Why it’s hard for me to cheer for the USA.

The World Cup has been going on for over a week and I am a fan.  Soccer was one of the first sports I played as a kid, it’s the one I played the longest and the one I had the most fun playing.  I even was able to attend a ’94 World Cup game in Massachusetts while we were living in New Hampshire.  This year, I was going to be the soccer coach at school, but we were unable to get enough participation to have a team. All this to say that I like soccer, it’s the only sport I can even bring myself to watch on TV (exception: the Olympics).

When I was an 8-year-old American kid in 1994 who loved soccer I, perhaps predictably, cheered for the US. I even had a t-shirt replica of the jersey that I wore everywhere.


The ’94 US men’s team. I also had the exact same hair as Claudio Reyna there on the bottom left. That was just a 90s coincidence. [via – @mls on instagram]

In High School, I was a punk. What I mean to say by this is that I had my share of dissent for dissent’s sake. I also, as most teenagers do, began thinking more critically about the world in a logical sort of way as well. If you did the math, you then also know that I was in high school on September 11, 2001 which made all of us think a little differently.  I began to learn about the ways the US had been a bully to other nations throughout our history.  How we would support an autocratic leader when it was in our interest and then turn around and take out another (or the same one).  Or give a group of insurgents weapons for their revolution only to have them used against us when we decided things weren’t going the way we wanted. I saw how we were trying to reduce and discourage violence by using violence. And, of course, how on top of it all, the only thing we score highest in among other nations is the confidence we have in how amazing we are. All of this left a sour taste in my mouth for the USA.  Even now as a freshman math teacher, I am supposed to be socializing these students into becoming upstanding and productive citizens, but I know that if we allow them to become the misguided arrogant American stereotype, we are doing our students and our nation a disservice. We need an America that is worthy of our young people.  One that is confident where we excel and humble where we do not, one that is honest in our intentions and knows how to be wrong, one that uses peace, instead of violence, to promote peace.  Our students need to see this.

So, what does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, it’s hard for me to add my voice to the chorus of “U-S-A, U-S-A” when I know many of us were chanting the same thing when we invaded Iraq, annexed Hawaii, or forced Native Americans onto the Trail of Tears because we were confident that this was our land and we could use it better.  I can’t wave the flag knowing some of the places it has been. I bring this up because Sunday, while I was watching the US play Portugal I saw this man in the stands dressed as a San Juan-ready Teddy Roosevelt. Given Roosevelt’s imperialist and jingoist tendencies especially toward the Caribbean, Central and South America, I feel like this was horribly insensitive.


Bad idea, dude. [via – @mls on instagram]

I realized this year that I genuinely want the US team to do well.  We’ve been building up to this since ’90 and have a pretty good team this year. A good showing will only help further the sport in America, but I just can’t get past the past. So I’ll be cheering quietly and reluctantly to myself tomorrow as the US takes on Germany for a chance to move on to the elimination round and feeling kind of guilty while I do it.


On High-Stakes Testing

This week is State testing week for Tennessee high schools which means a couple of things:

1. We haven’t had real class for weeks. Since coming back from spring break two weeks ago, pretty much every class has been devoted, in large part, to review for Tuesday’s End-of-Course test (EOC). To me, there is no bigger waste of time than review. If a student does not yet understand a concept by spring break, the only “good” that can be done by reviewing is (a) making them feel stupid and frustrated for still not getting it or (b) putting it in their short-term memory just long enough to spit it out on a bubble sheet. Either way, they won’t be able to use or apply the concept next year when they need it.

2. The students are anxious. All year we’ve been telling them about this test that makes up 25% of their final grade (a fact they’ve been trying hard to ignore), and now that test is imminent. The date is set, the booklets are in the building, we’re out of time. Of course they feel a little crazy.

3. The teachers are anxious. In Tennessee, EOC scores, namely their “value-added” effect (Aside: When did education become manufacturing? Can’t we use a more appropriate moniker?), count for between 35 and 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Of course they feel a little crazy. (Not to mention the effect scores from Algebra 1 and select other classes have on a school’s standing for “the list.” Administrators are feeling a little crazy, too.)

4. For the next week, I will be bored out of my mind. I will be administering tests three of the four testing days this week, meaning no sitting, reading, drawing, writing, eating, drinking, planning, or even grading for the first three hours or so of each day. How many times will I be able to play, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing…?” Only time will tell.

5. The last two weeks of school will be torturous. Getting students who have already taken their EOCs to concentrate and participate for two more weeks will be like trying to mud wrestle a mannequin made of soap in a giant cast iron bathtub. No matter how many grades you say you’re going to take or tests you say you’re going to give, those kids are checked out.

