Afterward, Kindness.

Teachers had a uniquely difficult job today:  Support students who feel unsafe about the future of our country.  Do so with grace and humility while simultaneously dealing with our own feelings of uneasiness and hopelessness.

Based on what I hear my students say on a daily basis, it seems as though their views on the presidential race fell into one of four categories:  1.  Trump 2. Hillary 3.  Neither  4.  Indifferent.  This isn’t surprising for high school students in the far north suburbs but it seems important to note that my students’ views fall all over the political spectrum.

I began each of my classes today as I do at the beginning of each trimester:  You have my respect because you are a human.  My number one job is to keep you safe, and the most important thing that happens in this classroom is kindness.  

This isn’t anything new to them and it’s the culture we create in my classroom.

Then I pointed to this on my wall:

A gaping gash in the blue faux concrete. Many of them have never noticed it before but now their eyes are fixed on it.

This is where my “This is a safe zone” sign used to hang, I say.  When I painted the pillar, I had to remove it, and after sticking it back on, the adhesive wore out and it fell into the garbage without my knowledge.  But a wall with a sign doesn’t make this room any more safe. We create a culture of kindness and respect and use mathematics as a catalyst. THAT is what makes this a safe zone. 

We then had great conversations in both classes:  Spirals in college algebra, sampling bias in AP stats. But none of that matters if students don’t feel safe. As a teacher, I’ll do that every day as no part of my job is more important.  I’ll continue to fight for access to high level mathematics for all of our students and promote kindness in all of my classes. No one gets to vote on that but me.


Not Today, Please.

My prep period is the last hour of the day, which means the rest of my day can seem sort of like a hurricane, where I pass through the eye here and there.  Today, mid windstorm, I get the email I dread:  “I know you don’t like to sub on your prep, but I am down to my last two teachers, and I need a sub for Ms. XY.”

Great.  It’s Friday of a week where Monday was Halloween.  My to-do list was growing so although I don’t normally prefer subbing, today I REALLY didn’t want to.  But, I couldn’t turn this one down.  It was an emergency.  So, I sulked and complained to whoever would listen and felt sorry for myself until 1:25 when I had no choice but to mosey up to D238 and unlock the door for the eager students waiting outside.

Me:  What class is this?

Student:  Drama 

Wonderful.  To add a twist to my already knotted demeanor, it was a drama class (did you hear my dramatic tone?). Don’t get me wrong, drama class is great.  I just know nothing about it and feel powerless to assist anyone amid a sea of teenage angst.

The sub plans were pretty clear:  The kids will be memorizing their lines for the play until 2:00 and then they will rehearse in the drama room.  So the students went to their rehearsing spots and got to work.

At 2:00, we convened in the drama room and that’s where I was blown away.  The students realized that they were missing many of their classmates today (deer hunting opener) and attempts to rehearse would be futile.  Someone suggested they play “Whose Line is it Anyway?” (A hilarious TV show from the early 2000’s if you have never seen it.) They gathered their chairs around and threw out scene ideas and set the stage and off they went.  Then for 15 minutes, they flawlessly improv’ed like they had been doing it for years.  The classmates not on stage laughed, listened intently, and gave their peers their full attention.  I didn’t see one cellphone out.  Not one.  Not once.  When there were 5 minutes remaining, they played a game called “Splat” (which I’m proud to say I participated in) in which speed and acting like a household appliance are requirements.


Scene:  A pregnant woman and her wife shopping for baby items

So what did I learn:

  • Set up routines.  It was clear from the get go that this class had developed a specific agenda and today was no different.  They knew where to be and what was expected before I even read the sub plans.
  • Let your students rely on one another.  Students spent the majority of the period memorizing lines.  They helped each other and were dependent on one another in order to be successful.
  • Trust your students.  As the kids went off into their small groups, many used smaller rooms and corners of the building for a quiet space to get into their character.  The end result will be a memorized script for rehearsal. Which leads to my next item…
  • Give the students meaningful projects.  There is no way to “cheat” on developing a dramatic character.  There is no way to “copy” the memorization of lines vital to acting them out.  But every student in this class was engaged in doing both of these things because being the best character they could meant something to them.

At the end of the day, I left that drama room with a lifted spirit and joy in my heart.  I also left wondering how I could develop that kind of excitement over learning in my own mathematics classroom.  I still covet my prep time, but I’m grateful to have gotten this opportunity to see this different student learning world on the other side of the building.

