Reflecting on the arc of my curriculum

This is only my second year teaching 6th and 7th grade math. I work at a school with a lot of students who score a level 3 or 4 on the state exam; for example, most of the students I teach who struggled in my class last year, still got a 3 or 4! So there are different challenges to teaching these students – I need way more extensions than I’m used to needing. I don’t need to scaffold as much (and in fact, I need to consider carefully whether I’m over-scaffolding and underestimating what they can do on their own).

Additionally, since this is only my second year teaching these two grades, I’m not as familiar with the curriculum: both the content in these two grades and the arc or story of the math. I am still figuring out the big ideas, and how best to build them together. I have a 3 – 5 year “plan” or expectation. Last year, I was just merely considering the topics and skills from a stand-point of making sure that I knew all of the topics AND that I knew the skills myself. Unfortunately, this meant that last year, I didn’t necessarily do my best teaching. Some topics were taught in ways that were more true to my pedagogical beliefs, while others were delivered in a way more congruent with my colleague’s beliefs, because I was using their curriculum to do my instruction.

This year, I’ve started to make changes. I’ve considered how I want to build the arc of the various units I am teaching, and I’m thinking about better problems to use with my students. I’m thinking about how to find the rich tasks for students to engage in, as well as the different instructional models I can leverage for different types of tasks. In the course of participating in my MfA PLTs and other PDs, I’m trying out various instructional routines and best practices – everything from the routines for reasoning from Amy Lucenta and Grace Kelmanik to number strings from Kara Imm and Pamela Weber Harris. I tried out an “important stuff, neat stuff, tough stuff,” style packet from PCMI. I have been using some of the content from CMP3, as well as some of the content from, openupresources from Illustrative Mathematics. I’ve continued to use some of the resources from my colleagues (especially in the first seventh grade unit on Probability, since it’s drawn from Engage NY in a very specific manner – though I confess that’s currently my least favorite unit because I feel the least ownership and understanding and enjoyment of it).

I am still tweaking the arcs of my curriculum, and considering how and when to cover the various content areas. I’m considering how to pull the various resources together to create a coherent set of units and to address the major skills and avenues for thinking. I’m considering how to build a mathematical community of learners and how to strengthen my students’ mathematical curiosity. I’m enjoying this work, but I do sometimes have to take the “long vision” – I’m not going to perfect my curriculum overnight. I am still making sense of the big ideas and mapping the topics that I have to teach to the fundamental layers of mathematics.

This week in particular, I spent a lot of time using the Illustrative Mathematics 6th grade unit 4 on division of fractions and thinking about which parts were necessary for my students and my classroom, and which things were unfeasible. I’m excited to hear the conversations my students are having, and the ways in which they’re developing their understanding. Earlier today, I had one student confess to the whole class (after multiplying by the reciprocal), “I know to do that, but I don’t know why.” We talked about making sense of the algorithm, and connected it to the diagram another student had drawn – suddenly, it became clear that the reciprocal was the number of that fraction in one whole – and multiplying it by how many wholes you had would get you the total number of that fraction in the dividend. We haven’t done every experience in the Illustrative Mathematics curriculum (and we’re going out of order because my school has a particular arc to our units), but it was such a rich conversation. I’ll write more about it in a separate post. My students have been making sense of models.

Meanwhile, in 7th grade, I’ve been using the routines for reasoning to develop my students’ understanding of how to write equivalent expressions. We did three Contemplate then Calculates to develop my students’ ability to chunk diagrams and see how to find the tenth, hundredth, and nth stages. Today, we launched a new routine: Connecting Representations. I was surprised by the results of it – and again, I’ll make a separate post about this.

The other thing I’ve been doing is collecting more and more student work and analyzing their thinking. In teaching a rational number operations unit in 7th grade, I made a close analysis of the kinds of mistakes the students were making on the quizzes. This will help me both this year, in teaching some of those same skills to my 6th graders as well as going back and doing targeted instruction for students who still made certain mistakes. It will help me even more next year, in planning specific activities to help my students unpack certain common misconceptions and develop a deeper understanding.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about ways to engage my students. I don’t want any of my students to be bored, I want to manage the range of learners in my classroom, and I want to develop a mathematical community more. I have begun to notice that there are fewer and fewer hands going up in my classes (especially in the 7th grade!), and I constantly hear from the same students. I am seeking new routines to change up who the talkers are. I don’t want to do random cold-calling, but I think in January, I might ask students to fill out a survey/reflection about their class participation and to start tracking which students are raising their hands and/or being called on/sharing.

