Monday, December 26, 2011

A Terrifying Realization

I have not left the country in almost 18 months.

Life just starts passing you by and all of a sudden there you are, your passport glaringly devoid of stamps. My passport is not even taunting me because it's buried in a drawer somewhere. Drastic times may call for drastic flight itineraries.

I could use a little of this right about now:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sometimes high schoolers are cute

I already gave my final exam, so there is now some down time for my kids who don't also take algebra. I had nothing planned for today, so I broke out the pattern blocks. This group decided they wanted to work together to make one giant, cooperative pattern.

Now they are sitting in almost complete silence, completely engrossed. Every once in awhile they discuss what color or shape to place where. Who says that kids today are only interested in constant, passive stimuli?

I love these kids.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who Can't?

There was an interesting letter published recently from members of the Palo Alto High School math department about why they disagree with the proposed change to their graduation requirements that all students pass algebra 2. While I am disturbed by the tone of their letter and some of its implications, I will say that I sympathize with what they're dealing with because lately I have been questioning what some of my students are capable of.

Let me start out with a fundamental belief that I hold: all kids can learn and all kids want to learn. I don't believe that each person possesses a limited quantity of intelligence or potential. In fact, I don't even want to consider the possibility because of how that could impact my interactions with my students. I HAVE to believe that all of my students can learn because if I don't, what's the point? I also do not believe that the students are ambivalent toward learning; all of my students want to learn both because they want to be successful and because they value knowledge. Not every student translates their desire to learn into action that leads to success, but I do believe that they all want it.

The Palo Alto teachers state that for "objective reasons" some kids "can't" pass algebra 2. Coming from the belief that all kids can learn, that's a pretty tough statement to swallow. But I have also been wondering lately about some of my own students and, objectively, whether they can pass my class. I am shocked by the math that I'm seeing this year. I am used to kids coming in with weak math backgrounds, huge misconceptions, and severe lack of exposure to concepts one should know by 9th grade, but there are some really tough cases this year. For example, this weekend's homework asked students to measure the circumference, radius, and diameter of five circular objects at home. Then in class we used the data to explore the relationships between those measurements, blah, blah, oh look it's pi, etc. I knew that kids would measure imprecisely, but I was not prepared for glaring errors in the objects they actuall chose to measure. Below, two students' work:

Yes, I had students who think that a knife and an oven and a cell phone are circular. Honestly, what am I supposed to do with these kids? I have to expect that my students come in with certain prior knowledge, and it seems fair that 14-year olds should be able to identify circles. Like the Palo Alto teachers, I have to wonder, can these kids learn high school geometry, let alone algebra 2?

My answer has less to do with can or can't and more to do with WHO is incapable. What I feel is not that these kids can't learn high school geometry, but rather that I am the one who can't. In the context of their past math experiences, and our current school and its resources, as their teacher I cannot give them what they need for them to learn even basic high school geometry by this June. Call it a failure of their previous schools, a failure of the system, and absolutely a failure of my teaching skills, but I can't call it a failure of these students' predestined potential.

Even then, we're still left with failure. I feel like a failure every day when kids aren't learning the things I intended. I look at the systems that have failed my students over and over again by letting them get to ninth grade not knowing what a circle is, or, more importantly letting them go hungry or without a place to live. I don't know whether the failure of all these people and all these systems means that kids should or should not be required to pass algebra 2 in order to graduate, and I don't want to suggest that failures beyond a teacher or a school's control alleviates anyone's responsibility to educate and care for a child. But I get nervous when words like "can't" get thrown around and assigned to parties with little exploration of what is actually impossible.

This is not all meant to sound hopeless, but instead hopeful. Maybe I "can't" teach some students geometry or maybe some of them "can't" learn it, but only when limited by the time and resources we're all working with. But what if there were more time and resources? What if we as a system poured our energy into the belief that all kids can learn? Just as I believe that all kids are capable of learning, I believe that we are capable of educating them. And it's our responsibility to figure out how to make that happen.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What kind of filling do you think is in the middle?

The Venn Piagram!

A geeky math joke, I know. But it makes me excited for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

On the Job

My friend and co-worker Maura once pointed out that it's not very often that we get to see our friends and family actually performing their jobs, so she posted a picture up on her blog of herself in the middle of teaching. I write all about my experiences teaching, but what does it actually look like? Here's a picture:

I like this photo because it captures a number of my teaching values:

