Back in the Trenches

I’ve been reflecting a bit on the title of this blog. I started this thing eight or nine years ago. I can’t remember exactly when, because I started it on another site that I don’t even have the password for anymore. It gets kind of fuzzy up in the ol’ teacher brain, and the current historical moment doesn’t help much. 

At the time I started this blog, I wanted something that staked a claim away from the heroic teacher blogs I kept comparing my practice against. I felt there was a missing perspective, that “in-the-trenches” view on what works and what doesn’t work in a New York City classroom where you might have 100 percent attendance one period and 5 percent the next.

The image in my head was of the famous opening battle scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. We see Kirk Douglas, playing the iron-jawed Colonel Dax, a French commander at what looks to be the Battle of Verdun. Dax marches down the trench, past cowering men, his men. It’s a bravura tracking shot, cutting between Dax and Dax’ POV which gets more and more obscured by smoke and dust from the shelling overhead. It ends with Dax walking up to a set of periscoping binoculars which give him a final view of  the “Anthill,” a forbidding German redoubt he and his men have been ordered to assault. Shells explode. A sergeant calls down the time.

Everything is going according to plan. And there isn’t a man in the scene, Dax included, who has any faith in that plan.

Not to be negative but there’s a certain level of absurdity at the heart of the teaching game. Big goals generally lead to small, demoralizing outcomes. Meanwhile, some of your biggest successes come from simple, dopey lessons that you can’t even believe the students took as motivating. Take last year, for example. I had a sophomore algebra class that struggled with nearly everything I put in front of them. Just getting them to take notes was an uphill battle. One day, in frustration, I printed out 30 worksheets on the topic of fraction-to-percentage conversion and dropped it on them with even so much as a mini-lesson.

They worked to the bell.  

“Mister, can we get more lessons like this,” two kids told me at the end.

As I prepare myself mentally this weekend for another round of remote learning, that notion of kids pushing back against a lesson already feels like a fond memory. In the new regime, the kids who show up to the live session generally want to work with you. The ones who don’t show up will sometimes try to sneak the assignment in a day later. Then you’ve got the kids who don’t show up at all. 

I’m seeing other teachers put much better thoughts into the mechanics of remote instruction, how to assign and review authentic work, how to give feedback, what to hold on to, what to let go. As a teacher, you learn to rely on routines almost to the point of sacred ritual. That many of the routines which once kept the classroom running smoothly clearly do not work in a digital landscape is the painful reality of the current situation. From conversations with students, I’m hearing that life on the other side looks like a sudden firehose of Google Classroom updates at the 8 in the morning, followed by a distinct urge to crawl back into bed. “The work isn’t hard,” one student told me in a Thursday seminar where “let’s vent” was the theme. “There’s so much of it and it comes in so many pieces.”

Teachers, myself included, have since lightened up a touch. I, for one, try not to ping my junior students with much more than an online attendance check-in. They know where and when to find me during the school day and they know my online syllabus — developed on the notion that I might be a force for transforming U.S education away from a high school whatever-keeps-butts-in-seats mentality and more towards a collegiate get-your-butt-to-the-library instructional approach — is still the default starting point for any lesson or graded activity.  

Now that I’m experiencing something close to collegiate teaching style, I find myself, like a lot of my students, mourning the classroom experience I once took for granted. For me, the thinking over the Spring Break That Wasn’t was along these lines. Where does the spiritual center of my classroom now reside? Is it the syllabus? Is it me? Is it the community of learners which, in the case of my juniors, I barely had six weeks to stitch together.

That initial question felt a little heavy on first pass, so I’ll took a second swing at the question: How should the social contract of the classroom, the baseline expectations between student and teacher, be rewritten for this new situation. Should it be rewritten?

As always, this reflection comes out of the ready student feedback in my so-called “better” classes, my Theory of Knowledge. Online attendance has been better with those groups, but, even there, I’m seeing steady attrition. What’s more, I have access to the students’ online journals and I can see the mental toll that remote instruction is taking. Kids report staying up too late and sleeping in and missing the live morning video sessions. They talk about the mental difficulty of doing classwork on their bed, of letting the camera into their home, of having to mind siblings and make sure they’re on top of their classwork before getting to their. They talk about not looking good for the camera, of not wanting to put in the effort to look good for the camera. We talked about this all rather openly in the aforementioned venting  seminar where I suggested rethinking class norms so that students were encouraged but not necessarily compelled to show their faces during live chat. 

In my freshman algebra classes, the feedback isn’t nearly as coherent. Barely a handful show up regularly to live class, so orchestrating a seminar-type discussion falls under the “no yet” category. Most students check in later in the day,  well after the live session, and attempt the tasks we’ve linked to Classroom. I see plenty of complaining: The lessons make no sense. The video is too fast or too confusing.  The questions I’m asking to prompt thinking are too wordy or opaque. To be honest, these are similar to the complaints I got before remote learning, so I take them in stride. I might not be the best teacher for this kind of group (a 30/70 mixture of on pace freshmen algebra students and struggling algebra students, with half of the strugglers qualifying for team-teacher education, if not other IEP entitlements. In every case, my push back is “Update your algebra journals” in the hopes that, even if the resulting entries come back as more specific complaints, I’ll at least have a conversation going in which I can get a deeper understanding of mental state or home life situation is an uphill battle at best. 

Then you have the kids who have gone dark totally.  They were always there in the physical school, too, of course. What’s different now is that many of the kids who aren’t showing up for digital work are the ones who, at the very least, sat through your regular lesson and maybe gave you a moment’s brilliance from time to time. Even the ones who did absolutely nothing tended to grow from the experience. The more I teach, the less weight I put on test data, but each year you can count on at least two or three students to post less than 55 on the June Regents after a year of ducking almost every task and activity only to jump to a 65 or 70 on the second try in January. Sometimes it’s the next teacher performing a miracle, sure, but usually it’s just a mixture time, maturity and the warm bath of math language that comes from sitting in a high school classroom for a full year. “Maybe we’re communicating something to them through the chair,” I once joked with a guidance counselor who noted the same trend.

