In which sticky notes are examined

If you ever see my desk you will find a bunch of sticky notes. They are not reminders so much as errant thoughts and little quotes I like enough to write down to ponder while I avoid over work. In example:

“He doesn’t get mad when things are hard. He just works. And I think that’s something I don’t have and not enough people do have.” – John Green on his brother, Hank

Yesterday I was looking through the app from Cuethink and admiring how it seems focused on getting students to communicate their mathematical understanding. Many of the things I enjoy most in the math sphere involve articulating mathematical understanding. The Math Forum‘s Notice and Wonder. Number talks. Task Talks. Doing math with others. Listening to my niblings explain how they figured out a puzzle. Crouching down at a group’s table in class to just listen. The following sticky note resulted:

“I think adults sometimes forget what it is like to not know something.”

When I think back to most of my math classes in middle and high school, they were warmup, homework checkoff, lecture with 3ish examples, homework time. Pretty much every day. I have no memory of ever doing a project in math. Not getting math meant going in for help and listening to an explanation again. Watching a new example. Sometimes trying to explain my understanding was involved, but having so little experience articulating my own conception of mathematics that was usually a non-starter. Not knowing to knowing was just a matter of listening more carefully or repeating some more examples, no?

When I think back to my first few years in the classroom as a teacher I can say it looked a lot like that. But I still didn’t give space for student’s to articulate their understanding (at least not students beyond those with Hermione-esque tendencies). I went into teaching because I enjoy working with teens and I love math. I stayed in teaching because I started learning how to give space for students to communicate their understanding and found that listening was fascinating. Watching a student going from not knowing to knowing and figuring out their path is one of my favorite things. Especially when they take paths I would never see because I know.

I’m curious how many people out there yelling one thing or another about education and classrooms and educators remember what it’s like to not know something. Or perhaps it’s better to ask if they remember what it’s like to not know something and also not know how to get to knowing something. As much some claim school is about content I will argue it’s more about going from not knowing to knowing and the many strategies life will demand one learns to survive and do good and be awesome.

So what stickies do you have at your desk?


In which absurdity is declared underrated

With the holiday’s coming I start thinking about how to handle two weeks of almost non-stop interacting with people who I only get to see once a year or so. How do you recap a year’s worth of adventure in just a few hours? What stories will you tell? How do you get others to tell their stories?

Perhaps it’s odd to some to even be thinking about some sort of strategic battle plan for conversations, but my current life in the woods with occasional flutterings into civilization to do/attend professional development has skewed my perceptions toward human interaction. And I’ve been learning French.

I’d never noticed it in English before until I saw that French-speakers do the same thing with respect to opening pleasantries. I know that a normal respond to “Hey, what’s up?” is “What’s up?” I know this. I have followed that script as long as I can remember. And, granted, there is some tonal work involved to indicate a level of current expressed happiness, but still, what’s up with the parroting? This happens in French as well where responding to “Ça va?” with “Ça va” a thing. And how many student interactions do you have on a daily basis that boil down to those two words? As you stand at the door while students file in how many “what’s up”s pass through your lips?

It’s normal human interaction: polite, superficial, rarely remembered. It’s a script. Follow it, and you don’t need to think.

And yeah, I know, TIME. It’s not possible to have unique conversations beyond the generic pleasantries with every kid in the class. The math just doesn’t work out if you actually want class to start before the bell rings again.

But what if you tossed out some crazy to a few random students as they walked in? How many students hear “what’s up?” and continue into the room on cruise control? And then through the class in the same setting? Engaging, but never all the way there. Why should they? Routine has been established by two words. The status is quo.

I believe in disequilibrium as a powerful force. How much more alert are you when something odd or unexpected happens? Kate’s a fan of instigating arguments. I especially like her moral that “confusion and mistakes are necessary for learning.” But why wait until the math to sow confusion? Why not start as they walk in the door?

Due to a childhood spent reading a lot of Far Side and Douglas Adams, I have a healthy love of the absurd which causes me to love the TED Ideas article on turning small talk into smart conversation that came across my dash today. This bit caught my eye first:

We stagger through our romantic, professional and social worlds with the goal merely of not crashing, never considering that we might soar.

Not crashing. Auto-pilot. Only partly engaging. How many students do you have in that pattern? I live in that pattern far more than I’d like to admit–doing what needs doing but not pushing hard because I might fail or be uncomfortable. Shaking that mentality is a work in progress and will probably be something I always keep an eye toward. But this isn’t about my personal fears of mediocrity.

This is about a challenge to myself and for you: break the parroting. The TED article has some nice ideas on this. I personally like their framing of not giving the expected response, such as

Beverly: It’s hot today.
Gino: In this dimension, yes.

What sorts of responses could you give to the “what’s up”s and “hi”s students toss your way as they walk in? Current news? Ponderings of world domination? Sneaking in odd comments that actually relate to a problem you are working on that day with the class? Hah, I can imaging doing that daily and once the kids are on to you they start dissecting your responses for clues to that day. They start engaging with the class before you’ve even begun.

