Is School Really About Education?

Today, and the next few days, I hope to be able to just talk to my students in one of my classes. I plan on using the timing of losing many students to senior class trip, along with having to do a mandated Ohio Means Jobs lesson. Many of the lessons are rather basic, or those that do require a little upper level math feel rather forced, kind of like they were copied straight out of the textbook. Yet somehow it has more career connections because it came from the state website instead of a textbook. But, like usual I need to digress before I start to ramble into something I really didn’t intend to talk about.

I have been using my blog to write about some of the more transformative experiences throughout my education and I spent a good chunk of last night rereading some of them. This wasn’t my first attempt at making a personal website, it just changed from what I originally thought it would be. Originally I was going to make a site to supplement my class, a resource for mathematical information. However, I am a unitasking teacher, so I really didn’t need a website to explain all the different methods I am using. Providing mathematical information was kind of pointless because there are hundreds of websites out there to do that, all of them better than anything I could produce. Why have I stuck with writing this time?

I used to consider myself an educator who happened to use math as my medium. To steal a line from my pastor, my purpose was to, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” My goal was to salvage education for those on the brink, the perennial discipline problems, the helpless, and to push the honor roll students to their limits. I felt like I accomplished this goal during a couple of years, and now I find myself constantly chasing that nostalgic moment.

Several years ago I stumbled across a blog that laid out in rather blunt terms the social contract that exists in most schools. (I didn’t bookmark it at the time and cannot find it again, but I want to make it clear that while I agree with the premise that will follow, I did not originate it.) It laid out a vision of school that really resonated with me after I had a nervous breakdown in front of a couple of students. Authentic learning is an inefficient, messy endeavor that is not conducive to a typical educational setting. A classroom inherently relies on efficiency to educate the masses. The problem is that this education resembles training more than education. To be effectively trained, quiet obedience is necessary, but in-depth thinking and analysis is not. A contract develops between teachers and students in this environment, one where the students agree to be obedient and complacent, and the teachers agree to not really make students think, but rather rely on memorization. Students are willing to sacrifice freedom and opinions in exchange for not being challenged.

School becomes a place where an encyclopedia of examples is memorized, and we denote the ability to memorize with grades.

After I had my nervous breakdown in Calculus I, I started teaching differently. Well, teaching in a traditional sense wouldn’t be the correct description. I talked with my students, explained everything in excruciating detail. Since it was more conversational in nature two things happened. One, it was easier to get off task. Two, the questions in class changed. It was less, “How do you…,” and more, “Why did that happen?” Every so often we would actually lose track of time and class would end with nothing resembling any sort of closure, and simply resume the next day. Instead of intro and hooks, we opened the book, picked a problem and started mathing. As a teacher, I absolutely loved it. Every statement or action I did was directly in response to something the students did, and every statement or action they did was in direct response to something I did.

There was only one problem with this set up. How do I grade an open-ended discussion? What if I abandoned my end of the social contract? No more grades.

It worked better than I could have hoped. No more grades, no more contract, no more complacency, actual thought.

The next year I decided to try it for a full year rather than a quarter with my next Calculus I class. Same result, but with an added bonus. I started to realize that there is a huge difference between productivity and learning. It was after one of our off task conversations, it could have been about college athletics, school rules, or whatever else, but it left me with an odd feeling. By any normal definition of a typical classroom it was a wasted day. But it didn’t feel like that. I felt like something was learned because my students engaged in some level of thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I still knew how to set my foot down and decide we needed to do some math, but I stopped feeling guilty if every second of class wasn’t devoted to math.

Unfortunately the following year I did not have a Calculus I class. Additionally I had a Pre-Calculus class, a topic I hadn’t visited since my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was teaching Pre-Calc in a relatively traditional way, cover previous assignment, introduce topic, go through examples, release students to work independently. One day though, I had assigned the following problem from this book. It’s #18 on page 163.

A car leaves Oak Corners at 11:33 AM traveling south at 70 kmh. At the same time, another car is 65 km west of Oak Corners traveling east at 90 kmh.

a) Express the distance between the cars as a function of the time after the first car left Oak Corners.

b) Show that the cars are closest to each other at noon.

A student in class called me over to help her get started and another student joined in on the conversation. I became momentarily lost in the problem, probably a couple minutes elapsed, but when I looked up to talk to these two students I noticed every other single student had come over to observe. Right there it told me something wasn’t working. My students weren’t making the connections between the concepts I was teaching and the exercises that are supposed to enlighten those concepts. I immediately thought of my previous Calc class where I didn’t separate the concepts from the procedures and quickly sent out this poorly worded email.

