Friday, August 29, 2014

And so it begins

On Tuesday morning at 8 AM, I will meet my first group of Newark Academy students.

I will meet my advisees, all 10 of them. Seniors, one and all, who will (I'm guessing) have college admissions uppermost in their minds. They won't know me, and I won't know them, and we will work it out.

Shortly after that, I will walk into my classroom (the state of which is a story for another time; let's just call it a work in progress), and meet my multivariable calculus students. We'll talk about coordinate systems in three dimensions, what various equations represent, and so on. They won't know me, and I won't know them, and we will work it out.

Then a break.

Then I will meet two groups of Algebra 2/Trig students. We'll talk about what equations are, what expressions are, what they can do, how you work with them, and so on. They won't know me, and I won't know them, and we will work it out.

Wednesday, I will meet (almost) all of the rest of my students. I should mention that we run on a block schedule, so I won't see every class every day; factoring in the elective I teach, I will have met every one of my students at least once by the end of the day on Thursday. They'll have started to know me, I will have started to know them, and we will work it out.

This I know for certain, in spite of all of my other uncertainties: relationship-building matters at least as much as content. I have spent this week meeting many, many of my new colleagues, and they have uniformly been great to work with - helpful, friendly, patient, and professional. I'm going to really enjoy getting to know them better. But the critical relationships are the ones that start on Tuesday.

I. Can't. Wait.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Three of my senior students in calculus (thank you Kelly, Marissa, and Maria!) gave me a mug as part of a going-away/thank-you present:

It has the hashtag #StayPublic on it.

I have spent the last three weeks in a whirlwind of end-of-year activities: last tests, final exams, faculty dinners, department meetings, room cleanup, moving stuff out and home. It's been weird to think that it'll be over here soon.

But that mug, with that hashtag...

I have a confession. When I started teaching, in public schools, 15 years ago, I assumed that I'd do it for a while (maybe 10 years) and then go train teachers - help them get better at their craft. Such arrogance on my part! I learned very quickly that (a) teachers learn best from other practicing teachers, not from ivory-tower academics, and (b) there was NO WAY I was going to know enough about being a teacher after 10 years to be in any position to "train" teachers. Hell, I (now) know that even my choice of the word "train" was wrong, but that's a subject perhaps for another post.

So on I went, learning, growing, hopefully getting incrementally better at dealing with the things that we teachers are supposed to be experts in. Supervision/administration didn't interest me much, and as the required paperwork from our central office, Trenton, and Washington DC continued to grow, any interest I'd ever had in being one lessened. But public schools were where I was teaching, and where I thought I'd teach forever.

When I talk with people about moving on, I'm asked "why leave?" a lot. I'm struggling to understand for myself why, as a kid raised in a good, rural public school system, with parents who went through public schools, and as a parent of a child in a good public school system, I would voluntarily exit it. A few of the reasons I can come up with:
  • I miss physics, thinking about it, and talking about it with students on a regular basis, and I have a really cool opportunity now to do so.
  • I am frustrated by the regulations, rules, and mandates placed on public schools by people who have no experience with, nor interest in, making schools more humane, engaging, and thoughtful environments.
  • I am frustrated by my own inability to help ALL of my students. There are some students, every year, I simply cannot reach, and every year it gets harder and harder to see victories instead of defeats.
  • I am saddened to see the teachers in my school being portrayed as the intransigent opposition during very contentious contract negotiations. If public schools - and their teachers - become something that a town views as a cost center rather than an integral part of the community, I fear for the future of public education.
  • Relatedly, I am tired of being told "tenure protects bad teachers"/"unions have destroyed public education"/etc. I'm tired of the national discourse (or lack thereof) around public education and teachers. It seems to span the entire range from "get rid of all the teachers and replace them with shiny new TFA recruits and we'll have educational success" to "get rid of unions and tenure and then we'll have educational success".
  • Finally, I know that the pendulum of education swings back and forth. CCSS may come or go, PARCC may come or go, anti-teacher sentiment may come or go, but life is short, and I'm not really interested in waiting 10 years to see what happens next.
I'm not Peter Greene; bless him and all who stay. I'm also not any of the thousands of great teachers who soldier on in public education, pushing for changes that we all know need to happen. 

