My Struggle with Homework

The math classroom I knew from school followed a typical pattern.

  1. Review/Collect/Correct previous assignment.
  2. Teacher introduces new concepts/topic(s).
  3. Teacher walks through several example problems.
  4. Students are given an assignment.
  5. Repeat process.

Some math teachers are quicker with a joke, or friendlier, or more strict, but ultimately I think the majority of classes follow this pattern most of the time. When I first started teaching I struggled with how to handle steps 1 and 4. Here is the story of how I came to my solution.

My first year teaching at my current school I followed this pattern fairly religiously. At first I collected homework assignment and tried to check every problem from every student. I quickly learned this is a nightmare. Between students not showing work, poor penmanship skills, and trying to decipher multiple approaches, it is just way too time consuming.

I next tried an approach I picked up student teaching. I wouldn’t correct every assignment, but I would choose them randomly. It was still time consuming to correct, but at least that time consumption was limited. However, there was still a flaw with this system. One day when I went to collect a homework assignment to grade I had a student approach me. He didn’t have the assignment done. Every other assignment was completed, but something came up and he didn’t get that assignment done. I liked the kid, he normally was everything a teacher wants from a student, so I decided to give him a break. The problem was that more and more students asked for breaks, and every now and then I would get the rare student that skipped every assignment, but just happened to complete the one that was collected. I felt like this system was just to coincidental and happenstance to represent some sort of accurate measure of knowledge.

And it was still time consuming. So I adopted something I saw during student teaching, instead of collecting entire assignments, I started collecting just a few specific questions from homework assignments. But the outcome was still largely the same, it just felt like the grades were coincidental and happenstance.

There was also one large problem with which I had an issue. Correcting homework for accuracy led a lot of students to blatantly copy a handful of students. This defeated the purpose of homework to me. I firmly believe homework is there for students to reflect and practice the skills covered in class.

I decided to handle this problem by making homework a participatory grade. About two times a chapter I would collect homework from the students and just check to make sure they did something. I used this system for three years. I liked it because it allowed me to distance myself from student responsibility. If students took the time to understand the homework, great, and if they just filled in their notebooks to get the participation points that was fine with me too because they would just get low test grades. They didn’t put in the effort to learn the material, so they would suffer the low grades. I didn’t feel bad because I was essentially offering 30% of their grade for free by making homework participatory.

Then, at the end of one school year, about 20% of my students failed. It came down to their homework. They weren’t making the connection between doing quality work and success in school. I heard reason after reason, excuse after excuse, as to why the homework wasn’t done. Some of them were legitimate and some weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. They saw me as an authority figure and the homework I assigned was about following directions, not an educational opportunity. I had already struggled with the cycle of detention, and I do fall on the side of the debate believing they don’t achieve the desired result. I kept second guessing myself, thinking maybe I should have assigned more detentions. But those detentions just would have reinforced the cycle of obedience for those students.

If my goal is to breed compliance and obedience in students there are much more effective ways than math homework and detentions. Actually, the more I think about it, math homework and grades are about the dumbest way to teach concepts of compliance, obedience, and following directions. A paycheck and a job are much more effective for that.

Sending 20% of my class to summer school or back to Algebra I again wasn’t enough to make me change my ways though. I spent one year teaching summer school and have had several students go through the process. Though summer school itself is largely unresearched, my personal experience is that it serves largely as a prolonged detention to avoid repeating a class. By sending kids to summer school, the homework wasn’t about obeying me, as a detention would have been, but the homework was about obedience in the system.

And I was perfectly okay with this set up until the end of the next school year. I didn’t have nearly as many students fail this time. Actually only a couple, but one stood out in my mind. It was the last day of class and I had a student who was sitting at around 50 some percent. His homework, 30% of his overall grade, was negligibly above a zero. I had always told students it’s not when you learn something, but rather that you learn it. Well, here it was, the last day of school. Simply do some of the homework and the student could pass the class. I knew the kid had the math ability, I had watched him do math during class before, he just needed to get enough participation points to pass the class.

When he claimed he didn’t have enough time to get the work done, one of his classmates offered the use of her old notebook and worksheets to copy. He still refused because, as he stated, he didn’t care. Homework still wasn’t having the impact I wanted it to. I decided I needed to change something for next year. I couldn’t keep going having so much of a student’s grade represent obedience.

