One-Man Book Club: This Is Not A Test

I went off-budget on the morning of Teacher Work Day, putting in an online order for a book that’s been on my to-read list for a while. (Don’t underestimate the commitment that was – 13 bucks is kind of a big deal right now).

In my never-ending quest to read books five years after everyone else, I picked up This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative On Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson.

I’ve been reading his blog for a while, recognizing that my thinking needed to be pushed in the classroom. His thoughts were as critical to my classroom survival in regards to my relationships with my students as my #MTBoS friends’ thoughts were to my evolution as a math teacher.

It was a hard read. I saw my struggles as a new (and not-so-new) teacher in his story. I mourned with him the death of a former student. I felt the knots in my stomach that developed this year as I read about him getting dinged on his evaluation for a sloppy bulletin board (the hell?). I’ll be pretty honest: I didn’t really know that part of the story. Kids get the best of all of us sometimes. I’m glad my failures are mostly private affairs. No one but my students see when a lesson bombs.

But that’s all selfishness on my part: “Here’s this awesome, brilliant teacher who stands up for his students and has forgotten more about classroom management than I’ll ever know, and look, he was bad sometimes too.”  It was a hard read because it showed me how far I have to go, still. I teach kids who struggle with math in a very traditional, results-oriented, suburban “college-prep” type school. Classroom-management-wise, I kind of got my ass handed to me this year. I thought I was better at it than that.

I feel like I’m pretty good at recognizing and encouraging my students’ interests and talents outside of math. I probably could get a lot better at finding ways to encourage them to have their maximum level of success in my class too.

I want to low-key let them know I support them. In every sense of that term.

The timing on this read was interesting. Just last week I attended a two-day conference in which I sat in on a keynote & breakout session by Ken Shelton. He talked about how he had only one male teacher of color in his entire K-16 school experience, and how he was often the only student of color in his classes. And how his teachers often did not understand his lived experiences, and made no effort to tailor their instruction with those experiences in mind. That sounds super-familiar in my current assignment. I’m fortunate enough to follow some folks on social media who help me to see why this is important, and I’ve taken their words to heart. Now I know better. But still, I can do better. My first 13 years I taught in city schools, so the importance of culturally responsive teaching is not a new thing for me. And I brought that with me to the Vale. But it’s a daily process of recognizing my shortcomings and committing to improvement.

For all of my marginalized students. We do an awesome job of supporting our elite students.  But I’ve felt for a long time we can do better for the 85% who aren’t 4.0 kids. That kid that doesn’t want to go to college, or does not have an Ivy League or Big Ten school as a goal. How do we support them? It’s one thing to recognize the problem. It’s another thing to call out the problem. And we do. At the district level our stated goal for the math department is to ensure all students are prepared for success in a livable-wage job or for their first college-level math class. But there’s more that is required.

Vilson relates the process of writing his 2012 TED Talk on Teacher Voice.

He felt that “teacher voice” comes down to four questions:

Four Questions

That last piece is huge. “Do you see yourself as part of the change?” What am I willing to do to bring about change for my kids, even if it’s just my kids? No district-wide mandate or program is gonna fix it. If I want my kids to be “college and career ready”, it’s gotta bubble up from the classroom level.

And actually our Secondary Curriculum and Instruction Director is on that. He led an effort with the English department to rebuild the curriculum from the ground up, starting with the question, “why do we teach English?”. It sounds like a similar effort is coming for math. I’m curious. And optimistic. Especially since he’s a Math Guy.

Also: added bonus value if you make the read interactive (mildly NSFW).

Went and put Eric B. & Rakim on the Google thing while I was reading and grilling yesterday. It was just about perfect.

My last takeaway was actually one of the first things that caught my eye: a comment by Vilson’s wife, a school principal, in a conversation about his middle school days. “You’ve been trying to create that Nativity experience ever since you started.”

It made me close the book for a second, lean back in my chair with the sun on my face and ponder what kind of school I’ve been trying to create.

I found myself nodding along to this section from the chapter, “Why Teach?”:


“If a kid shows a creative side, teachers ought to push them to develop it and relate it to what they are doing in class.”

In preparation for a presentation at two Summer of E-Learning conferences I briefly toyed with joining the cool kids who have stickers made to hand out.

I pitched the idea to one of my artistically gifted students for the image, and one of my clever (smart-aleck?) students for the slogan. I unfortunately started the ball rolling too late and we never did manage to put a mock-up together, but I think they both were kind of honored that I asked them.

