When You’re Down, Students Pick You Up

This morning, I came in to find that this sign, which had been on my classroom door, was gone.

2017-01-30-19-03-53I had made it in light of the recent executive order, which is (as far as I’m concerned) a hateful move toward Muslims. Like many other schools, colleagues and I had welcomed students at the main doors on Tuesday all bearing signs saying they were welcome and wanted at our school. I have a number of students whose families are personally affected by this ban, and I wanted them to have a visual signal that I am opposed to it.

When I saw the sign gone this morning, I was heartbroken. Why would someone take it down? It’s a vinyl sticker – removing it would take effort. I couldn’t fathom why someone would remove it, and my thoughts turned sour. I posted on Twitter to get some ideas from my beloved #MTBoS, and was encouraged to talk to my classes about it and put the sign back up.

As class was beginning, I couldn’t stop thinking about how someone could be so hateful as to remove a sign welcoming students to class. I started students on the warm up, and pondered my options.  I couldn’t stand the idea that students had seen the sign for 2 days and then seen it gone. I worried they might think I thought 2 days was plenty of time to have a sign like that up.

So before digging into math, I put up a picture I’d taken of the sign, and talked to my class about it. I explained why I had put it up. I avoided specifics, but said that things had happened over the weekend that upset me, and I wanted to be crystal clear that all of our students belong at school. I believe that in my bones.

I told them I believe strongly in the value of talking to and listening to people with whom we disagree. I emphasized that even if they disagree with me and hate everything I believe in, they belonged. All of them. I said that I would put the sign back up, and if needed, I would put the sign up every day from now until the end of the year.

Because I’m a crier, I was crying – not sobbing, just tears – and I made the requisite jokes about how freaked out all of them must be about that. There was appreciative laughter. They were extraordinarily gracious, and I ended by saying that if any of them want to talk to me about anything, they’re welcome to come find me. I’m open to it.

Class went on.

At the end of the hour, a student came up and handed me a note. This particular student is Muslim and has spoken to me before about how difficult she finds it to be Muslim in America, where her beliefs are so often under attack. Here is the note she gave me:


I immediately teared up again. She didn’t see that, having already left the class. I am so impressed by her grace. Feeling a little sheepish that I was the one to cry.

A few hours later, I was in my room during prep and a student came rushing in to tell me that they’d found my sign! It’s on the Auxillary Gym door. I have no idea who moved it or why, but it’s still up in the school and maybe whoever took it just really liked the glitter. Who knows? I’ll make another one for my door. The student who came to tell me about finding it was so clearly relieved. I feel very loved by my students today. I hope they know the feeling is mutual.

For Those Hesitant to Protest

I know, I know, this is supposed to be a blog about teaching math. I should probably blog about math more often. I would argue, however, that more than math, what matters are my students. Right now, that means standing against the policies of this administration that make them feel unsafe. They will not learn math when they fear for their safety and that of their families. 2017-01-29-14-13-48-1

Moral of the story: We are stronger (and feel stronger) together. We can heal wounds together. Showing up matters. 

I just got back from a protest at the Minneapolis Airport. I had been hesitant to go, but was overcome by the ABSURDITY of this ban, so I went. Here are some things that happened while I was there:

  1. Upon unfurling my sign, an airport worker stopped me to say that he really liked my sign. I don’t know that the man is Muslim, but he said, “thank you for your support”.  I thanked him for helping to keep the airport running so that immigrants could actually get through. We were both smiling. It was a great exchange. 2017-01-29-14-13-55-1
  2. I saw dozens and dozens of people cheering things like, “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Islamophobia has got to go!” and “No hate, no fear, Muslims are welcome here”!
  3. We sang “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land”.
  4. Another teacher stopped me and gave me a high five.
  5. Cars drove by giving thumbs up and honking. Everyone cheered.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no illusions that everything’s fine now, but this morning all I saw was how awful everything is and I felt awful. At the protest, I saw and heard and was surrounded by other people who are opposed to this. It felt safe. I know that’s not the case for all protests, but the more of us that show up to them, the safer they will be. Strength in numbers is a real thing. I feel empowered to do more. I’m calling my representatives and donating to the ACLU.