This list is one reason I am so excited for our implementation of the Common Core next year. Now I know it’d be naive to think there would be no testing push next spring, but I have hope that because of the kinds of assessments we will be giving through PARCC, it will be less realistic to try to get teachers to teach to the test or spend learning time talking about the “letter of the day.” I have hope that the end-of-year assessments under PARCC will feel more like a natural application of the learning the students have been doing all year and less like an “I won’t love you anymore if you don’t do well on this” letter from the education system. Laugh if you want, but don’t burst my bubble yet. I’d like to at least wait until the spring to be disappointed.


In the Neighborhood

When I became a teacher, it wasn’t for the love of math. In fact, I had only ever taken one math class in college (Calculus 2) because I had to take it in order to finish the Calculus-based Physics track I was in. As I have written about before, my goal as a teacher was not to further the cause of mathematics, but to get into the lives of the students I taught. So, when my wife and I were ready to buy a house this winter, one of the things on my list was to be in one of the neighborhoods that was zoned for my school.

Since moving to Chattanooga in the fall of 2009, we’ve lived as renters in Highland Park, a diverse inner-city neighborhood straddling the fence of gentrification. We moved here because we wanted to know our neighbors, and we didn’t want those neighbors to be just like us. After leaving our mold-infested, slum-lord owned duplex on the “worst corner in the neighborhood” for a two-bedroom closer to the “nice” side, I was accepted into my teacher residency program and eventually, it was time to find a job. I ended up where I wanted to be, in the high school where the kids in my neighborhood went.

At first, I was nervous to disclose where I lived to my students because, let’s face it, teachers aren’t always their students’ favorite people. But as time went on, I began to reveal more about where I lived. I started to recognize students as they walked around the neighborhood in the afternoons, and they began to call my name when they saw me on a weekend run. When I was running late, I often ended up on the city bus many of them rode to school. And when I rode my bike from work, I would pass them as they walked home after school.

Now, when I hear students talk about going to parties or other teenagery activities in Highland Park I always tell them not to come act stupid in my neighborhood. One of my students this year even calls me the “OG” of Highland Park because I’ve had to tell him that so many times. My students know where I live, and I think even if I’m not their favorite teacher, they like and respect that I’m here. I hear it in their voices every time they tell another student who thinks I live in the suburbs. And I like that. I like seeing my students, and I like that they see me.

So when it was time for my wife and I to stop renting and buy a house, I wanted to stay; to put down roots. We thought about moving somewhere more comfortable, somewhere we could get more resale value, somewhere we could get more house or more trees (oh, trees… I miss you). We thought about moving to another one of the neighborhoods zoned for my school, too, but when it came down to it, we love  being in Highland Park and we didn’t want to leave.


Our house.

I want my students to know that I care about them inside and outside of school, that I care about the state of their school and their communities. I want them to know that I became a teacher for them. That’s why I live in the neighborhood.


Perspective 2014 (OneWord365)

I am a notorious time waster. Especially when I am faced with something I don’t like, or think I’m not good at. For me, this means anything administrative. There are some people who are made for filing and writing reports, filling out forms and keeping records, organizing and alphabetizing (some of my very good friends come to mind), but I am not one of them.  Unfortunately for me, the teaching profession, despite its many shimmering qualities, includes a LOT of administrative tasks, so my planning periods often look a lot like time wasting to the untrained eye.

I have tried over and over to get better about this by simply willing it. When that failed, I tried to schedule extra planning time to offset my evil time-wasting ways. Then when that failed, I got to sleep a lot longer, but still did a horrible job managing my time.

There is a thing my wife introduced me to called OneWord365 where instead of forming long, drawn-out New Year’s resolutions that you’ll forget about in a week maybe if you’re lucky, you choose only one word that exemplifies what you want to be about, or who you want to be in the coming year. I, of course, pretended like it was silly at first, because it’s a task that requires deep introspection, which takes me forever and is hard. But, at school with my students, it’s something I regularly encourage, and at home is something my wife is always patiently helping me become better at, continually lowering the bucket into the well of my heart and waiting as I draw out, and make sense of, the thoughts and feelings inside.

