# You Guys, Funny Quotes, #YouMatter, Sitting Down: My first TMC17 recap post

ARGH! I have too much in my head and don’t even know where to start. I want to blog about all the large and small things I want to take away with me from TMC17, but they are so disorganized in my brain. So I’m just going to do a Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness style post and get some of it out now.

Hey, You Guys! Words Matter

A while ago, I realized when I said “you guys” it was super gendered. So I just sort of said to myself I’ll say “y’all.” When I wrote emails to my classes, I pretty much say “Hi all!” And then… and then… someone brought up the “you guys” issue at a faculty meeting at our school, and in my head I was like “I don’t do that!” But for some reason instead of that reminder doing good, and reinforcing what I was doing, I found it impossible to not say “you guys.” Like when someone points out you say “um” a lot, or say “like” a lot. You just, um, like, end up, like saying it, um, more.

Glenn Waddell spoke about “you guys” at TMC, and it resonated with a lot of people.

So I think I have a plan. Thanks to a huge discussion on twitter (sorry, don’t remember who to cite), here are my options:

[updated August 2019]

[August 2019: Here’s a PDF of this if it helps you… it also includes “learners”]

The + others was cute… someone recalled they would say: “Humans… and others…” which made me laugh! I think I my lean towards nerds and my loyal subjects because I like whimsy. And as another teacher I love says about her classroom: “It’s a benevolent dictatorship.” @mathillustrated said it’s fun to mix them up. We’ll see what I’ll do!

A thought: I should post this in my classroom so I can refer to it! And tell students what I am trying to do. And have them catch me if I say “you guys” (which of course will make me say it more!). And have an ongoing tally of how many times I say it. And when they reach a certain amount, I’ll bring them some treat. I like the message it sends: I care about words because I care about you. For some of you, these words don’t matter. But I’m doing this for the others of you for whom these words do matter. Also: help me get better because I need to be, and I’m happy to be called out when I mess up.

Other ideas that came up:

@EmilySliman has renamed ‘homework’ as ‘home learning’ [I called it ‘home enjoyment’ because of another colleague, but they have since left me! So I am free to rename it as I please!]
@gwaddellnvhs has renamed ‘student’ (passive) to ‘learner’ (active) [“Learners learn, and students study. I don’t care how much you study. I care how much you learn.” paraphrased from here]
@chieffoulis has renamed ‘tests’ as ‘celebrations of knowledge’ (someone else uses ‘celebrations of learning)

Now do I think things like this will make a difference? Probably not. Calling something “home enjoyment” won’t make kids enjoy it. But it’s stupid and goofy and that’s worth something. And I don’t doubt that making an effort to change language might make a difference to some students. And it can prompt discussion where I get to talk about my values and philosophy around teaching. (“Why do you call tests ‘celebrations of knowledge,’ your majesty?”)  I try to live and act those values, but sometimes talking about them can help too.

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Another Classroom Culture Thing

I was having dinner at Maggianos with a TMC 1st timer, @pythagitup. Over dinner, he was telling me about a quote board he did where he put funny things kids said up on display. The beaming of his eyes as he recounted his classes and their quote boards made me know he had done something special. I begged him to write a blogpost about it, which he kindly did here. Here are his top 12 quotes:

I just got sad as I was writing this part of the post, because I remembered that I don’t have my own classroom. I usually am in two or three different classrooms and share the space with other teachers. So doing things like this are trickier. Sigh. It did remind me of one year in calculus. Years ago. 2012-2013. Back then, I was actually a funny-ish teacher. Like pretty goofy. And that particular calculus class was gads of fun. Good and strong personalities. I don’t know why but in recent years, I have lost that spontaneousness and goofiness that I used to have. I’m much more even keeled. I don’t know what happened. Does that just naturally happen when you grow older? I am up at the board a lot less now-a-days, so maybe that’s it… less class-teacher-class-teacher interaction? Whatever it is, I’ve changed. But back then, we had a goofy class. And all year, a student was secretly taking notes on funny things I said, or funny things kids in the class said. And she gave it to me at the end of the year. It was one of the most meaningful things a kid has done. You want to read some of it? Thought so. Wait, you said no? TOO BAD MY POST DEAL.

The post about it is here.

