I’ve made it a month into full-online teaching! I’ve got my 6th grade math class, 7th grade math class, and grades 7-9 venture class every Monday-Thursday. Friday is a day for staff development and asynchronous work. Here’s the report for these weeks and any other pro tips I can share.
I am going to jinx it, but I think I’m hitting my groove in math. I have never really taught 6th grade math before, and I’m rusty on 7th grade math, but I’m finding my way. I have found that if I take the workshop-style problems I normally would have given kids in class on paper, and convert them to Desmos activities, the lessons flow pretty well and most kids are engaged and active. I make Desmos activities for literally everything. I’m not the most advanced user of the Activity Builder, but these allow me to guide the students, fix problems and coach them in realtime, see everybody’s work, curate samples and share them out with the class… it’s getting there. Today I did an activity and I could tell some kids were flowing well with it and others were really stuck. I asked the class if they were ready for a hint, but a few students yelled loudly “No hints! I want to figure it out myself!” So then I tried a new teacher move, and I told the students if they wanted hints, to send me a private message in the chat, and I would invite them into a breakout room and I’d give them hints there. 5 students sent me messages, and I pulled them into a breakout room and gave them the hints, and we went back to the main room. It was super cool to see that students didn’t want hints and wanted to figure it out on their own, and the students that came to the breakout room were grateful.
My three teaching tools I use over and over again: I create activities in Desmos and pace them so we can discuss problems every few slides; I pause, run over to my laptop, train the camera on my whiteboard and give a few quick notes and examples; I assign homework and quizzes in Khan Academy. I assign work twice a week, always with 2 days to complete assignments. I have never gotten a good response if homework is due the next day, and some kids have busy lives and can’t rearrange everything to accommodate last-minute homework.
Here are some of the Desmos activities we did the past two weeks:
Decimal Addition and Subtraction (6th grade): The students were pretty comfortable adding and subtracting with money, so I used this activity to introduce them to adding and subtracting with more than 2 places past the decimal. After every slide we stopped, took some notes, and had a quick discussion.
Multiplying Decimals Card Sort (6th grade): Before the card sort, I gave the kids some notes showing them fraction/decimal multiplication equivalents. For example, 3/10 x 7 = 21/10 = 2 1/10. This means that 0.3 x 7 = 2.1 because 0.3 is 3/10 and 2.1 is 2 1/10. We did a few examples like that and then the students did the card sort. I paused every so often and let a student explain a match they made and why. The 2nd and 3rd slides are a warmup before we start multiplying multi-digit decimals.
Adding Integers (7th grade): I used this as the first lesson on a unit about rational numbers. The students really enjoyed it. I paced it so I opened up 2 or 3 slides at a time, and we would have a discussion and share work after each group of slides.
Adding Rational Numbers and Intro to Subtraction (7th grade): I adapted a lesson about bank statements from Illustrative Mathematics to introduce adding positive and negative decimals to the students. We introduced integer subtraction and subtracting negatives. The “bank statement” part of the lesson was very challenging, because of the many concepts and skills packed into it. Decimal arithmetic, understanding of where these numbers go on the number line, attention to precision. A gap in any of these could cause a student’s balance sheet to turn into a disaster quickly.
I’ll just quickly add that in my venture class, the students are now doing their project pitches, and although I’m nervous about running into a time crunch with the end of the quarter…. I love the project pitches they’ve given. They are all doing a project about something they already love and enjoy, and tying it into the theme of “The Impact of the Internet”. One student will be making an informational webpage about chihuahuas. Another student will be making a dog feeder from a Raspberry Pi. Another will be publishing history videos on a YouTube channel. I am cautiously hopeful that they will learn and love their projects and get a lot out of this weird quarter of school.
Each day I’ve started to add creative writing activities to Advisory and that’s been more fun than I expected. I haven’t done creative writing in a long time and I’ve even gotten sucked into it. The topics here are a little grown-up for my students, so I adapt them a little, but Jane McGonigal is a futurist I follow on Twitter and she published this “game” which is a creative thought-experiment about disaster scenarios for the information age. They’ve provoked really great discussion during a time when kids’ cameras are usually off and they’re silent, so since the kids have found this engaging, I’m sharing with you:
Try it with your advisory students – do a 5-10 minute quickwrite, then make breakout rooms and share out what you wrote and have a discussion afterward with Jane’s followup discussion points on the web link. The kids will enjoy it and so will you.
- Not really a tip so much as a life skill… you gain nothing from being grumpy with the kids right now, and they gain nothing. So just be kind. If a kid has their camera off and isn’t participating, check in on them. Say “I haven’t seen you or heard from you and just wanted to check in. Do you need any help?” And just keep asking. Wave goodbye with a smile every class. Here’s a pro tip I learned in pre-teacher service that I still use. Tell your class, every day, that they’re your favorite class and you really enjoy them. Say it for a week or two and it’ll be true, I swear.
- Get up and move. You can’t do remote teaching from your chair all day. You normally move when you teach. Shift to a standing desk or angle your camera so you can draw on a real whiteboard and stand up. It’ll help, I promise. If nothing else, you’ll be more animated and enjoy presenting more.
- I’m going to put it out there that I am very much warming up to using Khan Academy for homework and I think I’m going to use it all year. What a gift to not have to grade homework or quizzes…. I can spend more time analyzing what they know and don’t know, and less time just marking up papers. 9/10 other than a few minor complaints it is very much recommended.
- Get blue-light filtering glasses. It has made a huge difference… I used to suffer from migraines every week and I have only had one mild headache since I got the glasses. I got them for my kids too. Essential for remote learning!
