Winging It

I hate how time dictates the school day. I hate how we expect drastically different students to learn the same material, at the same age, at the same time of day, and even at the same pace. Sure some have drank the differentiation Kool-aid, but we haven’t yet differentiated high school as a whole. Same graduation requirements, same times, everything is the same.

From my experience, the majority of teaching takes the form of presentation of material, followed by some guided structure with the teacher, and then some independent time for the students to practice. This is the typical I do, We do, You do approach to education. When I prepared for this approach I would carefully think out my presentations. They wouldn’t be flashy, but I would take a substantial time to think about how I was going to talk about something, what I wanted students to notice, and what examples I want students to use. My goal wasn’t to entertain, but it was my goal to make the information clear. Though there are supporters of the entertainment aspect of education.

Are you not entertained?! When I used to show that to students they would remark that the class looks fun, that he makes the subject matter exciting. However, at the end of his courses, the attendance rates and failure rates were similar to other classes. So if the results were the same, what is the point of all that prep work to make the presentations exciting?

Maybe my presentations weren’t nearly as entertaining, but at least I was being clear on what I want accomplished. I started class telling the students what we’re going to do today. I wrote up clear definitions and gave clear examples with multiple steps shown. But the goal of education should be to create students with the ability to think, which involves a whole host of issues. Part of the problem with using clearly stated goals is that novice learners will only focus on the goals, most likely bypassing interesting and important connections along the way. Yes, I know that that study is talking about reading, but from my experience students do that with just about everything they do.

To put it another way, when I was presenting mathematical information I was covering information that is part of a complex tapestry of mathematics. However, my students only take in minor details, basically ignoring as much of my voice as they could, grasping for the bare minimum structure to be memorized so that they can correctly answer test questions. This picture eloquently summarizes what I think is going on in the journey from my mind to their minds, even though it really is about rubrics.

It is a visual representation of why so many of my students seem to think math is just a disjointed collection of random facts and procedures. When I thoroughly thought out my presentations, I made sure to highlight those red dots of importance, but in my mind those dots are just part of the whole picture. My students just pick up on the red dots though, which I often referred to them Charlie Browning me. My voice was the blue, my examples were the red, they copied the examples and heard this.

My good compliant complacent students were Charlie Brown. The had the appearance of listening, but really were just quietly searching out those red dots, those examples and steps to let them solve the next math question. My favorite are the students like Patty though. At least they weren’t pretending to care, yet an alarming amount of them are on the honor roll. They have internalized the process of hunting out those red dots, be it from examples in books, notes, online, or asking their friends, “How to do this?” They are obsessed with the how’s, but not the why’s?

To help try and combat this I changed my presentations. Instead of carefully planning out every individual step with concise, clear objectives, I started to wing it in class. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t lesson plan, it just means that my plans were a rough outline, a framework, that was then filled by the organic discussion in class. My goal was to make sure the students wouldn’t become fixated on the red dots. When I would be planning my presentations I would pick a topic, think of how it connected to the previous topics, and then try and use student questions and ideas to drive most of the presentation. When I know my students and my content I find this to be an enlightening experience. They start to finally see some of that blue background behind the red dots.

However, it does have a couple large drawbacks. It did give class a more organic feel, but students crave the conditioning that they have been experiencing for years and years. Charlie Browning is most prevalent in my honor roll students because it has allowed them to get success in the past, at least in terms of grades, with the least amount of mental effort. For most of my students, it takes a significant amount of time to overcome that conditioning, and some, unfortunately, never will.

It also gives the appearance that I am unprepared, but for me, it changed the hierarchy of my teaching prep. When I plan, I start with content from a teaching viewpoint, then worry about presentation and pacing, then worry about assessments, then worry about supporting activities, then worry about individual students. My ever changing schedule the past eight years has meant that I feel like I am perpetually stuck in my first hierarchy of teacher needs, focusing on content.

I guess I forever will be a rookie.

Thinking About Learning

After months and months of trying, it finally happened. A student asked me a question, specifically this question.

“Why do I understand this when you’re here, but when you leave I can’t do it?”

I find that this is often a conundrum that students encounter, especially when they dutifully take notes in class, look at their examples, and then get lost on the homework. When I teach something, or explain something, I am ultimately the one doing the thinking. The students just nod along and memorize what they have seen, and then are unable to duplicate the examples on their own because they have never actually THOUGHT about the process. The best description I have ever found for this is pseudoteaching (MIT physics and hunting monkeys are my favorite), and I believe it should be mandated reading for all teachers.

