Thursday, August 2, 2012

My new job and an insight

Last Friday night I had the pleasure of talking about my new job with friends over Ethiopian food in Brooklyn. I am now a Mathematics Instructional Specialist with New Visions for Public Schools, currently in the process of wrapping my head around the many departments and projects that will influence my work in the next months.

So far my job mostly looks like me and my four colleagues discussing, reflecting, debating, often clarifying and sometimes presenting the big ideas we have around our work as coaches for math teachers in the Bronx. This is extremely fun and so far I really love this job – something I’ve never said before! When September rolls around my time will be spent traveling to six different schools, supporting the Algebra teachers develop their inquiry practices (looking at student work and making curricular decisions based on student needs they observe in the student work) and use performance tasks (sophisticated and rich problem solving activities) as their diagnostics, formative and summative assessments. For all of you math educators, there’s a whole lot more to say about all that, and I plan to return to this blog to say it. But for now, my dinner.

Once I started talking about my job, it took a long time – about 45 seconds – for my friends to begin reminiscing about how bad they were at math and how difficult it was for them in high school, even though they’re smart and had tutors and went to good schools. They commiserated for a few minutes while I experienced a familiar pang of frustration and intolerance that so many people are willing to publicly admit complacency with such a negative relationship to mathematics. I was especially annoyed because just a few hours before I had been disappointed to hear the same basic attitudes expressed at work by our non-math colleagues.

Painful though this moment was, the intensity of my emotion struck a chord in me, and my curiosity was piqued: people that I respect – educators that I admire and friends that I love – must be saying this to me for a reason, and it’s not to annoy me or invalidate my career. I’m humbled to say I think this was the first time I have ever been sincerely curious about the pervasiveness of this attitude in my adult communities. I have come to expect it to some extent in adolescents, who are developmentally designed to resist everything adults present to them, but theoretically ripe for transformation. But up until now I have always dismissed and been frustrated by this attitude in adults.

My friends and colleagues are bright, successful, beautiful and powerful people. I like and respect them each immensely. They are all well educated, capable, self-sufficient, and successful, each with degrees beyond college and multiple artistic talents outside of their careers. They have been highly successful in their work in hospitals, corporate banking, MTV and schools. In addition, I believe that everything I hear has some benefit: maybe there’s a new idea for me to integrate, or maybe I need to hear an old idea again. I finally wondered – which is it for me? Why is it that people keep saying this to me?

My first thought was that this is our large scale feedback and inspiration for the work we do. We all know that math education in this country needs work, and that’s why we’re all so excited to be doing it. I hope one day that my friends and colleagues will be excited to do math with me, and interested in the actual content of the math I’m teaching. Right now, I’m happy to be just a bit more interested in really listening to people as they tell me their experiences, trusting that there is more for me to learn about just how bad math education has been for people.

A few days ago began the resurgence of another familiar conversation in response to the NYTImes “Is Algebra Necessary?” oped. I feel like the NYTimes publishes an article like this every year or so, and each time we get pissed and feisty, quick to lash out with a slew of offended and defensive responses. For a second time in a week, I felt clear about this old dynamic: our more global community is simply acknowledging the imperfection of math education that is the reason most of us are math educators in the first place. Why is anyone surprised? Our job isn't to defend ourselves (we're working hard, doing great) but to be curious about what new insights we can gather from their testimonies, which can’t help but illuminate the experience of students in general.

On a side note, my boss Russell West, Jr. has a quotable response to the article which I’ll paraphrase here because it’s so awesome: “We agree with Andrew Hacker and will respond as Daniel Wilingham suggests: must kill school algebra to save school mathematics.”  That’s our internal tagline for the work we’re doing in schools.  Shhh!  It’s a secret.

I have so many revelations and insights and a deep longing to spread the good word about all of them, or at least get them "on paper" here. I hope my use of this real estate will contribute to the enjoyment and satisfaction of its readers.
Great to be back ya’ll.  Happy August!