Getting the Spaghetti to Stick

“How’s the school year going?” is a question for August.

The fact that I’m just getting around to it now is telling.

It’s actually been a good year so far, albeit busy. Here are the bullet points:

  • After 5 years of only teaching 9th and 10th grade mathematics, I am teaching 11th grade Algebra 2. It is relatively new to me, though it has always been an 11th grade course for the school. It is the first course that I am technically without a planning partner on, though I have several years of previous curriculum (thanks to the amazing teacher before me – who is now teaching 9/10 mathematics, and to our District) and an amazing student teacher. I am teaching some (at least half) of the students for the 3rd year in a row (which in some ways, is probably not great for them as they are now inheriting all my weird mathematical habits) and many students for the 2nd year (including one who was not in my class last year but whom I spent a non-trivial amount of time chasing around the room). 11th grade is on a block schedule and has oral defenses in lieu of Portfolios. More on that later.
  • Largely because our tests in 9/10 have always had 4 questions, I’ve designed the unit tests in Algebra 2 to be the same. I’m then using variations of those 4 questions on the homework and on our What Do I Know?/Individual Practice Wednesdays. (11th grade has 45 minutes classes on those days. There is not much else I can do besides a repeated structure).
  • 3 weeks before school, our new principal asked for a list of 10th grade students who would benefit from an extra mathematics class. I rattled off a bunch (including 2 advisees who have since dropped out of school, sadness) and one 11th grader who might be an amazing TA. A few minutes later, it dawned on us that it might be more beneficial to have the course be for 11th graders, as the supports at 9/10 are pretty strong. We wrote down a list of kiddos (again, many of whom I’d taught for 2 years). A few days later, it dawned on us (me) that I would be teaching this course. Not an actual complaint as I was mostly able to pick the roster. That being said, I also describe teaching/creating this course (first time for me, first time for our school) as throwing spaghetti at a wall until it stuck. Not surprisingly, the spaghetti that stuck the most were the structures. We spent one day a week doing homework for Algebra 2 and there are some kiddos who can do Estimation180 in their sleep. It was also extremely helpful to just let some of these kiddos spend an extra class period delving further into what we learned in class (there will be an upcoming post on the Desmos Project)

So, that was 3 really long bullet points.


Happy 2018, y’all.

Really Slow Boomerangs: 2016-2017 Wrap Up

It feels slightly weird to write a wrap up for the school year when my mind’s actually on wrapping up summer school (7 more days and everyone’s counting).

Big takeaways, largely parroted from other people:

