Face 2 Face Sessions

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Last week in Ontario, we settled back in to a few weeks of teaching into the abyss;  speaking to a sea of black squares and unacknowledged jokes as we “pivot” once again to online learning. While I spent the days leading up to the end of the holidays dreading the possibility, as usual once I got into the swing of things, the reality was far less painful than what I had built it up to be in my head. Students turn their cameras on for me in the mornings to say hello, and a few of my jokes have been acknowledged. Call it what you will, but I will continue to call this a win.

Reflecting on the first week back, here’s what’s been working  for me so far:

1) Starting every class with a check-in. So far we’ve varied how this check-in happens in my class. Using Jamboard to write down our worries as a class anonymously, using the Mood Meter and a quick Zoom poll to do a self check in, writing 2 emotions to describe how we’re feeling in the moment in the chat, circling which sloth best describes how we are feeling in a Google Peardeck.
I’m finding this a good way to start the day - talking about how we’re feeling, and acknowledging that all our emotions are valid and recognizing how we are feeling is important. Writing down and talking about our worries hopefully also helps our students lift this weight a little and allow them to focus on other things.

2) Music. Whether starting off a class, or bringing everyone back after a zoom break - a little music goes a long way. Our current schedule means that I’m teaching a month-long fairly intensive grade 12 physics course right now - which means I see the same faces all day long. Obviously there are a lot of breaks involved, and I’m trying my best to distance us from screens. Having music playing when we re-convene has been well received - it fills that space with a little joy as students trickle back into the zoom room from their break. I had students fill out a sheet to help me get to know them better at the beginning of the course, and one of the questions asked about their favourite music - which makes it easy to please at least one of them each day!

3) Giving students opportunities to collaborate with each other. Pairing Google Jamboard with the breakout room feature in Zoom has been awesome for this. Whether we are analyzing the physics of the latest movie trailer, or brainstorming strategies to solve an open-ended physics problem, using a Jamboard allows me to see what each group is drawing or writing, and I can always pop in to their breakout rooms to listen in on their chats.

4) Meeting students where they are. Some students are struggling right now - there’s no way around it. I’m lucky enough to be teaching a class of grade 12s, who from my experience are often more equipped to deal with learning online than younger students. However, that doesn’t exempt them from the weight of the world right now. I want them to feel like they have a voice in their learning, to know that they are cared about, and to feel that they are enough, and that doing the best they can right now is acknowledged and recognized.
- If a student shows up late, I greet them warmly, and thank them for being there, or tell them it’s nice to see them. Technology issues, something going on at home with the family, slept in because we’re ALL tired right now? Who knows why they were late, but they are there now, and that’s what’s important.
- If a student doesn’t want to turn their camera on, I have zero issue with that - and my students know this. There are so many other ways to engage without having a video on your face all class. Being honest with them about what it’s like to try to teach in an engaging way to an online class is usually enough to get a decent level of engagement. I told them at the beginning that I don’t care if their cameras are on, but teaching to a sea of black boxes can be really tough. It’s hard to gauge if anyone is understanding, or looks confused, or to be honest is even listening at all when I can't see them. So I told them to give me a thumbs up if I ask if everything makes sense, or throw a question in the chat box if something I said didn’t quite make sense. My class has been great with this, and I think pretty empathetic towards me as a teacher. Most of them turn their cameras on at least during our morning check in and chat, and they all engage through reactions and the chat box consistently.

5) Finding opportunities to check in with students individually. There’s lots of time in the day with one class - which means lots of time for independent work and larger scale projects, and one-on-one meetings with students. I have time set aside every day for students to check in with me if they need to!

6) Showing a visual schedule with the plan for the day. This is probably more applicable for the situation I’m in, where students have a full day of one course - but I know they appreciate knowing what the day will look like, when they’ll get breaks, and when they get a chance to step away from their screens.

7) Taking advantage of useful tech.
- Jamboard for collaborative brainstorming and discussion
- Peardeck to make lessons more interactive and engaging
- Parlay as a Platform for online discussions about a video or topic
- Quizizz is great for immediate student feedback (it’s great in class, or can be assigned individually so students can do it on their own time.)
- Edpuzzle - showing a video through Zoom isn’t always a good use of our time. Assigning it to students (and adding in questions throughout to keep students engaged and listening actively) still lets me know who has watched it and is understanding content, and the students seem to be a fan of this website.
- Flipgrid - giving students an opportunity to record a short video explaining their thinking when solving a problem been so helpful when assessing their understanding - especially in an online setting!