I’m down with relationship-building. I just need to be more consistent with it. And I’ll have José Luis Vilson’s closing words in my head as I do:

Go Hard Or Go Home

This year had me questioning my future in this profession. After a summer to recover, I’ll be ready to go in August. But not halfway. “If you plan to do, then do this. Go hard or go home.”

Changing The Culture

We’ve changed our in-school professional learning model from late-start Wednesdays to a quarterly Half-Day PD this year. The first afternoon session of the year took place a couple of weeks ago, with a triple focus:

  • The Canvas LMS as curriculum map and parent portal
  • Formative assessments driving instruction
  • Increased Depth of Knowledge, with an emphasis on integrating DOK 3 tasks.

Our department chair related her frustration about the fruits of a planning session with two of our teachers, putting together an in-depth activity as they try to amp up DOK: “We spent 3 hours making one problem!” These are three really good teachers, people.

You guys. Desmos. Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos.

Image result for in space no one can hear you scream
In professional development, no one can hear you scream.

I totally appreciate the effort, but, damn, let’s not kill ourselves trying to reinvent the wheel when there are approximately 3 billion awesome activities at I told my colleagues, “I don’t know how many of you guys are using Desmos activities, but it’s a machine for cranking out DOK 3 opportunities in your classroom.”

Plus: Classroom Chef & Ditch That Homework. We ordered a set of both books for everyone in the department and passed them out at our department meeting today. Except for me. I already own both books. I offered to read along with anybody who wants to do a mini-book club.

Who’s with me?

Trying not to be “that guy” but where we’re headed with being detracked, & being 1:1… it’s the elephant in the room.  We’ve got a ton of work to do. The other emphasis going forward is making sure our graduates are ready for the workforce or to handle entry-level college math. Our lower-track kids this year… aren’t. Sorry. We need to give our kids a chance to think deeply about math, to reason, to notice and wonder. We know the lower-track students have been sliding along, getting by with minimum effort and no real understanding of the math. That’s not a knock on their previous teachers. It’s what they’ve told us and what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Our guidance counselors have told us horror stories of kids trudging into the office complaining how hard Algebra II is this year.

Thing is, we owe them the chance to do this. If you don’t believe me, believe someone way smarter than me:

We’ve got the tools. We’re not the first math department to stare down this challenge. In a conversation with my former department chair, now an administrator, I said “we’re trying to change the culture of the classroom on the fly here. We can’t wait until our kids are “ready”. We need to move forward with what we know is the best way to teach, and be confident that our students will rise to the challenge.”

Because I don’t like the alternative. At all.


How To Not Suck At Life

Image result for leo here's to you
“Muffy, our ship has most definitely come in!” Image via

The highly regarded Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith tells a tale of a student trip he made early in his career, when he taught at a suburban middle school he referred to as “Camelot”:

Our school was having a fund-raiser, and every teacher was supposed to contribute something for a silent auction. One teacher contributed tennis lessons; another was taking four kids to the movies. Since I loved Shakespeare, I planned a trip to the Old Globe Theater in San Diego for a group of about twenty-five students. The plan was for some parents, teachers, and me to drive the kids down for a weekend and two plays. The parents would pay for the trip and add about $25 extra. In this way the trip made a profit for the school while the kids had a good time and learned something.

And they did indeed. The trip ran like clockwork. We stayed at a beautiful hotel with a Hawaiian atmosphere. The kids swam in an Olympic-size pool in the afternoons and returned to their lovely and spacious rooms to change before dinner. We saw two terrific plays: Rashomon and a particularly hilarious Merry Wives of Windsor. A splendid time was had by all.

It was Sunday afternoon and we were heading to the cars for our return to Los Angeles. Walking next to a perky little girl named Jenny, I said to her, “Wasn’t this a fun weekend?”

“It sure was, Rafe.”

“Gorgeous hotel,” I remarked.

“It was okay,” Jenny answered vaguely. “It wasn’t as nice as the ones I stay at in Hawaii and New York, but it was okay.”

Esquith, a former National Teacher of the Year,  of course became famous for the program he developed while teaching at Hobart Elementary in South Central LA.

So the following year I found myself in the Jungle, a school twenty minutes away from Camelot, though it might as well have been twenty light-years. The school was so crowded that students played handball at recess against classroom doors. Over two thousand children attended the school, and all were fed breakfast and lunch there every day. Practically no student tested at grade level. No one spoke English as a first language at home. The test scores were so low that I doubt cheating would have helped much.

Trying to replicate what little success I had had at my first school, I planned a weekend trip to the Shakespeare Festival in San Diego. During the orientation meeting for parents and children, there were only a few questions. Parents wanted to know if their children would need passports. Were the children going to be in danger from the INS for leaving Los Angeles? The children wanted to know if there were bathrooms and beds at the hotel. Would there be a telephone to enable them to call home? No one mentioned Hawaii.

