cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, February 10, 2019

We need to reimagine our whole-community conference from the ground up

We are trying to squash a new paradigm (a teacher-driven, free of charge, math ed professional development conference that locates equity at its center and foundation) into a too-small and outdated structure (TMC). We need to understand more about how the existing structure works so we can create a better plan.

We are still not anywhere near the point of identifying or understanding the unconscious, unspoken, equity-blind, harm-causing assumptions in TMC's structures. We're just not. This needs to be a whole-community effort. We're trying to set new goals but we're still walking around in the same old consensus trance.

There is no way that a small group of people could tackle this problem successfully. It's not realistic. It will take everybody in our community to surface and and interrogate the hidden assumptions in our structures. The problem with blind spots is that they are blind spots. If we don't work together on surfacing and transforming our assumptions, we will continue to just tinker around at the margins and that's not going to be satisfactory to anybody. It is also not going to unleash the liberatory potential in a a whole-community effort.

Here is an example of what I mean.

One of the toxic assumptions I stumbled on in my own classroom lately and am ruthlessly rooting out is the notion of individual attainment — the idea that each person has their OWN learning/mastery that is unconnected to the learning of anyone else in the room. This gives rise to a toxic kind of individual competition that is antithetical to sane and healthy learning for all.

This is the assumption that, once "I" understand the concept and "finish" an "assignment," then I am "done" and am on the hook for nothing more, leaving me free to play video games or do some other work.

But what if we were to start rejecting the underlying assumption(s) of individual attainment?

What if the goal were for the WHOLE CLASS to achieve fluency in a particular concept or skill as best we can, rather than for each individual to do it as best they can?

How would each of us teach, learn, listen, collaborate, help others? How would that change what I/you/we want? What would I/you/we need? What I/you/we would give?

What I realized in this thought experiment is that when grades are given for individual attainment, that is based on a socially Darwinian set of assumptions in which everyone arrives in my classroom with the same levels of everything. Every kid for themselves.

Once I saw this assumption, I couldn't un-see it, and I also couldn't help but challenge it. I am responsibility for every student in my room; therefore my goal needs be to get everybody over the finish line, right?

That forced me to look at the base-level operating assumption about individual attainment as the only measure. What if I were to change our goal to being one of, nobody wins unless everybody wins?

As I saw in the episode I wrote up on my blog, the kids took to this like ducks to water and our class averages were in the 90s rather than in the low 80s to high 70s.

How would we — each and collectively — think differently about our whole-community conference if equity were to be the absolute bedrock foundation upon which we were committed to build?

Wouldn't we have to start by analyzing together what the unconscious assumptions in our existing structures are?

Friday, February 8, 2019

Walking in the World With a Broken Heart – A Love Letter

Before I came back to teaching, I spent 25 years starting software companies in Silicon Valley. Starting organizations is a whole unique area of expertise. There is a huge amount of institutional knowledge that sprouts up about the life cycle of organizations. Newborn organizations become toddler organizations and if they survive, they become children and teenagers and adults.

Organizations are born, grow, split off, spawn new organizations, die, get acquired, fail to get acquired. Sometimes organizations become zombie organizations. A very few organizations get big. Some organizations stay the same size. Some organizations shrink. There are as many ways to thrive as there are to die.

In the corporate world, there are definitely different kinds of people who find they are suited to different kinds of organizations: there are start-up people and there are big-company people.

It takes a whole different skill set to start and run a start-up than it does to work in or run a large organization. The amount of infrastructure in a large organization is really impressive to me -- even in a poorly organized or run large organization. Anybody who has ever worked in a school district knows what I am talking about. There is a form for everything, a department for everything, a mission statement for everything.

Start-ups are completely different creatures. In a start-up, there's no infrastructure unless you create it. When you finally move a start-up organization out of the corner of your bedroom or your basement or your garage, you start encountering questions like, Where do ISBN numbers come from? Where do conference tables come from? How do boxed products get assembled and shipped? How do I calculate and submit sales tax to the state? Where does liability insurance come from?

