I Started a Twitter, and Other Musings

I started a Twitter. I started a Twitter because I wanted to jump on the #MTBoS bandwagon. Since joining, I have used it to get ideas for class, reflected on my practices, engaged in a conversation about the purpose of high school, communicate project ideas to my students over the weekend, and even had a student bring in supplies to keep a project going for class. Unfortunately, the following I have developed has been mostly, okay, almost exclusively students.

One student asked me, “So all you do is tweet about boring teacher stuff?”

Boring? Teacher stuff? I was incredulous. This is my work, this is my life’s passion. Are we really to the point that our students think that all I do is clock in, clock out, assign some homework, grade some tests? Do I really give off the vibe that all I think of teaching is that it is just another job?

I used to think like that, but that was when I was first decided to become a teacher after listening to the advice of my guidance counselors. I followed the dogmas of, “do what you like,” and, “do what your’e good at.” I liked school and was good at school, so I should be a teacher. Problem solved. But the problem was that I was nothing but a soul crushing teacher. There was no purpose behind my teaching other than to generate work for good little obedient students, and I thought I was a great. Even my evaluations and test scores said I was great. In reality though, all I was doing was training students for a life of drudgery working menial jobs.

I managed to change though, or at least I think I did. Sure, to many students I am still just another soul crushing teacher, but I am not that to ALL my students. So here’s what happened.

First I was taking graduate courses in History at Bowling Green State University, which did two things for me. It made me reevaluate the formulation of knowledge, making me keenly aware that knowledge, truth and power, is not defined by any person. It is why the Allegory of the Cave speaks to me as more than something read in literature class. I also learned the power of the herd effect. When I was surrounded by individuals who have a very compliant view of school in undergrad, I became just like them. I did what I needed to do to get good grades, without questioning what I was doing. Being in an environment where everyone, and I mean everyone, was authentically engaged made me become engaged with learning for the first time in my life. Since those years I have never need a GPA, ACT, Praxis, or GRE score to define my worth.

Second, I had a melt down in Calculus during the 2010-2011 school year. I had been struggling to teach the subject blaming it on the “rust” that developed since I hadn’t been exposed to the subject since 2002. Eventually it became to much. I couldn’t keep justifying why things happen in math with the reasoning, “because that’s they way they are,” or, “that’s how I was taught.” I realized that I didn’t actually know Calculus, or really much other math for that matter. I had a BA in the subject, but couldn’t apply the math in anyway outside of a textbook problem, and even struggled with some textbook problems. Combined with what I was learning about knowledge in grad classes, I realized that they way I was teaching math was to make it nothing more that some torture device thought up by some people in a room somewhere to categorize students. It had absolutely no meaning. And I had this existential crisis in a single moment, in front of students.

Luckily for me they were very understanding. It was then that I decided that I needed to either leave teaching or redefine my teaching. I tried to make sure everything in math had a purpose, a reason for the way it was. Everything didn’t need to have “real-life” applications, but I started to use the term “math-world.” I wanted students to be able to at least apply what they were learning in an abstract math sense. At the time I didn’t know it, but I was trying to force my students to activate prior knowledge with the hopes that by doing so would increase retention and comprehension. Things had to at least make sense. What this means is that my classroom really became more about how to acquire knowledge more than any particular math topic.

It also made me hate the student I was during high school and college. It made me keenly aware of the horrible teacher I was early in my career.

 

I had found a purpose in my teaching. I want my student to find a purpose because a purpose is what keeps me up at 2:28 AM writing and reflecting on my profession, searching for ways I could be better. Purpose is what makes a career rewarding. My purpose is explaining math to students in comprehensible ways.

Then Facebook.

Facebook is a great way to stalk former high school classmates. Perusing through the ones I could find off the top of my head I found, four doctors, one lawyer, two dentists, one optometrist, one lawyer, three psychologists, two university professors, several business owners, multiple accountants, three engineers, and so on. I also noticed several who had bounced from career to career or who could have been considered to under achieve. I would count myself as that underachieving group.

