Going Against the Grain

A couple of weeks ago @sophgermain asked the following question on Twitter:

Hmm…good question.

Moments later @dcox21 responded with:

My initial reaction to @sophgermain’s question was that I certainly have taught things that went against what I believed in as an educator. But I think this is due mainly to the fact that I was a beginning teacher, in my first year, teaching middle school for the first time (scary!), and I put other teachers’ advice before my own gut instincts. And to tell you all the truth, I’m not 100% convinced that this was the wrong decision to make at the time.

My first year was rough (isn’t everyone’s?) and the biggest challenge was in classroom management. I just didn’t know yet how to keep things running smoothly. I still don’t always have that one down perfectly. I don’t know if I would have been able to implement a lot of the strategies and tools that I use now. But I know a lot more now about the kinds of things that make a classroom work and how to get students’ attention and build relationships with kids. And now I have more time and energy stores to put into the pursuit of smokin’ hot lessons and cool stuff to do with kids.

I didn’t have the mental and emotional capacity in year one to create curriculum and do all of the other things that go along with teaching. I was overwhelmed by…well, everything. But I don’t know, maybe this is all just me trying to make myself feel better about messing up in my first year.

What I wanted to say was that I didn’t really know better then. I didn’t know what worked and how to go about creating a learning environment that was student-centered and that supported kids in becoming better at math. I think that’s only half true. I did know things that worked. I had seen them. I had practiced teaching that way the year before in my student teaching internship. I used group-work at my internship, but I shied away from it during my first year. Probably due in large part to the horrific substitute job I had straight out of certification. That was three months of agony. Maybe there were a few high points, but overall it was pretty painful. However, that summer I went to PCMI for the first time. I watched videos of good teaching; I talked with amazing teachers about pedagogy and lesson planning; I met my boyfriend. It was a good summer.

So you see, I did know better. But then I chickened out. I didn’t hold my own feet to the fire. In part because I chose to work at a school where people weren’t doing the kinds of things I wanted to try. Retrospect…it bites. I didn’t have the chops to say that I was going to do things my way even though it was different, because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had some experience. I had some mentors. But I didn’t have them there, and I didn’t have them then. And I knew I would need a bunch of support to do what I wanted to do. A different kind of support than the kind I did receive at my first year.

I think that it’s really hard to be different from the predominant school culture—especially when you’re just starting out as a teacher. Though it’s hard at any point in your career really. Just ask Avery about his year teaching in Oakland Unified. That’s why this year, when I was looking for a new job, I was picky. I went into my search with the mindset that I was interviewing the school as much as they were interviewing me. I said no to schools without having other offers on my plate.

Being able to teach what you believe to be the “right” or “best” way is complicated. It takes effort and energy and a healthy environment. You need colleagues and administrators that support what you are doing. You need someone, somewhere to give you feedback on how you’re doing. Otherwise you are in danger of falling into the teach-how-you-were-taught trap. I came closer to doing this than I care to admit. And I haven’t even gotten into talking about the quagmire of teaching at a place that is actively developing a teaching methodology that runs counter to your own. That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Been there, done that. Very glad to have moved on.

So, in any event, knowing what was behind @sophgermain’s tweet, all I can say is: That whole situation and how it ultimately played out was a blessing in disguise. You didn’t want to be doing that anyways.


Fear and Loathing in Lahaina

Ah. Sitting on the beach on Maui. Well not at this exact moment. No internet access down there. I don’t think the wi-fi goes quite that far. Though the condo we’re staying at is pretty darn close to the beach.

But anyways, now that I’ve gotten my gloat in…

Sitting on the beach. You might think that this wouldn’t be the best time to devise a new blog post. You would, of course, be wrong.

It wasn’t actually the sitting on the beach part that got me ruminating about blogging. It was the snorkeling. Which involved, for me at least, some sitting on the beach beforehand deciding just how badly I wanted to do it.

You see I have a phobia of the ocean. It’s just so damn big. And deep. And it has a lot of forces going on, many of which I am not able to deal with, using my puny human body. It’s scary. At least for me. With my phobia.

Now, I have made a lot of progress over the years to work on managing my fears. I actually have a tendency to attempt to face my fears head on and learn from them. It’s one of the reasons I taught middle school for my first year of teaching. The idea of teaching tweens scared me, so I decided to do it. And it turned out to be hard, but fun, work. And I’ve dealt with my ocean fears in similar ways. I go on boats, I wade in the water. I even go swimming in places like Maui, where the water is nice and warm. But I don’t go out very far. And usually I don’t put my head under water. Part of that is due to the fact that I wear contacts, so I don’t put my head under any water without goggles on or squeezing my eyes closed really really tight. And part of it is due to being scared.

