Do You Let Yourself Fail?

I sat down this weekend to do some recreational mathematics with a friend.  Maybe you know him; his name is Justin Aion.  He writes a pretty cool blog over at Re-Learning to Teach.

I made it a goal of mine this year to work on some geometry for a few reasons.  First, I’m not that great at it.  Second, the students at our school historically struggle with it as well.  Two of the problems we chose were from the Five Triangles blog.  And to be completely honest, I sucked.  I sucked a lot.  I sat there for much of the Google Hangout drawing and drawing the figures and then writing down what Justin had eloquently discovered.  And then nodding in agreement. Here are pictures of Justin’s and my respective work:

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Then we decided to work on something I thought was more my cup-o-mathematics tea.  Turning to the Math Forum, we tried this weeks scenario for Trig/Calculus.  How silly of me to assume that since this is just the beginning of the school year, perhaps the task could be solved using Algebra.  Of course Justin busted out the calculus seamlessly and like a pig in numerical-feces, excitedly worked his way to viable solution. (It turns out that applying algebra to this problem was not as straight forward as it might have seemed.) Again, I felt defeated by the mathematics.

The point here is that doing math that’s unfamiliar is hard.   Thinking deeply about problems is hard work.  Applying previous knowledge to a new situation is also taxing.  What I really took away from hours of difficult mathematics was an empathy for the anxiety of many of my students when I ask them to do the same.  It is disingenuous of me to expect my students to persevere through problems if I’m not willing to do the same.  So, I’m committing to being uncomfortable, mathematically, and I will get better.  My geometry skills will improve, and perhaps I’ll be able to revisit my long lost calculus pals, derivative and integral.  The important thing is that I’m willing to try and willing to fail.   In the long run, I think my students will benefit, and I know that I will as a teacher.

The Anti-Answer-Getter

I must start off today saying that I have never experienced such a fantastic start to the school year than I have this year.  The energy within our department is almost palpable, and I know that the students are catching on as well.  Here’s an email I got from one of my co-workers this morning:Untitled

I want to give credit to Teresa and Dianna because they were more of the driving force behind encouraging the use of Plickers.  I’m thrilled with the result nonetheless.

The group that impressed me the most today was my first hour, math recovery.  These are kids who have previously failed a math class and are recovering credit.  You can imagine the lack of math love in the room.  Here was their prompt:

Make 37 1885 C

 

SPOILER ALERT:  I’m going to reveal the answer so if you’d like to try it for yourself, stop reading.

I had them come up with ways they could make 37 using different amounts of numbers.  It seemed that we could get 36 using 10 numbers or 38 using 10 numbers but couldn’t quite get 37.  Then we tried getting 37 using 9 numbers or 7 numbers.  We had some good discussion about which strategy seemed the most useful.

One student in particular mentioned that he wanted to add some and subtract some but he felt he would always be short without a 2.  I had them share their results on the board and I was very satisfied with the effort I’d seen.

I was nervous about the answer reveal because as it turns out, it’s impossible to make 37 with 10 numbers.  What we were able to do is focus our attention on what we DID discover, rather than the fact that there was no answer.  We discovered that Odd + Odd = Even, Even + Even = Even, and Even + Odd = Odd.  Because there is an even number of odd numbers, an odd sum is not possible.  I was more pleased with this result than any single answer they could have given me.  I expected a backlash from a group of students used to answer-getting but found that they were able to embrace a learning activity that didn’t one final answer.  I’ll mark that class period in the win category.

Talky, Talky, Talky. No More Talky.

Because I’m hyper-interested in helping to create a space where kids feel comfortable sharing ideas and making mistakes, I began my classes today with the Talking Points activity that Elizabeth Statmore (@cheesemonkeysf) shared at Twitter Math Camp this past summer.  Learning that a tight rule of No Comment was a cornerstone of the activity intrigued me to try it in my classroom.  Productive conversations in math class don’t happen automatically very often.  I’m hoping that using this process helps students to use exploratory talk around mathematics.