I have been hesitant to show up to protests. I’ve always been a good Minnesotan who just says nice things and doesn’t cause a ruckus. That felt crummy. We need to make a ruckus. We need to hear and see each other. I will be fine under this presidency. Others will not. Others ARE not. When my nephews ask how I acted when the president tried to ban Muslims, I want to look them in the eye and tell them I said NO. I don’t want to regret inaction because I felt nervous about showing up. Come join me! You will be welcomed with open arms. Love. Trumps. Hate.


Fancy Notes = Time for Me to Process

I’m teaching new courses this year. I taught 7th & 8th grade for 3 years, and now I’m teaching Geometry and Advanced Algebra. I’ll freely admit that before the year started I thought to myself, “Crap, I have to relearn logs! I don’t remember trig! What’s a unit circle?!”

It’s not that I worried I wouldn’t get it. I have full faith in my ability to re-learn things I have forgotten. But knowing and teaching are very different things. Additionally, after all of the nuances I learned about LINES teaching 7th and 8th grade, I knew there must be a trove of things I had forgotten or never knew to begin with in these new-to-me courses. I’ve been doing okay thus far, but we just hit trig in Geometry and higher degree polynomials in Advanced Algebra. I didn’t feel prepared to teach either of them.

Enter SLOW NOTES. In other words, type in “bullet journal” on Pintrest. Then “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” over the pretty penmanship and pages. Here are some of mine.



h/t to Morgan Fierst and Sara VanDerWerf – I stole much of the info for these notes from them

Writing nicely takes a long time. I can write very quickly, but it quickly becomes a cypher that only I can read. Continue reading “Fancy Notes = Time for Me to Process”

Hidden Figures – Info for Teachers

Hidden Figures comes out today. I haven’t seen it, but I fully expect it to become my new favorite movie. I have a ticket for 4:15 this afternoon. It was the soonest I could possibly make it.

The bite sized version is this: You know John Glenn because he’s a famous hero – I certainly don’t want to discount his achievement as being the first American to circle the globe in space, but he was only able to do it because of KATHERINE JOHNSON AND THE BLACK FEMALE COMPUTERS AT NASA. 

You should learn about them. Then you should talk to your students about them so they can also learn about them. You should read this book.


Here are some resources to help you learn more about this if you don’t have time for the book. Also, go see the movie.

NASA Resources h/t Norma Gordon

Popular Mechanic’s The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures’ and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA

NPR’s The Hidden Figures Who Crunched the Numbers in the Space Race

NY Magazine’s The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

About Katherine  Johnson

About Dorothy Vaughan

About Mary Jackson

Trailer with interviews

Have more good sources? Add them in the comments and I’ll link them here.

Ms. Perkins is the Grinch: Denying My Students Flexagons

I did a bad thing. I showed kids something awesome, and then I got mad at them when they tried to do the awesome thing. In hindsight, I feel pretty crappy about it.

Knowing students were going to be nuts the week before break, I assigned projects in the hope that they could be nuts, but hopefully get their work done amidst the complaining and excitement and fear about break coming. Students were to calculate the trajectories of Angry Birds. “Fun!”, I said. “Hooray!” I declared. Boring. I thought. Vomit. I felt. But I have to make sure they can compare quadratic functions, and this project summed up what they needed to know pretty nicely.

The day before break, I like to do something fun, so I bust out hexaflexagons. Although students had plenty of time to get their projects done, some weren’t finished, so this seemed a perfect solution: students who needed the time could work on their projects, and students who finished get to do fun stuff. That’ll teach ’em to procrastinate! Like I don’t do that every day. What a moron/jerk I am.

Before I give students work time, I show them Vi Hart videos about flexagons, and jaws drop. I show them fabric flexagons I’ve made, and there is a scramble to get to play with them first. I explain that you can make a flexagon with as many sides as you like, but I haven’t succeeded in engineering a 12 sides one yet. I do have the template. I show them. Students are chomping at the bit to make their own. Then I dropped the hammer. If you’re done with your project, you get to make flexagons. If you aren’t, you have to finish your project. No fun for you!

