Category: Uncategorized

# Black History Month

I took a risk this February. My school celebrates Black History Month in a number of ways, but I always feel like I need to do more. Here’s what I tried.

I’m not sure what made me think of this, but I decided that we would read a poem by an African-American poet each morning in homeroom. I figured this could be a simple yet powerful way to celebrate African-American culture, and honestly, I just thought it would be interesting. You can find the poems I used here.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect the first day. Would the students really listen? Would anyone want to participate? Would the experience be meaningful to anyone but me?

I explained to my homeroom the plan for the month. I told them that anyone could volunteer to read a poem or even bring in a poem of their choice. As I prepared to read the first poem, I paused and thought “Why not ask for a volunteer now?” I expected dead silence and blank stares. Instead, an energetic, excitable young man – who happens to be African-American – said he wanted to read the poem. Overjoyed. I was absolutely overjoyed.

As the month continued, I kept bringing in poems, and my students kept volunteering to read. It might have only been 7 or 8 students, but when I started, I had no expectations whatsoever. And while my students sometimes struggled to read the poems, they truly committed themselves to their delivery. And the rest of the class? Quiet, respectful, attentive. Did they find the poems interesting or meaningful or enjoyable? I can’t say, but I do know that they respected my idea and made it a reality.

Students read nearly all of the poems. I had to read 1 or 2 because of time constraints, and I asked a guidance counselor to read one. Her reading of Audre Lorde’s “Hanging Fire” truly moved me. I had hoped that having a “guest reader” would be special, but I was totally blown away. I think the kids were too.

For the last day of February, I decided to talk briefly about the idea of Black History Month and close with a short selection from a poem that means something to me. I thanked my students for committing to the poem readings all month and told them that I would really miss not having a poem to read every day. Then, I attempted to tell them how I’d like us all to carry the message of Black History Month forward. That we need to spend all year trying to make our school, our community, and our country more tolerant and more just. I think I stumbled over my words a bit here. I was emotional, especially knowing what would come next. I closed with the last few lines of Amiri Baraka’s “Three Modes of History and Culture.”

I think about a time when I will be relaxed.
When flames and non-specific passion wear themselves
away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn
and soften, and my songs will be softer
and lightly weight the air.

I’m not a poet. I’m not an English teacher. I’m not a literary scholar. Maybe this poem or any of the others mean something totally different than I think. I don’t think it matters, though. What matters is that we pushed ourselves to do something different, that we worked outside of our comfort zone, that we really tried to learn and understand.

But it’s not enough. I need to do more next year. I need to do more for my students. To let them know that their history and their culture matter. To let them know that they matter. To help us all learn to be better, more tolerant, more understanding, more generous in spirit.

This was a risk. I don’t know if I did a good thing. I don’t know if I made a mistake. I badly want feedback, but I’m also terrified that I sent a message I didn’t intend to send. It’s uncomfortable sometimes – teaching – but it’s worth it for those moments. Those powerful moments when twenty-five thirteen- and fourteen-year-old students devote their attention to listening to a classmate read a poem. I hope that I made a difference.

Between 1969 and 1972, twelve men walked on the moon. This is humanity’s greatest accomplishment – that we managed to send astronauts more than 200,000 miles through the unknowns and the dangers of space, that these astronauts set foot on another world, and that they returned home safely. We did this to explore. Yes, there was an element of Cold War competition, but in the end, these missions were about science, about discovery, and about challenging the limits of possibility.

John Young has died, leaving only five surviving astronauts who walked on the moon. Their ages: 87, 85, 85, 82, and 82. Young was 87. Eight others who flew to the moon without landing are still alive; the youngest is 81. I hope that these men have many years left, but realistically, the day will soon come when no living person has set foot on the moon or even left low Earth orbit. Despite all of the advances we have made, we have not yet surpassed this accomplishment from nearly fifty years ago. NASA’s priorities have certainly changed, and they still do lots of wonderful, important work. And perhaps sending an astronaut back to the moon would serve little purpose. But I cannot avoid the sadness I feel knowing that some of our greatest heroes will soon be gone and that they will leave us without successors.

Gemini 3. Gemini 10. Apollo 10. Apollo 16. STS-1. STS-9. What an amazing career.

The image on the left shows Young in 1965, a few weeks before the Gemini 3 mission. The image on the right shows Young (seated, second from right) in 1983, about six months before the STS-9 mission. Young ultimately worked for NASA for 42 years. My words cannot do justice to his great career. Instead, let me share with you some quotes I find particularly meaningful in light of his death.

My favorite description of John Young comes from Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon:

Inside Young was an unwavering determination, an overriding sense of responsibility – to the space program, to the country, to his crew – and an almost childlike sense of wonder at the universe.