What I am, at the end, is a guy in his mid-40s who is blessed with an amazing wife and daughter and who desperately needed a change of scenery. I'm lucky to have found it and can't wait to get started.

I always thought I would #StayPublic. But sometimes, life gives you that tap on the shoulder and says it's time to make a change. So here we go.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Reflections on the past week (6/2 - 6/8/14)

The year's coming to a close. Last week was a busy one. A few thoughts:
  • On Thursday night, I attended our end-of-year dinner, where seven of my retiring colleagues were honored. Something on the order of 232 years' collective experience of teaching at my high school is going to be missing next year. I'm hopeful that the staff that remain can pick up where they left off.
  • The experience itself, for me, was a bit surreal, because I'm leaving too. I'm proud to have had the chance to work with such interesting folks for the past 11 years.
  • Currently reading Alex Ross' "The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century". Best book on music history I've read. It's going to make the "read it at the library, love it, buy it" cut.
  • Quite tired of hearing about "digital literacy", to be honest. We don't have educational (or much other meaningful) equity in this country, so to have conversations about which apps are best, which platforms best allow students to share their work, which "digital tools" are best, ad nauseam, seems way premature. I wish we, as a country, had a longer attention span and sense of history than a chipmunk on meth so we might rationally sort out these issues, but alas.
  • Lots of people weighing in on the Bill Gates/Common Core article in the Washington Post last week. To those surprised I can only say - if you'd been reading Mercedes Schneider (among others) for the past year or so, you would not be surprised.
  • Grateful for many things. Not the least of which is that my soon-to-be-9-year-old daughter still wants me to read to her before bedtime. Currently we're halfway through Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles - one of my favorite series as a kid.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Reflections on the past week (5/5 - 5/11/14)

A few thoughts percolating through my head from this past week:
  • Honored to attend José Vilson's book signing for his new book, "This Is Not A Test" on Tuesday. Hearing him read from it in person and hearing others read his words was a rare experience and an inspirational one. It is a fabulous book, that many many people have commented on and reviewed, and that anything else I could say in addition would probably be redundant. GO GET THE DAMN THING ALREADY.
  • AP calculus test on Wednesday. My students seemed pretty calm about it afterward. This is (I think) a good thing. I'll look at the questions tomorrow.
  • Still trying to figure out why I'm teaching rational expressions to algebra 1 students. Oh, wait - it's in the curriculum. Never mind.
  • Continuing to learn of students past and present who are dealing with emotional, physical, mental issues that I never, never had to at their ages. So struck by their coping abilities. And so doubtful of my own.
  • As more of my colleagues (and my students!) learn of my departure from my school, the reactions have been interesting. It's a very strange feeling - almost as if I can be confided in because I'm "outside" now. Let's just say this: public school districts need to give a bit more thought to how they treat their teachers and other staff, because, well, if I can make a move, then...
  • My daughter has her first week ever of standardized testing next week. As I understand it, no time for computers or library. You know, the stuff that doesn't matter. (EDIT: Fortunately, she DOES get her art & music classes at least. I was incorrect originally.)
  • Good Lord, there are a lot of smart educators on Twitter. (Find me - @gfrblxt - and go to my "Following" list. There are tons and tons.)
  • Apropos my previous bullet point: thanks to Jen Silverman, I now know that "Ed-Tech Cassandra" translated into Greek is εκπαιδευτικής τεχνολογίας Κασσάνδρα.
  • (No points for guessing who that may refer to.)
  • Finally, as I think about my wife (there could not possibly be a better mom to our daughter in the world), and about my Mom, I am reminded that there are over 200 girls still missing in Nigeria. I am thinking about their mothers tonight too.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The best book written on education in the late 20th century

is The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. It describes deep issues that thoughtful educators wrestle with daily: wisdom, friendship, trust, relationships between children and adults, and most importantly, knowledge.

I remember it as one of my favorite books growing up, but I hadn't reread it in years. Lately, I've taken to reading to my daughter again before her bedtime, and I decided that I would read her books I thought she should know about but might not pick up on her own. I started with Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, and then began on Phantom Tollbooth. As I've been reading it to her, I've found myself fighting the temptation to stop and underline everywhere. It's that good.

