Helping with Math Homework (When You Don’t Understand)

Math HomeworkThis post was originally written for and published on the Presbyterian Day School blog.

Generally speaking, my wife and I take a hands-off approach to our kids’ homework. We certainly want our four children to do well in school. We want to encourage and assist them along the way, but Debbie and I also want them to be independent and resourceful so we think it’s good for them to struggle sometimes. Therefore, when it comes to our kids’ homework, we avoid being too helpful and encourage them to figure things out on their own.

For the most part, this approach has served our family well. Our children usually complete their homework independently, and homework rarely results in any familial trauma–but not always. Occasionally, we have homework agony when one of our kids struggles with an assignment they just cannot understand–especially when the endeavor involves math. I’m an English language arts teacher. My wife teaches the visual arts. Neither of us feels particularly proficient when it comes to math.

Here are five things we do to help with math homework (we don’t even understand):

  1. Watch the teacher’s tutorial or read through the student’s notes with our child. Then, we ask our child to explain the lesson in his own words. I’m amazed how often this solves the problem as my child sees or hears something he missed during the initial instruction. Additionally, if my child can teach it to me, he’s most likely going to understand and remember it.
  2. Check out a different video tutorial. Sometimes my child just needs the concept to be explained in a different way than the way his teacher taught it. Fortunately, we live in a time when one can learn just about anything through the internet. Two places we’ve tried for math tutorials are PatrickJMT and Khan Academy. Both provide quality videos on many different math concepts.
  3. Plug the problem into an online computational problem solver. Both Wolfram Alpha and Discovery Education’s WebMath are immensely useful tools. They not only answer problems but also provide explanations so my child can see how the problem is solved and have another explanation of how to approach the question.
  4. Have my child phone a friend. In the wise words of The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Indeed I do and my kids do, too. Everybody needs help sometimes, and it’s important my kids learn how to ask their peers for help. (We’ve been known to ask grandparents, aunts, and uncles, too.) In college, I always made new friends and exchanged phone numbers with other students in my classes. Then, if I missed a class or needed homework help, I had friends I could call.
  5. Have my child email his teacher, ask his question, and move on. I have my child send the email in order to take ownership of his own learning. And believe it or not, I’ve found most teachers to be helpful, reasonable people. While they may not respond to the email immediately, they’ve always taken the time to help my child understand the concept with which he’s struggling. Then, we move on. If my child needs additional help, he’s responsible for talking with his teacher or joining the next help session.

Having made an attempt to do his best, my child can leave for school the next morning with looming questions about last night’s math homework. That’s perfectly okay. As parents, Debbie and I are less concerned that our kids get all the right answers and more concerned that they learn to ask questions, seek help, and find creative solutions when they struggle.

Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles. Capitol Records, 1967. Vinyl recording.

Embracing Wonder

More WonderFor the past few years, my students and I have begun the year with a See, Think, Wonder thinking routine exploring the classroom, making inferences about what we find there, and wondering about our learning in the year ahead. It’s a good first day activity to get students moving around, asking questions, and thinking visibly. The boys have always enjoyed it, and I’ve always left at the end of the first day feeling energized for the next. Nevertheless, I’m planning to abandon the lesson this year.

Two weeks ago I attended the Clark County Connected Conference in Jeffersonville, Indiana. As I reflected on the day, I realized I attended several great sessions, but Dean Shareski’s keynote “Whatever Happened to Joy?” resonated with me in a particularly powerful way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. If you have time, you should watch it.

Near the end of his keynote, Dean shared several ways we can cultivate joy. I could certainly embrace more joy, so I’ve been revisiting my notes and experimenting with his methods. One way he suggested is simply to wonder. So, in the days leading up to a new school year I’m trying to cultivate my sense of wonder. I’m reading and researching. I’m taking the time to look at things closely, and as I sit here dreaming about a new year and looking at new class lists, I’m beginning to wonder about each boy. I wonder what he’s like, and I wonder what he likes. I wonder what he wonders–not about 6th grade reading, our classroom, or me. But, what does he wonder about life? About what is he curious? What puzzles him about the world? What inspires him and holds his interest? What does he most want to learn?

I’m not sure what the first day of school will look like. I have no brilliant lesson plan, and I haven’t figured out what we’ll do. But I want to start–on the very first day–uncovering and  embracing their wonder, and hopefully, together we can cultivate our sense of awe.

Dean shared the video below in his keynote, and I think I’ve watched it at least 15 times over the past two weeks. “We have a responsibility to awe.” Indeed.

