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?

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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.