Jan 152017
 

One question that comes ups often with math majors in the program is “Why do I have to take a computer science class?”

I am not sure where the official requirement comes from, but I can say that I am extremely thankful I had a computer programming class in college. It was over 20 years ago, and it was Pascal programming, but I am very happy that I still remember the skills I learned. I don’t remember anything about Pascal, but over the last 20 years, and especially the last three weeks, I have used the heck out of those skills.

When I was in business, the programming skills allowed me do some serious Excel sheets and data crunching that got me noticed and promoted.

As a teacher, those Excel skills allowed me to strip data from the PDF reports and turn those into useful files that we could actually mine for relevant data on our learners and their learning. Those skills also allowed me to learn basic HTML and CSS coding to build websites over a Christmas break and create multiple websites.

Now, as a master teacher I have spent several weeks building a very complex database in Access to manage our check in and check out process with the hundreds (soon to be thousands) of items in our teaching supply store room. To do this, I have had to teach myself Visual Basic, Access structure, as well as some basic SQL database language.

Now don’t get me wrong.I do not have anywhere near the skills to be paid to program in any of these languages, and it is taking me 5 times longer than a real programmer would take. But, because of that Pascal programming class 26 years ago I have the ability to learn the new skills, new languages, and troubleshoot the really bad code I am writing and make it better.

Why should today’s learners learn coding? Because if this dinosaur can reap these benefits out of the class over my career, then imagine what benefits our learners today will reap over the next 25 years! It only gets more important and more essential from here.

Sep 092016
 

To my last post, “No more broccoli ice creamDavid Griswold challenged me with a very serious and thoughtful reply.

The phrase, “No more broccoli ice cream” came from this meme that I saved. I collect these memes, just because the provide interesting fodder for conversations about math in class.

textbook math is like broccoli ice cream

So who is Denise Gaskins? She is a home school parent who specializes in K-6 math (I am inferring this from her website and the books / content she talks about. I could be wrong about the grade levels.) She tweets and has a FaceBook page under the name “Lets Play Math.” It is clear she has a focus on making math fun, interesting, and engaging. At that age, my experience is that learners are very much into mathematics. I saw this bulletin board in a hallway last year.

2015-09-28 12.56.29

If you zoom in, you will see that almost every single one of those 4th graders said their favorite subject was math, or they enjoyed math, or they were good at math. 2 out of the 15 had no positive mention of math. A bulletin board next door to it had a similar proportion. When I saw this board, I wrote a post called “Where does the joy go?” This issue is one that I have been struggling with for a while. Why are young children excited about math, but junior or high school learners typically are not?

I believe it is because at some point, I and my fellow teachers stop thinking about math as joyful, and start thinking about it as “serious work.” We can’t have fun solving these equations, this is “serious business.” But that is true of all subjects in high school. It isn’t just math teachers, but English teachers, history teachers, and other teachers. We turn our subjects into these “serious business” topics that must be “mastered” and “assessed.” If you don’t pass the classes, then you can’t graduate, you can’t be successful in life without knowing “algebra.”

[yes, I used a lot of scare quotes in that paragraph because I do not want anyone to infer that there is an agreed upon meaning of those terms.]

Here is what David said in his questioning of my post:

I’m not sure I completely agree with this, or Lockhart for that matter. There are a lot of people who find joy and beauty in the curriculum, and there are lots of ways to encourage and celebrate that joyousness without throwing too much out. Will some people hate it? Sure. I didn’t like AP US History very much, though I liked my teacher. But I had friends who thrived there. And I’m okay with that.

Personally, I don’t think the ice cream metaphor is realistic. Math isn’t ice cream. Nothing is ice cream. No field or subject is as universally loved and delicious as ice cream, certainly nothing with any practical application. Math isn’t ice cream, it’s vegetables! So maybe “textbook math” is steamed broccoli and it’s up to us to add peas and roasted cauliflower and sweet potatoes (maybe even with some marshmallows on top) and even pickles, but the fact is some people don’t like ANY vegetables and some people like simple steamed broccoli the best and some people like ALL vegetables and, importantly, all of them are part of a well balanced diet. So our job is to be a math nutritionist.

The first paragraph I will not reply to, because it is his personal feelings and I don’t think there is anything there to discuss. It is real.