Awe by Shots of Awe

Project-based Learning: Questions and Need-to-Knows

project-based learningA couple of months ago I had an email conversation with Mary Ann Stoll, an education and technology coordinator in Arizona. Mary Ann provides professional development for teachers on how to incorporate project-based learning. She had read through my “Diving into PBL” series and was interested in my reflections on using need-to-know lists to drive projects and in what scaffolding I used to help students with questioning. She wanted to know what I did differently the second year to improve our learning and research. Specifically, Mary Ann asked:

  • How do you guide the uninitiated student group to even start asking need-to-know questions? 
  • And then, how do you nudge them along until they’ve explored their knowledge, skill, and information gaps sufficiently?

Here’s a portion of my response to Mary Ann:

I always start from the first day using thinking routines to help my students learn to ask questions and show their thinking/understanding. Before we narrow our topic we use Question Starts to come up with list of questions we have about the larger concept. Our concept was human rights in the second year, and I started by simply introducing the Declaration of Human Rights, and discussing what we thought they meant. Then, the students generated open-ended questions they had about the individual rights. We use Question Sorts with those questions to eventually narrow our topic. Then, we drafted our driving question together. (I really had to steer them in this. In their previous PBL/design thinking challenges the question was not student-created.)

Once we had our driving question, we used Think-Puzzle-Explore to start developing our “Need to Knows.” The students worked in small groups to generate their T-P-Es, then we shared them to the larger group and wrote the best ones on our IdeaPaint wall. I transferred those to a Google Spreadsheet and shared it with the class giving certain students editing rights to help me track our learning on the spreadsheet. (This was a good idea, but I didn’t execute it well.) Those students could add new questions to the list, mark questions as answered, provide links to related articles, etc.

We used a Diigo group to curate our research, and I assigned students rotating roles (stolen from this Bill Ferriter handout) for what they had to do as we began reading and learning about our driving question. They had to bookmark, annotate (using a modified ladder of feedback), and share what they were reading and learning with the rest of the class in Diigo. Then, they had to perform their rotating roles to help us evaluate our research, clean it up, and make sure we were considering multiple perspectives. (I’m attaching a couple of images that hopefully will help this make sense.) We used SweetSearch as our starting place, and then I worked to find other resources to help them as we went.

Finally, I had students keep an individual Peel the Fruit Map that they updated every day so that I could track individual student’s understanding. We spent way more time on research the second year, and I felt my students had a much deeper understanding of the topic. That said, due to time restrictions, I finally just had to call an end to our research and move on to the how-do-we-share-what-we’ve-learned-and-do-something-about-this-issue phase.

The thinking routines and the social bookmarking roles really helped me provide the scaffolding my students and I needed. I had several teachers visit my classroom to watch how it worked, and I was really pleased with how the students responded. It was a HUGE improvement over year one.

Mary Ann found my response helpful but was still having difficulty visualizing the Peel the Fruit. She asked:

  • Do you happen to have a diagram of such a map?  Is it a general concept map or concentric circles?

I responded by sharing a few more ideas:

Understanding MapHere’s a PDF of a blank Understanding Map/Peel the Fruit and a better picture of a class one…During the last few minutes of class, I would stop the students and ask them to pull out their individual maps and add something to it—a question, an insight, a new discovery, etc. I’d collect them or walk around and glance over them to see where kids might be and who I might need to focus my attention towards. I also encouraged students to use post-its to add “their best thinking” to the class Understanding Map posted on the wall.

The map is set up to be a concept map, but we definitely felt the questions overlapped. I liked it because if a specific question wasn’t being addressed, I knew to push our thinking in that direction. For example, one class had a tough time considering other perspectives, so we took a day and did the Circle of Viewpoints and Step Inside routines.

Again, I mainly used the map to help me track our collective progress as well as see individual student’s progress. I found it a good accountability tool, too. (If someone’s map wasn’t filling up, I’d wonder how they were using their time.)

That’s what I did with my students, but I’d like to know what other teachers using project-based learning do. How do you teach students to ask good questions and develop their “need-to-knows”? How do you formatively assess individual and class understanding throughout the process? How do you monitor student research and know when it’s time to move on? If you have any ideas or experiences, I’d love to hear from you.

