An overly long post about Homework

I mentioned in my last post that I would do a post about my classes. I started it, but it got out of control. So I’m breaking off this bit about homework. And maybe I’ll break off another bit about warm-ups. We’ll see.

For a post just about homework, this goes on a bit. I’m far too verbose.

I need to do a better job this year of giving some time to review homework. I’m thinking after the warm-up I give students 3 minutes to ask their group any questions they might have had, and then I’ll take two pressing questions no one at the table could answer. I’ll be flexible with this based on what I hear while they’re reviewing. But I also want to be strict with myself that I don’t jump in during those 3 minutes. I hate, hate, hate being the “Sole Arbiter of Knowledge” in class. There are definitely times where I need to offer clarification, but too often their default is to ask me. I’m making a renewed effort to stomp that out this year. Instead I will use this time just to check their work. I walk around with a simple stamp and just stamp if they have it or not. No time to check for correctness, just completeness. The stamp changes every day, and I mark the stamp I used on a given day on the homework tracker.

HW tracker

I have a tracking sheet like the one to the right where I write down who is missing their homework. Usually the list of who’s missing homework is significantly shorter than who has it, and it’s easier to remember three or four names.  Plus absences and assignments are all in one place, and it’s easy to read.

In general I don’t accept late homework. Each assignment is only 2 points total. If it’s done very obviously poorly, I will give half credit. If a student is missing the assignment, they get a zero. At the end of every week (or more realistically every few weeks) I tally up the number of times I see a student’s name and deduct points accordingly. So if there were four homework assignment, then the score for the week is out of 8. If a student’s name is written down once, I enter a 6. If it’s there twice, I enter a 4. If I over-counted a student’s name, they should be able to show me the assignment with a stamp and I fix it. If I undercounted a student’s name, then chances are a few extra points won’t hurt them.

Unless a student is absent I don’t accept late homework. My reasons for this are that A) a few missing 2 point assignments shouldn’t drastically affect a student’s grades, and B) trying to keep track of late homework gave me a huge headache. This whole process was an effort to drastically simplify checking homework, and checking for late homework doesn’t make it less complicated. I will admit to feeling a little shitty about this, because I do think extra practice is important and I do want students to complete assignments and I do understand that sometimes kids just have super busy days. But I have to have a system that is manageable for myself. Grading is not my strong suit, and in the past when I tried to allow for late assignments it just overwhelmed me logistically. Last year I made each nightly assignment out of 4, and I hope that lowering the point value will make homework less stressful. Hopefully they will complete it because I sell the value of practice, but if they don’t then it won’t torpedo their grade. The one exception will be assignments on DeltaMath, which will count for more points (since students will have more time to complete it).

My goal of the low point value and checking for completeness was to make homework low-stakes, so students would just work on it without stressing about making mistakes. What actually happened is kids started just copying from the back of the book.  I don’t have a good fix for this. I will challenge kids if there’s no work shown, and it’s easy to catch when there’s a typo in the answer key and the kid doesn’t think anything of it, but day-to-day it’s just difficult. At the end of the day, though, homework is such a small part of their grade. Maybe doing more Edmodo quizzes or something to force them to think? But not everyone has consistent internet access at home.

In my opinion students should not be spending more than half an hour on any particular assignment from me a night. Hopefully less. They have so much to do, I don’t need them spending hours on anything I give them. I think eating a decent meal and getting a full night’s rest is probably better for their learning then completing an extra few math problems. I plan to tell them on the first day of school that if they find their homework taking more than 30 minutes, they should stop doing it and make plans to come see me after school. I’ll check in with some trustworthy students throughout the year if my goal of less than 30 minutes is actually a reality.

For homework in Algebra 2, we are going to try a modified lagging process that I heard about from Julie. Last year I tried lagging homework by waiting almost a week to do problems based on a topic, and I think there were definite advantages to the system. Kids had more time to review topics before a test, and spaced their practice more. But I did a terrible job of giving kids feedback while they were learning, so it turned into this weird system of kids not knowing what they didn’t know. The new ideal is as follows:

  • On Monday we cover topic A. For homework students get one or two “easy” problems on Topic A.
  • On Tuesday we cover topic B. Homework is one or two “easy” problems from topic B, and one or two “medium” problems from Topic A.
  • Wednesday we cover topic C. Kids will get a few “easy” problems on C, a few “medium” problems on B, and a few “hard” problems on A.

This plan is awesome! But also a lot of work. To make our lives easier we’re trying to plan out homework ahead of time and give them to students at the start of a unit. Since this whole curriculum is new this is going to be tricky, but I have high hopes. Some students may work ahead, but even if students fall behind then all assignments will be in one place.

We’ll also supplement the nightly book-work with DeltaMath  on the weekends. The assignment will be posted at the beginning of the week and will be due by 10pm on Sunday nights. They have all week to knock it out, so even if they have bad internet at home they can find us during the week (or obviously speak with me and explain their situation) and work on it another time. As a result, we won’t assign book work on Friday nights.

In my Studies 2 class, homework will probably be a bit more traditional with the assignment following the lesson. That said, I want to be constantly spiraling in old content from last year. The students are taking an exam in May that is summative on everything over two years of the class, and I don’t want to wait until April to start reviewing. Maybe rather than book work the students will get problem sets? I’m realizing this is a thing I have to think through further. I like problem-sets because they feel more official, but then it’s more stuff for students to do, and the fall of their senior year is going to be crazy.

