Q is for…

Last year, well, last last year (Dec 2016), Dan Meyer and some friends (including my own personal Yoda, Fawn Nguyen) did the keynote at CMC North with a theme of questions – what questions do teachers have in different decades of their teaching lives. I always intended to go back and re-watch the presentation (I haven’t) and reflect on my own questions (nope). But what I’ve known since that night was…

Q is for Questions (Let’s be honest, it was that or quotes…)

As I sit here on a Sunday evening after a lovely Christmas break that was filled with a ton of twitter reading – going back to old saves and actually reading them, as well as reading a yet to be published book that’s of particular interest to my current professional state of mind, and other things of that nature, I have a lot of questions. As I look to the week ahead and have to prepare myself for the actual work of teaching, my mind is on 2 meetings I have been asked to attend – meetings that are certainly part of my teaching work, but that go to the bigger questions of the profession. I’m thrilled to be invited to these meetings. My “just a teacher” ordinariness has a lot to offer in both of these settings and I am happy to be invited to share my voice (even though it will quiver, no doubt). But questions… they are rapid fire in my mind as I look ahead. I asked my closest colleague about the meetings because we work within the same system and have, I think, similar frustrations. She is more pragmatic in looking at them, while my inner Pollyanna comes bursting out.

So what’s a girl to do? Turn to her tweeps, obviously. {Full disclosure, I wrote a ton about the first meeting and some things about my teaching situation/setting. I envisioned a long list of myriad questions. I don’t think anyone needs that. I deleted what I started with and am just sticking to some of the big picture questions.} These questions are not of the rhetorical kind, so if you have any advice or answers, please let me know!

Meeting 1:

I was invited by my former principal (who has moved to the “district” level) to meet with him, another “district” person, and a teacher from another school who I know and enjoy. The purpose was described as a brainstorming about what he’s heard about the Jr. High programs not lining up with the High Schools. Now, to be honest, I think a lot of what he’s “heard” about this misalignment has come from yours truly during the 2 years he was my principal.

{The biggie} If I know (based on previous students’ feedback, current students’ visits, meetings at the HS, etc) that I’m sending my kids to a very traditional setting – no desmos, plenty of tricks, no focus (or knowledge of) SMPs, no discourse, notes and tons of hw (only, not balanced with other things), etc., then what’s the point of doing what I (try to) do?

Ultimately, I guess my answer to that is I’d rather them have 4 years of it than none of it, but why do I care so much, then? If they “survive” me for 4 years then they can go to the relief of just being told what to do and how on a quick march to Calculus, does it even matter that they have exposure to something else? Even the kids question – “if we’re going to be taught the tricks in HS, why do we have to do things your way now? Why do we have to know why?” Do they have a point? Should I just be another cog on that march to Calculus wheel?

I find myself frustrated that no one else (save one person and her staff who she has worked with so much) sees what I see. I meet with teachers from the other schools and they may take a suggestion or a resource from me and maybe we are more alike than what our conversations lead me to believe, but again, what’s it to me? By the definition of the HSs, I think they would say whatever we are doing is “working.” So why change anything?

Why does it matter to me? I explained to someone recently that I feel like an ant trying to climb the Great Wall. But why am I focused on things outside of my own 4 walls, and outside the walls of my school? Who am I to think that I can cause change on such a grand scale? I can’t even catalyze change in my own grade level? Who am I to expect and want better? Do I actually think that I can start a ripple that 5 different high schools will even look at? And if not, what does any of it even matter? (ok, those ended up mostly being fairly rhetorical.) (i guess I need more pep talk, less answers… Go ahead… roll your eyes. I deserve it).

But ok, so I sit down this meeting. I want to create some steps to actionable change. I want to help create a culture of math excellence – where math is enjoyable and not something to dread. I want to help teachers be excited about all the possibilities. Where do I even begin in convincing others that it’s needed? Or is it? Am I just so stubborn and so arrogant to think that I’m right and they’re not? Do I just continue to do my thing? Consider the SMPs and the effective teaching practices outlined in PtA and be ok that most others haven’t even heard of PtA or the SMPs? Use super great resources from across the MTBOS and tell an amazing math story, but tell it from my silo? Again, if the high schools don’t really see issue (they are all too happy to put kids straight into Geometry even though I know full well I didn’t fully cover the Alg 1 standards in the rush to compact and accelerate.), who am I to ask for better (different?)?

So what does my conversation look like?

