Unwanted Subject

Last week a man was asked by police to leave a Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt store in Kirkland, Washington.  He had been in the store for a while and hadn’t ordered anything.  He made the two employees nervous and they called the cops.  Turns out here was there for work.  He’s a court supervisor and was supervising a court-sanctioned outing between a mother and her son.  Which is why he didn’t order anything and was sitting in Menchie’s.  Would you like to guess his race?  He’s Black.  Would you like to guess the race of the 2 employees?  They’re White.Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 2.25.13 PM

Here’s how Byron Ragland, the court-supervisor who was escorted out of Menchies by the police reacted:

“You want to stand up for yourself, as a man, or as someone who was just doing his job, and say ‘hey, this isn’t right,’ ” he said. “But in the moment I’m thinking: ‘I’m a black man, and If I start emoting, I might not walk out of here.’ And so you rationalize to yourself: ‘What’s the big deal, it’s just Menchie’s, just leave.’ But then later, you realize that you gave in — that you consented that this is the way it’s going to be, to always be.’

“Living this kind of mental life will drive a person insane,” he added.

I urge you to read the entire article from the Seattle Times, found here.

And as you are reading, ask yourself if he could have been one of your students (he could have).  And could a parallel situation have happened to one of your 4th graders, or 7th graders, or 11th graders (it could).  And then ask yourself if that student of yours would have told you about it and how you would have reacted.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 2.26.38 PMFor me, this story brings up a reaction that I had to Julie Reulbach’s keynote at Twitter Math Camp last summer.  Julie eloquently brought up the countless ways that teachers are maligned by non-educators.  I absolutely agree.  She argues that student engagement shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of their teachers.  I also absolutely agree.  And yet, as math teachers (who I believe most people reading my blog are), we have to build relationships with our students so that we have ways to talk with them about what it feels like to grow up in the world in their skin.  Because that unengaged student of color sitting in my classroom may very well have had numerous experiences just like the one which Byron Ragland had as a grown man.

And as a teacher, while I can’t ultimately prevent this from happening, I can have deep relationships with my students so that they will confide in me.  Trust me with their truth.  And trust me to be a white ally as best I can.

The other day as students were walking into my class, one asked if he could speak to me privately.  Once the rest of the class was underway on their warm up, we stood in the doorway.  He confided in me that he and some friends had tried vaping and he wanted someone to know.  He was nearly in tears because it felt so good to tell an adult whom he trusted. He repeated over and over, “It just feels so good to tell you.  It just feels so good that someone knows.”

Student engagement IS my responsibility, and my work has to involve supporting students as they experience their world both inside and outside of school.  Their engagement so often is unrelated to the quality of my math lesson.  Many are facing countless challenges at home, with friends and out in the world.  I know this is part of what Julie was saying.  And that we can reach out to them so many times and there will still be issues facing teens that all of our best intentions can’t overcome.

And yet, part of my job HAS to be building and supporting my students as they grow up and become a greater part of the fabric of their world. A white student of mine may go on to become an employee in a frozen yogurt shop who calls the police because he/she feels nervous about the black man in the shop who is using his phone and hasn’t ordered anything.

And while I can’t walk in the shoes of a black student of mine, to know how it feels, I try to always assume that an unengaged student is one who I can work to make deeper connections with, to learn more, share more, and hope that I can become that teacher where, “It just feels so good to tell you.  It just feels so good that someone knows.”  And while that is part of my work with students of all races, it feels especially important with students whose race is different from mine.  THAT is part of my work as a white ally.  Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 2.55.21 PM

Because “Living this kind of mental life will drive a person insane.”

There is some reaction happening in Seattle.  Here is a second article explaining the police department’s apology.  

What I hope is that the cops who escorted a black man out of a yogurt shop for simply doing his job will return to that shop to have an equally serious conversation with the two white women who called them in fear.  We all need to talk more about race and our implicit bias.  People’s lives (literally) depend on it.