Getting students to question the perceived norm existing in their heads about math class, about their peers, about society, and about themselves will always be a focus in my teaching practice. Working to do so through my typical lens of the ridiculous is just a bonus. Though I know of at least one other teacher that’s taking a similar tack.

So I ask you this: what’s up?

In which a blog is recommended

There are a lot of blogs out there but one I actually email subscribe to is One Good Thing. If you don’t read this one, it’s teachers posting about one good thing that happened in their day. Some are big things but most are the small things that happen to make us remember why we teacher.

News is inherently biased toward the ugly and the depressing and the horrifying because that is what sells and generates clicks. This is also why I think sites like One Good Thing are critical for retaining sanity and a balanced outlook on life.

A post this morning from Mr. Dardy made me want to write a quick note to myself her as a reminder when I get back into the classroom. Specifically this bit:

She told me ‘I thought my job in a math class is to know what formulas to use and how to solve equations with them.’ I explained to her that this was certainly part of her job, but that success in a math class should involve more than that.

So, note to self: Sometime early in the year make sure to ask students what their job is in a math class and what qualities are needed to be successful. Use this to start conversations about growth mindset and what mathematics really is as early as possible and maintain those conversations throughout the year.

A blog recommendation

Oh travel. How you mess up any attempt I make at routine.

Quick post as things are busy! I’ve been trying to learn more about elementary math as it feels like a gaping hole in my knowledge. I only learned the words partitive and quotitive about a year ago and now there is this thing called subitizing and with the number of niblings now in my life I have a compelling interest in elementary math ed beyond pure intellectual curiosity.

To that end, my recommended reading of the day is Nicora Placa over at Bridging the Gap. She posted about number bonds today, which is a topic that’s come up a few times in the last month for me so it was pleasing to further my understanding.

Back to work with me. I’m resting my head in 5 different places over the next two weeks and have PD to finish prepping :]


travel season

Late spring/early summer are busiest for me with respect to travel. Since the start of the year, the only trip I’ve taken is to NCTM, but that changes this Wednesday when I fly out to Boise, ID for a conference where I get to work with middle school teachers on ccssm stuff. After that it’s to Washington state (Walla Walla, Seattle) to see friends and family then to Honolulu, HI for a 2 day PD I’m running then back to home for less than 24 hours before heading to DC for a conference for 2 days then home for 4 days before heading to PCMI in Park City, Utah for 4 weeks. Inhale. There is another trip at the end of July to Chicago for the NCTM HS Interactive Institute, but that’s after being home for 1.5 weeks, so it’s not as attached to this 7ish week jaunt.

I am very much looking forward to all the teachers I get to meet on these travels. There are so many cool things happening in classrooms all over and I feel privileged to get little windows into so many places.

If you’re in one of my destinations, hit me up on twitter as tweet ups are wonderful :]


What’s on your walls?

There was a lot of artwork in my classroom. Origami everywhere, as you might expect, but also a large poster by Alex Ross of the Justice League, decals of transformers (including a 3 foot Optimus Prime behind my desk), video game posters, photos from my backpacking trips, space posters by Greg Martin, Escher prints.

My challenge to those still working on #MTBoS30 (and everyone with a blog, really), is to post some of your favorite classroom decorations that you either have or want to have.

These posters from Zen Pencils are on my want list 🙂


cleaning day–digital edition

It’s possibly I use cleaning to avoid other work, but we’re not going to get into that right now. This is about information flow.

On a whim I pulled open my spam folder in gmail today and found a bunch of emails that shouldn’t be there. Nothing critical, but still. I also found some subscriptions I had forgotten about (and clearly didn’t miss), so I unsubscribed from several of them. Anything after this paragraph is me rambling. The takeaway for this post should be: check your spam folders regularly for things you might not want to miss.

Information is a curious thing. There is so much out there and it’s easy to get sucked into reading thing after thing after thing until you’re 20 clicks deep in wikipedia trying to understand the history of miners and worker’s rights in Turkey.

And everything has a bias. It’s the sensational stuff that makes the top headlines. I’ve been reading too many things lately that just break my heart from Syria refugees to kidnappings to rampant privilege and sexism. When I worked with students every day, these stories didn’t hit me as hard because each day I was confronted with evidence the world has good people in it who want to do well and make things better. Working from home that is not as much true.

But I still get to read blogs from you all who are doing cool things and working to help your students become the people they want to be. So thank you to all the bloggers out there for helping me stay optimistic. The little paintings of your worlds mean a lot to this stranger.

post-edit: bonus! Today’s xkcd sums up nicely how I feel about all the information sliding across my screen this past week.