The other thing I want to work on is the small group and partner conversations being more equitable. I use visibly random groupings (students get a card each day to find their new seat), but I’ve begun to notice that when I approach a random group and ask them “What have you discussed?” during a turn-and-talk, it is almost always a boy who jumps in to answer first. And if two students both start talking simultaneously, the boy often talks over the girl to continue and the girl usually backs off to allow the boy to finish his idea. I’ve started naming students and making eye contact with the girls to be conscious of hearing more of the girls in my math class. Probably another post on that at some point.

Sometimes, I have trouble wrapping up my thoughts in a post like this, because I don’t have the answer to the questions I pose. Continue the conversation with me on twitter at @MrKitMath.


Fractions, Decimals & Mixed Numbers, Oh My! #MTBoS HELP!

When I taught 8th grade math, my primary content focus was to master linear relationships. I learned everything I could about slope and y-intercept. I expanded into systems of equations. I discovered a variety of techniques to use to solve problems and many ways of teaching students how to do it. I learned multiple models and I got satisfied with some of them.

When I switched to 6th and 7th grade last year, I knew integer operations were something I was going to need to learn how to teach well. I did some research, and I settled into using a combination of the patterns for multiplying and dividing (based on CMP3’s accentuate the negative), and using the hot air balloon game with addition and subtraction (and even with absolute value and comparing numbers to some degree). I think I do a pretty decent job of teaching it (though obviously, it’s not perfect and some students struggle with some of the concepts, even by the end – especially with subtraction!).

Now I’m recognizing the next content area I need to focus on mastering: fraction/decimal/mixed number operations. Although the focus in 6th grade is on fraction division and on all decimal operations, I also think it’s vital for the students to master the other operations as well – and in my seventh grade class, we are focusing on the operations as well, especially with mixed numbers and combining decimals with mixed numbers (and including negatives!). So I need to find classes, resources, etc. to deal with those ideas next.

What are your favorite resources for multiplying mixed numbers? Dividing fractions and mixed numbers? For addition and subtraction with mixed numbers (especially negatives!). For dealing with decimals in general?

#MfAMT2 Become the Subject (A Pedagogical Use of Self)

Tonight, I had the honor of giving a TED-style talk at the Math for America annual event, Master Teachers on Teaching (Affectionately known as MT-squared). This year’s theme was Truth Matters: Trust, Lies, and Logic in the STEM classroom. This theme really inspired me to share my evolution as a teacher, so I wrote a proposal, and was one of eight teachers accepted to give a speech. I remember bringing my rough draft to the first session of our mini-course to prepare for giving the speech, and feeling like I had finished my speech and just needed to shorten it. After getting some feedback, I realized that I had somehow written 5 different speeches overlapping each other and I needed to pull out one speech to deliver. And I only had ten minutes (my original draft was more like a 25 minute speech!).

I ultimately selected my notion of a pedagogical use of self to focus on, and I wrote this speech. I’m sharing the text of what was written here as well, but it’s not a perfect transcript. MfA asked us to memorize our speeches, and while I did a pretty good job, I had a bit of stage fright in the beginning, and literally forgot my lines! I had to check my script to find my place. Luckily, once I told my story about Bubbe’s bagels, I got more confident, and I delivered the rest of my speech with fidelity. I even got comfortable enough to ad-lib a comment “Thanks Kid,” – which for those of you who know how awkward I can be, especially with improv and delivering speeches, you can understand why this was such an achievement.

My next steps with the idea of pedagogical use of self is that Kara Imm and I are collaborating on writing an article for the NCTM middle school teacher journal. Hopefully, they’ll accept our article!

The text of my speech (as written):

Become the Subject

Kit Golan, Master Teacher

Good evening. I’m delighted to talk with you tonight. First, let me share a dirty little secret: math class is not as fun as science class! Controversial, I know. I realized this as a first-year teacher when I taught both. The problem is I’m a math teacher, and passionate about it!

