Friday, September 16, 2011

Yantra in Math Class

Today was our first pop quiz.  If you've read anything here in the last year, you know that means meditation and cookies.  I have been itching to meditate for the last 6 days with these kids, just waiting for an excuse, not feeling quite ready, finally caving and just resting in the structure from last year.

But this year I wanted to be a bit more thoughtful about it.  Here was the lesson...

I.  Writing prompt: What do you know about stress?  They write for about a minute.

II.  Class conversation: Raise your hand if you've ever felt stressed.  Raise your hand if you've felt stressed today.  Raise your hand if you get stressed out about friendships.  About school.  About math class.  What happens when you get stressed, what does it feel like?  What does it look like?  What do people do about it?

III.  Introduce Jesse as a stress-reduction (I didn't actually use the word meditate) instructor: In addition to teaching math, I also teach adults and my students to techniques to manage and reduce their stress so that they can feel better and focus on whatever it is they want to do.  When people get stressed, as you guys described, at best it's uncomfortable and distracting.  Sometimes stress about a test can cause a kind of panic that makes us forget everything we've learned.  So in this class, we'll experiment with some different techniques to help us focus and relax at the same time.

IV.  Pop quiz announcement: We're starting this today because we have a pop quiz, and I want you to experiment with not being stressed about it.

V.  Introduce the yantra: There's a picture of a yantra up on the smartboard.  I explain: in India, people have been making these kinds of geometric images for thousands of years, and using them to relax and concentrate.  Today I'm going to tell you a kind of story about the yantra while you look at it, and you can just see what happens to your body and mind.  There's no pressure, just see what happens.  Keep your eyes open and look at the yantra.  Listen without speaking as I tell you the story...

VI.  The story: The dot in the very center, called the Bindu, represents unity, our connectedness to each other, our families, our neighbors, the whole of the universe.  It's small and hard to see, but see if you can just focus your eyes on that one small point.  (wait time...)  Now let your vision expand so that you can see all the red triangles.  They say that the triangles that point up represent the masculine or male energies in the universe, and the triangles that point down represent the feminine or female energies.  (wait...)  Now look at the circles around those triangles.  These circles symbolize that which is constant, infinite, cyclic in our lives; time, which has no beginning and no end, our breath which pulses in and out, 60,000 times a day without our effort, gravity which pulls on us all the time, the universe which is infinite in it's vastness, always expanding, no starting point, no end point.  (...)  Now look at the petals of the lotus flower around the circles. The lotus flower is so important in India, and in this yantra it represents your understanding, your knowledge, which is opening, always expanding, growing.  (...)  Finally, let your eyes see the squares at the outside of the yantra.  These squares are your identity, your separateness, your individuality, which enclose everything else.  (...)  Look at the Bindu again, that point in the middle.  Relax your eyes, so that you can focus on the Bindu but see the whole yantra at the same time.  (...)  Close your eyes and see the after image on the lids of your eyes.  (...)  Open your eyes and see the yantra again.  (...)  Close your eyes again.  Just see how much of the yantra is still visible to you.

VII.  Debrief: Write for one minute about what you experienced.  What did you feel, what did you notice?

VIII.  Pop quiz:  ...And if you feel stressed, experiment with seeing the yantra in your mind's eye and just see what happens.  See if it helps you relax and focus.  And if it's not quite enough, there will be cookies.


It was awesome to do a meditation with kids that doesn't require them to close their eyes.  I hadn't planned this part, but as it turned out it was so much easier to get them to do this practice than any closed eyed meditations I've done in the past.  It was awesome to introduce meditation to kids with such a high voltage geometric image.  They had cool experiences with it.  I want to get them to make their own and put them on their binders so they can remember and keep that intention of focused relaxation, relaxed attention, anytime they're in math class (and beyond!)

2) My incredibly brilliant co-teacher found himself somewhere between lazy and curious, and when it came time to teach his lesson (which we usually share) he began...

"So this isn't really my thing.  This is really Jesse's thing, and she's really crazy.  So it's ok if you think this is weird, because I do, but we'll try it and then we'll decide if we ever want to do it again.  We'll wait to talk about how weird it is til after she's gone."