Promoting Kindness & Gratitude

I want to do this explicitly in my classroom. I tried a post-it wall of kindness/gratitude once, but that didn’t *really* take off in the way I wanted it to. I probably should have blogged about that to share a failed venture, and why it failed (namely: I saw it as a tack on unimportant thing, so I didn’t build time in class for kids to do it, and also kids have difficulty sharing kindness/gratitude so helping them see different things as kindness/gratitude would have helped too). [I see “nominations” as a way to do this too, and also related to the material! post 1, post 2]

But I saw something super nice. @calcdave was wearing a clothespin clipped to the collar of his shirt. I couldn’t read it but I asked about it. He then gave me a huge bear hug… which I thoroughly enjoyed because @calcdave is awesome and who doesn’t want a hug from him… and then looked at the pin. On the front, it said something like “hugs!” and on the back it said:

And then the person take the pin off and puts it on the other person (I think that’s important… they pin it on!). This then continues… from person to person to person. I love that @mrschz got it from me, and has now bought clothespins, painted them, and written on them. She’s all in!

I am not comfortable hugging my kids. I’m not that teacher very often (until they come back from college and visit). But I could see this going in different directions.

(a) Making 10 pins, each with one side blank, and the other side saying things like “high 5! #youmatter” or “two good things! #youmatter” or “fistbump! #youmatter” [and the person who inquires gets a high 5, 2 good things said about them, or a fistbump], and then the clothespin travels. I like the blank side because the clothespin then begs the question… and having different responses

(b) Making a bunch of pins and giving them all out to one class and explaining the purpose. I would have to do this with a class that is totally into stuff like this. I can imagine certain classes having a majority of kids who groan and then throw the clothespin away. So I’d have to choose wisely and come up with a good framing/rollout.

This idea originated with Pam Wilson, who is a true gem.

When this idea made its way on twitter, @stoodle pointed out that @_b_p has done something related in his classroom. And I remember reading this, being like OH MY GOD I NEED TO DO THIS and then promptly forgetting about it. The TOKEN OF APPRECIATION. I mean the name itself gets me giddy!

But I like this idea for a few reasons. First: it is done only once a week. It doesn’t take away from classtime. I can do it during my long blocks (once every seven class days). Kids have all week to think about who they are going to give it to. Kids also get to alter it, so at the end of the year, it is a recollection of good.

I know people are going to hate me for saying this, but this upcoming year, I have small classes. I’m at an independent school, so my classes tend to be small. But I think I remember my tentative rosters being even smaller than usual. I like to have larger classes because I like the chaos and interaction and cross pollination of ideas (though not the grading nor comment writing). But I wonder with small classes this year, will this work? I need to think more about this.

Crouching versus Sitting

This wasn’t at TMC but I saw it on twitter and wanted to affirm its truth for me.

I am fairly good about this. I have kids sit in groups of 3 but the tables can fit 4, so I tend to just hunker down with groups when talking with them. In most classes, I almost always drag a chair with me from one table to another which doesn’t have one. I agree there is a huge difference between crouching and sitting. There is value in crouching… it sends the message “I’m here to sort of briefly check on you and see what you’re doing but I’m likely going to move on… things are on you… so persevere.” I tend to sit when (a) I need to ask the group a set of questions to see their understanding, (b) a group seems to be getting stuck beyond productive frustration, (c) when a group is having a heated or interesting conversation and I want to listen in [I tell kids to ignore me and just continue, which I know they can’t really do but they do a pretty good job] or (d) when my feet are tired and I just feel like plopping down somewhere. Ha! Just kidding!

# The power of the feedback loop

Note: I have some phenomenal colleagues in my school. One of them gave a powerful presentation about some changes she made in her classroom, and I asked her to write a guest post on it! The kicker: she’s not a math teacher. She teaches French. But pedagogy can transcend the subject matter at hand, and this is one of those cases. So enjoy!

***

When I adopted a no-homework model for my classes several years ago, my role as a teacher shifted drastically. I was no longer strictly giving instruction, but rather facilitating the movement from one activity to the next and offering on-the-spot feedback and answering questions that my students might have. The goal was to remove myself from the equation as much as possible and put the students at the center of their learning. With all of the emphasis placed on class time, it became incumbent on the student to focus completely and participate thoroughly in each activity. It also became incumbent on me to come up with a system that would allow me to objectively and accurately calculate the quality of student note-taking and participation during class.