Reflecting on the attrition rate of the last two weeks, though, I fear we’re losing even 55-level seat time as a backstop. This fear is what sends me circling back to the trench warfare image that started this blog.

Not to overdramatize, but there’s a sort of mental toughness aspect to teaching at the moment that I see a lot of teachers struggling to articulate. Almost all of the standardized tests used to assess student progress this spring have been canceled, and here in New York, it’s  doubtful that I’ll have to stress about administrative observations and ratings. Having taken away these measures of accountability, it’s easy to ask at both the student and teacher level: What’s the point?

Having already asked and answered that question in a previous post, I put myself firmly in the camp of those who see the current moment as its own ethical and spiritual test. The teaching profession, generally speaking, attracts the kind of person who’s had a positive educational experience  — by that I mean straight-A students, people good at following directions, especially directions that have been chopped up into little pieces with strictly defined indicators of what outcomes warrant positive vs. negative feedback. 

I was an A student myself, so I can play the game as well as any of my colleagues. Then again, I was an A student who went off to college and watched those As turn quickly into Bs, particularly in the math and science courses. I grumbled at first about the exchange rate before accepting the fact that the so-called “grade inflation” of college was nothing compared to the hyperinflation of high school. Either you knew the topic cold or you didn’t. Hoping for a letter at the top of the test or paper to validate that knowledge was, in its own way, the first indicator you needed to work harder.

I’m meandering, which I’m allowed to do in a blog, I suppose. My point is this: If taking away the clarity of a test grade or observation score takes away the student’s motivation to learn or the teacher’s motivation to teach, it’s probably best we, dear reader, part ways now. As for those who say, I don’t care about tests, we’ll let the next few weeks separate the wheat from the chaff. Based on the last two weeks, I’m predicting that 66% (students and teachers alike) will be mailing it in by May 15.

So, back to the trench warfare analogy: Another reason for the title of this blog, I now realize, is that during my second or third year as a teacher, I read Robert Graves’ World War I memoir Good-Bye To All That. I was a big fan of Graves’ Greek Myths I and II growing up, and my Dad, a fellow Graves fan, sent me a copy of the memoir right after I graduated college. It followed me through five of six moves, including a coast-to-coast relocation to my current home, New York City, and yet I never read it fully until I started teaching.

I don’t know what got me to me read. I might have been starving for something non-math related or what, but I found that the more I read, the more it spoke to the mental stamina side of math teaching. This was at a time when surviving ten years in the profession seemed almost too impossible to imagine. I was coming home so fatigued and, though energized by the job and the daily challenges it posed, felt fully on the burnout track.

I was, in short, perfectly primed for the story of a British officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers trying to balance the twin pressures of survival and duty. In a war that showed little sign of ending and a military culture in which the best one could hope for was a “good” wound and an honorable discharge, maintaining morale, both your men’s and your own, became the daily foreground concern.

In one chapter, Graves meets an officer his age but with a few more months’ service time. The officer schools him on what a modern writer might call “the new normal.”

When I came out here first, all we did in trenches was to paddle about like ducks and use our rifles. We didn’t think of [the trenches] as places to live in, they were just temporary inconveniences. Now we work here all the time, not only for safety but for health. Night and day. First, at fire-steps, then at building traverses, improving the communication trenches, and so on; last comes our personal comfort – shelters and dug-outs. 

The officer goes on to recall a “territorial” battalion, the British equivalent of America’s a National Guard unit, who couldn’t make the same mental shift.

They used to sit down in the trench and say: “Oh, my God, this is the limit.” Then they’d pull out pencil and paper and write home about it. Did no work on the traverses or on fire positions. Consequence – they lost half their men from frost-bite and rheumatism, and one day the Germans broke in and scuppered a lot more of them. 

Eleven or twelve years ago, I read this as an imperative to sweat the small stuff, one of those phrases that seems inane unless you’re a person like me who has spent the bulk of his life ignoring the small stuff. I didn’t become one of those teachers who puts color coordinated borders around every bulletin board, mind you, but I did start to challenge myself. Was I leaving the classroom with the desks properly aligned or was I trusting the night custodian to do it? Was I leaving my papers in a messy stack or was at least I taking them home in a bag with me so it wasn’t standing as a towering memorial to wasted effort? 

I’ll be honest. It was a drag at first to be tidy. Still, I forced myself to do it and took advantage of the mental stability it added.. With time, I came to realize that the room kids saw the moment they entered had a sizable impact on everybody’s mood, both theirs and mine. 

I’ve since softened a bit — I now make it the kids’ duty to arrange the class properly at the start of the day, relying on the early arrivals who usually share my small stuff mentality — I also have a bad packrat’s tendency to leave things cluttered in corners or strewn about in closets. Still, I feel a bit like that officer when asked to cover a class or accept a room re-assignment to a place where the other teachers sharing the room clearly don’t give a shit about appearance or the morale it conveys, just as I feel a bit like Graves when I walk into the room of the female teacher one floor above me, the foreign language teacher who decorates her room with flags, charts and color coordinated posters and immediately think: Don’t fuck with this one.

In light of the current situation, I see the shift in thinking from the trenches as a forced necessity to the trenches as a de facto home as the new lesson. As Graves and other junior officers of the era noted, there were many in the upper levels of the British (and French) officer corps who saw the discomfort of the trenches as a necessary goad. Like football coaches barking from the sideline, they demanded aggression not caution. Get out there and hit somebody. “Digging in,” to a certain 19th Century senior officer trained in the mindset of  l’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace, was akin to surrender.

That such officers rarely exposed themselves to machine gun fire goes without saying. Eventually, as the reality of modern weaponry imposed itself on command philosophy, it was left to the junior officers to hammer out a new, survivable approach —  way to keep the fighting spirit alive without losing every last man to bullets, disease or battle fatigue.

For Graves, the solution that kept him and his unit intact proved to be a mixture of cleanliness, aggressive patrols and obsessive attention to drill. In a later chapter, he describes a momentary eight week reprieve from the lines. His survival has made him a valuable commodity and go-to instructor for younger officers. It also puts him in contact with other survivors who trade what a teacher might call “best practices.”