I’ve made the opposite journey this year, moving from an urban school just outside Chicago to a suburban Four-Star school that currently has three alumni playing big-league professional sports and regularly sends students to the Ivies and America’s top universities. I’m navigating a new world. In every sense of the term.

Any time you change jobs, there is a period of adjustment. Both logistically, and in terms of the culture of the building. My biggest adjustment: A different set of expectations, a different set of givens. I would have given my left arm for my best-behaved class at my old school to act as well as my “rowdiest” (relative term) group in the Vale of Paradise. In years gone by, I had to convince my top students (again, relative term – I taught almost exclusively students who were multiple-time repeaters of their freshman algebra course) that if they got themselves together academically and in terms of behavior, they could apply to and attend college at the local regional campus of one of our highly-regarded state universities.

High expectations are awesome. Important, really. For us as teachers, and for a lot of my new students, post-secondary education is a given.

But, that makes us awful quick to judge.

A package arrived in the mail today:

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Timely read.

It’s a memoir written by retired Marine and Yale Law School graduate JD Vance. From the introduction:


Those are my guys, by the way. All throughout my teaching career. The really fortunate ones had people in their lives who could show them the way. That way is not clearly marked though, and it’s filled with conflicting messages.

Vance, in a TED Talk, relates the tension between “you can do anything you want” and “life’s not fair”.

The telling line, from some of his people “back home”: Did you have to pretend to be a liberal to get past admissions? That’s the moment he learned about the concept of social capital.

So the other day I’m having a conversation with a person who knows kids who are “on the right track”: taking AP courses, wading through Calculus and APUSH and Environmental Science. This person is telling the story of a terrifically unmotivated kid, a guy smart enough to have his pick of colleges but… just not doing the work. My conversation partner was trying to light a fire under this kid, saying “You better start doing the work. Keep up what you’re doing and you’re gonna suck at life and go to <regional campus of famous state university>.”

South Park eric cartman sad kid nervous

I get it. When your classmates are going Ivy League or MIT or Purdue, that gritty mid-century campus in a Rust Belt city might as well be Ivy Tech. But still. “Suck at life?” I get that’s it’s an expression, but: That’s harsh.  Like, Elitist Jerk-level harsh. I could almost hear the words “those people” slip into the conversation, dripping with derision. My wife graduated IUN. One of my favorite reporters (one who doesn’t feel the need to inject personal political/ideological leanings into her news stories) went there too.

Not. Cool.

But after the initial sting subsided…

When I taught in the HMD, we tempted our kids with the promise of a free college education. The city uses a portion of its casino revenue to fund the College Bound program – kids whose parents own a home in the city and who maintain a 3.0 GPA are eligible for nearly $45,000 in tuition at any state school. The tuition amount is pegged to the cost of the Purdue regional campus in Hammond, which is the destination for the overwhelming majority of scholarship recipients.

I sat and thought for a minute about my new school, and sucking at life, and going to IUN, and recalled: It’s different here. “You can do better” is practically the school motto. I mean, we always want our kids to push themselves, no matter where we’re teaching. But here, it’s like it’s in the oxygen. Isn’t that what Vance was talking about?

What my conversational partner was doing was mentoring with hard words. That kid might have thought he could get by on his good looks and smarts. This person was trying to get them to realize that in The Show, everyone can hit a fastball. He needed to do more, or he’d end up wondering why everybody else got these great opportunities, and how unfair it all was. You don’t have to be an Appalachian hillbilly to feel that the world passed you by.

That’s the common thread in both places – not understanding the level of effort that’s required to break out of the neighborhood. I’ve told students at both schools my story.  No regrets. At all. But I still shake my head about what kind of kid gets into Michigan.

It’s one of the million teaching-related things I’m so conflicted about. Yes, kids, you need to have a pencil and paper with you in class every day. Yes, here’s some paper and a pencil because you forgot yours. No, I’m not gonna be a jerk and make you sit there and stare at the walls (or worse, and more likely, disrupt my class) because you forgot your pencil. Look, my dad worked in a steel mill for 40 years. As a little guy, that’s what I saw. You pick up your hard hat and your lunch bucket and you go to work. Every. Damn. Day.

But what if I didn’t see it? Who was gonna teach me?

That’s my job now. To teach them what they don’t know. To know when to lead with “you can do it” and when to say “life’s not fair”. And SIUP.

A perfect job for me: Mr. Optimistic Pessimist. Who occasionally sucks at life.

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Via xkcd.