Exit 37. How many kids have I hurt because I was having a bad day?

I am currently reading the book Where I Belong by Alan Doyle.  Alan Doyle is a musician, best known for his work in the band Great Big Sea; the band seems to be on indefinite hiatus, and Alan has been recording and performing as a solo artist since then.  He is also known for playing Alan A’Dale in Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood movie (the similar name is a coincidence).  The book is a memoir about Alan’s childhood in Petty Harbour, a tiny fishing village outside of St. John’s, Newfoundland.  One story he told in that book really struck a chord with me.

Alan writes about a mean teacher he had in his early teens.  He was the extreme stereotypical Catholic school teacher, with all the associated ruler-hitting, but also with verbal abuse involving telling Alan that he would never be a man.  Many years later, as an adult, Alan ran into the mean teacher’s brother; he recognized Alan from knowing his music career, and knowing that Alan was from Petty Harbour, he asked if he ever had his brother as a teacher.  Alan didn’t have the heart to tell him how much he disliked his brother and how much he had been hurt, particularly when the man spoke of how his brother had taken care of their ailing mother, and how his brother had recently passed away himself of a long-term illness.

As a teacher, it often haunts me to think about how many kids I have had this impression on.  How many kids have I hurt because I was having a bad day?  How many bright young minds have been turned off of math, or of school in general, because they bore the brunt of my overreacting?

I remember one guy from my most difficult year.  He was a capable student who preferred to act like a wannabe gangbanger.  For a while, though, we did have a point of connection in that he really liked Star Wars.  One day, his class just wouldn’t be quiet, I couldn’t hear myself talk over all the noise, and I just blew up at them.  This student in particular was being disrespectful, and I think I screamed at him and slammed his book down on the desk.  I really don’t remember everything, because I tend to block out these shameful and painful memories.  After that incident, they moved him out of my class.  The vice principal told me that the student told him that my tantrum reminded him of his abusive father, who he had not seen in several years but who also used to blow up like that.  I felt so bad after that, and after they moved him out of my class, I went and found him during my prep period and apologized, and told him that I had given in to the Dark Side.

My first year teaching, there was a girl who just didn’t seem to like me, which is totally normal for high school juniors and seniors.  New teachers don’t know how things are done in their world, so the older students tend to think they don’t have to do anything that the new teacher tells them.  She fit that description, and math wasn’t her strong subject to begin with.  I said something in a phone call with her mom along these lines, and somehow it came across that she thought I was calling her daughter a spoiled brat or something like that.  She complained to the principal, and we had a conference with her mother in which the principal told me that my choice of words was inappropriate.  I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said.

I’m only human.  Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has bad days.  It has been many years since I have seen either of these students, but they, and many others, probably still have very bad memories of my class.  I can attempt to apologize, but the damage has been done.  Sure, I know that there have been many students who have enjoyed my classes and learned a lot from me, but it still hurts to know that I have failed so badly sometimes.  I can learn from those mistakes.  I can think before I speak and walk away from frustrating situations so that I don’t overreact in the future.

More importantly, when I’m on the receiving end of this kind of thing, when someone is mistreating me, I can make an effort to understand what’s going on in the other person’s head.  Alan Doyle didn’t know what his teacher was going through.  Those who have been mean to me over the years have their own sets of issues that I can’t begin to understand.  And my students don’t understand what I’m going through when I’m having a bad day.  All we can do is try our best to be patient and forgiving and understanding.

Exit 35. It’s been nice knowing you, 2014.

It’s that time of the year when everyone is compiling the events of the year.  Everyone seems inundated with lists of the top songs of the year, the top movies of the year, and those questionable automatically generated Facebook year in review posts.  And for as much as that stuff gets kind of old sometimes, I think there can be a lot of value in reflecting on the year, or on any time period for that matter.