Listening Deeply…

I have tweeted and blogged a lot lately about working to listen more deeply to my colleagues, students and their families.  It has been a tremendous help in building relationships  and becoming a part of the new school community where I am teaching this year.    As parent-guardian-teacher conference season draws to a close, the following story feels important to share.

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Last week in “Teaching with my Mom Googles on,” I blogged about how I am more thoughtful and reflective this year when calling parents about a child whose behavior I am concerned about.  My perspective changed after my son’s teacher last year called me constantly about his poor behavior.  And how I quickly I became a parent who wouldn’t call her back and who kept asking her what she was planning to do to improve his behavior.  While I have always been a teacher who knows the value of balancing positive news home with concerns (heck, I even have custom post cards for sending home good news), I never felt it as deeply as when my son’s teacher constantly called with complaints about him and expected me and his dad to fix in through a strict talking-to or by taking away something fun at home.

In response to that blog post, Marian Dingle posed a question on Twitter which gave me pause:

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Honesty, I see every family-teacher communication differently because of my experience with my son last year.  Could my thinking have been pushed without this personal experience?  Yes, if someone had shared their own personal experience with me.  It didn’t have to be my own son, but if a friend, colleague, pissed off parent of a student of mine, had the courage to be honest with me and trust I would listen, then yes. But I’m not sure that a PD where we read a case study or my principal reminding me of the value of positive calls home would have made as big of an impact.

I will forever think differently about building relationships with families and phone calls home because of my personal experience with my son and his teacher.

If you were not at Twitter Math Camp 2018 last summer in Cleveland, I urge you to carve out time to listen to Marian’s keynote address.  What so deeply moved me was her willingness to share such personal stories as both a parent and an educator.  Her speech was such a gift because like my friend trusting me to listen to the perspective of a foster child and reconsider a routine September homework assignment, Marian trusts us with some of her life experiences so that we have more perspectives to draw on as educators.  While we most certainly do not need to experience something ourselves in order to have empathy and be motivated for change, we do need to be willing to listen deeply to those who take the time to share their perspective with us.

You can read the entire keynote address by clicking here or you can watch it below.

Teaching With my Mom Goggles On

Last year, my son’s teacher called home a lot.  My son was struggling with his impulse control in the classroom and was frequently getting into trouble.  She always called me during the school day.  Sometimes she called more than once a week.  Our conversations were nearly always the same.  She’d  tell me what he had done, tell me why that made it hard for her to teach and for other students to learn, and tell me I needed to have a consequence for him at home.

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The first few times she called,  I did just that.  My husband and I talked with my son to learn more about what was going on and had some sort of warning or consequence.  We said and did all the things teachers would want parents to do.  I appreciated her letting me know what was happening and assumed things would change after we spoke with him.

The first few times.

And then it made us crazy.  Yet another call while I was at work. Why couldn’t she call after work when I could actually talk more easily? Although I never excused his behavior, I also learned from him the reasons that it was happening.  I wanted to shift the conversation to reflect together with her on WHY it was happening instead of WHAT was happening.  From there we could talk about solutions.  I was never very successful.

I stopped answering.  I stopped calling her back.  I was tired of hearing the same complaints.  Tired of the assumption that I wasn’t doing enough at home to change his behavior.  Tired of feeling that the entire onus of change was on what we could do at home: some magical wand we could wave which would get him to sit more quietly at school tomorrow.  If I had that magic wand I had several things I would wave it for.  Heck, maybe I could wave it to get him to enjoy vegetables.

I started the year eager to partner with my son’s teacher to support his social-emotional growth and watched myself become less and less engaged.  Not answering when I saw her calling on my caller ID.  Taking a few days to return her calls.  Sometimes not returning them.  Often not telling my son she had called.

