Trying to find math inside everything else

Archive for May, 2016

Things I’ve Changed This Year

When I think back on my first five years of teaching, I can identify big initiatives that I took and tried each year.

  • My first year – well, it was my first year, everything was new. But I was implementing stnadards-based grading as sorta my big thing.
  • My second year, I was very focused on interdisciplinary work, creating cross-curricular lessons with my colleagues, and implementing all this new 3-Act and other stuff I had just started to find on the internet.
  • My third year, I structured my class around math labs and introduce the interactive notebook after I learned about it at TMC12.
  • My fourth year, I overhauled my grading system.
  • My fifth year, I introduced the Standards of Practice portfolios as a way to grade on those standards and, thus, have them be valued in my class. To go along with that, I had a new way to give feedback, instead of writing grades on assignments.

And this year? My big initiative? I don’t have one. It’s felt weird. Every year these big things I was trying and perfecting felt like steps I was taking towards becoming a better teacher. And if I didn’t have one this year, was I stagnating?

No. (I say it confidently now, but it took a lot of reminding myself.) First of all, my big initiative this year was teaching Calculus and Geometry for the first time. I had taught Algebra I for the whole first 5 years of my career, and the bulk of my student teaching as well. Despite the switch to the Common Core curriculum, I was still very familiar with the ins and outs of the material, and that let me focus on other things. But teaching a new course is a lot! And two, twice as much!

But, even with that…I still tried new things, tuned things, had small initiatives. And these things matter! So I’m writing a list of new things I’ve done, to remind myself. And also to keep looking forward, for new initiatives – as Black Widow says, “There is no mastery, only constant improvement.”

  • I greet my students at the door every day with a high five.
  • With the other hand, I have them pick a card so they can find their seat with their visibly random grouping.
  • I put up new boards on my walls to have even more surfaces for the students, and designed lessons around using them, facilitating group collaboration more than usual.
  • Instead of saying “Ladies and Gentlemen” to address the class, I now say “Mathematicians” (or “Computer Scientists”), to keep a gender neutral term.
  • I swapped out the Name spot on my assignments for one that says Mathematician.
  • I had up a “Good Questions” bulletin board, after going to Rachel’s session on better questioning (couldn’t find a link for this one) for a while during the year.
  • And I’ve continued the initiatives from the last two years, which were raw in idea but are now becoming fully realized structures, as I find better and more sustainable ways to do them.

I bet you’ve done a lot this year, too. More than you realize.

When I First Learned about Privilege

During the slow Parent-Teacher Conferences tonight, some of my colleagues and I got into a discussion on privilege. We shared some things about our experiences, and I figured I could write up what I talked about for my #MTBoS30 post tonight.

I used to think racism didn’t exist anymore, that affirmative action was reverse racism, and other such things. On top of that, when I’d hear about things that certain groups faced, I would just counter with my own. My family was stolidly working class (though not as poor as when my oldest brother was growing up), my “summer camp” growing up was sitting in the public school cafeteria playing Connect Four, I’m queer and have faced my share of discrimination from that. Certainly not privileged, right?

When I went to Bard for grad school, one of the classes we took was called Identity, Culture, and the Classroom, taught by Michael Sadowski. There were a lot of interesting readings and deep sharing of stories in that class, but the single most powerful moment was when we did an activity about Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Michael had us all go outside and stand in a line on the grass. As he read he had us look straight ahead and, if the sentence was true for us, take one step forward. As he went down the list, there were a lot of items I did not step forward for because of the aforementioned class and LGBT spheres. At first, I felt like this supported my feelings, as I watched much of the class pull far ahead of me.

When Michael had finished, he told us to look around. At this point, I was about halfway across the grass. Ahead of me all the way of the front were all of the other White students. To my side, about level with me, was my friend Jack, who is Asian.  And then I looked behind me and, back at the start, were all the Black and Hispanic students in the class.

In that moment, the idea of intersectionality suddenly became clear. Sure, I may have not been privileged in some domains, but I was privileged in others, and this was a physical representation of that fact. It felt like my eyes were opened and I saw the world as it really is, and I haven’t closed them since.

Talking to my colleagues, it seems they had similar experiences, so I know mine isn’t unique or particularly noteworthy. My one colleague was fascinated that I grew up in Queens (the most diverse area on the planet), went to the schools that I did (middle, high, and college), and it still took until I was 23 for this idea to get through to me.


For previous portfolios in my class, students have asked me how I want them to format their work. Should they write their reflections all on one sheet, or on each assignment? If on one sheet, should get organize by the assignment it refers to, or by the standard? I had said it didn’t matter to me, they could do what they like – and this may have contributed to how hard it was to grade them all.