Needless to say (since this post exists) I decided to go for it, and chose the word “time.” I knew I wanted to be more aware and in control of where my time was going and what I was spending it on. I wanted to not waste time on the unimportant things, so I could have more time for the important ones. But, like I said, deep introspection is a slow train for me, and as the week went on, the word I chose started to change as the thoughts and feelings behind it became more clear. I didn’t want to loose sight of the fact that even the horrible boring stuff needed to find at least a little time in my schedule. Maybe I was feeling guilty for thinking aspects of my work life were horrible and boring, but “time” changed to “balance.” And as the train caught speed, I felt like “balance” implied all the demands on my attention were of equal importance, so I ultimately chose the word perspective.


As I work my way through this year, I want all those things listed above, but mostly I want everything to find it’s right place. Perspective means doing the little things so I have more time for the big ones, but not fretting if I have to let some of those little things go undone.

Plus, I decided to have my students choose a one-word goal for themselves for the semester. The only catch, it had to be a personal goal, not academic. We spent the first day back from winter break doing this instead of our typical flavor of goal-setting activities. The students chose a word, wrote a few sentences about why they chose it and spent some time reacclimating to school by decorating it for display on the wall. A low-impact first day back, but important all the same.



Why I (Try to) Blog.

Kate Nowak recently wrote a post about her upcoming talk at NCTM New Orleans this spring asking the following questions:

1. What hooked you on reading the blogs? Was it a particular post or person? Was it an initiative by the nice MTBoS folks? A colleague in your building got you into it? Desperation?
2. What keeps you coming back? What’s the biggest thing you get out of reading and/or commenting?
3. If you write, why do you write? What’s the biggest thing you get out of it?
4. If you chose to enter a room where I was going to talk about blogging for an hour (or however long you could stand it), what would you hope to be hearing from me? MTBoS cheerleading and/or tourism? How-to’s? Stories?

So even though I’m a slacker of a blogger, I thought I’d try my hand here.

1. I started reading math blogs during my year of graduate school as I was earning my teaching certification. I was into education because I loved teenagers, not necessarily because I wanted to teach math. Math was just the vehicle, so I was dreading standing in front of a classroom and boring myself to tears. I stumbled upon Dan Meyer‘s TED talk about changing math education and became an avid reader of his blog. As I lurked, I noticed the same people were always commenting on his posts, and eventually discovered an entire community known lovingly as the “MathTwitterBlog-O-Sphere” (MTBoS).

2. I would say that what I get from being a part of the MTBoS is great lesson ideas, and I do get those and use them, but the reason I really keep reading is that I just selfishly enjoy it. I like being invited into other teachers’ classrooms and I like reading what thoughtful people are discussing about current educational practices. And sometimes I remember to use what I see, and sometimes I’m just along for the ride.

3. Whenever I get around to actually writing, it could be for any number of reasons. I’ve written posts to keep a record of what I’m doing as a teacher. I’ve written posts to share about something important that heppened, or get something heavy off my chest. And, I’ve written posts to try to give back to the community that has shared so much with me. This is my main motivation. I want some new teacher to stumble upon the MTBoS as I did and find an even wider range of teachers sharing their hopes, their successes, and their failures. I just sometimes dread finding the time to do it.

4. Finally, if I were to make it to NCTM again (as I hopefully will) and found myself in a room where Kate was speaking (as I hopefully will), I think the most influential thing I could hear would be stories about lessons and conversations and relationships that have been able to happen only because the MTBoS exists. I think it’s the connections that teachers are making with each other that makes joining the community so tempting. So many of us are looking for that teacher to challenge us or to encourage us and, unfortunately, they’re not always in our building. Being involved in the MTBoS gives you access to that, and let’s you be that for someone else. Then, of course, there would have to be a how-to so all of the emotionally-charged teachers thinking to themselves “I want that!” can go ahead and create a blog.


The Elusive First Quarter

Tomorrow marks the first student day after fall break and we have some catching up to do.  First of all, I owe some folks on twitter a few things about my classroom and how I am using Interactive Notebooks this year, which actually fits in nicely with the first “Exploring the MTBoS” post I never did.  But before that, I have some pictures I wanted to share.

On the second day of school, the students used an activity from Sarah Hagan‘s blog called 31-derful.  (On the first day of school, I tried to do the personality coordinates activity from Dan Meyer‘s blog, which did not go very well.  The students were either too shy on the first day to have that kind of conversation with each other, or just didn’t buy in.  31-derful was enough of a game or puzzle to grab and hold their attention.)  Anyway, no one was able to complete the activity successfully all day until one of the groups in my last class came through.


And then, at nearly the end of class, the other group came through as well.



I was really pleased with the activity.  It caused a lot of good thinking among the students, and I even stopped their work a couple of times to have them vocalize and compare their strategies.  I liked how it got them doing the hard part of math (the critical thinking and forming arguments) right away, and I will definitely use it again.

