Being Thankful

“You choose a thankless job, you can’t be upset when nobody thanks you. Don’t start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness.” ~ Ron Swanson

I don’t know of a teacher who decided to get into the education profession for the acclaim, applause, recognitions or awards.  All of the teachers I have the pleasure to work with are selfless and giving people who you will ever have the chance to meet.  They are the people who buy extra granola bars and Goldfish weekly because their school backpack program is in need, the people who excitedly buy extra hats and gloves when they are on sale so they can hand them out to the kids who need them most, and the people who on snow days like my district had today are worried sick about who is home alone, who is without heat and who is hungry.  Teaching for all of us is about the feeling we get when a kid who has struggled with a concept has a light bulb go off, a former student comes by to update us about what they are doing now, or we feel like we really knocked it out of the park with a lesson we designed.

A week ago today I got to experience a feeling that I wish every educator got to experience once.  I sat in what I thought was to be a “boring” assembly about state testing and then heard my name announced as a Milken Education Award winner.  I got to see a student on the first row yell “that’s my math teacher!” and a gym full of kids chant my name.  I got to hear appreciation and recognition for the work that teachers just like me around the country do every single day.  In all honesty, it still hasn’t set in for me.  I will forever be thankful the opportunity that the Milken Foundation gave me that day, it is something that will never be forgotten in my lifetime.

As thankful and humbled as I was to have been chosen by Milken (I will never be sure how they found this Kentucky girl) I am just as thankful to the hundreds of people who have led me to where I am now.  I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing people and each and every one of them had a hand in molding me into the teacher I am today.  One night in a weekly #msmathchat I heard Justin Aion use the term involuntary collaboration to describe taking the best ideas you could find and making them your own.  I can comfortably say today that without involuntary collaboration from the best and brightest math teachers in the country that I wouldn’t be where I am today.  When people come into my classroom and see kids excited about learning math that isn’t just me.  It is Andrew Stadel and his Estimation 180, Fawn Nguyen and her Visual Pattern site, John Stevens and Would You Rather, and so many others that deserve recognition.  Those are the people and the things that have allowed math to come alive for my students.  I think, or I hope, my colleagues would be the first to tell you that I come out of my room about half of the time and say “man that was a real disaster”.  The truth is sometimes I have more lessons that fall flat than inspire kids to own the math but my Beaumont colleagues, administration, district math team, and MtBos community picks me up, makes me shake it off, and try harder the next day.

Perhaps most importantly I am thankful to the 1,500+ students that have given me the opportunity to be their teacher.  It can’t always be easy to have a teacher like me, that is so loud that my pod mates have to shut their door to drown out the noise or that is always trying a crazy idea that may or may not work but yet let me have fun with them for an hour each day (and most days they at least pretend they are having fun and enjoying math too!).  I will always be thankful to them for laughing at my stories and making a job seem like a lot more than a job.

The bottom line is I am thankful to be a classroom teacher. I am also thankful to the Milken Foundation for recognizing teachers across the country and promoting teacher leadership in such a positive and life changing way.  Since Tuesday I have heard more times than I can count, “well at least now you will be able to get out of the classroom”.  That statement has shaken me some I won’t lie.  I have had opportunities to leave the classroom each year for the last three or four years but I have inevitably chosen to return to room 406 for another year of professional growth and learning at the hands of 120 twelve and thirteen year olds.  The time may come at some point for me to leave the classroom but it certainly won’t be a decision I take lightly or that I look as a way “out” of teaching kids.  If I ever leave the classroom (and I am not sure I ever could leave it full-time)  it will be because I feel like I can positively impact more kids by helping teachers on a larger scale.  In the mean time I will remain thankful that I get to be a classroom teacher.26231627_10155833084391399_6181977321355652278_n (1)



Seeing the Light of Conceptual Understanding

As a student, I was always great at memorizing formulas and processes.  A couple of good cram sessions never failed me before a big test and always kept my grades in the acceptable range at home.  That was a solid plan for me until Algebra II and Pre-Calculus hit and I found myself unable to understand any of what was going on without the basic foundation of number sense and algebraic reasoning required for such advanced mathematics.  As a result, I have always claimed to be a proponent of conceptual teaching.  I always gave my kids the obligatory 20 minutes of playing around with a concept before I said “ok let’s down to business” and pushed that conceptual piece straight to fluency and procedural skill in order to check off another standard on our curriculum map.

