Thursday, July 3, 2014

Looking Back

One year ago I was done.

It was the end of my 4th year in my current district and, if I want to be completely honest, (which I try to do in this blog) I had never bought in.  I think from day 1 of year 1, I saw it as a place to work and earn some money until something better came along.  This wasn't fair to my coworkers, my students, my administrators, or to myself, but there it was.

My lack of buy-in over those years built up in ways that manifested VERY poorly.  I was rude to my students, thinking them lazy for not conforming to my teaching style.  I was rude to my coworkers, openly wondering why they cared about the things that they did.  I was rude to my administrators, openly questioning their methods and motives in inappropriate ways.

I honestly don't know how I wasn't fired.

At the end of my second year of teaching in the alternative education program at the high school, I was involuntarily transferred to the junior high school.

I roared my terrible roar and gnashed my terrible teeth and rolled my terrible eyes and showed my terrible claws!  And no one cared.

So I checked out even further.  I saw the junior high school as a prison, a place where I was condemned to teach out my career until I either keeled over at my desk, or my frustration at a system that wouldn't conform to my every whim drove me out of teaching.

I was awful.  I think that somewhere deep down, I knew it.  But like most awful people, I wasn't willing to admit it to myself.  I wanted to come in, have kids sitting in rows, eagerly answering my questions, clambering for my attention, desperate to impress me.  I wanted my students to treat me the way I treated my very favorite teachers.  (But only favorite teachers. I was a jerk as a student too.)

It wasn't happening and I was tired of it.

At the end of year 4, I was done.  I was bitter, angry, frustrated, confused, angry, tired and angry.  (Looking back now, I see that almost all of that was at myself.)  I was ready to leave teaching.  Truth be told, I HAD left teaching.  I just hadn't left my job.  But I couldn't leave yet.  I was up to my ears in student loans and, if I stayed one more year, I could get a large chunk of that forgiven.  But how was I going to make it through another year without losing my mind?

I devised a plan.

I was going to be THAT teacher.
"What? No! I'm almost done with this level of Angry Birds."
"Welcome to class. Today, please work on page 238, numbers...all of them."

I was going to let the year soar past me, phoning it in, "doing my time" until I could apply for my loan forgiveness and get out.  Where was I going to go?  What would I do?  No clue! But I had 6 class periods a day for 180 days to figure it out.

Thankfully for me, my students, my school, my family, my soul, etc. this never happened.

In July of 2013, I attended Twitter Math Camp.  It's hard to say exactly what happened there except that when I returned to school in the fall, I was unrecognizable to my coworkers.  They wanted to know what drugs I was on that had turned me around so completely.

Yes, I was still the sarcastic, malcontent that they knew, but I had a new lease on life and teaching.  The people that I met at Twitter Math Camp and in the subsequent months on Twitter (FAR too numerous to name, I'm so sorry to all of you!) had reminded WHY I wanted to teach in the first place.  Not just why I wanted to, but how I could do it in a situation that wasn't my dream situation.

They showed (and continue to show) me how to make an amazing cake from whatever happens to be in the house, no shopping necessary.  This is a vast oversimplification, but I've written a ton already and I haven't even begun reflecting on this past year.

One of the major ideas that I heard at TMC was the concept of the 180-Blog.  In short, a teacher would post SOMETHING every single day that they taught for an entire year.  Most teachers who do this will post a picture, or perhaps a paragraph.

I am verbose.

I decided that with my blog, I wanted to keep track of what was happening in my class, but more importantly, what was happening in my head.  I needed to know that this change I had undergone was real and not just the results of someone slipping Zoloft into my coffee.

I allowed this blog to be a stream of consciousness.  I wrote about my thoughts, my plans, my hopes.  I only wrote about my students insofar as it related to my interactions with them or how I saw challenges.  At least, I think so.

Instead of a picture and a paragraph each day, I wrote a novela.  I didn't set out to.  I just wrote what was in my head and it just kept falling from my fingers.