We all agreed on the value of arms-drill as a factor in morale. ‘Arms-drill as it should be done,’ someone said, ‘is beautiful, especially when the company feels itself as a single being, and each movement is not a synchronized movement of one large creature.’ I used to get big bunches of Canadians to drill: four or five hundred at a time. Spokesmen stepped forward once and asked what sense there was in sloping and ordering arms, and fixing and unfixing bayonets. They said they had come across to fight, and not to guard Buckingham Palace. I told them in every division of the four in which I had served—the First, Second, Seventh and Eighth—there had been three different kinds of troops. Those who had guts but were no good at drill; those who were good at drill but had no guts; and those that had guts and were good at drill. These last, for some reason or other, fought by far the best when it came to a show—I didn’t know why and I didn’t care. I told them that when they were better at fighting than the Guards they could perhaps afford to neglect their arms-drill.

This post is going long, so I’ll wrap with a reflection on this particular passage. In teaching, math teaching in particular, we tend to diminish the importance of “drill.” There’s a phrase — drill and kill — that is its own dismissive commentary on the practice. It is a sin, in the current pedagogical doctrine, to prize “procedural knowledge” over “conceptual knowledge,” to put tactics before strategy in other words. 

Normally, I’m one of those who does the dismissing. It goes back to my memory of sitting in college classes on differential equations where the procedure seemed easy enough to follow (if you memorized it), but the underlying conceptual knowledge required reading and re-reading the same textbook chapter a few more times than I’d been trained to do. 

I don’t think it’s too extreme to liken our current educational situation to a battle. If the readers accepts the analogy, then I would add that the enemy in this battle is the state or the curriculum or some rapidly approaching test. It’s the inevitable sense of inertia that creeps into any human system when it feels like the “light at the end of the tunnel” has been thoroughly extinguished.

Taking the trench metaphor to heart, I find myself circling back to the notion that maybe class time should be less about pushing for rigor and more about rebuilding that “single being” vibe. It seems impossible. How can a far flung community of learners act as a single being? I mean,  getting students to do anything in unison was already enough of a challenge when you had them all in the same room and could take advantage of clever group psychology tricks a teacher picks up over the course of a career. Now that we’re scattered to the winds, what does “unison” even look like?

Trying to keep a positive mental attitude here, so I’ll end with this. As a math teacher, facing up to the impossible is sort the daily challenge. I mean, it’s not like all of my students were going to pass their state exams. Truth be told, I doubt that even half had the capacity to score 65 or better. The work needed to build towards mastery was that sizable. And yet, I was starting each week as a teacher with the mindset that this next lesson might make the difference. It’s what you do as a math teacher. For me, what we do now is channel that blind optimism into building virtual classroom culture that sustains student morale. Like the officer learning to turn his swampy trench into a home, I think it all starts with cleanup, making sure activities are short and tight, making sure everybody has assigned role or duty and, finally,  shifting the focus from individual survival to group survival. 

April 12, 2020 Mini-Manifesto

TOK “As If” Manifesto – April 13, 2020

Our educational system is undergoing a major stress test. Many parts of it will not survive. The standardized tests that typically dot the spring calendar appear to be an early victim. Yes, there will be a few workarounds plus strained attempts to make the data seem legitimate and, yes, there will always be tests in school — whatever current or future guise school takes. For the moment, however, we are invited to ask the rare question: What is the point of all this study?

The usual ready answer: To prepare ourselves for college and the working world beyond seems similarly hollow, at least in the current the moment. College will come back as a reality for us to consider as will work. But in what form? One can easily picture a fall landscape in which 10-20 major colleges, the kind whose brand names cover the back windows of sport utility vehicles across America, have suspended operations pending taxpayer bailout funds or an endowment review.

In the meantime, the remainder of the 2019-2020 school calendar affords us the rare opportunity to play the “as if” game.

As in: What would school look like if students and teachers went about the work of education for its own sake — treating school as if it was a place (physical or virtual) of learning?

No more, no less.

I borrow the loaded term “as if” from the late Christopher Hitchens and his 2001 book Letters to a Young Contrarian. It’s a piece of writing I typically turn to this time of year, that moment in early to mid-spring when it dawns that the energy, enthusiasm and creativity of the first semester has given way to frustration, fatalism and sentences that start with “These kids….” and end with sigh.  

In a key passage (published here as an excerpt). Hitchens uses the “as if” phrase to summarize the mental revolution that helped Vaclav Havel and the liberal-minded citizens of Czechoslovakia outsmart the bland tyranny of the postwar Communist system.

Writes Hitchens:

Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that “resistance” in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living “as if” he were a citizen of a free society, “as if” lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, “as if” his government had signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic the “power of the powerless” because, even when disagreement is almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid. 

As noted above, I turn to this passage each spring, because it helps me combat the usual late-in-the-year malaise: Instead of planning lessons with one eye on the coming state tests, why not plan lessons “as if” the real goal was to deliver a lesson the student retained in their memory into adulthood.

This spring goes beyond mere malaise, which is why I am proposing, for week that was never originally slated for school work, we follow a similar “as if” model of thinking. The current educational and economic moment is its own frightening absurdity. To survive, one must be willing to accommodate an extreme degree of cognitive dissonance, to act “as if” the video and worksheet your teacher posted qualifies as a instruction, “as if” a 20 minute Google Meet in which 80 percent of the participants had their video turned off was a class, that the five second check-in survey you just filled out on Google Classroom qualifies as a valid indicator of attendance.

I propose flipping the virtual classroom to a more positive “as if” model: What if students treated the next 24 hours as if it was an opportunity to learn something new, as if the primary purpose of the classroom teacher was to facilitate this process or, at the very least, to not stand in the way? Assuming they were successful, what if we asked ourselves the same question 24 hours again from now?

One day at a time as they say in the language of recovery.