- Celebrate the kids’ pets. You might as well, you can’t have them at school. Sing awkward birthday songs. Change your background. Play lobby music. Give silly attendance prompts. If doing stuff other than math content increases engagement…. then yes, do that.
- One last pro tip: If you’re teaching on a PC and not a chromebook, you can install Snap Camera and use that as your camera in Zoom. Snap Camera lets you apply filters, so you can teach with mouse ears or rainbow hair or looking like a potato. If engagement is suffering then definitely get Snap Camera.
That’s it, have fun out there everyone.
I don’t have a lot of exciting lessons to report, but I wanted to share out some tips, tricks, and general observations from online teaching now that I’m into the flow of it a little.
In math 6 and math 7, I taught the same review unit for both – fraction operations. I thought it would move faster with my math 7 crew, but I found as we got into it that they needed the review just as much as the 6th graders. The curricula diverge after this week, but it was nice to reuse the same lesson plans for a brief moment. 🙂
I continued to use Desmos as my main teaching tool. When we were working on multiplying fractions, I did try an activity with Jamboard where I put the students into breakout rooms and assigned them tasks that I adapted from the Connected Math Bits and Pieces II textbook. I thought I modeled the activity well and set it up for success, but when the students were put into breakout rooms, they got quiet, refused to talk to each other, scribbled on the jamboard and then erased each other’s scribbles and really didn’t engage with the math. Frustrating. I stopped the activity and went back to individual tasks for the moment. Flash cards still work ok in breakout rooms, but the harder problem-solving is not something I can have them do in groups yet. Here’s the jamboard in case you want to use it. Maybe you’ll have better luck or suggestions for virtual group work?
I stepped back after that activity and I changed strategies. I taught the students the algorithm for multiplying fractions (numerator x numerator, denominator x denominator, then simplify) and gave them some Desmos tasks to evaluate expressions using the algorithm and then explain why it worked using a drawing. This led to a pretty good discussion and better quality of work from the kids.
After every 2 slides, I would pause and give the students a small amount of notes – multiplying fractions, multiplying a fraction x a mixed number, then multiplying two mixed numbers.
We used this Desmos activity for division expressions involving unit fractions. It was a good activity and again, we had high engagement and a good discussion.
Now I am at a point where I want to give the students a quiz to see how their fraction operations are coming along. I have a Desmos “quiz” prepared and also have curated the Khan Academy unit quizzes covering the same topics. I think I’ll assign the Khan quiz in class, but if students need to do a redo, I’ll let them to retake using the Desmos quiz. We’ll give it a try!
One more note about teaching math: I wish I could find it now, but back in August I saw some tweets from another math teacher where she tried giving notes using the Zoom whiteboard tool, and then using a physical whiteboard with a camera trained on her, and when she asked her students what they preferred they said they liked the physical whiteboard better. I decided to try this too, and I like it a lot. If nothing else, it gets me moving – it’s amazing how much I even miss that part of teaching, the standing and the moving! So I have my desktop computer on my normal desk, and then I have a small podium where I put my laptop facing the whiteboard. I have my laptop join the Zoom call along with the students. If I want to give notes, I mute the desktop, run over to the laptop, unmute it, and write on the whiteboard. I take photos of the whiteboard with my phone so I can post notes later for students that need the notes for their accommodations.
For advisory and venture, we finally finished playing everyone’s kahoot quizzes, and I started on a lesson on identity that I adapted from tolerance.org. I think the lesson is supposed to be used for teachers to reflect on their own identity… but it was useful for students and actually generated good discussion… and good discussion is SO hard to find in online teaching! The kids asked thoughtful questions and mainly wanted to know about vocabulary terms… what is ethnicity? What is socioeconomic status? And they reflected a little on times when they took their identity for granted and when they found they had to adapt because they were not in a dominant identity group. It was good.
Here are the slides I used.
Other random tips about remote teaching:
- I have one of those Ring Lights, and I definitely prefer it to the overhead lights in my basement.
- I got a small standing desk, and at lunch I pick up my monitor and keyboard and stand for the rest of the afternoon. It helps SO MUCH.
- I have continued to start each class with broadway show tunes and a silly attendance prompt, and these routines have become really important to me and the kids.
- I ordered some blue light filtering glasses and I also turn my monitor to Night Light mode during the day. It has actually helped with headaches a lot – I can’t believe I never tried this before.
- If kids have pets on screen, of course we acknowledge them and enjoy them. I appreciate something that makes the kids turn on their cameras and interact with each other… and pets do the trick sometimes.
- I am still up late most nights and work some pretty long hours and don’t get out of the house much. Getting the content organized is a small part of the teaching challenge… organizing it so it flows online takes the most time. I feel like I have to be hyper-organized with everything. When I teach in person, sometimes I don’t even write lesson plans, I just have a rough sketch of what I’m going to do and I march in and wing it. I do not feel like I can do that right now. In this respect I feel a lot like a first-year teacher again.
- I have 5 minutes of passing period between my morning remote classes and IT IS NOT ENOUGH!! I show up late to my second class more often than I’m comfortable with! But sometimes I have a kid in that first class who needs just a couple more minutes to figure out how to attach the file, take the screen shot, find their late homework, whatever… and it’s not like I can just go find them at lunch, you know? I wish I had a little more time at the end of class for those last-minute things.
- I’m finding ways to make remote teaching work and am pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in spite of the challenging circumstances… but I ache to just be back in the classroom with actual people.