My goals for 2016-17

There’s still two weeks until students come back to class, but since most of the rest of the MTBoS is already back my brain is churning about all the things I want to do this year. Not that I’m making any big changes, but there are lots of different aspects of the year that I keep thinking about and all those ideas rattling around are starting to get too noisy. So I’m going to write three (maybe four?) blog posts:

  1. Teaching goals for the year
  2. What I want students to do in an Algebra 2 class
  3. What I want students to do in an IB Studies 2 class
  4. (Possibly) Grade leader goals for the year.

This is all aiming high, as I’m historically not the most dedicated blogger. Especially once school starts. But too much is unrecorded and if I don’t put some of this stuff down I worry it will be too amorphous to be instituted this year.

I should also say that these teaching goals are sort of outside of my #1TMCthing of including more social justice in my classroom. Not that I don’t think that’s important, but as I indicated in my last post it intimidates the crap out of me. These posts will be things I want to start doing from day 1, and the Social Justice stuff will come with time as I become more familiar with the curriculum and with social justice topics.

So anyway, my goals for the year:

1. Close every lesson – The last year or so I’ve gotten really lazy about closing lessons. In fact whenever I saw a summary slide from a previous teacher’s work I would always chuckle that there was no way we’d get to that. But after listening to Tracy at #TMC16 I’ve come to believe that it’s so important.  This year I’m also shifting away from SWBAT-style aims to Essential Questions, and I think the whole idea of a closing makes more sense now because we have to see if we can answer that question. I also found last year that I wasn’t doing nearly enough formative assessments throughout a unit. Kids would do homework but weren’t getting any feedback from me at any point before an actual assessment, and those count for a lot. So I need to be more consistent about, at the very least, summarizing what we’ve learned, and hopefully also finding ways to give ungraded feedback to kids so they can track their own learning.

2. Be intentional about note-taking – After looking through various student notebooks last year, I realized my kids have absolutely no idea how to take notes. Some kids tried to write down every single word that’s on the screen, others scribbled the Aim and put down some out-of-context math work that they’d never be able to study from. Our department tends to just tell kids “Write this down!” but aren’t very good about taking the time to discuss what good notes look like and how to take good math notes. I’ve done guided notes in the past but I’m not crazy about the idea because I want them to be more self-sufficient, especially the seniors. Learning to paraphrase what a teacher or a slide says is a very valuable skill that I want to think about. To that end I’ve already created a slide that looks like notebook paper, and I’m also going to start taking notes on chart paper next to the board so students can see how I might organize my notes. It’s time consuming at the beginning but it’s something I think is important so I’m going to try. And once I set it up well enough, then I stop answering questions they should have in their notes (which I think…Sarah? suggested) to make my point even clearer.

3. Use Desmos more – Descon 16 was amazingly inspirational. There are so many things we can do with the software if we just spend a few minutes ahead of time, and I want to utilize that more. Especially card-sorts (which I LOVE pedagogically but HATE logistically). The biggest challenge here is that we are not a one-to-one school, and most of our laptops are terrible. With only 40 minutes in class, by the time the laptops are on and actually ready to go you don’t have a lot of time if you want to make sure they are off and away by the end of class. Plus I don’t even have a full class set of functional ones, so kids have to share. And if we have five sections of a class, it gets tricky to keep them all charged (and that assumes no classes meet at the same time). I don’t offer these up as excuses not to, but more as a reminder that I need to think through a few more logistics than just “What cool activities can I do?!” But I think it’s possible, and a lot of the kids have smart phones, so if I’m careful I can make it work.

I like this list because it addresses a bunch of things that annoyed the hell out of me last year. Test scores were always frustratingly low because I did a terrible job of letting kids know just how little they understood about topics (biggest takeaway from last year: Kids don’t know what they don’t know). And then when we went to do test corrections, theirnotes were a hot mess (if they even had them). And I hope Desmos can 1) Help me talk less in class, and 2) Help solidify their understanding of concepts more than just me talking them through practice problems. And I think all of these things don’t require some drastic reimagining of my lesson planning process, just the adding of a few more things to consider when I work.

So those are my goals. As always I welcome any feedback you might have!


I need help with my #1TMCthing

I had a really hard time picking what one TMC thing I wanted to do this year. Partly because I led a morning session, I feel like there wasn’t some central focus that I could go to. I almost picked “Use more activity builder” because I learned so much about that and I loved all of it. But something else has gotten stuck in my head and rather than fading I’ve gotten more and more determined.


It started with Jose Vilson’s keynote on Saturday. Like I said in my recap post, I thought the message he was making was so important but I was frustrated that there weren’t more specific resources about how to have serious conversations in class (or at least they’re not readily available). If we all agree we need to have these discussions, how can that be facilitated in math class? Then Sheila’s afternoon session on using Problem-Based Learning to bring Social Issues alive in your class made me realize remember that we can use math to analyze complicated math problems and talk about solutions. Then on Sunday I attended Nicole’s afternoon session on Identity in the math classroom (specifically about one’s identity as a “math person,” but she introduced that idea with other pieces of identity that students have). I feel like all of this tied into a common theme of making math personal for the kids. Or maybe relevant is a better word? I want to find ways for students to talk about themselves more, and to use more math in those conversations. Or maybe a better way of saying it is I want kids to talk about themselves using math, but in a meaningful way.

I had several conversations about this with other people at TMC. One of those conversations led to Anne’s podcast called Chalkline, in which she talks to different people in education about issues of social justice. Since I was driving from Minneapolis to Chicago and back, I decided to give it a go in the car. I then proceeded to power through all available episodes, as well as start listening to the Code Switch podcast that several of the speakers recommended. All of this has just pushed me even more to believe I need to help my students to have conversations of social justice and to tackle math around relevant topics.