I needed to devise a way to grade so that those grades represented math ability and not classroom obedience. I needed to get students to realize the work they do with homework is what led to success, not watching me give notes. Most of all, I needed to break the cycle where students defend their behaviors with, “…but I didn’t think you’d care.” If all we ever teach is school is to do things because the teachers care we haven’t really educated anybody.

I Used to Teach Algebra I

I used to teach Algebra I. Over time I had developed some eccentricities that matched my personality, and made my classroom fairly efficient. My current seniors are the last students that had me for Algebra I, and when they talk about it, often they will mention the movies they got to watch. HOLY LABEL MAKER BATMAN! I don’t want to give the impression that all we did was watch movies though. When most people recollect their math class experience the imagine, something like this.

And that’s what my class was like, for the majority of time. It started with some sort of homework review, introduction of new material, and then I would release the students to work on their assignment with roughly 10 to 20 minutes of class left, very much following the, “I do, we do, you do.” This wasn’t everyday, but it was the vast majority of them.

The last time I taught Algebra I though, it was different. I would simply start class by presenting the students with a question that would be familiar to them. Either something from the previous day or something that they had been taught the previous year. I had them show me their work on whiteboards right there so that I could give them feedback right there, instead of waiting until the next day.

This worked for me because of two reasons.

The first, and most important was consistency. The last time I taught Algebra I it was my fifth consecutive year teaching the class. With the exception of open enroll students, the pipeline was from the same teacher, so I knew what to expect in terms of prerequisite capabilities. The standards were the same, the state testing was the same. Teacher evaluations were the same. Utilization of special education resources were the same. All of the consistency meant that I taught using my schema, allowing me to devote every ounce of my working memory and fluid intelligence to provide feedback for my students. I think it takes me five years of teaching consistency to be a good teacher with a curriculum. It really makes a cycle; master curriculum to teach (this is different that getting answers to tests); find a good sequence of topics; properly pace the topics to align with state testing; analyze assessment choices; and then finally be an effective teacher.

Now I said there were two reasons that allowed me to teach Algebra I the way I wanted and I’ve already talked about the consistency of a schedule. The second reason was because of the degree of autonomy I was allowed. Basically, I was told to go teach math, and that was it. As long as math was taught, the how I taught wasn’t nearly that important. So I decided to make my class fit my personality. I dumped activities that seemed to represent more of an obedience (sorry, “on task”) component. I made a promise to my students that I would not have them do any activities that I felt were there solely for busy work. I stopped feeling guilty about providing my students with downtime. Every now and then I found myself mentally fried by the curriculum, especially that first year teaching Pre-Calculus, so I couldn’t imagine how it would be affecting the students, and I didn’t feel guilt acknowledging that I was stressed too.

That manifested itself in that first Pre-Calculus class in a manner where there were several discussions about learning and mastery in general because my students were stuck with a teacher who only a survivor when it came to his math background. Much of the math class was dedicated to trying to understand why things work because I was trying understand why they worked myself. Since I was so comfortable with Algebra I, I would look at student feedback and decide I was happy with where they were for the day, and occasionally notice that there was 10 to 15 minutes of class left. Remembering that I promised that I wouldn’t spend their time with busy work, I used the time to build relationships and share aspects of my life that I found important, and yes, that might manifest itself as movies. As my relationships with my students improved I noticed that learning became more natural, and more productive.

Then, rather suddenly it all changed. First, my schedule was altered, Algebra I, the class that I was so good with, was taken away going into my sixth year at my current school. This is what my schedule has been since then.

Year 1 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, 6th Grade math aide, junior high lunch duty, senior class adivisor

Year 2 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, junior high lunch duty

Year 3 – Algebra I, World History, Calculus I, Economics, Geography

Year 4 – Algebra I, World History, Economics, Geography, Pre-Calculus

Year 5 – Algebra I, Algbera II, Pre-Calculus, Calculus I, Math Intervention, Personal Business and Finance Math, senior class adivisor

Year 6 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Personal Business and Finance Math, Statistics

Year 7 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Statistics, junior high study hall/math intervention

Year 8 – 8th Grade Math, Geometry, combined Pre-Calc/Calc I

I was still excited to teach because I felt comfortable teaching how I wanted to, I still had that autonomy.  So I showed up the first day during year 6 with a stack of whiteboards, enthusiastic about how having the students work in class impacted the outcomes, only to be crushed when I shared that philosophy with the administration and that’s not how you should teach. I was pressed to defend myself (in writing) and referred to the experts at the local educational service center. I was even questioned about going out of order in the textbook.