Those of you who are science teachers likely enjoy designing classroom experiments that facilitate discussions by unpacking student observations. I remember one such experiment, my first-year teaching, when I put food coloring in cups of cold and hot water.   My 6th graders watched, fascinated, as the color spread much more quickly in the hot water.  In an animated discussion, we made connections to brewing tea in hot water, and ultimately spoke about the impact of temperature on the speed of molecules. My students were excited and talked enthusiastically about the experiment.

Later that day, I taught those same students a math lesson. They showed much less interest in adding fractions with unlike denominators. Class became a battle: I spent all my energy trying to get students to do the math, while they spent all their energy trying to distract me and avoid doing math. “What are you doing this weekend, Mr. G?” they asked. “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Do you have any kids?” When asked a personal question, I stonewalled with, “That’s off topic” or “That’s irrelevant.” I thought I was keeping them on task. But what I didn’t realize was that some students were genuinely curious about who I was and wanted to connect with me, and I was rebuffing their efforts!

This leads me to the challenge we face: “How do we provide students with classroom experiences that promote rich discussions and engage their curiosity in math class?” My principal advised, “Just make your lessons more engaging.” “But how?” I asked. I hadn’t learned how to do that in grad school! Meanwhile, my students seemed overly curious about me and uninterested in the math. Then, during my second year of teaching, I had an epiphany and realized that I could use one problem to solve the other!

The breakthrough came after I had delivered a boring lesson on converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. My coach observed that while my students were plugging numbers into the formulas, they had no motivation—it was sheer drudgery. She suggested an alternative: What if I had launched the day’s lesson with a story? Suppose I said I’d gone to Canada, checked the weather before going outdoors and it was 20 degrees. I bundled up tight, expecting it to be bitterly cold, but when I got outside, I was sweating. What do you think happened? This would pique my students’ interest and elicit from them that I’d interpreted a temperature in Celsius as Fahrenheit. Now we had a REASON to learn how to convert temperatures – so we wouldn’t make the same mistake Mr. G made on his Canadian trip.

Using storytelling to hook students and help them learn math was a brand-new idea for me. Immediately, I found it highly effective. The first time I tried this, the kids were more attentive and enthusiastic than I had ever seen them. And so, I became a storytelling teacher. The purpose of my stories wasn’t to tell the literal truth about my experiences, but to cultivate rapport with my students and develop a reason for the mathematics. I leveraged student curiosity about me to engage them before they even realized we were solving math problems. Gradually, I evolved from fabricating stories to turning actual incidents in my life into math problems.

For example, last year, I launched a problem in class like this. “How many of you like bagels?” [Encourage audience to raise their hands]. Me too! I love bagels. We’re lucky we live in NYC, because we have the world’s best bagels. Sadly, my Bubbe doesn’t live in NYC; she lives in Connecticut, where they don’t have great bagels. So like any good grandson, I brought her New York bagels whenever I visited. One time I had to visit on a Monday, when my local bagel store is closed, so I couldn’t bring her any bagels! Let me tell you, my Bubbe never let me hear the end of that! Every subsequent visit, she would ask, “Did you bring the bagels this time?” “Can you believe he forgot the bagels?” So to make sure it would never happen again, I did a little bit of research and I found two other good bagel stores in my neighborhood: Bob’s Bagels and Tom’s Bagels. And both are open on Monday! Can you all help me figure out where I would get the better deal on bagels for my Bubbe?”

My students really got on board with this problem. As I monitored student discussion, I heard lots of conversations about their favorite bagel stores. Students analyzed each other’s methods of determining which store offered the better deal. They were seeing for themselves how mathematics is a powerful tool to solve problems in daily life.

At the end of the year, I asked my students to write a letter with any advice on how to be a better teacher and how they would like me to remember them. One student wrote, “Now, as for any advice, I liked how you would often turn your stories into math problems, it makes math more fun… I want you to remember me as… ‘the kid who reminded you that you forgot to bring your grandma bagels that one time.’” That story had stuck with him through subsequent units, and he recalled it as THE thing he wanted me to remember about him. Clearly, my stories resonated with him.

In building relationships with my students, I’m drawing on what I know about relationships in general. In psychotherapy, there is a term for using yourself to create empathy and a relationship with your patients: a therapeutic use of self. I propose that teaching needs to coin its own term: a pedagogical use of self. A pedagogical use of self is when you strategically embed yourself into the curriculum in stories that will captivate students and cultivate a community of mathematicians—or scientists—in your classroom. Such sharing about yourself will strengthen your relationships with your students. Your curriculum will come to life, your students will get to know you and you’ll draw them into your subject matter.