The No Comment was difficult for students, but I realized quickly, it was difficult for me as well.  For example, when debriefing with the whole class, I was tempted to comment…after each group presented.  I had to tell myself each time a group gave a summary that there wasn’t a need for my comment.  I was tempted to clarify thinking or give a follow up explanation.   I needed to let the groups own their experience.

This realization made me cognizant of the other times a comment by me is unnecessary following a student response.   How many times have I insisted on having the last word in the class?  How many times have I summarized a student’s thinking for him or her?  Hopefully, as students move toward being more exploratory with their discussions, I can move toward being less dominant in the conversation.

Facing Fear

It’s always fascinating to me to watch students step into a new classroom and immediately search for their social comfort zone.  Students aren’t unique in this phenomenon; they are just the group of humans in which I interact the most.  Today being the first day of school, the visible and invisible social boundaries that students draw between one another were clear as I silently observed.

As someone who struggled fitting into a unique social group growing up, I’m most interested in encouraging kids to break away from their cliques. After reading much of what Ilana Horn has written on the subject, I also began to see links between being socially extroverted and status in the mathematics classroom.  For example, kids who are quiet and mostly keep to themselves don’t often have opportunities to display their “smartness,” whereas an outgoing kid willing to contribute voluntarily to class discussion would have their “smartness showcased regularly.  Interestingly enough, when doing the “personality coordinates” activity with my college algebra class today, one group created this graph:  IMG_6508

They defined social achievements as number of friends and academic achievements as GPA.  It allowed us to have a nice discussion about grades and overall intelligence as well as some lovely talk regarding different definitions of social achievement. I look forward to continuing these conversations over the course of the trimester and challenging them to let their popularity guards down.

On a similar note, I tried the Blanket Challenge in my Algebra 2 class.  If you have not read this chapter in Powerful Problem Solving, I’m not sure why you are still sitting here.  Go read it! What impressed me with this group of kids, was they were willing to step out of physical comfort in order to achieve the result they wanted.  IMG_6505 IMG_6506

On the first day of school, in a class that’s tough to adjust to, I can’t begin to express how proud I am of this group of kids for their willingness to work together respectfully and successfully.  I’m hoping to build on the results from this activity in the days to come.

Torch Relays

Two 12-hr work days down, 5 days until school officially starts. (Cliche about how there’s never enough time). I’m optimistic about this year, but I can’t remember a school year that I didn’t have a positive outlook. (Incurable, I’m told).
Yes, this summer, I attended Twitter Math Camp, and there’s a lot of residual glow that transfers easily to energy toward my classroom. But what’s really got me charged this year is watching my two co-workers, who joined me at TMC, prepare for the school year by igniting the rest of our department with the torch they’ve had burning since we got back from Jenks. These two awesome women (@tootalltrees and @d_Hazelton) have courageously engaged the other math teachers at the highschool in important conversations about how students learn mathematics best. And it’s catching on. Hopefully like wildfire.
I put my desks in groups of 4 today and took a neat panoramic picture with my new phone. I’m excited to see if it’s a successful, productive room arrangement.

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Thanks, Jenks

When you build up a future experience in your mind, it is not often BETTER than how you envisioned it.  Twitter Math Camp was that experience for me.  It was so much better than it looked on a hashtag.

In 2008, I began my twitter journey.  I mostly followed celebrities and friends.  My brother swore that twitter’s true gold was in following real people that have similar interests and ideas.  As it turns out, he was right.  Since jumping head first into the Mathtwitterblogosphere, I’ve experienced nothing but a genuine willingness to help one another become better educators.  TMC solidified my understanding of this network of delightful people that make up the math-educator-online community.