A Statement of Educational Philosophy

Philosophy of Education

Recently, I took some time to revisit my educational philosophy. I’ve written my philosophy a few times over the course of my career, and I find it interesting to note what has varied with each iteration. My beliefs have changed drastically over the course of my career, but my love for students and my passion for learning have remained steady. This “statement” is by no means perfect and continues to be a work in progress. Nevertheless, here is my recent thinking. 

Everyone should be a lifelong learner. The essence of life is learning. As I examine what I believe about education, I realize how much my educational philosophy has changed over the past 15 years. The constant in my career has been my need to reflect on my thinking, evaluate my own learning, and adjust my beliefs and my actions accordingly.

I used to think a teacher’s primary job was to know his content thoroughly and to present the material well, but now I think a teacher’s main role is to get to know his students, to uncover their understanding, and to help them demonstrate their learning well. Early in my career, I spent untold hours studying the content I needed to cover and preparing the presentations I would use in my teaching. These days, I devote the majority of my time to conferencing with my students individually and in small groups and to having them share their thinking visibly. While I appreciate teaching as an important part of the process, I believe learning should be the primary focus in classrooms and schools.

Learning is more than the process of gaining knowledge and skills. It requires constructing meaning and transferring understandings to new contexts; it includes meta-cognition and reflection. I believe learning should be active and passive, social and secluded. Activity, collaboration, and interaction should enhance and deepen understanding, but there must be time to process, read, write, and think quietly, too. I believe the most engaging and memorable learning arises from student-driven inquiry, where students ask questions, research ideas, evaluate answers, connect information, and share their learning. Project-based and problem-based learning develops the critical skills today’s students need to become deep thinkers and take ownership of their own learning.

My leadership stems from a passion to serve those around me and to help them become the best they can be. To serve them I listen carefully to hear their needs and concerns, I work with opposing people and polarizing ideas to find creative solutions and build consensus, and I strive to lead honestly and transparently building a common vision and a culture of care.

I know schools and classrooms must be places where all learners feel secure, valued, and able to take risks. Effective leadership focuses on the strengths of each individual to build relationships and develop leadership at every position within the learning community. As leaders empower teachers to take risks, teachers inspire students to grow into the creative entrepreneurs our society needs through the challenging, meaningful, purposeful, and engaging learning they experience.

My current philosophy of education consists of these ideas. Yet, as a landscape is changed by a river rolling through it, my philosophy will continue to be shaped and molded by future experiences, new discoveries, and further interactions with my community of learners. As a mentor once said, “We do not know where our train is going, but Someone knows.” I do not know what insight and changes the future holds for me, but the Teacher does—and that is enough for me.

Why I Run

Why I runA few years ago, my friend Todd told me that he and another friend had started training for their first half marathon. They had just finished a Couch to 5K program and were looking for a new challenge. As I listened to my friend, I realized I was jealous. My friend was getting in shape and I wasn’t. He was taking care of himself and I wasn’t. In fact, I was headed in the opposite direction, and I needed to do something about it. School was almost out for summer so I bought some Nike running shoes at the nearest outlet store, downloaded a #C25K app for my iPhone, and hit my neighborhood streets. By the time summer ended, I was ready for a 5K race and feeling better about my physical health.

I started running for health reasons. I needed to lower my cholesterol; I wanted to lose some weight. I hoped it might help me live long enough to escort my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. My motives were primarily selfish, but they got me out the front door to the street each morning. They helped me accomplish a few goals and brought others within reach.

So I was running right along somewhat proud of my accomplishments when I realized something: I’m a terrible runner. I’m not being humble. I’m really not. I wish I were just being hard on myself, but I’m not. I suck at running. I’m awful at it. I’m slow–painfully slow, and it doesn’t bring me lots of joy the way it does many of my runner friends. Instead, I see running as really hard work and on most days I’d rather crawl back under the covers when my alarm sounds at 4:30 AM.

Races are usually discouraging. More people pass me than I am able to pass, and my personal records are beyond my reach these days. I cannot remember the last time I beat my best time at any distance.

I’ve also become injury prone. I suffer from bad knees and take supplements to relieve the joint pain. Last year, when I complained to my doctor about some neck and upper back pain, he noticed my shoulders are somewhat asymmetrical. X-rays confirmed a mild case of scoliosis so now my recovery from long runs often includes taking a muscle relaxer, and I hate the way it makes me feel.

Running is hard. I suck at it. It hurts, and I find it completely discouraging. So, why do I run? Why put myself through it? I run because I suck at it. I suck, but I keep trying to get better.