Why did I underachieve? Where some of my classmate just smarter than me? The more I think about it, the more I started to realize there usually was one key difference between us. My underachiever compatriots grew up in environments where our parents had jobs and not careers. Day in and day out we never witnessed our parents pursue a career with a passion. They had jobs, but it was just a mean to pay the bills. We were never exposed to the behaviors that would lead us to a great career. Or another possibility was that we achieved good grades and accolades in school, and that was enough. As long as we made honor roll we were told “good job” and left alone. All this did was breed habits that got good grades with the least amount of learning possible. I wasn’t necessarily dumber than my more successful peers, I had just made grades and test scores an ends rather than a means.

I feel as if my college and high school years were completely squandered. When a student says, “I get good grades, but I don’t feel like I am learning anything,” I know exactly what they mean. I am especially elated that they are realizing that while still in high school, while there is still time to right the ship, unlike me, who wasted years of educational opportunity.

During the 2012-2013 school year I realize that just teaching math wasn’t enough. I was a much better math teacher, but I wasn’t pushing the students to achieve. Looking around me I saw that all I really was doing was creating clones of what I was, setting students up to find environments where they will feel comfortable, but won’t be pushed. I started to question if I can consider myself a good teacher if all I can do is teach math. I didn’t want students to squander the opportunities I did.

After watching the Larry Smith video above, I started to think back to my high school and college days, searching for reasons why I squandered my opportunities. I enjoyed my time at Jamestown, but I started to realize I ended up at Jamestown out of fear. I was worried that engineering would have been too difficult. I was fearful of going as far away as Princeton. I was worried that I would be the dumb student at U of Chicago. I was terrified of playing sports at a school like South Dakota State or Valpo. I told myself that I was JUST going to be a teacher, so Jamestown would be good enough. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Jamestown, it was that I didn’t even explore my other options. I wrote them off, rationalized away my trepidation.

My school is infected by fear as well, but it is a different fear than the one I faced. My school is infected with a fear of money. So many of my students see education purely in terms of finance. They think about careers in terms of salaries and job placements. They think about schools in terms of tuition dollars only. They think about classes in terms of ease rather than knowledge. Deep down though, I think some of them realize that this process is wrong. I want to push those students, but I don’t, because I have found that I can push students to pursue knowledge and wisdom (in terms of the Cave) or I can teach math, but often I can’t do both.

So I search for that opening from students. Those students who aren’t just content saving money at the local community college or living at home. Those students who think they could find better things out there then what’s just sitting before them. Pushing into that fear can be painful.

I ask students what their plans are for after high school. Some will get defensive when I ask and I back off. I want to push my students, I want them to desire more than the lowest cost alternative, but I am afraid. I am fearful of a society that tells me that my job is to teach students math and nothing more. Often I feel like I am confronted with choosing between doing the right thing or doing the OTES thing.

How do I respond to this internal conflict? I ask, “What are you going to do with your life?”

What I really am saying is…”I have seen some sort of potential in you. Someplace along the years you made the mistake of showing me that you have a wonderful mind that is only begging to be tapped. But you have also shown me that you are not entirely sure how you want that potential to manifest itself. You have shown me that you are conflicted between what you really want to do and what your friends and parents are telling you to do. I want to help you. I want to push you, but I can’t in this setting, in this classroom.”

Every year I see a handful of the potential Will Huntings, maybe not geniuses, but those students who are smart enough to do anything, but are too afraid to. Every year I really, really, want to give them Ben Affleck’s speech. (Don’t watch if you offended by the F-Bomb.)

I seemed to have gotten off topic.

So… I started a Twitter.

Is This Where You Want to Be?

When I talk to other teachers about my school compared to theirs I often end up saying that I am so glad that I teach at a small school (30 to 40 kids per grade). Don’t get me wrong, there are perks to a big school. When I scan the #MTBoS, I see really cool things happening, but many times those take place  in larger schools. Usually at larger schools classes are more homogeneous when it comes to academic abilities. It allows the environment to cater towards a somewhat standard mindset. There are times when I dream about having a class of 20 some students who would willingly geek out and fully engage on math with me. I would even like teaching in an environment where students are simply ritualistically compliant, acknowledging the advance math they are learning will have no bearing beyond graduating high school. Unfortunately at a small school we often don’t have the opportunities to homogenize like that. I have had classroom of 11 students where one student had a tested IQ in the low 80’s and another had tested as cognitively gifted (IQ of at least 130 in our district). The unfortunate consequence of this is that I believe that I end up developing far too many strategically compliant students, and I personally detest the mindset of the strategically compliant, mostly because I was one. I personally have witnessed the hell that many of those students will go through, but perhaps I am engaging in one of humanities greatest follies, projecting my own image onto others. I think we do that far too often and I want to confront people when I see them do that, but I don’t because I am way to introverted and don’t feel comfortable without the protection and distance of a computer screen.

