Why I Do What I Do

“You’re in the profession of developing humanity, one class at a time.” This is Dan Meyer, quoted in my last entry.  I’m passionate about my job, and my students. I work with economically disadvantaged students in a district with declining enrollment. It is sometimes difficult to express to non-teachers the challenges these students face.

“The Unfulfilled Promise of Brown v. Board of Education” by Richard Rothstein explains these challenges better than I ever could. Compared to students of higher economic status, my students have language challenges at home and their parents have less education. They have less access to enrichment opportunities at all ages. They get less adult attention, and have poorer health.

As to why students continue to live in racially isolated neighborhoods in the twenty first century, listen to “House Rules”. It’s a legacy of generations of discriminatory housing policy. Just because things are better now doesn’t magically erase everything that happened in the past. Consequently, some students – through no fault or achievement of their own – are better poised for success, just based on who they are, and who their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were.

Which all brings me to the thing that made me jump for joy today:  Why Interactive Notebooks are a Tool For Equity and Social Justice. I’ve mentioned how glad I’m am that I used interactive student notebooks this year. I’ve viewed them as a way to teach note-taking and studying skills to a population that is sorely lacking. What I didn’t realize is how much more ISNs can do for my student population. This article also touches on another challenge my students face: childhood trauma.

I’m reminded of the advice my sister, also a teacher, gave me when I first started out. She told me that my job is to love my students first of all. I am to give them a safe place to be, and to model appropriate adult behavior. I am to encourage them and gently guide them into responsibility. Only after all that is my job to teach math.

It goes back to the Hierarchy of Needs. Students can’t fully engage with education until their basic needs are met. And for lower-income, minority, immigrant, and disadvantaged youth, those needs are less likely to be met than for students of higher socioeconomic status. As educators, we must work to close the gap as best we can, and to make sure our students don’t fall through the cracks.

My Favorite Sites

I know I’ve been complaining about technology, but I love it, too. As we head toward finals, I wanted to reflect on the teaching web sites that I found helpful and/or thought provoking this year. To be honest, I also wanted to make a list of the good ones so I wouldn’t forget once my bookmarks are wiped from my school computer this summer!

Math = Love

Math = Love has guided my journey in the amazing world of interactive student notebooks. I was resistant to the idea at first, thinking it would be too much work, but I have really enjoyed using ISNs, particularly in Geometry. ISNs force me to distill what I want my students to really know about each topic. It reinforces the connections between topics. It has modeled effective note-taking for my students, and has taught them how to study from their notes.

Mathy McMatherson 

Mathy McMatherson inspired the standards-based grading that I use for my remedial Algebra class. It also has great entries on getting to the heart of student resistance to math, how to craft effective assessments, and student intervention strategies. His student population is very similar to mine, and I value his insights and dedication.

Using Writing In Mathematics

I have used writing sporadically in my class, and in my warm-ups, but this is a comprehensive guide to introducing and developing a writing curriculum in the Math classroom. This supports the common core practice standards, particularly “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” (MP3) Now that I have embraced ISNs, Math Journals may be my next undertaking.

Creating Open-Ended Questions

This site is actually a paid site, if you want access to the 450+ open-ended question bank. (An aside: I tried to pay – it’s only $14 – but I could not get the site to accept my payment! Oh, well.) But it is also a great overview on what makes a good open-ended question and how to create them. Our math department decided that our bell work should all be open-ended questions going forward and this site has helped me create them, as well as providing examples that I use on the days I can’t come up with any myself.

Mathematics Vision Project 

The Mathematics Vision Project comes out of Utah where they’ve been teaching Integrated Math for three years. In our district we aren’t moving to Integrated Math until next year, but I’ve already tried some of the lessons in the MVP curriculum to investigate concepts in my Geometry class.


Dan Meyer – of course! He’s a TED talk legend and his blog is full of food for thought. I especially needed to hear this (from his post “Speaking To New Teachers At Their Graduation” ): “It’s tempting to compare the job of teaching to other jobs you could have taken, jobs your college classmates took, jobs taken by the people you grew up with. I struggled with this for a long time. Friends of mine made more money working fewer hours and their profession wasn’t ever ripped a new one on national television. … You don’t have to worry, as many of my friends still do, that their jobs don’t really matter to anybody except the family they feed. You don’t have to worry that you’re insignificant to other people. You’re in the profession of developing humanity, one class at a time. That’s no small credit you get to claim. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to doubt your job’s value to humanity for thirty or forty years.”

101 Questions

Another Dan Meyer site, this one provides more open-ended investigations. I’ve used some of these for my open-ended warm ups and the students always have a strong response. Again, it’s the idea of taking a given problem and stripping away the given information to reveal a situation to ponder. Speaking of which…

What would happen if we took a problem apart and put it back together?

Dan Meyer’s stripping away technique in action.

More Thoughts on Technology

I have spent an incredibly frustrating few days, and most of those have to do with technology.

I’m teaching a Trigonometry unit in my Geometry classes. As I mentioned in my previous post, not all students have calculators. I’ve given them each a trig table, but the inequity is heartbreaking. Those that have a calculator – even if it can’t do Trig functions – have a clear advantage over those that don’t. Those that don’t own a calculator have to do long division for each problem, and that takes time. I’m giving the unit test tomorrow, and I anticipate that many students won’t finish in the given hour because of their lack of technology. Even more dishearteningly, many will just skip the problems that require long division.

As I went to make copies of tomorrow’s test, I was confronted with three broken photocopiers. Our controller, a wonderful woman who makes our budget stretch and stretch, reassured me that the contract on these chronically malfunctioning copiers is ending at the end of this school year, and we should have new ones next year. That’s great, but in the meantime, as we gear up for finals, we don’t have reliable photocopiers.

The cherry on top of my frustration sundae is our new student information software. Unlike our old software, the new software doesn’t allow me access to student attendance records. I have two students that are cutting class. I’ve referred both of them to my lead teacher and counselor in the past, but noting has been done. Now the ball has been volleyed back in to my court – I’ve been asked to call home on both students. But I don’t have the information to have a productive conversation. If their parent (or guardian, in this case) asks, “What days did they attend last week?” I don’t have that information. “Are they attending their other classes?” I don’t have that information. The people who have access to that info (lead teachers and counselors) are too swamped to make the call. I’m happy to make the calls, but I don’t have the information.

I love my job. But today I’ve had to remind myself that I CHOSE this job. I chose to work in a job that has notoriously few resources, where everyone is stretched to the limit. I need to accept that.