He did the whole thing.  I happened to walk in when he was introducing the yantra, and he asked me to lead the storytelling part, but he was totally prepared to do it himself.  Amazing.  We are learning so much from each other.  Which I will continue to tell you about...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

first day of year six

Today was the first day, and the two things I want to share are about my new coteacher/department cofacilitator.

1- He regularly counts how often I say awesome.  Or maybe how often I say awesome and amazing.  In meetings and I think maybe in class too.  Then he gives me responsibilities because I'm awesome. 
2- I'm so excited about our curricular collaboration, and want to say right now, whatever comes after, that what we're up to seems to be somewhere between strictly awesome and downright revolutionary.  Always.  

We make a strange and really good team, I think.  I'm curious how it will develop and excited to share our work with you!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jennifer Abrams on coaching...

In Jennifer Abrams' most recent newsletter, she wrote about a bunch of cool stuff, and I encourage you to read the whole thing here.  In particular, I keep wanting to go back and read this paragraph on dramaturgy and how it connects to coaching.  As I contemplate my new coaching role at school, this gives me language for what I aspire to do, and will help keep my eyes on that vision.

from Jennifer:

Definition of a Dramaturg
This July I spent time at the Kennedy Center participating as a new board member of the National New Play Network as NNPN ran their summer MFA Playwrights’ Workshop. Theater professionals from all over the country came to support six new playwrights as they brought their plays more fully into being.  The playwrights were connected with a director, a dramaturg, other support staff and a cast of actors. After one week of amazing collaboration, we experienced a reading of their work.  Of all of the parts people played during the week, the role that intrigued me most was that of dramaturg. We don't have dramaturgs in the teaching profession or do we?  In a nutshell, a new play dramaturg has three roles. One - to be a champion for the play itself.  Two - to be a brainstorming partner for the playwright.  Three - to be a liaison between the audience and the play.  If done well, the dramaturg is a coach, a muse, a healer, a connector and much more. We who are leaders at any level in our organization or school might consider ourselves as resident dramaturgs - champions of the work we are trying to do, brainstorming partners for our colleagues, and liaisons between our schools and the ‘audiences’ we work with - students, families, communities.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Your appreciation for all things is off the charts...

"Every person whom you come into contact with, every exploration into every place on your planet, every interaction with anyone who comes to you will be one that has the potential of uplifting them because you represent the best of all that exists in all of the universe. And you know it because you feel frisky. You're full of yourself. Your eyes are bright.  Your body feels good. Your body is functioning the way you want it to. Your heart is lifted. Your mind is clear. Your wit is sharp. Your fun is full. Your eagerness is pronounced. Your love is apparent. Your appreciation for all things is off the charts." - Abraham Hicks

off the charts people...let's go...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Videos of Self Teaching

I was just going through a bunch of unlabeled discs, most of them DVDs with films I made back when I was an experimental filmmaker making films.  I was getting into the routine of recognizing the films, labeling them, throwing them away.

Then all of a sudden there's me, 4 years ago, in clothes and hair and glasses I remember but haven't seen since then, welcoming in a classroom of kids that I taught my first year.  I actually experience not believing what I'm seeing...I have no memory of this being recorded, of this particular day, of those conversations, of that way I'm moving or speaking.  I know those faces, relatively sweeter and younger than I would have thought, utterly familiar.  And there I am, so serious, holding my clipboard, hardly looking up, but when I do serious in that too, connecting with such conviction and intensity.

I see simultaneously the significant and undeniable presence I am in that room, just because I am who I am, despite all my obvious mistakes and inattention to the important stuff, I am there and these kids that I remember being so difficult know me and are comfortable there.  I imagine them seeing me being so serious, keeping track of their failures, so clinically observing their shortcomings.  That's what I recognize there.  It takes me back.  I remember the feelings I had about those kids.  I feel grateful I'm not still living that life, not because it was so hard, though I remember it was, but just because I'm grown and full in new ways now, and am glad for those transformations in me.

I wonder if I could have had any objectivity if I had seen this when it was shot.  I would wish for myself to recognize the fundamental worth of that teacher in the room, and be able to also see how easy it could be to shift the dynamic in that room.  Those kids deserved to be seen, watched, loved through simple attention to their thinking and presence in the room.