The rubric I currently use in my French classes was designed to allow for effective and efficient use of class time, which, in turn, facilitates maximum learning. It looks like this:

• Is punctual
• Is ready to work at the start of class
• Takes active notes, keeps an organized notebook
• When speaking to the teacher, uses French only
• Engages in activities in French
• Engages in activities for the duration of the time indicated

Each of the six components is worth 1 point per class day, for a potential total of 36 points per cycle. I designed a page that has this rubric at the top and a box for each day of the cycle underneath, and I keep a copy of it on my clipboard at all times:

Whenever a student makes an infraction, I point it out to him or her and I write it down immediately in the box corresponding to the day of the cycle. On day 1 of cycle 3, for example, I noted that three boys were not prepared to work at the beginning of class. I also collect the students’ notebooks daily and write down any issues regarding the quality and organization of their written work in these boxes as well. You can see an example of that on day 2 of cycle 3, when two boys passed in notebooks that had missing or incomplete notes. At the end of the cycle, I calculate the points lost and keep a running tally of total points in my gradebook.

In my work this year with several colleagues regarding the importance of feedback, it became apparent to me that it would be useful for my students to have the opportunity to see and discuss the breakdown of the information from these pages. So I organized a table that allows for the student to see when and how many points were lost for each component. I also included on the page the overall GPA, as well as a list of commendations, areas for improvement, and suggested challenges. I then scheduled 10-minute individual conferences during breaks and community time to discuss the results. Below is an example of one of these reports :

SEMESTER 1 REPORT CHART

Student : Jean-Paul de la Montagne

Total Notes & Participation points

• mid-semester 1 : 139/156
• semester 1 : 97/108
 Total infractions Distribution Is punctual 1 Cycle 2 Is ready to work at the start of class 2 Cycles 3, 6 Takes active notes, keeps an organized notebook 13 Cycles 2 – 7, 9 Speaks French only (with the teacher) 0 Concentrates on activities / Engages fully in activities / Participates for the expected duration 12 (chatting, following instructions) 3-10

 Mid-semester 1 Semester Average GPA 89.74 94.7 92.2

Commendations :

• accurate accent
• ability to properly formulate full, complex sentences
• notable increase in use of French with peers

Areas for improvement :

• consistency in the quality of note-taking
• drop the habit of chatting

Suggested challenges :

• read Daniel Pennac’s L’œil du loup
• watch movies, listen to songs in French

This intensive participation grading model allowed me to remove subjectivity and emotion from my participation grades. It also eliminated the potential for students or their parents to debate the grade. The final step of conferencing with each of my students was the piece I’ve been missing all these years. These conferences yielded almost 100% reduction in the behaviours that hinder productivity and learning, not to mention costing students points.

My ultimate take-away from this experience is that providing students direct feedback on the quality of their notes and class participation resulted in the kind of behaviour modifications that have made for an even more effective learning environment. In a no-homework class where every minute counts, this is key. I am so excited about what this experience has taught me, and am looking forward to refining it in the future.

# Gaspable Moments

Sometime last year, I started thinking about why I love math so much. And when I kept on delving, deeper and deeper past all the adjectives (beauty, creativity, awe-inspiring, structure, …) to what really was beneath those adjectives, I came up with one fundamental, visceral answer. It is the spark of electricity you get when you think you start figuring something out, and the chase that happens, until things finally click into place, and you are so excited about your discovery that you want to share it with someone else. It’s that gaspable moment — that rush of endorphins — that feeling of sheer joy.

I’m guessing if you’re reading this blog, you’ve had that happen to you.

For me, this internal joy is everything. Why I love math, below all the flowery adjectives, is because of the emotional impact it has on me when things click.

It’s an internal thing. A private thing. But what if it didn’t have to be. [1]

I had this idea last year, and I’m terrified and thrilled about introducing it on Tuesday. This idea is designed to specifically make this joy visible and public.

