Sunday, November 17, 2019

Mindfulness

I started practicing mindfulness with my students last spring.  I've gotten a lot of positive feedback on it from both students and peers.  My precalc kids from last year who lopped with me into calc this year asked (told) me to continue this tradition in calculus as well. I thought I would post my script here in case it's something you want to try with your kids.  I currently teach pre-AP and AP students but I have a colleague who does this with her on-level students as well, so I'm convinced it works for all learners.

I first set the tone of what mindfulness is and why it's so important, what focusing on the present can do for our brains.  I highly recommend showing both these short video clips (or something similar) to your students before you start this work:
I like to play quiet music or nature sounds in the background and turn off the lights.  I let my kids stay in their seats or get on the ground, but that's of course entirely your call.  Some background videos I've liked are the following:
Alright!  Here's my script.  It's not all my own words.  When I was looking for a mindfulness script, I couldn't find quite what I wanted, so I edited others' scripts and pieced them with  my own.  This at least gives you a starting point if you're like I was six months ago and just wanted something to go off.  I will post two other scripts at the end that I've used with minor modifications.

Start by settling into a comfortable position and allow your eyes to close or keep them open with a softened gaze. Begin by taking several long slow deep breaths breathing in fully and exhaling fully. Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth. Allow your breath to find its own natural rhythm. Bring your full attention to noticing each in-breath as it enters your nostrils, travels down to your lungs and causes your belly to expand. And notice each out-breath as your belly contracts and air moves up through the lungs back up through the nostrils or mouth. Invite your full attention to flow with your breath. 

Take a deep breath in for 1, 2, 3, 4; now exhale out for 5, 6, 7, 8.  Inhale 1, 2, 3, 4; exhale 5, 6, 7, 8. Keep inhaling...and exhaling. Try to focus on your breath or the sound of my voice if you feel your mind start to wander.  Inhale...exhale. If you’re comfortable, place a hand on your heart and feel your chest rise as you inhale...and contract as you exhale. Inhale...exhale. Inhale...exhale.  Now take the deepest breathe in you’ve taken...and the longest breath out.

As you continue to breathe in and out, try to keep focusing on your breath.  

Inhale love; exhale resentment.
Inhale courage; exhale fear.
Inhale strength; exhale weakness.
Inhale joy; exhale comparison.
Inhale kindness; exhale resentment.
Inhale confidence; exhale doubt.
Inhale intentions; exhale expectations.
Inhale hope; exhale fear.
Inhale inclusion; exhale judgement.
Inhale forgiveness; exhale blame.
Inhale passion; exhale indifference.
Inhale grace; exhale the need for perfection.

And as you take a deep breath, bring in more oxygen to the body. And as you exhale, have a sense of relaxing more deeply.
You can notice your feet on the floor.
You can notice your legs against the chair, pressure, pulsing, heaviness, lightness.
Notice your back against the chair.
Bring your attention into your stomach area. If your stomach is tense or tight, let it soften. Take a breath.
Notice your hands. Are your hands tense or tight. See if you can allow them to soften.
Notice your arms. Feel any sensation in your arms. Let your shoulders be soft.
Notice your neck and throat. Let them be soft. Relax.
Soften your jaw. Let your face and facial muscles be soft.
Then notice your whole body present. 

Take a couple minutes to focus on your breath, remembering that just being in the moment--not worried about the past or stressed about the future--helps your neural resources to grow.
After about 30 seconds: If you find your mind wandering, just notice that wandering, without judgment.  Then, bring your mind back to your breath.
Another 1-1.5 minutes of breathing.

May today be a day where you know you are loved and valued.
May you accept that love and give love.
May you know you are safe, cherished, and wanted.
May today be a day where you experience grace: both to give and to take.
May today be a day where you are connected with yourself and those around you: aware of one another’s needs and willing to both give and receive help.
May today be a day of joy and thanksgiving.

Take one more deep breath, and begin to bring your awareness back to the room.  Wiggle your toes and fingers. Gently open your eyes. Lights are coming back on.

