The Water Teachers Swim In

I’m thinking right now about humility, and about how I can try to look at everyday structures and interactions differently. One piece of teaching toward equity and empowerment for me is finding ways to step back and think deliberately about things that I haven’t thought about before. A few folks have me thinking on that right now.

First, Grace Chen, on Carla Shalaby’s book Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School.

Shalaby shows us how to start this imagining: in describing episodes of behavior, or moments of conflict between child and teacher, she offers explanations so humanizing and child-centered that I was often surprised to admit that the possibility didn’t even occur to me, and whose truth can radically alter an adult’s interpretation of the situation— in the direction of recognizing the child’s dignity. She doesn’t romanticize these children or pity them; she doesn’t dismiss their behavior or excuse it. Rather, she shows what it might be like to take children, for who they are, in all that they are, very seriously.

I need to read this book. In what ways do I not take students, in particular poorly behaved students, seriously? Do I stop to listen to their stories and understand their experiences and their perspective? What might I learn by doing that — by recognizing that my first instinct when a student is goofing off might be wrong, might actually close the door on an opportunity to learn about that student and do right by them?

Next, Danny Bernard Martin:

We have preservice students at University of Illinois Chicago who come in, some, not all, and they say, “I’m here because I love all children” and it’s not true. It’s absolutely not true. And as hard as that may be to hear and to think about and to process there are some of us in this room, despite all of our best intentions, who don’t love all children, and particularly we don’t love some black children for whatever reasons, and those reasons can be found internally. I think one has to come to grips with that. “Why am I here?” Because certainly the children are asking. “Why are you here? What purpose are you going to serve in my life?”

I make mistakes — I get frustrated and react impulsively, letting my frustration get the best of me. In what ways does that frustration come through differently for different students? In what ways do I make assumptions about students based on factors out of their control that influence those quick decisions, day after day? As Martin says, the reasons can be found internally. But I need to be able to stop and look.

Next, Lani Horn:

I think of this Dewey quote from The Moral Principles of Education…  “I’m told there is a swimming school in a certain city where youth are taught to swim without going in the water, being repeatedly drilled in various movements that are necessary for swimming. When one of the young men so trained was asked what he did when he got in the water, he laconically replied, ‘sunk.’ This story happens to be true.”
My concern is that I feel like all this uncertainty and contingency is sort of the water that teachers swim in. It is the resistance, it’s the pressure, it’s what might make us drown. So we’ve got to kind of have a way of preparing teachers for that part of the work that they’re doing in addition to the movements and the routines in order to really help them learn to be effective teachers.

A student falls asleep in class, or is tossing something to another student when I turn my back, or doesn’t do their homework. How do I react? That’s my water. Those are the decisions I make every day. And I can make a decision based on what I’ve done before, based on what I see other teachers do, based on what was done to me as a student. Or I can slow down to think about the impact of those decisions on the individual students and reconsider. I want to slow down and make those decisions in ways that humanize every student, that assume that every student arrives to class wanting to learn but perhaps only struggling to figure out how to do that within the unique constraints of my classroom.

Lani Horn, in the talk referenced above, calls this an asset orientation. To me, holding an asset orientation means that I assume every student has potential brilliance inside them, and that I can draw out that brilliance by focusing on what they bring to their classrooms and creating space for their strengths to shine. An asset orientation means focusing on these strengths, rather than framing attributes the student has no control over as deficits, whether those perceived deficits are their past actions, their past academic performance, or the labels school or society has placed on them.

But most of all, holding an asset orientation means being willing to be wrong. It means being willing to step back and think about the water in which we swim, the ways in which I walk into a classroom making assumptions about certain students, the ways in which I react in tough moments differently toward different students.

An asset orientation doesn’t mean being “color-blind” or disregarding the context from which students enter my classroom. Students are also swimming, and knowing the water in which they swim, the lens of privilege and oppression and intersectionality through which students see school and math and learning, is essential in understanding who they are. An asset orientation means recognizing the currents that students are swimming with or swimming against, recognizing that those same currents buffet me, and working despite those currents to see the potential brilliance of every student and give them the tools to work toward that brilliance.


On Tracking

Three different pieces that are on my mind right now:

Michael Pershan on different types of tracking:

On the margins, should US schools have more or less tracking? I think the answer is probably “better tracking.”