The problem as I see it, is that so many of our students, and people in general, detest thinking. We like to become familiar with information because when we become familiar with information we are usually able to recognize information, which often will get that hit of dopamine that comes with good grades. Do it enough and it becomes addicting. I frequently run into this behavior from students. It seems like so many of the students in front of me have forgotten nearly everything their previous teachers have taught them. So when I go to teach them, they are insanely driven by quick responses that are externally validated, because they want that satisfaction of being right. When I try to remove the external stimuli of immediate praise and grades, of mind numbing procedural duplication, I am often met with literal withdrawal symptoms. I am not joking about that whatsoever.

I had never really thought of this whole process of teaching an learning until one interaction with one student one day after school. It’s not as though I wasn’t aware of the process involved in mastery of an academic subject, I had just never contemplated what that looks like from a teacher’s perspective. A student came to my room after school to take a test that she had missed earlier and didn’t have a study hall to use. She was struggling. At first came the exasperation that she could remember covering the material, but didn’t remember how to do the problems. We cover information in class, but we seemingly forget so much of what was covered. Rarely do ever think about why that happens.

When students hit that point of struggle, specifically that point when they can acknowledge the familiarity of material, but fail in the execution of material, a dichotomy forms. Frequently students enter denial. We all can recognize the symptoms of denial, I’ve even participated in some of them before. We blame the teacher, saying, “You never covered this.” We sometimes blame our health, saying that I’m too sick. We question the worth of covering subject, asking ourselves, “Why do I have to do this?” We blame our classmates, saying they are too distracting. We might even blame ourselves and say, “I’m just not a math person.” Whatever the reason that is given, denial allows us to avoid confronting the limitations of our own ability and work ethic. Denial allows us to be in a state of mind where we can avoid actually THINKING and ENGAGING with academic material in any sort of significant way. When we then live in a state of denial, we internalize the mechanisms that allow our minds to get through the struggle of school, without learning much of anything, just waiting until we get to the stage where we can quit. (Hello Senioritis, my old friend.)

But back to my story about the girl working on a test after school. She didn’t just live in denial, she hit rock bottom, and in this case it manifested itself as bawling. I’ve had students get teary eyed during tests before, but it is usually tears of frustration and anger, tears that are symptoms of withdrawal. I am so used to students lashing out in frustration (“This is bullshit!”) that I have become almost numb to the symptoms of denial and withdrawal. But that bawling, it lives vividly in my mind because I have witnessed rock bottom so few times, and this was the first. So when she started bawling, I shut the door, pulled up a chair next to her and just talked. I took the test away and shared my own personal story of rock bottom, and we just talked for about an hour and a half. I didn’t know what else to do because hints and instruction at this point would not have been fruitful in any sort of way.

Not much else was accomplished that day, but it did change the nature of the typical student teacher relationship. It instantaneously showed me that no matter what assessment I give, what questions I ask, I will never be able to understand what actually happens inside students’ minds. All the things that I thought represented good student learning, really don’t necessarily mean students are learning anything. They do problems. They ask questions. They listen. But I can’t be sure if they are learning.

It also showed me that displaying your thought process is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. As long as I stand in front of the room, making math appear easy, my students will almost always feel ashamed when they cannot duplicate the process as easily as me. That’s why my students so desperately want formulas and shortcuts. Because actually displaying their thought process is such a painful experience that most of them can’t handle in front of me out of a fear that they will be humiliated. (That happened when a student left class in tears because she thought I was laughing at her when she was struggling through working a problem.) I could go on and on about how comfort with vulnerability is essential to learning, but that should be something that rests entirely on its own merit. Besides, I tend to ramble enough already.

So, ever since that day of bawling, I have structured my classes to try an elicit rock bottom symptoms from my students. If a student is going to tune me out, fine tune me out. I would rather know a student is blatantly disengaged than be surprised when a student’s superficial engagement ultimately led to failure. It can be a struggle and a drain at times. And some kids don’t need it, but those complacent students living in denial, that have the potential to truly do anything they want, those are the ones that need to hit rock bottom. It finally happened this last Friday.

There was visible frustration as a student realized that she should be able to do this stuff, but couldn’t.

One of my students living in an illusion of superiority finally, finally, slowed down and worked through a problem.