I have always been a start-up person, descended from a long line of start-up people. Entrepreneurship is in my DNA. As I've done genealogical research on my family, it has been fascinating to discover that in between being attacked by pogroms and ethnic cleansing, my people as far back as the 1860s in Elizavetgrad in the southwestern Russian Empire were starting businesses and growing them and spinning off new businesses from old businesses.

So when we decided to start TMC almost ten years ago, it struck me as extremely exciting but also no big deal. I had done this kind of thing six or seven times before, plus I'd been watching my family members do it for generations. As Paul Hawken, the great environmental entrepreneur and author writes in his landmark book, Growing a Business, you don't start a new organization to overtake the competition. You start a new organization because there is no existing organization that exists to meet an identified need that is going unmet.

We started TMC because we felt like isolated individual math teachers who wanted to connect with other math teachers for free to find ways to improve our teaching practice.

And it's been amazing. My closest math teacher friends are people I would never have met otherwise. They come from all over the planet. They do not look like me or teach like me or have backgrounds like mine. And yet, I know their hearts in small ways and they know mine, and I love every single one of them dearly.

Starting a new organization is filled with risk. You are throwing in your fortunes with people you really don't know. What I think of as The Great Facebook Friending of December 2011 felt like a huge risk because it was. Everybody I know said, ARE YOU CRAZY? YOU ARE GOING TO MEET PEOPLE YOU MET ON THE INTERNET? HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING ABOUT DANGER IN THIS WORLD?

But I didn't care. I knew what the risks were, and I knew that I might need to go into Facebook Witness Protection if the 25 people I had just friended turned out to be psycho-killers.

They weren't. And I've never regretted it.

But something I learned by growing companies is happening now. within the TMC community and organization. If an organization succeeds, its mission starts getting stretched. People of good will have different ideas about what it means to live out the original mission.

This is normal. This is organizational growth. Sometimes it is possible to expand an organization's mission to meet differing needs. Sometimes it isn't. And that's when new organizations get born.

I have been wondering if this is why I feel less freaked-out about the evolution that is happening than other people do. I feel sad to see people I love leave this project I am committed to, but I'm also very used to seeing people I love leave my project to go off and start some other project that is going to be its own powerful, amazing force in the world.

The one thing I know about start-ups — and big organizations too — is that you can't just give them a personality transplant. A new organization is often needed to meet a need that is not being met by an existing organization.

It's important that we not view this as a problem. This is a great opportunity for our community.

There is so much institutional and organizational knowledge now in our MTBoS community about how to start, run, and grow a conference and a community that I see this as an enormous moment.

I am very sorry that people I admire and respect feel like they cannot live out their missions about how to create a teacher-led math conference/community focused exclusively on equity, but to me, it is very exciting that these incredibly creative, energetic, and dedicated teachers are spreading their wings and committing to figuring out how to bring their ideas about what they should look like to fruition in the world.

TMC is TMC. Something new will be something new. This is what exponential growth looks like. Today we are exploring the doubling function in our connected educator worldwide teacher community.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is said that when a lot of things start going haywire all at once, it is because something large and beautiful and powerful is trying to be born.

This is what I see happening here. It doesn't work to try and do a brain transplant into TMC because nobody knows how to do that — and it's just not how organizational development and growth work. It just isn't.

But something new is in the process of being birthed, and I see it as a "both / and" moment.

The world is an enormous place and our country needs every kind of lens we educators can bring to it. And we have no time to lose.

I am excited to think that there could be TWO or more teacher-founded math conferences in the world started by people I love and admire and feel awe-inspired to teach and learn with.

Please let us know how we can help. My heart is with TMC from the start, but as you sail off on your next adventure, please know that I will be that tiny figure on the shoreline, waving and cheering for your mission and wishing you every possible success.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Growing Pains

The TMC leadership team just did a very useful blog post clarifying how they processed proposals for TMC19.