The kids at our school are great public speakers. I’ve watched them in seminars bringing up amazing ideas, and I’ve seen them declaim fantastic and emotional pieces, and I’ve seen them show activism through their extracurricular pursuits. Granted I’m not a humanities teacher, but I’ve always been really impressed at how our kids can analyze texts to support their arguments. And after listening to things at TMC and the podcasts and everything else, I realized it’s not that I want kids “talking about themselves using math” so much as I want them “advocating for themselves using math to support their arguments.”

The next thing I realized is that I don’t know how to do any of that myself.

I’m a white dude from an upper-middle class background. The few times I went to church, it was Methodist. Sure, I’m gay, so that gives me some insight into the struggles of minorities, but by and large I can “pass” when I need to, and am young enough that many of the biggest struggles for my community happened before they became an issue for me. So I’ve never really HAD to advocate for myself, and when I did it was largely just parroting interesting articles I found online. I know I should be critical of statistics, but not necessarily how to do that.

So I’m asking for help. Any resources or ideas you have that can help me integrate more social justice into my class would be great. My goal is to have kids explore social justice in a way that better enables them to use math to question the world around them. I’ve been looking for stuff recently and here’s some of the stuff that I’ve found so far (that I haven’t already mentioned above):

I’m positive that there’s more, but my brain is a little overloaded at the moment. Please let me know! If something wasn’t included it’s not because of some bias, it’s because I either didn’t know about it or honestly just forgot in my rush to finish this post. I welcome any and all input on how to diversify this list.

This task is huge. I don’t think I’m going to get it done by October 19th. I don’t even know if I’m going to get it done by June 19th. I’m not even sure what the end product looks like, or how I can measure my degree of success at doing this. My goals at the moment are admittedly vague as I’m just starting out. But it’s something I want to start working on and thinking through. Thanks for any input that can be provided!

#TMC16 Day 3: Learning is hard

As I’m sitting in my hotel room in Madison, WI the day after Twitter Math Camp ended, I’m trying to figure out the best way to phrase what I want to say. Because I think this post is going to come off as self-pitying to some, or whiny to others. But I’ve been processing some stuff about this conference and I need to put it down in words to help continue my learning process. And it starts a little bit meandering, so thank you if you sit through it, but no pressure. Just bear with me until the end where I promise it does get positive again.

I’m still new to teaching. I just finished my third year, but any reasonable person wouldn’t consider my first year as teaching experience so much as “How to survive feelings of constant failure and abuse while having no power to say anything about it.” So I’m still figuring a lot of shit out. While I think honesty is important with the kids, sometimes my face is too honest. Sometimes I get too annoyed with them. Sometimes a lesson that I think is going to be awesome is just a complete shitshow, and as soon as it’s over I see all of the places I should have known better if I hadn’t been blinded by my excitement. But I keep trucking on, because I want to be awesome at this. I didn’t get my teaching degree until I was 30, and I had a lot of life experiences that got me here. I know this is the job for me, and I know I can be better, so I keep working at it.

The MTBoS, and especially Twitter Math Camp, helps me to be better at it. These people all have these amazing ideas, and I learn so much. And I want to give back to the community. I want to present on things that I’m working on so people get ideas. And I will totally own the fact that I am selfish and like the feeling I get when someone says “Hey, I used this idea you had and it was great.” It’s why I signed up to present about Socratic Seminars last year and it’s why I joined Chris to do the morning session this year. I want to help everyone be better. And since I was Chris’ student teacher and had also attended his workshop at MfA New York, we do a lot of the same stuff in our classes already, so this was something I thought I could contribute a lot.

And the session went great! Everyone that I saw said either “oh my god, I got so much out of your presentation!” or “I’ve heard so much good feedback about your morning session. Great work!” We started our own hashtag that is blowing up. I feel confident that the session will at the very least get a lot of people thinking about how to add more discussion to their classrooms. Which is amazing.

Yet I was in such a shitty, shitty place Monday afternoon after our session finished. I was distracted and awkward and just wanted to go back to my room and lay down and not talk to anyone. I even wound up skipping any flex sessions (which was incredibly, incredibly difficult for me to do) because I just couldn’t be around people. And lying down was good, and I felt better, then we had a great dinner, and a great meander catching pokemon, and we watched the Bachelor and I had great conversations with Tracy and Michelle and Sheri. Things were good and I loved TMC and I was so sad it was ending.

The truth is I was embarrassed by how I contributed to the session. If you’ve ever heard Chris talk he’s engaging and funny and outgoing and knowledgeable. He leads a great PD, and I strongly recommend everyone listen to him talk. He’s also been giving similar PDs for five or six years now. He knows what he wants to say and he knows of good ways to say it and he has lots of ideas and it was really interesting to work with him on it. I’ve learned so much from working and talking with him.

None of that is me. I’m funny and maybe knowledgeable, but I’m new. New to teaching and new to speaking to a group of professionals. I can fake it a bit for short bursts but two hours a day for three days? I’m a mess. And I can hear Sam and Chris and Julie and more all saying “No, none of that is true.” Maybe, but it’s how I feel when I get up there, and I haven’t figured out how to quash it yet.

