Musings on the 180 blog

I’m at Twitter Math Camp 2014. Normally my inclination at a conference is to take a moment to recap the day from start to finish, as an archive to what I learned. Little things, big things, trying to capture every little morsel. Instead, I think I’ll just write about one thing I’ve been thinking about today, based on sessions and conversations.

180 blogs: Mine from this year

This was prompted due from a 30 minute mini-sesh that Justin Aion had around his 180 blogging adventure this year. For those not in the know, a 180 blog is something teachers started doing a couple years ago — posting once a day.  (It is called a 180 blog because there are supposed to be — though I definitely don’t have — at least 180 school days in an academic year.)

The difference between regular blogs and 180 blogs are that 180 blogs tend to be a single snippet, every day. Sometimes it is just a photograph. Sometimes it’s just a paragraph. Sometimes it’s a brief reflection. And you know what? You know what?

I kept a 180 blog last year too. And I just realized I never mentioned it on this blog, nor did I ever give it a post-mortem or reflection. So tonight, the first evening of TMC14 inspired by a mini-session, that is what I am going to do.

My 180 blog all started because I have an incredible colleague and friend at my school who I know would get along with this community of math teachers online like gangbusters. I wanted to bring him into this world, but it stressed him out too much, and moreso, he didn’t have that much time. I took a stab at ensnaring him by showing him the idea of the 180 blog. It has a low barrier of entry. It involves only 5 minutes a day. And it has a basic structure to it that he could routinize: make a post each day. He agreed! We would both keep a joint 180 blog!

And thus: the very cleverly named ShahKinnell180 blog was born. (Click on the image to be taken there!) [1]

180blog

Back to Justin’s TMC talk. He spoke about how he wanted his 180 blog to be centered around reflectiveness. And I think that many people do use them for that. However I was 100% sure that reflectiveness wasn’t something I was looking for.

Besides getting my colleague/friend involved in this online math teacher world, I think my reasons for wanting to do this are as follows:

  • I wanted a little archive of my teaching life. So the only rule I had in making it was that I would post a picture every day, and a few words. Nothing expansive, nothing overwhelming. I had in mind those people who take a photograph of themselves everyday for a year, and then splice them all together, resulting in this whole pastiche of the passage of time? I revel in the fact that I now have this little slice of my teaching life all beautifully laid out. Visual. Chronological. And what I kinda love the most: just like the blog is filled with snapshots of things that happened to me-as-teacher (usually from my classes, though not always), the blog itself is now a snapshot of who I am as a teacher.Although I haven’t done this yet (why not??? well I didn’t even think about writing about it here until after it was done for a whole year! so who knows where my head is at), I would love to send it to my parents. Heck, it’s a great way for non-teachers (wow, this could be awesome for teachers-to-be too!) to see a depiction of what people in our profession do, what we get our kids to do, what we think about, what experiences we have. It’s like a regular blog, but less reading — perfect for skimming and being non-threatening!
  • I wanted something to keep me on the lookout for the good. My brain constantly tells me I am not good at what I do. And I am someone who can obsess over what’s not going right and just skip over the juicy deliciousness in front of me. (I was that kid in high school who would take a test, get stuck on one or two questions, and leave saying I knew I did horribly on it… not because I was being modest, but because I would focus totally on what I didn’t know, instead of seeing things in perspective.) All this brings me back to a few years ago when I was a contributor on the “One Good Thing” blog (my posts on that blog are here). If you don’t know about that blog, it is a collaborative blog where teachers just write something good — anything good — that happened. Big or small. The tagline to the blog is: “every day may not be good, but there is one good thing in every day.” That’s some powerful stuff. And you know what? Because I was posting on that blog, I had a shift in my mindset. Even in my worst days, especially in my worst days, I would force myself think back through the day for something good. And heck if I couldn’t find something. And then I started paying more attention to the good that was happening when it was happening (I would think: “Heck yes! I need to blog this!”).I wanted my 180 blog to remind me that I do good things in the classroom. Even when I feel like I’m stagnant, when I’m not innovating, when my kids are lost and I’m at fault… I wanted my 180 blog to keep me on the lookout for things that I should feel proud of. Not every post is a “feel good” post on my 180 blog, but the point is: I was constantly on the lookout for something I would want to post about or an image I wanted to save from the day.
  • Finally, and probably least important to me, I wanted something to keep me accountable to being a good teacher. This probably sounds a bit weird… but as a regular blogger, I noticed I would get extra enthusiastic about something when I knew I was doing something or creating something and realized I could blog it. When my classroom wasn’t the only audience, and when what we did just disappeared in the temporal aether. Perhaps a 180 blog would help me do the same?