I’m competent at most of what I choose to do in life. I’m pretty confident in all my roles. For example, I’m a pretty good teacher. I know how to develop my students’ thinking. I know how to design learning experiences and how to manage a learning environment. I also know my subject well. I love reading and writing, and I know what it takes to be a good reader and writer. I’m able to develop strong relationships with my students and my colleagues. And I’m able to leverage these things to continually improve my practice. Being in a classroom is “in my wheelhouse.”

However, I know the same isn’t true for all my students. For many of them, being in a classroom is hard work. School is discouraging. When their alarms go off each morning, they want to crawl back under the covers and not get up for school. They may find my class to be painful or uncomfortable. They may think they “suck” at reading and writing. They may have learning difficulties to overcome each day, and they may get tired of learning always being so hard.

So I run. I run to empathize. I run to better understand. I run because quitting isn’t always an option. Running is hard, but I’m a better teacher having ran.

Chief Instagram Officers

InstagramLast year I wanted to involve my students in sharing the learning taking place in my classroom. I decided to try this by creating a rotating “executive office” I dubbed the Chief Tweeting Officer (CTO) for each class. After recognizing (and giving in to) the growing popularity of Instagram, I decided to add another executive office this year, our Chief Instagram Officer (CIO). (So you know, I also have a Chief Operating Officer (COO), a Chief Distributions Officer (CDO), and a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) on my rotating executive staff. I serve as the CEO.)

Our class Surface tablet is still designated for use by our CTO. Instead of having both social media executives share the tablet, the Chief Instagram Officer uses my iPad 2. I wasn’t completely comfortable with this idea at first. I use my iPad quite a bit, and it syncs with all my email accounts, my Evernote, my Google Drive, and all my personal social media accounts. I love and trust my students, but I’m not sure I want them to have that much access to my information.

My solution to this problem is to lock the iPad to just the Instagram app using Guided Access. I love the way the Guided Access works because I can “gray out” any area on the app that I don’t want students to use. So far it is working pretty well. I introduced the role by talking about the need to share our story of learning over the course of the year. We discussed how pictures help tell stories and what types of things we could capture and share about our learning. We also discussed the things we shouldn’t share and talked about the need to represent ourselves, our class, and our school honestly and respectfully. I’m sure we’ll continue those discussions all year. You can check out the stream here.

I’m not sure if there are other middle-level classes using Instagram, but I’m hoping we’ll find a few to connect with and follow. I’m interested to see how the role will develop as the year goes and see what my students decide to share. I’m already finding it interesting and informative to see the pictures the boys capture and to read the captions they write. I’m learning much about their perspectives.

Here are a few of my favorite images so far:


 
 

One logistical thing I changed from last year is that my officers serve for a full week at a time this year instead of changing daily. This gives the students more time to grow comfortable in the role and to become more adept at using the tool to share our learning.

So what do you think? What questions or feedback do you have about the idea? I’d love to read your thoughts. If you are an educator, we’d love to connect with you or your class. You can find us sharing online here or here.

Cleaning Up Collateral Damage

collateral damageMy day started early. The alarm chimed at 4:45 AM, and I rolled out of bed fumbling for my running shorts and shoes as I headed toward the bathroom. On the way I grabbed my phone hoping to check a few emails and do some multi-tasking for school while I prepped for my early morning jog.

Ugh. I saw the name in my inbox and knew this wasn’t how I wanted to start my day. Emails sent from parents in the middle of the night are never a good thing.

I considered waiting to open it. I started to close the Mail app, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else during my run. The unknown contents of the message would haunt my entire workout. With a deep breath I opened the message.

Mr. Cummings,

*Todd came home very upset today about a conversation regarding his makeup work. Todd has missed 4 days of school due to illness last week. He had fever and felt terrible. He was very weak all weekend and could barely keep his head up during dinner tonight! The full school day exhausted him. There was evidently a test  scheduled in your class today, and Todd stated that you expected him to take the test because “you knew what the homework was, Todd; it was online.” I’m not sure how you feel when you are sick with fever, but Todd couldn’t even lift his head to drink enough let alone think about schoolwork.  He certainly wasn’t checking homework on the computer nor was he reading.

He went on to say that you conceded by allowing him to read tonight and take the test tomorrow. He knows he has quite a bit of work to make up, and we are making sure he gets caught up while continuing to do his daily work. He is still not 100%.

This week his PE time is already taken up with other academic commitments so he has no extra time at school. Thank you in advance for  your understanding and allowing him adequate time to get caught up. I can tell you now that he cannot take the test tomorrow as he went straight to sleep after dinner.

