ignorance and failure

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the Right Question Institute’s Midwest Conference as a guest, and I was able to bring a colleague from work with me. This was the first out-of-district PD that I’ve attended with a colleague, and it was really nice to have someone along with me to talk about how we might incorporate the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) more into our classrooms.

Since yesterday, I’ve been musing over some ideas/quotes about questioning, ignorance, failure, class culture, and mindset (of the teacher and the student).

One is this idea that I tweeted out yesterday:

Another idea my colleague and I discussed is the possibility of using QFT to get students asking questions and thinking about classroom norms at the beginning of the year, and I’m considering this quote from author Jasper Fforde as a QFocus:

Failure concentrates the mind wonderfully. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.

– Jasper Fforde, “The Well of Lost Plots”

(Side note: if you like British literature and fantasy, Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series is highly recommended. You’ll see another side of Miss Havisham, among others.)

I think these two things – allowing room for ignorance and failure in the classroom – are intertwined. QFT and student questions can honor these two things as part of the learning process (but are by no means the only way of honoring these pieces of learning). Several speakers mentioned that QFT allows for a safe space for students to ask questions and become more comfortable/confident in their ability to not only ask the questions but find the answers. And I think this is an essential part of my classroom that I try to cultivate, but I wonder how easily this kind of thing could be undermined by subtle things we do as teachers. If I want a question-asking, try-fail-try-again mentality to be the basis of my classroom, how do I promote such a culture? How do I inadvertently undermine it? How do I model failure for my students?

I’ve tried QFT a few times in my classroom, and it went ok, but I need to do more thinking about what the goal of those questions are and how to use them in an authentic way. Because otherwise, it becomes just another hoop for students to jump through, just another part of the game of school that they play. I want to use QFT more, and I want to take more advantage of the student reflection, the metacognitive thinking, that it has the potential to promote, but I want to do this intentionally.

Last week, I had the opportunity to join a class on online tools and collaboration in education and talk about the tech tools that I’ve used in my classroom. I use Google Classroom and Google Docs all over the place in my classes, and one of the participants asked if I’ve gone completely paperless. The short answer is no, the longer answer is no, because the online/computer-based tools don’t lend themselves well to everything I want to do in my classroom (also, we’re not 1:1 and not all of my students have reliable access to devices and/or internet from outside of school). One of the skills that I’m trying to develop as a teacher is the ability to evaluate different tools and see when they’re most appropriate for what I’m trying to do in the classroom.

So right now, I see QFT as another tool to promote student thinking, student agency, student reasoning. It is one tool of many that I try to implement in my curriculum, which is evolving and dynamic and I hope that it stays that way. But it’s hard, sometimes, to implement a new technique or a new tool in the classroom. It’s hard even to implement a tool I’ve tried before in a different way than I used it last time. I’m finding this to be true even after only 4 years in the classroom. There’s a risk involved – what if it flops? And when I work on course teams and share this tool/resource with my colleagues, there’s a bigger risk – what if it flops for everyone? Then they won’t want to use this thing (that I think is actually a pretty cool tool) again!

But teaching is a process, just as learning is a process. If I believe that failure and mistakes are ways that my students will learn, I need to accept that these things will also help me learn how to teach, how to be better. Kelly O’Shea has a Samuel Beckett quote as her blog’s tagline:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

–  Samuel Beckett

Next year, I want to be better about fostering an environment where mistakes are expected and valued, where student questions are valued by everyone. In aiming for this, I also want ignorance and failure to have space in my teaching practice too – acknowledging what I don’t know, what I want to know, what I tried and will need to try again differently.

mindset, smarts, and strengths

I’m finally getting around to reading “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler, a book I’m reading with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation fellows for our summer meeting, and it’s prompting a lot of reflection on how I have or haven’t fostered a growth mindset about science with my students this year. I’ve read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” and over the years, I’ve tried different things to more consciously foster a growth mindset in my students but I’ll be honest- I don’t think I do a good job of this and I don’t think I spend the time addressing it (explicitly or implicitly) that is really needed in the classroom. But I’m trying.

At the start of the spring semester, inspired by Kelly O’Shea and a conversation about being “smart” in science class, I switched up the way I do peer feedback and asked students to comment on their groupmates’ strengths in science class. At the end of each unit, I asked students to pick a science skill that they saw as a strength for each of their groupmates and explain why they chose that skill or when they saw that skill. I pulled the list of skills from a blog post by Ilana Horn on auditing your classroom for competencies and status. Here’s the list that students could pick from:

  • Extending on the ideas of others
  • Representing ideas clearly
  • Making connections between ideas
  • Asking interesting questions
  • Asking questions to clarify misunderstandings
  • Coming up with logical explanations
  • Working systematically
  • Working without giving up

It’s been a busy year and I didn’t revisit this mid-semester, but I compiled all of the peer feedback (which was collected via Google Forms) and printed a sheet for each student with their unique anonymous feedback. (I would love an easier way to do this and may need to do a mail merge type thing next year, but that’s another story.) I then had the students go through a series of reflection questions. As we were doing this in class, one student remarked that it felt like the end of summer camp, where you read all the nice things that other people say about you. Another student asked where the feedback about his weaknesses was, and I told him that I had only asked students to give feedback on strengths.

