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Ukulele Dayz


Maybe the biggest change I’ve made over the past year is that I’ve stopped working too damn hard in the classroom[1].

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of teaching, and into my room marches the suits. Not just the principal and the assistant principals, but the whole clown squad of network people from the NYC Dept. of Ed, and the entire math department of another school.

Things looked pretty much like this when they came in:

Ukulele: Martin & Co. -- Harmonica: Hohner C Harp -- Harmonica Brace: Seriously, it's a harmonica brace.

I had this brief moment of panic, like I’m a first year teacher again. In my head, I think, “oh god, I’ve gotta impress these people with my amazing explanatory powers, and show them I am SOOOOO SMART.” I almost blew it. I ran to the front of the room and started to talk, because I figured that is what these clowns had come to see, right? Great pedagogy? Not me playing ukulele.

But then I remembered these tweets from the winter:

sarcasymptote: Principal told me I got tenure today. Immediately told him, “oh yeah? paperwork went through? then TAKE YOUR MEETINGS TO HELL.”
sarcasymptote: I then spent the rest of the day kicking over garbage cans and telling teachers I don’t give a shit. The next 25 years will be great.
Hell yeah! I’ve got tenure! I’m just gonna show these guys what I would normally[2] do.

We are working on the ambiguous case for the law of sines, which I decided to do by just giving a few examples and having kids work through them and just screw up over and over again by trying different things until they get it. (I did an exploratory thing last year with it that involved spaghetti, but the takeaway ended up being an algorithmic way of determining if there will be 0, 1, or 2 triangles by comparing one side length to the height and other side, which I thought was dumb and not really the conclusion I wanted. This year, I just focused on the unit circle. But if you are interested, I’ve got it.) They had about 4 examples to work on and were getting some of the weird results you would expect if you just jumped in – “MISTER! I’VE GOT AN ERROR!” or “MY CALCULATOR ISN’T WORKING” or “THIS SHIT SUCKS! I’M CONFUSED!”

The old me would have been running laps around the room, sweating profusely, trying to SAVE THE WORLD WITH TEACHING, or some shit. Because if I just help them one more time, they are going to get it. But then, they would come back the next day and couldn’t do it again, because I had just explained how to do it and not let them struggle with it at all. Learned helplessness just festered.

What I’ve been doing a better job of, though, (but see footnote 2 and know that IT STILL ISN’T GOOD), is backing off and letting them struggle. I taught a year in Ohio, and I remember thinking about the horrors of watching teacher after teacher planning other lessons or grading papers while their kids just did work from a book. I WILL NEVER DO THAT, I said. But I was dying, and my kids weren’t getting any better, with me just running around helping everyone that said they were stuck. I needed a compromise.

Enter: Ukulele Dayz. I brought my ukulele to school one day because I had a rehearsal to go to after, and I started playing it in class as a joke. Not only did they not complain, but they said they kind of liked it[3]. So I started to do it more. And I noticed something. They stopped asking me for help when I was playing ukulele and would instead turn to their neighbor and ask them. Good God, that is what I’d been asking you guys to do forever! Hot damn! It was beautiful: I could still move around and check up on their work, but when they asked me to help them, I would just say, “Ugh, I’m too busy playing ukulele.” (Luckily, my Asst. Principal loved the idea and totally agreed with the reasoning). The kids didn’t think of me being lazy or not helping them, because I would still have discussions with them about work, but they didn’t complain when I refused to help.

So, after the observation, Team iPad and Co. wanted to talk to me about what they saw. The main comments they made were about the patience that my students had, and the perseverance when things weren’t working out. They were shocked that, after students completed a whole problem trying to see if a second possible triangle worked, and it didn’t, they didn’t get mad. They were amazed at the level of discussion my students could have, and the solutions they came up with when they encountered stumbling blocks.

I’ll be honest, my class is still REALLY teacher-centered. I’m not a good enough teacher to get away from that yet, and I don’t have the time to develop good student-centered activities for 3 different preps. But my students can have really good mathematical discussions, both with me and with each other. I’ve still got a long way to go. I can be boring A LOT. My default is still to lecture, and even though more kids can have high-level discussion, some will sit there and drool. Too many of my kids can still fly under the radar and get away without doing too much work. I don’t do shit for differentiation in-class. But I have been able to make at least a day or two each week one where I have them work through stuff and figure it out on their own, all while getting some good ukulele practice in.

Oh yeah… Unfortunately, the clown squad liked my class so much that now they keep bringing in other teachers and other clowns to observe. Just yesterday, another group of 7 weirdos came in, and within 3 minutes, one of them pulled me aside and said, “Do they always talk to each other like that? They are all helping each other out so well!” That, at least, made me feel alright.

1. Of course, those who follow me on twitter and know of my insomnia and working on average 14 hours a day know that this does NOT mean life is easy. Just a little less exhausting in the classroom. GO BACK

2. To be fair, when I say “normally,” I mean, on the days I don’t repress from my memory from where I suck so badly I want to crawl into my physics closet and never come out. Which, I guess, would be more normal than what I describe here. But, it’s my blog, OK? Let me pretend. SORRY TO MAKE YOU KEEP DOING THIS

3. The same principle doesn’t work with an accordion. NOT THAT I DIDN’T TRY.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 05.04.2011 11:54 pm

    This sounds unbelievably awesome. So essentially, if you are messing around with something else (appearing busy or otherwise engaged), the kids just try not to bother you and ask each other and work it out for themselves? Did they take some time working up to that level? I feel like if I were to do something like that, most of my kids would just stop working on math and start reading a book or trying to text without being noticed. Did that happen in your classes at first and if so what did you do to keep them focused without just doing the work for them?

  2. Elizabeth permalink
    05.05.2011 10:46 am

    It was worth waiting all year for this blog post. This is genius.

    – Elizabeth (@ cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

  3. 05.05.2011 11:08 am

    This is amazing – I would love to be in this place myself as a teacher! I have a lot of the same questions as agktmte. I’d love to see your answers to his/her questions becuase I’d like to see the same behaviors in my students.

    I’m learning to play mandolin – do you suppose it would work if I practiced it while walking around?

    –Lisa (@lmhenry9 on twitter)

  4. 05.05.2011 12:24 pm

    Hah! I only play the saxophone… I wonder if other classrooms would complain.

    Whenever I held office hours, I’d have a rule against people sitting too near me ( I think any little barrier that makes it more efficient for students to ask a neighbor or their own notes than to come ask you can really improve classroom culture.

    Thanks for the post!


  1. Ugh. | Differentiated Mathematics

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