During a recent online seminar, I asked students a modified version of this question. What would you study next week if you didn’t have to worry about tests or grades? The list came rolling down the chat window like a waterfall: “World War II,” “How to pay my taxes,” “art history,” “quantum physics,” etc. I resolved then and there to give my students the freedom to study that topic for one hour a day this week and to count it towards my class.

Freedom, of course, has its price. In today’s 20 minute class period my students and I will have to set the terms of this new social contract. My class is called Theory of Knowledge, and knowledge of self is always a good starting point. The student who chooses to spend this week staying up until 4 a.m. or sleeping until noon, I will remind them in a fatherly fashion, stands to come away feeling far more miserable than they did going in, especially in comparison with the student who sets out a clearly defined study schedule. Similarly, the student who uses the allotted study time to, say, read a book or push themselves a unit ahead in pre-calculus but refuses to reflect on or share back his or her newfound understanding to the TOK community at large will find herself gripping a fistful of empty knowledge in one week’s time.

Finally, there is the deeper problem of freedom: The problem, as the Trench Periscope sees it, is that, as a teacher, I exert zero control over the goals, moods or prerogatives of the six or seven other peer teachers each demanding their own slice of a students’ school life. In other words, my class might be giving you a digital hall pass, but the next teacher you encounter onscreen might be readying a turn-it-in-Friday-or-else ultimatum. It’s hard to tell. In our new digital “building,” I can’t see the English teacher’s list of drop dead dates on the white board. Nor can I hear the Biology teacher’s building frustration from three doors down. All I know, literally, is what the students tell me.

What they tell me is this. The current work load isn’t difficult, it’s just trivial. Also, there’s a lot of it. One reason, we mutually determined in seminar, is because, in the current regime, no teacher wants to make the mistake of not asking for work and looking weak or lazy.  Many of us, myself included, are living in fear and working from a standpoint that all bases need to be covered, all surveys answered, all checkboxes checked.

This is where “as if” thinking comes in. Just as Havel and the survivors of the Prague Spring saw that opposition to the system meant learning how to avoid triggering the part of the system built to crush opposition, I think students and educators who sense opportunity within the current educational crisis need a mixture of creativity and bravery. Some assignments will have to be honored. Some deserve only notional respect. It is up to each individual to do their own personal sorting and ranking of risks. At the same time, however, it is up to the entire community of participants to see some form of risk as necessary and to see the system itself as providing the language and rhetorical tools needed to oppose it.

In the case of my particular class, which is part of the International Baccalaureate diploma program, those tools lie within the IB Learner Profile, a statement of collective values that seem banal (IB students are Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Communicators, Risk-Takers, etc.) until you actually try to honor them in your daily educational practice. I’m lucky to teach a course where I can say, simply, “What IB Learner Profile values did you exhibit this week?” as a writing prompt and take the resulting reflective summary as its own proof of work. Then again, I teach other classes (freshman Algebra) where students gripe about the long term utility of certain math topics only to gripe even more when I suggest setting their own educational agenda.

Hence this short(ish) manifesto. As much as I would love to end things with a rousing “we have nothing to loose but our chains,” I fear that many, teachers, students and administrators alike, might still need their chains if only to keep them connected to the shifting earth beneath their feet. I, for one, have no desire to pick a fight with a system that pays me well, affords me enough trust to make the profession of teaching feel like more than just a job and which puts me in communication with earnest, inquisitive students. I am merely proposing that, given the shrinking list of options, we treat educational moment, absurd as it may feel, as a welcome opportunity for, as Havel himself would have put it, “living in Truth.”

My “as if” prescription isn’t for everyone, just as it wasn’t for everyone in 1968 Czechoslovakia. For those willing to give it a one-week try, consider the next five days and Theory of Knowledge your momentary safe harbor. 

Playing around with Desmos

I’m taking inspiration from …Yet, a blog put together by a teacher who, like me, appears to enjoy geeking out on Desmos.

I’m weird when it comes to Desmos. I know a lot of teachers are relying on it as an activity tool, but I see it more as a creativity platform.

For example, I know next to nothing about computer programming, but I’ve found that, using just a few simple concepts, I can write graphs in Desmos that do interesting computer-like stuff.

For example:

PacMan on Desmos

PacMan Screen Shot.png

Godzilla vs. Manhattan

Godzilla vs. Desmos Image.png

Square Patroller


Square Patroller Image.png


Speaking of Faith

It’s a weird day, partly because it lives in infamy and partly because I just turned grades in (all compiled at the last second, mind you, just like the students did with their work). Long story short, I’m feeling a little crispy mentally and am not afraid to show it.

Anyway, this reflection is sparked by an article I came across via today’s Twitter Feed: Race in the Classroom: There’s a Manual For That

To be honest, it’s one of those articles that gets you thinking — for a bit — but generally works to get you feeling guilty and one-down as a teacher. It comes via Edutopia, a blog I typically associate higher end linkbait, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Still, I’ll focus on the thinking part while the thinking is still fresh in my mind.

The article is basically a review of H. Richard Milner’s Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There. I’ve never read this book, but it seems to revolve around the culturally responsive education theme (for all I know, perhaps Milner minted this theme), and the article, in the course of reviewing the book, gives a basic introduction to stuff you come across in a CRE workshop.

In other words, I’d seen a lot of this stuff before. What got me thinking — or revisiting old thoughts, however, was a brief section on “recognizing cultural conflicts.” Writes article author Jennifer Gonzalez:

Sometimes what teachers perceive as misbehavior is actually the result of a cultural misunderstanding. In many other countries, for example, students are trained to never look a teacher in the eye. When a teacher in a more Eurocentric classroom demands that a student look at her while she’s reprimanding him, and that student resists, she may interpret this as defiance.

Which leads to thoughts of my eighth period Geometry group. Because it’s late and, as noted above, I’m a little punchy, I’ll just flat out say it. Eighth period is my Crazy Class. It’s the one group I have to think about all day when I lesson plan. Thoughts like: How will this idea or activity which worked so smoothly in First and Second Periods hold up when my Eighth Period gets ahold of it.

