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!



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.


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…