Here it is…

A bell. I’m going to ask kids to ring the bell on their group tables when they have some sort of insight or discovery or revelation that simply causes them joy. I want their internal joy to become external. I want my kids to recognize that this joy is something they should be conscious of and recognize it when it happens. I want a class culture where moments of joy are acknowledged and celebrated.

When a bell rings, what happens? Nothing. Kids continue working. Near the end of class, I will ask kids “anyone who rang a bell, can you share a bit about that moment and insight that you had? and can you describe that feeling with one adjective?” Or maybe I’ll call on someone who rang a bell? I do know that I don’t want the bell to interrupt the flow of class and thinking.  Will I have the bells out every day for that one class? I will probably have the bells out a lot after I first introduce them, to start building the classroom culture around them, but then I can see me probably make more conscious choices about when the bells will be out based on what we are doing in class.

Will this work? I don’t know. I’m going to roll it out in only one of my classes. Why? Today I had a killer class. The kids were persevering and having so many gaspable moments. It was ridiculous. I went into the math office after just to tell the other teacher of the class to get psyched for his next class (he hadn’t taught that lesson yet). But because this happened, it is a perfect time to have a conversation with my kids about the joy of mathematics. (I’ve had the bells since school started… I just hadn’t found the right time to introduce them.)

I can see a number of things happening.

1. I can see kids being too “scared” to ring the bell. Because it is public. And they might feel like they’re insights or feelings aren’t “valid” or “good enough” (compared to their classmates). Not ringing the bell has no risks, so why do that?
2. I can see kids being too “bell happy.”
3. I can see this not going well in the first few days, and then me abandoning this idea.
4. I can see this becoming a positive and normalized part of our classroom.

What do I suspect? Truth be told, I’m super excited about this, but I think #3 is the most likely outcome. It’s hard to be consistent with something that doesn’t get off to a solid start, because then keeping it up even though it isn’t working well feels fruitless, and finding ways to fix things and change course is way tough.

However I will say that I started using, with this class, the red/yellow/green solocup strategy for groups to self-assess where they are in terms of their own progress, and it’s been amazing. So that gives me hope for this idea working with these kids. Wish me luck!

[1] Okay, sometimes it isn’t private. I love when a group high fives when they figure something out. That happens when it is something hard-earned. Something they worked for. I also remember years ago a kid getting so worked up about understanding the sum of angles formula for sine that he literally fell in the floor. So sometimes the joy is visible. But I suspect that a lot of the joy that kids feel (when given the right kind of tasks, which put them at a place where they can have those hard-earned moments) often has a momentary and fleeting nature. I hope a ding! can give voice to those fleeting moments.

# Good Conversations and Nominations, Part II

This is a short continuation of the last blogpost.

In Advanced Precalculus, I start the year with kids working on a packet with a bunch of combinatorics/counting problems. There is no teaching. The kids discuss. You can hear me asking why a lot. Kids have procedures down, and they have intuition, but they can’t explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. For example, in the following questions…

…students pretty quickly write (4)(3)=12 and (4)(3)(5)=60 for the answers. But they just sort of know to multiply. And great conversations, and multiple visual representations pop up, when kids are asked “why multiply? why not add? why not do something else? convince me multiplication works.”

Now, similar to my standard Precalculus class (blogged in Nominations, Part I, inspired by Kathryn Belmonte), I had my kids critique each others’s writings. And I collected a writeup they did and gave them feedback.

But what I want to share today is a different way to use the “Nomination” structure. Last night I had kids work on the following question:

Today I had kids in a group exchange their notebooks clockwise. They read someone else’s explanations. They didn’t return the notebooks. Instead, I threw this slide up:

I was nervous. Would anyone want to give a shoutout to someone else’s work? Was this going to be a failed experiment? Instead, it was awesome. About a third of the class’s hands went in the air. These people wanted to share someone else’s work they found commendable. And so I threw four different writeups under the document projector, and had the nominator explain what they appreciated about the writeup. As we were talking through the problem, we saw similarities and differences in the solutions. And there were a-ha moments! I thought it was pretty awesome.

(Thought: I need to get candy for the classroom, and give some to the nominator and nominee!)

The best part — something Kathryn Belmonte noted when presenting this idea to math teachers — is that kids now see what makes a good writeup, and what their colleagues are doing. Their colleagues are setting the bar.