And of course, “Why do I understand this when you’re here, but when you leave I can’t do it?”

It’s a start, but maybe some real education can actually begin.

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.

What I Learned About Knowledge From Dropping Out of Grad School

After moving to Ohio I found myself without a full-time job. I even had a little difficulty getting substituting positions just because the system was so different from that in Minnesota, and I didn’t find the area schools very helpful, with the exception of the secretaries at Upper Sandusky High School. On a complete side note, ODE was not helpful at all with getting my license transferred. That’s not really important, but it does give me another reason to complain about ODE.

I decided that since I was just substitute teaching I would trying applying to a graduate school program. I ended up choosing the History program at BGSU because of it’s location and the timing of the classes. My first couple of times in a graduate seminar I was a little lost. It didn’t represent anything like I was used to. I could best describe the setting as almost like being in a book club. We had assigned reading, and then we discussed the reading.

Admittedly, I was lost, and also a little star-struck, since my first professor I had instantly recognized from History Detectives.

I had read the book, but the discussion didn’t have the recall questions I was used to answering. I kept waiting for the professor to ask questions that would allow me to demonstrate that I had read the book, that I could show my classmates my superior intellect. But it never happened. He only kept asking these, “Why did the author use this,” or “What did you think about this,” kind of questions. The only time I had ever answered opinion questions throughout my educational experience, it was always a, “Yes, I liked it,” type of question. I asked for advice from some of my classmates and was informed that as long as I speak up a couple of times during class it would be fine. That really didn’t help since I didn’t know how to voice a comment during class without the fear of sounding stupid.

Part of the class involved reading a book individually and then presenting it to the class. I had chosen this book about the Dust Bowl. As I began rambling through my summary of the book I felt all those typical feelings of anxiety that comes when having to present in front of an authority figure. I first noticed the ubiquitous amounts of head nods as my report of the book was heavy on the summary, but light on analysis. I then mentioned something about the failure of the Russians to adapt corn to their climate, and an ensuing drought there, but I worded it as a question. When I looked at my professor he hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. This made me feel uneasy, so I kind of stumbled through the conclusion of my presentation and mentioned the American ethos.

Then the questions began.

I don’t remember any of the specific questions, but I do remember feeling caught off guard, especially the questions from the professor. There are two types of teacher questions. The first type is the one almost everyone is familiar with, the checking for comprehension question, the rhetorical question. Teachers already know the answer to these questions, we are only asking students to see if they know the answer as well. The second type of question is what I call a legitimate question. A legitimate question acknowledges the limitations of the questioner, and transfers authority and power to those being asked, and that’s what made it so scary for me.

It seems to me that most students seek affirmation of their correctness from the teacher, without much thought as to why something is correct. I see this all the time students volunteer an answer to a question and want to know if it is correct, but cannot explain how they came to their conclusion. Many times they will answer questions with an upward inflection in their voice, as if their answer is a question itself. Usually to save time, teachers, including myself, will either confirm or deny the educated guess from the students. This is a problem because the students’ concept of knowledge and truth is based upon affirmation of the authority figure.

Which is why my professor threw me for a loop when he asked me a legitimate question about the American ethos. He wanted to know more about the American ethos that the author was discussing, but he wasn’t testing me to make sure I read the book, he really wanted to know and was dependent upon me to provide him with information. Suddenly, I was an authority figure over my professor controlling his access to Worster’s paradigm of American ethos. My struggle happened because I had never developed the executive function necessary to regulate my own concept of knowledge. My definition of knowledge was like so many of my students’, dependent upon the affirmation of the teacher.

As the year progressed in the graduate course, I became more comfortable and started to understand how authoritative knowledge is formed. It started to impact my concept of mathematics and my concept of teaching. I have written about my struggles in school, whether it be in the classroom or as a teacher, but this post is ultimately about how a History class changed how I think about knowledge and power.

I started successfully adapting to History class when I started justifying my statements in class. If I was going to offer a comment I made sure I had a passage from the book or some other source ready to provide evidence. That way, no matter how my professor or classmates might respond I could reply with the proof of my statement. When I started to reflect upon the math I was teaching I became appalled at how much of my mathematical knowledge rested not on proof of knowledge, but how much had simply been affirmed by authority figures. I had just memorized many correct answers and procedures. I knew I was right because I was told I was right, and it showed in my teaching.

