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.

The Story of Learning, Part 1

The Story of LearningBeginning the school year is incredibly hectic for me and my wife. We are both teachers working in different schools in different systems. We also have four children—in four different schools. Each with its own unique start of school schedule, traditions, and expectations. In addition to this, I’m shifting to a Readers’ Workshop approach to my classes this year, and I’m once again training for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. It’s Friday morning. I’m tired and feeling overwhelmed. My students arrive next Wednesday, and I’m not ready—not even close.

At one of our first-day meetings, my instructional leader asked us to stop and reflect for a moment. She asked, “What will be the story of learning in your classroom this year?” The start of a new school year is an opportunity for a new start. This is my fourth new start teaching sixth grade reading, but Susan reminded me my students only get one sixth grade year. They only get to be a sixth grader one time.

As I sat there trying to reflect on the learning in my room, my mind was blank. What will the story of learning be in my classroom this year? I had no idea. All I could think about was the lists I need to complete, the schedules I need to coordinate, the books I still need to read, the forms I need to make, the files I need to organize, the shelves I need to rearrange, the lessons I need to create, and the planning I need to start. I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t picture the story of learning. I wanted to see it, but I couldn’t.

I want to stop all of this craziness. I want to spend some time dreaming and wishing—imagining what our year of learning in sixth grade reading will be like. I really do. I cannot think of anything I’d rather ponder, but I’m overwhelmed by the start of school. There’s too much to do. My checklists runneth over.

I’m not dismissing Susan’s suggestion. I’m holding on to it. I woke up with it early this morning hoping I could  steal a few minutes to sit and reflect—to zoom in on what I truly want for my students. And yet, my lists keep calling to me. Here in the quiet of this morning, I’m still being pulled toward a more visible form of productivity. So for now, I’m just going to keep carrying the question in my heart and mind: What will the story of learning be in your classroom this year?

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.

Dream. Lead. Leave a legacy.

Wade BWI only have a few minutes to write. This weekend, I sacrificed my normal writing time to take my son and a couple of students to the HopeWorks Breakfast on Saturday morning. One of my classes is working on project-based learning related to issues of chronic unemployment. My friend Ron Wade, the executive director of HopeWorks, graciously visited our class and talked about the problem. HopeWorks is a faith-based, non-profit organization serving the poor through holistic, outreach programs designed “to develop individual worth, encourage personal responsibility and promote the honor and value of work.”

The breakfast is an annual fundraising event for the organization, and Bill Courtney was the keynote speaker. Courtney is the football coach featured in the 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary Undefeated. If you haven’t seen the film, you can click on the link below for a Quietube version of the trailer.

UNDEFEATED (The Official Trailer of the Oscar Winning Documentary)

The film is worth seeing and Coach Courtney is worth hearing in person. His words inspired me. Coach Courtney told us to encourage the weakest among us to dream, to lead by not waiting for someone else to make a difference, and to leave a legacy by investing in others. HopeWorks does this. Teachers do this, too, especially our teachers working in some of our poorest schools.

A photo of my notes from the breakfast is below.

Courtney Notes

My September Contribution to “A Teacher’s Desk”

I don’t have a “REAL” desk. I share a work table with my students that usually gets filled with my stuff and I have an extra student desk that I also use. The reason I removed the teacher desk was mostly because I wanted more space for my class reading nook (two couches, a rug, and a nice bookshelf). My hope was for the space to feel more like “our” space than “my” space, but my junk tends to spread over the shared spaces over the course of the day so I’m not sure I’ve accomplished anything. For example, this is “our” work table today. Yes, that’s all my stuff, but I am trying…sort of.

What does this picture reveal about me? Feel free to leave a comment or question below.

This image and explanation were cross-posted on A Teacher’s Desk. You can find the original post here.