Every teacher has their Crazy Class. I know this because our common planning discussions generally revolve around the topic and one thing that seems define all Crazy Classes is that they tend to be predominantly mainstream in terms of academic performance (thus missing out on the possibility of having a second, special ed teacher to co-teach and thus co-manage classroom responsibilities. They also tend to come later in the day (6th, 7th and 8th periods), times when the school is full, the hallways are crammed and moods and blood sugar levels radically different than earlier in the day.

Another hallmark is the Crazy Class is that they sometimes surprise you with perfect behavior. You go in expecting the worst and you leave (sometimes) with a hall of fame lesson in terms of enthusiastic participation and work output. In short, while it’s often the students who make it feel crazy and earn its the sobriquet, it’s really  the unpredictability — the weirdness of not knowing which type of class you’re going to encounter when you walk through the door — that makes it hard from a teaching perspective. It basically puts you in the position of wondering whether to scrap a lesson entirely (effectively adding yet another prep to your daily schedule) or to got with what you have (with a few slight alterations) and simply gut it out and hope for the best.

Returning to the cultural conflict theme, my Crazy Class is skewed toward students of color. Sixty percent are black. Thirty percent are hispanic. Ten percent are Arab and one girl, Annika, is white. Behavior issues break down pretty clearly along racial/ethnic/gender lines. The Arab girls cut. The black girls talk. The black boys blow me off until I make a big stink about it. The Caribbean Hispanic students I need to hover over to get them to finish tasks. The Mexican Hispanics do beautiful work but are addicted to their phones. As for the lone white girl, she sits as far from me as she can get without physically leaving the room. It’s a weird mix of personality and pattern behavior in which the only common element appears to be a desire for the hall pass and anything that pushes the current math task off center stage.

Anyway, the girl who stands out the most when I think about article is Faith. She’s black with an African last name. Before I was a teacher that combination wouldn’t have meant much. Now it means a lot. Our student body has a sizable African immigrant population and to risk treading into stereotype, the African students who attend my school are generally regarded in a positive light: They routinely win the perfect attendance awards, crowd the ranks of our pre-professional (and somewhat prestigious) nursing program and generally bring an immigrant intensity to the classroom that puts them on a par with other high achieving immigrant groups. Yes, we have plenty of struggling students and out-and-out miscreants, but even within those groups, you see the attitude that high school is merely a springboard to greater things.

Hidden within this description, I realize, could be a critique of non-African students (of all stripes), but I think it needs to be mentioned up front, because if Faith came into my class with another name — Tamiya Higgs, say — I wouldn’t be half the wiser. Her English is accentless (unlike that of the other African girls in the class) and her general approach to school is, shall we say, along the lines of your general 70- to 80- level student — i.e. the kind who wait until the day before teacher grades come do to ask if there’s anything they can do for extra credit.  In contrast, the three girls who speak with clear accents devote a portion of each class period to reminding me about unlogged homeworks and uncredited assignments.

No, what sets Faith off is when I ask her to be quiet. Starting around Week 5, for various reasons, I lost the routine of getting students to quiet down whenever I needed to speak to the whole class. A tougher teacher would have immediately cracked down, shifting seats and implementing newer better routines. Because I have honors level classes in the morning not to mention a boss who loathes chalk and talk, I instead saw it as an opportunity to fly the “expectations” flag. I decided I would teach in ways that didn’t involve me standing at the front of the room, demanding the attention of the whole group.

For a while, it worked. Then the test scores plummeted. Students started grumbling about how the class made “no sense” and, even though I had plenty of evidence to show that the same methods were working in the shiny new building with the honors students, I also had enough flight time logged with honors classes to know that responsiveness to teacher cues is the primary trait that gets you put into the honor track. With the routine having turned into no routine whatsoever, I needed to move back to the front of the room. That involved coming up with a fresh routine for getting kids quiet which, sad to say, meant backsliding on a few year’s of emotional progress and bringing out my Captain Caveman voice. It also meant repeatedly calling out black students like Faith, who always tended to be the last one talking whenever I was trying to avoid bellowing and play the  “I’m waiting…” game.

Anyway, a fundamental element in CRE discussion is listening to your students, listening not only to what they say but also how their words might provide clues to underlying opportunities for communication. In the course of silently waiting out Faith to finish her conversations, I have had a pretty good opportunity to work on sides of the listening equation. In terms of the actual words coming out of her mouth, they tend to come in the form of protest. Things like 

“Mr Williams, why are you waiting for me? I’m just talking. You can talk, too.”


“Mr. Williams, why are you looking at me? I’m not the only person talking.”


“I’ll stop talking, but you really should just teach.”

Going back to the excerpt about Eurocentric classrooms, such moments are a reminder that the desire for quiet, at least in my mind, translates to “total quiet.” In other words, I don’t want to talk until my voice is the only voice being heard. 

A momentary pause. This desire is not innate. It dates back to my first year in which, whenever my lessons were crapping out, my supervisor, a middle school vet, would essentially come down the hall, come into the room and bawl everybody out (myself indirectly) and then model the way to get a room quiet and back on task. The words coming out of his mouth generally sounded like

“I’m gonna wait here until every last voice is done talking, because this is something you ALL need to know.”


“Some people insist on runnin’ they mouth when they SHOULD be listening, so I’ll just  wait for everybody to give me their FULL attention…”


“I want it so quiet I can hear a mouse peeing on cotton. Until that time, we’re gonna stand here…”

Actually, that last one came from another administrator, a white guy, kind of effeminate and from Staten Island, where the director supervisor was black, butch and a Brooklyn native. The quote sticks out in memory both for the colorful, slightly risky turn of phrase and for the fact that it successfully managed to quiet down a lunch room full of rowdy black sixth graders. No mean feat. A casual observer might note that “stand and wait” was the consistent theme, but in each case, the speaker both requested and received compliance and, to my astonishment, increased engagement as the kids quietly surrendered to instructional authority.

While I didn’t get a permanent posting out of that first year, I did come out with the understanding, when teaching math to a room full a children, getting to quiet was teacher task No. 1. 

