Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building.

A surreal teaching video recently put into focus just how artificial class can be, and in particular how inauthentically the role of teacher is often played. I want my students to see me as human, deserving of their respect. I don’t want my authority in the classroom to arise from the power of grades, or sending kids out, or threats, or yelling, or just being an adult, so how do I gain authority with my students?

I can backtrack this for a long time, stopping thought after thought, thinking “yeah, but how do I do that?” How do I show them that respect is important? How do I get students to give each other their attention? How do I get them to deserve each other’s attention? How do I get them to do anything without already having authority?

I try to do this a little differently every year. I’ve tried “norming.” Several times, I’ve included, “just don’t piss me off.” (pathetic in hindsight) I’m looking for something more sustainable, a potential motto for my students and me alike. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building.

* * *

Times Square

I live in New York City, and I love the architecture. One place I really hate, though, is Times Square. As a new yorker you almost need an excuse for being there, because no one wants to be caught dead in such a gaudy tourist trap. Times Square is screaming at you with its lights, sounds, and overactivity. It’s almost oppressive to the senses. Times Square demands your attention, like all caps – LOOK AT ME!!!! I’M WORTH LOOKING AT!!!! SEE!?!?!?!?!? COOL HUH?!!? Every time I see it, I want out.

I was talking today about a teacher who typifies the “Times Square” approach to authority. He is overpowering, dominant, and very very loud with his elementary school students. Many students come to love him, but some, so I hear, are traumatized each year. My approach to teaching relies on student values, but his method is all about pressing value and compliance down from above. It’ll never work for me and my students.

Times Square is sensational, but completely unsustainable. How much time can you spend there, in the lights and the crowd, before being completely overwhelmed, fatigued, and disinterested? Who grows thoughtful in that environment?

* * *

The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building, on the other hand, is my personal favorite. One of the first skyscrapers, and once the tallest building in the world (at a mere 285 feet), there’s no question it was originally an attention grabber. Even still, its design is striking and has stopped me in my tracks several times, but it’s much quieter architecturally. It gives you room to stand and admire it. Every time I see it, I want to stare.

What makes the Flatiron so compelling and inviting is its simplicity and beauty. If I can just show my students beautiful and inviting mathematics, and give them the space they need to respond and take it on, they might stay longer in its presence. This means taking time to appreciate content, and it means quieting down to share in the experience together. If I can model this behavior and bring them the Flatiron building, perhaps they’ll follow suit.

Everyone knows Times Square for the lights and the crowds, but who knows what the buildings actually look like?


8 responses to “Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building.

  1. All of the trappings of school often make it so hard for me to just be a person in a room with some other people, working together on something interesting. It especially feels like that at the moment, with all of these thoughts swirling in my head prior to the year beginning. There’s nothing for my thoughts to latch onto and to leverage off of. I’m doing fantasy-teach, not the real act of sharing experiences with those more amateur and tenderfooted than myself. I’m thinking about billboards (large-scale structures, overarching themes) rather than windows (young minds)–things that are looked at rather than things that are looked through. For all of the rejuvenation that summer brings, for all of the hard-won thoughts it births, it sure can set the stage for play-acting education. Let’s hope that this long weekend doesn’t stretch out too long, so that we can get going.

    Thanks for the great analogy, Paul.

    • You make the analogy even better with the billboard/things-to-be-looked-at bit. Very true. I’m feeling the exact same way right now. As I said in my last post, it’s just so hard to get anything real going without those people doing it with me. Thankfully, it’s very near.

      The trick is, I want to simultaneously dive straight into exciting mathematical work, but also exhibit the patience needed to settle into the room together. Sometimes I think they’ll just have to happen at once – a part of the flow of class.

      What I didn’t say above is that no matter how I start off, the course of the year brings us each class to a place that works for us. The classroom becomes our own space. We’ll see if it happens more quickly with this mindset.

  2. This is a great post and I love the allusion to Times Square. Being a fellow New Yorker but from the outer boroughs I’m deathly afriad of Times Square. Once, by accident, I ended up there and nearly died from all the craziness.

    I think that some people think math education has to be showy in order to catch our students’ attention, but it just ends up being pretentious and begs the question, was it worth it? And the curriculim is always breathing down our necks and determining that pacing for our kids, which inevitably hurts them. They don’t get the beauty of the subject and are just rushed through. Some kids don’t get a chance even to succeed in the subject because of this lack of ‘breathing room’.

    But I don’t think that’s what you’re going for here in this post. Are you talking about being able to command a room as opposed to demanding students’ attention? Because that, in it of iteself, is a difficult thing to habituate and actualize.

    • First of all, thanks for your comment. I love what you say in the second part about curriculum breathing down our necks. You’re very right.

      I am trying to think both about content and authority, because I think they have to be tied. Math is the reason we’re in the room together in the first place, and I want it to be the thing keeping us there.

      When a group of people works best together, the most amazing thing happens. They give authority to each other. It arises organically from shared value. Their patience, attendance, good listening, and motivation come from a common interest and an interest in each other, so my job is to find ways for us all to value mathematics.

      To do that, I am going to share the best mathematics I’ve got and work with the math already brewing in their minds. I’ll wait through silence. I’ll listen. I’ll work with whatever math they like. That is how you build shared value in math. If I try to hold too firmly to curriculum, I’m sure we’ll lose each other.

  3. Paul, this is my favorite post of yours to date. I had never seen the “rolling doubles” I’d read so much about in “Work Hard. Be Nice” in KIPP schools. Not sure if that teacher was associated with a school like that, or whether KIPP would approve of what she’s doing, but it was fascinating to say the least. Kind of like watching a train wreck in a sick way.
    I know the exact type of teacher you’re talking about. One that is so “charismatic” and loud that it borders on intimidating for some students (and faculty!). Made me feel better to know others see the same in their schools. Kind of like one of your first posts when you talked about how teaching isn’t about us. It’s about our students. I coach volleyball too and I really see this in sports. When as a fan, you spend more time watching the coach’s crazy reactions to plays and their players than the actual game itself, there is something very wrong, no matter how successful that coach is. Anyway, just a few random thoughts. Really enjoying the blog.

    • That video was really hard for me to watch too. Her tone of voice is sort of haunting my wife and I. I wrote a few comments on the video page. Might be worth a read.

      Coaching is a whole other part of teaching that I love. I don’t get to do it now, but at my old school I coached three sports. it was an amazing experience. I’ll surely have to write about it sometimes.

      I’d love to talk with you sometime about teachers we had in school and our thoughts looking back.

      Thanks for your comments. I love knowing what people enjoy reading.

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