Then came the day, during the first week of school, when I lost one of my Algebra II classes to a fundraiser meeting that came with no notice. I decided to take the opportunity to spend some significant time with the other Algebra II class not working on math, but building relationships that would make the rest of the year more productive and efficient. Of course, that would be the day that I got a walk through, my first experience with a “gotcha” moment, and was proceeded to be lectured about wasted time. I was told that this wasn’t an official walk through, but just checking to make sure I am using my time wisely.

In my Personal Business and Finance Math, another class that I was new to, I showed a video to the students about rationalization, and it just didn’t sink in. YouTube made the recommendation to show this Berenstain Bears video, so I tried it. It went perfect, the kids embraced the dorkiness of being high school students watching kids cartoons, and they seemed to grasp the concept of rationalization. But one of those educational service center experts walked by and I was later lectured on the inappropriateness of showing a cartoon, and then had to provide a written rationale for my choice.

Then came the day I gave a problem in Pre-Calculus that got me in trouble. We had spent weeks working on trig functions, especially transformations of trig graphs. I gave the students a problem in a worksheet that asked them to do the reverse, given a set of points, find a trig function. I was called down to the office and was lectured about how students aren’t capable to performing this task without being explicitly being shown how to do it first. It just goes on and on.

Novice learners were timed on problems to see how fast they could complete them.

I give out too many A’s.

No one learns anything in your class.

Students told me they didn’t care, they’re going to get a B.

There needs to be more ways to succeed in your classroom.

It is impossible to learn anything in your class.

You let the students do nothing.

More people would be complaining if the grades were lower.

Students will lie to defend you.

I want to tell them to shut it and punch them in the face.

If I were a student I don’t know what I would be learning.

There needs to be more grades in your class.

I’m not going to do it since it’s not graded.

On top of all those messages I have been receiving, the state has changed the end of year test. We have new standards to deal with. I’ve had to adapt to becoming a full inclusion classroom that doesn’t track students, meaning I have had classrooms with students with IQs in the 80’s have been in classes with gifted students. Now students are being pressured more than ever to get college credits while still in high school. Students and teachers are feeling intense pressure to get the most amount of academic achievement at an ever earlier age.

When we give students messages over and over and over again that they are dumb they start to internalize it and it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. The messages I’ve received the past three years, that my students are lie to me, that all they do is take advantage of me, that all they do is walk all over me, well, I start to internalize that too. So when they come to my class exhausted and stressed, then do not respond to my prodding questions with thought, quit from fatigue during complex tasks, I no longer meet them with sympathy. I just keep going because, well fuck them, I won’t let them take advantage of me anymore. If they are tuning me out it must be because they have already mastered the content. They can fail, their grades aren’t my problem. That’s the teacher I am now.

And here’s the bottom line, in this current environment, I am not the teacher anyone needs. I tried desperately to hold on to a few of my values, but slowly selling out one little piece at a time, bowing to the pressure from administration, students, parents, tests, has made me a bad teacher. I am a bad teacher because I got sucked into the spiral of my own paranoia. Instead of meeting my students fatigue, exhaustion, and confusion with sympathy and grace, I coldly pressed on. As it just became more confusing for them, more of them decided to just quit and I don’t blame them. Why should they stress out over math they won’t need other than to jump through some hoop to get a college degree? They have no incentive to master the topic. As long as they are getting a B or C, they’re good.

As I write this, I keep staring at the information about conic sections on my board that I used in Pre-Calc and thinking over and over to myself, this is not how it should be done. The more I look at it, the more appalled I am. It dumbs down our students and it dumbs down the math. It’s a result of me trying to hold on to three years ago, adapting to my new pressures, but producing an abomination.

That’s not education. If that’s what I am producing it’s time for me to go. I thought I knew what my calling in life was, but if this is all the more I am capable of making, this passion has just turned into a burdensome job, which means I am no good for anybody right now. I’m not teaching. I’m torturing.

I hope that I actually made a difference for a couple students along the way, because right now I shouldn’t be here.

 

 

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.

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.

 

Fun with Numbers

Time for fun with numbers. Also, time to practice math speak and poor reasoning skills.

Assume that we take a sample of 100 students at my high school. The following statistically will likely be their future.