8) Focusing on one or two larger tasks a day, instead of several smaller tasks.

9) Showing myself compassion and grace. Even though we are in the third school year of a pandemic, I still need to remind myself daily that I’m only human, and what I’m doing is good enough. Focusing on fun over curriculum, laughter over grades, and community over assessments is helping to guide me through this phase of online learning - and I think that's okay. Letting go of the things that we can't control, and instead making the best of the things we can, is really all we can do. So let's spend more time in 2022 showing ourselves the same love, grace, and compassion as we do our students. 

Recently, I attended a Webinar led by Jason To called “What Does Anti-oppressive Mathematics Education Look Like?” I can say with honesty that it was one of the most thought-provoking PD sessions I’ve seen in awhile, and I left with a renewed desire to do more in my classroom to be more equitable, to make students more aware of social justice issues, and to encourage more critical thinking and discussion.

He talked about thinking classrooms in math, and the benefits of using vertical, non-permanent surfaces to encourage deeper thought, collaboration, and increase willingness to take risks. He introduced us to the Timeline of Mathematics from Mathigon, and how we might use it in our classroom to investigate the history of math, and the people involved. He also posed the question, “how might we use math to shed light and take action on social justice issues?”

So for one of our morning math chats this week, I wanted to encourage some productive discussion, while fostering strong mathematical literacy skills. I put up this slide, made random groupings, and had them discuss and share their ideas.

I was ready for a straightforward lesson, with (hopefully) some meaningful discussion. I’ll be honest - this absolutely did not go as I planned. In the words of Outkast, “You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.”
I was expecting at least some light debate in groups; some differing ideas. What I got instead, was the entire class agreeing that this was totally fair. “I see no issue with this.” “They worked for their money.” We discussed for a bit, but after every group essentially agreed with each other, I’ll be honest, I was left speechless. Did they not understand the math in the title and what it means? Is empathy a lost concept? So I told them to remember this article, and that we would come back to it. I needed some time to think how I was going to approach this in the best way.
I went home, and the brainstorm began. I needed to make this applicable to these kids. I wanted to get through to them somehow - to broaden their views and perspectives. But how?! What interests 14-year-olds? Boom. Candy. Of course.
I journeyed to the store, and bought a plethora of sweets that could probably make your teeth hurt just looking at them. I was ready. I started class the next day as usual, and then told them we were going to do an activity. I told everyone to draw a card, and make sure not to show it to anyone. They were curious about the mystery of the cards, and what was going to come next;  I had them hooked in. Then, I pulled out my bag of candy - cue the eyes lighting up. I walked around individually to each desk, and asked them to show me their card. The first few got 1 or 2 candies each, depending on whether I said “oh, that’s a great card!” or “That’s an alright card.” Some students got no candy, “oh sorry, your card isn’t good enough today.” There was some confusion, and some quiet disappointment from students. The volume in the class increased as I approached on students desk, and began counting out candies and forming a substantial pile of goodies on his desk (50% of the candies I had to be exact.) The outrage as I piled the candies on his desk one by one was palpable. I collected the cards, and then started right into a lesson on solving equations. Obviously, we didn’t get far in that lesson…
I had students telling me how unfair I was being.
“Why did he get so much candy?”
“Why didn’t you give me candy, I had the same card as her!”
And then, after about 5 minutes of questioning and yelling, I hear from a student in the back - “wait a minute… does this have something to do with that question you asked us yesterday?”

