questions Mr. Aion asked. When you’re not concentrating on figuring the concept out, it’s much easier to see where the questions are headed and why they’re being asked.  Although, I’m already very familiar with the material, so that definitely aided in knowing where the class was going. Even so, I couldn’t help but answer the questions he was asking mentally. They were probing, asking them to figure things out step by step. I personally quite like that approach to learning. People tend to understand better if you let them figure it out themselves, and that’s what the questions were doing. They were all building up to understanding the concept at hand.

That wasn’t all I learned listening in, though. There was an entirely new way to both solve and think about Pythagorean theorem and distance formula problems that both my friend (who joined me during my second day watching) and I had never learned or really considered. It was a way of relating the numbers back to the triangle. When my Pre-Algebra class (god, that was years ago) covered solving for the hypotenuse length, we always did it through the method of plugging the given variables into the formula. I didn’t even cover the distance formula until I was in Geometry, I always was aware that it was solving for the missing length, that I was using the other sides to do so. But I’d never really considered it the way that Mr. Aion explained it. I think that’s a problem in math classes -- kids are given formulas and are taught how to use them, but that’s it. I can manipulate the numbers, yeah. I know what they mean. But there’s not always this click, this connection, between the numbers and the application of those numbers. It’s almost as if you’re solving a puzzle, and you know how the pieces fit. You know how to complete it, but you can never really see the completed picture to know how all the pieces fit. The way that Mr. Aion explained this, though, made my friend and I see the big picture. It clicked. It was this entirely new way to solve the problem, and it was absolutely exciting. It was this moment of sheer joy, of ‘I get it’.  I don’t get moments like those a lot in my education. I tend to ‘get it’ pretty quickly, so the feeling doesn’t get me excited like it used to. Even when I research and learn in my spare time, it’s not as exciting, unless I decide to take up a particularly difficult topic. This was exciting. It was new. It was this entirely brand new way of solving and thinking and conceptualizing. Personally, I don’t think that happens a lot in classrooms. That might just be my experience, but I don’t see a lot of those ‘a-ha’ moments. This was revolutionary for both my friend and me. So revolutionary, in fact, that we started whispering about the next problem Mr. Aion was going to talk about with his students, attempting to figure it out. He called us out for talking, and let me tell you, that is an absolutely mortifying experience. Having the eyes of about 15 seventh graders and a teacher on you is fear inducing. I was extraordinarily relieved to that no one was upset and that we were really just making a good point. Quite frankly, I was disappointed that we had to leave to go to our assigned class. However, I’m looking forward to coming back to the class, and I sincerely hope I get to have more experience like I had today.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Day 135: Student Visitors

I have several students throughout the day who spend their free periods in my room.  They keep their stuff on a table in the corner, stop by between classes to store and retrieve books, or put in headphones and sit in the back doing work.  A few kids have open invitations to come in whenever they have a study hall, lunch period or permission from their teachers of record, but there will always be one or two others who stop by to ask if they can stay.

I almost always say yes.

I welcome them to my class for a variety of reasons.

1) These students are all juniors and seniors who come to sit in on 7th and 8th grade classes.  I like them to be there working as a conspicuous example of responsible students, setting a precedent for what will be expected of the younger kids as they get older.

2) In a similar vein, I like the upperclassmen to be reminded of what it was like to be 7th and 8th graders, struggling with academic concepts and organization.  I want the older kids to see how far they've come since they were in those seats and to appreciate the struggle that they had.

3) I also like for the upperclassmen to see what it's like to be a teacher.  Observing a class is a vastly different experience to be a member of it.  On numerous occasions, I've noticed a change in the mannerism of the visiting students in response to the behavior (or lack thereof) of the students in the class.  There is an element of "he deals with this all day, I'm going to be nicer."

4) It humanizes teachers for the visiting students and helps the class members to remember that we aren't trying to "sneak" anything.  I know teachers who are different when there are visitors in the room and I think it lends some credibility to my teaching-style that I remain the same, regardless of who is watching.

5) I LOVE, after covering a concept, being able to point to a senior in the back of the room and ask "in your calculus class, do you still use this thing that we're covering in 7th grade?"  Since I know my business, I of course only ask this when I know the answer and can make a solid point about the lasting uses of mathematics

There are a ton of other reasons, but my absolute favorite is "The Epiphany."

I love watching the expressions of upperclassmen who, while watching a 7th grade class, suddenly understand a topic that they previously didn't.

Today's topic for epiphany: The Distance Formula

I don't love the distance formula.  I think it takes a fairly basic concept and abstracts it into difficulty for students who are still struggling to understand the basics of algebraic concepts.  As a result of this thinking, I've been framing it in a different way.  We started by discussing the Pythagorean Theorem, then talking about applications of it.  We used it to derive the distance formula, all the while continuing to discuss the segment between two points as the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

Rather than asking them immediately identify the multiple values of x and y, I asked some simple questions.

"How far apart are the x-coordinates? How far apart are the y-coordinates? Could we see those as the legs of a right triangle?"

