Safe Spaces at #TMC15

We talk a lot about creating safe spaces for students, but it’s important to acknowledge that teachers need those safe spaces as well.  In many ways Twitter Math Camp IS that safe space where math educators can explore their ideas without judgement and overall be themselves.  But I realized this time around that as inviting as #MTBoS is, it’s ok to seek out further safety nets.

Based on my own experience and what I’m reading on Twitter today, it seems as though there are many of us that need a safety net from the safety.  An example:  everything from Twitter Math Camp ends up on Twitter. There was a presenter who purposefully refrained from using pithy comments simply so they couldn’t be taken out of context on social media.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced a tweet interpreted differently than we intended.

It’s not a secret that I deal with alcoholism.  But this post isn’t about my issue in particular.  It’s about our need, no matter the issue, for a safe space.  And there needs to be safety within the safe places.  Anne Schwartz talks about this in her recent blog post where she talks about surrounding herself with the people she needed after being apprehensive about attending TMC this year.   For Julie, the safe place was the Piano Bar where she could break away and be free to dance with close friends like she loves.

It took me until Saturday to recognize what that safe space looked like for me.  And once I realized it, it was so crystal clear, I can’t believe it took me 2 TMC’s to figure it out.  I don’t mind being around the alcohol one bit, and I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable drinking around me.  In fact, the silliness at the end of the night is usually something I enjoy (sorry not sorry, you guys are hilarious after a few drinks).   BUT at some point in the night, I need a safe place a deep conversation with someone who isn’t drunk.    At TMC14, that person was Justin Aion who walked 1.5 miles with me to get club soda and spent a good deal of Saturday night listening to me.  In Claremont, the sobriety of my pregnant roommate, Teresa, was more important than I realized pre-TMC.  Thank you, Teresa, for just being in the right place at the perfect time.

The patio on Saturday was delightful.  So many people, so much joy, so much community.

But all I could see was the alcohol.  It literally was suffocating me.

I know there were probably lots of you that weren’t drinking.  But the addicted mind sees what it wants, and my imagination had created a courtyard drowning in liquor.  So I returned to my room, texted a friend and called my husband.  This was a powerful realization for me because although those safe places presented themselves organically in previous TMC gatherings, it’s vital that I proactively ensure that safety exists from the get-go.  And that’s what I will do from now on before heading in unprepared.

I know a similar story can be told for a lot of us regarding our interactions in large groups of semi-familiar people.  I would encourage you to look deeply inside and identify the source of your discomfort and examine what can be done to alleviate it.

We Admitted We Were Powerless

I wrote this blog post about a week ago when preparing for my presentation at Twitter Math Camp.  I don’t have any resources to post to the TMC Wiki page.  All I have is this glimpse into my humanity as a teacher and an account of how I release myself from the burden of powerlessness.

On March 31, 2012, I made the choice to put down my drink for the last time and join Alcoholics Anonymous.  This decision had a profound impact on not only my personal relationships and my health, but also on my role as a teacher and my relationships with students.

If you’re at all familiar with the 12 steps, you know that step 1 is the only one that mentions our substance of choice.  (Step 1:  We admitted we are powerless over [insert substance here] and our lives had become unmanageable.)

Many of the other steps involve an appeal to a power greater than ourselves.  Many unfortunately dismiss or reject the real, profound, positive change that can result from a 12-step experience because of this mention of a higher power.  The incorrect assumption that this refers to only a religious deity robs many of even exploring the impact the 12 steps can have on their lives.

BUT, since my goal here isn’t to convince you of AA’s ambiguous, non-definition of “God” as you understand Him, I thought it was more productive to talk about how I have applied this work with the 12 steps to my work with students, administrators, and other teachers.  Also, my goal is to look at how these same ideas can be applied to your teaching, sans 12-step meetings.  I’m here to share my experience, strength, and hope, and consider that the real power you have in your classroom is through accepting your powerlessness over it.