I teach a grade level Math 7 course, a collaborative math 7 course and Advanced Algebra I for 7th graders daily and although the content may be very different amongst them I have seen the same pieces of conceptual understanding missing over the course of the last week.  In Math 7 we are working on understanding scale factor and as a result have had many conversations on why dividing by 2 is the same as multiplying by 1/2 or dividing by 2/3 is the same as multiplying by 3/2.  It is a conversation we have had almost daily it seems as we work on thinking of scale as a multiplicative relationship and understanding how the value of the scale factor changes the size of the scale copy.

In my Algebra I class we are solving equations and inequalities but yet this understanding of the equivalence between dividing by a fraction and multiplying by its reciprocal is a barrier for many of my advanced students as well as we begin moving into solving more complicated and challenging equations.  The whole experience has really pushed me to ask myself where this conceptual understanding has been lost along the way.  The students I teach come from 5 or more different elementary schools and had a variety of teachers all of whom I have no doubt worked incredibly hard to teach this concept and so many others but yet like so many other concepts the students remain in the procedural rather than the conceptual world.

As teachers we all want 100% what is best for the students in our classroom.  We want them to feel successful, to learn the content, and to feel like we have taught them everything listed in our District Curriculum maps and state standards.  However, I think often times it is the conceptual understanding that gets lost amongst the ever growing list of things we need to cover and complete over the course of 177 days.  As I said, I have always worked to give my kids “time” to work on conceptual understanding, but was it ever really enough?  Conceptual understanding is hard…it requires time, perseverance, some creativity, and a lot of patience all of which can be hard to find time for in a 60 minute class.  When my learners struggle I often find myself showing short cuts or breaking things down to simpler steps so that they can find success and comfort in the procedure rather than pushing them until they reach conceptual understanding.

My work with Core Advocates and MTBoS mentors have certainly pushed me and inspired me to dwell more in the conceptual and I have continuously improved as a teacher, however this year I seem to see the light more than ever.  This year I’ve been lucky enough to get to pilot the new Illustrative Math curriculum from Open Up Resources and it has truly already challenged me in every way imaginable.  I have really seen over the course of the last few weeks how much conceptual understanding opportunities I have taken from my students at times so we could get to the big idea.  There have been lessons in the first unit that I thought to myself “are they ever going to get to the point” however I have held my feet to the plans provided.  We are wrapping up that first unit now and here is what I’ve seen…the kids do eventually get there.  I have given them the time to reason, struggle, make mistakes, draw pictures, and talk out their ideas and now here at the end of the unit I truly believe they know the procedure pieces better than they ever have.  They now OWN why they are doing what they are doing instead of simply doing what I said they needed to do.  When I posed a scale copy problem today, some kids grabbed a ruler and started measuring, others grabbed a piece of tracing paper and checked angles, others went for a protractor or index card, and some used simple reasoning but they all on their own found a way to prove two images weren’t scale copies.  The time spent allowing them to really grasp the math was far more productive than any time I could have spent trying to procedurally teach how to identify scale copies or scale factor.

I get while writing this that it sounds much  simpler than it is.  If I knew conceptual understanding was key for years, why did it take this long to really embrace it?  I think until this point I believed I was giving kids enough opportunities to struggle with the conceptual piece and until I really experienced an entire unit built around conceptual understanding first I couldn’t grasp how much time I really needed to give these ideas to develop and form in their head.  I am excited now to see how their ideas continue to develop over the course of the year.  The next IM unit is proportional relationships which will allow them to extend their understanding of scale directly to understanding proportional relationships as well.  I am more excited to see their understanding and reasoning continue to develop than I have ever been.  I am so excited I got to see the light.


