The Mathematician in the Mirror

I love mathematics. I love teaching and learning it, and exploring maths’ beauty and creativity through relationship building and the sharing of ideas. Thinking, problem-solving, and connecting around mathematical concepts are the joy of my existence. Unfortunately, there are times when I encounter other maths educators who (often unintentionally) close the gates to our beautiful, creative, fun and empowering community. Lately, I’ve been pondering how to bring this situation to light, and open up opportunities for more people to see themselves as mathematicians.

At the 2018 National Middle School Math Conference, I got to watch Dan Meyer attend to the whole child on stage as he taught middle schoolers about mapping events on the coordinate plane using Graphing Stories. The lesson was excellent and if you haven’t read Dan’s blog about it, do yourself a favor and do so now. What most impressed me was the gentleness and care with which he handled each student’s math identity. Precisely and intentionally, in some instances with great effort, he worked to find a way to authentically say, “Yes, you’re right about x, now let’s get more correct with y.”, or “I see what you’re thinking, that makes sense because…”.

My favorite moment was when the kids figured out they were graphing position/speed to time, instead of waist-height from the ground. Dan’s questioning sequence (something to the effect of “What does it MEAN to have a height of zero? You ARE graphing a body part, but it’s not his waist? What part are YOU graphing?”) led to the “Aha!” moment for kids that they were mapping the height of his feet over time, much to their entertainment. Some of them actually giggled! It made my heart sing to see children smile at discovering their own mistake in their thinking and be glad to have discovered this treasure. ALL of them went straight to work to be more right than their first drafts. It was incredible to watch.

Returning to the daily grind of teaching, I was hyperaware of how many times we miss these opportunities in class because of a pacing guide, standardized test, report cards, parent expectations, etc. How often do we (again, more often than not, unintentionally) make kids feel like their answers are wholly incorrect, when in actuality we are imposing our fully-formed conceptions onto their learning journey? What effect(s) do our impositions have on their budding identities as capable, creative mathematicians?

While in the classroom, I devoted the first two weeks or so to building a growth mindset culture of respect in the room, and made sure to pay attention to the need for “maintenance lessons” throughout the year. Despite the fact that this is my fourth year out of the classroom, I still teach relatively often. I decided to try the aforementioned rough draft language during an intervention day with a random group of kids (meaning they were 6th & 7th graders from several different teachers’ classrooms and included a variety of backgrounds and “labels”). Having someone else’s everyday students, it was even more important to carefully consider my words. We did a clothesline/number talk combo and I was amazed at how simply referring to the first double number line we built (manipulating numbers only, not algebraic expressions) as our “rough draft” lowered the floor and successfully invited all but 1 child to play math with us. [As an aside, she later let the Drama teacher know that she understood that I was trying to make math fun, but, “It was not working out!”. Oh well, can’t win them all in single lesson, I guess. She has no idea the fire she’s started in my heart to change her mind, though.] I tweeted the aftermath of their good work at the play table. If you open your heart and mind, you can feel the laughter and happiness in the room from the pictures.

In the end, accepting a math teaching position means I necessarily accept the responsibility of treating each child’s math self-concept with care. Failure, as with anything, comes with the territory of a learning environment, but we can always apologize for any harm done and try to do better next time. How do you ensure that you are empowering students’ mathematical identities? What instructional decisions/routines/strategies help your students see the mathematician in the mirror? I’d love to get better at this with you.

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Just Try It!

Today, I tried something new to me for Pi Day. My first 3 Act Task. It was not my greatest lesson delivery ever, because the first time you do things it’s unrealistic to expect to be a pro. The task itself was boss and the kids cheered with excitement in Act 3. Literally, the room exploded with the kind of kid work noise that pretty much validates your whole existence as an educator.

There are a plethora of instructional decisions I’m going to change the next time I do this or another 3 Act Task. As soon as we finished, I was already criticizing myself way too harshly, but that’s what passionate teachers do. We’re our own worst critics, no? Reflection and critique are productive aspects of our growth and development; wallowing in our mistakes is not. What helped me quickly snap out of this negative thinking was noticing the classroom teacher was a little saddened by the sight of her students’ genuine elation at the results of the precision (or lack thereof) of their estimates finding the Tile Circle’s circumference. Her words cut through my heart like a knife: “They’ve never cheered like that at the end of my lessons.” It was important for me as a coach not to leave that space without (a) seeking her feedback and (b) allowing her to see my insecurities after a less than perfect experience. By the end of the debrief, she was simultaneously challenged and encouraged, making me feel like the experience stretched us both. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this Pi Day 2018 story!