That all came to a head when I had to talk about Socratic Seminars in Math. This was the one thing that was mine. That I knew and that I had done before both at TMC and in my class, and that I wanted to talk about. And I think I kind of forced it into the session because I wanted to have something there that was mine, that I came up with and I contributed (how fucking childish is that?). The group would have been far better served to have that 15 minutes to work on adapting their own debate structures and then being given time to share out at the end. Seminar is a difficult thing that can’t be rushed.

And also, despite what people say, my talk was terrible. I pride myself on being able to read a room, and the way that I presented information was awkward and clunky. Everyone saw that what I was doing was interesting, but they didn’t quite get it and I was disjointed and jumping back and forth between slides. I picked a seminar that I created that I’ve never used in an actual classroom, instead of the one I did with kids TWO MONTHS AGO. I felt terrible and wanted to just run away.

But it’s TMC, and these are my people, and I didn’t want to waste the short time I have with them. And really I didn’t want to run away, I just wanted a time-turner to go back and redo everything. I was being selfish and wanted people to come up and say “Hey, your seminar sounds so cool, tell me more!” (and maybe they were thinking it, who knows. Again, I’m just explaining how I felt at the time).

I say all of this not looking for pity or encouragement. I’m good now. I talked it through with some people, I had time to gather my thoughts, I know that I did contribute things and I was a big part of the session and I am valuable and blah blah blah. I actually really DON’T want reassurance at this point, because I know I would just see it as perfunctory, so please don’t.

I say all of this because it’s a reminder to myself that learning is hard. I took a big step by doing a morning session, something I’ve never done before. And it was hard. And in my head I can see all of the places that I perceived that I failed (whether or not I actually did is immaterial). I’ve learned from them: Work time is important; Sometimes it’s better to cut things than to force them; Let your audience decide the flow rather than forcing your own agenda; Be more selfless.

I’m itching to try again, especially next year (and not just because I’m paranoid that if I don’t present I won’t get a spot…).

At the end of the day, I had a great TMC. Halfway through I was worried I wouldn’t get to say that, but I’ve come out the other side. I learned so much about myself and about teaching, like always, but this year it just felt different. In a good way, but still different. Learning is hard, and hard things are scary*. But they’re so important.

Thank you to everyone that made TMC amazing this year. From all the conversations I had to all of the new people I met to everyone that sucked at Trivia so we could win. I’m sorry if I didn’t get to talk to you, I promise that I am friendly, but very shy. Just awkwardly sit next to me next year and we can force our way through introductions. Beer helps. I love you all and hope you have a great end of summer.

*That’s what he said.



#TMC16 Day 2. Or “How is it only Day 2?”

I’ve said it several times already, but I live for Twitter Math Camp. As soon as the dates and location are announced I put it on my calendar, announce it on Facebook, and tell my boyfriend that the weekend is reserved. I live for this week of community and math and teaching.

But man, it’s exhausting.

We spend all day talking about teaching and math and getting excited about all the amazing stuff that everyone else is doing. Sessions go all day and then conversation goes late into the night. It’s invigorating and inspiring and I’ve said on numerous occasions that I’m the teacher I am because of it. But I swear if it was more than once a year I would burn out so quickly. Maybe if we saw each other more often we wouldn’t all feel the need to cram as much as possible into the weekend? Who knows.

I’m rushing to get through this before breakfast, so I’m being sloppy about links. I can find all of the stuff that I write about here, just ask.

Day 2 started with a short My Favorites session. First Heather Kohn spoke about her “Engineering Design Process” activities, and how they related to Mathematical Thinking process. I think I want to adapt some of that, because my kids are TERRIBLE so far at working through new problems. Then Dave Sobol did something interesting with maps and Voronoi diagrams, which looked cool, and Anna B talked about feedback meetings that give her less work grading. She had a great quote that paraphrases to things that invigorate you, even if they take more time, will be more sustaining to you as a teacher in the long run. This is something that I’ve thought for a while ,but haven’t been able to put into words. Energy is a much better resource for me than time, and I need to be aware of conserving it.

Our morning session is still going really well. Numerous people have said “Wait, that was two hours? It goes so fast!” We way, way, way overplanned the session and there’s just not enough time to cover everything AND give work time. But as long as people are still getting stuff out of it I’m happy. Only one more morning left!

After lunch we had another short My Favorites. Sam talked about his “Explore! Math!“, which looks so amazing. I was already planning on doing it this year to help preview kids for the IB math explorations, but this just reminded me why I’m so excited about it. Then David Wees talked a bit about taking time now to work on making better questions, and Connie H talked about her recent trip to Rwanda. Her stories are pretty powerful and helped take me out of my bubble a bit (but in a great way).

We then had a keynote by Tracy Zager, which was fantastic. Funny but meaningful, with specific content and specific calls to action that really made me think. There are recordings of it that I don’t have time to find right now, but please take an hour and check it out. Her call that we work on diversifying our Professional Learning Network to cover all of K – 12 really inspired me to spend more time talking and working with elementary school teachers. Too often I think “I’m teaching 11th graders, that’s a different conversation than #elemchat.” But the fact is it’s not, and we can learn a ton from each other. I was talking to Wendy after the fact and she suggested a vertical integration PLT for MfA NYC and that seems like a great idea.

The first afternoon session I attended was by Nicole B about Identity, specifically the identity of being a “Math Person.” She opened by talking a bit about all of the identities we have and how powerful those identities are. I need to stop letting anyone around me say “I’m not a math person” because it’s so damaging to general attitudes toward math. I always try to encourage all of my kids to think of themselves as capable but I really want to step that up this year, from day 1.

