Thursday, May 22, 2014

Math Through the Looking Glass

All too often, math teachers sit in silent complicity when it is said that math is exact and linear—humanities are not. Math is about answers that are right and wrong—humanities are not. If math teachers don’t interrupt the status quo, who will? Consider sharing this narrative from an alternate universe:

In my humanities class, I learn that there is only one correct way to spell a word—my teacher says that spelling is not a matter of opinion. My teacher tells me to identify the word in a sentence that is a pronoun—apparently there are words that are pronouns and ones that aren’t. I am told that there are fragments and there are complete sentences, and the difference is clear. If I am talking about a novel we have read, I have to tell the facts in the exact order they happened. There are rules for how you are supposed to use commas and apostrophes. I have to capitalize some words and not others—as if that really makes a difference in being Understood most of the Tiime. Those are the rules, I am told. People seem to care that I know what capital city belongs to what country, and you can’t mix those up! My teacher says that some books are too hard for us to read, and some books are too easy for us, because you are supposed to read certain books at a certain age—it’s developmental.

My math class is where I really get to think. Here’s some of the stuff I have done;

--I made a poster explaining when it would be best to say something was “one third” and when it would be best to say it was 33%. It isn’t always clear when you should use decimals or fractions or percents to describe a portion of something. My teacher says understanding how to communicate a mathematical idea is so much about your audience and your intentions.

--I had to look at baseball statistics about shortstops and defend my reason why one of them was the best choice to get a 5 year contract. Wow, that was hard! My best friend and I had very different opinions. My teacher gave us good grades for how well we prioritized the different data. He said there was no one right answer, of course—just like real life!

--My teacher put an equation on the board and said there were a few ways to solve it. He wanted us to pick a way to solve it that would be best if our life depended on getting it right, a method if we wanted to have the most fun trying a wacky way, and a method that was the quickest, even if it might sometimes cause you to make a careless error.

--He showed us a shape we had never seen before. We had to experiment with rulers and protractors and calculators and come up with the area—and then we had to come up with a formula we could remember. I love when he says, “Try more experiments. That’s what math is about.”

--My small group was given a big jar of pennies. We had to come up with 5 different ways we could estimate the number of pennies in the jar. He is giving the same problem to the kids in a class two grades below mine and two grades above mine.

My math teacher says humanities classes could be fun too, but mostly they are taught like math classes that did only number-crunching right-and-wrong drills. He says humanities classes could be filled with opinions, creative writing, lots of discussions, and using evidence to back up our own theories. He even says there are people who have a love of literature the way we have a love of numeracy. Yeah, right.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Don't Be Bored...Or Boring

This is an exhortation, a plea, a pat on the back and a push up the hill. It is meant to inspire and unsettle, and to help you find your passion and determination. It comes as a request and a challenge: Don’t plan to go into class and tell your students, “This is the boring part.”

Haven’t you and the kids been bored enough already!? When we were students in school, when our minds were striving to explore and understand, how often we ourselves were bored, and our teachers looked and sounded so bored themselves. I thought they should say to us, “Learning to be bored in school is preparing you to be bored as an adult. Get used to it. This day will be another exercise in learning to be bored.”
It is not a version of grit to passively accept boredom. It is not a version of grit to be passive. For teachers or for students. It’s a version of submission.

It is good to know how to manage one’s boredom in life without losing one’s mind. It is good to learn to cope with disappointment and failure, and to find inner resolve. And there’s enough boredom and disappointment and failure in the commerce of life to learn those lessons without my actually building it into a task that my students have no choice about and saying, “Here’s something else you’ll find boring.”

We and our students never get back the minutes that accumulate into hours of boredom in a school year.  You read the directions to standardized tests and the students spend that much time listening to you. On the first day of staff orientation in the fall, the superintendent, with all good intentions, reads through the myriad new regulations, and you can’t wait for it to be over so you can get to your class room. It’s in school and out of school: waiting for the bus to arrive because the funding for adequate public transportation was cut; being on hold to a call center half-way around the world where labor was cheaper. There’s a lot of boredom for citizens that is the result of intentional planning. All of that is not inevitable boredom, and it wears us down.

It’s time to rebel against the forces that conspire to make us passive. We are teachers! When we stand in the class, we are the most influential force in the lives of our students. In that time and place we are potentially their hero, their role model, their hope. And because we are teachers, we know something very important, almost mysterious in its power: all information is potentially interesting, every skill acquired broadens our potentials, and all impassioned activity leads to learning. Our best teachers showed us over and over that life is not a struggle against boredom—it is a wonder to be apprehended.

I don’t have control over many boring and draining things in school I wish I had control over: I have to proctor standardized tests; I have to cajole and demand that students wait quietly when it is so hard for them to do that at their age; I have to stop mid-sentence for announcements and bells.

