Welcome to the new year!

As you can tell, I am working on rolling out the site for the 2016-17 school year. Check out our 2016-17 draft Vision, and scroll through the new additions to our Resource Primer!


Where we are and where we’re going (Quarter 2 Step-back)

Hi everyone!

As we close out this first semester and gear up for the second, it is important to consider how far we have come, and how far we must still go as a cohort. Part of my role is defining what the trends are within our math cohort and providing support for teachers and coaches in alignment with these trends. The information that is used to define these trends comes from (but is not limited to)…

  • Classroom observations from me and your TLD Coach (aligned to Engagement with Rigorous Content and Culture of Achievement).
  • Student achievement data that you share with us.
  • Your responses on professional development exit forms.
  • Your First Eight Weeks Survey responses.
  • Feedback from our Math Subject Leaders and PLC Coordinators.
  • Anecdotal and qualitative data such as student work, responses in professional development experiences, and so on.

These data points provide a fairly holistic picture of where our cohort is in regards to our Vision of Mathematics in Mississippi, specifically in relation to our four outcomes of academic achievement, critical consciousness, cultural competency, and student leadership. So what does this data tell us?

(Note: I’ve taken some of the language about these metrics from Jacob Carroll’s great post to the Humanities cohort. If you haven’t taken a look at the Culture of Achievement and Engagement with Rigorous Content framework in a while, definitely take a quick look right now – some of the titles like “engaged and on-task,” “apathetic or unruly,” “passive and confused” and so on can actually be misnomers if they are read without the context of how the framework describes these bands).

Data Point #1: Progress Known

  • What is Progress Known (PK)?

PK is basically a “Yes” or “No” answer to the question: “do we have reliable and complete data on where students stand in this classroom?”

  • How do you collect reliable and complete data?

The reliable and complete data comes from you teachers sharing it with your TLD Coach and/or Content Specialist. As long as you have data for student progress on ALL your Metrics (you must have data on content mastery and performance tasks), and you have shared a reliable assessment with us, then your students are PK!

  • What does the PK data tell us?

PKQ2Almost half of our classrooms are assessing students not just on their mastery of content standards, but also on rich mathematical tasks that build their mathematical practices and prepare them for the PARCC PBA and college-level math courses. The single biggest determinant holding this number back is performance tasks. This makes sense given that performance tasks are relatively new for many of us (I know that my high school math classes often focused more on rote memorization than diverse application of math concepts), but is also alarming due to the rapidly approaching PARCC PBA. As a reminder, students will be assessed for their alignment to the mathematical practices, not just content standards, on the state-required PARCC PBA in April, which means that performance tasks aren’t a bonus; they are a necessity. On a more fundamental level performance tasks are a vital part of rigorous, transformational math teaching, but even on the immediate surface level they are part of important and high-stakes PARCC assessments that our students will be taking in just a few months. Students deserve an opportunity to experience rigorous tasks in 100% of our classrooms, and we need to make it happen as soon as possible.

Data Point #2: Culture of Achievement

  • What is Culture of Achievement (CoA)?

CoA is the quality of the classroom culture that your students enjoy as they are learning. Some people think immediately about “management” but CoA goes well beyond that: it’s the way in which your students actively maintain and foster a positive environment because of the way they care about their learning.

  • How do you collect data around CoA?

CoA is determined by the TLD Coach in collaboration with your thinking after an observation, using the Culture of Achievement Pathways rubric to inform our terminology. This then gets collected in our Program Tracker so we can analyze the data at different levels.

  • What does the CoA data tell us?


About ¼ of math classrooms have a majority of students who are not demonstrating effort or interest towards learning activities and are unclear or uninvested in classroom goals. I have some evidence I’ll share in a moment that leads me to believe that many of these classrooms are where students aren’t been challenged in supportive ways and where there may not be a vision of rigorous (beyond procedural) goals for their math experience. However, we also see that a majority (almost 60%) of our math classrooms are “engaged and on task”, meaning that students at least are doing the work they are presented with and see to understand some purpose for their math class experience. Only in 14% of our classrooms have students been observed being consistently fired up about their classroom experience and goals.

Data Point #3: Engagement with Rigorous Content (ERC)

  • What is Engagement with Rigorous Content (ERC)?

