Plan, Teach, Grade. Rinse, Repeat.

The serendipitous timing of a three hour layover in Newark must be maximized with a reflective blog on my weekend in Pennsylvania.  Specifically, about my day spent observing Justin Aion in his classroom.  If you follow Justin on twitter, read his 180-blog, or have the privilege of knowing him personally, you’re no doubt familiar with his harsh assessment of himself as a teacher and his no-nonsense way of sharing his opinions.  I knew heading into a day of observing his class that I was in for a treat, whatever that meant.

Justin let me blog about the experience as his daily entry, so if you’re interesting in reading about the amazing time I had, head on over there and get reading.  In the meantime, I want to discuss some implications this day-long observation had on me in my role at my school.

As a department head, I have the chance to view the classes of multiple math teachers, once, sometimes twice a year.  I find these opportunities incredibly valuable and I always have a take-away from each observation I do to benefit my own teaching practice.  Usually, I have a 20-30 minute conference with the observed teacher where we can reflect on what is working and how the students responded to the lesson.  These “after parties” are, hands-down, the most important part of the observation process because it is in those post-conferences that enlightenment results from the insights an outside observer can provide. Unfortunately, because all of these interactions have to happen outside of the school day, many of the important issues that arise in these post-conference meetings cannot be dissected and fully examined and therefore result in little or no long-term changes. For example, in the post-conference, a question addressed is “What changes or modifications would you make in the lesson?”  A few lines are filled in on a form and off they go to teach the next group of students. The discussion simply doesn’t happen because there’s not enough time to have it.   And because these observations are shared only with a small group of people (an administrator and an instructional specialist), there is no discussion of what issues arise over and over again in multiple classrooms.  As a result, few can benefit from the individual observation.  And there are hundreds of them done in the district each year.  And it seems as though the math department as a whole isn’t able to reap the maximum benefits of having a trained observer visit classrooms.

What was different about observing Mr. Aion’s class was that the observation happened from 6:30am until 2:50pm, but the post-lesson conference went on for the rest of the weekend.  I’m obviously not suggesting that we all spend a weekend math retreat discussing pedagogy over Thai food and club soda, but the conversations we have as teachers with teachers are important.

Important and not valued.

In fact, any time that isn’t spent actively teaching or planning and grading is consistently shoved outside of the 7-3 school day.  And it seems as though the teachers who want to engage in those discussions and realize their value must sacrifice personal time in order to do so.

Here’s another example:  Just today, at lunch, one of my colleagues brought up his frustration with a student that we share.  His grievances aren’t unique to this particular student and highlight an ongoing struggle that all teachers in our department share.  We were able to have a very meaningful discussion and came to a workable solution for this kid.  The problem:  this conversation, while incredibly productive, had to happen during our already rushed lunch period.

I think this bears repeating:  Teachers need time during the school day to talk with other teachers.  And I don’t mean to lesson-plan for common preps.  I mean to really dig deep into the outcomes of our teaching and have meaningful discussions on how to better serve all of our students.

Are Teacher’s Safe in Admitting Mistakes?

Image from

Sometimes on the way home, I tune my Iphone to the TED Radio Hour podcast.  I love the way Guy Raz re-captivates his audience by highlighting numerous, already captivating TED talks.  Today, I was listening to Making Mistakes and the first segment was an interview with Dr. Brian Goldman.  His words here are striking:

The redefined physician is human, knows she’s human, accepts it, isn’t proud of making mistakes, but strives to learn one thing from what happened that she can teach to somebody else. She shares her experience with others. She’s supportive when other people talk about their mistakes. And she points out other people’s mistakes, not in a gotcha way, but in a loving, supportive way so that everybody can benefit. And she works in a culture of medicine that acknowledges that human beings run the system,and when human beings run the system, they will make mistakes from time to time. So the system is evolving to create backups that make it easier to detect those mistakes that humans inevitably make and also fosters in a loving, supportive way places where everybody who is observing in the health care system can actually point out things that could be potential mistakes and is rewarded for doing so, and especially people like me, when we do make mistakes, we’re rewarded for coming clean.

If we replace doctors with teachers and medicine with student learning, would we proclaim that our profession fosters still safe space for teachers to talk about their mistakes?  Do we have the opportunity to be vulnerable in our classroom approach in order to improve our practice and learn from others who have made similar mistakes in the past?  In an age of education the covers of news magazines equate bad teachers to rotten apples, are we really able to grow directly from what is not working in our classrooms?  Or are we lead to believe that mistakes lead to labels like “ineffective teacher”?

We preach constantly about creating safe mistake-making environments for our students.  This strategy needs to be applied to teaching as well. We, too, need this loving, supportive environment that all may benefit from.   How do we, as teachers, create this space for ourselves so that ultimately, we can learn from those mistakes and make our profession stronger?

Female Feelings and Brash Boys??

It’s Friday, it’s Halloween, and our football team is playing tonight in the section finals for the first time in about 30 years.  To think that solidifying understanding of domain, range, increasing and decreasing functions was going to be a priority for my college algebra class was a farce and so I decided to make the class more productive.  We watched the Simpsons. And I ate my weight in Swedish Fish.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Girls Just Wanna Have Sums pokes fun at the stereotype that men do better in math and are inherently aggressive and women want to sit and talk about their feelings.  Consequently, Springfield Elementary is divided into a girls school and a boys school which embody those stereotypes.

(If you weren’t aware, every Simpson’s episode ever created is available on FX’s new website, Simpsons World.)

After the show, I asked the students to write about their feelings on this stereotype and how it plays out in the United States.  I then asked them to describe a satirical jab that they found particularly disturbing or upsetting.  As a math teacher, I sometimes lack the inclination to ask students how they feel on a particular controversial topic; but I’m always glad when I do ask.  Acknowledging differences that exist in the ways males and females approach math is important.  But this episode was more about educational access to high level mathematics.

The majority of what they found disturbing was that the girls weren’t given the same opportunities as the boys to experience challenging mathematics.  As I responded to their submissions, I took the opportunity to push their thinking further and ask “Are there instances, other than gender, where students are not given the same educational opportunities?”  I hope that my feedback will foster a dialog about the importance of all students having access to a high quality education, beyond inequalities based on gender.  Because these inequalities exist, maybe not based on gender, but definitely based on race and socioeconomic background.  I’d like to continue to help them think about what that means for those students.