Teaching Is Not Just Auld Lang Syne

It’s been an emotional year of edu-quarrels over standardized testing, teacher tenure, and state standards. Yes, teachers are constantly defending their profession and looking for ways to ensure all students have access to the high quality education they deserve. It’s a difficult, never-ending, sometimes thankless task that we take on when we decide to pursue being an educator.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the never ending struggle of achievement-gap closing and raising test scores and end up believing that we can’t possibly make a difference.

Rather than repeat that rhetoric, as the calendar year closes, I wanted to reflect on a few things I appreciate this time of year about being a teacher.

10.  Summers off mean I get to attend awesome conferences like Twitter Math Camp.

Yes, those usually come out of my own pocket.  And yes, TMC15 being in Los Angeles isn’t going to be cheap.  But how fortunate are we that on a regular basis in the summer, groups of driven, passionate educators gather across the country to help better themselves and help others do the same.  There may be other professions that have numerous conferences filled with great opportunities, but I’d be willing to bet that inspired teachers who voluntarily attend professional development opportunities make some of the greatest professional experiences on the planet.


Fun times from Twitter Math Camp in Tulsa


9.  Today is Tuesday, and I had the opportunity to have lunch with just my husband.

My husband is also a teacher, and I know this isn’t a privilege that every educator has.  But these extra-special moments I get with him are priceless and precious.  He’s supported me in every endeavor I’ve pursued and helped to guide me through mistakes I’ve made with an infinite amount of kindness and without a speck of judgement.  I’m confident that his understanding of me as a teacher has strengthened our relationship in un-measurable ways.


The two loves of my life


8.  The extra time during winter break allows me to learn an outdoor winter activity that I can do with my daughter.

Returning from vacation to a balmy 5 degrees (Fahrenheit) and a clear sky makes me feel like the sun is mocking me.  Fellow Minnesota teacher, Casey Rutheford, challenged me to explore a winter activity.  I’ll admit, I resist attempting any wintry feats simply because of the outdoor temperature.  The extra days off over the winter holiday will allow me to bundle up and try something new and maybe even discover a talent I didn’t know I had.

It can't all be vacation

It can’t all be vacation.

7.  I have the chance to be a positive role model for kids. 

I purposefully leave my twitter handle public.  I know that everything I post there can be scrutinized and sometimes taken out of context.  I use this public forum, however, as a platform to spread positivity.  I’m not perfect, but I’d like to think that any person reading it would see an optimistic, caring individual.  I don’t see being a role model as a burden but as a challenge for continual personal growth.

6.  Each class period, I get to experience the creativity of  my students. 

A lot of teachers will tell you that what they love most about teaching is the “light bulb” moments kids have when they “get it.”  I enjoy those as well, but what’s a hundred times more gratifying is when kids can explain their thinking in creative ways and enlighten their fellow classmates.  Sporadically, the student doing the “out of the box” explaining is the one who struggles with their confidence in their math abilities.  And that experience is icing on the numerical cake.


This student previously struggled with visually representing patterns.


5.  Every once and a while, a former student will contact me and boast about the awesome things they are doing.

Recently, I received a letter from a student I had about 5 years ago.  He was in remedial math, felt that many teachers didn’t look past his disinterest in academics and failing grades.  One day, I sat him down and told him that I believed in his ability to chase his dreams, if he desired to do so.   I’m so grateful that he took the time to write to me and tell me that he is now working in education and has used my words as motivation.

4.  I get to teach what I’m passionate about.

My brother and his wife got me an entirely math-themed Christmas gift this year because they know that mathematics is my passion.  I don’t know very many people outside of education that work day in and day out in a field that drives them.  This fulfillment is greater than any dollar amount on a paycheck.

3.  Every day is another golden opportunity to learn something new in my field.

I spent this evening doing geometry with Justin Aion.  I’ve blogged before about my geometric struggles, and I’ve used them to help motivate me to learn more about a topic I’m out of practice in.  Justin has a knack for tough geometry problem solving.  I’m happy to report that I’m improving because of my persistence (and his patience) with my attempting these problems.  I’d recommend to every math teacher to find a math buddy.