Recently, twitter was abuzz over the thought that TMC should be more theory, less play.  Part of the beauty of this experience was the organic nature in which everyone gathered and collaborated.  At professional conferences, you never see groups of teachers still talking pedagogy at 6pm, still at 8pm, and at midnight, and still at 2am. This went on for FOUR solid days.  Can you imagine this happening at school:  students staying after school into the night to work on the math investigation that they can’t stop talking about?  It doesn’t happen.  But anyone who’s been a summer camp counselor knows that there’s always that group of kids that can’t get enough interaction with their peers and choose to forgo sleep to soak it all in.  That’s why the C in TMC stands for CAMP and not Conference.

Some highlights for me: 

  • Justin Aion is the same ball-of-fun in person that he seems online.  I’m grateful for getting to spend time with him.
  • Max Ray is an artist at facilitating problem-solving.  His session was masterfully orchestrated.
  • Steve Leinwand is a humble communicator but an electrifying presenter.  I was moved by his keynote very much.
  • Malke and Christopher’s willingness to teach Math in Your Feet afterhours was generously spectacular. I was skeptical at first about my ability to engage, but I’m so thankful that I was pushed to do so.
  • Bob Lochel knows more stats activities than pages in a textbook.  I enjoyed working with him in the morning sessions very much.
  • Glenn Waddell is an amazing human being.  I’m humbled to have gotten to steal some of his attention this weekend.
  • Eli Luberoff is a humble genius and a class act.
  • I have the two greatest coworker friends, Teresa and Dianna, who came with me to Jenks and dove head first into the awesomeness of this community.

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I had hundreds of interactions with some fantastic people.  This isn’t something that can be re-created online, despite the fact that the community began there.  Thank you, Jenks, for hosting such an incredible event.

 

Confession: I’ve never really been good at math

Here’s a confession of mine:  I’ve never really thought of myself as ‘good at math.’  Yep, I’m a high school math teacher proclaiming my discontent with my mathematical abilities.  Ironic?  Sad?  Make you want to hide your children?  Read on, it’s not as bad as you think.

Being a math teacher was a second career for me, as my undergraduate degree is in accounting.  I dabbled in a minor in mathematics while at the University of Iowa but let a ‘C’ in Linear Algebra from a cold professor change my trajectory for the next 4 years.   When I went to graduate school to earn my masters in Mathematics Education, I was always intimidated by the math undergrads who were much more polished and current on mathematical theory.  Recently I came across this article which shed some light onto what often happens with girls in areas like mathematics. In short, women tend to give up on themselves more quickly because of their strong inner voice.   I know that I was never discouraged from pursuing difficult challenges by my parents, especially academically.  I came from a family that was very supportive of my education.  It was my own inner-voice telling me that I wasn’t as good at pure mathematics, which was the lingering after effect of that C grade.

Recently, Rafranz Davis wrote a blog post about the transformation of twitter admiration into palatable inspiration.   This post was timely for me since as summer conference season reaches its peak, I’ll be attending Twitter Math Camp starting on Thursday with dozens of other math tweeps with whom I’ve admired and been inspired by.  These positive interactions have projected me to a place where I’m comfortable with my mathematical abilities and completely humbled by my ability to participate with such a wonderful group of educators across social media.

 

 

Listening and Learning from Educators of Color

About a month ago, Christopher Danielson offered up a challenge to white educators to listen more and talk less. Specifically, we should be listening often to students/teachers/people of color and the privilege of being a white american that they do not have the opportunity to enjoy.   I took Danielson’s advice and began to really listen intently to these voices.  This blog post is how my listening will impact my teaching practice.

My family upbringing did not include overt racism, and my parents instilled values that included kindness to all.    I was confident growing up (and still am today) that my father worked very hard in order to financially secure his family.  His beginnings weren’t humble, as most would define the term, but coming from a family with 4 children, earning a C average in high school and attending the only college that would accept him weren’t great indicators of the kind of financial well-being that he has achieved.  My mother grew up in a household which included an alcoholic father and a co-dependant mother.   Her resilience allowed her to escape the dysfunction of her upbringing and earn a college degree. So my conclusion was: My family isn’t racist, my parents worked hard to get where they are in life, so anyone (white or black) should be able to do the same.  If they don’t, the problem must be individual.  After all, not all white people discriminate against black people.  