ERC is the level of rigor at which students are engaging with the content. Some people think immediately about “difficulty” of the questions being asked by the teacher, but this goes well beyond that: it’s the depth and sophistication with which students are thinking about and working within the content.

  • How do you collect data around ERC?

ERC is determined by the TLD Coach in collaboration with your thinking after an observation, using the Engagement with Rigorous Content rubric to inform our terminology. This then gets collected in our Program Tracker so we can analyze the data at different levels.

  • What does the ERC data tell us?


There are some classrooms where students are confused or are simply being asked to do rote procedures without context. A majority of our classes (nearly 60%) are factual, recall, or procedural in nature. This means we are often observing students who are given “steps” or “tricks” to solve procedural problems but are not being allowed to discover and explore the context, reasoning, or relevance of their work. This isn’t surprising given how prominent this traditional approach is in mathematics (heck, like I said, it’s how I was taught), but it is also worrying given that the “drill and kill” or “I do, we do, you do” approach to teaching is simply not a particularly impactful or inclusive way of teaching math and does not even meet the minimum expectations for the types of questions our students will see on high-stakes state tests. It is great to see the growing number of classrooms that are allowing students to analyze, apply, and explain, but we need to start matching the growth there with a decrease in procedural classrooms.

What does it all mean together?

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the correlation between culture and content can be seen in the graph below.


This shows what types of content is taking place at different levels of classroom culture. Notice that every destructive classroom also has no challenge or learning happening. That makes sense. More compelling is when we get to apathetic or unruly – this is where we can see that most of those classrooms are where students aren’t getting a chance to really understand the content OR students are just being asked to work procedurally. But you can also see that many classrooms are also on-task and procedural. What is most striking is how the classrooms with interested, hard-working students are so clearly the ones dominated by analysis, application, and explanation. I hope this is turning on as many light bulbs for you as it did for me! When students are given more rigorous work, they demonstrate more interest. Many teachers revert to worksheets and busy work when they’re frustrated with classroom management (“If only students would behave then I would give more challenging work!”), but this data demonstrates that providing access to rigorous content is itself a powerful management tool.

“Nobody has ever risen to low expectations.”

That saying always resonates with me, and I feel that this data demonstrates that the best way to see the engagement we envision is to take risks and expect more not less from our students. Every. Single. Day.

So altogether our data shows that we have many teachers who are still teaching math procedurally, but also it shows that those who plan higher rigor mathematics see higher student engagement. We’re also seeing that some of us are not consistently collecting data (and potentially not assessing as well) in holistic ways that can give students meaningful feedback. No student should be left to guess what their progress, strengths, and needs are in our classrooms; data analysis and feedback is an issue of equity that every single one of our students deserves. We need to address both of these realities in Quarter 3.

How will we be supported based on these findings?

I have crafted two priorities for Quarter 3 based on these findings. The first priority aligns to cohort to being able to feel confident and have a “toolkit” for engaging in diverse, rigorous math lessons, and for students to recognize the value of math beyond the confines of arithmetic and procedure. The second priority focuses on the importance of data (content mastery and performance tasks aligned to broader mathematical thinking) in providing necessary feedback to students about their strengths, challenges, and progress towards tangible goals. The priorities (grouped by student and teacher outcome) are as follows:


Specifically, there are a ton of exciting professional development opportunities that align to each of these priorities (and some that extend beyond their scope. These are as follows (blue for priority 1, red for priority 2, and green for other):


Specifically note that there will be “specialized community days” next quarter. Rather than define in-person experiences ahead of time, I am instead devoting entire days to communities and allowing the teachers there to define thee development they want. It works like this: teachers in these communities choose from a menu of options for which development sessions they’d like, and I provide the sessions with the highest response. Prior to the evening development I will also observe classrooms in the community, allowing us to have a shared sense of purpose and be aligned in our focus for the evening. The following places will have specialized community days:

  • Clarksdale
  • Greenville
  • Greenwood
  • Holmes County/Canton
  • Humphreys County/Belzoni
  • Jackson
  • Marshall County/Holly Springs
  • Sunflower County/Bolivar County

You can up for these community days, as well as many other virtual PD options, at the course catalog now.

So what are your thoughts? What resonates with you about this data, these priorities, and these upcoming experiences? What else do you see in the data and in your own classroom? Fire off below!