Michael argues that tracking can be done well or poorly, and it matters less whether a school tracks than how it tracks.

Michael Pershan again, on the research behind tracking:

Schools aren’t designed optimally for learning or for equity. School as it exists is a sort of uneasy compromise between contradictory principles — fair access and award of distinction — and the competing demands of different groups. Some claim to have revolutionary solutions, but these probably don’t exist. You can reduce inequity, but only if you’re willing to curtail the learning of some. You can improve learning for all, but risk exacerbating inequity. This is an optimization problem with more than one possible solution. Or, as Rochelle Gutierrez says in a different context, the answer to the questions of tracking are usually “neither and both” sort of answers.

Click through for the whole piece — it’s chock full of references to research and fascinating questions diving into the nitty gritty of tracking. The comments section is also full of thoughtful folks offering useful perspectives.

Finally, a news clip on recent New York City meetings about a desegregation plan in the city’s middle schools:

The DOE wants to reserve 25% of seats in each middle school in an area of the Upper West Side for students who are behind grade level in math or English. One parent’s response:

You’re talking about telling an 11 year old: you worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed or wanted. You’re telling them you’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks! Is that what the DOE wants to say?

Ok so this isn’t about tracking specifically, but it channels the passion with which certain parents want certain students excluded from their children’s education.

My Take 

I don’t know how I feel about tracking. Well, I know how I feel, I don’t like it, I think it’s a mechanism for whiteness and privilege to hoard resources for certain students, and reinforces damaging societal expectations that math ability is innate and some kids have it while others (most?) don’t. But I do see the argument that tracking can be a red herring. Parents, especially privileged parents who hoard influence in schools, love tracking. And reading the comments on Michael’s pieces, plenty of teachers have strong opinions based on their own experiences, mostly getting the opportunity to move into a higher track and feeling like that higher track made a huge difference in their math education. I’ve heard that sentiment from plenty of other folks I’ve talked to about their math experiences in school. Pushing upstream against all of that is a huge political battle, and I think most schools would be better off putting their energy elsewhere.

So what to do? Here is my wish list of things that seem practical and would maybe make a difference:

  • Teachers and schools don’t see teaching lower tracks as a burden or a sign of low status. I would love to see schools create structures so that all teachers teach at all levels, and for teachers to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in doing so. I think that is more complicated than it seems, but is also so essential, in particular around how the teaching profession as a whole looks at status and teaching skill.
  • Tracking emphasizes depth over speed. I think acceleration (doing 6th grade math in 5th grade, or similar) sucks. I guess I can buy it in exceptional (read: 1 in 10,000 students) cases. Instead of accelerating, schools can offer enrichment to students in higher tracks that explores off-the-curriculum topics and helps students love math. This could reduce some of the rat race mentality, while also increasing opportunity to move between tracks because the upper track isn’t just putting distance between them and the lower track.
  • We stop talking about that 1 in 10,000 student as if we have to build entire structures and schedules around his needs. (And I’m using “his” there deliberately; while I have no empirical evidence I would conjecture it is usually a him.) I realize some folks are going to disagree strongly but until I see schools regularly putting the kind of attention and effort into the inverse student — the students who struggle the most in math classes, for myriad reasons — I’m totally uninterested. I would rather schools prioritize democratic access to knowledge and skills than ensure the 0.01% can take calculus in 8th grade.

The Thinking in Thinking Classrooms

I’ve really enjoyed diving into the Thinking Classroom framework in the last year, and seeing it make the rounds in the Twitterverse. This sketchnote from @wheeler_laura is my favorite, concise way to capture the framework:


I’ve been thinking more about why a Thinking Classroom can be powerful. Here is a quote from a paper Peter Liljedahl wrote on the beginnings of his framework:

I wanted to build, what I now call, a thinking classroom – a classroom that is not only conducive to thinking but also occasions thinking, a space that is inhabited by thinking individuals as well as individuals thinking collectively, learning together, and constructing knowledge and understanding through activity and discussion (p. 2).