But I digress….

Why then do I stay at a small school when there appears to be positives to a larger school environment? It’s because of my introvertism. I fit in a small school environment much better because of my personality, whereas if I would succeed at a larger school it would be in spite of my personality. I once was told, “I get the impression that what happens behind closed doors is different than what I see,” by one of my past administrators. Ummmm…..yup, I don’t think there could be a truer statement. Here’s the thing, I interact with my administrators in a classroom environment for anywhere from 70 minutes to 190 minutes during the year, and because of our current revolving door with the administration it has maxed out at 300 minutes for an entire career. I interact with the majority of my students for a minimum of 16410 minutes, with a few of the students having interaction times as high as 40275 minutes.  I know that my administrators hold my job security in their hands, but I value the opinion of the students more. I really believe that they should have a larger say in the learning environment than the admin and legislatures.

Reflecting on my experiences in high school, I remember not feeling much respect towards the teachers  that treated us like children. When I began college I told myself I would start to think of high school kids differently. When I found myself working with high school students at the local YMCA in college I told myself I would think of them differently once I was student teaching. When I was student teaching I told myself I would think of my high school students in a different light once I graduated and obtained a full-time job. When I obtained a full-time job I told myself that I would think of high school kids differently when I had my own children. Now that I have been a parent for almost six years I have given up. I can’t think of my high school kids differently than I think of my coworkers, and I happened across some research to back that up.

Everyday that I enter a classroom I can’t help but see my students as equals. As long as we are talking about math I probably am superior, but that’s because of my experience with the subject. My authority is dictated by two things: one, my knowledge of the subject I teach, and two, my position as a teacher. The power I derive from knowledge is only confined to the realm of mathematics. When I discuss another topic with my students, they get the opportunity to claim power. But the power I derive from being a teacher is all based upon accepted societal pretense. Which is why I love teaching at a small school. In the thousands upon thousands of minutes I will spend with my students it is almost inevitable that the false power that the pretense of the student-teacher relationship is built upon will be obliterated. Once that power structure of a student-teacher relationship is gone I can truly get to work of education. Students will learn much more from me when they view me as an expert because of my knowledge and not because of my title.

Removing the power structure of the classroom also allows my students and I to separate math ability from character traits. We are able to acknowledge the IQ bridge that might exist between us that hinders instruction, but can guide learning anyway. (I really wished we lived in a society were we could rationally discuss the impact of IQ without shaming.) Obliterating the student-teacher power structure paves the way for students to form an opinion of me as a person aside from their opinion of the subject I teach. It allows me, as a teacher, to do the same for the student. It is why I want students in my class, even though it might not make the most sense for a particular student. It is why I want certain students in my class, even if math isn’t their strength. It is why I feel badly when I say scornful things in class. It is why I have students for whom I feel like I should have done more than teach trig functions of any angle. It is why I think I can have a long term impact on students. It is why I conflicted emotions about taking extracurricular duties. It is what allows me to describe my students as more than grades.

I once had a conversation where I was asked if this is the place I thought I should be.

Does the math instruction suffer in a small school environment under my watch? Probably, sometimes, maybe.

Do I get to have a bigger impact on the kind of person that leaves my classroom compared to a big school? Yes, definitely.

Am I happy here?

I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

What’s My Role?

Why am I here?

Yes, I need a job so that I can pay the bills. But why am I specifically sitting in a high school math classroom when I could be in so many other possible career locations?

I think society has set up three very incompatible goals for me to accomplish as a teacher and part of the confusion is simply how I define myself as a teacher.

