Getting Back into the Dream

Student 1: I want a snake to be honest
Me: Snakes don’t have the best reputation for being honest
Student 1: No, I said I wanted a snake to be honest!
Me: Yeah, they aren’t really that honest.
Student 1: I meant, “To be honest, I want a snake!”
Me: I don’t think you need to have a snake in order to be honest, you could be honest without one.
Student 2: Mr. Thayer, how do you find mean?
Me: Well it’s different for every person, but it takes a journey and a search. Sometimes they need time alone in the desert. 
Student 2: No, how do you find MEAN?!
Me: Oh, I thought you said, “meaning”
Student 3: Wait, how do you find meaning?
Me: That’s a great question. Some people find meaning in what they do for a living, but what if they lose their job? 
Student 3: Then they need to find multiple meanings!
Student 2: I don’t care about that, I want to find out how you get mean!
Me: Why do you want to get mean? You are so nice!
Student 2: I mean, how do you find the mean in math?!!
Me: Ohhhh, are you asking, “how do you find the mean of a set of data?”
Student 2: Yes!
Me: Oh, that’s easy…

A long time ago, back in college maybe, I had a dream in which I was living in some kind of spiritual anarchist community where nobody owned anything and everyone shared. I remember there was food and a bonfire and people playing music and lots of laughing. There were people I knew there and people I hadn’t met, but they all seemed real to me, like it was something that was actually happening, or would happen. I have vivid dreams like this from time to time where I wake up with really strong feelings. In this one I just woke up extremely happy and I didn’t want to wake up, I wanted to get back into the dream. It’s a dream I’ve never forgotten and one that I am always wanting to get back into. I have been a part of many different kinds of communities since then but none of them have been literally like the one in my dream. I notice though when they come close in some way. My wife and I have lived in two different neighborhoods, one in New Mexico and one in California, where we went through long periods of time sharing meals, childcare duties, and some jam sessions with our neighbors. I think that the times when I am most open to this kind of community is when I really remember this dream. Or maybe I had the dream in the first place because I am open to living in community, or at least I think I want to be.

We are all part of different communities, neighborhoods, church communities, extended family, friend groups, book clubs, softball teams, we do it all the time. These communities help us find meaning, especially when there is some kind of special bond between the people in them, and they are all sharing some kind of purpose that seems to amount to something greater than the sum of their parts.

I have also been a part of school communities. I have taught at many different schools, most of them for short periods of time, and they are all different in how they feel as a community to me. In fact, even in the schools where I have taught the longest amount of time, how community seems to be defined can change from year to year. But looking back on all of these school communities, I can see that one of the things that they all have in common is a desire for community and connection to happen. That there is purpose when that sense of community is strong. When we have had faculty meetings where all we do is pour over data but the sense of community is weak, there is less meaning in that data. There is suspicion, disinterest, cynicism. But when the sense of community has been strong, people want to engage with the data as an opportunity to go deeper, to do better.

So is school just a building with classes or should it strive toward true anarchy, the kind in my dream? Is teaching just a job for a paycheck? Or is it something more, something with a greater purpose? Most teachers I know talk about the experience of seeing students outside of school and the student acting shocked that the teacher can exist outside of the classroom. This is less true if you teach older students but it happens. Teachers aren’t always thought of as people who have separate lives. When I was a younger teacher, I almost didn’t. It was a calling. I was crushed one year when I first started teaching bilingual math classes and I was really outside of my comfort zone. I wasn’t reaching the kids, they were running all over me, I had no control and it was the kind of anarchy most people envision when they hear that word. I remember walking out of my classroom and seeing an administrator and just saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” I would have been the fourth person in that classroom that year to have left. My administrator didn’t have any words of wisdom for me, and I didn’t actually give up, but I thought about it. I remember feeling lost. I was a teacher and if that was taken from me, if I wasn’t capable of it, then who was I?

