Category Archives: teaching

Teaching: The Movie

Another entry in “teacher as entertainer”:

Dave of Math Equality writes that Taylor Mali captures his zeal for teaching. Eh. I get vaguely embarrassed when they play Taylor Mali at PD sessions; he’s like teacher martyr porn or something. I naturally have all sorts of teaching miracle stories. But I don’t tell them to inspire you, dear readers, to convince you that here’s another wonderful, self-sacrificing teacher slaving away unappreciated and exploited, yet nobly giving every drop of sweat and blood to to help navigate self and soul to adulthood or sanity, whichever is needed more.

I’m saying “Look, another day at work turns out to be a F***ING MOVIE!” I made more money in tech, sure, but I didn’t ever experience moments where I thought jesus, people would pay money to watch this on screen and not feel ripped off.

Make no mistake: I am the STAR of this movie. I have a contract giving me a guaranteed audience of thirty for 90 minutes, three times a day. They are to be attentive, listen, watch, and if they learn too, well, cool.

Anyway, I had a moment today that many other teachers have had, and for me it was like, I’d have kicked back $20 to the district for the sheer joy of the experience.

It was fourth block, my prep, and I was just about to leave for Starbucks, as is my routine, when Steve, from third block, knocked on the door.

“Hey, why aren’t you in class?”

Steve, white, tall, skinny, glasses, shook his head. “Can’t handle it. It’s insane in there.” He pointed to the class next door.

The class next door is taught by a long-term sub, because we haven’t been able to find a math teacher. But of course, the big pain point for principals is firing bad teachers. (The AVP offered the job to first one, then the other of my interviews, both took other jobs.) This sub is a qualified physics teacher, new to teaching, just got work permit, teaching a brutal schedule (two Discovery Geometry classes. Shoot. me. now.) I’ve talked to her a couple times, given her some advice.

I got up. “Come on.”

Steve shook his head, “No, they’ll know I brought you over. Can I stay here?” I gave him a withering look–sissy!–and as I walked next door I have to admit I envisioned myself pushing open the saloon doors as the sheriff, come to beat this brawl down.

The sub opened the door and gasped, “Thank you for coming!” The room was….not quite a barroom brawl, but kids were talking and chatting and eating, purses and backpacks on their desk covering the handout. They were manifestly not doing math. One big guy with cornrows (and no, not black) in the back of the room was leaning back in his chair, texting. I took his phone and gave it to the sub.

“What are they supposed to be doing?” I asked, softly.

“They are taking a test.”

“A TEST?” Cue Ennio Morricone.

Heads swiveled. I walked to the front of the room, slowly, looking at students. At least ten of them are in my third block class (not math), and they quieted down immediately. Some of the others were still talking. Discovery Geometry is a tough crowd.

“Quiet.”

“Who are you?”

I just look at him, a big guy, Asperger’s, not malicious. He picked up on a facial cue (hey!) and didn’t demand an answer. The room got quiet in a hurry. Another, smaller guy (this one is black) is perched at the door, half open.

“Are you in this class?”

“Yeah, I have to go the bathroom. Waiting to see what you said.”

“Good plan. You can go. Be back in under two minutes.” To the class, which had briefly started to rustle: “I said QUIET.” Quiet.

“Purses and backpacks on the floor. Now.”

Instant obedience.

“You three are way too close together. You, in red, move to that desk. Then you two spread out. Girls, you in pink sit at the end of the table, other two spread out.” Again, obedience.

“You work the test in silence. I don’t want to hear about any problems. Next time I come here, it’s with an administrator. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“Get to work.” They all instantly bend over their tests, except Texting Kid, who raised his hand.

“Yes?”

“Could I have a pencil?” (Keep in mind, he’s had the test for 20 minutes.) He got a pencil, and got to work.

I left as Bathroom Guy comes back, well under two minutes.

Steve hustled back to the test, gratefully, after taking my cell and room phone number so he could text or the sub could call me in the event of future disaster.

I never did get to Starbucks, so did some copying. On the way back to my room, who should I run into but Bathroom Boy.

“Hey. What are you doing out?”

“Had to go to the bathroom.”

“You already did that.”

“Had to go again.”

“Yeah, no.” Walked him back to the room. He didn’t even protest. I told the sub no one, but no one without health issues, goes to the bathroom twice in one day. They’d finished the test, and with fifteen minutes left in class, they were talking loudly with nothing to do. I told her no to that, too, in the future. But they’d worked harder and more quietly than ever before, she told me.

I remember an actor saying that in a performance if you have to cry, you can either dredge up a horrible memory or just use an onion. This was all onion. And yet it was also a good fifteen minute’s work. Kids learned someone was watching; they know it’s not free beatdown on sub week. But the whole time I was thinking “Oh, my god, this is SO COOL. I’m CLINT. Or at least the badass principal in The Wire.” Self-absorbed puppy that I am, there is my takeaway.

I am teaching two brand new classes, and an Algebra 2/Trig class I’m struggling to keep somewhat true to its name. It’s not an easy year, I’m not brimming with confidence—although I’m having a great time. So getting to be Clint or the badass principal was just a great moment, a reminder I still have teacher mojo.

Right about now, I realize son of a bitch, I’m a lot more like Taylor Mali than I’d like to think. Yes, I’m more Movie Star than Teacher Martyr, more audience participation than individual redemptions. But ultimately, I’m one of those teachers who can walk into a room of adolescents and command them—-to learn, to think, and sometimes just to obey. And just like Taylor Mali and the people clapping him on, I like what that says about me.

And hell, if you think it’s easy, you try it.


Teaching Math a Third Way

I was reading Harry Webb’s advice to a new secondary teacher, describing his usual classroom procedure for “senior maths”, as an addendum to his earlier post on classroom management. And I thought hey, I could use this to fully demonstrate the difference in math instruction philosophies.

Harry’s lesson is a starting activity, a classroom discussion/lecture, and classwork.

So here’s what I did on Friday for a trig class, which is certainly “senior maths”: brief classroom discussion, class activity (what Harry would call “group work”), brief classroom discussion. And I think it’s worth showing that difference.

The kids walked in, sat in assigned seats grouped in fours—strong kids in back, weakest in front. I often forget and start before the tardy bell, just laying out what we’ll do that day. I never check homework—the kids take pictures and send it to me, and I eventually get it into the gradebook. I don’t really care if kids do homework or not. They take pictures of it and text or email me. I eventually check. If kids have homework questions, they’re to let me know during the tardy pause and I’ll review them on an as-needed basis. But yesterday, the kids hadn’t had homework, so not an issue.

When the tardy bell rang, I had just finished sketching this:

simrev

(this next bit is what I think Harry would call classroom discussion):

“Can anyone tell me the relationship these triangles have?”

I got a good, solid chorus of “similar” from the room—not everyone, but more than a smattering. I picked on Patti, up front, and asked her to explain her answer.

“They have two congruent angles.”

“Good. Dennis, why do I only need to know about two of the angles?”

Dennis did the wait out game, but I’m better. After a while, he said, “I don’t know.”

“Do you know how many degrees are in a triangle?”

“180. Oh. OK. If they add up to 180, and two of them are equal, the third one has to be the same amount to get to 180.”

“See, you did know. Jeb, if two triangles are similar, what else do I know?”

Jeb, in the back corner, said “The sides have a constant ratio.”

“More completely, the corresponding sides of the triangle have a constant ratio. Good. How many people remember this from geometry?” All the hands are up. “If you had me for geometry, and about eight of you did, you may even remember me saying that in high school math, similarity is much more important than congruence, for high school math, anyway. Trigonometry will prove me right once again. So while I hand out the activity, everyone work the problem.”

When I got back up front, I confirmed everyone knew how to solve that, then I went on to this:
Simreview2

“I don’t want everyone to answer right away, okay? I’ll call on someone. Give people a chance to think. Which one of these variables can be solved without a proportion? Olin?”

Olin, very cautiously: “x?”

“Because…”

“I can just…see what I add to 8 to get 12?”

“Right. Now, that probably seems painfully obvious, but I want to emphasize—always look at the sketch to see what you know. Don’t assume all variables take some massive equation and brain work. Now, how can I find the length of the other side? Alex?”

“I’m just trying to figure that out.”

“You’re assuming the triangles are similar? Can she do that, Jamie?”

“Yes, because the lines are parallel.”

“Hey, great. Why does that help, Mickey?”

“I don’t know.”

