December: Loving Portfolios, Tolerating Logistics


December, 2019.

At the end of every semester, we end instruction two weeks early. Students prepare portfolios, which is our school’s performance based assessment (based on the work that schools in our network in New York do). Instead of semester finals, they review the content and projects they’ve learned and reflect and present on their knowledge.

There are many changes this year. It is decided that all 9th through 11th grade students will do an oral defense and present their knowledge of one class to a panel of teachers and students. 11th graders at our school have done oral defenses for the last few years, but it is a new (and exciting) model for 9th and 10th graders. At the same time, I am mostly out of the classroom. Whereas I formerly sheperded advisees and students through the process of writing essays and answering questions, I now find myself covering classes and recess so that teachers have a prep period.

I love Portfolios and I guess I tolerate structures and logistics, so it’s actually not a bad deal. I get a chance to spend time with students in both mathematics and science. I know a few students from observing various classes and this provides a better opportunity to get to know students. Nothing motivates students’ names like having to get attention and redirect students.

At the same time, it’s a fascinating insight into what non-classroom teachers do while teachers are teaching. During the 2nd week of Portfolios, students spend one period a day at recess so that teachers can have their prep. This involves coordinating with our T-10s (security guards) about who goes where, especially when it’s raining or almost raining. It involves trying to think about logistics of how and when teachers drop off and pick up their students (a conversation which I am reminding myself to revisit next semester before Portfolios so we can build some shared understanding on what the process feels like for all people involved). It involves chasing students and making sure they don’t go off campus or hide where they’re not supposed to be. Quite a few students remark that being at recess, on a blacktop with a chain-link fence feels like prison. I have no answer to this (though I think I’d rather be outside on the blacktop. Though not if it’s raining. Which it does.)

As a coach, I also get the opportunity to sit in on some of the oral defenses. I spend the first day trying to float through the classrooms of the teachers I coach who have less experience with oral defenses. They all do great, as do our students. Even for students who aren’t 100% ready (and many of them are at least appropriately nervous), they show up and try. One particular group of students does a great job lifting each other up and giving positive feedback – “You tried your best and I know you’ll do ever better next year when you know more English. Keep going!” (paraphrase)

November: I Teach Independent PE?


November, 2019.

In my 7 years of teaching, I’ve mostly taught mathematics and it’s still confusing for me to answer the question, “What do you teach?”

I taught an integrated 9th and 10th grade Algebra and Geometry course for 5 years and then switched to 11th grade to teach Algebra 2 and a surprise numeracy course, focused on supporting students with gaps in their mathematical education. At our school, 11th graders change their schedules at the semester and take an internship outside of school to expose them to the world of work in the United States. They also took an Early College course at our local community college. I ended up teaching sections of both of these classes, which was a fascinating look into what our 11th graders learn and the structures on that team that even those team members don’t necessarily see.

This year, we get a lot of kiddos and we get them early. Our PE classes are now offered year-long, but when students from both teams get put into the same section, we find ourselves over-enrolled. A new section is created of “Independent PE” for students who are older and have more credits (and can sign a waiver to waive the credits). I also end up teaching this section.

Because the class is basically a study hall, I have the freedom to design the course however I like. With limited time, I decide to survey the class. Many students say they want to learn more English. Some students (though notably, not all) want to go outside and play soccer and basketball. So we try and go outside, based on the weather and whether the actual PE teacher needs to take his class outside. I try and pull some of the English Language Development structures we have and modify some of the health curriculum that is offered to me. There are moments where I feel like students are engaged in asking each other questions and building friendships across differences and there are moments where I feel like the class is crashing and burning (to be fair, this is how I feel in most of my classes, so…)

A fun yet intriguing part of this course is getting to know the students. I am extremely lucky that all of them are 10th graders and, for better or for worse, know a little more English and have a little more experience with school. I start to have a sense of which students are more dedicated to school and which students want more support with English. And the students (as always) are able to read me right away. “Mister,” complains one student (on the third day), “we do the same thing every day. You put a picture on the board. Then you ask what do you notice? What do you wonder? Ask 4 people.” His voice sounds extremely close to mine. I suppose I don’t mind.