By using my life pedagogically, I model what mathematics can do for anyone and show students how math can be a tool to help us make sense of, explain, and evaluate our own lives. In eight years of teaching, I’ve evolved from following the lie “Don’t smile until Christmas” and worrying about staying on task, to spending the whole first day of school getting to know who my students are and introducing myself to them – everything from the dog I have to the absurd number of board games I own. By sharing my truths with the students, I build trust and inspire them to share their own truths with me. As a result, I am currently experiencing powerful, vibrant relationships with students and enjoying seeing some of them develop a passion for math.

I hope my evolution will inspire you to embrace a pedagogical use of self as a valuable tool in your own classrooms. Ask yourself, “What are your Bubbe’s bagels stories?” Thank you.

My speech can be viewed on twitter and facebook, by going to Math for America’s page and watching the live stream. I closed out the first half of the program, before intermission. On the twitter version, I get up to talk at 53 minutes.

Time Well Spent #MTBoS

I struggle with time management, especially when I’m lesson planning. I type this even as I should be lesson planning for tomorrow or grading! But I had this realization just now, as I was sorting through different ideas about how to teach tomorrow’s lesson. I was trying to create a lesson about divisibility rules (that could spring somewhat organically from this week’s lessons about GCF and LCM), and I realized that I could use the puzzle I have to launch a NEED to have divisibility rules. Then I found Prime Climb, and I realized that I could further using that to introduce the idea of prime factorization – which some of my students already know about, but this could deepen their understanding and connect the two.

So while I spent more than 30 minutes just thinking about the tweets I wrote a few weeks ago and reviewing the things people shared with me, I feel like I’ve made a much deeper investigation that starts with a question, gives motivation for discovering the rules, and connects them to the larger picture of the unit. All good things.

I guess my conclusion is that GOOD lesson planning requires more time! 😦 Too bad time is so finite!

Independent Think Time vs Collaborative Think Time

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about when to have kids work independently first and then share with a partner versus when to have students work collaboratively first and then work independently. I’m still trying to sort out the advantages and disadvantages of each option, as well as what situations work better with each order.

I can see some advantages to each, and I’m not always sure when it makes sense to follow one order or the other.

Independent Think First Advantages

Students who think at different speeds can all engage and think without feeling rushed

Students get to have their own ideas instead of being influenced by “peer pressure” (i.e. you’re wrong because it’s different than my idea) – whether or not they’re correct

All students have an opportunity to do the work

More strategies may emerge because different students will try out different strategies to solve the same problem


Independent Think First Disadvantages

If a student is stuck, they may be doing nothing at this time.

If a student misinterprets the problem, students may do a lot of incorrect work before they realize it’s incorrect

Students may not really listen to each other once they are supposed to share because they’ve “already solved the problem their way” and they’re not interested in another perspective/strategy.

Students may solve the problems at different rates: some students are finished while others are still making sense of the situation.


Collaborative Think First Advantages

Students have an opportunity to make sense of the problem together

Students may help each other make sense of the problem or share strategies

Students may build off each other’s ideas and get farther than they would’ve independently.


Collaborative Think First Disadvantages

One student might dominate the conversation because they think faster

Students may be persuaded by the “loudest” student who may or may not be correct, just because they express themselves first and most vigorously

Not all students may do the work – some students could “mooch” off the others and not think about the problem.


I’m wondering more about the types of problems that might be better to do independent or collaborative first. I’m wondering if it’s about the complexity of the problem-types or about the novelty factor. I’m not sure yet – this will require more thought.


What do other people think?

A Teacher’s Imposter Syndrome

I’ve recently begun to realize that I suffer from a bad case of imposter syndrome. I don’t know if it’s because my first year teaching was such a struggle, or because my first principal was so critical of me, or if it was because my last supervisor kept telling me they thought I needed to grow in the same area year after year, but I find it hard to believe in my skills as an educator sometimes.

When I’m talking with new or inexperienced teachers, or especially with pre-service teachers (i.e. my student teachers), I do feel a sense of expertise. In those situations, I know I have something to share – even if it’s just a message of hope “it gets better.” I can legitimately tell those folks with less experience that I remember being in their shoes, and I remember struggling so hard that I was in tears, and literally, if not for Math for America, I might not have even made it through year 1 of my teaching career, let alone be in the midst of year 8 now. When I’m surrounded by newbies, I am willing to acknowledge my experience as something that makes me somewhat of an expert – by comparison. (notice how I had to qualify that statement!)