The second afternoon session was by Jonathan , about hacking curriculum to pieces. He started with a marble race video, which I’m not sure had anything to do with the presentation but was super engaging and memorable. And I think it speaks to his classroom culture and personality very well.  We then looked at standards and talked about grouping things by Action words instead of topic. He starts his year with focusing on equation solving instead of focusing on linear functions. He covers all the same material but just in a different way, and I admire his fearlessness in just turning things on their head and doing them in a different way. Especially in Algebra 2 the general order of the class can be a little arbitrary, and it’s nice to shake things up.

For dinner, we went to RePUBlic because Mathalicious sponsored a trivia night. It was hard, but our team won!

The night was super subdued because we’re all exhausted, but I met up with Jonathan and we went to Julie’s room to talk about how he does his notebooks, and just to chat in general about teaching. I say all the time that this is my favorite part of TMC. I love finding people at all hours, in all places, and talking about math. Last year, after the second day, everyone was leaving the building and someone turned to me and, in an amazed tone, “I can’t believe everyone is STILL geeking out about math here. They never stop!” And it’s true. We’re always looking for each other to learn more and to celebrate success and be better together. And it’s super, super amazing, and I love this place, and I value it.

But man, it’s exhausting.


#TMC16 Day 1: A different kind of beast

The longer I am a teacher and the longer I am active in this thing called #MTBoS, the more I seem to be taking on. My first TMC I just showed up. Last year I did a “My Favorites” and a short afternoon session. This year Chris asked if I wanted to do a Morning Session with him. Well, morning sessions are crazy. They’re awesome to lead, but also stressful to plan and run, especially for someone like me that struggles with self-confidence. I mean, I just finished  my third year teaching and I’m telling 15 year veterans they should be doing new stuff in their classroom? Right, sure. And Chris is old hat at it by now, but I’m still figuring out how to do it. Add to that the stress of two dozen people coming up to us over the last few days letting us know they were planning on coming to our session, and I start to regret some life choices. Needlessly, as it turns out, because things seem to be going well, but more on that in a sec.

The first day of TMC always starts with each person that’s leading a morning session giving a short intro. We wrote a little rhyme for ours (which you can see if you watch the first 54 seconds of Julie’s periscope ) that seemed to go over well, then off to our rooms. We had a small room for about 25 people, which we had to fit 40 people into. Good problem to have overall, but we had to think on our feet a little bit. We did intros with a Talking Circle, previewed Talking Points, and started introducing Chris’ debate stuff with the “My claim is… My warrant is…” structure. All the feedback we’ve gotten so far has been great, and I’m looking forward to Day 2.

After lunch at Seward Cafe, we had a quick My Favorite’s session. Jonathan spoke about his awesome Varsity Math program that he does every year, and then called me out for my love/need of stickers for my clipboard. Then we heard a bit from Hedge about SnagIt and a bit from Deb about a cool-looking PacMan transformation activity.

We then had a keynote by Jose Vilson, who founded the #EduColor movement. He talked to us about the fact that as teachers, we are in the best position to have conversations about race issues. Because I got my Masters as part of a program designed to help me teach in an urban environment, these conversations are something I’ve been talking about since Grad School.  We’ve had several conversations within our school about ways to increase diversity among the student body and staff. I think this topic is so important for teachers, especially for those that don’t teach minority populations (since minority students are usually painfully aware of how messed up things are). That said, I wish he had included more strategies and suggestions about HOW to have these conversations. Whenever the audience asked, for example, “How do you have this conversation with your students that might have opposing viewpoints?” he would say “That’s a great question.” It was a great question, and I wanted to hear some more resources for that. As a math teacher, even one that uses a lot of discussion and has kids that discuss a lot in other classes, I struggle to have proper structures for having serious-but-awkward conversations in the classroom. I’d be interested in seeing the MTBoS put together sets of strategies for these sorts of talks. Having resources helps to enable these conversations happening.

After the keynote, we had two afternoon sessions. The first one I went to was led by Sheila Orr about including Social Justice issues in the classroom through Problem Based Learning.  I love, love, love this idea, and want to include more opportunities to apply math to these sorts of real situations. But like I thought last year during Alex and Mary’s morning session, I keep thinking that I’m not quite smart enough to create these activities for problem-based learning on my own. I’m going to be digging through all the resources she gave to get some more inspiration. The second one was from Wendy about using problem-solving strategies in class. She used Crossing the River with Dogs to create a problem-solving course for off-track upperclassmen. I have the book and tried to use it last year to have a problem-solving unit in our class, but it flopped, so it was really interesting to see how she put together a whole semester-long course on it. I’m going to think about ways to include some of the strategies (and more importantly the mental flexibility) that comes from such a course.

After the afternoon we had a dinner for TMC newbies. This is the first year we’ve done it and I think it was so great. Hat-tip to Glenn for organizing it, I think it was so important to help people feel more a part of it. The three ladies I sat with were awesome and they seem to really be enjoying their time here. Twitter Math Camp is such a hugely important part of my year and my identity as a teacher and it makes me so happy that more people are coming and experiencing it. Even if you can’t make it every year, I think just being exposed to these crazy-awesome educators makes us all better. Next year I’m going to lean heavily on more of my department to come and experience it (especially if it follows the pattern and moves east!)