2. I have a chance to stand up for marginalized students.

I don’t think teachers take this part of their job serious enough.  This article changed the way I thought about how I address student interactions in my class and made me realize the duty we have to protect all students and give them a voice.  I believe that no matter what subject we teach, it’s vitally important for us to break down the walls of status and make our classrooms safe for the kids we teach.

1.  Every day, when I go to work, I have the opportunity to make someone’s life better.

The most important, yet most undervalued task we have as educators is to forge meaningful relationships with our students.  Our students won’t remember the formula for a circle in standard form.  They will remember that we genuinely cared for them and nurtured their emotional well-being.  These lasting impressions are part of our job that can never be replaced by tutorial videos and cutting-edge technology.  They can only be developed through personal interaction, and I’m blessed to engage in those interactions each day.

I want to wish a Happy New Year to all of my fellow educators.  Make 2015 the year you change the world.

Where Do Your Students Max Out?

Some of my tweets this week have gone insane.  Hedge (@approx_normal) and I have started Insanity Max 30  (Read: Twitter Math Camp is in LA this summer).  One of the major components is to write down the time in which you “max out” or take a break for the first time.  The obvious goal is to increase your time before maxing out with each consecutive workout.

This exercising format made me think about my own students and their ability to push further before maxing out.  The knee-jerk reaction for students is to seek clarification from the teacher rather than from their small group when they get stuck.  My personal take on this phenomenon is that students are fairly certain that the teacher will be able to provide the necessary clarification, whereas their classmates may not.  Regardless of their reasoning, I want to create an environment in my class where students try to push as far as they can before asking me for help.

Tomorrow being the last Friday before winter break, I’m going to take the opportunity to test them on their brain endurance.  Their task: the Catwalk Mystery problem I’ve shared before.  Unless, of course, the Problem Solving Fairy appears in my dreams and gives me something better.  You never know.  Dreams can be strange.

This problem seems suitable for a few reasons:

  • It provides an appropriate challenge for a class with a wide range of mathematical fluency.
  • It is well-suited for group work.
  • There are multiple ways in which to approach the problem.
  • There are specific places in the problem in which I know students will struggle, but I know it’s possible for them to unstick themselves.
  • Based on assumptions they make about the problem, they may arrive at different solutions.

My goal is for them to progress through the problem as long as possible without asking me for assistance.  When they feel like they are roadblocked, they can max out, ask a question and then get right back into the game.  But I want them to challenge themselves to take as few “breaks” as possible and arrive at a confident answer.  So send some good brain vibes up toward Minnesota because these kids are about to test their limits.

Times When I Suck

I’m pursuing a National Board Certification and am in the midst of preparing for the content knowledge portion.  An area in which I know I struggle:  Geometry.

I gave this problem to my students on Thursday, with the hopes that a student would be able to figure out (and show me) how to solve it.  When that plan failed, I knew I needed to start preparing more formally for my impending exam.


So I  spent my Saturday evening working on geometry.  (Math teachers lead such exciting lives, I know.)  I started with some problems from A+ Click Math.  Wrong answer after wrong answer lead me to seek out a more formal review.  I know there are other websites out there for geometry review (and if you can PLEASE point me to them, I’d appreciate it), but I sank to a new low and turned to Uncle Sal.  The 6 minute video was excruciating to watch as he repeated himself as he drew , but to be fair, I understood the triangle inequality theorem much better at the end of the seemingly endless 6 minutes.

Today, I tried Brilliant, which is geared toward problem solving.  I suppose I should be pleased with my progress and my willingness to try again in the face of defeat.

Some takeaways:

  • Failing sucks.  We need to remember that when we ask our students to be okay with failure and mistakes.
  • It’s hard to admit you aren’t good at something.  We need to acknowledge that when we expect students to approach us with questions about their learning.
  • To some, being wrong means admitting you’ve failed.  We can’t automatically expect students to transition into that mindset.
  • Tell your students that you struggle as well.  Give them specific examples of when you’ve failed and let them know that they can persevere.


Matchmaker, Matchmaker: The Algebra Way

I’m trying to make my blog less OMG-you’ve-got-to-try-this-amazing-activity-that-I-found-cuz-it’s-awesome and more analysis of my teaching and an examination of where improvements can be made. That being said, this post is going to be a little of both.

