Tag Archives: reflection

More Than Words

Yesterday Tracy Zager shared a heartbreaking post that every teacher should take a few minutes to read.

The gist of it is that teachers need to be mindful about the messages they send students and parents about learning and doing mathematics. Sometimes damaging messages come across in the form of words – “You may not talk to anyone as you work.” – but they also come across in our choices of lessons and activities we do in our classrooms – such as a long pre-assessment that most students will “fail” because they unsurprisingly don’t yet know the content from their new grade level.

But there’s hope! This Tweet sums it up nicely:

I’ve been especially encouraged while reading the latest blog posts from the members of my Math Rocks cohort. Back in July we watched Tracy’s Shadow Con talk. Afterward everyone took Tracy’s call to action to choose a word to guide their math planning at the start of the year.

Flash forward a month and the school year is finally getting underway. Our latest Math Rocks mission was to re-watch Tracy’s talk and to watch my own Shadow Con talk since the two are very much related. Then they had to choose one of our calls to action to follow and write a blog post reflecting on their experiences as they kicked off the school year.

The results have been so inspiring! I’ve collected all of their posts in this document. Take a look. Just reading the titles of their posts makes me happy, and if you go on to read them, I hope you’ll finish with as big of a smile on your face as I have.

Math Rocks Redux Part 1

This time last year, @reginarocks and I kicked off our inaugural Math Rocks cohort. We spent two awesome days of PD together with a group of 30 elementary teachers which you can read about here and here.

And this time this year, we kicked off our second Math Rocks cohort which you can read about in this very post!


For those who want to stick to the present and not go back into last year’s posts, Math Rocks is our district cohort for elementary teachers to grow as math teachers. Our two focus goals for the year are building relationships around mathematics and fostering curiosity about mathematics. The cohort meets for two full days in July followed up by 9 after school sessions, September through January, and a final half day session together in February. It’s intense, but so rewarding to get to work with teachers for such an extended amount of time!

I want to write a post about this year’s Math Rocks cohort to give you some insight into what stayed the same and what changed. Now that we’ve gone through this once, we knew there were some things we wanted to tweak. Without further ado…

One thing that stayed the same was kicking off Math Rocks with a little Estimation 180! The purpose behind this was twofold. First, we did it as a getting-to-know-you activity. Once everyone was ready, we had them mingle and make friends while answering questions like:

  • What is an estimate that is too LOW?
  • What is an estimate that is too HIGH?
  • What is your estimate?
  • Where’s the math? and
  • Which grade levels could do this activity?

Second, throughout day 1 we snuck in a couple of activities like Estimation 180 that were created by members of the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (#MTBoS for short). Later in the day we introduced the cohort to the MTBoS, and it’s nice to be able to say, “Oh by the way, remember those Estimation 180 and Which One Doesn’t Belong? activities we did? Those are created by members of this community we’re introducing you to. Isn’t that awesome?!”

Last year we did a community circle after the Estimation 180 activity, but I scrapped it this year in order to streamline our day and add time for the biggest change to day 1, which I’ll talk about in a bit. Instead, we moved right into the ShadowCon15 talks from Tracy Zager and Kristin Gray that serve the purpose of setting up our two Math Rocks goals.

Just like last year, we had the participants reflect before Tracy’s video. They had to create three images that symbolized what math was like to them as a student. It’s fascinating (and concerning) to see how many images involve computation facts practice of some sort:

Even more fascinating (and sadly disturbing) was listening to participants’ horror stories about fact practice as a child. One person talked about the teacher hitting students on the back of the hand for getting problems wrong on timed tests. Another one said the teacher had everyone in class hiss at students who got problems wrong. Hiss! Can you believe that?!

We only made a slight change to this portion of the day. Last year we prefaced each video with a description we got from the ShadowCon site. This year I let the talks speak for themselves. It seemed more powerful to let Tracy and Kristin build their own arguments without priming the pump so much.

I mentioned earlier we left out the community circle in the morning to make room for the biggest change to day 1. Let me tell you about that. Introducing goal #2 leads us into one of the biggest components of Math Rocks, joining Twitter and creating a blog. In order to build relationships and foster curiosity, I want my teachers to experience being members of the MTBoS during their time in Math Rocks.