The second paragraph is the challenge. “No field or subject is as universally loved and delicious as ice cream.” But … I don’t like ice cream. I eat it maybe one time every four or five months, because my wife wants to share something.

And, guess what? Yes, math is as loved as ice cream at the lower grades. I have observed 4th and 5th grade classrooms where the learners are excited, joyful, and enthusiastic about math. The bulletin board above is anecdotal evidence.

I think we need to stop saying it is the subject that is like vegetables, and accept the fact that it is the way we teach the subject that turns it into vegetables.

Watch this video (it is 5 minutes) of these middle school learners struggle and succeed in math.

There is honest to goodness joy there.

They ate some yummy ice cream in that lesson. Why can’t we do that every day?

To answer David. Is math like vegetables? I think it can be. Is math like ice cream? I think it can be. The choice is mine.

If I get to choose whether math is more like vegetables or like ice cream in my classroom, I will choose ice cream (even though I don’t like ice cream).

I choose this not for myself, but for my learners. And David is right. Not everyone will love every subject. I am okay with that. But if I choose to present math like brussel sprouts instead of chocolate fudge peanut butter ripple, then I have denied some learners even the ability to choose whether or not they enjoy math.

And then, how do I make my pre-service teachers understand that it is a choice they can make too? [Wow, that is a whole different can of worms.]

So, is math like ice cream? For my classroom, for my pre-service teachers, the answer must be Yes.


David responded on Twitter with these series of tweets. I think they add a great deal to the conversation.

 

Thank you David for making me think.

Aug 312016
 

The last #BlAugust post this year, and I wanted to end on some good things.

MTBOSBlaugust2016

Monday was a banner day for me, full of firsts. I hit “Finalize” on my very first ever NSF grant. It is a Robert Noyce Scholarship grant that, if we get it, would be a $1.1 million dollar grant for scholarships for learners in the program I teach in. This is huge. 63 scholarships over 5 years of $10,000 each, as well as travel and other programs for the Noyce Scholars. It is in the feedback process at the school, but on 6 September the “Submit” button gets pressed. So exciting.

I also received notice on Monday that Megan Schmidt’s and my proposal for “Statistics & Social Justice” was accepted at the NCTM 2017 National Conference. This means that we are not speakers at both NCSM and NCTM 2017 Nationals. This is my first national speaking opportunity. I am very excited that I get to work with Megan on this.

I also taught the first section of Knowing & Learning in Mathematics & Science on Monday. This was the first 3 credit course that I have been able to teach at the University. Even more special, is the fact that I was allowed to plan the course from the beginning. So, as a doc student, my CV now says that I built a University course. How cool it that!

Then, walking across campus yesterday, 3 amazing young women ran up to me and gave me hugs. These were juniors in high school when they were my learners, and they had just finished their first day of college. Their excitement and wanting to tell me about it was so amazing to experience. And then, a former learner who is in her senior year of high school at a community college program messaged me this:

Hey Mr. Waddell! I hope that you are doing well! I just wanted to let you know that I am taking a Math 122 class (for Elementary Education Majors) and our professor today reminded me of you and some of your classroom policies but also your view on math that still sticks with me and that is that there is no one way to do a problem…because of this, our professor does not use the word ‘step.’ Instead, he says ‘move.’ So like, “what’s the next move you are going to take?” Anyways, I know I’ve said it a million times, but thank you again for being such an awesome math teacher and helping me love math again.

Having experiences like this just reinforces the fact that it is about connections, not content. It is about people, not math. The math will come, the learners will want to learn math when we teach them as people and make connections with them.

Finally, the we are starting off the year with a new member of the team at UNR. We have a third Master Teacher with us, and we are all working together very well. The hiccups that come with a new member joining a team have been small and inconsequential. Working with terrific people is such a rewarding experience, and it will make this year go by quickly.

But I hope not too fast. I want to enjoy this for a while.

An remember, Be Awesome to One Another! Always.

Aug 292016
 

One of the last #BlAugust posts this year. Not the last post this year for sure, however.

MTBOSBlaugust2016

Today is kind of a big day. I have to submit a NSF grant proposal today. That is a big deal. So much work and effort goes into this proposal, and then the chances of getting it are slim.

