The Heart of a Teacher

I am not sure if it is the approaching holidays, the exhaustion that comes at the end of the semester or the faces of some special students that have touched my life this year but I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have the heart of a teacher.  I’ve spent a fair number of hours in a variety of teachers classrooms over the past few years, been to countless conferences to hear leading education experts, and read every research article and education book that I’ve been able to get my hands on and yet none of these experiences can fully capture the heart and soul of our nation’s schools.

I’ve observed teachers with more content knowledge than I will ever possess.  These people have spent their lives studying mathematics and are more of a mathematician than I will ever be yet they lack the heart of a teacher that motivates students to learn difficult material.  I’ve also seen teachers who have to continue to push themselves to expand their content knowledge to understand it to the level required to teach students but whose classrooms are amazing places of learning because of the heart they have for every kid that enters their room.  There’s no doubt in my mind that it is easier to teach someone who loves kids the content than it is to teach someone who knows the content to love kids.

I sat in a meeting recently about what could be done to further improve the quality of math education in the state of Kentucky and although there were varied opinions on how and what to do the one thing we all agreed upon was the fact that 99.9% of teachers have the absolute best of intentions when they get up and go to school every morning.  I don’t know many teachers who get up and say you know what I am going to purposefully send a bad worksheet home today so it can confuse my kids and go viral on Facebook.  I don’t know a teacher that looks for a more confusing way to teach something so their kids can struggle and feel unsuccessful.  I don’t know many teachers who can stay in this profession with the long hours, unreasonable expectations, and ever changing climate without having the heart of  a teacher.

I truly don’t know when I developed a heart for teaching.  It was never my intent to be a teacher.  I was supposed to make six figures doing marketing or become a big name in the agriculture business in which I was raised but it’s not what ended up happening.  As a part of my “leadership degree” I ended up in a classroom student teaching and while those first years were rough and the learning curve was steep I couldn’t deny that there was something about those hugs from kids who needed love, the funny notes about my class, and the excitement from kids who were finally excited about learning that stole my heart.

My days are messy and stressful but my heart stays full.  Last week I had the crazy idea to build gingerbread houses with 110 7th graders.  I’d say 75% had never undertaken such a task and by all accounts the day was a disaster.  However, although I am still cleaning icing and sprinkles out of every corner of my room those kids laughed, worked together, and made memories that they would have never had otherwise.  I went home tired and swore in the car on the way home that we’d never do it again and then I looked at the pictures and watched the videos.  I saw the smiles, the giggles, and the joy that thirteen year olds had when they built their first gingerbread house and rather than focusing on the mess that heart of teacher kicked in and I started thinking about what we could do next instead.

I teach a little boy this year that by all accounts I should stay mad at.  He doesn’t do his homework, disrupts my class with ridiculous jokes and stories, and gets sent to me from other teacher’s classes more often than I can count.  However at the same time he greets me every morning and before class with a good morning and a hug, he does well on almost every test in spite of not doing his homework, and makes me laugh when he knows I am having a bad day.  Those are the kids that make this teacher’s heart stay in the classroom.  I wish often that I wasn’t so stressed, that I didn’t perpetually have a bag of papers in my front seat to grade, and that my e-mail inbox was below it’s current 10,991 messages but I wouldn’t trade any of that if it meant I didn’t get to spend my days with kids like that one.

I get more emotional than I like to admit when I see the news these days about the climate of education in America.  Charter schools, turmoil over Common Core Standards, accountability changes, private schools, a bankrupt retirement systems, and leadership changes in Washington are just a few of stories that weigh heavy on my mind but yet I keep the faith in my profession.  I remain hopeful not because of policy changes, political promises, or  leadership but simply because I’m certain that you can’t stop the heart of a teacher.

Math as a Means to Social Justice

It was a high stress week for educators.  I saw more posts than I can count about concerned educators trying to deal with repercussions in their classroom environments from the election and a country that seems to become more divided  by the day.  The question was asked of me more than once, “what did you teach on Wednesday?”.  I struggled a bit myself with how to handle my class Wednesday knowing there would be mixed opinions about the election results.  I knew there would be children genuinely concerned about their future and the lives of their families and others that were happy with the election results.  In my own house my five year old daughter was sad Hillary didn’t win while my eight year old son was a Trump supporter.  I don’t bring my political beliefs into my house, my classroom, or even this blog as I think that is a choice every person has to research, reflect on, and decide for themselves so I struggled greatly with how to handle a divided classroom Wednesday.

After some early morning reflection it came to me… my job as a math educator isn’t to shape children’s political beliefs and it isn’t to tell students how they should think or feel about this election or any other politically charged event happening in this country.  Instead my job is to help students learn to use math to make them a better citizen.  My job is to show them how math can be used as a spectrum to see issues both political and otherwise from multiple angles.  My job is to teach them how they can use math to strengthen their own arguments and make a case for change.

