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. 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 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 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 (, 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.


group work

growth mindsetredirection

notepad and post card


A Tale of 2 Tweets

Earlier this week Eli Luberoff, Founder and CEO of Desmos, Tweeted to inquire how various Tech. Tools are used to support English Language Learners:Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 8.54.02 PM

Although I’m not working directly with English Language Learners, I spent nearly the first decade of my career as a Spanish bilingual elementary school teacher and try to bring that lens to much of the professional development work I currently do.  While I had a lot I wanted to discuss around technology integration and supporting English Language Learners, I was at work when I read Eli’s post and threw out something quick:

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As soon as I hit Tweet, I regretted it.  Such a stock, somewhat thoughtless answer to someone who I knew was looking for more nuanced reflections.  Yes, both those tools are helpful, but successfully using any tool to scaffold and support the learning of English Language learners is far more complicated than this.


Fast forward a week: Monday, first day of winter break.  I take my 8-year-old son to my favorite homemade doughnut and coffee spot to hang out and play with one of my favorite weekend books: Anna Weltman’s  This is Not A Math Book.   (@annaweltman)

As we always do, I let him peruse the pages until he finds a set of imagery that appeals to him.  He chose this page and we spent the next while doodling.  We started on the same paper, taking turns building a drawing together, almost like a game of dots, but with doodles instead of closing boxes and gathering points.  He then grabbed his own paper, incorporating these mathematical sketches into his own artwork.


And then I had an ah-had moment.  We were doodling from Anna’s book, however THERE IS A DESMOS ACTIVITY which connects these doodles to formal, mathematical language:

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Heck.  There, in the center of Desmos’ introductory icon is the pinwheel my son had so gleefully turned into a flag in the hand of his creature.  It was a reminder of the power of informal before formal.  Language, reasoning, analysis…when first given opportunities for informal use, students are far more able to delve deeper into its formal use.  And while this pedagogical principle is a part of all good mathematical teaching, it’s especially important for English Language Learners and other students who may initially have difficulty accessing the more formal, vocabulary-rich language of mathematics.

So thank-you Anna for mathematical fodder during a lovely morning of doughnuts and coffee and for helping me move beyond my stock response about how Desmos can be a powerful tool for supporting the learning of English Language Learners.

Technology PD for our Subs

Last year around this time I blogged about using Robert Kaplinsky’s Sheep and Dogs in the flock problem as the opener for my session for our district’s substitute teachers on transitions to CCSS math.

District-wide our substitute teachers are invited to a full day of professional development each August.  I absolutely love leading a session as I believe being a sub is among the hardest and least appreciated work within a school district.  I love being able to personally thank them for the work they do as so often they never meet the teachers for whom they work.  Each year I learn of several subs in the group who have subbed for me in the past or who have subbed for my son’s elementary class and it’s always a really fun discovery.

This year I was asked to focus my session on ways teachers are using technology in the classroom and how subs can improve their classroom management when sub plans call for students to be using their Chromebooks.  I co-led the session with my fabulous TSA for Instructional Technology, Mia Gittlen, and we used Pear Deck as the basis for our presentation.  We all had so much fun!


If you aren’t familiar with Pear Deck, it’s an interactive software which allows participants to respond to questions posed during a presentation and their collective thinking is displayed.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.01.18 PM.pngAfter some fun warm up questions, we asked them what their level of confidence is with technology.  These responses are from our first group of  teachers. Interestingly, our second group’s level of confidence was far more scared and confused.

screen-shot-2017-08-26-at-10-05-45-pm.pngAmong both groups, when asked how often sub plans expect them to use technology, the vast majority said sometimes and very few said never.  To me, this was the most surprising slide.  As the Instructional Technology Coordinator, it also made me quite happy that our classroom teachers have strong enough systems in place for students’ using Chromebooks that they frequently trust its use when they are out.

I love that students are doing research when they have a sub:


However ultimately, the biggest crowd pleaser was teaching tools one can use for classroom management.  The substitute teachers loved learning about the button that allows them to see all open windows on a students’ Chromebook.  Students occasionally use a keystroke to make their screen appear sideways and use it as an excuse for not being able to do work or to have to share a Chromebook with a friend.  Knowing how to undo this felt really powerful for the subs, especially those who were initially fearful of using technology when subbing.  I loved the feeling in the room as many who were VERY new to technology giggled with one another, trying out their new tools and tricks.