October: Just Enough Constant Change

October, 2019.

People ask me how my “new job” (not actually a new job) is and I usually tell them that I live my life based on what’s on Google calendar. As a coach (in the morning, at least), I have 7 different teachers who I try to observe and debrief with on a weekly(ish) cycle. Plus meetings with other adults and coaches and student support and a random smattering of Professional Development (PD) days and it’s just enough constant change to keep me on my toes. There’s also quite a few documents (which are largely self-imposed) to keep track of and Google calendar helps keep it all in one place (to be fair, so does Google Drive, but Drive is crazy making. Again, self-imposed).

In a similar way, I am basically unable to do any writing for the Knowles (Teacher Initiative) Writing Retreat unless it’s in my calendar (and even then, my success rate is low). At the end of our writing retreat, I said I was going to block off some times to write…and I didn’t. Then, our first hangout came. And (because I hadn’t written anything yet), I said I was going to block off some time to write (…and then didn’t). At our last hangout, I finally set a calendar reminder for 2 hours of writing every other weekend (I also about half an hour of writing immediately prior to the hangout).


I saw the calendar reminder go off this morning and went to bed. I went for a run (because I can only ever get my running act together on Sundays). I push back the writing for an hour. And then another hour to eat. I have to do some reading about instructional coherency for school. So I push the writing back for another hour (s)…And then I need to eat again.

And now it’s 10pm. I still have a few (many) things to knock out for school tomorrow (thank goodness for Gmail’s “Send Later” feature). But I want to put in some of the time I have set aside, especially because I’ve already missed so many days.

(This entry finalized, with minimal editing, 3 months later. Go figure)

September: Relative Freedom, Heavy Support

September, 2019.

One of my colleagues is fond of talking about “problems to be solved and dilemmas to be managed”. Some things have an easy solution. Others don’t have a solution.

Teaching is one of these situations. In grad skool, we were always pushed to ask questions of students and not to tell answers. I forget the specific references in the literature, but asking instead of telling was meant to push them to rely on themselves and their classmates and not to overly rely on the teacher or a single correct answer. Being in the classroom, especially a mathematics classroom where students come to us with gaps in their education, I would find myself being pushed by students to “just tell us the answer, Mister!” The answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. I found things to be most effective when I pushed them first to talk to each other. If that didn’t work, surfacing what they each knew (which, especially for newer students, felt like teaching them to talk to each other, and is totally OK) was the next step. If students still didn’t know the answer, I’d sometimes step in, trying to position myself as the missing group member, building on what they already knew. I found that I couldn’t push them to further ask questions if they had already asked questions and hadn’t been exposed to the answer.

I find coaching to be a similar situation. Though I find I don’t remember much of my first few years of teaching (other than hanging group numbers on the classroom ceiling with my mentor teacher, relying heavily on the case managers who supported our students with Individualized Education Plans, and that one new student definitely called me by my mentor teacher’s name for well over a week after they arrived), I do remember that I was allowed relative freedom in a heavily supportive environment. If I had a question, I usually went to my teaching partner’s classroom right across the hall (sometimes in the middle of class, where we would hastily huddle to revise lesson plans that were not going well).

I was also fortunate enough to spend my first year as a mentor teacher working with a large group of mentors in the area where I work. We were exposed to a wide range of research-based structures (teaching checklists and a framework for quality education) and met at least once a month to discuss our practice as mentors. One of the themes that frequently arose was the idea of being a facilitative mentor versus a directive mentor. When do we ask our mentees what they think they should do? When do we suggest to them what they should do? When, if ever, do we tell them what to do?

As a result of my own early teaching experiences, I find myself being heavily facilitative. I was always given the freedom to explore my own teaching practice and decisions (for better or for worse) and with the help of so many collaborative teachers and coaches, things generally worked out. There are times when I wonder if I’m being too facilitative. There are more new students than usual at our school for this time of year. I’m still getting familiar with the arc of what a year of teaching looks like (or rather what the arc of teaching might look like for different teachers). Should I be more directive?  I’m guessing for now, the answer is a dilemma to be managed, rather than a problem to be solved.