I’ve been sitting back and reading a lot in the current cultural whirlwind and rejuvenation of Black Lives Matter. The movement has come a long way. The tide is turning. I feel cautious about real change happening because I’ve seen how powerful inertia can be… and if we’re going to see a true dismantling of systemic racism, it means as a society we need to open ourselves up to being uncomfortable. And unfortunately, I do not think white America is ready for that. We need to take a hard look at how white supremacy shows up in our daily lives… it’s very obvious in the context of police brutality, but we all live in it, baste in it daily without recognizing it for what it is.
To see how white supremacy manifests itself as intertia, I want to take a look at just one aspect of racism in education – school boundaries.
I’m going to show you some statistics from four schools in my city. These schools are just a few miles from each other. It’s not a huge town. The distance between School 2 and School 3 is 1.5 miles.
|% Free/ Reduced Lunch||% Hispanic / Latino||% Proficient Math||% Proficient ELA|
My town has a very small Black community but a sizable Hispanic / Latino community, and you see the racial component of this when I break out the data this way. In the north part of town, it sure looks like the school boundaries were drawn to cluster the free/reduced lunch kids and the Latino kids into School 1 and School 2. There is some white flight from school 1 and school 2 as well… some students who live in the boundaries of those schools choice into other schools in the district or go to charter schools. Even so, it is really remarkable that the boundaries are drawn this way. It’s also segregation. It’s not equitable or fair. It really wouldn’t be that hard to change, just move the boundaries literally a few blocks in one direction or another. I can tell you from talking with friends who have taught in schools 1&2 and their feeder middle schools and high schools, that those schools are really hard to teach in. You have to develop a much bigger toolkit to work there. It can be frustrating and draining and stressful. My only experience in that realm is teaching the grade-level and remedial math classes in my own middle school for a while. They were exhausting. It was so hard to cluster all of the kids who didn’t like school and already weren’t successful with math in the same classroom and try to help them grow. For a few years we de-tracked our math classes, breaking down the “honors vs. grade-level” paradigm and creating heterogeneous classes, and it was SO much better. The mixed classes were way better to teach, kids made better growth and the teachers enjoyed our jobs more. Slowly though, the old paradigm came back and we started splitting the classes into “honors vs. grade-level” again. I think you need a rich toolkit to teach heterogeneous classes, and it keeps you on your toes more, but it is overall a more rewarding experience. I did some reading on the benefits of integrating schools and I am convinced it’s something we need to do. I don’t understand why we keep drifting back into separating kids. Well, I do though. It’s comfortable. “Comfortable” is at the heart of this conversation, and to use a loaded term, “Comfortable” is at the center of white supremacy.
Around 2015, my district had some boundary-redrawing discussions as we prepared to create a few new schools. I wasn’t on the boundary-creation committee, but I attended a few meetings. I wish I had said more then. I looked up the information you see above because I wanted to have some background knowledge, and I was surprised and shocked at the level of segregation in my generally affluent, “friendly”, high performing district and town. I went to the meetings prepared to push on this – to challenge the school board and leadership team to take the opportunity to break down some of this segregation and have mixed schools. But when the meetings started, they opened with several proposals already written that made zero changes to the parts of town that, in my mind, needed them – and the comments were pretty bland, the mood was not at all contentious, and I got quiet instead of stirring things up. I regret that now. We just kept the school boundaries mostly the same and the numbers you see in the table are pretty much the same ones from 2015. A missed opportunity.
Also in 2015, a new housing development was proposed adjacent to my neighborhood. We had this oddly-shaped triangular lot next to our neighborhood ever since we moved in, right on a busy intersection, full of weeds. We knew it would get developed someday and were happy when the proposed development was a nice neighborhood – a Habitat for Humanity community. At least it wouldn’t be a KFC or something, right? I remembered my neighbors were NOT on board with this and at first they convinced me to oppose it too, but by the time the community meetings came around in 2015 I had decided to support it. Our town desperately needs more affordable housing. My dad volunteers with Habitat and speaks fondly of how rewarding it is to see a neighborhood get new life and a new sense of community when Habitat homes are built. That the kids who live there actually have their own rooms and a quiet place to study, and their grades improve. The families get financial security for maybe the first time ever. Plus, we have a Geometry and Construction program at two schools in town, and our local high schoolers actually build the homes. This was an important cause to get behind.
I went to a community meeting and was absolutely blown away by how awful my neighbors were about this “low income” housing community. It was embarrassing and shocking. Many of my neighbors made comments about the traffic and the density and how they would lose their views (over an empty lot??). The pearl-clutching over these inconveniences were out of proportion to the actual suffering we would endure because of a housing development going up. Some actually came out and said they were concerned about the “wrong kind of people” moving into the neighborhood. That it would attract crime. That it would strain the schools and “those people’s kids” would cut through our neighborhood to get to school. That our school’s quality would decrease. That our property values would go down. Now we don’t exactly live in a wealthy gated community. Our homes are really, really average homes in a really average part of town and I couldn’t believe the sense of entitlement and elitism I saw at the community meeting. Wow. I was one of two people that stood up and spoke in favor of the project. The other person was the Geometry and Construction teacher whose students would be building the homes. I think he was shocked too at how unwelcoming people would be to this project that he and his students had invested so much into.
This is a snippet I found online from the meeting. The full document with notes from all the community meetings is here. https://www.fcgov.com/developmentreview/pdf/harmony_cottages_type1_files.pdf?1558477510
The first comment is my part. The next question came from a neighbor. I don’t even know which one. So many of them said the same thing.