But when I’m surrounded by excellent teachers who’ve been teaching as long, if not longer, than I have been a teacher, I begin to question and doubt my ability to contribute to them. It’s ironic, actually, because as my partner pointed out to me last night: I truly believe all students, of all ability levels, have something to contribute to classroom conversations and communities. And I acknowledge that all of the students in my classroom are different individuals with unique styles, personalities, and strengths and areas for growth, with various potential ways to contribute to the classroom. I even believe that students who have skills in math have something to learn from students who struggle with math.

However, somehow, while I can and do believe that of young people/ my students, I don’t seem to hold the same beliefs about myself and other adult learners. I question sometimes whether other teachers will value my ideas or my contributions. Whether my ideas are anything new or if I’m just sharing “knock off” models of other people’s ideas. For example, one of my favorite instructional routines is one I gleaned from Annie Fetter at the Math Forum: Notice/Wonder. I not only use that on an almost daily basis, I’ve shown the video to everyone: My colleagues at my school, student teachers, teachers attending PDs that I’ve facilitated, etc! But I wasn’t the first one to discover it, nor was it a “Kit original,” so therefore, despite the fact that I’m sharing this awesome technique that transformed my practice, I rarely give myself credit for actually pulling this strategy off on a regular basis.

In fact, most of the pedagogical techniques I use in my class are ones that I’ve learned either by observing people or by reading about them or occasionally even watching videos. It is very rare that I’ve created anything truly unique, and it’s mostly been built up on the ideas of people who came before me.

Because of my perceived lack of originality perhaps, I don’t consider myself as worthy as other teachers of recognition. I look at nominations for awards pages and I think to myself “How am I different than all of the other teachers out there who have access to the same resources I can find on the internet?” or “Why should I deserve this award? I’m not doing anything particularly special.” And I’ve never nominated myself for a single award – which by the way, seems like an awkward thing to do!

This imposter syndrome is so pervasive for me that it wasn’t until last year that I finally proposed facilitating a PLT at MfA. Before that, I was always content to attend other people’s workshops because I didn’t think I had anything worth sharing with other teachers. And then, suddenly, I ran this PLT with a co-facilitator, and we had such positive feedback from our participants. And in fact, techniques we had taken for granted as “101,” we discovered were actually new to some of our colleagues. Now, again, I didn’t write anything new or discover anything brand new, but we were putting together a bunch of related ideas and linking them concretely in a way for these teachers that they hadn’t seen before. Some of those teachers had been teaching for longer than I had been. Now, I was mostly sharing other people’s techniques with them, so again, I didn’t feel too original or unique in my sharing. The fact that our session filled up both last Spring and this fall was due entirely to the fact that our group was so small, right? Never mind the fact that it filled up in less than an hour after registration opened.

That co-facilitator connected me with a summer PD that I helped facilitate, and I began to really stretch my facilitator muscles even more, including outside the MfA community. I constantly question whether I belonged on the facilitator side of the room or the participant side – because I haven’t taught these particular lessons before. And it was at this PD that someone shared a particularly powerful quote with me. They said “never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle” and then, because this was at the facilitator meeting, they shared the reverse for us, “don’t compare our middles to someone else’s beginnings.” And I began to recognize that I might actually be a “middle teacher” and not a beginning teacher anymore (in my 8th year of teaching now!). I began to recognize that while I might not have taught that specific lesson from 7th grade, I’d taught most of the 8th grade books, and I knew the lesson structure and I knew the routines, and I know the teacher moves. So it became clear that I had skills to share with these other teachers.

I think because I made the transition right from MfA’s Fellowship into the Master Teacher program, I didn’t quite notice when I’d crossed the line between being a beginning teacher and being an experienced teacher. But then, last year, I changed schools. And while there’s been a heck of a learning curve, because I’m learning two new curricula to teach, I’ve felt confident in my ability to teach because I know the basic pedagogical moves I plan to use, and I know the classroom management techniques, and i know how I plan to build relationships with my students or handle difficult behaviors, or what I value from my classes. I’ve implemented certain systems that have helped me streamline my day in some ways (I’m still searching for better systems for certain tasks!), and I’ve got my stock set of routines, procedures, policies, etc. So while the adjustment was challenging, it wasn’t as overwhelming as being a first year teacher all over again.

