A Thank You Note for my College Algebra Students

Today was the last teaching day for my college algebra class for the trimester. I’ve had to clear a lot of hurdles this year, both personally and professionally. Yet I’m prouder than ever at what these young people have accomplished in the last 12 weeks, and so today, I read them a letter of gratitude:

I’ve only cried in front of a class once, and that was first hour, the day after the 2016 election. So I’m going to try to not do it again today, but I make no promises.
This trimester, my college algebra classes have done some amazing, special, and unique things. When I started teaching this course, I was told to lecture from bell to bell, the kids need to memorize the formulas, odd answers are in the back so assign the evens. Every trimester, I’ve tried to make some improvements on that model and, although not anywhere near perfect, I’m really proud of where this class is now. That has less to do with what I do to modify the course and more to do with how you wonderful young people engage in it. The marble slides activity on Wednesday was a defining moment for me with this course. Lecturing from bell to bell wouldn’t have made students as successful with that activity as you were. Not even close. The creativity and curiosity you bring to school with you every day is such a treat to get to experience for me as an educator. It has been my absolute privilege to get to learn from you this trimester. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for not only letting me experience you grow as mathematicians, but for the energy you brought to collaborate and push each other to engage in making sense of the mathematics we have sworn to you is important for your future. You’re going to encounter math that will be more difficult than the math you encountered here and that’s ok. What you’ve done here is shown me that what is asked of you in math class should make sense, and by working together to provide one another with your ideas and your thinking,you’ve built a foundation for understanding the math you’ll encounter down the road. I believe in you as you go out there and make the world a better place.

Rebuilding the Wall

On the first day of school, I was delighted to hear from multiple students in multiple classes, “Mrs. Schmidt, where did the dog wall go?!”  I moved into a new classroom this year.  At the end of last school year, I had my wonderful student aid carefully dismantle the dog wall and carefully box up all of the pictures so that they could be placed in their new location.

And today, a student aid began to put the pictures back up.  And immediately the atmosphere in the room changed.  Students pulled out their phones and were so eager for me to see their furry ball of joy that provides them with that unconditional love.  I saw videos and pictures, and heard memories and felt that powerful bond between my students and their pets.  Is there anything else that students are willing to share with so much happiness and passion?  Perhaps you have examples, but in my experience, nothing has collectively drawn out a students’ willingness to take a vulnerable, emotional risk than sharing a picture or story about their pets.

There is a love that a dog can give you that humans are just not capable of. Whether it’s that tail-wagging excitement when you get home for the day, or the head-on-your-chest affection when you need it the most.   Here are my two beagles, Herbie and Stella, and they’ve saved my life more times than I can count, especially on the days where the pain seems to overtake my life.   The slow deep breath and soft love of that creature beside me is often enough to calm the raging anxiety and clear the irrationality from my head.


And here is the progress thus far on the dog wall.  I’m looking forward to some cute new additions this year.


Math on a Stick – Encore Edition

First, thank you from the bottom of my math-loving heart to Christopher Danielson for allowing me the privilege to be one of Math on a Stick’s visiting mathematicians and spend the day talking math with all of the kids.  It never ceases to amaze me that when you bring in something mathematically simple and open ended how much creativity and wonder kids will bring to it.  I mentioned this last year and the year before, and it is worth repeating today:  We need to get out of the kids’ way.

The school year is about to start, and the standards will dominate our conversations as teachers.  I don’t want to dismiss the importance of common national standards as a foundation to ensure that each and every student has access to important mathematical concepts.  But, we secondary math teachers have a reputation as self-proclaimed masters of content knowledge which can be important.   Still, I notice, we spend an awful lot of time making sure kids can expand a fourth degree binomial and not nearly enough time listening to the children make sense of ideas and letting them create and explore mathematically.  Kids who can manipulate algebraic expressions fluently can do just that.  (Perhaps they could use it to manipulate other algebraic expressions. Such joy.) On the other hand, students given opportunities to play with math have a chance to develop a deep understanding and love for mathematics.  For my own child, I’d rather have an ounce of the former and seven tons of the latter.

Thank you Desmos for sponsoring the day (and the awesome shirt).  Thanks to the Math Forum, Annie Fetter, Sara Vanderwerf, Ellen Delaney, the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, and all of the amazing people that have helped create this special corner of the fair where math isn’t scary or anxiety-inducing.  There are no tests on math facts or multiplication charts to memorize.  There are no lectures, nothing to practice.  And it’s the highlight of the Minnesota State Fair for me every year.

Time Crunch #tmwyk

When it comes to bed time avoidance, my daughter pulls out some pretty creative strategies. Recently, she’s started to offer a math inquiry right when that clock is reaching that time, which I have to admit is some clever genius on her part. 

Two nights ago she offered the question “How many shows make a whole movie?” I was impressed initially with her identification of this as a math question, but I think perhaps at this point, to her, working with numbers = math. (Her initial guess was 40 shows, by the way) She then prompted me for the length of a show (20 minutes) and length of a movie (2 hours). She remembered from a previous conversation about how many minutes until her babysitter arrived that there are 120 minutes in 2 hours.  There are a number of ways she could have gone about this, because she’s just started thinking multiplicatively and formal division is a ways down the road. And I was less interested in her getting the right answer than I was in discovering the process she used to arrive at her solution. 