I found it extremely helpful in sorting through my own understanding of the confused and confusing messages in the response notices this year. I appreciate the leadership team's commitment to being accountable for its own stuff.

We are all on this journey together. We need to hold hands and stick together. #OtterNation

 I do think there was some inartful language in the acceptance letters — and I believe it caused more distress than was necessary. Communication matters, and sometimes we just get it wrong.

But this is why we need to be — and remain — in dialogue in this work. Alliances across difference are hard. They are impossible without receptivity on both sides of the dialogue.

Everyone in this community knows what to do when a lesson bombs. You analyze what happened, reflect, and try again. This is how we develop resilience.  This is how we improve our knowing.

We will all do better next time because all human beings are better than our greatest or our least. And this particular group of human beings is committed to doing things better, and to doing this work together.

Our community is rare because it is willing to accept feedback, to adapt, and to grow. Let's agree to do that now. It is natural — and necessary — to experience discomfort as we learn and grow. This is what our students experience. It is inevitable that we will experience it too.

This is one of those moments when we have to make a decision about how to love this community and our world.  My hope is that we can take what we know about powerful teaching and learning and use it to make TMC the kind of reflective, resilient, transformational community we envisioned right from the start.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

ASKING A DIFFERENT QUESTION: a manifesto on skills mastery & assessment

I am one of those urban public school math teachers with a truly absurd spread of abilities in my gigantic Algebra 1 classes, so don't even get me STARTED on the whole "the trouble with identifying student skill levels" thing. 

Through painful experience, I have learned what a cop-out it is to quote lines like, "You just need rich enough problems!" or "Proper use of roles will solve all of your difficulties!"

I say this because every experienced teacher knows that at some point, you are going to come face to face with the life-saving need to reteach (or remediate) some of the most fundamental skill and/or concept areas that some students missed and truly need to understand in order to get the maximum benefit out of their education.

This problem punched me squarely in the face this past month in Algebra 1. In spite of Common Core and district promises that all students would arrive in 9th grade with a deep and thorough understanding of slope, linear equations, intercepts, and slope-intercept form, my students — who are among the most capable students in my city and county —had at best a shallow familiarity with these skills and concepts.

The whole thing was just a hot mess — and it got dumped in my lap.

And so even though I am an experienced, equity-focused teacher with a lot of skills for accommodating diversity and differentiating to meet student needs, I was really struggling.

I did a lot of meditation on it, researching and soul-searching, until I decided that I had been asking a wrong question.

I started to wonder, what if, instead of focusing on individual mastery of these linear equation skills, what if I were to frame the challenge in a collective and collaborative way?

A class is a community, it is true, but it is also an economy. And in an economy, individuals respond unconsciously to the incentives they are conditioned to respond to.

This gave me an idea. What if our goal — our incentive — as a whole class were to get EVERYBODY in the room over the finish line at a high degree of mastery?

And if that were our collective goal, I started to wonder, how could I best restructure the system of incentives to support students to want to help other students to get over the hump in mastering these skills?

This line of questioning felt dangerous — a sure sign that I might be on the right track.

Things changed a lot when I thought about the problem this way. For one thing, it became clear to me that the incentive needed to be a whole-class, positively interdependent one — in other words, I needed to make each individual's incentives contingent upon every other individual's ability to perform the tasks at hand.

I announced that our skills quiz for this unit was going to be a whole-class skills quiz, in which everybody would earn the AVERAGE SCORE of all individual quiz scores taken together.

My 9th graders looked around at each other as if they had never really seen each other before.

Then I announce the structure of practice we would use for the next two days.

There would be three stations around the room, one for each of the skill areas were were focusing on — given the coordinates of two points:  (1) Find the slope; (2) Find the line (i.e., the equation in slope-intercept form; and (3) Convert the equation to standard form.