Now, it took me until my 7th year teaching to propose a PLT to MfA that I felt confident facilitating. So there was no way I thought I felt ready to give a talk at MfA’s annual “Master Teachers on Teaching” (M-T-squared for short) – an event that essentially has teachers giving TED-style talks for 10 minutes to an audience of up to 200 ish teachers. I’ve never even bothered proposing a talk before, because really, what did I have to say about teaching that was so important that other MfA teachers would be interested in hearing me say it?

And then I got an email direct to me, asking me to submit a proposal. Now, it seemed like a form letter, honestly, probably sent out to lots of master teachers to encourage us to apply, but the letter combined with this year’s theme actually inspired me quite a bit. The theme this year is “Truth Matters: Lies, Trust and Logic in the STEM classroom.” I shared my ideas with my trusted friends and asked them if they thought I had the kernel of a talk in there. They both agreed I did, and encouraged me to apply. I decided to go for it, and spent the next week writing and revising my summary of the speech I hoped to give. I was at MfA to facilitate one of my two PLTs this fall and I pitched the idea to one of the program officers, still not entirely convinced my idea was what MfA was looking for – and I got quite the opposite feedback! She loved how I’d tied my idea to the theme, and she thought it was particularly important in fact! She encouraged me to submit my application that weekend.

After writing, revising, and getting my editor-mom to read over my application, I submitted my idea. A long week later (and a postponed notification deadline!), I finally heard: they chose my speech as one of 8 teachers to speak. WOAH. I’m not sure how many of the 1000+ MfA teachers actually applied to speak, but I’m sure it was competitive (that was the reason for the delay in selection, anyway). I began to wonder – maybe I do have something worth sharing?

In between submitting my proposal and hearing confirmation, I went out for coffee with a friend and mentor who encouraged me to potentially publish my idea, whether or not I gave a speech on it. And she helped me coin a new term for the skill I plan to talk about. Adapted from an idea in therapy called “Therapeutic Use of Self,” she coined “Pedagogical Use of Self.” To learn about what I mean, you’ll have to wait until I finish writing my speech (don’t worry – I’ll post the final version here after December 14th when I present!). She even expressed surprise to me at the fact that I considered myself a “middle” teacher – don’t I think I’m past middle? Into the arena of expert? After all, I am a Master Teacher…

And I wasn’t quite buying it, even still. That pesky imposter syndrome keeps telling me that if people came into my classroom, they would discover that I’m actually a fraud and my skills in the classroom with real students don’t measure up; I fear that I talk a good talk, but I don’t walk as good of a walk (which, intellectually, I don’t think is entirely true – I do think I’m a good teacher – what I think is that I’m not as good as I strive to be – but I might be striving to be perfect?).

Then last night happened, and I began to doubt my imposter syndrome. See, last night was MfA’s annual Fall Function (my 9th!). I saw lots of friends there – people I know from when we were fellows together, people I went to Pride with in June, people I went to grad school with, people I played softball or poker with or board games with, people who’ve been in PDs with me. But, most significant towards attacking my imposter syndrome were a few people in particular who expressed excitement about me talking at the MT^2 event (because my name and the other 7 people chosen to talk were announced on November 1st, in the monthly exponent – MfA’s email newsletter). The fact that they were excited to hear me talk made me nervous but also excited to share with them. The first person I’m thinking of is someone who’s been a Master Teacher for as long as I’ve been in MfA, perhaps even a year or two longer. He ran a workshop for us right before school started and shared his welcome letter and first day activity with me back then; a few years ago, I attended a workshop with him, and he shared other resources with me again. And now, here he was, telling me how excited he was to hear ME speak! Woah.

The second thing that happened was when we were in the banquet hall itself. Besides the fact that I had the best seats I’ve ever had, I noticed a table with a bunch of my fellow former 2009 Fellows (now 2014 Master Teachers!), and I went over to say hello. As I was chatting with them, someone who I admire and respect came over. I thought I was getting out of his way so he could go see someone up front, and he stepped aside, commenting to my partner that he was getting on the Kit line. The what line?? Wait, he was coming to see me specifically? I didn’t even know if he knew me well enough to match my name to my face, but apparently he very much did!