I don’t have any grand pronouncements from the experiment. I definitely didn’t learn anything about teaching from keeping the 180 blog. I am almost certain I will not return to the 180 blog for teaching ideas, or to see how a particular lesson went. I definitely did not become a better teacher because I kept the blog. (At least not in any tangible way.)

But here’s the thing: looking at this experiment on the whole, I am beyond thrilled I started my 180 blog and kept up with it. Why? Because when I have moments (be it days, weeks, or even month-long-stretches) when I feel like I’m not doing a good job, I simply can pull up the blog and browse through it and recognize:

I don’t do the same things every day. I am thoughtful about stuff a bunch of the time. I have pretty great kids who do some pretty great and possibly hilarious things that are worth recording/remembering. 

Which them reminds me: I’m lucky that I get to do what I do. I enjoy thinking about what I get to think about. I really do enjoy working with kids (which definitely needs reminding because… well kids are rarely easy). And that: if this is my job, if this is what I get to do and get paid for it, then things are pretty great.

180 blogs: An idea for the future

So as I noted, I was blogging mainly to archive. And archive I did. I have no desire to archive again next year. However I had been thinking at the TMC14 session I was at: is there anything that could get me to do another 180 blog?

And I dawned on the answer. I could create a 180 blog around one specific thing I was working on as a teacher. And this 180 blog would force me to stay accountable.

Examples:

  • I’m not an expert at deep questioning in the math classroom. So I would be forced to blog about one question I asked, if I had time write about some of the context in which the question was asked, and what happened when I asked it in the math classroom. I would then briefly evaluate whether the questioning was good and/or if there was a better way to have asked the question.
  • I am trying to make groupwork the central way kids in my classes learn. So I could write one blogpost each day about how I facilitated some part of groupwork — either in the planning of the class, during the class, or after the class.
  • I am trying to be more conscientious about formative assessments. So I vow to have one formative assessment each day in one of my classes (not even all of them! just one!). It doesn’t have to be even a big one… even a 10 second “thumbs up if you get this, thumbs to the side if you’re slightly confused, and thumbs down if you’re totally lost” counts.
  • I struggle with wait time. So each day, I vow to record with a timer how many seconds I wait after one question (only one question!), and I post the question and the wait time on the blog.
  • I know I’m terrible at “closing” class. I have kids work until the end, we rarely take the time to summarize what we did, the big questions we tackled, the big questions we have lingering. Very often it is: “Eeep, sorry, we’re out of time. Check the course conference for your nightly work. Missyouloveyou!” Okay, maybe not the missyouloveyou part, but you know what I’m talking about. So blogging about the close of one class each day.

I’m not saying I’m going to do anything of these. If I do, it will definitely only be one of them. But the idea is that it is targeted about something I want to improve upon, and doing it will hold me accountable.

 

[1] As a follow up, my colleague who did the 180 blog with me blogged many — but not all — days. But heck if he’s not been so inspired that he’s starting Geogebrart, his own blog about making art with geogebra which has been knocking my socks off this summer. Once you peruse his entries on our 180 blog and you peruse his new Geogebrart blog, you probably understand why I feel lucky beyond belief to get to work with this guy!

Playing with Math

Sue VanHattum (of Math Mama Writes) is in the finishing stages of editing a rich collage of works that is aptly named Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers & Passionate Teachers.

playing
Truth be told, I tend to eschew reading about math education because most of what I’ve read feels dry and irrelevant to me. I tend to stick with who I trust when it comes to math education: my colleagues, whether they be in-person or virtual. And although I didn’t tell Sue this, because she was so kind to share an advance copy with me, I fretted about falling asleep while slogging to get through 67% of this book because of the subtitle. (I have never led or been to a math circle, nor do I work with homeschoolers.) I’m just an average joe teacher who keeps his sights on his classroom and his kids, and… well… that’s about it.

Now for the punchline: I couldn’t stop reading it. All 100% of it.

The book isn’t composed of traditional articles-as-chapters. Playing with Math is, rather, a collage. I was treated to bursts of math puzzles, activities, and games (the majority of which were completely new to me) wedged between short and medium-length vignettes from people who are working with kids on math. (There are almost 50 contributors to this book, some of whom I know!) I can see this book being a great present for one of my NYC colleagues, because as I was reading it on my laptop, I kept thinking how perfect this book would be for subway reading because each piece was only a handful of pages. A testament to the book is that as I was reading it, I wanted a zillion post-its and tabs to flag this or that.

