…But the End is Beautiful

Every term, a lot teachers (myself included) are disappointed that students didn’t learn exactly what we intended them to. Furthermore, they didn’t learn as much as we wanted or thought they could. I’ve been there before many times, and that result is the main reason I changed the structure of my class to focus on student discourse and making sense of problems.

The last question on the final today was “Tell me something you learned about yourself this trimester. (It does not need to be math related).” Of course, it’s a math test so most of them tell me something math related anyway which doesn’t bother me one bit.

I originally was going to just share some highlights, but reading these answers brought me so much joy, I am just going to share the whole list.

I learned:

  • I understand math better when I’m given problems to try rather than just talking notes.

  • How to help myself learn on my own by asking more questions to deepen my understanding.

  • I can learn math with a group of people I don’t know at all and we can have fun as well.

  • I can develop my own solutions to problems and make sense of ideas myself.

  • I could be independent and do my work with less and less help.

  • It’s ok to ask questions but I learned how to believe that I can learn math myself and figure things out.

  • I don’t give myself enough credit for what I am able to do.

  • I learn things a lot better when working with others.

  • I am capable of being independent but still learn what I need to in order to be successful.

  • I am able to figure things out myself even if it’s not explained to me first.

  • Making sense of WHY I am getting an answer is much more important than the answer itself.

  • Understanding why something happens is much more useful than understanding just how to do it.

  • If I work through problems and bounce ideas off my teammates I CAN figure things out instead of being shown first. I enjoyed this, which surprised me.

  • Applying yourself to learn the material instead of memorizing it is much easier.

  • I CAN in fact understand the abstract concepts of math.

  • If I can’t explain WHY something works, then I don’t fully understand the concept.

  • I am a very hard worker and determined to reach my goals. I’m unstoppable when starting a problem.

  • I am able to graph functions without a calculator because I understand how they work.

  • The graphs of equations are really satisfying once you understand why they work.

  • I enjoy being able to figure things out myself first.

  • I really like to work with people to figure things out and I didn’t think I would.

  • I am able to make sense of my answers and not just get the answer, which is much more important.

  • Once the connections between concepts were more clear, math becomes much easier to understand.

  • While I’m not the best at understanding things while I’m being taught, when I teach other people, I retain the information.

  • How to explain myself better by teaching math to others.

  • When I need to explain something to someone else, I understand it better.

  • If someone doesn’t understand something, I am able to explain it in a different way that they can understand.

  • The more I am engaged with the math, the better I do.

  • Ask when you get stuck. The teacher will help you.

  • I’m glad I took another year of math even though I don’t like it.

  • I am able to teach other students when they don’t understand.

  • How to work through things better with a group of people.

  • The struggle is part of the process and you have to go through that barrier to learn new things.

  • I can handle more stress than I thought I could.

  • I am a visual, hands-on learner rather than just being shown how to do it.

  • I can be a mean person and that can turn people off from friendships.

  • I can better understand if I apply my mind.

  • Applying what I learn to everyday activities, I understand them better.

  • I should cherish my time with my friends and family before it’s too late.

  • I need to stop slacking on homework because it only gets harder from here.

  • There’s only so much in my control and not everyone will care about some things like I do.

  • If I actually take time to study and make sure I understand, I will do better.

  • I should probably study more in college.

  • It’s ok to not understand and ask questions.

  • When left to my own devices, I don’t do anything productive. I need to plan.

  • I do better in a classroom where there aren’t strict rules and things are more free flowing.

  • Don’t judge a person because you don’t really know what they are going through.

  • Not to overwhelm myself with school work and if I’m tired, I should go to bed.

  • If I study for my college algebra tests, I usually do better on them.

  • I love my job and my coworkers.

  • I don’t need to stress so much about the future.

  • If I want to get good grades in a college class, I need to study more.

    I am better at math when I have a therapy dog.

A Giant Leap into the Unknown

It was homecoming Friday.  The week had been absolutely crazy (in a good way) with activities and celebrations.  The week had also been crazy in a lot of not-so-good ways as my ability to handle the normalized chaos of my job had reached a breaking point.  I arrived at school, set down my bag, and started to cry.  And then I was sobbing, and I couldn’t stop.  And couldn’t breathe.  My angel-of-a-coworker pulled me out of my room and into the math office and got me calmed down eventually, but having a panic attack at work was not something I was quite prepared for.

Over the next few weeks, I maintained my composure while at school, but at home, I existed as an empty shell, literally unable to communicate with my husband and daughter, let alone anyone else in my life.  I spent most weekends in bed, hoping that something miraculous would come along and pull me out of this mental cage I was locked in.

Then came that Sunday in late October. I was sitting in my car, in the driveway, motor running, heat on full blast, chair reclined, and letting the hum of the engine calm me trying to resist a complete meltdown.  My spouse came outside, opened the car door and said, “Maybe it’s time we consider what this job is doing to your mental health.”

Teaching is a second career for me after a failed attempt at being an accountant in a Wells Fargo cubicle farm.  From the moment I stepped into the classroom, I knew I was called to be a teacher.  I’ve grown as an educator, persevered through difficult transitions, and made pedagogical changes that were both scary and energizing.  And year after year, I felt it was worth the personal and emotional sacrifice that my job demanded because what I did made a difference to many.  And I also knew that no 6-figure, office high-rise job could replace that feeling.  But after a life-long battle with anxiety and depression, plus 5.5 years of sobriety under my belt, I also know that the status of my mental health is not something I can afford to gamble with.

So after 12 years as a high school math teacher, I am taking a medical leave of absence for the remainder of the school year.  I’m not taking on any other projects, and I’m not starting anything new.  I simply need time to let my brain settle down from the chaos that has taken over.  I’ll work to restore relationships with my spouse, my daughter, my family, and my friends that I simply have not had the mental energy to attend to.  My daughter will get to ride the bus to school and will get a couple of extra hours of sleep each night.  My weekends will become a time of family and togetherness and interaction again, rather than a time where I pull the sheets over my head and will the pain to go away.  After the holidays are through and 2018 has ushered in the ice and snow, I’ll be able to re-evaluate my ability to manage the pace at which I need to move in order to be the educator I want to be.

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.