It didn’t seem like I was being mean at the time. I was annoyed with students who hadn’t used their time in class before now, but I wanted them to have a chance to finish the project. To show what they know. So I let them use this time to get it done. Tried to be the nice guy. They could ask questions of me and their peers, and get the project done, and the rest of the students would be happily working away at flexagons. The perfect solution.

I flutter around the room, helping students see symmetries and guiding them in folding their first flexagon, gleeful over how happy students are figuring this out. Clapping with joy when a student makes an interesting design to suit the transitory nature of flexagons. Marveling at how their brains make sense of the work.

Then a student who was finishing their project called me over for help with a quadratic equation, and in my head I groan. Uuuuuuugh, I’ve shown you this 10 times, I think. But off I go, wanting them to learn. Trying to be helpful. But really, I was just eager to get back to flexagons. Thankfully, a flexigator would need me next and I could go back to being happy. But then someone couldn’t identify a vertex and I would slump my shoulders, hang my head, and drag my feet to go help them do the boring stuff again.

The moods of my students mirrored my own. Those working on “work” were miserable and panicky and hated that they couldn’t figure it out. Or they hated that they could figure it out, but would much rather be making flexagons. Students working on flexagons were happy and engaged and even though they got frustrated, they were so relieved and joyful once they succeeded. Students who finally got their quadratic equation weren’t joyful. They were just grateful it was over.

This was supposed to be a “fun” project. Except that it wasn’t fun. I didn’t care about it except that I was pleased it was a “real life” application of quadratics that seems intuitive to students. A colleague of mine presented it to me, and she genuinely seemed to enjoy it. Was happy about it. I bet her students felt that. I bet they liked it more. I’m ashamed I couldn’t bring that enthusiasm to my students. I’m ashamed I didn’t push to find out why my colleague enjoyed it so much. The premise of the project is fine. It nicely summarized things students learned about quadratics, but my “enthusiasm” for the project was fake and my students can always tell.

Now it’s break and I have all this free time. I wake up, make some coffee and assess my options. I could grade those projects, or I could quilt an impossible triangle. I could  enter grades, or I could make an origami icosahedron to hang on my Christmas tree. Needless to say, I have not finished grading projects, but I do have a lot of new mathy art in my house.

So why am I making my students pick the boring thing? Why am I requiring it? Because the standards say:

  • Students are able to write a quadratic equation given two points.
  • Students are able to identify the zeroes of any quadratic equation.
  • Students are able to do boring stuff and I have to teach it to them because I have to.

I genuinely do love teaching. I love seeing students get it. I love watching them help each other get it. I really wish that the standards were different. I honestly think the skills making flexagons are important. Here are the flexagon standards:

  • Students are able to measure accurately.
  • Students are able to identify and create congruent triangles.
  • Students are able to plan ahead.
  • Students are able to identify and create symmetries. 
  • Students are able to notice and describe patterns. 

We want students to be able to do these things! I’m not wasting time when we make flexagons. I get so frustrated that I have to teach things few students care about when I could be teaching good things and both I and my students will be happier for it.

But I’m not in control of the standards. (At least not yet.) So given what I have to work with, and given that I do want to teach and I do want both my students and me to be happy, here’s the plan.

  1. Never again will I introduce amazing math and deny that option to students. I am frankly pretty shocked at myself that I would show students flexagons and then tell a student they weren’t allowed to make one. I did that. I remember the look on the students face. They were so sad. This ranks pretty high on my list of horrible, regretted teaching moments. I will find time after break to make it up to my students. They all should get a chance to make flexagons. Shame on me.
  2. Even though the standards can be boring, find something in them that I care about. Students pick up on that. They know when my enthusiasm is real and when its fake. I love patterns – fall back on that when necessary, because it’s freaking everywhere in math. I should’ve made a bigger deal about the symmetrical patterns in quadratics. I shouldn’t have given up on this project. I could have pushed more for myself to find the things that I love in it. I could have made less of a deal about averaging the roots and more of a deal about logically where the bird would fall if it started here and reached a maximum height here.

We all fail sometimes, but this was a big one for me. I screwed up, and I need to own that. Now I’m going to go make myself feel better by decorating cookies after my favorite proofs.