  • Kids learn more from engaging with each other's ideas. The girl at the board will learn more by orally explaining her thinking. The kids in the class will learn more from thinking about how other people see it rather than just how I, the teacher, sees it. 
  • Kids engaging with each other's ideas builds not just content knowledge, but mathematical habits of mind. I always want kids evaluating the reasonableness of other's ideas, articulating their reasoning, making connections between different ways of seeing, taking intellectual risks, testing out ideas, and so on. It's a lot harder for kids to develop these habits if the teacher does all the talking. These habits are what real mathematicians do and what real mathematicians will tell you makes them successful. 
  • The class, not the teacher, should be the source of ideas. Especially the beginning of the year kids will often complain, "Just tell us the answer!" I tell them that I already know the answer, so now it's their job to figure it out. The buy-in and learning increases when the intellectual authority of a class is shifted from the teacher to the class. I want the idea to be that none of us may know how to do it on our own, but we can use each other to come to the answer together. Furthermore, there's no reason why my ways of thinking are more valid than the many reasons they bring up. Just today, for example, a group of kids in one class came up with a way of finding the area of a trapezoid that I had never seen or thought of. If I had just lectured them on the formulas that I'm familiar with, none of that would have come out. Now, not only can they learn from the different methods, their understanding will be be deepened by looking for the connections between the methods. 
  • Kids should be physically positioned in a way that reflects the expectations and values of the class. I put the kids in groups all the time because I want them using each other as resources all the time. Even though this picture is of a whole class discussion with one person at the front (at least for now; more came up to the board later), I often pause class discussions for students to consult their team. The only time I put kids in rows is when they take an individual test. 
  • Maybe you can't read the problem on the board (click to enlarge), but it demands important things from students. 
    • There are a lot of access points to the problem and lots of correct ways of answering. I value multiple methods and ways of seeing, so I have to use problems that allow for these all to come out. (Full disclosure: I did not create this problem. I am really good at stealing the right stuff from the right teachers). 
    • The problem demands justification. I tell kids all the time that the answer itself is much less important than the "how do you know" piece. Justification is a cornerstone of mathematics, so it should be a cornerstone of my class. 
    • The discussion of the problem could go in a many different directions. With this specific problem, some ideas that have come up over in different classes include: why base and height have to be perpendicular; what "not drawn to scale" means; why the diagonal of a rectangle is longer than its sides; differences in the definitions of parallelograms and rectangles; why the area formulas for rectangles and parallelograms are identical; how many specific examples you need before you can make a conclusion; and many more. Depending on the class and what feels important to them, the problem allows for many different roads the discussion could take. Similarly, the open-endedness allows me  in the teacher role to push on things that I know a given class needs. 
Why this picture does not represent my class/my teaching values:

  • There is AP US History mess all over the board from the teacher I share a room with. I hate sharing a room (not because of that teacher, but because I want my own space)
  • Come on, I never have that level of rapt attention from 9th graders. It would be nice, but they're 14 years old. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Phew, it's been a long time since I've posted anything on here. I've had things I want to post, but just haven't done it (obviously).

Since this week has been challenging, I want to post about something positive. Even though school has been stressing me out, there are still a lot of good things happening that can be easily overshadowed by not-so-good things. A nice little pick-me-up that's a common practice at our school is for students to write appreciation letters to teachers (or whoever). A number of the ninth grade mentor groups did it on Wednesday, so it was definitely a much-needed mood booster to get a stack of thank you notes at the end of the day. My favorites this time were the kid who thanked me for teaching him algebra (I am his geometry teacher; his algebra teacher is a tall white guy, so I guess we're easily confused) and a kid who falls asleep in my class everyday who told me, "You make me a smart narwhale [sic]." There was, of course, an accompanying picture of a narwhal.

It's such a nice thing to tell your teachers that you appreciate them, so I started to think about what I would have written if I were back in high school. Well, maybe it's not exactly what I would have written, but these are the things that have stuck with me.

9th Grade
Dear Mrs. Guire,
It gave me a huge confidence boost when you told me, Becky, Paul, and Joel that you save our essays to read last in your stack. I never thought of myself as a good writer until you said this. 

10th Grade
Dear Mrs. Kunec,
I really enjoy your AP history class. you make class fun and make history feel like you're just telling us stories. I also appreciate the way you highlight connections between things that happened in different time periods. You always have a positive attitude and a smile on your face, and that makes a big difference.

11th Grade
Dear Mr. Packard,
I look forward to coming to Composition class every day. I love that you teach us how to be better writers by letting us write about ourselves. You've created a strong classroom community where I feel comfortable taking academic risks around people I probably wouldn't even know without this class. You are one of the only teachers who has tried to get to know us as individuals, and also one of the only teachers who lets us into your life.

12th Grade
Dear Mr. Seybold,
Thank you for preparing us so well for the AP calculus test. I walked out of that test feeling more confident than any other standardized test I've ever taken (including the painfully easy MEAP tests) because everything in your class helped us prepare.