  1. 97 of the students will graduate, based upon the past four year trend.
  2. 67 of the students will go to college, 44 entering a four year institution and 23 entering a two year school based upon Bureau of Labor and Statistics data.
  3. Of the 44 only 26 will graduate and of the 23 only 7 will graduate (with two year degree), ever according to National Center for Education Statistics.
  4. Of the 23 that start at a two year school, only 5 will transfer to a four year school, but 4 of the 5 will graduate according to Inside Higher Education.
  5. Between two year and four year degrees, there will be 37 graduates, but 17 will be underemployed and 2 will be unemployed according to Federal Reserve research.
  6. Therefore, 18 of the 100 students who were students at my high school will finish some sort of post-secondary education and be employed in a career that requires a post-secondary education. However, that does not account for the credential inflation among those 18. Aspiring Certified Public Accountants need 5 years of college rather than 4 years, or 2 years like it was ages ago.

Why do I care about this? It is because the educational experience of these students will shape the messages they send their children. Of my grandparents generation, those going to high school in the 1920s through 1940s, only 25 to 35 percent took Algebra I and only 1 to 2 percent attempted Pre-Calculus/Trigonometry. By the late 1970s about one third of high school students would complete Algebra II as the highest math course and Pre-Calculus/Trigonometry had crept up to 10 percent. Even when I was in high school (2001 graduate), Algebra II was suggested and strongly encouraged, but not required. I was placed in the gifted track in Junior High School and my first introduction to a variable occurred in the 7th grade.

Now, Algebra II is a graduation requirement and is suggested to be taken during the junior year. Anything below an Algebra I level cannot count for high school credit. Variables and algebraic equations are now standard fair in upper elementary. I rarely encounter a parent that can help their high school student with math homework. I more often encounter a student who is helping a parent returning to school with math homework.

But inevitably, that frustrated and jaded student, will ask Mom and Dad, “Why do I have to learn math?” As the students become older and older this question is harder and harder to answer. Because of the ever increasing academic requirements most parents cannot relate to the requirements their children face. Increasingly abstract math creeps to lower grades, making math seem more and more like a subject from Hogwarts. And just like Harry Potter, abstract math can be entertaining to some, annoying and frustrating to others, and virtually worthless when it comes to paying the bills or any other “real life” scenario.

Eventually the parent, or the teacher, starts to run out of answers for the, “Why do I have to learn math?” The reply becomes, “Because you have to take math to graduate/get into college/whatever.” Remember the list at the top. Let’s reexamine it for a moment.

  1. 30 of the 100 students never attempted college, which means their children will have to take more math just to get the same high school diploma. They will tell their children that they have to learn the math to graduate.
  2. 30 of the 67 who attempted college never finished, jading them to the educational experience. They will tell their children that college isn’t worth it so don’t push yourself to try, or they might encourage their children to go to college unlike themselves and that they have to learn the math to get into college.
  3. 19 of the 37 who graduate will end up at a job that they could have had right out of high school. What kind of message do you think they will send about math
  4. Of the 18 who graduated and work in a field that requires a college degree only 4 will routinely use math at a level of Algebra I or higher. 14 of those 18 will tell their children that college is important, but the math is just something you have to do.

Only 4 of the future parents, only 4 of the current 100 students have any hope of finding the math I am trying to teach relevant. The other 96, 96% of future parents, of current students do the math because they “have to.” Sadly though, that’s what I think school is about. We tell students you “have to” take this class, you “have to” fill out this form, you “have to” wear these clothes. From where I sit it seems like society has said to schools, “You ‘have to’ create obedient students.”

We use measure success in education by numbers and awards. GPAs, ACT scores, honor roll, all these awards are supposed to measure academic achievement, but all they really measure is complacency and obedience.

Did George Orwell create public schools?

My Goal: Make Myself Unessecary

In a three part series, I had laid out my brief journey of how I define my purpose as a teacher. In part three, I stated that my main goal, the one that keeps me coming back day after day, year after year, is to create free and independent thinkers.

Another purpose of maintaining a blog was to document interesting phenomenon as it occurred. I have several years of bound up frustration that I want to share with the world, but I want to record events as they happen, while they are fresh in my mind.

Recently I had one of those class periods where several students were out for a field trip at the end of an already grueling week, making for a period that the remaining students were pretty lackluster in their desire for mental exertion. We did a little review and then began talking. We started talking physics and one of the girls in class chimed in that she felt like she was only able to do the examples in class, that she need formulas to be able to accomplish the exercises. Here is roughly how our exchange went.