Even though I haven’t been to a math circle nor am in any way involved with the homeschooling community, reading the pieces around those topics were interesting precisely because I know so little about them. But moreso, they got me thinking about ways I could differently think about my classroom and my kids. When it came to the math circles, it gave me ideas on how to let go and trust kids to take charge of their own mathematical learning more. And when it came to homeschooling (and unschooling), I wondered how much kids lose their love of learning precisely because of the structure of school. The author of the pieces did this by telling stories. Some were like video cameras, documenting and explaining the “teacher moves” in some particular math circle sessions. Some were powerful and wrenching first person narratives about mothers trying to help their children. And the teacher section was a curation of powerful stories of teachers like me, trying to be a little bit better each year. Some pulled lines to whet your appetite:

We began today’s math circle, the first of six sessions, sitting in an “ogre.” Not a circle, not an oval, but an ogre, the kids’ way of precisely describing the shape we made.

Peter Panov and David Plotkin can barely stay in their seats. They’re firing questions and comments and conjectures and quips at their instructor, Jim Tanton, as fast as he can respond. The whole class of thirteen-year-olds was giggling when I walked in. On the board is a list of some Pythagorean triples and a procedure for generating more. Tanton had just generated the triple (-1,0,1), and a general hilarity about the idea of a triangle with a negative side-length erupted. Now it’s as if he were dangling strings in front of a pack of puppies. They’re all worrying at the problem, tossing out ideas, wiggling in their seats.

Looking back now, I see how far off the mark we were. We should have advocated for our daughter to ensure she received an intellectually, socially, and emotionally appropriate education. But we were overwhelmed by the more-pressing problem of Ryan, so we missed her quiet desperation. I wish I had been more proactive and looked below the surface. I wish I had worked more closely with her teacher. I wish I had trusted my own instincts about my daughter’s needs and abilities.

I waited eagerly for him to arrive the next morning, looking forward to the moment when he would put AAAAAALLLLLL those tiles together in neat rows by category, and he would have to exchange several times (not to mention his surprise at seeing all the units disappear when multiplying by ten). Instead Roland came in, shook my hand, and said: “My dad told me that all I have to do is add a zero to 8,696 and I’ll have my answer, because when you multiply by ten you just add a zero.” My heart sank. Oh no, Dad! You robbed your son of such a cool experience!

Several years ago, my school experienced a shortage of geometry books. There was talk of teachers sharing class sets and photocopying pages for students. I decided to try a different strategy. I took this as a professional challenge to see how long I could teach without a textbook. I knew whatever happened would be a growing experience for me as well as my students. Through no fault of the school library, two or three weeks stretched to seven. By that time, I was well into my “textbook-free” strategy, so I just kept the ball rolling … for the rest of the year.

I like stories, and that’s what this book is. Not disquisitions or pronouncements or shallow research studies. Stories. The authors bring to life their experiences and interactions with kids and their insights and their frustrations, and I started care about these people, their children, their classrooms.

If there is one theme that stood out to me, it is this: we need to work at undermining the constraints that we are confronted with (whether it be textbooks for teachers, or the entire school experience for some parents) to allow us to do what we all know is best for kids… playing and engaging with math in a way that tugs at internal motivation (curiosity, the excitement of discovering something) rather than external motivations (praise, grades). We need to continue to find ways for doing math to be beautiful and creative acts of passion and wonderment and joy. The contributors of Playing with Math are working on this, and I am inspired by their stories.

Sue speaks about the origins of this book here:

And she is having a crowd-funding campaign. “The book has been written, edited, and illustrated. The money raised here will allow us to pay the artists, editors, and page layout folks, and it will pay for the print run.” I contributed so that I could get a paper copy of the book and finally mark it up with all the post-its and flags I want!

Teaching Award

About a month ago, I received a teaching award at my school. Technically, I suppose it isn’t an award, but a chair (“the William C. Stutt Chair for Math, Science, and Technology”). Fancy, right? I wasn’t going to blog about it, but it is something I want to archive and that’s the biggest (but not the only) reason I blog.

sam

 

It’s given out every three years, and the last person to get it is one of my best friends at the school (who is also the person I look up to as a teacher).

