I just finished my 11th year of teaching, and when I’m being honest with myself, I am experiencing some kind of burnout. I’m still a true believer in public education, and the beauty of mathematics as far as I comprehend it, and in the last year I have felt a great shift in my understanding of my role as a teacher away from strict content delivery (as a ‘highly qualified’ math teacher, conveying mathematics to students is my primary function in some eyes), and towards providing greater access to educational opportunity. This actually resonates deeply with me, child of the undelivered promise of the 60’s – I’ve had work to do my whole life, and maybe now I’m finally getting around to doing it. Thus, burnout: burnout regarding Regents preparation, burnout regarding credit recovery, burnout regarding the recently revised NYS mathematics standards after what can be described as a PAINFUL roll-out of the Common Core, burnout of whatever the buzzword of the year might be: differentiation, depth of knowledge, flexible groupings, performance assessment.
And yet, I am a true believer – I believe in the power of quality EQUITABLE education to provide opportunity and transform lives, and I believe that everyone CAN do mathematics given the appropriate environment, encouragement and support. Thank goodness for summer and the professional development opportunities it provides while there is time and mental space to absorb, reflect and restore – the Anja Greer Conference at Exeter, Park City Math Institute, and Twitter Math Camp, to name just a few. As I mentioned in my last post, I approached Twitter Math Camp this summer with anxiety – both professional and social. But my fears proved to be ungrounded – I came away, as I have with every attendance, imbued with renewed enthusiasm for teaching math, and feeling enveloped by a warm and generously-spirited community.
The program at Twitter Math Camp includes as one of its staples My Favorites sessions, held both before morning workshops and after lunch. These are brief presentations by attendees on favorite strategies, philosophies, or projects that they have used and would like to share. I give enormous credit to people who present at My Favorites, for these are done in front of the entire plenary – 200 people. And each presentation is a nugget of gold from a dedicated teacher’s toolkit – the best of the best. They are ALL impressive, truly. These are the Favorites that particularly stuck with this summer:
- Tony Riehl’s Distraction Box – Students deposit phones, fidget spinners, or other tools of mass distraction in this box in an effort to keep the removal of the distraction even more distracting to even more students than the original distraction (follow that?). It’s always good to remember that as teachers, we can inadvertently create drama in our (misguided?) efforts to maintain control in our classrooms.
- Jennifer Fairbanks Class Scrapbook – I already ‘borrowed’ Jennifer’s review archive project in Google Slides, but her idea for creating a Class Scrapbook for students using Slides at the outset of the term immediately does the following:
- establishes your interest in your students, and gives you some insight into them not otherwise available;
- lets them know about you;
- establishes the classroom community
- gets everyone using some technology.
- David Petro’s Engaging Math website, and his Dynamic Web Sketches! What a treasure trove – just check them out!
- Bob Lochel and the crazy web app how-old.net – This app predicts age from a photograph, and poses all kinds of interesting questions – statistical and otherwise. You can use it to gather data in your classroom, and also use it as a jumping-off point for discussion.
- Joey Kelly and Play with Your Math – Thanks for doing the work for us, Joey! He has created beautiful posters with engaging, accessible yet deep math problems which can be used to create an atmosphere of inquiry in your classroom.
- Glenn Waddell – Words Matter – Just watch this video to understand why I love Glenn. The idea that ‘words matter’ is so simple, yet Glenn illustrates how one person can effect change by thinking about the implicit messages in the language they use, and making sure that those messages are inclusive and positive.
- Kat Glass on Differentiating – An important idea came out of this talk on working with students to set individual goals, that “failing grade” should not be a bad word; we need to stop using euphemisms when talking to students.
The afternoon My Favorites are followed by the keynote speakers – this year we had the privilege of hearing from Grace Chen, Graham Fletcher, and Carl Oliver. Grace spoke to us about the Politics of Math Teaching: how we as teachers reinforce the authority of the stories about our students and their cultures we allow to be told.
These are just 2 of the 6 pages of notes I took during Grace’s talk; her messages were quiet, but so powerful: It’s complicated, and it’s political, and we are influenced but not wholly determined by our environment. We can make our choices in our classrooms both conscious and communicable. I was deeply moved by her talk.
Graham Fletcher, in his keynote “All I Really Need to Know I Learned from the MTBoS”, said something that has really stuck with me: it is good to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. He also pointed out that the collective brilliance of the community is greater than any one member – something I already knew, but in light of all the conversations about the community, was good to hear again.
Carl Oliver exhorted us all to #justpushsend in his talk, opening up the door into our classrooms, asking for feedback, and trusting that we are WHATEVER enough to actively participate in this community. He also wowed us with his statistical analysis of tweets under the hashtag #MTBoS, and sent most of us scurrying to find ourselves in the hashtag’s history. With the whole #MTBoSGate conversation going on as a backdrop to #TMC17, Carl’s keynote delivered a powerful message to me: this community is made up of people who have been chatting and sharing and putting themselves and their teaching out in public, on line for the last four plus years, and all you have to do is #justpushsend to participate. Truly.
