June 23, 2020

Is "How Do We Help?" the Right Question?

I got to(1) attend a workshop today. It was the Gates Foundation bringing people together to think about Algebra 1. We know that student success in Algebra 1 is strongly correlated with graduation rates, college attendance, and other measures of success in school. So the end goal was to imagine products, programs, and approaches to improve the success rate of Black, Latine(2), EL-designated, and students affected by poverty in Algebra 1. But we didn't start there, and the process we experienced was thought provoking. What follows is my processing of my learning. None of these ideas are mine alone, but since this was a flowing and building discussion I won't be citing anyone in particular either. I spoke about individual vs. collective cultures and learning today, I'm clearly still learning about what it means to attribute ideas in a collective environment.

As we brainstormed all the stakeholders, relationships, and influencers a student experiences I realized how many back up plans a student has. Lately conversation has focused, and rightly so, on how many roles schools serve and how hugely disruptive it has been for schools to be closed. For some students, school is food, shelter, safety, healthcare, and learning. However, a community center can also be food, shelter, safety, and learning. So can a home. Healthcare can happen at a doctors office, or a clinic, or the friendly neighbor with expertise. Learning happens in classrooms, but students have the back up plan of their teacher from last year, their classmates, their peers in a different class, siblings, adult family and friends, tutors from a variety of programs, online programs, the list goes on! Would I love to live in a world where a student leaves math class every day with a full understanding of the day's topic and they never need any outside resources? I'm not actually sure I would. Of course I want students to leave math class feeling successful. But I also love the idea of them leaving with questions, and knowing that there are many options for them to continue investigating those questions on their own or in community. The benefit of students have many options is that if one becomes unavailable the others can substitute. The problem is when the entire system breaks down and not only does the primary method of learning (or food, shelter, healthcare) fail to serve the individual, all of the back up plans fail as well. I have too many stories of that happening in my own child's education, but that's not today's post.

Moving past stakeholders in the workshop, we examined a case study. We thought of barriers as well as supports for this student's math success. We allowed for certain ideas to live in the tension of both/and. Being pulled out of math class for intervention is a barrier to full participation (compared to a student who shares all the experiences with the rest of the class). And, being pulled out of math class for intervention provides a supportive space where learning happens. A student can think math is fun and hard. Can get good grades and think that they're not good at math. 

So when we finally reach the section of the workshop where we imagine products, programs, and approaches to improve the success rate of Black, Latine(2), EL-designated, and students affected by poverty in Algebra 1, there is so much context already on the table/slide it's hard to imagine where to start. Maybe "How do we help?" isn't the right question at all. Students don't need fixing, especially not marginalized students. But systems do need re-imagining. Mostly I want to re-imagine in context of all the connected systems. A grant I'm part of allows me to connect with 2 local school districts, we're working on connecting them to each other. I'm also connecting with after school programs in those same cities. What if all those organizations communicated to share information? They don't need to be the same, I just established that I like the idea of students leaving math class and going to engage in math conversations in different spaces. The after school program shouldn't be teaching from the curriculum the teachers are using, that defeats the point of having different spaces. But what if the teachers knew about the after school program for new immigrants and encouraged students to do both/and? Students could engage in class AND get support outside of school. What if the after school program knew about the cohort model the school is running? Then counselors could encourage students to join the program where Black and Latine students see themselves reflected in their math classes by being placed in classes with peers who both share an aspect of their identity and are also striving to excel in math. These programs and approaches aren't about fixing students, they're about bringing students together in spaces where they're allowed to be themselves. Their brilliant, wonderful, mathematician selves. Maybe "How do we help?" is the right question, but we need to be ready for the answer to be "remove the barriers." The kids don't need fixing, they're ready to thrive in the world together, but we can help them find each other, and make the world ready for them.

(1) I went through a series of reactions to being invited to attend. First I was honored. Then I was unenthusiastic about the idea of a 4 hour online workshop. Then I was appreciative that they asked us for our thoughts about how to make an online workshop not miserable. After that I was busy with a million other meetings and not sure this would make the cut. When I saw the rest of the invite list I was intimidated. But then I saw how mindfully they'd built the slide deck we'd be collaborating on, and the conversation topics, and finally decided for sure to attend.

(2) They said Latino. Mostly I see people use Latinx to eliminate the default male or gender binary. But if you speak Spanish you know that x isn't a common ending, whereas plenty of words end in e and they aren't necessarily masculine or feminine, you have to know. Just like you have to know a person to know their pronouns. I'm not sure if Latine is catching on elsewhere but it flows nicer when I read it, so I'm using it for now, until I know better and then I'll do better if need be!