When I was called up, there was a standing ovation from the faculty. Of course, let’s put the cards on the table here: there always is a standing ovation from the faculty when anyone gets an award. But I can’t help but admit I got a real glow-y feeling. I was overcome when I saw my parents there, a surprise! They popped out of the curtain and hugged me. I didn’t quite know what to say, so I babbled. All I remember saying is my teaching motto: “Try to suck a little bit less each day.” I posted this on facebook, me feeling babble-y, and a friend said: “You are amazing. Your comment to the faculty about trying to suck less everyday was perfect and came up again a number of times over the remainder of the meeting. I hope you and your parents had fun celebrating your awesomeness this afternoon. Also, please take that standing ovation personally. We could have gone on clapping forever. There was nothing perfunctory about it. Congratulations!” So yes, me all feeling warm and fuzzy.

I also posted this on facebook: “Although I’m not one who basks in honors and awards (I even skipped out on going to my college Phi Beta Kappa induction and a writing award in college), I do feel like teaching is a profession where you don’t get a lot of positive reinforcement for the emotional struggle that you carry with you every day. A few kind words from students occasionally, or a nice email from a parent, if that. 99% of what we do goes unseen and unacknowledged. It’s isolating and exhausting. So this award was a nice thing, something I can turn to when I feel like I’m emotionally drained and a failure. (Which is more often than not.) But more than that, it reminds me how important it is that we teachers give accolades and kudos to each other in a million unofficial ways, *everyday.* Because most all the teachers (especially the math and science teachers) at my school are pretty awesome. And every one of us are working to do right by our kids. And more than awards that get handed out once in a blue moon, we need to pay attention of the good that everyone else is doing around you, and acknowledging and huzzah!-ing those things. Yes, that’s what I see from this. Let’s prop each other up.”

The little news blurb on our school website is here. Archived.

Multivariable Calculus Final Projects 2013-2014

Instead of doing traditional problem sets and tests during the fourth quarter, I have kids work on an individual project on something that relates to multivariable calculus that interests them. (During the year, I have them keep track of interesting tidbits or facts or something I go off on a tangent about [pun] that they find could be a possible final project. I also have this list of ideas I’ve culled to help them come up with a topic.)

I have them come up with a prospectus and I individually talk with kids about their proposed project and timeline for completion. Then when they get started and start envisioning a final product, they are asked to write a description of the final product out clearly, and come up with a rubric for grading that product. They are also asked to make a 20-25 minute presentation to their classmates, their parents (if they choose to invite them), math teachers, and administrators. This year, they wanted to give their presentations during senior thesis week, which means that lots of their friends could come to their talks.

And they have been! In the past week, students have given their talks and I have been way impressed by them. Honestly they’ve been more independent than in years’s past, so I was unsure of whether they were putting together a solid final project or not. They did.

Without further ado:

M.C.
Title: Mathematical Change We Can Believe In
Description: This presentation shows how one region can be manipulated to form something more interesting, a process called Transformation of Axes. The 2D and 3D analogues, use of rectangular and rounded shapes, and proofs of the properties of transformations abound in this exciting journey through the wonders of the world of multiple (MANY) variables.

mc

B.W.
Title: Pursuit Curves: The Ultimate Game of Tag
Description: Pursuit curves are the paths formed when one point chases another point. In this program, we will be looking at the mathematical explanations of pursuit curves, and then using a computer program I have built to model a few.

bw

J.B.
Title: What’s Our Vector, Victor
Description: This will be an investigation into the history, origins, and evolution of vectors, their analysis, and notation.

jb

I.E.
Title: Economists working with Models: Understanding the Utility Function
Description: Firstly, we will gain a foundational understanding of economics as a discipline. Secondly we will discuss the utility function and the questions which it raises.

ie

C.D.
Title: From Chemistry to Calculus: a study of gas laws
Description: For my project I have constructed a “textbook” that analyzes the idael and real gas law through the lens of multivariable calculus. In my “textbook” I compare and constrast these two laws by means of graphical and derivative analysis.

cd

E.F.
Title: Knot Theory
Description: Knots are everywhere around us, from how we tie our shoes to how the proteins in our body wind themselves up. My presentation will give an overview of their place not only in the “real world,” but also the world of classroom math and calculus.

ef

Intersections, 2013-2014

Today we had our launch party for Intersections, our school’s math-science journal. Last year a science teacher and I gathered interested students to produce this journal — and they worked tirelessly and did a spectacular job. This year, we have some new students and some old students who served as editors. Here they are giving their speech at the launch party (which was also a pizza-soda party).

launch

More than anything, I have enjoyed watching the editors become independent leaders, organizing something involving so many people and moving parts, and presenting their creation to administrators, math teachers, science teachers, computer science teachers, and other students. I feel like I’m coming to understand the niche I play in my school: I find ways to make math exist outside of the formal curriculum for kids who want to get more involved. Intersections is one of those spaces — both for editors and for those students who submitted.