Sincerely,

Todd’s mom

Yikes! I’d totally blown it. Todd was a great kid and a wonderful student. He always gave his best and did quality work. I had known he’d been out sick, but I hadn’t realized how sick he was. Truthfully, I wasn’t even upset that Todd wasn’t ready to take the quiz. He just caught me at the completely wrong moment. When he walked up to speak with me about his situation, I was already frustrated by another matter. I was having a lousy day. Todd innocently walked into my frustration with horrible timing, and he’d received the brunt of my exasperation. I’d made a sick kid feel worse.

Looking back, I recognized immediately my first reaction to Todd was wrong. That’s why I quickly reconsidered and offered to let him take the quiz the next day. I think I intended for the modifying of my expectations to be an olive branch offering to Todd for my inappropriate response. Todd didn’t need an amendment; he deserved an apology. He deserved a teacher humble enough to own his mistakes. He deserved a better me.

I wrote Todd’s mom the following message:

I will apologize to Todd today. He bore the brunt of some other frustration and that wasn’t fair. Todd is a good student, and he is conscientious about his work. I really didn’t mean to speak harshly to him or make him feel bad. I was irritated over another matter (not related to Todd), and he walked into it unfortunately.

Todd can make up the reading and take the quiz sometime next week (the book is very short). I really wasn’t upset or frustrated with him. He just caught me at the wrong moment on a bad day, but that’s really no excuse. I’ll speak with him today and try to make things right. Again, I’m sorry; please accept my apology. My reaction wasn’t intentional, but it was an over reaction and wrong. Thank you for letting me know I upset him so that I can fix my mistake. He’s a great kid, and I enjoy having him in class.

Thanks-

Philip Cummings

Later that morning, I met Todd at the top of the stairs entering our class hallway. I apologized for my behavior explaining that I was wrong to treat him that way and that I really wasn’t frustrated with him. I thanked him for being such a dedicated hard-worker and told him that he had more than enough “deposits in the Mr. Cummings bank” to make a few withdrawals when needed. Todd smiled, accepted my apology, and appeared to understand. His parents were gracious enough to accept my apology, too. I appreciate such grace.

As a teacher (and as a parent), sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge my mistakes—to admit when I’m wrong, when I’m petty—to admit I’m fallen and broken. I want to be the best teacher I can be. My students deserve the best, and on some days, my best may just be an apology.

 *Todd is not the student’s real name.

An Idea: ELA Quads

Rectangle ABCD
by Illustrative Mathematics licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

One of the changes we’ve made in 6th grade this year is to combine our English and reading instruction into one English Language Arts (ELA) class. We still have two teachers and two classrooms. Marjorie focuses on writing instruction through Writers’ Workshop while I focus on reading through Readers’ Workshop, but instead of having separate classes and separate schedules. Two homerooms are scheduled to have us during a two-hour English Language Arts block. This is a step towards developing the humanities class we are planning to shift to in the future. I’m excited about the shift to (ELA) because it allows Marjorie and I to collaborate more closely integrating our teaching and it allows us greater flexibility and more control over individual student schedules.

With thirty-eight boys scheduled for a two-hour block of ELA at one time, we’ve been imagining ways to play with how our classes will flow and how boys will shift between the two workshops. We considered a block schedule grouping the boys and having them spend both hours with one teacher on alternating days, but we decided for now we prefer the boys both to read and write daily. We also prefer to divide up having our boys travel by homerooms.

In wrestling with these constraints, Marjorie and I designed a plan. Each boys will be assigned to an ELA quad. Within the quad each boy will have a reading partner and a writing partner, but their partners will differ depending on the workshop. The quads will travel together to the different classrooms and work together for small group lessons for the entire first trimester. The quad consists of boys A, B, C, and D. A and B are reading partners, and C and D are reading partners. A and D are writing partners, and B and C are writing partners.  The whole quad also doubles as a small group. At the end of the trimester we will “turnover the fruit basket” and place the boys in new quads with new partners. Because we are still getting to know the students and their personal learning needs, our first quads will be of mixed ability levels. However, we may adjust how we group the students as the year goes along.

I’m excited about the idea and the flexibility it affords us while providing some structure for the students. Our plan is to name each quad after an NFL team during the fall trimester, after an NBA team during the winter term, and after an MLB team during the spring third. (We want to avoid having groups of bluebirds and red birds.)

