Checking My Bias at the Door


As a non-white educator, my biases are not called out, well, at all.  But that does not mean I should not be aware that biases exist.  I’m going to be completely transparent in this post so…warning

For my entire career I have worked within Title 1 schools on purpose.  While in undergraduate school, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a Non-Title school where I developed the bias “*these kids are entitled and I am not valued here”.

*Definition: white kids with parents who are lawyers, doctors, pilots, etc., kids of privlege

From that point, in 2003, I decided I would never teach in a Non-Title school.  Driven by my bias, I concluded what I had to offer would be wasted on *these kids.  The exclusion of a group based on their level of privilege; it’s harsh as I type it out but it is my truth.  And what was it I had to offer?  My philosophy has been to approach learning from a social emotional stance, providing students with a voice on how they learn best and meet them where they are.  Sidebar, this philosophy has evolved over time but the essence has remained the same.

So who did I feel was deserving of my teaching love and affection?  Students within Title 1 schools, more specifically, schools whose students looked like me.  I want to believe it all happened by happenstance, teaching at schools with a large African American population.  I would not say, I sought out these schools, especially not as much as I avoided Non-Title schools.  Over the past 15 years, I have poured my all into the children I taught.  Expectations were all ways high, the work was always intentional, the thought was always **my kids could.

**Definition: African American students from low socio-economic areas.

Still blinded to my biases, I was awarded the opportunity to support teachers within my school district with math instruction.  Two of the three schools I support have a high Hispanic population.  Enter screech sound here.  What?  How do you teach ***those kids?

***Definition: Any student who has English as a second language.

I immediately began to do some “research” on how to teach ***those kids.  I reached out through Twitter and email to educators who have worked in schools with high Hispanic populations.  The message was all the same, “Good teaching is good teaching, nothing is different”.  My biases began to creep to the surface.  Then my new supervisor stated the same thing to me as we stood in the parking lot.  Her look lack judgment but her words exposed my bias.  The exposure was hard to swallow, but necessary to digest.

So I asked myself, what makes *these kids and ***those kids so different from **my kids.  Answer, me! It was my own biases which didn’t match my belief of every kid deserves a solid foundation in mathematics and the flexibility to learn in their own way.  So now that I am naked before you, let me share my next steps in hopes that when your biases are exposed you can work to eliminate them.

Yes, I have a bias, now what?

Define what good teaching is and what it looks like.  For me good teaching starts with a context which automatically engages the learner.  This context allows the learner to bring their own knowledge to the table and and naturally discover what they know and what they don’t know.  It looks like consistently identifying misconceptions and developing a plan to intentionally address the misconceptions in a timely manner.  Good teaching allows for student goal setting and self assessment in addition to the formative assessment pieces determined by the teacher.

Be conscious of your thoughts.  Where are your expectations?  Be intentional about keeping the bar high no matter who is in front of you.  Reflection helps to check your “bar level”.  If your thoughts are focused on what the students can’t do instead of what they can and build from there you may be encountering your biases.

Remember your why.  What’s your philosophy?  Why are you an educator?  Check your actions and thoughts against your why.  If they don’t match, change your actions and thoughts.

Confess your flaws to a trusted colleague or friend.  Someone who is a critical friend and will call you out on the biases and help you work through them.  Not the person who will feed into your biases and deepen the level of the roots.


Using Ms. Pacman to Introduce Transformations


If you aren’t familiar with Robert Kaplisnky’s Ms. Pacman, you may want to take a moment to read through the lesson

Before we began our math discussions about transformations, I had students work in their table groups at their vertical whiteboards to describe Ms. Pacman’s movements in the initial video.  All but one group used terms such as slow or “in different directions” or right angles. When I inquired about their descriptions by asking, “how would you describe her movements other than slow” or 90 degree angles (to which I contributed our previous discussions about angles), only a few could produce directional movements. 

I was at a lost of how students would get  from here to describing transformations which was the goal of the lesson. I was bailed out by this group’s description:

As they looked around at other groups descriptions, they erased what they had and wrote slow and in different directions. I quickly asked them to rerecord their original thinking and proceeded to ask about Ms. Pacman’s movement on each pathway drawn. To which they responded up, down, left or right. 