As I got better at teaching, I threw myself into it more and more. I stayed late, took on other responsibilities. I would look down on the teachers who left campus right when school ended, the ones who seemed to think it was “just a job.” But then I had a family. All I wanted to do was be home with my new son and make the most of my time with him and with my wife when she got home from her higher paying job. I went part time for a couple of years. After we had our second child, I took a year off. After going back to teaching full time, I often found myself sprinting to the parking lot when the bell rings, watching younger teachers shake their heads at me. Who had I become?

Then came the pandemic. We were “teaching” to blank screens and to kids who were quickly getting lost. I found myself calling parents and they would hand the phone to their teenager who was still in bed at 3 in the afternoon, “Here you talk to her, she won’t listen to anything I say anymore.” I would talk to the kids about how it was still important to get up and have a day even if they were stuck at home. I would counsel the parents and tell them they were doing a great job. Meanwhile I wasn’t sure about anything. Was I even a teacher anymore? Was a strong community even possible anymore? What was going on? I wanted to get back into my dream.

When I first had that job where I was struggling and wanted to quit, I remember walking by the classroom of another teacher. She was a bilingual social studies teacher and had many of my same students in her classroom as I did. I walked by and saw the kids working on projects. They were making a mess, talking happily but calmly, but working together. They were at ease and nobody was challenging the teacher. She was at her desk grading their notebooks and not worrying about the class. She didn’t have them “under control,” she had created a community with them. That was what I wanted.

I went to that teacher and learned from her. I was also taking classes at night in bilingual education and Spanish and I was tearing through Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy for Liberation. I created projects, I invited my students to explore and create community with me. It was never perfect but it has always been better since I started teaching this way, with students as partners in community. The pandemic definitely broke that for me and this school year I am working to get it back. It is happening for me because I have been part of this school community now going on 8 years and a lot of the students know me before the school year starts so I have something to build on, even though all of us got out of practice. But that is what it is, a practice. We have to practice at being community wherever we are, not just expect it to happen for us. This is true both inside and outside of the classroom. And just like you have to practice to learn how to solve equations or find the mean in a set of data, finding meaning through community takes time and work and patience and love. Let’s get back into the dream.

Get out of the Way

One of my whiteboards. I’m going to need more of these!

“To teach is to learn twice.” – Joseph Joubert

At the beginning of the school year, a lot of freshman classes are quiet. They are nervous about starting high school. They are scared of the scarry high school teachers that the middle school people warned them about. The freshman in your Algebra class are afraid of the older kids in the room who must be there because they didn’t make it out. So they are quiet, waiting to see if they can ever find their comfort zone again. For me as a teacher, this always seems to be true unless I am teaching a class of bilingual, Spanish-speaking kids. They all seem to know each other, even if they haven’t ever met. They sense somehow that I am not there to hurt them, that I care. So they start getting comfortable pretty fast. Continue reading

Just Another Day

My first day of school is Monday. My 21st first day as a teacher. I set my classroom up (mostly), organized my lessons in my mind, went to some meetings and did some minivan karaoke on the way there. I’ve been rewriting lessons and projects and a syllabus, I could stay up all night all weekend but I am going to just write this post and then go play some guitars. I am teaching three Algebra 1 classes and one Geometry class, students at all different levels, and I mean all different levels. Our district does trimesters and students switch teachers at the trimester (not all but most) which gets in the way of relationship building but I don’t design the schedules. Anyway, because of this I have been planning three big projects each year with some smaller projects along the way as well.

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An Anarchist Teacher’s Cookbook

“In my opinion the immediate goal of even committed anarchists should be to defend some state institutions, while helping to pry them open to more meaningful public participation, and ultimately to dismantle them in a much more free society.” 
― Noam ChomskyOn Anarchism

I can defend public schools to a point. I can defend some charter schools even more, depending on how well they are open to meaningful participation from their students and families. Especially those students and families who are traditionally underserved. You know who they are, students with special needs, students who grew up on the rez and are now in the city, students who live in ghettos and have a hard time seeing a way out, refugees who are learning their second or third or fourth language to participate in school and rise up, students who identify as a gender other than the one the school registrar says they should. All of these people are your people and they come to your classes. It’s summer now so in the fall, they will come with excitement, a blend of emotions ranging from thrill to terror. You will have their attention while they read you and decide. They will decide whether or not you take them seriously, whether you are there to guard the gates from the likes of them entering, or to supply them with keys, weapons, and wings.

