Now that I have gotten your attention, I’m sorry. I don’t have the best activity ever for an Algebra II class that involves cupcakes. But fine, you want cupcakes. Here.


Now for the reason why I lieeeed to you. You know it’s gotta be big, and important. It’s this. I need you to read this, and take a moment, and actually consider it.

We have a math department chair opening at my school, and you or someone you know might be the person who would be perfect for it.

So I have a lot to say. I should probably note at the top that everything I’m saying is my own opinion, and this post doesn’t come from my school or my department. Just me. Now to the other stuff… I am not someone who wants to go into administration. And my colleagues also love being in the classroom full time. We tend to love our little classroom universes, and even though we engage in the bigger picture of the curriculum-at-large, our primary interest is being intellectually stimulated by classroom teaching. So we want to find someone from the outside who can see the bigger picture and wants to shepherd a bunch of thoughtful and awesome-face teachers as we push forward into our next step.

If this even remotely sounds like something you’ve been toying around with, keep on reading.

For some background. I teach at Packer, a fantastic independent school in Brooklyn Heights, New York City. The school is a Pre-K through 12 school. There are so many wonderful things about my school, I don’t know which to list. It is not religiously affiliated, but we are housed in an old church — and there is a chapel where we have meetings, and this chapel has beautiful stained glassed windows. The architecture is Hogwartian. There are about 80 to 90 kids per grade, and class sizes tend to be around 12 to 16 (though sometimes things go under or over). The school underwent a comprehensive renovation of the “Science Wing” and this summer it is going to renovate many of the Upper School (high school) classroom. The kids all have laptops, and all the rooms currently have SmartBoards, but next year they will be upgraded to Sharp LCD boards (and some will have ENO boards). When it comes to teachers being able to get “things” they need to teach, we do. Similarly, I have never been turned down for any professional development opportunity I wanted to pursue, and have always been fully funded. There is a commitment to teachers on that front.

The school is in the middle of an ambitious 5 year strategic plan, which includes a special component involving math and science excellence.  For me, the most exciting thing about the strategic plan is that teachers are thinking more and more about the importance of the process of acquiring knowledge. For me, that’s exciting because I have been wanting to move towards a more “how do we do math?” approach rather than “here, let me show you how to do math, now do some problems.”

Now to speak specifically about the math department, and why I think it’s worth considering. The math department head is in charge of math in grades 5 through 12 (middle school is 5-8, upper school is 9-12). That would mean being the head of 13 or so teachers.

We’re a really well-functioning department, where everyone gets along and are friends with each other. When we’re feeling wonky, I might be in the office with TeacherX , and we’ll close the door, put on the Sound of Music, and we’ll spin around in our chairs. (Because we both love the Sound of Music.) And every single time anyone is going to the photocopier, they ask if anyone else in the office needs something copied. And we all buy diet coke and chocolate share it with each other. We do site visits to other schools to see what they are doing. And teachers of the same class meet regularly. We share materials all the time. We pose puzzles to each other. And we bounce ideas off of each other.

What I’m trying to say is: that would be a concern of mine… coming to a new school and not knowing how the department is. I can say that we is aweeeesome.

I personally see us at a crossroads, and one where someone could come in and do some great work to take us to our next step.

We’ve come a long way in coming up with a solid and coherent curriculum. We have been trying to push our curriculum to get students to articulate their reasoning more… We have made “writing in the math classroom” a goal of ours for the past two years. And although we’re all very busy, we have made a goal to visit each others’s classes a number of times (I think 8?) before the school year ends. (That reminds me… I need to try to a few observations soon!) And we’re now in the process of thinking: how do we get problem-based learning in our classrooms?

And this is the crossroads we’re at. How do we bring our teaching, and our curriculum, to the next level? (I think this is a question the whole school is asking, because of the strategic initiative.) For me, that means learning to focus on letting go more, and developing curricular materials which continue to push students to focus on the fundamental ideas and less on procedures. It means getting kids to do the heavy lifting. It means trying to deconstruct a curriculum so I can figure out what the essential mathematical idea is, and then find ways to really bring that to the forefront. That’s all for me. Different teachers are at different places in their career and have other ideas on what they need to do to get to the next level. But the takeaway for you is that we’re interested in the craft of teaching, and looking to forge forward as a department.

That isn’t to say that everything is all roses all the time. What place is? And better yet, what place filled with teenagers is?