Luckily, I have a very supportive boyfriend, who is willing to come back from snorkeling and haul me up out of my beach chair and drag me into the water–because he realizes that, deep down, I really do want to go in. Just kidding, everyone. Avery didn’t have to drag me in. I went willingly.

You see, I love snorkeling. I love seeing all of the fish and the coral and even a few scuba divers. It is so cool. And I refuse to let some stupid fear stand in my way of doing something awesome. Though if it weren’t awesome, I would never set a toe in the water. Roller coasters; I’m looking at you. Not awesome. We don’t need to do that ever again.

However, I don’t snorkel often enough to just dive right in without any hesitation. Anyways, somehow or another I got myself into the water, and into my fins and snorkel mask. There are pictures of that somewhere. Ugh. Probably not to be posted anytime soon. Avery and I kicked out to the reef, which was right near shore and started seeing sea urchins living on top of the coral and fish swimming around. I saw some really neat fish. At some point Avery popped his head up out of the water and I did the same and he asked me how I was doing and what I wanted to do. I was doing fine. I wanted to keep going around the reef. Apparently that meant going out even farther from shore so we could swim around the rocks. Nervous, but undeterred, I said that would be fine and got my face back in the water.

One of the things that I find so scary is being far away from shore. If I’m looking at the coral reef I can’t see how far away the shore is. Problem (sort of) solved.

The other thing I’m scared of is not being able to see the bottom. Addressing this involves a combination of swimming in the right places and a willfully contrived ignorance of the fact that there is a huge drop off right over there. I see the deep part, swim away from it, and then pretend that it isn’t there. Not particularly sensible, but it (again, sort of) works. I remember one time when Avery and I were snorkeling in Florida, where I literally held his hand and closed my eyes when we swam over a deep, dark part out to a shallower sand bar where there were cannons that had been dropped under the water.

So, I have my coping strategies for being away from shore–denial–and for deep water–avoidance. God, when I put them that way it sounds horrible. But I’m being honest here.

In any event, I have some coping strategies for dealing with my fears about the ocean. How many of our students have some sort of strategy for dealing with their fears about math? Is it a part of our job description to help students with “math phobias” develop some methods of working with their fears? Should it be?

Ideally we’d like all of our students to not be afraid of math. We want them to enjoy it. But perhaps there are some kids out there who, like me, enjoy doing the math once they are involved in the process, but who for whatever reason are scared to get their feet wet. How do we help those students?


Note: I am not actually staying in Lahaina. But Kihei didn’t work with the alliteration. I think they call that “poetic license.”

Some Thoughts on the B-word*

*not that b-word! Sheesh, what kind of potty-mouth do you think I am? I meant the other b-word.


Forgive me Frank Noschese, for I have sinned.

I have lusted in my heart after the Turquoise Horse badge. I have felt the bitterness of rage after failing to earn it.

I have assuaged my anger through my attempts to earn the Flamingo & Hamster badges simultaneously.


I have long since earned the Turkey  and Penguin  badges.


Who has led me down this path of temptation? What is the meaning of all these badges? This is the diabolical workings of a website called 750words.com, a site which encourages people to write 750 words each day and rewards those who do with a variety of streak-length and behavior-based badges. For instance the Turkey badge was earned after I wrote for 3 days in a row; the Penguin after 5 days. The Flamingo is for 10 days of writing. The Hamster badge is a behavior badge. It is earned for writing for 10 days in a row without “distractions”, in other words you don’t stop writing at any point for more than 1 minute.

And this isn’t the only instance of badge-earning that I’ve been up to. No, Frank, the damage runs deep. I’ve been real, real bad. You see, in May I participated in the Team Bike-To-Work Challenge. I entered my bike rides onto the website and my team earned points. And I earned, yes, it’s true, more badges. I earned my 5 mile, my 10 mile, and my “All That & a Bag of Chips” badge (for burning off a bag of chips worth of calories). Unfortunately, soon after earning this badge I got a really bad, lingering cold and didn’t have the stamina to keep riding to work for the rest of the month.

The cold is gone now, but not the lust for badges! I have become a badge-aholic.

And I’m not the only one. Sam Shah sent me this message the other day, after becoming my friend on GoodReads:

 i love your ambition! i put 30, and i’m almost there. the only reason i’ve been on such a kick is because i have this site to keep me on track. it’s pretty awesome.