Teacher as a Babysitter

School is compulsory. It is law that a child must be in some form of schooling under the age 18 (in Ohio). Essentially society is telling teenagers that we cannot handle them between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM. While not many adults, let alone teachers, would admit it, I think many students would acknowledge that there is a daycare aspect to school. More negatively they might compare schools to prison. The sentiment is the same though, schools function as a warehouse facility to store students.

I honestly don’t have any problem with this image though. I genuinely like the vast majority of students. Maybe not as academics, but on a more interpersonal level. Recently at my school we had a reward day at the conclusion of testing. We were asked to devise activities to do with our students, not necessarily academic activities because the students could then sign up to work with any teacher. Basically, we were asked to hangout with our students. I absolutely relished the opportunity to drop the premise and rhetoric of instructional time and just do stuff. We made sushi and played games.

Teacher as Knowledge Disseminator

We send students to school to learn. In my case, I am there to teach the subject of mathematics. Whether the mathematics learned in school is of any real relevance to students is debatable at best. I really don’t think this is why I am here. I actually have trouble justifying my purpose in terms of knowledge dissemination. If a student really wants to learn math there are many more economical ways to be taught the subject, websites, books, software. Learning math in a public school setting is probably one of the least efficient uses resources imaginable.

Teacher as a Mentor

Frequently extracurricular activities seem to take precedence over academic activities in a school. The community at large sometimes seems more concerned with basketball scores and musical productions than they are with differential equation capabilities of their students. As a teacher I fit into this model by trying to help build a well rounded student who can work well with others, prioritize obligations, and manage emotions. My purpose under this model isn’t so much about teaching math, but teaching all of the little habits that lead to an effective math education.

Personally, I really like this view of education. It is the reason why I want to read essays for scholarships and other classes. It is why I go to softball games and track meets. It is why I want to discuss stories with students when they come to me from literature class. I am trying to foster an inclusive, supporting environment for learning, regardless of the particular subject. Success in math cannot come at the expense of other classes or activities in this model.

 

 

Is it really reasonable to expect us to do this all at the same time?

 

Creating an Image of the Self

Earlier in the year I had a student write a paper for a psychology class. In that paper the student talked about an idea of self-concept, or self-image. We tend to be happy individuals when out our image of ourselves matches with how others see us. And when our image of how others imagine us, we have clearly defined roles that keep us content.

What role do I play in creating a student’s image?

One of the biggest influences on students are grades. When a student receives good grades they tend to start thinking of themselves as a good student. When I get a student coming into my class that had good grades I tend to think that they were a good student. When I give students good grades, the students tend to think I hold them in high regard.

Now imagine that cycle taking place over the course of 10, 11, or 12 years? What if it was a cycle of negative reinforcement (bad grades) occurred? Should we be surprised when so many students have either a love/hate relationship to school?

What happens when one teacher tells them they are intelligent, but another tells them they are incompetent? Sometimes students write off that teacher, but sometimes the students internalize the negative feedback and it absolutely destroys their potential. Let me use a story to illustrate what I am trying to describe. I had a student in class, both math and history for the first time during her freshman year. She was actually a year older than her peers as she had been held back in the past. She had all the classic signs of a student that would struggle in school, anxiety, learned helplessness, scapegoating, etc. I finally had a breakthrough with her during the second year she was working with me when she finally started to develop some confidence. While talking to her I learned that her struggles in school began around the fourth grade, when she received poor grades. It began a self-fulfilling spiral that culminated in high school with a student perpetually on the verge of summer school and credit recovery. She eventually gained enough confidence that she avoid summer classes, and even passed Algebra II with a teacher who failed many other students. But that’s not why I want to bring attention to this story.

During her senior year she had gotten into a small argument with her boyfriend. Specifically, they were arguing about one of her childhood friends who happened to be male. Her boyfriend perceived that he was a threat, she didn’t. I found this for her to read. After reading it she exclaimed, “Ewwww, all my guy friends want to do me.” Regardless of the appropriateness of the statement, here was a girl who had struggled throughout school, had defined herself by that struggle, interpreting graduate level research. I would be the last person to tell students that they can do anything they want, we do have limits, but how many potential career paths have been closed off for this one student because one teacher set in motion cycle of failure that is now defining her life. (The reverse is also true. It is possible to falsely build up a student only to watch them crash and burn later.)