I called the rest of the class’ attention to this group’s thinking. Other groups imitated the pathway requesting to see the video again to ensure they were accurately drawing the path.  This group described her horizontal movement as east and west and her vertical movement as north and south.  After seeing the thinking of surrounding groups, they added more explanations to their board (pictured above).

This group identified the right angles as places Ms. Pacman turned. 

We came back together as a whole group to discuss our layers of thinking. 

Layer 1: Identifying the movement. During a running of the video, a student (without my prompting) came to the board and traced the path used by Ms. Pacman.  I called on the group who I first identified to label her movements by sliding right, left, up and down. We labeled the path with the initials of the direction she moved. I asked the group who used cardinal directions to share their thinking of the path. I asked the class if we could say right or east, left or west, up or north, down or south. They agreed so I labeled the path using the initials of the cardinal directions. We used this video to determine if we correctly identified her slides. 

Layer 2: identifying turns. I asked group 1 why they circled all of the right angles on their path. They explained the right angles are the places where she changed position. One of the group members asked if that was called a rotation, as she had learned about transformation in her Connections class. Someone else blurted out she was turning. We replayed the original video and students shouted turn each time she rounded a right angle. One student asked if she flipped instead of turned. 

Enter layer 3: We briefly discussed what it would look like if she had flipped instead of turned. One student offered the synonym mirrored. We replayed the video and concluded she flipped or mirrored once at the very beginning. 

Layer 4: Summarizing. We summarized our lesson by putting our conclusions on an anchor chart. 

We discussed the moves or transformations made in order. I began by using the language the students stated in their explanations. Then I attached the formalize math language to each. For example, in recording the example of reflection, I drew a representation of Ms. Pacman flipped or mirrored and stated, “this is what we call a reflection”.  Although dilation was not a part of this lessons, we extended our discussions by briefly connecting Pixels, an Adam Sandler movie where Pacman is enlarged or dilated. This anchor chart was hung in the room as a reference for math language and understanding of the four transformations based on this context. 

Starting My Unit with Desmos


One of my goals this year has been to establish a context for learning at the beginning of each unit (or subunit). In my district, unit 2 for Introduction to Algebra is Transformations. My 8th grade team decided to start with angles, which changed my plan a bit. Did I panic and complain?  Goodness no! (That was for all the Pete the Cat fans 😉). I went to Desmos and looked for a lesson on angles. 

Day one of angles we went to the computer lab to partake in Lines, Transversals and Angles, which was my students’ first experience with Desmos and mine with a large group of students. They were so engaged and engrossed in the activity it was difficult to slow them enough to discuss the overlays used to explain placement of dots to identify congruent angles. 

Over two days, students were able to make sense of angle relationships through the use of this activity and I had a Birdseye view of their thinking. I loved how the system captures the information for me to return to later. I used my formative assessment data collection sheet (not pictured) and recorded where individual students were based on the expectations of the learning target. 

After this bit of exploration, I conducted guided instruction focusing on the characteristics students identified during the investigation. This was a great springboard into the angles discussion going from identifying angle pairs to using their characteristics to find missing angle measures and will now lead us into triangle measures. 

This subunit included activities such as Transversals, Tape and Stickies, Angle pair flash cards, a word wall game called It’s on the Word Wall, a project and a formative assessment using Plickers. As we transition to triangles, I wish I had taken the time to return to this Desmos lesson and compare what students know and understand after looking at these concepts in different ways. 
*It’s on the Word Wall rules can be found here

Remember Uncle Drew


The second day of school we jumped head first into an investigation. Students were presented with this context. Within groups of four they worked on VNPS investigating each scenario. This was my first time using vertical non permanent surfaces, although I had been encouraged to use them a couple of years ago. I loved the easy view it allowed me to have of student thinking. Walking around to converse with each group seemed easier. 