I'm humbled and honored to have seen this just before school begins again.  May I learn how to attend to what's important, may I find the balance between humility and sincere confidence and rest there.  I think next year I'll use video (sped up?) more in my coaching.  Immediate insight!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Teacher's Job

Someone must have suggested this idea to me, but I don't know who, when, where it came from.

Let's imagine a new image of teaching:
There are bundles of packaged and organized mathematical concepts, ideas, or units.
It's the teacher’s job to get that bundle unpacked before the students come in, so that they can experience the natural questions and packing and organization that they do themselves.
Rather than simply describing the still packed bundles, or unpacking and repacking them in a powerpoint.

OC...moments from the year

I am taking time today to go through any notes I wrote during the year and incorporate them into my planning for next year.  It's nice to try to do something with my great ideas!  I'm having a good time, enthusiastically diving into work during vacation.  It takes discipline and presence to really do this with joy.

I found some quotes from a student, OC.  I didn't share them before because they felt too sweet to tell anyone else, but now I think there's something to learn here.

"It's like God took everything amazing and put it together (hands gesturing, pulsing towards each other with enthusiasm) when he made you."

"Jesse, when you get married can I come to your wedding?"

"Jesse is way too kind and adorable for anything bad to happen to her."

"Oh, I know that I can't make you unhappy.  Nothing can bring you down, Jesse.  If you'd been around in the 1930s the Great Depression would never have happened."

I really felt connected to OC, like he got it, he got me, he got the math, not just the content but the beauty, the incredible awe of it all.  He is an amazing kid, sophisticated, with remarkable resonant maturity in a 14 year old body.  I was totally professional with him, but there was such tenderness and sweetness in our interactions, it felt like it was too much.  And indeed, by the end of the year he had really pushed me away, doing his adolescent thing beautifully, if painfully for me.  He laughed and scoffed at me, cut my class, apologized but avoided conversation, actual sincere interaction with me at the end.

I took this kid's crush on me personally, and I think that made school harder for him.  In order to find balance, he had to push extra hard against me towards the end of the year, so that it felt like there was nothing between us at all.

At the end of the year this year, I felt really sad, more than ever before.  My aversion to saying goodbye, to stop seeing their faces everyday, was so strong that I didn't want to come to school in the morning.  It was funny too, because they were never more annoying to me than at the end of the year and so being with them was joy and sorrow, annoyance and delight all at the same time.  We were terminating, as they call it in the psychoanalytic approach to group dynamics, and it was painful for all of us, probably more so for them than for me.  I taught 9th and 10th graders last year, so I will see them again in the halls, but it will not be the same.  This is the thing that I know now that I didn't before: they will see me and we will know each other, some will hug me and say hi, others will not, in any case it will not be the same.  I will become obsolete in their experience of high school, just by virtue of being in their past.

That's the way it should be.  It's normal, there's nothing at all wrong with it.  But I felt it this year for the first time, as we were ending.  I felt the finality of the goodbye, the end of seeing them every day, for better and for worse, when we get along and do amazing work and when we are frustrated constantly and accomplish nothing.  I am living a new life now, without them, without their mysterious adolescent energies in my life.  Next year when I return that energy will return to my life but they will not.

This stuff is interesting, right?!  As I experience more of these intense emotions in my relationships with kids, I get better at holding space for them to be where they're at, and to support them throughout their pushing and pulling.  That's what I'm there for.  I think this experience with OC will allow me to better see what's going on with a kid without taking their affection or mistrust personally, and will give them space to grow and learn in the safety of my conscious presence.  I think my awareness of how painful it is to say goodbye will allow me to better appreciate them while we are together, and I trust that my experience of enjoyment and enthusiasm will serve them well.

Thank you OC, and all of you, my previous students...through you I have learned so much.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reading and Writing in Mathematics

Also, we've been studying up on Literacy in our school this year, and our librarian just shared this resource with us.  Haven't tried these yet, but they're thought provoking for me as a relative novice in teaching writing and literacy.

CUNY requirements, for all you NY State folks...

