Sunday, March 30, 2014


"Little Friend"
by Leonid Afremov
As we're nearing the finish line this year and as I reflect back on my classes, I can truly say that, overall,  this has been a great year.  I've had the luxury of looping many of my PreCalc kids into Calculus (which has resulted in the best class dynamics I've ever gotten to be a part of); I've had amazing opportunities to start to become a teacher-leader at my school; and I've grown much closer to several of my colleagues.  All in all, a wonderful year.

But, of course, it's had its hiccups, too.

I've encountered experiences this year that I knew were eventually bound to happen, but that I've had the fortune of not having to deal with the past five years of teaching.

Experiences that make you question, "Is all this work really worth it?"

Is it worth it when the very people you are trying to help turn against you?

Is it worth it when you can't see the fruit of your labor?

And in those moments, I've found one thing to be true:  the only way to get out of that place of loneliness and despair is to "stand on the shoulders of giants," as our calculus hero Newton said.  I've had to let my guard down, be vulnerable, show my weaknesses, and say to my friends, mentors, and colleagues, "I'm drowning.  Help me remember why it is I do what I do."

And they have, consistently, come to my rescue.

Growing up, my church had this saying, "Faith is a journey, and it was never meant to be done alone."  That's so true, but I think the quote can be made even broader by replacing faith with life.  Life was not meant to be done alone.  Yet, I think teaching is perhaps one of the careers most susceptible to isolation.  It's so easy to focus on MY kids and what we're doing in MY classroom.  It's so easy to stay in my little comfort zone all day and never really interact with adults on a deep level.

And if I choose that path, there are at least two consequences of which I am certain:

  1. I will never become the best teacher I can be because I will never learn from those whose strengths are my weaknesses.
  2. I will be totally alone in the low moments of this career...which could ultimately lead to burn-out.

I was recently sent this article and I have clung to Glennon Melton's words:
You do not teach by teaching- you teach by loving. Be humble and courageous.

That juxtaposition of humility and courage really hit home.  To be both meek yet bold...that would solve so many of my problems.

And, yet, while it sounds nice, and while it's certainly something I strive for, I realize that it's not something that is just going to happen.  And it's certainly not something that will happen without the help of a community.

So, here's the thing I know:  We have to have a support system.  We have to have people we can call, text, email, Skype, whatever in our dark moments and say, "I freaking suck at this job.  Please help me remember why it is I do what I do."  We have to have people whom we know we can trust.  We have to have people in our lives who look out for us; who put others' needs above their own.  We pour our hearts and souls into the lives of kids, and if we don't have people doing the same for us, we will eventually show up empty, tired, and alone.

We can't be there for our kids emotionally and mentally if we don't have people who are there for us.

After this year, I now know for certain I have people who have my back.  People who want to see me succeed.  People who can restore and replenish me so I can restore and replenish my kids.

I sincerely hope you do, too.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


I was recently at a meeting where two wonderful English teachers were presenting a really cool strategy that they use in their classrooms. They even went a step further and tried to imagine what their strategy would look like in a history, math, or science classroom. Whoa! I thought that was so admirable.

But...they prefaced their math and science ideas with, "We're just really not any good at math and science, so we did what we could."  (I thought their math and science ideas were fabulous.)


At church on Sunday, one of the pastors was talking about how we could help send our teens on spring break missions trips.  He was excited because someone had offered a matching grant for up to $35,000 (wohoo!).  He started giving examples of different ways we could get to that $35,000 mark (i.e., 700 people giving $50; 35 people giving $1000; 35000 people giving $1, etc).  He made a comment like, "My high school teachers would be amazed that I could do this math for you."  Everyone chuckled.


If you're a math teacher, you probably get just as discouraged as I do when adults say things like "Math just really isn't my thing." Or, "I was never really any good at math." I get anxious every time someone asks what I do or where I work because I know exactly where it's going and how it will end:

"I'm a teacher."

"Oh wow! What do you teach?"

[pause here as I wonder if there's a better way to say what I'm about to say...]

"High school math."

"Oh god. I was never any good at math. Glad there are people like you out there."


"People like me"? What does that even mean? What does it mean to be good at math? Whose definition are we using? And please don't tell me you say that in front of your kids because you just gave them a pass not to try in math class.  

As "math people" it's really frustrating for us that it's culturally acceptable to declare your mathematical illiteracy, but totally unacceptable to say, "I was never any good at that whole reading thing."

This double-standard has got to stop. Especially if we're serious about developing our STEM programs around the country.


If I'm being totally honest, I perpetuate that double-standard, too (just the other way around). When kids come and wallow about an essay that's due in history or the novel they have to read in English, I totally play along. And that's totally not ok. Even a simple, consolatory "I'm sorry," should never come out of my mouth. Because I'm not sorry. I'm so glad they're reading and writing and learning about other places and cultures. But I completely admit to not supporting other subjects like I should because I constantly feel the need to defend mathematics.

And so, to the great Internets, can we call a truce? I will be an advocate for your subject and your passion. Would you be an advocate for mine? Can we be a unified front on this issue? Can we vow to defend all aspects of education?

I think our kids need and deserve that from us.  Besides, who ever said you have to choose between math and English, anyway?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The need to teach creativity in mathematics + FRACTALS!

I really resonated with Sam's most recent post about building time and space into curriculum to let students play with math. Mathematics is incredibly creative and innovative and I know that I (and I'm guessing others?) don't take enough time to let kids tinker. It's only when we sit there and tinker (preferably with something that intrigues us) that we become really good at something. This is a truth I constantly try to convince both kids and adults of: a mathematician wasn't miraculously born a "math person"; she found some kind of math that interested her and played with it for a very long time.  I.e., she had to work for it, but she most likely enjoyed the work.

And I am convinced every person can find some kind of math that he enjoys.

And I'm certainly convinced I can do more to be an advocate of the CREATIVITY needed to be successful in mathematics.

So here's a small first attempt! We're currently in our chapter of sequences and series in Precalc (which also includes the Binomial Theorem and hence Pascal's Triangle !!), so I thought it'd be fun to talk about fractals:

(Email me if you would like the SMART Notebook file.)

I was able to find a decent video of the Mandelbrot Set (I muted the audio and played it on 2x speed).  We watched this as we talked about what they noticed/wondered.  They were very quick to point out possible fractals found in nature.

And we also watched one of Vi Hart's fabulous clips to motivate drawing fractals by hand (which is pretty darn addicting, no matter who you are):

After this video, we went over how to draw Sierpinski's Triangle (and how it's related to Pascal's Triangle!) and the Koch Snowflake. Then I let them research other fractals (there's a QR code to a Google doc I made with various good links for instructions on how to draw some fractals). Their assignment was to submit a fractal that they've drawn before spring break (either their own fractal or one that's already been "invented"). They are also to include both a recursive and explicit formula that models their iterations.

The types of things I saw as I walked around and the kinds of questions they were asking and the stuff they were pulling up on their phones made me so very happy. I felt completely justified in taking this time to breathe and to play and to create. I think I've said this before, but when you combine teenagers, art, and mathematics, you're bound to be continually impressed. I need to do this more.  

With that said, hopefully I'll have some good pictures to share next week!