Last year I gave directions here and here on our Math Rocks blog. I shared the links to those two blog posts and set them loose to get started. To say we ran into problems is a vast understatement. I severely underestimated the support needed to get 30 teachers with widely varying comfort levels with technology connected to Twitter and blogging. No offense to them – they were great sports about it – but I definitely threw our first cohort in the deep end and I’m lucky (and thankful!) they all came back for day 2.


This year I slowed things down quite a bit, and together we walked through the process of creating a Twitter account and a blog. I ended up spending about an hour and fifteen minutes on each part. That’s how much I learned from last year’s experience! Slow and steady wins this race. For those who were comfortable getting started on their own, I gave them their tasks up front here and here so they didn’t have to sit and wait for the rest of us.

Oh, that reminds me of another behind-the-scenes change this year. Instead of using a blog to share missions, I decided to try Google Classroom. I made separate assignments of creating a Twitter account and creating a blog, and the documents I linked in the previous paragraph were linked to those assignments. I haven’t done much else with Google classroom yet, so I’m not sure if it’s going to be a better choice or not, but so far it’s working out okay.

Doing all of that pretty much took up the rest of day 1, with the exception of a little Which One Doesn’t Belong? to give us a break between introducing Twitter and blogging.


All in all, I’m happy we were able to keep so much of day 1 intact. I feel like the structure of it does a nice job of establishing our goals for the year and I’m happy I was able to find a way to get everyone connected to Twitter and blogging in a less stressful way.

Day 2, on the other hand, is completely different from last year, and I look forward to writing about that in my next post.


What Do We Do With All Those Lazy Teachers?

In some form or another, I see this question posed on Twitter again and again. I think the assumption is that connected educators who actively blog and tweet are in the class of awesome, engaged, and doing-the-right thing teachers while everyone else is in the class of sucky, lazy, or just-kind-of-meh teachers.

With the daily attacks trumpeting the failures of schools and, specifically, teachers, we should really be banding together, showing solidarity because we all know full well teaching is an undervalued profession in this country, and as a whole we are doing our damned best. Instead, numerous tweets and blogs from real teachers are serving to divide us and tear us down.

Those non-connected educators. Those are the ones worthy of scorn. They don’t try and they clearly don’t care about doing a good job.

We connected educators. We’re the awesome ones, the ones everyone should model themselves after. Don’t associate us with those lesser teachers. You should be proud of us.

I know I’m being hyperbolic and somewhat inflammatory. I’m not trying to call out any one educator. This is just a recurring theme I’ve picked up on during my past two years being a part of Twitter and blogging.

I want to play devil’s advocate today. Instead of asking about what to do with lazy teachers, what if we asked this question instead:

Are some teachers just trying too hard?

Obviously there are people who pour their heart and soul into their teaching job, but is that a realistic expectation for the profession as a whole? I know it can feel good to exceed expectations and be proud of your work, but can’t it be okay for some portion of teachers to meet expectations, do an adequate job, and feel content with what they’re doing?

I know there are negative connotations to some of those words, but think about it. If you have met expectations, you have done what is expected of you, what your employer agreed to pay you to do. For some people, that’s enough. They don’t want more from their job than that. And is it our place to judge them?

Full disclosure: I was one of the overly passionate, dedicated teachers when I was in the classroom. Every day I arrived at school 45 minutes to an hour early so that I had time to prepare. And most every day I stayed at work until 5:30 or 6 o’clock at night grading papers, writing plans, and the countless other responsibilities I had. Sometimes I stayed until 9:30 or 10 o’clock! I also worked at least one full day on the weekends, sometimes two.

I won’t make any claims that all of this work resulted in me being the best teacher there ever was, but it was an effort I wanted to put in, no questions asked. It felt like the right thing to do in order to be the best teacher I could be to my students.

However, is that a realistic expectation for teachers as a whole? Absolutely not. While this was passionate work, it was still work, and it took its toll over time. I got burned out.

I doubt anyone would say that teachers need to put in the kinds of hours I did, but they do seem to make other claims about what a “good” teacher should do. Say, for example, joining Twitter and following blogs.

I won’t discount the benefits of doing these things (I’ve been doing them for two years, so clearly I see a personal benefit that makes it worth my time), but I will make the challenge that no teacher should be judged for not doing them.

As any teacher knows, your job is unlike most other jobs. You don’t get to do one job all day. You have two jobs – teaching and everything else. The bulk of your day, 6-7 hours, is spent doing the teaching job. You’re focused on and engaged with your students and that’s about all you have time for. The “everything else” part of your job – grading, planning, filing, photocopying, emailing, returning phone calls, meetings, etc. – fits into whatever time you have left.