  • If a kiddo can be saying it, why are you? Stolen from one of the teachers who I’ve taught with for a bit. One of the things I struggle with in my context is that, especially at the beginning of the year, many of our students (all of whom are emerging multilinguals) don’t understand that much English. So me saying instructions to them doesn’t always make much sense. However, one student read to everyone at least focuses their attention (and so much better if it’s a phrase or norm that’s repeated frequently or that they’re familiar with). (And they’re generally more respectful to each other than they are to me. Ha.) I maintain that this still works even if they don’t entirely understand what they’re saying (when reading classroom objectives, etc). And having them read and explain to each other is even better.
  • Randomness can lead to equity, if you’re thoughtful about it. I’ve always been antsy about calling kiddos at random. First year teacher used to do it to kiddos who weren’t paying attention, which probably wasn’t the wisest idea. I finally glommed on to a structure at our school where a student opens class by randomly selecting students to read objectives, agendas, and announcements. It’s fascinating seeing how this structure plays out. Students speak more and (largely owing to a collaborative culture at our school) will try and help each other read or answer questions. This works when the questions are pretty low stakes (either reading something off the board or choosing between 2 options). The goal is to get kiddos to speak and feel comfortable participating. Another helpful thing is the culture that our school has created where students know they’re supposed to help and support each other. At the beginning of summer school, I saw that students were really reluctant or scared to speak in class and it definitely took some supporting and needling to get them to speak and feel comfortable speaking.
  • When in doubt, lean hard into your structures. I’m pretty sure I stole this from Carl Oliver and it goes for both kiddos and adults. Since so much of school can be new and strange for our kiddos, having established structures calms a lot of nerves. It’s said at our school that kiddos are confused by the blue opening papers (a schoolwide structure where kiddos fill out the date, day, content and language objective, and do an opening) at the beginning of the day, but are pros at it by sixth period on the same day. I’ve also noticed, in my afternoon classes (which are almost always squirrely) that, as crazy as the actual class may go, things calm down noticeably when I ask them to take the last 10 minutes to write a journal (again, repeated structure). This plays out interestingly when thinking about direct instruction (“Copy this down in your notes”) versus groupwork where students have to step out of their comfort zones, but that’s a thought process for year 5. I’m also finding that structures work well for adults (or maybe just me). By a stroke of luck (good? bad? Undecided…), I ended up making meeting agendas for our grade level team this year. Figuring out what to actually covering in meetings was tricky, but certain structures popped up that made the process easier – there’s always a check-in question, someone suggested that we make time to celebrate our students, and having time for feedback, and to reflect on our process gave us a way to get ideas for the next meeting and to give people a chance to reflect on how the meeting went for them and to say things that might still need to be said.
  • It takes time. This is my fourth year as a teacher, which firmly puts me in “not new teacher” territory (where I think I’ve actually been for about 2 years, though it was easier to shirk duties in prior years. Ha.). This became clearer to me with some newer teachers on our team. Some of our school is just like any other school. But there are some very quirky school-specific structures at our school, specifically our intersession electives and our semester portfolio process. Whereas both of these structures have become “Oh, that’s just a thing we do” to me (after 4 and 7 cycles, respectively), I have to remind myself what it was like the first time I went through either of those cycles. (For intersession electives, I was lucky enough to get paired with 2 amazing teachers from my team and for my first round of Portfolios, I just stumbled through because I didn’t know any better). I somewhat try to think of how to share strategies, structures and work samples to make the process easier for new teachers, but mostly I just try to stay afloat amidst my stuff (a large part of my Portfolio process this year is storming out of the classroom to drag back 2 of my advisees who eventually saunter in on their own time. “They’re like really slow boomerangs,” the vice principal tells me.). I know there are probably better ways to structure weird processes, but for now, I can’t think of a way better than to just experience it.

And since I’m not entirely sure I want to end things on that note, here’s what I’m doing this summer:

  • One week of staycation (sleep, clean out classroom, watch friend teach, go to Julieta Venegas concert, sleep, host dinner party)
  • 4 and 2 half weeks of summer school.
  • One week at the Inquiry Schools Summer Institute (and then a week in DC).
  • One long weekend at the Knowles Teaching Initiative Summer Conference (and then a week in New York).
  • One week at a Geometry of Redistricting conference.
  • And then we’re back for PD week. And if that feels short to you, it doesn’t include a few optional work days that I’m missing (they coincide with the last conference) and does include an extra week of summer because our District is starting a week later (to accomodate December holidays).

Day 61: The Day After


Morning after the election. A colleague (Hi Joe!) is observing and I prepare them for all the things that might happen with the kiddos.

I do not prepare him for the former student (now a 12th grader) who runs in at about 8:20, shouting “This is a protest! We’re all walking out!” Lots of confusion. Someone asks the student to translate into Spanish (this is what happens with 9th and 10th graders). There are lots of questions. “Can I go to my locker?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” (“It’s a walkout,” I want to say)

After the majority of the school walks out, our team of teachers moves into one classroom. I take my prep (and will be the only teacher from our team to do so during the day, guilty sigh) and work with my planning partner to finish homework and prepare for the next part of the project.

Back in class, the other teachers have prepared the kiddos to do a community circle, in hopes of building empathy and understanding what other students are going through and why some kiddos are protesting and what they are protesting. (I check Twitter every once in a while and watch the stream of kiddos progressing towards City Hall. Friends who are visiting the city will confirm that they also saw the stream of kiddos)

I end up in the Spanish speaking group. Kiddos hit on the nuances of being born in the United States versus elsewhere (all American, but they don’t quite know the term to differentiate them. I think we settle on “resident”) and why people voted for Trump (“jobs,” they decide on). One kiddo speaks of his country as “having the resources, but not the organization to make it work. The rich want to get richer.” (Heavily paraphrased and translated from the Spanish). At least 2 other kiddos talk about violence from the maras (gangs) in their home countries and how much violence could be inflicted on a family if one person insists on trying to be independent and do the right thing. I am reminded of how much more some of our kiddos will speak if they are in homogenous groups where everyone speaks their language.