My teaching during the first four years of my career could be summed up as regurgitation. In more uncouth terms, it was like I was telling my students, “Here is the shit I had to learn in school, now it’s your turn.” Okay, maybe I hid behind some platitudes about critical thinking, or 21st century skills, but my whole concept of school had nothing to do with knowledge.

That’s how dropping out of grad school educated me. (I couldn’t handle the work load of full-time work, becoming a parent, and watching other areas of my life go to crap.) It enlightened me to the idea that knowledge and truth is not something that is owned by teachers. They try to make sense of the world and then share their understanding with us, but they do not  create and control knowledge. Yes, teachers are usually more of an expert in their fields than their students, but they control truth. Real power comes from being able to make sense of the knowledge around you independent of any other people. It made me feel like so much of my formal education was a waste.

School as we know it, isn’t set up to achieve knowledge. Authentic learning comes in fits and spurts, and is not easily confined to weekly assessments and standardized testing. Grades and test scores do not necessarily accompany knowledge. One of the proudest moments I have ever felt as a teacher was when a student remarked that he achieved a 96 on an economics test at the local community college. (I had taught economics to him in high school, a class I didn’t feel qualified to teach.) The grade wasn’t what made me proud, but what he said next, “I know it is a good grade, but I don’t feel like I really know anything. I would rather have an 80, but actual know something.” After years of classes with me it was finally clicking for him. Grades can make us delusional to our own abilities.

I was delusional. I graduated with honors from both high school and college, but struggled to explain Algebra I concepts. I essentially was exactly the same person that I was in junior high. I had never learned or mastered any academic subject. The only thing I had ever mastered was how to put down the right answers on tests to appease my teachers. And I didn’t realize this until I was 26.

Are high school students capable of mastering knowledge? I believe the answer is yes, but it is a near impossibility under the lock step current system we have. The only time I feel like I have had success convincing students the merits of mastery, rather than the merits of grades, have been in small homogeneous classes, or in regular after school sessions. Mastery of knowledge will lead to confidence.

Grade motivated students will eventually be exposed, one way or another. When smart students become motivated by grades they become complacent. Complacent students become stressed when pressed about their knowledge. Complacency breeds the anxiety that will eventually breed perpetual underachievement.

We preach creativity and mastery, but our actions tell students that all we really want from them is the right answers. We are so wrong.

Let Me Explain Something…

The vast majority of my followers on social media are my students. Not my readers here, but as long as it’s only 140 characters there might be a chance they read it. In preparation for another school day, I was overcome with the usual sense of frustration and dred, imagining another course of IDK’s and IDC’s. So I impulsively sent out this.

It probably was the first time I fell into the trap of sending a subtweet.

Previously, I have talked about the amount of interaction and the relationships that can form between teachers and students in a small school. With all the schedule changes this year, I am fortunate enough to have one class where I have been around all the students for at least one previous class, while most of the students have had me twice, and a couple three times. (Figured out who I am talking about yet?) So, I entered this year with high hopes in anticipation of working with all these students that I have had before. I wouldn’t have that typical feeling out period where students and teachers kind get to know each other. We could just jump in and start to math. But then I saw the schedule. Not only was this class nearly twice as big as it ever had been, I had two different classes lumped together. I thought it would be okay though, I had built up a relationship with these kids.

Reality was a let down though. I am modifying my curriculum on the fly, which is never good. Because the class is twice as large the negative behavior has reached a critical mass where it can drag down all but the most motivated. I have students in class who wouldn’t be there except for the relatively new fourth year math requirement. The pressure for college credits has increased drastically even in the last three years. I fear that the majority of students in my class are there because they believe they are SUPPOSED to be there, not because they WANT to be there.

That’s just the student influences though, I haven’t even begun to talk about my own actions. I need to make sure that I had weekly grades. I need to vary my grades, of which I don’t. I need to make sure I am providing enough opportunities. There is too much down time. I need to vary my presentation. I give out too many A’s and B’s. Students don’t know how to improve grades. I don’t provide enough resources. Instruction needs to be bell to bell. Everyday is an academic day. If students say they are learning in my room, they are just lying to protect me because I am likable. Students can’t be expected to do math without examples. Students shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes to solve a math problem. I haven’t asked students what their preferred learning style is. I should contemplate if a high school is really the place for me, because sometimes people just need a career change. Essentially, nothing is ever learned in my classroom, my students just look at social media, and if anyone ever did want to learn something, they would have to find another teacher. This has been my environment for the past three years.

