cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What We Actively Value, Versus What We Tell Students We Value

Lately I've become acutely aware of what I actively value in my classroom, which has entailed an uncomfortable amount of noticing the conditioned habits of my teacher personality. I don't collect and stamp homework assignments. I don't have each day's agenda and objective for the day neatly written on the whiteboard by the time the first bell rings. My classroom is pretty messy most of the time. I don't have a good system for filing away those last three copies of every handout for future use. I took great permission from @mgolding's system of daily handouts using her Container Store hanging file system: basically, the handouts migrate downward one pocket until there are no pockets left, at which point they go into the recycling bin.

I've made my peace with these tradeoffs because I discovered early on that if I was allotting attention to those things, then that was attention I wasn't allotting to the things I actually do value.

I adopted an SBG assessment system because it aligns my grading/scoring system with the things I actually value: mastery, effort, and perseverance. And also presence — being fully present with the activity we are doing that I actually care about. And as I've noticed that, I have noticed something else I feel good about in my classroom: my kids know that those are the things I value. Which that means they don't waste valuable life-energy bullshitting me about the small stuff we all know I don't really care about.

This has led to a lot of interesting progress with students I didn't expect to make progress with. Less successful students who don't feel shamed stick around to ask questions and engage in meaningful academic inquiry. They come to my room during their study hall periods to follow up, get help on missed or misunderstood assignments, or ask for additional work they can do to improve their understanding.

Not their grade -- their understanding. Their performance.

I am not used to this, and it causes me a lot of inconvenience. 

Students who have a reputation for giving up and giving in ask me if they can write another draft, reassess their missed algebra skills/concepts questions, and take greater ownership of their learning in my classroom. My ego would like to think this is because I'm such a highly effective teacher, but in actuality, I think it's more that my walk is becoming more aligned with my talk. I care about mastery and effort and perseverance, which means that those are the things I respond to.

What I did not realize until this afternoon is that this also means that I don't respond to things that are NOT those things. Which means that my kids are not expending any effort pretending to care about things around me that they really don't care about either. There is a focus on the work, and there is not a focus on things that are not the work. This may sound obvious, but actually it's not -- or at least, it wasn't for me. It took me years to discover that I'd been walking around in a consensual trance all my life.

This kind of awareness is challenging, to be sure, but it is also incredibly freeing. Students spend a huge part of every school day pretending to care about things that don't actually matter to them. Fitting in, pleasing teachers, winning points. Some of it is necessary but much of it they know to be complete and utter crap.

Ten, fifteen, forty, or fifty minutes of being authentically engaged in something that matters to somebody is a huge thing. Ten, fifteen, forty, or fifty minutes of authentic interaction with someone who is trying to focus as sincerely as possible on what actually matters in this life is even bigger.

I learned this lesson from years of experience with my mentor and teacher, Dr. Fred Joseph Orr — mind to mind, and heart to heart, though it took years to digest, and quite frankly, I'm still digesting. I'll probably be digesting for the rest of my life. No one had ever paid that kind of focused, intensive, thoughtful, and bounded attention and awareness in my presence before. And it made me discover how it feels to feel alive. I only discovered how precious that kind of awareness was -- and still is -- once that chapter of my life ended and a new chapter had begun.

I was noticing all this today during a test in which some of my lowest-performing students were asking for "help" with certain problems. I noticed that each time I came over in response to their request, they were not so much asking for assistance as asking for a kind of authentic engagement and support that was neither judging nor doing for them but simply witnessing their effort with presence. What I noticed today inside myself — and what distinguished this from mere adolescent attention-seekig behavior — was my own felt sense of a embodied memory of seeking out this kind of authentic connection in my own work with Fred. And this felt sense gave me the motivation to allow that connection and that presence. I trusted something inside my own inherent, intelligent functioning that told me to allow the connection rather than to pull back and resist. It was a subtle and quiet movement inside me, and I'm still figuring out what exactly was going on.

How many times have I mistaken noise for the signal? Do discouraged students ask because they hang on to the sane and healthy hope that they can learn and connect and make progress? Fred always told me, "The organism moves toward health," and I grew to believe him. I wonder if this is what my discouraged students are really asking for when they ostensibly make a seemingly attention-seeking request for something called "help."

Friday, October 26, 2012

And this is why I teach...

It was another crappy Friday in an arithmetic series of crappy Fridays that were running together and threatening to define the limit of my patience for fall trimester as x approaches a mid-sized number that is nowhere near infinity. So I have no idea what possessed me to wake up even earlier than usual to pull together an extra day's practice activity for my right-after-lunch class of rumpled and discouraged algebra students — the ones who believe to their core that California's Algebra 1 requirement is God's own punishment for unremembered karmic crimes they must have committed in previous lifetimes.

But I did it.

The topic was solving and graphing compound inequalities — a skill set that must be mastered in order to have any hope of making sense of and mastering the next topic traditional algebra curricula force-feed to our students: the dreaded topic of absolute value inequalities.

There's really nothing I can say to convince a roomful of skeptical eighth graders that compound inequalities will prove not only useful in business planning (which, after all, is simply algebra writ large across the canvas of the economy) but also amusing and possibly even interesting little puzzles to delight the mind.

To this group of students, they're simply another hoop to be jumped through.

