M is for…

Spoiler alert:

mathalicious crew

{This is last year at NCTM with Matt Lane, Karim Ani, and Ginny Stuckey – the Mathalicious crew I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a little bit. I’d realized they were missing from my math friends wall in my classroom – the shame! Glad I had a chance to get that taken care of!}

If you are someone who knows me at all or who follows me on twitter, it should probably come as no surprise that M is for Mathalicious. (Fun fact, I meant to write this during the MTBOS initiation in, ahem, January during “my favorites” week, but, life… So if you prefer, this is also a very belated, “M is for My favorite”). If you aren’t familiar with Mathalicious, first of all, what are you waiting for? Go to their site. You can use this link to sign up for a trial if you want. Enjoy and have tons of fun and great conversations in your math class. It is definitely one of the best things that I do in my classroom.

But what is Mathalicious anyway? Here’s how I would describe it. Mathalicious writes lessons that are grounded in real world contexts. More than just a vehicle to “do the math,” they also provide a broader look at why we should care about the math. I would say that some of the lessons are more “mathy” than others. Some of them have contexts that are really relatable to middle/high schoolers – movies, shopping, etc. Other lessons have contexts that maybe aren’t seemingly as relatable, but allow for really important conversations to happen (municipal fines, health insurance, distracted driving, etc). Some of these topics don’t seem – at first look – to be ones for middle schoolers to be discussing in math class. But why shouldn’t they be!?

There are a lot of wonderful resources available to math teachers, and I try to take advantage of all of them. For whatever reason though, I’ve just found the biggest connection with Mathalicious lessons. They are something that definitely makes my classroom special. It’s hard to put my finger on it, really, what makes them so special. I think it really comes down to the conversations that they allow, in fact, encourage me to have. I think the ability to take whatever concept we are working on and give the kiddos a reason for learning it, but then go beyond just context into questions that deal with fairness and whatnot is pretty unique. I have tried to make curiosity a theme in my classroom ever since the first time I heard Dan Meyer speak. Mathalicious lessons definitely help to foster this curiosity. My students ask great questions – a lot of them that I couldn’t even anticipate, and definitely can’t answer. But that’s cool, and I make sure I tell the kiddos that I think it’s cool.

But don’t just take it from me, here’s what some of my 6th graders said. (More about them later.) We had a new student join our class and we said something about Mathalicious. She wanted – understandably – to know what the heck it was. So here’s some of what they told her:

The lessons are based on fun real world situations to make the world an awesome place – KK

Mathalicious is a company who creates mathematical real-world conflicts for kids to experience math in a fun and unique way. – JP

Mathalicious is a company that has fun, real life situations which has critical thinking math problems. – RL

Mathalicious is Ms. McCormick’s favorite website. It is a math website that makes you really think about math and different questions. It really makes you think -RL

Mathalicious is a company invented by a cool guy who is obviously good in math. They basically take something from real life (like movies, tv, etc) and turn it into a math concept to explain something like fractions or graphs and stuff. – RD

Perhaps they’ve been brainwashed. Whatever. I like that I hear “fun” and “thinking” coming up more than once. If that’s their take away? Awesome.

When I embarked on this magical MTBOS journey of mine, Mathalicious was one of the first things that intrigued me. Julie and Fawn were (are) my teacher heroes and they often would mention it on their blogs. It seemed interesting, but I didn’t really know what it was about. Actually, fun fact, I think one of the first things I knew was the logo. I really liked the logo (still do). It made me want to know more (score one for marketing!). Ridiculous, right? But then it was Julie and Fawn’s blogs. I don’t think there was ever anything specific, just it was often mentioned and the classes always looked like they were having fun. I became interested.

My first real experience with Mathalicious was when I went to my 2nd NCTM in New Orleans. I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by the company’s founder, Karim Ani. I’m pretty sure he presented 2 lessons (or maybe he did back to back sessions and I stayed for both?), but the one I remember was called “Pair-alysis.” In this lesson students are asked to calculate the number of combinations of design your own Nikes that you could make. I remember that he started the lesson by asking who had looked at those Nikes and designed their dream pair and most of the room raised their hands (I’d never heard of them). Then he asked how many had followed through with a purchase and most of the hands went down. Instantly, people were hooked- it was already a relatable context and one of the points of the lesson had just been shown during the hook. During the lesson, not only did Karim go through the math, he also discussed the bigger point of how having more options actually makes making a decision difficult. It was so interesting to me to see what was there beyond the math. Later that day I was in the exhibit hall and I stopped by the Mathalicious table. They asked if I wanted a trial, and of course I said yes. When I got back to school, I jumped in with both feet!

It was April, so school was wrapping up and I was trying to teach way too much in way too short a time. Statistics, which is what we were working on, isn’t really a strong point for me. Being able to engage the students with these amazing new lessons was perfect. No surprise, the first one I did was “Pair-alysis.” I was lucky that my trial lasted until school was over, and we took full advantage, especially in my 7th grade class. One of my students that year wrote me a thank you note at the end of the year, and in it she said how she hoped we’d get to do more Mathalicious in 8th grade.