What do you think of the idea? What else do we need to consider? I’d love to receive your feedback about the ELA quad idea and ways we can make it better.


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

Prioritizing Thinking

See/Think/WonderPerhaps the most important thing my students need to know about me and our class as we begin the school year is the value we will place on thinking. Our class content focuses on reading, but the primary learning goal is to become more thoughtful–to be better thinkers. So on the first day, we start by prioritizing thinking. I don’t want our focus to be on procedures, rules, or even our classroom community. Those things are important, but the main core of everything we do is with the goal of becoming better, more thoughtful thinkers.

With that in mind one of the first activities we did is a See-Think-Wonder about 6th grade reading and our classroom. I gave my students a few Post-It notes and asked them to spend a few minutes exploring the classroom and writing down the things they saw. We talked about the need to gather evidence and pay attention to details. (These are skills we will use to help us become better readers, too.) The whole room was open to the students. I encouraged to explore every facet of the classroom including the closets, bookshelves, filing cabinets, and drawers. I challenged them “to research” the room thoroughly. After a few minutes, I called them back to their seats to complete their lists and share what they found.

Once we talked  about their “I See” lists, I asked them to begin interpreting, drawing conclusions, and making inferences about the things they noticed (Again, these are skills we will use to grow as readers, too.) They developed a set of “I think” statements. I gave them a few minutes to come up with as fluent of a list as they could; then, I dared them to come up with a few more. Their conclusions fascinated me. As they shared their thinking, I reinforced how important it is to base our conclusions and inferences on evidence by asking, “What makes you say that?” so that had to support their reasoning.

Finally, I challenged the students to take their thinking to a deeper level. We discussed that best way to push our thinking is to ask good questions. We talked about the value of questioning and concluded that “good questions” inspire us to think deeper–to explore our ideas further. (Yep, a skill we will use to further develop as readers.) “Good answers” can be helpful sometimes, but they tend to curb thinking more than deepen it. I asked the students to consider their “I think” statements and take them to a deeper level by developing “I wonder” statements about their original conclusions.  Again, we shared our thinking with our partners and with the class. Then, we prominently posted our thinking where it can be seen by everyone in class and any visitors we may have.

Again, the goal was to help the students understand (from the very first activity) their thinking is highly valued. Here are a few random pictures I captured of different students’ thinking about the class, our space, or me:

I see. . .

See 1 See 2 See 3

I think. . .

Think 3 Think 2 Think 1

I wonder. . .

Wonder 3 Wonder 2 Wonder 1

I’ve written previous posts about this first-day activity in past years. You can read those posts here and here.



This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

To Be a Better Teacher, a Better Person

a better personI live an extremely privileged life. I know I do. My life hasn’t always been easy, but it certainly has been privileged because of things I’ve had little or no control over. I’m male. I’m white. I’m heterosexual and married. I’m upper-middle class, and the majority of my education has been in private schools. My current employer is an independent, Christian school for boys. As I mentioned, I’m privileged.

The news out of St. Louis last weekend that an unarmed, young black man was shot multiple times and killed by a Ferguson police officer has angered and frightened me, and it has made me extremely sad. I haven’t followed the unfolding story as closely as I should have because what I have seen and read has been gut-wrenching. It’s been easier to focus on the first week of school–to think and talk about something else. Honestly, I just don’t want to accept the world is the way it is. I want all to be joy and peace and love.

And yet. . . we I need to think about it. I need to SEE, HEAR, TASTE, and SMELL the realities of racial prejudice. I need to FEEL the injustices so many face (and that my life of privilege protects me from). I must KNOW the fight of those less privileged. I must UNDERSTAND the friction they regularly face. I must EMPATHIZE with the fears and frustrations they bear. I must find a way to fathom all of this, so that I can FOSTER CHANGE.

There are several people who help me do this. They not only make me think; they help me see the world through a different lens. A lens I need to look through regularly. Their words and stories are immensely valuable to me, and I want to amplify their important voices. You should give them a read:

Jose Vilson – When Can We Talk About Race? and Adults, Please Get Out of the Way

Rafranz Davis – Conversations with My Son Regarding the Mike Brown Murder and The Dehumanizing of Black Boys at School

Chris Lehman – What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying?

John Spencer – If This Is the Goal of Education . . . 

There are others I probably should mention, but these folks, in particular, challenge me and make me consider the world differently. They shift my understanding. They make me a better teacher–a better person. And my students deserve a better me.