Wednesday, August 6, 2014

People Circles

I'm lucky to flesh out some ideas with some great people at Encompass this week. Due to my recent fascination with circles, I had the chance to share an idea I've been wondering about for a few weeks now. I'm extremely curious where you would go with this idea and how you'd weigh in.

Say you have a room full of students or teachers (for a training).
You ask them to stand up and form a circle in the room.

You know how everyone immediately gets that awkward look on their face? The look where people are mentally calculating (or estimating) if there's enough room? Can we actually form something that looks like a circle? What if we can't form a circle, what do we do now? AGHHHHH!
Here's my idea: I'd want to know what size room you'd need to form a near-perfect circle with your students or teachers?

  • How would you facilitate this with students?
  • What questions would you ask?
  • What different question might you ask instead of the one I asked?
  • Can you even form a perfect circle?

I'll share some ideas next Monday or Tuesday, but I'm curious what you think first and appreciate any insight. GO!

People circles,

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Today was the first day of working as an EnCOMPASS fellow in Philadelphia. The Math Forum and Drexel University are our most gracious hosts. Make it a point to meet anyone from The Math Forum at your next math conference. They are such wonderful, interested, caring and giving people.

The Math Forum had us hard at work today as we used Google Hangouts to connect Philly fellows with offsite fellows, looking over PoWs (Problems of the Week) and the EnCompass software. You know when you work with the Math Forum, you're going to get a good helping of them asking us fellows, "What do you notice?" and "What do you wonder?" Since we're working on giving feedback, Annie Fetter gave us another gem: What would you love the software to do?

Another great part about the hangouts and looking over The Math Forum's site, is that I was able to listen to many other teachers share how they used The Math Forum's site and resources. In doing so, it gave me a chance to explore their site and peel back more layers of resources, support, and strategies I didn't know existed. For example, check out these beautiful links:
Our work hours were from about 8am to 4pm with a few breaks and lunch. Every working minute was productively spent engaging in some type of activity: discussions, gallery walks, reflections, exploring, commenting, etc. By the end of the work day, I was mentally exhausted. I've felt this way before. Sometimes at all-day conferences where you talk math all throughout the day and evening with people I've felt this way. I always need some type of break, some type of release or chance to decompress. I can't talk math all day nor want to. I might think or look for math all day, but talking it can be exhausting. Maybe I'm a wimp. So be it. However, I want to talk about more than math with people at conferences or some gathering like today's institute. I find it interesting to listen to people tell stories about non-math topics. So, thank you to everyone for sharing and not making it all about math.

This made me think about the daily mental exhaustion of a student. Let's randomly pick a percentage. How about 60%? I don't know. Let's say students are actively engaged 60% of the time at school? Okay, please disagree with me and pick your own percentage. This is super informal. Whatever you pick, take it and raise it to a percentage you'd like them to be at and don't make it 100%. Be realistic.

I raise my expectation to 85%. I'd like my students to be actively engaged in school 85% of the time, with 95% being my ultimate goal. I felt The Math Forum was able to gather some great things from people today because they broke it up and kept us actively engaged at least 90% of the time. I was exhausted, but it was a good exhausted. It wasn't like sitting in a chair all day at a conference listening to presenter after presenter deliver a one-way PowerPoint. Think of students and either subjecting them to a high level of engagement or subjecting them to teacher after teacher of un-engaging classroom time.

This post is longer than I anticipated. I want to think about this more, so here are questions I will continue to ponder:

  • What is constructive engagement and how should I (or we) define it?
  • What does constructive engagement look like in my class?
  • How do I get my students to be positively exhausted at the end of the day? 
  • On average, what percent of the time are students engaged in my class? at school?
  • How can I increase this percentage by un-engaging (breaking up the class time) them at times?
  • Would homework exist or should my students need a chance to decompress from my class? Did they get their fill for the day?
  • Would homework simply be blogging (as reflection), like I'm doing right now?


Thursday, July 31, 2014


I am reluctantly pressing "publish" for this post. However, please know that the rawness and honesty in this post is aimed at making each and every one of us better at what we (both individually and collectively) do to support our students.

Kate wrote a great post the other day about some teachers coming out of TMC14 feeling inadequate. I support Kate's attitude and conclusion:
We are all good at some things and suck at other things. One thing we all share is the recognition that we all have work to do, and that we can all get better, and that focusing on that is worth our time.
I believe we need inadequacies and need to feel them at times because they make us better at what we're striving to be: the best teacher for our students. We don't need inadequacies to feel inferior to other teachers or generate some type of MTBoS worth. Here's how I think we all need inadequacies.

I started learning and exploring how to play the guitar in high school. I stunk. My family probably got tired of me playing Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water and Metallica's Enter Sandman all day. The first two riffs (and eventually songs) I learned. However, I practiced. A LOT. When I wasn't playing basketball, I practiced guitar. When I was supposed to be doing homework, I practiced guitar. There were guys at my high school who played guitar and were better. It made me practice more. It made me want to be better at something I loved doing.

When I got into college, my focus on guitar playing was similar. I was a lot better by this time, but still practiced a lot. When I wasn't working or going to class, I practiced guitar. When I was supposed to be studying, I practiced guitar. Then I joined a few bands and we practiced a lot. Not only did I continue practicing by myself, but now I practiced with others. That's awesome. We got better together! I would also jam with other guitarists who were better than me. Sometimes they were better so I learned a lot. Sometimes, I was better so I got to share some things and could relate. Every time I jammed with someone, it was a chance for me to improve at something I loved doing.

I loved going to concerts or watching videos of my favorite guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, or Warren Haynes. I wanted to cut my hands off many times because there was no way I would ever be as good as them. However, it only made me want to learn from them, steal some of their licks (guitar moves/techniques), and be the best I could be with their help and inspiration. I remember meeting James Hetfield from Metallica and was star struck. I thanked him for his inspiration. That's all I could muster up the intelligence to say. If I could jam with him I'd probably mess up A TON! But I'd never turn that opportunity down, because I'd learn a lot and he'd push me to get better.

Once during college, I was in Chicago at Kingston Mines blues bar hanging with my cousin. This blues/funk band, Charlie Love, was up there laying down some great songs. I went up at their break to compliment them and they invited me up to do a funk jam with them. I was completely honored and humbled at the same time. Here is this tall white guy trying to play funk with the Chicago blues/funk band and I did not play as well as I could have. However, I was grateful to meet them, I learned a lot from watching them, and it again made me want to go home and practice until my hands fell off.

For me, this connects so well with where I am as a math teacher. I am grateful for many other math teachers who have inspired me. There are many times I feel inadequate. Maybe I've met some of these math teachers and I feel like my brain shuts down. The best I can utter is some number and ignorantly nod my head in agreement. However, meeting inspiration and hanging out with inspiration has made me want to become a better teacher for my students.

Imagine there was an opening at your school and you could hire your teaching colleague. Would you turn down the chance to work alongside:
This is a snapshot of the many teachers who have inspired me and continue to raise the bar for me. I wouldn't turn them down because I might have some inadequacies. They would make me a better teacher for my students. Imagine if you were the teacher after receiving students from any teacher who inspires you? Imagine if you're the teacher before sending your students to a teacher who inspires you? Wouldn't you want to be the best teacher for your students? Isn't that healthy? Who wins? I would hope your students. 

I recently offered a keep-your-head-up comment somewhere saying,
"Think of the skills you will acquire when making changes."
My challenge to you (and myself), if you're feeling inadequate or inferior at any time is to:
  • take risks
  • be brave
  • tap into your influences and inspirations to stretch yourself
  • be the best teacher for YOUR students, not the MTBoS.