“Everyone loves Habitat, but not here.” Over and over. “We have no objection to Habitat for Humanity, but why in our neighborhood?” The traffic, the noise, omg the low income people living one block away and the crime and their kids interacting with our kids and going to the same school….. It was horrifying. I understood why our school board and district leadership don’t really put their whole selves into integrating our district schools over income and race. They don’t want to have meetings like this. I don’t blame them, but we shouldn’t keep avoiding this. Avoiding the backlash is why inertia sets in. Why we settle into what’s comfortable, just separating people according to our natural divisions of class and race and just not fight it. But segregated schools lead to inequities all the way down the line, we know this, we know it’s wrong and the legality is sketchy and we do this anyway – because it’s comfortable, and convenient. Comfortable and convenient are the hallmarks of white supremacy.
The Habitat community did get approved eventually. There are several houses built now and families living in them. One of my current students will be getting one of those homes with her mom. When we had online learning during spring 2020, she had to attend zoom meetings on a phone from her bathroom to get some privacy. Won’t that be amazing when she has a house? The neighborhood is super cute and we like watching it come together. My grumpy neighbors are still mad about it.
At some point in this timeframe, I was listening to the radio and a rerun of This American Life came on, and it was Nikole Hannah-Jones’ special about her experience with school integration. It was riveting. Especially the parts in the broadcast about the parent meeting regarding school integration. That meeting could have easily been in my town, my neighborhood. Here’s the broadcast.
I felt vindicated listening to the broadcast, I felt understood – my experience with my embarrassing, classist, NIMBYist neighbors was way more universal than I imagined. The wild, mind-blowing thing is that school integration, and neighborhood integration, are helpful. It’s beneficial to kids of all races and backgrounds. It makes for a richer teaching experience for the teachers. It really wouldn’t be that hard to do in my own town – really, really easy. Except for the discomfort of white people.
I realized in processing societal integration and the pushback to it, that a lot of white supremacy just looks like comfort. Anything that makes us have to put a little more effort into our lives – wait an extra minute to make that turn, or listen to the families from a different race and class over the fence, or put a little more effort into including people – and we crumble. We’ll cram into yoga studios and train for half-marathons and stay all weekend at our kids’ softball tournaments, but if we are forced to make tiny changes to our everyday lives to accommodate other people we perceive as different… we fall apart, and we do so loudly and violently.
We need to seize this moment and make positive moves toward racial equality. But to do this, we – white people – need to start letting our communities know about the changes we want to see. I really want to see my own school district develop some courage around racial integration and I want my white community to not fight it so hard. This isn’t going to happen just from my wishing it so. I need to speak up for it, and patiently advocate for it, and celebrate small steps of progress, and be prepared for backlash, because it’ll come. And YOU need to speak up for it. It’ll take white people in numbers to do this, but if we are serious about making a fairer, more just, more equitable society, school and neighborhood integration have to happen.
Just blogging to report on my two big initiatives for the week: finishing up a mini-project on trigonometry using the micro:bit accelerometers, and a week on anti-racism in my sixth-grade advisory.
The mini-project finished up SO well. We started last week by assembling micro:bit inclinometers and programming them to report out the angle measured by using trig ratios. This week, we took measurements with them and did the math. The students measured the height of a neighboring building by standing exactly 800 centimeters away and sighting the roofline with their micro:bit devices. It’s been a cold week so we rushed inside to do the math, and the kids calculated a building height of around 39 feet. We probably got in the ballpark.
One commenter on my blog suggested we try another method, sighting an object from a distance, then backing up a known distance and taking another reading. This ended up being a cool application of a system of equations. Great suggestion!
Even though learning to solve systems of equations feels like drudgery at first, it’s one of the more useful algebra concepts I have learned. In my decade as an engineer, I modeled many situations involving systems.
The kids did a great job and seemed to enjoy the challenge of the activity.
The other day, I blogged about the very strange situation involving the Catholic school teens in DC mocking other protesters near the Lincoln Memorial. With the MLK holiday coinciding with that weekend, I really felt the need to do a lesson series on racism in my advisory class. They are sixth-graders, and I decided to survey them first – I’m glad I did. Only one of the kids had even heard of the incident with the protestors, which I found fascinating. What we perceive as going viral doesn’t reach all age groups equally. I decided to leave the incident off the lesson plan and focus on basic, age-appropriate lessons on racism.
We started with a few circle prompts about times they have ever seen someone treated unfairly because of their race, skin color, or religion. I asked them about their perceptions of bullying at our small school. Almost all the students feel that at our school, bullying is not really so much the issue. Some students can be rude or insensitive, but they understood the difference between rudeness and bullying.
I talked about how it’s healthy that in our lifetime, it’s not socially acceptable to be outwardly racist. People in our community tend to call each other out on it. Racism tends to take the shape of the many small ways in which your life is made a little easier or a little harder because of your race. We read through the list created by Peggy McIntosh in the Invisible Knapsack. Some of the students were able to chime in with ways in which privilege tends to show up at school – for example, if a girl hears “you’re pretty smart! Girls can be smart can’t they?” or if you get in trouble with the principal and a little voice makes you wonder if it’s because of the way you look.
Today, we started watching “A Class Divided“, the story of Jane Elliott’s brown eyes / blue eyes discrimination experiment in her third-grade classroom. The kids find it fascinating. It’s a very good and comprehensive introduction to what discrimination is and what it does to people. As a sixth-grade lesson, I think it’s a solid foundation to build on. I’m interested to debrief with the kids tomorrow to get their thoughts on it. By the end of class today, they were begging me to try the experiment at my school – to bring collars and let them try it. I think they’re intrigued at the idea of lording it over their classmates, but also wondering if the collars would make them the same nasty people that the third-graders became when they were empowered over their lower-class friends.
Jane Elliott is a nationally-known advocate for racism education now, and I told the students I have seen her do this experiment on adults and it’s still just as powerful. She can make adults cry. (I won’t show that video to the kids because there is swearing… but man!)