And there was still more!! Can you believe I wasn’t even there for the entire conference?
Participants at Twitter Math Camp select a morning session – a workshop which runs for 2 hours each of the three full mornings of the conference (although the Law of Two Feet prevails). The themes of these sessions range from equity to instructional routines to specific curriculum to playing. Yes, playing with math, and I had the privilege of running just such a session with Jasmine Walker. and Danielle Reycer (in absentia) Our workshop, entitled Playing with Exeter Math, involved just that – math
nerds teachers working through challenging problem sets with like minded nerds individuals. Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am a serial over-planner, and the open-ended nature of our workshop contributed greatly to my anxiety about the conference. But I was thrilled that our 12-15 participants wanted nothing more than to ‘play math’ with one another, whether that meant working alone, in pairs on the board, or in groups modeling a challenging problem with ping pong balls.
An extensive menu of 30 and 60 minute single session workshops took place each afternoon. This post is already too long, but I need to summarize the workshops I attended, because they were each powerful in different and important ways to me as a teacher. (And since this recap is coming a full week and a half after the conference, many bloggers have written about them already.)
Henri Picciotto, “Reaching the Full Range” – Pure delight are the words that come to my mind in describing this session. Henri is animated, wise, and innovative in his varied approaches to bringing math to his students. Starting from the premise that every class, regardless of tracking, is heterogeneous, he presented homework techniques, manipulative strategies, calculator challenges, and other means for reaching as many students as possible. His stances are both pragmatic and caring, and his suggestions are practical and creative:
- Differentiation is a lot of extra work for the teacher and undermines the community of learners.
- Class must be worthwhile for strong students; form alliances with them and provide support for the weakest students.
- It’s not what you say, but what you do that promotes growth mindset in your classroom; students need to hear “you can learn if I give you TIME”.
- Don’t ban calculators – would you tell a student with a broken leg that they couldn’t use crutches?
- Include as many tools and provide as many representations of big ideas as you can – they create greater motivation, open up a lower entry threshold, and raise the ceiling of understanding.
Chris Shore, Clothesline Math I’ve been hearing about Clothesline Math for the last couple of years on line, but could never quite grasp exactly how it would work in a high school classroom until this workshop. Chris Shore, who I can only describe as magnetic in front of a class, had 30 teachers late in the afternoon, after a full day of intense workshopping and professional learning, oohing and aahing over the deep connections that can be made (and even deeper misunderstandings that can be revealed) with this easily assembled interactive tool. One group in the classroom is working on the clothesline, but everyone else has whiteboards and has their eyes on the prize – 100%participation and engagement. Of course, Chris is the Clothesline Master, with the patter to go with it, but after the hour (which flew by) in his workshop, I felt emboldened enough to make Clothesline Math my #1TMCThing (the takeaway from the conference which I am committing to use this year).
I attended two other wonderful workshops – Raid the Physics Lab run by Megan Hayes-Golding and Teachers as Advocates, facilitated by Max Ray-Rieck and Peg Cagle. Very different content (as the titles suggest), but both enriching, mind-expanding, and thought-provoking. And both opportunities to learn from people who I admire greatly.
I would write more, especially about these last two sessions, but you are probably as tired of reading this (if indeed you are still reading) as I am of writing. And I apologize for the length. After reading everyone else’s recaps of Twitter Math Camp 2017, and being convinced I didn’t have much to add to the conversation, I see now that I came away from this joyous gathering burn-out free and ready to re-engage with my professional pedagogical self (after I finish my summer vacation, that is!).
And I can’t wait to visit Cleveland next summer, for #TMC18!
Even without the students coming today, I was sleepless last night, wondering why I work in a job that fills me with so much anxiety. Curriculum on which I have little input (despite appearances to the contrary), possible schedule from hell, a sinus headache from non-Tropical Storm Hermine – all these gnawed at my brain despite my efforts to visit my ‘golden room’ in Vermont. We received an email from our principal that the morning will be spent on team building activities with ‘colleagues we may not know,’ and a promise of a prize for the team completes some unspecified set of tasks. Hmm- lesson in how to elicit appropriate motivation?
I got myself out of the house relatively on time, but managed to spill my oh-so-necessary Red Eye on the bus. Yes, I was THAT person. But as I neared school, a pleasant sense of anticipation took hold of me (especially after I was able to replace the coffee at a Brooklyn College cafe) as I thought of all the people I was looking forward to seeing after the restful summer. I stopped by the program office to say hi to former officemates who have become 40% administrators, checked in with my Assistant Principal, and made my way to the auditorium, ready to meet colleagues (in a school of 200 staff members, there are many people I don’t know well at all).
Although the morning passed pleasantly, our administration modeled how not to run an activity effectively, which was instructive. I’m really not being as sarcastic as this sounds; let me describe what happened:
The faculty was divided into 17 groups, whose members were posted on 5 successive screens of a powerpoint being shown in the auditorium. The groups were directed to stand in vague spots around the large room. We were then directed to one of four locations (not by group number, but rather by pointing and waving by the principal.