As a leader, modeling vulnerability, risk-taking, and being coachable and open to suggestions creates a greater sense of trust in our communities. Whether you lead a classroom of students, other educators, or administrators, try something new in front of others and show that you want to continuously get better, too. If we want our students to believe the growth mindset language we use, talk is insufficient. When something new comes your way, just try it!

What new thing have you tried recently? I’d love to hear how you’re working on improving as well.

Passion Anew

Map of Move

It isn’t easy being almost 400 miles away from the only life I’ve ever known. UC Santa Barbara was the farthest I’ve ever moved away and that was only a 2 hour drive back to the Land of Familiar (Truthfully, 1.5 hours if you’re a speed racer like me!) In SoCal I had nothing left to prove, as 16 years of evidence spoke for itself. My passion for students, teachers and learning were simply an obvious part of who MOST people knew me to be. Some enjoyed my straight talk more than others, but virtually no one doubted my motivation–serving to create safe, fun and rigorous learning environments for students.

Now, in this new place it seems more effective to show, not tell, my why. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble figuring out the right way to share my heart with those I’ve essentially only just met. How will my coworkers judge my dedication while I work to achieve balance between being a supportive coach and adjusting to single-motherhood? Will they trust that when speaking firmly about the work that needs to be done to make us better (1) I’m coming from a place of experience, and (2) it’s my passion for equity and social justice in education that drives me? Or do I just sound bossy and insensitive to their needs? What can be done to show students who come from extremely unpredictable backgrounds, and 40+ elementary schools, that discipline IS love when many come from homes where that simply is not true?

Change is hard. Successful change with limited resources is even harder. I’m now in the muck where the initial excitement and wonder have morphed into arduous work and immense responsibility. Nonetheless, the most difficult part of becoming this stronger, better version of myself is deciding the best course of action to continuously pour passionate love onto the new members of my tribe without dismissing the impact of my long-standing family and friends. If you’ve ever reinvented your whole life, in less than 2 months no less, I’d love to hear how to do this victoriously!

In the end, I adore my new life. Every time I cross the Bay Bridge, I wonder how I could be so blessed to serve a challenging community, in great need of committed, steady love, in such a beautiful place. I’m in awe of Oakland’s energy and enamored with its tendency to promote intense, reflective thought. Each of the people I’m building relationships with here express their heart for teaching and learning in unique, special ways that stretch and inspire me everyday. I’ve learned more about myself in these past 3 months than I could have ever dreamed possible.

OK, enough of the feels, time to get back to work…

Play-Full Math

Apologies in advance for starting my first blog ever with a downer, but I didn’t get to play much as a kid. I say this not for sympathy. (Thanks, but no thanks on that!) Instead, I want to illuminate why play has become so important to me. Actually, I had no idea what I had missed until my early 30s when my bff would do all kinds of fun traditions with her children (so you carve pumpkins together EVERY Halloween…weird?!?) I just didn’t experience those things, and neither did anyone around me, really, so it seemed normal. Now, as I’ve learned how fun life as child CAN be if the adults make it a priority, I am awakened to a fiery sense of urgency to get kids PLAYING!!

My current life mission (FYI-I’m a complex woman who experiences seasons of purpose) is to make math class every kid’s favorite time of the day. An inordinate amount of my time is spent researching, pondering, exploring, collaborating (shout out #iteachmath & #MTBos) and experimenting with ways to lower the floor and bust through the ceiling in play-full math classes. I’m obsessed with creating joy, laughter and warm memories of in-depth explorations with equations, shapes, patterns, graphs, conjectures, arguments and counterarguments, and most importantly, connections, in the rooms for which I have been blessed with stewardship.

The most amazing part of being teacher is that I receive more joy than I have the capacity to give. I watch my kiddos’ (and even some adults’) eyes light up as they understand something deeply for the first time! I get to witness the “creatives”, who, in general, normally disengage in traditional math class, dive headfirst into rigorous tasks in completely different ways than many of us would ever imagine. Because the tasks are open as possible, they feel proud to share their divergent thinking with the class because, well, someone asked them to do so!! If math truly is power and not punishment, then my greatest career accomplishment thus far has been all the power I’m privileged to GIVE AWAY everyday!! And, I get back exponentially more than I could ever give! Funny how that works.

Despite what may have been a challenging start, my life is incredible and I am grateful to be wonderfully well, even on the tough days. My heart’s greatest desire is to be in a lifelong, reciprocal relationship with teaching and learning. So far, I’m living the dream.

Thanks for taking time you can’t ever get back to read my ramblings!!