May 31, 2020

Every Single Meeting

One of the reasons I was most excited to get the job I have now was the research project we're working on. It's focused on building teacher capacity and increasing the number of underrepresented students in upper level mathematics. [Fun fact, it's funded by Biogen. Yea, that Biogen. No one on my team was at that conference so I wasn't exposed to the virus due to that event, and they have been generous in broadening our funding as we scrambled to support teachers in the transition to emergency remote teaching.]

When I started my new job last September I didn't know how to describe my role. Sometimes I'd lead professional development. Other times I'd coach teachers. Still other times I'd work on a grant with an ed tech company. At first it felt like I was a lot of different people doing very different things, but as the year went on, and most especially as I transitioned to working from home and switched hats from hour to hour rather than from day to day, I realized that I'm the same person doing largely the same thing in all those spaces. I'm a coach. And I'm living the dream where the values I hold close are also the ones that I'm supposed to focus the majority of my effort on at work!

Whether I'm working through the research project or not, I'm always focused on equity and building up teachers. Even though this is my personal passion project as well as a stated focus of both the center and the university at large, it's still an anxious moment as I start to broach the subject of equity with new people. Where is this teacher/administrator in their equity journey? Sometimes districts call me because they want to eliminate tracking, other times that's not what they were looking for but I'm going to bring it up anyway. Sometimes I'm in a room full of teachers I would have described as traditional and it turns out they're eager to adopt new practices to better engage all learners. Other times I'm at a school that prides itself on its up to date technology, but they're referring to students as high kids and low kids. But here's the thing, the whole reason why I gave you nearly 1500 words of context in the previous post: I strive to bring up equity in every single meeting.

We cannot solve a problem like racism by retweeting the pretty quote in an image on MLK day and saying "I can't believe it." when another police shooting occurs. Inequity is a systemic and cultural problem that requires large scale efforts to counter. I'm lucky to be in a position where I can do system level thinking (whether that be department, school, or district), but system level change only happens if all the stakeholders buy in. Which means talking about it at every single meeting.
Being the lone person bringing up equity is hard, and if you're in a position like a classroom teacher it can get you into the kind of trouble I found in both schools I taught at. When I enter a new school I'm looking for the people who are already doing this work, and then I work with them. It's so much less exhausting when you can tag team or even just catch someone's eye to know we're on the same page and will debrief that moment later. In other cases I've read and discussed Catalyzing Change with people. Thank you NCTM for creating this resource so we can develop shared language and I can point to an external authority. Find your community wherever you can, hopefully someday it will be within your school, but while you wait for more people to step forward know that there's a long list of authors to keep you company, and a lot more people on Twitter ready to collaborate. Because here's the thing, if you can find the energy and support you need to do this enough times, things happen. When people meet with me they know that I'll push back if a proposal isn't going to support students adequately. Eventually that gets internalized and they push back on their own ideas before I get a chance. 

I've evolved from the new teacher who wants to change everything yesterday. And I'm continuing to grow. There are still books to read, conversations to have, and things to do. The more I learn the more I realize my (largely fantastic fancy suburban public school) education was filled with glaring holes. But I know enough to ask questions and invite people to consider alternatives. I know enough to seek out experts because I don't have to have all the answers.

The only way to see systemic change is ongoing effort. It cannot just be people of color putting in this effort, systems are made of many parts and all of them have to be working in sync. It is hard (I do this all the time and it's still nerve wracking). It is a risk (administrations at both my schools didn't appreciate my methods of advocacy). It feels small (I'm literally just bringing up ideas in meetings). It is essential. I know you can do it.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I opened this blog post more than 12 hours ago. I had a thought this morning I wanted to share, but it requires context. Luckily I just remembered that I had a whole document of pre-written context! We were supposed to do a panel at NCTM in Chicago. Hema Khodai, Marian Dingle, Julie Wright and I. It was titled Choose Your Own Adventure: Equity-Minded Teacher Edition. We were going to share some of our stories, the choices we made, what it's like trying to be an equity minded teacher. To prepare for that I sat down and wrote out my whole story. I'm pasting it here, lightly edited. This isn't the format we'd intended to share, but maybe you'll learn something?

Job 1: I was one of 4 math teachers in my wing. Each wing of the 3,000 student school functioned as a separate school. It was an immigrant community, 90% of the students were latinx. I was a first year teacher, but I was also the only one in my department with a high school teaching certification. It was a very confusing place of high status (I’d taken a full licensure program, I’d student taught, I was involved in a group of teachers across campus who met with Al Cuoco of the EDC- I knew him as the Focus on Math guy, the rest of the math education world knows him as a Big Deal) and low status (young, female, brand new teacher). Sometimes admin wanted my opinion and other times they didn’t but I didn’t know (or care?) the difference. A friend and colleague once asked me if it was possible for me to sit quietly during a faculty meeting, not speak up about what I disagreed with, and then do whatever I wanted in my own classroom. I really appreciated her phrasing because it gave me space to reflect, but also to answer “no.” I was fresh out of an empowering women’s college experience, I was not going to sit quietly! It felt impossible to sit in a room where people were making decisions that didn’t make sense and could harm students without saying so. At the end of my third year my contract wasn’t renewed. They didn’t want to be stuck with an outspoken young female as part of the tenured faculty. 