Twelve years later, I find myself re-examining this lesson. As hinted at earlier, the honors students tend to quiet down promptly when asked. Then again, even when talking to a room full of honors students, each nodding in comprehension while I speak, I find that rarely do I get higher than a 40 percent success rate on verbal instructions. Heck, even when talking to a room full of adults, saying something as simple as “I need you to go to website X” requires a quick tour around the room to confirm that more than half made it to the intended destination.

It helps, too, that, in addition to a different, more diverse group of students, I also have a different boss, a guy who teaches two periods of AP Calculus and thus knows a few things about honors level students nodding in feigned comprehension. This is where the departmental aversion to chalk-and-talk comes from in the first place. “You might think they’re listening,” he’ll say in post-observation. “Give ’em a quiz tomorrow and see what happens.” One day, I took him up on it. The observed lesson, a whole class lecture in which I’d fired out more than two dozen questions, hitting almost every student in the room, had gone swimmingly and I wanted to prove him wrong.

As predicted, the results were as if I’d never taught the topic at all.

Hence the search for other models: Small groups, big groups, team folders, individual folders. Socratic Seminars, Philosophical Chairs. Gallery Walks and #VNPS — something, anything to raise the level of throughput above that pesky 40 percent throughput barrier.

Which brings us back to Faith. One reason I’m able to listen to Faith — and a possible reason she feels comfortable speaking to me so directly — is that, during that five week stretch when the routine disappeared, I spent a lot of time just swooping in on groups I wasn’t reaching in the main lessons and teaching in a more direct tutor-to-student manner. Granted, the rest of the class took full advantage of the slack time offered — I called it my Teaching While Rome Burned strategy — but Faith, in large part because of her seat’s proximity to my usual starting position at the beginning of each class and because she’s friends with one of the strongest students in the group, was the beneficiary of an above-average number of visits. In five very short weeks, she went from the tall black girl whose name I routinely confused with that of the other tall black girl to the tall black girl who rolls her eyes at my cornier jokes and isn’t afraid to ask a question when her neighbors won’t.

In other words, I’m still debating whether waiting for the room to quiet down is the best approach for Faith or for her classmates for that matter. I’m enough of a traditionalist to see quiet as the medium in which math is properly expressed, but I’m also enough of a modernist to know that chaotic, free-flowing work environments are where the action appears to be happening nowadays. And while I sometimes lament not having the stamina myself to sit through a classic European- (or Asian-) style graduate math lecture, the kind where a professor fills up four chalkboards and barely glances back at the audience, I know my own personal breakthroughs in mathematics have tended to come at moments when I was blocking out all external stimuli, the teacher’s voice included.

So to end this reflection — brought to you, in large part, by the stack of overdue attendance bubble sheets and the procrastination impulse they provide — I do indeed take to heart the notion that cultural conflicts do get in the way of teaching and may be as much in the mind of the educator as in the behavior of the student. Kids talk, and in some cultures kids will talk until somebody forcefully tells them to stop talking or gives them a reason to care about what you’re trying to teach. Faith and I might not have made it to the caring level, but I do note with interest that she was one of three students who requested extra time to come down and finish a recent test and, in the course of doing so, to sit for the post-test tutoring session. Something is happening there that wasn’t happening ten weeks ago. I don’t want to be in denial about the test data which suggests that students might benefit from a more “structured” approach to Geometry, and I certainly don’t want to be the lazy guy afraid to move seats and break up groups just because it’ll add momentary stress to the workday. At the same time, I don’t want to spoil things by rolling back to some “traditional” teaching model just for the sake of peace and quiet.

As it stands, I find myself moving between models, bellowing on some days, listening on others and trying to get a better ear for the type of talk a teacher should be willing to accept even when they themselves are talking.

That time of year

OK, so you might have noticed. I don’t write much on this blog. In fact, I write so infrequently that I had to search “Trench Periscope” on the Internet and sort through the 20 or so military memorabilia ad-sites just to find this website again. In the course of doing so, I stumbled across  an outdated version of this blog where I last posted in 2011 and had to take a 30 minute trip down memory lane. These are the perils of Internet publishing, I suppose.

The weird thing about me not writing is that I love to write.  I mean, I really love to write. Put me in a professional development conference, meeting or break room setting and you’ll probably find me on the computer writing a momentary reflection. Heck, that’s why I started this site. I was doing so much reflecting (and high quality reflecting I might add in a fit of immodesty) that it made no sense to keep it all in a Google Docs journal.

I don’t know why I find it so hard to post. Maybe I feel the pressure to write about school or write about school in a way that builds cred or earns respect or whatever. Maybe Maybe I just don’t want to proofread and know that there’s a strong chance that what I post will be embarrassing.

Anyway, as I tell the kids when they hesitate, “Get over yourself.” So I am using this moment to get over myself. It’s four days before the grades are due which means, I suddenly have the energy and ideas (and the desire to avoid looking at student work) to sustain promiscuous public posting.

So where to start. Just to keep this discrete, I’ll focus on my last lesson of the day. I do a push-in thing for our Freshman Advisory program called Jobs Club. Freshman Advisory is a credit-boosting class designed to keep borderline freshman in the building through 10th period, our last period of the day. As a guy who’s on board with our school’s Community School mission, I get the point of Freshman Advisory but that doesn’t make it any fun to be a part of it. Freshman are annoying in general any time of the day and can be doubly annoying at the end of the day when neither they nor the adults have much desire being in the building. Add in the fact that my services rotate across four classrooms, Ms. C’s on Monday, Mr. S’s on Tuesday, Ms. D’s on Wednesday and Ms. V’s on Friday, and I’m treated like a glorified sub. As soon as they see me coming, a good two or three dip down the local stairwell. Others just sit in the back, doing that semi-catatonic-on-the-phone teenager thing kids do when they know you’ve got absolutely no grading leverage on them. A few will perk up and move to the front, help out with whatever “lesson” I’ve written during the five minutes of non-grading, non-meeting break time I have that day, but even with them, the shelf life is short. I’ve got about 20 minutes (in a 45 minute period of prime time).