I shared a survey a few weeks back.  One of the questions was What do you feel powerless over in your job as an educator?
Because survey answers presented in Wordle form are visually interesting, see if you can pick out some of the common themes here:



Most of us can clearly identify what we are powerless over, but how do we actually rid ourselves of the resentment we have toward that powerlessness?  How do we really accept it and focus our energy on something we do have the power to positively change?   For example, we are powerless over the brown-nosing, pompous, know-it-all teacher at the other end of the school.  We know we cannot control that they say outlandish things at staff meetings and toot their own horn whenever their mouths are moving.  Regardless, even the mention of their name sends us into an anxiety-laced, physical reaction, complete with a roll of the eyes.  Wouldn’t we like to be free of the anger that accompanies our interactions with this individual?  Because no matter where you go, what school, level, grade, or subject you teach, that person will be there in one form or another.

For me, I’ll call this person…Bert (not his real name).  We started teaching at the same time.  We had a…miscommunication of sorts.  The details don’t matter.  What does is that all of my future interactions with Bert were strained, anxiety provoking, and negative.  If I was to be completely honest with myself, I needed to make an amends with him.

Whether you get to this point through 12-step work or through your own examination of conscience, the only thing in your control is your actions and your reaction to others.  I’m completely powerless over what happened with Bert in the past.  I felt he had wronged me.  I continued to hold a grudge.  And I remained angry and hurt.

It was a Tuesday, really early, 6:30 am. I was sure I’d be the only one needing to talk to Bert.  Hi Bert.  Over the last seven years, I have not been very friendly.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.  I’ve had expectations for you that were unfair because you did not know about them. I’m very sorry I’ve treated you in a way that was unkind.  

You could tell he was surprised, but relieved.  He told me thank you, that my words meant a lot and that he was very glad I took the time to clear the air.  I felt fantastic.  Like, floating on air, free as a bird, happiest person on the planet AMAZING.  The physical reaction I had to the mention of him – gone.  My annoyance when he’d speak up at meetings – vanished.  I no longer required myself to carry around the burden of being bothered by his actions, which I couldn’t control in the first place.  By turning the table to my contribution to the breakdown in communication, I was able to release the effect that his contribution had on me.

This empowered me to use this release of resentment in so many other areas of my teaching.

I was absolutely humbled by the humanity and authenticity that was shared at my session.  In the spirit of anonymity, I am not going to share any of that here.  I know that when we share our humanity with each other, our students, our fellow colleagues, and our “friends in our phones,” we then allow learning to happen.

Everyday Endeavors


You’ve seen the semi-colon.  Maybe you’ve been intrigued; maybe you’ve rolled your eyes.  Regardless, we can’t bring humanity to an issue we aren’t willing to shed light on.   It’s illusive and  easily camouflaged by jokes and smiles.  It masquerades as “moodiness”  or “sensitivity,” when in reality, this disease is a killer.

I was diagnosed with chronic depression when I was 23, but like alcoholism, it wasn’t something I was going to be “cured” of.  At 25, I sought relief by striking my legs with the blunt end of a toothbrush.  The bruises were easy to hide, but the emotional trauma was not.  At 29, pregnant with my daughter, I confined myself to my bedroom for most of the summer in order to avoid contact with the 3-dimensional world.  I chose my depression medication over breastfeeding my baby because the hopelessness that accompanied the medication withdrawal was too much to handle.  The fear of reliving that summer prevents me from even contemplating the thought of having another child.

This week is Mental Illness Awareness week, and it’s vital that we take the social stigma off of depression and other mental health issues.   It’s for us to recognize and reach out to those who need help.  For us to see the Robin Williams’ in our lives who cover up feelings of worthlessness with telling of jokes. Because if we have everyone laughing, no one will see us crying, right?  Which students of ours are holding a pencil in their hand on Monday, but are contemplating a bullet in their head on Friday?  How many of our fellow educator colleagues live in fear of the mental illness labels and don’t seek professional help?

I am a regular [relatively speaking] 30-something math teacher in a Minneapolis suburb, and I suffer from chronic depression.  Eleven years ago, I sought help, and at the age of 34, I can manage my condition in a healthy way.  I still trip over my feelings of hopelessness.  But I now have the tools I need to rise higher after falling.  If you’re struggling, please know you aren’t alone.  If you know someone who struggles, reach out to them.  They will probably push you away.  They will probably push you away again. And again. And again.  But every time you give your hand to someone with depression, they are given the opportunity to reach for it, rather than reaching for something destructive.