During the 2013-2014 school year, I wrote more than 300,000 words of reflection on my teaching practices and philosophies.

According to Amazon, the average novel is 64,000 words meaning that during this school year, in which I was supposed to put my feet up, update my resume, play games on my iPhone and relax, I wrote the equivalent of 5 novels.

Or the length of Game of Thrones.
Or about this many pages...

I don't say this to brag.  It was a completely insane thing that I did and I don't think ANYONE should write that much.

I say it because, as a numbers guy, it clearly illustrates my commitment to becoming a better teacher.  I even titled this blog "Relearning To Teach" because, clearly, I had not done it before, regardless of what I thought.

I didn't have a plan for it beyond allowing my mind to spill onto the pages.  I never dreamed that anyone other than my mom would care about it or read it.  But here it is.  The year is over and I need to think about how it went.

It was better than last year.

What? You want more? Fine!

This was a year of risk-taking for me and I think that it paid off.  I moved much closer to the teacher I want to be, but that has come with unexpected consequences.  My various discussions with other teachers have lead to the conclusion that I don't know what I'm looking for in terms of progress among my students.

I know what I want them to be able to do.  I want them to have better logical and reasoning skills.  I want them to be able to analyze problems and develop solutions.  More than any of this, I want them to be able to create their own problems out of concepts and topics that interest them and be able to pursue those to the end.

But I have no idea how to assess any of this.  I have looked into the idea of standards based grading and think (90%) that I want to move that way.  This is because of the fact that I cannot explain the difference between an 89% and a 90%.  How could I justify giving those two grade to two different kids?  An A, a B, what's the difference and how do you justify that?

I still have much progress to make in terms of my interactions with students and parents.  As I'm sure is true for most teachers, I get along and am liked much more by students who are from backgrounds similar to my own.  I am making strides to broaden that group.  I am taking more time to put myself in the place of my students and ask different questions.

I am listening more.  Not enough yet, but I'm getting there.

I had some pretty amazing lessons and pretty great discussions with students this year.  As the year went on, I found myself slowly falling back into some of my old mental habits and tried very hard to pull myself back out.  Everything between Christmas and Easter was hard.  There were a ton of disruptions and it was tough to get a class rhythm going.  In several cases, student resistance broke me down and I went back to work sheets for my own sanity.  After a few days, I started up again, trying so hard not to quit.

I used to think that phrases like "I discovered 100 ways NOT to build a house" were platitudes from idiots who couldn't be trusted with hammers.  In the past year, I have learned how to embrace my mistakes and even celebrate them.  I want my students to be willing to make mistakes, so how could I expect that of them when I wasn't willing to do it?

After discussions with my mom, my wife and other teachers, I think that my main source of frustration with myself this year was my inability to change the mindsets of many of my students, mostly the students in pre-algebra.

Specifically, getting them to understand the difference between work and productivity.

Because I love analogies, I thought about it this way:

We are digging a ditch.  My goal was to help my students understand why we were digging it, where it was going, the purpose it served and hopefully have them develop efficient ways to get the job done.

A problem that I ran into, however, was that many students would spend the day digging, but not in any specific direction or with any goal in mind.  Many of these students, while digging at full speed, were throwing their dirt on other students, usually by accident.  When I tried to redirect their efforts into the direction we needed, they pointed to all of the work they did and were upset that it was a waste.

This, too, is a vast oversimplification of the purpose of school and the goals of my class, but I couldn't find a way to convey the idea that putting numbers on a page is not the same as solving problems.  This is something I need to work on.

I also need to be easier on myself.  This is a journey.  I can't expect immediate results, no matter how badly I want them.  If I keep my goals in mind and work on them, then maybe in 10 years I will be the teacher that I want to be.

I am deeply thankful to everyone from Twitter and beyond who has helped me to find my path again.  There are, as I said, WAY too many to name, but if I've interacted with you at all in the past 12 months, know that I'm talking about you.