Running Thoughts: Mentoring a Resident, Judging Parents, and Receiving Approval

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This morning I ran 3.5 miles in 35:00 and walked an additional .28 miles in my 5 minute cool down. I slept in an extra 30 minutes so I hit the ground running with my mind racing and my thoughts wandered. As I reflect on my thinking, three ideas stand out from my run:

  1. Working with a Martin Institute resident – This fall I’ll be working with Julia Porter, a Martin Institute resident. Julia is a recent graduate of Ole Miss and just moved to Memphis. She’s interested in teaching secondary school English. She’ll be spending some time with me and my students this first trimester, and yesterday was our first day to work together. I must confess I wasn’t very well prepared for Julia’s arrival. I had wanted to provide more structure and a nice to-do list for us to work from, but that never developed. With Debbie going back to work on July 30, I have been in full-time daddy mode up until the start of in-service. Nevertheless, Julia and I talked a bit about her student teaching experience and my teaching transformation over the past few years. I even shared with her the vision I’m developing for our 6th grade reading course. She’s really bright and I hope she’s able to learn from me as much as I expect I’ll learn from her. I gave her a copy of John Spencer‘s book A Sustainable Start. Perhaps, we can read through some of it and reflect together–if time permits. Regardless, I’m looking forward to having her in our learning space.
  2. Parenting at the bus stop – As I ran past the middle school bus stop, I noticed several parents waiting with their children for the bus to arrive. It struck me as a bit odd considering that school started five days ago, and in my mind I immediately began to question why these parents felt the need to hover. I started down that path in my head for a few minutes, assuming the worst, before I caught myself. What was I thinking? I didn’t know these parents or these kids. Why was I judging them? Assigning them motives and insecurities? Honestly, I felt pretty guilty about it. I want to be one who assumes the best about people. I want to default to thinking well about others and their motives, but I’m afraid that isn’t always the case. Ugh. I really need to work on this.
  3. Receiving approval for my idea – Yesterday afternoon Julia and I sat down with Mrs. Droke to share my idea that I am developing in response to the work I did during my Master Class with John Hunter. Without going into too many details (I’m not ready to share just yet), the meeting went really well. Mrs. Droke expressed excitement about the idea and suggested some resources to help us flesh it out further. (Woo hoo!) I’m thrilled and my mind is working overtime considering the possibilities. I am thankful that I teach at a school that seeks to embrace innovation and change and that I have administrators who support and encourage my taking risks. I spent several minutes during my run just dreaming about what could be.

My next run will be this Sunday when I will run my first 5-mile race. It’s the third race in the Memphis Runners Track Club Road Race Series. My goal is to finish in 55 minutes or less, though I’d really like to beat the 52 minute mark. We’ll see what happens. Feel free to leave a comment in response to today’s thoughts. As I always, I appreciate the feedback and conversation.

Note: I completed my run early this morning, but I didn’t get the chance to sit down tand write this post until tonight. I’m in the middle of inservice and things are very busy. 

What Is the Role of Today’s Teacher?

Photo by Cindy Brock, Instagram

Yesterday was the first day of in-service for the faculty and staff at PDS, and I really enjoyed being reunited with my colleagues, hearing about their summer learning and activities, and meeting the new team members and Martin Institute residents. One of the my favorite parts of the first day back is the prayer walk that our faculty does through the school. As we make our way through he school, we stop at each classroom, gathering area, and office to lift up each other and the boys we will serve. The experience moves me as a PDS parent as much as it does as a teacher, and I’m blessed my family is a part of this school.


During one of our first meetings Susan Droke, Assistant Headmaster for Teaching and Learning, shared a brief presentation “What Is the Role of the Teacher in 21st Century?” Mrs. Droke admitted that these thoughts were a synthesis of her own learning and not original to her. She also acknowledged that the term “21st Century” has outlived its usefulness and that she wasn’t planning to use it again after her presentation. Her message inspired me, and I want to keep referring back to it this year as I reflect on my teaching.

My note-taking skills are average at best, but this is what I gleaned. 

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” ~ John Dewey

There is a growing irrelevance in regards to what happens in our classrooms. Most schools are still educating for the industrial age.

There is a new wave of black-collar workers that have become today’s workforce and will be the workforce of the future. As economist Philip Auerswald writes,

Black-collar workers are easy to find. They crowd coffee houses with their laptops. They create prototypes of their inventions on 3-D printers at San Francisco’s TechShop, raise money for their projects on Kickstarter, and share their creations at Maker Faire events around the country. They are the work force of the future, powering change in the present.

Black-collar workers are after purpose, not pensions. They’re not seeking lifetime employment; they’re seeking lifetime learning. They don’t have secretaries or bosses; they have teammates. They don’t punch in at 9, and they don’t time out at 5. They connect, create, contribute, and collaborate whenever and wherever it makes sense. They try to minimize their spending in order to maximize their flexibility.