“Cast your mind back to geometry. Which you took with me, Mickey, so don’t make me look bad. What did we know about parallel lines and transversals?”

“Oh. Oh, okay. Yeah. the left angles are congruent to each other, and the right ones, too.”

“Because….”

“Corresponding angles,” said Andy. I marked them in.

“Okay. So back to Alex. Got an equation yet?”

“I don’t know what I should match with what.”

“Okay. So this, guys, is the challenge of proportions. What will give me the common ratio that Jeb mentioned? I need a valid relationship. It can be two parts of the same shape, or corresponding parts from different shapes. Valicia?”

“Can I match up 8 and 6?”

“Can she?”

“Yes,” said Ali. “They are corresponding. But we don’t know what the short leg is.”

“We don’t need to,” says Patti. “6 over 8 is equal to y over 12.”

After finishing up on that problem, I turned to the handout.

GMhandout1

“I stole this group of common similar triangle configurations, just as a way to remember when they might show up. But we’re going to focus on the sixth configuration. Can anyone tell me what’s distinctive about it?”

“It’s a right triangle with an altitude drawn,” offered Hank.

“True. Anything unusual?”

“No. All triangles have altitudes.” He looked momentarily doubtful. “Don’t they?”

“They do. So take a look at this” and I draw a right triangle in “upright” position. “Where do I draw an altitude?”

“You don’t need to….Oh!” I hear talking from all points in the room, and pick someone up front. “Oscar?”

“That’s the altitude,” he points. I wait. “The—not the hypotenuse.”

“Melissa? Can you give me a pattern?”

Melissa, in back, quite bright but never volunteers. “If the leg is a base, then a leg is the altitude.”

“True for all triangles?”

“No. Just for rights. Because the legs are perpendicular.”

“Right. So back to Oscar, what’s different about this?”

“The hypotenuse is the base.”

“Right. So it turns out that the altitude to the hypotenuse of a right triangle is….interesting. Turn over the handout.”

The above conversation, which takes a while to write out, took about 15 minutes, give or take. I would expect Harry Webb has similar stories.

The next part of my lesson is the “group work” that Harry and other traditionalist think leads to “social loafing” and wasted time.

gmhandout2

The kids are in ability groups of four; they go to whiteboards spaced all around the room: two 5X10s, 3 4x4s, and self-stick on bulletin boards that works great—I even have graphs attached.

And I just give them instructions and say, “Go.”

Is this discovery math? Hell, no. I give them all sorts of instructions. I don’t want open-ended exploration. What I want for them is to do for themselves and understand what I would have otherwise explained.

In the next 50 minutes, using my instructions, each group had identified the three triangles:

3trianglesgm

There’s always a surprise. In this case, more of the kids had trouble proving the similarity (that is, all angles were congruent) than with the geometric mean. I actually stopped the activity between steps 1 and 2 to ensure everyone understood that the altitude creates two acute angles congruent to the original two–which I frankly think is pretty awesome.

rtwanglesmarked

Even before they’d quite figured out the point of the angles, they’d gotten the ratios:

gmratios

Each of the nine groups found the second step, proving the altitude (h) is the geometric mean of the segments (x & y) on their own; I confirmed with each group. Once they’d established that, I reminded them that the third step was to prove the Pythagorean theorem and to look for algebra that would get them there. Four of the groups had identified the essential ratios, identifying that a2 = xc and b2 = yc.

At that point, I brought it back “up front” and finished the proof, which requires three non-obvious steps.

a2 + b2 = xc + yc (reminding them about adding equations)

Then I waited a bit, because I wanted to see if the stronger kids pick up on the next step.

“Just think, a minute. Remember back in algebra II, when you were solving for inverses.”

“…Factor?” says Andy.

“Oh, I see it,” Melissa. “factor out the c.”

“Right. So then we have a2 + b2 = c(x+y)”

“Holy sh**.” from Mickey.

“Watch the language.”

“That is so cool.” says Ronnie, who is UP FRONT!

“if you don’t know what they’re saying, everyone, look at the diagram and tell me what x+y is equal to.”

And then there were a lot of “Holy sh*–crap” as the kids got it. Fun day.

I wrapped it up by reminding them that we were just doing some preliminary work getting warmed up to enter trig, but that they want to remember some key facts about the geometric mean, the altitude to the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Then I go into my spiel on the essential nature of triangles and we’re all done. Homework: Kuta Software worksheet on similar right triangles, just to give them some practice.

This lesson would rarely be included in a typical trig class, whether reform or traditional. I described the thinking that led to the sequence. But it’s a good example of what I do. (Also, as many bloggers have pointed out, my attention to detail is dismal, both in blogging about math and teaching it. Kids usually pick up on stuff I miss, and if it’s something big, I go back and cover it.)

I vary this up. Sometimes I go straight to an activity they do in groups (Negative 16s and Exponential Functions), other times I do a brief classroom discussion/lecture first (modeling linear equations and inequalities). Sometimes I have an all practice day or two—I’ve covered a lot of material, now it’s time to work problems and gain fluency (that’s when the tunes come out).

I originally had more but somehow the length got away from me, so I’ve chopped this down.

I have developed this method because I was never happy with traditional math, whether lecture or class discussion. The difference is not solely about the method of delivery; my method requires more time, and thus the pace is considerably slower.

The jury’s in on reform math: it doesn’t work well in the best of cases, and is devastatingly damaging to low ability kids. Paul Bruno refers to reform math as the pedagogy of privilege, and I agree. But it’s worth remembering that reform math evolved as a means of helping poor and black/Hispanic kids. Why? Because they weren’t interested in traditional math methods, and were failing in droves.

Ideally, we would stop forcing all kids into advanced math. But since that’s not an option, I think we need to do better than the carnage of high school math as we see it today: high failure rates, kids forced to repeat classes two or three times Given the ridiculous expectations, traditional math is due for some scrutiny, particularly in its ability to leave behind kids without the interest or high ability to carry them through. Let’s accept that most kids can’t really master advanced math. We can still do better. This is how I try for “better”.

I still have problems with students forgetting the material. I still teach kids who aren’t cognitively able to master higher level math. I’m not pretending the problems go away. But the students are willing to try. They don’t feel hopeless. They aren’t bored. I don’t often get the “what will we use this for” question—not because my math is more practical, but because the students aren’t looking for an argument. (And when they do give me the question, I tell them they won’t. Use it.) However, as I mentioned in the last post, I now have had students two or three years in a row. They were able to pass subsequent classes with different teachers, but they haven’t lost the ability to launch into an activity and work it, having faith that I’m not wasting their time. That tells me I’m not doing harm, anyway.


Opening Day as Opening Night

I really like our late start; why the hell are so many school districts kicking off in early August? (They want higher test scores, Ed.)

Anyway, I’m teaching trigonometry for the first time. In every course, I assess my kids on algebra I, varying the difficulty of the approach based on the level of math. What to do with trig? My precalc assessment was too hard, my normal algebra assessment too easy—or was it? I didn’t want to discourage them on the first day, but I also didn’t want to give a test that gave them the wrong idea about the class’s difficulty level. After much internal debate, I created a simplified version of an early algebra 2/trig quiz. I dropped the quadratics (we only had 45 minutes). Then, just to be safe, I made backup copies of my algebra pre-assessment. If the kids squawked and gave too much of the “this is too hard” whine, I’d be ready.

And so in they came, 23 guys, many of them burly, a few of them black, none of them both, and 11 girls. Fully half the students I’d taught before, two of them I was teaching for the third time. (one poor junior has only had one high school math teacher.) Perhaps their familiarity with me helped, but for whatever reason they charged right in and demonstrated understanding of linear equations, systems, a shaky understanding of inequalities, and willingness to think through a simple word problem. Good enough. Great class—rambunctious, enthusiastic, way too talkative, but mostly getting the job done.

I’m still not much of a planner, which is why I gave no thought to my trig sequencing until I saw how they did with the assessments. If they’d tanked, I would have done a simple geometry activity to give me time to regroup, start after the weekend with some algebra. But they didn’t tank, so how did I want to start?

Special Rights. Definitely. I would use special rights to lead to right triangle trig. All clear. But how to get to special rights? Algebraic proof of the ratios. But why special rights? It seems random to start there. As long as I’m going to be random, and since trigonometry has something to do around the edges with right triangles, why not start with right triangles? At that moment, this image popped into my head:

Hey. One step back to geometric mean, and I’ve got a nice intro unit all set up.