Once she called and I waited a while to call her back.  When I did, I learned she was calling with something positive to say.  The relief that flowed through my body was thick.  I felt the tension evaporate.  What a difference it made to have a positive phone call home.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 8.55.55 PMIt sure changed my perspective as a teacher when I reach out to families. I now filter EVERY interaction I have with families through wearing my mom goggles.

Before I email, call or text, I first consider which communication medium is best, given what I need to share and given what I know about a family’s situation.  Teachers at my school have commented recently on how I text and call so frequently, instead of emailing.  Email is nearly ALWAYS easier for the teacher.  But often it’s not a medium a family uses frequently and/or not best for the information you want to share.

Then, every time, I think about how I would hear the message if this were my son’s teacher calling me about him.  I think about what that teacher could say that would make me want to engage in a meaningful conversation.  I think about what time of day I am calling: I will text in the afternoon, but never call before 5pm.  I regularly call only with positive things to say.  And most importantly, when calling about a student who is struggling with academics, behavior or both, I reflect deeply on why I think these things are occurring and begin my conversation focusing on the why instead of the what.  And I listen, deeply to whomever I am speaking with.  I never expect a family member to fix it.  I know there is no magic wand.  I call to collaborate on how we can best support that student to shine this year.  And after every challenging conversation, I ask if it would be ok for me to text a few times in the coming week.  To let the family know their child’s progress in whatever it was that was a struggle.  Because there is always progress.  But if we don’t talk about the small victories, then the next call may be a few weeks later when something major happens again.  And I want that call to be answered, and not ignored, as I often did last year with my son.

Teaching is about building relationships with our students.  Building relationship through our communication with families is just as critical.

Birthdays and Unspoken Expectations

My dad’s birthday was last week.  He’s an avid reader of my blog, so let me start by, once again, wishing him a very happy birthday.


I thought it would be funny to have my class sing him happy birthday.  But which class?  He certainly didn’t need 4 of these phone calls, as charming as they would be.

It was an easy choice.  3rd period.  They are my ‘best’ class.  The fewest challenging students, the highest quiz average and homework completion average, and that class where I always get a bit farther in my teaching than any other class because things always flow so smoothly.  If you’re a teacher, you know that class.  You have one too.  So naturally, if I were going to stop teaching for 5-10 to do something fun, silly, and totally unrelated to math class, I’d do it in 3rd period.

And we did.  And it was so fun.  We put him on speaker phone, ran the line through the speakers of my LCD so it projected quite loudly, we sang, he gave them a spontaneous math problem, we laughed, we made a promise to meet at lunch on that same date next year to call him again, and we then went back to math.

What I hadn’t thought about in advance, was how memorable that phone call would be for that class: it brought the class closer, gave us a moment to laugh, be silly, connect us all around a family birthday, something each one of them could relate to.  As soon as I hung up the phone, feeling all warm and fuzzy, I realized I had chosen the wrong class.  3rd period already felt warm and fuzzy.  By making them the special class, the one that got to call my dad, they felt even more special.

I should have had my most challenging class call.  THAT’S the class where we need more warm, fuzzy, silly moments.  It never occurred to me to call during that class because we are always behind in that class.  Management takes more time.  Keeping kids on point takes more time.  Heck, even expecting students to put papers into binders takes more time.  I didn’t feel I had time to ‘waste.’


It reminded me of the Invisibilia Podcast, “How to Become Batman.”  It haunts me.  I believe it was Andrew Gael who mentioned it in his Shadowcon talk at NCTM last spring.  Listen to it here if you don’t know it.  

In brief, scientists discovered with rats doing mazes, if you simply expect them to do better, talk to them more kindly, they perform better.

As I hung up the phone, I realized that I was recreating this before my eyes.  By giving my ‘easy’ class more silly, fun, and bonding time; by telling them that we were going to do something fun, because I could count on them to get the same amount of math work done in a shorter period of time, by making plans for a class reunion next year at lunch to call my dad again for his birthday, they will now perform better on tests, focus more quickly when asked, and feel more trusting of one another when they need help.