I didn't think this was a particularly revolutionary idea.

When I looked around the room, I noticed something strange: the two upperclassmen who had been hanging out in the back, listening to music and checking their phones had suddenly perked up.  They had moved their desks together, taken out paper and were talking animatedly, but quietly.

I had an inkling of what they were discussing, but asked them to elaborate.  They felt bad, thinking they had interrupted and starting apologizing for being disruptive.

"Not at all! I want you to tell the class what you're talking about."

The students (one in Pre-Calc and one in Algebra 2) had never thought about the distance formula in these terms before.  This concept, which they had been using for years, finally clicked in a way that worked for them.

After class, they both came up to me, excited to have learned something new.  One asked if she could keep coming to my class during her lunch.  When I asked her what she found so valuable about it, her list was shockingly similar to the one I wrote above.

I asked her if she would write up her thoughts on observing my class and, if she decides to, I will include it in a future post.

When we talk about spiral review, clearly we need to include topics from years before, revisited and examined in light of new information.  We should also be incorporating more connections between older and younger students, having them share strategies and advice.

Other highlights:

In Math 7, we had a deep discussion about what it means for something to be "steep."  This is a strangely difficult term to define without using technical terms.  We approached it by talking about speed, another quality that only exists as the relationship between other units.  They were VERY engaged.

Numerous students told me today that I was one of their favorite teachers and that I was one of the nicer ones they've had.

A student who slacked off for the entire marking period and earned himself a 26% spent the last week working insanely hard to make up his work. We had a long conversation after school about choices and the lessons that he learned from the experience of choosing his friends as group mate rather than people with whom he can work productively.

My 8th period ended up in a deep discussion of social justice issues, including homelessness and women's right issues.  The group, normally distracted and a bit goofy, were highly engaged and incredibly insightful in their contributions.  They can be very empathetic and insightful.  I was immensely proud of them.

It was a great day.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Day 126: #GoodCallsHome

Today was rockin'!

Not me. I rarely rock it.  The kids were rockin' it!

Last night, I spent over an hour calling parents, grandparents and guardians.  The conversations went something like:

Me: "Hi, this is Mr. Aion from the school.  I'm your child's (grandchild's) math teacher. How are you?"
Them: "...Fiiiiiiine. How are you?"
Me: "I'm doing well, thank you.  I just wanted to give you a quick call to let you know that (student) has really been doing an excellent job in class lately.  The work has been getting harder and can tell (student) is getting frustrated, but has been sticking with.  They've been helping other students in the class and are genuinely a pleasure to have there."
Them: "...but?"
Me: "But nothing.  I don't think we do a good enough job with calling home when students are doing well.  We only ever call when something is wrong and I think that's a problem.  Nothing is wrong.  Your child is doing well and working hard and I wanted to let you know."

At this point, they either expressed deep thanks and shock at being told this, or they said "ok. Thanks. Have a nice day" and hung up in confusion.

I've done this before, gone down my roster and called as many families as I could to give a good note.  I often have high-minded ideals that I'll call everyone on my list, but I forget how long each call takes.  Last night, I stopped because it got to late to call.  I managed to get through two of my larger classes.  Since I knew I wouldn't get to everyone, I started at the end of my roster, the end of my day.  Those two are my more challenging classes so I thought it was more important to start there.

I wanted to remind myself, as well as them, about the good things that they are doing.  I made a conscious effort make sure I had a good comment for the kids who are most challenging for me.

Today, the halls were abuzz with kids talking about how I called their houses.  The kids whose homes I called were awesome! They paid attention, took notes, volunteered to put problems on the board and helped explain concepts to each other.

The kids whose homes I didn't call, even more so.  Maybe they wanted a good call for themselves, or maybe they didn't want the other kids to know that they didn't get one.

Students stayed after school today to work on homework and several came to my room throughout the day to ask questions.

I need to make good calls home more often...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Day 125: Ups and Downs

I was on fire today.  This may or may not have been a good thing, but it was true.  I was in full-on high-energy "let's bang out this content" mode.

We went through examples quickly and I wrote a ton of notes on the board. We didn't have much downtime and, it appeared, that this was beneficial for the kids.

Without the opportunity to lose focus, they did an excellent job of answering my questions and making connections with prior content.

The level of participation was also excellent.  Kids who usually chat were too busy taking notes and the kids who are usually bored with the pace were pleased and involved.

Several kids said "can we have class like this every day?"

I was very pleased with this!  And then I received and angry email from a parent and my head went spiraling down.

I thought back to the kids who loved the way class went today and it sort of broke my heart a bit.

I've been struggling to move my classroom out of the box, away from the traditional model of "here are some problems. Let's do a few together, then you do some."

I know there is resistance to change and that's normal.  Perhaps my problem is that I tried to change too much too quickly?

125 days into the year with this new district and I feel as though I'm starting to get a handle on what the kids need.  I'm just not sure yet how to get them there.