Just discovered that these have changed, and thought I'd pass on the heads up.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture

The last week has been an intense one: rain every day, anticipating the end of the year and on top of that the world was supposed to end today.

My 10th graders didn't mention it once, but my 9th graders were obsessed.  Everyday discussing with humor and dramatized panic how their lives would end, loudly derailing all attempts at mathematical instruction.  From my point of view it's a reasonable question: I'm not sure I would choose to be in school if in fact we really knew we were living our last few days.

Yesterday was the pinnacle.  RJ came into school and wrote "THE END IS NEAR" on the whiteboard.  I inserted "of school" between "end" and "is," but no one noticed.  Every student was asking me what I believed, but they didn't care about the answer.  Whether they agreed with me, were reassured or skeptical, it didn't change their desire to talk about this and nothing else.

By math class two periods later, they were saying goodbye to each other.  ST asked, "Jesse, will we still have math class in heaven?"  DM shouted out, "Jesse I love you, I'm going to miss you," and then asked the class if they would miss him.  "Clap if you're going to miss me, class."  Everyone clapped.  "Clap if you're going to miss ST."  Everyone clapped.  "Clap if you're going to miss Jesse."  Everyone clapped.  Very sweet.

Then out of the blue, OF loudly shares, smiling, "I'm going to die a virgin."  The class notices but the chatter continues.  I feel like I'm the only one who has really appreciated the vulnerability and generosity of this comment.  He is so sincere, expressing in his innocence the loss of all the unknown ahead of him.  He doesn't sound like he is eager to remedy the gap in the next 24 hours, just that he's sad, or even nostalgic, for a future he won't live to see.  Amazing.

The funny thing is that all week I've been trying to figure out how to terminate with these students.  From all that I have learned about in studying the theory of group dynamics, termination, or the ending of a group, is a hugely important opportunity.  We all re-live our experiences of loss and abandonment when things end.  If the facilitator of a group makes this ending transparent and gives the group time to process their feelings, to experience an end without surprise, the group can both experience less trauma in the ending itself, but also heal their past injuries.  What this looks like in my classroom is simple.  I tell them every day how many days we have left.  I keep bringing the end to mind and then when they have things to say about it, I listen.

This week I learned that with the kids who know already that they have to repeat the year and are disinclined to come to school for academic reasons, the group can still be a reason to come to school.  They are a part of something, whether they pass or fail, whether they behave well or badly and get kicked out of class.  It matters that they are here at the end; it matters that they are a part of this group that is ending.  We all want them there, and it's not the same without them.

So when this major endings conversation arose, I didn't stop it.  This rapture thing is getting my kids to do all this processing around endings and it's awesome.  So "No, we're probably not going to die," I say.  "But this group is going to end in 3.5 weeks."

It helps to have time to say goodbye.  To tell each other that we're going to miss each other, to acknowledge that even when we see each other again next year it won't be the same.  Some people will stay and others will go, and our group will not exist anymore.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Resilience, process, curiosity and relationships

One backdrop, two stories, one conclusion.

Backdrop: These four words describe our most important values across our school.  They are the threads that connect the islands of our classrooms, the values that we aspire to teach.  I like them.  I think they are basically the most essential ingredients for a happy life as well, and the fact that we came up with them to align our curricula is compelling.

Story 1: I saw one of my favorite seniors, VC, this morning at the deli.  She looked exhausted and discouraged.  I carelessly told her she was doing great, that it would all be over soon.
And it's true.  She is, and it will.

But as I walked out of the deli, I remembered that it won't stop.  High school will end, sure.  She'll do fine, graduate and all that.  I'm not worried about her.  But the stress and exhaustion and dissatisfaction that she is experiencing, those aren't over when high school ends - at least they weren't for me.  College will begin for her, with all it's responsibility and the challenge of that independence.  Fun, liberating, exciting, stressful, exhausting, the whole gamut.  Graduation, job hunting, career finding and having, family...there's a progression to move through if she wants to, that will just keep going and providing her with opportunities to feel stressed and exhausted or not.