Meeting 2:

A handful of teachers were invited to the next planning meeting for “district” PD. If you know me, you know I love me a good conference! But, I also love PD. Well, good PD. I’ve had so many opportunities to take part in really great PD. It excites me. I love learning and talking about teaching. But in my local world, that makes me weird. But, I can complain about poor PD or I can offer my input to make it better. So that’s what I did – I told my previous principal that I would gladly volunteer to be a teacher voice on the committee. This is my first opportunity.

We meet as clusters a few times a year – a cluster being 5-7 schools grouped geographically. At these meetings the teachers are k-8 and teaching all subjects. Most of the Jr High teachers teach one or two subjects. One of my goals is “assume best intent.” I truly look at the work the PD committee has done the past couple years and I look at the best intentions. I think they have made steps to really try to do good things. But, it doesn’t always come across as the teachers would hope. We asked for time to collaborate with people who taught the same things, because that doesn’t exist on our campuses. They accommodated that. Sort of. Best intentions, not super great implementation. People were frustrated by the tasks we were given to do in those settings – they honored the request, but it was still met with doubt. This year at one of our meetings they tried to differentiate by doing “centers.” Again – best intentions. The outcomes? Not great. Many people stuck with their friends rather than an appropriate level, and there weren’t experts at some of the levels to guide the teachers at those centers. The job the committee is tasked with is nearly impossible – all those subjects, all those levels? In the crunch to make it apply to everyone, it ends up too broad to help anyone. Add in there’s a lot of being read to, and something’s got to change.

Much of my twitter reading over break has been PD focused. I sent a bunch of blog posts to the member of the committee who invited me to the meeting. I’m hoping, again, that I can help to be a catalyst of change. I don’t expect things to change and then sit back and wait, I want to be part of the change in whatever way I can. I have a few ideas that, while I may not share in a meeting with a bunch of principals and other teachers (please… have we met?), I would feel perfectly comfortable discussing with the “district” admin people.


What are some of the best district/school led PD efforts of which you’ve been a part?

Have you ever been in a setting where PD was self directed? What did that look like?

What are your greatest hopes when you attend a district type PD? What are your worst fears at the same?

How are teachers incorporated in leading PD? Has it been a positive experience?

Basically, knowing that our situation isn’t working well, do you have examples of something you’d share? (May be helpful to note there are no coaches or anything like that in the “district.”)

How do you make colleagues find joy in  profession learning if they don’t see it?

In your states, what are the requirements for ongoing growth in terms of your credential renewal? If your state (like CA) has no requirement, does your district? How is it tracked?

Again, what does this conversation look like?


Anyway… so that’s my week ahead. I don’t know that I will have answers to anything, but it’s nice that the conversations are happening, at least! I really would be so thankful for any and all answers or feedback to these questions 🙂 Comment away. If you want to email me something more lengthy – cmmteach12 on gmail 🙂


P is for…

I have known what P was going to stand for for quite awhile. Last May we met with teachers from one of the high schools to which we feed. I left the meeting so defeated. As the year came to a close, I felt discouraged by the messages received by my students for their placement in classes, (but kind of in a good way). P was going to be all about placement.

But then something happened.

Yesterday we were called in after school to learn the news that a parent had died unexpectedly. This afternoon I sat in church for a prayer service trying to process a bunch and I realized that P had just become for prayer because I had to get out some thoughts. (BTW – this is sad and long and rambling and you can probably just skip reading it. I just needed to process and this was what I had).

I went to my first funeral when I was in 8th grade. It was during school. It was for my best friend Shannon’s grandfather. We had had a classmate die when we were in 3rd grade. When he died he was no longer at our school. I remember that and I think about him every time I drive by his neighborhood, but I don’t remember how we responded. But I can see clearly our class sitting together in the back of Shannon’s grandpa’s funeral. It may seem weird that we went as a class to a funeral, but in Catholic school, that’s just what you do. When shit happens, you pull together, and you pray together.

I think most people probably know that I teach in a Catholic school. I don’t hide that. I mention it often. But I am very wary about talking about it amongst my twitter people. I harbor (among many others) an insecurity that people are anti- Catholic school in some way. Like with all the school choice stuff, I worry that people see me as part of the “them” in an us against them argument. No one has ever said anything like that, but you know… I worry. I feel a little bit of personal attack when some shitty thing happens, people say, “thoughts and prayers…” and my friends go ape shit over it. I get it. In the face of terrorism, thoughts and prayers absolutely aren’t enough. But maybe for many, it’s all they know and it’s better than nothing (this is not a political statement or anything and people in positions of power definitely need to do more than this. I get it). But when people are so dismissive, I do take it kind of personally. I am not at all super religious. Yes I go to Mass every weekend, but I’m not blind to the fact that, like with anything, the Church has some issues. I have more questions than answers. Trust me. My twitter life is interesting in this regard. I have spent 35 of my 39 years in Catholic schools- it’s all I’ve known. What goes with this is that the majority of people I’ve known in my life are pretty much like me. My #mtbos family is, to me at least, extremely diverse. I respect different people’s different religions or lack thereof. I actually am really interested in learning about different religions. But I sometimes worry there are people who are dismissive of religion. It just makes it an interesting place for me to spend time sometimes. Anyway…. weird unplanned tangent there….