But I don’t have to walk into class and tell them that “This is the boring part.” That’s in my control.  In my work with teachers for over 35 years, I have heard almost all of them share promises they made to themselves: I will never hit a kid; I will never ask a student to sit in the corner as punishment; I will never tell a student that she is bad. Yes, yes, yes. That’s how it should be. And I ask and challenge you to consider, “I will not bore myself today because I will not plan to bore the kids.” Let’s not watch more of the sands of our own professional lives slip away in boredom that we can avoid.

As much as I have had that as my intention (and not only in the classroom, but in faculty meetings as well, and wouldn’t you like your principal to have the intention not to bore you at meetings?), I know I have sometimes bored students. It wasn’t in my plans, but a class would end and I knew Edgar over there was missing in action. But I didn’t plan it. I’d have to check in with Edgar and find out what didn’t work for him, because I didn’t see a boring part in my lesson plan. Edgar might have something to teach me about my planning. And because so much of my career has been spent with challenging students, who are often barely holding on to their motivation, if I didn’t communicate the worth of the lesson, they were unlikely to find whatever little motivation was left in their tank.

Perhaps we could translate our phrase, “This is the boring part,” into “I have no idea how to make this interesting,” or “I can’t figure out why this is in the curriculum guide,” or “I know this is truly worthless to you,” or “I too am but a fallible person trapped in a system that is slowly killing my passion and I am so sorry that you have to bear any of the burden of that.” Since we won’t be declaring those things, here are some preventative steps to take when you look at your lesson plan and say, “This is the boring part”:

1)      Seek the links—When the information in the required curriculum seems so far from their lives that you assume it will be boring (why else would information be boring?), offer them the challenge to make the connections. Don’t do the hypothetical, “You never know when you will be building a shed and need to use the Pythagorean Theorem” if you yourself have never used the Pythagorean Theorem. Tell them how the information truly impacts you as an adult.  Consider how the information may impact the lives of their families, or their community. Have them survey members of their community: “Tell me why you think I should learn about the three branches of government?” The class can send emails to professional organizations that are impacted by that information. Invite in a local professional.
2)      Develop cognitive challenges using Blooms Taxonomy—Thinking is inherently interesting, even if the facts may seem irrelevant. Throughout the year underscore the types of thinking you are asking of students: “You have to do some powerful analyzing today to see what are the most important pieces to this information;” “As we do this, let’s evaluate whether we should add this to the list of essential information;” “The challenge today is to find a way to translate this information so that your younger brother or sister would understand it.” One of the benefits of applying higher-order thinking to information is that it is far better remembered.
3)      Time it—“Class, I am not sure if any of you will find this interesting, so let’s set the timer for five minutes, and then stop and talk about what you think of this.”
4)      Look at the task through multiple intelligences—Graphs and pictograms offer various perspectives on what may at first seem dry data. Giving a dramatic reading to a list of historical names and dates is not boring to either try or to watch. Asking students to verbally free associate with rules of grammar is hilarious. Chanting as a class the chemical symbols on the Periodic Table of the Elements is sublime.
5)      Encourage and allow for creative note-taking. –Teachers often identify note-taking as a boring part of the class. Of course it is, if the students have little inherent interest in the material and note-taking is condemned to be only for the test coming up. Start making note taking interesting with two column notes, which offer students a space to make their own connections and rhymes, drawings and stick figures. Have students share with the class their most interesting note-taking creations. Try it yourself, watching or listening to the news at home one evening, and see how idiosyncratic and engaged you can make note-taking.  Celebrating how students employ arrows and underlines and boxes and shadowing and parenthetical commentary can make note-taking a collectively enriching opportunity, dare I say one of the best times you’ll offer students in class.
6)      Offer to summarize essential ideas—If the next two pages of the textbook are deadly and likely to destroy momentum, tell the students your summary, ask them to summarize what you said in their own words, and move on. You can do the same for sections of movies. Let’s not confuse what takes effort with what is worth the effort; e.g. digging a deep hole in the ground and immediately filling it up again takes effort, but it’s not worthwhile. Laboriously reading boring textbooks should be kept to a minimum, and identified for what it is— a challenge, if you have no alternative (you probably do). Don’t undermine your relationship with your students by using your teacher power to coerce them to do really boring tasks because it will be “good for them.” It’s not good for any of you.
7)      Don’t teach it—Integrate a few of the main ideas into another lesson.

The last item above might put many of our colleagues into risk with their school administration. We are in an era of imposed curriculum, in which our wisdom as teachers to make decisions about how to bring our very real students to mastery is not being honored and trusted. Too many of our colleagues are trapped in systems in which they must rigidly check off that they have “covered” items on a predetermined (and not critically assessed) pacing guide. The standardized test demands that students be exposed to information at such a rate that meaning and depth are often false advertising.

So do what you can. One of the seven items above can usually help you avoid, “This is the boring part.” And then consider digging into your own professional soul for some grit to join committees, professional associations, political campaigns, contract negotiating teams, letter writing efforts, and public hearings, adding your voice to the others who are exhorting us, on behalf of our students and ourselves, not to passively allow the work of schools to be boring. Your students will love you for it.

PS--if you have a lesson that you can''t get around being boring, write about it in the comment section and I'll brainstorm with you ideas.