Summit Reflections with Identity and Empowerment in Mathematics

Hey y’all,

It was wonderful getting to see so many folks in our TFAmily this weekend and the Fall Summit. I got to hear some really exciting updates from our math folks across the region and also was able to spend a lot of time collaborating with some of us in the Identity and Empowerment in Mathematics workshop. I’d like to share some of the strategies, ideas, and questions we had in that workshop, but I first have to start with some of the broad themes I saw from this time together…

The first thing  on my mind is the clear connection between our workshop on the importance of identity and the stories from our opening speakers. Kimberly Merchant of the Mississippi Center for Justice spoke about how her teachers’ failure to push her potential led her to just sort of slide along for years, until a professor urged her to attend law school. She also mentioned the major motivation for attending college was to get as far away as possible from her home on the gulf coast. It makes you wonder how things might have been different had a teacher operated from a standpoint of cultural competence – building in a critical eye for Ms. Merchant’s community while also seeking out and affirming the positive models and history of the same place. How many Mississippi students view “escape” as the only viable option, leading to a continuous brain-drain from the region? How might Mississippi look in 15, 20, or 30 years if students right now saw the challenges but also the determination and leadership of those seeking better opportunities for these communities? Front and center when considering identity is the perception of this region as a place to escape, with little to offer – especially to those from historically oppressed communities. This message strikes me as overwhelmingly damaging to the students we serve here, and perpetuates a lack of trust or investment from students since their community is discussed only in terms of deficits. Ms.  Merchant demonstrates that these champions do exist in our communities, but we need to make sure that their stories shine through over the negative stereotypes.

The next speaker, Barbara Logan, is the incoming Executive Director for TFA Mississippi. She discussed the amazing language and analysis her 5 year old niece displays (in particular being able to critique the film adaptation of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day versus the original story), but when she expressed this amazement her niece would only say (to paraphrase) “Of course I can do all of that. You teach me these words, why wouldn’t I use them?” And there is the powerful counter-narrative to Ms. Merchant’s story – the way that we perceive young people is reflected in their perceptions of themselves. For Barbara’s niece, she sees no reason why it is amazing for her to compare and critique and to do so with complex language since that is what is expected of her from the adults in her life. The same role of identity is at play when our math students are told “you are so far behind,” “come on, this is easy,” or “we just went over this.” These messages set the tone of “normal math students can do this. You lack the ability or determination of a normal math student. Something is wrong with you.” It is no surprise then that we see statistics like this:

“…more teenagers name math than any other subject as the course they find most difficult in school.”

  – Furner and Gonzalez-DeHass, 2011

This is where our Identity and Empowerment in Mathematics workshop comes into play. The purpose was to understand our own story with math, consider the implications this has in our work with students, and understand how we can build positive student identities towards mathematics. It is certainly not a feat that can be accomplished in 90 minutes, but we had a fantastic conversation to get us started. My own math story demonstrates the immense privileges I was afforded which helped me gain an appreciation towards mathematics. Indeed, much of our math identity comes from an intersection of race, gender, class, and community. I never had to contend with gender stereotypes that women are not meant to do math or that Asians must adhere to the “model minority” stereotype and excel at arithmetic fluency. Because I was offered Calculus in high school, I did not have to take remedial math courses in college or purchase new technology to succeed in these high-demand courses. How will my students cope when they attend college?

Ethan's Math Autobiography
Ethan’s Math Autobiography

Considering our own math autobiography is vital if we are to positively impact the identity of our students. There is a real danger of placing our own history and values on the shoulders of our students, and expecting them to operate and learn the same way we we did despite our separate lived experiences. And there again is that sneaking accusation of “normal math students can do this.” We are defining normalcy through our own experience, and demanding that students meet us there rather than us as teachers seeking to understand and empower them through their own unique assets.

At this point in the workshop, after building and discussing our math autobiographies, we  considered how culturally aware our students currently are and what our role is in this awareness. Through a set of student interview questions aligned to culturally-responsive teaching, we sought to understand how our students perceive the intersection of math, knowledge, and learning. There was a common theme from many of the teachers’ interviews, a few of which I’ve posted below:

“Broadly speaking, my higher students and my older students said they were more impacted by my class than my lower 6th graders have. The older students say that they can see that I care about them by sending positive messages home and by encouraging them to think independently. The other students said “I don’t know” or by helping me pass the class.” – Ms. A.

