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


I want to do PrBL, but where do I start?!

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Math are a blend of content standards, the content of our courses, and practice standards, the manner with which students tackle that content. In an ideal world, our students would bring the mindset of these practice standards, their math disposition if you will, to class each day. But these, too, have to be developed, facilitated, and practiced, which admittedly adds to a teacher’s load. Many teachers, and I would be bold enough to say rightly so, feel that a problem-based learning experience (mini-projects essentially) is a great way to allow students to participate in experiences that will ask for a blend of these two types of standards. NCTM research, New Tech Network work with math facilitators, and my own experience in the classroom back this up. But that doesn’t make it any less daunting to take this on – to go against the way you yourself was taught (and were likely successful at) math and probably the way you were taught to teach math as well. So where do you start? I have an idea!

The CCSS math practice standards come with some guidance stating, “Expectations that begin with the word “understand” are often especially good opportunities to connect the practice to the content” (CCSS for Math, page 8). If you are looking for spots to help develop your students’ ability to engage with the content, I suggest starting here. As an example, below is the Geometry Overview taken from CCSS for Math with the appropriate “understand” expectations highlighted. If you view the full list of standards, there are a few smaller strands that also begin with the word “understand”, but I think the big picture perspective of the Overview is just the ticket if you as you think about curriculum planning for next year.

Geometry Overview


  • Experiment with transformations in the plane
  • Understand congruence in terms of rigid motions
  • Prove geometric theorems
  • Make geometric constructions

Similarity, Right Triangles, and Trigonometry

  • Understand similarity in terms of similarity transformations
  • Prove theorems involving similarity
  • Define trigonometric ratios and solve problems involving right triangles
  • Apply trigonometry to general triangles


  • Understand and apply theorems about circles
  • Find arc lengths and areas of sectors of circles

Expressing Geometric Properties with Equations

  • Translate between the geometric description and the equation for a conic section
  • Use coordinates to prove simple geometric theorems algebraically

Geometric Measurement and Dimension

  • Explain volume formulas and use them to solve problems
  • Visualize relationships between two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects

Modeling with Geometry

  • Apply geometric concepts in modeling situations

There are three critical places where you have key opportunities to dive into PrBL, places that the authors of the standards highlight as excellent crosswalks between the math content and the math practices. I do not mean to understate the importance of the others expectations that ask students to use, apply, describe, or explain; these are important to gain a well-rounded and thorough view of Geometry. But if you are looking for a spot to start your PrBL journey, here it is! The standards themselves narrow down the scope of expectations and hopefully guide you to standards/units where you can throw some energy into really creating PrBL experiences for your students. So grab a copy of your standards, bust out a highlighter, and dig in!

P.S. Once you’re done highlighting and know where to kick off your PrBL planning, I recommend stopping by and checking out all of problem ideas Geoff Krall has gathered together under the “Curriculum Maps” tab.

Group Roles Aren’t Just for Students

Establishing and maintaining a department-wide culture of collaboration and learning is no small feat. But high level support, discourse, and planning are not only achievable at a department level, but is well worth the time and engagement.


As the first day of school looms, it is a great opportunity to think about your own department roles. We spend countless hours thinking about and monitoring the roles of our student groups, but then often find ourselves sitting in aimless department meetings that collaboratively fail because we don’t take the time to work through adult roles in the same way we do with student roles. By pausing now to focus on how a department of teachers collaborates and supports each other, we can simultaneously model collaboration and establish a department with the capacity to improve instruction and student learning.


Below I’m offering up two possible structures for department roles. The first is operationally-based; the second is advocate (or discourse)-based.


Operational Roles

Advocate-based Roles*

District Face: We chose not to have a typical department head as we felt that we were sharing many of the responsibilities, but we thought it was important to have a consistent communicator with the district office. This person attended the district meetings and relayed important information. 

Advocates: We had two academies at our school and we felt it important to have one person per academy that was the liaison to that academy’s administrator. This person needed to be forward thinking and willing to advocate for scheduling needs, funding, test scheduling, and also (and maybe most importantly) to get administrators into our classrooms to see and understand the work we were doing.

Momma Bear: Again, we had two momma bears, one per academy. This person was in charge of checking in the personal well-being of our department members. Whether it be a birthday, rough day with a student, success with a risky lesson, the momma bear was there to support and cheer.