I was also a privileged white person teaching kids from vastly different backgrounds than my own. While I was advocating for all gender bathrooms in 2009, I was also learning, clumsily, about cultural differences, the impacts of racism, trauma, and a host of other things I’d been largely sheltered from for my entire life.

Job 2: I lasted longer here! 8.5 years of growth as an individual and an educator. I still spoke up, but I was in a larger school and a larger department, so my voice didn’t stick out so much. A chorus of people questioning and pushing, taking turns, and speaking in unison is much different than a lone voice. I also learned to differentiate when my opinion was wanted, when I felt like it was needed, and when it would serve everyone best to bide my time and speak out in a different venue later. Despite these improvements, as years passed we could all see the school culture declining. In my first years here it would take just a few weeks to convince my students that my classroom was a place they could take risks, where I would support them, where mistakes were okay. In my final year my Algebra 2 classroom was just beginning to believe me that I really did want to help them reach my high expectations in January. (And then I left them.)

The decline was due to testing pressure, administration jumping on the next bandwagon every quarter without giving us time to settle into the previous initiative, and public doubt in the school due to a low state level assignment that led to further white flight. I had thoughts and ideas on how to counter these trends, but no power to implement them. The benefit of a larger school is I could blend in. The problem of a larger school is my voice didn’t carry enough weight to have an impact. I made suggestions, signed up for committees, offered to organize things, but it didn’t seem to matter. As my evaluation scores started reflecting my frustration with the system, I decided it was time to get out. I left midyear (at the end of the semester) which felt awful because I was abandoning my students, but also freeing because I was escaping a miserable school culture.

At first I was focused solely on math content with a sprinkling of pedagogy. I got my masters, attended summer programs like PROMYS, TMC and PCMI, joined the math teacher circle at school. But as time went on I expanded my equity work beyond the GSA to learning about all the parts of history and current events that my suburban white upbringing skipped right over. I acknowledged my white savior tendencies and opened my eyes to systemic racism. Now I get my professional development from #ClearTheAir and equity workshops. Twitter has continued to be a main source of community and growth, but who/what I’ve focused on has shifted.

Job 3: I left teaching to write curriculum. It was amazing! Of course I missed the interaction with students and the immediate field testing of all my ideas. But I had time and space and mental capacity to think deeply about all the aspects of teaching that could come from curriculum. I was working with people who also wanted to think deeply about all these same things. I received positive feedback on a regular basis! This was mind boggling. Feedback of any form is rare in teaching, but genuine appreciation of my work? So cool! We collaborated to learn about math, equity, typical schools, atypical students. Everyone was considered and the culture welcomed critical feedback. My voice didn’t stick out because everyone was critiquing, but my voice mattered. I was invited to organize discussion groups, develop features, and share all my ideas.

Unemployment: Sadly grant funded curriculum projects don’t last forever. I’d already quit the board of TMC a few months earlier so I spent the summer feeling extremely untethered. What was left of my identity? I even applied for jobs with the Elizabeth Warren campaign - far outside of my comfort zone as someone who has only ever worked in math education. I considered going back to school as a student (PhD) as well as going back to school as a teacher. I knew I couldn’t work in a school that wouldn’t listen to my concerns around equity, it was too frustrating and exhausting to be constantly fighting a brick wall. As I considered where I wanted to spend my time going forward I wondered how to choose among the best aspects of each job:

  • Small company/school where I can be heard

  • Working in community

  • Both math and equity are centered

  • My contributions would be valued

  • I’d have a large impact

Currently: I am a math coach, professional development provider, and researcher at a university. I work at the Center for Math Achievement, which is made of me, the director, and the program manager - my voice is definitely heard! During the regular school year I got to visit one school on a weekly basis for coaching, which allowed me to build community there. My work is all about math equity, one of the grants we’re working on is researching how to get more underrepresented students into upper level STEM courses. The combination of small projects (a school with under 500 students) and large ones (2000 student schools, research) is meeting all of my requirements!

I keep expressing surprise that people in schools listen to me. Not many people understand why that’s surprising to me. They see me with my large twitter following and status as an author, but they don’t see how I was ignored as a classroom teacher in my own districts. Not just ignored, but pushed out. It’s frustrating that the only way for me to get a school to listen to me was by leaving the classroom. But a large part of my role is now revoicing all the things teachers say. And giving them the power to decide how to spend their PLC time. It shouldn’t be novel that teachers have important ideas, but for as long as it is, I’ll be using whatever status I have to amplify them. And the same goes for students, but that's another post.