Yesterday, a student told my colleague that I never teach.  Last Thursday a student said I was the best teacher she'd ever had.  Monday, a student said that he likes my class because it helps him to feel smart.  Last year, I had two students in the same class tell me that I never teach and I teach everything.

One parent has demanded to see my qualifications to teach their child, while another sent me an email thanking me for the amazing impact that I had on their child.

I'm trying.  I'm trying so hard to be the teacher that my students need.  So often, however, the teacher they need isn't the teacher they want.  I know I won't be able to make everyone happy.  There will always be students and parents who disagree with my methods and ideology.

I will never stop trying.  I'm not perfect today, but I hope I'm better today than I was yesterday.

Tomorrow, I'll be even better!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Day 122: Loose Lips

I've been slacking.  I've skipped more blog posts in the past three weeks than in the last three years combined.  I have no excuses save laziness.

When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I cried a lot.  I cried when I was younger too, but I have many visceral memories of my Middle School and the specific places where I shed tears.  I cried at school dances when I couldn't gather the courage to ask my crush to dance.  I cried on the field when I was last one to finish my mile in gym.  I cried on the floor outside of classrooms when I was embarrassed for acting out.

I cried in the gifted office when my grades started to slip because I wasn't doing my assignments.  I didn't care much about my grades any more than other kids did.  I cared about not getting in trouble for my grades.

I was worried about facing my parents and so, in true middle school fashion, I wound myself up to a fever pitch and found myself sitting in the gifted office, crying.

This incident sticks out in my mind because of what I said.  I told the teacher in the room that if I told my mom about my grades, I wouldn't be able to sit down for a week.

I'm going to take the time now to say that my mother has never hit me.  I wasn't spanked growing up and came from a family who truly believed that violence wasn't the answer to problems.  My parents were not abusive in any sense of the word.  They were, however, fierce and I didn't want to feel their wrath.  I feared what My Little Pony fans know as "The Stare."

As soon as I said this, the mood in the room changed.  I had made a huge mistake and even as a stupid middle school student, I knew something was different.  It was palpable.

"Are you saying that your mother hits you?"

I began backpedaling fast enough to challenge Lance Armstrong.  I didn't fully understand the implications. but I knew that I wasn't abused and that my saying I was, or even implying it, was going to blow up MUCH bigger than I could handle.

I wasn't trying to cover anything up, other than my own insecurities.  In trying to deflect attention from my grades, I had created a much bigger problem.

I managed somehow to convince the teacher that I wasn't in fear of physical harm from my parents, and I have no idea if they even knew about this exchange, but it stayed with me in vivid detail.  I couldn't probably identify posters on the walls during that meeting.

Children don't always understand the implications of their words.  When interacting with each other, they can say and do things with minimal lasting effect, but when interacting with adults, especially adults who are specifically tasked with their safety, the rules change.

As a mandated reporter, if a student came to me with these same claims now, I would be required by law to report the incident to Child Services.  It wouldn't matter whether this child had a history of lying, or if I knew for a fact that the event had no happened.  The law requires me to report it.

Failure to do so would put my job and career in jeopardy.

If I had not changed my statement to something truthful, I could have severely impacted many different lives, including my own.  I do not believe that most students are aware of the grave implications that come with casual accusations.

We need kids to be safe.

We need kids to be believed when they speak up about abuse.

But this means that we need to be having conversations with them about the implications of their statements.  They need to understand that their words have consequences.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Day 118: Presentations

For the last few weeks, my Integrated Math Class has been working on a business development project.  There were several mileposts that they needed to hit, such as creating letterhead, writing job descriptions and creating a business plan.

Today began Shark Tank style presentations.  One group at a time will present their work to the class as though speaking to investors.  Presentation order is chosen randomly each day so everyone had to be ready to present today.

The students in the audience were told to ask questions the investors would ask and the presenters needed to be ready to answer legitimate questions.

The first group did an incredible job on their presentation but fell a bit short on the Q&A afterwards.  I thanked them for being willing to be the first ones to present and said that if they wanted, they could use the critique that I gave them and the feedback from the other students, revise their presentation and go again at the end of the week.

I pointed out to the rest of the students the great aspects of the presentation, as well as areas for improvement and told them to keep them in mind when doing their own presentations.

We had an interesting discussion about the types of questions they would need to be able to answer to possible investors.
"Sure, your ROI looks promising, but do I get free tattoos for my investment?"

It was also eye-opening to see how teenagers viewed the salary requirements for their potential employees.

"We require a college degree" was often followed by "minimum wage."  I reminded them that they should be calling around to comparable businesses for market research.

I haven't been feeling well for the past week or so.  When I'm under the weather, my patience with my students seems to increase exponentially.  It could be that my quiet tone inspires students to try a little harder, leaving me less frustrated and creating a positive feedback loop.

It could also be that I don't have the energy to fight.

Either way, I've been teaching quietly for the last week and more questions are being asked and more content is being covered.

I'm going to chug a bottle of Nyquil and go to bed...
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