Recommended Thursday viewing

Happy Thursday! Though I’ve never quite got the hang of Thursdays…

I’ve been reading xkcd a long while and highly recommend it. TED posted Randall Munroe’s talk today and I highly recommend it. It’s about 10 minutes long and will hopefully make you laugh. If you need some extra incentive, here is a favorite quote:

“I don’t really like math for it’s own sake. What I love is that it lets you take some things that you know and just by moving symbols around on a piece of paper,  find out something you didn’t know that is very surprising. I have a lot of stupid questions and I love that math gives the power to let you answer them. Sometimes.”

– Randall Munroe, Author of XKCD and What If

Click here to watch: Comics that ask “what if?”


A few favorite tools of mine

My need for some form of organization is great. I work for multiple groups and need to track folks across the country and I consume a ridiculous amount of research articles and blogs. Here are a few things I love.

Evernote [free, with upgrade possibilities]
All hail to Cal for introducing this lovely to me. Kate has also sung it’s phrases. Unlike Kate I don’t use Evernote as a to-do system (more on that in a bit) but I do use it to store and tag all the things I read that I believe are worth saving. Evernote has a chrome plugin that makes this super easy. Reading a blog entry I like? Click the Evernote icon, title and tag with anything I feel is relevant, and save to my Evernote files.

I tag things by ‘who’ and ‘what’ for the most part. Trying to remember that cool post I know I saved by David Cox? I just search by the tag I have for him and they all come up. Planning for something with Algebra 1? Search that tag. My other favorite type of tag is ‘where’, which is the tag I use on location specific stuff. Friend recommends a great breakfast spot next time I’m in Tucson? Tag it. Trying to remember to pick up that odd bulb next time I’m in a hardware store? Tag it. This does of course depend on you actually checking the tags when you go places, but I’ve found that to be an easy to build habit.

With Evernote on my computer, phone, and tablet it’s the best thing I’ve found for organizing. There is a limit on uploads, but unless you are a heavy user you probably are fine with the free account. I upgraded to the paid version due to how much I use it and wanting to make some shared notebooks (the husband and I keep shared lists sorted this way for grocery, hardware stores, etc).

The new thing I’ve started doing in Evernote is using their pdf markup features. Now, I knew that I could mark up pdfs in Evernote, but what I didn’t know was that if you did so, all of your markups show up in a sweet summary page in the Evernote file with that pdf. So all the stuff I highlighted/commented is right there with the page number. So convenient when you just need to find that one sentence you know you highlighted without scrolling digitally trying to find things. I find my memory for where stuff is located is no where near as good with digital medium as it is with print so this feature really helps.

For those with a tablet, Penultimate is a nice app that will auto save in Evernote the notes you handwrite/doodle in it. I’ve been using it for quick thoughts. Skitch is great for taking a photo, annotating, and then sending off all while getting saved into Evernote. How could you use that to share Student work?

Things [$20] [iOS only] [I know. Trust me, I know]
This app consistently wins accolades for being an awesome to-do tracker app. If you’ve ever flirted with the GTD philosophy you may have run across it. I had this app back when I had an iPhone a long while back and loved it. I was in my second year of teaching and it really helped me stay organized. When I swapped to android phones (which I prefer over the fruit) I lost this app and have been trying to find it’s equal ever since with zero luck (and I’ve tried a lot). I now have a shiny iPad mini and, after cringing at the price, bought Things and spent a few hours entering in current projects and breaking them down into doable steps and tossing away the constellations of stickies all around my desk.

Now in the morning when I get to my desk I open Things and plot out what I am going to get done that day. Every Friday I do a weekly review of everything I’ve entered into the program to make sure I am still on track for current projects. This helps me banish that haunting feeling that I am forgetting something and it’s good to see the big picture of ongoing projects and my ‘someday’ goals (hike across Ireland, sign up for another half-marathon, get a kayak).


What tools do you use to stay on track? I’m always on the lookout for new awesome stuff, so please share in the comments!


Early morning sunrises

James asked about when people work, so I thought that would be a nice Saturday topic 🙂

My habit of arriving at school at 5:30am developed in my first year due to two things: the distance from the front door of my abode to the front door of the school was 1 mile and I was the swim coach in the fall (so no after school time). (or any free time as those that teach and coach well understand)

It turned out that 2 other members of the math department also arrived at that hour and my principal was also an early riser. Sometimes a bunch of us would all pull in at the same time and walk in together. It was a nice way to start the day that I very much miss.

Kids would show up for before-school things around 7, so the hour and a half in the morning was spent on reviewing the days plans, copies, breakfast, and the like. I didn’t grade much in the mornings so after school or weekends was when the bulk of the grading got done. I never established an official ‘day off‘, but I rarely worked Friday nights. This pattern worked well for me, and especially as the years went on and my routines got better I slowly reclaimed more ‘free time’ to be social and do outside projects. Or play Skyrim.

I do miss seeing the morning sunrise from my classroom when the school was still quiet. I had east-facing windows on the second floor and it was beautiful.