Where Do We Go From Here?


Hundreds of students come in and out of my classroom every year.  And after four short years in high school, they are onto the next stage of their lives, whatever that might be.  I get a few friend requests on Facebook from former students, but very few relative to the number of students I’ve taught over the last eleven years.  Seeing them grow into adults with spouses and jobs and families always brings me joy. But so many of them I never hear from again, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  They go out into the world and grow up.  We have to assume we did the best we could to make a positive impact.

I have a folder in my file cabinet where I keep special mementos from students:  thank you notes, drawings, and other delights I’ve collected over the years.  Andrew Stadel recently requested memorable moments from our teaching careers and so I went digging through this file folder to find Algebra version of M.C. Hammer’s Can’t Touch This that I adapted for my class made up of mostly choir and band 9th graders. [No, I’m not sharing it, and No, there was no cell phone video back then].

As I dug into that folder, I also found this:


It didn’t seem to have the same pick-me-up tone as the other papers in the folder, but I know exactly why I kept it – to remind myself of my privilege.  To make sure I am always cognizant of the struggles my students endure when they aren’t in my classroom. And to make it clear to myself that I teach people first, not mathematics.

Never for one second did I believe that this kid ended up in jail as he was convinced back then.  I reached out to him using my old stand-by:  Facebook.  Not only is this student not in jail, but he is thriving as an entrepreneur in IT, has a child on the way, and is living happily with his beautiful fiance.  With his permission, I am telling his story of triumph over his adolescent years where happiness seemed out of reach and success seemed hopeless.  His story of resilience has made a positive difference for me as an educator and will continue to help the future students that step into my classroom year after year.

Appreciating the Larvae and the Butterflies


Last month, I was attending a meeting with our district’s curriculum specialists.  A science specialist said this:

When we order our larvae this year, can they be sent directly to the elementary school or do they have to go through the office of curriculum and instruction?

The question made me laugh out loud simply because of its somewhat unexpected nature.  But then I wrote it down, and I stared at it and thought why on earth would the larvae used in an elementary classrooms need to go through the office of curriculum and then distributed to the teachers?  But this is how it always was done.  The teacher went on to explain how the larvae ended up being very small and many didn’t hatch as expected leaving some students to be very disappointed and even sad.  Because every child wants his or her larva to turn into a beautiful butterfly.


There was a simple fix.  Send the larvae directly to the schools.  And that’s what happened.  But the question made me think about our jobs as educators.  Criticism of the work others do is a tempting thing to partake in.  But do we really have any idea what our fellow teachers deal with?  It would be easier to criticize this science teacher’s end result:  disappointed students. But the real culprit: a supply-chain management issue.    Another example, I get frustrated when kids don’t have pencils. But I would have no idea how to explain to a child that his or her larva didn’t survive and become a butterfly.

School is well underway, and here is my challenge to myself (and anyone else who would like to join me).  Let’s take time to appreciate that each of us is doing the best we can.  Blaming is easy.  If kids can’t factor, it must be their previous algebra teacher.  If kids can’t multiply, it must have been their elementary teacher.  In reality, learning is a very complex, non-linear process that does not necessarily bear fruit on a regular, seasonal basis.  Sometimes, we only get to see the larvae-portion of another colleagues job.  Larvae are easier to criticize than the beautiful butterfly that results.

You’re So Vain…


…you probably think this post is about you…are you humming that Carly Simon tune yet?  Good.  But seriously, isn’t it so easy to think that everything that other people do is about us?

News Flash!  It’s not about you.  And that’s hard, especially when people do things that hurt so much and feel so personal.

I read The Four Agreements in college.  I don’t recall the book being particularly transformative, probably because I wasn’t open to the possible transformation.  The ideas come from Toltec ideals of Southern Mexican natives. But 15 years later, I think this wisdom is very applicable to us as teachers when working with students:

Agreement 1:  Be impeccable with your word

Agreement 2: Don’t take anything personally

Agreement 3:  Don’t make assumptions

Agreement 4:  Always do your best

The one that is hardest for teachers is agreement 2: Don’t take anything personally.



From The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz:

Nothing other people do is because of you.  It is because of themselves.  All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live it.  When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.

But teaching is very personal.  And isn’t one of our jobs to “impose” knowledge on students? We put our hearts, our minds, our souls (and sometimes our own money) into creating a learning environment that helps students thrive.  So when someone disrespects that environment, we can feel very disappointed and even personally damaged.  No matter how much time, sweat, or energy you put into creating the perfect bulletin boards or reading spaces. When a student decides to rip off letters or color on chairs, it has nothing to do with you.  Nothing.

When they don’t do their homework, night after night, it’s not about you.

When they steal things off your desk even though they know better, it’s STILL not about you.

When they shout answers out loud despite being asked repeatedly to raise their hand, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.

Our task, as educators, is to turn our personal irritation, anger or hurt into empathy and compassion.  What else do students have going on at night besides homework?  What is a child missing in his or her home life to compel them to steal?  What kind of attention is a child missing that prompts them to shout answers in class?