Other scripts you may want to consider/modify for your classroom:
I would really love to hear from you if mindfulness is something you use in your classroom. I'm a newbie, but I'm learning! Also, Calm is an amazing app if you want to start practicing mindfulness personally...PLUS educators can get a subscription for free!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Why I Teach

I recently had the opportunity to talk to the teachers new to our district about why I teach and why I teach at Union Public Schools.  I was originally going to try to write this in blog form (versus speech form), but my brain has made all its allowable decisions because...August.  So I’m leaving the speech as-is below:

I’ve been asked to talk to you about why I teach and why I teach at Union. And I’ll be honest, this intimidates me a bit because even though most of you are new to Union; many of you are not new to teaching. Many of you should be telling me why you teach and yet here we are. So bear with me and grant me grace. 

The first thing I want to say, whether this is your first year or thirtieth or somewhere in between, is thank you. Thank you for choosing this profession and thank you for choosing Union. The sacrifice it takes to be an Oklahoma public educator is not lost on me.

I am big on stories and backgrounds, so I’ll start with a bit about my family. I married my college sweetheart, Brett, who also works for Union. He’s one of four CPAs on the finance side and manages the payroll department here. Brett is the ever-calm to my constant state of heightened emotional frenzy.  I swear the man can defuse any situation in 7 seconds flat.  He is able to negotiate peace in just about any circumstance, which comes in handy these days as we find ourselves attempting to parent a 3.5-year-old, Jonas.  Jonas is our sweet miracle baby, who--like all three-year-olds-- keeps us on our toes and teaches us about love and patience on the daily. Jonas has also convinced me that no matter what age you are, we as humans can be simultaneously ingenious...and completely inept. For example, Jonas—for the life of him—cannot throw overhand.  He can be given extremely clear directions (“Put the ball in both your hands; put your hands over your head; drop the ball.”) and he still can’t quite manage it.  But the same kid can categorize cars by make and model no matter the color, year, or angle he’s looking from.

I’ve found my high schoolers are not too different.  I’ve caught calculus students taking out a calculator to multiply by one “just to check.”  “Just to check”?  Just to check what?  That one is the still the multiplicative identity?  That the foundation of our number system hasn’t changed since yesterday?  I don’t know.  Yet these same kids figure out the security guards’ schedule after the second week of school so they know when to park where so as to avoid a parking ticket. 

Smart when they want to be. 

These same smart cherubs figured out that our district-wide goal—100% graduation, 100% college- career-ready—could be used in their benefit too. “What are you gonna do, fail me?” I’ve heard. “100% graduation, remember?”

DEEP BREATH. 

In the spirit of transparency: I was not too into our goal for a couple years. 

And then I heard this story, which I had heard dozens of times before. It’s about this shepherd who has a hundred sheep. He loves his sheep. One day, he realizes one of the sheep is missing so he leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for the one lost sheep. When he finally finds it, he’s so overcome with joy and emotion that he drapes it across the back of his shoulders  He carries it this way--much like you would a toddler-- all the way home.  Once home, he runs to tell his family friends, “I found her!  My sheep was lost and now she’s found.” 

Look, I don’t know if that sheep wanted to be found or not. Maybe she was having a grand time on the mountain by herself. But the message of this story really helped me have a paradigm shift regarding our mission.  It helped me understand that “100%” is less about grades and more about people.  It helped me not only buy into our mission but embrace it. I now embrace the idea that we don’t leave anyone behind. I embrace the idea that every kid is worth finding and bringing home to the fold. And maybe most importantly, I embrace the idea that ninety-nine is not good enough. Now, that doesn’t mean we lower our standards; that absolutely does not mean we just put a passing grade in, because sometimes—quite frankly—kids also need to be allowed to fail safely. But that does mean that we personalize education here at Union—we meet kids where they’re at. That phrase “set the bar high and students will rise to your expectations”? It doesn’t sit well with me. Because it gives no allowances for stories and for backgrounds. Listen, there have been days when I wanted to chew a student out for earning a B while also doing a happy dance that a different kid made a D on the exact same assessment.  Kids deserve unique goals because kids are unique. They’re unique in their stories, their backgrounds, their current struggles, and their dreams. 