“I see two broad types of responses and attitudes towards math and school in general. My students who have had success in school and math feel very confident in their abilities and see the importance of learning and how it connects to their future goals. My students who have struggled have little to no confidence and don’t see much if any connection between what happens in school and what really matters to them.” – Mr. M.

“My non-honors students struggle with protecting something about themselves in my math class,whether that is their reputation amongst peers or their ego and pride. A good third of my students responded in technical terms: their understanding of math and knowledge as well as teacher relationships were cold and not personalized, i.e. that I am here to “help them learn better” or “teach them math”; math was discussed in broad terms and along the lines of “it is important to be successful in school.” I was surprised to see some students reply with a personal investment in math, for example that succeeding in math would make the family happy, but that was far less the case than the norm, and I’m curious to hear how others are helping students ‘humanize’ their math experiences in the classroom” – Mr. K.

While it is perhaps easy to see a progression of lower math grades –> disinvestment in math –> limited cultural affirmation and identity awareness, I would ask that we instead see the opposite progression as the reality. When students do not recognize their potential as capable creators of knowledge, they lose investment in the purpose and process of the content, and ultimately fail to perform. While it is more obvious to see the student as failing math, we as culturally-responsive teachers must consider the ways that the math is failing the student: How are we affirming their potential as math thinkers? Are we designing tasks that reach all students through complex, multiple representations or approaches? Do we listen and incorporate learning when students voice frustration about systems and structures that frustrate them? Do our assessments push students to reflect on their strengths and next-steps or merely stamp them with a defining number to reflect how much they do not understand?

And that sort of self-reflection – not for the purpose of “shaming” teachers but rather so that we can continuously improve our alignment to student needs and assets – is what can help us stop this progression of disempowerment in math class from the very seeds of identity. This Thoreau quote often comes to mind:

“What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us.
And when we bring what is within out into the world, miracles happen.”

And with that we dove into discussion of how our class structure can empower students. Here’s some of our brainstorming:

2014-10-18 17.35.14 2014-10-18 17.35.522014-10-18 17.36.42 2014-10-18 17.36.22

From there, we considered six specific methods that are demonstrative of culturally responsive teaching in math. They, along with specific examples, can be found here. In summary, math teachers should:

  1. Use familiar modes of communication.
  2. Make analogies between new content and students’ lived experiences.
  3. Bring in community members to share math-related applications.
  4. Choose relevant contextual problems.
  5. Choose relevant instructional tasks and projects.
  6. Choose a relevant unifying theme or essential question for a unit.

And so all of this culminates with where we are right now – we have a real potential to empower students in their math identities and change the trend of math being seen as innate and inaccessible. The challenge is in how willing we are to look at ourselves and deeply consider from where our values about math came and how our class is impacting the identities of our students. Perhaps more than any other actor, math teachers hold the greatest power to unlock the latent potential of students and help students see themselves as capable leaders. We have to stop using the excuse that the failures of the past and the challenges of the future shackle us from doing just that. We need a stubbornness in conviction that insists that every one of our students has the capability to achieve excellence; that they are worth empowering. Because ultimately, the saying holds true:

“We see things not as they are, we see things as we are.”


Professional Learning Communities are NOW LIVE!

Hey everyone!

I’m so excited for the launch of our regional Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Before getting to the registration link, here’s a quick reminder about how PLCs will operate:

1) Teachers sign up for a Geographic and/or Content PLC. Geographic PLCs are great for connecting and collaborating with other math teachers in your area, while content PLCs help you connect with teachers across the state who teach your same content. When you first sign up for the PLC, it will ask you which option(s) you are interested in. As a reminder, we have 3 options to kick off the quarter:

  • Mastering My Content: Relay Modules
  • Virtual Observation Cycle
  • Teaching Math for Social Justice Book Study

2) Your PLC Coordinator will email you by October 24th (pushed back from October 17th) to introduce everyone in the PLC and to set up first meeting.

3) PLC will meet multiple times to set goals aligned to chosen option, discuss progress towards goals, and share results.