We definitely did a ton more that year in 8th grade. I used it with my other classes a little bit, but my 8th graders were hooked, and so was I. We used the lessons as often as we could. At the end of that year I had them write letters to the principal. The assignment was to write persuasive notes about why she should renew my subscription. I found the letters kind of hilarious. I had taught those kids since 5th grade, and to “hear” the formality of the letters cracked me up. Here are some of the comments from those precious letters:

In the time that my class and I have used it, I have discovered a whole new way of thinking about math not only in the classroom, but in all circumstances of life. Mathalicious is a wonderful way to encourage students of all ages to look at math in a whole new light. I have grown a great liking for the program because it has helped me better understand a variety of math topics. – MM

Mathalicious is a good learning tool and we should keep on using it because it keeps us engaged in math by helping us to learn in an innovative way. – FH

Teachers should continue to use Mathalicious because it is engaging, fun, and math based. Also, it is exciting to share thoughts that contribute to the topic because it is your personal idea. -AH

I love Mathalicious! We do different activities that are fun and they help us learn about math without us even knowing. It helps our class learn together about complicated math. Mathalicious is a fun and easy way to learn about math. – JK

I like how it uses interactions with real life situations and pop culture. It makes math class awesome. – SC

Mathalicious also helps students engage more actively in math class because of the fun and interesting topics and activities. -EH

Let’s face it, Mathalicious is way more interesting than copying endless amounts of problems in a textbook! – JC

I never gave those letters to the principal, because I ended up leaving that school. She totally would have been convinced, though, don’t you think?

I continued with my subscription when I started at a new school last year. To be honest, I didn’t use it as much as I’d have liked because I had no curriculum and was making stuff up as I went along for all 4 classes. This year, however, I started things out right – Mathalicious from day 1. I have various levels of enthusiasm from my different groups. It makes me curious if this is because of the lessons I’ve chosen for them that some have gotten into it more than others? Do I present them somehow differently? Is it just the different personalities of the kids? I don’t know. Seventh and eighth grade enjoy them and will work hard at them, but no one on the planet (bold statement) loves Mathalicious like my 6th graders. Among other things, they have decided that they would like to complete all 133 lessons on the site. They like to consider Karim their friend, want me to email him questions all the time, and think he should come hang out with them sometime. There has also been talk of a Mathalicious club for them to come back to when they are in HS, just so we can be sure to finish all 133. God bless ‘em 🙂 Kids are silly (and awesome).

Yesterday during lunch I saw this tweet:

A ton of kids were in my room, so I asked them. I immediately loved how they all just started responding with different ones – even one of the kids who was working with a different teacher overheard and piped in. I adore how they have connected with the lessons. One of my favorite things is when, randomly in the middle of class, kids will be like, this reminds me of (fill in the blank Mathalicious lesson). That’s the best because you know what they don’t say that about? The textbook.

I had to think about this question a bit. I also realized that first lesson to try doesn’t necessarily have to mean the same as favorite lesson. I, of course, had some opinions. But as I formed my answer, I went through the listing of all the lessons. It’s always fun to go through them and remember different classes I’ve taught different lessons. It’s not as fun to think, oh crap, why did I forget to do that one this year? I realized I’ve taught a ton of the lessons over the years (helps that I teach from 4 grade levels they have lessons for). But I also still discover new ones I want to try. Just a few weeks ago I clicked on a lesson that I’d never seen, but basically had been wishing for for years. Total win.

Stay tuned, one of these days I’ll write another blog about some of my (and my kids’) favorite lessons. Until then – go have a conversation that matters with your own kiddos 🙂

(BTW, if you have never tried Mathalicious and are interested in my response to the question because you are going to do a trial, let me know in the comments or find me on twitter. I always enjoy chatting with people about the lessons!)

 

L is for…

This is an easy one. L is for Lilly’s List.

Who is Lilly and why did she write me a list? Lilly is one of my 8th graders. She is funny and feisty and a treat to have in class. She gives me far more credit than I deserve for, as she says, changing everything she thinks about math. I mean, is there a better compliment than that, even if I’m not sure I’m worthy of it? She spends most of her time in my classroom. She is curious and never wants to stop learning. She is terribly concerned about her grades. I know her parents and I teach her little brother, too (don’t worry, to him, I’m his McBestie. 6th graders…). Her focus and desire comes entirely from her. Her parents are proud of her, but the pressure she puts on herself does not come from them. Worried about her, I joked that I was going to make her read Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure because I was sure she was on the verge of an ulcer. She read it and loved it. She wrote me a 9 page paper just because she wanted to share her thoughts about it with me. When I do something that follows what Lahey’s book proposes, she tells me that “Jessica would be so proud.” And if I say something not quite growth mindset-y, she calls me on it. She comes into class every day, exclaiming, “so…. I have some thoughts,” or, “so…… I have a few questions.” Of course you do, Lilly, of course you do. I tease her endlessly, but I love it. We are trying to figure out how she can skip high school and college and just start teaching with me now. She’s kind of my mini-me.

Last week she said something that I can’t remember and I told her I was writing an alphabet series to be shared with my friends (I didn’t say the world blog, because kids…). I told her she should be my L. I really wish I could remember what it was we were talking about, because that conversation turned into the following list, which she presented to me the next day.