Social Chair: We quickly realized that tough department conversations were far easier if we really knew each other outside of the classroom. When you know each other well enough to know outside interests and maybe even go on a run together, hit up a yoga class, or watch Monday Night Football, coming to a common understanding during a heated curriculum decision was far more feasible and far less personal. So, our social chair was in charge of scheduling a monthly (or every other monthly) happy hour so that we had some precious time outside of the school building to shoot the breeze and learn about each other.

District Advocate


Technology Advocate

PrBL Advocate

Equitable Groupwork Advocate

Peer Reciprocal

Observations Advocate

Systems Advocate

Family/Community Involvement Advocate

College & Career Advocate


*These roles gave us each the freedom to bring these realms to the forefront of conversation whenever they might be neglected. Without being a nag (it’s your advocate duty after all), each advocate gets to bring up something that he/she is passionate about and that is also vitally important to the work we hope to achieve.

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!


No One of Us Alone is as Smart as All of Us Together

“No one of us alone is as smart as all of us together.” This is a quote to live by in any collaborative environment; but it admittedly isn’t easy to implement and embody in a classroom, department meeting, or even a circle of friends. For this post, I’d like to focus on how this mantra could be woven into student collaboration. In essence, how do we go from the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality to a place where student groups genuinely work together to create shared knowledge? There are of course a few important things at play, but one striking current that can work against this ideal is the issue of status. Status, high or low, can stem from gender, race, socioeconomic status, social status, strength in other classes, prior math experiences, etc. And whether it is voiced or not, this sense of status affects daily work and interactions in a huge and meaningful way. By this I mean that when presented with a task or problem, students with high status are expected to do well and so, they often do. The opposite happens for low status students. And this is not just self-perception. The truly tragic part is that this status is propagated by self, other students, and occasionally (even if inadvertently) the teacher.


The good news:

There is something you can do about this inequity when working to have students create shared knowledge while working on a task. Task design is of course crucial; tasks must be complex enough to genuinely require all students and provide equitably entry points. Group work norms are also a vital piece; do all students have a role and equitable access to the work at hand? But to grapple with, tackle, and reduce status issues, this is where smartnesses come in! Yes, I said smartnesses, or if you prefer, competencies. In her book Designing Groupwork, Elizabeth Cohen describes how addressing competencies can address status, “The strength of the treatment lies in the way that it attacks expectations for competence held by the low status student for himself as well as those held by the high status student for the low status student’s performance.” We must challenge current beliefs to show that all students have individual math strengths to share and contribute to the newly found, shared knowledge. Critically, students must genuinely believe and internalize this, too.


Making this practical:

Assigning competence in the classroom is something that takes prep work and practice to be sure. To assign competence, you are pointing out to a student (and his/her group) why and how he/she is smart in math and how this is useful to the group. Assigning competence has three requirements to be successful. The competence assigned…

  • Must be public – privately telling a student why she is smart may help her begin to change her sense of self, but will do nothing to help change the way other students see her and engage with her in the work
  • Must be math-related and specific – we want to focus on the skills/abilities that make mathematicians great at what they do
  • Must be relevant – we want to state why this skill/ability is useful to the group, raising this student’s status in the group


When designing your task, think about the ways a student could be smart while investigating the problem. This is a task that takes some practice and would be great to with peers when co-planning. These do not have to be, and in fact probably shouldn’t all be, traditional math skills like computation. Cohen gives the example of teaching that I think is a great framing thought here. A shallow view of smartnesses of a teacher would be that to be a good teacher, you need only to have good content knowledge, but we all know this is a drastically minimized view. In reality, “teaching requires great interpersonal intelligence, organizational ability, conventional academic ability, verbal ability, as well as creative ability.” These are abilities that may not be in the forefront when many think about teachers, but man are they vital. So as you plan your problems/tasks and as you listen and watch your students work, try to formalize a few traits and abilities that are essential but not always highlighted. Here are three examples of things that I have said to students as I circulate in the classroom as starting points:


“That color-coding that you did to show the point on the graph and in the table is a really smart way to show that    connection to others.”

“It is such a smart idea to do what I just saw you do; rotating your paper can help get a different perspective on a diagram so you can all see what you’ve been given.”