I hope that I will continue this blog next year because I have come to believe that reflection is the best way for me to examine where I was, where I am and where I'm going.  Doing it so publicly has helped to keep my words in the forefront of my mind.  I knew that if I had a bad interaction with a student, I was going to have to write about it later.

This is, I suppose, the reflective practice equivalent of a food journal.

While I have always written this blog for me, I greatly appreciate all of the feedback that I've received from my readers, a list of which turns out to be longer than "my mom."

Thank you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Day 177: The End

That's it! We're done!

I asked my geometry students, as a last assignment, to reflect on the year.  I got the idea Regan Galvan, who has been having her student blog about math all year, and has inspired me to try it next year with my students.

I was looking for their reactions to this year, giving me feedback that I could use to make next year better.  I should have given them more time, but the feedback that I got was positive.

Because I'm egotistical, I'm going to cherry-pick some sections from three different students.

Another great thing about this class is Mr. Aion doesn't let us off easy.  Just copying notes and doing worksheets would have drilled it into our brain and been much easier, but Mr. Aion challenged us and we had to work for our grade, which I respect.  [...] One of the best things about Mr. Aion is he doesn't do things the traditional way and he forces you to open your eyes to look at different things.  He is also really funny and all the students like and respect him, which is a good thing for a teacher.

I think that it was a pretty good year and I'm really going to miss this class.

I am a pretty big procrastinator, especially for school work.  Whenever we had projects for Geometry, I would usually get them done the night before they were due, resulting in "good enough" work, when "good enough" is never good enough.  I learned that from my teacher, Mr. Aion.  That quote is probably one thing that I will carry out from this class for the rest of my life.  After hearing him say that, I was motivated to try my best, and work my butt off.  [...] Because of this quote, I regret every single time I lacked in quality for one of my projects.  Not even in Geometry, but in every class.

No matter what else happened this year, I don't see how I could read these and not feel as though I've done well.  As teachers, we feel (intrinsically or extrinsically) that we need to touch every student, to change every life.

The harsh reality is that we can't.  There will always be students who slip through, who we fail to help.  That's inevitable and they will always haunt us.  We need to try for every student, but we can't despair when we fail.

All we can do is set an example for our students and use those failures to improve.

However, as look at our failures for ways to improve, we must also look to our successes for areas in which we have excelled.  We cannot change all of their lives, but if we can have a positive impact on even a single student, then we have done well and done good.

It's not good enough because "good enough" is never good enough.  But it's a great start.

I spent over an hour today writing in yearbooks, giving personalized messages of hope and confidence.

I have some pretty amazing students.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Day 176: A Thank You Letter

This morning, a student handed me a letter with a granola bar taped to the envelope.  I was asked to wait until after class to read it.  Inside, was a typed letter with the following (unedited) text:

Mr. Aion,

I want to start from the beginning.  The beginning of the year was sketchy; I didn't know any sort of math or any thing about geometry.  And though we didn't talk about geometry or any sort of math the first week or two, I have learned so much: from math to methods, from lectures to life lessons, and for that the least I can do is give my gratitude: so thank you.

Many of lectures and speeches or teaching methods maybe very unusual to a lot of people, however they were very funny and I loved them.

To be honest, I'm not emotional person unless it comes to something I seriously don't want to talk about or unless it really bothers me.

There were some times where you saw me cry - which I for one hated to let anyone see me like that - and you gave me a granola bar - more than one time.  You helped me with a lot of stuff and told me advice, something none of my friends or family could

I really appreciate everything you did for the class and me.  It might not be a lot but to me it was, so thank you for being there and for caring.

I have had a lot of good, even great teachers, but I had never had a teacher like you.  You by far are my favorite and best teacher ever.

Take care

P.S. I will miss you and your weird/funny lectures and rants.

