Trying to find math inside everything else

Archive for the ‘schooling’ Category


At the MfA Summer Think, I went to a Teacher’s Poetry Circle. It was pretty great. Below are what I wrote during the two free-write times, slightly edited/punched up.

Why do I teach?

To learn about math
To learn about people
To learn about cultures
To learn about relationships

To rebel in small ways
To rebel in larger ways
To comprehend a system that was not designed with our best interests at heart

To spread joy
To share knowledge
To forge connections and broaden horizons
To create experiences that linger in hearts and minds

To help others reach their true potential
To help myself reach it, too
To help us all figure out how this world works
To help us all figure out where to go next


This is hard
but there are harder things.
Changing the world
Dismantling structures that oppress
is hard.

But maybe that’s what this is,
just at a smaller scale?
Maybe “hard” is just a matter of scale.
Can we scale up what we do?

Maybe it is impossible –
the square-cube law restricts us all
and our attempts to scale up
under their own weight.

Sometimes a law must be broken
To do what is right.
Why not this one?
Why not push ourselves to the edge
of the possible?
Will we fail?
Will we fall?

I allow myself to fall
because only by falling can you see
the true heights and depths of where you were and where you can go

From the air, you can see everything.


A Way to Foster Productive Struggle?

My school has been trying to better create conditions for productive struggle in our classes, because a lot of students have taken a very receiving stance. So early in our Area and Volume unit, I decided to use this task from Illustrative Mathematics.


The task is a 7th grade task, and so involved nothing new for my high school geometry students – just area and perimeter/circumference. But the task has a lot of parts, not all of which are obvious from looking at it. So I gave them task, and then I was “less helpful.” In fact, I barely spoke during the lesson, only quietly clarifying things, but reflecting their proximity questions back towards themselves and their other group members.

Almost every group that attempted the task solved the problem on their own. (I followed up with an extension where they designed their own stained class on the coordinate plane and found the price using the same pricing, for those who finished quickly.) I had a group of three girls who don’t usually feel very confident in my class feel like rock stars after figuring the whole thing out themselves.

A few days ago, I saw this tweet:

I thought it really applied here. While the content was still related to what we were learning in high school geometry, the opportunity to solve a complex task with little scaffolding was really helped by using a task from an earlier grade. I recommend it.


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?