I thought about asking students to give feedback to each other on areas of improvement, but I’ve found that students can be almost too brutally honest with one another and I wonder if it’s helpful. Cacia Steensen, another KSTF fellow, wrote about her experiences looking for strengths in her colleagues and how it improved teacher morale in her department. I wonder what the effect of asking students to focus on strengths in science class has on their morale, particularly for students who don’t necessarily see themselves as smart in science. I hope that it improves their morale and helps them see that they are contributing to the classroom and their learning, although I think I need to do a better job of communicating and reinforcing this message throughout the school year. I also hope that it helps the students who do see themselves as competent and smart in science also see the value in their peers and how that helps their learning. A goal for next year is to revisit the idea of skills and strengths multiple times in the school year, although it can be hard because this seems to fall into the “important but not urgent” category of things.

I didn’t go through all of my student responses as in-depth as I could have, but I noticed that while most students weren’t surprised to see that their classmates thought they asked good questions (either interesting questions or questions to clarify understanding), some of them were surprised that their classmates thought they had skills related to explanations – coming up with logical explanations, extending on the ideas of others, representing ideas clearly, making connections between ideas. Some of them also thought they asked too many questions and slowed down their classmates too much. I think next year, I’d like to spend more time talking about what these skills actually look like and how they can be helpful to learning. I also need to be better about publicly highlighting these skills when they show up, particularly at the start of the year.

I compiled their answers to the last question (“What advice would you give to an incoming sophomore[freshman] at the start of next year on how to best succeed in chemistry[physics]?”) and made quick videos to show to them. I’ve asked students to give advice for incoming students before but I’ve never shared that with either the current class or the incoming class. This time though, I thought they had a lot of good advice and I’m hoping that seeing this from students who’ve gone through the course will help new students get started on the right foot. I’m also hoping that seeing what everyone said (I chose not to censor any comments) that the current students will see the value in asking questions and getting help. Not all of the comments are things that I would necessarily agree with (such as “memorize procedures” and “make sure you make a good notecard” [they are allowed a 3×5 notecard on unit tests but not quizzes, they can have a full sheet of paper for the final]). So I’m still wondering how to shift their thinking about what science is, just as Jo Boaler wants teachers to shift students’ thinking about what mathematics is: “At its core, mathematics is about patterns. We can lay a mathematical lens upon the world, and when we do, we see patterns everywhere; and it is through our understanding of the pattern, developed through mathematical study, that new and powerful knowledge is created.” (Boaler, Mathematical Mindsets, pg 23) I do think that a lot of science is also about finding patterns and applying them. A few of my students said that science class is “kind of like math” – probably not coming from the pattern-finding view and rather thinking of the rote application of a procedure instead. I’d like to disrupt that kind of thinking about science for my students.

So there’s work that I need to do. I’d like to assess more conceptually rather than just whether students can apply an equation. On assessments, I probably ask too many basic application/rote questions and too few conceptual questions that get at their thinking. Basic application/rote questions are easier to answer and easier to grade, but I know it doesn’t necessarily help their learning. I commented to one of my physics classes this year when they complained that a problem was hard that “you just want to apply an equation indiscriminately and I want you to think about it!” I then had to explain what the word “indiscriminately” meant, but once they understood they said “yes, because that’s easier!” It was a moment born out of frustration for me- that class in particular didn’t seem to really enjoy talking about physics, they just wanted to get it done, and I was getting frustrated by that attitude. However, I have to think about what I did or didn’t do to foster that attitude- why didn’t I address it earlier in the school year? I had students in my other physics class who were brave and willing to ask questions  when we were going over the homework and I took care to highlight that, but I don’t think I did that in my other classes. And looking back on it, my two physics classes had very different dynamics this year. Some of that is probably due to the personalities in each class, but I know a lot of that is on me for not doing more to foster a growth mindset, a “learn  from your mistakes” mindset and “ask the questions because surely you’re not the only one who is lost” mindset. There’s too much in my teaching that rewards just getting the right answer and not the process, and I’m still looking to change that. It’s uncomfortable and it’s messy, but is that a bad thing?

I also need to recognize where I am exhibiting a fixed mindset about student learning – When and why do I think “oh, they’ll never get it” and give myself a pass? I don’t think I do these things overtly, but sometimes the subconscious messages are the most damaging. I’d like to communicate to my students that my classroom is a place where I expect everyone to grow – you don’t come in knowing everything but everyone does and can grow and the growth is more important than memorizing equations.

A student asked me if teaching doesn’t get boring- aren’t we just doing the same thing, year after year? And I told him no, because the students are different and I change how I teach a little bit every year. (He still seemed skeptical that teaching could continue to be interesting.) I forgot to mention that I’m not just changing how I teach content (adjusting handouts and labs, etc.) but I’m also constantly looking for ways to better build up students’ competence. So I’m excited to think more deeply about how to better address student mindset in science next year, and the little to not-so-little changes I can make to address that. And I’m excited to see how it affects their learning (although, as I’ve said before, education isn’t a controlled experiment).

And here are the students’ advice to the next class, mostly unfiltered:

curriculum dynamics

Someone once, when attempting to complement me on a lesson, told me that it was the kind of lesson that “you put in a can and put on a shelf, and then take it down for next year, it’s that good.” I may or may not have given him an incredulous look, because that isn’t what I aim to do – that particular lab has gone through a different iteration every year since I first tried it three years ago.

Since then, I’ve been noticing when people around me say things that imply that very thing – that at some point, curriculum design is “done”.

A non-teaching friend, when I told her the above story, basically said “Oh- I thought that’s what teachers did. I had no idea that wasn’t the case.”