October 5, 2019

Modeling my Commute

When I was deciding if I wanted to work at the Center for Mathematics Achievement the only drawback was the commute. It's a mere 15 miles as the crow flies from home to the office so it shouldn't be that bad, right? Nope. To get there at 10:30 am on a weekday google tells me it could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to drive! An arrival time between 8 and 9:30 could easily take 2 hours. Those numbers are awful, and I'm committed to not being the traffic (https://twitter.com/Dale_Bracewell/status/1176980860525895680) so I started researching public transportation options. This is where the fun started, because I'm really lucky to have lots of options.

  • I could walk to the bus
  • I could drive to the commuter rail
  • I could drive (farther) to the subway

Each of these has advantages and disadvantages - total time, cost, schedule flexibility. So I started with the cheapest option (no parking and bus/subway) and worked my way down to the option I thought I'd dislike the most (I really don't like driving).
The research was somewhat challenging in terms of identifying all my options, but once I thought of an option it was easy to look up schedules and costs. Then I had to dig deeper, at which point I learned some compounding factors - like the train station closest to my house has really limited parking. But at this point I still had 3 viable options, the 3 bullets I started with. The cheapest option takes the longest. The next cheapest option requires lots of driving. The most expensive option requires little driving, an easy transfer - the trains are all in the same building, and I get to sit on the train where I'd be stuck standing on the rush hour subway. 

At this point I was really wishing I could do some calculating - but I didn't have a way to calculate this. What multiplier do I give for driving (yuck) vs. subway (meh) vs. train (yay)? No one wrote this problem for me so I don't know if Tina dislikes driving twice as much or three times as much or ten times as much as the train. One of the things I really like about the high school curriculum from IM is that we wrote modeling prompts exactly like this. There are scaffolded versions where we provide the data or guiding questions, but there are also wide open versions like Tina needs to get from Salem to Cambridge, what should she do? It's realistically challenging.

So what did I do? The first day I drove to the Lynn train station. First I learned that while driving south seems logical because I'm trying to go south, so is everyone else so I was sitting in traffic and trying to make a tricky left turn across traffic. Then I learned that it's an amazing $2 a day to park there. And finally I learned the trains don't run exactly at the times they say so my train to train transfer was really tight. On the way home I tried subway to train and the subway was just as crowded as I'd worried it would be. The next day I drove north to the Salem train station. There was no traffic because I could leave after both schools on my route started and I was going in the opposite direction of the rest of the traffic. It costs more both to park and to ride the train from Salem, but there's an express train which gets me there with a cushion to make my train transfer. So for the month of October I'm committing to this plan because it's the one that ranks highest for personal happiness during the commute. At the end of the month I will see if my bank account happiness and my personal happiness balance out. This program Lesley University offers should help with my bank account happiness:
My personal happiness at work has definitely been high enough to outweigh the pain of a long commute. I'll be sure to tell you all about what I'm doing at work soon, but for now you should read this newsletter because I wrote it and it tells you some of what we're up to!

July 5, 2019

Dreaming and Deliberating

In May I announced I was starting a job search. Since then I've had lots of time to think more deeply about what I want to do. The big things are still true:

  • My values are community and making a difference.
  • I'm only looking at jobs I can do remotely or commute to from Salem, MA.
  • I'm trying to cast a wide net as I consider options and opportunities.

The other things I've refined:

I believe in the power of a public education. Public schools are essential to the kind of society I want to live in. Our current public school system is broken. I spent over a decade working within the system, and I just can't imagine going back to that right now. I miss having students, I have so many ideas I want to test out, and I really want to see what the curriculum I spent the last year and half writing feels like from the teacher perspective. However, I don't want to be part of a testing culture that prioritizes compliance or graduation rates over students as human beings. And I just don't have any faith left that a local public school is doing that. Alternative public or semi-public schools (thinking ones for students with disabilities) fit within my realm of acceptable options, charter and private schools are off my list. I need to learn a bit more about how necessary a PhD is for the variety of college teaching options that exist.

I would really love to just play math with kids and adults all the time (see my last 3 posts and a growing folder of ideas and resources). I have made some progress in figuring out how to take this from a hobby to a job (see that same folder) but it feels like a giant leap and I'd rather approach it as an incremental transition from individual beta testers, to a library play group, to a thing I try to find funding for. But it sure is distracting to see this wide open public space next to an empty retail shop downtown. I would rather spend time playing than job searching any day.

So to pay the bills I'm applying to all sorts of curriculum jobs. I'm good at that. I enjoy doing it. But again I'm very picky about where I'll work. I'm not going to help someone make their computer program intended for rows of kids staring at screens mathematically correct, but I will gladly help someone make their math content more pedagogically sound.

If I don't find a full time job soon I'll probably write a third edition of Nix the Tricks (anyone want to pay me to do that?) this summer. I do really like writing...