Contrast that with what Walter Doyle calls a work production classroom, cited in Lani Horn’s book Motivated:

Content was divided in small chunks, instruction was stepwise, progress through the curriculum was rapid and efficient. In addition, there was often little differential weighting of credit for different tasks. All tasks were equal, and final-term grades were calculated by averaging grades on individual tasks. Finally tasks in production classes were often interchangeable. That is, although there may have been a broad sequence (e.g. addition before multiplication or fractions before decimals), the ordering of tasks for a day or a week was somewhat arbitrary. Decisions about the order of tasks were based, it appears, on management considerations, personal preferences, or perceived motivational requirements, rather than a logical or semantic thread that might have tied the separate tasks together (1988, p.  175) [Horn pp. 48-49].

Horn adds that these classrooms “adapt to the demands of schooling, but they do not fully support students’ meaning making” (Horn, p. 49).

I think this contrast is the heart of a Thinking Classrooms. What structures can we set up that to create an environment where students actually think, rather than going through the motions of schooling?

Thinking Classrooms have lots of moving parts and elements, but they’re not a black box that mysteriously influences how students learn. I see the core of Thinking Classrooms as having two parts: first, students need to be thinking and reasoning during math class, and second, I need to be intentional about what, exactly, it is that students are thinking about.

Each element of the framework plays a different role here. Visibly random groups, vertical non-permanent surfaces, the way I answer questions, and the hints and extensions I have ready are all tools to help students think — to disrupt the ways students have learned to avoid thinking in work production classrooms, and engage with the math in front of them. If students aren’t willing to engage, nothing else matters very much.

But it’s also important students are thinking about math in ways that are purposefully sequenced, that highlight connections and underlying ideas, and that build off of their prior knowledge. Choosing the right problem, taking meaningful notes, leveling to the bottom, and checking for understanding are tools that, once students are thinking, focus their thinking on the essential ideas of a lesson and make sure that student thinking is going in a useful direction.

The idea that Thinking Classrooms are really just about getting students to think seems obvious, but it’s also a useful barometer to use in the classroom. First, I need to create a culture where thinking is the norm. Then, I need to make sure students are thinking about what I want them to think about. I’ve taught lots and lots of classes where students didn’t do much actual thinking. Looking at students each day and asking those two questions is a starting point to figure out if the elements of the Thinking Classroom are creating the culture I’m working toward.

TRU, Checklists, and Getting Better

I’ve spent some time recently reading the materials in the TRU (Teaching for Robust Understanding) framework. From the website:

TRU is a framework for characterizing powerful learning environments in crisp and actionable ways

TRU focuses on what they call the five dimensions of powerful classrooms:


Buried in the framework is a thought-provoking footnote:

Making a practice of reviewing what counts can result in significant improvements. For example, Gawande (2007, 2009)  has shown that checklists that remind doctors and nurses of things they know they should be doing result in significant  improvements in hospital recovery and mortality rates. If reminders to wash one’s hands before interacting with patients  can improve medical results, then it stands to reason that instruction can be enhanced by routinely asking (for example) where in a lesson students have opportunities to engage in sense making at an appropriate level of cognitive demand.

TRU advocates for looking at lessons from a student’s perspective and asking targeted questions, connected to their five dimensions of powerful classrooms, about what instruction looks like:

TRU obs

I find these questions really fascinating. I’m often struck by the interest in the education world on ideas that are “new” and “innovative”, but these questions focus instead on some fundamental elements of classrooms and lessons that are conducive to learning. It brings up an interesting question for me. Am I more likely to improve my teaching by trying to learn the newest and most innovative strategies, or by asking myself some simple questions about my pedagogy to better practice the foundational elements of teaching?

I think I’d argue for the latter. I just pinned the observation questions above my desk, and I wonder if I will be able to consistently put in the effort to ask myself these questions each day.

Mathematics as Ambiguity

Here’s something I’ve changed in my teaching:

I came into teaching in part to help students become curious about mathematics and see learning math as a process of exploring and discovering beautiful ideas in the world of abstraction.

I still want to create opportunities for students to feel that curiosity and wonder. But as I get better at seeing what is actually happening in my classroom (not only what I wish was happening), I see students who feel like learning math is a process of following rules and jumping through hoops that were created to make them feel stupid and unsuccessful. To help these students feel a sense of agency and ownership over their learning, I have tried to slow down and unpack some of the ways that mathematics has been socially constructed — the choices of content to include or not include in the curriculum, the emphasis on certain types of skills and practices, the notation that is common in textbooks, the conventions of mathematical communication, and much more, are full of arbitrary rules and ambiguities.