So Wednesday when news stations were busy analyzing results, politicians were writing speeches and strategizing, and others were tearing down people of opposing views we spent time in room 406 using math to learn about social justice.  For 60 minutes we didn’t use the words Hillary or Donald, we didn’t talk about the things that are too late to change,  and we didn’t make judgements against people we don’t know.  Instead we talked about what we thought was fair and how they could institute change in their own generation.  On this particular day we actually looked at the cost of parking tickets and what happens when someone can’t pay their ticket the first month it is owed.  We had some open and honest discussions about what a $250 ticket meant to someone who is making minimum wage versus what it meant to Lebron James.  We learned about Finland’s income based fine system and about the stiffness of penalites for traffic violations in countries like Japan.

In the midst of all that discussion we did some difficult math.  The kids wrote linear equations, graphed lines, and solved multiple systems of equations but that isn’t what they will remember.  If you ask them what we did in class Wednesday they will say that we talked about what it means for things to be fair and they each got to form their own opinion on what that meant for them.  Some kids left believing we needed to insititute a system like Finland’s and others left more resolved than ever that what we have works just fine but the important thing was now they had data, graphs, and evidence to back up their claims not just meaningless words.

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As we continue to face a time of division within our own country my resolve to use math as a means to teach kids about social justice issues is stronger than ever.  I believe whole heartedly that it is our job as a teachers to help kids discuss issues and brainstorm solutions not focus on politics.

*To check out this social justice lesson and MANY other impactful lessons for your classroom head on over to www.mathalicious.com.  You won’t be disappointed!

What’s in a Number?

Very soon teachers across the Commonwealth will sit in their library, their cafeteria, or a classroom nervously while their 2015-2016 K-Prep scores are released.  Administrators will sit in meetings identifying their schools weaknesses and planning on how to further help the students that are struggling the most.  Parents and community members will open their paper to read the latest news article comparing and contrasting local schools; praising some while criticizing others.  In a matter of days an entire school year will be condensed into one number.  I am not going to argue tonight about whether or not there is a need for standardized assessments, the fairness in comparing schools even though the demographics are completely different, or about student growth being a part of teacher performance evaluation.  What I will do is remind you what isn’t included in that number we will all see soon.

That number doesn’t include the hours before and after school Kentucky teachers spend with students who don’t seem to be getting the material and need a little extra help.

That number won’t include the students who on the first “Tough Pattern Thursday” of last year stared at me with blank and confused stares and on the last spit out a complicated expression including exponents like it was their job.

That number can’t include the children who got an extra smile, hug, supply or snack from their teacher because there wasn’t enough encouragement, things, or food at home to go around.

That number never measures the refugee students who join our school not only with language and academic needs but also severe social and emotional needs that our staff works tirelessly to address as we welcome them to our school and country with loving smiles.

That number doesn’t see the teacher grading papers on the weekends, buying supplies at 10:00 on a school night for an activity, or laying awake at night wondering how they can better serve their students.

That number doesn’t get to experience what it is like to see a faculty rally together in times of need for students.  It doesn’t see the paraeducator who spends their weekend painting a child’s room so they feel more at home.  It doesn’t see the staff at a funeral home as they help their students say goodbye to a parent or sibling.  It doesn’t see the smiling faces in the stands at a sports game cheering on a student whose parents weren’t able to be there themselves.  It doesn’t see us carrying in extra groceries weekly to send home with students who will be hungry over the weekend.

That number misses a lot of things.  I will take that number this week and I will do what all teachers do.  I will reflect and try and figure out what I could have done better to move just one more student to proficiency.  I will celebrate in the successes and I will internalize my own weaknesses.  I will sit in meetings with other teachers while we ask ourselves where we go from here to make all students college and career ready.  However none of those are the most important things I will do.  The most important things I will do will be to get up the next day with a smile on my face and keep teaching; it will be to give an extra hug in the hallway to the kid that looks like they could use it; it will be to spend another day doing what I do every day, loving kids.

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My Fellow Americans ~ Bringing Language Arts to the Math Classroom

My love (okay obsession) with Mathalicious has been well documented on Twitter so I don’t usually blog about individual lessons but we had so much fun with “My Fellow Americans” and the kids produced such great work I had to share it here!

This lesson begins with students using the Flesch-Kincaid formula to analyze the reading level of State of the Union addresses from the last 200 years.  The kids had a great time sounding out the words to determine how many syllables there were in each passage and we had some great discussion on this topic!  There’s a chance we had to borrow a dictionary from our Language Arts teacher…sometimes the southern drawl messes with the syllable count!

 

After analyzing the trends in the reading level of the State of the Union Addressees (sorry can’t reveal all the secrets!) students are given the opportunity to take a sentence from Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address and transform it into both a reading level that is lower and higher than it’s current level.  We had so much fun with this that of course I had to turn it in to a contest and award the student with the highest and lowest sentence.  They blew me away with what they came up with!  It was a great way for them to understand how different values effect an equation in different and more meaningful ways while writing some amazing sentences with seriously unbelievable vocabulary!  We videoed the original sentence along with our highest and lowest winners.  Our lowest level sentence came in at a -2.5 reading level and the highest was above 40…I almost passed out when he hit me at the end with the “bald eagle idolizing, Civil War fighting, World War II deciding” line at the end…this kid has a future in politics!

