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.

Day 5: The One with Neighborhoods and Ken Ken

Week One is done. To some extent, it feels much longer than a week – I’m already calling and texting home and I’m pretty sure I’ve written more referrals to our Wellness Center (for students who need extra emotional support) this week than my previous two years combined. That being said, I also made it out most days by around 6pm. Benefits of re-teaching a class, I guess.

Photo: Ken Ken and NeighborhoodsKen Ken and NeighborhoodsToday was chill and I should note as much in the comments on our Google Doc lesson plans so that I remember that next time we teach the lesson. We had students think and talk about their neighborhoods in their countries, with some assistance from clip art, which I don’t think I use quite enough of. Interestingly enough, some students seemed fixated on the idea of having the “right” picture (the intent was to give them ways to talk and think about their neighborhoods without restricting their thoughts). They also struggled with picking people from the “race” clip art, as most students felt they couldn’t identify themselves in the somewhat-but-not-really diverse group of faces. There isn’t much in the way of diverse looking clip art, sadly. (Ask me why my Google search history contains “sad ethnic people on the phone”)

We also played Ken Ken, which is a Japanese number puzzle game similar to Sudoko. The kiddos who were at our school last year remembered it and most of them even remember how to play it (or if they never really understood it, which a few of them admitted. Oops). There are 3 rules to Ken Ken and I often use though to structure conversations with students who are stuck. That being said, having them work in groups has proved to be super useful as well. Even kiddos who claim to not understand Ken Ken will generally try it. Plus the idea of not being right and being able to erase it and fix it is cool (huzzah persistence and Math Standards Practices!)

Also, we have a new student in this particular class. This student speaks Nepali and is the lone Nepali student on our team (the other team has a Nepali student. We should proooobably put them on the same team?). One of the other students (who declared in the last 5 minutes of class: “I’m not doing any work until next month” – pretty sure he meant week. I decided not to fight him on it.) wanted him to write something in Nepali. Learning Togther and Acting With Empathy (2 of our school values) in action.

Day 5: The One Where We Learn Ken Ken and Imagine the 10th Figure

First week Friday! Woooo! I am planning to sleep and not grade this weekend, which will be the opposite of all the rest of my weekends until June.

Photo #1: Ken Ken

Ken Ken




A while ago, my curriculum partner found a Japanese math puzzle game called Ken Ken. It only has 3 rules, so it’s a simple, repeatable structure. It builds on basic math skills (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing). It is challenging enough that some of my students with higher levels of prior math get stumped, but no one ever really gives up. I can specifically name at least 2 times when classroom management disasters were imminent and I got the class to calm down by playing Ken Ken.

I taught it for the first time last year, which was nerve-racking since I had just learned how to play the day before. It felt easier to teach this year, after a year of practice (which I told students who were struggling this year). At least one student, who I had last year, said they finally understood how to play, while another student (also from last year) left their thoughts on my whiteboard after class in the photo above (sigh).

Photo #2: More Patterns

More Patterns

We’re still looking at patterns and how they grow. This lesson, which was supposed to end with presentations, is actually flowing over until Monday. Classes struggled with drawing the 100th figure in a sequence of patterns, so we asked students to instead find the 10th figure. For students who could find the 10th figure, we then asked them to find the 100th figure. We’re moving towards the idea of representing big blocks with numbers instead of drawing every individual block (upper right photo). Some students still insist on trying to draw 100 squares, then look at me bewildered, as if to say, “Mister, how in the world do you expect me to draw 100 tiny squares?”

Photo #3: The Big Honkin’ Stack of HomeworkNext Week's Homework

All of next week’s homework (4 pages of math and one reflective paragraph per class). To be handed out Monday, due back Friday. Read it and weep. Because that’s what I’ll be doing on Friday. #ImNotSorry

Questions for the Floor

1. Have you played Ken Ken? Which of the 3 rules is the hardest for you?

2. Any guesses as to homework completion rates for the first week?

3. Are you smarter than a 9th or 10th grader? Go to this pattern from Visual Patterns, the site where we get our patterns (it’s by an amazing math teacher named Fawn Nguyen). The 1st, 2nd and 3rd figure are shown. Can you draw the 4th pattern? The 5th pattern? The 0th pattern? The 100th pattern?