So there is that, but the biggest thing today is it is the first day of classes in my second semester at UNR. Oh, AND I am teaching a 3 credit class I have been working on half the summer, and it is the first time this course has been taught at UNR.

That is why I am a little nervous. There is a lot going on, lots of moving parts in the class. It is a survey course of ed theory called Knowing and Learning in Mathematics and Science, and there area ton of readings, interviews, and projects.

I haven’t been nervous about teaching anything for 10 years. This is kind of a new feeling all over again, and …. it is different.

I guess the fact I am nervous means that I care how the class develops. That is a good thing to realize.

Oh, and if these reasons to be nervous aren’t enough, I also got the email from NCTM this morning saying my proposal for Statistics and Social Justice with Megan Schmidt was accepted. This means I will be presenting at both NCSM and NCTM on this topic.

So, nervousness, celebrations, a little excitement thrown into the mix.

Yea, I am a mess today. I need a nice cup of coffee and some relaxing music I think.

Aug 222016
 

A late in the day #BlAugust post.

MTBOSBlaugust2016

Yesterday Jennifer tweeted this at me, and I teared up a little.

And the tweet it refers to is this one:

You see, the High Fives post is one of the most popular posts I have ever written. It was a spur of the moment, almost didn’t do it speech (kind of like the TMC16 speech on overcoming your fears) that has resonated through so many people.

For a long time, I kept track of the people tweeting and blogging about High Fives. I know I missed some. I counted over 20 different individual who tried the High Fiving, and said it changed their classroom culture for the better.

Jennifer tweeted and wrote about it a full year! after I wrote about it. How often does that happen? To me at least, not very often.

To say I am embarrassed and honored by the mentions is an understatement.

To say I am overjoyed by the fact that learners in over 20 classrooms are experiencing something different because I spoke up is exciting and amazing. We need to spread the high five energy.

So, to help more teachers and to spread the power of the high five, I wanted to revisit the video:

My original post: http://blog.mrwaddell.net/archives/1431. The video is short, only 4 minutes. In fact the last 20 seconds can be ignored as it was an announcement for the conference.

You are doing something awesome. You are walking in my classroom. Be awesome. Connect with your learners. Give them energy, and receive the energy in return.

High five to you all!


Edits added:

After I posted this article Lisa Henry posts about All The Stuff I’ve Stolen From The MTBoS. High Fives are the first thing on her list, and she explains why in a different post.

 

Aug 012016
 

I have been thinking about what the phrase “Teaching is a political act” means, and how the decision influences my actions in the classroom with learners.

As I have been thinking about this, I realize the while the learners may engage more and learn mathematics at a higher level, some of their parents may be upset at the non-traditional and non-textbook orientation of the class. So what am I to do when my classroom is buzzing with excitement, the learners are engaged and focused on mathematics, and a parent files a complaint with the principal that I am not teaching out of the textbook.

My personal reaction is a giant … er … well it would not be appropriate to say out loud my first reaction. It would not accomplish anything.

So assuming I have sound pedagogical reasons for doing what I am doing. Assuming that I have solid arguments for the class going where I am taking it, and assuming that in the end, all the standards required of me are deeply uncovered and learned, how do I respond?

I really didn’t have an answer to that question. The current political climate on Facebook yields a glimpse of how those conversations end up; a shouting match. No winner.

So how do both parties walk out winners? How can we all, parents, teachers and admins, walk away from the meeting accomplishing something positive. That is the question.

I didn’t know or have a clue until I was listening to NPR and heard about “noncomplementary behavior”.
 And an NPR article about it here.

Essentially, complementary behavior is mirroring what the other person does. If they are warm and friendly, you are warm and friendly in response. However, if they are cold or angry, you are cold or angry as well.

Noncomplementary behavior flips the script of conversations, which is difficult, but worthwhile.

I have been attempting (which means not always succeeding) to do this on Facebook conversations. When someone gets hostile and angry, I respond with niceness and facts. I can see doing this when parents are challenging my classroom as well. When they are hostile towards the political acts of teaching, I respond with positivity and facts.

This has the potential to be very powerful, but it takes practice. Complementary behavior is so easy to do, and it is natural to do. It takes some will power and some effort to be noncomplementary. Read the articles. Try it. I think it is easy for teachers to practice, because great teachers are constantly positive anyway.