Things Every Teacher Should Know

Never limit a student

Have standards and don’t change them

If a student cares enough to ask how they can raise their grade, give them an opportunity if it’s not much

If you make a mistake, own up to it

Don’t shame outside the box thinking or abstract questions

Curiosity is the best way to learn

Don’t take lazy shortcuts

You don’t have to do everything in the textbook

Don’t ignore cheating – it has only negative side effects

You don’t need to give 30 of the same problem for homework

Give enough time for projects (if you aren’t sure how much to give, try the project)

Make directions clear and understandable

Be involved- do classwork, projects, or tests with the students

Passion and excitement are contagious – if you don’t have passion, find a new job

If you use subjective grading at least make it clear what you need to do to get a good grade

Your students won’t learn if you never give them a chance to speak

If students are ahead of the rest of the class allow them to explain it, give them something to do, or let them continue on so they don’t get bored or lose interest

Learning isn’t memorizing – do not only test memorization

Do not only make grades important – effort is more valuable

Stay true to your word

I laughed when she handed it to me because #3 is 100% directed at me. She always wants to know how to raise her grade (she got a 100% first term and currently has one of the top 3 grades in the class. #childplease). I was curious, so I told her I wanted my grade. (I made her add one to the list first because she had 19 items and that’s annoying). At lunch, she and her crew who hang out in my room discussed the list and my grade. I got a 99%. We have some work to do on percentages, apparently. I missed a half point for clear directions. I told them to go ahead and take the whole point because I do stuff like make things up as I go. (So, um, ya…. why don’t you just play around on Desmos over the weekend for like 20 minutes and then kinda just write up what you discovered or what questions you have. Ya, that sounds like a good idea…) It’s fine. Whatever. But no, they insisted I have a 99%. Not too shabby.

I’m sharing this list because I think the whole situation is funny, but also because wow – out of the mouths of babes, right? I mean, it’s clear to see a lot of my beliefs in the list (hello you don’t have to do everything in the textbook) and I think it’s sweet and funny that she’s internalized them. However, I’m reflecting on her list even more because I think it’s really important to think about not just how we teachers define good teaching, but what do our students want of us? I mean, if I asked most kids, their list would look entirely different – recess, extra credit, etc. But here’s one of the most motivated kids I’ve ever taught, maturely laying it on the line.

I’ve had a rough week because of what I wrote about in my last post. It’s really getting to me. Like the email I’d wish to share, I really want to share this list with the other teachers on my staff who are not quite so open to the ideas that Lilly has. She has given me permission to share with the principal and to share anonymously with the staff. I haven’t and have been giving it a lot of thought. I probably will share it with the principal, but sharing it with her other teachers, even anonymously, makes me nervous. I don’t want anything to be held against her, and in a few cases it’s quite clear who certain comments are meant to represent. So that’s not great (even though I’m basically in agreement with the statements).

I sent a group text to my 3 closest confidants this morning because I was almost in tears about how out of place I feel amongst my staff and I needed some good old-fashioned MTBoS-y encouragement. I’m not unhappy at my school. I love my kids. But I definitely am the answer to the “which one doesn’t belong” of the staff. Last night we had an information night and when the principal introduced me he said, “this is our advanced math teacher. When she’s not teaching math, she’s reading books about math, listening to podcasts about math, dreaming about math, etc.” He’s not wrong and I know that he meant it in the most complimentary of ways. Later when he was talking about curriculum he went on about how he loves coming in my room and how my kiddos are doing amazing things and all the sorts of things you want to hear said about yourself. But his intro still rubbed me the wrong way. It still made me feel like – hey – you’re super passionate about growing and learning and we’re really not sure what to do with someone like you, so we’re just going to tease you.

I am so curious to know what the other teachers would think about this list. Would they see themselves in it? Would I see them in it if I wasn’t currently caught up in my own angst? I mean, I hear the kinds of things they say about their classrooms. I watch them line up at the copier with the multiplication drill and kill handouts. I hear the way they talk about the fact that I allow students to make up work and re-take tests. I watch the way the primary teachers put giant letter grades on their kids’ work. So I don’t think I’m terribly off base, but I recognize I’m being very judgy and that’s horrible. If I took the opportunity to walk into their rooms, maybe it would give me a different view. However, the big thing is, I don’t feel welcome to do that. I know it’s something that I should make an effort to do anyway.

But what would they think? Would they think I’ve brainwashed Lilly (ok, probably)? Would they agree or disagree? Would they consider themselves earning a passing score? More importantly, would their students give them a passing score? Would mine? What do you think? Do you think Lilly’s list is on point? What did she miss?

K is for…

I’ve really been struggling to come up with my word for K. I had great suggestions for topics, I just didn’t know what to actually write for any of those topics. I know my L and M topics and want to get to them, but I was stuck on K. I had settled on K being for kiddos and just filling a post of the funny things my kids say. But then I worried y’all wouldn’t find their hero-worshiping of me quite as endearing as I do. {kidding… sort of}.

As I was driving home today, I was thinking about all the people that have posted pictures showing that their copies of Tracy Zager’s new book, Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You Had have arrived. I’ve been excitedly, and until this week, patiently, waiting for this book since April 2014 and I’m sick with jealousy that mine hasn’t come yet. But anyway, I was thinking of it and the book club that my friend Debbie and I run. Well, mostly she runs it. I just suggest book titles and provide non-helpful, witty banter during our meetings. Yesterday she finalized a beautiful flyer to reach out to people in our quasi-district. This is year 3 of our club, and our (her) outreach efforts haven’t gotten us too far in the past. Fortunately, we’ve had a delightful time meeting and discussing, and sometimes even reading the assigned chapters (but, ok, not usually) {It will be different this time, Tracy, I PROMISE!}.