But more than this, I think, Young felt a responsibility – a commitment – to truth and to knowledge. Chaikin writes:

More than most astronauts, Mattingly thought, John Young seemed mindful of the risks of his profession. Around the Astronaut Office, his memos were well known, sounding the alarm about some engineering problem he’d uncovered. He wouldn’t rest until he knew every detail about the particular system or technique that worried him. And when he had learned all he could, then it was time to go fly – with his eyes wide open. That was the only way to handle this business; that was what made him so good. Maybe Young worried so much because he saw so clearly. But when it came down to the real question – Will you fly it? – John’s answer would always be yes.

John Young, intrepid explorer. Perhaps in looking at heroic figures from the past we see in them what we want to see. Maybe we look for the best of ourselves in them. In John Young, I see a man who lived for the thrill of discovery, a man for whom being bold was a way of life, a man who acknowledged challenges but saw past them, a man with a vision of limitless possibility. Consider the scene Chaikin describes as Young exits the Space Shuttle Columbia after its maiden flight:

Later, after the ground crews had arrived, Young emerged and bounded down the stairway to inspect his ship, punching the air with his fist like a relief pitcher who had just won the World Series. That day, Young told a crowd of well-wishers, “We’re really not too far, the human race isn’t, from going to the stars.”

Nearly thirty-seven years after that flight – and nearly forty-six years since Young walked on the moon – the stars still seem not too far off. NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others continue to push boundaries and extend our reach into the stars. But no amount of technological advancement can replace the boldness and the vision of men like John Young. We lost a great man on January 5, 2018. Ad astra, John Young. Ad astra.

I recently watched this video produced by YouCubed and Jo Boaler that talks about giftedness. Essentially, the video argues that labeling students as gifted presents equity issues and does a disservice to students by giving them a fixed idea of what they can learn and do as well as how they should behave.

Giftedness is real. One definition of “gifted” is “a high level of intelligence [indicative of] advanced, highly integrated, and accelerated development of functions within the brain” (Clark, 2013). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act defines gifted students as those who “give evidence of high achievement capability … and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.” Just as some individuals have extraordinary artistic or athletic talents, some students have significant intellectual gifts. Acknowledging this fact does not force us to believe that some students cannot learn math. Nor does it force us to set limits on what we think students can learn and do.

The problem, I think, is that YouCubed has conflated the concept of giftedness with how this concept has been applied in schools. Even if many teachers and schools wrongly label and limit kids, that doesn’t mean giftedness is not a useful concept. It simply means that teachers need to do better with how we use the idea of giftedness.

This argument refers to ineffective and inappropriate uses of giftedness to suggest that gifted education is inherently inequitable. But we can provide services to gifted students without limiting other children’s potential. It’s bad teaching to suggest that gifted students should always know the answer or should not ask questions. Similarly, it’s bad teaching to suggest that non-gifted students cannot learn high levels of math or to place false limitations on what students can do. But these are problems with teacher behavior. These are not problems with the idea of gifted education.

Indeed, our developing knowledge of neuroplasticity and the idea that brains experience significant growth and change actually support labeling students as gifted. Why? Because acknowledging the incredible potential that some students have forces us to consider ways to help them realize that potential.

Is it inequitable to provide services such as enriched classes to gifted students? No. Equity means allowing every student the opportunity to achieve his or her potential. Equity does not mean offering the exact same opportunities to every student. Our obligation as educators is to create an environment that helps every student to learn and grow as much as possible. We can do so while accepting that some students learn faster or slower, that some students require more support or greater challenges.

Is everyone gifted? No. But that doesn’t mean we should place artificial limits on what students can learn and do. It’s okay to acknowledge the great intellectual capacity and potential that gifted students have. We can do this without saying that gifted students are better or deserve more. We cannot afford to avoid labeling gifted students, however, because doing so will make it harder to meet the needs of exceptional learners.

Note: I wrote a draft of this post after initially viewing the YouCubed video last month. I’ve fleshed out some of my commentary, but it remains mostly the same as I left it late in the evening on November 9th.

References

Clark, B. (2013). Growing up gifted: Developing the potential of children at home and at school. Boston: Pearson.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 7801 (1965).

# TMC17 Highlights and Shout-outs

I’ve been back from Twitter Math Camp for more than a day. I guess that means it’s time to reflect on some of the best parts and to recognize some people who made the experience wonderful.

Dylan Kane was a great roommate. I’d never met him before TMC, so I wasn’t sure quite what I was getting myself into. But he was supportive and insightful. I’m glad I know him, and I look forward to talking to him more in the future. He’s @math8_teacher on Twitter and is definitely worth a follow.

Chris Luzniak was my mentor. His exuberance helped make my first TMC an amazing experience. I’m so thankful for Chris’s kindness and good humor. I probably wouldn’t have talked to anyone if he hadn’t forced me to meet so many people on the first day!