So something in me understood that I needed to reframe the task for them, and to do so using Dan Pink's ideas about intrinsic motivation from his book Drive.

Nothing unlocks the eighth grade mind like an authentic offer of autonomy. As I explained recently to a room of educators at a mindfulness meditation training, middle school students suffer emotionally as much as adults, but they have comparatively little autonomy. A little well-targeted compassion about this can carry you for miles with them, though I usually forget this in the heat of working with them.

For this reason, I like to save practice structures such as Kate Nowak's Solve—Crumple—Toss for a moment when they are desperately needed. I have learned to withhold my Tiny Tykes basketball hoop for moments like this, when students need a little burst of wonder in the math classroom. And so even though I was tired and very crabby about the ever-increasing darkness over these mornings, I pushed myself to pull together a graduated, differentiated set of "solve and graph" practice problems to get this group of students over the hump of their own resistance and into the flow experience of practicing computation and analysis.

And oh, was it worth it, in the end.

The boys who are my most discouraged and resistant learners came alive when they understood that a little athletic silliness was to be their reward for persevering through something they considered too boring to give in to. They suddenly came alive with cries of, "Dr. X— watch this shot!" from halfway across the room. One boy who can rarely be convinced to do the minimum amount of classwork completed every problem I provided, then started tutoring other students in how to graph the solution sets and perform a proper crumpled-paper jump shot.

The girls in the class got into it too, but they seemed more excited about the possibility of using my self-inking date stamp to stamp their score sheets. So I gladly handed over the date stamp to whoever wanted to stamp their own successfully solved and graphed inequalities.

I was far more interested in reviewing their mathematics with them. One of the things I love best about practice structures like this one is that they give me an excuse to engage one on one with discouraged students under a time crunch pressure that adds a different dimension to their motivation. Suddenly they not only want to understand what they have done, but they want to understand it quickly, dammit, so they can move on to another problem, another solution, another graph, another bonus point.

Ultimately, Solve—Crumple—Toss becomes an occasion for conceptual breakthroughs in understanding.

I can't tell you why this happens. I can only tell you that it does happen — often. It makes me feel lighter, more buoyant about teaching them algebra. And it makes them feel happier too.

I wanted to write this down so I could capture it and remember this for a few weeks from now, when it stays darker even longer in the mornings and when I feel crappier and crabbier and more forgetful.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Radio Silence Does Not Mean Nothing Is Happening...

Wow, did I ever fall off the radar.

Plop. That "splat" you might have heard was me, falling off the blogging radar.

But I'm back, baby.

Last night I had the most wonderful dinner with @btwnthenumbers and @woutgeo and @mythagon, who was in town for a conference/collaborative meeting, and I tell you, it pretty much restored my faith in teaching, in mathematics, and probably in all of humanity.

I have been working at a near-frantic pace these last five weeks, prepping, teaching, grading, not grading, having parent conferences, having meetings with parents and the principal, having meetings with parents and principal and superintendent, going to IEP meetings, collaborating with my department members to write goals that will help us to align our curriculum with the Common Core, and generally dealing with all those things that go haywire as soon as you start to nail down some satisfying, finite part of your teaching.

In other words, just like you, life has been kicking my ass.

But between last night and this morning's drive to work something shifted. Something sane and healthy intervened.

That something was my connection with the Twitter- blogo-sphere.

Whenever I'm feeling exhausted and run over with skid marks across my face and body, connection with my tweeps -- any connection -- seems to be the best medicine. I don't know why this is true; I only know that it is so. Remembering this makes me think of a quote I have from von Neumann hanging in the ring of inspiring quotes that encircles my classroom: "In mathematics, you don't understand things; you just get used to them." Some days that's how I feel about things in my classroom or in my school or in my life.

I only know that five or ten minutes of venting to my tweeps about an impossible situation -- even when @woutgeo is only half-listening because (a) the Giants are sucking pretty hard against the Cardinals and because (b) my venting is both predictable and boring -- it helped just to have reconnected with the connection. In Jakobsonian structuralist linguistics, this kind of communicative connection is known as a "phatic utterance" (look it up, Riemann, I have to look up all of your crap).

By this morning, I was feeling reasonably happy driving to work for a 7:30 a.m. meeting. I was not totally thrilled about the hour or having to buy gas at that hour or the price of gas for that matter, but I felt pretty great about car-dancing in the dark to Ace of Base's "The Sign" and remembering car-dancing at #TMC12 with @mgolding and @samjshah and @jreulbach and @ bowmanimal on the way to do Exeter problem sets. And I felt great when @rdkpickle's sweet soprano voice was joined by @SweenWSweens and @jreulbach singing "Tweet Me Maybe." And I even laughed when the theme from Sesame Street came on. iPod's "shuffle" feature has a somewhat perverse sense of humor.

OK, and one other thing I have learned is that my dog always knows when it's time for me to end a blog post. Just now he jumped up on my lap and pounded the laptop keyboard with his giant panda bear paw:
So that's my cue to wrap this up.

I just want to say, if you are feeling alone or frustrated or exasperated and you are reading this, then for the sake of everything we hold dear, please reach out to someone else who is of like mind. "It's hard to teach right... in isolaaaaaaaaation.... So here's some PD.... just like vacation!"

Tweet me maybe, tweeps. Over and out for now.