Caution: the Narrow-Minded Misstep

This week I am putting final touches on plans for an upcoming convening that is pulling together dedicated core content teachers to grapple with improving literacy in their classrooms. My preparatory work demanded that I dig into real examples of true disciplinary literacy in social studies, language arts, science, and math. The convening is separated into two groups: humanities one day and math/science the next, and this separation jogged my memory about an ‘incident’, a very telling conversation, I had last spring.

While talking to coaching colleagues in May, I casually made a sweeping statement about English/Language Arts (ELA) classrooms and, in listing key things that I thought to be taught in this course, grammar was near the top of my list. My idea of a focus on learning punctuation and essay structure was lovingly but literally scoffed at. The incredibly thoughtful and invested humanities’ minds at my table instead made it clear that they wanted students to write not to critique grammar, but to expose, discuss and critique ideas. Grammar and essay structure, they continued, are only important as they aid in better communication of these ideas.

In other words, I made the exact assumptions that I fight against every day. I literally cringed at myself.

As a former math teacher and a current math coach, I pretty consistently experience the moment of telling a hair stylist or rental car agent or family member that I’m a math educator only to receive grimaces relating their own poor math experiences.These facial expressions are inevitably followed up by an explanation of the very narrow view of mathematics being referenced. It becomes clear that the math experienced in these remembered classrooms is not the math I try to expose to students. Like ELA classrooms where structure in and organization of writing is important, similar math structures are not the primary driver of a math classroom either. Whether talking about grammar, essay structure, procedural fluency, or mathematical notation, students develop this type of skill set only in service of being able to better communicate the complex ideas of the content. There is no doubt that these are skills that we must help our students develop, but we must continually remind ourselves, our students, and our communities that they are not the end game. These skills are simply an aid to grapple with and express ideas about deep content connections.

So often, as I’m sure I will next week during the convening, I hear a reference to being either a ‘math person’ or an ‘English person’, but perhaps we’re more similar than we let on…


Throwing Your Strength

Today I had the honor of helping to kick off New Tech Network’s biggest even yet — almost 2,000 educators striving for innovation! I volunteered to join in the fun by doing an Ignite talk – a 5 minute talk meant to ignite ideas. Below is the text of my talk and the accompanying slide deck. Enjoy!

Ignite Speakers @ NTAC 2015

Throwing Your Strength

In gathering my thoughts about what I am simultaneously challenged by and passionate about, the word “balance” kept making the rounds in my head. But I struggle with the articles, books, or endless pinterest boards that claim to have silver bullet lists for work/life balance. The word balance almost seems trivialized and doing an entire ignite talk on “balance” felt a bit icky to me. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I should take a step back and look up the actual definition. This is where it got interesting…


  • (noun) a state of equilibrium – this seemed standard, good but static
  • (noun) something used to produce equilibrium – this felt better and this definition shifts the word from something static to something a bit more active
  • (noun) the power or ability to decide an outcome by throwing one’s strength, influence, support, or the like, to one side or the other. This is both the definition that was most unexpected but also the one that I most need to see – a definition of the word balance that gave me the power, the wherewithal, to change or decide an outcome.

My first adult stab at balance, at determining a new outcome, came out of necessity, as these efforts often do. Heading into my not only my first year at a New Tech School, but my first year of teaching, like any good newbie I was anxious, excited, and ready to go! My co-teacher and I started out all smiles, but slowly went into a mode of scraping and clawing through the school year. Upon reaching Thanksgiving break, I simply unraveled. Looking at the calendar, the 4-weeks separating me from winter break seemed insurmountable. As a last ditch effort aimed at my desired outcome of self-preservation, I decided that from now on I would shoot for 85% perfection in my teaching. In effect, I set aside my want to go for the advanced score, and instead shot for proficient. This change allowed me to throw my strength at activities like getting a full night’s sleep, squeezing in the occasional workout, and having the time to make an actual dinner each night. In the classroom then, I actually had the energy and the wherewithal to be flexible and responsive in the classroom. By easing up on planning perfection, I actually hit a better outcome and was far more student-centered. What good is a perfect lesson if I’m not present enough to implement it?

This shift I now realize was structural in nature. I had become more aware of my time and threw my strength into re-structuring my daily habits to achieve a new outcome.

What new outcome I continue to tackle now, and what I find harder, is to throw my strength into balancing my moments. Again, I must admit this too has come out of necessity. As someone who lives with Bipolar Disorder, I am far more predisposed to focus on and highlight the sad and difficult moments I experience. But I doubt that I’m alone – it can often be easier to get caught up in the frustrating and the low moments of our lives, easier to wear how busy we are as a badge of honor. As I have grown into my adulthood living with this disorder, I have had to throw my strength into finding and promoting my positive and uplifting moments. I need this balance to sustain myself and even as preventive self care toward off a down cycle. That third definition I referenced earlier gives us all the power and ability to determine an outcome for ourselves. Instead of letting that innate power of choice drift me into a harried or depressed state, I work hard to hopefully choose a more balanced and calmer outcome for myself. It’s not always easy, but I make this choice every day, sometimes multiple times a day.
As we dive into NTAC and as the school year quickly approaches, most of us will first think about the outcomes we want for our students. But I urge you to also take a few moments to think about your think about your own outcomes, your own balance. During this time that promises to be fully of learning, stress, growth, collaboration, and long days, I’d like to gently challenge each one of you with the following, perhaps deceptively, simple question: where will you throw your strength?