Last week, my chemistry students complained about how much work their bond energy homework was (keep in mind that they had 20 min in class to start it and it was a total of 4 bond energy/reaction enthalpy calculations). When I said that I didn’t think it was that bad, they responded with “well, you don’t have to do it!” And I gave them that incredulous look (and let me tell you, I have a great incredulous look) and said “you guys know I write the assignments I give you, right?” They thought that I got the worksheets out of a workbook or something and just gave them the photocopied pages.

The next day, my physics students commented that we kill a lot of trees for freshman physics, and one girl said “well, that makes sense because we don’t have a textbook.” Then we got into a discussion of if there are freshman physics textbooks (they know they’re in the minority of having physics first, though I think it’s becoming more common) and I commented how I don’t really like textbooks. Another student responded with “oh, so Ms. Park just thinks she’s better than a textbook”, to which I gave a snarky “well, yeah” but then mentioned how we piece together curriculum from a variety of sources for the physics class and go in a different order than most textbooks, which again, they had no idea about. (We then got into a sidetrack of plagiarism vs. educational copyrights and attribution.)

I find this interesting because even my students don’t realize that the materials I give them are not things that I just “got” from somewhere. And I hate using curricular materials “as-is” because there’s always something I want to change about it – often things go either too far in depth into a certain topic or not in depth enough, they spend more time or not enough time on a subtopic than I’d like. I’ve heard complaints about Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) activities because the written assignments are very reading-heavy, which may be hard for students with lower reading abilities to access, and the files that you get from POGIL when you purchase the materials are all PDFs. The American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) sent out a survey earlier this school year asking if modeling teachers were interested in a pre-printed “course pak” with all of the worksheets in a single bundle that could be ordered per student. I’m not going to lie, I’ve re-typed the POGIL activities I use into Word or Google Docs so that I could modify the materials to my liking. And the AMTA materials are given as Word docs for that very reason, so I have no interest in a pre-printed course pak for my students (also I don’t use every worksheet in either the Modeling Physics or Modeling Chemistry curricular materials, because they don’t fit our school’s curriculum exactly). I also don’t always trust “canned” curriculum, even from respected sources such as POGIL and AMTA, because they don’t know my particular student body and I know they’re designing curriculum that can work as broadly as possible. I kind of hope to never be one of those “edu-proselytizers” for any one curricular resource, because I like to see as many different ideas as possible and I want to keep that open mind. I actually love thinking about curriculum,  developing concepts across a unit, and learning progressions. I get jazzed up about finding a new activity that will work better to help students learn a certain concept, or supplementing existing activities, or presenting existing activities in a new way.

So the curriculum is constantly evolving, but we don’t start each year from complete scratch. We have folders upon folders stored in the Google Drive from previous years, and we pull and copy and modify and add to the folders for this year. There’s probably too much repetition in the Drive, but there’s something nice too about having that historical record- maybe the thing I tried this year doesn’t work as well as the thing I tried the previous year, so next year I’ll start from the previous version. Maybe we take a topic out of the curriculum this year but decide to put it back for next year. (The challenge is keeping the Drive organized in a way to make it easy to find things, which can be rough. Things are a little scary in there, as they would be in any real filing cabinet.)

The physics curriculum I work with was started 12 years ago by my colleagues, and it’s continuously changed every year. Some units change more than others, and I think that’s natural- we only have so much time and energy, and some units we have more ideas for changing than for others. But I’m wondering – is there ever a time when a curriculum is “done”? If I believe I have an awesome curriculum, why should I change it? Should I aim to be “done”?

My gut reaction is that curriculum should always be dynamic and evolving, because we keep learning more about how students learn and how to help them learn better, because new ideas and new technologies come out (although I believe in taking technologies with a grain of salt and not just using something because it’s shiny and new). I also believe that our curriculum, while I like it, has so many places where it can be better. And I think that there’s probably always ways to make teaching and learning better (but that gets into the discussion of “what does ‘better’ look like?”).

I take a lot of pride in the work I’ve done with the curriculum that I currently teach, because I think I’ve put in a lot of (hopefully good) work in making things better every year. And I do think that curriculum should be continually evolving, and I’m always keeping an eye out for a better way to teach what I teach. But it’s hard to give up a way of teaching that seems to work reasonably well for a different idea that may or may not work or that I may or may not be comfortable with. So I’m reminding myself to keep an open mind about things and to take a critical eye to my own work as well as to other people’s work, to cull the bad, keep the good, and make it better. And I’m ok with it never ending – otherwise, I think teaching might become boring and that it never is.

I just want to teach

I’m finally on spring break, and I’m using the time to relax and unwind but also mentally unpack this thought that’s been going to my head the past few weeks:

I just want to teach.

A friend posted on Twitter a few weeks ago how she was “more interested in ‘just’ being a classroom tchr for a few days”, and I responded:

I kept thinking “I just want to teach” when we were doing the “work to rule” thing at my school. I just wanted to be able to come in when I wanted, leave when I wanted, and get my work done on the schedule that I’ve worked out for myself.