The reason I love working here at Union is because this is a district that understands that. My admin has had my back every single time I’ve said,  “Help me understand this story; help me personalize a plan.” I’m always expected to be a part of that plan to bring the student back to the fold, but I never, ever have to go it alone here at Union. I want to emphasize that. You are not alone here. Find those people who will support you and cling to them.  Mrs. Witcher was my principal my first year teaching here and I have clung to her ever since. I still call her when I need advice or just need to vent. And I know I can do so without judgement. Find your tribe and cling to them. 

Speaking of Mrs. Witcher, I remember when we built this beautiful addition that we’re sitting in now and she said to us, “One of the reasons we build amazing facilities like this one is because we believe all kids should feel proud of where they go to school.” And that statement there is so central to why I love teaching here. Here, we believe all kids should feel dignified when receiving their education. We believe that buildings like this tell our kids, “You are worth it. You are worth it whether you’re rich or poor. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. You are worth it whether you live on the south side or the north side. You are worth it whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or you just got here. Welcome. These rooms were built for you. Our arms are open wide. Welcome to the fold.  Everyone’s in.  We don’t close our doors to anyone.”

Now when you look at our beautiful buildings, you may think we’re a pretty wealthy district.  We get lumped into the same category as Jenks, Bixby, and Owasso frequently.  The reality is that, on average, our families make $30,000 less each year than those that attend Jenks, Bixby, and Owasso.  $30,000 less every year.  And I have nothing but respect for those districts; I have dear friends who teach and send their kids there. But I mean just the fact that we get lumped in with those other schools is a testament to this district.  I’m here to tell you though:  not only do we get “lumped” with these schools, we are the district that often leads the charge.  Did you know you can take Differential Equations at Union High School?  That’s the class you take after Calculus 1, 2, and 3 all of which we also offer on campus.  Did you know you can get medical help if you live in the Union district?  Affordable healthcare.  Our national Congress can’t even figure it out.  But our district has.  Because, yes, we know education is a key out of poverty, but how can you educate the mind if the body hurts?  So accessible, affordable healthcare is made available to our community members.  Did you know that Union students can graduate with two degrees--an associates and a high school degree at no cost to them?  Did you know that we offer after-school music lessons to kids who can’t afford in-home private lessons? 

Occasionally people will tell me, “Union’s population has really changed the last ten years.”

And I always reply, “That’s true.  And we’re better for it.”

We may not have parents who can donate two million dollars to build a new STEM lab, but I’m ok with that.  It allows our kids see the intentionality with which we build, the care and the stewardship.  

That’s why I chose to pursue teaching and specifically chose to cultivate my craft at Union.  I chose teaching because I felt public education empowers, enlightens, and liberates. Everyone has a seat at the table. Everyone gets access to quality learning. That’s the script—that’s the calling—I chose. One of inclusion. One of love. One where everyone’s in. One that seeks to eliminate marginalization and end generational poverty through education.

The reason I teach is that I want to add value and dignity to students, sometimes for the first time in a long time. Sometimes just when they need it most. [1]I teach because of Cara, who lost her mom in elementary school and has since lived with her alcoholic dad and step-mom, the latter of which doesn’t speak to Cara. But Cara told me that the silver lining in all of this is that she was able to attend Union Public Schools. And that even though her childhood has been bleak; her adulthood is promising, due to the opportunities afforded to her through Union. Cara is will most likely be one of our National Merits this year. I teach because of Andrew, who struggled so deeply with depression and anxiety that he tried to take his own life. But courageous Andrew reached for help. And now he is a vocal proponent of mental healthcare, especially as it relates to teenagers. I teach because of Shirin. Just two years ago, Shirin was in a different district where she was bullied because of the color of her skin. No one looked like her at her old school so certain students thought that gave them right to be cruel. Shirin was bullied so severely that her mom pleaded for a transfer to Union, even though they didn’t live within our boundaries. The transfer was granted. Now Shirin has friends that look like her, and don’t look like her, who welcomed her with open arms. I teach because of Seth, who wants to be a high school math teacher when he grows up. 

