A Reflection on “Who or What Broke My Kids”

I Broke My Own Rule

I have a silly rule in my class that I don’t allow any vine videos to be taken in my room. The reason I always tell the kids is that too many things I say can be taken out of context in an eight second video clip. I always explain that if they want to secretly video my lesson for some strange reason to please video the whole class so their parents will know there is a method to the madness. After all, I have been known to do some crazy things in the 65 minutes the kids are with me all of which could be taken the wrong way without knowing the context of the lesson.

A few weeks ago I posted the piece “Who or What Broke My Kids” after an interesting day in class. Recently that post ended up on Hacker News, Reddit, MetaFilter, and a few other sites with a great deal of controversy regarding the methods and mathematics involved in my class that day. After dealing with the initial shock of reading what people were saying about the post I realized I broke my own rule. I gave people a written equivalent of a vine video and let them take my classroom out of context.

Classroom Culture Can’t Be Captured in Print

A great deal of the comments centered around the fact that no one could believe that I had a meltdown in class and “berated” the kids by calling them broken. I realize this is my own fault as I was the one who used the terms broken and meltdown however what the commenters failed to realize is that I spend weeks at the beginning of the year developing a classroom culture that encourages a free exchange of ideas between me and the students. So what seemed like a 10 minute lecture to most of the commenters actual went a lot more like this: “Guys, can we take a time our here for a minute… What is going on here…You seem really concerned about whether or not I think you are right…Do you think you are right…Which cards do you think definitely have a right answer…Do you think there are cards that don’t have a right answer…” etc.   I wasn’t angry with the kids I was disappointed that they wouldn’t trust their own instinct and reason on their own.

Why I Can’t Always Tell Them They Are Right or Wrong

A lot of commenters focused on the fact that it was a poor teaching strategy to not tell the kids if they were right or wrong. They thought the kids were just looking for guidance and that I was withholding that from them. I can assure you that isn’t what they were looking for. The kids wanted me to give them the answers and the whole point of the activity was for them to engage in that productive struggle we all talk so much about these days. Every teacher has had this happen, the kids were asking if they were correct and when I would give feedback they would switch around a card or two and say, “well how about now…now…what about now”. Kids are really good at getting teachers to give them the answer. I have done it myself frequently. We see them struggling and want to help but instead of helping them think we give them answers and bail them out. I was determined to not let this go that way.

 Despite My Best Effort I Can’t Predict How Every Activity Will Go

Another center of controversy was the fact that I should have been able to predict the lesson would go this way and frame it in a different way so it would not go that direction. I work with thirteen year olds who I love dearly but are terribly hard to predict. This was not at all their first experience with these types of probabilities. We had been working with the standards for a couple of days and the formative assessment data collected showed they were ready for a more challenging activity so we gave this a go. This was also not their first experience with this type of card sorting activity either. I am not exactly sure how I could have reframed it to help them without taking that productive struggle away from them but am open to suggestions.

In the End

In the end, I learned a lot from this experience. The whole reason I started this blog was to help me find my voice as a teacher. A great deal of the posts I write are more for myself than anyone else and I seriously doubted my decision to start the blog in the midst of this experience. Reading what people were saying about the post on some of the social sites was eye opening.   Some people thought if I wanted to teach this way that I should be at a Montessori school while others thought I shouldn’t be allowed to teach at all. Many thought the problem was the fact that I don’t teach math like it was taught when they were in school and that my job was to be the gatekeeper to information rather than a facilitator of learning. Some people said they wished I was their child’s teacher others claimed if their child had me as a teacher they would have their child removed from my class.   However, after taking the time to really reflect on the whole experience I realize this is exactly what I needed. I now know I do have a voice and it is a strong one. Although not everyone agreed with my methodology or thoughts they were taking about it. The goal in my class the day of this post was to generate discussion and I was not only able to do that in class that day I was able to do it in the blog world weeks later as well.