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Got 10,000 Steps?

I don’t know how I ever taught the distance formula inside a classroom. In fact, any lesson I can do that sends kids outside while I get to breathe some fresh air and relax is the best lesson. I taught this once to the only student teacher anyone has ever entrusted me with. I taught him that along with a bunch of other anarchist teaching principles. Maybe that is why I’ve never had another student teacher? Anyway, I did this lesson a while ago as a way to introduce the distance formula to my geometry class. It was adapted from this lesson by Pam Wilson if you want to do some more reading and create something that might fit your class better. Enjoy!

I started them off with this warm-up problem:

Got 10,000 Steps-

It was a great problem because kids actually know the restaurant and there was a big fight about how many walks due to the fact that there is more than one entrance to the parking lot, something that doesn’t show up on the map. After this, I showed them this map our our school: Continue reading

Let’s Do This!

I hear it in the copy room when the line is long and teachers care less and less about making it to class on time. I hear it in the teacher’s lounge passing by the stale donuts that turn me into Homer Simpson every time I see them. I hear it walking through the quad when I see any other teacher. It’s some version of, “15 days left!” or, “Man, I’m done.” or, “I’ve got nothing left.” I even do it myself. Just this week on Monday morning, I saw another teacher and said, “It’s almost Friday!” He laughed viscerally. Continue reading

The Day I Lost Control of my Class and Quit Teaching

Today I lost control of my class and quit teaching. Well, I lost control of two of my classes. I teach 4 classes on 70 minute blocks. That part is boring and who cares? Today I had three students in my geometry class teach a lesson on the effects of altering dimension on the area of an object. So they talked about the effect of altering the height of a trapezoid, or altering the base and the height of a parallelogram. They did not go into solids. They did have a set of google slides ready that they showed, the class took notes on, and that they provided additional notes and examples on the whiteboard on the side. All three of them were teaching like crazy and they were prepared. In that same class last week, a group of students taught a lesson on finding the area of regular polygons showing simple examples as well as cases where students needed to find the apothem. They dissected the polygons into congruent triangles formed by the central angle, showed how to find the central angle, then showed how to use right triangle trigonometry to find the apothem and hence the area of a triangle and thus the whole figure. It was amazing. Each of these groups taught the entire class. They gave a warm-up, worked various examples, and gave an assignment. I sat in the back and took notes. Continue reading

Laugh or Cry

How do you write about this? I haven’t been writing anything here since before the election. Since before Betsy DeVos, before the great climate change denial, before we throw the sick out into the streets, before the refugee kids in our classrooms were denied any last hope of refuge, before it was ok to assault women as long as you are famous, before the majority of Evangelical believers sanctioned such behavior, before our proud and massive community of bombs finally lost their mother. Ok the last statement was a joke, one that didn’t come from me, but a good one. There have been a lot of good ones. They help, to a point. But what have I done? I’ve tried to do the same thing I have always done with my students, be open and listen, be professional and teach math. I look for ways to give them stuff to be curious about and challenged by and excited for.

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Adventures in Aesthetic Computing

I’m teaching three algebra 1 classes this year and I wanted to start the year off with some art projects to fill my classroom. I stumbled upon this idea  developed by Paul Fishwick, while scouring the internet over the summer. It’s called aesthetic computing and it is a great way to turn math into art.  Basically it works like this: You start with an algebraic expression or formula such as the iconic:

You then rewrite the formula in explicit notation, like you would for an excel spread sheet formula: E = m*c^2. Next, create an expression diagram: Continue reading