“The most important thing in your life is your family.  There are days you love them and others you don’t.  But, in the end, they’re the people you always come home to.  Sometimes it’s the family you’re born into and sometimes it’s the family you make for yourself.” ~Carrie Bradshaw

I ended the month of June with grand plans for July.  I was going to get my classroom ready for the start of a new school year, prepare for two weeks of upcoming summer school, and even write a classroom management series on my blog since I get so many questions about how we do things on my team.  All that changed last Friday morning when I awoke to the news of the tragic loss of one of my school colleagues.  I wasn’t sure whether to write this blog or not to be honest as the pain Judy’s sweet family is beyond my comprehension.  However, writing has been my therapy over the last few years and I wanted to get some thoughts about my precious school family out.  I am not always the best at telling people how much I appreciate them.  I frequently get too wrapped up in the day to day stress of teaching 120 children and don’t stop enough to enjoy the 80+ people I have the honor of working with every day.   The events of the last week have made me stop and reflect on how blessed I truly am.

My colleague Judy Stacy was the kind of person that I truly never heard anyone say a bad word about.   I know everyone says that when they lose someone but I can honestly tell you that I am not sure that she ever said a mean word to anyone or about anyone.  I don’t think there was a week she didn’t have her lesson plans turned in and ready to go or a day when she even missed her dreaded hall duty.  The children she taught would tell you that she taught them to be better people and to be kind to each other. She was the kind of person who smiled every time she saw you in the hallway and stopped to ask how you were.  When my own daughter was facing serious health issues she offered words of encouragement every time she saw me; I am not sure I ever told her how much that meant to me.  She was the kind of person you wanted to sit with at yet another professional development day or meeting because she could always make you smile and giggle.  Judy was the kind of person that radiated happiness and a love of life, a love of her family and a love of teaching.  Judy was the kind of person you feel better for having known.

I was blessed with a wonderful family that I am thankful for every day however I have been just as blessed by being adopted into the Beaumont family as well.  I have realized in the last few days just how special school families are.  They are the family we spend 10 or more hours with most days in order to do the best we can for the children that sit in our rooms.  They are the family we dress up in our ugliest holiday attire with to bring laughter and a little levity into the classroom.  They are the family we giggle with to entertain ourselves with in meetings that go on a little too long.  They are the family who celebrate with us when life blesses us and the family that gathers around us when tragedy strikes.

I have thought a lot in the last few days about how to honor Judy Stacy and have yet to come up with anything special enough to capture the beautiful person she was.  I do know I will work to be more appreciative of the wonderful people I am surrounded with each day at Beaumont in her honor and hope you will do the same in your buildings as well.  I hope you will offer a friendly smile and warm greeting to the stressed out teacher you pass in the hall.  I hope you will take the time to stop and talk to your colleagues even when it’s five minutes before school starts and you still need to make copies.  I hope you will make each other laugh and be kind even when you feel overworked and tired.  I hope you will take the time to enjoy life both inside and outside of school with the wonderful family you have been blessed to make for yourself at school.  I hope you will remember how special our profession and the people in it really are.

Thank you for being such a beautiful light Judy Stacy; your Beaumont Family loves you always.





The Things You Remember

“Policy matters but the humanity of a school matters a lot more.”

As I travel home from what was a wonderful Core Advocate Convening, the quote above from Jason Zimba continues to swirl in my head.  In the midst of dealing with a tumultuous legislative session and the final push of learning before the end of the school year our school and community has mourned the tragic loss of one of our precious former students.  Like many teachers in my building memories flooded back of the face and personality  that once occupied a desk in room 406.  The question has continued to swirl in my head…what do I really remember about kids?

I can’t tell you today what many of my students scored on their math K-Prep test the year they took it.  I may be able to name a couple of kids who knocked it out of the park with their growth on the MAP assessment but for the most part those numbers leave my head quickly once the window is over.  I don’t have a strong recollection of who was the outstanding math student for any of the 12 awards assemblies I have attended since I started teaching.  Part of it I am sure is the fact that I have an absolutely terrible memory but the other part is deeper than that.  I remember lots of things about all the children I have had an honor to teach but the things I remember are way more than test scores, student voice results, and proficiency ratings.