***

I also wanted to quickly share one of my favorite combinatorics problems, because of all the great discussion it promotes. Especially with someone I did this year. This is a problem kids get before learning about combinations and permutations.

Working in groups, almost all finish part (a). The different approaches kids take, and different ways they represent/codify/record information in part (a), is great fodder for discussion. Almost inevitably, kids work on part (b). They think they get the right answer. And then I shoot them down and have them continue to think.

This year was no different.

But I did do something slightly different this year, after each group attempted part (b). I gave them three wrong solutions to part (b).

The three wrong approaches were:

And it was awesome. Kids weren’t allowed to say “you’re wrong, let me show you know to do it.” The whole goal was to really take the different wrong approaches on their own terms. And though many students immediately saw the error in part (a), many struggled to find the errors in (b) and (c) and I loved watching them grapple and come through victorious.

And with that, time to zzz.

# Nominations, Part I

At TMC this past summer, Kathryn Belmonte introduced an idea about sharing student work in the classroom. Something she termed “NOMINATIONS!” I loved the idea — and wanted to use it when kids do their explore-math project. But I saw it was so flexible, and pretty early on, the time was right to test it out. So I modified it slightly and this post is about that…

In all of my precalculus classes (I teach two standard sections and one advanced section), my kids are being asked to do tons of writing. A few who have had me before in geometry are used to this, but most are not. And honestly: getting down what mathematical writing is, and how to express ideas clearly, is hard.

So what do I do? I throw them into the deep end.

On day two of class, I ask them to write an answer to a problem for a seventh grader to understand. On the third day of class, they come in, and are given the name of the student who comes after them alphabetically (and the last person is given the name of the first person alphabetically). Then they read these instructions:

Everyone moves to the desk of the name they were given. Then I project on the board:

And I give students to read through a different student’s solution. They have to make sense of it — pretending to be new to the problem. And then they critique it. Eventually, probably after 3-5 minutes, I left them return to their seats. They read over the comments. I talk about why the feedback is important. And how specific feedback is useful (so “good explanation” is less useful than “your explanation of how the groups were made was easy for me to follow”). And then we continue on with class.

Here are examples of some post-its (front of a few, then back of a few):

To follow up: that night for nightly work, I gave students a writing problem — a simple probability problem. My hope was that this would help them pay attention to their explanations. I collected the problem and read through the writeups.

They weren’t so hot. Most of them didn’t talk about why and some didn’t have any diagrams or visuals to show what was happening with the problem. So I marked them up with my comments. (They got full credit for doing it.) The next day I handed them back and shared my thoughts. I also shared a copy of a solid writeup — one that I had created — along with four or five different possible visuals they could have used. (I realized –after talking with Mattie Baker about this — that I couldn’t really get my kids from point A to point B unless they saw what point B looked like, and what my expectations were.)

At this point, I wanted to figure out if they were taking anything away from all of this. So I created a page with three questions. A formative assessment for me to see what my kids understand and what they don’t about the content. But I also asked them to take all the feedback they’ve gotten about writing and explanations, and explain the heck out of these problems. Here’s an example of one of the problems (one I’m particularly proud of):

I collected them today. I haven’t looked through them carefully yet, but from a cursory glance, I saw some thoughtful and extensive writeups. And even from this cursory glance, I can see that these two activities — plus all the conversations we’re having about explaining our thinking in class — have already made an impact.

Yes, they’ve gotten some ideas of what a good writeup looks like. They know diagrams can be helpful. They know words to explain diagrams are important. They know the answer to why is what I’m constantly looking for when reading the explanations.

But more important to me is the implicit message I’m trying to send about my values in the classroom. I think a lot about implicit messaging to communicate my values, especially at the start of the year. And I am confident my kids know with certainty that I value all of us articulating our thinking as best as we can, both when speaking but also when doing written explanations.

# Notes on the Start of the Year

Today was my first day with kids. I can’t tell you how terrified I was to be back. I had about a zillion normal reasons (the standards: do i still remember to teach? so many kids names to learn and i’m terrible at it! what if I totally suck?). I also have a lot on my plate right now, a few of which are out of the ordinary, which have put me in a weird headspace. #cryptic #sorry

However I had a really good day today. I saw my advisory and two of my four classes. I even went to some of the varsity volleyball game after school!