The groups come back together and speak and listen. It feels successful. Even with most of the morning, I wish we had more time.

After lunch, kiddos start trickling back. “We realized it wasn’t a field trip,” they say. “We didn’t understand what was happening. We didn’t want the school to call our families.”(The District has already called home; most families ignore the call or don’t understand it since it comes through in English) One of the more experienced does a community circle with them to help them process. (It ends up being a lot of “But we didn’t understand!”)  I am torn between saying “Well, you walked out, and sometimes there are consequences” and saying “Consequences don’t matter! You made yourself heard!” I imagine this is what parents of teenagers everywhere feel like on a daily basis.

When I come back, another teacher is helping them write their Business Plan Project essays by doing a participation quiz (lots of positive narration and awarding points to people who are writing and working).

Photo: Reflections from the first community circle, right after the protest.2016-11-14-19-43-56

Why *am* I here?

I’m reading over one of Dan Meyer’s blogs. The post explores what differnet mathematics bloggers are interested in and care about and testify on behalf of. The question(s) at hand is “Why are you here? What is your project? How do you testify on its behalf?”

I’m struggling to come up with an answer. On the one hand, I’m not 100% sure what my project is. On the other hand, I have some ideas that are very unfleshed out.

One of the things I find myself wondering about (and to some extent, exploring in this blog) is all the things that prevent our kiddos from accessing and learning mathematics. To some extent, this feels largely influenced by my context (all recent immigrants, many with interrupted formal education), but also feels like a question that all teachers struggle with.

Part of this struggle is that these stories are not mine to tell. Legally, I don’t want to share too much about my kiddos’ lives, especially names and sensitive information. That being said, there are certain trends, situations and traumas that surface and it feels important to recognize them, think about them, and honor that our kiddos are dealing with (and persisting through) them.

Another part of this struggle is that it sometimes feels like I’m making an excuse. So many blogs focus on all the amazing resources that are available to students of mathematics and the amazing work that they are doing. So thinking about why students aren’t learning feels like a copout (sometimes). “Such-and-such student is dealing with (XYZ situation) outside of school, so how can I expect them to be paying full attention today?” One of the things that I’m trying to push myself on this year is recognizing that kiddos need a moment and also helping them to realize that, if they take that moment and are able to get “back on the horse” (0ne of my favorite expressions from Joyce Dorado), they can (and are expected to) finish their work.

Trying to find this balance is hard. Many of our students are dealing with gaps in learning (among other things. Among many other things). At the same time, there is a (much needed) push for asset-based thinking at our school and recognizing that our kiddos can do many things. So when we run into situations like “Gordon can’t read” or “Sara doesn’t know how to divide”, what do we do? My current approach is to name and honor things that kiddos are struggling with (backed by evidence, not just my own subjective wonderings), but recognize that there are ways to get them to where we need them to be (Side note: Gordon read part of the objectives last week, which is a nice reminder that things improve with time and effort and that 9th grade at a school for emerging bilinguals can be hard).

So that’s my project for now. Exploring things that stand in the way of our kiddos’ learning and thinking about how to get them over that bump.

Related but unrelated: Schools are looking at different ways to respond to student trauma in an effort to reduce suspensions. The article looks specifically at training teachers in de-escalation techniques and more pull-in support. Article here.

Context: The Mathematics Twitter Blog-o-Sphere – a group of mathematics teachers who share their practice on the internet – is dedicating the month of August to writing a blog a day. It’s spearheaded by DruinOK. If you’re looking for ideas (and who isn’t?), prompts are here.

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Day -3: Me and the Real Day*


Every day of Professional Development week starts to get a little more real. And I think yesterday (Wednesday) was the actual day where everything felt real. We started talking heavily in our teams about concrete things like leadership and advisory. We have pretty accurate class lists (as accurate as they get before the first week in an urban school) and a master schedule. My to-do list has actively pending things that feel real and important (“share information about last year’s students” versus “dream big about reading through Smarter Balanced claims”.)