This time I demanded they write the reflections on the assignments themselves (or, at least, on a slip attached to that assignment), and it was so much easier to grade – I didn’t have to flip back and forth between the reflections and the assignment to see if what they wrote was accurate (often it isn’t – they’ll say they did a thing they didn’t actually do). And the few students who didn’t follow directions took so much long to grade. Maybe I shouldn’t have graded them at all – just returned them and had them redo it.

So I think I’m going to be stricter about formatting from now on. There are things that are important to have students have a say on in class – but I don’t think this is one of them.


A student today told me that I need to have firmer deadlines. “If you did, we’d all do this work earlier. We all do Mr. Ma’s work on time.” The only reason I have firm deadlines at all is because report cards are due. The whole point of my process is revision – but I probably need to work more on developing that cycle. My response, though, was that he was a few months from going to college – he needs to do work even if the deadline seems so far away, or not important, if he wants to succeed. 

I don’t know if the firmness of my deadlines is good or not. I’ve always gotten the sense that overly firm deadlines discourage students from trying when they realize it’s too late. But maybe they realize they need to try before it’s too late because of them? I dunno. Something to think about.

Shear Madness

I just got out from seeing Shear Madness, the interactive whodunnit play. (Sorta spoilers, I guess?) In the beginning it seems like a normal sort of play, setting up the characters, revealing the crime, having the detective question the suspects. But then it stops and brings the audience in. The characters do a run through of an earlier scene, but with errors (or lies), and the audience needs to interject when they notice something amiss. During the intermission, they can talk to the detective and suspects for further info, and in Act II can question the suspects directly. The actors, then, have to be very prepared, but also quick on their feet for the unexpected. (They clearly expect some things, as theyhave props   prepared, whereas I expect others are move improvisational.) Then they ask the audience where they think the investigation should go, and take it back over for the finally.
As I looked at my fellow audience members, when the house lights first came on, they were taken  aback  by being asked to participate in this way. But then they (we) got really into it. (I had noticed, for example, that during the original scene one of the actors re-entered by a different door than they exited, and was just waiting to point it out.) And the audience didn’t feel like it was fake engagement, with a pre-determined result; they really felt like they had input. As a teacher, seeing that sort of engagement really brought joy to my heart. 

What does that mean for us teachers? We always have scripts, internal ones if not written ones, but if we invite our students in, really invite them-  not just open middles, but open ends – some magic stuff might happen. But it’s hard! You have to be so prepared for so many possibilities, and so quick on your think, and that’s a lot to ask, so many times a week.  But maybe try it once. What’s the worst that can happen? Sheer madness?


This is the first year I’ve taught seniors. Well, more specifically, seniors who did not need my class to graduate, as I’ve had seniors in algebra and CS before. Whereas my challenge with 9th graders was their maturity level and showing them the norms of behavior in our high school, with the seniors it’s fighting against the (frankly, correct) decision they have made that the work we are doing is kinda unnecessary. This is compounded by the fact that calculus is kinda hard, which makes it easy to disengage. (The APCS class at least had the AP exam as motivation, but now with that past, I have to create a whole month’s worth of motivation.) This probably isn’t helped by the fact that calculus has no set end point that we “need” to get to – we get as far as we get, though I have certain personal goals. So the pace and the effort levels have been low key all year. Now they just want me to pass them all because they are graduating, even though we haven’t even finished the second of three marking periods. So that’s my current struggle.

Questions for an Interview

A few weeks ago I went on an interview, and I was trying to think about the part at the end when they always ask ,”Do you have any questions for us?” I used to never ask questions then, but I realize now that I am interviewing them as much as they are interviewing me. (This is especially true when you already have a job, as opposed to first getting one.) Most of the time my questions come from previous experiences with things that were lacking – much like my questions during apartment viewings while home-hunting. But since my experiences are not universal, I reached out to the #MTBoS for some suggestions, and got a lot of good ones back. Here’s a bunch of the ones I liked, courtesy of Kate Nowak, David Wees, Tina Cardone, Shannon Houghton, Anna Blinstein, Jonathan Claydon, and Brian Palacios.

  • Describe your students. (And take note of what kind of language they use.)
  • What are class sizes like?
  • What is your school/department working on improving?
  • What math curricula have you adopted?
  • What is your approach to students who failed previous math courses?
  • What would my schedule look like? (Prep time/number of courses/number of sections/length of classes)
  • What is [math] PD like here? What is the school’s PD priority?
  • How do important decisions get made?
  • Tell me more about the parent community.
  • What kind of technology is available for teacher use? For student use? How reliable is it?
  • Do you believe that all students can meet the standards?
  • What is the school struggling with right now? What is it excelling at?
  • What is discipline like at the school?
  • How is lateness/attendance? What policies are in place to handle it?
  • How much autonomy do I have regarding lesson plans?
  • What’s one thing you would change about the school?
  • What do you love about working here?