This post isn’t about my kids or my classes. It’s going to be about some things I’ve done at the start of this year.

(1) Inclusivity. I read a book about trans teens this summer. We had a lot of conversations about pronouns last year. We as a school have taken gendered pronouns out of our mission statement. Last year I included this in my course expectations:

But this year, in my get-to-know-you google form that I give to kids, I asked for their pronouns.

Chances are, I probably am not going to get any different answers that what I expect this year. But I’m not including this question for the majority of kids. I want to be ready when that first kid gives me pronouns that differ from what I may expect. I want that kid to know they can find comfort (not just safety) in our room. And I want all kids to know things that I value. And I think this question sends that message — no matter who the kid is.

That’s the idea behind it. Who knows if my intention is how the kids will understand/interpret it?

(2) Mattie Baker and I were working at a coffeeshop before the year started, and he showed me his class webpage, which had this video (which I’d seen before) on it front and center:

I loved how *real* this video felt to me. Not like something education schmaltzy which makes me want to roll my eyes. I then went searching for a twin video that explicitly talks about the growth mindset. I had a dickens of a time finding one that I felt would be good for students to watch, but didn’t seem… well… lame. I found one:

So as part of the first set of nightly work, I’m having kids watch these videos and write a comment on them in google classroom. (So others can read their comments.) As of writing this, one class has already had two kids post their comments (even though I don’t see them until next week). I read them and my heart started singing with happiness. I have to share them:

Two videos aren’t a cure-all. But having kids realize how important having a positive can-do attitude, and how important it is to look at math as a skill to be developed (rather than something you’re innately born with and is fixed) is so important to me. I have to remember to be cognizant about how important this stuff is, and how important it is to reinforce daily.

(3) In both of my classes today, one student said something akin to “I first thought this, but then I talked with Stu (or listened to the whole class discussion) and I changed my mind.” I stopped both classes and made a big deal about how important that was for me. And how those types of statements make my heart sing. And why they make my heart sing. So they should say those sort of things aloud a lot. Okay, so I said it once in each class. How can I remember to say it a lot more? In any case, it was a teacher move I was proud of.

Oh oh another teacher move… I saw when one student was sharing their thinking with the class, but not everyone was facing the student. And I remembered Mattie Baker and Chris Luzniak’s training from this summer (on dialogue in the classroom). I told everyone they had to face the person that was speaking. I need to remember next week to make this more explicit — and talk about (or have kids articulate) what they should look like when actively listening to someone. And why it’s important to give this respect to someone. They are sharing their thinking — which is a piece of them — with us. They took a risk. We need to celebrate that. And try to learn from their thoughts. Doing anything else would be a disservice to them and to our class. (Okay, clearly you can tell I’m thinking through this in real-time right now by typing.)

(4) Robert Kaplinsky has created a movement around opening classrooms up. I personally hate being observed. Before someone comes, I freak out. Of course as soon as I start teaching, I absolutely forget that they are watching. Totally don’t even recognize them as an entity. In fact, I think I often teach better, probably because I’m subconsciously aware I’m being watched so I’m hyperaware of everything I’m doing.  But leading up to it is horrible. And I also hate the idea of “surprise visits” because… well, who likes them?

That being said, I know that getting feedback is important, and I know that in my ideal school, classrooms wouldn’t be silos. So I joined in. Not for all my classes… I need to dip my toe in gently. But I posted this next to my classroom door:

Next week or the week after, I’ll probably put this up as a “do now” and ask kids “what do they notice/wonder?” about it. Then I’ll tie it into a conversation about growth mindset and the videos they watched.

(5) For the past two years, I’ve been teaching only advanced courses. (In fact, because of that, I asked to teach a standard course… I have taught many, and it was weird to not have that on my plate for two years.) And I heard from someone that a few kids were nervous about having Mr. Shah because “he teaches the really hard courses? will he be able to teach us?”

I know that my first few classes with these kids need to show them that I am different than they expected. I also was proud of this paragraph I put on the first page of their course expectations…

(6) I met my advisory for the first time. Seniors. The thing is: we’re ramping up our advisory program to be more meaningful. Advisors are going to be with their advisees for four years. We are going to be the initial point of contact for many things. And we want to be there to support and celebrate our advisees in a way that we haven’t been able to in our previous set up.