“I’m so glad to hear you say, ‘Well, let’s try it again.’ That perseverance and re-starting that we talked about is such an important piece to help your group get to that final solution.”


In essence here I’m highlighting connection-making, perspective-taking, and perseverance, but in ways that are clear to students. These are not things I necessarily ever thought to be vital math abilities when I was in school, but they are so powerful as students investigate and grapple with tough problems in their groups. If we as teachers can all begin to build a vocabulary of smartnesses, I believe we could dramatically shrink the deficit-based thinking of students and teachers alike. Many days, I got to walk around my classroom all day telling students how they were authentically smart. To me, that’s a pretty great way to spend a day.


Some extensions for your consideration:

  • Multiple Ability Orientation (MAO): instead of only sharing the smartnesses as you see them, identify them ahead of time and state them to students. Here is an example of a MAO I used before starting a new problem on inverse trigonometry. I posted the list and clearly stated that not one students will have all of this knowledge nor all of these skills, but that as a group, all abilities were present. At times, I’ve even had students identify which ones they know they are good at (and share them with their group) and which ones they wanted to work on improving during the problem. In this way, I hope students gain awareness and accountability.
  • Smartness List for Underachieving Students: print off your list of underachieving students (either by grade earned or by some rubric you set personally) and write at least one smartness next to the name of each student on the list. Carry this list with you throughout the next week trying to identify these smartnesses and share them in the moment with students.


Note: In writing this post, I must thank the math department at Cleveland High School in Seattle, Washington as well as our former coaches, Lisa Jilk and Karen O’Connell, from the University of Washington. It was with the guidance of these coaches and the collaborative work with these teachers that I have gained an understanding of status issues, the importance of equity, and the tenants of Complex Instruction.


Redefining “Impact”

“I dearly miss all of my kiddos, but I’m excited about the prospect of having a greater impact on education.” This has been my mantra as I explain my transition from math teacher to school development coach. In my 4 years at Cleveland High School, I was incredibly fortunate to have excellent professional development (departmental coaching as well as New Tech Network events and opportunities) and administrative support (the backing and encouragement to be bold, risky within reason, and occasionally experimental). But the potential to impact students outside of my classroom and teachers outside of my school lurked and whispered and outright yelled at me. With the lure to make a different and bigger impact, I whole-heartedly jumped with both feet into the world of coaching.


Here’s perhaps where I didn’t fully think things through. What does this impact look like in coaching? How is this defined? In the classroom, I could feel impact. At the end of the year, I looked back on student work from the beginning of the year, I listened to the incredible change in tone of the group conversations in even November versus September, or, best yet, I had former Geometry students return as students in my PreCalculus class. In this last case, I not only got to see again the impact my classroom had, but also the impact of our departmental work (how students had grown during the in-between year) and in other content areas as well (how students had touches of improvement from each teacher). The school’s impact on the students was palpable. But the question remains: Where is this in coaching? What’s the comparable hit-me-in-the-face impact in coaching? I know the moments exist; I just don’t know what they look like.


I do have one more data point to enter on the topic in the hopes of approaching an answer: The first event I facilitated as a coach was to welcome a new school to the network and investigate the school’s purpose and ideal graduate. When the staff dug in to defining their ideal graduate (imagine post-its flying, large chart paper filling, debates over word choice heating), I realized I was jealous – jealous to not be in the thick of it and making decisions that I knew would directly impact future decisions and, more importantly, the students that walked through my hallways. I’m aware that our facilitation allowed this conversation to occur and (at least in our eyes) end productively and so, by some weird version of the transitive property, I have a hand in the school and student impact they will enact this fall. But it’s that distance between me and this impact that feels so drastically different. And the fact that I may never get to see or feel that impact with my own eyes and heart.


So how do I reconcile this changing definition of “impact” and how it will be captured and captioned moving forward in my career? Holding onto patience with my own learning curve that I always asked of my students and onto teacher leader experiences as a beginning toolkit, I hope to continue to add data points to help me reason my way to a definition that is real, rich, and fulfilling. To summarize, perhaps I should edit an earlier sentence from this post about where impactful coaching moments reside:


I know the moments exist; I just don’t know what they look like…yet!