So the next day, I started with this:

geomeanquestion

Note: I told them the questions were separate—that is, the square was equal only to the area in #1 and only to the perimeter in #2.

I wasn’t happy with the questions. They gave too much away. But every rewrite I tried was even more confusing, and in a couple cases I wasn’t sure it was an accurate question. Besides, on the second day of school, you want to release to something achievable. Better too straightforward than have the kids feel helpless this early.

And it went great. Top kids finished in under five minutes; I had them test out the process for cubes vs rectangular prisms. All the rest completed the work in 15 minutes or less, with some needing a bit of reassurance.

I had to prompt them to recognize that the perimeter to side relationship is the “average” algorithm (that is, the arithmetic mean). “If I add two numbers and divide by 2, what is the result?” I think I noodged for a few minutes before someone ventured a guess.

I followed with a brief description of geometric mean, reminded them of the various measures of central tendencies, pointed out that now they all knew why the SAT followed “average” with arithmetic mean. Finished up with practice problems.

I was stumped briefly when a student noticed that the arithmetic mean always seemed larger. Argghh, I’d mean to look that up. I told them I’d look up the answer and get back to them. Meanwhile, I wondered, could the two means ever be equal? I made the stronger kids do some algebra, and let the others just talk it through.

Great lesson, not so much from the content, but from the energy. Look, I was winging it. I do that when I have a good idea that isn’t fully fleshed out. I cut back goals, keep things very simple, and watch for opportunities. I always advise new teachers to avoid mapping things out—they are often wasting time, because things will go off the rails early in some cases. Keep it broad, tell the kids that you’ll adjust if needed, and go.

The rest of the opening “unit”: a brief review of similarity and then use of geometric means in right triangles, leading to my favorite of the Pythagorean proofs. Then onto special right triangles, deriving the ratios algebraically. This puts things nicely in position for introduction of right triangle trig and I can drop in a quiz. Well, I’ll probably put in a day of word problems first.

After school today I ran into a group of football players waiting for practice to start, many of them previous students and two of them currently in that trig class. After hearing what they were all up to, how their summers had panned out, what the team’s chances were, Ronnie, one of the two current students, said, “I’m glad I have you; I would hate to be dumped for low grades my senior year.”

“Ah, yes, that’s my claim to fame. I’m not a great teacher, but by golly, I give passing grades.”

Shoney, the other of the two, a big, burly, not black senior, was laying along a school bench calmly watching the conversation, and spoke for the first time.

“You know. Trig was….fun today. It really was.”

Ronnie nodded.

The point is not oh, gosh, Ed is a fabulous teacher who makes kids love math. That’s never my goal, and it’s not what Shoney meant.

Recently, Steve Sailer writes that “school teaching can be thought of as a very unglamorous form of show biz, which involves stand-up performers (teachers) trying to make powerful connections with their audiences (students)”. He’s right. Education and entertainment are both, ultimately, forms of information transmission.

His next paragraph is dead on, too:

We are not surprised that some entertainers are better than other entertainers, nor are we surprised that some entertainers connect best with certain audiences, nor that entertainers go in and out of fashion in terms of influencing audiences. Moreover, the performances are sensitive to all the supporting infrastructure that performers may or may not need, such as good scripts, good publicity, and general social attitudes about their kind of performance.

People tend to construe the “education as entertainment” paradigm as “show the kids movies all day” or “keep the kids laughing”, but just as all entertainment isn’t comedy and happy endings, so too is education more than just giving the kids what they want.

I’m a teacher. I create learning events. I convince my audience to suspend disbelief, to engage. Learning happens in that moment. Some of the knowledge sticks. Other times, only the memory of learning remains, and I’m starting to count that as a win.

And so the year begins.


A Talk with an Asian Dad

Summer enrichment ended two weeks ago. I enjoyed my classes as always, although the commute, now that I’ve moved, was brutal. Not sure I’ll take it on next summer, but that’s a while away.

On the last Monday Nick asked me if I’d speak to his dad.

“I’m happy to, but you have to run it by the director.”

At Kaplan, parent management is turned over to the tutor. Not so here, or at other hagwons I’ve known of. At first, I assumed the company just didn’t want parents trying to privatize the tutor and cut out the middleman. Until six years ago, when a parent whose child I was tutoring in APUSH got my number somehow and called me fourteen times, leaving agonizingly long messages giving her schedule to ask when I could meet, asking over and over again if I could meet more frequently, telling me she’d call at x o’clock, then calling up to cancel the scheduled call, asking for a report on progress each day, wondering idly if I could meet directly with them but assuring me she couldn’t afford high fees—all during a 3-day period after I’d met with her daughter for the first time. I told my boss, he threatened to fire the parent, I didn’t get any more calls.

Run all parent contact by the director. This is a rule I follow.

So after class the next day I sat down with Nick and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman.

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”

“Nothing.”

“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests—which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year—he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60–even 65–then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”

*************************

On our last day, I showed The Sixth Sense, which went over very big.

“Okay, I want you to heed me well on this. You must never tell anyone the ending.”

“You mean that he’s a….”

“STOP! Yes. That’s what I mean. Some movies—and it’s a small list—have surprises that take you out of the conventional, that take the story in a direction you never dreamed of anticipating. Tell people and you’ve robbed them. Never tell.”

“It’s like giving away the ending?”

“Worse. So, kids, we’re at the end. I’ve loved working with you. Do your best to take away the lessons from the summer. Speak up! Don’t just sit like a lump. Have ideas. Ask yourself what you think. Keep aware of what’s going on in the world. Remember that a 4.0 GPA has no bearing on whether you’re an interesting companion or a valuable ally in a bar fight.”

“But my parents…” Lincoln starts.

“Ahahah. Stop. I’m not telling you to disobey your parents. But your decisions, ultimately, are your own.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“You’re right. But I can give you a strategy, provided you promise never to say it came from me.”

“Get caught cheating?”

I look around for something to throw. “That’s not even funny. DO NOT CHEAT. I know you have pressures and it feels like the easiest way to have a life and keep your parents off your back.”

Way, way too many nods.

“Don’t. I mean it. Never mind the morality, never mind how deeply wrong it is. Every time you cheat to get that better grade, you are adding to the pressure you already feel.”

Wide eyes.

“Anyway. Here is a strategy. First, you have to make an appointment with the counsellor at your school. The white counsellor.”

“But my mom always tells me to go to the Asian counsellor.”

“Yes, I know. For this, you need a white counsellor. Then you prepare. Irene, you take in your notebook, and have it open to all sorts of dark, depressing pictures. Ideally, one with you sitting in a corner, distraught. The rest of you don’t have that out, but make yourself look sad, and exhausted.”

“I am exhausted.” from Ace.

“And if I get a B, I’ll be really sad,” said Ben.

“So it should be easy. Then you tell the counsellor how much pressure you feel, how you feel like you can’t ever screw up, that your parents will be sooooooo disappointed if you ever don’t get an A, that you sometimes can’t sleep thinking about how much they expect, and how bad you are for letting them down, by not being perfect. The counsellor will want to contact your parents. You look horrified at first, say they’ll be angry. The counsellor will back off, and then try again. You reluctantly agree. The resulting meeting will be something your parents will not want to repeat. They will either soften their behavior, or take you back to China, Korea, India, wherever, so they don’t have to deal with these crazy soft white people.”

They’re all howling with laughter by this point.

“Because remember boys and girls, in white people world, Asian parenting styles shock and appall. If you went to a white therapist, that therapist would tell your parents to stop.”

“Oh, god, that makes me laugh just thinking about their faces.” Irene says. “I’d never do it, of course.”

“But at least I can think I have a choice,” from Ellen.

“Exactly. Which is my point. Choose to become genuinely well-educated and thoughtful people. Don’t be satisfied with a report card that lies about you. Now, get out of here. Enjoy the dregs of summer.”

Nick stayed behind.

“My dad is changing the spreadsheet.”

“What?”

“He has a spreadsheet with my classes through senior year.”

“Ah.”

“I’m taking honors English and history this year, instead of a second independent studies project. Then he’s moving the pretty easy biotech class to junior year, and AP Chem to senior year. And I’m going to take a programming course during the summer, rather than during school. That way I’ll be able to focus on AP English and US History as well as BC Calc next year.”

“How’s it feel?”

“Really good.” His beam matched mine. “I’m going to try and talk him down to AB Calc, even. Thanks for helping out.”