But it’s a place which I’ve been happy and proud to call home since I’ve started teaching. (It is suppose it’s actually a second home to me, since I spend so much time here!) The school took a chance on me — a young kid with only student teaching experience — and gave me a place to grow professionally. I was allowed to experiment with standards based grading (this is my third year doing it in calculus). I felt like I needed to switch one of my courses last year because I was feeling stale with it, and just plain tired, and that happened. I asked for funding to go to multi-day out-of-state conferences and I have always been approved.

The school is going through changes, as we work towards the strategic plan. And I think our department can, with someone with passion and vision and a strong work ethic, help us take our work to the next level!

Our department head is leaving because of reasons unrelated to her job here. And this timing of this is — at least for independent schools — late in the game. That is why I want to reach out to you guys. A perfect audience of math teachers! If you can see yourself or someone you know in a place like this, working with meeeee!, get into gear and apply!

We want someone awesome, and I’m 200% sure that the teachers in the department will do everything we can to support whoever we hire in their new role. You won’t be walking in alone, but rather with the support of everyone in the department who wants you to succeed, and will do everything we can to make that happen. We are a department and we look out for our own.

Because of the lateness in the hiring season, please please please don’t wait a few days before getting around to it. It is (in my opinion) a one-in-a-career opportunity, but the window is not going to be open for long. We are going to be working on this hire ASAP. 

The job posting and instructions about sending your information are here.


I’m turning off comments.



Today I was grinning irrepressibly.

Last week I received an email from the current faculty adviser to the disciplinary committee — what we call the Student-Faculty Judiciary Committee. It read:

Dear Mr Shah,

You have been referred to the Student Faculty Judiciary Committee for Violation of Dress Code. Your hearing will take place on Tuesday, 4 December, during F band, in the Faculty Lounge. (This is the space above the cafeteria.) If possible, your superhero will join you in the hearing as support. Please arrive on time, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions about your appearance before the committee. Should you be ill on the day of your hearing or need to be absent for any reason, you must contact me via email. Otherwise, the committee may deliberate and reach a disciplinary response in your absence.

For those of you who need some background, I served on the committee for four years… two years as a faculty representative (going to the hearings, giving my thoughts, voting) followed by two years as the faculty adviser (leading the committee). It was hard work. Four years of early morning meetings, dealing with challenging student issues (and sometimes challenging students). We disagreed. We argued. And in the process, in these early mornings, I saw some of the best things I could have possibly hoped to have seen as a teacher. I saw students who came before the committee reflect. I saw students serving on the committee grow in their thinking about responsibility and consequences. I saw committee members show empathy while simultaneously keeping the big picture in mind. I saw students disagree with students, and teachers disagree with students, and students disagree with teachers, and teachers disagree with teachers… and come out the better for it. And I saw, year after year, a committee of students and faculty who were dealing with confidential and difficult and rarely good things band together to form a tight group with a real sense of purpose. To me, the committee truly has been a concrete instantiation of the best kind of work a school can do, and we did it well. [1]

That’s what the committee is all about.

I walk to the faculty lounge. I look up the stairs, and I see a student waving. As I walk up the stairs, I see a ton of people all there and they all start clapping. It was a thank you pizza party in my honor. I got this grin, and the whole time I walked up those stairs, I thought: this is a highlight of my teaching career thus far. There were the current students on the committee, and the current faculty members on the committee, all the old students who had previously been on the committee (who were still at the school), all the old faculty members who had been on the committee, some of the deans, the Head of the Upper School, and even the Head of School. There were many 20 people there, clapping. It was overwhelming. I shook some hands, and I gave a little speech, and we all broke bread together.

I will admit to experiencing symphony of emotions.

One was sadness. Of course I’m happy that I get to sleep in more often and it’s important that there is new leadership and new voices, but seeing everyone made me miss the camaraderie that we had. I also felt guilty. Why hadn’t I created a thank you celebration for the former faculty adviser when I took over the SFJC? She did more in her years to bring the committee to it’s modern form than anyone — she has been the biggest inspiration and mentor I’ve had as a teacher. I also felt undeserving, because so many people do so many great things at our school that go unrecognized. But mostly those feelings were all undertones, and the main feeling in my symphony was elation. And I kept thinking stay in the present, enjoy this, soak it up, because it won’t happen again soon.

So I stayed in the present. I enjoyed every moment. I continued to grin. And I was just so happy.

I’ll end with one thing that someone who had been on the committee for years said to me, a precocious student who loves history. He said that he was thinking that my leadership was analogous to Earl Warren’s leadership in the Supreme Court. Those who know my obsession with the Supreme Court would know why I loved that analogy, and those who know the Warren Court would know why that is such a compliment.