We did some writing  about ourselves as leaders and how we feel about advisory. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

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*I know, I know, “The Real Day and Me.”

When I Was Usted

When I look back at it, I’ll likely remember my third year of teaching as the year I realized that I was “Usted”. “Usted” is (as Mrs. Rose must have told us around 7th grade) the 2nd person formal. You use it when talking to people you respect. Your boss or parents are “Usted”. Your friends and siblings are “Tù”.


Somewhere near the end of Year 3, Luis (not his real name) and I end up bickering with each other. Luis has his headphones on, which I don’t allow in class (on the reasoning that it distracts him from his group and sends the message that he doesn’t want to work with others). We talk/debate this several times. Finally, in what is not my finest moment (but, to be honest, not my worst, either), I pull on Luis’ headphones. The headphones come out, but the plug doesn’t.


Luis fumes for the rest of class. I lock the headphones part of the headphones in my cabinet.

I see Luis later at the end of the day (he doesn’t return to pick up the headphones, but then again, neither would I). We both talk cautiously, then part ways.

“Have a good weekend,” I say in English.

Usted tambìen,” he replies.


Se pasò, Mister, se pasò.”

This could be any of the kiddos. Se pasò is a reflexive verb, which translates loosely to “you overstepped your boundaries”. Except with Usted (formal), not  (informal). I usually hear it when confiscating phones or headphones.


Felishaa has a question. Ideally, I have her talk to her group. They work it out together and the question gets resolved.

Frequently, this is not the case. I’ve taught Felishaa for 2 years and she has the mathematics anxiety that feels very real in some of my classes (despite knowing more English than most of the students).

Eventually, we talk about the work to the point that I feel like she should be ready to talk to her group.

“So, talk to your group,” I say, getting ready to walk away.

Hàgalo, Usted,” she gestures. “You do it, Mister.” She gestures as she might to one of her classmates, but her choice of words indicates otherwise.


Oscar doesn’t care much for homework, but he’ll sometimes do it (if there’s a lady friend involved). (I am sure that is an inappropriate statement on many levels. But…)

I’m sitting at a table near tutoring after school when he approaches.

Usted se equivocò,” he says plaintively.

“Oh?” I ask.

Se equivocò,” he insists (and I swear, for some reason, that he is swaying back and forth as he says it).

“OK, maybe,” I say. I am definitely not above making mistakes.

He points to a Ken Ken on the back of the homework.

“OK, let’s try it,” I say. I pull out a pencil and start working (In an ideal world, I probably would have made Oscar do it with my help, but I didn’t. Maybe I had somewhere to be?).

Se equivocò,” Oscar keeps insisting. I keep working.

As it turns out, the Ken Ken is not wrong (I pulled it from the internet. The internet is rarely wrong. At least not with Ken Ken). There’s a non-intuitive part where the order for subtraction doesn’t matter for Ken Kens. I might not have made that clear to Oscar.

“See? It worked out,” I say.

Me hubiera dicho,” he replies. You could have told me. And he walks back to his table to work.


Usted is not a new term to me, but its usage still fascinates me. Despite having been surrounded by it for 2 years, I’ve only really begun to understand when and how it’s used in the last year. And as usual, it really only goes to show me that, even when my kiddos are driving me crazy (to be fair, probably because I’m driving them crazy), they are still respectful.

#Teach180 Reboot

And here we are, August again. I spent the weekend at a large gathering of teachers and the talk inevitably turned to “When  do you head back to school?” I answered (usually grumpily), “Monday – though it’s planning days for 2 weeks,” which is somewhere between wishing it were still June and perhaps unfairly using an early August return as a badge of honor and being about as ready to go back as I’ll ever be.