Yesterday I walked into the teachers’ room to get my lunch. I eat in my classroom because a bunch of 8th graders like to work on their homework and hang out. I know this probably makes the other teachers not like me since I don’t hang out with them, but that’s ok. As I was warming up my lunch, I casually asked the primary teachers who were in there – “hey is anyone interested in joining my math book club?” Their reaction? Well one of them laughed at me. Then finally someone else at least said, “what do you read in a math book club? I don’t even have time to be in a ‘real’ book club.” Another echoed the, “I don’t have time,” sentiment.

Time is valuable, I understand that. But there are other valuable things for which we make the choice to make the time. I was thinking about the reactions and the very favorable reactions that my partner in crime received – some from mutual friends and some from colleagues in her school. I was jealous. In my head I started thinking of an email I could send. It immediately became something I knew I couldn’t send. But it also became the perfect topic for K.

K is for Keeping it Real.

Here is the email I’d like to send, but won’t. Is it because I want to keep a peaceful environment and I already fear I’m the outsider? Is it because I’m not brave? Or is it simply because I know it would be ignored? (BTW – it’s way too long, but that’s because I know I’m not actually sending it. If I got an email this long, I wouldn’t read it either.)

Hi Everyone!

I hope you saw the flyer that I hung on the white board and put in your boxes. I want to warmly invite you to join our book club. We have a blast and it’s so fulfilling to have a monthly check in with other teachers from the Diocese. We would so love to expand our circle from just middle school to include lots of primary people as well. We have so much to learn from each other! In the past we’ve often “forgotten” to read the book, but I know that’s not going to be the case with this one. Tracy is a friend who I met in 2014. The very first night I met her, she told me about this book. I’ve been so excited ever since then and finally it’s here! I have seen and heard Tracy present in about as many formats as possible, and she is always inspiring and full of amazing ideas. And now they are all in print for us to share! I absolutely cannot wait to dig into this book! As I told her when I was reading the e-book, I want to treasure and hug every single word.

I know that I’m the token math nerd around here. I know some of you really enjoy teaching math, and for others I know it’s not your favorite subject. I want to tell you a story. While I’ve always enjoyed math, I never anticipated becoming a math teacher. I wasn’t always the math nerd that you all know and love. I was tired of teaching and was trying to figure out what else I could do with my life a few years ago when Common Core came into my life. It actually totally reinvigorated me. Having no training and no resources and teaching 4 different math classes forced me to dive in and figure it out. This is when and how I became connected to the most extraordinary collection of people I know and how I fell in love with teaching math. It was frustrating and overwhelming that I was doing it all on my own, but it ended up changing my life in ways that you can’t imagine.

Somewhere along the way, I became friends with my friend Debbie through a former mutual colleague of ours. At one point Debbie was told by the superintendent that our own personal professional development was up to us individually. That’s a frustrating thing, to be sure. However, it became an open door and open invitation to see what was out there. I began to crave knowledge about how to teach math well. Then a funny thing happened, as I started to learn more, I craved knowing more and more and I just kept going.

Now, in my case, I’m profoundly lucky to have a dad who, when first hearing of my interest in conferences, sort of gave me carte blanche. For as long as I can remember, he has gone to major conferences all over the country and developed an amazing network of colleagues. He has served as president of the main organization and has been repeatedly recognized for his leadership and work in his industry. He knows how much he has gained in his career by his interactions with his worldwide colleagues, and he wanted the same for me. He has paved the way to allow that to happen. Am I spoiled? Yes, very much so. I realize that. These experiences I have had have changed my life in ways that I can’t describe. I am the exception, and I’m very aware of that.

At some point, because I am the exception and most people are not granted the opportunities I’m lucky to have, Debbie and I started getting together locally to become better together. One of the ways we chose to do that was by reading a book together. At times, we’ve had other teachers join us. Typically there have been 2 others who have been our compatriots for book club. We have found this time to be incredibly valuable to grow as teachers, as professionals, and as friends. We are able to discuss what’s going on in our classrooms and in the diocese, and bounce ideas off of each other. Sometimes these discussions are guided by our book club selections, but often they just arise out of our own needs. We meet for dinner and end up spending hours because we just have so much to talk about. Yes, it is a time commitment, but it’s so worth it. It’s only one night a month, and making that time has become a really important priority.

A funny thing happened when Debbie and I started collaborating and I started getting connected and going to conferences. I fell in love with teaching in a way I’m not sure I had even at the start of my career. Common Core actually kind of saved me in that way. Trust me when I tell you that along the way I have been challenged by basically everything I thought I did well. I would read an article or book and be like, wow, I suck. But rather than staying there, I kept going to see what I could do better. I had to be really vulnerable and accept that everything I thought I knew and everything with which I was feeling confident, was not actually helping my students. I had to have a huge shift in my mindset. I’ve had personal challenges to that mindset so many times along the way, trust me. But I kept going, and I fell in love. There is a Maya Angelou quote I love that comes to mind when I think about these experiences, “I did then what I knew best, when I knew better, I did better.” So, so fitting.

When I left HTS to come here, the word that I heard over and over from parents was “passion.” I was really proud that that was my legacy – developing a passion for math in my students. It wasn’t abilities, it wasn’t problem solving, it wasn’t test scores – passion for learning math was what I helped them to discover, and that would never have happened if I had not first found that passion myself.