At some point, one of my students raised his hand and said “Donald Trump is racist.” I sat in it for a moment and then said “Yes. He is.” Other kids wanted to chime in. I allowed a few comments. I ended with “He says racist things. It’s not OK.” And I moved on. I have heard arguments that Trump says the things he says to provoke crowds, or build his “message”. If you say racist things to provoke or build your message… you are a racist. I would never allow one of my students to say the things the president says. That behavior needs to be named.
It’s not a ton of lessons, but the students have been engaged and receptive, and I think it got us off to a good start when it comes to understanding these themes.
I have a few things to say about racism. I’m grateful, in an odd way, for the viral video of the boys wearing MAGA hats and mocking the indigenous drummer in Washington DC. You know the one.
It hit me hard because I recognize those kids. Not these exact teenage boys. But the smiles, the color, the jumping, the shouting, and the hats. They look just like my kiddos in northern Colorado. I worked with over 1000 kids just like them last year at my suburban public school.
I am amazed that we live in an era in which the president’s name and signature slogan are used as racial taunts. And yet here we are. Over the past couple of years, it’s been shocking to see kids act openly racist to their classmates simply by yelling TRUMP in the face of a Latino classmate with whom they already don’t get along. Or by screaming TRUMP’S GONNA BUILD THAT WALL in a crowded hallway and then ducking into a bathroom. Amazing that a kid can wear a MAGA hat to school and just revel in the high-fives from half of the students and the glares from the other half, and just bubble over with joy at the chaos they’ve wrought around them. Because of a President’s slogan.
I have NOT handled it well for the past couple of years. I have tons of excuses. I really wasn’t prepared for students to act racist to one another. I’m not trained in strategies for ending it. If I intervene, how much of my motivation is based on ending bullying and harassment, and how much of my motivation is based on not liking the politics of the kid’s parents? What if the parents call me and accuse me of being anti-Trump? Am I prepared for that call? If not, maybe I should scale down my response until I can really understand what’s driving me. Is the kid really being racist or am I overreacting? Maybe I’ll console the kid who’s being teased and avoid confrontation with the bully. I swear I had these thoughts. I’m not proud of them. I do want to respect everyone’s political differences and suburban parents can be intimidating. But come on – I was looking the other way when there was obvious racial bullying going on, disguising itself as politics.
The incident with the Native American drummer was fascinating because it happened on a school outing. I found myself empathizing with the school and internally making excuses for them. I have been there. Teenage boys do stupid things. My own students have these same impulses. And while we’re passing the buck, I believe the president’s own racism is at the heart of these issues, absolutely. The man has claimed Central American asylum seekers are diseased. He tried to make his case for a wall based on the presence of possible prayer rugs in the desert. He made fun of Wounded Knee. These are only from the last few weeks – the man is not politically incorrect, he is outright racist, period.
I stopped empathizing with the school when I realized I needed to stop making excuses for myself. It’s irresponsible of me to not even try to clean up the mess when his words set fire to my student community. I can’t let these moments go by. Kids need to know their words and actions are not ok, and they need to be called out for what they are. No more “you guys need to just stop and walk away”. It needs to be “I heard you say BUILD THE WALL as a way of harassing another student. Racial intimidation is serious and we need to take some time out to deal with this.” Covington Catholic School – and me, and my former school, and my current school, need to have a moment of reckoning and realize we have to deal with these forces that have been thrust upon us. We have a racist president who inspires kids to be racist. This is the world we live in. That nonsense HAS TO STOP and we need to not back down because we’re worried about offending their parents.
And if any of you reading this have suggested tools, techniques, articles or whatever to help someone learn the best way to correct racism and right the ship, please send them my way. I believe in restorative discipline and want to not just end racist, harassing, and bullying behavior but create a positive, empathetic community.
The academic year at my new school starts in a little over a week! We’ll have 150 to 160 students this year in grades 6-10. I’m teaching math and technology and am partnering with one other teacher for our mathematics curriculum. We’ve been working hard over the past month to get some key pieces in place. Not everything will be ready on day 1, but I feel like we’ve made some important decisions and we can go forward this year and see how we like it.
We plan on having students explore mathematics through venture projects, but we realize we would need to make compromises we may not want to make in order to cover the key Common Core standards. Compass School’s key mission is to help students learn by growing their interests & passions while connected to their community, and if we’re faced with a choice to cover quadratic factoring or doing something authentic with the kids, we’re going to do authentic work. We’ll include the math that makes sense in context, but have no intention of forcing a fit such as “find a way to include polynomial division in our study of recycling programs in Fort Collins”. No. It will be easy to include number sense, proportional reasoning, financial literacy, data analysis, charting & graphing, spreadsheets, estimation, and prediction, so those will be emphasized through projects.
Many higher math skills aren’t necessary, relevant, or meaningful to a teenager making their way in the world. And yet we’ll need to be sure kids understand them – through Algebra I / Integrated I if they’re unsure about their college plans, and through Algebra II / Integrated III if they are college bound. Colleges expect to see a solid math background, and if a student is enjoying it and wants to go through Calculus, we need to accommodate that. So there is the crux of our philosophical problem – how to create the conditions for students to learn in real-world, authentic contexts and also gain proficiency in math concepts that don’t lend themselves well to real-world authentic contexts? I wish we didn’t have this dilemma, but here we are.
We’re going to create this balance by offering flex time in addition to venture project time. Flex time can be either at the beginning of the day or the end of the day – it’s the student’s choice. We have scheduled 45 minutes a day, 4 days a week. We have come on board with Summit Learning Systems, which is a free content management system and curriculum and personalized learning tool provided by Summit Public Schools. My partner and I will do some intake testing at the beginning of the year, using MAPs and if needed, some of the short diagnostic tests provided by Summit. Since there are two of us teaching students of many different abilities and we will have no “grade levels” at our school, we’re going to group the kids in one of four flexible math groups to start.