August also coincides with #MTBoSBlaugust. The Mathematics Twitter Blog-o-Sphere – a group of mathematics teachers who share their practice on the internet – is dedicating the month of August to writing a blog a day. It’s spearheaded by DruinOK (Hashtag: that moment when you only know teachers by their Twitter handle). Also gotta shout out Ms. DiMaria, Mrs. Orr, and  STEMinist in the Classroom – 3 colleagues who are also rising to the #MTBoSBlaugust challenge.

One of the prompts asks “What do you hope to get out of #MTBoSBlaugust?” While the obvious answer is a sweet book deal and maybe a Netflix series (“Teacher falls down in 1st period a lot! Loses lunch in desk!”), I’m using #MTBoSBlaugust to reboot #teach180. (Sidenote: A couple of colleagues and I wrote an article about our experiences with #teach180. This post is getting strangely meta)

I struggled with #blog180, which is still how I think of #teach180 (a blog a day versus 140 characters and a picture a day. You can guess how that went). I have grand visions of writing out long complex blogs (many of which remain drafted in my head, though their usefulness has long since ended), only to be thwarted by horrible time management and an inability to adult.

So I’m doing what I think good teachers do. I’m cutting out most of my talking and explaining* (with this blog being the exception, I guess) and letting my audience drive the learning. I’m going to post a picture and a few sentences of background context, if necessary, and then let you, gentle reader, ask the questions. I’m hoping that this simplification will engage readers and be both a bit more realistic and sustainable. The more I hear about mathematics blogging, I hope that a slightly boring (OK, really boring) photo every day will be more of a window in my teaching practice than a finely crafted blog that I’ve secretly been writing and rewriting in my head for the last year.

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*Ha. Don’t count on it.

**Also, you don’t have to say what you notice and/or wonder about this photo. It’s mostly so that an image shows up when I tweet it. I wouldn’t not give you extra points for doing it, though.

Takeaways from Twitter Math Camp

Back from a few days in Minneapolis at Twitter Math Camp and thinking about getting ready for next year. Twitter Math Camp is a grassroots conference organized by mathematics teachers and draws a pretty neat group of teachers from across the country (apparently, it was supposed to be a cruise at first).

Here’s what I’m thinking about now:

1. Addressing knowledge gaps through differentiation: I attended a morning session that ran over 3 days run by Park Star about how to address gaps in students’ existing mathematics knowledge. My big takeaway was that I need to figure out exactly what my goals are for my kiddos. Once those are established, I need to go back and figure out what they should have learned beforehand in order to access that content. Rather than pre-assessing the material we’re going to teach (but, um, haven’t), we should pre-assess the material kiddos should have learned and then differentiate support before the unit begins so that all students have access to what we’re learning. This feels especially relevant since so many of our kiddos come to us with gaps and different understandings from their home countries. Park Star also did a great job setting up the session – there were a ton of interactive strategies that also gave people think time. Probably stealing most of them for my class.

2. Mathematics identities: I went to a session by Nicole Bridge about students’ mathematical identities, which is something I’ve been finding myself pondering lately.

Big takeaways:

  1. Identity is COMPLEX (sorry, but not really, for the all caps).

2. One can have multiple identities at once.

3. A mathematics identity comes from what a person thinks of their ability to do mathematics as well as how others perceive and treat them

(*these are largely paraphrases of a quote from Danny Martin, link to citation, albeit not to actual paper here). I’m still mulling 0ver how to talk about this with my students, but I think even talking about these 3 ideas could be both new and productive to them.

3. How do we  revise the Common Core State Standards?: I attended a session with Henri Picciotto about changes to the Common Core. Something I’m taking away from other conferences I’ve attended is to think about the Common Core State Standards and how they progress from kindergarten to 12 grade (this also ties in nicely to Tracy Johnston Zager’s keynote about elementary and secondary teachers collaborating). I’m planning to think more about which standards to focus on (we rarely get through all of them). Henri points out that we don’t currently have a plan to revise the standards (Henri’s thoughts are here, which seem like a great starting point). They are a great starting point, but, like all things, they can be better. There seems to be consensus that the standards need to be revised (although this is an assumption, perhaps a big one), but by who, when, and how all seem to be more nebulous. Wondering if anyone else has any ideas or insights here…

4. Social Justice and Mathematics have similar themes. I loved Jose Vilson’s keynote, which pointed out that many of the expectations that mathematics teachers have for their students are similar. We ask our students to solve complicated, real world problems that don’t have one single clear answer. Why can’t we do the same when tackling difficult issues?

