Thursday, November 10, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Elections

President Donald Trump.

Words I never thought I would have to speak aloud, now my reality.

I admit that I spent the evening of November 8 getting more and more upset as the results came in. And I spent the day of November 9 wandering around my house, crying, doing chores, and pretending to work from home. But now it is time to get down to business and figure out what we can and should learn from this election.

There are a lot of things that worry me about the impending Trump administration. I worry that my right to marry my same-sex partner could disappear. I worry that law makers will make it legal to discriminate against me, my boyfriend, and my other LGBTQ friends. I am concerned that we elected a vice president who is anti-LGBT, anti-science, anti-intellectual, and anti-woman. I am nervous about the kinds of policies that a Trump administration and Republican Congress might put in place, with little opposition. But mostly I find myself deeply disturbed about how normalized hate-speech has become. I feel much more unsafe today than I did a few days ago. I fear that I will get called a faggot while walking down the street. I am sincerely afraid of being gay-bashed, for the first time in my adult life. And I dread that I will hear chants of "Trump! Trump! Trump!" as I get hit, as though his election justifies violence against my person. And yet, we must learn from this election.

In the past year and half, Trump called Mexicans rapists, referred to women as pigs, implied that all Muslims are jihadists, said that the inner cities (read: black folk) are terrible, mocked individuals with disabilities, and promised to strip away rights from LGBTQ people. If you are in one of those marginalized groups, like I am, you might have rejected his words and ignored his message. I know I did. His message to white, working class America was clear: you have been pushed out of the mainstream for too long and the America you love is gone; it is time to take our country back.

Trump's is a powerful message, if you can set aside the hate-speech. That this message resonated with voters should not be a surprise. After all, it was very similar to the message Bernie Sanders used to propel himself through the primaries. Of course, Bernie's message was that we should get government to work better for us and that we can fix it together. The core of Trump's message was government is broken and corrupt and he alone is the solution. Both men put together a populist platform. Bernie's was built on hope and optimism and collaboration. Trump's was constructed out of fear and despair and authoritative leadership. Maybe we would be having a very different conversation if it were Sanders vs Trump. Would Sanders' positive message have bested Trumps' hate-filled one? There is no way to know. But we must learn that people across America believe that politicians at the federal level are out of touch with the real day-to-day lives of good, hard-working folks.

Obviously Hillary Clinton did not prevail. Maybe her message was not strong enough. Maybe she was too disliked. Maybe she represented too much of the establishment. Those of us who supported her have to reflect critically on this election and wonder if maybe we were so excited to make the kind of her-story we wanted to see that we ignored the warning signs. However, we must remember that Hillary Clinton has gone farther along the path to the presidency than any woman ever. She didn't get the golden ring, but she did win the popular vote. There will be a first woman president of the United States. It just was not meant to be this time around.

Ignorance is its own kind of hate-speech. White, working-class, rural people have become a marginalized group in America. They feel ignored and dismissed by the ruling elites. I have to believe that not every vote for Trump was a vote for hatred. I know it is difficult to see that today. And maybe it will be difficult to recognize that for a long time. People vote for lots of different reasons. I know military and law-enforcement personnel who voted for Trump because he represented safety and security in a way the Clinton did not. There are small business owners who experience regulations which prevent them from running a thriving enterprise. They did not think about the LGBTQ implications of their vote because that issue is not as important to them. We have to learn about our differences and why what matters so much to you does not matter as much to me and vice versa.

This one is going to be a difficult pill to swallow for those of us with progressive mindsets. Many Republicans and those on the conservative right have spent nearly 40 years pounding away at the same set of messages: Government is broken, Politicians are corrupt, Liberals want to take away your guns, Democrats want to kill your unborn babies, Gay people are immoral, Immigrants will destroy this country, Free trade erodes jobs... The list goes on. All the other side has been able to say is something along the lines of "No, that's not true." Decades of being bludgeoned with mis-truths and outright lies cannot be countered with a simple refutation. If we want to move forward with a progressive agenda, we need to learn how to change the narrative.