The week before spring break started, we had some crazy schedules going on because of PSAT/SAT testing and while I appreciated the time to get some prep stuff done, I kept thinking “I just want to teach”. I wanted to have uninterrupted, normal class time instead of a choppy schedule that confused everyone (one of my first period students showed up to my classroom at 8 am on Thursday, but we were starting with 3rd period on Thursday and she had just forgotten…)

And then I started wondering – what does it mean to “just teach”? I think to the non-teacher, “just teach” only brings to mind the time in front of students. But teaching is so much more than that. I’ve already written about some of the things that teachers do that don’t take place in front of students. A (by no means exhaustive) list:

  • Lesson plan, including (but again not limited to)
    • Revise/update activities and handouts that were used previously (contrary to popular belief, I don’t put a good lesson “in a can” and then take out year after year…)
    • Test activities/labs myself from both the teacher’s perspective and the student’s perspective (particularly anything new). (I do this all the time. And this takes up a significant amount of time.)
    • Write and modify assessments
    • Revise learning targets and their sequence for either this year or next
  • Meet with other teachers to coordinate lesson plans and materials
  • Make copies, prep labs and other classroom activities (and this is a significant chunk of time in chem classes, but also for physics)
  • Communicate with parents, counselors, and/or admin about particular students who may be struggling and/or have a documented learning or medical issue that must be kept track of.
  • Tutor students outside of class (note: not getting paid extra for this, nor expecting to- I feel like that would be borderline ethical at best.)
  • Grade, and grade assessments in a timely manner (the point of the assessment is feedback and feedback doesn’t help much if it comes too late).

There’s a lot that goes into teaching. I’m not actually complaining, I genuinely love it (well, not the grading… but few teachers love grading. And it’s really super important both for me as a teacher and for my students to know where their progress is). But even though I’ve spent some time unpacking what it means to be a “good teacher”, I still struggle with the feeling that “good teachers” are also supposed to be doing more, making a wider impact beyond just their individual classrooms. Some things that have crossed my mind include:

  • Officially leading a PLC (professional learning community)
  • Leading professional development at the school level or higher
  • Presenting at local and national meetings
  • Joining a committee (for… some sort of school-wide initiative)
  • Going into school administration

And I’m not going to lie, I struggle with this idea of making a wider impact. I would like to be a force for change at my school, in my district, in my state. I would like to help, motivate, inspire other teachers of my discipline. And I’d like to actually get to know some of those teachers that I’ve only admired from a distance via Twitter or other online resources. But, with all the demands of actually teaching, I sometimes don’t know when to find the time. I felt super guilty attending NSTA a few years ago because I was gone for two full days and therefore unavailable to my students; attending any mid-year professional meeting gives me this same feeling of guilt (I haven’t been to NSTA since then partly for this reason). A big struggle around the “work to rule” thing at the end of March was the feeling that I was letting down my students. And really, I love being in the classroom and I actually love most of the things that I do to prepare to be in my classroom. I get nerdily jazzed up about resequencing lesson plans from last year or finding a new way to teach a particular topic. All of this takes time and energy, though. And with all of the time and energy it takes to “just” be a good classroom teacher, I wonder – What “additional” responsibilities are reasonable and good for me to take on, and what’s biting off more than I can chew?  How can I balance the need/desire to give my students the best learning experience I can and be available to them with the need/desire to effect positive change beyond my own classroom?

Some of my struggle is that I’m not quite sure what I have to add to the conversation. Am I doing interesting things in my classroom? Maybe? But nothing I do is invented from scratch, so I feel wary about sharing my ideas and taking credit (and sometimes it’s hard to give credit where credit is due, because I don’t know quite where things came from in the first place), although I’m happy to share resources if people ask. I don’t necessarily feel like an “expert” in anything in particular, because I recognize that all I know is my own experience, and my own classroom experience (almost certainly) does not match anyone else’s, even that of other teachers in my school who may be teaching the exact same lesson as I am (different people, different students, different time of day…)

I don’t have any easy answers. And like most things related to education (or really anything that involves large numbers of other real, living, breathing people), I suspect that there is not one right answer for everyone. I’m still feeling out what my “teacher voice” is for a broader audience. But I think it’s important for teachers to ask ourselves these questions, because if teachers don’t speak up, we get left out of the conversation. So I’m trying to figure it out – where is my zone of risk and my zone of danger? As I think about wrapping up this school year (ok, I have a full quarter of school left and we don’t get out until June 20th, which still seems ages away – assuming that CPS finds a way to avoid ending school on June 1) and I think about next year, I’m just musing on what my own next steps might be and how I might venture out a little bit more without feeling like I’ve gotten in over my head.

work to rule: theory vs. reality

My school is engaging in a “work to rule” action this week. Basically, we are all supposed to clock in at about 7:50 am and clock out by 3:30 pm (classes go from 8:00 – 3:15), and do no work over our 45 min lunch, take no work home. The point of this is to highlight how furloughing “non-instructional time” and asking teachers to do more paperwork affects students in the classroom by showing how much work teachers do outside of the paid 6.25 hr school day.

Teachers from Northside College Prep also participated in a “work to rule” action recently, and one of their math teachers has apparently been taking data on how much time outside of the school day is required to keep things functioning at an “adequate” level (see the article in the Huffington Post). She calculates at least 12 extra hours a week. I’ll be honest, I’m way above that mark (and it sounds like there’s not an end in sight: “Ms. Sullivan’s data suggests that high performing veteran teachers work even more hours than their less experienced peers.”)