Really Sam, you’re doing better at something because some website is tracking your progress towards an arbitrary goal? For shame! How dare you?

But the thing is, it’s not actually an arbitrary goal–it’s a goal Sam set for himself, in order to challenge himself to do something that he wanted to do anyways. Just like I’m not writing on 750 words just to get the badges; I’m doing it because writing daily is something that I want to push myself to do.

And the other very important aspect of earning these badges and Sam reading those books is that it’s not a high-stakes environment. It’s really not that big of a deal (at least not to anyone other than us) whether or not we meet our goals, whether we earn our badges, or we don’t. Sam isn’t going to fail life if he doesn’t read 30 books by the end of the year (which he’s totally going to do, by the way. Go Sam!). The world didn’t end when I forgot to write one day in the first week of June, thereby failing the challenge to write every day that month that I’d signed up for–and causing the Turquoise Horse badge to slip through my fingers!

The only thing that happened was that I didn’t meet a goal that I had set for myself. I was upset about that. I had pushed myself to do something that I had wanted to accomplish. I had set an achievable goal, and I didn’t meet that goal. But the key factor was that I set that goal. If a teacher had told me that I had to do this, I wouldn’t have been as motivated to do it. And a silly badge with a blue horse face on it wouldn’t have motivated me anymore than not having a blue horse badge being dangled in front of my face.

The main problem I have with Khan Academy and similar points-based systems is that the whole issue of giving students rewards for doing stuff isn’t necessarily a good practice. If the “only way” to get a student to do something is through extrinsic rewards, something is fundamentally wrong with the picture.

I have some students who have used Khan Academy. I haven’t asked them to. I haven’t given them credit for doing it. They found it on their own and they decided to use it in whatever way they saw fit to supplement their experiences in class. I’m fine with that. I don’t think that’s going to harm them in some way. The reason I believe this is that the motivation question has been addressed.

They are doing the Khan videos and practice because they want to. Not because they were “supposed to” or because they would be rewarded for doing them. At least not any more rewarded than how Sam and I are being rewarded for meeting our goals. And most importantly, these students aren’t going to be punished for not doing well on the KA assessments. There are no stakes looming over these kids’ heads. No pressure, except for whatever pressure they put on themselves. No authority figure telling them they need to do better, to try harder, to learn faster.

I’m okay with badges to mark achievements towards someone’s personal, self-selected goals. I’m not okay with badges that render judgment on a student based on a goal that was put onto that student by an outside authority figure.

Low stakes. Personalized goals. Silly pictures. That’s what make badges fun. Other attempts to use badges to recreate some pale shadow of motivation in children are misguided and will only create a distorted version of “enthusiasm” for the task at hand.


Yesterday was graduation for my school. Pretty soon I’ll have to start calling it my “old school”, since as of next week I won’t be working there anymore. But until grades are finalized and my office is packed up, I still f-ing work there. So it’s still my school.


What I was really going to write about was the commencement speaker. The student speaker in particular. In a kind of strange tradition at my school the students pick the faculty speaker (not unusual) and the faculty picks the student speaker (fairly unusual, as far as I know). I didn’t really know the seniors this year, so I didn’t put any thoughts into the nomination process. I just showed up to the ceremony and listened.

The student speaker was actually the first speaker, after the welcome by our head and a blessing by our school chaplain. (No, we’re not a religious school, we just happen to have a chaplain. It’s complicated.)

Her topic was “Choices and Failure”. I was immediately intrigued. A commencement speaker talking about failure? Who’da thunk that one? A pretty ballsy choice.

While she may not have spent all of her time on point, she made the strongly worded statement that, yes, all of us will fail. Which, for high school graduates going off to college and/or other things, is completely true. Just not something you hear in a lot of commencement addresses. But this speaker said it. She said it loudly, she said it emphatically. And she said it with the conviction of someone who has experienced some failure and learned and grown from it. She held the knowledge that failure is important to becoming better close to her heart. I was impressed that someone so young, and someone who admitted in her own speech that, when she was a freshman and got a D on a quiz that she’d totally freaked out, had learned this lesson about making mistakes.

I was really proud and humbled that our school had helped to teach her that. I hope that she is representative of all of our students in that way.

I think it’s important to teach students that it’s okay to fail, in fact that it is a step on the road to success. That’s the vital component of this lesson: that failure doesn’t mean that you’re done, that you are a failure; it means that you’re not done yet, that you still have something to learn.