I try to live by two philosophies: (1) there’s no such thing as someone else’s kid and (2) there’s a reason each kid on my roster is on my roster. That does not magically make it easy to like every single one of them. The veteran teachers can back me up on this: some of your kids are going to be hard to like (and they will probably manage to have perfect attendance).  But those are also the kids who need you the most. I will admit: there have been days in the past—and there will be days to come—when I didn’t want to step foot in my own room...because of that parent phone call or that situation blew up...and I just didn’t want to deal with him or see her again. But I’ll also say this:  somehow, those kids became some of my favorites. 

And that’s up to us: we write that narrative. We can continue to let that annoyance or even hurt fester inside us, or we can decide: I’m going to speak truth into this life. I’m going to be the adult who sees the good in this child, even when he doesn’t even see it himself: I will choose to see it and pull it out. I will be the adult who pleads the cause of my students, even when they’re too mad, too hurt, too exhausted, too overwhelmed to plead for themselves. I will be the adult who says, “Oh you can and WILL be someone great—someone who adds to, and not subtracts from, to our community.” I’ll be the adult who says, “The chains break here. You are free. Free to be yourself. You’re safe in my room. You belong just as you are. You matter. You’re here for a reason. You are not an accident. You are mine and I am yours and we are in this together.”

And some will respond right away and others won’t. Some will come with open arms, so ready for that love and others will continue in destructive ways...sometimes even to us as teachers. Sometimes we get hurt as teachers, right? We don’t talk a whole lot about that. But kids can really hurt us.

When that happens, we have a choice: step away and say “Not my problem,” (which I admit I've done my fair share of times) or lean in and remind ourselves: “Ninety-nine is not good enough.”

My utmost desire for you and for me is that this is the year we lean in.

May we see every kid. May we see them for who they were made to be. May we pay special attention to the ones who don’t want to be seen, and to the ones who feel  invisible. May we have the courage to show them—day in and day out—they are more than visible to us. They are our life. 

My hope is that this year you’re able to create a culture--a classroom--that you’re excited to come to and that your students can't wait to be in every day. That the kid who lost his mom this summer feels loved in your room. That the one who struggles with anxiety and self-harm feels worthy in your room. That the one who was bullied last year feels safe. That the shy one feels heard; the loud one belongs. That our labels dissipate and your students become...your kids. 

May this be a year where mutual understanding and learning take place. May we enter not as their saviors but as fellow sojourners. Yes, sojourners who have walked a bit longer, but travelers on the same journey nonetheless.

As one of my favorite writers said, In the end, maybe “we’re all just walking each other home.”





[1] Names and certain details of students have been altered to protect their privacy.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Prayer for 2018-19

God—

Thank you for fresh starts and new beginnings. May I not take this for granted. While nerves will run high tomorrow—for students and teachers alike—may we remember the beauty that accompanies the new. May we seize that opportunity, not shrink from it.

As students enter our rooms tomorrow, may we greet them with the same joy with which we embrace our own children. May we remember that there’s no such thing someone else’s kid; that we belong to one another. And when our students step into our rooms, may they feel immediately safe, valued, and important. May they sense a spirit of inclusion and tolerance, of strong love, and of mutual respect. When they step in our doors, may there be no doubt in their minds that they are the reason we’re here.

As I shake hands tomorrow, may I remember that I’m touching someone made in Your very likeness. As I look into her eyes, may I remember that they belong not to a mere mortal. May my words, my body language, my actions declare Your promise: we are not done here. We are pushing—together—to make the world whole again. And we begin that process by seeing one another for who we can be.

Oh may that be our anthem: that we would see the beauty in one another and work to bring that beauty out. May our classrooms be a place where we celebrate one another’s victories, not be jealous of them. A place where collaboration, innovation, and true friendship blossom. A place where grace is always offered and love runs so deep that it keeps no record of wrong.

Bind us together, Lord. Make us sensitive to one another’s needs. Close our mouths when we need to shut up; give us words in times of sorrow or crisis.

Open my heart to a new group of 135. Let me see each one.

“If you gave Your life to love them so will I.”

Amen.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Grace

I am so excited to be a part of the Virtual Conference on Mathematical Flavors, where we are answering the question: "What flavor of mathematics are you serving up in your classroom?"  As Sam Shah wrote in his call for presenters, we're exploring the big-picture ideas that govern our classroom culture, as opposed to the more nuts-and-bolts that typically dictate our blog posts.  I hope that you'll join us!