I hope we learn, in time, that Trump's election was a watershed moment for American history. One that threatened to send our country back decades but instead thrust forward the next generation of progressive, liberal, intellectual leaders who fought for equality, decency, and prosperity.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The end of another year - Algebra 1 edition

As the school year has ended and vacation has been underway, it is important to reflect on the year that past and look forward to next year. By nature, I spend a lot of time dwelling on both the past and the future while not considering the present too often so this should be a breeze for me!

In truth, I have had an extremely difficult school year. This, without doubt, the most challenging group of students I have dealt with in 17 years of teaching mathematics. There have been ups and downs and while it is easy to focus on the bad stuff without acknowledging the good stuff I want to try to give equal treatment to both.

My 9th grade Algebra 1 students were tough... tough to manage, tough to motivate, tough to encourage, tough to engage, tough to have them think... Many of them came from special education classes where the teacher never taught a full year's worth of math. They had low expectations from the adults in their lives and they had low perceptions of themselves. Despite the deck being stacked against them in pretty much every way possible, we managed to work our way through the entire Algebra 1 curriculum with two weeks to spare before the state test. I am incredibly impressed with what they accomplished this year. Maybe we went a little too fast but I am reasonably confident that most of the students can solve an equation, graph a line, calculate/identify/interpret slope, add/subtract/multiply/factor polynomials, and perform some data analysis. What more can I ask? Well, I suppose I could ask for my students to comply with requests the first time I ask. In fact that is probably the single biggest reason why this year has been so challenging in Algebra 1. I ask nicely for a student to do something and he/she refuses because he/she simply does not want to do it. These are just a few samples of the exchanges I've had:

Vignette 1
M: Please put your phone away. 
S: No, man. Why? 
M: Because I asked you to and because we are going to take notes and you won't need it right now. 
S: I pay attention better when I'm listening to music.
M: You probably don't. Please put your phone away.
S: I'm not even using it.
M: That doesn't matter. Please put your phone away.
S: Fuck you, man. I don't have to listen to you.
M: I've asked you nicely several times. I'm going to ask you one more time. Please put your phone away.
S: No.
M: OK, please go to the office.

Vignette 2
M: Please get away from the window.
S1: (ignoring me, speaking to another student) Yo man, you won't drop your phone out of the window.
M: Please do not drop your phone out of the window. Please get away from the window.
S2: How much will you pay me?
M: Please get away from the window. Please do not drop your phone out of the window.
(S2's phone gets dropped out of the window and students cheer. S2 runs out of the room to retrieve his phone)
M: S1, please get away from the window. (no response) 
M: S1, please get away from the window. (no response)
M: S1, please get away from the window.
S1: Chill, bro. You don't have to yell.
M: I was trying to get your attention. I asked you several times to get away from the window.
S1: You don't have to be a fucking dick about it.

Vignette 3
M: S3, please stop talking and write down what's on the board.
S3: Why should I stop talking, S4 is talking too.
S4: You never shut up. Just do what he asks.
M: Both of you please stop talking. I will worry about who is working and who is not working.
S4: Yeah. You should do your work. You're so annoying.
S3: Shut up. You're annoying.
M: Both of you! Stop talking and copy down the notes. 

An exchange like one of these happened at least once per period. It has been demoralizing and depressing and debilitating. Every two steps forward was met with one step backwards. I know that's a bit of a cliche, but it feels so true. Setbacks are a necessary component of learning and a natural part of school but to be in a near constant state of rehabilitation and recovery has been mentally and physically exhausting. If I had to measure the good and the bad and weight them against each other I think Algebra 1 would be pretty balanced. The significant academic growth my students made was systematically offset by considerable behavioral issues.

I know that I am teaching Algebra 1 again next year. I am not sure how I feel about it. I recognize that I get this class because very few teachers in my department would be willing to teach this class (or "these students") and I think that the administration believes that I can handle it. I know there are things that I have to do better this year, starting with a new classroom management plan. Luckily, I get to spend the summer contemplating what I need to do to make this coming school year run more smoothly.  