Then, rather than hanging out, Chris and I worked for over an hour to prep our morning session for today. So I didn’t get to talk Algebra 2 with Lisa and Jonathan, or dance with everyone in the dorms, but it was good. Like I said before, giving a morning session is such a different kind of beast when it comes to TMC. It’s really interesting to work with all the teachers and hear their questions, because there are so many things that I’ve internalized after working with Chris and being in my own environment that I don’t think about (or that I’ve gotten sloppy about) and I’m surprised how much I’ve learned myself just from explaining what we do to others.

I’m going to be late for the afternoon my favorites so I must go.




#TMC16 Day 0: #Descon16 Desmos Preconference

You know you’re a real math teacher nerd when you sign up for an extra day of PD just so you can hang with your friends and learn really, really cool stuff for your classroom. This year ahead of Twitter Math Camp 16, Desmos threw together a one-day event for all of us to become more familiar with the calculator and all of the amazing things it can do.

The day started with breakfast (thanks Desmos!) and then a keynote by Eli sent in from Germany. It was mainly a lot of announcements that I forgot, but it did give the whole thing an air of “This is a big deal.” Then several of the staff members showed us some cool new Desmos features. One of the big ones is accessibility for blind and low-vision studends. Now, using the Accessibility narrator on your computer, Desmos will audibly describe your graphs. It will tell you where points are and where your cursor is on the graph. But a bonus side-effect of this is that now it will also play a tone that correlates to each graph. So for example if you have a parabola it will play a decreasing then increasing tone. Rachel, James, and Chris all worked together to make Desmos play “Mary had a little lamb.”  This could be such a great STEAM activity, where not only can we use Desmos to make art, we can also use it to make music.

Next we had some smaller break-out sessions where we just got to play with the different features of the calculator. Heather and I sat and learned all about lists [square brackets for the win!], polar graphs, and I even learned how to do shading to show integrals. It was really fun to just spend some time playing with the features in a big group and showing off the crazy things that we made (Heather made a particularly awesome Polar graph). It really is such a powerful little system and the staff deserves a medal for making it all free. One weird perk of the day was that the graph I submitted for my Desmos fellowship application was included in the “Desmos Potluck” slides, which won’t mean anything to anyone not at the conference but I was pretty proud of/embarrassed by.

We then had lunch (thanks again Desmos!) and a keynote from Sara VanDerWerf encouraging us to be “evangelists” for things that are important to us. For example, she said we should get out and show students, parents, and teachers all the ways that Desmos is amazing and useful. I really enjoyed the talk, and now I want a sign that says “Desmos Evangelist” for my classroom.

After Sara’s talk, we learned a bit more about Activity Builder. Two major things of note from Dan Meyer and Christopher Danielson:

  • Bundles: Desmos has taken a bunch of activities and “bundled” them into topics. So for example gives you a sequence of tasks that build on each other to help explain different features of quadratic functions and their graphs. So far this looks so convenient and I can’t wait to look into them more as I start teaching Algebra 2 this year.
  • Create your own cardsorts and marbleslides:  Gotta give Desmos credit, if you complain they listen. They now let you make your own marbleslides and card sorts! To activate the feature, just click on your name in the top right, then go to labs, and enable them. I made my first ever activity with Julie’s help! It was a Visual Patterns card sort. And the whole process made me realize how much more I should have been using Activity Builder this year. It’s so easy and intuitive.

Desmos finished off the day by treating us to a drink at happy hour (They really know how to win over a bunch of math nerds). My favorite part of TMC is always the people, so these nights where we all get to just hang out and talk and build relationships are so important for me. Even though I can get overwhelmed and super-awkward around new people, I still love it and it’s something I always push myself to take the most advantage of.

I have to go now because I have to get breakfast, set-up, and go to the TMC Newbie thing, all in the next 20 minutes. Sorry for no pictures, those take so much damn time.

Surviving your brilliant, brilliant decision to go to #TMC16

So far I’ve been to two Twitter Math Camps. My first was in Jenks, OK in 2014, and my second was in Claremont, CA in 2015. The second year I had my co-worker come with me, and she was almost the ultimate TMC and MTBoS newbie, and it inspired me to write a quick survival guide for future teachers that still have their first Twitter Math Camp in their future. This won’t be the most eloquent #TMCSurvivalGuide but hopefully it will be funny and hopefully you will find it useful.


  1. Join Twitter – This may seem obvious since it’s called “Twitter Math Camp” but every year there’s one or two people that get there and say “Oh, I’m not on twitter.”  I’m not saying you should start live-tweeting your day, but it’s a quick way to become familiar with some of the people you’ll meet. And once you’re there it’s a convenient way to connect with people that you might want to follow-up with later.
  2. Become familiar with some of the basics of the community – Matt and John have done a terrific job of assembling most of those here. I think many of us just take for granted things like Visual Patterns and Estimation 180. If you don’t already have even just a slight name recognition with those things some conversations will be confusing at first. Again, you don’t have to be an expert on everything, just vaguely familiar.
  3. Find a social media interface that works for you – For twitter I love Tweetdeck in my browser and Tweetbot on my phone. I use Feedly to follow blogs that I like. There are a hundred more options out there if you start looking and asking for recommendations. But things get overwhelming very quickly if you’re not at least sort of organized.