15 thoughts on “A Reflection on “Who or What Broke My Kids”

  1. You have been a class act throughout this episode. I hope you felt—and continue to feel—the support of your peers and colleagues who, just as you are, are trying to do the absolute best for their students every day school is in session (and on lots of days when it is not).

    Good work.

    • Thanks so much for your comments and encouragement. Everyone in the MTBOS has been an amazing resource and support. In the end I may have opened Pandora’s Box with this post but I also got a lot of people talking about math education and I am okay with that!

    • Sometimes I am a little to honest and transparent it seems! I am really passionate right now about finding my voice. Your blog will be fantastic and you know I will help you all that I can!

  2. A teacher who cares is a great teacher (and it is clear you do). As a separate question, we may wonder whether the standard materials provided to teachers are good. I’ve seen a few examples of Common Core materials and they seem sometimes to border on the Socratic Method. I appreciate the point that you’re teaching other stuff in the classroom all along the way, so the comment applies only to the materials, not to your method of teaching. Just as a personal opinion, I think it makes more sense to show a worked example together with explicit explanations of the concepts being taught, followed by reinforcement exercises to show the concepts in different scenarios. In my experience, open-ended questions generate consternation in two types of student – the very smart ones (who recognize the ambiguities and are truly stumped as to what is expected) and the ones who don’t already have the intuition required to understand the question yet and who really need to see worked-out examples. I worry that in Common Core that the distinction is lost between mathematical reasoning (which isn’t arbitrary and should lead to a correct answer) and problem-solving (which involves interpretation and can be somewhat arbitrary, such as being forced to make assumptions for missing information). It seems students are led through exercises to develop the mathematical reasoning on their own (such as an intuition for prior probability distributions) without explicit explanation. Having said that, perhaps the materials I have seen simply aren’t complete.

    • I certainly appreciate all of your comments and it gives me a lot to ponder as I begin re-planning for my class next year. A commenter on another post mentioned that for a lot of people their view of education came from their own school experience. That is certainly the case for me. I was always taught math as a checklist of steps with little focus on the “why” of the math and with little time to think about what I was doing. I was taught in the time of “keep, switch, flip” for dividing fractions rather than ever hearing the word multiplicative inverse and the oh so popular “butterfly method” of solving proportions. These experiences have driven me to be a teacher who provides my students with a lot of really rich experiences to provide a foundation for learning the “skills”. That being said I am not saying that there is a no room for worked examples, etc. I think their is a middle between those two methodologies that would serve kids well.

      Thanks for a really rich discussion!

      • Different calculation methods are great. Understanding why they produce the same results can come after learning them individually first. A friend from Taiwan told me something interesting about their education: They would memorize classical Chinese poems as kids, long before they ever had the ability to understand what they really mean, because they carried deep meaning about real experiences in life the kids hadn’t had yet. Why make them memorize the poems? Because later, when they encountered those real life experiences, they made the connection. They could see the meaning of the poem and really appreciate it. By then, it would have been far too late to start learning poems. But they already had the poems in memory, ready to be understood when the time came. And that, too, provided a shared cultural experience for the Chinese people – something they could discuss and relate to as they grew older.

  3. Interestingly, the folks who “…could [not] believe that I had a meltdown in class and “berated” the kids by calling them broken. ” were taking your blog words very literally, drew the wrong conclusion about your teaching style and missed your point entirely.

    What I heard was that you aren’t afraid to use the full range of resources in your personality to develop a meaningful communication with your students. It may be a lot easier and safer (for the teacher) to stick to the traditional, carefully scripted, teacher model, but these are not the objectives of education.

    Somewhere along the line, you seem to have adopted some transferable skills from the pedagogy of coaching sports. Emotions are what facilitate learning. Twenty years from now, every time a student of yours sees a pattern or a pattern of patterns or solves a recursive problem, they will have a strange desire to have an emotional outburst, a personal, driven need to *own* that problem. And the unfortunate student-of-your-critics, sitting next to them will wonder, “Where did that come from?” Maybe your student can pass along the lesson.


