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A Conversation with my Students

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I had a conversation with my Algebra class about a month ago. I realized that I hadn't done a good job of conveying my thoughts and beliefs about the class, of sharing my passion, of explaining why I setup class the way I did and what I was expecting from them -- and what I was hoping for them.

So here, more or less, is what I said. I'm sure it wasn't quite this smooth, as when I write I automatically edit and tweak, but this is pretty close (and definitely the spirit of what I hope I conveyed).

I wanted to talk a little bit about this class and why I'm doing the things I'm doing. Mr. Krause, one of our English teachers, is doing a project right now where his students are asking people how they define success. I answered that for several groups of students, but I wanted to talk for a minute about how I'll decide if I'm successful with you guys in this class.
I won't think I'm a success if you do well and get a good grade in Algebra, although I certainly hope you do and I'm going to try really hard to help you do that. I won't think I'm a success if you score well on tests like CSAP or ACT, although I hope you do, and even though a lot of well-intentioned people think that's how I should define success. I won't even think I'm a success if you go to a good college and then get a good job, although I certainly want you to do that because I'd like to retire someday and I need you all to have good jobs to support me.

No, I'll consider myself successful if you turn out to be good, kind, caring adults. If you're a good spouse, child and parent. If you contribute to the world and to your community and help those around you. If you participate. And learn.

Here's the deal. The education that I received was a pretty good one. But it's not good enough for you guys. Not anymore. You see, in a rapidly changing, information abundant world, the people who are going to be successful -- both professionally and personally -- are the learners. And by "learners" I don't mean people who just learn what we teach you here at AHS.

Now, I want to be clear, that doesn't mean I don't think you should learn what we teach you here at AHS. I don't want you to go to your second period teacher, raise your hand, and say, "Mr. Fisch said I don't need to learn what you're teaching." Please, don't do that. That's not at all what I'm saying. Your teachers here work very hard trying to share important, meaningful and relevant knowledge and skills. And that's important, but it's not enough. Because to be successful you're going to have to be a learner, you're going to have to learn how to learn, and go after things on your own. You're going to have to be independent, curious, passionate learners, who don't just sit back and wait for someone to tell them what they're supposed to know, but who go out and try to figure things out for yourself. Who pursue your interests, your goals, your passions with intensity, and who actively participate in everything you do. Who go out and find other learners who are passionate about what you are passionate about and learn from them -- and alongside them.

The world has shifted. The world of school, and the world of work, and the world in general has shifted, and so I need you to shift as well, and that's what I'm trying to do in this class. I'm trying to get you to be actively involved in your own education, to be independent and curious learners in mathematics, even if Algebra is never going to be your favorite subject.

I believe you need the skills I'm trying to get you to learn for three main reasons. First, to be a successful citizen you have to be numerate. In order to deal with all the data that is going to get thrown at you, and to make good, responsible, effective decisions, you're going to need a lot of the skills we're learning in Algebra.

And, frankly, that's not necessarily true about all the math classes you'll take. Honestly, if you take Trig. and Pre-Calc., the skills you learn there are very important if you go into the math and sciences, but perhaps not so much in day-to-day life for most of you (some folks will disagree with that). But the skills we learn in Algebra you'll be using every day to make sense of all that data in the world, to be informed voters and decision makers.

The second reason to learn the skills is that if you decide that you are passionate about math and science, you need these skills in order to progress to more complex topics and to go deeper.

The third reason -- and it's the one I think is least important but you may think is the most important -- is that right now in the short term you have to learn these skills to get a good grade in this class, to do well in school, and to get into college if that's what you choose. So while I prefer that you focus on the first two reasons, this one is still a valid one for many of you.

This is why it's critical you do the assignments I'm asking you to do, like watching the videos I've created for you. Those videos are designed to help you master the skills, and to become more independent learners. But they're also designed to free-up class time so that you can become more curious, active learners, in class, and so we can explore interesting (or not for some of you) applications of Algebra like the bike gear ratios or Tim Tebow's speed at the NFL Combine or a variety of other activities we'll be doing this year. In order to apply the skills in class, I need you to do the necessary work outside of class.

In order for that to happen, in order for us to use our class time to be the kind of learners I think we need to be to be successful, I need you to step up and take care of business. I need you to watch the videos, and use them as they're intended, and do the other things I ask you to do outside of class. And I really, really need you to participate in class, to be active learners. To ask questions, and be involved, and talk to each other, and help each other, and be willing to take risks in order to learn more, even if that makes you a little nervous or uncomfortable. I need you to do more of the talking in class, and me to do less. I need you to do more of the thinking, and the questioning, and the figuring out.

So I'm asking you to please, please consider what kind of future you want, not just for yourself, but for those around you, and make an effort to be as independent, as curious, as responsible, as passionate of a learner that you can be. And I promise that I'll bring the passion every day and do the very best I can to help you become that learner.

In all the conversations around school reform, about standards and global competitiveness, about teacher tenure and accountability, about charter vs. public, urban vs. rural vs. suburban, I think we sometimes forget one of the most important conversations we need to be having -- the one with our students.

This conversation with my class continues. What conversation should you have with your students today?