Then I began to listen.  And with that listening came a fuller understanding and acknowledgement of my white privilege and the institutional racism that still affects people of color today.  For example, I listened to Jose Vilson, whose book This is Not a Test explores the effect that race has on school and teacher quality.  His personal narrative allowed me to fully immerse myself into the issues of equality (or lack there of) that plague our inner-city schools.

I listened to Melinda D. Anderson whose unapologetic, relentless support for students and educators of color opened my eyes to how racism is treated as a thing of the past in our country but is a present day dilemma for people of color.   Her voice has helped me to recognize that black students disproportionately attend high poverty schools making segregation a 2014 issue, not a 1954 one.

I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates whose monumental article The Case for Reparations challenged me to recognize that black americans may have equal opportunities in our country, but their access to those opportunities is anything but equal.  I listened to an hour long interview he did with Vox and one of the most powerful messages I received was this:  Our country had a 250-year policy of slavery plus another 100 years of downright discriminatory, racist laws.  We’ve spent the last 50 years trying to repair it, with many policy makers still not acknowledging that there was anything to repair in the first place.  So Coates asks, if a country spends 350 years seriously mistreating a particular culture and then 50 years sort of trying to fix it, where would you expect that culture to be socio-economically?

I also listened to this:  “Sixty-Three percent of Americans believe ‘blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.'” And for the first time in my life I profoundly disagreed with that statement.  The very idea that blacks ‘who can’t get ahead’ would choose irresponsibility purposefully, over and over again, doesn’t make sense to me.  There are many reasons I find this belief held by a majority of Americans to be lunacy, but one in particular that is close to my heart is education.  As George Washington Carver stated, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”  How do we expect black students to earn that key to freedom when inequality continues to play a key role in schooling opportunities?   Is education a great equalizer when blacks are wildly disproportionately educated in schools that don’t measure up?

And I continue to listen.  The National Association for Multicultural Education published interviews with teachers of color which help white teachers like me “work more effectively and respectfully” with students of color:

  1. Listen to teachers of color
  2. Examine white privilege
  3. Be honest about your knowledge of a culture
  4. Clarify your purpose for teaching
  5. Challenge your students rather than pity them
  6. Be resilient

(Multicultural Perspectives 9(1), 3-9, 2007)

I want to continue to listen because by listening so far, I have been able to learn.  As a white person, I do not experience judgements based on my race, which is why it is so vital that I keep listening to those who do.

 

 

Twiddle dee Twiddla

Yesterday was our first official day of SUMMER.  So after a thunderstorm curtailed my gardening plans, I thought I’d check out some apps that have been on my to-do list for a while.   First up:  Twiddla, an online collaborative whiteboard.  Why a collaborative whiteboard?  Our school district uses Google Apps and there are many beneficial collaborative options through Google docs, sheets, etc. The problem:  Mathematics just doesn’t translate very well when typed or through a computer medium.  If I’d like kids to collaborate in real-time via the web, Twiddla might be a viable option for students to collaborate in real time online, with a blank canvas.

What I like:

  • No login required.  Just post the web address and kids are good to go.
  • PDF’s and images are insertable into the background.
  • There is a grid background as well.
  • Students can “chat” or audio conference while working.
  • A variety of colors, shapes, and line thicknesses can be utilized.
  • The Pro version (usually $14/month) is free for educators and students.
  • The writing is very smooth without a stylus.

What I did not like as much:

  • Annotations are added when writer “pauses” rather than as they are writing.
  • An “undo” button would be helpful.

Some screenshots from my twiddla-created session:

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Now, I’ll have to wait until Fall to test this app out with students, but I’m optimistic about it’s potential.  It could just be one of those things that’s “cool” but in reality, pencil and paper will do.