This is where it gets tricky. How much time should teachers put in for this other work? Is there some magical amount that distinguishes the good teachers from the bad teachers?

Also, what exactly does this “everything else” part of the job entail? While certain responsibilities can’t be ignored like grading and report cards, things like planning and prep are gray areas. What kind of planning and prep makes you a good teacher? A bad teacher? An adequate teacher?

Is being a connected educator a required part of this “everything else” role? Is it realistic to expect that teachers should get online when they get home to engage in evening Twitter chats, read a few research articles, and comment on some blogs? Again, I don’t discount the benefits of these things. And I have no ill will to those teachers who choose to do them. My time on Twitter would be boring if you all weren’t there. However, is a teacher slacking because she goes home to eat dinner, spend quality time with her spouse and kids, and maybe watch some television before bed?

If you answered yes to that question, then I recommend this article. I channeled it in my previous post where I expressed my frustrations about the “do what you love” mentality. In the case of teaching, I think the mantra is slightly different.  Instead of “do what you love”, or perhaps in addition to, we have the mentality of “do it for the children” which is just as dangerous.

I feel that the teaching profession has fallen into a trap with this mentality. The article specifically refers to academia and those with PhDs. However, as you can see from this modified quote, it fits the teaching profession eerily well:

“There are many factors that keep [teachers] providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages…but one of the strongest is how pervasively the [“do it for the children”] doctrine is embedded in [schools]. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output…Because [teaching] should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.”

So if you’re a connected educator, and you enjoy participating on Twitter, writing your own blog, or reading other people’s blogs, then keep doing what you’re doing so long as you find meaning in it. If you don’t do those things, and you really aren’t interested in doing them, then you’re probably not reading this blog post right now, so it doesn’t matter what I have to say.


Why I Chose To Teach

Well how’s that for a last second change of plans? I was all set to talk some more about curriculum writing today. I even had the first paragraph or two of a draft started, when I happened to see this tweet in my feed:


Considering what a powerful, life-changing decision it was for me to become a teacher, I realized that’s what I need to talk about today.

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.

Cliché, right? Ask any random sample of teachers, especially elementary teachers, to write about why they became a teacher, and I’d wager this is the first sentence written by more than a handful of them. Looking back, it’s definitely the case for me.

I loved school. I loved everything about it. I loved my teachers. I loved my friends. I loved learning. I loved making good grades.

School made me happy. I was one of those kids who would see his teacher cleaning out bins of extra worksheets at the end of the year, and I would gasp in delight. I’d run up to her desk and beg for some to take home so I could play school with my friends over the summer.

But my cliché story gets derailed pretty quickly. The trouble is, as I grew up, I convinced myself that I needed to do something “better” than teaching. I was a smart kid. Clearly I was supposed to get some big time job where I’d change the world and earn lots of money when I grew up. That’s what all those years of education were for, right?

So with the idea of teaching a distant thought in the back of my mind, I went to college and attempted to start forging my successful career path. It didn’t go so well.

I started off in the business school at The University of Texas at Austin. I felt out of place immediately. Here were all these people wanting to work for companies to help those companies make more money for their owners and shareholders. This is not a knock to anyone who works in business, but I very quickly learned this just did not match my personality at all. The idea of working at a job which boils down to helping someone else earn money just turned me off so much.

Thankfully, I had a fantastic macroeconomics professor, so I thought I had found my salvation. After a year and a half in the business school, I transferred into economics. It didn’t go so well.

It turns out economics doesn’t really fit my personality either. In my college courses, it seemed like economics was all about turning everything in the world into variables in order to construct equations to explain how different financial processes work. And while on an intellectual level I get why that’s done, on a personal level it felt dehumanizing.

You could sum up everything in the most beautiful equation, but that’s not going to change the fact that many people in our world go without food, education, clothing, shelter, or safety on a daily basis. They’re not just numbers.

I became overwhelmed with doubt. Here I was, halfway through my college degree, the smart kid who everyone knew was going to do great things, and I had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up. Jobs in the “real world” seemed pointless and not worth striving for.

My personal life wasn’t in a much better state. For most of my second year of college, I was dealing with upheaval and turmoil in my friend group. That strain and my doubts about the future kept chipping away at me until I just went sort of numb and started having thoughts about how nice it would be if I just didn’t exist anymore.