So mom, since you’re also reading, when your birthday comes in October, you’ll be getting a call from my ‘hardest’ class.  Because expectations matter.

A Tale of Two Puzzles

This summer at TMC, Chase Orton (@mathgeek76) suggested that I should write a series of blog posts reflecting on returning to the classroom after a 5-year hiatus and how what I learned during that time has changed and improved my teaching.  It´s a lovely idea.  But for the moment, challenge not-accepted.

INSTEAD, I have  stories to tell from the first few weeks of school.  I have about 70 students this year which is a relatively low amount for my district.  I am teaching 80%: 3 sections of 7th grade math and 1 section of 7th and 8th grade math intervention.  I have tons of stories to tell from my year so far: highs, lows, reflections, etc; but for the moment, I want to talk about a student who is doing everything he can do opt-out of learning.  He taps on his desk, quietly at first, and increasingly louder if I try to ignore him.  He takes supplies from the student supply area and spends time hooking paper clips together or stacking Solo colored plastic cups left over from Martin Joyce´s Cup Challenge which will eventually be used for Avery Pickford´s  group-work signals of how well a group is functioning.  He argues when I ask him to sit in his assigned seat, eats in class when he knows he shouldn´t, and opt-outs of learning in nearly every way he can invent.  His behavior has clear, consistent consequences and he hears from me every day how much I believe in him and care for him.  We have had lunch together, he´s earning snacks for after class, and we are building a positive relationship together.

Students opting out of learning is something which never leaves my mind.  It happens in nearly every classroom, in subtle and not-at-all subtle ways.

screenshot-www.google.com-2018.09.16-15-18-37My story, however doesn´t start or end there.  This child LOVES puzzles. I learned this during the first week of school when I had a play table with an assortment of Christopher  Danielson´s tiling turtles and pentagons.  He couldn´t put them down and made beautiful tessellations every (and yes, I do mean every) opportunity he had.


During the first week of school I hand each student a ziplock bag filled with a metal screenshot-www.google.com-2018.09.16-15-22-57puzzle of 2 parts hooked together and they have to figure out how to get the 2 parts apart, and then back together.  The types where getting the 2 pieces apart is seemingly impossible.  I have them in 3 levels of difficulty and after solving one, I ask the student if they´d prefer their next one to be the same level or a harder one.  I am only easily able to solve the level 1 ones, so when they get stuck and ask me for hints on the harder one, I love being able to say that I have no idea how to solve them, but I believe that they will if they stick with it.  And yes, most of the diabolic ones eventually get solved.  I find it´s a wonderful way to talk about what math is to me: you don´t always know if you´ll use a day´s lesson later in life, but really good math should always feel like those puzzles…worth solving because they make you curious and fascinated.  I talk about how nearly every student I have ever had ALWAYS chooses a more challenging puzzle  after solving a previous one and how knowing that their teacher can´t solve it makes them even more determined.

We did these puzzles for a day during the first week of school and I left a few out in baskets in the back of the room as something for students to play with when they had down time.  I loved this idea, but as the days wore on, I realized how LOUD those metal puzzles can be if someone is doing one when they should be in their seat with the rest of the class.  The student who I mention above, absolutely loved these.  I offered to let him take one home each day, but what he really wanted was to do them instead of everything else we were doing that week.  And between him being off task and it being so loud, I decided I needed some quieter puzzles for him to use as brain breaks.

He is now in love with Manifold puzzles.  I bought a pack just for him (and a few others to use for other students when the need arises) The idea is to fold the paper to get a 4×4 square of black tiles on one side and 4×4 square of white tiles on the other side. They are leveled, #1-100.  The initial ones look something like this and he had really quick success:


And eventually, they become really, really tricky, like this one


And although I have not yet had a huge amount of success getting him to attempt the grade level material, he is no longer searching for a reason to opt-out of everything and is no longer disrupting us all in his search.  I have walked over numerous times, pulled a puzzle out of my pocket and said, ¨Don´t get up and don´t say a word to me until this is solved.¨ And it works.  He becomes determined to solve the puzzle and comes over gleefully once he does.  This is chapter 1 of what I am sure is a long journey we will take together this year.   And I am sure, at some point soon, I will be celebrating with him his successes on the grade level math content of my course.  He knows that´s part of this story.  I do too.