I regularly clock 10-12 hr days, arriving at about 6:30 am and leaving (if I leave “early”) by 4:30 pm. My “contractually obligated” work time is 31.25 hrs per week. I regularly work through my lunch, so I’m usually at school between 50-60 hrs per week (and this doesn’t count any work I do at home on evenings or weekends). I’m not productive 100% of that time, but I’d like to think I’m pretty darn close. I haven’t yet managed to leave before 4 pm without scrambling, so needless to say, this week has been a little rough to get out the door by 3:30 pm. Today was particularly hard- we were doing a lab and I had to make sure everything got cleaned up properly and that the supplies were set for tomorrow (particularly as I can’t come in early to clean or reset). I also had to move my laptop and other things to my classroom in the other building (yes, I teach in two separate buildings). This has been my routine all year long and it’s hard to change it now. There are things I take care of at the end of the day to be ready for the next day, and there are things that I take care of in the morning before class starts (either for that day or for something down the line). Tomorrow morning I have to remember to drop off a student’s exam in their separate location testing area, which is normally not a problem but will be a scramble to get done between 7:50-8:00 am.

I don’t know if I’m really sticking to the spirit of the “work to rule” action. When we heard that this was coming, both the physics team and chemistry team kicked into gear to get this entire week planned out and made sure that copies were made in advance. It helps a ton that we’re at the end of the unit for both classes, so things just needed to be finalized rather than planned fresh. (It also helps that next week is short and broken up by PSAT/SAT testing.) Still, I ended up staying late a lot last week to prepare for this week where I wouldn’t be able to do so. So the time was still spent on prep, it’s just a question of whether it was spent earlier or later. I can’t in good conscience really do nothing outside of the school day, because then my classes would be terrible and I just can’t let myself knowingly give my students a bad learning experience. And right now, I feel like I’m letting down my students because they have a test or a quiz or a project (or multiple of the above) coming up or due soon and I’m not available for them before or after school as I normally am.

I’m not going to lie, it’s nice to have more “free time” in the afternoons. I managed to run some errands on Monday afternoon and went to the grocery store yesterday; I had time to cook a real dinner in the middle of the week and I made it to a yoga class last night. But it’s also stressful to not be able to plan on my own time and have to cram things into my 90 minutes of prep every day, particularly as I felt like that time was compressed enough as it is. I prefer coming in early in the mornings because I can get so much done when not many others are around (and I’m also just more functional in the morning).

So I don’t know how I feel about the “work to rule” thing. Overall, it’s been stressful and I doubt that it will result in any real action or notice from those in power (the school district office, the school board, the state…) While it highlights for me how much time and energy I spend on school outside the school day, I wonder if it really lets those outside the teaching profession know how much goes into that 6.25 hr school day. And it’s not that I didn’t know how many hours I spent outside of my “paid” time doing work, or that I ever expected my day to start at 7:50 and end at 3:30. There’s no way to spend 4.5 hrs a day teaching and also have the classes be well prepped and assignments graded in a reasonable time frame. I just wonder what the best way is to drive this point home to those decision makers who seem to have no idea what teachers actually do

Decision making

This space has been quieter this year, because real life has been busier. But now I’m finally on winter break and have a moment to relax and reflect, without immediate needs hanging over my head. (I still have things that are in the back of my mind and prevent me from falling asleep right away- such as, what should I put on the physics quiz review handout? How could I design an escape room-style review final exam activity for my chem students? When are we giving that quiz, again? What needs to be on the final exam? How can we sequence things better next year?)

I saw this quote on Twitter earlier this year, and I thought to myself, “well, yeah.”

When I mentioned this quote to a coworker, her response was that really, teachers probably make more minute-by-minute decisions than brain surgeons (because do you want your brain surgeon making a ton of last-minute decisions in the operating room?). Some of the Twitter responses suggest that teachers are more like ER doctors, which is probably more accurate. Some days, teaching feels like triage. I don’t know if the quote above is accurate or even accurately attributed (how do you measure how many minute-by-minute decisions are made by either teacher or brain surgeons? Who has that data?), but I do know I make a lot of decisions during the school day and also when I’m planning and prepping. And for me, the planning/prepping doesn’t actually end until late June, and probably starts up again in late July.

There are just so many things to do, and so many choices to make. Even what I end up spending time on is a choice that I have to make, how I prioritize things. And honestly right now, I feel like I’m not doing my best on anything and there are so many places where I could be doing more, could be doing better. I’ve talked before about how I want more time to do all the things that I want to do to improve my practice. And this year, I feel like I have even less time. I want to be more mindful of my student’s individual needs, I want to help my students reflect more on their own learning (I’m trying some different things, inspired by Kelly O’Shea). I want to really show my students that I care for them as both individual people and as learners of science. But then there’s all of the small or not-so-small administrative things that need to be taken care of (from tracking tardies to documenting students’ interventions), and I’m essentially leading or co-leading two subject teams this year. There have been a fair number of changes in our school and our department this year, which has made things more stressful as everyone’s trying to adjust.

Busyteacher.org has an infographic (shown below) on how teachers are masters of multitasking. I would love to know where this data is from (particularly in light of all of the things surfacing about fake news and our inability to recognize it, so I hope I’m not perpetuating bad data), but I do know that I find myself in all of these roles in one capacity or another, often all in the same day and sometimes all in the same period: information provider, role model, discipline controller, foster parent, assessor, administrator, and facilitator. And some days I feel like I’m doing a terrible job at all of them.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: teaching is intellectually intense. This is why I love it, why I find it so rewarding. But even though I love it, I recognize more and more that I need to find ways to balance my life better. I plan on taking time this winter break to do some recuperating from the stress of teaching, and enjoy some time with family and friends. And sleeping. (Today I slept until 9 am and it was wonderful.) But then I’m still doing some planning for after winter break/preparing for finals, and I also want to take some time to plan how to incorporate all of those other things I want to do. So it’s a break from students, but it’s not really a break from teaching. But my goal is to use the time to become a better teacher. It never ends, but I have to remind myself that this is a good thing- the possibilities for growth are endless, for both me and my students.

is anyone listening?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this fall. Earlier, I wrote for the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation on the importance of teacher stories. And I’ve been continuing to think about stories, particularly in light of what’s happening these days.