The four activities were as follows: rotating volleyball matches, egg-balancing relay races (with pingpong balls), a school-wide scavenger hunt, and a Trivial Pursuit game. And the announced prize for winning, by the way, was a Panera lunch, paid for out of the principal’s very own pocket (so he told us).
The success (or lack of failure) to this team-building exercise was due to the fact that the participants were teachers, and not students. The goal of the activity was that we would get to know teachers from other departments, but there were no name tags or activities to facilitate this, and the rooms (particularly the gyms) were so noisy that conversation and learning names was difficult. Still, it was a somewhat fun way to spend the morning, although I’m not sure what goal it accomplished. And I did enjoy Trivial Pursuit, especially when I gleefully shared the answer to “What was the proper Laugh-In response to: “Say goodnight, Dick”?
We moved from school-wide bonding to departmental meetings, the major portion of which was spent (in my department, anyway) discussing the new universal grading policies. The school is moving in a standards based grading direction, but the bulk of the language in the policies seems directed at allowing students to make up any work regardless of why it was missed. I am conflicted here; I believe in giving students the chance to show me what they have learned, but I also deal with a lot of class cutters and punctuality-defiers. Now, more than ever, I need to find ways to bring them into my classroom and keep them there.
We also covered the usual details: room assignments, technology (2 new Mac labs!!), reading IEPs, and observations.
The next hour was allocated to working on curriculum and alternative assessment tasks in subject teams, but the Algebra 2 team leader told us that she wasn’t going to work on anything today, and that she didn’t want to post her lesson plans in the department DropBox for fear of providing them to teachers who didn’t do any work. She then told the Algebra 1 team leader that she would work with her later on the Algebra 2 pacing calendar.
And herein lies my frustration with my school.
I work in a large school with high standards (for half of their students) and a noteworthy history. The school has a fairly efficient infrastructure which makes it easy for teachers to teach, and many teachers stay at the school through retirement. A reasonable percentage of the teachers are alumni, and many attended Brooklyn College (across the street). However, our top-heavy payroll results in large classes and few electives. And there is definitely an in-group which runs things.
So a couple of points to sum up:
- Despite my disappointment today, I know I have the respect of my Assistant Principal and many teachers in the department, and I have opportunity to push my teaching in the directions I think it needs to go.
- Working in the public school system in New York City (or anywhere) is never perfect, and in fact, can be extremely difficult. I’m lucky to work in the environment I do.
- I’m glad I got the best professional development available this summer at Exeter and Twitter Math Camp, and continue to nourish myself through the online community and Math for America.
Reflection (This is part of the Day in the Life blogging project, and will appear in each post.)
1) Teachers make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Sometimes we make so many it feels overwhelming. When you think about today, what is a decision/teacher move you made that you are proud of? What is one you are worried wasn’t ideal?
As this was a day of professional development, the moves I was making related to being a participant rather than teaching anyone. I was energetic and enthusiastic during the team-building activities (except for volleyball, during which I took on supportive role), and worked to keep everyone engaged and involved during Trivial Pursuit. I did my best to engage my content team leader despite her reluctance to work on our curriculum, asking questions and making suggestions. My overall attitude returning to school was not ideal; rather than viewing the year as an opportunity to effect change for me, my students, and my school community, I walked in with a case of the ‘same old, same olds.’ I’m happy to say that this mood was dispelled by day’s end.
2) Every person’s life is full of highs and lows. Share with us some of what that is like for a teacher. What are you looking forward to? What has been a challenge for you lately?
I am looking forward to seeing former students – they grow so much over the summer! And I am excited to try some new instructional routines, like Number Talks and Contemplate then Calculate. I am already planning Desmos-based activities for two days next week. These same activities present challenges for me – I am nervous about executing them well, and continuing with them despite the beginning bumps I will definitely encounter. Also, filtering out some of the brilliance I encounter every time I go on line – it’s great to observe and read about it, but accepting that I can’t do it all – I have trouble with that. I have to keep remembering: You do you. Thanks, Annie.
3) We are reminded constantly of how relational teaching is. As teachers we work to build relationships with our coworkers and students. Describe a relational moment you had with someone recently.
I reconnected with one of my favorite people at school this morning – Ms. R. She is an English teacher, so we don’t interact professionally that often. But we have a kindred spirit kind of relationship – when we met, we instantly recognized something in each other that felt comfortable and familiar. As it happens, she is one of the Google Apps for Education Evangelists in our school (our principal just purchased a subscription), and in addition to post-summer catching up, we talked a lot of shop. She will definitely be my go-to resource as I begin training.
4) Teachers are always working on improving, and often have specific goals for things to work on throughout a year.
I wrote all about my goals in my last post. School begins tomorrow, but I am already planning specific steps for my first Contemplate then Calculate routine (#1TMCthing), and will incorporate a discussion of mindset and self-advocacy in my initial lessons. And yesterday, I was recruiting participants for the Restorative Justice training.
Tomorrow the school year really begins, and then I’ll have more to share. I’m hoping my new bullet journal keeps me well organized!