Do we embrace the quirky? Are we truly educating for the unknown? Our students don’t need a better schools. They need different schools.

The Teacher Roles

We need BOLD teachers. (Note: Mrs. Droke made several points about each of these, but I wasn’t able to keep up.)

  • Teachers As Innovators – “The principle goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” ~ Jean Piaget
  • Teachers As Designers – “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they learn” ~ Albert Einstein
  • Teachers As Collaborators – “You can’t say you are delivering a world-class education if your kids are not communicating with the world.” ~ Vicki Davis, ISTE 2012
  • Teachers As Learners – The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ~ Alvin Toffler
  • Teachers Who Care – “Excellence in education is when we do everything we can to make sure they become everything that they can.” ~ Carol Ann Tomlinson

Engagement vs. Empowerment

“Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ~ William Butler Yeats

Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, has written and spoken about the need for student empowerment rather than student engagement. According to Lehmann, we chose engagement because it beats boring, but it perpetuates the idea that the classroom always must be fun. However, empowerment creates a more student-centered environment that focuses on what the student actually learns and what they can do with it.

Challenges for PDS Teachers

  1. Question everything you do this year
  2. Rethink the first few days of school
  3. Think about what you need to unlearn and relearn
  4. Be part of the change—join the conversation


Personally, I’m challenged by Mrs. Droke’s remarks. I want to be more innovative. I want to create a better design for the learning that transpires in my room (and beyond). I have some ideas about what I want to do–and it’s a big transition. I’m planning to meet with Mrs. Droke today to discuss it. I want to make the learning in my room “real-world relevant.” I also want to empower my students to make a difference and be innovative. I’m thinking a PBL approach would be best, but I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that looks like and how it meshes with the standards that I’m required to teach and assess. It’s a process of change. Unfortunately, I want the product now. Maybe that’s one of the first things I need to unlearn.

Well, I’ve run out of time this morning. What are your reactions to all of this?

Running Thoughts: Set ‘Em Free

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Writing time limit: 30 minutes

This morning I ran 7.28 miles including my warm up and cool down in 1:25:00. Not bad.

As I reached my one-mile marker this morning I noticed several kids gathering at the bus stop. It was about 5:30 AM. This is way too early to have kids waiting at the bus stop, or to even be up and moving. Don’t they know that only us old people are up that early? Then, it occurred to me that today is August 6 and the first day of school. Ugh. I’m sorry, but August 6 is way too early for starting school, too. Somebody needs to rethink this.

As I continued my run, I got to thinking about all the changes that will be happening with schools in our area this year. Our public schools are in the middle of a transition. You can read all about it online, but basically, we are transitioning from two school districts (city & suburban) to one unified school district next year. At the same time the suburbs have held a referendum and voted on each opening up their own independent school districts. I’ve read a ton of articles and opinions on this over the past two years, and I have very mixed feelings about it. Without getting too much into my feelings, let me just say that I like the idea of our community being all in this together. At the same time, I’m not a believer in the idea that bigger is better, and a big district is problematic on many levels. Either way, we have the opportunity to create something new, and as I ran, I asked myself what like to see happen in the 2.0 school system(s). The following are a few of the things I’d consider:

  • Free everyone from the testing nightmare. I understand and appreciate the need for accountability. I do. But our obsession with standardized testing has not improved our schools. In fact, it’s created a teaching to the test culture that is bad for everyone. Principals, teachers, students, and parents have become so obsessed with testing that we have let it define our communities and our kids. It’s BAD.
  • Free the curriculum. Let’s make learning more about real life. Let’s stop thinking so much about all we have to cover and think more about all we can become. Let’s individualize learning rather than standardizing instruction. Let’s encourage students to discover their passions. Let’s teach them how to think critically and creatively, then let them explore the world around them and consider ways that they might actually make it better.
  • Free the devices. Get the computers, laptops, and cell phones in the hands of the kids. Stop shoving everything in computer labs, and let kids start using their own personal devices for learning. Stop blocking everything on the internet that is at all social. Show kids the potential the devices have as tools for learning and creating and turn them loose to do both. You want creative innovating kids. Let them create and innovate.
  • Free the professional development. I know teachers sometimes need in-service, but we also need the freedom to pursue learning that interests us and that directly relates to our teaching. Give us ownership of our professional growth and give us the time and freedom to pursue it. Treat us as professional learners and educators.
  • Free the time. Change the schedules. Give more open space in the day for us to reflect or to get deep into a project without having  to stop every forty-five minutes and switch classes or move on to the next thing. I understand the need for structure and the desire to provide a broad, liberal arts curriculum. However, if you want students and teachers to think deeply and tackle complex problems and issues, we need time, lots of time.