It's interesting that when I think back to any of these classes, I remember very little of the content (except for calculus; today I still think back to Mr. Seybold's class when I'm working with calculus students). What stands out for me was pretty much whether teachers were nice and enthusiastic about the class. I think that I learned more from those teachers. On the other hand, my 10th and 11th grade math teacher was one of the meanest, scariest teacher I ever had. She constantly made me feel stupid and confused and I definitely cried because of her class on more than one occasion. I remember noticing when she smiled because it was so rare. But did I learn a lot from her class? Yes. I still picture her classroom when trying to recall certain math topics. Because of her I've never forgotten to add the " + C" on an indefinite integral or how to draw a perfect ellipse.  So what does it mean about good teaching that over 10 years later I've retained very specific content details from my least favorite class, but almost nothing from some of the best ones?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Just a few Life-Changing Revelations

I spent the last five days in a professional development with Lee Mun Wah of Stirfry Seminars. The official title of the workshop was "Cross-cultural facilitation skills for diversity trainers," but it was so much more. The biggest thing that I took away (and I think this was true for everyone in the workshop), was what I learned about myself. And there was a lot that I didn't even know that I didn't know about myself. Somehow, Lee Mun Wah worked his magical compassionate listening and communication skills to really hear the intent of what I was saying and the impact of experiences I've had. The word I've been using to describe the past five days is "transformative."

Like I said, there are a lot of things I learned about myself but obviously it doesn't feel appropriate or comfortable to name them all here. But one of the things that helped me during the workshop was relating to other people's stories. Many times they spoke in ways that could have been coming directly from my head, so it feels worthwhile to share some of those insights from other people based on the assumption that I'm not the only one they will speak to.

The first was a revelation for me that came from another woman in the group. Like me, she is mixed race; she has a Chinese American father and a white mother. She was talking about how and why she has gotten involved in social justice work and race relations. Race issues are something very important to me and, as I think is obvious to many people in my life, something I'm deeply passionate about. But I don't know if I've ever thought about why, beyond that visceral reaction. The obvious answer is that I'm a person of color and want to fight the oppression I've faced. Which is true, sort of. When I listen to stories of many other people of color who are involved in this work they can usually identify very personal, very vivid experiences with racism. It's not that I haven't been oppressed by my race (and lord knows I learned a lot more in this workshop about what racism has done to me), but I don't have the kind of stories that people want to hear about racism, about being called a racial slur or being forcibly excluded from somewhere or having my physical safety threatened. I don't have the stories that confirm that racism only comes from individuals rather than a larger system. Also, it seems a little incomplete to say that fighting racism is important to me because I've experienced so much of it. As a woman, I experience sexism and know that it has painful effects on me, but fighting sexism or learning more about gender differences has never spoken to me the way race does.

So this mixed woman in my workshop was talking about what led her to be so passionate about race relations. She said that her hunger for a healthy multicultural community comes directly from her experience as a biracial person: "If there can't be a multicultural community, it literally splits my heart in two. If we can't have a multicultural community, where does that leave me?" She pinpointed the thing I never realized about why multiculturalism is so important to me. Even with racism in play, there's still a black community, a Chinese community, a Mexican community, even a white community, etc. But without a multicultural community, I'm left homeless. Or even if I somehow am accepted into one community or the other, I have to give up a piece of myself to be a part of that. Despite the many ways that racism has touched me, my personal connection is exactly what this woman said: If we can't have a multicultural community, where does that leave me? I need a multicultural community because that may be the only community I'll ever have.

Deep stuff. As a little interlude/segue, one of the things Lee Mun Wah said was that in the end, racism is all about fear. There are so many things to be scared of because what will it mean if you hear the things that are difficult, if you hear a confirmation that your deepest fears may be true, if you hear that your view of the world that has allowed you to live is actually not what you thought it was? So I know this is a long blog post, and for the handful of people who actually still read this blog, I hope you'll keep reading.

The other thing that I want to share (for now) is a reflection Lee Mun Wah made. A white woman who is in a mostly white environment asked how she can use the few people of color to help other whites understand racism, but without exhausting the people of color. This mirrors a sentiment that I have often heard from people of color--and have definitely experienced myself--that it is so tiring to over and over again tell people your experience and "educate" white people. Over and over they don't know, so the burden falls on me to have to tell them. It is truly exhausting. An older black man in our workshop said, "I'm tired. Maybe I just want to finish out these last few years at my job and retire quietly." Lee Mun Wah reframed it, considering that we were all eager to tell our stories in the setting of this workshop: It's not that people of color are tired of telling their stories, it's that they're tired of the reaction they get when they do tell their stories. They're tired of the invalidation, of the defensiveness, of the interrogation, of the not being believed. It's these reactions that are exhausting. But if the reaction were curiosity and affirmation and genuine learning (every teacher will tell you that just because you tell someone something doesn't mean they learned it...), then people would actually be empowered to tell their stories and would gain strength from it. This has obvious familiarity for everyone who has ever been invalidated. If you try to say something and nobody believes you, you'll stop saying it pretty quickly, or become worn out by the energy of saying it over and over again to deaf ears. If you say something and people force you to defend it, you'll eventually give up saying it because the fight is too much. It's not saying it that's exhausting; it's exhausting not to be believed.