One dad at a time.


Building Narratives

I will get back to the ed school thoughts, I promise, but thought organization, she’s a bitch. In the meantime, I’m helping others organize their thoughts in my enrichment classes for Asian kids whose parents think free time is for Americans.

Our selected book for the week doesn’t offer much analytical fodder, so they wrote narratives—specifically, a first person account of an actual experience with only an occasional invented detail, no more than a handwritten page.

They came up with their ideas on Wednesday and workshopped them just before the end of class, coming back with a first draft on Thursday. They shared out in at least two pairings, while I reviewed them individually. It’s an hour plus of constant writing and talking. Below are authentic representations, with occasional invented details, of my feedback.

“Ellen, good story, well-executed, flows well, nice attention to detail. But everything needs tightening up. Take a look.”

No matter how badly I wanted to leave my sister to go to the concert by myself, I had to accept that she had a good point. I had been her age when I went to my first concert and I ….

Ellen blushed. “I’m an egomaniac!”

“Naw, I do it too. You just need to edit. Obviously, dump a lot of the glue. Be creative about pronouns. Show, don’t tell. What’s your sister’s name? ‘Jenny always wanted my opinion on new tunes, making it clear her big sister was the final authority. Refusing to take her along might save face with [can you name your friends, please?] but why deny Jenny the same opportunities I’d had? ‘ Something like that. It’s all there; just refocus the action.”

Next up was Ben, another strong writer with good story sense, and in about a minute I’d sent him over to Ellen with a similarly glue-id’ed paper so they could collaborate. On to David, whose closest friends had noticed, on their frequent outings to a local amusement park, that he never rode the roller coaster. Despite his assurances that he simply wasn’t interested, they figured out he was actually terrified and staged a supportive but forceful intervention. No longer afraid, he now likes sitting up front, the better to get the rush.

“David, where’s the essay you wrote the first day? Dig it up for me.”

While waiting, I scanned Jack’s story, which began:

The locked door blocked my last hope for escape. I pounded frantically, hopelessly, screaming for rescue, but my doom was sealed. My fate wasn’t just awaiting me. It was headed my way. One hundred and twenty pounds of hulking, angry sister.

“Jack, this is very funny. But keep the suspense going without identifying the villain. Go through all your efforts to escape, your despair, and then the one-two punch. First, the horrible fate is your sister. Second, with no other escape, you offer up her other common victim, Sister #2, the one who locked that door to leave you to your doom—and who has candy. So you two were always escaping the bully by handing her each other? Why was she always beating you up? She stopped, I hope?”

“Yeah, I was seven, she was fourteen. She’s in college now. I lied about the candy.”

“Very nice. Go change the pacing, and bring out the villain later. Don’t leave out the lie.”

David came back with his essay, and I found the line:

My primary goal in this class is to achieve an essential understanding: I am thoroughly, permanently screwed if I don’t stop playing video games and take school more seriously.

“Where’s that kid?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your quirky quality is clearly in that sentence and nowhere to be found in the narrative. With the voice, your story isn’t really about being afraid of roller coasters, but about you, a unique goofy guy, and your supportive friends who called you on your bs. Without that unique voice, this story isn’t much more than a confession: you’re a baby who’s afraid of roller coasters. Go find the voice. Irene?”

Irene had two typed pages. “I know! Ellen told me it has to be shorter. I’ve already cut eight sentences.”

“Try eight paragraphs.” I read the first couple of paragraphs, stop. “What do you mean, your mother wants you to get CM Level 9 this year in piano?”

“So it’s on my transcript. Otherwise, I’ve wasted the piano lessons.”

“Yeah, this is some annoying Asian thing that’s going to really tick me off, isn’t it?”

Irene, a passionate artist who sketches every spare minute, laughed. “Probably. I take lessons so that I can pass the level 9 test. So my transcript shows I have artistic ability. But mom wants me to pass it this year, before I start my SAT prep.”

I sighed. “Remember if you are writing an essay or story for a wider audience that Americans would disapprove of your mom’s priorities. Those details detract from the narrative. Why not just write about the unexpected outcome from all this?”

“My discovery of anime music?”

“Yeah. Cut everything else out.”

On to Jasmine, whose entire narrative read:

My family left on a 4-day trip to Reno, Nevada. On the way, the car’s air conditioner broke down. We were unbelievably hot. I could feel the heat beating down on my face as I stuck my head out the window, but it was the only way I could get some air. Finally, we arrived. The hotel was airconditioned. I lay back on the bed and felt my body slowly adjust to the cool. It was amazing. I had never felt my body adjust and cool down before. When I began the trip, I had a list of things I wanted to do, but now I was happy to just be in cool air.

“What’s the heart of this story?”

“Um. The heat?”

“Really? I see a huge boost in writing energy when you get to the hotel.”

“Well, that’s because the cool felt so good.”

“Exactly. A blissful feeling so great that you reassessed your goals for the trip. That’s the heart: negative, difficult experiences caused a change in your perspective. Now, what did you think I was going to say about this story?”

“It’s too short.”

“Not ‘too short’ in any absolute sense, but you have to share the suffering, make us feel that heat, feel the endless hours in the car. You are telling a tale of sensations. Give me the sensory info. I want you to sketch your memory of that day. Stick figures, whatever. Or make a list of all your sense memories from that time. How do you communicate that heat? Show your observations of everyone’s suffering. Think who, what, when–heart of summer?–how. Then do the same thing for the blissed-out time in the chill. Overdo it first—you can cut it down later.”

Then Nick, with a well-crafted first draft of his anxious excitement the day he presented his science project at a company-sponsored competition.

“Nick, the opening rocks. Then you lose focus a bit. I want details about the judging. You say he’s nice–what sort of questions did he ask? Was it as you’d imagined it in all your practice runs? And….what’s this?”

“The end? Is it wrong?”

“‘Best of all, this win will really look great on my college applications.’ Dear God. Please tell me you included that little gem to stop my heart.”

He looked puzzled. “That’s why I entered the contest.”

I banged myself in the head with his notebook. “So I’m feeling like I learned something about your love of science, when in fact you did all the work to get a win for your resume?”

“Well, science is okay. But…yeah, I picked the project because I thought it had the best chance of winning.”

“Not because you were interested. See how you’re looking a bit shamefaced? Because you know what I’m saying, right?”

He nodded.

“The thing is, I’m torn in these situations, just like I was with Irene. I’m glad you’re writing authentic emotions. But you are so wrapped up in your Indian cocoon that you have no idea how bad this looks to the Americans who aren’t a generation or less away from Asialand. To us, you come off as a slogger who is only interested in appearance, in faking it, not in pursuing excellence for its own sake. And of course because I’m American and you are, too, I want you to want to pursue excellence for something other than a resume bullet. And you don’t. Which is okay, I like you anyway. For now, though, this story gets much better if you dump this last line and allow your readers to delude themselves about your passionate love of science.”

Eddie up next with a story about three families in two RVs travelling to Banff, Canada to see the sights.

“So you were all related? These are your cousins?”

“No, we didn’t really know any of them.”

I was perplexed, but Ben chimed in. “We do that all the time. It’s an Asian thing.”

“You like big vacations?”

“No, cheap ones” chorused Serena, Ellen, Ben, Eddie, and Jerry.

“We either fly and stay in really cheap places, with all the kids camped out in one room,”…

“One time I was with twelve kids!” from Serena.

“But aren’t there occupancy limits?”

“We ignore them; most of us go out to dinner while one family checks in. Then we sneak in.”

“Indians, is this a thing for you?”

“God, no,” says Ace. “It sounds horrible.”

“My parents came here to escape lots of people, who wants to go on vacation with them?” from Jasmine.

“And you got thrown out of an RV park, Eddie?”

“We almost got thrown out of Canada.”

“All because you were teasing your cousin and he started swearing?”

“It was after midnight, and he was screaming, and Henry wasn’t my cousin, just this other kid.”

“And the adults didn’t stop him?”

“They were in another RV.”

“But they apologized?”

“When the ranger came, yeah. They apologized and promised to be quiet. Even tried to give the ranger money.”

“Bad idea.”

“She was furious, told us to go back to Montana. My parents don’t even know where that is. So she just told them to leave the RV park.”

“Huh. See, your family’s thoughtless cultural rudeness offers some great insights, but I’m not sure you learned anything from it.”