However, it seems like these days, reflecting on the end of the year is just depressing for me.  That is why I haven’t really written much on the end-of-year reflection topic at the end of the last few years.  I’ve felt like I don’t have much to reflect on.  Had I taken the time to reflect on 2012 or 2013, it would have sounded something like this:  I’m still living in the same place.  Still not married, still no kids.  Still at the same job that barely pays enough to pay the bills with no room for advancement.  That’s why I’ve just kept all this to myself.  This may also be part of the reason I haven’t done Christmas card letters in recent years.

I’m going to try to be more positive this year.  And what I just said isn’t all true this year.  I’m still living in the same place, I’m still not married, and I still don’t have kids.  But I have a new job.  It was a positive career move for me, and I’m making more money than I’ve ever made before.  I’m not trying to suggest that these two statements necessarily go together, of course.  Money was not the only motivator in this career change.  But I was no longer happy where I was, and it seemed like the right time to return to public school.  So far it has been a positive change.

Something else significant that happened in 2014 was that I drank Pepsi a couple times, and I ate at Jack in the Box a couple times.  This seems frivolous, not to mention unrelated since JITB restaurants serve Coca-Cola products.  But those of you who know me well may know that I have carried out rather ridiculous boycotts of these two organizations for decades, all based on ridiculous reasons.  I’ve been anti-Pepsi since around 1989 (I should add that I didn’t discover that I liked cola-flavored drinks at all until a year or two later), when I noticed that they always seemed to have the most obnoxious celebrities and athletes in their commercials.  And while I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time eating fast food, Jack in the Box was never one of our regular choices.  I did eat Jack in the Box a few times as a young adult while with friends who wanted to go there, and Jack in the Box always seemed to get my order wrong, and that annoyed me.  (These were isolated incidents, not necessarily the same restaurant.)  But really, it’s time to grow up.  I still prefer Coca-Cola to Pepsi, and Jack in the Box still isn’t my favorite fast food.  But if someone brings a 2-liter of Pepsi to a party at my house, it’s okay to drink it instead of letting it go to waste, and if I’m out with someone and she offers me a sip of her Pepsi, it’s okay to drink it instead of making a big fuss about it.  And if I’m hungry, and there’s a Jack in the Box nearby, and I have a coupon (all people in attendance get 2 free tacos from JITB when the Sacramento Kings win), it’s okay to eat there.  I actually quite enjoyed my Sourdough Jack burger last week.  And if any of you are going to reply with some wisecrack about whether Coca-Cola or Pepsi makes a better toilet bowl cleaner, shut it.  I get it, but I’m not sharing my big moments in personal growth just so you can criticize my unhealthy life choices.

I went on an adventure in 2014, the likes of which I hadn’t been on since my four months of traveling in 2005.  This adventure was very much scaled down compared to 2005, and I was with family part of the time and staying in hotels most of the time, but it was still the biggest adventure I’ve had in a while.  I saw friends and relatives that I don’t get to see often, and I saw parts of California I’d never seen before, including a large chunk of the coast, and the Owens Valley and Mono Basin in far eastern California.  I’ve been wanting to do both of those drives for a long time, and it was good to finally take the leap and go for it.

A lot of other important things happened to me in 2014.  I started this blog.  I saw the Kings play the Lakers for the first time.  And the second time.  And the Kings won both of those games.  The San Francisco Giants won the World Series again, their third in the last five years.  I made new friends.  I reconnected with old friends.  And I made a serious attempt to reconnect with a friend from my early college years, whom I had not heard from since early 1996, only to find that she didn’t remember me; that was not the ending I was hoping for, but at least I don’t have to wonder anymore.