I'll be honest: this question has been circulating in my mind for a while.  What flavor am I serving? 

I love quotes.  My classroom is filled with quotes I've attempted to hand letter as well as a new quote of the week every Monday. So, I think I will let quotes guide this conversation...

Also, a disclaimer.  When I talk about "my classroom" please recognize that I am talking about my ideal classroom; in other words, what I want  my classroom to look like and feel like, not necessarily what it looks like and feels like on a day-to-day to basis.  I would love to engage every single student every single day.  But I don't.  Not even close.  So, these flavors I'm describing...they're my dreams and ambitions...

Flavor #1:  We belong to each other
"There's no such thing as other people's children."
-Glennon Melton

My first "flavor" is to build a classroom culture where my kids understand that I want to be with them, that they belong to me, and that they belong to each other.  I need them to know that they make me happy and proud.  I need them to know that I love spending my day with them.  If I didn't, why would I leave this adorable two-year-old Monday-Friday for them?

Cutie, am I right?

My utmost hope for every one of my students--even more than learning any math--is that they become kind, compassionate, inclusive, and empathetic adults.  And I encourage them to practice kindness, compassion, inclusion, and empathy every day in the classroom by treating them with the same respect.  When it's sixth hour and a student has asked me a question I have already answered twenty-eight times that day, I force myself to answer it with the same level of patience that I did with my top student from first hour.  Because everyone belongs.  Everyone's in.  There are no cliques, no cool kids, no outcasts.  They're all my kids.  They're all worth my energy. 

In turn, I expect to see that patience reciprocated in my classroom.

And I hope it extends beyond my four walls.

Flavor #2:  No one gets left behind
"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'"
-Jesus, as recalled in Luke 15: 4-7

My school's mission is "100% graduation; 100% college- and career-ready."  In the spirit of transparency, there are days I resent that statement: the days when students throw that in our faces, for example. ("What are you gonna do?  Fail me?  100% graduation, remember?")

No.  I'm not going to fail them (which I consider to be different than their earning an F).  I will fight for them.  I won't give up.  I'll leave the 99 (or shall I say 149) for the one.  I will model reckless love:  the kind of love that doesn't make sense, the kind of love that keeps no record of wrong, that is unconditional, that comes back again and again, that sees the best and believes the best--even when they don't.

Every story is one that should be heard and should influence my practice.  In an effort to make this message of belonging clear, last year I met with all eighty-nine of my calculus students the first nine weeks of school one-on-one to learn their stories.  Some "interviews" lasted ten minutes; some an hour and a half.  We met before school, during lunch, during my plan, and after school.  It was exhausting; I never had a free moment.  But it was absolutely worth it.  My hope was to make this message of:  "I am here for you; I'm not going anywhere" loud and clear.  My desire was to learn their stories and to hopefully show them that their stories are important to me.  I wanted them to know that even in a school of 3300 students, they matter to me.

In turn, I expect them to show themselves love and kindness, because "everyone is fighting a hard battle"--including ourselves.  I expect them not to give up on themselves--or me.  I expect them to fight for themselves, for their stories, for their voice, and for their passions.

And I hope that perseverance and that fight extends beyond my four walls.

Flavor #3:  Gratitude
"Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day."
-Alice Morse Earl

I come from a long line of pessimists.  And as most pessimists, we prefer the term "realists."  Six years ago I came across the One Good Thing Blog, which is a space where educators write at least one good thing that happened in their classroom that day.  I've made it a practice to write something every day for the last six years.  The only times I miss a day are when I'm home sick or with a sick child.  Six years ago was when I made the switch from teaching college to high school.  It was a rough transition for me.  I had dreamed of being a professor since before I had a high school diploma.  And all of a sudden I found myself sharing this space with thirty-six teenagers who rotated out every fifty-five minutes, who seemed to want nothing to do with my content nor with me.  It was a difficult time.  This blog was one of the things that rescued me.  I fully believe now--after 810 posts--that my brain has been rewired to look for the good that occurs.  And not only look for it, but celebrate it.