“Yeah, I did. I told them it was a bad idea to offer money. Plus I should have told Henry to shut up, or gotten adults involved.”

“Okay. So drop all the stuff about how pretty Banff was and how terrible the food, tell me about these weird cheap Chinese family vacations, and what you learned about Westerners—and where you slept after leaving the park. Ace, you’re next.”

Ace, the oldest kid in the class, shuffled up hesitantly. I read through the story once, read it again. Read it a third time.

“It sucks, right?”

“No. It’s great.” He looked at me in shock.

“It’s not perfect. It needs work. But four weeks ago, you could barely produce a coherent sentence, because you were just writing words to fill up paper. Now your sentences have subjects and verbs and purpose. Your thoughts are organized. You’ve just described a heartbreaking basketball defeat, made me feel your disappointment—and then you bring up the subsequent win to end on a high note. Beautifully structured. Now, go back and read this aloud, first to yourself and then to someone else, and listen to the words. Any correction you find yourself making as you read it aloud, stop and jot them down. Match the words to your memory, see if anything’s missing.”

Ace went back to his desk with new confidence and a purpose.

I swear, sometimes I’d do this for free.


On ending the year

Year 2 I did finals on the last day of class, because the school required it and my room was in the center of campus. I was returning—probably. (I looked for new jobs; an offer came in too late to accept). Better part of something not to flout administration, so I did the final on the intended day.

Every other year, I’ve a series of finals or one big one in the days before, and show a movie during the two hour final period. I’d misplaced my copy of Rear Window the year before, so on Friday it was the featured film in all three classes.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really give a damn if my kids love math or just survive it, find “Hamlet” enthralling or torture, or are really interested in what the Founding Fathers thought of strict vs. loose Constitutional construction. But they will by god not turn up their noses at classic films.

And so three times, my film buff’s heart just went pitty-pat thump thump with satisfied joy as twenty to thirty kids shrieked in horror when Lars Thorwald came around the corner of the hall while Lisa was still in the apartment, or gasped and flinched when Burr realizes who’s been watching him.

One girl had seen it already, and she confided that the beginning was slow.

“That’s because you’re used to a different style of movies. But think of this as a novel you’re analyzing for lit class. Look for subtle changes in Stewart’s behavior, for the first time he openly reaches for Lisa instead of fending her off. Or look at the window stories and see how many of them are just reinforcing the different outcomes for women and relationships. And remember this: at the end of the first 30 minutes, Lisa asks if either of them can ever change. Consider that the rest of the movie as an answer to that question.”

She came up to me after it was over to say that she’d never before realized that movies were “just like books”.

“I could write an essay about Rear Window for the SAT!”

“You could indeed. Make a nice change from Martin Luther King.”

Anyway. A richly rewarding experience. Maybe even for my students.

On to the year-end check out.

While the last days of school are usually pretty easy, the very last day of duty is a hassle. Teachers have to get signed off on a bunch of things over the summer, turn in their keys, and leave. You can tell the teachers who count every second of the summer, who have been preparing their room for the end days for at least a week, who know the checkoff list by heart and have it all done before the last bell rings. They’re the ones waiting in line on Friday morning for an admin signoff so they can prove to the principal’s secretary that they’ve changed their voicemail password and turn in their keys.

Then there are teachers who make a day of it–eh, summer’s here, they won’t rush. These are teachers for whom the most significant task—room cleaning—is something they’d rather not think about. They come in late, sigh at the mess of their room, do some grading, get grades in, lackadaisically pack up a few boxes, go get coffee, come back and sigh at the mess of their room, shove a bunch of stuff into their car, go get lunch, toss a bunch of stuff they’d been saving in case they needed it, jam anything left over into their cars, and then look at the sign-off sheet to see what other tasks they need. By this time it’s usually late afternoon and everyone’s left, so they skate the things like turning in two copies of grades, turning in keys, changing voicemail and so on. They email the principal’s secretary and drop by a few weeks later to turn in their keys.

You’ll never guess which sort of teacher I am. Go ahead, guess.

Year 1 and Year 3, I was leaving the schools, so I’d taken all my belongings home earlier. The actual last day, I looked at the various things acquired at the school, remembered where I’d found them, realized no one would give a damn if they were gone, so shrugged and took them, too. Like the really cool geometry book I found stuffed into the corner of a box of books the previous teacher had left for the trash, or the white board found jammed into the back of a junk room that had “3/5/04″ on the meeting agenda written (but still removable) on it. Or the massive trunk of fantastic manipulatives, taken from a room stuffed with such trunks that the book clerk told me had been there for five years because “no one used them”. Indeed, at my school, I was the only one who used them, along with the set of 30 student-sized white boards that I talked up to all my colleagues, who all looked at me perplexedly. “They’d just use them to draw on, or scribble obscenities.” “Sure. but sometimes they do math.” No takers. They’ve been put to good use. Those years I was usually the last one out, or close to it, but would usually turn in my keys early and then just prop my door open.

Years 2 and 4, I didn’t leave schools but changed rooms, which required me to pack my car much as if I was leaving because lord knows what gets lost in a move. Last one out both years, had to drive back to the schools to turn in my keys later.

Year 5: I am staying for a third year. No room change. My summer job doesn’t start until Tuesday, so I have an actual brief break to enjoy. Vowing to commemorate the occasion with a behavior change, I stay late both Wednesday and Thursday, finishing all but a bit of my grading, and get much of my room boxed up. On Friday, little to do but finish up grading and pack the boxes, computers, printer, lots of books, office supplies into my storage closet—nothing to come home! Then I bought a lock at the Dollar Store. Last thing in the closet, just before the lock, my class rules sign, made in Year 2, a big piece of thin yellow paper. I don’t like throwing things away.

What was left? Grades done. What was the stuff I usually skated because I was late? Oh, print out copies of grades. Check. Change voicemail. Well, I never set it up to start with, so that should be easy. But the preset password didn’t work. Oh, that’s right, our voicemail system had crashed. Use the system default. Didn’t work.

I sat there, perplexed. Wait. Is it possible that I did set it up after the crash? I vaguely remember the principal’s secretary telling us that the system would be upset if passwords were left in default. Could it be that I’d complied? I never do voicemail. Never. But if I had done voicemail, my password would be….

“You have three messages.”

Only three? Pretty good. Does this mean I’d set up a voice recording?

“Hi, this is Ed. I’m happy to get in touch with you, but to ensure a record of all my interactions, I prefer that parents contact me via email. If this is a problem, please send a note in with your student and I’ll be happy to contact you. ”

The only three messages were system-wides from other teachers. It worked!

I must have set this up in an extra five minutes I had between classes. Not a single memory of it, though.

I was done! Everything signed off, grades done. Turned in the keys. People were still cleaning their rooms. It was 3:30. I wasn’t last!!!!

Then I realized I’d left my laptop and the few take-home things in the classroom. To which I no longer had the keys.

Thank god a custodian was walking by right then. He didn’t even laugh at me.

And so summer begins.

*************************************
If you want to assist me in enjoying my summer:

Apple for Paypal, for Square Cash or Google Wallet are all welcome. Use the email educationrealist at the big G.

I vow to use all funds for nothing more than a better class of beer, more sushi, or airfare to see my adorable granddaughter.

I’m just happy you’re reading. But money’s nice, too. Thanks again to all who have contributed.


Learning from Mr. Singh

I first heard about Mr. Singh (not his real name) the first week at my school, working through a modeling problem with a student.

“Come on, you know the perimeter formula for a rectangle, don’t you?”

“No. I had Singh last year for geometry,” the kid says matter-of-factly. A nearby student rolls her eyes.

“Oh, I had him two years ago! He flunked me. He was making mistakes all the time, everyone told him, he said no, they were wrong.”

I was taken aback. I had never run into students who called teachers incompetent before. But then up to that point, I’d taught at much tougher schools, where the “bad teachers” were the ones who couldn’t control their classrooms full of kids who didn’t give a damn. (We have difficult kids here, but the ratio is something approaching a fair fight.) I was not in any way used to kids complaining that teachers didn’t know their subject.

I forget which student this was—it’s been almost eighteen months, and the whole pattern had yet to form. But I remember distinctly the kid wasn’t a math rock star. Just an ordinary student in algebra II, telling me he knew more than a math teacher, enough to realize the teacher was ignorant. I shrugged it off at the time, but I heard it routinely through the next semester. Occasionally, I’d get it from parents, “Well, my son had Mr. Singh two years ago and told me the man had no idea what he was doing.”