I want her to enjoy this part too.  To enjoy the intensity and excitement and grief and fear and know that she's exhausted because life is so grand, so big and full.  Or if it's too painful to enjoy, at least to feel it fully and know that she is really living.  That her life is already what she makes it, and that she shouldn't wait 7 weeks until graduation to live it fully, or even 5 days.

Story 2: This morning I forgot to check our student teacher GL's worksheets for mathematical hotspots.  We talked a ton about instructions and formatting but I failed to see that her quadratics had integer vertices, and they didn't, and so the kids didn't know how to do it.  It was fine, I told them it was my fault and we'll fix it for tomorrow.  Then I taught GL how to come up with nice systems of quadratics and I'm sure we'll do fine tomorrow.

But GL didn't look so pleased.  She's really hard on herself and felt unsuccessful because of that mistake. No big deal, I know that feeling.  But watching her do that, watching her align her success as a teacher with each individual success in the was so obviously not true, beside the point, and most importantly, a total distraction from the actual work of improving our teaching.  There is a reflectiveness that's necessary to grow and learn, but the self-judgment that comes afterwards...that's unnecessary.

Conclusion: Those four words from the top come in: resilience, process, curiosity, relationships.  I want to speak about these words with both of these young women.  To plunge into their deep resilience, not just surviving while they anticipate some future that will be easier but deeply resting in knowledge of their own self-worth, connected to this day, this difficulty as a part of their process in growing and learning, curiosity about how that will unfold and fierce optimism about how awesome it will be.  Because they deserve it, and it will be...may my relationships with both of them support their ever more and more loving relationships to themselves.  May they find ease and enthusiasm in their work and lives now and always, pulsing in and out of their seeming successes and failures with curiosity and acceptance.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A few things...

By the chance that you haven't already read this, it made my whole day...

And also I'm super interested and excited by open space technology, which I just learned about this evening.  Check it out!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Vi Hart

Just a cursory glance at this, but it looks awesome!  Go take a peek.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jesse, can we meditate?

It's afternoon, last block.  We have an hour left.  The kids are rowdy, rambunctious.  The weather is SO NICE and we all would rather be outside.  My co-teacher is away at a conference in California and everyone is jealous, even though the weather is nice here too.  We imagine him beaching and sunning and relaxing and doing nothing, even though of course he is working hard and northern California is probably colder than New York.

And I'm thinking to myself, this is the kind of class that could feel bad.  But I don't want to feel bad, and I've been practicing letting other people off the hook for making me happy.  I've been practicing letting my students off the hook for making me happy.  That's a revelation.  I'm thinking, whatever they do today, I am going to be happy.

So it's from that place that I ask them, "What can I do?  Here we are in math class, with all these understandable but non-mathematical circumstances distracting us.  What can we do today?"
I'm sincere, not frustrated, and that feels good.

So TD says, can we meditate?  He sounds so eager, frustrated almost, like "alright already, can we just do something useful?"  We've been meditating and eating cookies every test day all year.  But this is  just regular math class.  WHAT?!  This is the best day yet.  Yes, we can meditate.  I turn out the lights.  The kids put their heads down or close their eyes.  I tell them it's just fine if they fall asleep when we're meditating.  We'll wake them up gently later.  They don't have to do anything right now, they don't even have to listen to me.  They just have to close their eyes and relax.

I lead them in, slowly, lots of space between sentences.  Like I'm just telling them a bedtime story...

"Relax your bodies, just feel what it's like to be in your own skin right now, antsy or hungry or tired.  However you are, just notice that, really feel it.
How happy are you?"
(someone calls out something that sounds like 65%)
"OK, so if you're 65% happy, let's say.  Is it possible for you to increase your happiness to 70%?  Just by focusing on it, just by choosing to be a little bit happier?  Just see.  Is happiness something that you can decide to change?
Use your imagination to envision something that you want, something that would make you happy.  It could be small or big, it doesn't matter.  See yourself having this thing, let the image be really vivid, and feel what it's like to have this thing, feel the joy of having it, feel it in your fingers and feet.
What does it do to your happiness to just imagine having this thing that you want?
If you can, I'm here to tell you that this is the single most important thing: to be as happy as you can be. You all deserve to be so happy.
Now feel how even if the room were totally silent, and I stopped speaking, that even with your eyes closed you would know that you aren't alone, you can feel that there are people around you.  That's a mystery, that connection.  Feel it, even imagine that there are lines connecting you to everyone else in the room.
Send happiness down those lines.  Make a wish that the people around you be happy.  Make a wish that  the people around you receive whatever would make them happy.
Then feel the people around you wishing you happiness.
What does that feel like?  Let yourself just take that all in.  You deserve all those good wishes and more.  Just soak it up.
And when you're ready you can pick your heads up."