 

We seriously had so much fun with this lesson and I felt more like a Language Arts teacher than a math teacher for once!  Thanks Mathalicious for another exciting day of using math as a spectrum to see another content!

Math Class Musical Chairs

I have been so busy I have dropped the ball on blogging but after doing one of my favorite activities yesterday I remembered I needed to share!  One of my awesome colleagues Jill Angelucci shared this with me and we have so much fun with it!

This game can vary based on how many students and problems you have but generally I have about 30 students so I take the 9 problems attached here:  Muscial Chairs Expressions Review, and make 3 copies so I have 27 copies altogether.  I cut the problems apart and tape one to each desk which leaves 3 to 5 desks without a problem on them.

Each student gets a copy of the musical chairs blank handout found here: Musical Chairs Student Handout, to do their work on.  Then we get “mathy” musical chairs style.  All the kids get up and walk around the room while I play music.  When the music stops they grab the nearest desk work the problem they find on their desk on the worksheet.  If they sit at a blank desk or at a problem they’ve already done they lose that turn.  I give them about 90 seconds to do the problems before I start the music and they get moving again so no one is left without anything to do for long.  I generally reward the first 3 people to get all the problems done and correct.  Generally everyone has to go back once or twice to check their work on a problem which adds to the fun and helps them find their own errors.

We have so much fun with this game and you can do it with any number of problems or any number of kids.  I hope you’ll try!

Day 3 Building a Culture

Between doing the Olympics activity, handling first week of school paperwork and learning my warm-up routine we didn’t get to a lot of other math on Friday but I did get to introduce the kids to one of my favorite components of building our classroom culture.  Every student I teach gets a binder ring and each day we watch some sort of motivational video, news clip, or similar item and then I ask a reflective question which they answer on an index card.  We add a new index card each day and by the end of the year they have this awesome little memoir of sorts that they’ve developed daily.  Friday was our first day and I showed my favorite Kid President video.  I asked the kids this question afterward:

“What do you wish teachers saw in you?”

Lots of the responses were sweet but this was my favorite:

IMG_2962Doesn’t that pretty much sum up teaching…Seeing the talents in kids that they haven’t even discovered themselves yet?  I know I teach math and not writing but reading these index cards daily is one of my most favorite parts of my job.  If you haven’t given kids a chance to tell their story yet I encourage you to do so.  You will be surprised at how much it will change you.

Bringing the Ron Clark Academy to Beaumont

We spent Friday afternoon paying homage to the Ron Clark Academy with our weekly team building activity and introduction of our rule of the week.  Soon we will also be recognizing our Golden Equestrian award winner each week but we won’t give out the first one of those until we feel someone rises to the occasion and we don’t know them well enough yet.

I love these weekly team building activities because it gives us a chance to heterogeneously group students and allow them to work with kids they don’t normally get a chance to work with.  It is so amazing to see them in action and observe who steps up as leaders within the groups and how they all seem to come together for the good of the group regardless of their unfamiliarity with each other.

This week we put them in random groups of about 8 and gave them one piece of construction paper, one pair of scissors and one long piece of tape.  Their challenge was to create the longest paper chain they could in about 10 minutes.  Boy did they surpass our expectations….they had great ideas and paper chains that were way longer than I imagined when we started.  We awarded the team with the longest chain E-bucks and also gave another group an E-buck reward because they exemplified what team work should look like.

Our first rule of the week was:

When responding to any adult, you must answer by saying “Yes ma’am” or “No sir.” Just nodding your head or saying any other form of yes or no is not acceptable.

We will randomly reward students with E-bucks this week to encourage them to start using this rule.  We will add a new rule weekly…our goal is to not only teach them to be better academically but socially as well!  So much of what teachers do has nothing to do with content and that is exactly how it should be.  I’ll take teaching kids to be productive people prepared to compete and excel in today’s society any day!

Day 2 …Paper Airplanes and Card Games

Day 2 always brings one of my favorite activities…paper airplane making!  I always challenge the kids to build a paper airplane that they think will travel the farthest distance.  After giving them a few minutes to work independently they test their airplanes within their group to test them and select the best on to enter in the class contest.

47F19AC8-00F4-48EB-B71F-69EFD769BCBAD37021DD-AF39-4B80-916B-ECE14208241EOnce the best planes have been chosen we head out to the hall to fly the planes and determine a winner.  (The winning group gets our team reward money!)  It is always so fun to watch the kids personalities emerge on Day 2 as they get excited about their groups plane.  After the contest I always show the kids this Simple Truths video  about thinking outside the box and it is great watching their reactions as they see the plane in the video that wont the contest!

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We followed that up with more highlights of Rio 2016 and completing our medal tally for the day.  To finish out the class we carried on with our Olympic theme by planning this great card game from Nrich.  The kids loved comparing the different stats and trying to be strategic with their cards!  Tomorrow is our first team building day.  Stay tuned for that activity!

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