Like a lot of my better lessons of late, the idea for this one came out of disaster. On Monday, the first day after Thanksgiving, I rolled into the room like James Braddock, the broken-handed boxer played by Russell Crow in Cinderella Man. At best, I had a do now activity with a vague sense of how to split the students based on the pace of completion. Beyond that, I’ll be honest, I was hoping the small number of students (nine on a roster of 24, if memory serves) might give me the opportunity to do a little one-on-one consultation.

Things went OK for the first ten minutes. I got about four students working on some loaner Chromebooks I brought to the room. When the fifth and final Chromebook turned out to be a dud, however, I decided to let the the fifth finisher just sit and play on her phone. In retrospect, that was the cue that triggered the breakdown.  Another two girls in the back — neither of whom had even given a moments notice to the do now — took it as a signal that the period was open season and started to act up.

Granted, “acting up” at my school might not look like acting up at other schools, but it was enough of a commotion that my deepest inset triggers — planted during an initial hell year of teaching middle school  inBrooklyn — started to kick in. By the time tensions had peaked and ebbed, I’d gotten into a back-and-forth with a 15 year-old girl who had pushed her friend out of the classroom and was using her body to hold the door.

The back and forth went something like this:

Me: Could you please get back in your seat? I’m trying to answer a pretty good question.

Her: I’m not doing anything.

Me: You’re making it hard for me to answer this question.

Her: I’m not doing anything. I’m being quiet. I’m participating.

Me: OK, what’s a resume, then?

Her: Quit coming at me…


Pretty trivial stuff, I know, but it was the end of the day and a sixth class and, with barely half a lesson planned out, I’ll admit it, I was more than happy to put on a show rather than de-escalate and get back to teaching. Things were getting a little heated, but, being somewhat experienced, I knew how to keep things below the anger threshold. I was toying with her basically, and, in the end, the main teacher got her to leave the classroom, saving face with a choice parting comment, and take the rest of the day off. Whereas I got to return to a group of now seven students (the friend who was practically fighting to get back into the room decided to retrieve her bag and go with the now exiled torment) and my crippled lesson.

Long story short, I “won” but only in that kind of way that makes me feel immediately stupid and childish for seeing a classroom shutdown as a competition in the first place. When the main teacher returned, she returned to a room in which all kids were engaged, but a pall still hung over the room. In the final five minutes, kids were grumbling about the “boring” nature of the lesson.

“You should make us do games or something,” a girl in the front row suggested.

Another kid even went so far to write it on the chalkboard: “Make this class less boring.”

When the bell finally rang, the kids bolted. Usually, I’m out just as quick, but this time I helped the main teacher gather work folders and other things she uses to maintain a sense of structure on the days when I’m not pushing in. She’s the kind of co-worker who loves to dole out free advice (“and worth every penny,” I can hear my mother’s snarky voice chime in), and given the recent de-escalation services she’d offered, I decided to hear her out for a change.

“We need to find a way to get them more engaged at the start of class,” she said. “A video maybe or an activity. The ones who aren’t engaged will just look for an opportunity to get attention by disrupting the class.”

Again, I felt obligated to listen. I apologized for bringing a half-assed lesson into the room and she, to her credit, stood up for me, noting that it was the students who were out of line, not the teacher.

So, at the end of the day, you had this weird situation where the one class I think about the absolute least was the one class at the front of my mind as I drove my son to wrestling practice, returned home to grade homework and woke up the next morning, whipping up another fresh set of lessons. All throughout the day, the thought of what to hit the kids with when I re-entered Freshman Advisory swirled through my head. Granted, I still had zero prep time to whip it up, but when my brain stews like this, something usually comes up.

What came up was this: I would print out a set of math dollars and give one to each student who got started with the entry task (I personally hate the term “do now” even though that’s what we generally call it at my school) immediately and a second one for finishing the task promptly.

The remaining math dollars I would dole out in proportion to the student’s prior work output. Part of my ongoing effort to make job club, if not the place where students get jobs, a place where students get rewarded for work was to build a spreadsheet “leader board” tracking the students on the fulfillment of weekly tasks. The entry activity basically reminded students of this ranking system and asked students to search out their name, score and task fulfillment record. Students who had six tasks complete received 6 math bucks in compensation. Those with only one received one. Etc.

So far so good, but what to do with the math bucks. In my mind, I wanted something like Monopoly, where kids could buy or rent properties around the room. With no time to prep the room, though, I opted for something even simplerr: Conway’s Game of Life. Kids could buy a square (or multiple squares) on the game board and could watch their holdings grow or die off.

I’ll be honest. I tested the idea only once or twice. I lit up 1 square and promptly watched it go out. I then lit up three consecutive squares and watched it rotate and hold an equilibrium value of three. OK, I figured,  kids would need four or more dollars to buy four or more squares for something interesting to happen. Part of the game management would be coming up with a scheme or narrative that encouraged grouping or partnerships.

That and a brief introductory doc mailed out to the main teachers was literally all the advance planning I could muster on short time. Taking advantage of a larger group (15 students this time) and (to be honest) a better-managed classroom culture, I got almost the entire group off and running on the entry task. Only four or five managed to get their slips filled out in a timely manner, so I used them as guinea pigs and wouldn’t you know…Engagement City. The five kids picked different regions of the Game of Life board to plant their “companies” and as soon as the girl running the computer for me hit the “start” button, two of the five companies vanished. Of the remaining three, two grew in size, giving me the opportunity to pay back initial investments with an extra dollar of two of “profit.”

That there got people’s attention. And while things weren’t a land rush, by the third go around they were acquiring a Wall Street level of intensity in which kids pushed forward, holding out wads of funny money, wanting to “buy more squares.” What’s more, the Wall Street vibe extended to the management side. Eventually, I stopped trying to track what squares belonged to who and just slipped into market maker mode, collecting money and jotting down the student’s name and square count on a post-it and telling the student to walk it over to my computer tech so she could enter in the pattern. I consider it a perfect testament to freshman psychology that, even though I had one or two students try to pinch a fake dollar off my desktop, not a one thought to alter or misrepresent the information on the order ticket.