There may be a long list of students that I have failed this year, but there is at least one for whom I was a positive change.  I am so grateful to this student for this letter.  It allows me to feel good about the changes I made this year.  It's one thing to think that you've done right by your students, helping them to enjoy your class as well as learned something from it.

It's entirely something else to have proof of it.

I will cherish this letter.

Unrelated Photo

Monday, June 9, 2014

Day 175: Presentation of Games

My geometry student have amazed me with their creativity and ingenuity.  They presented their finished (and almost finished) games to the class and I was incredibly impressed.  Allow me to present the games to you, my loyal readers, in no particular order.

Shape It & Place It:

This is a game of resource management and construction.  Players move around the board according the role of dice, purchasing blocks to construct a house.  Across the board are spaces where players must draw cards that provide them with either positive or negative consequences.

Fibi: A Jungle Adventure:

Designed to help younger children become familiar with the Fibonacci sequence and practice their basic addition and subtraction skills, this game has players traveling in an ever-tightening spiral in a race to save the jungle.  Players must land on a space numbered with a member of the Fibonacci sequence or go back several spaces.  They do, however, have the opportunity to use their integer cards to add or subtract to obtained a needed number.

Operation Corporation:

This game is a logistics primer for players looking for more involved gameplay.  Each player is the owner of a business that needs to deliver it's products to three franchises per round.  The player must calculate the shortest route to each delivery point because, while they make money for making a delivery, it costs them based on the distance traveled.  The player with the most money when another player goes bankrupt is the winner.

Shark Attack:

A game of visual and mental puzzles, players work their way across the board solving riddles in a battle of wits against their fellow players.

Making Molybdenum:

Aim and geometric construction reign in this game.  Players take turns drawing cards with geometric solids and throwing them into their opponents bowl.  When a piece lands in the bowl, the players uses that piece to construct the tallest free-standing tower they can while trying to sabotage their opponent with difficult pieces.

Speed Triangle:

The only card game in the class, this has players racing to determine which set of angles can create a triangle.  Nine cards are placed face-up on the table while the players try to be first to find a working group of three cards.  The angle measures are also drawn on the cards for younger players to be able to visually prove that a triangle exists.  More advanced players can find groups that create quadrilaterals, pentagons, or larger polygons.

Maze Craze:

2-4 players are trapped in a temple and are seeking treasure.  They race to find a treasure and return to the main room, all the while sabotaging their opponents by rotating circular rooms to block certain paths, while opening others for themselves.

Pinski's Mountain:

Players race to the top of this three-dimensional board inspired by Sierpinski's Triangle.  Cards require them to sing, dance and yodel while they try to knock each other back down the mountain.

These games are amazing!  The groups worked very hard on all of them and they are entirely the products of my students' minds.  I think this was an incredible project, considering it was the first time I've done anything like it.

The next time, I'll have a more detailed rubric to make sure that feedback is more systematic rather than random.  I'd also like to change the timetable slightly so that there is more time for peer review and feedback.

For the most part, the breakdown of dates and work that we created was excellent.  There was very little downtime for the groups, but adequate time for them to complete the assignment in class.  The groups that used their time wisely, came up with incredible finished products.

As the groups gave presentations, I had the rest of the students rate each game on a scale of 1-10.  At the end, the game with the highest student rating was Operation Corporation, with a 8.75 average, followed closely by Shark Attack at 8.04 and Fibi at 7.93.

Their grades were not determined by the student ratings, but I did think it was interesting that many of the scores surprised me.  I rated several groups higher than their peers and I think this may have been because I was looking at the potential of each game versus what was actually presented.

After they left, I filled out the Student Failure Reports for the 15 students who failed my class for the year.  My district has a board policy where all marking period grades must be raised to a 50% if they are lower.  For students in Special Education, the lowest grade they can receive on a report card is a 59%.  From my understanding, the purpose of this policy is to make sure that if a student has a very bad marking period, it can't ruin their entire year.