Let me just quote you a part, at length, from the latter part of the book. The protagonist, Milo, and his companions, Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, have just arrived at the Castle in the Air to rescue the princesses, Rhyme and Reason:
"It has been a long trip," said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; "but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn't made so many mistakes. I'm afraid it's all my fault."
"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons."
"But there's so much to learn," he said, with a thoughtful frown.
"Yes, that's true," admitted Rhyme; "but it's not just learning things that's important. It's learning what do do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters."
"That's just what I mean," explained Milo as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep. "Many of the things I'm supposed to know seem so useless that I can't see the purpose in learning them at all."
"You may not see it now," said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo's puzzled face, "but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps its wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever your sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer."
"And remember, also," added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme,"that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you'll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow."
The Phantom Tollbooth, chapter 18

That's pretty much it, isn't it? The answer to "why do you teach?" A partial answer to "why should I learn this?" Partial, because specifics do matter, but a partial answer is better than what we often have now.

I think, if I were interviewing teachers for a new school, I'd ask what 3 books influenced them the most as a young person. I'd hire anyone listing this book in a heartbeat. It is a humane plea for the centrality of both knowledge AND wisdom in a life of meaning. It is a work of depth disguised as a children's book. It is a book that cries out to be reread. And I am truly grateful that Norton Juster chose to write it more than 50 years ago.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

To Whom It May Concern

After 15 years as a public school mathematics teacher, I am leaving.

This kind of thing happens every year, every spring. Teachers leave, others come in; students graduate, students enter. Schools continue.

I am grateful for many things:
  • The amazing colleagues I had at my first school (The Beacon School) during my first 4 years as a teacher. I learned much of what I know about kids and schools from them.
  • The unbelievable colleagues I have at my current school (Summit High School). We are a merry band, we are damn good, and we care for kids. I'm proud to have had the opportunity to work for so long with such a professional, dedicated group.
  • The educators I have gotten to know better over the last decade-and-a-half outside my own schools. Many I only "know" through social media such as Twitter, but I have had the great good fortune to meet several in person. Their knowledge, passion, and wisdom are an inspiration.
I am going to be teaching mathematics at Newark Academy starting in September. It will be a huge change. Much will be different. But in the end, everything that mattered before still matters now: I want kids to have a chance to experience what math can be like. I want them to know that it's not just formulas, homework problems, and tests.

I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Jordan Davis

By now, the message that the jury trial of the killer of Jordan Davis ended with a mistrial has gone out. 
There are a host of other related messages that have long since been received by the African-American community throughout the history of this country; this is yet another page in that thick book.

In the middle of thinking about this, I had a telephone conversation with a very wise friend last night. He reminded me that the most important thing about someone is not what they are against, but what they are for. What one is willing to build, not what one wishes to see destroyed.

Me: I want to build.

Very fortunately, I was asked by Chris Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia to help a group of educators come up with a lesson plan to use in class - TOMORROW - with their students to talk about the Jordan Davis case and the larger issues surrounding the case. TOMORROW, so the story just doesn't disappear. TOMORROW, so that the memory of what happened remains.

It has been a miracle of crowdsourced educational thought. The product that resulted from the efforts of Chris, Jose Vilson, Melinda Anderson, Alexa Dunn, Joshua Block, Zac Chase, Diana Laufenberg, John Spencer, Matt Kay, Luz Maria Rojas, Audrey Watters, Bill Fitzgerald, and me (to a VERY VERY SMALL EXTENT) is one that I'd like to see teachers across the country spend time with tomorrow.

We are trying to build something out of a tragedy. We are trying to figure out how to turn a too-common occurrence - a murder racially motivated - that too often gets taken for granted and make it have some amount of meaning. To create a lever that, perhaps with the right fulcrum, could move the world just a bit in a positive direction.

I am proud and gratified to have played my tiny role, but prouder still of the people who stepped up and created and organized this. Please follow the link below if you are interested in seeing what is possible. Education can move mountains. It must.