Then I rang the singing bowl and just let it sing.  Usually I gong it at the end.  They were all waiting for that.  I didn't.  When it stopped resonating I told them that the sound of that simple resonance is the reason for the bowl: it's used to begin and end meditations, and I use it to get their attention because I wish that joy for them always.

Then, folks, seriously...then they all did the most beautiful work I've ever seen.  Maybe it was just chance, but I walked around the room and everywhere all I saw was perfect, diligent work.  The most beautiful graphs I've ever seen these kids do.

Nice day.
May you all be as happy as possible all the time.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two Student Stories

I remembered these today and laughed out loud.

"Jesse, do you know have one of those pornographic cameras?"
"Do you mean panoramic?"
"No."  But he looks a little confused.
"You do know that you're asking me if I have a camera that videotapes people having sex."
"Yeah, I mean it's so awesome that it's pornographic!"

I think it's worth noting that he was describing one of the first 24p cameras, awesome about 8 years ago but truly old school now.  Huge and not even HD.

"Jesse, can I go outside to fart?"
"No." I continue with the lesson. In front of the class.
"OK, well, I'm gonna fart."
I ignore him and move on.
"I just farted."
I crack up.  I can't help it.  Everyone thinks that I'm laughing because it smells but really I just can't keep up my adult front anymore.  I am a teenager at heart.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Letter of recommendation

I wrote this yesterday afternoon for a student that received a safety transfer from our school today.  The last time I interacted with this kid, he looked me in the face and said he would rather go home than stay in school, even though he knew that I was right to encourage him to stay.  It was an incredibly disappointing interaction.  I felt the loss of all our good work together, like I was watching him go to the dark side and everything I was doing was just doggy paddling in zero gravity: futile exhaustion.

I thought I would have some negative things to incorporate somehow in there, but when I started writing, all that came was this, and it couldn't be truer.

I wish he could read it.  In my desire to open a window on my classroom to the world, I wanted to share this here.


To whom it may concern,

            This is a general letter of recommendation on behalf of one of my all time favorite students, C.A.  I hope this letter will loudly advocate for him in whatever his future calls for and whatever he pursues.

            I met C.A. during the middle of 9th grade last year.  Our 9th graders travel as cohorts throughout the year, and C.A. was one of a few students moved mid-year to help the cohorts thrive.  I don’t know why he was moved into my class, but it was one of the most positive changes I’ve ever experienced in a classroom.  Always, changes in classroom groups are difficult transitions, leaving the group open to redefine themselves, either for the better or the worse.  Often the change is difficult enough that it’s for the worse. 

            This was not the case for C.A.  He brought enthusiasm, intellectual vigor and a candid honesty that inspired me and our class to be more courageous in our class conversations, more demanding in our expectations of each other and more diligent in our work.  C.A. was a constant contributor to our conversations and also reminded people what they were capable of with humor and generosity.  He was resilient, had a positive attitude (as frequently as one can expect from any adolescent) and worked hard.

            This year C.A. has had another teacher for math, and so I have only seen him in the hallways in passing.  We always speak to one another with great affection and enthusiasm.  We continue to have an open and honest relationship and he has told me both about his frustrations with his teachers and peers as well as his own his failings.

            Though I will miss C.A. a great deal, I hope he will find in his new school a place that challenges him and recognizes his great value.  He is ready for leadership and intellectual companionship that exceeds what most inner city high school classrooms have to offer.  C.A. is a powerful and incredible young man and deserves the best of chances in whatever school he is in.

May it be so.  May the light call him forth even in the darkness.  May he know his own worth and advocate for himself even when others do not.  I am so grateful that he was in my life, in that classroom.