Today, my Algebra students did another Talking Points activity on linear functions.  I used the same format I did with Number and Operations where I gave them 5 minutes to look over the TP’s and make any notes they needed for the group activity.  Here’s the link if you are interested in seeing what they chatted about.  As I honed in on their exploratory talk, I noticed that many more of them were convinced by the reasoning of their tablemates and changed their “unsure” to “agree/disagree.”  I’m not sure if that was because the topic was a tad more difficult, or if they are getting better at listening to one another.  Of course, I am hoping it’s the latter.

At the end, after they wrote their self-assessments, we talked as a group about some of the points that they were still not convinced of agreement or disagreement (which included The opposite reciprocal of zero is zero).  I tried to do this using the Talking Points rules, even though the whole class was able to participate in the discussion.  I feel that this was a positive addition to the process.


Okay, onto the real star of today:  An Nrich Task. 

Each group of 4 receives a pack of 16 cards with algebraic expressions on them.

algebra match image (1)

They cannot take cards from other group members; they may only give cards to others.  Each person must have a minimum of two cards in front of them at all times, to alleviate the temptation of having one person sort the cards.  To complete the task, each group member must have four cards in front of them that have the same simplified expression.  Caveats:  no talking, no non-verbal communication, no writing, no taking others cards.

I used the Glenn Waddell #TMC14 Smartphone Camera Hack to position my camera in the back of the room and I took a time-lapse video with my old iPhone.  Although I can’t post that video online because it contains images of students, I did make a screenshot with blurred faces:


I mean, you can practically SEE the brain sweat pouring from their ears!

In our debriefing, we discussed what was hard, what was easy, and what strategies they developed.  Here are some highlights:

  • It was nice to be dealt a card that was already simplified.
  • Besides not being able to talk or non-verbally communicate, it was difficult to simplify some of the expressions mentally.
  • It was difficult to not take cards from others, knowing where they belonged.
  • A good strategy when starting was to see if there were any matches to begin with.
  • Another good strategy:  give unsorted cards to players who have completed sets so that they can help divvy those out.

I was so impressed with these kids today.  I know that they will learn more together by working with one another.  I’m so thrilled that THEY are beginning to see the truth to that.


Making a Point

Our school uses a 5-period, trimester schedule which means that every 13 weeks, I have a new group of angels in my classroom.  I decided to give Talking Points another try, with the goal of incorporating some exploratory talk related to the topics in our units of study.  Additionally, the practice of “no comment” has proven to be undeniably helpful in encouraging students to listen to one another.  [Note:  Elizabeth Statmore introduced these at Twitter Math Camp this summer.  See the “Talking Points” link for more information.]

My goal is the same:  Addressing status in my math classroom and allowing every kid to have a voice. I began with the math talking points and then transitioned into some talking points related to our current unit: Numbers and Operations.  (I’d love to have the students come up with their own talking points as well, although I haven’t tried that yet.)

In their self-assessment, I asked them how difficult it was to practice “no comment” and was quite pleased with some of their responses.  In particular, the student that explicitly stated that he failed in refraining from commenting.  It was an excellent opportunity to encourage them to be better the second time around.

Something awesome that I noticed today:  students respectfully called each other out on cross-talking violations.

Here are the talking points we used today:

Talking Points – Number and Operations

  • The sum of two fractions always results in another fraction.
  • There are an infinite number of fractions between any two fractions.
  • Using a fraction is always a more precise answer than using a decimal.
  • The commutative law of addition (a + b) + c = a + (b + c) only works for positive numbers.
  • For the fraction -x/y, it does not matter if x is negative or y is negative as long as one of them is.
  • The reciprocal of a number is usually smaller than the original number.
  • The square root of a number is always less than or equal to the original number.
  • Zero is neither even nor odd.
  • Taking a positive whole number to a power always results in a larger number.

When having them assess themselves the second time around, many commented that it was much more difficult not to comment immediately.  Although some of the points are intentionally ambiguous, a number of them have right and wrong answers.  Conversely, the topics yesterday were more general “math opinion” related bullets.  Fortunately, when listening to their conversations, I found that many who struggled yesterday improved on today’s task.

I’m encouraged by my take on this activity this trimester.  I think that centering the statements around our units will be helpful in examining mathematical statements that make students think critically and support their decisions.