Chris and Mattie B led the three-day “Talk Less, Smile More” session. I learned so much about bringing discussion into the math classroom, and I’m super excited to get my students talking this year. I already have a fun Talking Points activity planned for the first few days. I look forward to using some of Chris and Mattie’s ideas to make my classroom into a richer learning environment for everyone.

Grace Chen delivered an amazing keynote! Her talked both saddened me and inspired me. As Grace showed, the deck is stacked against many people, and by their designs, systems in this country often work to prevent marginalized peoples from getting ahead. Grace’s thoughtfulness and passion cannot be denied. I’m so glad to have met her. I strongly encourage you to follow her on Twitter @graceachen. You won’t regret it!

I took a risk and talked to Sammie Marshall on Thursday. She listened to my rambling thoughts about diversity at my school, promoting tolerance, and supporting students from marginalized groups. These can be challenging topics to discuss, so I’m thankful for the opportunity to talk to someone as open-minded and as understanding as Sammie. She has a blog, and I really hope she starts writing more frequently!

I enjoyed Chris Shore‘s  Clothesline Math session so much that I went to a second session he held the following day! Chris’s enthusiasm made his session an absolute blast, and Clothesline Math seems like a fantastic way to build number sense. I’m looking forward to using the clothesline this fall. I have a feeling it’s going to make a big difference with my students. Chris is on Twitter (@MathProjects), and even if he’s only 10% as awesome online as he was in person, that’s still pretty darn awesome!

Sam Shah is just an awesome guy. I told him about the Quote Board at the newbie dinner, and he urged me to blog about it. Who can say no to Sam Shah?! The post proved quite popular, which is a nice affirmation of the work I’ve done to build a strong classroom culture. I’ve read Sam’s blog for years, so I truly enjoyed meeting him. Thanks, Sam, for being awesome and for giving me a confidence boost!

Major shout-out Lisa Bejarano who was one of the first people I met and talked with. Her kindness and her support definitely helped me feel more comfortable. Lisa came up to me and complimented me on The Terror of Twitter Math Camp at a point when I didn’t think anyone even looked at it! I haven’t read her blog yet, but I’m looking forward to exploring it!

Shout-out as well to Deb Boden who talked to me every day – even after I’d forgotten that we’d met on the first day! Deb is just one of the many kind, welcoming people I met at TMC. Thanks to Deb and everyone else for making me feel like part of the TMC community.

I had an awesome conversation with Scott Miller on Friday while walking back to the hotel. Scott had some great advice on introducing new ideas to colleagues. I hope to demonstrate some of what I learned at TMC to my colleagues and let them actually experience the math!

I met Kate Nowak at Rose and Crown after Descon17. I’d read her blog many times over the years, so it was exciting to actually talk to her. We talked about Illustrative Math and curriculum in general. I’m looking forward to taking a deeper look at IM this year to see if it would be a good fit for my school. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Kate, who has blogged twice in the past week, will keep up the pace!

Plenty of other people made TMC17 memorable for me. Thanks to everyone for creating such a welcoming and enriching environment. I’m so excited for TMC18 in Cleveland!!!

# The Joy of Twitter Math Camp

On Thursday, I wrote about The Terror of Twitter Math Camp. Three amazing, inspiring, mind-blowing, thought-provoking, deeply moving days later and I’m ready to write the sequel.

I am a math teacher, but I don’t teach math.
I teach people.
People.
People make me nervous.
And anxious.
And uncomfortable.
But I work with people every day.
All day.
And I’m at a conference with people.
Who make me nervous.
And anxious.
And uncomfortable.
But they don’t do that.
I do that.
They talk to me.
And laugh with me.
And sit next to me.
And shake my hand.
And listen to me.
And smile at me.
And some of them feel the same way I feel.
Nervous.
And anxious.
And uncomfortable.
Maybe they think I make them feel that way.
But I don’t.
I talk to them.
And laugh with them.
And sit next to them.
And shake their hands.
And listen to them.
And smile at them.
But sometimes I don’t do any of that.
Sometimes I don’t talk to anyone.
I don’t laugh
I sit by myself.
I don’t look at anyone.
I don’t smile.
And sometimes they do all of that too.
Even though they teach people.
And work with people every day.
All day.
And they’re at a conference with people.
The same conference I’m at with people.
Because we want to be better math teachers.
Who don’t teach math.
We teach people.
People who make us nervous.
And anxious.
And uncomfortable.
I don’t know why I do it.
Or why they do it.
But I know exactly why.
Because I love people.
I want to help people.
I want to support people.
Even though people make me nervous.
And anxious.
And uncomfortable.
And that’s why I’m here and why they’re here.
And that’s why we share.
Even when we’re nervous.
And that’s why we talk.
Even when we’re anxious.
And that’s why we smile.
Even when we’re uncomfortable.
Because even though it doesn’t feel good.
It feels amazing.
And inspiring.
And wonderful.
And better than anything else in the world.
Just to make one student.
Even only one student.
More successful. Happier. Stronger. Kinder. Wiser. More confident.
To make one student into the person that student wants to be.
No matter what.
To make that student’s life better.
I can be nervous.
And anxious.
And uncomfortable.
For as long as I live.
But it’s worth it.
For that one student.
Even only one student.