I have more things I’d like to set free in schools, but unfortunately, I have run out of time for this post. What about you? What do you want to set free in schools? Please leave a comment. I always enjoy the conversation.

Starting Over

As some may know, I decided to start over this school year. Well, that’s an over statement. Last April, while I was pulling double duty as a Title I facilitator and an English 10 Honors teacher, I received an offer to return to the classroom full-time. The Title I job, a quasi-administrative position, was a great opportunity when I accepted it. I learned a ton about federal programs and gained valuable experience. I was well on my way toward reaching my goal of becoming a high school principal. At the same time, I started on a personal learning journey with the help of my PLN and began to rethink what it means to be well-educated and a networked learner in the information age. I realized that while I had been a successful teacher in my old job, I would totally reinvent myself if I ever returned to the classroom.

Over the course of last few years my perspective and my satisfaction with my job changed. The problem was that while I admired the people with whom I worked, I was totally disillusioned by the constant focus on high-stakes testing and quantitative data. I didn’t (and don’t) believe it was best for students, teachers, or schools in general. I wanted to lead a change in the way schooling was done, but if I was truly honest i had no idea how to go about teaching the way I believed it needed to be done. When the opportunity presented to pull double duty and spend the majority of my day in the classroom, I jumped at it because it allowed me to focus less on test data and test prep and see if I could actually be the teacher today’s students need.

I loved being back in the classroom. I loved the re-connection I made with students, other teachers, and my PLC. I also realized just how hard it is to truly reinvent oneself. I think I made strides, but I also fell short. I was to blame for most of the failure, but I was also limited by things beyond my control. I struggled with the lack of student access to technology, the required standardized test prep, the required number of summative assessments (and inflexible grading scale), and the mandated standards and pacing guides. It’s no wonder all the teachers are stressed.

When the opportunity presented to teach 6th grade reading at PDS, I jumped at it. PDS has an excellent reputation in town, and I had already connected with several other PDS educators through the Martin Institute and TeachMeets. They were (are) an impressive bunch. I’d also worked closely with my friends Melissa and Cindy to organize InnovatED, which PDS hosted, and I knew they’d continually push me to innovate. I love that PDS is committed to preparing boys to be critical, creative, and connected thinkers. Besides, how could I say “no” to the opportunity to teach in a 1:1 laptop setting and try to become the kind of teacher I think today’s students need.

So this August I started over. I moved to a new school, a new subject, and a new grade level. I rethought what a classroom should look like and how a classroom should be led. I stopped reading so many educational theory articles and dove head first into young adult literature. I cut back on the amount of time I spent on Twitter and spent more time considering how to teach kids to think. It’s been an adventure–one that I’m loving, and I wouldn’t change a single moment. I’ve experienced some success and some frustration, made new friends and missed some old ones, but when the alarm sounds each morning I cannot wait to get going. There’s just so much to learn.

I’m going to do my best to chronicle this journey here but I confess that finding time to blog has been problematic already. If you have any advice as I move from high school to elementary school or any tips on how best to get out of my students way, I’d appreciate the feedback. I’ll let you know how things go.

New Challenges: Reinventing Myself

I’m back in the classroom!

After receiving a message on Twitter from LeeAnn Moore the other day and Stephen Davis this morning, I realized I’ve never really explained what has happened over the past few weeks and why I’m suddenly back in the classroom. I’m still working as the Title I facilitator at my school, but I’m also teaching 4 English 10 classes. Here’s the Spark Notes version of the story. One of our English 10 teachers and her husband have been planning to adopt a baby. They were making plans to adopt this coming summer, but you know what happens when you make plans. Suffice it to say that a birth mother selected them, the teacher notified my principal, and the baby came several weeks early all in the span of just a few days. I’ve been itching to return to the classroom for a long time, and English 10 is one of our tested courses. The teacher couldn’t hang around with a newborn at home, and the students couldn’t really wait while we searched for a highly qualified, interim teacher. I’m HQ for K-12 English/language arts & reading. So, carpe diem!