Math 1 is number sense and arithmetic (4th-5th grade math standards).
Math 2 is pre-algebra (6th-7th grade math standards).
Math 3 is algebraic concepts (8th grade and Integrated I standards)
Math 4 is higher math (Integrated II and Integrated III).
pre-calc (and we may have a couple of students in this boat) will have its own personalized learning plan set up in Summit and may be on a special schedule.
Each group will get 1 or 2 teacher-directed lessons a week, using the Launch-Work-Wrap structure in groups. In each math group, the general concepts are the same so we can select lessons that help build students’ ability to use multiple representations, understand and communicate concepts. Then once or twice a week, the students will work on personalized learning time, doing exercise sets either alone or with a partner. Once a week, we will have Portfolio Time to work on application problems or interesting puzzles. The personalized learning time and portfolio problems are all built into Summit Learning Systems. They’re a really cool feature and we’re excited to use them.
If a student passes off all of the power standards for a math band, they can get promoted to the next math band regardless of how old they are or what “grade” they would normally be in. We have a few different systems that we can use to check off standards for students and I am not sure what that looks like yet. We need to have this in place by Labor Day or else be prepared with lots of clipboards and papers in the meantime.
One of our first projects will be on defining yourself and your identity. It’s the foundation for the rest of the work we’ll do with kids. As part of this project, we’ll explore how quantifying your life can help you better communicate who you are. I made a quick example for this below. I also think this little project can be a good formative assessment for how comfortable our students are using proportional reasoning, statistics, graphs, and formulas as tools for communication.
Those are the big ideas behind where we are so far! This is a bigger role in planning kids’ math education than I have ever held before, and I hope we do a good job with it. The systematic development of these math skills can sometimes be a weakness in project-based learning but I think we have a pretty good structure for making it work for us and the kids.
I’m a computer science teacher. I’m an engineering teacher and a math teacher. Of course I am. My job is to help students become literate, empowered, and creative with mathematics and technology. Right?
Except now I’m not so sure. I’m changing jobs next year and teaching at Compass Community Collaborative School, a new project-based public charter school in town. We’re making progress on the hard work of designing what our school days, weeks, quarters, and years look like. It’s humbling. It’s really humbling, because my base assumption that my job is to help students develop skills and content knowledge isn’t very helpful. I think it’s totally wrong, actually, and it’s sending me into a spiral of doubt about who I am and what I’ve been doing with my life for the past 10 years. I’ve been proud to be an advocate for engineering and computer science education, and I still believe firmly that all kids need exposure, practice and the ability to create with these skills. And yet that is not my job and it never has been. I need to put it all on a shelf and sit in the notion that my job is to develop human beings.
Compass will use a human-centered design process to create learning experiences for the kids. The process is laid out here, and it doesn’t start with skills or standards but rather broad concepts. Concepts are umbrellas under which questions, directions of inquiry, and actual projects live and grow. For example, our first set of projects will live under the umbrella concept of “Identity”.
Identity is a concept that crosses disciplines, that is universal to the human experience, that can be addressed with an infinite number of inquiry questions. When we first start doing projects with students, we’ll create the inquiry questions mostly for them. As they grow, they will create the inquiry questions themselves. These may not be the inquiry questions we will use for this project, but some examples we pondered early on include:
- How do labels impact our identity?
- How can art help us better understand individuals?
- To what extent are labels harmful? To what extent are labels helpful?
From there, we start brainstorming products students can create to address these questions. We think about how the questions might branch, and explore the scope from individual to global implications – bring the kids’ empathy along. Students might, for example, create an art piece that explores hidden layers of labels.
THEN, we can begin the work of pulling in content. What skills can we purposefully develop in literacy, numeracy, social studies, science, art, computer science, physical education and more? What are the power standards and what are optional? This is where I come in as a content-area teacher, but the role is minor compared to the bigger role of guiding kids through exploring this idea of identity deeply, empathetically, rigorously.
Maybe you see why I’m unsure of my place in all this! I love teaching technology and math and programming… and while I love my students and have enjoyed getting to know them as the individuals they are… I have very little pedagogical knowledge or experience in developing community, empathy, identity, critical thinking, and kindness. I’m going to need to study hard. I’m going to foul some things up from time to time. I am unprepared for the experience of going through what I did in my first year of teaching when everything was new and I never felt like I did anything right. I am, however, excited to fly my nerd flag high while we are learning things that are relevant and deeply personal and authentic.
I’m ready to announce some news I’ve been sitting on for a while and can finally share. I will be changing jobs next year, leaving Preston Middle School and embarking on a new adventure. I’ll be a founding teacher at Poudre School District’s newest charter school – Compass Community Collaborative School. It’s a 6-12 school in midtown Fort Collins, opening for the very first time this August.
I’m very, very excited. Compass embraces student-centered learning – we’ll be helping the kids understand who they are as learners, community members, and human beings. We’ll spend our time working in teams on venture projects and making the community around us our classroom. We’ll learn by doing, making, experiencing. I’ll get to work in true collaborative teams – and still play with some awesome technology. And work in a building right off the bike path and next door to Whole Foods. My new school’s website is here. https://compassfortcollins.org/
I’ve loved my time teaching at Preston. It was my first and only teaching assignment. I’ve been so fortunate to teach somewhere I had the freedom to explore who I am as an educator and as a person, and to learn from some of the very best teachers anywhere. I loved learning how to understand and teach mathematics. I loved building a computer science and engineering program. And I just love all the awesome kids that have walked through my doors every single year. Every single one of these Preston kids is so special to me, and it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to the students I was really looking forward to working with next year. There will never be a best time to make this change, but right now is the best time for me, so I have to make the leap. I’m ready to experiment with what I feel in my heart is the “right” way to do school. To get rid of the isolated subjects, the master schedule, the heavy emphasis on core subjects… and to start emphasizing who kids are, what they can do and be right now in this moment, where we fit in the world, and what we all need to be the very best version of ourselves.
