What I learned: Year 1

I thought I’d capture my big teaching discoveries year by year. In some cases, the learning will be expanded in a later post; I’ll link to any expansions later.

My first school was extremely progressive. We had weekly staff meetings; signature petitions for various Democratic causes were commonly passed around. We had a moment of silence when Edward Kennedy died. The principal met with me and mentioned that I didn’t seem, er, enthusiastic about matters that were important to the school which was unfair because I worked very hard to keep my opinions off my face and my mouth shut. That meeting was one of the few times any administrator acknowledged my existence. Weird, uncomfortable year; without question, I was let go because I wasn’t deemed sufficiently left of center.

Teaching history

I teach an AP US History Survey course every year and have excellent content knowledge in US and European history. But I’d never had to think through units on countries or eras, and my ed school work was all in math. All the discoveries I discuss were my own, although for all I know they’re basic equipment and I was just never told.

  • When studying a country, start with the physical and give the kids a map activity. Coloring in the Khyber Pass does much to help cement India’s vulnerability to invasion, and the Philippines’ placement in Southeast Asia does much to explain the term “strategically located” which, in turn, does much to explain the history of the Philippines. Be generous with the colored pencils and clever with the location activities.
  • Give them the nuts and bolts
    Logistics and economics can be unexpectedly fascinating, and I don’t understand why so many teachers ignore them. I don’t mean formal economics, but the simple nuts and bolts of money, need, and incentives, as well as the interesting unconsidered cause and effects. Male students in particular find this approach interesting. So, for example, when archaeologists found the Globe Theatre, I pointed out what a complete drag it was for the business that owned the location, which had to go through all sorts of negotiations just to get the use of their space back. Or the importance of dung in the Agricultural Revolution, and how the nitrogen-rich plants just happened to be the perfect food for livestock, which thus became more affordable, and so dumped its droppings into the land, providing still more fertilizer. A month later, we were reading a book on post-colonial India later on, in which a character picks up cattle dung to burn for fuel. Bam! Connection. The kids understood why manufacturing alone wasn’t sufficient to grow a new economy, that food production had to become much more efficient, and that using dung for fuel was robbing the land of nutrients. But they also realized that the character had no choice, which led to a greater awareness that England’s success wasn’t necessarily replicable.

  • Give them the gore.
    Trotsky got axed. Magellan got ripped to shreds. The Russian royal family got shot. Bad things happen, baby. (I had them draw pictures of Magellan’s demise. They were a hoot.)

  • Memorization isn’t automatic
    The first quiz revealed that the history facts had simply gone in one ear and out the other for several of my kids. I sat them down and gave them a talk about the importance of memorization and studying. This was news.
    “You mean, we just keep reading them over and over?”

    “Well, you can also work with a friend. Ask questions until you remember them. Come up with memory tricks to help. But here’s what will also help–understand that all that stuff we talk about, in class? It’s supposed to stay in your brain. That’s why you should take notes. But just writing it down isn’t enough–you have to remember what you write down, what you hear.

    Again, this was clearly new information (presumably because they didn’t listen the other 30 times they’d been told). But my non-performers made a quantum leap in performance that year, simply because I told them explicitly to remember what they learned. So, you know, don’t forget to tell them. And give them time to study; early success will reinforce the behavior.


As I described here, I designed a content-rich SSR/SSW program that did not involve the kids staring at a book they didn’t care about.


I taught Geometry and Algebra I, using the CPM curriculum.
Most of my “aha” moments were more useful for the following year.

  • What kids learn, they forget.
    I love teaching test prep, but its short-term nature meant I hadn’t yet learned the merciless lack of retention skills that most kids had. And it’s much harder to remember processes (math) then facts (history).

  • Multi-step equations
    It’s May, and I suddenly notice that my kids can’t do multistep equations if I mix and match distribution and combination. This realization was essential to the ephiphany I had early the next year; without it, I might have gone another year without realizing why my kids could handle 3(x+7) = 24 but not 2x +3(x-2) + 3 = 6x + 2.

  • Binomial multiplication and factoring
    While I’m not a huge fan of CPM, I really like the generic rectangle model for this process. I still use the techniques and the documents I developed this year.

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