Sept. 11, 2001. I’d been a teacher for, oh… 5 or 6 days (like, literally). I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was teaching in the Boston suburbs. The suburb in which I taught was home to TJX Co. One of the planes out of Boston held a huge group of their employees. You can imagine. We were not able to tell the students what was going on. I’m not sure I could have anyway. That was definitely a message for 5th graders to hear from their parents, not a 23 year old girl who could not even process what was happening. That night I sat with my roommate, a NYer, as she answered call after call from her NY friends. Her boyfriend was over. His dad, who worked in the towers, had gone to work late for the first time ever. He was ok. I waited to hear from my parents who were arranging for my brother to get out of NYC, where he was visiting for the first time ever, and at least get to Boston, since he couldn’t fly home. The HS friend he was visiting lost his girlfriend that morning. And as we sat there, we couldn’t escape the wondering of what would happen the next day. How was I to go in and face these little faces who would now grow up in an entirely different world than I did? How could I help them to cope when I couldn’t cope myself? But in the morning, we started our day in the Church. We prayed together. We prayed for strength to get through whatever was to come. We prayed for the lives lost. We prayed for understanding. And I prayed for the Holy Spirit to give me some sense of how to help these little 5th graders. It was in the Church that morning that I learned that, while you need to be strong for your students, it’s ok for them to see you cry and to see you be human. I remember Katelyn’s mom coming over at the end of Mass and wrapping her arms around me as I sobbed and sobbed.

When we were called into the faculty room yesterday and given the devastating news of the parent’s passing, I was, of course, terribly sad for the family. I currently have one child in 6th grade, had another for 2 years (he’s a freshman), and there is a younger sister. Others were visibly upset, but I sat feeling somewhat blank. As I drove home and talked to my mom, of course I was thinking about the 2 boys I’ve had in class and how their world is forever changed. My mom is the one who kind of made the connection back to 9/11 and the unsettled grief of that day. I’ve dealt with family deaths of my students, but most (maybe all?) of those were after a long illness. No less sad, just different. I didn’t have any tears (and with me, there are ALWAYS tears). I actually kind of wondered what was wrong with me that I wasn’t feeling anything other than sadness for the family.

We met as a staff this morning to have a game plan. What would we and would we not talk about? Would we go to Mass at 8am? Grief counselors were brought in. The other math teacher (who is also the 6th grade homeroom teacher – the grade of one of the kiddos) and I made a plan to allow her to keep her class together as much as possible. But then… we just went to class. It felt weird. When my 8th grade came, nothing was said and we went about our business. Sixth came and one of the boys asked me to sign a card for his friend. That was it. The day was very normal.

I went into the office before lunch and saw 2 parents of classmates of the freshman boy. I consider these 2 moms friends, so we hugged and chatted for a few minutes. The tears finally came to my eyes at this point. At the end of the day, as you do in Catholic school, we gathered together in the Church for a prayer service. The family was in attendance. As soon as I saw the freshman boy, I pretty much lost it. I could no longer contain any emotions.Of course, here I am in a Church filled with all my students and most of their parents. I’m supposed to be the strong one. I’m supposed to be there for the kiddos. But man…. no way. As we went through the prayer service I couldn’t even look in the direction of my students or the family. I was just so sad.

But at the same time, it was such a powerful statement of community. There were so many families in attendance. Even a few of the students from last year’s class were there with their parents in support. This family is so well loved and will have no shortage of support. At the end of the prayer service, out of the corner of my eye I caught a mom of an 8th grader move up from the back of the Church to sit with and comfort her son. There was something so heartbreakingly beautiful about it. As cool as they try to be, they are still such innocent kiddos dealing with sadness and loss. When the classes were going back to the school the 8th graders left last. Many of the boys have been on teams with the freshman son and the father had been a coach for many of them. One by one, those who felt called went and greeted their friend, his mom, and siblings with deep, meaningful hugs – most of them with tears in their eyes. Once again, I found the moment so heartbreaking, but also so heart warming. I wanted to go say hi to the family – especially the freshman boy who will always stand out in my memories of students gone by. I just didn’t know if I had the strength to do it without totally falling apart again. Finally, I walked over there and greeted each of the kiddos and the mom with a giant hug. But like, what do you even say? There are no words that I can offer that will lessen their grief. It’s just about knowing we are there for them, I suppose.