Even with this shift of grades, I still have 15 students who could not pass.  A few of these can be attributed to lack of attendance.  A few others to lack of response to interventions.  A few, I honestly have no idea.

I really need to start packing up my room, taking my things home.  It's a daunting task and one for which I may have to borrow my wife's car.

I have too much stuff and I don't know where to put it over the summer...

Friday, June 6, 2014

Day 174: Disgusted

Started with this, thought better of it...

As I type this, my geometry students are playing each others games.  Their instructions for today were to play the game critically and provide constructive feedback for the creators.  I'm looking around the room, watching them enjoy themselves, helping their peers refine creations and I am taking no joy in it.

All I am feeling is exhaustion, frustration and sadness.

Almost none of it is directed at this class, with the exception of the one group who did not complete a playable version of their game by today (when it was due yesterday).  It's not fair for me to be this way in this class, but emotions do not obey the rules of logic and fairness.

I was out yesterday.  I returned today to find heartbreak.

My room, as well as other parts of the school, was a disaster area.

In my absence, students in my pre-algebra class destroyed my Swingline stapler, used game pieces from the Geometry class games as projectiles, losing several, erased several items off of my various dry erase boards, tore things off of my wall, and left shredded paper everywhere.

In addition to this, one of the bathrooms was vandalized with toilet paper, unflushed toilets, papers thrown everywhere.  There were several fights.  This morning, there were a few more fights and we heard rumors that one of the busses stopped because the students riding it had torn out a seat.

I write all of this not as a way to complain about my school, my district, my administration or my coworkers.  I truly believe that all of those parties are working very hard to make this the best place it can be.

I write all of this so that when I finish typing this post, and some time in the future when I come back to read it and reflect on this year as a whole, I don't put all of the blame on myself.

If the building had a great day yesterday and it was just my class in chaos, I would have no one else to which to look for why my room was destroyed.  Clearly, something else (or several somethings) was at play yesterday, and to be honest, for the last few weeks.  Something that is bigger than my classroom, my teaching, my interactions with the students.

Even having typed this, it's very hard not to feel like a failure.  I feel as though I failed to earn sufficient respect from those students to keep them from ... I don't even know what.  I'm at a complete loss.

With all of the success that I've had with the geometry students, ...or maybe not!

I know that they've enjoyed to coming to my class, but I'm not 100% confident that they learned what I wanted them to learn.  I know it's much more complicated and, as I've written before, I may have planted seeds that will take years to sprout.

Even after having most of the day to cool down and think about how to talk to them, I didn't trust myself to interact with my period 8/9.  I was so angry at them for the lack of respect for me, my classroom, my profession, their peers, etc. that I put on an episode of Cosmos, which they promptly talked over.

The following is a comment that I left on the blog of a colleague who is considering leaving teaching.  Rather than edit it, I've copied it here wholesale in the hopes that my emotions will be adequately conveyed.

This speaks to the heart of me.  With all of the amazing things that I think I may have done this year, something tears at the very core of my being that tells me that I need to be doing something else.

I will never be one to try to talk someone out of leaving teaching because I know how completely insane this is and can make someone.  I have had many days where I left so angry that I was shaking, as well as days that I've sat in my car and cried in frustration.  My first month in my current position, I can count on 1 hand the number of times that I didn't cry.

With that said, there have been tons of days that have been rewarding and I have met some amazing people, teachers, students, parents and administrators.

With all of the growth that I've had this year, with all of the amazing people I've met and the amazing opportunities that have opened up for me, I, too, am considering quitting.

I don't know if it's my district, my school, my students, or my inability to do this job the way I want that is causing my burnout, but it's happening.

Before Twitter and the MTBoS, I had planned this to be my last year.  I was going to bring books, give busy work and kick my feet up on the desk while I applied for non-education jobs.  The only reason why I stayed in teaching this year was to get my loan forgiveness.  Now that's been applied for and I'm not beholden to teach where I do.