I know that when I talk about my “math stuff” you probably think that I have it easy because I only teach one subject. There’s a ton of truth to that. I have the advantage of investing time into one thing and if it doesn’t work for one grade, it probably will for another. I get that you don’t have the same chance to dig in to see where the standards come from and where they are going and how what you do in the lower grades affects things that happen in the older grades. I’d love to have these conversations with you. I have the advantage of seeing a huge chunk of the progression from the kids who come in as little babies in 5th grade, grappling with multiplication and division, to the teenagers we send off to high school, armed with quadratics and proportional reasoning. It gives me an amazing opportunity to grow the relationship and get to the heart of the mathematical understanding with each of them. I’m so lucky. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t also face challenges- so many of them! My main one is how to fit 5 year of curriculum into 4 years, when what we really should be focused on is depth, not breadth. And don’t get me started on HS placement and acceleration! These things keep me up at 3 am more nights than I care to admit. I know as teachers we all have 8 million things to do on our to-do lists. But I want to challenge you to add one more thing. Buy this book. Commit to reading it. You don’t have to join my book club, but I’d love for you to. I’d love to have our own book club after school one day a week or month. We can even have it at the bar if you want. I want you to discover the profound joy that I have found in teaching math. I know Tracy’s book would be an amazing way to start that discovery. I think, in the end, if we want our students to grow and to learn, we must start by doing the same. How do you choose to grow as a teacher? What do you want to learn?

Let me know how I can help.

J is for…

There was a conversation going around twitter last week or the week before in which Dan Meyer posed different teacher-y roles and told people “pick 2.” Unless of course classroom teaching was your choice, then you only got to choose one. Related, maybe even in the same string of tweets, people were talking about the difficulties of having classroom teachers author books while teaching. Anyway, after following (but not contributing to) the conversation, I thought I knew my J word. I thought my J word was going to be “just.” As in, I’m curious if it’s “ok” to want to be “just” a classroom teacher. I use quotes because I know that people hesitate about using the word “just” in terms of teaching because there’s not “just” about being a teacher. But bear with me. I helped out in the Mathalicious booth last year at NCTM and found myself saying it, and then being corrected for it, repeatedly. It wasn’t that I was trying to minimalize our ridiculously important job, I didn’t know how else to say I was “just” a teacher who used their website and was helping out, i.e., not an employee. But I digress. I often think it would be fun and interesting to be an instructional coach, but as my “district” doesn’t have those, it’s currently not really in the cards. I’m happy “just” being a teacher. I don’t have anything to say in terms of presenting at conferences. I had to do something for like 6 schools this year and I was terrified and shaking the whole time. I barely write a blog and at that, certainly nothing reflective – I’m certainly not someone who should be writing a book. I have no desire to be in administration. So ya… I wonder if it’s “ok” to want to be “just” a teacher…

BUT…. that’s not my J word after all.

With new year’s resolutions abounding and people picking their “one word” and what not, well, I’m just not into all that. I’ve had the same resolution for the past 15 years and it’s gotten me nowhere, so why bother?

But… I am a fan of thinking about people who have been important to me throughout the year and trying to share my gratitude. If I was a better person I would have spent time writing them all handwritten notes yesterday to send, but alas. While I was thinking about these people and trying to fit them to the letter J, I settled on “joy,” for the way that these people have brought me so much joy this past year.

Each of my last 2 jobs were places in which I did not often feel very valued by the administration. It’s not important to get into the reasons why I felt that way, but there you have it. Because of that, my confidence in myself got repeatedly chipped away and made me a pretty miserable person. Fortunately, along came the #MTBoS to save me. Since they have come into my life, they have brought JOY back to my teaching life (a new job helped immensely, too). Conferences have become what I look forward to and the most JOYFUL parts of the year. Every twitter interaction leaves me feeling grateful.

I’ve had some specific interactions that really have confirmed that joy and that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Much of this comes from the way that probably without even knowing it, people have helped me to feel valued. As these interactions have happened, my grinchy little heart has grown in joy.

The most joyful part of the year was at TMC when I had people sign a picture book and it became basically a life changing thing for me. I’ve written all about that already though.

More recently, I have been asked by a number of people for feedback in various ways, and honestly it’s meant the world to me. I don’t really know how to explain it, but every time someone has asked me to look at something or to come to a session of theirs, it has filled my heart. I’m not great at giving feedback (i’m totally opinionated, so you’d think I would be!), but that people value my opinion enough to ask and put that trust in me has brought so much joy. As I carry this into the new year, I’m so appreciative of these people and the ways they have helped me to reclaim some of my confidence and to help me to realize that I do have so much value to share outside the walls of my classroom.

I hate making lists of people because inevitably someone gets left off, so I’m not going to single them out. But I hope if any of them are reading this that they will know who they are and that they have filled my heart.

I hope as we make our way into the new year we will always remember that they simplest gestures and kind words may bring more joy to someone else than we can possibly imagine and that we will always be on the lookout for opportunities to make someone’s day more joyful.

 

 

I is for…

I was going to give up on the alphabet. It seemed like that was a product of yet another failed challenge. But a recent conversation about blog challenges made me think I should keep trying to reach the end (even if it takes a few years!). I also have a partially done (and insanely long) draft of H, and doing them out of order was way too much for my little OCD self to handle. But as it turns out, in the hierarchy of vacation procrastination, it seems that pretending to be a blogger > cleaning > christmas shopping (much too late) on amazon > grading papers. So here you go…

I’ve had a lot of thoughts the past 2 ish months that can all be boiled down to one theme. Well, actually 2 related themes, that helpfully both begin with I.