All that has influenced me in ways I really don’t like. I don’t have patience like I used to. I don’t have empathy like I used to. For example, today I covered a topic that should have been largely review from the previous class. I had a quiz planned for tomorrow because it was a review topic, so if everything went smoothly I would assess tomorrow. If the students struggled, I would keep teaching, they would keep learning and I would assess at a later date. But one student I think slept through class, another studied lines for the upcoming musical, a couple did a few questions then studied physics formulas, three were consistently on their phone, and I had to almost constantly talk over four. The 10 or so who did problems consistently seemed to know what was going on until we got to linear and angular speed and then the questions and confusion just got weird. (Figured out who I am talking about yet?)

Should I assess tomorrow? I think yes, because those students who had time to ignore me and focus on physics, or whatever else they were doing, must understand what is going perfectly. If they didn’t understand what was going on why else would they possibly choose to ignore me.

I hate that I think like that. It’s like school is making me hate students who I normally like. It’s kind of like Ghostbusters II. Watch from about 3:40 to the end.

It’s like school is the river of slime, especially true with a description like, “pure, concentrated evil.” This class that I am talking about, I really like them, I really do, but when I have to meet them in the river of slime that I call school, now I hate them. That whole vindictive process ultimately delegitimizes both the teacher and the students.

Several years ago I wouldn’t have handled it like that. First we would have been in one large group, 13 or 14 tops. The structure can alter the class dynamic drastically. I would have found time for us, and I mean all of us, to discuss the upcoming musical. I would have found time to talk about physics, whether that be studying the formulas for the class, talking about the formulas, or the purpose of memorizing the formulas. I would have talked about the stresses of work and how to deal with fatigue. I would have worked in a discussion of multitasking and the impossibility of multitasking and learning. With whatever time was left we would have discussed the math topic for the day. Those discussions about physics, the musical, or multitasking, would have all probably centered around the idea of how we learn and why we learn. So even if math didn’t dominate the day, I would still have felt like it was a productive day.

All those pressures about grades, bell to bell, every day an instructional day, I didn’t have those several years ago. I could teach in a manner that would align with my perceptions of the purpose of school. In my lower levels that meant I could dangle free time and movies as incentive for work. I didn’t fear being called down to the office to explain my lack of resources, which freed me to harass/encourage students, rather than just ignore them like I do now. In my upper levels we spent time talking about zones of proximal development and theories of how we learn, purpose of college, school in Brazil, or even the TARDIS. When we did math it was done collectively, which was fine because grades were more or less a fabrication and students were more or less on the honor system whether they learned. It wasn’t just math, but it was also while I was teaching a class that became dubbed epicnomics, where the exam was a report on UHF. I was able to run a project based Geography, full of down time, but full of great presentations. Ever contemplate the geography of nothing?

That leeway in class allowed me to branch out and pressure students to move beyond their comfort zones. It started with simply trying to get a student to think about a homework assignment (why are you coloring as a senior?), morphed into proofreading papers to try and instill a mindset that a good grade isn’t enough (“I got a 95, but don’t feel like I know what I’m doing.”), and culminating when I got tired of excuses from one of the smartest students I have ever met, set my computer and credit card in from of them and told them to register for the ACT.  Those are some of my best memories from several years ago, even though they have nothing to do with math. Math was still taught and learned, but it was incidental to why that slimy school should exist.

It was a different climate though. I felt as though I had some autonomy to define success. OTES didn’t exist. I had different classes. I had different administration. I had different students. I’m different too.

When I say I need a break from school, I’m not talking about a vacation. I still want to learn something.  I just want to leave the river of slime behind.

Homecoming Game

Tonight is the homecoming game at our school and it has me thinking about the purpose of school in general. I have spent the past three year under cognitive dissonance between our stated purpose and what I actually see taking place in schools. I want to share that confusion with you.

I know most of the readers will know the school well, but if you aren’t one let me take a moment to clarify. I teach at a small (~500 students k-12) public school in a rural setting in Ohio. Not private, magnet, charter, or large, leaving us with limited opportunities for tracking students. Some students do take college courses and some also take courses at nearby vocational tech centers.

I am going to layout what I believe to be the five primary arguments for schools to exist, starting with the most idealistic to the most cynical. I do not believe that a school does one and not the others, but rather they all exist at different levels within the school environment. However, I do feel that one or two reasons for the purpose of school do usually dominate the atmosphere, with the rest being ancillary.