I work at a small school. Since it is a small school I usually see every student for at least 268.5 hours of instruction, usually in classes with under 15 students. Because of the constant schedule fluctuations I have encountered, a hand full of students have spent 537 hours with me, sometimes in classes as small as 3 students. Interacting with those students over that amount of time makes it very possible and probably that they become much more than a grade to me. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t formed favorite students over the years, but by spending so much time with them I hope they realize that the grades they receive in math class are by no means a reflection of their individual self-worth. With all the time that we have spent together I think that we can build an accurate representation of their abilities going forward, regardless of the grade in class. It absolutely destroys me when I see a student that I have worked with for so long building up that confidence, only fall victim to one bad placement test or one bad grade.

However, I need to ask what is my role in this whole process is. Do I play a larger part in the creation of a students self-image because of my position as an authority figure? If I do, I need to tread lightly and cautiously as I have a larger impact on a student’s future than just a grade.  If I am making a positive impact I need to figure out how to make that impact more permanent.

 

 

Living with Labels

The last couple of weeks have been rough, to put it mildly, so I want to take some time a write about something positive in my life.

My education has been made up of a series of epiphanies. I remember the first one occurring in college, and the last one occurring on April 7th, 2016.  I know it happened that day because while I was writing about school spirit, I stumbled upon a religion blog. I have been reading it on a regular basis since then. During this past weekend, my pastor had a sermon about “what is in the way” between me and God. In among the Google searches for school leadership pops up one religion blog, and then the sermons the past couple of weeks, for me it is just too much to be coincidental.

(A quick aside, I realize I am a public school teacher and I would never dream of preaching during class. I do value the separation of Church and State, and it is because of my religion that I value that separation. However, this is my personal blog and I think I am allowed to voice a religious opinion, even though I am not trying to hide from anyone. I need to express it because it is so central to the way I define myself.)

Let me start in the beginning. (Punny!) I want to make this post about labels. Normally I don’t openly identify in public as a Christian. This is because some of the few people I would consider close friends are openly atheist or agnostic. Several of my favorite students are also openly atheist or agnostic.  And I empathize with them when they tell me stories about how mean and hypocritical some of the people who claim to be Christian are.

From my experience, there are those who define their Christianity by avoiding curse words, dirty jokes, alcohol, and evil television shows like Family Guy. They use their avoidance of such immoral things as a reason not to interact with those that do accept them. But I use all of those, and actually enjoy some of them. Does that make me someone Christians should avoid ? If I want to claim Christianity as my label is there just a list of moral and ethic choices I should be making?

From my experience, there are those who define their Christianity by reading the right books, by participating in praise bands, and going on mission trips. But I grew up as part of the Frozen Chosen, a reference to both the climate of North Dakota and the demeanor of many of the people. Does it make me un-Christian that I am not comfortable waving my hands in the air during hymns, or that I don’t desire to go on mission trips to neighboring states and countries when I seek the Kingdom of God out my own window?

My atheist and agnostic friends will point out what they see as hypocrisy in the behavior of their friends. Honestly, most of the time I agree with them. Then I cringe because the actions of those who claim Christianity just pushed more people away.

This post is supposed to be about labels though, so let me get back to that. In the ether of society I believe there is an image of teachers that most people hold. There are certain mannerism, behaviors, and boundaries that are somewhat universally accepted.  During the 2011-2012 school year I became very jaded towards the system of education, to the point that I questioned my entire purpose for being there. I started to believe that many of the qualities that are typically associated with being a good teacher are really rooted in obedience. At the same time, after spending 6 years in the education profession, I started to realize that much of what masquerades as “the best interest of the students” in schools are really the manifestation of power struggles of the adults in the system. Because of this, I entered the 2012-2013 school year in somewhat of a crisis mode, questioning my place in the educational establishment.