[1] I should also say one of my most trusted colleagues brought me onto the committee, and basically made the committee what it was. My primary goal while serving on the committee was to not let her good work disappear.

A little bit crazy! And some goals!

So I’m feeling totally and utterly overwhelmed with the impending onset of school. I have tomorrow to keep working, and then we have three days of activities with our advisory (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) and then starting next Monday we have the first day of classes.

File:The Scream.jpg

My anxiety level is at about a billion. On a scale of 1 to 10.

With the exception of my first year teaching, this is possibly the worst I have ever remembered it being. I think I wanted to post this to let any other teachers who are feeling this way (especially while seeing all the excitement and incredible first-day-activities abounding on the internets) know: it’s okay.

It’s okay.

At least… I think it is.  (Even Lisa has been in a funk.)

For me personally, my anxiety is coming from a few places:

1. the idea of teaching a bunch of new students, and having to develop a positive rapport with them from scratch again
2. teaching a class which is new to me (advanced precalculus) with very little supporting material
3. co-teaching/collaborating with two teachers, when I have never truly collaborated before
4. having a giant class of 19 (in my school, this is monstrous) and not knowing how I’m going to manage
5. being on supervision & evaluation cycle this year
6. anticipating the late nights every day after school, which will come out of having to write/create calculus reassessments, plan precalculus lesson plans and smartboards from scratch, and having to re-work lots of multivariable calculus homework problems since I haven’t taught the course in a year
7. mentoring a math teacher new to the school
8. starting up (with the help of another teacher) a math-science journal
9. not having any concrete goals set for the year, yet

I think the solution for my anxiety is to work a crazy amount (obviously, that will help). But also to set the bar low. Usually by now, I have two or three very concrete but “large” things I want to do this year. It’s stressing me out that I haven’t decided what they are. Maybe, though, this needs to be a year of stasis. While I’m working on a new course, maybe I need to be okay not doing anything dramatic.

Although not set in stone, perhaps my goals this year should be something as simple as:

(1) Be sure to provide formative feedback to kids in all my classes, at least once a week
(2) Really endeavor to use groupwork (and part and parcel of this, whiteboarding) in precalculus, and be sure to give feedback to groups at least once every two weeks so they have a record of their strengths and places they can improve.

These are weaknesses of mine, so they’ll bring me forward as a teacher. But aren’t so overwhelming in their scope as to feel impossible.

There’s a 50% chance that as I try to work out the beginning of classes this year, I will be posting a lot. And there’s a 50% chance is that I go a little crazy and have to hide for a few weeks while I get settled.

With that, night all!

PS. Since it feels weird to post without any equations, videos, documents, I am going to include this picture of me in front of a stained glass window at my school.

Comment Time Is Over!

This is a post of celebration.

This past weekend and this week, I’ve been consumed with writing narrative comments on all my students. In the past two years of teaching, I have been trying to be more thoughtful about what I’m writing. To put all the cards on the table, I don’t think that comments themselves really effect change in students. However, I do think there is a powerful thing that comments can do: it is a way to tell students I see you and I care about you and I am thinking about you and your learning. Not literally, but a comment can send that message implicitly.

So even though I have serious doubts about the efficacy about what I write in helping students to change their practices, I hold firm to the belief that the implicit message is worth it. So I write, and hope that for a few kids, it matters.

It’s almost 9pm. I’m at a coffeeshop now, and I just finished my last (my 49th) comment of the year. 58 pages later, I am breathing a sigh of relief that I’m done.

I’m totally drained.

I’m so tired of writing that I don’t have it in me to talk about how my comments have evolved in the past two years, or how standards based grading has made writing comments so much easier. Or list the places I know I could still improve on. And maybe I will at some later point.

For now, I just wanted to write a post now sharing the good news with everyone:

I am done!

(If  you want to see the type of comments I wrote in my first three years of teaching, I’ve archived that here.)

Spring Break 2012

As this Spring Break comes to a close (it’s Friday, school starts on Monday) I am a little wistful — thinking about all that I could have done, and all that’s still on my plate to do. But I do that to myself. I don’t take time to appreciate all that I do and stop looking for what’s next. So in this post, I’m going to recount some awesome things about this Spring Break.

I know I don’t use this blog to talk about my non-school life, but that’s only because it’s only about 1% of my life.