I’m considering making a list of goals for 2015… kind of like New Year’s resolutions, but I don’t like calling them resolutions.  If I have a list, it’ll be easier to talk myself into actually doing some of these things.  I remember posting something at the beginning of 2009 (those of you who are my friends on Facebook can probably go back and find it) where I made a list of goals for 2009.  One of them I chose not to say explicitly, but at the end of the year I said that it was accomplished.  I’ve only told a few people about this, but the goal in question was to ask a complete stranger on a date.  That is something totally out of my comfort zone, and even though it goes completely against the “lessons” I learned about dating from church groups in my early 20s, it’s not something I think is inherently wrong or a bad idea per se.  The opportunity presented itself out of nowhere later that year, one summer day, when I was on a bike ride, and I passed, and said hi to, the same girl on a walk three times.  I took her to dinner a few days later; we saw some friends of mine there who were all excited for me the next time I saw them that I had been on a date.  It didn’t go anywhere in the end, she told me on the second date that she wasn’t really feeling that way, but everything was handled well and we’re still on Facebooking terms five and a half years later.  The important part, though, is that I really do believe that having written that goal helped me make up my mind to take action, rather than just saying hi again and riding off.

I tried making the same goal for 2010, and even though that was the year of Mimosa and two other dates, none of those experiences fit into that description of asking a complete stranger on a date.  I attempted to ask a stranger on a date the last week of the year, so I wouldn’t feel like I left a goal unaccomplished, but that was a disaster.  But I at least made an attempt.  I need to take some time to figure out what I would like to accomplish in 2015.  It doesn’t make logical sense, but it does seem that I’m more motivated to do something if it gives me something to check off on a list of some sort.  I haven’t made my list yet, but that can be something to work on in the upcoming week.

I hope that all of you find some meaningful time to reflect on this last year.  It’s been nice knowing you, 2014.

Exit 32. Welcome to Warp Zone.

I recently returned from attending the California Mathematics Council North conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.  This really is an amazing place: a conference grounds built right next to the beach, in a forested area where deer occasionally are spotted running around, in a town full of big trees and old houses that is one of the best places I know of to take a walk.  But as much as I love talking about different parts of northern and central California, that’s not where I’m going with this today.

A few days before the conference, I asked the principal and the other math teachers I work with if there was anything specific they wanted me to look for.  No one said anything in particular, although one coworker asked if Dan Meyer was speaking, since he is one of her favorite speakers at events like this.  (I have not had time to properly vet Mr. Meyer’s blog, so if you click the link, be aware that the content belongs entirely to Mr. Meyer, and Highway Pi does necessarily endorse any of the opinions or writings shared my Mr. Meyer.)  I was planning out my weekend, and I saw that the title of Mr. Meyer’s talk was “Video Games and Making Math More Like Things Students Like.”  With a title like that, how could I not attend this talk?

Dan Meyer is an alumnus of UC Davis, my alma mater, and he is currently working on his Ph.D. at a major private university in Northern California which (no disrespect to Mr. Meyer) I dislike so strongly that it shall not be named in this blog.  He is a young guy, probably younger than me, considering that he received his B.S. from UC Davis a full five years after I did.  He does a lot of these talks, apparently.  I went into the talk willing to put aside my bias against his affiliation with Voldemort University (I did not know at the time that he also had a UC Davis connection).  I was expecting something that looked a bit like what I already do in the classroom, where I’ll make up word problems on quizzes about Mario and Link to get the students more engaged in what they are doing.

That is not what the talk was about at all.

At one point, Mr. Meyer was talking about real-world relevance of mathematics tasks.  This is a big thing with textbook writers.  The example he gave (probably from a high school pre-calculus textbook, although considering he’s from Voldemort University and the Silicon Valley, where so many people are so well educated, his classes probably do this in Algebra II) involved graphing fourth-degree polynomials.  This is normally a pretty dry topic, so the textbook he was citing from as an example had a picture of a snowboarder and made the graph be the number of Americans who participated in snowboarding.  Now, all of a sudden, according to textbook author logic, fourth-degree polynomials are cool… but that doesn’t really help students who don’t get it in the first place.