Each person would be responsible for self-assessing on their role: would they serve as a Tutor or as a Learner?

Tutors positioned themselves at the various stations.

Then Learners chose a station where they would work with a Tutor or Tutors on the practice problems that were available at that level.

I said, "Go" and the mood in the room was transformed.

The most noticeable change in the room was the transformation of status. There was no longer any shame in being a Learner and no special advantage to being a Tutor. The class became more like a hive of bees — everybody become focused on figuring out how they could do their part to raise the class' average level of understanding.

Some people paired up and started working in pairs. Others took to the whiteboards (VNPSs) and created their own teaching and learning structures. After a while, certain students would trade roles. "Now I'll  be the Tutor and you be the Learner."

We did this for two days. There were no slackers.

On Day 2, one of my most capable students circulated around the room, checking in of his own accord on different pairs and groups, offering a "free reference sheet" and assistance with any of the harder problems that might need clarification.

Instead of competing with one another, my students were truly collaborating — consistently and sincerely — in sustained and authentic ways that I have not seen before.

Changing our skill goals from "I" goals to "we" goals broke their conditioned habits of competition.

I gave the six-question quiz yesterday, and individuals could get instant feedback on their personal level of mastery without worrying too much about doom. Everybody knew that the class as a whole was more than the sum of its parts — and there would be plenty of time in the future for deeper practice.

I was shocked as I scored the papers. I had made the quiz HARD. Really hard. But the average individual score was hovering around 93.

I am buying every kid a donut. Seriously. :)

But I am also going to internalize as much of the social and emotional wisdom I have stumbled into as I can.

Harnessing the power of the collective to improve the learning of the collective is a powerful tool for situational motivation that disrupts status issues in the heterogeneous classroom.

It also centered compassion as a guiding motivation in ways that I truly value.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Proof Portfolios: Revenge of the Immersive Project

Some years ago, in a town about 11 miles south of here, I taught both math and English (I'm credentialed in both — shhh... don't tell anybody). Our English department was the single most functional academic department I have ever been a part of. When you came right down to it, what we did wasn't rocket science. We had a method, we used the method, and we assessed together by grade level. The 8th grade team consisted of Alec MacKenzie, Kelly Starnes, Linda Grady, and me. We are all still in the classroom, which strikes me as a minor miracle.

The writing method we used was a combination of the Jane Shaffer method and Six Traits. Every teacher in the district had been trained on the method, and collaborative rubrics and projects had been developed over the years. The method was flexible, but we all agreed on certain basic components. We used Jane Shaffer's method of color-coding, from elementary through middle school. This meant that every student in the district developed a common understanding of what a topic sentence is, what a claim is, how we use evidence to support our claims, and how we use reasoning to tie things together. I believe it is still one of the highest-performing writing districts in California.

One of our signature practices was that we gave a fall writing assessment and a spring writing assessment. In middle school it was a two-day affair, tied to the literature curriculum. Time was allocated for pre-writing and writing.

And then we teachers were given an on-campus release day so we could read and score holistically — together. We double-scored each sample, using a rubric and highlighters.

It drove us crazy, but it also enabled us to see patterns. And because we could see patterns, we could adapt instruction to address the gaps or needs we identified.

Shouldn't this be the norm for instruction?

I have long wanted to use this approach with my teaching of proof in high school, but this was the first year I got my act together to run my own personal pilot program. I don't have a colleague with whom to work on this, so I went it alone. I created a four-day project that and gave them one day's worth of stuff to work on each day.
Here is the zip file with all four days' worth of assignments:
The secret of doing an assignment like this is radical: you have to relinquish control. You cannot be the only one giving students feedback. In fact, there is so much practice here, it is completely impossible. That is good. One thing I have learned as a writer and as a teacher of writing is that you learn how to write by writing a lot. The same is true with proof and proving. Students need space to immerse themselves and not worry about whether every mark they make is "right" or "wrong."