I remember the class of students that used to be able to get me so off track and tickled with their witty comments that I’d have to turn around to the board so I could stop laughing to get things back on track.

I remember the year we had a penny war to donate money to the local animal shelter and the kids bringing in so many pennies that we had to buy a coin counter to help with the crazy amounts of change we were dealing with…we haven’t been allowed to do a penny war since!

I remember the 52 students that I got to spend a year teaching with Joe Payne.  For 177 days we caught lightning in a bottle and my teaching career and philosophy was forever changed.  I remember how those kids believed in us just as much as we believed in them.

I remember the year we had our first team fall festival as a incentive for the kids and the little girl that bobbed for more than a dozen apples and left with soaking wet hair and clothes (we didn’t bob for apples the next year!)

I remember the group of kids who after doing the Mathalicious lesson “Big Foot Conspiracy” asked me if we could investigate if my clothes should cost less than most people because I’m so short.   And the student who got mad at me and said I was too mean and too short to be a teacher.

I remember going to cheer on the sports teams, academic teams, and clubs so that all my kids know I care and see who they are outside of my classroom.  I remember making posters to cheer on our kids in tournaments and championships.  I remember the excited hugs when they brought a trophy home and the heartbreak on their faces when they came up short.

I remember the little boy who was crying in my room on his birthday and the teammates who decided to run to Kroger to get him a birthday cake fast.  I remember the lady at Kroger who was sweet enough to put is name in it fast.  I will always remember walking into his last hour class with the candles lit singing happy birthday and him crying again and explaining that it was the first birthday party he had ever had.

I remember the student who brought me a teddy bear from her collection for my birthday one year.  It still sits on a shelf in my classroom and although the little girl changed districts I will always remember her name when I look at it.

I remember the little boy whom after seeing my hair curly and not straightened one day said “Man Ms. Powers I do not like your hair that way it looks terrible.”

I remember the little girl that came in every Monday and Wednesday for extra math help and worked so hard to catch up to her peers.  A much I told her and her family not to, she rarely came empty handed and loved bringing me beautiful flowers from her mom’s garden and my favorite the occasional sweet tea.

I remember the student who wrote on her weekly reflection that her week was awesome because she got to see her dad in prison.  I remember being a little kinder and gentler the next time she missed an assignment or another day of school due to family circumstances. 

I remember the student whom some colleagues and I sent home a backpack of food for Thanksgiving break because we knew they didn’t have enough at home.  He returned Monday morning and proudly pronounced that the beef jerky, fruit snacks and peanut butter crackers we sent home were the best Thanksgiving dinner they had ever had.

I remember the students who lost parents while they were in my class and trying to give them some sense of normalcy when they returned.  I remembered hearing one particular student tell a friend that sometimes she felt like she could feel her dad right beside her and I remember my heart breaking a little for how her young life had changed forever.

I remember the heartbreak I feel when you get word that a former student has passed away.  I remember the seats they filled in my class, their personalities, and the fun they had when we gave them time to just be kids.  I remember meeting their parents and getting their emails to check in to see how their child was progressing.  I remember having the honor to spend 177 days with someone so special.

I have reflected a lot in the past two weeks about the things I do remember about my students.  I have went to bed many nights in the last two weeks wondering if I do enough.  Do I have fun with them enough?  Do I show them how I love them enough?  Do I praise them enough?  Do I acknowledge all the things that make them special enough?  Will I ever be able to remember enough?

Teacher Appreciation

The irony of teacher appreciation week being the same week as state testing in Kentucky isn’t lost on me!  As I have rushed around trying to tie up all the loose ends in my kids learning for the last week the topic of teacher appreciation has continued to weigh on my mind.  Even in the midst of trying to figure out what to get my own children’s teachers to try and show how much I appreciate the love of learning that they have instilled in Jackson and Embry, my mind keeps coming back to the question, “what do teachers really need to feel appreciated?”.  Don’t get me wrong, I love every card, flower and gift I have ever gotten from the sweet faces I get to teach daily as every teacher I know does.   But in my mind there are lots of things teachers want to feel appreciated beyond just this special week.