The Comfort of a Canine


Despite the summer sun and the endless stream of Netflix, last week was a tough week.  And when the going gets tough, the tough get…their dog.  Those two little 13-inch, tri-color bundles of joy always know how to de-stress me, without saying a word.  So, indulge me for a moment, while I get sentimental and highlight some of the dogs of the Math-Twitter-Blogosphere and other comforting canines that have enriched our lives.


This is Smudge, Susan Russo’s precious mutt. As you can see, he’s attempting to master all of the ballet positions.


Here’s Affie, Ilana Horn’s dog, who stuck his tongue in the electric socket before this picture, apparently.

Both of Max Ray-Riek’s dogs are cover stars.  Recognize them from Powerful Problem Solving??


I didn’t think anyone integrated dog love into their lessons more than me until I met Meg Craig at Twitter Math Camp last year.  Her Corgi is such a fun part of much of her mathy-ness.

Elizabeth Statmore and her husband serve as a guardian family for Topper.  Look at that face!

Weezer, Kaja, and Frankie, Laurie Worthington’s lovies each have their own special treat bowls.

Sadie Estrella tells me that Sasha and Shotsy keep their yard mongoose free.


My brother and sister-in-laws dogs, Booger and Yoshi, are loving companions through a challenging few years.

Molly is my parents’ dog, and i remember picking her up from the farm when she was only 8 pounds.


Natalie Perez’s beagle mix, Bella,  has a howl that scares away bears from their yard.


My two little beagle creatures, Herbie and Stella, whose unconditional affection warms my heart every single day.


Here we are, every single morn

There is something so beautifully personal about the way we share our love for our furry friends.  Many of you know that part of my classroom display is my Dog Wall.  Just recently, I started seeing Facebook statuses of former students.  This dog wall allows me to connect with those students one more time and let them know that their pet has been more than just a photo on a removable wall.  I am able to let them know that the unconditional love their dog had for them will always grace my classroom wall and be part of the happiness that fills my room each day.

Summer Acceptance and Finally Freedom


July 4th. Independence Day. Let freedom ring while we eat a variety of barbecued unmentionables and enjoy pyrotechnicians creating art in the sky.  I hesitated in writing about this because I don’t want my blog to be a venting space, but I realized the eclectic nature of my posts are what make it uniquely mine.

Backstory:  Getting through the spring trimester seemed insurmountable because on March 2nd, a gentlemen, presumably heading to work just as I was, failed to look in the direction he was driving and smashed into my car.  My car was totaled and the base of my thumb was crushed by the airbag.

What was hurting me most though, was the resentment I had over this injury and the recovery over which I had no control.  And when you are an alcoholic, resentment has the power to destroy, and I felt very powerless over letting it tear me apart.  I barely got myself out of bed on weekends and paid little attention to my daughter and husband.  I ignored emails from my mom and shut myself out from letting her help me. I lashed out at people on Twitter, both overtly and in subtle ways.  I pushed away friends and neglected relationships, some of which I may not be able to recover.

Step Ten of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” I’m thankful that I am a teacher for a multitude of reasons, and the summer off is giving me the time to find clarity and strength to rebuild what I have broken down in my state of depression.  Since school has ended, I have gotten myself out to visit with the three dimensional people on weekends, and I’m working on interacting more positively on Twitter.  I’m trying to repair broken relationships with people I pushed out of my life especially my mom, who I know always loves me.  And I’ve spent quality time with my child and my spouse.  And I am happy again. Genuinely joyful and self-accepting.  And free form the burden of resentment.

I went to an AA meeting recently, and someone made a reference to a paragraph in the Big Book on acceptance.  I marked it, have read it many times in the last few months, and am going to end this post with it:

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.  When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.  Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy.  I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.

Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, Chapter 16, page 417

Continuing the Conversation on Race

On April 17, 2015, Saint Francis High School, nestled in rural Anoka County, with a student population made up of over 90% white students, was rededicated for the day and renamed Frederick Douglass High School.  Students spent the day engaging in conversations about white privilege, appreciating African and Native American performances, and learning how racism is deeply embedded in our historical foundation.  This was an enormous undertaking by Tim McLean, and his commitment to this project was nothing short of inspiring.