And having a district subscription to Pear Deck which long term subs can use was super exciting for the more techy ones of the bunch.  Pear Deck was obviously completely new to them all and they absolutely loved it and wanted more training on how to use it.  Such a successful session!Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.12.29 PM

Finally, I saw this posted on Twitter this evening...about a Louisiana Senator who substitute teaches during his time off.  It’s worth bearing through the initial advertisement to watch this segment.  Wish more people felt the way he does about the work of teachers…

First Day Plans ->GOALS

What are the first day plans of this second-year administrator?  I am a big fan of writing down what I want to accomplish for the following day before leaving work each day.  So, on my last day of work in June, I wrote down what I needed to get done on my first day back.
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EVERYTHING on this list is an administrative/bureaucratic task.  And while this is actually not at all reflective of how I spend my time in a typical day, it’s a reminder of how easy it could be to fill my days with similar tasks.

Today, however, was my first day of work and I accomplished none of those tasks I placed on my calendar back in June.  Instead, I was at a Management Team retreat with all the administrators and managers in my district.  We reflected on and discussed our leadership styles in addition to district goals and our personal goals.  The highlight, however was this 3 minute video which I urge you to watch before beginning your own school year.

Which brings me to my goals.  I am in my second year of my role as Instructional Technology Coordinator for grades K-8 and my fifth year outside of the classroom.

  • Spend time every day either in a math classroom or doing math.  Working through all of the Desmos Activities which relate to middle school math is something which has helped me deepen my understanding of the connections between and progressions among concepts in these 3 grade levels.  The eight 8th grade math teachers at all 3 of our middle schools have all agreed to teach at least one Desmos Activity per week and I’d like to spend as much time as possible supporting them and teaching/modeling or co-teaching some of those lessons, especially for our new teachers.  Specifically, I want to spend enough time in all 8th grade classrooms to have qualitative and quantitative data around how student engagement and teachers’ ability to differentiate is affected by sustained, regular use of Desmos Activities which are aligned to our 8th grade curriculum.
  • Rethink and rework how I lead our department meetings.  In my district, Instructional Technology and Library and Media Services collaborate very closely as increasingly many of our Librarians and Library Media Specialists integrate teaching digital citizenship and online research ideas into their work with kids. Additionally, we have a strong integration of audio books into our readers’ workshop which is supported by our TSA Teacher-Librarians.  Often, our department meetings are spent reporting out on the work we’re each doing in classrooms and divvying up tasks which need to be completed for upcoming PDs we are leading.  Specifically, I want to begin the year by posting the names of all 3rd-8th grade teachers in our district (as those are the ones who have Chromebooks) and having us put a sticker next to each teacher we’ve provided classroom support for around technology integration.  I modified this idea from  Sara VanDerWerf’s  most recent post about how a school staff did this with their entire student body.
  • Collaboratively rework how my department provides classroom support.  Last year, the 5 of us in my department made nearly 600 classroom visits for observations with debriefs and/or teaching model lessons.  Spending such a large percentage of time in classrooms is rare for an administrator, but after watching the above 7-10 split video, I believe we can have a greater impact on instruction if we focus our efforts.  I’d like each of us to specialize in technology integration around specific student needs (of the 7-10 split): Special Ed. students, English Language Learners, Newcomers, Students needing additional challenges beyond the day-to-day curriculum, etc. etc.  In doing so, we can provide more targeted classroom support for technology integration.
  • Better support teachers to use student achievement data generated by software to differentiate in more powerful ways.  Using tech provides so much data. A single Desmos lesson collects tons of student responses.  Most teachers use a lot of tech tools, but rarely carve out time to use the data generated by those tools.  I want my team to learn to look at and use this data more efficiently to better support teachers to do this during our PD time with them.

I’m curious how others see their 7-10 split and how we can each adjust our teaching to better meet the needs of all of our students.  In the meantime, my 8-year-old LOVES bowling and we’ve learned that nation-wide, kids bowl free, once a week from April through August.  You’ve got 2 more weeks…For real!

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