Teachers want administrators that see them tirelessly working to plan lessons, grade papers, and analyze data while simultaneously loving on children, helping families, and serving their school in a variety of ways that go beyond their four walls.  They want to feel like they are both seen and heard.  They want to hear things like “you are doing a great job”, “how can I help you”, and “I am thankful for the work you do for our school”.

Teachers want Superintendents that know their name and see the good work they do to not only help their own students but support other teachers in their school and district.  They want to feel that they are more than an employee number, test score, or highly qualified certificate and instead are seen as a human who works hard, makes decisions in the best interest of kids, and never stops trying to be better today than they were yesterday.

Teachers want students that instead answering the question of “what did you do today” with “nothing” share with their parents all the AMAZING things they got to experience that day.   They want their students to go home excited to share about the awesome science lab they did, real-world math lesson they got to experience, debate they were the star of, or art project that they just finished.

Teachers want parents to ask their children every day at the dinner table what they learned that day and to stop accepting “nothing” as an answer.  They want parents to send them a quick e-mail when their child comes home excited about something they learned so they know that the hours they spent preparing were well worth it for that child.  They want parents to see how much they love their children and how they only have such high expectations because they know they can do it.

Teachers want community members who are more reluctant to throw stones at them after they see a bad worksheet circulating on Facebook, a sensationalized news article, or a conversation in the grocery check out line.  We want our communities to see the 99 amazing things that happen every single day rather than just the occasional mistake.

Teachers want politicians who see that they became teachers not because they couldn’t do anything else but because instead they knew inspiring the next generation was their greater calling.  They want to feel like their knowledge and expertise is recognized and appreciated.   They want decision makers to seek their input and trust their judgement and have decisions made with them rather than for them.  They want to know that there is a future in their profession and that the retirement they have diligently paid into will be their when their service is completed.

I am sure I will catch some flack for this post (I always seem to) but to me this isn’t about complaining about how teachers need to be appreciated more.  I will have a wonderful week of thoughtful children and their families sending e-mails and sweet handwritten notes, a PTA bake sale that provided us with lots of treats, and I am sure a thank you email from both school and district leadership.  However, in my mind teacher appreciation goes way beyond these five days and should instead be a focus year round.  The best appreciation can’t be found in a store or a Pinterest board; it comes from a respect and admiration for what they do every day to shape the future of this country.

Tagging Goldfish

This will be a quick post (23 days left of school, has this teacher in a craze to get everything in!).  Lots of people asked me about our Tagging Goldfish activity so I wanted to share fast.  As much as I love fancy lessons, cool activities, and technology nothing gets 7th graders more into learning than food.  This populations and sample activity was the perfect way to grab the kids attention after spring break and get them into statistics and probability mode.


Full credit goes to Harvey’s Homepage for the awesome SMART Board lesson that was the inspiration for the activity and to my amazing co-worker Jennifer Laytham for making the student work along which was the perfect addition.

Random Sampling (Smartboard Fishing)

The directions are pretty clear on the student worksheet but in order to facilitate this activity I give each student pair a brown paper bag filled with a random number of goldfish.  Using a small cup they go “fishing” to catch a random number of fish and tag them with food coloring (or sometimes we use magic markers to save on the mess).  Once tagged, the students dump their tagged fish back in the bag and shake them around to let the fish go swimming.  Next, they go fishing again to catch a number sample and record the number of tagged and total number of fish they caught before releasing them to swim again.  They repeat this process three times recording data as they go.  Once they have all of their data they add up the number of tagged fish caught and total fish caught before using proportional reasoning to estimate the total number of fish in their bag.  After I have checked their math and reasoning I let them dump the bag out to count the actual number of fish in their bag and as an extra review have them find the percent error of their estimate.  Of course the kids favorite part is eating the Goldfish after they are done!

My students really enjoyed the real life connection of tagging the goldfish like scientists tag animals in the wild to estimate populations as well.  I am sure there are TONS of variations and extensions out there but this was the perfect way for use to get back into learning mode before our last stretch of the school year!