So now this begs the question, how do I make sure that when someone tells me their story, I don't make them feel invalidated, I don't exhaust them. What I learned from this workshop is so simple and so obvious that of course no one thinks of it: if you want to someone to feel validated, to know that you heard them, show them. Don't tell them, "I hear you; I'm listening." Tell them, as word-for-word as you can, what you heard them say. It's pretty unbelievable what happens next.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


One of the hardest--and best--things about being a teacher is getting to know students beyond the academic content I cover in class. Yes, I know my students as learners of math, but sometimes I forget how much else they have going on outside of school. Thursday felt like one of those days where I was hit pretty hard with some painful reminders of who my students are beyond the classroom: So at the risk of sounding like a Freedom Writers/Dangerous Minds/Dead Poets Society kind of post:

Thursday started off with a parent meeting that the parent had requested. I knew that this woman's child had been struggling with depression, but on Thursday morning she just unloaded. Things were going from bad to worse and her student was about to go into a hospitalized treatment program. These are the things I feel completely untrained to deal with. I adore her child, and it broke my heart to hear that the situation has become so dire. I think what the mom needed most of all was just someone to talk to, which I am happy to provide, but beyond being the patient listener I felt like I had no advice to give. 

In the afternoon as I was heading out and locking up with the rest of the teachers, a man sort of stumbled through the front door. We asked if he needed any help, and he only said "No" and stumbled up the stairs. Finally we figured out that he was a father looking for his child, so another teacher walked with him around the school. I found an administrator and when I named the father, the administrator responded, "Oh no, is he drunk?" Clearly he was, but I did not know that this was a regular occurrence. The student wasn't at school, so we ushered the father outside I took down his license plate number and called the police because he was clearly in no state to drive away. Having known this student for some time now, learning about the alcoholic home life made a lot of things clearer. I wonder how I would have interacted with this student differently if I had known earlier? 

Thursday evening was graduation. There's one student who I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I learned a little more about his background. Watching him walk across the stage made me sad and angry because I know his future doesn't hold in store. This student is incredibly bright, driven, and all around awesome. He got accepted to some pretty competitive colleges including UC Santa Cruz, his first choice. He has an impressive resume, is Latino, and is the first in his family to go to college, so the scholarships should be rolling in. But they're not. He also happens to be an undocumented immigrant, so he's not able to even fill out the FAFSA. At least in California undocumented immigrants are eligible for in state tuition, but that still comes to well over $20,000 per year. We can't suggest that he work to pay tuition because he won't be able to get a job that pays much of anything (or is legal). How do you tell a kid who has done everything right that all his hard work won't actually pay off?

Who knows what other stories my other students have.  It's a sobering reminder of who they are as people outside of school. And just to make sure this gets political, write your legislators to garner their support for the DREAM Act (and funding for schools). 

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What My Gang Affiliation Would Be

After school today, a couple of students were trying to convince me to let them give me a henna tattoo.

M: "We could write 'I love math' on your arm."
Me: "I'll think about it."
E: "We could write 'M.O.B.'"
Me: "No, you could not write that."
E: "Math over biology!"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Royal Wedding, California Style

So this post is a little late, but there's never a bad time to re-hype the Royal Wedding, right?

I'm not going to lie: I woke up at 2am to watch the Royal Wedding live. It was our last day of classes, so why not go through the day with a little less sleep than usual? Maura and I talked it over and decided that it was definitely worthwhile, especially given that it will probably be a good 30+ years before an event like this happens again. Since neither Maura nor I actually has a TV that gets reception, we decided to watch at school streaming from the Royal YouTube Channel. We were joined by our 60-year old registrar and one of the Spanish teachers. Absolutely worth it.

Given that this was an all-day affair in England, we had to match the festivities here on the other side of the pond. Even people who weren't cool enough to get up in the wee hours were still excited for our own quasi-wedding. I dressed in my British finest. Below, the whole wedding party. Melissa, the biology teacher, is actually wearing someone's old wedding gown.

Obviously, royalty needs a court jester.

I tried to dress in my British finest, but I just couldn't top Lisa's fascinator. Her friend is a milliner, so this is the real deal. I am currently deciding if I would actually spend the money for one of these. Given how much I enjoyed wearing a tiara and/or flowered sun hat all day, it might be worth the investment. I have "accidentally" left the hat at school and sometimes "have" to wear it if it's taking up space on my desk. How much better would my life be if I could just slap on a fascinator when I was in a bad mood?
All these years I thought I would attend Prince William's wedding as the bride (my 5-year old self understood that our birthdays being four days apart guaranteed destiny), but I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out instead.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Best Accommodations Ever

My travel style tends to focus more on the experiences I have when out and about and less on the actual place where I sleep. I fall into the category of "budget traveler," which in part means that I favor hostels over hotels and rooms over resorts. I'm above the level of saving money by camping everywhere I go (although I did that for a couple weeks in New Zealand when I had a very stingy travel companion), but in general I don't look for much more than a clean room in a safe location. If I'm doing stuff all day, I really just need a comfortable place to sleep. Besides being inexpensive, hostels are great for their social aspect, especially when I'm traveling alone. At this point in my life I think I'd take a comfy hostel with a good common room over a fancy resort.