Aha! They got there. So we came back to the question I posed yesterday. I reminded them that they all said this was totally fair yesterday, but I just demonstrated the same numbers and they were outraged. Why is that? Could we see why someone might think this wealth disparity is unfair now? We looked at the global wealth pyramid , and discussed how to interpret the graph, and what it meant. We also talked about the concept of wealth, and how it can be difficult to put into perspective. I found a video (I believe it originated on TikTok, so they loved that), of a man using grains of rice to put amounts of money into perspective. Specifically, he shows Jeff Bezos wealth in grains of rice, where each grain represents $100,000.
This led to some really great discussion, and some eye-opening conversations from what I could tell. I won’t say it was easy. They challenged me a lot, they asked me difficult questions, they debated with me and each other. They accused me of making up the wealth pyramid (don’t worry, they believed me when I showed them my source. It probably would have been a lot easier for me to just teach them about solving equations. I don't think most educators decided to be teachers because it's easy though, just like I don't think most math teachers teach "just math."

Now, being a teacher in a private school, there is undoubtedly an immense amount of privilege in a lot of cases. If I can help make some of these young adults aware that this privilege exists, and perhaps build empathy and compassion in a few of them - well that’s a start. I think my biggest takeaway from this whole experience is that math class can absolutely be a place where issues that we might not think fit into math curriculum are discussed. I realize this is a very small step in answering the question “how might we use math to shed light and take action on social justice issues?”. However, I'm a firm believer that a small step is always better than staying stationary. 

I want to give a big shoutout to Jason for his inspiring PD. He shared another idea looking at police carding in Toronto, using statistics, probabilities and ratios to invoke discussions about racial profiling and "fairness". I plan on using a version of this in my classroom in the future!He also left us with a great reminder. "Continue to learn and unlearn. We will never know everything, so the process must continue."

So on that note, cheers to trying new things. Cheers to stepping out of our comfort zone. And cheers to unlearning.

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“As a group of primarily math teachers, what challenges do you feel you face addressing  J.E.D.I in your practice and classes?”

First of all, kudos to @tfaucher for asking the perfect question during Saturday’s Cohort meeting. I think that as math teachers, this is probably something we’ve all been struggling with. Sometimes it feels like certain subjects lend themselves more to this work than others...so how do I make it genuine instead of just feeling like I’m checking off a box? We’ve started a task force at our school to collaborate and brainstorm ways to tackle issues of racism, sexism, and prejudice head on. This is awesome, and I’m happy to be a part of it. However, every time I take a step back and ask myself what I specifically am doing in my classes to tackle this issue, I feel like I don’t have an answer. What am I doing?

Honestly, it’s such a complicated and diverse issue that it can feel overwhelming. At times, I feel that it is easy to be so overcome by the enormity of the issue, that the result is essentially inaction.

Then cue Saturday’s face-to-face. I’ve been enlightened by some of the other math teachers ideas, and am so grateful to learn from them. From the pronouns we are using, to the history of math we are talking about (for example the discovery of Pascal’s triangle - thanks @beaton!), they provided me with some great starting points.

This week, we’ve introduced Mathematician Mondays in my grade nine class. We take a few minutes at the beginning of class every Monday to learn about a different mathematician. We have three main questions we discuss:
1) Who are they and what do they do with math?
2) Why are they inspiring
3) What can we learn from them?


Now, I don’t know if you have ever googled “famous mathematicians”, but a quick search essentially provides you with a stream of primarily white males. Women and people of colour are significantly underrepresented in the math world. I want my students to see all the cool things people are doing with math. I want them to see that there are so many different career paths and hobbies that math can lead to. I want students to see that anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or ability can find success in mathematics. Someone shared a few awesome resources on our Cohort Jamboard outlining mathematicians of colour and women in STEM that I will definitely be using for our mathematician Monday discussions. Does this mean I will never share biographies of white male mathematicians? Of course not. I will however, be striving to expose my students to a diverse group of people, doing diverse things in mathematics. Representation matters.

So here’s our first mathematician.


We then had a class discussion about why Angela is inspiring and what we can learn from her.

Here is what the class came up with:

  • She recognizes how difficult it can be to ask for help when you are struggling with math (or ANY class), especially when you feel out of place. 
  • Nobody wants to feel like they are the only one who doesn’t understand…
  • She also recognized that the best way for her to understand was to ask for help, and she reached out to her professors when she needed to. Asking for help is totally okay! 
  • It’s hard feeling out of place. We should all work together to make sure that everyone feels welcome. 
  • She now has a pretty awesome job, and is doing what she loves - with MATH! 