Not Equipped

For the most part I feel like I have had a really strong year teaching.  My students have been great and very excited about learning this year, I’ve found some new engaging lessons to further strengthen what I already had in place and my teammates were willing as ever to go along with another year of my grand plans for team building and working to develop a community culture for our students.  Yet even with all of that I still have a looming sense of failure hanging over me.  I see, believe in, and acknowledge all the good things that happen in my classroom daily.  I also openly admit all my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher (frequently on this blog) but what is weighing on my mind heavily are more than just personal and professional weaknesses.  I know there are things I can do better; I could do a better job connecting with all students, I know I can continue to plan stronger more engaging lessons, I know I can always do a better job communicating with families, and I know there will always be room for improvement in using data to drive instruction more than I do.  Like all good professionals I will spend my time off this summer, my next school year, and for that matter the rest of my career working on all those things and more trying to continually be a better teachers for all students.  Those are things I can fix, improve, and adjust.  What I am most concerned about are the things I am honestly just not sure I will ever be fully equipped to do.

I am not equipped to provide all the support needed to help my refugee students heal from their past and reach their full potential here.  These students, some of whom were being recruited to be child soldiers just mere months ago, are now expected to simply adjust to a new life in a different world.  Beyond needing intensive language support they have mental health needs due to their prior experiences that are far beyond what I can help with between the 4 walls of my classroom.

I am not equipped to deal with the number of homeless students who come in and out of my classroom as rent is due, family situations change, and their welcome at friends homes is worn out.  It is an insurmountable task to ask kids to learn math when they aren’t sure where they will sleep that night or what school they will be attending next week.

I am not equipped to deal with the number of students who come to school hungry each day.  I am not sure the average person knows how many teachers have desk drawers filled with peanut butter crackers, apples, fruit snacks, and anything else they can find on sale at the grocery store to give to students that show up at school too hungry to learn.  Don’t get me wrong I am happy to pick up extra snacks weekly for anyone who needs them but that doesn’t help the nagging feeling I get knowing there is no drawer full of food when they go home for weekends, Holidays, or summer vacation.  Every teacher in America knows what it is like to wake up and wonder which of your students is waking up hungry that morning.

I am not equipped to deal with the heartbreak that comes from being a teacher.  Over Spring Break one of my students was missing and I am not sure my mind ever stopped racing or my eyes closed until I heard he was found and home safe.  I turn on the news more times than I can count to see a glimpse of a sweet face I once taught hardened by life, who has been arrested and facing serious charges.  My heart aches each time I think of their 7th grade smile knowing what awaits them in the journey now in front of them.  No teacher is ever really prepared to comfort a child who has lost a parent or even worse a parent who has lost a child that you had the honor to call a student.

I will never be equipped to deal with the amount of hate my students live with on a daily basis.  Someone brought to my attention recently that the students I teach today grew up in a post 9/11 world.  September 11th ushered in a new level of hate and mistrust for everyone and these kids simply do not know a world without that.  The kids I teach today know a world of profiling based on religion, race, nationality and appearance.  They know a world where nations are pitted against each other.  They turn on the TV to see politicians, celebrities, and average citizens in a war of words twisting the truth and manipulating others for personal gain.  In short, the students I teach have learned to trust no one and I can assure you that is awfully hard to get a kid to buy into learning if they don’t trust you first.

Everyone seems to know how to “fix” public education these days.  In my own state, they believe the solution to be charter schools and education vouchers.  I don’t know how to fix the issues but I also can’t believe that charters and vouchers are the answers either.  Sending kids to a school with a different address doesn’t fix their home life, hunger, or emotional issues.  The problem is deeper than a change in school, teacher, curriculum or standards can provide.  In my opinion we should be pouring our time, energy, and resources in helping kids where they are.  We could be providing home support, mental health support, and resources to help meet these kids basic needs so that instead of worrying about where they were going to sleep that night they could focus on being a kid and learning.  We could be equipping teachers better on how to help the neediest students in our classroom.  We could be equipping schools and districts with resources that help students and teachers rather than threatening to cut funding and support when our kids, teachers, and schools need support the most.  We can do better; that I am sure of.  I know I get up every day resolved to do better and be better than I was yesterday, unfortunately I am just not always equipped.