As much as I've done this year, as much as I have enjoyed it SO much more than in previous years, it's not enough.  A few years ago, a coworker said that she loves working in this district because she knows that there is so much good she can do.

My response at the time was "I don't want to 'do good.' I want to enjoy what I do."

I have enjoyed my geometry class an incredible amount.  They have made it worth coming to school and without them, I would have burned out in October, like I did in previous years.  I'm honestly surprised that I lasted this long.  I owe that longevity entirely to the teachers and administrators that I've met online.

Sadly, I'm back to the crying, to the anger, to the feigned indifference as a defense mechanism.  I may feel differently once summer arrives and I've had some distance from the year and time to adequately reflect, but for now, I can't help but feeling as though I have failed my pre-algebra students in a monumental way.

Failed them in a way that I don't know how to correct and leads me again to the conclusion that perhaps this profession is not the one for me.

I love teaching.  I love watching students discover things that they didn't understand and formulate their own questions that will take them deeper into a subject matter.

But after a year and without seeing any progress with the most needy of children, it's hard to draw any other conclusion.  Perhaps, after years of honing my practice and discussions with other educators, networking and collaborating, I might be able to get where I want to be.  But I am not a patient man and I don't have the energy to wait that long.

So the fact remains: If I don't find a job at a different school in the next year or two, I will have to leave teaching.  I have to know if the reason that I'm failing is because I'm not in an environment in which I can thrive, or because I haven't reached a balance yet, or because teaching is not what I should be doing.

I don't have an answer for you except that you have to go where your heart leads you.  If that is out of teaching, many students will be worse off, but you have to look out for you.

I will always be here if you wish to talk.

Thank you for allowing me to use your comments section to work some things out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Day 172: Rockets on Leashes

My mind isn't focusing on the classroom tasks, only on maintaining a semblance of order in the last few days.  I have never needed a year to end as badly as I need this one to.

It's not that kids are particularly crazy, or poorly behaved, or difficult.  I'm just completely out of energy.

I wouldn't claim that I've done a monumental amount of work this year.  I know there are tons of teachers who do MUCH more work than I do.  They do it better too.

I will say, however, that the amount of work I've done this year in comparison to previous years is leaps and bounds above.  It has left me exhausted and, for the most part, pleased.

Frequent readers of my blog know that I like analogies.  This year, instead of slowly ramping up to full speed, training for weeks with gradual increases, I started a marathon at a full sprint without stretching or getting the proper nutrition.  It worked fine for a while, but now, I'm spent.

My classes were great today, except for period 8/9, half of whom did what was asked of them while the other half doodled, shredded paper, claimed other kids were shredding the paper, yelled, yanked chairs out from under each other, farted in the middle of a group of kids, asked about their grades without waiting for the answer, complained about the heat, etc. etc...

It was as though I had 20 model rockets attached to leashes and was trying to get them to stop destroying my room.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Day 171: Making The Best Of The End

My posts are getting shorter as we approach the end of the year.  My desire to do meaningful reflection has been usurped by my desire to kick up my feet and watch the time pass.  In Geometry, I can come close to doing that.  The student groups are fairly self-sufficient at this point and require minimal guidance to get back on track.  The games are coming along nicely and I'm really excited to play them later this week.

In pre-algebra, I've decided to do some Algebra 1 prep work.  As it has been pointed out by several teachers in my district, as well as elsewhere, we teach the same topics every year.  This means that the first few weeks of Algebra 1 will be content that was covered in the first few weeks of pre-algebra.  With this in mind, I've shifted from continuing work in the pre-algebra curriculum to focus on the skills that will give my students the greatest success at the beginning of next year. 

I have no illusions about how much they will remember by September, but I'd rather the gap in that content be 3 months instead of 11.

I am a firm believer that the first few weeks of school will set the tone for the year.  If you start students out with success, they will be MUCH more likely to try harder, knowing that they can do what you ask.  With that said, that success can't be forced or given.  The students need to be able to see that they CAN do what you ask them to do.

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