When I started teaching pre-calc, the occasional comments became a constant. I began with my usual response: state it’s unacceptable to criticize one teacher in front of another, whatever the reason. But at a certain point I flat out banned that anti-Singh jokes.

I don’t know Mr. Singh well; math teachers aren’t a chummy crew. He did not and does not strike me as incompetent in any way. Like at least half my colleagues, he privately thinks I’m a pushover, too willing to give kids passing grades. But when some members of the department pushed for a higher fail rate to ensure that we only had qualified kids in advanced math, he was on the side of the demurrers (I did more than demur, of course, because I’m an idiot). He is younger than I am, Asian, speaks English well, with only a slight inflection. I don’t know if the kids are openly disparaging him to other math teachers, and haven’t asked.

Last fall semester (for newcomers, we teach a year in a semester, then do the whole thing again, four classes at a time), I had a handful of very bright seniors who were refusing to go on to Calculus the next semester, because “Mr. Singh’s an idiot”. I got fed up and told the crew in no uncertain terms that they should all have taken honors pre-calc anyway, that I was tired of them not challenging themselves and using teachers as scapegoats, and they were to get their butts into Calculus. They gulped and obeyed, “but we’ll show you that he doesn’t have a clue; he’s just using the book as a guide!”

So the whole passel of them, along with a number of my precalc students from the previous spring, would occasionally drop by during lunch to tell me about how Mr. Singh was wrong, how everyone was telling him he was wrong, but he kept insisting he was right. What the hell is going on in these classes, that he’s arguing, I’d wonder, and tell the kids I didn’t believe them, that I found it incredibly hard to believe Mr. Singh was wrong and certainly wouldn’t take their word for it. If they were so sure, bring me a specific example.

A couple months ago, Jake came rushing into my room, triumphant. Very bright kid, Korean American (grandparents immigrated), and if you want to know how white folk world might change Asians over the generations, he’s a good place to start: refused to take honors pre-calc “because of Mr. Singh”, took Calculus at my orders only, and is going to a junior college (where he easily qualified to start in Calculus).

“I can prove it. I took a picture of the board!” This incident happened long before I’d thought of writing about it, and I can’t remember the specific problem. It was a piece-wise function, a complicated one, and he sketched out the graph he’d captured on his smartphone. “See? He’s saying it’s negative for x < -1, and it can’t be, because [math reason I don't remember].

I frowned at the board. “Hang on, let me think. I see what you’re saying, but I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with that approach, like a mistake I’ve made before but can’t remember why.” Frowned some more. “Look, Mr. Singh knows way more math than I do. Why don’t you go ask him about this?”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“No, I don’t know what he’s talking about. Oh, wait. Duh.” and I turned back to my computer and brought up Desmos to graph the function. Desmos agreed entirely with Mr. Singh.

“Wow.” Jake is utterly gobsmacked. A world view shattered. “But how the hell does [technical math question I don't remember anymore]?”

“Here’s a thought, Jake: go ask Mr. Singh.”

“He hates me.”

“I can’t think why. You’re just this punky jerk who disrupts classes with arguments because the possibility that the teacher might just know more than you hasn’t crossed your peabrain.”

“Well, when you put it that way, I’d hate me, too.”

“So go up to him and say ‘Hey, Mr. Singh, I’ve been reviewing this function and I can’t figure out why the graph looks like this when x is less than negative one. Can you help me figure it out?’ He will like you for this. I promise.”

Jake had the conversation, reported back, explained to me why we both thought it should be something else (and the minute he mentioned the reason, which I still can’t remember, I went “yeah, that was it! I made that mistake before!”)

This happened periodically over the next two months, but Jake grew increasingly tentative, uncertain of his own certainty. Rather than rolling in confident he held evidence that would convince me of Singh’s stupidity, he was now doublechecking with me. Mr. Singh said this, but I think that, what do you think? Sometimes I knew the answer, in others I’d look it up, but I would always send him back to Mr. Singh for either more information or confirmation. Eventually, he started going to Mr. Singh first and then reporting the results to me.

His new data points had an impact. Now, when Jake and the others came in to say hi, they don’t have any tales of Mr. Singh’s errors but instead have all sorts of stories about how they pwned a classmate with their awesome math skills.

(Does this seem weird? Remember that at my school, Calculus is third tier from the top—AB and BC Calc are ahead of it. They’re all bright but not quite nerds. Many of them are my favorite sort of kid—more interested in learning than good grades. But they’re boys, so posture they will.)

Last Thursday Tom, a white junior who’d taken my precalc class as a sophomore, came by during our “advisory” (brief tutorial period after lunch).

“Do you know anything about L’Hopital’s Rule?”

“Vaguely. Something to do with limits. I have a Stewart Calculus text, and can inquire. Why?”

“Because he marked me wrong on a test. I got the right answer! But when I asked him about it, he said that I couldn’t use the Quotient Rule, that I had to use L’Hopital, and that it was a fluke I got the right answer.”

I looked up L’Hopital’s Rule, page 289. “If I understand this correctly, L’Hopital’s Rule is intended at least in part for cases where you can’t use the Quotient rule. If you have an indeterminate result, like dividing zero by zero or infinity by infinity, the Quotient rule won’t apply.”

Tom looked aghast. “It doesn’t?”

“Not according to this book and, I’m betting, not according to Mr. Singh.”

“It was a limit of sin(2x)/sin(3x).”

“Well, I know the limit of sine isn’t infinity, so I’m guessing it’s…”

“Zero. Oh, I can’t divide by zero. So he was right. It was just a fluke I got the answer.”

“Looks like it.”

“It’s so weird. There’s always like fifteen ways to do something in calculus, then sometimes, only one way.”

“Hah. But look. I don’t know much about this. I want you to go back to Mr. Singh. My guess is this test question was specifically designed to assess your understanding of the cases for L’Hopital’s Rule. But you need some clarity, and he’s the guy to explain.”

“Okay.”

*******************************************************************

This story began nearly two years ago, and not until a few days ago, when I read this piece of utter Campbell Brown crap, did I think of writing about Mr. Singh, me, and his students. But at one point Brown quotes a student who said ““There were certain teachers that you knew, if you got stuck in their class, you wouldn’t learn a thing. That year would be a lost year” and I realized how often I had read that sentiment. Kids know who the bad teachers are. Parents know who the bad teachers are. They just know. Word gets around.

Well, no. They don’t. Students are, I think, the best judge of teacher quality in classroom management. They know when a teacher can’t control the kids. But they are usually incapable of evaluating teacher content knowledge. I hope this story shows that students can form fundamental received wisdoms that are simply false. From average to excellent, Mr. Singh’s students all thought they knew more than he did. And they didn’t. I’m pleased that I now have a knowledge base that allows me to do more than just tell the kids not to discuss Mr. Singh. I can laugh at them—“Yeah, I heard that before. Every time someone tells me Mr. Singh’s wrong, I ask for proof. Turns out the student doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You want to play?”

But my tale has a few more object lessons. First, teachers and parents, please note what I am proudest of. I sent the kids back to learn from Mr. Singh.

We want kids to form trusted networks. We want them to find resources when they feel lost or doubtful about education, so they don’t lose hope or quit because they feel isolated. And when they do come to their trusted resource, it’s incredibly tempting for that resource, whether teachers and parents, to regard the kids’ trust as an ego feed—see, I’m the one they really need, the safe place, the wise soul. This is particularly tempting for teachers, because it’s practically a job requirement that our personality type value trust and respect over pay. However, when a kid is using you as a resource not just to get more information or clarity, but as a substitute for the teaching process, you send him back. He or she has to learn how to use the educational process as it’s intended, to push the teacher for more information, to make sense of the unfamiliar. Ideally, students must learn not to just do what feels safe—complain to another teacher—but what feels terrifying, and ask for help. Sure, sometimes it won’t work. That’s a lesson, too. You’ll be there to help them figure it out, if needed.

Then please note what I have used everything short of neon signs to highlight: Mr. Singh knows far more math than I do (see the comments if you have issues with my description of L’Hopital’s Rule). The kids know this. I make it clear to them. Yet they still came to me for help.

And that, readers, is an important takeaway from this little essay, a truism people mouth without really thinking about what it means. Teaching involves trust. You can’t just have content knowledge and run a fair classroom. Your students have to trust your ability and your judgment. Your students’ parents have to believe that you have their interests at heart.