So I is for Insecurity (of which, oh my goodness do I have plenty). But it’s also for Identity.

A few months ago, my friend Robert shared his math story http://robertkaplinsky.com/my-math-story/. I think Robert is pretty incredible and I remember reading it and thinking about how I don’t really have much of a math story, and how impressed I was at his clear memory of his. I have a terrible memory for such things, it seems. Last night I participated in the Global Math Dept presentation in which Nicole Bridge talked about math identity and being or not being a “math person.” She asked us to consider how we might define what being a math person looks like. This caused me to think back to Robert’s post as well as the question of do I consider myself a math person. I guess the short answer is, that yes, I do.  I think for most, if not all, of my life, if asked my favorite subject, I would have respond with math. But if I look back at my history, I’m starting to wonder why. Combine that with some recent experiences, and you have me about to ramble about my insecurities. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What I remember from elementary school math comes down to basically 2 things – 3rd grade multiplication and 8th grade slope intercept form. I couldn’t do them and they are pretty much all I remember about my early math life. I suppose I could add in that my mom tells me that when my brother went to preschool I begged to go with him (he’s 2 years older). My mom was told I was too young. I proceeded to pull down a rack of 10 puzzles and then went ahead and put them all together. So I think they let me come after all. What I remember about 3rd grade multiplication was that I couldn’t do it – damn times tables. My mom argues that it wasn’t a matter of couldn’t, it was a matter of wouldn’t. So off I went to Sylvan Learning Center to learn my multiplication. I don’t remember what I felt about it – if I cared at all that I was going or if I felt it gave me a stigma of some kind. All I knew was that I was earning coins, keeping them in a checkbook, and then buying stuff in the Sylvan store. I’m guessing I enjoyed the time (my mom would tell you I was just playing her. Maybe I was, who knows). So if you ever wonder about bribery? Totally works! In 6th-8th grade I was in the advanced math class. In 8th grade we learned Algebra and I could not for the life of me figure out why I was supposed to care about y=mx+b or what the heck it meant. I don’t remember what the deal was, but I know I couldn’t figure it out. When I went to high school I was pretty lucky. My school was small and totally focused on the best interest of each student. When choosing classes, we discussed the trouble I’d been having in Algebra and, rather than hold me back, they thought I should just move onto Algebra 2 so I could take them back to back. I mean, ok… I say it was traumatizing and whatnot, but I’m fairly certain I still managed to carry an A. The challenge exam for Geometry placement took place on a day that I had a dance competition, so they let me slide. I’m sure there was much more to this conversation, but I am not sure what it was. So as a freshman I would take Algebra 2, then do geometry and then move on from there. Well, for me it was great. Algebra 2 was one of my favorite classes in high school. Whatever magical brain growth happened over the summer – who knows. But it just made sense all of a sudden. Apparently I go back to this often  – the promise that one day it will just “click.” Just days ago I got this message from a former student who struggled in Alg 1:

“Hey Ms. McCormick! This is Ashley!! I just wanted to let you know that I’m doing really well in Algebra 2 and I got a 103% on my last test! Thanks for all that you did in middle school through all the struggle. It clicked just like you said💞”

As sophomore year came to a close and we chose classes for the next year, all I knew was that I didn’t want to take Calculus as a senior. It just seemed so scary. I ended up taking a course called Advanced Math my junior year. Each trimester was an independent class. I have no idea what they were – one i’m pretty sure was trig, but the others? No clue. Senior year I went into pre-calc. I don’t remember ever really having trouble in any of my math courses. However I also don’t remember ever having a great math teacher who inspired me to want to do more or push myself further.

Oh – the other math memory of elementary school? My brother was your prototypical “math person.” Because he was a grade older and we went to the same elementary school with only one class per grade, I was always in his footsteps. He was the one for whom there wasn’t enough curriculum. He basically taught himself Geometry in 8th grade just because he was bored. I also remember that he won the Diocesean Math Competition in 6th grade, and I was never even invited to go. #notbitter #totallybitter

In my first semester of college I signed up for an 8am math class of some kind, but not calc. I was still terrified of it and didn’t need it for my major (or any major I thought I might have). It cleared my core requirement, and that was all I needed to know. I remember enjoying the class and being somewhat starstruck that the star of the football team (a junior) was in my class. I started out as a Secondary Ed/ English major and that lasted for like 30 seconds. In my first writing class I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of college doing that. I wanted to do homework problems and be done. There was always something satisfying about the assignment ending, not the constant re-writing, re-reading, re-analyzing.  So there was a School of Ed major called Math/ Computer Science and I chose that as my second major, along with Elementary Ed (we were required to carry 2 majors). I refuse to call it that and instead call it and Elementary Math major. The comp sci component basically boiled down to integrating kidpix into our lessons and making a webpage on the school server using a template (aka – not programming). This was a small major – there were like 13 kids my year. Five of us were the best of friends – the Math Clique – my original PLC, before that was a thing. We had one professor for 2 years straight in these teeny classes of all the same kids. I wish that I knew at the time how very lucky I was and what a big deal Prof. Peg Kenney really was! I wish I knew that I would eventually become a math teacher and take more advantage, but it wasn’t even on my radar. I loved those classes, but often had to seek out help from my friend Meg – especially in our Geometry course. The problem solving always needed a little more guidance than we had time for in class! It would make sense when she would go through it, or if we worked from the answer backwards. I remember at one point we went into the dean’s office and explained that we didn’t think Calculus should be a requirement for our major since the highest any of us wanted to teach was Middle School, and that was just Meg. The rest of us were headed to Elementary (haha…). He told us we should do whatever made the most sense for us and he would be fine with it. I’d successfully managed to escape Calculus once again!