This was humbling to me, because what the textbook author did here is pretty much the same thing I do when I retype quizzes and make them about Mario and Link.  I’m still going to keep doing that, because the students seem to enjoy it, and those problems are still less dry than the ones that come with the textbook.  I still believe that these make my class more enjoyable for students.  But the point that Mr. Meyer was making was that this is not the kind of fundamental change that brings student success.  And those are not the connections with video games that he was there to talk about.

The talk was not just about connecting video games to the classroom; the point Mr. Meyer was making was about how video games engage students, and how we can engage them in math the same way.  For example, real world relevance the way textbooks do it is not what determines students’ engagement, because video games are much more engaging, and they do not take place in the real world.  Video games capture students’ attention despite the fact that none of these students have ever seen a portal gun, a Goomba, or an angry bird with a slingshot in real life, so contriving real world situations like the snowboard example above doesn’t help students.  Video games (at least most of them less than 30 years old) leave the path to the goal open-ended, so we should construct math problems that give students multiple options for how to reach understanding of the topic.  Video games deal with failure by giving you another chance, so we should give students multiple chances to demonstrate their learning rather than base their entire success or failure on one test.

This talk, as well as many other things I heard this weekend, drove home the point that I really have a lot of room for improvement in my teaching.  With the new curriculum standards, the focus is turning from students’ ability to get the right answer to students’ ability to reason and understand concepts.  I’ve always treated reasoning and understanding as an ideal goal in my teaching, but in the past, students have still been able to get by in my class by memorizing and getting the right answer.  The new standards and the new curriculum are forcing me to bring my actual teaching in line with those ideals.  It’s difficult, and I’m having to do a lot of things differently from what I’ve done before, but it’s exciting too.

One of my favorite books is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.  This 2011 novel is set in a dystopian 2040s, in which society is falling apart, and everyone escapes from their reality in a giant virtual-reality video game called OASIS that had grown over the decades into a social network, an operating system, and so much more.  (Imagine if World of Warcraft and Facebook had a baby.)  The OASIS’ late creator, who was born in 1972, was obsessed with the popular culture of his childhood, and he hid a series of very difficult puzzles in the OASIS, essentially a treasure hunt, that will lead to fame and fortune for whomever solves them first.  Wade, the protagonist who tells the story in first person, is trying outwit a bunch of shady corporate bigwigs, who form the villains of the story.  The puzzles make reference to early video games and 1970s and ’80s music and movies, which is what made it such a fun book to read.  I’m glossing over a lot of the back story; you’ll just have to read it yourself.

At one point, everything looks hopeless, and the corporate bigwigs appear to be winning.  It is in this hour of darkness that Wade says my favorite quote from the entire book: “Like any classic video game, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level.  A new level often required an entirely new strategy.”

Sometimes, playing video games as a kid, I would get to a level that was really hard, and I would find some way to skip it.  Super Mario Bros. 3 comes to mind, with the cloud, or the warp zone whistle, or the P-Wing that would give me the power to just fly over all the enemies.  My career is at a new level.  The last level got really hard, so I got a new job; this is analogous to using the warp whistle, to escape to a different level.  And this new level is harder.  Welcome to Warp Zone.  There are a lot of new challenges before, and what I did before may not get me through them.  But I’m working on a new strategy.  And every day, I have another chance to try new strategies for the challenges I face in life.  It’s like getting an extra life.

(P.S.  Because I know some of you are curious, here is a link to the same talk that he previously gave at a different conference: http://vimeo.com/113714091)

Exit 18. Every second counts.

I’m not one of those people who goes on and on about how everything I learned in school was B.S. that didn’t prepare me for the real world.  But there is one distinct thing that I learned that is relevant to my life right now that does, to some extent, fit this description.  Normally, when I see people making statements like that, like the meme going around with all the practical life skills that one wishes they had learned in school and complaining about an incorrectly worded concept from geometry that they learned instead, with the implication that geometry is useless, I want to point out that I did in fact learn most of those practical life skills in school.  Most students just don’t pay attention because those things are often not taught until late in high school, when no one cares about learning anything anyway.  And I also want to point out that geometry isn’t useless at all, because it teaches critical thinking and logical argument skills.  But then I decide that this isn’t usually the kind of argument worth wasting my time on.