 


 

This is the first  post I have made. Shooting for 1 post per day this month!

MTBOSBlaugust2016 Thank you Shelli Temple!

Jul 282016
 

Yesterday I posted about deciding if teaching really was a dichotomy between agency or conformity, and I decided that yes, it really is a dichotomy. It is impossible to be a teacher and straddle the ideas of teaching to change the world or teaching to reinforce the world as it is.

And then Andy Pethan hits me with this:

I wonder if you can put student thinking and classroom behavior on independent axes. For example: you want to be a +10 on creating student agency in your classroom by encouraging thoughtful questioning and being approachable about nearly everything as the adult in the classroom. At the same time, you want a consistent environment that matches the reasonable expectations and rules of the entire school (potentially a -10 depending on the school). You can be open to discussing rules with students and offer a pathway that may lead to changing your rules or advocating for students who want to change a school rule (encouraging agency), but doing this while continuing to live within the rules (conformity). Over the past 5 years I have become both a more consistent school-rule and personal-rule enforcer while becoming better at encouraging students to question, wonder, and appropriately push back in the academic and rule-realms. I feel like this is the direction I want to keep moving in, but I’m curious to see where this discussion goes.

Because I am kind of a little mathy and like visuals, I turned that question into this graphic:

Axes of behavior

To which the question then becomes, does “rule following” end up on the x-axis (B position) or y-axis (A) position. And if rule following ends up on the B axis, then can a teacher be in the middle somewhere or only at the two ends. OR, if rule following ends up on the y-axis, can a teacher navigate the line in a positive sloped direction (whatever that slope may be).

Option A or Option B?

My personal take on this is that in this case, we are not talking about a dichotomy, but a continuum. It is clear to me that a teacher can be in the middle. A teacher could have some very strict rules of behavior (no bubble gum for example), but allow learners to sit on the floor or wherever is comfortable for them to learn. A continuum is possible in this case, where it wasn’t possible in the case yesterday.

Therefore, the first question is where does rule following land? Is it opposed to agency, or is it compatible with agency?

  1. Can a system  start off learners while they are young and teach them to be strict rule followers, and then as the learners age and develop more maturity teach them to be questioners? (This would be a negative sloped line from position A to the right instead of the positive I drew initially, OR it would be the blue dot moving from the left to the right each year.)
  2. Can a system start off with equal parts rule following and agency, and balance the two in the middle year after year while the learner is in school?
  3. Can a system stay fully in the rule following (okay, that is easy, of course. See North Korea, or some of the hyper-strict charter schools here in the US.) Do we want that? We are currently allowing it to occur here. Jose Vilson at TMC16 shared the fact that in New York, some of the charter schools are so strict that children have literally peed themselves while trying to learn math facts.
  4. Can a system stay fully in the agency mode from kindergarten through 12th grade? What would that look like? Maybe more like the High Tech High‘s or along the direction Chris Thinnes advocates for.
  5. Can a system have certain rules that are followed consistently, but then teach learners to question everything else?

Those are the five options I see. Honestly, I don’t see how the positive sloped line is possible. How can anyone teach simultaneously to be more of a rule follower and to be more of a questioner. That is ruled out.

I think this conversation is one that every single teacher has to have for themselves. I know for myself (and I speak only for myself on this) I fall into the #5. My personal graph looks like this:

Personal question v rules

I placed the line at 1 for a reason. I had 1 rule in my classroom that I enforced.

“Your behavior must contribute to the learning of every person in the room, including your own.”

That’s it.

I was pretty comfortable with pretty much anything else as long as everyone was learning and could show they were learning. My classroom was loud. It had learners sitting on the floor. It had learners looking at notes or Desmos on their cell phones (and yes, that means they occasionally did a little Facebook or texting).

This is how I personally balanced the two goals. Having a classroom that was conducive to everyone’s learning, AND teaching agency and allowing learners the freedom to make decisions for themselves.

I think I had lots of room for improvement. I think I made mistakes, but I think as teachers, this balance is crucial. Would this work at the Elementary level? I don’t know. Would it work in Middle School. Again, I have no clue. Did it work for me in high school? yes. Not always. It burned me. I had learners push it too far. But I was able to pull them back in the end.