August: Terrified of Summer School


August, 2019.

Summer school is weirdly near and dear to my heart. A coworker who started working for the District talked another coworker and I into teaching during the summer three years ago at an off-campus meeting and I haven’t really looked back. Summer school looks a little different for us, as our students (all recent immigrants) arrive throughout the year. Most of the students in summer school are doing credit recovery, but it’s because they were in another country (or – let’s be real – in a detention center in the United States) instead of at our school. It began as a good way to keep an eye on some of my advisees (and pick up some extra pay) and I’ve just decided to keep doing it.

I was terrified of teaching summer school this year (June 2019). In some ways, this was odd. I taught in the same classroom I summer taught last year (next door to the classroom in which I student taught) using the same curriculum from the last 3 years (which I cobbled together 3 years again using my planning partner and my greatest hits from Algebra and Geometry). But, after 5 years of teaching 9/10 mathematics, I switched to the 11th grade team, where I taught Algebra 2 (and a double block mathematics support class. And an Early College Support class. And an Internship class). I am terrified that I have forgotten all the tricks of the 9/10 trade.

On the first day of school, I recognize one student I know (in fact, it will take me at least 2 weeks to figure out which students are from the school I teach at during the school year and which students are from other schools) and quickly rely on them. Pass out the papers? Start the class? Convince me that I haven’t totally lost my touch?

Things turn out just fine. Interestingly, patterns at summer school reflect what we’ve seen at our school throughout the year. After a few years of lower enrollment, there are suddenly many more recent immigrants in our school district. I start out most of my classes with 7 tables instead of the 4 tables that my smallest summer school class ended up with last year. We do some work with group roles. I speak a lot of Spanish. I fake grumble at one class – and one kiddo – in particular, because I want to encourage him to be on time and I think they can be more focused. I wonder if it’s enough time.

As we roll into the school year, I find myself back on the 9/10 floor more frequently. And strangely enough (or perhaps, not strangely at all), many of the connections I find are the students I taught in summer school, who are now at least vaguely familiar. Even if the summer isn’t enough time, maybe there’s still enough time.

Hello (again) World


I mostly lurk in the #MathematicsTwitterBlogOSphere. One of the takeaways from a conference that I lurked at from afar was Carl Oliver’s idea that we need to #PushSend. So many of us (and I see this at my school) have perfectionist tendencies and need to have the perfect blog created before we publish it. When we should really just #PushSend and send it out into the world.

I am writing again with support from the Knowles Teacher Initiative. I spent 2 days this summer (which now seems ages ago) with a group of once-beginning mathematics and science teachers thinking about what writing about teaching means. This, combined with my typical dragging-of-feet for an inquiry story that I had to write, brought me to the realization that the best way to get over dragging my feet is to write a horrible, horrible draft, then revise it several times.

So that’s what I’m doing. Now that school is up and running, I’m making myself sit down once a month and draft/revise a quick blogpost about what I’m thinking about. One of the questions I find myself returning to is “What do teachers know that they wish other people knew?” And I think quite a few posts will focus on that. 

Other possible things that may appear here:

  • Thoughts on teacher education
  • Teaching and identity
  • Supporting emerging multilingual students (Rochelle Gutiérrez’s amazing term for English Language Learners)
  • Socioemotional learning
  • What does student support look like?
  • What is coding?

Articles so far:

August: Terrified of Summer School: Have I lost my ability to teach 9th and 10th graders?

September: Relative Freedom, Heavy Support: direction versus facilitation.

October: Just Enough Constant Change: Living and dying by Google Calendar.

November: I Teach Independent PE?: The classes I get assigned to teach.

December: Loving Portfolios, Tolerating Logistics: The (very basic) logistics of performance-based assessment from outside of the classroom.