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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Always About Math – Eventually

So I picked up a little hobby. It started very innocently and turned into something I can’t put down. (Not surprising to anyone who knows me). It’s crochet.  I think David Butler was the inspiration with his beautifully created crocheted coral reef. Then I turned to scarves and hats and slippers. Four months later, I’m feverishly making animals. Their eyes are a little wonky and the limbs aren’t attached perfectly, but I’m creating things I didn’t think I could. 

What’s most interesting as I reflect on what I have made is the process by which I’ve learned this new skill. I started with a YouTube video. I did some chaining. A lot of pausing and rewinding later, I was on to the single crochet – the basic stitch. If this were a typical high school math class, I would be moved onto the double crochet instruction and led to then practice it. Then, once I had that mastered, I could then view the treble stitch, and if I checked enough boxes, I might encounter some enrichment like a crab stitch cluster stitches. But only if I got enough practice with those basic stitches first. 

Not surprisingly, this “instruction and practice” method was not how I progressed through my crochet creations. I learned to make them by…actually making them. I made a super terrible looking pig, but figured out my missteps and made another one that I’m more proud to show off. In the process, I learned how to do a popcorn stitch. I made a hat for my daughter that would have fit her 3 years ago, but used it to determine how to make one that fits perfectly. 

I understand the need for skill practice. I would consider my trial-and-error attempts at a wearable, usable crocheted item as practice while I’ve seen my craft improve. I often hear the “sports metaphor” used in this situation, that ample amounts of practice shooting, passing, and team building lead to better game performance. In math class, do we ever let the children play the actual game? Or is their only performance that which is on a written exam? Is that the only thing they are practicing for? More tests? But back to crochet…Had I taken the instruction/practice route, I’m sure I’d be better prepared for the crochet Olympics. But in the end, it would have been a whole lot less rewarding and fun.

Math Has Always Been Political

It’s been a while. Since November, actually. Since the day white people (myself included) had a rude awakening to the state of our country. The day protecting our most vulnerable became undeniably crucial, and combatting bigotry in the classroom went to the top of the agenda.

I want to keep this short. Lots of  great people have already written on this topic and I want to highlight them:

Jose Vilson on the politics at play in our classrooms
Rafranz Davis on why seeing Hidden Figures is important
Melinda Anderson on how teachers learn to discuss racism
Rusul Alrubail on teaching about the Muslim Ban
 Radical Equations, a book by Robert Moses that discusses math and civil rights. 

Sea of White-ness

Sometimes the best conversations in math class happen by accident, but they are cultivated by nurturing a classroom culture of mutual respect and exploration of ideas.

In my non-AP Statistics class, I start class by giving them a graph or infographic and then I allow them to notice and wonder about what they see. Here’s what we did the first day of class to combat imposters masquerading as reputable news sites:  https://docs.google.com/a/isd15.org/presentation/d/1w0rno08VZxNI_6y7TkOdy9_n39yeUyQ2EcC7q5kDHNw/edit?usp=drivesdk

 Today, I prefaced the activity by reminding them of the agreed upon norms and letting them know that we would be talking about guns.  (Some background knowledge on this class:  there is a wide variety of abilities and all grade levels are represented in this class.  The makeup of the students doesn’t make addressing a touchy subject easier or harder, but the variety of abilities and ages does make the class unique compared to most traditional math courses.)

Here are the images we examined:


I usually have the students share their favorite noticing and favorite wondering with their team, and then as a group, they decide which one they want to share with the class.  I’m always delighted to see the question “is this data reliable” or “what is the source of the data?” Given recent events [i.e. fake news], these types of questions are vital.

Today, however, that question, what is the source of the data, took an unexpected (but important) turn.  None of the students (nor I) had heard of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.  So we used the Googles and were quickly brought to their website.  We evaluated their “dot org” status, admired their clean, organized website, and read through their mission statement.  It all seemed legit.  I noticed they had a Board of Governors.  And so I said, “Picture in your head what this board of governors looks like.” (I recommend you do the same.)


What ensued was a beautiful discussion about the people who are protected by the second amendment whose faces are not represented by this board of governors and the message that sends to people of color (and women). We as educators (and especially as math teachers) can’t shy away from these difficult conversations.  They can happen with compassion and respect for different points of view while still addressing inequities in society if the students see each other as humans first.  Be brave, we’ve got a world to change.

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.