I guess this whole post is me, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m someone whom my colleagues respect and value to such a degree that they’re seeking me out at Math Prom and they’re joining my PLTs and they’re coming to my MT^2 speech. People have said to me that they enjoy being in PDs with me because they know I’m going to enhance the discussions. I think there’s a part of my brain that’s still convinced I’m the teacher whose first principal told him it was “doubtful” that I would be a good teacher, and that perhaps I should look for a different career, because grad school was supposed to give me all of the skills I needed to be successful, and since I was clearly struggling with that, maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it.

I was watching a TED Talk tonight by Brene Brown about Shame and Vulnerability (research for my MT^2 Talk!), and in it she talks about how at a TED convention, everyone who gets up on stage has failed multiple times – and that’s part of what made them great. And it made me recognize that my desire to overcome the failure of my first year is part of what’s driven me towards excellence. It’s shaped everything I’ve done since then, though it’s also probably the root cause of the imposter syndrome feelings I struggle with. Luckily, with my Sarah Lawrence College background, I was skilled in the “define the problem, do some research, create a project to solve the problem” method of studying, so I was able to overcome this initial failure. Now I’m in a place where 120 MfA teachers are going to come and hear me talk about teaching. I’m still in shock and disbelief.

#DayofSilence Breaking my Silence

Friday, April 21st was GLSEN’s annual/national Day of Silence, intended to highlight and bring attention to the bullying (and suicide) of LGBT teens. It started in 1996, and I remember being in middle school and later high school, and my friend from space camp, Heather telling me all about it. I can’t remember now if I participated or not: it’s very possible that I did. But as an adult, working with my colleague in supporting the GSA at my new middle school, it became really important for me to plan a special lesson for Friday, to support the kids in the GSA and the LGBT students at my school.

We started with a writing prompt: four questions about silence. When does it feel good to be silent? When does it feel bad? When might you choose to be silent? When might you be forced? and why for all of them. I gave the students about 10 minutes to write, and then they passed their papers to the right in their groups of 3 or 4. The next student had to read an annotate: either checking off what they agreed with, putting a # next to anything that angered them, an ! next to anything that surprised them and a ? next to anything that confused them.

Then I posed the question, “Why are we silent today?” on the board & revealed the Day of Silence palm card with their explanation of WHY we are silent that day. At the bottom, I posted a green sentence that said “please give me a thumbs up when you’ve read the whole slide” and I waited until everyone was giving me a thumbs up. It was fascinating to see different students’ reading speeds and I used my laser pointer to focus kids who weren’t reading on what they should be doing silently.

The next slide asked “What are the statistics?” Since I teach math to my middle schoolers (and I know they’ve ALL done percents at this point!), I wanted to have them do some percentages and some calculations. I know that just reading statistics like “65% of LGBT students heard homophobic remarks like “fag” or “dyke” frequently or often” doesn’t mean very much to kids – “Ok, so like more than half of them… but what does that mean in terms of actual numbers here, in our community?” So our calculations included predicting about how many students in our middle school probably identified as LGBT (or would someday) – which is about 57 out of 541 students total and comparing it to the 100,000 out of 1.1 million NYC school students. Then we used those two amounts as the basis for how many of the LGBT populations in NYC and our school were bullied or rejected or feared going to school. It obviously wasn’t based on SURVEYED information of OUR specific kids – but it was extrapolated from the GLSEN national school climate survey to apply to our communities. I think it was a great way to raise my students’ awareness, because many of them felt like “Oh, I didn’t know anyone at our school was LGBT” or that there was so much harassment. Now, it’s entirely likely that at our particular school (located in Chelsea, NYC), most of the LGBT students are NOT bullied (since even my kids who wear hats saying “Make America Great Again” wrote that they would stand up for LGBT kids being bullied), but I felt like this was the most concrete way to connect the idea to the students.

After they had about 5 – 8 minutes to work on the calculations, I revealed the amounts so they could see the facts (even though they hadn’t had a chance to finish calculating – but that was ok). I then played for them the Todrick Hall “It gets better” video (which is a music video). It was a great choice, and I’m thankful I chose it instead of some of the “talking heads” It Gets Better videos.