One of the biggest changes between the first quarter this year and last year has been deciding to do equations and inequalities at the same time instead of in succession.  Last year, the students had quite a bit of trouble all year with solving inequalities even thought it’s largely the same as solving equations, so this year we did them together to better highlight these similarities.  It seems to have worked pretty well so far.  We’ll see what they remember when we get to systems.

Oh yeah, and there was the surprise of switching out a section of Algebra 1 for Geometry (for which I had two days notice).  Although I’ve not had a chance to really catch up with all the planning I would have done over the summer had I known I would be teaching Geometry this year, I have absolutely loved teaching the class.  The subject matter is so much more interesting to me and I love being able to take a class to learn paper-folding constructions while sitting around a big table together or spend a few days doing logic and logic puzzles because conditional statements came up in a discussion.  Amazing.  (That class hates my Standards-Based Grading policies, though.  More on that later!)

It’s been such a crazy first quarter with all the changes from the Geometry class, a mostly new administration, the 9th grade putting together a cross-curricular grant, trying to buy a house, and finding out we are becoming a 1:1 iPad school (this November!) that I have felt overwhelmed from the beginning.  I was hoping after fall break I would feel all caught up, but I feel like I’m still making it up as I go.  This year is definitely going to be an adventure.



Law of Large Numbers, or a Sigh of Relief

So by now, the suspense must be absolutely killing you.  My room was fine when I got back.  No one stole the dice and got caught gambling in the bathroom, and maybe half the work I left was actually completed thanks to the interventionists I had in my room.  The worksheets worked pretty well, although there was some confusion as to whether “dice” meant one or two… (at this point I cried a little bit).  So we had to end up taking a couple more days to work on probability and do the exploration the right way.  Students were wholly unimpressed that the sum of the probabilities of all of the possible outcomes was 1 for both theoretical and experimental, and I lost a dollar to a student who had a 1 in 200 probability of winning it, but we ended up with a really nice set of graphs illustrating the law of large numbers by looking at the outcomes from a partial group, 1 group and the whole class.

The green and orange were white-washed to help the students focus on the whole class data and the theoretical.

The green and orange were white-washed to help the students focus on the whole class data vs. the theoretical.

Besides that, Denver was a whole lot of fun, and I got to meet some awesome people from the #MTBoS.  It was like that movie where the kid playing the video game is actually waging an international war; All of these people in computer world turned out to be real, and really interesting!  I was going to attempt to do a few math recaps, but something I learned about myself at NCTM is that I am a very poor judge of sessions.  Still there were some good takeaways, and they may eventually find their way here.

Oh, also I report for in-service tomorrow!


Denver (or Leaving the Nest)

It’s been an interesting Spring semester.  We ended up having another lock-down the first week of March as more insanity ensued outside the school walls. Spring break came and went bringing with it a southern snow storm (i.e., no accumulation).  We began the countdown to state testing a few weeks ago; next Monday there will be exactly 10 days left.

On April 4th, we found out there was a lot of money left from our School Improvement Grant and were encouraged to find conferences and professional development opportunities before the money disappears at the end of June.  So, of course, I applied to go to the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Annual Conference which, at that point, had a start date less than two weeks from then.  Monday at 5pm, I found out I was approved to come.  Then today, winter storm Yogi gave me a nice relaxing day at the airport to read.

So, I’m in Denver and missing my wife and son terribly.  But since this is a math blog, we’ll get back to that.  This is my first time leaving my students with a substitute, since when my son was born in the fall, my students were split among the other two Algebra teachers.  I struggled a lot in trying to figure out what to leave for them to do while I was gone because I’ve been a student in a room with a sub before, and great distance weakens authority greatly, right? (Thanks, high school history!)  The last thing in our curriculum before the state testing is the probability unit, so I created these two worksheets to guide them through a project on experimental vs. theoretical probability.

They’re a little leading, but I wanted to make sure they would work without me having to press them in person.  I’m kind of nervous about leaving dice with the sub.  I can imagine scores of things that could go wrong.  To make myself feel a little bit better, I left a message on the board at the front of the room that just said,

I trust you

<3 BC

We’ll see what’s waiting for me when I get back.


Student Strategies: Exponents

Every once in a while, a student will do something unexpected.  Okay, that’s a lie.  Unexpected things happen all the time.  What I mean to say is this: every once in a while, a student will use an unexpected method that intrigues me.  As a new teacher, one of the hardest aspects of planning a lesson is “doing the math,” or anticipating how students will try to solve a certain problem.  Because of that, I thought it would be helpful to keep track of some of these methods here under the heading “student strategies.”