Spiraling Math on a Stick

I’m sitting on an airplane, about to embark on a nine day professional development bonanza in Baltimore, Maryland.  Right before we were given the airplane-mode directive I get this message from Christopher Danielson:


Now, quick background:  I adore Christopher, everything he creates, his wife, his kids, and pretty much all that he touches.  I’m being hyperbolistic (which is totally a real word) but if you made a word cloud of my blog posts over the last year, it would be borderline embarrassing how large the words Christopher and Danielson would be.  S0, to make a long story a little bit longer, I was out-of-my-mind excited about this opportunity and wanted to text everyone I knew.   The hawk-like gaze of the flight attendant made that a difficult pursuit.  Anyway, it was a long flight.

Fast forward through a handful of prototypes, test runs with the resident 5-year old mathematician of the household, 250 colored card stock copies, and a pep-talk from the Professor himself, I was ready to hit the Minnesota State Fair to be the visiting mathematician/artist at Math on a Stick.

I settled on using 1-100 at the recommendation of Christopher because many children would be familiar with a hundreds chart either from home or school.  I could easily help kids made the transition from that familiar chart to this “different” way of arranging the same 100 numbers.  Making that comparison was something I would not have thought of, and it ended up being incredibly important.


Admittedly, I was a tad nervous that my idea would flop.  That all of the fun I’ve had with this spiral wouldn’t translate to a wider, younger, more playful audience.  All of that fear melted away when that first adorable young face sat down, and grabbed a marker.

One of my favorites of the day was the girl who figured out that if she colored the multiples of 10 and then connected them, they turned into triangles.  Always triangles.  She tried again with multiples of 5, with the same result.  The glow in her eyes was precious.

Simply stated, this was one of the most fulfilling mathematics experiences I’ve had ever.  What Christopher Danielson has created with Math-on-a-Stick represents the paradigm shift in the way adults view mathematics through the playful exploration of children.


An Ode to Elementary Teachers

“The problem is that most of the middle school teachers don’t have a specialty in math.”

When I heard that statement, I knew it bothered me.  But at the time, I was unable to articulate exactly why.  There are a lot of problems with education, many more with math specifically.  But I know that pointing the finger squarely at the grades below is both unproductive and damaging.  Not only that, but when we are convince ourselves that groups of teachers lack certain “necessary” content knowledge, we close our minds to anything else they can teach us.

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks at AFT Thinking Mathematics training for 9 days and then straight on to Twitter Math Camp for another 5.  Both of those experiences will change my teaching for the better, and I found a common theme throughout:  Listen to what elementary and middle school teachers can teach you about mathematics pedagogy.

We talk about connecting representations of mathematics like graphs, tables, and equations.  But how often do we connect what kids do in elementary grades to what they experience in high school?  We lament in high school about kids lacking number sense, but how do our classroom routines support and build on the number sense kids have created through the primary grades?

Notice the similarities between the Ten Principles of Thinking Mathematics and the NCTM Math Teaching Practices:


Credit: AFT


Credit: NCTM

I know those are dense, but they are the foundation of what we need to do in order to improve mathematics education.  Every shift we make needs to be based in these principles/practices.  And the ideas need to connect from counting to arithmetic to algebra to calculus and all the places in between.  We can no longer be complacent in teaching as we were taught.  Doing so means committing negligence toward a generation of students who need a deeper understanding of mathematics in order to use it successfully in the world they create.

Tracy Zager brought it all home for me with her keynote at Twitter Math Camp.  Here is her blog post with the link to the slides and the video.  I heard the same things the research had been telling me over and over in Baltimore:  We need to listen to each other.  There isn’t a hierarchy of teaching from elementary through post-secondary.  The conversations between vertical groups of teachers are important – even necessary – to helping our students develop as mathematicians.

Here are some pictures from the AFT Thinking Mathematics Training (credit:  AFT)

0722162104-1.jpg0722162104a-1.jpg0722162105-1.jpg0722162107-1.jpgDay 5 - Diamond Dot Pattern ExamplesDay 5 - Pool BorderDay 5 - Seeing Dots

Tough Cartoon Conversations

My sweet little angel came back from grandma and grandpa’s house proclaiming her love for Powerpuff girls. In the last 6 years I’ve watched my share of mind-numbing cartoons, most with female characters that make me want to shove a pencil in my eye and swirl it around in my brain.  Powerpuff girls has 3 female superheros, so I thought, what could be so bad?