Then I had the students write a reflection: “How did today’s lesson make you feel?” and “How can you help end the silence of LGBT students due to bullying and harassment?” and gave them a few minutes to write. I advanced to the next slide, and I broke my silence (because at this point, I hadn’t spoken AT ALL during the first 30 minutes of class, communicating completely non-verbally with my students – using hand gestures, facial expressions, the projector, and clapping to gain attention and give directions). I said “Now we’re going to break out silence by discussing what we can do to help end the silence of Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students due to bullying and harassment. Talk to your partner,” and I gave them a few minutes to share.

Then I brought the whole class back together with my clap and asked if anything had come up during the class or their conversation that they wanted to share with everyone. In all of my classes, it took a few moments of patience and wait time for someone to feel confident in sharing. I called on about 3 – 5 students to share their ideas (only choosing on volunteers).

And then I ended with my own reasons for why the day of silence was so important to me. I wrote my “script” in advance, but I didn’t want to read it aloud and sound stilted, so I “ad-libbed” it a bit each time. This is what I shared with my students:

“I wanted to share with you why the Day of Silence is so important to me. Silence has played a big role in my life. As a kid, I was silenced by the bullies who harassed me in school. But I was also silenced by a lack of vocabulary to describe how I felt inside. I think at age 11 and 12, you know words that I didn’t learn until I got to college.

“As an adult, I’ve felt silenced in a different way. I’ve felt silenced by my fear of being mis-pronouned, or not being seen as a man. I’ve felt silenced by my fear that a parent might complain to my principal that they didn’t want their child in my class, not because they didn’t like me as a teacher, but because they didn’t want their kid to have a transgender teacher.

“But I realized that by being silent, I have made myself invisible to you. So today, I want to break my silence and share with you that I am a transgender man. What that means is that when I was born, the doctor said “It’s a girl!” – but they were kind of wrong. I was raised by my parents and went to school as a girl, but when I got to college, I met other transgender men and I recognized my own experiences in their stories. I realized that the only way to be truly happy and feel comfortable was to medically and legally transition to living my life as a man.

“I also identify as queer. Now, some of you may have heard that term in a derogatory manner before, and it can be an insult. However, some members of the LGBT community have reclaimed the term to mean that they are attracted to people of more than one gender. Unlike the word bisexual, which implies two genders, queer acknowledges that gender is on a spectrum with many options.

“Today, I’ve broken my silence by sharing this with you so that you are aware that you know someone who is transgender. And I can tell you: it does get better. If you have questions or things you want to talk about, I’m happy to answer them or speak with you.”

And then I opened it up to questions in two of my classes (where we still had class time – the other two classes, I had to dismiss because we were out of time!). A couple of kids asked questions about what it meant or how it felt/how I knew, and I tried to explain as best I could in age-appropriate language. I had one student ask me my birth name, and I told him that was private, and not something I would share with them – but I explained why it could be an insulting question and why I wouldn’t answer (because I don’t want you to call me that name and I’m worried if I told it to you, you might accidentally).

In my two seventh grade classes, some of the students already suspected – which is part of why I decided to come out. I didn’t want my “status” as a transgender person to be something that needed to be discussed behind my back in rumors. I wanted the students to know that I’m not ashamed of being trans, but am in fact, proud of it. I wanted students to know that it’s okay to be LGBT and I wanted to be a role model for them. I wonder how differently my life might’ve been if I’d met a trans man when I was in middle school, and felt comfortable coming out as trans and transitioning as a teenager instead of waiting until adult-hood. I envy the teens who are able to  do just that, but I know that I can play an important role in their lives (especially since I feel like even in the public discourse, there are many fewer out trans men than there are trans women – and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I even knew trans men were a “thing” – even though I knew about trans women!).

After class, in both of my seventh grade classes, I had a few of the boys come up to me and shake my hand. A few students thanked me personally for coming out and being brave. One of my students said, “Mr. G, thank you for sharing this with us. I want you to know that this doesn’t mean me or any of the other students think of you as less masculine.” which I thought was really sweet.

It felt so powerful to come out to them, and I’m so glad that I did it. Of course – let’s see what (if any) are the repercussions next week and in the following months. I don’t think there will be too many negative ones – after all, I do live in NYC and the school is in Chelsea (also known as the gayborhood!). But, one never knows. (However, if I helped even one of my students feel more comfortable at exploring their own gender identity or sexuality, then I will know that it was even more worth it!).