I called these my “bad thoughts” and I kept them to myself for months. Thankfully I never tried to act on them, and eventually I got the courage to tell my two best friends before the start of my junior year. They didn’t really know how to help me, so it was a bit awkward, but I don’t think they realized that just having two people I trusted enough to talk to helped me more than anything in the world.

During the fall semester I went to counseling, was diagnosed with depression, and was prescribed Prozac. If you haven’t experienced depression before, it’s hard to describe, but the medicine helped get me to a middle ground. It didn’t make me happy, but it took away my sad. Side effects aside, it was amazing. Well, at the time I didn’t really feel much of anything – that’s sort of the point of being in a middle ground – but in retrospect it was amazing. It gave me the clarity to realize that I couldn’t continue with the way things had been going. Something had to give. I decided to drop out of college.

It was a tough decision, and one that my parents weren’t terribly thrilled with, especially since I didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell them the whole story (read: that I was having suicidal thoughts). But it was exactly what I needed to do. It wasn’t without a price of course. Withdrawing in the middle of the semester meant that I wasted thousands of dollars on tuition and fees. But it’s a cost I’d gladly pay again. Once the deed was done, it was like I came out of a dense fog. For the first time in a long time, I could finally just stop and think about what I wanted to do with my life.

And that’s when, after years of letting it linger in the back of my mind, I let the thought of teaching come out to play. I was hesitant at first, remembering the reasons I had pushed the idea away for so long. But after some reflection, I realized that in order to be happy in life, I wanted to work with and help others. Sure, I may not be able to change the whole world, but working in a classroom, I could have a very real impact on the lives of 22 children. I liked this idea. I wanted to pursue it.

So, that spring I re-enrolled at UT as an education major, and I never looked back. For the first time in college, my classes were interesting to me, I was engaged, and I knew I had made the right decision. I found joy and happiness again. I even discovered passion for the first time ever.

So when I look back at why I chose teaching, I did it because I realized that in order to have a fulfilling life, I needed to do something that matters, something that helps others in a meaningful way. There are other careers that help others, don’t get me wrong, but this is the one that called out to me and helped pull me back from a very dark place.


What Starts as a Comment and Ends as a Blog Post

Last night I read a post from @sophgermain asking “why your internet activity is anonymous (if it is) and why that is.” At first I started writing a comment on her blog post. Four paragraphs in, I realized I had a lot to say on the matter. So instead of posting my comment, I opted to turn it into today’s #MTBoS30 blog post.

I joined the MathTwitterBlogoSphere almost two years ago. Dan Meyer posted on his blog to recruit new folks into the fold, and I decided to take the plunge. There was even a nifty website to help new members start blogging and using Twitter. (I couldn’t have joined a more helpful and welcoming community, by the way. Who else sets up  a website to get like-minded folks to join them online?) One piece of advice that I followed was using my real name so that people could know they were connecting with a real person.

So from the start, I technically didn’t keep myself anonymous. However, I did find myself avoiding talking about my job. I wasn’t keeping it a secret by any means, but I was still hesitant to bring it up.

I joined the MTBoS because I missed teaching and I wanted to reconnect with folks in the classroom. At the time, I had been out of the classroom for over three years, and I missed working with students. (I still miss working with students!) Maybe I hoped I could live vicariously through the folks I followed online? I can’t say that following blogs and Twitter has quite filled the void of working with students, but it has been incredible to connect with so many talented people.

Since I do work for an educational publisher, I was worried about talking about my job or the curriculum I write because I didn’t want these awesome people to think I was hanging around to hock a product. Considering how much I personally dislike most salespeople, the last thing I wanted was for people to think I was trying to be one!

I also wanted to do something that was for me. The work I do writing curriculum doesn’t belong to me. Sure, it’s something teachers and students use, and I do enjoy the challenge of designing lessons, but at the end of the day, the lessons I write are a product that belongs to a company, not to me.

So, moving forward, I am going to try to be more well rounded in what I write/talk about, which means talking more about my job and the work I do. I may even talk some about the curriculum I work on, but don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell it to you. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen how powerful it has been for teachers to reflect on their practice, and I want to see what insights I can gain reflecting more openly about mine.