  1. Don’t be afraid to jump into conversations – I know this is easier said than done for many of you. I was extremely lucky that at my first TMC I already had two friends from home, so I always had at least one person in the room that I recognized. And even with that I was still nervous walking in to new workshops. But the great thing about our community is that everyone is so friendly and nice, and you very quickly start to have shared experiences. If at all possible, make sure you attend the social gathering on the first night, as it’s a great place to meet people. There will also frequently be open invitations to lunch and dinner. If you are just a little bit brave to say “hey, could I sit here” you will find you are rewarded with great conversations.
  2. FOMO is a serious problem – There is so much awesomeness that takes place in the three days of TMC that it can be overwhelming. Just choosing which workshops to go to is nearly impossible, and then there are all the social gatherings outside of that. I remember at my first TMC, we arranged to meet in the lobby to discuss Geometry courses next year, which then transitioned into a whole other group talking about Interactive Notebooks. All while there were 10 other conversations happening all around us, all about math, 9 of which I wish I had been a part of. It’s normal to feel overloaded, sometimes, which is why you need to…
  3. Make time for yourself – Some people thrive on being 100% social for four days straight. I am not one of those people. I need half an hour after each session, before dinner, to decompress and reflect on my day. There are many others in the same boat. It’s really difficult for me but I have learned to say “That sounds awesome, but I need some alone time right now.” I don’t say it as often as I should, but it’s still a big step for me.


  1. You don’t have to become besties with everyone you meet – TMC is full of math teachers trying to be the best possible versions of themselves that they can be, and I respect everyone for that more than I can say. But there are definitely people that I just don’t click with for whatever reason. It’s impossible that with 200 people I would want to be best friends with everyone. I feel like this isn’t a thing we always say out loud, but I think it’s important to acknowledge. And maybe this goes into “While at TMC”. But anyway, it’s an important mindset for me to realize that I don’t have to love everyone I meet, so that I can focus my time on the people I do love.
  2. Take some time to reflect and evaluate –  I have a bad habit of being at TMC and thinking I want to do literally every cool idea that I see there. Standards based grading, interactive notebooks, better questioning, Desmos for everything, Mathalicious and Illustrative Mathematics for everything also, redoing curriculum, etc, etc, etc. Then I get home and I think “Well that’s impossible.”  Pick two bigger, or three smaller things that you will focus on for the year and commit to those. Last year we had a #1TMCthing and it was so helpful just to
  3. Take what’s most useful to you – This overlaps with #2 a lot. At my first TMC Lisa said that after two months I should sit down with a glass of wine and thin the herd of blogs and twitter followers a little bit. It was good advice. Twitter can very quickly become overwhelming.
  4. Start planning for next year – Before we leave we find out where the next TMC will be. It immediately goes into my calendar, and I email my entire department saying “Hey, this is awesome, you should go!”
  5. Appreciate how awesome we have it – To the best of my knowledge there is no Twitter Science Camp or Twitter ELA Camp. Whereas we have this amazing experience every summer that helps us all become better. And as we grow I know that things will change in different ways, which is why I want to appreciate everything as it comes.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of things that are important that I will remember the second I get to Augsburg College, but until then, this is a start. I can’t wait to see everyone!


Saying something

One of the reasons I became a math teacher is because I liked how unemotional math is. Sure, I get excited about solving a problem and the beauty in patterns makes me feel something, but we never ask kids how the Pythagorean theorem makes them feel or ask them to interpret the metaphors in a derivation (I can hear the chorus of MTBoS-ers disagreeing right now…). It’s not like analyzing a book in ELA or discussing the impact of historical events in social studies. And so my class isn’t really set-up to be a place where we share our feelings. I’m friendly with the kids, and I will listen to their joys and frustrations, but mainly out of class. For the most part we’re there to solve math problems. This fits my personality. I get excited about things, maybe talk about Pokemon or TV with students, but I wouldn’t say I ever get emotional. Definitely not in front of the kids, but even not in front of friends and family.

Then the massacre at Pulse nightclub happened last Sunday morning. I spent that day looking at news reports and feeling worse and worse. As a gay man who has had to consider whether it was safe to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public, a shooting in a gay club is my worst nightmare. As my twitter feed scrolled by with news updates and reactions from the world, I would retweet what I found most powerful. I would also respond to things that I thought were horrible. I was making my feelings known very publicly on Twitter that I was upset and I was hurting and I was scared.

The whole time, though, I was thinking “What if my kids see this?” They’ve flat-out told me they read my feed, and have quoted tweets back to me in class. What if they read what I was writing? What would they think? I don’t keep the fact that I have a boyfriend from them, but I also don’t bring up my personal life in class very often. My weekend plans don’t factor in when we’re factoring a quadratic (pun unintended).

I will readily admit that, even though I work in a fantastic school with great kids, I still get nervous about being “out.” At my first job, my boss told me on the very first day “Thank god my son isn’t gay, I couldn’t stand it.” At my first school the kids used the f-slur like they were getting paid endorsements from Westboro Baptist Church. On the subway and on the street I’ve been called terrible things. Much of my extended family very publicly thinks gays are going to hell. While my current school is amazing, you never know who is going to react poorly, and the thought of having a moment where someone reacts poorly scares me.

But now all of the fears and things I kept inside were intersecting with my public life. I needed to post those things, to comment, just to help myself deal with it. Yeah, maybe some of my kids would see, but maybe they were struggling too. And maybe these young teens, who are still figuring out who they are, just took a giant step backward because clearly the world isn’t safe.

So not only did I post, I also decided to say something in each of my classes. I didn’t know if I would until my first class was ending, but I had been distracted all period and I needed to say something. It was horribly awkward for me. Like I said, I’m not very good with emotions. I said that I didn’t know where they stood on the spectrums of sexuality and religion and politics, but that what happened was a horrible thing. I told them I was really struggling to deal with it.  I said every time they used a slur, or even heard a slur used and didn’t say anything, they were contributing to a culture where Bad Shit like this can happen. I got choked up, which made me even more awkward. It also happened to be the last class of the year so I had to end my speech with something positive about how it had been a pleasure to teach them. The whole thing was not in my wheelhouse.