It’s The End of the Year As We Know It

…and I certainly feel fine.

Tomorrow is my last day (with students). Today was my last day with one of my classes. I kind of hate saying goodbye in general, and it’s extra hard with this group of kids. I love this school. I love these students. I’m really going to miss seeing them and interacting with them and talking with them about math.

Today was also the day that I got my yearbook. Free yearbook for all staff members–heck yeah! I sent out an email blast to all of my former students to come by my office and say goodbye, and sign my yearbook.

A bunch came by after school today and wrote me a message and talked with me for a bit. I even got a hug or two. One student in particular cracked me up.

M. comes into my office, holding a copy of The Economist and waits patiently for me to finish talking with another student. When I finish he says:

“I’m not a big believer in displays of affection…but I would permit a hug.”

Too cute. There’s just nothing like a 15 year old boy asking you for a hug, is there?

Happy Blog-thday to Me!

It’s the end of the school year and my apartment is a mess. This happens every year. But it always catches me by surprise. Just a little bit. There are papers on the coffee table. They look like quizzes. Not to mention books, a couple of math-related board games that need to be put away (in said coffee table) and a pile of unread magazines.

The dining room table hasn’t been used in weeks because you can’t see its surface. I made a heroic stab at cleaning yesterday–I put all of the camping gear away into the storage unit in the basement–and now there are visible spots of veneer. The table could probably be unearthed and eaten upon in the near future.

The kitchen is a disaster zone. I have been avoiding it all morning. Shush grumbly tummy, shush. And yes, it too is better than it was. There aren’t quite as many dishes piled up on the counter and overflowing the sink.

And the hallway. Oh, dear, the hallway. Sadly there’s not much we can do about that for several months. And it will only get worse. You see, the end of the school year is approaching. And for those of us who are changing jobs–which is 2 of 2 for this household–all of the teaching-related crap that has been living in our respective schools for the past nine months needs to come home. And there’s nowhere to put it (there’s a lot of it) other than lining up along one side of the hallway. I still haven’t even started bringing my stuff home. So it’s only going to get worse.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this sort of domestic disaster happens to many educators around this type of year. Am I right? Or am I the only teacher who uses the end of the school year as an excuse to neglect the cleaning?

So in the continuing effort to do something other than tidy up, I’m taking a moment to celebrate my blog-thday. Well, who can believe it? I’ve been doing this blogging thing for a year now.

That’s 46 posts, 79 comments, 3144 views, 42 subscribers (according to Google Reader). My busiest day was May 12, with over 200 views (201 counts as over 200). Coincidentally this occurred the day after Dan Meyer linked to my blog. Bizarre, I know.

I find myself wanting to write some reflective piece about how blogging for a year has changed me and impacted my teaching. But, I dunno. I’m not feeling it. Has blogging changed the way I teach. Not so much really. Which is not a critique of blogging. That’s not why I started The Space Between the Numbers in the first place. So why would I be upset about it?

Why did I start. Simple. I wanted people to read my sh*t. And one year in, it’s clear that that has happened. 62 people have viewed my story Checkpoint and 83 have looked at The Lemon Tree. Hopefully some of those people even read one or the other.

So maybe it’s not the best motivation for starting anything. But if I’m being honest, that’s why I started blogging one year ago. Give me a break, I’m a writer. Which kind of means I need readers to read what I write. Or at least that I want readers to read what I write. It’s something that goes hand in hand with producing any sort of creative work, I think. You want it to be seen, to go out and find people to love it as much as you do. Of course it’s damn scary to send it on its way, but that’s the Catch-22 of creativity.

But I have to say, again in all honesty, while I may have gone into this blog-o-sphere with somewhat selfish objectives, I have gained a lot more than just people who read my sh*t. I’ve made a lot of online friends, a couple of whom I even know In Real Life. I’ve been able to clarify and refine my own philosophy of education. I’m thinking of turning it into a manifesto. Stay tuned for that. I’ve started thinking about how I could use blogging inside of the classroom. I’ve even started Tweeting. I still have a hard time believing that I jumped on that bandwagon.

So what’s on tap for this new year? As mentioned before, my very own Math Ed. Manifesto probably to be released as part of Riley Lark’s virtual summer conference. A new school year…at another new school. So, you’ll get to experience my foray back into the middle school classroom. And my subsequent slide into silliness. That should be fun for everyone. Also, I’ll continue working on my short fiction. There should be another story being posted any day now. And maybe, just maybe, my apartment will get cleaned…