I don’t know if that answered Andy’s challenge, but it does clarify his question for myself. I look forward to hearing from others on this issue as well.

Jul 272016
 

Brian Lawler posted this today:

This statement hit me in the feels, as it is intended.*** Then my brain took over. I realized I should question first whether or not it is really a dichotomy. Does it have to be one or the other? Can a teacher, no, stop. Let me be clear. I am not calling out anyone. I am not directing this question at anyone but myself.

Starting over. Can I teach with one foot in both camps? Is there a continuous line between “teaching conformity” and “teaching to change the world?” What would that look like?

Capture

Put another way, if this is our scale of -10 to +10,  is it possible to be at a neutral 0?

I know teachers like to tell themselves that they are at the +10 all the time. I did for the first few years of teaching. I was doing great things, I was teaching math dog-gone-it!

But was I really? Was my practice and my vision aligned? I don’t think so. I think I told myself I was at +10, but was really down around -10. What changed? When did it change? When did I realize that the vision and the reality were not aligned? And back to the original question, is it a dichotomy, or is it a continuum?

No feels here. No emotional response. My heart says “go positive, all the way.” But this is a brain question. What would a zero look like in the classroom?

I would be punishing non-compliance sometimes? So on some days I expected compliance, but other days not? Or is it on some subjects compliance, and other subjects not? That just seems to me to be a recipe for disaster in the classroom. Learners have no idea what to expect every day when they walk in.

The idea of memory and memorization is interesting. Do I reinforce memorization of some topics, but not others? So you have to understand and be able to explain how to transform quadratics into all 3 forms (standard, intercept, and vertex form) but you have to memorize the translation rules and just spit the rules back to me with no conceptual understanding.

Huh?

I think a lot of topics are presented as dichotomous when there are gradiations between the two sides. Politically this is very true. Very few people are actually Democrat or Republican, but in truth some version of purple in between. We stereotype the “other” into the two camps, and yet sit down and have conversations with friends and family (well usually we do.)

But is there a middle ground here?

I don’t think so.

I think we have to choose one or the other. As math educators we especially must chose. Mathematics is too often a gatekeeper that reinforces social stereotypes and serves as the barrier to higher education. Read the works of Danny Martin or other educators, or follow the #Educolor hashtag if you need evidence for this statement.

I don’t see any cogent arguments from the “recreating what is” side. The status quo is broken, and it is breaking a large segment of our population. I am part of the status quo, or I am part of the agency that transforms the status quo into something new.

So to answer my question, “Is it really a dichotomy?” I have to answer with a yes. It is one, or the other. I don’t understand how there can be a continuum on this issue.

I am fully open to discussing it. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I haven’t been reading the right articles. If there is evidence to the contrary, please let me know. In the mean time, as a teacher educator, a teacher of teachers, this quote will be front and center in my thoughts.

[As an aside, I am building the reading list and teaching the ed theory class in my program this semester. Yes, this will be an issue brought up in the theory of education for math and science teachers. It is too important not to discuss.]

 

*** Brian sent me the link he was paraphrasing from. The original article is: https://bctf.ca/publications/NewsmagArticle.aspx?id=21678

May 302016
 

I chose to examine my district’s math results for my final project in my Critical Pedagogy class. It made me seriously depressed and angry. It is one thing being told that we have “gaps” in our math outcomes, it is something completely different to do the research yourself and find just how large, systemic, and blatant the gaps are. Doing this project affected me greatly. I realize that I was in a funk for about three weeks afterwards.

With that in mind, I think it is important for me to share it out. I need to get the information out there, and challenge myself to make an impact on these issues.

Critical TheoryA look at the values of my math community.

I want to preface this discussion with the statement that I don’t believe any of the math leaders in my district actually believe any of the things written below. I know them. I respect them. I hope they respect me.

BUT, the things written below end up not very favorable to them. This is unfortunate, because I know and believe they are just as passionate about the problems and solutions as I am. It makes writing this all that much more difficult, and it also contributed to the malaise I felt about the topic. But it is an important topic, and one that is rarely discussed.