I’ve learned that seeking out those ambiguities as learning opportunities can actually help students to better understand content, and also create a space where students feel like mathematics is a human enterprise that is, like humans, imperfect and always changing.



Sometimes it seems to me like teachers spend 80% of their time and energy dreaming up and implementing elaborate systems of sticks and carrots to try to motivate students to learn, or at least to sit in class and act like they are learning for the better part of a day. The word “coercion” sounds ugly, but that’s what it is. Points, prizes, incentive systems, grades, transcripts, recommendations, rules, routines, structures, and all of the little things teachers do to manage class on a daily basis.

I wonder what education could look like without coercion. I wonder how much more energy humans in schools could put toward learning instead of being distracted by the systems we build to try to get young people to learn. I wonder what those young people would act like in a world where they experienced genuine agency in their learning.

I don’t think we should blow up all of education. I think there’s too much we don’t understand about motivation, the stakes are too high for the students who could slip through the cracks, and we don’t have the adults to build a new education when we can barely staff the current one. I know I would struggle to teach in a totally different paradigm. But it’s fun to dream.

I think the toughest thing for me is that every way I have tried to hack my way to a place where I rely less on coercion to help students learn, I feel like I’m putting lipstick on a pig. Every new system feels nice on the surface but it’s the same nastiness underneath. I can do the best I can within the schools we have, and I can focus on all the great things happening, but I can’t help thinking there’s potential for so much more.

Expectations and Paying Attention


I live in Leadville, a little town in the Colorado mountains. We have two claims to fame. First, we are the highest incorporated municipality in the country at just over 10,000 feet in altitude. Second, we host a bunch of high-profile endurance events, culminating in the Leadville 100 Trail Run, a 100-mile ultramarathon in the mountains around Leadville each summer.

There’s a pretty absurd culture of athleticism here. Many of my coworkers have run the Leadville 100 or completed the 100-mile mountain bike race, and many who haven’t regularly run local  trail marathons or participate in 25-mile backcountry ski races. It’s a funny place. I might casually talk to the barista at the coffee shop in town about how the snow finally melted off the Mt. Elbert trail so he could run to the top (Mt. Elbert is the tallest peak in Colorado). Or I might go for what I feel is a hard morning mountain bike ride with a friend, to later learn that he ran 20 miles later that afternoon. I’ve definitely pushed myself further here than I would have living somewhere else, whether through implicit comparison, jealousy, or just the practical goal of keeping up with friends.

There’s also a negative side to this culture. Many folks in town are intimidated by the athletes, thinking that matching the serious racers is impossible and that it seems like a waste of time to try anyway, because they’re endowed with some special abilities the rest of us mortals aren’t. There’s a particularly tough gender divide — the mountain bike races are typically 80-90% men and the other races aren’t far behind. The dynamics of the gender divide are self-perpetuating, and while many folks feel motivated to push themselves many more feel left out of the dominant culture.

To summarize, seeing people working hard and achieving at high levels motivates some people, but alienates others, particularly those who are already in the “out-group”.

Math Class

This isn’t so different from my math class.

Some students share much more often than others. This might motivate some folks to work harder, but also alienates others as they believe working hard and engaging in class is for someone else. Every interaction they have either reinforces these paradigms or works against them.

Here’s something I want to work on to try and mitigate the inequitable outcomes of this cycle:

I want to work on paying attention to students. Sounds easy. But when a student is sharing, either to the whole class or in a small group, I want to watch the other students. Who is listening? Who is staring off into space? Who looks frustrated or hopeless? There’s a lot to see in young people’s faces when I look.

My instinct is always to watch the person who is speaking. It always has been, unless I’m scanning the room specifically for misbehavior. But the more I pay attention to all of my students — how they listen to or disengage from the conversation when certain peers share — the more I learn about the social dynamics of the class and the ways that students experience learning in my room.

It’s not surprising that I’ve pushed myself to keep up with the Leadville endurance scene. I’m a tall white guy from an upper-class background. I saw lots of people who looked like me, so it seemed natural to join in. In the same way, I need to look at my class and ask myself: which of my students see pictures of academic success that they feel like they can strive toward? And which of my students interpret learning as something for someone else, something risky, and something not worth their effort?