Unfortunately, since Frederick Douglass Day was a pre-planned event, many students elected to stay home that day and excluded themselves from any meaningful conversations (or difficult) conversations addressing race and racism.  Despite the absence of a portion of the student population, just as the “one-and-done” model of professional development does not lead to lasting change, neither does the “one-day discussion” about racism lead to a deep commitment to equity in education.

And why does this matter in a district where less than 2% of the student population is Black? Because of horrific hate crimes happening in places where racism, subtle and overt, is allowed to flourish.  The most recent in Charleston, South Carolina makes it clear that this is today’s issue, and that racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Act.  What’s disheartening about a mass shooting a thousand miles away (besides the loss of life) is the numbness our students feel as this happens over and over again.  Additionally, there is a problematic dismissal of these incidents as isolated insanity from a troubled madman rather than an acknowledgement that they are a manifestation of continuing patterns of oppression.

Charleston’s proud display of a flag of treason over their statehouse sends the message to our students that in America, we still cling to a past steeped in hate and white supremacy.  The dress code in the St. Francis high school student handbook makes specific reference to the Confederate flag as a “symbolic representation of intolerance.”  St. Francis is no stranger to racial controversy, especially involving the Confederate flag.  And it is vital that we as teachers, administrators, school board members, educational assistants, office professionals, custodians, parents, and coaches make talking about racial equality a priority.   Because every day we are silent and say, “I teach math/english/art/computers…” we send the message that we accept symbols of hatred in our country.   We can no longer make “essential standards” a priority before we make equity essential.

Some good resources for educators:


The Stupidity of Number Flexibility (#TMWYK)

I’d compare the struggle between teachers and learners at the end of the year to that of a parent trying to carry a limp child to their bed.  Eventually they will both get there, but the parent is frustrated and the child is attempting to make things as difficult as possible.   In the end, neither party is probably happy.

Rather than focus on that inevitable struggle, I want to detail a fun experience (for me) that I had with my daughter this past weekend. Her four-year-old rebellion has included a resistance to completing her math and language at school and a refusal to engage in those conversations at home.  Grandma and Grandpa were in town this weekend, which gave me an opportunity to exploit her desire to impress them.

At school, Maria is given “problems” similar to the ones on this sheet.  They seem randomly chosen, and the children are given beads to model the problem if needed.  0526150926-1


Given the opportunity to exploit the situation, I handed her 12 beads and wrote down 4 + 4, 5+3. 3+5, 2+6, 6+2, 1 + 7, and 7+1.

After protesting that 5 + 5 (her favorite after 4 + 4) wasn’t on there, she started sorting the beads into two piles.


I noticed:

  • She knew 4 + 4 by memory and did not use the beads. (Same with 5 + 5)
  • She sorted 5 + 3 into a pile of 5 beads and a pile of three beads.
  • She did not grab the beads to do 3 + 5 but rather recognized it was the same two numbers and therefore totaled 8.
  • 6 + 2 required her to count the beads but she did not grab new beads.  She simply rearranged the original piles.
  • At 2 + 6 she was onto me and simply filled in “8” for the remaining answers.

Maria:  Mommy, this math is stupid.

Me:  Why do you think it is stupid, my sweet little bucket of sunshine?

Maria:  All of these are the same answer.

Me:  And what makes that stupid to you?

Maria:  It is just stupid.  Math is stupid. I never want to do math again.


This reaction makes me very curious about where her feelings of “this is stupid” comes from.  She’s only 4.  She has much less experience with “answer getting” than, say, a teenager.  Yet, her evaluation of the task being “stupid” seems to stem from the idea that if the answer is always the same, why do the problem in the first place?  Is the mentality of “answer over process” more innate than we think?  Or is it simply so pervasive in our education system that even my 4 year old has picked up on it?

Number flexibility is something I’ve made routine in my classroom as of late.  Detailing different strategies to arriving at the same result gives students a stronger foundation on which to build algebraic thinking.

Sigh.  It might be a long summer, but she’ll learn I don’t give up so easily.