  4. I’m 29 years old and the last bit of math I say I grasped with much confidence in myself was 7th grade math.I’m physically disabled and it has always been my belief that the damage that causes my inability to walk also causes my problems with math, though I don’t officially have the label learning disabled. I graduated high school with a regular diploma thanks to a handful of good teachers like you who believed that building confidence in me and encouraging me was just as important as the math itself. I also had an extremely patient math understanding college age friend as a tutor who was always able to make even the most confusing lessons easier. I remember being the kids you teach, feeling trapped by the pressure to find the right answer or fail as a person. That level of anxiety is crippling and in an ideal world should never be associated. with any form of learning. . I read your original post and as an adult who sees even her current self reflected in your kids I say please please keep it up. As to the negative comments left on your original post, as your kids have probably said, “Haters gonna hate<" Keep on keeping on

  5. I really enjoyed reading that post. Maybe someone already commented on the same thing I would like to comment on (over 100 comments!) but I’ll say it anyway. This is what really stood out to me:

    “This may seriously be the most vital mathematical practice. If students can’t share their ideas and understand the ideas of others is there any real point in them “doing the math”. After our lesson redo I paired each group with another group to share their number line. Their goal was to look for similarities and differences and explain their rationale about why they placed controversial cards where they did. I heard some of most logical and articulate arguments we have had all year. I think I heard, “I like what you did there, but…” repeatedly along with “I hear what you are saying”. We brought it back together as a whole class to follow it up and each group shared the most interesting conversation that they had.”

    You are teaching more than math in your classroom. I’m going to switch out a couple of words in the first two sentences. I’m not aiming to improve what you wrote, just show how it applies to math and so much more.

    “This may be the most vital communication practice. If people can’t share their ideas and understand the ideas of others is there any real point in discussing anything?”

    Rock on! And congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  6. Hi Brooke,
    I’m low tech and have never responded to a blog, but a younger friend sent me your post and I was so glad to see so many teachers venturing what I had thought was outside the box of math teaching.
    I’ve been a teacher, coached teachers and now, in my later years, teach in thailand where saving face and obedience to elders pose an even tougher version of “Who broke my kids?”
    A few thoughts:
    1. Recently I told a group of non teachers that I no longer will describe my work as being a math teacher. Instead, I present myself as a facilitator of expression and my context is mathematics.
    I now view education as a facilitation of expression, with many different contexts.
    2. Jo Boalers recent mindset course described how students’ lack of confidence and fear of making mistakes needs to be dealt with front and center. Very true. But I believe that mindset, for me, obscures what I see to be a more profound truth. A facilitator of expression loves the audience, unconditionally – at least it’s my goal every time. It is heartset of all concerned, not mindset. Schools and universities are upfront about developing minds. Hearts are, for some reason, only nurtured coincidentally, or tangentially, or alluded to a bit obscurely as the importance of emotional expression. The fact that love and hearts is not plainly stated in any comments may hold the source of not only who broke our kids, but who broke us?
    I have come to believe that the math is not so important. Perhaps it’s because mastery in my class has little meaning. One student once told me, “You make us brave to think.” Thank you for that. I’ll never forget it, and I hope it’s true.
    What is important to me is the journey.
    3. One final comment on your critics and even about what I wrote.
    Talking rather than doing is problematic. That’s why we don’t lecture and want students to do, to experience.
    Had your blog had less words and more video the question would have had more life. I could say the same about what I wrote as well. Had your critics offered their videos as rebuttal that would have been interesting indeed. I have a hard time imagining that teachers who are capable of teaching in the manner you described would offer the kind of criticism you described. I don’t see how they could be teaching out of a choice of practices. On the other hand, didn’t we all start our teaching with drill and practice after working out examples?
    I need to work on my videos… 🙂

    • Thanks so much for this comment. I am glad your friend sent you the blog. You have some great words there. I agree videos would give the discussion more life and illustrate the problem more clearly for the critics. Thanks again.

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