But for all this to happen, I need to form relationships with my advisees. Relationships that go beyond pleasantries. In our training for our new advisories (amazing training… I think I should write a post to archive that thinking before I forget it… done by the Stanley King Institute) we did an exercise. We found someone we didn’t know (I found a new teacher at our school). We had to think about something meaningful to us, and something real (not something like our favorite sports teams… sorry sports fans)… and then talk about it with our partner for EIGHT MINUTES. Anyone who has been a teacher knows that speaking about anything for eight minutes straight is tough. It feels like eternity. While that person is speaking, the other person is actively listening. They can say a few words here and there, like “oh yeah…” or “totally,” but it wasn’t about having a conversation.

Normally I’d roll my eyes at something like this. But at the end, I felt like I got to know this new person at our school pretty well… actually, considering we only had eight minutes, amazingly well… and we bypassed all the initial superficial stuffs. That stuff, like movies and books and stuff, we’ll get to later. Yes, it was awkward. But yes, it worked.

So here’s how I adopted it for my advisory. I met with them today to do a bunch of logistics, and then I took them to a different room. I had cookies, goldfish, crackers, and a cold drink for them. And I explained this exercise. And I said: “I want to do this with you. I want to get to know you.” And so I took out the notecards I prepared, and I shared stuff about my life with them. And they were rapt. I told them about stuff going on in my family that was exciting and stuff going on that was tough, I told them “things I wish my students knew” (this is such a great way to flip “things I wish my teacher knew”). I told them my total anxiety for the start of the school year and why I had it, and I told them my total excitement for the start of the school year and why I had it. I even said: “I never feel like I’m a good enough teacher.” When I was saying that, I wondered how many kids think “I never feel like I’m good enough.”

A photo of my index cards are here… but I only used them as launching points. I didn’t want to be rehearsed.

I’m a guarded person, and I made sure never to cross the line between personal and professional, but when I finished, I sensed some (all?) of them were processing that a teacher opened up to them in this way. A few thanked me for sharing with them.

I wanted to set up an initial connection, and send the message I want you to know that I’m not an advisor in name only… I’m opening up to you because I want you to believe that when you’re ready, you can open up to me. They’re seniors. They have a lot figured out. But I hope they know I’m here for the stuff they don’t have figured out.

In the next week and a half, I have 10 minute meetings with all of my advisees individually. I told my kids they are going to talk to me about what’s meaningful to them for 8 minutes. I acknowledged it would feel awkward. I told them they didn’t need to open up in any way that made them feel uncomfortable. But I wanted them to speak about whatever is meaningful to them. We’ll do favorite books later. Now I’ll get to know them on a more personal level. [1]

(6) As you might have noticed from #4 above, I’m trying to be better about formative assessments. I want to make sure I know what kids are thinking, and where they are at, and use that to refine or alter future classes. I haven’t tried this out yet (today was just our first day!!! I only saw two classes!!!), but I made a google form for exit tickets.

This is a #MTBoS sample version, so feel free to click on it, and fill out fake feedback to get an idea of the form.

Pretty awesome idea, right? I didn’t want to have a bunch of pre-printed slips (something I knew I wouldn’t actually do).

(7) I took a page from Sara Van DerWarf’s playbook. I didn’t do this on the back of name tents, but I have a separate sheet that they’re filling out. For my two classes today, I asked them to share something about themselves that would help me get to know them as something other than a kid in our math class. Some kids gave a lot, some a little, but I learned something about each one of my kids. As I’ve mentioned, I’m terrible with names. But what’s nice is on this sheet I created, I put photos (they’re in a school database for us to use) and knowing something about them is helping me remember their names. It’s odd and unexpected and lovely. Kids interested in arts/photography/social justice/sports/debating-arguing/nature/etc. I liked writing that little note back to my kids. I don’t know what question I’ll ask next. I may ask them “Math is like…” (like James did). For the penultimate one, I should definitely take a cue from Sara and ask them to ask ME a question.

I have a few more ideas for posts percolating. I hope that I get the time and motivation to write them. But it’s nice to be back!!! SCHOOL IS IN SESSION!