As a dear friend and mentor says, "We are what we celebrate."

And so I celebrate the good that my students add to my life and to each other's lives every day.  Because that's who we are.

A couple of years after I started contributing to this blog, I began asking my students to write "one good thing" every now and then.  I realized that many of them had no idea I wrote every day about the good that goes on in our room; and in addition to modeling that discipline for them, I also wanted them to practice it.

In turn, I hope they practice this habit as often as is useful to them.  I hope they look for the good that is all around them, because it is all around them.

And I hope that dedication and celebration extends beyond my four walls.

What does this have to do with mathematics?

Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  But these are the things that kept coming to my mind every time I sat down to write about my classroom. 

I love mathematics.  I have two degrees in it.  But mathematics is merely the tool used to teach bigger life lessons in my classroom. 

In my room, we use mathematics to understand that we know very little of the universe.

We use mathematics to form complete and thorough arguments in our justifications.

We use mathematics as a way to learn how we learn and how our friends learn.

We use mathematics as a way to feel pride in ourselves and in our hard work.

We use mathematics to celebrate both our shortcomings and hence our accomplishments.

We use mathematics as a way to recognize that our work is better when others help.

We use mathematics as a common language, no matter our native tongue.

We use mathematics as a tool for understanding that there may be many solutions to a problem.  Still, there may be one most elegant solution.

We use mathematics for all these things; but at the end of the day, these things are the backdrop to the main production:  grace.

Grace is the real theme I want in my classroom.  I learned recently that the Greek word for grace is charis, which literally means "reaching, leaning, or stooping down in kindness."

And that's what I want mathematics--yes, mathematics--to feel like in my classroom.  I want my kids' experience with math to be one where they feel I am leaning in with them--all in--to offer all the kindness and support they need to be successful.  So that at the end of the year, whether they came in loving math or hating math or something in between, that they can say, "I am smart.  I am worth it.  I am valuable."

At the end of the day, that's our mission:  adding value to kids.



Everyone's in.  Everyone's seen and heard.  Everyone's worth it.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Rec Letters

It's rec letter season again!

I just finished my second rec letter of the school year, and I thought I'd share what I give to students when they ask me to write a recommendation letter.  It's nothing fancy, but it (usually) gives me a lot of good info to go on.

A few notes:

  1. Students must ask me in person to write a letter.  
    • If I get an email from an outside source saying a student has request a recommendation, but the student has never talked to me, I simply wait for the student to tell me what it's about.  If the student never does, the student doesn't get a letter from me.  
    • If the student (or student's parent) emails me, I respond by saying something like, "Please see me after class.  I require all students to talk to me face-to-face if they are requesting a recommendation letter.  I also have a short form for you to fill out."
  2. I try to get these written as quickly as possible.  Weekends are my time to write them.  I limit myself to 2-3/weekend.  But, if I haven't hit that limit, I generally do write the letter that same weekend.  I don't like having these hang over me.
  3. I dread writing rec letters.  I dread it so much.  They can be very stress-inducing for teachers especially when we know our kids have incredibly lofty goals.  That said, once I start writing a letter, I have so much fun with it.  It's really enjoyable to get to brag on the amazing kids we have.  Furthermore, it's a true honor to be asked to write these, I think.
So, once a student asks me to write a rec letter, I ask him/her to send me a blank email.  Then I respond with this:

Please copy and paste these questions as well as your answers into an email (send to [my email address here]). The more details or specific examples/stories you provide, the better letter I can write for you.


· Full name as you want it in your letter
· Unweighted GPA
· Weighted GPA
· School activities and clubs (include any special recognitions, service hours, etc., if applicable)
· Non-school activities, volunteer positions, jobs, etc.
· What do you consider to be your greatest strength and why?
· What do you want to study in college and why?
· What is an obstacle you have faced in the past or are currently facing and how has it shaped you?
· Name a hero of yours (personal, historical, or fictional) and explain your answer.
· Any experiences that stand out during your time at Union?
· Anything else that would be important for me to know?

And that's it.  Again, nothing fancy, but it's the best thing that's worked for me after a few years of writing a lot of letters.