I started with going to http://www.nevadareportcard.com and looking up the results for the Mathematics High School Proficiency Exam (HSPEM) for the most recent year on file, which was 2015. After doing several different reports, several different combinations of “and” and “or” tables, and lots of copying and pasting into excel, I create the following table:

2015 math data

I won’t try to address why we are under serving the learners who aren’t White. The reasons for that gap are wide, varied, and far beyond this little blog.

However, the question of what do math leaders and educators claim to believe about mathematics in my district can be easily found. Every math document the district produces has the following six “core beliefs.”

  1. All students will learn and be successful.
  2. The achievement gap will be eliminated by ensuring every student is challenged to learn at, or above grade level.
  3. Effective teachers and principals, dedicated support staff, rigorous curriculum, measurable outcomes, ongoing monitoring and assessment, collaboration, professional development and a culture of continuous improvement will ensure classroom success for all students.
  4. Superior performance will be achieved through clear goals that set high expectations and standards for all students and employees.
  5. Family, school and community engagement will be required for student academic success.
  6. Leadership and passion, together with accountability and transparency, will be the keys to reform and success. (“Curriculum & Instruction / Math 9-12 Course Guides,” n.d.)

The fact that the first belief is about “all students” and not ‘each student’ is important to recognize. This wording suggest that the “all students” are being considered successful from the dominant culture’s perspective, not the individual culture of each student (McLaren, 2009).

Reinforcing the dominant culture is the vision found in the second belief as well. The focus on grade levels and stating that each learner must be at or above their grade level is a hegemonic act of domination (McLaren, 2009, p. 67). No teacher or parent would argue with the goal or belief that learners should be at or above his or her grade level, but the implementation of the grade level curriculum based on the dominant White, middle class culture makes it an impossible argument. Algebra 1 in the first year, geometry in the sophomore, and algebra 2 in the junior year is the standard progression, regardless of the learner’s previous educational opportunities or struggles. By defining this progression as the culture and standard of mathematics education, we have created a situation where a parent or teacher who argues against it needs to take on the entire mathematics establishment. In addition, it means the parent or teacher is openly advocating FOR the achievement gap and unsuccessful learners. Challenging the hegemony of the mathematics curriculum cannot be done without simultaneously shouldering the burden of arguing for failure.

The fifth core belief sounds like a very positive value, from the position as a member of the dominant culture. However, reading the belief not as an attainable goal but as a statement of fact, it becomes a way to dismiss subordinate cultures. All three elements, family, school, and community engagement will be required for success. The lack of the family to engage with the school or community will automatically create failure for the learner. This is a convenient way for the district mathematics department to absolve themselves of responsibility if the family is not able to, unwilling to, or incapable of engagement with the school. As long as it is a family failure to engage, the school has met its condition of the belief, and the lack of success becomes the responsibility of the learner and family.

Finally, it is disheartening to that Equity is not a key to reform and success in the district mathematics documents. Equity could be an element of leadership belief given the inclusion of ‘reform’ in the statement. However, the lack of explicit identification, the emphasis on “all students” instead of “each student,” and the dismissive use of family points to a department that is not aligned with the Access and Equity Principle of the NCTM or the Social Justice principle of the NCSM (National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics & TODOS: Mathematics for ALL, 2016; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2014).

I stress again, that the leaders in my district have never made the arguments I made above. I think they would find these arguments as reprehensible as I do. However, I don’t think we, as a community, are addressing these arguments. Without openly discussing them, and changing our behaviors, curriculum maps, and values based on that discussion, all we are doing is agreeing implicitly that the results in the table above are okay.

I don’t think anyone is willing to do that.

 

McLaren, P. (2009). Critical pedagogy: A look at the major concepts. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano, & R. D. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (2nd ed, pp. 61–83). New York, NY: Routledge.

National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, & TODOS: Mathematics for ALL. (2016, Spring). Mathematics education through the lens of social justice: Acknowledgement, actions, and accountability. Retrieved April 16, 2016, from http://www.mathedleadership.org/member/docs/resources/positionpapers/NCSMPositionPaper16.pdf

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2014). Principles to actions: Ensuring mathematical success for all. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Nevada Department of Education. (n.d.). Nevada annual reports of accountability. Retrieved from http://nevadareportcard.com

Mar 102016
 

I am still thinking of my critical theory journey and how it is and will continue affect my teaching. I don’t think I can ever stop thinking about it now, to be honest. In observing classrooms and teaching teachers, the idea of “authority” has come multiple times. Which led me to this topic. We have a problem about questioning authority. A very important part of critical pedagogy is the willingness, the desire, and / or the ability to question authority and stand up for yourself or others.

