Monday, January 27, 2014

What I'm not writing about Educon. Because anything specific I'd have to say about it has been said repeatedly. The only thing I could possibly add is that I continue to be gratified, humbled, and enlightened by the people I meet, hear, watch, Tweet with, and am challenged by when I am there. I'm privileged in more ways than I know.


So what I am writing about is not writing.

I note that I haven't blogged since November (hey, all, thanks for noticing!), and that's totally fine. Because my voice isn't the one that needs to be heard in and amidst all of the education chatter that goes on out here on the Interwebz. In my 15th year of teaching, I'm feeling pretty good about the things I know, the things I don't know, what I can learn, and what I still need to (which is endless, but that's OK, because that's life).

There's one little thing that nags me though: student voice. Or the lack thereof. As a math teacher, I've not ever given a lot of thought to student voice. Even when I have tried to make things more engaging, change things, do more activities or less, it's still been (for the students) that my class is more a case of done TO, and less a case of done WITH.

And that's a problem. Because there's CONTENT that needs to be covered, dammit! Who's got time to hear from students? And in the world we're in, with tests and SGOs and college acceptances and midterms and so on, I'm acutely aware that teacher voice is becoming ever quieter. We're being heard less and less.

We're getting so quiet, in fact, that we're reaching the level of quietness that formerly was reserved for the STUDENTS we teach.

Isn't it funny? I worry so much that teachers aren't being heard, that I'm coming face-to-face with the fact that students NEVER have been heard, and that we're approaching them in lack of influence over the national educational conversation. Ha ha ha.


  1. First of all - welcome back!
    One of the things I think about (and try to write about) is the struggle to have students seize the spaces where their voices are welcome and, sometimes, encouraged. I fear this is true more for our discipline, but I find that students are so taken by the image that the math teacher has some pipeline to the truth that they feel that their opinion isn't worthy of inclusion in the conversation. I keep hearing a talk I had with a quiet student recently. Our school asks us to give effort grades as well as letter grades. I often ask my students to work together or to join in on class discussions. She does neither of these things and she was upset with her effort grade. When we spoke about this she told me that she does not want to talk until she knows that her answer is right. I think she's an extreme version, but I fear that there is a real aspect of this with many of our students. They seem to fear that their voice is not worthy of space for a variety of reasons. They are not the experts, they are not the decision-makers, they have felt burned int he past when they voice an opinion and it is not respected, etc. If they don't feel worthy of being heard in the classroom, how are they going to be heard in the larger conversations?

    1. Thanks - glad to be back!

      I've never, ever been a fan of "participation grades", because there are so many reasons why a student may not choose to participate: they don't feel comfortable, they aren't prepared (or don't feel they are), or they are just generally more introverted. I don't like trying to unpack the particular reason and then base a grade off of that.

      Having said that, it is important that students are genuinely asked to be participating members in the culture of the classroom, in the culture of the school. You can't force it, but you can encourage it. I think the issue is less about math specifically and more about students feeling that their voices matter and their input valued. And the only way I know of to change the students' mindsets is to do whatever you can do in your own class to demonstrate it.

      Again, thanks for weighing in! Looking forward to hearing about how NCSSM went!

    2. There are ALL sorts of reasons to hate participation grades. This whole effort grade business at my school is maddening because there is nothing close to agreement about what it means. What I tried to explain to this student was that it is an expectation of mine that she contribute in some way to the class discussions. I am perfectly fine with kids who only talk with their neighbors. What I am not happy about is the student who NEVER speaks. No additions to the class thoughts, no questions so that I might be able to help.

  2. Glad to hear your voice again.

    It only make sense to talk if you have choices to discuss and to make. If you are creating something novel. Otherwise, it's weak, empty chatter.

    What choices do your students have? How do they make math their own? (Keywords: agency, autonomy.)

    What choices do you have?

    1. Maria,

      I agree completely. It's the biggest reason why I've always had trouble with the concept of getting student voice into a math class. A weak excuse is that because I don't feel much autonomy or flexibility in what I am required to teach, I don't consider giving much autonomy to the students in terms of their learning. And I completely take your point about "weak, empty chatter" - the thought of creating a Potemkin village of fake dialogue makes me die a little inside.

      I fear that students cannot make math truly their own as long as there is a huge quantity of content they are required to learn. Simple as that. And I am truly unsure how to proceed from that point.

    2. This is a great conversation, Mike. It gets to the heart of the matter. What choices are meaningful for students, and how can we support the choices?

      I work in voluntary, non-coercive situations, such as Math Circles. In such situations, you get a clearer picture of what it is students want. Students rarely object to other people suggesting math TOPICS, or outright selecting topics. So it seems we are fine with "top-down" planning of curricula by topics. However...

      Students fall in love with particular topics and activities and want to explore more. Other activities flop and students want to move on. They very much want and need the choice of ACTIVITIES within topics, and then the duration of activities. Almost nobody objects to trying new things briefly, but almost everybody objects to being told for how long to continue. To use a simple example, students are fine with exercises, as long as they pick exactly how many to put on a worksheet.

      Students do want to choose what LEVEL OF MASTERY or expertise to reach within topics. Again, nobody objects to exposure or appreciation, but only some people want to stay with the activity enough to reach fluency and competence. This is the biggest clash with the traditional curriculum development, where fluency levels are dictated top-down.

      Then there is time and task management. Students want tools that help them track past progress and build on past ideas, such as a growing concept map, or an achievement-tracking tree in a game. For example, Reggio Emilia approach uses photography and art bulletin boards to help young kids document their thinking about a project. Many online expert systems track your progress for you. All this is to say that students want tools that help them DROP IN AND GO OUT, with many tasks. When they come back, they want "the system" to remember where they left the project, to remind them what quests they started, what possibilities are unlocked, and to help them add another chunk of progress. They do not want the system to tell them to work for 45 minutes and to accomplish these particular 12 pieces of work. This presents interesting challenges for group projects, in particular...

  3. As suggested at Educon and elsewhere on the web, If we don't share a narrative of our work, effort, and questions--others will craft that narrative for us. I do believe that children are the least heard in our world--if they had voice, the world would be much different. As a teacher, my greatest honor is to be one who encourages and supports children's voice and choice. I will look for more ways to elevate their truths. Thanks for the inspiration.