But there is one topic on which I agree with the people saying that school doesn’t prepare you for real life.  Before I continue this story, I should acknowledge something about my job.  I normally don’t talk about work at all on here, because I don’t want to get in trouble at work for something that I wrote on a public blog.  So here’s the big announcement: I’m a teacher.  I teach kids old enough that they only have my class for an hour for one subject.  That shouldn’t really be a surprise, though, since I did mention previously, when the girl recognized me at the concert, that I was a teacher 11 years ago, and a lot of people keep the same careers for 11 years or more.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, back to the point of the story: On Mondays, I ask my students how their weekends went.  I sometimes tell stories about what I did over the weekend.  I have conversations with students about things they are interested in.  And all of that goes against much of what I was taught about classroom management.  I learned things about how every second counts in the classroom, so I shouldn’t waste any time on non-instructional matters.  I learned not to be friends with the students, because I have to be an authority figure.  And I learned not to let the kids see me smile before Christmas, although that was more of an exaggeration to make a point about being an authority figure more so than an actual practice intended to be followed to the letter.

Here’s why I do that.  For one thing, it makes the job a little more fun.  But there’s a more important reason.  Some time ago, I think it was the year after the girl from the concert was in my class, I had a student who got Ds and Fs for the entire first half of the year.  She was a capable student, she just didn’t try very hard.  Early in the second half of the year, her other teachers and I had a conference with her dad.  He agreed to be much more proactive in making sure she was doing her homework.  He arranged for us to sign her planner every day to make sure she was writing down correctly what homework she had to do each night.  And he communicated with us much more actively to make sure he knew how she was doing.  And her grades instantly improved.  She had a B on her third quarter report card.  She did A and B work for the rest of the year.  And the year after that, she had a free period in her schedule, so she was my TA, helping me with routine classroom tasks.

I really think, though, that there was more to her turnaround than the conference with her dad.  Right around the same time as the conference, she had come to my room after school to ask me something, or maybe to write down the homework that she had forgotten to write down earlier.  I’m usually in my room working on stuff after school, and I’m usually playing music during that time.  My taste in music ranges from just about everything to just about everything else.  On that day, I was playing this song, a huge hit at the time.  Or possibly something else from the same album; I don’t remember the exact song, but I do remember the artist, and this is the only album of theirs that I have.

The student walked in and heard the song before she could ask me her question.  Her eyes lit up, she got all excited, and she said, “Oh my gosh!  I LOVE Evanescence!”  And ever since that moment, she always seemed to be a more active participant in class.  She answered questions.  She talked to me.  And I honestly believe that making that connection of listening to some of her favorite music really motivated her to do better in my class after the conference with her dad.

So while I agree in principle that every second counts in the classroom, I don’t interpret that to mean that I shouldn’t ask students about their lives outside of school.  Doing that is a perfectly valid use of instructional time, because it builds relationships with the students that makes them more motivated to participate in class.  In a class for which the subject matter was less interesting to me, I always enjoyed class more when I liked the teacher.  If I don’t take the time now to bond with the students, I’ll be wasting more instructional time throughout the year trying to keep their attention and get them back on track.  It’s a worthy tradeoff.

Of course, as with all things in life, there has to be a balance.  I can’t spend too much time bonding with students and not teaching them what they’re supposed to be learning.  I’ve had classes a couple years ago that I felt got off task too often when I tried bonding with them.  And this year, one of my classes always wants to talk about superheroes instead of doing their work.  But that doesn’t mean I have to go to the other extreme and not bond with students at all.  After over a decade in this career, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to that balance of how best to use my time.

Exit 11. That same kind of situation, except now I’m on the other side.

I got recognized in a crowd the other day.  I’m famous.