What I did know, however, was that I felt very lucky that I am in a place where we can respond in the way we did. Because I have only known schools like this, it’s just natural. In the morning it was like, well of course we’ll have a prayer service. I can’t imagine what it must be like to deal with these tragedies in schools where prayer isn’t the first reaction. I know there are other ways to deal with grief, but this is the only one I know. Maybe there are people who say that prayer doesn’t actually do anything. But what I know, going all the way back to 8th grade and Shannon’s grandpa’s funeral, is that having a way to come together and support the family, brings comfort.

O is for…

I’ve known for quite some time what O was for – Ordinary. But you know what the funny thing is? I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a “defense” of ordinary or a lamentation for my feelings of being ordinary. Even after all the time thinking about it and knowing this was coming and sitting down to write it, I’m still not actually sure.

What does it mean to be ordinary? What does it mean to be extraordinary? What is the “extra?” I’m actually really curious what people think about these words. Is ordinary necessarily a negative? I don’t think so. I think that I, and most people I know, would choose ordinary if they were really pushed to pick. Maybe we are all ordinary people with a few extraordinary talents. I don’t actually think I know anyone who would flat out say, “yep. That’s me. I’m extraordinary.”

In one of my favorite movies, “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, says in a message to her unknown internet “friend,” “Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?” This quote has always resonated with me, and I think it’s fitting here. When I think about my life, I think it’s fairly ordinary, or “small,” though I know some would look at opportunities I’ve had and think differently. (That’s mostly things outside my teaching life, however.) Is it because I like it that way or because I haven’t been brave. I think realistically, it’s both. There are ways I’d like my life to be “bigger,” but when the reality of situations appears, I realize that I’m way better off in the smallness. Brave is not a word that has ever resonated with me, but when Steve Leinwand told me I was fearless this summer, I decided to embrace it and try to focus on living that way as much as possible. I’ll get back to you on that. I did incorporate it into my professional and personal goals at school, though. So there’s that.

Last year at NCTM I had a tough time. At some point I’ve said that to probably everyone who might be reading this. I’ve joked hundreds of times about having a nervous breakdown there (not really). I think this idea of feeling so ordinary, but wishing I *could* be extraordinary, was a lot of the cause. Being surrounded by the people I spend time with at NCTM makes that feeling really obvious. In every meal and conversation and even in every session I was hearing things on big and small scales that made me consider my position in my school and in my community that made me just yearn for something, anything, more. As silly as this sounds, I started to hear about all the different committees and side opportunities and things that people were asked to be part of, and I wondered a lot about, “why not me?” It made me wonder – what is it that makes “them” special and why am I not special  enough to be asked, as well? In addition, I was constantly asked about why I wasn’t presenting and I was frustrated because, despite being quite flattered that people wanted to hear from me and felt I had a contribution to make, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what that contribution could be. As someone who considers herself pretty passionate, that I couldn’t identify one thing I felt I could share made me feel, well, very short of extraordinary. It caused me to really turn inward and consider things. People said that I could offer the perspective of someone who is still in the classroom on a daily basis, as opposed to much of my crowd who are not. I like that idea, but at the same time I couldn’t identify one way in which I felt my classroom was any more special or worthy of sharing than any others. It made me focus on my own limitations and I saw something to worry about, not something to celebrate.

Now, let me say this. I know my students do extraordinary things. I know the things that I share out on twitter make it seem like maybe I’m an extraordinary teacher. But as we all know, and despite others’ efforts to eliminate this feeling, we are more apt to share our shining, extraordinary moments than our “omg wtf” moments. With every lovely compliment I receive, I worry that I’ve created an illusion that I don’t feel I live up to. I guess I’m not really sure what I think an extraordinary classroom looks, sounds, feels like. I know my classes do some special things. I know they are growing to be capable, thoughtful mathematicians and humans, and that’s the most important thing. I guess the truly extraordinary thing is simply that we are given the trust each day to make this happen.

Awhile ago my friend posted this article. I finally read it yesterday. I’m so glad  I did. I’m certainly not a millenial, but it made re-focus my thoughts and made me feel better about my very ordinary life. The quotes that stood out to me the most are these:

“The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.”