So at the start of this spring break, I did something I’ve been dreaming about for years. You see, when I was in college I had a bout of insomnia so I started to listening to Supreme Court oral arguments to focus my mind on something boooooring so I could fall asleep. Little did I know I would become a Supreme Court junkie. And so I went with a friend (who teaches history and constitutional law at my school) to Washington DC where I had a glorious time. The night before the oral argument, I invited @rdkpickle to dinner and didn’t get psychopathkilledtodeath. You’ll all be pleased to know that she’s just as personable in person as she is online.

The following day I got to Supreme Court

early enough that we got tickets to hear the arguments. It was similar to what I expected in terms of the argument, and also nothing like I expected in terms of the room. It wasn’t as grandiose as I imagined — I imagined the justices to be higher up, the room to be wider, and the seating for the visitors to be nicer (we were like sardines put on very cramped wooden chairs). The two cases we heard were Astrue v. Capato and Southern Union Company v. United States, both fascinating. (And for those of you who are dying to know, yes, I took off my hat in the courtroom.)

In DC, I also got to meet up with two dear old friends who I hadn’t seen in ages, and just in time, because they are moving to Korea for two years, soon. And one high school friend who I consider one of my besties even though we never see each other or keep in touch. He’s that kinda guy.

In addition to my trip to DC, I had my sister in NYC for a day, where we ate delicious food, traipsed around a lot, walked the high line, read a bit in Bryant Park, went shopping at the Strand (I didn’t buy anything!), and then met my parents and family friends for dinner. It was a full and lovely day.

Then I scampered to San Francisco for a whirlwind trip. I got to see a ton of high school and college friends, do a bunch of shopping, eat delicious food, watch the Hunger Games, and throw a party! That’s right — one of my best friends from high school just moved back and I convinced her throw a house party — and I invited all my friends.

Additionally, and this is going to make all of you jealous, I got to hang out and have dinner with the following math twitter people at Bar Tartine: @woutgeo, @btwnthenumbers, @cheesemonkeysf, @ddmeyer, and @suevanhattum. I only wish we had started earlier. It was totes amazing (@cheesemonkeysf wrote about it). And again, I didn’t get psychokillerkilled. Although when I talked smack about ed researchers, I thought the towering Dan Meyer was going to kill me with his laser stare! But he is too much of a Good Guy Greg for that.

And then I got back, and have basically been doing nothing but watching bad TV and thinking (but not doing anything) about all the work I have to do but haven’t done. I even finished the two seasons of Party Down (amazing, btdubs), and the season of Summer Heights High (also amazing, btdubs). Go me!

So even though I felt like that I could have done, all those roads not taken and all that, I think I’ll always feel that way. It’s just the way I am. And I have to learn to appreciate all that I have done, instead of focus on all that I could have done. In fact, that’s probably a lesson for me in teaching. There you go — I have a sickness. Everything is about teaching. 

With that, I’m out.

PS. I would love to have shown more photos, but I feel weird using photos of people who might care if their photo is out in the world. Dan, he’s probably okay with it. He has a TED talk and all that.

A Feud

So late after school one day last week, I was talking with the anthropology teacher. She was teaching about feuds, and was talking about how feuds within a close knit society look one way, but feuds between culturally and locationally different societies look differently. Because there’s no leader to mediate, or common culture to talk with, or some yadda yadda yadda culture society language blah blah blah.

And so she talked about her class, and if there was a feud (different anthropological camps, I suppose), it would take on one form, but if they had a feud with say Mr. Shah’s class, it would take on a different form.

When she told me that, I immediately responded: “LET’S DO THIS!”

The premise of our feud: After school one day, I told the anthropology teacher that what she taught was a soft science, and hence way less important and good than mathematics.


The next day, while we were talking about trigonometry and calculus, first period, I hear screaming outside my door.

All day, all week, occupy math geeks! All day, all weeks, occupy math geeks!


The whole anthropology class barged in, and their teacher picked a fight with me. Soon I was screaming at the teacher, her students were screaming at me, and all sorts of hilarious arguments about the importance of our disciplines were being flung about. The kids in my class were sitting there, stunned, while bedlam surrounded them.

At one point, and I was so involved with my argument with a student and teacher (and being all histrionic) that I failed to notice, that some of the anthropology students were trying to steal one of my students! They kept calling her a “cow.” HA! As if that was going to somehow convince her to join them. (A cow, in the culture they were studying, was a valuable object — so this was actually a compliment!)

Did I neglect to mention that about 1/3 of these anthropology kids are in my OTHER calculus class? No, not awkward at all, thank you very much.