Seeking Inspiration

It’s December. My students are nuts. No joke, yesterday I had a student tell me he might throw up. I asked if he needed to see the nurse, was he okay? He said he’d probably be fine, but he probably shouldn’t have eaten soap after his friend dared him. You can’t make this stuff up. We’re all in the long, slow slog to winter break and I feel like I have to pull teeth to get them inspired about math.

On my way home from work I was mulling this over and tried to recall when I was most happy at work recently. It hasn’t been too often. What I came up with had a pretty obvious common element. See if you can spot it.

-I was happy when I asked #mtbos about complex numbers and learned a ton of new-to-me information about what the complex plane is. Sharing that with students who peppered me with incredulous questions and mind-blown expressions was awesome. Loved it.

-I was happy when my geometry class got into a fight over whether 2√2=√8 was true or not.

-I was happy when I saw some students put together that three different quadratic equations were related to the same graph.

-I was happy when, during a number talk, a student came up with a totally wrong way to get the right answer and it took us several minutes to figure out what the heck had happened.

-I was happy when, rather than lecturing a student who has missed class and done a terrible job on homework, I just started going through examples with the student and found myself enjoying it.

-I was happy when tracking Jill Stein’s fundraising and attempting to guess what function would fit it best.

-This past year, I was happiest when I saw and did for myself the derivation of an explicit formula for the Fibonacci sequence.

Can you spot it? Subtle, huh? I FLIPPING LOVE MATH, and I am happiest when I am discussing and doing interesting math with my students. I am miserable when I’m fighting behavior and grading boring assignments.

There’s a pretty easy fix for this: Don’t give boring assignments and give students math that is interesting and helps to quell the behavior because they want to do the math. That is clearly easier said than done, but it’s pretty easy to motivate me to work for it because I’m clearly so much happier for it.

So if you have mathematically fun and inspiring things, please send them to me. Here are a couple to get you started thinking:

-A complete Venn diagram (all intersections accounted for) can only be rotationally symmetric if the number of sets is prime. WHAT!?!? That’s insane. Here’s an 11 set venn diagram and the shape of one of its sets. (Took the pictures at Macalester College, not sure of the artist-mathematician)

-Apparently ln(1) is complex. Don’t totally get this one yet, but goodness gracious am I totally into figuring it out. (If you get it, don’t ruin it for me.)

The Election, Trump, & My Students

The difference between Tuesday at school and Wednesday at school was incredible and heartbreaking.

On Tuesday, I had kids in my classroom. They were worried about their crushes, the quiz on Friday, what their clothes look like.

On Wednesday, no one joked. No one smiled. No one laughed. Some cried. Many expressed their fears. Some expressed frustration that “people were stupid enough to think this wouldn’t happen. Of course it was going to happen.” Continue reading “The Election, Trump, & My Students”

How to Get Students to Play with Desmos

This week, my students were excited about math. They were excited about what they came up with. They were creative. They were asking each other questions and trying to figure out why things worked. That’s DESMOS’s fault. Here’s what happened:

My Advanced Algebra classes are starting a unit on “Families of Functions”, and I discovered earlier this week that they had NO idea what the graph of x^3 looked like. Wanting them to make sense of it, I leaned hard on Desmos and I was not disappointed.

Continue reading “How to Get Students to Play with Desmos”

Quick, Impactful, Awesome: Post Math Norms

I recently posted Jo Boaler’s 7 Math Norms in the front of my room, and I’m in love with it.jo-boaler-posters

I regularly tell students that “mistakes are helpful, we need them”, and while the message eventually gets through, it is SO MUCH MORE POWERFUL  when I say it while pointing directly at the norm “Mistakes are valuable”. Students know I’m not just covering for their mistake in front of their friends. I took the time to print and post these things – I really mean them. Continue reading “Quick, Impactful, Awesome: Post Math Norms”

So I guess I teach HS now…

I got an email reminder, per the suggestion of Sam Shah, about my goals this year, and one of them is written reflection for myself. So here goes.

I’m now 3 weeks into teaching HS and it’s… mostly really good. I feel good going to work, I feel good when students are in my room, I generally look forward to each day. Still, there’s a lot of adjusting to do.  Continue reading “So I guess I teach HS now…”