On writing thank you’s to fellow teachers

As part of Math for America’s #MfAThankATeacher campaign, I spent a good chunk of time last weekend writing Thank You notes to MfA teachers. Having been buried in remote learning, I started writing them on a limb right after breakfast. I realized soon after I started that I couldn’t stop. By the time I finished the first one, I was reminded of someone else and that triggered a feeling of gratitude that I had to honor. And then the second note did the same. And on and on it went for an hour and a half. At that point, I had unexpectedly written a dozen or so paragraph-length notes to teachers that have touched my career in major ways that they probably never knew about.

Besides having warm, fuzzy feelings hold me down for the rest of the weekend, writing those notes brought to mind the staggering number of teachers that I’ve met through Math for America and the spiderweb-like threads that connect us. I thought of how ideas and projects move so fluidly between people in MfA and how those people bond and grow as a result. I am happily in debt to so many people in the community and it felt great to finally pay up.

I’m excited that MfA created and is promoting this teacher-thank-teacher campaign because, during these extraordinary times, it’s especially important that we teachers take time to appreciate one another. While I’m flattered anytime anyone gives me love because I’m a teacher, receiving the respect and appreciation from a fellow teacher — especially one that I admire — lands differently with me. It’s a no-strings-attached, we’re-literally-in-this-together compliment. Coming from another teacher, it’s totally unexpected and unsolicited. That may be the best part. Most of us feel that our teaching is horrible right now and that nothing is working. A personalized note of appreciation from a colleague is a pleasant surprise that can cut through our many layers of angst. And, these days, we teachers need as many pleasant surprises as we can get.



Math Haiku

Last year, after chatting with some of my students about their poetry, I decided to attend a free poetry workshop at my local branch of the New York Public Library. The focus was haiku, a form of poetry that, despite not writing many, I’ve always found appealing ever since I was asked to write one in second grade.

Haiku is a succinct art form that forces you to be strategic in your decision-making. With 17 syllables to work with, there’s little wiggle room in a haiku. Because its syllabic nature is numerical (5-7-5), like math, it demands logic and efficiency. Carefully chosen words and phrases are the expectation, yet ideas must be surfaced and communicated with precision. Beautiful math is often considered elegant, and haiku mirrors this in its simplicity. Even then, because of its brevity, most haiku are open to multiple perspectives. It’s kind of hard to establish a context with 17 syllables.

After the workshop, with newly-discovered energy to unearth my inner-poet, I started writing my own haiku. It’s been quite fun. To have more of an appreciation for its Japenese roots, I’m reading about the history of haiku in On Haiku by Hiroaki Sato.

At any rate, around the same time as the workshop, I came across Patrick Honner’s post about math haiku. Wanting to enrich the writing that I’m doing in my students, all the while bring my budding interest of haiku to them, I followed up with Patrick about his post earlier this year. He didn’t disappoint. About two weeks ago, I asked my kids to write two math-themed haiku. Teenagers’ creativity never ceases to blow me away. Here is some of their haiku:


to find the inverse
we must flip the y and x
then we solve the rest


life, like factoring
grouping ourselves to fit in
to find we’re alone


one plus one is two
two times two plus one is five
five, my favorite


if you need some help
ask the mathematician
who’s that? look within


the missing value
was fading in confusion
after being solved


squares have sharp edges
but they have 90 degrees
it is like summer


it is an odd plot
for the positive function
to graph negative


between the sequence
lies a common ratio
use the equation


allow math inside
a stream of numbers and facts
filling the silence


math is made for whites
that is the common stigma
that idea should change



Was I Going to Be Arrested? (crosspost)

This post was originally published in the Tiny Teaching Stories feature of Education Week. Special thanks to Catherine Gewertz for the opportunity.

As I ushered students out of my 5th period class, a police officer was waiting for me outside the door. My heartrate spiked. I sheepishly approached him. Was this really happening? Was I going to be arrested in front of my kids? What did I do? My career is over.

We locked eyes. He said, “Is the answer 13?” Startled, I paused. Huh?

Suddenly, relief fell over me. My anxiety lifted. I confidently replied, “No, there’s more. Keep at it.”

He was just checking his answer to the Sidewalk Math problem I created in front of the school. Whew.