***

[1] This is what I included in my email to my advisees:

I know it may feel awkward, but when you meet with me during this meeting, you’re going to speak for 8 minutes about things that are meaningful to you. So something more than a listing of your favorite books/movies. If you need help thinking about this: what makes you tick? what makes you gasp? what are your thoughts about senior year and the future? what could you not imagine doing? what are you feeling? what keeps you up at night? These are all questions that might help you find things that are truly meaningful to you. I found it really helpful to have an index card of things when I was talking with you, because I was nervous. I suggest doing that!

# Pitching college math courses

Ooops. This turned out to be a post with no images. So here’s a TL;DR to whet your appetite: I wanted to expose my seniors to what college mathematics is, but instead of lecturing, I had them “pitch” a college course to the rest of the class.

My multivariable calculus courses was coming to an end, and I got some questions about what college courses in math are about. It reminded me of a comic strip I read years ago, which I frustratingly can’t find again. It has an undergraduate going to meet with his math professor adviser, saying something like “I want to major in triple integrals.” Which is crazy-sounding — but maybe not to a high school student who has only ever seen math as a path that culminates in calculus. What more is out there? What is higher level math about? (These questions are related to this post I wrote.)

So here’s what I told my students to do. They were asked to go onto their future college math department websites (or course catalog), scour the course offerings, and find 3-4 courses that looked interesting and throw these courses down on a google doc.

It was awesome, and made me jealous that they had the opportunities to take all these awesome classes. Some examples?

After looking through all the courses, I highlighted one per student that seemed like it involved topics that other students had also chosen — but so that all the courses were different branches/types of math. I told each student to spend 10-15 minutes researching their highlighted course — looking up what the words meant, what the big ideas were, finding interesting videos that might illustrate the ideas — so they can “pitch the course to the class” (read: explain what cool math is involved to make others want to take the course).

I’m fairly certain my kids spent more than 10-15 minutes researching the courses (I’m glad!). Each day, I reserved time for 2-3 students to “pitch” their courses. And since some of the ideas were beyond them, after the pitches, I would spend 5 or so minutes giving examples or elaborating on some of the ideas they covered.

If you want to see the research they did for their pitches, the google doc they chucked their information into is here.

Some fun things we did during the pitches?

(1) We watched a short clip of a video about how to solve the heat equation (that was for a course in partial differential equations)

(2) I showed students how to turn a communication network into a matrix, and explained the meaning of squaring or cubing the matrix (this was for a course on network theory)

(3) A student had us play games on a torus (a maze, tic tac toe) (this was for a course on topology)

(4) I had students store $x=0.3$ on their calculators. Then I had each student store a different “r” value (carefully chosen by me) and then type $r*x*(1-x)->x$ in their calculators. They then pressed enter a lot of times. (In other words, they were iterating $x_{n+1}=rx_n(1-x_n)$ with the same initial conditions but slightly different systems. Some students, depending on their r value, saw after a while their x values settle down. Some had x values that bounced between two values. Some had x values that bounced between four values. And one had x values that never seemed to settle down. In other words, I introduced them to a simple system with wacky wacky outcomes! (If you don’t know about it, try it!) (This was for a course on chaos theory)

(5) A student introduced us to Godel’s incompleteness theorem and the halting problem (through a youtube video)

It was good fun. It was an “on the spot” idea that turned out to work. I think it was because students were genuinely interested in the courses they chose! If I taught a course like AP Calculus, I could see myself doing something similar. I’m not sure how I would adapt this for other classes… I’m thinking of my 9th grade Advanced Geometry class… I could see doing something similar with them. In fact, it would be a great idea because then they could start getting a sense of some of the big ideas in non-high school mathematics. Kay, my brain is whirring. Must stop now.

If anyone knows of a great and fun introduction to the branches of college level math (or big questions of research/investigation), I’d love to know about it. Something like this is fine, but it doesn’t get me excited about the math. I want something that makes me ooh and ahh and say “These are great avenues of inquiry! I want to do all of them!” I think those things that elicit oohs and ahhs might be the paradoxes, the unintuitive results, the beautiful images, the powerful applications, the open questions… If none exists, maybe we can crowdsource a google doc which can do this…