My answer came when I decided to do what I thought was the right thing to do as a teacher, and not what the education system wanted me to do. I stopped justifying my actions with, “that’s what good teachers do.” If I couldn’t think of a reason to explain my actions I shouldn’t do them. For example, let me explain why stopped grading homework. There were many students who failed Algebra I and History with me during the 2011-2012 school year. When I looked at the overall grades more closely, I realized that many of the failing students failed because of terrible homework grades. I thought about the financial impact of summer school, the social stigma of having to repeat a class, and I felt bad for many of these students. The justification for graded homework was that’s what good teachers do because students need to practice, and to make students practice they need to be motivated with grades. That’s when it hit me, those students failed because they didn’t do what I wanted them to do. For them homework wasn’t about learning, it was about grades. The relationship between me and my students wasn’t centered on any sort of grace, but rather on obedience.

The next year I still did largely the same thing, but I will admit that homework grades were skewed to have students avoid summer school and failing. My image of a good teacher tells me that I should feel guilty, but I don’t. To this day I don’t assign homework. (That doesn’t mean that I think individual practice is pointless, but attaching grades to the practice confines its purpose to obedience rather than knowledge.) Eventually I changed my practices to the point that my classroom became unrecognizable to a traditional teacher. I dropped the idolatry of being a good teacher and decided to do what I thought was the right thing. Consequently, the 2013-2014 school year was one of the most rewarding I have ever had. We watched movies and did math at the same time in my Algebra I classes. It worked as great, as the extrinsic motivation I provided motivated those students who normally would have tuned me out. I made my upper level courses about the art of learning in general, attacking phrases such “teach me how to,” in addition to covering mathematical topics. I worked with the upperclassmen on ACTs and college applications. I pushed several students beyond their normal comfort levels to make them question their own knowledge. Several realized the shallowness of their knowledge, despite high grades. I pushed several to want and desire more after graduation besides going to the local college and entering a field that will get them most money the quickest. I pushed to the point of tears. I pushed until a student told me to “fuck off.”

And those are the few students with which I maintain contact. Those are the students who have written some of the most heartfelt thank you notes that I keep stashed in my desk.

I was so eager to start the 2014-2015 school year. My grandiose experiment of changing my use of extrinsic motivation, of abandoning the justifying principles of being a “good teacher” felt so rewarding. I wanted to share my experiences, and I did, much to a detrimental effect. In my classes I couldn’t motivate the students to drop their idolatry of grades. Instead of giving them time to realize that the most effective learning takes place in an environment free of grades, I became bitter and  started blaming the students.

At the same time I became worried for my job security. I had informational gathering, non-walkthroughs sessions because of what was heard. I was pulled into the hallway and lectured in front of my students about acceptable behavior. I received numerous emails in ALL CAPS. I was forced to change my teaching methods to appease authority figures. I had awkward,  “off the record” conversations. I was accused to pressuring students to confront the administration on my behalf. I was told that my students are lying to me. My evaluations came back as ineffective.

One of my weaknesses is that I am not a strong willed individual, meaning there are only so many times I can bear the label of ineffective before I start to internalize it. I was confronted with a dilemma. I could change back to the teacher I was, and get rid of that ineffective rating, protecting my job security. Or I could stick to the principles I had developed, which I know are right, but it would jeopardize my job security. What did I do? Some sort of in between garbage. I kept the structure of my classroom, it still appeared the same on the surface, but I lost the connectedness that had previously made me successful.

So, for the past year and a half I have been a horrible teacher. I abandoned my principles that made me such an effective teacher for a couple of years and replaced it with an idol. My idol became losing that label of ineffective. I threw the education of those students under a proverbial bus to appease my idol. I became an asshole. Should I be surprised when so many of my students retained their idolatry of grades to keep me at a distance? (I think I should make grade worship a post in and of itself.) Why should they care about what I care about when I don’t care about them because I am living a me-centric life. But it was on April 7th that I read this post, equating being an asshole with sinning. It is such a simplistic thought that clarifies how I should define my actions in a Christian sense. If I asshole, I sin. I want to avoid being a sinner, so I need to avoid being an asshole.

Since I read that post I have been trying to make amends. I have pushed less on the academics. I started literally sitting with my students instead of talking at them in front of the room. I have noticed a slight change in the demeanor of the room, but I fear it is too late for a couple of students. I so desperately want to recreate what I had back in the 2013-2014 school year. I want that environment back  where both my students and I were able to abandon our idols and actually learn something. But I fear that because I have spent the last year and a half being an asshole, those students that I want back, that I want back because I know I can be a positive influence for them, those students have lost all faith and trust in me.