With snow days and other administrative duties, I’ve spent five days in the classroom so far. Unfortunately, this is the last week of the second trimester and their final exam is Thursday and Friday. It’s difficult to assess what they know and what they need in such a short time. Starting next week, I’ll have four brand new classes for the second half of English 10. While I’m sad that I’ve had so little time with my current students, I am looking forward to being with students from the beginning of a trimester. I’m also excited about the opportunity to reinvent myself as a teacher. I have learned so much over the past couple of years, and I’m excited about the opportunity to test and apply my new knowledge. I hope I will have the skills to do so. I was a pretty traditional teacher when I last was in the classroom, but my philosophy is shifting toward a more constructivist approach. I’m still working my way through the district pacing guide, but I’m already reinventing myself as I consider my approach.

A few things I’m considering:

  • Designing lessons that are student-centered rather than teacher-centric
  • Democratic approaches to both classroom management and assignments
  • Standards-based assessment
  • Frequent formative assessments providing descriptive feedback
  • Regular teacher-student conferences providing descriptive feedback
  • Totally separating academics, conduct, and work habits
  • Social, small-group learning (talking)
  • Project-based learning
  • Teaching growth mindset
  • Reading and writing to learn
  • Integration of technology and fine arts (especially music and visual arts)

I’m hoping to blog about the process and about my learning as I go. We’ll see. Consistent blogging has not been my forte. I’m already depending heavily on my PLN as I make plans, and several folks have already come to my rescue with resources and assistance. I cannot imagine trying to do this without the support of a learning network. If you have any resources related to the topics above, I’d love for you to share them with me. I’m excited about the days and weeks that lie ahead. Hopefully, I’ll be able to reinvent myself, and the students will be better able to learn. I hope I can challenge them as much as I feel challenged.

What about you? Have you ever tried to reinvent yourself? How did it go? What do you do to better yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

Reading Circle Reflection/Notes of @PrincipalKafele’s Motivating Black Males to Achieve

During this first trimester, I joined several educators from my school for a professional reading circle. We chose Baruti Kafele’s Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & in Life as our text. My hope was that I would make the time to blog my reflections on the book as I read, but unfortunately due to my and my family’s crazy schedules at home and work that never happened. I did manage to read the text, but the writing never happened. At any rate, our reading circle met last Thursday after school, and I was really impressed by the discussion of the text. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it. It’s a short, quick read and it presented me with much to think about not only in regards to motivating the black male students in my school but all our male students and even my own sons. Principal Kafele doesn’t provide any magic tricks or instant solutions in his book. Apparently, there are none. Nevertheless, we did glean some very practical ideas and suggestions from the book, and we were inspired to brainstorm some of our own ideas as well. In fact, we were so motivated by what we read that we decided to propose some possible program ideas to our administrative team.

The book definitely left an imprint on me. The following list includes a few of the concepts that I have continued to consider from the text.

  1. We must know, understand, and teach black history and culture. As principal Kafele so eloquently stated, “Just as one cannot teach what one does not know, one cannot effectively teach whom one does not know. When you know your students history, you know your students” (23-24).
  2. The characteristics that make one an excellent teacher (called, passionate, purposeful, missional, visionary, goal-setting, planning, intentional, holding high expectations, professional, and reflective) are the same characteristics that are need to motivate black males students to achieve.
  3. Many of today’s black males are suffering through a self-crisis of not knowing who they are and what it means to truly be a man. We need to establish intervention/empowerment programs to provide them with mentors, help them navigate their adolescence, and teach them what it means to truly be a man.

Principal Kafele has recorded some great ideas for addressing these issues in his book. Our reading circle found it to be a great resource to get our conversation started. Hopefully over the new few months, we will begin to implement some of these ideas. I’m particularly interested in a proposed young men’s empowerment program that we want to start during our advisory period.

What about your school? What programs has your faculty or administration implemented to help black male students achieve? I’d love to hear what other schools are doing.