M:  20+20 is 40 and 40+20 is 60. And 60+60 is 120.

Then she got a little stuck in translating 120 minutes into a number of shows. But I was impressed that she wrote out her information formally as 1 show = 20 min, 2 shows = 40 min and 3 shows = 60 minutes. Place value was a little tricky for her here and I want to be careful not to introduce any standard algorithms at age 6. 

I wanted to be careful not to lead her into a formal method of figuring this out, because that would be a quick way to destroy her  desire to make interesting math proclamations. I prompted her with: If 3 shows is 1 hour, then how many shows would be in 2 hours? I’m not sure if that was too much of a leap from what she was thinking about. But she did explain quite beautifully that 3+3 is 6 so 2 hours must be 6 shows. 

What I’ve learned: a child’s natural interest in the world runs deep and many times that curiosity relates to mathematics. But that conversation is so delicate when as adults, 6 groups of 20 has such a quick, neat explanation to it. But it’s an explanation that she doesn’t need now and a method that cuts her off from the creative ways she can formulate answers to other similar questions she may have down the road. 

The next evening she asked how many seconds are in an hour. And I’d gladly let her put off bed time to let her do some solid math thinking on how to approach that one.

Highlights from a Hard Year

There really is no two ways about it: this school year has been hard. Really hard. I taught AP stats for the first time, it was my first year as a 6-12 math specialist, and our district piloted new curriculum. I was challenged as a teacher and to be completely honest, as an overall human being over the last 9 months like I couldn’t have predicted. I pride myself in finding the silver lining, always. This isn’t a skill I was born with; it’s something I practice. And this school year had plenty of silver even though it took some polishing to make it shine. But I believe that I have the ability to create happiness from within so I found 10 great things from this year.

 Here are my top ten highlights from the 2016-2017 school year:

1. As part of our math professional development, I got to share Principles to Actions with 30 math teachers from across the district. 

2. We used M & Ms a LOT in AP Stats. And that was delicious for everyone.

3. I shared this amazing book with tons of teachers with young kids at home. 

4. I found a coherent learning sequence for  non-AP stats that is both challenging and engaging.

5. I got to present at NCTM on Stats and Social Justice with this amazing​ human.

6.  I subbed in a theater class and learned a ton about another curricular area and experienced the joy of watching kids be creative.

7. I introduced my algebra class to my spirals.

8. I got this lovely note on teacher appreciation day.

9. I learned so much about the intensity required to teach an AP course with fidelity. 

10. I learned to accept change as a natural part of teaching, even if it means letting go of something you don’t want to release

There are 10 school days left for me this year. I know they will be filled with joyful learning, exciting transitions, and some sad goodbyes. But the pool is calling my name for the summer. But I’m eager to dive in to next year’s adventures. 

An Ode to @hazeymath

It’s easy to get attached to co-workers. (Heck, it’s easy for me to get attached to all kinds of people but that’s a story for another blog).  But teacher coworkers are special. You spend an obscene amount of your waking hours with them. They celebrate with you when you experience classroom success, and they talk you through times when lessons become a dumpster fire of failure. That co-worker/friend relationship becomes even more special when you teach a class together. Especially when it’s new. And difficult. Like AP Stats. This was my first year (and our district’s first year) taking on the challenge of 120 AP Stats students. There were many people who helped me when I reached out. Many have been where I am and were more than willing to give advice even when that advice wasn’t very well recieved. (What do you mean you can’t​ use 2 instead of 1.96 as a critical value for a 95% confidence interval!?)

But no one was more supportive and encouraging and helpful than my co-teacher Dianna Hazelton. We muddled through the AP Stats training together even though half of it might as well have taught in Windows wingdings for all I know. We poured over the textbook for hours on end, making sure we knew what we were teaching at least 5 minutes before the kids arrived. We reflected on every test and quiz together, worked through hundreds of problems to make sure the kids had teachers equiped to prepare them for that exam in May. And after the instructional days were done, we still seem to reglarly engage in AP Stats discussions. And through this grueling process of preparing dozens of kids for this exam, our teaching lives became intertwined working toward similar goals with all of our students. And the co-worker/friend relationship becomes more just a friend/friend relationship because in teaching, you become deeply attached to the work you do and to those who share the emotional experience it means to teach an AP class. And I’m more than grateful to have gotten to share this experience with Dianna Hazelton. 

But then something unexpected happens and that co-worker, now friend, is leaving. Greener pastures? Not really. Just different for the different grass up in Northern Minnesota. And after the shock wears off, you look around and realize that after working for so hard and so long at something together, it isn’t going to be the same without her there. Yes, someone else hard-working and energetic will take over where Dianna left off and we’ll do more great things with this class together. But there’s truly something special about the relationship you build with that person who was there with you at the beginning. When the formula sheet gave you anxiety because you couldn’t comprehend anything on it even though you were currently teaching it. When the terms “p-value” and “null hypothesis” had meanings unrelated to mathematics and were more like punchlines to a bad joke. 