So each day had its "stuff." Four small proofs a day, plus reflection and peer review. Then more the next day.

The complaints and lamentations were filled with drama. "OH MY GOD, DR. S — THAT ASSIGNMENT WAS HARD." But they could tell that they had accomplished something.

My assessment strategy was to be rigorous about completion but merciful with points. It was only worth a quiz grade (100 points), and my default score for students who completed every section was a 95. There are rewards for following instructions. Missing sections or components left blank cost more points.

But none of that matters. My goal was to get students doing a LOT of proof -- writing shitty first drafts, comparing notes with each other, and using a rubric to assess each other's work. Dogen Zenji said, "When you walk in the mist, you get wet."

And it seems to have made a difference.

I am excited to see what happens on the next major test that includes a proof. Photos of student work to follow.

As always, let me know what you think and what happens if you use this!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Proof Portfolios

Over the last five years of teaching proofs in Geometry, I have learned two things: (1) the most effective student understanding comes from writing about their proof process, not from the proving itself, and (2) the most effective feedback process for students is a peer-to-peer reciprocal feedback process.

So this year, when I had to be out of school for a few days, I designed a Proof Portfolio project for them to do in my absence.

Each day had four small, reasonable proofs students had to do — and they could collaborate on these. But then... they had to write a number of short-answer reflections to analysis questions based on their own proofs in the day's set.

In addition, they had to find a peer to trade with and to give a rubric-based peer review and reflection.

In my class, they did this for several consecutive days. I made it worth a quiz/project grade.

When I returned, there was a great deal of wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth about How Hard This Project Was and How Hard They All Worked.

It was clear that this project was a rite of passage for my classes.

But as I'm reading their work, I am blown away by how much they seem to have learned!

Their mastery of proof is not perfect. But it is authentic and it is growing. And to me, that is the most important point at this stage.


I made up four days' worth of activities. Each day is two double-sided pages (proofs & reflections).

Here is a link to the G-drive folder with the four PDFs:

More photos:

Monday, September 3, 2018

The New Normal

By U.S. standards, San Francisco is a large, densely populated city, but geographically, we are really quite small — only 7 x 7, as the saying goes. We are also both a city and a county, the only one in California. Which means that everybody knows somebody at any given school.

Last week, a gun went off at in a classroom at one of our sister high schools across the city. This happened around 11:15 a.m. Naturally, the ninth-grade students in my classroom knew about it by around 11:20.
"It was a freshman." 
"It was in the bathroom." 
"No, it was in a classroom. They're on lockdown."
"He had a Spiderman backpack."
"My cousin goes to school there there."
 It was scary to know about while it was happening. Everybody does lockdown drills and everybody complains about them, but nobody would have objected if it had been a lockdown for real in our own school.

After a few minutes of frantic following the thread of what was known, I turned off the lights. "Let's stop and take a moment to meditate and send them good energy."

One boy with a blue sweatshirt and a worried look said, "Like, should we pray for them?"

I said, "If that is what your heart tells you to do in this moment, then you should do that." He nodded, closed his eyes, and laced his fingers together with practiced intensity.

I guided students into a brief mindfulness meditation. We laid our phones face down on our desks, and I gave them the instruction on how to do meditation, focusing their attention on their breath coming in and out at their nose. Thirty-six wired, anxious fourteen-year-olds and I spent the next two minutes anchoring our crazy, overstimulated monkey minds together in our breath.

I felt the mood loosen in the room; then I flipped the light back on and we returned to our lesson.

I kept an eye on my Twitter feed, and when class was drawing to a close, I told them that the police had apparently secured the gun and the area and that they were just waiting for the all clear.

A few years ago, I would have lost the focus of the students and not been able to redirect it. Now I know better what to do and how to do it.

I just wish this weren't happening as much as it seems to be in our country.