Me: “Why don’t you make up some problems?”

Another Student: “That’s what I did.”

Her: “I don’t know how.”

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I go to the board draw a little scenario. We start messing around with the problem. One of the students puts up a formula involving the square of final velocity and gravity. We are hung up on the use of acceleration due to gravity and how it would affect projectile motion. Bell rings, but I am still intrigued by the problem. Luckily, she usually stays in my room during the next class and I keep going back to the problem every so often. Eventually I come to the conclusion that the acceleration due to gravity is unnecessary.

Her: “I said that a long time ago.”

She was right, she did, but we had discounted it at the time. That, and she didn’t state that gravity was not needed she ASKED if gravity was needed. When she asked she is admitting that she wasn’t sure. She is admitting that she doesn’t want to support her idea. She is looking for me to support her idea because if I do it she can remember that she is right and never has to find a reason why her idea was right. She is granting me the power and authority of knowledge and admitting weakness.

I dismissed her because I didn’t know better. She stopped because I didn’t affirm her. What should have happened was that she would have challenged my dismissal and forced me to see how her idea was correct. She is acting as a microcosm of how school functions for many of our students. Too many of our students seek the approval of their ideas from an external source (teachers) rather than reason out the correctness of their ideas for themselves.

That’s my goal though, to rectify that scenario. Every time a student leaves my care answering every question with a question, seeking that approval, I feel like I have failed. Every time a student leaves my class feeling good about their grade, but not sure of what they know, I feel like I have failed. I want my students to be able to confidently answer questions, to reason the answers for themselves. My students should eventually view me as a resource, but not a necessity.

Maybe this isn’t such a good goal.  Is it really a great idea to make myself unnecessary?

Why I don’t do homework

I hate homework. For the few people that know me, I feel like I have at least an average vocabulary, I would pretend that it is above average. And I cannot stress the importance of the choice of words. I hate homework. I am not annoyed with homework, I am not repulsed by homework, I am not disgusted with homework. I hate homework. There are two major misconceptions about homework that I would like to attack to explain why I hate homework.

But first a clarification, homework can have a purpose. Readings that provide students with information that will be necessary for participation in a class discussion. Using flashcards to memorize medical terminology prefixes and suffixes, those are good uses of homework. So why do I have a problem with homework? Here’s why.

Homework reinforces the concepts covered in class.

If I ignore whether an assignment is graded based upon completion or accuracy, I see eight possible outcomes from the homework assignment. If a homework assignment is to achieve its maximum benefit it needs to be in a place where a student has mastered the material enough to complete the task, but still has to expend intellectual effort. The goal for this homework is that the student is moving recently learned information to become part of a long-term schema. Once in schema, the material becomes intertwined with prior knowledge and can be used to interpret and understand even more concepts.

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However, very few homework assignments covered in class actually fall into this sweet spot. If all outcomes on my flowchart have equal probability (which is a big assumption) only one out of eight homework assignments will have the desired result. Only one out of eight outcomes will reward intellectual effort positively. Seven of the eight will reward aspects of school that do not help us learn.  Imagine homework for a student, with the student thinking, “that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was cool, that was dumb, that dumb.” Now repeat that over and over and over for twelve years. Is it surprising that so many of our high school students have a negative view of the purpose of school?

Students need something to work on at home.

Often I will get a question from a parent the first time we meet. Usually it goes something like, “What should my child be working on at home?” Deep down I really want to tell the parent that their children should be working on whatever interests them. In reality though, I get a sense that work is associated with learning. If a large math assignment is completed, much learning has occurred. Big assignment equals big smarts (insert caveman imagery here).

But work is just that and nothing more, work. A better option for parents who are concerned with their children would be to simply have them demonstrate what they are learning in class. What follows might come in fits and bursts, with some information being comprehensible and mastered, while some of it might lack clarity, but that is the nature of learning. A student working doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is learning. Learning takes work, but not all work is learning.

So what’s the solution?

I wish there were an easy answer, but there isn’t. Research is mixed, even personal experience is mixed. So what I have chosen to do is have my students do as much work in front of me as possible. At least that way I know what they can and cannot do. I will list a practice assignment for students to work on if they desire, but it is optional. It is optional precisely because the student would need to see the benefit of homework, how homework’s purpose shouldn’t be grades, but rather homework should exist to benefit understanding and mastery. Not many take advantage of this opportunity, but a few have.

I hope more will.