 

math-clique

My Math Clique – Boston College Class of 2000 – Meg, Stacey, Me, Em, and Megan 🙂

I sort of accidentally became a math teacher. I’ve told the story in another post, I’m sure, but it’s not really important. I always intended to teach 4th or 5th grade, and just ended up doing this instead. I’m glad I did – tremendously so. I wouldn’t change it, but it’s definitely not what I prepared for!

So that’s some background – probably too much. I wear my lack of Calculus somewhat like a scarlet letter. I know there is a very obvious and easy fix to that, don’t get me wrong. I want to take a calc class. I’m just afraid of how far back I would have to go! I’m usually gone a lot in the summer when I’d like to take a class, as well. But this scarlet letter gets to my head and affects me more than I care to admit. It’s kind of the wall I put up for everything – oh, I can’t do that – I’ve never even taken Calculus. I can’t get a math credential – I’ve never even taken Calculus. I can’t teach high school – I’ve never even taken Calculus. I can’t apply for my dream job, I can’t be a math coach… well, you get it. I guess this has become a huge part of my own math identity and it’s pretty lame that the lack of something is my most defining trait of that identity and a source of so much insecurity. I also think that “I’ve never taken Calculus” has also become code for what I’m more afraid to say, which is, “I don’t think I’m smart enough.”

Within the phenomenal land of the #mtbos, this is one of many reasons that I often feel out of place. It’s why I feel so happy when I learn about other people’s backgrounds, especially when I find out they weren’t some genius mathematical prodigy or that they got into teaching math by accident as well. It helps me to feel less alone in the land of giants.

My insecurity about this also tends to be a crutch – you can’t expect me to do that (thing that other people would give their 6th graders to do) because I’ve never taken Calculus and therefore my math skills aren’t very good or aren’t good enough. Lame. But it’s (sadly) my truth. Now, I think it’s worth noting here that when I’ve expressed these types of insecurities, people always say complimentary things about me as a teacher. Those are appreciated, but I’m not by nature a very confident person, so I usually brush off those compliments. However, that is a separate thing from what I’m talking about. I also know that there are lots of ways to be smart, and I think in most of those ways I do consider myself smart. But it seems to me that being smart in math is so significant, and that’s where I struggle to see the smartness, if that makes sense.

sidebar ——— i know this whole Calculus as the end all be all thing is absurd and untrue, don’t worry. We all have misguided insecurities. I know that ——

Recently I’ve had a couple experiences where, while Calculus may not have been important, my inherent belief that I’m not mathematically good enough reared its ugly head. I don’t necessarily want to call people or programs out, because if you’re reading this you likely already know. Also because I don’t think the fault lies in the person or program. I’m not sure the fault lies in me either, because I ultimately don’t think fault is a part of the story. They are cases of, it is what it is.

I went to a 2 day workshop recently. I was super excited, but super nervous because of all I’ve said above. But I still tried to go in with an open mind and a willing spirit. That spirit was crushed very early and I learned that I do not have the gift of perseverance. We were given a page of problems all sort of revolving on the same theme. Everyone else seemed super into it. The people at my table jumped right in and started making sense of it. Not only could I not make sense of it, I couldn’t make sense of why I would want to make sense of it. After working for over an hour, it still made no sense, despite my table partner’s incredible patience in trying to make it make sense. After a break where I felt a sense of relief that my misery was over, they told us to a. switch tables, and b. keep working. I. was. in. hell. I wanted to cry. This basically went on for the rest of the day and into the next. The short version ends with me in tears walking out early, feeling like the stupidest person ever, and driving the 2 hours home in tears. I tried thinking of how I could apply what I felt to my students if and when they were feeling the same way. I honestly couldn’t even get out of my head long enough, though. I sort of relayed the story to my kiddos on the following Monday – just that I’d had an experience that made me feel awful about my own math abilities, and that I would do anything to help them to avoid feeling that way.

In another recent workshop we were given a problem that I know for sure people have given to 6th graders (if not younger). While I felt the same sort of stupidity, it was not quite as drastic. The difference, other than time spent, was that it somehow seemed more accessible, even if I was having trouble accessing it. Maybe it was that there wasn’t an entire page of essentially the same problem staring at me? I don’t know. Maybe it seemed like there were lots of ways to approach it? Maybe it was that there was no emphasis in actually finding a solution? Maybe it was simply that the person I was sitting with was a trusted friend rather than a stranger, and the same could be said of the presenter.