I need to apologize and grovel. I need to ask for forgiveness. I am back to thinking of all the things I should have done, and now  I am living a life of regret. I wish I could make amends, but it is just too late.

 

Projects Make Me Question My Ability

When I first discovered that there was a math blogosphere it was because I had become frustrated with my students. Specifically the condition that occurs in education where students seem to approach almost every task as if they are helpless. At first I read blogs that vented  about the frustrations of being a teacher and then progressed into finding blogs that devoted themselves to pedagogy, educational philosophy, psychology, policy, and eventually math tasks. It’s the last group that makes me feel inadequate as a teacher though.

I read about Dan Meyer’s 3 Acts, the modeling instruction of Frank Nochese, the enriching tasks like those at Emergentmath, just to name a few, but I don’t know how to develop them or even properly implement them. Every time I try to, I feel like I am unable to correctly judge when to provide instruction and when to let the students struggle. I will give that my project creation skills are sub-par, but when a student will blurt out confusion without bothering to read the introduction is that my fault? My knee jerk reaction is to say no, but maybe I have created a climate where the students have been conditioned to bypass directions, so maybe it really is my fault. I tried to leave gaps where they could productively struggle, but most of them give up quickly. Is this a lack of motivation on their part, or have I conditioned them to think that all problems either have quick simple solutions or no solutions at all?

I am good at math. But my mindset of math is so different from the students that I will lose many of them if I try to teach math how I think about math. It’s not that I lose their attention because of lack of ability, but because of lack of interest. Most of my student are either lost in math or in a survival mode in math. Basically, to most of my students, math class is simply see problem, solve problem, get grade. I am completely empathetic to their plight, I realize that in their reality the math they learn in school is useless, and I try to compromise with my students by using grades. In my reality grades hinder learning, but they are of utmost importance to my students. So I offer a sort of compromise, I get to pose some very theoretical conceptual ideas to them of which several will embrace, but I get to do this as long as they get the extrinsic credit of a grade. Right or wrong, I am content with this set up and I think most of my students are.

My previous six years this worked out fine. My classes ran under more or less the same procedure until it was time for final exams. Exams worked as a nice natural conclusion to the course. The students got what they wanted and I got what I wanted. This year though my exams occurred early, with about three weeks of school left. I was able to use the SLO as an exam score. Since my students performed well on the SLO (in regards to my job security, not necessarily their grades) I thought it would be prudent to reward them by curving the grades and using it as an exam, especially after the effort several of them displayed on a test that didn’t have to count as a grade. However, I have conditioned myself to be finished after exams, so now I want to be done. I teach upper level courses and my students will pursue many different pathways, so I can’t really teach something that will prepare them for next year in any sort of uniform manner. I could just do my normal routine, but with exams done it feels self-centered to force new material, and for my grade motivated students three weeks of grades only have a marginal impact, which will lead to many of them tuning me out.

I found my solutions in projects, those really creative math demonstrations I find on  the internet all the time. As long as I make the math “real life” or “authentic” students will engage with the material. Well, that’s what I was taught and that’s what students tell me. Usually that means they want to know how to balance a checkbook, do taxes, or pay a mortgage. What they don’t want to do is learn how to use a bell curve to make an accurate budget, they don’t want to learn how tax tables are created or the philosophical discussions behind what is a deduction, nor do they want to deal with the geometric series to figure out how the bank calculates that fixed payment. Projects seem so difficult in my class because I haven’t found a way to get my students to authentically engage with mathematics. Because their motivation has never moved beyond the extrinsic, they have never been anything other than compliant students and compliant students don’t really learn anything except obedience.

I don’t know how to motivate a student to find intrinsic value in math. I encourage. I try to discuss. I offer to be flexible with grades, pacing, rules, whatever. But no matter what I do they won’t engage. So when I see and read about amazing projects, classrooms full of excited engaged students, all I ever realize is that my students can’t do that. I know them well enough that I realize it’s not them, it’s me. Many of them are immensely talented, but choose to display that talent in settings other than the math classroom and it reminds me that all I have done is created a bunch of obedient students. It reminds me that I am a failure. Projects prove to me that I am a terrible teacher.