In case you aren’t familiar, here is a classic depiction of the three little world-saving wonders:

Credit:  Cartoon Network

Credit: Cartoon Network

Notice anything? …   I’ll give you a moment.

I try to run all of the media Maria is exposed to through the same scrutiny:  Does it include a diversity of characters, including diversity of race and family structure? How are the female characters depicted?  I’d like to say I’m looking for shows with a good message, but to be honest, I’m content with something that isn’t psychologically damaging at this point.

Hopefully you were as uncomfortable by the lack of diversity in the trio of pro-feminist ass-kickers as I was.  And if you don’t think that matters, consider this conversation I had with my daughter recently.

Me:  Maria, is it important to have all kinds of superheros?

M:  yes.

Me:  Boy superheros and girl superheros?

M:  Of course, mommy.

Me:  What about superheros with dark skin and superheros with light skin?

M:  No.  Superheros should only have light skin.

This stopped me in my tracks.  But I can’t fix it unless I’m willing to own my part in it.  I’ve worked very hard to make sure Maria is exposed to a variety of races, religions, sexual orientations, and family structures.  But the world the media has built for her is one in which superheros are white.  It’s my responsibility to disrupt this.   I’ve got much more work to do.

On Which I Pat Myself on the Back

Warning:  Some of you are going to find this really dumb.  You’ve probably been doing this with your STEM-fueled 5th graders for years and are wondering why a 35 year old secondary math teacher is so excited about.  Four words: This. Isn’t, About. You.

So in April, I went with two great #MTBoS friends, Julie Wright and Danielle Reycer to the Exploratorium in San Francisco after NCTM.  To be honest, I was awed by the place, but my motion sickness unexpectedly overcame me, and I spent most of my time at the exhibits that didn’t require visual attention.  But in the back, there was a “maker-space” (or whatever you edu-folks call it) where they were making Scribbling Machines.  I took a look at it and thought “I want to do that this summer.  Maria will get a kick out of it.”

Step one:  get a 1.5 – 3.0 volt motor.  [Crap. Something with wires and electricity.  I can’t do wires and electricity.  Cuz I’m math, not science.

Tip:  Don’t purchase a new one.  Re-purpose one from a child’s toy.  [Sweet!  Look out, loud spinning, jump contraption from Hell’s fifth circle, I’m taking your motor!]

What I thought was the motor was not, but when I attached the battery, it became magnetic, which was neat.  I loosened about 8 more tiny screws and finally extracted the actual motor.  Now the game was on.  I was like a mad scientist, tongue to the side, laser focused on getting this scribble machine to function.  No, darling spouse, I won’t tell you what I’m doing, but you can see when I’m done.  Now go away.  

Here are a couple of videos of the Scribble Machine in action after a lot of adjusting and reconfiguring.  Yes, I know, I listen to great music:  Listen to the Music Radio on Google Play Music.

Here are the instructions if you are interested in making your own Scribble Machine.  Now if I could just get it to spiral…

You might be thinking, Ok, Beagle.  What’s the point?  You made a thing and now you want us to be excited for you?  Well, no.  Yes, I’m excited I repurposed a motor from Lucifer’s Leaping  Musical Spin Toy of Satan.  But confession:  I was one of those women who was convinced that robot, electrical, and computerized toys were designed with boys in mind.  These Lego robots weren’t exactly screaming my name:


But this girl looks genuinely excited, right?


Until I saw something I wanted to make, I was convinced I couldn’t.  My daughter is growing up in a country where for the first time a woman is running for president and a woman will adorn the $20 bill.  But what’s more important than those major accomplishments for me and my daughter is for her to see her mom try stuff and fail.  And try again, and fail again.  And then try one more time, and fail repeatedly until I have a working Scribble Machine that doesn’t do much but prove that I wanted to, so I did, tripping over myself along the way.  Maria wants to learn to ride a bike this summer.  And while I won’t be the one out there helping her, I want her to believe that she can and she will.

I see my own mother do this with her sewing.  I’ve seen her tinker and toil over stitches and fabrics and techniques until she creates something so unique, beautiful and truly one-of-a-kind. Like this (oops, stained) Doc McStuffin’s jacket:


Note:  Maria’s analysis of the Scribble Machine is still pending.  Will update with reactions and artwork.