The more I think about these experiences, the more I see how my insecurities have crept into other experiences I’ve had, whether acknowledged or not. I am incredibly lucky that I have quite literally been given a seat at the table in multiple conference situations with those that most would consider the top names in MTBoS land. While I consider these people valued colleagues and friends, I realize how my insecurity makes me totally clam up, even with them. I mean, in general I don’t really talk in groups of more than 3 people (that’s a whole different can of worms we won’t even touch), but when seated at a table and then given math to consider, holy cow – shut down city. I prefer to listen in these situations anyway, knowing that I will learn something great by listening to the conversation, and I will consider things in a way that I never would have on my own. But I’m also riddled with he anxiety of, do they think I’m stupid? That I have nothing to contribute? Now most of these people I’m thinking of are masters of facilitating work with other people, so they usually try to force me into the conversation. This is terrifying, but also in some ways, appreciated. That these people think I have something to contribute even when/especially when I don’t think the same, matters to me a great deal.

So I wonder, what is it that’s broken inside me? Why did I let Calculus become such a weird hang up, and why haven’t I done anything about it? I know that the problems in these experiences did not have any necessity for Calculus or even calculus adjacent ideas. I used to consider myself a great problem solver. Logic puzzles are one of my favorite things – my 6th grade teacher would always make me tons of copies when we would go on a trip and I would happily sit on the plane with them for hours. So what happened to me? I love teaching math and I love learning from my MTBOS family. So why did my insecurity come through in such full force? I really have no idea. I’m somewhat ashamed of myself, and certainly embarrassed by these experiences. SF has just begun a Math Teachers Circle. Prior to these experiences I was very excited to drive the 2 hours to join. But now? I think I’m out. I hate to think of myself as being such a quitter that I would quit this before even beginning, but there you have it.

I feel like I should acknowledge a couple of folks who have, in similar-ish situations, talked me off the ledge. One time last year the group known as The #MTBoSBA (Mtbos folks of the Bay Area) had a get together. Anna Weltman was presenting. She’s fantastic, btw. She was doing a project about different proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem. I was working with my friend Debbie. I couldn’t make sense of the proof or what Debbie was doing. With her signature enthusiasm and kindness, Anna totally brought the problem to my level and helped me to make a connection. She treated it like she was fascinated by the discovery, even though she’d probably worked through it 100s of times. Geometry has never been my thing. Similarly, I have had the chance to attend Des-con before both NCTM-SF and TMC-MN. In both of these settings I was on the verge of tears due to my frustrations at my own limitations – whether real or imagined. In both of these cases I was lucky to spend time with 2 of the absolute kindest individuals I know – Michael Fenton and Christopher Danielson. I can’t give you specifics about the ways they helped me, but all I know is they are magical. They met me at whatever low point I was at, made me laugh my tears away,  and found ways to make nonsensical things make sense to me.  It’s easy to forget what a gift great teachers have. Time spent with them was truly a humbling experience of that gift. I can only ever hope to be a fraction of what they were (are) to me in that situation.

It’s funny to write this all out. I know a lot of people who know me would be surprised be a lot of this. Some won’t be as surprised because they know of my Calculus hang up. My staff would be way surprised. I’m the token math nerd, and they have no problem telling me that all the time. My kids would be somewhat surprised. My 6th grade is convinced that I know absolutely everything and that basically I make the sun rise and set each day (love them). Recently an 8th grader read Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure because I told her I was nervous she was going to have a breakdown because of the stress she puts on herself. Her reaction? Read the book and wrote a 9 page paper about her thoughts – just because. I recently was re-reading the paper she wrote and was delighted about what I saw in the last paragraph.

lilly-quote

Despite my incredible insecurities, I guess at least for her I’m doing something ok after all. I hope that she’s not the only one who feels that way!

 

H is for…

This is just a little place holder until I finish this post because if the letters are out of order I will never get over it.

I can tell you what H is for, however… It is for High 5! When I will actually publish? who knows…

The Evil Math Book, a story

A few weeks ago a darling 6th grader handed me an envelope. Inside I found the following story. It touched my heart. You know when you’re having one of those days (or weeks… or months….) and then someone does something to turn it around? Ya. Anyway, I asked if I could share because I thought it was so cute, and also because…. narcissism …

I wish you all a classroom and world full of Kathleens….

The Evil Math Book

by: Kathleen

Once upon a 2015-2016 school year there was a wonderful teacher named Ms. McCormick. She was so kind, inspiring, and clever. When her first fifth grade class at {school name} came she said, “Oh no. This is not working.” The class had been brainwashed by the evil math book. They were very smart, but didn’t know how they were doing problems. Ms. McCormick put on her thinking cap, long skirts, and awesome cardigan – the super hero outfit – and went to work. With all her talent and twitter friends, there was no challenge too small.

By using very fun activities like group work (which got really noisy sometimes), and math posters where you separate tons of cards into problems or in categories like true or false, equal, larger, or less. One of the class’s favorites were number talks. What are number talks, you might ask. Well, they are amazing memories and giving the class different ways to solve one problem. You can also decide what methods are right and the ones you like best.

But the most important way she un-brainwashed the class of 2019 was her amazing explanations. She always explained problems like nobody’s business, which left no fifth grade brain confused. She also encouraged everybody else to explain how they did their work. She would never let anyone do a “trick” before they understood what they were doing.

Once the summer came Ms. McCormick put away her powers for good. Until the sixth grade, but that’s another story to be told.

Then she wrote,

Dear Ms. McCormick, I wrote this for you because you are the best math teacher ever. I thought somebody had to tell your legacy. So I decided to be the one.