So I want to use this blog post to say thank you to Dianna. Thank you for believing in us, in our students, and in our curriculum. Thank you for sharing yourself, your time and your knowledge so that we both could become better teachers having taken on this challenge. Thank you for endless copies, and countless examples, and never-ending activities to support every student they wanted to give AP stats was shot. There will be a hole in our department when you step out those doors for the last time this June. A hole that can’t be filled with a new teacher and a shiny new ID badge.  It’s a hole that was created by the amazing experience we had together building this class so that all of our students have access to college level courses. 

I’m not going to read over this blog to fix any errors. I wrote this straight from my heart to Dianna’s and want it to as authentic as possible. So thank you Dianna. I’m a better teacher than I was before I met you because you cultivated an environment in St Francis High School’s AP stats classes that allows students to really stretch what they are capable of doing in math class. And my warmest well wishes on this next exciting chapter of your life that lies before you.

We Are Powerless #NCTMAnnual

On Friday, at the NCTM Annual Meeting in San Antonio, I was lucky enough to deliver an Ignite with 9 other amazing classroom teachers.  Each had their own special take on education.  Here is mine: (I will link the video once it is posted to NCTM’s website)

I’ve only got 5 minutes, so strap in for a shock right out of the gate.  Hi.  I’m Megan. I’m a wife, daughter, mother, vegan, dog-lover, and math teacher.

Ignite - NCTM 2016 - Copy (2)

I am also an alcoholic.  This past March marked 5 years of sobriety for me.  But it took me a while to figure out that the principles that keep me sober, also made me a good teacher.  No matter what arena I enter, the 12 steps that helped me put down that first drink pretty much drive every decision I make, both in and out of the classroom.

Ignite - NCTM 2016(17) - Copy.jpeg

People often say that the first step is admitting you have a problem.  But there’s more to it than that.  Freedom comes first from admitting something else:  WE ARE POWERLESS.

What do you feel powerless over as an educator?  You can probably easily answer that, but how do we actually rid ourselves of the resentment that comes as a result of that powerlessness?  Ignite - NCTM 2016(15) - Copy

With the help of a Twitter colleague, David Coffey, I have developed 12 steps for educators, so that we can accept the things we cannot change and develop the courage to the change the things we can.

Step 1:  We admitted we were powerless over the elements of education that we could not control.

Step 2:  We came to believe that the positive powers in our lives could help restore us to sanity.

Step 3:  We dedicated ourselves to continuous contact with these positive influences on a regular basis.Ignite - NCTM 2016(7) - CopyStep 4:  We took a fearless and exhaustive inventory of our daily routines as an educator and identified what is in our control and what is not.

Step 5:  We admitted our shortcomings to another human being who can support us on this journey.

Step 6:  We are entirely ready to do the work to change what we can control and let go of what we cannot.

Step 7:  We humbly admit that no matter how hard we work in this profession, we will always have shortcomings.

Step 8:  We made a list of people, including students, administrators, parents, family members, and other educators, that we may have harmed in our quest to control everything.

Step 9:  We work to repair relationships with as many people on that list as possible.

Step 10:  We continue to take personal inventory proceeding fiercely to help change what we are able and let go of what we are not.

Step 11:  We seek constant improvement through connection with our positive forces.

Ignite - NCTM 2016(2) - Copy

Step 12:  We carry this message to other educators and practice these principles in every classroom we enter.

You can start right now, at this conference, in this room, with these people who help fill our glass with passion, ideas, vision, and clarity in our professional lives.

Ignite - NCTM 2016(8)

We admit we are powerless over the fact that Samuel comes from a low-income family, but we accept the power we have to fix that he, along with a disproportionate number of students of color, ends up being tracked in the lowest level of math available to him.

Ignite - NCTM 2016(13) - Copy

We admit we are powerless over the fact that Patricia has to work everyday after school, but we accept the power we have to change that Patricia doesn’t think she’s a math person.

Ignite - NCTM 2016(9) - Copy

My call to action is not for you to stop drinking.  In fact, I would like you to raise your class for a toast.  A toast to accepting your powerlessness so that you can focus on making sure every student has access to high level mathematics.

A toast to looking educational inequality in the face and proclaiming you’re no match for a group of educators determined to change the world.  And starting with developing the wisdom to differentiate between what we can control and what we cannot.

A toast to being the mathematicians, fighters of social justice, dog-lovers, plant-eaters, and overall human empathizers that the universe designed us to be.

Ignite - NCTM 2016(11) - Copy

Thank you, and let’s go change the world.

Special thank you to Matt Larson who emceed this lovely event and Suzanne Alejandre who put together this amazing group of teachers.  And thank you to everyone else in my life who helps fill my glass with positive energy on a daily basis so that I can do this work that means so much to me.

Here’s a link to the 12 steps: 12StepsforEducators12StepsforEducators.jpg