Later, they left. Parting words?

Anthropology teacher: I’m keeping my eyes on you.
Me: Because I’m so stunningly beautiful.

My class sat there dumbfounded, and one kid simply said “what WAS that?”

I explained that we were now in feud mode, and we need to figure out how to retaliate. (Drone strikes?) Although I personally was all about pitchforks and raids, one of my students said “do nothing.” Of course I had to keep it going, so I suggested we write a “thank you” while still showing our moral high ground, and a few small jabs. Which we did:

Dear Ms. [Teacher] and her anthropology students,

After discussion among our tribe, we felt it important to acknowledge what went on in class today. We would like to thank you for bringing up some interesting issues about the hierarchy of the sciences and social sciences. Even though it’s clear to us that mathematics is important to our everyday lives (whether we ourselves are using it or not), we can understand why you might feel that isn’t the case for you. Perhaps you would enjoy a world without computers, cell phones, GPS, microwaves, etc., and we are happy for you if you decide to go forth and live that sort of austere life.

Although we might not have appreciated the interruption to our learning, and especially the aggressive way your tribe approached our tribe, we do appreciate that you felt us important enough to engage with us. We believe our work is important, and we’re glad that you acknowledge that.

Thank you for your time,
Mr. Shah and his calculus students

They responded to us:

Dear Mr. Shah and his calculus B band students:

Thank you for your email. While we anthropologists recognize that our methods are perhaps a bit unorthodox for Packer, a covert and aggressive raid is common in our part of the world and was the best way to respond to what we perceived as an insult to our tribe and its honor. Although we recognize the value of advanced mathematics, even if many of us don’t use it in our daily lives (or we can hire someone to use it for us), we feel that our disciplinary focus – even as a ‘softer’ social science – is crucial to helping individuals navigate relationships in a culturally diverse world. It has quotidian application for each and every one of us; in fact, one of our tribe members brought up a real life example of kinship relationships in our post-raid class discussion this morning.

As a result, we hope that you and your students can recognize our value and treat us with the amount of respect that we feel we deserve. We are willing to reciprocate that respect, as well. Please understand, though, that we will not hesitate to defend ourselves and our reputation in the future.

Ms. [Teacher] and her anthropology tribe

So fun.

So today, today, I decided to take it up a notch. I told my kids that I was a little nervous about their allegiance to calculus, and that after that horrific raid, who knew what was up. I reminded them they had free will, but I was going to ask them each individually if they were on TEAM CALCULUS. And if they were, they would get a badge representing that, that they needed to wear proudly.


I went around, student by student: “Do you think calculus is better than anthropology?” All of them took it. [1] This is a totem. A calculus totem.

I don’t know where this will lead, but there’s something exciting about the unknown. I haven’t read C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, but I thought it would be appropriate to use. So the Anthropology teacher and I both are going to read the lecture-version of this book this weekend. We’ll see if we can come up with some sort of activity around it.

For now, though, I’m just enjoying feuding! GO TEAM CALCULUS!

[1] A few of them were hesitant, so I had to soften the statement to “Do you think anthropology is a soft science?” (because that’s what started the feud, and I didn’t want any kids to go without our totem).

Guest Post: Looking for NYC Math Mentors

Below is a guest post written by Dan Zaharopol, who is awesome. At the least, you’ll learn about something awesome he’s been working on, and at the very best, you might end up working with him!


When I was in middle school, I participated in a national math competition called MathCounts. In MathCounts, your school forms a team which participates at the local level. If you do well, you advance to the state level, and if you do really well, you advance to nationals. My school, a public high school in upstate New York, had about 350 students in each year, and about 5-10 in each year would have done decently well at the local level in MathCounts.

Last year, I ran a summer program for seventeen awesome kids from New York City. They all go to schools where 75% or more of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch. They were the best math students at their schools. And yet, although they were the best out of over 1000 seventh-graders, not one of them was really ready for MathCounts before the program.

These kids are talented kids who like doing math. Some of them love doing math. Their schools work really hard to help every student succeed, but they don’t have the resources that my school had to help the kids who can really do more. That’s where the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving came in, giving the kids a full-on camp experience learning intense, deep mathematics. But now that the kids are done with the summer program, what will they do next?

This guest blog is a call to action. We’re looking for volunteer mentors who can meet with the kids every 1-2 weeks and talk to them about math and about the opportunities that they want to pursue. If you’re interested, please fill out this application and help these kids reach the next level.

Thank you!