Even though accommodations don't play largely into my travel experiences, the place where I stayed during spring break turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip. There is actually a hostel up near where I wanted to go, and it was ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the best hostels in all of California. It was serendipity that the hostel was closed for repairs, which led me to booking a room at the Requa Inn in Klamath. It's an old hotel built in 1914 when the fishing industry was bigger, but now Klamath is a little town of 1,400 people and land belongs to the Yurok Indian Reservation. The Inn is now fully restored and turned into an adorable bed and breakfast.

There were so many great things about this place. First was its location, right at the mouth of the Klamath River where it empties into the Pacific. Half of the rooms, plus the dining and sitting rooms look out over the river. This was my view as I ate breakfast Tuesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon a beautiful fog had nestled itself in the trees on the hills. One of the owners told me that sometimes it gets so foggy that they can't even see the river!

This is the road the the Requa Inn is on. See the ocean at the end of the river?

The second great thing about the Requa Inn was the customer service. It's a little family business, owned by a couple, their daughter, and their son-in-law. Everyone was amazingly friendly and helpful. On my first morning I asked for hiking recommendations and one of the owners spent at least 20 minutes helping me pick out good trails and writing down directions. Employees introduced themselves and were happy to chat, but also seemed to know when guests wanted to be left alone. The decor was charming and the staff was meticulous about cleaning. Then there was the food. Breakfast options included all kinds of seasonal fruit and freshly juices, plus local breakfast meat and/or eggs, hotcakes, homemade granola, homemade yogurt, and freshly baked toast. I'm glad I stayed for three days just so I could try everything. There aren't many dining options in Klamath, so I ended up eating dinner at the Requa Inn too. I don't think of myself as a food snob, but their organic, locally produced food ingredients definitely tasted better. I'm sure the fabulous chef didn't hurt. 

I also appreciated the background and social responsibility of the owners. The mother and daughter are members of the Yurok tribe and part of their goal in buying the inn was to create more jobs for people on the reservations and be role models for tribe members who might want to start small businesses. They support other local businesses through the products they use (their food is almost all local, their toiletries are from a local company, etc). The daughter wrote her MPA thesis on Indian education, so she's very active in the tribe and in the local schools. I fully support businesses that do good things and are run by good people. 

My favorite thing about the Requa Inn is a little more specific to me and wouldn't necessarily sway the average person to stay there. One of the owners, the son-in-law, is from New Zealand! I guess anyone would benefit from getting to hear his awesome accent, but I was super-excited to talk to him (or "chat to him," as the Kiwis would say) about all things Godzone. Even better, he had lived in Wellington so we got to reminisce about our favorite places and all the food we can't get here in the US. The most amazing thing was that he had worked in consulting, mediating Maori claims against the crown and since I also did stuff with Maori affairs in the government it turned out that we kind of knew a couple of the same people. Such a small world!

Spring Break 2011: The Drive North

Who knew that California is that big? It takes about 6 hours driving south to get to LA from the Bay Area. If you drive north for 6 hours, you'd think you would make it to another state. It was kind of fun traveling without a GPS or a real map. I got on highway 101 about a mile from my house and just kept going. The drive took me a little longer than expected, but only because there were so many places to stop along the way.

I drove for about 4 hours before making my first stop. The Best of This American Life kept me company, but I was ready for a break. The city (town? village? freeway exit?) of Leggett offered the perfect place to pull over: the southern-most drive-thru redwood tree.

When I paid my entrance fee, the guy pointed out that my ticket allowed me to drive through the tree as many times as I'd like until 8pm that night. As tempting as it was to drive in a very small circle through a redwood tree for 6 hours, I only stayed long enough to stretch my legs and take a picture.

Another 30 minutes or so north of Leggett is the start of an amazing 31-mile scenic drive, the aptly named Avenue of the Giants. It runs parallel to highway 101, traveling along the edge of Humboldt State Park. There was supposed to be an audio tour to accompany the drive, but the box at the start labeled "audio tour" just had a map with no commentary.

I did stop in Humboldt State Park to take a little hike in Founders Grove, home of some big trees (as opposed to other parts of the park?).

The Founders Tree, named in honor of the founders of the Save the Redwoods League. It's really hard to capture the size of these trees on film--the picture below is two pictures stitched together)--but here are some stats: height - 346.1 ft (that's about 10 feet shorter than Niagra Falls); diameter - 12.7ft; circumference - 12.7pi or 40 ft; height to the lowest limb - 190.4 ft. Woah.