No, not exactly.  And it wasn’t from this blog, although that would have been awesome.  “Hey!  I know you!  You’re that guy who writes Highway Pi!  Can I have your autograph?”  “Sure.  Anything for my adoring fans.”  Actually, if someone I didn’t know came up to me and said that, I’d be really scared, because I’ve never used my last name or a photograph of me on this site.

So here’s the story.  I was at a concert on Friday night.  This show was a three hour drive from my house.  I have family in that area, I grew up in that area, and I went to the concert with my cousin.  This really drunk guy in front of me at one point turned around and said, “Hey, is your last name [insert my last name here]?”  I said yes, thinking that was someone I had gone to school with at some point in my childhood, or possibly someone who was in a class or on a sports team with my brother, since he didn’t know my first name.  I said I didn’t recognize him, and he said, “Not me.  That girl right there.  She says you were her teacher a long time ago.”  I asked him when, and what school, and the information was accurate; I was in fact a teacher at that school during that year.  It was 11 years ago that I was her teacher, and the school was over 100 miles from where this concert was.  I asked her her name again, since I couldn’t hear what the drunk guy had said.  Normally this would have been one of those really awesome wow-what-a-small-world, what-have-you-been-up-to-the-last-11-years moments, except for one thing.

I don’t remember her.

She didn’t seem too upset or put off by that.  She said it was a long time ago, and she understood that I’ve had a lot of students since her.  I even went so far as to ask who her friends were in 7th grade (which is the grade I taught during the year in question), and if she remembered what period she had my class, hoping that that might jog my memory.  She said she was quiet and didn’t have a whole lot of friends, and she only remembered one friend’s name.  I do remember her friend by name, although I don’t remember that girl very well either, just the name.  And if she was correct regarding the period she had me, I remember her class being one that was mean to me, so I’ve probably blocked it out of my memory.

I realized something yesterday.  I mentioned in #7 that I had a pen pal in the ’90s who I recently tried to track down and get back in touch with, and she didn’t remember me.  What happened Friday night was that same kind of situation, except now I’m on the other side.  This girl who I used to write to years ago meant a lot to me.  I didn’t have a lot of friends during that time, I was going through some difficult transitions in my life, and she was always there to be kind and encouraging, not to mention nice girls who look as good as she did often didn’t pay that much attention to me.  But from her perspective, being cute and young and friendly, she had a whole lot of other guys competing for her attention, so one of them is much less likely to stand out almost 20 years later.  As for what happened Friday night, a middle school student only has five or six teachers each year at the most, so each one is a lot more likely to leave an impression on a student.  I can still name all my teachers from 7th grade, for example.  But from my perspective, I had around 160 students each year, and I had hundreds more students each year after that.  It’s only natural that I would have forgotten a few over a span of 11 years, and I don’t think it makes me a bad teacher or a terrible human being for having done so.

Still, though, I like running into and hearing from former students.  I wish I could remember them all… well, at least all the ones who weren’t mean to me all the time.  There are a few that I’ve stayed in touch with all along, and a few more who have tracked me down on Facebook over the years, and a few more whom I have gotten reacquainted with after running into them somewhere.  It’s nice to see what became of these people whom I knew as preteens and teens.  And it’s always fun to hear what they remember about my class.  This girl I saw on Friday said that she liked my class, and that I was always helpful.

I’ve never mentioned my line of work on this site… but this fall, I will be returning to the public school system.  Maybe I should do something differently at the end of the year to make sure I remember these students.  I’ve saved yearbooks from every year I’ve taught before, and if this new school does a yearbook, I’m planning on continuing that practice.  Maybe I should save a copy of each year’s class rosters too.  Or maybe I should just let life take its course and not feel so bad about forgetting some people from the past.  I don’t know.  Something to think about as I get ready for the new school year.

And as I started writing this last night, I was telling someone this story, completely forgetting that I had just told her this same story 20 minutes earlier.  So maybe my memory is just going bad as I’m getting older. 🙂