Reformers might do well to remember that, as they wonder what went wrong in Newark, in DC, in Chicago and Indiana. It’s not enough to tell everyone you want excellent schools. They have to believe you.

Yes, sometimes that trust will be misplaced. That is a huge reason why the charter market doesn’t work, in fact, because parents are taking schools they trust to keep their kids safe over the schools the charters want them to demand. No doubt, reformers in general think that misplaced trust is why teachers and their unions continually win the long game. But regardless, reformers aren’t trusted by the very populations they say they want to help. And alas, trust has nothing to do with test scores.

Finally, please note: in no way am I suggesting that I am a superior teacher to Mr. Singh. When I am tempted to that conclusion, I remind myself of the occasional students of mine who go running to other teachers (including, no doubt, Mr. Singh) to get a straightforward lecture or template. When I learn that students have done this, I always remind them that they can ask me, that if they need more structure, see me and I’ll give it to them. I wish those teachers would let me know when students come to them for help with my class. And then I remember that I haven’t said a word of this to Mr. Singh.

___________________________________________

Postscript: The comments have been revealing of the way people are filling in gaps. First, my kids are doing well in Singh’s class. Most of them are getting As, the occasional B. They understand the math. Second, this is NOT a case of a teacher refusing to allow students to point out errors. Third, my students drop by for many reasons—it’s not like this is all a constant bitchfest about Singh. I’m just pulling out representative moments.


Multiple Answer Math Tests

As previously explicated in considerable detail, I’m deeply disgusted with the Common Core math standards—they are too hard, shovel way too much math into middle school. If I see one more reporter obediently, mindlessly repeat that [s]tudents will learn less content, but more in-depth, coherent and demanding content my head will explode.

Reporters, take heed: you can’t remove math standards. The next time some CC drone tells you that the standards are fewer, but deeper, ask for specifics. What specific math standard has been removed? Do students no longer have to know the quadratic formula? Will they not need to know conics? No, not colonics. That’s what you all should be forced to endure, for your sins. In all likelihood, the drone has no more idea than you reporters do about high school math, so go ask Jason Zimba, who reiterates several times in this interview that the standards are fewer, but go deeper. (He also confirms what I said about algebra, that much of it is moved to middle school). Ask him. Please. What’s left off?

Pause, and deep breath. Where was I?

Oh. Tests.

So the new CC tests are not multiple choice, a form that gets a bad rap. I give my kids in algebra one, geometry, and algebra two lots of multiple choice tests—not because I prefer them, and they aren’t easier (building tests is hard, and I make my own), but because my top students aren’t precise enough and they need the practice. They fall for too many traps because they’re used to teachers (like me) giving them partial or most of the credit if all they did is lose a negative sign. Remember, these are the top kids in the mid-level or lower math classes, not the top kids at the school. These are the kids who often can get an A in the easier class, and aren’t terribly motivated. My multiple choice tests attempt to smack them upside the head and take tests more seriously. It works, generally. I have to watch the lower ability kids to be sure they don’t cheat.

We’ve been in a fair amount of PD (pretty good PD, at that) on Common Core; last fall, we spent time as a department looking at the online tests. The instructors made much of the fact that the students couldn’t just “pick C”, although that gave us a chuckle. Kids who don’t care about their results will find the CC equivalent of picking C. Trust them. And of course, the technology is whizbang, and enables test questions that have more than one correct answer.

But I started thinking about preparing my students for Common Core assessments and suddenly realized I didn’t need technology to create tests questions that have more than one answer. And that struck me as both interesting and irritating, because if it worked I’d have to give the CC credit for my innovation.

On the first test, I didn’t do a full cutover, but converted or added new questions. Page 1 had 2 or 3 multiple answer questions and 3 was free-response, but on that first test, the second page was almost all multiple response:

cca2at2

I had been telling the kids about the test format change for a week or two beforehand, and on the day of the test I told them to circle the questions that were multiple answer.

It went so well that the second test was all multiple answer and free response. I was using a “short” 70-minute class for the test, so I experimented with the free-response. I drew in the lines, they had to identify the inequalities.

CCa2test1

cca2test2

I like it so much I’m not going back. Note that the questions themselves aren’t always “common core” like, nor is the format anything like Common Core. But this format will familiarize the kids with multiple answer tests, as well as serve my own purposes.

Pros:

  • Best of all, from my perspective, is that I am protected from my typos. I am notorious, particularly in algebra, for test typos. For example, there are FIVE equations on that inequality word problem, not four. See the five lines? Why did I put four? Because I’m an idiot. But in the multiple answer questions, a typo is just a wrong answer. Bliss, baby.
  • I can test multiple skills and concepts on one question. It saves a huge amount of space and allows the kids to consider multiple issues while all the information is in RAM, without having to go back to the hard drive.
  • I can approach a single issue from multiple conceptual angles, forcing them to think outside one approach.
  • It takes my goal of “making kids pay attention to detail” and doubles down.
  • Easier, even, than multiple choice tests to make multiple versions manually.
  • Cheating is difficult, even with one version.

Cons:

Really, only one: I struggle with grading them. How much should I weight answers? Should I weight them equally, or give more points for the obvious answer (the basic understanding) and then give fewer points for the rest? What about omitting right answers or selecting wrong ones?

Here’s one of my stronger students with a pretty good performance:

A2cctestsw1
A2cctestsw2

You can see that I’m tracking “right, wrong, and omit”, like the SAT. I’m not planning on grading it that way, I just want to collect some data and see how it’s working.

There were 20 correct selections on nine questions. I haven’t quite finished grading them, but I’ve graded two of the three strongest students and one got 15, the other 14. That is about right for the second time through a test format. Since I began the test format two thirds of the way through the year, I haven’t begun to “norm” them to check scrupulously for every possible answer. Nor have I completely identified all the misunderstandings. For example, on question 5, almost all the students said that the “slope” of the two functions’ product would be 2—even the ones who correctly picked the vertex answer, which shows they knew it was a parabola. They’re probably confusing “slope” with “stretch”, when I was trying to ascertain if they understood the product would be a parabola. Back to the drawing board on that.

Added on March 7: I’ve figured out how to grade them! Each answer is an individual True/False question. That works really well. So if you have a six-option question, you can get 6/6, 5/6, 4/6 etc. Then you assign point totals for each option.

I’ll get better at these tests as I move forward, but here, at least, is one thing Common Core has done: given me the impetus and idea for a more flexible test format that allows me to more thoroughly assess students without extending the length of the test. Yes, it’s irritating. But I’ll endure and soldier on. If anyone’s interested, I’m happy to send on the word doc.

Note: Just noticed that the student said y>= -2/3x + 10, instead of y<=. It didn't cost her anything in points (free response I'm looking for the big picture, not little errors), but I went back and updated her test to show the error.


Most Popular Posts and Favorites

I had a huge month in April, over 25% larger than my last winner, November. My blog has a total of 121,000 page views (since January 1, 2012) and have 178 followers on Twitter. The last probably doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but I literally started with 0 followers. I told no friends or family of my blog, although three or four found me over the months. I had just 7000 pageviews in June 2012, when I created a Twitter account. (First follower: the hyperliteral Paul Bruno, of This Week in Education, who I argue with via twitter but quite enjoy as a writer.)

I have absolutely no idea what this means in relative audience size. What matters to me is that, in a loyal band of regular readers, interspersed between teachers, parents, and Dark Enlightenment folk, I count more than a few policy wonks and reporters—and even a publisher, apparently. I might not have a large crowd following my every tweet, but well over half of my followers do. I started this blog to inform and persuade. So far, so good.

I often check my top posts, reading the growing numbers in awe and wonder, because they, too, confirm that my blogging goals have been and continue to be met. The most popular posts cover pedagogy, policy, some unique data analysis or exposure, and my somewhat scathing opinions about the reform crowd. (I don’t much care for progressives, either, but plenty of people are around to debunk them.)

Since my audience has grown again, I thought I’d remind everyone of my most popular posts, in case someone wanted to check them out. Most of my essays represent at least five or six hours work (I worked on the Philip Dick essay for over a month, the algebra pointlessness one for two weeks), and I think any of the 1000+ view entries are worth a look for a general audience.