I really liked the trees with the burned out insides. I think it's amazing that the trunk can be so hollow but the tree still thrives. All three pictures below are of the same tree (sorry for how creepy my half-face looks in the shot looking upwards).

I was also really into the fallen trees. The exposed roots were so cool. Again, it's hard to demonstrate just how big everything is in photos, so I've tried to provide some scale for each picture below:

Eventually I left Humboldt State Park because I had to make it to my hotel by 8pm. The drive up 101 never stops being amazing. After awhile it moves out of the redwood forests and veers toward the coast. Never a boring drive for sure.

YOLO of the Month: April

True, I didn't really have a YOLO of the month in March. I did spend the night in a YMCA with 110 ninth graders which is something you should only live through once, but I can claim that experience twice (thus far) so I guess it doesn't count. Fortunately, I think my April YOLO counted double.

In an ongoing attempt to fulfill my self-promise of actually seeing the sights that California has to offer, I took a road trip to the north coast and spent a couple of days in the redwood forests. I originally started planning this getaway for spring break two years ago, but of course that was when my car chose to die about a week before my intended departure date. So I got to spend that spring break (and that spring break funding) buying a new car. Not as much fun.

Now finally the trip happened and it was well worth it. I'll put pictures in separate blog posts, but short story: everything was amazing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I Like It When Kids Value Each Other

I make my students work in groups pretty much every day. It's hard work (for me and for them), it can be extremely frustrating (for me and for them) and it's often the most challenging part of my class (for me and for them). But one of my fundamental values as a teacher is that kids learn better when they talk about their ideas. I believe that verbalizing their ideas is the best way for them to make sense of concepts. This means that they have to work in groups and that the groupwork must be structured very carefully. We've all had bad experiences working in teams, so I want my kids to learn now, for lack of a less business-trendy word, what high-performing teams look and feel like. A subset of these goals is that students learn to value each other's ideas and learn to see each other's smarts. Part of being a high-performing team is learning interdependence and finding how each person's unique skills are crucial to the team's success. These teamwork skills will make students better people and I believe happier people down the road.

Without question, my classes this year are the most successful groupworkers I've had. Or, I kind of like to think, this year has been my most successful year of teaching (if I'm teaching kids to do groupwork right, it follows that they're learning the content deeply). I think especially that many of my kids have come to value each other's ideas and that they really listen to each other. Most importantly, I think that a lot of them value everyone's ideas, not just the kids who they deem "smart." Today I felt like I had this confirmed, at least somewhat, when I took a poll on who students want to sit with for their last seat change of the year. Here are some of the highlights:

  • In 3rd period, one of the most requested students was A., a girl who averages C's on tests. Math is challenging for her and in her group she rarely has the brilliant idea that moves the group forward mathematically. But she is the group member who asks the questions other kids are afraid to ask. She's the group member who says, "We need to slow down" and who demands that every step is justified. She's the group member who says, "I need you to explain it another way," and who then repeats back what makes sense to her and what she doesn't understand. I think that the students recognize that having A. in their group means that every idea will be examined and thought through until everyone understands. A.'s not the person who's going to teach you the math, but she's the one who will guarantee that you understand it. 
  • Even though I don't like to compare intelligence levels because I believe everyone is smart, there's one girl who I have to describe as the smartest person in the entire freshman class. She is smarter than me and smarter than most people I know. She could do everything I ask on her own and frankly doesn't need her classmates (or me, probably). Her seat request? To stay with her current team, which includes one of the kids who I think came into this year with the biggest skill deficit in the class. But she feels like she benefits from him. Her other request was to sit with A., the girl I described above. 
  • With the exception of just a few kids, my students did not request to sit with friends. That tells me they recognize that school is for learning, not for socializing. Of course they picked kids who they enjoy working with, but enjoyment did not seem to be correlated to who they sit with at lunch. I was even more pleased that a number of kids specifically requested not to sit with their friends. I got a lot of, "I love her but we talk to much!"
  • The kids who were requested the most are students who especially skilled at including other kids in groups. I have a lot of kids who are willing to put their ideas out there, but fewer who will ask their teammates what they think. The "popular" kids were the ones who are super-patient, will ask for everyone's opinion, and who will force their teammates to explain. What a powerful thing at an early age to be able to recognize the people who bring out the best in you.
At the end of my last class as kids were filling out this survey, one boy held up to me what he'd written and sighed, "Can't we just do this?" I expected something annoying like, "Not do math anymore" or "Have class outside." Then I almost cried when I saw what he wrote: "One big table with everyone."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What I Learned about Teenagers this Week

The past couple of weeks have been rough at school. In particular, we had two racially-fueled incidents in the span of a just a few days. First, a white supremacist page on Facebook "friended" most of our Latino freshmen and spewed frightening hate speech. Second, a white student very directly used a racial slur against a black students, clearly with the intention to hurt him. I'm really proud that our 9th grade faculty decided it was worth our time to address both of these incidents head on, including taking time out of class to help kids process their feelings. Part of this included small discussion groups where kids got to just talk (with guidance from a teacher).