One thing I will never tire of is being surprised by how insightful a group of 14-year-olds can be. I told them we would be doing this every Monday morning, and they seemed keen. In fact, they asked if they could choose some of the mathematicians. They are now each responsible for creating their own SlideDeck on a mathematician of their choosing who inspires them and that we can learn from. I’m excited to see what they will come up with, and am hoping we end up with a diverse collection of people who inspire our grade 9 mathematicians!

I know this is a minuscule step in my journey to address diversity, equity and inclusion into my practice. But don’t big journeys usually start with small steps? I guess, I’d rather be moving forward than continue to be stationary. So cheers to small steps, and cheers to Mathematician Mondays.

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Do you ever stop to think about how you ended up where you are now? What drew you to teaching as a career? For me, the main draw to teaching is relationships. I’m a firm believer that significant learning is far more likely to occur with significant relationships, and I like to think this comes across in my practice through the connections I often have with students. 

I think this is why hearing that we will have to teach online again starting in January devastated me so much. (I know devastated sounds dramatic, but 2020 was a tough year for our little school by the lake and that’s honestly the best word I can use to describe my initial reaction.) Online teaching in the spring was fine, but I found myself longing for that authentic interaction with students that is hard to foster in an online setting. Sitting at my kitchen table talking to a screen of students with their videos off was draining - my jokes feel far less funny when I’m the only one laughing at them! So being back in person with these kids in September really made me appreciate what I do and how great it is to be able to watch them grow, learn, and just be kids.

Then the news came - starting next week, I have 4 weeks to teach a grade 12 physics course, now with at least one of those weeks online. I’ve been trying to remain positive about this situation, dreaming up all the exciting learning opportunities that might come with having the same group of students all day. But there’s always this creeping thought that I can’t deny - this is going to be hard. How am I going to cover all the essentials of the curriculum in such a compressed time period? How will I ensure lasting and meaningful learning? How am I going to build relationships and a sense of community in our class in just 4 weeks/online? How am I going to make this class awesome? As the thoughts of these challenges creep into my mind, I often find myself questioning my negativity. “Remember gratitude Mon. Gratitude. Look on the bright side.”

Heck, I like to think I spend a lot of time practicing gratitude and positivity - so why am I still feeling so unprepared and overwhelmed about the term ahead?!

A book I’ve been reading over the break, How Bad Do You Want It? has helped to bring me some clarity about my "negativity". It talks a lot about the mental strength of endurance athletes - which might seem totally irrelevant to teaching...but stay with me.

The book quotes a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that says, “people often choose to expect the worst of an upcoming experience in hopes of creating a more favorable contrast between their expectations and reality.” It goes on to say, “in the context of endurance competition, this favourable contrast can enhance performance. The more discomfort an athlete expects, the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate, the faster she can go….Bracing yourself- always expecting your next race to be your hardest yet- is a mature and effective way to prepare mentally for competition.”

I think this applies to more than just endurance sports. I’ve realized that acknowledging the challenges that I’m going to face isn’t necessarily being negative. It’s a coping mechanism, and one that I think is actually relatively effective for me personally. While I’m by no means a superstar athlete, I enjoy the personal challenges of swimming, biking and running and competing in triathlons for fun. In 2019 I signed up for my first triathlon - an Ironman 70.3 - and told myself I’d train lots for it and be in the best shape of my life. As I think is often the case, I trained far less than I had planned, and suddenly it was the day before race day ….and I remember thinking “This is going to hurt.” But accepting that I would be challenged and uncomfortable helped me cope. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew that I can do hard things.

After taking some time to write down all the challenges I expect for this upcoming term, I feel far more liberated to proactively plan on how to overcome these challenges. I feel optimistic. I feel okay. I feel like I can do this. I like to remind myself that I've rarely encountered a challenge that didn't result in some sort of growth. I’m not going to try and sugar coat it and pretend it won’t be hard - but I can do hard things. We all can.

It’s okay to not be sunshine and rainbows all the time. It’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes, you’re dealt a bad hand. We can be grateful and realistic at the same time. Let’s face it, this school year probably feels like more of a marathon than a sprint for a lot of us - and marathons aren’t easy. So while I remain optimistic about the future, and thankful for all the good in my life, I’m bracing myself for the semester ahead.