Mr. Vilson Archives - The Jose Vilson

Mr. Vilson

These posts are focused on the more professional side of my writing. They include tips, resources, and stories from the classroom.

This week, I’m supposed to teach my students how to solve a system of equations by elimination. It’s the hardest of the four ways  for solving systems (graphing, substitution, guess-and-checking), and I’m not entirely sure everyone in the class gets the first three. The main point of the unit is to determine exactly where two or more linear relationships meet, if they ever do. The situation could be realistic (two cars running a race, two trains on a schedule, cell phone pricing plans) or already abstracted (simultaneous equations), but I’m hoping they can find this meeting point because it’s really interesting. Is it relevant to their daily lives? Perhaps. Do I care? Not necessarily.

Really, I don’t always want the things that people learn to be within the realm of possibility, because I’m trying to prepare them for the improbable as well.

One missing piece of the Common Core State Standards debate is that, while I’m glad to teach students higher order math that puts them on the pathway to do well in high school algebra (and trickles into geometry, trig, and hopefully calculus / statistics), I can’t, and sometimes don’t want to, always do what the standards are asking me to do.

After nine years, I’m still trying to find ways to push my teaching – and their learning – further, and I believe I’ve earned the right to say what works and what doesn’t with any group of students. I often find it’s a waste to try and create a week’s worth of lesson plans when things are bound to change from day to day. I know what they have to learn and I have a given window of time I’d like to finish the learning by, but I’m also trying to maximize student learning if possible, meaning that I’ll have to come up with six ways of explaining something and hoping the students catch at least two of those.

That’s the thing with math generally. People are taught that we ought to teach math only one way, and, if not taught this way, they’ll never get it. I’m happy just knowing that, out of the hundreds of ways of doing a problem, they at least caught on to one. Because I really don’t have all the answers. I have mine. The next person might have a better way. I have no ego or qualms mentioning this all the time.

At some point, however, I’d like to get them confident enough to not have to depend on whether I know it or not, but that I gave them some tools for them to do it themselves. Because maybe the math we’re doing isn’t necessarily relevant, but it could be useful for the things we haven’t yet used, or necessary for the things we haven’t yet needed.


No Really, Stay In Class

by Jose Vilson on January 21, 2014

in Mr. Vilson


After lunch, students drag their feet to class, chatting it up with friends in the hallway, taking elongated sips of fountain water, peeking into their former teachers’ classes, and generally finding any excuse to not go to their next class. Even as passionate, deliberate, and rock star-ish as I am, kids still do this for my class, too. Students after lunch drag their feet on the routines we established in class, like taking out notebooks and working on the “Do Now” on the board.

Generally, I can get students to focus on our work for the day, and into some meaningful classroom discussion, except for one or two.

With one in particular, I find myself having to metaphorically pull his ears to get into class. The arguments remain: “How come?” “Why do you want me in class?” “Because is not a good enough reason.” “Can I sit outside?” “Can I go to the bathroom for a really long while?” “All of a sudden, my head hurts. Can I go to the nurse and never come back?”

Most of the time, it’s more respectful than that, but it annoys the hell out of me every time. Early in my career, one of my friends told me, “Why spend time on the one or two students who don’t want to be in my class when I have 27 who do?” There’s a point worth exploring. Aside from all the planning, grading, managing, prompting, questioning, shifting, thinking, thinking, and thinking I have to do, I also pride myself on wanting students to come into class, especially if I can take one step into the hallway and call them out. On the other hand, because of all the energy I expend already, it would be nice if the students who need me to pull them in would meet me halfway into the door.

I’m still at a loss.

If we’re constantly in search of that silver bullet that works for 100% of kids 100% of the time, then we’ll leave more children left behind than we intend.

The philosophy goes: “If you teach one, you’ve done a good job.” Yet, if I teach 29 at a time while pulling in that one, am I really teaching 30? Can I be satisfied with only doing what I can? Do I understand the implications if I don’t step in as a math teacher and get him involved in higher-level math? Am I a sucker for my own idealism or is my realism the boss of me?

Until then, my mantra maintains that I rather they stay in class because, whenever the spirit moves them, I hope to be there, nodding and saying, “I knew you could.”

Mr. Vilson



Confession: I didn’t get a chance to see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom before taking my students.

Confession #2: My kids wouldn’t have gone to see it either if I didn’t bring them myself.

Here’s the thing about auto-bio pics that people don’t want to say, but will readily admit: if our youth don’t get a sense of why something or someone is important, they won’t pay attention to it.

Even before Mandela’s passing, I was excited to hear Idris Elba play Mandela, if only because we sanitize the image of civil rights leaders all the time, and we ought not to. If anything, we should find ways to make those “miracles” more concrete for the people. It’s important for all of us to understand people as multi-dimensional, even the people many of us have proclaimed as heroes. The stains and dents make the statues more real.

Just as I started planning for the trip, he passed. For better or worse, the news on him turned on a switch for my kids. “The guy who Mr. Vilson just talked about” became “the famous guy who passed away and was on the news last night.”

Without a movie like Mandela, I have a harder time helping students visualize his importance. Fortunately for us, we won a free trip to go courtesy of Share My Lesson (check out these lessons too), the AFT, and the Weinstein Company, and so I took all the students I could on the trip. They had no idea what the movie was save for the few who had already done some research beforehand.

After coming out of the movie, most of them started making connections to the readings in their classes, specifically To Kill A Mockingbird. Yet, my draw to the movie wasn’t necessarily academic reasons. It’s to help plant the seed in students that might spark a thought. The movie does a good job of laying out his legacy in such a way that doesn’t pretend sainthood, yet asks us to look at the mountain of a man for all his flaws.

Most of my kids thought it was good, and appreciated being taken to see it. Someone had to. Rather, I had to.


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Get Up, Stand Up, Before The PowerPointers Do [The Takeover, Part 1]

December 23, 2013 Mr. Vilson

Because I don’t really take breaks, I’m writing a three-part series at my other space. Here’s an excerpt: Generally, you get the idea, but you’re left wondering, “How can we do this better? How can I do this better?” Yet, when it comes down to it, too many of us are still waiting for someone […]

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Pop Your Collar For Parent-Teacher Conferences [New York Times]

November 19, 2013 Mr. Vilson

A few weeks ago, I was invited to write for New York Times’ Room for Debate, a special web section of the Times dedicated to debating intense subjects of the week. This one was dedicated to parent-teacher conferences. I wrote: Critics call it a waste of time, of course. They argue that only the “good” […]

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I’m The M.E.T.H.O.D. Man (Classroom Questioning, Tiger Style)

November 12, 2013 Jose
Wu Tang Clan

Never be afraid to keep students at arms’ length from you work-wise. Therein lies the struggle right now with the immediacy of our work as educators. Too often, we torture ourselves trying to give away all the answers instead of waiting patiently for the right time to insert ourselves. The more we keep feeding them […]

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