This blog post is a challenge to myself to continue down this road of not taking things personally.  I’ve come a long way in this arena over the last few years.  But I still have a long way to go.

Cheers to a great 2015-2016 school year!

Nrich-ing New School Year


I have made no secret of my unwavering devotion to Nrich.  This University of Cambridge-based website is a treasure trove of rich tasks.  The best part about this website is the ability to engage students with abstract algebra concepts.  Very infrequently does Nrich apply their problems to any real-world concept.  They let the arithmetic itself set the hook.  And the algebra solidifies the concept.



As a bonus, now that school is underway, they have many “live” problems which are open for class submission.  I’m hoping that my class might want to submit solutions for the Puzzling Place Value problem.

There are a lot of great problems here that I’ve used in my classes.  The only problem with available new problems is now I want to devote all my time to solving and implementing them!



Hey #MTBoS! It’s Stockphoto Time!

Have you seen this article from Buzzfeed:  “I Teach For 7 Straight Hours In Stilletos And Never Stop Smiling!” What Stock Photos Tell Us About Teaching

Here’s my favorite:

“Teaching is all cashmere and pearls, pearls and cashmere. In fact, I don’t even have students.”

“Teaching is all cashmere and pearls, pearls and cashmere. In fact, I don’t even have students.”

John Mahlstedt came up with a great idea – The #MTBoS should make our own!  It’ll be entertaining, plus a fun way to see everyone’s pretty faces.  We could use the hashtag #MTBoSstock?


My Daily Reminder: Get Out of Their Way


I may need to post this in a place where I can see it daily: Get out of your students’ way.

Neil Degrasse Tyson summed this up very well:

Children are born scientists They're curious about everything around them.  Imagine what kind of kids we'd have if we had scientifically literate adults.

Children are born scientists They’re curious about everything around them. Imagine what kind of kids we’d have if we had scientifically literate adults.

Today, my volunteer shift at Math on a Stick was a bold reminder of that.  Sarah Stengle , the visiting mathematical artist, brought Kaleidocycles.   She cleverly created cardstock that was pre-scored with the template for easier folding by little hands.

The problem:  this project had a specific directions for a specified outcome.  We could fold in a different order and decorate differently but ultimately, the process for each kid needed to be very much the same so that they each ended up with a working kaleidocycle.

Because this craft was three-dimensional, we recommended that they decorate the paper before folding.[Side note:  observing the differing levels of precision the children used while coloring was interesting].

Sometimes pink paper just isn't enough pink.

Sometimes pink paper just isn’t enough pink.

When children know that the outcome is going to be really cool, they are very willing to let the adult do the work for them.  To be fair, this was a tough project for the littler ones to do independently.

And then in walks an adorable blonde girl about five years old.  She might as well have been Maria.

Child: I’m going to make one.

Me: Awesome, let’s grab some markers so we can decorate it.

Child: I want to decorate it AFTER I fold it.

Me: Well, because it’s…nevermind, you can do that.

Child:  I’m going to draw pictures of my family on the triangles.

When we finished, she had come up with the most beautiful piece of math paper art I had ever seen in my life.  The reason: She fought my insisting that the paper needed to be colored pre-folding.

Here are all of the members of her family, including the dog.  Plus a heart in the middle.

Here are all of the members of her family, including the dog. Plus a heart in the middle.

When she played around with the kaleidocycle, she could hide and unhide her family.  And then the heart in the middle…exploded.  And so did my brain.  This was so…incredibly…awesome.  Take a second and watch her awesomeness.

Looking the (Twitter) Past in the Face

My Twitter profile says that I have been an active member since 2009.  Yet, I can only recall enjoying my Twitter experience more recently, like in the last few years.  Twitter will let you download your entire archive, so I decided to do some analysis.  It’s interesting to say the least.  I recommend it.

My First Tweet: To my brother and very profound.

My first “Mathy” Tweet:  Actually it was a “re-tweet” so I’m not sure if it counts.

Then I went through an awkward stage where I tweeted every time I would earn a sticker on an app called Get Glue.  I would just tweet it to get the sticker.  Now I have dozens of these random stickers from TV shows and movies.  I mean, a Dr. Who sticker?  Everyone knows I don’t watch that show! (But, STICKERS!)

I had some fun at the expense of celebrities from 2011-2013.  Not my proudest moments, I’ll admit.  I think I remember a response from Howie Mandel being a highlight whilst watching America’s Got Talent.

Fast forward to April 11, 2013 – the beginning of my real interactions with #MTBoS educators.

Discovering this was kind of a special moment for me because I recently got to meet her through her work with Math-on-a-Stick and TELL her this exact thing personally.

After that I tweeted, again serendipitously, to John Golden. He then tweeted this:

I (of course) didn’t tell him this at the time, but his response was the digital assurance I needed that the #MTBoS was a welcoming group of individuals.  And it was then that my eclectic, quirky personality emerged on Twitter.