If you want to check out this year’s issue, please click on the cover photo (designed by a student) below and it will take you to the website.

4301295_orig

 

(You can also click here.)

More than anything, if you have the time, just click around and see what cool things you discover!

Although it’s a lot of work, if you have any thoughts about starting something like this at your school, I highly recommend it.

Senior Letter 2013-2014

Every year I write a letter to my seniors. Each year the message is pretty much the same, though the way I deliver it may change a bit based on the class and what I’m feeling at the time. Each year I hate my letter when I’m done, but I decide I’m going to give it out because it’s a tradition and I don’t want to break it, and I convince myself it is not that awful. I hand it out. I’m grateful after I do, because… I suppose I need closure. I have worked with these kids closely for a year (sometimes more). And I have come to care about them all. And although it happens every year — they leave and I stay — and from this point on they slowly begin fading from my memory, right now they are in my life in saturated colors and I know I’m going to miss them and I want the best for them.

So even though I currently hate it, here is this year’s senior letter.

It came packaged with their “who I am” sheet that they wrote about themselves on the first day of class, and two cards I had printed.

imag5084

Switching Things Up, Need Help: Geometry is on the Horizon

For the past seven years, since I started teaching, I have been teaching calculus. When I started, I had 8 students in my class. Now I have 36 students. I’ve had to shift how I’ve thought about the course tremendously, and I’ve undergone a dramatic transformation in the content I teach (it is non-AP) and in the style in which I teach it. Seven years with a class is both a blessing and a curse. And honestly right now, I’ve reached the end of my usefulness for the course. I’m spinning my wheels. The only way I would be able to do a better job with it is to leave it for a few years and come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes.

And luckily, I have the opportunity to try something new. Next year, I will be giving up Calculus to teach an Advanced Geometry course for the first time. In fact, it’s the first time I’ll have ever taught geometry at all.

grunge-geometric-designs

When I first began teaching, I was scared of geometry. Partly because as a student in high school, I found geometry to be uninteresting. It certainly didn’t have the elegance of algebra, at least the way I was taught it. Partly because I realized in that course — more than any other course — you as a teacher really have to focus on hard things. If you want kids to be able to do a proof of any kind (two-column or not), you are really teaching intuition building and connection making. Which is tough, and daunting for any new teacher, and this is why I recoiled at the thought. Now, years later, I see this as such an exciting challenge.

Right now, I am not anywhere about how to teach this course. And in fact, I’m only teaching one section and the other teacher is teaching three sections. But he’s very open to really revitalizing the course. So now we’re in exciting territory. Before I go bananas on scouring everything out there, I thought I’d crowdsource.

For any of you geometry teachers out there, if you have time to answer one or two (or all!) of these questions in the comments, I’d be ever so grateful!

1) What are your favorite geometry teaching resources — both online and offline? I’m talking books, websites, applets, manipulatives, whaever?

2) What are your favorite math teacher blogs that focus on geometry?

3) Is there a lesson you absolutely could not imagine teaching Geometry without?

4) Do you teach the course with a connective thread? Like: We are studying space and the properties inherent in space as we build space? Or: We are studying exactitude –and in particular, how we define mathematical entities so they yield uniquely understandable creatures? Or: We are studying “measurement” (in the vein of Paul Lockhart’s book).

5) I’m concerned that our kids lose a lot of their Algebra I skills when they take geometry. The other teacher and I have talked about putting coordinate geometry front and center from the beginning to help with this. Do y’all do anything else that helps keep their algebraic skills sharp, and maybe even push them forward?

6) Anything else? Problem solving? Sangakus? Geogebra use? Things you throw out because you feel strongly it’s only taught because it’s always been taught? Incorporation of Euclid’s Elements or math history? Graphic-design-y projects? Math art?

UPDATE: WOW, everyone, thank you so much for your resources and advice and for taking the time to type out so much great stuff. Now I’m genuinely THRILLED and CHOMPING AT THE BIT to get started re-learning geometry (and then teaching it). I am going to sort through things this summer!