4) PLC members will submit exit form to receive specialized credit.

5) PLC decides on a follow-up option that they want to engage with and PLC Coordinator submits to Ethan for approval. Cycle restarts!

Of course, this is just the formal structure – PLC members can (and are encouraged) to meet informally by phone/email/in-person in between required PLC meetings.

Before you sign up, meet your PLC Coordinators! They will help organize and coordinate the PLCs to make them as purposeful and useful as possible for all of us.


So if you’re interested in joining, don’t delay! PLCs begin operating soon.


Note: If you would like to sign up for PLCs after October 24th, please email Ethan directly.

New stuff in the Filebox

I just finished the latest update in the Filebox–topics updated include algebraic expressions, the distributive property, combinations, proportions, functions, basic trigonometry, equations for circles, systems of equations, exponential functions, fraction operations, geometric transformations, and the intermediate value theorem. PLUS some interactive applets that are useful for building a concrete sense of everything from basic operations up to advanced algebra, and a list of potential differentiation strategies. There’s so much great stuff out there on the Internet!

Go check it all out, and shoot me an email if you’re trying to track down a particular resource or topic. 


How do I ask questions? Two recommended sessions!

Do you feel like the questions you’re asking just aren’t getting students engaged?  Or maybe that you are asking great questions, but half of your class is not tuned in to them?

We’ve got two great sessions this month that you may have missed–they’re listed as “cross-content” sessions in the catalog, but you will receive math credit for participating in them.

Asking the “fat” and “skinny” questions explores the kinds of questions that build students’ brains and get them engaged, and gets you practice writing those questions.

Instructional dialogue looks at the kinds of routines and structures you can use in class to make sure every student is actually participating in answering those big questions, whether it’s through group discussion or a debrief as a whole class.

I’ve collaborated with the other content directors to ensure that these sessions are being offered in every community where we have a sizable cluster of corps members, so you should definitely try to attend when we come to your community!

Please note that there are a couple sessions of the Instructional Dialogue session that did not make the catalog! It will also be offered in the follow locations:

  • In Cleveland on 9/18, from 5:00 – 6:30
  • In Lexington on 9/24, from 5:30 – 6:30 (following the Fat/Skinny Question session)
  • In Jackson on 9/24, from 5:00 – 6:30
  • In Greenville on 10/9, from 6:00 – 7:00 (following the Fat/Skinny Question session)

Those options should all be available in the RSVP form by the end of the day Monday.  If you’re interested in attending the Cleveland session, though, let me know, since it’s coming up fast!

New in the Filebox

Just letting you know there’s fresh stuff in the Filebox, including a couple long-term plans for pre-calculus, a good early lesson in calculus, a fun area activity for elementary or middle school geometry, and a poster and lesson activity to teach your kids that we only get stronger when it’s difficult.  Go forth and check ’em out!

An opportunity for your kids: black role models in STEM

In a month, the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Leadership Conference will be hosting a “STEM BrainTrust,” and NASA will be livecasting the event so that classrooms around the country can join remotely. This will happen on Friday, September 20, from 8am to 11am CST, and the event is designed for middle and high school students, showcasing African-American STEM role models. If you’ve got any questions, let me know and I can pass them along–or go ahead and RSVP today.

Panelists include:

  • Dr. Bernard Harris (T.I. Luncheon Speaker and Potential Panelist) (Confirmed)
  • Dr. Roosevelt Y. Johnson, Deputy Associate Administrator for Education, NASA (Confirmed)
  • Mr. Fred Humphries VP US Government Affairs Microsoft (Confirmed)
  • Mr. Ray Dempsey, VP BP Public Affairs (Confirmed)
  • Mr. Harold Strong, University of North Texas – AP Developer (Confirmed)
  • Dr. Scott Edwards, Harvard University Professor (Confirmed)
  • Mr. Barrington Irving (Past Brain Trust Panelist) (Confirmed)
  • Dr. Karina Edmonds DOE Technology Transfer Coordinator (Confirmed)
  • Dr. Nerma Frazier (Confirmed)DOE
  • Francessca Spencer Vasquez (Oracle) (Confirmed)
  • (NFL Representative) (Confirmed, Awaiting STEM speaker biography)
  • Facebook Representative ( Awaiting from Jennifer Stewart)