“Auction closed,” I would should each time the four minute timer went off.

By the end of the period, our top investor had built a 60 block conglomerate  (broken into three major divisions) off an initial 5 block investment. Not a bad return for 35 minutes’ worth of work. As for me, I left the room with a mind racing on how to make square prices more elastic and how to track ownership in the event to “shapes” merged into a single entity.

Not a bad little activity out of five minute’ prep time.















Is Science “Broken?”

Autumn is coming. So many thoughts swirling around a teacher’s head as the freedom of summer careens headlong into the rigid routine of post Labor Day life. It’s not unlike how your dreamstate activity gets crazier and more lucid in the moments before waking.

This morning’s thoughtstream diversion is brought to me by a Daniel Engber thumbsucker on the state of modern science over at Slate. The title, “Is Science Broken?” is a bit of a möbius-like logic puzzle. Engber spend’s at least a third of the article talking about how he deliberately avoids the “b-word” [i.e. “broken”] because doing so lends ammunition to Rush Limbaugh types who wish to frame science as an institution corrupted by money and politics.

At the same time, Engber disagrees with those on the science side who insist that outing of bad methods and flawed scientific research is, in its own way, proof that the community polices itself

“Science is broken, at least by any useful definition of the word,” writes Engber, bluntly. “Self-correction doesn’t always happen, and science journalists mustn’t be afraid to spell that out.”

This article interests me at a number of levels. I was a science/ technology reporter before I became a mathematics teacher. Let me first acknowledge the baseline feelings of envy all journalists go though when seeing another person’s byline instead of yours on the page. As Engber notes, the so-called replication crisis in experimental psychology has given him plenty to write about over the last two years. From a journalistic perspective, it’s a bit like reading a dispatch from the old neighborhood and finding out they built a new grocery store and the buyers are flocking in.

Envy aside, there’s the new job to consider. When I’m not teaching mathematics, you’ll find me teaching Theory of Knowledge, a centerpiece class in the I.B. curriculum. Describing TOK in less than 1,000 words is tricky, but one thing we discuss deeply in that class is the way different areas of knowledge (e.g. Mathematics, the Natural Sciences, History, etc.) have different histories, different internal cultures and, ultimately, different perspectives on what constitutes “reality” in our world. Put another way: Knowledge is a mosaic and trusting one area of knowledge over all others is dangerous.

Kids, interestingly enough, have a hard time with this message. The I.B. program at our school, as it is in most places, is an honors level program, and one thing you quickly learn when dealing with honors students is how much faith they put in the institutions which hand out the honors. Because the quickest route to becoming an honors student in America is to post an upper percentile test score in mathematics or science, students tend to view these disciplines as especially inviolable. Other TOK teachers I talk with in professional development settings report similar concerns: There is a “science bully” aspect that needs to be overcome in teaching the course, one teacher told me. You have to remind them constantly that the students who excel at Art and English might have a better grasp of where things are heading than the students who excel at A.P. Physics.

Before I go into my stock discourse about Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, let me just say that Engber’s article stands out as something I’d love to assign in my TOK class. To me, it illustrates a cultural side of science that gets short shrift — how groups of people, even when aided by something as reliable as the Scientific Method — can still Get It Wrong. A little digging into the history of the discipline shows that getting it wrong is quite often what scientists do best. The list of famously debunked concepts — geocentrism turning lead into gold, objects falling at speeds proportional to their mass, spontaneous generation, absolute space, Lysenkoism, etc.  — are almost as important to the history of science as the breakthroughs, because each enjoyed some form of institutional protection. Hence the need for aggressive debunking.

And yet scientists, perhaps because their training focuses more on mastering the facts and concepts needed to do science as opposed to the overall human nature of science, come across as characters in a professional wrestling match. It is often up to the spectators outside the community — such as Engber — to point out the folding chair about to come crashing down on their head. Yes, we know enough about the way the universe operates to put a man on the moon within a few meters’ accuracy, but we also know that just about every new scientific “finding” comes with convenient counterexamples — the uncle who smoked until age 80,  the beach that still hasn’t succumbed to sea level rise, the species that rebounded from near extinction.

This is an unfair jab, I realize. Were I in Engber’s position, trying to get scientists on the phone or to respond via email for quotation, I know I would be hearing plenty of throat clearing and cautious language, Indeed, the hardest part about covering the sciences as a journalist is getting professional scientists to say anything remotely colorful on the record. Most know, like professional athletes, that in the course of boiling down their work to make it accessible to the average reader, they’ll introduce some intellectual shortcut that will only come to haunt them at a later date. 

Which sets up a final concern which doesn’t find its way into the Engber article and which I could have added to the comments section but which I’ll add here just because I’m trying to over myself when it comes to putting thoughts and ideas in blog post form: Maybe the problem isn’t that science is “broken” so much that science is a continuum. On one end of the continuum you’ve got things that don’t really involve human activity, human thinking or human behavior — the motion of the planets, the atomic structure of matter, the mechanical aspects of genetic information transfer. On the other end you have things that are inextricably tied to messy human factors — consciousness, social inequality, disease, climate change as it stands to impact human society, etc. That science is so effective at predicting outcomes on the one side of the continuum makes it a natural tool for exploring the squishier, more complex problems. Alas, the more “human” the topic of research becomes, the more our own built in human biases start to interfere with the scientific process.

A very TOK concept, if you ask me. Hence the thoughtstream.









First Post…

I started this blog as a sideways feint while in the process of developing a Word Press account, an account started just so I could respond with a “like” to a recent post by Michael Pershan, “Writing is Allowed to be Hard.” [July, 25, 2017]. This doing-one-technical-thing-to-enable-doing-another-technical-thing phenomenon is known in the technology biz as “yak shaving” and is a common occupational hazard in my life as an easily-distracted math teacher (especially during the summer).

Oh well, at least I got a blog out of it. More to come.