I would LOVE more ideas of low floor individual puzzle ideas which ramp up into harder challenges  https://krazydad.com/ was shared this week through the Desmos Fellowship and it´s exactly the type of ideas I need.  But ones that involve manipulating things, like these Manifold Puzzles are even better.  I will buy whatever you recommend, so send me your best ideas! I have a list of tons and tons of ideas from Sarah Carter (https://mathequalslove.blogspot.com/), but don´t entirely have time to curate the lists and choose a few to use for now.  What I would love from you is just 1-2 of your favorite ones which can be used with minimal prep and/or minimal instructions (like the Manifolds).  THANK YOU.

What is equity? The Danger of a Single Story.

As a Desmos Fellow, we’re asked weekly prompts as a way to get to know one another and dig more deeply into the mathematics we’re doing in our classrooms.  Last week when asked what our goals are for this coming year, I wrote:

“This year I hope to reflect a lot on teacher leadership and how to take what I have learned from 5 years of being an administrator into the classroom. I am deeply committed to equity and want to be better able to define what that means to me as a teacher leader.”

Yes, as I start my 20th year as a (white) urban, public school educator, my goal is to better define what equity means to me.  Over the past 5 years away from the classroom I have coached many teachers on related issues.  Now that I am returning to the classroom, this work becomes even more personal.   If asked what equity means to you as an educator, could you easily define it? I’m always surprised that it’s harder than I think.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 8.36.20 AMMy working definition is that every child gets what they need every day.  I didn’t make this definition up myself, but really liked it when I heard it as part of district-wide coaching for equity work we did with Elena Aguilar’s team last year.  If pushed further I would talk about ending predictability in learning and student achievement by race, class, sexual orientation and other factors.  A more nuanced view of equity for me, also from Elena Aguilar is that equity involves what you see, where you look, who you listen to, and the self-awareness that you develop.

And yet,  I have a deep, deep fear that while we each could craft a public response to the question of what is equity, privately, inside of our minds, our definition is affected not only by our race but by the race of students who struggle at our schools.  This makes sense to some degree.  However, I want to admit some issues which give me pause and challenge us all to consider this notion of the power of a single story and how it might affect our teaching.

Chimamanda Adichie, Nigerian author of Americanah among many others, has an incredible Ted Talk entitled, The Danger of the Single Story.  If you have 20 minutes now, stop reading this blog immediately and go watch it.  If not, carve out time as soon as you can.

“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become… The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity.  It emphasizes how we are different instead of how we are similar.”

In my district, there is a huge achievement gap between white students and students of color, however the largest gap is between white and black students.  We talk about why and new programs and job positions are launched constantly to address these inequalities in outcomes.

As a white educator, if pressed, if really, really, really pressed, do I simply believe that equity in my district means getting black students to behave well?  To be on grade level?  I will admit that I have had moments when these thoughts creep into my mind.  I KNOW equity means a whole lot more to me, and yet, these thoughts have existed in my sub-conscious which illuminate the danger of the single story.

To repeat Adichie’s words, “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”  

For example, when a colleague comes up to ask my advice on a struggling student whom I don’t know, do I immediately have an idea of the race of that student?  Developing the self-awareness, as Elena Aguilar discusses, to consciously NOT do this feels like a critical aspect of avoiding the danger of a single story.

