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.




Burn 5 minutes

I think early and often about relationships, classroom culture, and how both affect learning — and learning math in particular. Last year I wrote about how I try to resist the expectation that content must supersede humanness. I’m getting better, but I’m still prone to neglecting the social fabric of my classroom in favor of shoving content down the throats of students. I have seen and felt this from other teachers, too. But this content-vs-humanness predicament not entirely on us. The pressures from our district, our administration, and parents are real and seem to be getting worse. As more and more demands and expectations are placed on us, we’re faced with few alternatives other than to place a firm emphasis on content and move on.

On top of all that, learning is hard. It’s devilishly tricky to fuse new knowledge with old.  And there’s a ton of hidden baggage that our kids carry, too. About math, about learning, about what kind of student they’ve been told they are. This only adds to the complexity of the work.

But neuroscience tells us that our brains need strong social connections in order to flourish. To help someone learn, to help them consolidate what they now know with what our curriculum says is important, requires a relationship. It calls for an honest, unconditional exchange of self on behalf of the student and teacher. Surely this involves sharing an understanding of math, but for me, our relationship must exist outside of math and outside of the curriculum. I work with my students to acknowledge the gravity of this and why I’m so serious about the bond we share. Our relationship is an intimate one and does its best work when deep, trusting bonds can be created and nurtured between teacher and student. That’s what I believe, at least.

Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier, though. My ambivalent struggle to balance the weightiness of content with authentic relationships is ongoing. In my wonderings, the opening of class has been a focal point. I view it as a critical time for my students, a moment of their physical, psychological, and emotional arrival. As such, I see value in engaging them as humans before I engage them as emerging mathematicians. It’s an opportunity to plug into one another again. The past 24 hours have chewed us up and spit us out and now we’re back here, together, hoping to be better than we were yesterday. Before our energies shift and get tangled in math, I’ve come to savor this magical reunion that I have with my students each day.

I show this by moving our opening conversation away from math. After the Bell Ringer, no matter what’s on the agenda, I deliberately pause, find eyes, and ask how everyone is feeling. We popcorn out about our lack of sleep or celebrate how someone caught the bus this morning by the narrowest of margins. We then fill the next few minutes with informal dialogue. House talk. It could be about a thought-provoking book, a funny moment from the hallway or cafeteria, or how someone’s new baby sister is doing. I will often ask students to share something kind they did for another person that day. Or something that has made them think. It’s can be a lot of things, but no matter what, it captures what we’re thinking or feeling at the moment. It’s a casual check-in with nothing on the line.

Unscripted, it lasts all of five minutes. Then we’re on to discussing homework or whatever else is on tap. I know some of my colleagues call for every second of every period of every day to be a one way street to math or whatever else is being taught. This is fair. But in a content-driven school system that, despite lionizing social-emotional well-being of students, still manages to exclude it from its bottom line, this is my push back.

Last year, I read Matthew R. Kay’s Not Light, But Fire, a book on a mission to help teachers bring meaningful race conversations into the classroom. One of his prerequisites is building conversational safe spaces with our students. Like me, he also uses the start of class to “Burn Five Minutes,” as he calls it, to reorient students to the space and connect with them as humans. His rationale is far more eloquent and polished than what I’ve done with this post, so I’ll close with an excerpt from chapter one:

[When I burn five minutes, I] acknowledge students are thinking people who hold opinions independent of my curriculum…I show them that I find them worthy enough to warrant five minutes speaking as equals. (At the beginning of class, no less. Consider the difference between an athlete being asked to start a game and being invited to play in “garbage time” at the end when the outcome is obvious. That’s the difference between starting class with informal conversation and mopping up extra minutes with it.)

This time commitment is minimal, until one steps back and considers that five minutes a day becomes nearly two hours of informal chatter over the course of a month. This banking of conversational democracy buttresses all other classroom dialogue — students can take more risks, and our classroom culture can survive more mistakes, because students are less likely to consider our respect for their opinions either disingenuous or capricious. We build with them every day, and not just about things that they will eventually be graded on.