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It Shows

Thursday, 20 Sep 2018, 20:45 UTC

The 24 minute alarm had just sounded. Lunch time was over. The other math teachers packed up their stuff and got ready to head to their classrooms.

The door to the workroom opened, and all of the sudden, there was a smiling face looking straight at me. It took me a while to get my bearings. It was my certification supervisor beaming at me.

“I stopped by your room to say hi,” she said. “You weren’t there, but I thought that you might be in here having lunch.”

I got up to talk. To thank her for coming. She really has been going out of her way to send us words of encouragement. She knows what this is like.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” I said. “The kids are good kids. I have nothing to complain about.”

She looked up at me.

“You look tired,” she said.

I didn’t feel tired at that moment, but it grew during the day. She could evidently see it then, and I know it shows now — the crossed eyes are a dead give-away.

It’s Alive (A Frankenstein Reprise)

Sunday, 16 Sep 2018, 10:57 UTC

1. Scientists and Mathematicians

I write ‘x’ and ‘y’ on the board in blue.

“Scientists,” I say, “care about these x’s and y’s. They care about what they mean. Given the current time (x), how fast is the rocket going (y)? Given the distance downstream from the dam (x), how many fish are in the river (y)? Given the amount of pesticide (x), how many bees are there (y)? To scientists these meanings of ‘x’ and ‘y’ are at the heart of what they do.”

“But mathematicians?” I say, pausing and looking out at the students. “…not so much.”

“Of course, we will have word problems where ‘x’ and ‘y’ have a particular meaning. Of course, the math only matters if we use it. But as mathematicians, we study the relationship between the x’s and y’s without focusing too much on what they mean.”

“Today we’re beginning to look at linearly related x’s and y’s. Soon we’ll have x’s and y’s that are related quadratically and exponentially and logarithmically. For the rest of the year, we’re going to ask, “How is ‘y’ related to ‘x’? And for that, we don’t really need to know what ‘x’ and ‘y’ mean.”

“Scientists, on the other hand, care deeply about what they mean.”

I stop.

“That makes me think of something…”

2. A Video Clip

“The word ‘scientist’ makes me think of ‘laboratories’. And ‘laboratory’ makes me think of Frankenstein.”

I switch the projector from my document camera to my laptop. 

“How many of you have seen the black and white Frankenstein movie?” I ask.

In all of my periods, only one student raised her hand. (When that particular period was over, I heard her explain what the movie was about to one of her friends as they left my classroom.)

I explain how the story was originally a book by Mary Shelley and how it is a story about creation and the meaning of life and what it means to be human. Then I expand Youtube to full screen.

Thunder is crashing. Lightning is flashing. Victor Frankenstein is standing in his lab coat staring at the ceiling where his creature is exposed to the storm. He lowers the gurney back into the laboratory. The camera zooms in on the creature’s hand hanging limply to one side.

A finger moves. I hear my students gasp. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what comes next. 

Dr. Frankenstein stares closely at the moving fingers.

“Look,” he says. “It’s moving,” whispering so quietly that I have to repeat it to the class. (Since my classroom audio isn’t working, I use my laptop audio which is hard to hear.)

“It’s alive,” he says, clenching his fists and shaking with excitement. And then he shouts (and this is the classic part)…

“It’s alive. It’s alive! It’s alive!!

At that point, I pause the video. I don’t think the students know what to think. 

“This is a classic scene,” I tell them. “You should know it. And better yet, when one of your friends discovers something (maybe in a science project) or gets excited about something new, you can say…”

It’s alive. It’s alive! It’s alive!!

Frankenstein Shoes

Sunday, 09 Sep 2018, 21:41 UTC

Did I tell you how much my feet hurt those first few days? Yes, I did.

Each night I would go to bed thinking, “It’s not possible these feet will recover by morning.” Yet, each morning they were better, only to be beat to a pulp that day with the cycle starting over again.

Finally, I went and got me some new shoes. They aren’t exactly stylish, but they spoke to me (to my feet) from the moment I put them on. And once I started wearing them, the daily foot anguish was gone — completely gone. Happy feet.

So I have some shoes that make me look something like a cross between a Frankenstein monster and a nurse doing rounds. (Although to be honest, I recognize that my teacher’s sore feet can’t possibly approach what nurses must deal with on their long shifts.)

So now, I go to school in the morning wondering whether the kids notice the shoes, but to tell the truth I don’t care, because my feet are no longer sore! And in any event, one day or two out of the week, I wear more fashionable shoes — shoes that used to hurt to high heaven but for which I found gel heel cushions that have softened the daily blows sufficiently for me to walk in style a while. Well maybe not really in style. And anyway it’s only once in a while

…because my Frankenstein shoes are what my feet sorely needed.

A Third Day of Absolute Values

Sunday, 09 Sep 2018, 10:34 UTC

The median score on the first test was not good. It revealed the extent to which many of my students just weren’t getting what I was trying to teach.

I was convinced that I was doing something fundamentally wrong, despite reassurances from all the other math teachers that this is a common reality we are up against, that it wasn’t my teaching. Hearing that helped, but it seemed obvious to me that I had to do something.

So Friday, we didn’t move on to inequalities. Instead, we spent a third day on absolute values — this time, done differently.

“Here’s what we’re going to do today…” I told the kids. I explained how we were going to work problems together as a class, with each of them coming up to the board to contribute.

As you might imagine, they looked at me in horror. Then I told them how we were going to do it. 