I still believe it’s vital to share our stories. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of a single story in her TED talk, and I found the entire thing to be quite powerful. I highly recommend watching it – it’s only 19 minutes and gives a lot to think about. Some quotes:

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity… I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

So it’s important to share our stories, but these days I feel like I’m running into two issues: 1) it’s actually really hard to tell your story honestly and 2) who’s actually listening?

It’s hard to be honest about teaching. Teaching is personal, and a lot of my self-worth is tied into whether or not I believe I am a good teacher or not. And because of this, I want others to view me as a good teacher too. I surveyed the internet (ok, my Twitter and Facebook followers) back in August about what makes “good teaching”, and that analysis is coming out with the next issue of Kaleidoscope (which will hopefully be out soon!). But because I want to view myself as a good teacher, because I want others to view me as a good teacher, what I say about my teaching gets skewed a bit.

Add on to that the audience. How I talk about my teaching to my family is different than how I talk about my teaching to my friends, which is again different based on whether that person I’m talking to either is a teacher, was a teacher, or has some other experience in education. I keep things pretty general with my family. “How’s work going?” “Oh, it’s fine. Nothing to complain about.” And yes, it is fine overall, and I recognize that I am fortunate to work in the school that I work at (relative job security and resources for an urban public school). But I tend to gloss over the nuances of teaching. My family does now recognize how much work a teacher puts in (my sister, several years ago: “Oh, now it makes sense why I got so many assignments back with just check marks in high school.”) It’s similar when I talk to my non-teacher friends. Rather than explain the nuances of teaching and educational policy (and I’ll be honest, I’m not as up-to-date on the latter as I could/should be), I keep things to what others can relate to- the funny and/or frustrating things my students said or did, the successes and challenges in interacting with coworkers and admin, the amount of grading I have to do… It would take much longer than a 5-10 min “how are things going?” conversation to unpack all that really happens in a school, and it’s exhausting. Talking about educational policy with people unfamiliar with the world of education gets complicated, and let’s face it- I’m tired.

Add on to that is the burden that I feel sometimes to present a positive view of teachers and teaching to the world at large. I am exhausted by aspects of my job, but when the prevailing sentiment seems to be “well everything would be fine if we just got rid of bad teachers”, I don’t want to give people more fuel to burn the teaching profession with. I want to defend my profession, even though there are aspects of my job that I don’t like and wish would change. I want teachers to have a voice in setting educational policies, in telling the powers that be what works and what doesn’t (because who knows better?). But to be taken seriously, I feel like care needs to be taken in how teachers present themselves to the world.

Which leads me to my second struggle. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is listening, or if this is just “preaching to the choir” and I’m stuck in the kind of echo chamber that apparently social media creates. I’m thinking about this particularly in light of the US election and the recent selection of Besty DeVos for Secretary of Education. Is anyone who has the ability to direct educational policies listening to teachers and their stories? Or are we all holding on to a single story about the other side? I can’t pretend to openly support charter schools, because I don’t. I think they have a lot of problems, particularly the lack of accountability. But I’m willing to acknowledge that some charter schools do quite well by their students, and I would love to hear about what makes those schools successful (it appears to be a balance between autonomy and accountability, where most public schools have too little autonomy and too much accountability, while most charter schools have too much autonomy and too little accountability.) I would like educational reformists to also critically examine where their reform policies work and where they don’t, and listen to the teachers in both contexts. Teaching and education are complex, but too often we (myself included) try to boil things down to one simple solution that should work for everyone.

NPR suggests reading the book that’s not for you to bridge the political divide. I’m willing to do that (also, I just love reading), but I wonder if anyone else is also doing that. You can’t force someone else to listen to your story. So I’m still wondering – how do I tell my stories honestly, and how do I deal with it when it seems like no one is listening?

But, because every time I think more about stories, I end up thinking about the Hamilton musical, I’ll leave you with the finale: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

processing

Yesterday was a rough day. It was emotionally draining as all around me people were processing the results of the presidential election. I’m still processing it, trying to figure out what this means really.

There’s a lot of shock, disbelief, and outrage. And I’m somewhat shocked, but mostly sad and disappointed. Several colleagues and friends have expressed extreme sadness about the message that this election sends minorities of all kinds (Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, Muslim, undocumented). The message that “you are not welcome here.” And I’m sad about it too, but not surprised. Maybe it’s because I’m a second-generation Asian immigrant, and on some level have always felt like an “other” in the United States. Even though I live in a diverse and progressive city, I’ve been called a chink (not often, thankfully!), and more times than I can count, I’ve been asked “where are you from?” and been told “oh, your English is really good!” So it doesn’t really surprise me that America doesn’t want non-White people. Even well-meaning White people sometimes send the message “you don’t really belong here”.