Here are the five purposes for the existence of schools.

  1. Academic mastery and creating critical thinkers and life-long learners.
  2. Preparation for the workplace that will occur after high school or college.
  3. Community centers where relationships are created and social adjustment occurs.
  4. Warehousing or babysitting services for modern, industrial society.
  5. Compliance factories where we teach children to obey authority.

Let’s explore each one a little more in-depth.

1.Schools exist for the purpose of mastering academic material and to create critical thinkers.

I would say that this is one of the professed purposes of school, but as long as educators are pressured to keep graduation rates high, the quality of academic mastery will be low. I cannot offer an authentically rigorous course and ensure accessibility for all my students. Those two things are inversely related

2. Schools exist for the purpose of preparing students for the workplace or college.

As far as I know I haven’t found a study that shows that soft skills like punctuality or teamwork, can be explicitly taught. I don’t feel the need to go into depth the number of high school graduates that end up in remedial classes in college. Also, I have never tried to collect data, but I feel like I have had quite a few students in the past  who don’t have stellar academic records or even discipline records, yet are model employees at jobs outside of school.

3. Schools exist to be community centers where relationships are nurtured and adolescents adjust to society.

Tonight is homecoming. The gym will most likely be packed with people who normally wouldn’t come to the game. We canceled a class to enjoy the comrade of our peers in preparation of the game tonight. There will be a well attended musical this spring. People often talk about friendships and experiences learned in school more than any particular academics. We host camps and provide meeting spaces for groups and organizations. This is a very important need for a community. Is a school the most efficient way to provide leisure activities and meeting spaces to the community? Probably not.

4. Schools exist to warehouse adolescents and babysit children.

In our modern, industrial society most households require both parents to work. We can’t leave a bunch of children to their own unsupervised devices. Schools allow employers to obtain the employees they need and they allow parents access to a socialized babysitting service.

5. Schools exist to create large numbers of obedient and compliant workers.

Do you think it is coincidence that a full-day of work is considered eight hours and school lasts seven? Schools are a way to tell potential employers who shows promise of being a good employee. Is the potential employee easily trainable (good grades)? Is the potential employee reliable (good discipline record)?

 

I function around the #3, my community concept of school. It doesn’t mean that I ignore academics or workplace prep, but I function best when I can plan and prepare class in line with the idea that a school is a community center. My relationships that I forge with my students then take priority over everything else. That’s why I am here for the game tonight, because I really like several of the players and wish I still had them in class. It’s the same reason I go to some of the girl’s basketball games, or volleyball games, or musicals, or track meets, or take in artwork displayed in the library, or ask about part-time jobs, or like proof reading papers, or ask about plans after high school. All of those desire are based upon relationships of students. That relationship then dictates my actions as a teacher. (Sorry, soccer players, I played football in high school and soccer is just weird.)

I felt like I was able to teach like that for a couple of year because I was allowed the autonomy to do so. (It could also be interpreted as a lack of oversight, depending on your perspective.)

 

But right now I feel pressure to live up to the academic role, #1, and the workplace role, #2, of school. I need to make sure that I offer enough assessments and varied assessments. I need to make sure that I don’t waste educational opportunities and teach bell to bell. I need to provide more varied presentations of material to differentiate for my students. I need to provide more resources to my students. I need to make sure I do my Ohio Means Jobs lesson plan. When we get down to the nitty-gritty details of function as a school I fear that we are about the obedience and compliance role of school, #5.

There was a student who was greeted on her first day of school ever at my school with a warning that her hair was the wrong color, and yet I am told to make decisions in the best interest of the students. We tell students what they can and cannot wear. We tell them exactly how a project must be completed and when it must be completed. We tell them exactly where to sit in a classroom. We even tell them how many times their bladder can be emptied during the semester. And then we tell them that we do this to get them ready for college or to make them more responsible adults. I don’t buy it.

We say we’re about academics, learning, and post-secondary preparation, but act like all we care about is compliance. I want to be about relationships and community. I have students in class who I am dying to push to their limits of their capabilities. I have students that I want to develop that relationship where I can push them to their limits. I feel torn between job security and living within that purpose. To my seniors who had me as freshman, this is why I have been so much grouchier and irritable the past two years than you probably remember.

I smell popcorn. Time to go eat.

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.