We’d start with the last problem on the sheet they had been working on (mostly unsuccessfully) the day before. One by one, we’d set up each of the problems, working backward thru the list. Our focus was going to be on the set-up part of the problem: we weren’t going to completely work them but rather set them up so that the solving part left undone was something they already knew how to do.

I listed the steps in our (new) set-up process on the board. They were tiny steps.

“The first step,” I explained, “is to copy the problem onto the board. One of you will do that. The others should check that they copied it correctly. And that’s it for that step.”

“The next step is to draw a wide horizontal line and a vertical line under it. Someone else will do that — which is kind of like “art”. And that’s it for that step.”

“The next step is to draw a circle…”

“The next step is…”

Then I proceeded to explain the other microscopic steps. I pointed to the list of steps I had written on the board in the morning. I explained how they would help each student at the board, how none of them would be alone when it was their turn, how we would back them up, how this was not a math performance, how it was a group project.

“We are doing this together,” I said.

Then I called on one of them randomly to kick things off. Then another for step two. Then another. And another. Sometimes the students would raise their hands to volunteer (often for the steps that involved drawing lines, but later for more substantial stuff). Sometimes they would call on the next person themselves. And sometimes the student I called on was too shy to come forward, so I just asked them to tell me what to write from their seats.

It worked. Magnificently.

The classroom was loud. The kids laughed. When they volunteered, they jumped out of their seats. Some of them began to work the problems in little groups so they could be ready in case I called on one of them. They got to choose their own whiteboard marker colors. They got to choose how large (or small) to write. They got to turn and ask for help.

And in each of the six periods that day, with only a few exceptions, every student came to the board (some of them several times) to work on math.

It was a good third day of absolute values.

This Is Helping Me

Sunday, 09 Sep 2018, 09:45 UTC

The day was done. School was over. We sat in the classroom for a while going over the algebra.  

When we were finished, she gathered her things and began to walk out of the room. I started to think about the next day. She stopped at the door and looked back.

“This is really helping me,” she said, with a sincere smile on her face.

What awesome feedback to have in your first week or two as a teacher. It helped get me to the next day.

Modern Art

Saturday, 25 Aug 2018, 22:14 UTC

It’s late at night. I had a cold brewed coffee in the late afternoon as I graded papers. It was after 3:00. Caffeine after 3:00: not a good idea, he says, with nary a wink of sleep coming over him.

It’s an hour before midnight. The full moon is rising and marching with Mars across the sky. A hot wind in blowing in the parched leaves of the Walnut, Ash and Oak trees. 

I’m wide awake. So I might as well tell you a story…


On Friday, I taped numbers to the desks at school. I did this to better connect the faces and names of my 150 students. Black numbers hand-drafted on white squares of paper with a blue border. (The border was a flourish that I had added on a whim, because I have a wonderful big-brush pastel blue marker.)

I put white card stock underneath the white squares when I drew the blue border around the black numbers. And after brushing four borders on 30 squares, the card stock was a randomish mishmash of pastel blue lines and dots and miscellaneously shaped marks where the brush had marked beyond the edges.

At the end of sixth period, I put the marked up card stock under the document camera. The image projected on the screen.

“Here is my modern art for the day,” I said.

There was momentary silence, and then one of the boys in the room said, “It speaks to me.”


That is my story. The moon has advanced beyond the periphery of the canopy of the Walnut tree. The caffeine is still speaking. It’s going to be a long night.

Sometimes it Works, Sometimes Not

Monday, 20 Aug 2018, 22:54 UTC

I tried to get them talking to each other about math today. Just some light conversation about what kinds of gotchas they thought might trip them up. I had talked about some of the gotchas… dropped negative signs, missed terms, that sort of thing.

“Talk to your shoulder partner,” I said. “Share what gotchas you think you might have to watch out for when you are doing the math.”

Sometimes that kind of thing works. When it does, it’s amazing to hear the mathematical banter rising in the room. And then sometimes it doesn’t work so well — the kids look back in silence.

I started the day with the former. Sadly, my day went out on the latter. Oh well. It’s all good.

First Week Retrospective

Sunday, 19 Aug 2018, 14:36 UTC

So the first week of school was pretty good.

Sure, there were a few heads down on the desks. And I did collect some phones and ear buds and a book that a student had in their lap. But there was nothing that pushed the limits. Push-the-limits events — belligerence, aggression, cursing… — have been my big question marks. And I didn’t have to deal with any. 

We all know that that day will come. But not having to deal with it at the outset was terrific. What’s more, I actually caught myself with a smile on my face on the way out of school on day one. That counts for something, eh?

The only downside was something that all teachers will understand: my feet are so sore!

The Joy of Bamboo Wind Chimes

Friday, 17 Aug 2018, 23:04 UTC

It was Friday afternoon. The students were working on a foldable. They were alternatively picking up and setting down colored pencils, shading in x-related and y-related things on their papers.

The room was dark so that the screen projection of what I was doing was easy to see and follow. The only sound was the clinking of wooden pencils, like bamboo wind chimes in a breeze.

It was a joy to hear.

Daddy’s Ties

Thursday, 16 Aug 2018, 20:51 UTC

In the scramble of yesterday morning, I searched for a tie. I have not worn a tie in many years. I had not opened that container forever. It was a difficult search ending in all my ties scattered on the bed and not a one tied around my neck. (For what it’s worth, I saw only two ties at school.)

This is how Izzy spent that morning. 

Daddy’s ties. I good spot to nap.

Note to self: get a few plain ties.