I am actually excited to start working on mathematical understanding with my students again. I’ve missed it. And I’ll get to create with technology as well. I’m looking forward to the journey and I will blog about it.
The start of a new calendar year is a traditional time of reflection and anticipation. I’ve been an inconsistent blogger this year, which wasn’t intentional, but if I had to clear some things off my plate, this was an easy sacrifice. It’s been a full year. Along with constantly learning and changing in my job, I have two daughters who are in 9th and 5th grade and a busy husband too. When my children were little, I thought to myself “It will be so nice when they’re older. They won’t need us as much!” While it’s true that we can leave the house without calling a babysitter now, it is NOT true that your kids need you less. They need you more! You need to be more present, for everything from driving to emotional support to helping them make sense of the world. It’s been a joy being with the girls as they grow into interesting, independent people – but it definitely keeps you moving.
The job has been interesting as well. I don’t always know what to expect next, but here are some highlights from 2017 and what I expect from 2018.
- The CS for All and #csk8 movement.
“Coding” is gaining more traction in my suburban public school district, and this year for the first time we started some high level discussions on how to introduce computer science as a core subject for every learner. Several colleagues and I have been working on suggested paths for a K-12 computer science sequence. We are looking for sites to pilot ideas over the next couple of years and investigating grants for professional development offered by Colorado’s Department of Education. It feels like a painfully slow process, but there is definite progress here and I’m excited to see where it goes.
I started using these cute little devices in both my required 6th-grade class and in the elective upper-middle-school class. The younger kids learned cs concepts using the block-based MakeCode environment, and the older kids learned using the text-based Python environment. It’s such an interesting tradeoff. I didn’t feel that we covered as much material as I had in previous years, but I perceived that the kids were VERY engaged in their learning and took their learning in divergent paths. Introducing the micro:bits meant that some kids did not learn as much about coding structures such as variables and boolean expressions. But they learned more about the design cycle, and got really excited about testing and iteration. They generated questions themselves like “will it still work if I’m on the opposite side of the room? Will it work if I push the buttons at the same time? Will it work if I shake and push at the same time?” And then they answered their own questions and improved on their designs, on their own. I love the excitement. I want to keep that. And I also want the kids to be well prepared for high school work and to understand important concepts in computer programming, so having it both ways is hard!
- Virtual Reality.
I have a nice gaming system with an Oculus Rift controller in my classroom, and we have a variety of VR devices in the media center. Kids have access to technology at school that they don’t necessarily have at home, and so it gives them something exciting to use at school that they are very curious about. I’ve integrated a VR unit in my upper-level CS class, and our building tech coordinator and I teach a quarterly enrichment class called VR Exploration. We work with the kids to make 3-D models in Blender and little exploration worlds in Unity. We’ve had a few students that have gone above and beyond with their work in VR and that’s been fun to see. Toward the end of this semester, we received a $5000 grant to expand our VR program and so now we’re faced with the question of: how do we grow the program? We have some thinking to do about how we make this a more inclusive and interesting and cross-disciplinary experience for kids.
- Engineering for Others.
Our media specialist runs a pretty awesome after-school program called Engineering Brightness, and I love the premise of engineering with a purpose – to help others and to help students have empathy for the human experience. I’ve been working on the technical side of the program for quite some time and incorporated a lot of the engineering ideas into my Electronics elective, and this semester for the first time we were able to produce some finished products and send solar lights out to residents of Puerto Rico who were still living without electricity. It was a fantastic experience and I definitely hope to keep the project and improve on it this coming semester.Those are the main things cooking for 2018! What’s coming up for you?
I want to send a huge thank you to Shreya Shankar, a CS student at Stanford, for putting together a really well-written blog post about one of the ways in which being a woman in tech is a strange and sometimes isolating experience. In this article, Shreya talks about the complex feelings associated with being hired into a diversity program. There’s the resentment and blame cast on you by your male peers. The feelings of self-doubt about your qualifications. A little guilt, maybe you aren’t even sure about your level of passion for engineering. The annoying voice that creeps into your head when you introduce yourself as an engineer – the one that says “they are looking at you right now and casting you as the token diversity hire who doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Shreya, I felt all of this and more when I was an engineering student. After my sophomore year in 1994, I applied for an internship at AT&T. It was a diversity program specifically geared toward women and minorities in tech. I spent the summer writing Unix shell scripts to run the system backups, and plugging tapes into drives to test the backup system. AT&T, at the time, ran a really good summer program. We attended lunch talks with speakers who talked about everything from negotiations between men and women to AT&T’s outreach to the gay and lesbian community. We went on outings to theme parks and restaurants to get to know each other better. It was the first time I’d ever worked with such a diverse group of young people and I learned so much beyond the technical skills. My older co-workers said they liked the backup scripts I wrote and would continue to use them. I thought it was a successful summer.
The following year, I applied for, and got, a second internship with Hewlett-Packard. I was over the moon excited, because I’d get to move to Colorado for the internship and HP was going to pay me a moving allowance. HP’s program wasn’t exclusive to women and minorities, but diverse hires were a priority and we all knew it. I was going to write a configuration utility for some test and measurement equipment. It would be a great adventure working for a really cool company and I was stoked.