I am looking for feedback on how I taught Calc I last year. Bascially, did the method of doing work in a small group and working through problems one at a time help or hinder your prepartation for whatever math, or attitude towards math, that you are encountering outside of high school? I ask because I have been burdened with trying to teach precalculus this year and I feel that my classes are creeping ever closer to the model that I used last year and the year before, just on a larger scale. If you guys feel that it actually helped your preparation I think I will try and do the same group work/pacing that we did with Calc. If it didn’t, I will stick with a more traditional model.

I know the sample size is tiny, but I received rather positive feedback. The closest to negative feedback I received was a student telling me he was on par with his classmates in the honors program where the students came from AP and IB classes. So I tried it with the larger group, and it worked surprisingly well. I had buy in from 12 of 14 students on a regular basis.

From these three years of experience I became comfortable admitting my own shortcomings in front of my students and learning with them at times. I accepted that I will never be able to embrace bell to bell productivity and always call it learning. I realized that the best learning is extremely difficult to pigeon hole into letter grades. Sometimes I would take a day off from math, but it never felt wasted because there is so much more to learn than what can be enlightened by mathematical procedures.

The next year I dropped many of the conventions found in the social contract of school. If the actions we were doing in class didn’t help enlighten mathematical knowledge, then I decided that that action was really about obedience. I stopped homework. I showed movies, played games, or just talked with my freshmen in Algebra I after they had mastered a set amount of material, which served the dual purpose of extrinsic motivation and allowed me to start to build personal connections. I completely eliminated the concept of a grade with my upper level electives and made the classes more about claiming authority over knowledge, rather than going over many different derivative rules.

There are things I can’t control in school, but for the first time I felt like I was actually teaching and the majority of my students were actually learning, instead of the usual dance around the burden of obedience. I had a purpose as an educator.

However,…

I no longer feel like I have a purpose as an educator who uses mathematics, but that I am now expected to be a provider of mathematical information, which makes be dependent on obedience. I’ve been told that students are liars (“they will just lie to protect you”). I’ve been told that students are not smart enough to engage with material (“they can’t be expected to push themselves like that”). I’ve been told that students are nothing but disrespectful and rude (“punch them in the face and tell them to shut it”). I could keep going, but I hope the picture is becoming clear. For the past three years, I feel like my work environment has been one that distrusts its most important stakeholders, its students, and places a premium on obedience and complacency.

That’s why I keep writing this time, because I’ve lost the autonomy to have these conversations about obedience with my students. If this was three years ago, I don’t think this blog would exist because it’s contents would exist between me and my students.

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.

Try, try, try again

I hate to admit it, but this will be at least my fourth attempt at writing a blog. Maybe this time will be different. But I have been really taking time to search within to find the reason that I have this burning desire to do this. Sometimes the raging inferno simmers down to just some glowing embers, but it has never been snuffed out.

One of the few blogs that I read on a semi-consistent basis (emergentmath) linked to video presentation by Simon Sinek about his idea of the “golden circle.” Just a brief side note, I don’t think he discovered or invented anything groundbreaking, but he was one of the first to articulate it precisely and market it well.

So, why? Why, why, why? Why do I want to write, and why do I keep quitting. Maybe I will start back at the beginning.

I thought about all the times I had failed, and each time I started blogging I began with asking myself what it is I need to do. I have this disability called introvertism. Okay, I’m just making that up, but I am an introvert, which makes communication, especially in unfamiliar settings, very uncomfortable. One of the categories teachers are evaluated upon is communication. And I thought I could communicate more passively by using a blog. I know how to communicate. I know what I want to say. But I almost never do. As an introvert I fear conflict so I usually censor myself. Basically, I am shy. As my comfort level around people or in different situations, my censor gradually disappears, but very, very few people actually see the unfiltered me.

Consequently, every time I tried to start a blog it failed. The first time it failed because I was writing to improve my communication with parents, but when no one used or looked at the blog I quit because it was just a waste of my time. I was writing to communicate with others, and when there was no communication I quit. I felt one way communication was waste of my time. I needed to find a way to convince myself that blogging wouldn’t be a waste of my time. This time I won’t fail because this time I am writing for me, usage be damned. I want to document my memories, my stories, the process of how I became the teacher I am today, regardless of how many people actually read this.

Why am I doing this? I have a multitude of life experiences that have shaped who I am as a person and who I am as a teacher.

How am I going to do this? I am going to record those experiences in the ether of the internet.

What am I going to do? I am going to write a blog.

Hope someone reads it.