Sunday, August 19, 2018

Prayer for 2018-19


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.”


Tuesday, August 7, 2018


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.

Monday, August 21, 2017

My Prayer for 2017-18


This is one of the nights I dread every year. The last night of summer. The night before school starts. In the morning, I'll meet a hundred and forty new people with whom I will share a classroom...and hopefully my heart.

The introvert in me squirms at the thought of tomorrow.

I wonder how in the world me--little me--ever got placed in this big, beautiful, bold school.

And that's when You reminded me: I was placed. I was placed here by You. This was no mistake.

So, here we are again. Year Nine. And my insecurities are basically the same. Will they like me? Will they listen to me? Will they learn from me? Will they get along? Will they feel safe? Wanted? Welcome?

Your words: Be still.

My prayer is that You would bond these kids and myself together. I pray for deep relationships, not surface-level knowledge. I pray for moments of true academic achievement and also moments of deep, uncontrollable laughter.

Grant me the energy and the enthusiasm that these Loves are worthy of. Give me grace for myself when I still fall short.

Grant me the discernment to know when a kid needs a hug. Give me grace for myself when I miss that opportunity.

Grant me the creativity necessary to make math fun and engaging.  Give me grace for myself when I'm boring as hell.

Grant me the patience needed to answer the same questions all day long. Give me grace for myself when I sigh out loud. And grant me the courage to apologize for that sigh immediately.

Help me embrace these Loves like You embrace them. Remind me daily that they are Yours--beloved, valued, and worthy of my best.

Help me be the teacher You had in mind for them. Help me learn their stories. Help me be a light.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Techniques of Integration: A Puzzle

I am way behind on posting materials for AP Calculus, but better late than never, I suppose.  Here is a Tarsia puzzle for practicing techniques of integration (specifically for AB).  The puzzle includes both definite and indefinite integrals.  I used this as an end-of-the-year review before the AP Exam.

PDF Version is here.  Word document of problems only is here.  The word document can be used as its own assignment or only for the students who were absent for the puzzle.