A few weeks ago when we were working on properties of exponents, one of my students presented me with this as his work on a quick cool down (read: exit slip) we were doing.  I’m sure you can tell from the pictures, but he was trying to simplify \sqrt{36^3} .  For some reason, he did the opposite of most of my students and decided to work it out on paper, which was good news for me!  His first steps were to take \sqrt{36} and then multiply 6\times6 (not shown), which is pretty normal.

exponents: step 1

At this point he knew he had to multiply by 6 again, but decided to go straight to repeated addition.

exponents: step 2

The willingness to do 6\times6 on paper but not 36\times6 is what intrigues me the most.

On a semi-related note, we’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about the relationships between addition, multiplication and powers (something I was glad to see @wahedahbug post on twitter today) and it’s definitely something that they get mixed up.  When a student’s knowledge of multiplication facts fail them, I see them go right back to repeated addition for help.  It’s a connection that makes sense to them.  (I even had a student not too long ago show me 3\times3 by drawing three circles with three “cookies” in each one.)  But, when they saw powers as repeated multiplication, they got so excited they now want to use exponents for everything.  We’ve been continually tempted to write x+x as x^{2}.



Thursday, my school experienced a real-life lockdown. Here’s how it happened:

Two guys tried to rob a house in the neighborhood and ran for it when the police were called.  One of them was caught, but the other was not, and was seen running in the direction of the school.  The person who they tried to rob was unsure if they had a weapon or not, so the school was put on lockout.  This meant all the doors were  locked and monitored to make sure no one on the outside would be coming in, and no one on the inside would be going out.  The similarity of the terms lockdown and lockout did confuse me at first and I had my students in the corner with the lights off.  I could hear the rooms adjacent to mine still making normal classroom noise and realized we had done the wrong one (but better that than the other way around).  I called the room across the hall to double check and let the students out of the corner and turned the lights back on.  At this point, the assistant principal over the 9th grade came in and informed me I would be assigned a post at the outside door next to my classroom in a lockout (we were slated to have a meeting on lockout duties Friday afternoon), so she took my students to a neighboring class and I went to keep watch over my door after being informed of the description of the person in question.  In the hallway I heard the walkie-talkies going crazy as someone was pretty sure they had seen the person, but no one was sure when it had been.  It was then that I heard them call for the full lockdown.  My heart was racing.  This thing that most teachers will never have to experience was happening right now, in my second semester teaching on my own.

The assistant principal let me in to the teacher’s room where my students were after announcing her and my entry.  We holed up there for at least 2 hours.  She had already gotten the students down behind furniture and into corners, but they were experiencing the giggles either from immaturity in dealing with fear, or because they didn’t think it was for real.  There was even one student who was refusing to get on the floor and complaining loudly about having to get under a desk!  After we took care of her, I went around to each group as quietly as I could to let them know it was definitely for real that I had been in the hallway and received a description of a person to look for, thinking that my movements around the room were worth getting the students quiet.  It worked well enough.  While the others were all hidden, I took up post behind the door as unofficially suggested by one of the assistant principals in an earlier meeting, grabbed the best prospect I could find (a 3-hole punch), and waited to try and hit the intruder over the wrist just as the SRO had instructed me.  And as I stood there in the dark behind the door wielding a hole punch, I thought a lot about the recent talk regarding putting guns in teachers’ hands (and I’m still against it.  More on that later.), and I thought a lot about my family.  There was so much unknown about those 2 hours; it was very scary.  I even contemplated writing a note to my wife on my arm in permanent marker because there was a point I had decided I wasn’t going home.  My biggest comfort was that I was right next to the door and could hear what the administrators and police were saying in the hallway.  For some reason, being even a little informed is comforting.

About an hour and a half into the lockdown, I heard a group of people outside the door and a set of keys go to open the door.  We were told that anyone who needed in during a lockdown would have a key, but I can never get the thought of the intruder taking somebody’s keys out of my mind, so I decided to wait until I saw the person, but not put the hole punch down.  It was the principal and 3 police officers.  They were searching every room in the building to make sure the robber had not taken up shelter in the school, because the police had not found him yet.  They left, and we remained in lockdown for about 30 more minutes before they came to let us out.

Being not even a month from Sandy Hook, and starting high school in the wake of Columbine, it was easy for me to go to worst-case scenarios in the dark silence of that classroom, but thankfully, the precautions worked and everyone was kept safe.