Title Views Written
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 4,733 Aug 12
Escaping Poverty 3,664 Nov 12
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 3,417 Jan 12
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 2,992 July 12
Homework and grades. 2,576 Feb 12
The Gap in the GRE 2,280 Jan 12
Why Chris Hayes Fails 2,240 June 12
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 2,102 April 13
The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma 1,907 Nov 2012
An Alternative College Admissions System 1,553 Dec 2012
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 1,525 Mar 13
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 1,137 April 13

I left off my “About” page, but both it and “Who am I” right below were nowhere on the horizon last December, so more people are checking out my bio. Neat, if unnerving.

So then we have the 800-900 views, also worth a read for the general audience unless you really have no interest in math pedagogy or curriculum, in which case skip the obvious suspects. But I’m incredibly proud of those curriculum posts; googling modeling linear equations brings up my post in the top two or three as of this writing; likewise a search for binomial multiplication area model brings my post up right near the top.

Title Views Written
Who am I? 966 Jan 12
Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead 918 Mar 13
Teaching Polynomials 917 Mar 12
Modeling Linear Equations 907 Jan 12
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 871 Aug 12
What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View 820 Jan 12
More on Mumford 817 Nov 12
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 790 Sept 12

And now the less viewed posts that represent my favorites of the rest. I really wish people would read more of these, particularly the Chris Christie post and the Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. So pick a few to check out. You can also check my year in review for posts I’m fond of.

Policy:

Title Views Written
Why Chris Christie picks on teachers 699 Aug 12
Radio silence on Clarence Mumford 660 July 12
Learning Math 605 Aug 12
American Indian Public Charters: What Word Are You Forgetting, People? 602 Apr 13
557
Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help 555 Jan 13
Jo Boaler’s Railside Study: The Schools, Identified. (Kind of.) 548 Jan 13
Boaler’s Bias (or BS) 521 Oct 12
Picking Your Fights—Or Not 501 Apr 13
Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk. 493 Dec 12
What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT? 483 June 12
The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform 454 Sept 12
The difference between tech hiring and teacher hiring 219 June 12

Pedagogy and Curriculum

Probably not too interesting unless you’re a teacher. But I have to say that Modeling Probability is pretty kick ass.

I realize these probably come off as vanity posts, but for me, they’re a great way to take stock. I have had a genuinely terrific year, between blogging and teaching, and it’s fun to write it all down.


Meanwhile….midterms again

I originally thought I could blog daily. Ha, ha. I managed close to that in January 2012, the first month of the blog, but it made me unhappy. Since then, I’ve usually managed an entry every five days or so. Sometimes I’d go 8-9 days after a really successful post, hiding away and watching reruns of Quantum Leap or The Mentalist, worried that I’d written my last good thing.

But this gap is more like the two-week plus hiatus I had in April of last year, when I spent most of a month working on a piece (under my real name). When I’d finally finished, I couldn’t even think of a thing to write about for a week or more. And so it was with my Philip K. Dick and preschool piece, which I’ve been thinking about since late December and working on for over a month. Kicked my ass, a bit. Happily, it was extremely successful—already #8 on my greatest hits list. My Twitter followers know that the piece had one fan that truly made it all worthwhile, and it kills me not to namedrop, but I won’t.

And then, midterms. My school covers a year in a semester, so we just finished the “semester” grades for the second “year”. We teach 4 block periods a day, so the kids can take 8 classes a year. Not great for test scores, since half the kids haven’t looked at the material in four months, and the other half haven’t entirely finished the courses. But it works in other ways.

One thing I noticed in my first “year” at this school: I wasn’t testing enough. In a normal schedule, I test or quiz kids every 8-10 school days, with the occasional longer gap. But in a block schedule covering a year in a semester, that’s the equivalent of testing kids every three-four weeks. Nothing terrible, but I decided I should up the pace slightly.

Except I’m teaching four classes and three preps—one of them for the first time. So I upped my quiz/test activity, thus increasing both my test creation and grading load, at the same time I was working a heavier teaching load, both in time and in preps. I work straight through from 8 to 3, in front of an audience of 35, with a brief 10 minute break at 9:30 and a half hour lunch at 12:35.

You know how teachers complain about grading, the tyranny of tests? I never have. I never even knew what they were talking about. I work fast, read fast, think fast, and I’m an insomniac. So the occasional two hour grading stint never struck me as particularly onerous. I’d generally schedule the grading session on a weekend, but if I had to grade things on a Tuesday or Wednesday every so often, I could manage easily. I pride myself on a rapid test turnaround, returning quizzes and tests within 3-4 days, a week at worst.

And suddenly, I was giving tests or quizzes to 140 students in three different subjects every week. Every time I turned around, I had a stack of tests to grade. At a modest estimation, I’ve spent 6 hours a week grading since February.

Then midterms. My geometry midterm is fifty multiple choice questions (multiple choice), my intermediate algebra 33. I have two sections of algebra, the test was four pages long. I graded it a page at a time on Sunday. Figure it took me 30 seconds a page to grade. 30*4*70 is 8400 seconds, or over two hours just to correct them. Then I had to calculate the curve and write the scores on each test, which takes another half hour or so, so three hours. And most teachers will tell you that’s a fast job.

Then my geometry test, which was five pages. I did two of them on Monday night, then just couldn’t take it any more. So Tuesday, I passed the tests out to the kids (geographically arranging them so no kid had his own test or a near neighbor’s), gave them red or blue pens, and we went through the whole test in 10 minutes. The kids loved the activity, were scrupulously exact, and asked why we didn’t grade tests this way all the time. I told them I usually look over the tests closely to see what kind of mistakes the kids make, what areas need revisiting, and so on. But I wasn’t going to be managing that little activity on this test.

Then Pre-Calc, the test that I spent five hours building the night before I gave it, and four hours grading on Wednesday night/Thursday morning (grades due 1:30 pm on Thursday).

The next day, Friday, I gave my intermediate algebra kids a quiz, so I have seventy quizzes to grade this weekend. I also have to build a pre-calc test (polynomials) and a geometry quiz (similar triangles).

I am not whining. Were I teaching a normal schedule this work would be entirely manageable. The longer day itself exhausted me for all of February, but by the first week of March I’d acclimated to the extra strain. I am getting well-compensated for the extra work, if you assume my normal salary is adequate, and I do. I get a 33% bump for the extra class.

But I finally know what teachers are talking about when they complain about the workload. It took an extra class and a concentrated effort on my part to assess my kids more regularly to get me to the point that many teachers reach on a normal schedule. Given that I’ve always had an inordinate ability to work long hours and do a lot of work without noticing (I worked full-time through all three of my degrees), I figure that I’m odd and the rest of teachers aren’t lazy.

Meanwhile, I’m beat.

Random notes on the classes:

Geometry: my most difficult class, academically speaking, since it’s a 10-12 class. Six kids are probably bored, because I can’t give them enough to do—the bottom half of the class is not unmanageable, but I can’t leave them unattended for too long without havoc ensuing. But they’re learning despite themselves, and the algebra progress is extraordinary. The kids right out of the top 6 but above the halfway mark are appropriately challenged, I think, and doing well. But I rarely feel good about the class.

On the other hand, last week, right at the time I was feeling really low, I gave the kids a worksheet (looked something like this, with a wider range of difficulty). I told them their task was twofold: 1) use what they knew about isosceles and equilateral triangles and 2) most importantly, build on the diagram, using what they knew, to solve for x. The second part, I said, was incredibly important. They couldn’t just look at the diagram and create an equation. They had to take the given information and work forward. The equation might be two or three steps away. I was not hopeful. And glory be, the kids surprised me by doing a bangup job—the weakest kids finished at least half the handout without begging for help every second. So I must have instructed them well! Need to remember what I said. Midterm performance: exceptional. They averaged 81% on the midterm (with a 15 point curve), and even the weaker kids did a great job on a long test.

Intermediate Algebra class: Having spent too long last “year” on linear equations, I used the same amount of time to cover linear equations, inequalities, and absolute values. We’re now wrapping up quadratics. Now that I’ve kicked linear equations and inequalities into submission, I’m struck by how damn complicated quadratics are. They don’t easily model. They have multiple forms and multiple methods of solving, all of which are complicated. But these kids, too, are doing well. Midterm: average 73% with almost no curve.

Precalc: longer post coming, eventually. Fun class. Midterm average was 69%. I have about 5 kids who simply do not understand the material, and I’m a tougher grader at the precalc level.

I was going to write this post first, but I’d seen one too many wails about American Indian Public Charter High, so I got back into it with a bang.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 905 other followers