So now what? There’s a lot to be afraid of. Somewhat for myself, although I am thankful that I don’t actually feel a lot of personal fear right now. (This, too, is privilege-  primarily due to the particular type of minority that I am.) But I’m afraid for the country in general- what happens to the environment, healthcare, undocumented peoples, religious freedom, indigenous peoples and their land, LGBTQ people, minorities in general. And I’ve afraid for the many of my students who fall into these categories (sometimes multiple), although I have students who have supported Trump vocally as well (and probably students who supported Trump quietly, because let’s be honest- our liberal school is not a place where conservatives feel comfortable sharing their views).

I was so encouraged by my students yesterday. We had a test review day, and I had prepped extra material because I anticipated that many would have already done the review packet and be bored. But we were all distracted. I told them that if they wanted to talk about the election, they could, but they needed to be respectful. And they were. They were respectful, reasonable. They were afraid, and some of them showed it, but they were also thinking about how to look ahead to the future, how to galvanize change. And in my class with the vocal Trump supporters, I asked them to listen to each other and stay respectful, and they did.

Listening is the hard part. I’m seeing a lot on social media today about how social media may have changed the election, because we were all in an echo chamber of our own views. As Joanna Weiss wrote,

But the real problem with the race wasn’t the media’s behavior so much as its structure. If you hated Hillary, you tuned into outlets that confirmed your worst paranoia. If you hated Trump, you had parallel places to go for horrified screeds. No avalanche of fact-checking would mean a thing to people who didn’t trust the source. And no amount of gorgeously crafted echo-chamber lamentations would make a difference to people who wouldn’t read them.

Of course we didn’t understand each other. We weren’t even trying to listen.

Weiss encourages us to listen to each other, and I hope we do. I hope for empathy on both sides, to lead to change. But at the same time, I hope that we don’t allow racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic language and actions to become allowable in this country. It’s easy to label people as “other” when you don’t know them. A friend pointed out the rural/urban divide on the map this election – red in the rural areas, interspersed by dots of blue in the urban areas. And it makes me wonder if it’s because rural areas tend to be isolated and they don’t know the kinds of people that Trump was denigrating. So let’s get to know one another. I hear a lot of language about fighting, and I agree that we have to keep fighting for social justice, but even the language of “fighting” makes it hard. It’s hard to understand and feel empathy for your enemy. It’s hard to even want to get to know the other side when they keep talking about fighting with you. So how to we move forward? Am I just being naive? I don’t actually know.

I feel a burden as a teacher of urban students. I’m a science teacher, and I tend to stick to the facts. But the facts aren’t color-blind, as much as I want to think they are. I want to be a social justice educator. I want to show my students the resilience and courage that they showed me yesterday. And I’m going to be honest, it’s not natural for me. I have spent most of my life being silent, being compliant. I’m not sure how to bring social justice into my classroom- where is the social justice component of electron configuration? But I’m going to try, because my students need to know that they matter. And they need to know that others who do not look like them matter. This country is big enough for all of us.

 

pro sports – pro teaching?

Yesterday night, the Chicago Cubs won the National League pennant and are going to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Or so I’m told. (I might be a Northside Chicago resident, but I don’t actually know anything about baseball and I refuse to be a bandwagon fan.) But many of my friends are longtime Cubs fans and there’s been a lot of talk about the different players and what they did or didn’t do and how they got to the World Series. And it got me thinking.

Almost anyone thinks they have a right to critique what pro sports players do and suggest what they should have done (particularly when a team loses). Most of those people who critique sports have some background in sports- maybe they played baseball or softball when they were younger, maybe they’re part of a sports league right now. But I would guess that many sports fans don’t fully know what it’s actually like to be a professional sports player and all of the decisions and training that go into that one game.

I have a lot of sympathy for pro sports players who seem to screw up. The media attention and the replays must be hard to deal with, and I’m sure that they have to learn how to not let such criticism get to them. It must be difficult to be in a profession that’s under so much scrutiny all the time.

In some ways, teachers are not that different from professional sports players. Almost everyone has an opinion about how teaching and education should work in this country, because everyone has gone through one school system or another. And there is no end of critique for teachers and suggestions on what we should do to make education better. People are quick to point the blame to teachers when the schools seem to be failing (see Judge Moukawher of Connecticut’s criticism of “uselessly perfect teacher evaluations” and Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner calling Chicago Public School teachers “virtually illiterate” and principals “incompetent”).

But there are differences too- pro sports players are not as a whole disparaged, and there is always the chance that you’ll be highly compensated (not really sure what happens to players in the minor leagues). In general, people seem to recognize the amount of work and effort it takes to become a pro sports player (although I do think there’s a misguided notion that all you need is talent). There was a Comedy Central sketch by Key and Peele on ‘Teacher Center’, a “what if” teachers were treated like pro sports players? And, as a teacher, I found it kind of funny but also kind of off. I don’t really want the level of individual public scrutiny that pro sports players are subjected to. What I would really like is a general acknowledgment that teaching is a complex task that requires continued training and development, and perhaps the funding to teach students effectively (and not continually being asked to do more with less).

I put long hours and a lot of thought into my job. I’ve been told that baseball is more interesting if you understand the strategy behind the game, because apparently there’s a lot that goes into it. I wonder what it would be like if people understood that there’s also a lot of strategy that goes into teaching, and planning good strategy takes years and hard work to develop (hopefully, though, not as many years as it seems to have taken the Cubs…)

assumptions

Before teaching, I spent about 6 years studying chemical engineering, and one of the first things I learned in my engineering classes was to list all of the assumptions we were making in our calculations. Things like 100% yield, perfect insulation, the gases are ideal. In some situations, the assumptions make perfect sense; in other situations we’re at the limit and the assumptions no longer hold. I still remember being horrified in one of my design classes because we were told to include a 30% safety factor (i.e., make all vessels 30% larger to account for any crazy expansions/explosions). I was left wondering if there wasn’t a way to get the safety factor smaller- with better assumptions, perhaps?