Friday, April 15, 2016

NCTM 2016 - Making Sense of Logarithms

Powerpoint and Notes

Thank you for the attendees who noticed that I have an error in the slides. I have a decimal place in the wrong position: 
10^3 * 10^0.6435 should be 1000 * 4.40, not 1000 * 0.440

Sunday, February 21, 2016

My Review of "Building a Better Teacher"

I've been struggling with my classes this year, so I've been revisiting some books about teaching. When none of them gave me any insight into my dilemma this year, I decided to try some new material. Aimlessly browsing through the neighborhood Barnes and Noble, I came across Elizabeth Green's book with the incredulous title "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching works (and How to Teach It to Everyone)". After skimming a few chapters and recognizing some names from the world of education (Lee Shulman, Deborah Ball*, Magdalene Lampert, Doug Lemov) I decided to give it a try.

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I brought it home, but what I read wasn't it. That said, I liked the book. It was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in teacher education. It probably would have been more accurately titled, "A layman's guide to the history of the research on teaching from 1980 through 2015", but who would buy that book? I thought it would be helpful to write a short review of the book to help me process what I read.

Truthfully, I'm not sure that I read a lot that was very new to me. I knew that it had been long argued that teaching is difficult intellectual work. I was pleased to see that Green was not at all dismissive of the challenges of the classroom, as are some writers on educational issues. What was helpful for me was Green's agnostic and critical stance on schools of education and educational entrepreneurs. She argued that each camp was engaged in the same goal: to describe and classify effective pedagogy so that it can be taught to aspiring teachers. However, she was careful to acknowledge that each camp was differently equipped to attack the problem. Schools of education are often fighting a culture and value war about what teaching should look like, what Dan Lortie called the apprenticeship of observation in his seminal work, Schoolteacher. The education start-ups entered the fray explicitly rejecting what schools were in the hopes of creating what schools could be. Many schools of education are research institutions which means (hopefully) that they are thoughtful about what teaching methods to try and how to try them responsibly. And they should be well-positioned to collect and analyze the data in both a qualitative and quantitative way. The charter schools were more or less haphazard in collecting information about student achievement and trying to match it to effective teachers. 

What both camps seem to have in common is the belief that good teaching can be taught! That is a pretty revolutionary idea. I've heard a lot of people say that good teachers are born not made. I've had administrators tell me that I'm just a "naturally good" teacher. I believe that the notion that some people have a gift for teaching and others don't is dangerous for (at least) two reasons. For teachers who work very hard at improving their craft, being told that they are "naturally good" demeans and discredits the effort they have put forth. For teachers who think that teaching is a talent, it releases them from any responsibility to get better; it absolves them from all pedagogical sins. How can we improve as a profession if we don't acknowledge that some instructional practices are more likely to result in student learning and others are less likely to bring about the desired results?

In the conclusion to Green's book, both camps constructed lists of effective pedagogies. Deborah Ball and colleagues put together what they call "High Leverage Practices" which are a set of "fundamental capabilities" that they believe all teachers should master. All of the practices and more are available on their website dedicated to improving teaching. Meanwhile, Doug Lemov published a book. "Teach Like a Champion" that documents his taxonomy of effective teaching "techniques". I know that some people have been dismissive of Lemov's approach because it feels like behavior modification. But, Ball's cognitive stance could be critiqued for emphasizing thoughts over actions. I don't think it's fair to compare them. I think that a thoughtful and critical teacher should be reading and using both of them to inform and improve his or her practice. That's what I'll be doing. 

*Deborah Ball is a widely recognized authority on mathematics education and I had read much of her research. Also, my graduate school advisor was a student of Deborah Ball so I like to think of her as my academic grandmother.**

**You know, a grandmother who lives halfway across the country, whom you've never met, and who most likely has no idea what you exist. So, we're not close.

Sunday, February 14, 2016