This investigation provided insight to several things: 

  • How students work in group settings. 
  • How students can use a context to make sense of a new concept. 
  • Students’ background knowledge of solving equations. 
  • Students’ ability to persevere when things are difficult. 
  • Can students write equations from a context. 

*Our first unit dealt with solving multi-step equations with special cases.  

Students were given access to Algebra Tiles and Algeblocks during the investigation. We discussed the conventional meaning of the blocks, which helped groups like this make sense of the quantities within the first scenario. 

While students worked, I observed their strategies and listened to their explanations. I used this monitoring sheet to identify which groups were thinking what way all the while considering in which order I would have them present during math congress.  

During math congress, 3 people representing 3 different groups shared their findings. This process hit some many realms of instruction, formative assessment (like an informal pretest), use of manipulatives, SMPs (especially 1, 2 and 3), peer corrections, writing equations from real-world situations and solving equations with special cases. 

The lesson took 2 days, one full day of investigation and preparing for math congress and the second for math congress and focused instruction. On that second day, I used the students’ findings to lead focused instruction on equations with special cases. The use of the context helped it make sense to students and gave the procedure for solving equations a purpose. I was able to provide formal vocabulary such as one solution, no solution and infinite solutions based on students findings. Throughout the rest of the unit, we were able to always connect our thinking back to Uncle Drew’s points and “our” points. 

The two posters above were not shared during math congress. 

As the School Year Approaches 


This summer was a first in a long while for me. It was the first summer I had not worked majority of the summer. I actually spent time with my family, with my God and with myself. I worked out hard until our vacation, and then I completely let myself go 😕.  Not only that, I allowed myself to begin thinking heavily about what I want from this new school year. 

A Different Kind of Year

This school year, I’ll have the pleasure of teaching one class of Introduction to Algbrea (8th) in the mornings and performing coaching duties for the rest of the day.  I’m elated by this setup because there are so many things I would love to improve upon as a middle school teacher. I want this school year to be better than two years ago when I was teaching 7th grade, which I would classify as a “pretty good” year.  

So here’s what I’ve been thinking:

  1. Standards-based grading: At our school, we have developed a school-wide grading policy. I’m wondering how my philosophy about SBG will fit into the school’s vision. This year, I would like to continue using portfolios and having students submit the work they feel best displays their understanding of the concepts. But I would like to incorporate concept quizzes which would go into the grade book for reporting purposes. My thoughts are, in addition to the mini daily formative assessments and the common formative assessments (required to administer every Friday) I would provide written feedback to students on the work submitted from the portfolio, it would be a checkpoint each week so students By the time they take the common assessments (summative/formative) we would have  a holistic view of their progress. This post from Dane Ehlert inspired me to keep moving in a fair grading direction.  This year, I will develop literature to share with parents so they will have a better understanding of SBG. 
  2. Context for Learning: When I was coaching at an elementary school, we had learning kits developed by Catherine Twoney Fosnot called Context for Learning.  I loved these kits as they introduced mathematical concepts through an interesting context using books and visual images. I’m using this instructional strategy for the 8th grade concepts this school year. To begin each unit, I have a context which will engage students in investigating the mathematical ideas vs me teaching and telling everything upfront followed by some sort of problem solving activity. Using Fosnot’s work as a guide, the lesson structure will include an investigation, my support during the investigation, and a student-led discussion to summarize the investigation.  Many contexts will be introduced by a video or image. Here’s an example of a lesson I wrote using Fosnot’s lesson structure. Uncle Drew- Solving Equations 
  3. Literature Centers: I’ve pulled book titles from this list and activities from this site to put in a center. Students would read the texts to reinforce ideas and understandings of the mathematical concepts covered using various reading strategies. 
  4. Games for Practice: When I was in the classroom in 2014, I don’t think I incorporated practice enough to balance instruction. This year, as I’m organizing my tasks and activities, I have been very intentional about including practice activities. I don’t want to be a Kuta Software printing teacher. I want my activities to be engaging and meaningful to students. So I plan on making a lot of the games using Popsicle sticks, Versatiles templates, fun kid games like musical chairs and more.