As I get ready I start my fourth year teaching, I’m thinking about my assumptions about teaching, learning, and collaborating, and wondering- where are my assumptions valid, and where do they break down?

In some ways, I started unpacking my assumptions about teaching and learning about 4 years ago, when I joined the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) as a teaching fellow. With the help of my colleagues at KSTF, I’ve explored a variety of questions about my teaching practice over the past four years via teacher inquiry (but I by no means have clear cut answers to any of these questions):

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As I’ve been reflecting on my teacher inquiry (meta-reflecting?), I’ve realized how large a role my own assumptions about teaching and learning have played in this process. Through the help of my many thoughtful colleagues at KSTF, I’ve unearthed some of my own assumptions. I started with the question of “How do I foster a safe, effective learning environment in my classroom?” Then I got the (very gentle and well-intentioned) pushback about “What does it even mean for students to learn? Do my students and I agree on what learning looks like?” There were assumptions there about what learning is and isn’t. For me: Learning is conceptual understanding, demonstrated by an ability to apply concepts to new situations. Learning isn’t just a rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. I tried giving a survey to get at what students thought about learning, but I realize that my assumptions about what learning is and isn’t influenced the questions that were asked. After some frustrating class discussions, I moved into the question of “good class discussions” and had to first unpack some assumptions about what a good class discussion is and isn’t. (Good: everyone talks, students come to scientific conclusions on their own. Bad: Few people talk/same voices over and over, pulling teeth to come to conclusions, or students come to “wrong” conclusions.) I’ve tried to step back from the assumptions inherent in my questions to just get a snapshot of what’s happening in my classroom (questions like “What does discussion actually look like in my classroom?” and “Who is and isn’t participating in my classroom?”) but there was the inherent assumption that class discussions should lead to student learning. I found myself thinking about whether there are points in the curriculum where lecture is appropriate and/or necessary and when class discussions are beneficial to student learning. I shifted my focus to small group discussions, but ran into the similar assumption that small group discussions and interactions should lead to student learning.

Throughout this whole process, I realized that I am heavily invested in the idea that students should be constructing content knowledge for themselves, and that this construction of knowledge is best facilitated by small group interactions and discussions, as well as student-led class discussions. And there were assumptions about teaching and learning embedded in all of this, such as:

  • Groupwork is better than lecture (is it always better than lecture?).
  • Student-directed inquiry is better than teacher-led classrooms (again, always? How much scaffolding should I give? When is it appropriate to step in and when should I step back? What does a student-directed classroom actually look like? When is the chaos more detrimental than helpful?)
  • Struggle is necessary for learning (when is struggle productive and when is it counterproductive? How do my students view struggle? Should I be more explicit with them about why I let them struggle? When does too much struggle lead to students viewing themselves as failures in science?)

My assumptions about teaching and learning have affected my classroom on a daily basis (what activities I choose, how I introduce and go over content, even how I assign homework), and have affected the kinds of questions I’ve been asking and reflecting on for the past four years. I will tell you that I hate lecture- but I do lecture. I give a bellringer every day. Yes, I give the students time to work on it individually and in groups before we go over it, and yes, I ask the class for their answers, but I’m still the one directing the conversation and writing on the board. Isn’t that a lecture, albeit a short one? And I’ve definitely given other short lectures on material such as how to balance equations, what a dissolved ionic solid looks like, etc. My assumptions about what good teaching is led to mini-crises in my teacher identity. When I found that class discussions weren’t really working (the way that I wanted) and when I found myself lecturing more in my chemistry class than I did in my physics class (I didn’t want to be a lecturing teacher), when my students asked me for more lecture, I was left wondering if I’m just a bad teacher. I’ve had the fortune of having people I know and trust gently push back and help me unpack my assumptions about good teaching when I’ve struggled with these things.

I’m also realizing that my assumptions about the “best” ways to teach and for students to learn also influence my interactions with my colleagues. I have to remember to step back and think whenever I have a gut negative reaction against something that another teacher has proposed. How are my assumptions about teaching and learning affecting my reaction? I realize again and again how personal teaching is, and how invested we all are in our own practice, so I need to remember to be vulnerable and honest about my practice, even as I have strong feelings about why I teach the way that I teach. To be truly reflective (and to really grow as a teacher), I need to examine when and how my teaching strategies are working, and how to adjust them when necessary. Unfortunately, there’s no “magic bullet” to education (although many education reformers will tell you that their way will do it), and I know this. I want to be more reflective and flexible and cognizant of my own assumptions as I work with others, because teaching doesn’t happen in a bubble, and these conversations, even the hard, uncomfortable conversations where I feel slightly defensive, are how I’m growing as a teacher.

Assumptions are a starting point. I don’t think assumptions are bad, because without them we wouldn’t get very far. Trying to model all gases as real gases is unnecessarily complicated if you’re operating within temperature/pressures where the gases behave more or less ideally. But I always had to be aware of my assumptions in my engineering calculations, and I usually had to double check at the end that they held up. In the same way, as I approach Year 4 of my teaching career, I want to be aware of my assumptions and how my assumptions are influencing my teaching decisions. Hopefully, this awareness will lead me to more reflective decision-making in my classroom.