Transitions

Transitions are the tough stuff of life. Moving from comfort to discomfort. Joy to pain. Love to disdain and hopefully through to peace. That’s why I adore middle school! I have been blessed to assist in providing comfort, brevity and love to thousands of students and hundreds of teachers in my 16 year career as the kiddos make their way to high school. What’s special about middle school is that we get to participate in a full circle transition. We get to help them transition from elementary school and through to high school in (usually) just 2-3 short, and often formative, years.

As I am currentLy in one of the most difficult transitions of my life, and I am reflecting on how adults find support as circumstances inevitably change. Do we look to mentors, colleagues, friends and family to comfort our restless souls as we embark into what is generally uncharted territory? I know how to give words that bring brevity, hope and grounding to challenging middle school situations, and I wonder who can look into my eyes and honestly tell me, “This, too, shall pass.” with equal validity? I don’t hail from a long line of educators, and with 80%+ of teachers being, well, NOT my identity, who can I run to when intersectionality gets rough?? How can I see myself in the next phase of my life and career when it more likely that no one will look like me where I’m traveling to next?

Don’t get me wrong, words from all people who actually care about me are accepted and appreciated (#mtbos). But what I’m searching for is the magical affinity-based comfort 80% of educators have the privilege to enjoy. Just some thoughts…

Advertisements

This is how we DO Math.

Everyone = EVERYONE

Through no fault of their own, students in need of trauma-informed care often do not come to school fully prepared to learn and do mathematics. In 2018, it is especially imperative for educators to purposefully and consistently set a positive, light, risk-safe, culturally relevant tone in classrooms and schools. One way to do this is to plan playful, beautiful, joyful mathematics lessons for students! Some may see this as a nice ideal to which we all give plenty of lip-service, but do not truly believe or apply. To the naysayers, I quote the famous Bruno Mars, “Don’t believe me, just watch!” In an era of rampant microagressions, blatant and violent discrimination, numerous school shootings, and political uncertainty/unrest, many children are living in stressful homes. Understanding these conditions, I wonder how we can set up mathematics classroom communities that provide intellectual and physical safety for ALL students to do mathematics?

I spent most of my 12 years as a classroom teacher at schools with disproportionately high populations of students who were on free and reduced lunch, had language barriers, qualified for Individual Education Plan (IEPs), and the so-called “gifted”. Please hear me when I say, EVERY teacher works hard, kids are kids, and teaching in any setting is one of the toughest, most rewarding jobs on the planet! Still, students with more privileged backgrounds generally do not suffer the same lasting effects felt from a lack of quality maths instruction because they tend to have parental support to help them successfully navigate our educational “system”. In my observations of rooms where a significant number of kids come from traumatic homes, a lack of quality instruction (which requires successful relationship- and community-building) can lead to unsafe, unproductive learning environments.

Creating Better Learning Spaces

What will it take to convince students and teachers that anyone can learn and do mathematics at high levels, and that everyone should have the opportunity to experience beautiful maths at play? As each new school year begins, what instructional choices PROVE (not just say) to students that playfulness, aesthetics, and fun are not only encouraged, but expected in our burgeoning classroom communities? How can we get more kids to move from the sorrowful descriptors on the left to the ones mathematicians use on the right? (See photo below from Zager’s Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had)  One of the greatest lessons I learned teaching maths over the years is that maximum learning occurs when people are having fun!

becoming.png

In the school I coach, we started off the year building this kind of community by taking the first three weeks to complete various tasks from YouCubed’s Week of Inspirational Math, followed by an in-depth MARS formative assessment lesson, before we dive into the district-adopted Open Up curriculum. We wanted to send a clear message that (a) mistakes and diverse perspectives are valued, (b) fun, beauty, play and teamwork are HOW we do math, and (c) we’re going to tackle some tough stuff in here, so get ready kiddos! Three weeks may seem lengthy, but the middle school receives students from 40+ elementary sites who are often underprivileged. Community-building and establishing routines and structure are especially important for us. Therefore, our best bet is to slowly turn up the math dial to build a solid foundation as we work to reach grade-level standards. Wish us luck and have a great year!

Note: This blog is a part of The Virtual Conference on Mathematical Flavors 

 

Relief…At Least for a While

If you know me/have met me even once, you will understand the impact watching the video of Marian Dingle’s (@dingleteach) TMC18 keynote had on me. I was speechless. Silent. No words. (Not. like. me. at. all.) The feelings her talk invoked were new and I did not immediately know how to name them. Thus far, I can identify several regarding the keynote itself; love, pride, joy, “Get it, Friend!” Now, the biggest print in the Wordle of my mind for my feelings is relief.

RELIEF: a temporary break in a generally tense or tedious situation

Marian gave me a temporary break from feeling the weight of being the only one like me (in a multitude of ways; for me, female in maths world, teacher of color, humble beginnings to put it kindly) in a space and thereby accepting the undue responsibility of representing whole subsections of people. Although we live on different coasts, it was comforting to know that the discriminatory experiences I had to, often times powerlessly, watch my daughter endure are not isolated. That sounds terrible. I do not want anyone one’s child to suffer. What I mean is, it is comforting to have more evidence that these incidents were (a) real and not a part of me being overprotective as a mother, and (b) systemic, making them nearly impossible to avoid. How likely is that two educated teachers of color, with children who grew up with privileges many other students are not afforded, could have had such similar stories of our kids struggling to authentically belong? We are mothers who obviously understand how to “navigate the system”. Still, we could not avoid this type of heartache for our children? People for whom we’d gladly sacrifice our own lives I’m sure.

If you’re not a teacher of color and are wondering, truly, what you can do to be supportive of people with similar testimonies, the answer is listen. Listen with the intent to understand before defending/being understood/distancing yourself from those who oppose diversity, both overtly and covertly. Let’s keep fighting together to use mathematics as the vocabulary of our intuition and as a humanizing place where differences are not merely tolerated, but celebrated as opportunities for growth as team.

Thanks Marian. You energize me!!

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.

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!!