There’s some good conversations still happening on Twitter now (look for #TMC16 and #1TMCthing). And, like all conferences, even if you weren’t there, you can still catch videos of quite a few of the keynotes and My Favorites presentations where teachers share their favorite aspect of their classroom (Go to #3 on I Speak Math‘s blog). There’s also a lot of good stuff on the Twitter Math Camp wiki.

10 Takeaways from NCTM

In the process of reflecting/blogging on Days 2 and 3 of NCTM, but here are 10 takeaways from NCTM (in no particular order and horribly paraphrased):

  1. Mathematics is plural. Even if that takes away from the 140 character limit.
  2. The term “English Language Learners privileges” the dominant language (and let’s be real, English is pretty messed up). Give props to emergent bilinguals, trilinguals, quadrilinguals…
  3. How do I convince my kiddos that they belong in a math class? However you feel about Jo Boaler and Railside, that school’s alumni can reflect and expound on their mathematics experiences. That feeling of belonging and mathematics learning is real.
  4. How can I protect and nurture my kiddos’ brains? Especially in a city that is as divided and inequitable as San Francisco and with students arriving from the violence and malnutrition of countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
  5. Talk less. If a kiddo can say it or show it, I shouldn’t be saying it or showing it.

  6. If a kiddo can ask about it or argue about it, it is real enough.

  7. Ethnomathematics: How do I take the countries my kiddos come from (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, China, Yemen, Russia, Palestine) and look for examples of math there?

  8. I lurk too much on Twitter. Just follow the people already.

  9. Reminder: I need to tell the story right. I need to look back at the standards.

  10. Reminder: There are more ways for families to support their kiddos than just homework support and back to school night.

3 Takeaways: NCTM, Day 1

Spending the last part of the week at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

3 Takeaways:

  1. Rochelle Gutièrrez‘s talk on Mathematics Teaching as Subversive Activity: I’m thinking about how mathematics affects student’s identity and the idea that mathematical ability is a perception but the trauma and status it affects are very real. Also, language-wise, I’m trying to get myself to say “emergent bilinguals (or trilinguals!)” and “mathematics” rather than “math” (I can’t quite say “maths” naturally yet). I think of Emilio, one of our kiddos who left school this year. I didn’t fully realize it, but English was actually his third language – he primarily spoke Mam, a Guatemalan indigenous language and learned quite a bit of Spanish in his time at our school. The idea of Emilio framed as an emergent trilingual sounds much more glorious than Emilio as a struggling student.
  2. The “Lessons from our Students: Stories From Railside High” alumni panel was AMAZING. I’ve heard so much about this school where Complex Instruction (challenging, structured groupwork with attention to student status) brought huge cultural and academic changes to the math department before it was crushed by district testing needs. But this was the first time I’d actually met any of the students. And it was AMAZING. They were all able to speak eloquently and thoughtfully about their experiences (one even brought all of her old math notes). It was also fascinating to see at least 3 of them involved in various aspects of education – policy, teaching and administration and to know that the experience they had their has really left a lasting impact. I only hope that my kiddos might be able to fully reflect on their mathematical experiences in such a similar way. (I also realized that many people might doubt Railside High as it is a pseudonym and therefore not Google-able.)
  3. I somewhat arbitrarily went to Mardi Gale’s “Algebra Intervention, Rigor, Problem Solving, and CCSM” as our school is struggling to raise scores on the mathematics SBAC. This talk got me thinking about how important it is to have multiple representations (which I try to think about often, but often drops off as the year wears on) and make explicit connections to prior knowledge. This feels especially important for supporting our kiddos who have interrupted formal education or had less rigorous schooling.
  4. The “Improving Student Outcomes through Family and Community Engagement” session by the Alameda County Office of Education is pushing me to think about what parent engagement can look like at home (rather than Back to School Night or homework help, as it is often envisioned). I’ve been putting off doing a survey of students about their home lives and should probably just do it.

Day 2, here we come.