But the kids were silent and attentive. And several of them thanked me for saying something after the fact. Apparently I was the only one. One student sent me an email that night that made me cry because of how touching it was. And maybe it helped. Or maybe I’m just the emotional gay teacher now. I don’t know. I guess I’m writing this to sort of process it all. One of the harder things about being a teacher is that teaching content is actually only a small part of what we do. We have to model for the students how they should act in different situations. And that is a lot of responsibility. If I worked at a desk job I would be subdued but I would struggle privately. But I kept thinking that these kids needed to know that what happened WAS horrible. That they needed to know they didn’t have to be OK. Maybe they were getting an opposite message at home. Or maybe I needed to just tell myself that it was OK to not be OK. I don’t know. Ugh, feelings.

I guess the point is I’m glad that I said something. Maybe I lost some of the kids who think gays are gross. Maybe I won some kids who appreciated me being more human. Probably most of the kids will forget I said anything. But at this point I’m realizing the important thing is that I won’t forget, and when I wonder at the senselessness of the last week I can at least say that maybe there was one kid in my class who is terrified and by saying something I made them feel better.

I was going for self-assuring but worry this comes off as self-congratulatory. I don’t think I did anything special, I just needed to process, and I tend to process publicly. Apologies if this was melodramatic. I am gay, after all.🙂

A message to pre-service teachers

I’m finishing my third year of teaching at age 33.  It’s a long, kinda involved story about how I got to where I am, but long story short I changed careers and decided I wanted to be a math teacher. So I packed everything up and moved to New York because I wanted to help inner-city kids do math good (and do other things good too).  As I was winding down my grad program and looking for jobs, I heard about this new school opening the following year with a focus on preparing kids for careers in addition/as an alternative to college. I’m totally on board with the idea that college isn’t the right fit for everyone right away, so I agreed to come on as the founding math teacher.

Yup. My first year teaching I was the only math teacher at a first year school with a first year principal who had as much teaching experience as I do today, teaching a population in which a third of the students had some sort of special education services.

In an effort to be professional I won’t go into details here, but long story short it was a terrible mess. I never slept. I drank too much. I developed a bald spot in my beard. At the end of the year we had 100% turnover of the teaching staff.

More than once during that year I thought “Oh my god I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.” Obviously my choice of position didn’t work out, but more than that I thought I was terrible at teaching. And it was devastating because this was something that I felt really passionate about, and more importantly something I had considered myself good at up until that point. Why did I feel like I was getting worse every day? How was I failing so miserably?

But I couldn’t quit. I got my masters as part of MfA, and the fellowship had a four year teaching requirement or else I’d have to repay my degree. And a part of me knew, despite the disaster that was my first year, that I still wanted to teach. So I looked for other jobs.

In a tremendous stroke of luck, one of my good friends at my first school knew of someone at my current school who could pass on my resume. And my current school is awesome. And I got the job. And things are better. Not perfect (and the nature of life is that things will never be perfect), but I look forward to work most days and my co-workers are great and our kids are amazing. My beard even grew back in.

This is a very long, very ineloquent way of telling pre-service teachers the following:

Be Careful

New York City is kind of a special case because a few years ago it was decided that small schools and school choice were the best model, so instead of large community schools we have a TON of smaller schools, most with some sort of special mission statement. So we have a lot more choice about where we apply to work than in other places. But that said, be aware of the place you are working. Don’t repeat my mistake of starting at a brand new school your first year. No matter how much you believe in their mission, there are too many other things to balance just learning to do this job, and trying to also create a school culture and policies is exhausting. Make sure you trust your principal. Research the school. Be wary of charters that churn-and-burn their teaching staff.

Be Resilient

Later this summer there will be a ton of “Letter to a First Year Teacher” blog posts from veteran teachers floating about the interwebs. Read those, and realize that the first year sucks for everyone. But also know that there are levels of suck. If you do find yourself in a bad situation, know that it won’t last forever. Every day there’s another post in some major news outlet about the teacher shortage. You will find another job. And until you do, do your best and remind yourself that you’re doing your best. Nothing lasts forever.

Find things you love, and focus on them

This is intentionally vague, but it could be any number of things. I loved the kids at my first school and tried to focus on the good things they did for me. I loved my coworkers so I went to happy hour every Friday.  I loved cooking so I would spend my Sundays cooking for my roommates. Without those things I honestly don’t know how I would have survived. You need to take care of yourself.

Don’t be afraid to admit defeat

I’m a perfectionist, but one thing I learned that year was to say “This is as good as I can make it right now” and then stop. There will always be things that can be improved, but when your principal keeps telling you to “Figure it out” and then not giving you any advice that’s actually useful, realize that it’s on them and not on you.

Our job is hard. Really hard. Hard in ways that are impossible to describe to other people who focus on the two months we have “off.” But as I said before, and as I say to my students, there are different levels of hard. And maybe this job isn’t the right fit for some of you. Maybe you go to a different school and are still unhappy. That’s obviously ok, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for saying “I tried it out and realized it’s not for me.”

But it makes me so sad to think that there are a number of amazing teachers out there who, for one reason or another, got into a shitty situation and it turned them off from a profession that they could have added so much to. If teaching is something you really feel passionate about, find places and people that will reward that passion.  You can, and will, do so many great things. Just keep looking for a place that will let you.