My first group was magical. There were 8 girls and 1 boy of pretty diverse backgrounds racially and socioeconomically. I was really impressed with their self-awareness and empathy. Many of them talked about the anger they felt but also the ways they deal with that anger so it doesn't have repercussions. They also talked about how things like racial slurs hurt an entire community, impacting not just the person who was targeted. I was especially surprised that they recognized that a hateful response to racist speech is likely to make the other party even angrier and will in turn perpetuate a cycle of anger that will just end up hurting everyone more. Woah. Pretty insightful for 15-year olds.

My second group was very different. Again, they were diverse racially and socioeconomically, but this time it was all boys. Instead of talking about compassion, talking through your feelings, etc., the boys basically said they didn't care about what had happened. A number of them pointed out that the Facebook page and the racial slurs hadn't been directed at them specifically, so they weren't bothered by it. I wasn't exactly excited by this reaction, but I do understand that a lot of them haven't developed the same kind of empathy I heard from my first group. Much more disturbing was the prevailing agreement between the boys that nobody should be bothered by these incidents, including the people were targets. One Latino boy talked about the many instances of racism he faces everyday, which led him to conclude that you just have to accept it and not worry about it. A white boy talked about the serious bullying in teasing he'd faced in middle school and almost seemed to see it as a positive thing because it helped him develop a thick skin and not care what anyone else says to him. Many of the boys (both white and Latino) seemed to think that the school shouldn't have intervened and nobody should have gotten in trouble for the racial slur. There was even the idea brought up that the student who used the racial slur was justified in doing so because the other kid was teasing him first. They talked about being taught to stand up for themselves no matter what and saw the racial slur as just a way for that kid to stand up for himself. Wow.

The more I thought about the difference between my two discussion groups, the more it struck me that I know very little about the way boys are raised and how they interact with each other. I also know very little about adolescent development with respect to the ways and rates at which boys and girls mature. It was interesting to me in these discussions the difference in the boys' and girls' abilities to abstract their ideas. The girls seemed quite able to put themselves in someone else's shoes, to think of a community as an entity different from individual people, and to imagine hypothetical situations. The boys focused on concrete examples, and when I asked them things like, "Why might some people feel scared or uncomfortable when they hear that someone has been using racial slurs?" they seemed to have a really hard time thinking outside themselves. Is this a boy thing? Is it a teen development thing? What is going on? Why was there such a push from the boys toward an "every-man-for-himself" mode of existence? Is this just reflective of the gender norms boys were raised with or something more developmental? Is this how boys of my generation were being raised? Most importantly, how can I support these boys in becoming more empathetic, self-aware, and socially-aware? How do I help them think about the importance of community and the value of feeling accepted? Will this all just come in time, or do I need to be thinking more pro-active?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Still Missing New Zealand

The other night I had a dream that I took a trip back to New Zealand. I don't remember why I was there, but I do remember it was a very short trip (like 3-4 days actually in the country). The main thing I remember from the dream, however, was the pure happiness I felt when I was in New Zealand. I stepped off the plane and was immediately happy. Most of the dream consisted me walking around the streets of Auckland pointing out all the things I love about the country. Granted, one of the things I pointed out as loving so much was a giant slide that commuters could use to make their travel time more entertaining, so the dream wasn't exactly true to life. But the feeling of being so happy definitely was.

Although it's no giant slide in downtown Auckland, here is one of many reasons why I continue to love Kiwis. (Extra props for the Phil Keoghan guest appearance!)

And here is another. They know how to be serious sometimes down there too.
Someone remind me again why I am still living in the US?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

YOLO of the Month: February

Thanks to the magic of deal sites like Groupon and HomeRun, it's a little easier to YOLO these days, or at least get inspired to do so. Maura found a deal for a sourdough breadmaking class, so over President's Day weekend we headed up to the city so we could master one of San Francisco's most famous foods. 

The workshop took place in the back kitchen of this amazing panaderia, La Victoria, in the Mission.  Their tamales are amazing. But we weren't there to make tamales (unfortunately), and the workshop wasn't actually run by the proprietors of La Victoria (unfortunately). The workshop instructor (who never introduced himself, so I'm not sure of his name) is a bread expert who rents out the kitchen for these workshops and for his bread business. 

First step to breakmaking: combine water and flour. Next step, do something to the dough. Our instructor was clearly an amazing baker who knew a LOT about the science of breadmaking. However, he seemed to lack what we in the education world call "pedagogical content knowledge"--the knowledge not just of a subject itself, but of how to effectively teach the subject. He answered most questions with, "Well, whatever you do will really effect how the bread turns out" but with little detail as to what kind of effect that might be. 