Ignite Talk Slide Deck

Summer Reading for Grownups

Summer is admittedly the time when we as educators get to unwind, reflect, and relax. Invariably, it can also often be the time where our minds and hearts are actually free to really digest new learning and big ideas. To assist in this digestion and growth, I’m borrowing and sharing a set of Inquiry Math Badges. Each badge represents an aspect of being a math practitioner: the hope is that in trying to attain each badge, they might help you experiment and grow. For each badge, you start with level one, and steadily work your way to level four. There is no particular order for the list of badges, so let your personal interest and inspiration lead the way!


For summertime growth, I’ll zoom in on the badge entitled Higher Ed: Continued Growth and Learning. Below the badge image, I’m listing a few suggested starter resources for each level to get you going. The list will be woefully under representative of the wealth of information out there, but my hope is these this starter set will beget more resource links which will beget more resources links which…well, you get the idea 🙂

A push for continued growth and learning

Higher Ed badge


Level 1

Blog: You’re already reading this one!



Article: Why is Problem Solving Important to Student Learning?

Level 2

The two listed above, or this one if you haven’t followed already!

Level 3

Strength in Numbers by Ilana Horn

What’s Math Got to Do with It? by Jo Boaler

Designing Groupwork by Elizabeth Cohen

Other suggestions via Edutopia

Level 4

Develop a plan for how to digest, reflect, and discuss your learning with peers. A few possibilities:

  • Is there 15 minutes that could be spared in every other department meeting to talk about current learning?
  • Could one lunch a week be designated to be ‘growth and learning’ discussion?
  • Or my personal favorite, is there a weekly happy hour crew that could convene to learn and grow together, beers in hand.

Whatever you decide, the time doesn’t necessarily have to be great to be effective and meaningful. The real need is for consistent and accountable time to talk with peers about your influential learning.

I wish every teacher a fun and rejuvenating summer, and (hopefully) one that includes a bit of learning and growth! Enjoy!


Improving Teacher Collaborative Culture

Last post, I wrote about smartnesses and how making students aware of their math strengths can improve their status and their ability to engage with peers collaboratively. While I am an educator wholeheartedly devoted to these issues of equity and status, I am occasionally jolted by the following question: with the understanding that student collaborative culture will never outpace teacher collaborative culture, why do we so often spend more time thinking and reflecting about our students’ group work rather than our own?


A recent blog by Ilana Horn titled “How do we build math- and kid-positive department cultures?” dug into the experiences and successes of a school math department tackling the difficult question of why so many 9th grade students were failing math. I’d like to bolster this conversation with a few experiences and tools that may help to carve out this important time together as adults and to use that time effectively to collaborate, problem solve, and share best practices and successes. In other words, how can we as teachers collaborate better to both learn about our students and our instruction, but also to model a better culture for our students? While there are many, I’d like to highlight two tools/experiences that I think fit the bill here: reciprocal observations and video analysis.


Reciprocal Observations

Much is made about common planning, but we all know that it is often not possible to make that happen in a master schedule. One great benefit to NOT having common planning time is that it opens up the possibility of peer reciprocal observations (or PROs). So much of what we do as educators is insular. We do not encounter our peers when we are in the meat of the workday; we see each other in the copy room before school, in the staff room during lunch, and in the library during the staff meeting after school, but not DURING the time we’re actually teaching. PROs can break down classroom walls and allow us to learn from each other’s students and each other. Setting aside a bit of your prep even once a month can be perspective-changing. As I’ll often do, I recommend a protocol to guide your observation. I’m including one that allows the teacher being observed to get pertinent feedback about their classroom, while also giving space for the observer to reflect about how the observation will impact his/her own classroom.

  Peer Reciprocal Observation Protocol link

Video Analysis

When seeing instruction and learning in person can’t happen, the next best thing is video! Even if caught with your smartphone, just a few minutes of video (a student group conversation, a student presenting a warm up, students determining what they know and need to know to tackle a problem) can provide enough fodder for some really amazing learning. It’s important to have a clear protocol (I told you I like protocols) to focus the video digest. Here is an example of a protocol that focuses on classroom norms around student collaboration and agency.

 Video Analysis Protocol Example link 

A few additional norms to frame the video analysis time:

  • When watching and discussing the video at hand, keep in mind that this could be anyone’s classroom on any given day (all involved need to enter the analysis time without judgement and with the intent to learn and grow)
  • Search the video and use evidence to learn
  • Adhere to the sentence starters of the protocol (by restricting the syntax and making it common, we create a safe method of sharing our findings)



Both protocols are adaptations of protocols facilitated for me when I was a teacher here in Seattle. To continue the tradition of ever-evolving and ever-improving protocols, please feel free to comment with feedback and thoughts about editing and/or the use of these tools. I’d love to hear it!