Question-Authority-Not-Mother-Magnet-(9383)

In our case, the quote would read “Question Authority, but not your Teacher.” But is that really what we want to be teaching? And is that what I did? (if you want to skip the following section, the tl;dr is hell no.) But to think about what I want message I want to teach, I need to examine what I learned as a learner in school.  Honestly, I have written and rewritten this post about 12 times. I have deleted it in its entirety twice, and as I go back in the revision history, I realize I started it on 25 February. It is now 2 weeks later, and I just have to hit publish on it and call it good enough. This is a post that will never be perfect.

Where I started (a personal story)

I don’t remember a lot, but I do remember two things about my ES education. I remember I was tested and placed in the gifted and talented program at some point. I remember them pulling me out of class and doing ‘fun’ activities. I remember thinking these were stupid. I remember looking at the teachers and telling them the activities were boring and uninteresting. I told my parents I thought they were stupid. I clearly remember having a meeting and the teachers agreeing to put be back into the classroom because, “these activities are stupid, why can’t I go back to class where I can learn something?”

I also remember taking the workbook home in 5th grade and completing the entire year’s worth of social studies worksheets in two or three nights. I got in trouble from the teacher. I didn’t care. I learned stuff. I was not a very inquiry based learner, was I?

In middle and high school in Montana, I remember every single interaction with a Counselor ended with the statement, “You will take the hardest classes you can handle now, so that it is easier later.” I never fought back against that. I also remember (and my Mom loves to tell the story, bless her heart) that I came home one day and said,

“Mom, I am the class comedian.”

She asked, “Don’t you mean the class clown?”

“No, the comedian.”

“What’s the difference?”

I replied, “The clown is the idiot streaking across the football field naked. The comedian is the guy who put him up to it.”

I was that kid. My friends and I celebrated elaborate pranks on each other and others, but we never damaged property. I also carried around a copy of Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity my junior year and taught myself the math and physics to understand it. Sentence by sentence. I would get in trouble in study hall (we actually had a class called study hall) because I would not do homework, I would spend the entire hour every day with Einstein. I still have the book.

Yea, I was jerk. It didn’t get better. I transferred to Westwood High School in Mesa AZ 3 weeks into my senior year. So, take a smart, physics oriented kid, force him to move across country (as far as I was concerned) during my senior year. Exponential jerk. My first interaction at the school was with the high school counselor. I told him the classes I was in and showed him my transcript. My Montana high school did not do AP classes. AZ did. And they tracked. I was not allowed to take AP as a senior, because I was not in AP as a junior. The counselor finally allowed me to take AP Calculus because I threw a fit, and then handed me my schedule. I went to the book depository to get my books. There was no physics text book in the pile.

No. Physics. Textbook.

My head exploded. I walked back to the counselors office and literally forced the person in the office out. Can you imagine? As an educator now, I am shocked that I was allowed to do this. I walked in and said, “You, get out” to the student in his office. I then said, “You, fix my schedule. I told I was taking physics.” The counselor eventually fixed my schedule, and then arranged for me to take chemistry at the local community college (I think just so he didn’t have to deal with me any more) to replace the organic chem class I was planning on taking in Montana. I graduated from a high school in Arizona. I don’t admit that very often.

I do not know one single person I graduated with. Not one. No wonder. I was a raging jerk. I questioned authority, I made demands upon them, and I won. Honestly, there is not one single encounter I can remember in my K-12 schooling where I did not get what I wanted. I never got in trouble (but should have repeatedly).

I learned to challenge authority and more importantly, HOW to challenge authority. Have a plan. Know your rights. More importantly, know the rules and use them to your advantage. I refused to allow those authority figures to hold me back from what I wanted. And, what I wanted was education.

I remember being told repeatedly growing up that I should never plan on attending college. We could not afford it. I should put it out of my head, not think about it, not plan on it, not try for it. It was too expensive. Not once. Not twice, but repeatedly. It was, really, the only fight I had with my parents, but it was a regular battle.