Still, we made cute little loaves. 
I really do enjoy baking and have even taken my own forays into breadmaking. I don't do it very often because it's so time-consuming, but I can imagine myself getting more into it. I was hoping this workshop might help me out with that. But the more I listened to our instructor, the more I realized I should stick to easy baking. When he told us that a good loaf of bread should take about 24 hours to make, kneading once every half hour or so, that was enough to let me know that artisanal breadmaking is probably not the right-fit hobby for my lifestyle.

I baked my bread the following day--it first had to rise in the fridge and then on the counter. I'm not sure what happened because even following the instructions as precisely as I could the top still burned (the baking instructions weren't written down, so I had to rely on the notes Maura took on her phone). And, as Sarah noted, the inside "looks like real bread." So that's a good sign, right? It tasted like real (slightly-burned, not at all sourdough) bread too, so I guess I did indeed succeed in the goal of the workshop. If it had been amazing (not that they gave us a recipe or anything), I might have reconsidered dropping my breadmaking career. But given that I can get pretty delicious bread for relatively cheap at my local supermarket, I think this was the end.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

One Way to Get a Date

About a week before our school's recent winter formal, these signs popped up all around the building. (click to enlarge)

My favorite part: "the choosing will be at random or to my liking." Good call. At least he's keeping his options open. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Month of YOLO: January, Part 2

After a weekend of adventuring in LA, the obvious California destination for the following weekend was Lake Tahoe. Five teachers, one cabin, lots of fun.

Again, the weekend involved a lot of gastronomical delights, most importantly Fred's Steak. Also not too shabby was the sampler of wines from Trevor's uncle's cellar. I'm not gonna say I can tell the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $10 bottle, but the expensive bottles tasted pretty good. One of the best quotes of the weekend: "I just drank an eighteen-dollar bill!"

The original plan to go skiing, but napping was a more attractive activity. Still, we did find the energy to YOLO at Squaw Valley.

This picture is just one in an ongoing series of Maura and me at high elevations:

I used this picture in a warmup on proportional reasoning in class a few weeks ago. The kids were really confused about how four of their math teachers ended up in Squaw Valley (and in a giant chair, no less) together.

For those unfamiliar with Olympic history, Squaw Valley was home to the 1960 Winter Olympics. The memories still remain at the Olympic "museum." 

Of course, Olympic memorabilia calls for Olympic reenactments. First, Kieran savors the gold.

The 1968 Olympics, complete with the confused Australian silver medalist. 

Pulling a Tonya Harding. 

Finally, some views from the top of the mountain

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Month of YOLO: January, Part I

Given that it's almost February, yes, this post is a little behind. But better late than never.

The thing about January is that my school is in "intersession," a time when the students take their electives all day every day and teachers are in meetings. All. Day. Every. Day. I'm not always a huge fan of the meetings and by the end of the month I'm pretty sick of adults and ready to be around kids again. But on the upside, not having to plan for classes everyday means that I have a lot more free time and can live life like an almost normal person. This January I took pretty good advantage of my free weekends with a little YOLO-ing.

Over MLK weekend I went down to LA for quality time with some Umich friends. It was my friend Zach's birthday, so we all went out to some posh Hollywood club to celebrate.

But really the weekend was about eating. My friend Jessica is kind of a foodie and was excited to show off all the places she's discovered since moving to LA this fall. We started on Friday night at a place called A-Frame. It's very trendy--it's run by some popular food truck guy and the theme is "modern picnic." Overall, not the best restaurant I've ever been to, but the food was good. The biggest highlight was their Asian fusion kettle corn (pictured right), basically kettle corn with that seaweed stuff you put on rice. I'll be hitting up my local Asian grocery store to recreate this.

On Sunday morning we headed out for the most amazing brunch I've ever had. It was worth the extremely long wait because the food at Doughboys was mind-blowing. I'm not sure how they decided to top a Belgian waffle with bacon, egg, and cheese, but everyone should do it. My only regret was that there was so much food that we couldn't finish it.

On Sunday night we took a trip out to Santa Monica where one of the highlights was the parking garage. I guess when your city is crowded with way too many cars you begin to innovate how to make driving slightly less miserable. First, I was in awe of the green and red lights on the ceiling of the garage indicating where parking spaces were available, but the most amazing discovery was a kiosk where you typed in your license plate number and it showed you where you'd parked. A little Big Brother? Yes. Contributing to the dumbing-down of America? Probably. Totally useable? Definitely. 

For dinner we went to a Japanese place where the decor was almost enticing as the food. The pictures below are of the sumo-wrestler bathrooms and the phenomenal bacon-wrapped enoki mushroom skewers. Both required seconds.

Overall, a great weekend away.