I started this post by writing about how I felt bad that I haven’t written on this blog in a while. Then I remembered that I hate posts like that. My blog is here anytime I need it, and with everything else going on in my life the past few months, I just didn’t need it that much.

Now I do.

And thanks to @sophgermain starting a 30 day blogging challenge, I got the motivation to get going again. I’m not sure if I’ll succeed at #MTBoS30, but the idea was motivating enough to get me blogging tonight.

One thing I’d like to blog more about over the next 30 days is the job I do. I’ve written a little bit about my job since starting this blog, but for various reasons I always tried to keep my MathTwitterBlogoSphere life separate from my curriculum development life. I’m not entirely sure why, but now I’d like to change that. I see a lot of teachers benefiting from reflecting on their teaching on a regular basis (sometimes daily!), and I hope that I can gain my own insights by reflecting more directly on my work. I also hope it can give a small window into the world of curriculum design for those who are unfamiliar.

So for anyone stumbling on my blog today: Hello! My name is Brian and I am a senior content developer at McGraw-Hill Education. I work on a team developing the t2k math curriculum. I’ve been with MHE for a year and some change, but I actually started working on this curriculum back in 2009 as an employee of a company called Time To Know.

Looking back over the past 5 years, it’s hard to believe that when I started this job, iPads didn’t even exist! The educational landscape has changed so much in such a short amount of time. I remember my last year in the classroom, our school was just getting SMART boards. I never got one in my classroom *frown*, but I was over the moon with my document camera. That thing was amazing!

The reason I mention iPads specifically is because back in 2009 our curriculum was developed in Flash, and that really shot us in the foot when tablets started flooding the market. Over the past couple of years, Time To Know has rebuilt their entire Digital Teaching Platform so that it works on multiple devices – quite an impressive feat.

Now that they have completed their big task, I have the daunting task of leading a team converting our entire grade 4 and 5 curriculum into this new system. It’s quite an undertaking, but at the same time, it’s like visiting an old friend. When I first started at Time To Know, the math team was about halfway through writing grade 4, and grade 5 was the first full year of curriculum I helped write.

In some ways it’s exciting to see these lessons again, and in other ways there’s that awkwardness of revisiting pedagogical decisions I made just as I was starting the job. While the lessons have gone through some upgrades since I first wrote them, I can’t help but think of ways I want to make them even better.


Exploring MTBoS: Mission #2

I like blogging. I have mixed feelings about Twitter.

With blogging, I am free to talk. I can say a lot or a little, though I mostly say a lot. With Twitter, I feel like I’m writing snippets of thought without much context. Some people love the challenge of limiting their messages to 140 characters. Some think that this forces us to get to the essence of our message and cut out all the bullshit.

It generally frustrates me because I feel like I’m not being understood or I’m just not speaking clearly. But like it or not, I still read my feed every day and tweet to various folks. I may not love everything about Twitter, but I find it valuable enough.

So what don’t I like? In addition to the character limit, there are a few other things that get under my skin. The first is the endless platitudes and affirmations. They drive me nuts. If they inspire your or make you feel better during a tough spot in your day, then I’m happy for you. They don’t do that for me. I wrote about this after my very first Twitter chat. I think part of the problem is that because of the character limit, we’re left with hollow messages filling up our feeds day in and day out. The solution is that I should probably weed my list of who I follow. I need to start removing folks who add noise, not content.

My other problem is attitude. This is another issue I wrote about previously, here and here. I can’t stand the attitude among some educators that all teachers should be in a Twitter PLN, and the implication that teachers who aren’t “connected” 24/7 are somehow terrible, uncaring teachers. Look, some people love teaching so much that they like to think and talk about it all the time. “Hi, my name is Brian, and I’m an eduholic.” It works for me, but I don’t begrudge those that want a life away from their classrooms. Heck, I even want time away sometimes, and I’m not going to feel guilty about that.

The thing is, neither of these issues really apply to #MTBoS. I’ve never felt like I’m having to read crap. Instead there are always lots of interesting discussions going on about teaching, students, and math. Just within the past 24 hours I talked about strategies for getting students to be better estimators, the reasons people leave teaching, and the need to be explicit in our meanings of terms like direct instruction. Those are extremely satisfying interactions, and it’s because of my connections through #MTBoS that I had them. If it weren’t for the folks I’ve connected with in #MTBoS, I probably would have ditched Twitter completely last winter. Thankfully that isn’t the case, and I appreciate this group more and more every day.