“Most young adults won’t achieve the idealistic goals they’ve set for themselves. They won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg. They won’t have obituaries that run in newspapers like this one. But that doesn’t mean their lives will lack significance and worth. We all have a circle of people whose lives we can touch and improve — and we can find our meaning in that.”

Finding meaning in an ordinary life lived with dignity and finding meaning within my circle of people, both my student circle and my MTBoS circle. This is a life that makes sense to me.

Ordinary. I think that being part of such an extraordinary community sometimes makes me feel lost. Like – wait, I don’t fit in here. I’m not extraordinary, I’m just… me. But what I’ve come to realize through tweets and blogs and conversations with so many of you, is that nobody really feels extraordinary. We are all out here doing the work, fueled by our ordinariness, and the desire to someday see ourselves as extraordinary. However, I’m not sure any of us will ever come to see ourselves in that way, because that would mean that we’d “landed” somewhere. And if there’s one thing I know about this community, it’s that none of us will ever be willing to stop growing.

N is for…

Oh hey there blogland, remember me?

I have been stuck on N for oh so very long. Like…. it’s absurd. I’ve also started and deleted N ideas close to a billion times (that’s my high estimate, natch). The lovely Pam and Shelli have given me so many ideas on so many occasions, but I just have had a hard time committing to anything.

For awhile it was going to be “Not now,” so I could just skip it and get on to other things. I think that was Jamie’s idea?

I even considered just posting,


Over the summer we learned we were getting a new principal, so a letter to my new principal was another idea.

N was always (well, not always, but you know what I mean) supposed to be for NCSM/NCTM. But here’s the thing… it was kind of a rough week and I suck at conference blogging anyway. I had settled on this and even (sort of) given it a start. It never happened and then pre-TMC I considered a letter to newcomers. But I couldn’t even pull that together. During TMC I had thoughts. A lot of them. I was going to summarize little “nuggets.” But ya… NOPE.

Last week, Sarah shared a thought about an analogy about Google Drive.


Lucky for me, Sarah happened to be in town last week and we were able to grab dinner with our other friend Carole. Over dinner she elaborated on the analogy. Genius. Since she doesn’t have her own blog (yet!), I begged her to write it up and post it here. It’s gotten a little dusty.

So, I present to you, N is for…. Nailed it! Because her analogy is perfection!


One of my favorite quotes to share with educators comes from Sandy Bartle Finocchi.  Sandy frequently shares the idea that “our students are not blank slates but rather messy boards.” As I prepared to talk to a group of math educators about this very idea, it hit me.  Student understanding, that messy board that we educators struggle to help students make sense of, is exactly like a Google Drive.

Now I don’t know about you, but while I am comfortable using Google Drive, I also struggle with it. My Drive is great! These are all of the files that I own. My Drive is organized in a way that makes sense to me and I can easily find anything that I want or need rather efficiently.  Then you have shared with me, which is a complete disaster.  You have files from anybody that ever thought “let me share something.”  You want to talk about a messy board, this it it! There is no organization at all. At first, I found what I wanted by scrolling through all of the files that had been shared with me.  It took forever!!  Eventually, I learned tools to help me more efficiently search for what I want to access. The challenge, I still need to remember at least part of the file name…which can take a while. It is not until I finally decide the file is important enough to take some ownership and add it to my drive that I can most efficiently find and access the file.

The thing that we need to remember, is that student understanding works exactly the same way.  If we are constantly sharing information with students, it just gets added to their shared with me folder and gets lost in the vast world of shared stuff.  We can help students acquire tools that will help them access that knowledge, or even provide enough repetition that the knowledge appears in their Quick Access view. Still, that is only an illusion and that knowledge will fall back into the abyss once something new is shared.

We need to take full advantage of their My Drive and start by giving students the opportunity to take ownership of their knowledge and understanding. We need to allow them to organize their knowledge in a way that makes sense to them. In turn, students can access their understandings when they need it and that knowledge sticks with them much longer.

Sure, it would be more “time efficient” for me to just share files. I can get through way more stuff by doing that and it takes less time because students aren’t recreating the files.  But if I don’t make the intentional choice to invest in that time for students to see the building blocks and create, not recreate, the knowledge for themselves they will never be invested enough to take ownership of ideas that I do share with them.

The question is, when we walk into class which choice are we going to make? I really hope we choose to invest in the time students need to build up their My Drive.  It may not feel like what is right for us, but it is definitely what is right for our students.


Thank you so much for sharing this, Sarah! As you know, I COMPLETELY related to the conversation when you shared this idea 🙂

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.