Thank you all for the kindness, for the support, for the friendship, for the wisdom, for the generosity, for the hundreds of small gestures that made my time here so meaningful.

# The Terror of Twitter Math Camp

I don’t know who to talk to or what to say or where to stand or when to get involved or oh my gosh what do I do with my hands when I’m standing here shouldn’t talking to people be easier but it just seems so forced and am I thinking too long or not long enough and am I staring did I nod enough or too much am I agreeing too much do I need to jump in here what is this person’s name again do they even know I’m here why am I here anyway but maybe I’m doing okay or maybe not you can make it through this I know you can I know you can I know you can just be yourself but not too much yourself don’t seem crazy or strange or weird or insane or maybe just don’t worry about what anybody else is saying or doing but are they judging me and do I even care wait have I said anything lately what’s the right thing to say did someone just say that make sure to nod again smile not too much that looks creepy keep going you’re doing okay you can do this you can do this you can do this it will all be over eventually just hang in there it’s not that bad you will be stronger because of this it’s about the learning am I thinking too much again quick smile and nod and agree and make eye contact okay that’s too much eye contact don’t scare people but you don’t need to stare at their shoes either and make sure to smile and nod and don’t look uncomfortable but don’t look like you’re trying not to look uncomfortable and make sure to say something but not something obvious and don’t make jokes unless they’re good jokes how do I know if that’s funny anyway and do I laugh at my own joke and if someone else makes a joke laugh but not too much because nobody likes someone who laughs too much I don’t think I’ve blinked lately do people usually have to remember to blink or is that just me now I’m blinking too much okay maybe there’s something in my eye play it off okay smile again and nod yes I agree okay good it was nice meeting you okay have a good afternoon see you later I’ll try to be more normal I promise I promise I can do better trust me I’m just like all of you and I really want to be here I really do I really do I really do deep breaths deep breaths deep breaths deep breaths

# Get On My Fraction Level!

Many students have trouble with fractions. When I taught at a high school, my 10th and 11th grade students regularly had difficulty performing operations with fractions. As an 8th grade teacher, I’ve tried to help my students develop, refine, and maintain strong fraction skills. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t consider fluency in performing operations with fractions to be the most important skill for my students to have, but it’s certainly one that will contribute to their success at the high school level. With that in mind, here’s an approach I used this year to work on fractions.

After the warmup and overview of the day’s class some time in October, I pulled up a slide with four fraction multiplication problems. These first ones were relatively simple like $4\cdot \frac{1}{2}$. Students had little trouble performing the multiplication (yay!), and thankfully, students presented a number of different methods. The most common early responses were $\frac{4}{1}\cdot \frac{1}{2}=\frac{4}{2}=2$ and $4\div 2=2$. As I continued to present problems over the next few weeks, I added complications. Students noticed that simplifying often made the multiplication easier (e.g. $\frac{10}{5}\cdot 44$). The big breakthrough came when I presented a particularly annoying pair of fractions to multiply like $\frac{27}{7}\cdot \frac{14}{9}$. To this point, I had not pushed students to use a particular method; any simplifying they did came from them not me. Whoever offered the response of $\frac{378}{63}$ did not respond kindly to the question of whether that fraction could be simplified. By this point, students had been doing so much simplifying that it was no surprise to anyone that their lives would be easier if they found a way to simplify before multiplying. A brief discussion of the commutative property allowed a student to rewrite the multiplication as $\frac{27}{9}\cdot \frac{14}{7}$, which everyone in the classroom felt comfortable multiplying. It was a great moment of mathematical discovery.

As the weeks progressed, I continued to throw more and more challenging multiplication problems at them, and I also started to incorporate some addition, subtraction, and division. Students began feeling much more comfortable with fractions than they ever had before, even if they still weren’t the biggest fraction fans around. This fraction work paid off when we wrote equations of lines, and in general, I think it gave students some confidence in an area where they had so little before.

I definitely plan to continue using “Get On My Fraction Level” in my classes this coming school year. I’d like to find a way to incorporate more active participation. I might give students a weekly template to use each day when we do our fractions. I did that two years ago with scientific notation, and it worked pretty well. One big concern is time: with so many topics to cover, it’s difficult to carve out time to work on something that isn’t really an 8th grade standard. Having seen how working with fractions helped so many of my students grow, however, I will definitely find a way to incorporate regular fraction work into my lessons.