I ran into one of my friends on campus one spring day before the end of the semester – and I’ll never forget the conversation we had. I asked him about his plans for the summer and he said he would probably be going back home to work for his dad because he didn’t get an internship. I said Oh. He had already heard about my opportunity through mutual friends. He had no cheerful words for me. He pointed out that he had a 4.0 grade point average, and I only had a 3.6 and we were both involved in a lot of activities and then he practically spit out the words when he said “And I don’t have a summer internship and the only reason you have one and I don’t is BECAUSE YOU’RE A GIRL.”
It stung! It stung then and those words stayed with me and they STILL sting. We’ve stayed in touch from time to time and I’ve never brought up that conversation again. He did get a nice job at a big tech company later and has done well for himself, so whatever happened that summer didn’t ruin his life. I assume he was upset and angry and it made him feel better to bring me down a notch. I’m sure he was resentful that a student he perceived as less qualified got an internship he wanted. That awkward moment was terrible and I don’t even remember how I ended the conversation. I knew at that moment he was angry and I just wanted to get away.
And Shreya, and any other women out there who have had those moments, I want to give you some perspective as someone who did end up in a good career as an engineer and somewhat successfully finished that gauntlet. (I did change careers after a decade; I’m now a schoolteacher. I have no regrets about either career.)
- You can really enjoy being an engineer if you work for a good company with a good support system and culture. In my careers at AT&T and Hewlett Packard in the 1990’s, they did a lot of things right. The leadership was committed to making the workplace welcoming for everyone. They held lunch talks and events geared toward bringing out diverse voices and problem-solving together. They created a culture that welcomed different, even opposing, perspectives. They had employee groups that helped you network with other people with the same background. They believed in listening. Watch for this when you apply for, and accept, a job. Ask questions of your interviewer about the company’s support of diversity. If you get a chance to shadow an employee for a day or take an internship, do it and keep your antenna up. Don’t be afraid to change course even after you’ve accepted a job. There’s no reason to work for a company that makes you feel like you’re not respected or heard. There are plenty of good workplaces out there.
- People who seem less qualified on paper get opportunities over “more qualified” people ALL THE TIME. Sometimes it’s because the people interviewing perceive a good fit in something that’s harder to measure. The new hire has a great temperament. The new hire has networked well and has a contact that can vouch for them. The new hire has a skill in an area the company really wants. If this new hire is a white man, nobody will ever complain that they’re less qualified and they only got hired as a token diversity hire. Resentment comes out differently when the new hire is a woman or minority, and it’s an uncomfortable truth. You don’t have to do anything to justify your presence to others who didn’t get the job. You have a great opportunity – just try your best to hold the door open for those who follow you.
- Understand that companies hire for a “good cultural fit” all the time. When you got hired, the company made a decision that your skills and grades were what they were looking for, and your background and perspective is something they value and they wanted you on board. You’re a good cultural fit. You’re going to make that workplace even better by being part of it.
- Seek out mentors who are like you, even if they don’t work in the same company. Talk to them often. It helps if your mentors are in leadership positions – the section manager or vice-president won’t mind one bit if you invite her out to coffee just to talk about how work is going and how you like it, or you want to pick her brain about what it’s like to have a leadership role at a tech company. You might need an advocate later on, so try not to be shy about reaching out to other women. We need each other. I have had some very good mentors who were male as well, but I *needed* my female mentors when I had those moments of insecurity or self doubt. I would not have stayed in tech without them.
- You’re going to be subjected to sexism or racism from time to time. This is a fact of working in an environment in which you stand out as different. It’s going to happen. If you have plenty of good experiences to fall back on, it builds up your resilient core and the negative experiences don’t bother you as much – but they do happen. This is where having female mentors is so helpful. Process it with them. It’ll give you good perspective. You’ll start to know when to stand up firmly for yourself and when to just let it go and pick your battles.
- You’re also going to have experiences in which you just aren’t sure of yourself, in which your co-workers aren’t being explicitly sexist, but since you come from different cultures, neither is sure how to act around the other. Lunches, happy hours, golf outings, video game competitions, going to the gym – or work-related gatherings like a debugging session or breakfast meeting or an impromptu teleconference – you might feel like you’re not welcome, and it’s very likely that you are totally welcome, but the men didn’t think to explicitly invite you because they didn’t realize you felt you needed an invitation. Anytime you stand out as different, you tend to sit back and wait for an invitation. Try not to sit back. Ask “I’d love to attend. Mind if I join you?” Go, make an appearance and use it as an opportunity for everyone to learn.
Lastly, this is an awkward topic to bring up, but I have some pretty good evidence that during my time as an engineer, I was gradually paid less than less-experienced, male coworkers. I only have a couple of pieces of data and a lot of suspicions. But understand a merit-based pay system is not really merit-based. Everybody in your leadership chain has some discretion, and individual discretion is biased in ways we don’t always see. It would be very reasonable to track down more information in whatever way makes sense for the company you’re in. I never rocked the boat, but I look back and know I should have used the guidance of my female mentors to help me navigate the pay system better.
You matter. The career you’re entering is a good one, full of interesting opportunities, cool problems to solve, people who are smart and creative and fun, and a global workforce and customer base that is very diverse and that your skills will impact positively. It has its challenges but it’s very worthwhile. If you enjoy creative problem-solving, you will like engineering even with its issues. It’s a great field. I look back with awe at how I got to be part of technologies that changed the world without even realizing it at the time. Engineers make history!
Reach out to me or other women engineers anytime. We have your back!!