I showed them, however. I attended a community college on a full ride scholarship, and refused to earn a diploma. An AA wasn’t good enough. I transferred to a nationally ranked, private college, Knox College, for three years and paid for less than one year of school by working the rules of financial aid to my benefit. I took out student loans to do a M.A. in Philosophy from University of Iowa, and don’t regret a single penny. I paid cash for a M.Ed. from the University of Nevada, Reno. And currently have a full ride private grant that is paying for my Ph.D.

I love my parents, but I realize that much of what I did after high school was to give them a giant finger.

As I look back, I fought authority often. I usually won. But there were very few consequences for failure in school.

Question authority-BF

Where I am at now

Now, I am now teaching teachers. That scares me, a little. Think about the fact that I questioned authority consistently in my educational journey. I did the same thing as a teacher. I advocated throwing away my textbooks in 2012 (and I did stop using them that year). I was thoroughly willing to re-think how lines are taught, and challenge every other teacher to do the same. That post ended with the statement:

After all, if we are going to be arbitrary, at least let us be arbitrary consistently.

Challenging authority and being subversive is kind of what I did on my blog for the last 4 years.

And now I am teaching teachers. That is scary.

I observe classrooms where the teacher is leading 4th graders through amazing math and science discussion. The learners in the classroom blow my mind with how ahead of the game they are. They also respond instantly to “Class Class” with “Yes Yes,” stop talking, and give 100% of their attention to the teacher.

I have seen a class that was doing high school level mathematics (again a 4th grade classroom). This teacher is amazing. A Title 1 school where every learner is engaged and learning. They stand up, push in their chair, speak to the class, pull out their chair, and sit down. Every time they have something to say. In this class, if they are called on and don’t know an answer, they remain standing and ‘phone a friend’. That learner stands up, pushes in their chair and helps.

Question authority.

Are these learners being taught to question authority? They are being taught, for sure. They are learning math, science, English, etc at an amazing high level. They are learning content. But are they learning that “First Reponsibility” of Franklin’s?

Question authority.

The most common question I am asked by my future teachers is, “How do we handle a learner that won’t do what we ask?” They have clearly bought into the idea of “Question Authority, but not your teacher.” My responses are: make lessons that are engaging and interesting. Get learners up and moving. Allow for exploration (one of the steps of inquiry learning). Stop lecturing at them. “Telling isn’t teaching, Listening isn’t learning.” Etc.

Question authority.

As an educator, I encourage teachers on Twitter and my blog to stand up to admins who make unreasonable demands. I know I stood up to my admins repeatedly. I was called into the principals office and asked to stop several times. I said no. I never lost my job. I was still rated Highly Effective. Teachers have power, but often are afraid to use it.

Not every teacher does exercises their power. Not every teacher can exercise their power. Some teachers can’t or won’t because they fear repercussions. Some teachers will absolutely lose their job, status, or ability to teach if they question authority. That is horrible, but it does happen.

Question authority.

So I really end up where I started. Questioning authority is standing up for yourself or others. My future teachers need to unlearn the idea of “Question authority, but not your teachers.” They also need to be supported when they start teaching and question authority when they stand up for their learners.

The process of unlearning this message is vital, and it is my job now to guide them towards that goal. But how? How can I effectively teach new teachers, freshmen through seniors in college, to challenge authority in education?

They already have cognitive dissonance because they are being taught effective teaching techniques. Math and science ed is being grounded in inquiry based methods, activities, and engagement. ANNNND then they walk into the lecture hall of 200 students and are talked at for 50 minutes.  Do I want them questioning authority when a grade is on the line and it could cost them hundreds of dollars and to retake a class? No. I don’t.

Do I want them questioning a principal when they are a provisional teacher their first years out when they can be fired at will? Not really, but at the same time, yea, I do. When the questioning is because it is in the best interest of their learners, I do want them to question authority. I know I would. Even during those first years. But would I have really done that during the first years? Probably not.

The reality of questioning authority is hard.

The calculus of questioning authority takes into account the repercussions. But honestly, the catch phrase “Pragmatically Question Authority” loses a lot of value.

I think in the end, for my future teachers, I have settled on this for now. I would like them to practice “Thoughtful respect for authority.” That at least encourages them to think hard about whether the authority is making decisions in the best interest of learners.

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