The achievement gap between white and black students in my district is a deeply troubling issue with no one program, recommendation or ‘thing’ that will resolve it.  All of the work we do as a district should be rooted in understanding the complex web of issues at play and finding ways to measure the impact of the numerous programs we put into place to attempt to overcome this.  And yet, my fear is that in doing so, we have created a single story, that black kids struggle in our schools.  And while many do, I fear that it makes us look at black kids differently than white kids before we have ever taken the time to get to know them.  And if we look at them differently, we start to treat them differently because we believe we already know how their story in our schools will end.

I have no definite answers here and would love to explore this further with anyone who wants to.  But as I wrote in my goals to my Desmos Fellows colleagues, “…I am deeply committed to equity and want to be better able to define what that means to me as a teacher leader.”  I hope to be very intentional of what I see, where I look, and who I listen to so that I can continue to develop my own self-awareness and not allow a single story to define students.




TMC18 My Favorites: Making Relationships STICK

Blog revival!   On my honor, I will try, to prioritize my family, my work, my own professional development AND blog with more regularity.

My first TMC is in the books.  Twitter Math Camp, for those who are not yet a part of this fabulous community of math educators.  I hope to write a longer series of posts on how I learned and grew during these 5 days in Cleveland, but let me get this first post published before I start making grandiose plans for future posts.

One of my favorite parts of TMC was the time each day when we shared “My Favorites.”  So often, just hearing 5-10 minutes of a great idea was all the spark I needed to take an idea and run with it.  Mid-way through TMC I realized that I would really enjoy sharing one of my very favorite classroom management strategies…stickers.  It all started in 2012 when I read Sam Shah’s blog post on customized stickers.   WHAT A BRILLIANT IDEA!  I found an online coupon and ordered up stickers, notepads and postcards for positive notes home, stealing many of Sam’s phrases from his stickers.

After I gave my favorite no, many of you asked to have copies of the stickers I use and to hear more about how I use them.  You are welcome to steal any of the phrases, and better yet, make up your own and share them with me as I need to spice up my deck this year.

There are four themes to my stickers: Individual Positive Recognition, Positive Group recognition, Growth Mindset, and Redirection for off-task behavior.  Using these stickers, for me, is an equity strategy.  While there are many facets to my classroom management, a few key core values are represented through how I use these stickers.

  1. I work very, very hard to never say aloud, in front of the whole class, the name of a kid who is off task.  I do a whole lot to support those students to re-engage, and am quite strict with my expectations and consequences.  However I believe that as much as possible, we should say students’ names in front of the class only for positive things.  One aspect of the district-wide equity work we have done is understanding what it means to be a ‘warm demander’ as developed in Dr. Lisa Delpit’s book Multiplication is for White People.  This aspect of how I use stickers is one, of many ways I have interpreted this idea as I continue to understand this notion more deeply.
  2. I know that students need space when they are upset about grades or not doing well on an assignment from class.  I am always there to support and help them, yet recognize that teens are often not ready for this the very minute they receive the bad news.
  3. I try to stay very aware of status issues in my classroom and especially like to use the positive stickers for students who need that positive recognition and may not be getting it publicly or from their peers.  I most often use the positive stickers for students who have struggled and persevered or those who started class irritated at something and turned things around.
  4. As I mentioned when I did My Favorites at TMC, I always hand out these stickers by silently walking over to a student (or a group of students), sticking one on the outside of their hand, and walking away.  It may be followed by a squeeze of the shoulder or making eye contact as I walk away, and I may pull them aside later for a hug, or a private conversation.  However in the moment, whether I am beaming with pride or really frustrated at how off task they are, my demeanor is the same and I simply stick the sticker on their hand.
  5. THEY LOVE THEM!!  THEY COME AFTER CLASS AND BEG FOR MORE.  EVEN SENIORS IN HIGH SCHOOL.  I try to keep them on their toes, never knowing what other phrases I have stashed away.  So I use these sparingly, and NEVER when someone asks to get one.
  6. I made them on VistaPrint and it’s really easy to find coupons online.  If you make-em, share them with me including what you learn by using them.  Screenshots of them all are below.


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growth mindsetredirection

notepad and post card