Putting ME First

This is a weird short note I’m going to be writing. It’s basically an apologia, and a defense, for my lack of posting in the first few weeks of school. This is PRIME time for posting, because this is the time we’re setting up routines, finding ways to create a rapport with our classes, and still excited about trying new things.

And yet, I’m not posting about it.

I wanted to tell you the reason why. For the past four years — since I’ve started teaching — I’ve put school first. In almost every aspect of my life. And I think it was necessary for me to come into my own as a teacher. That time… it was time well spent. My first year of teaching, I would work until 10pm or 11pm each night. It wasn’t healthy, but it was necessary. Looking back I’m surprised I didn’t burn out. But I was in love with designing lesson plans. And each year, there was something that would cause me to stay late and obsess over something or another. Even last year, when I was first starting out standards based grading in calculus, I recall staying at school until 8pm or 9pm on many nights, and it wasn’t months later that I figured out ways to streamline things to get me out of the building faster, and still serve the students well. The point is: I’ve devoted my life to teaching, at the expense of doing other things.

This year… at least this first quarter… I’m trying something new. I’m putting ME first.

(me at math prom on Saturday night)

I’m allowing myself to go out with friends on weeknights. I no longer am turning friends down for dinner because it’s a Wednesday. (Do you believe that I used to never go out on weekdays? Until this year it was so rare for me to accept an invitation to do anything on school nights.) I’ve gotten myself a theater subscription. I’m still reading up a storm. I’m reminding myself of the non-school-things that are a part of me! This is the year I can do it, because I’m teaching two preps (not my usual three) and both are classes I taught last year. Next year that’s bound to change. So I want to take advantage while I can.

I told my sister (teacher extraordinaire) this and she said she was so happy I made this decision. She told me she thought I was working myself silly, and she thought more than once in the past four years that I was going to burn myself out.

I also want to encourage y’all to make a similar pledge: to put yourselves first, before school. It’s something that’s made me so much happier, and also a better teacher. Because I’m constantly in a good mood. I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel happier. Things that used to annoy me, they still annoy me, but they roll off my back more easily. I have a better perspective on things, because I don’t have the time to obsess about the little things. And I know I have a dinner with friends, a gallery opening, a trivia night, a book reading, waiting for me at the end of the day.


ThankThankThank You Bowman

I’ve been stuck in Grand Jury Duty for the past week and half, and for the weeks before then I was trying to eek every last fun thing I could think to do in New York City before jury duty and school started. It’s been a pretty ridiculous few weeks, and these weeks have almost nothing to do with school. I needed it, but now I’m feeling the anxiety creeping over me like some evil, insidious ivy. I’m still in the see no evil, hear no evil state of mind, and I will be in it until after jury duty is over. I’ve resigned myself to that, even though it’s doing nothing to dissipate that growing anxiety.

In these days, we’ve been fortunate to have Bowman Dickson write some fabulous guest posts:

1) Make It Better: Drawing with Geogebra
2) Make It Better: Memory Modeling
3) How I Grade Tests To Mine Learning Data [quickly]
4) Frankensongs and Frankenfunctions: Using Mashups to Teach Piecewise-Defined Functions
5) “Sticky” Notes
6) Our Experience with Understanding By Design (written with me!)
7) Math Taboo 

Bowman did a bang up job. Not only did every post have something immediately useful and concrete, but heck if Kiki ain’t a fantastically engaging writer too!

I wanted to thank Bowman for agreeing to guest blog.

And more importantly, Bowman has started again blogging on his own blog, which he’s devoting to math teaching now, at the appropriately named http://bowmandickson.com/. I don’t know what to say except he’s so much of the real thing. Not just with this blog, but with teaching. He’s jumped in and isn’t scared to take risks and try things out, but he does so with such depth of thought coupled with passion for student learning, that I can’t help but hate him for being so much more awesome, and love him for being so much more awesome. You would be exercising crusty and reprehensible judgment if you didn’t add his blog to your reading, like, now. 

And he tweets too at @bowmanimal.

Thank you Bowman! Peacocks for lyfe!

Introducing Bowman

Here’s Kiki!

I mean Bowman. Bowman (@bowmanimal) is a math teacher I met at the Klingenstein program I attended earlier this summer. He has only been teaching two years, but he’s The Real Deal. He has this passion and curiosity for mathematics that infects everything he does in the classroom. He has a personality of a superstar — an eternal, nice-guy, optimist. He’s focused on student learning, jumping in the SBG waters in his second year. He is multi-talented, teaching physics (not next year tho!), and is able to sing (among other things) the hokey pokey in Arabic. To put it another and more crass way, he’s one of those teachers that when you meet them you immediately get insanely jealous because you want to be them. But you aren’t. (Shut up, guys, I know you all get that feeling. David Cox, you know I dream about becoming you. But shucking the wife and kids, and spider infestation. Wait, you think that’s weird that my only dream in this world is for us to play Freaky Friday? Naah.)

I asked Bowman if he’d like to “guest blog” here for the summer, and he said yes.

You lucky ducks.


So now that I’ve sung his praises, I’ll let him take over and introduce himself. I don’t know when he’s going to start, or precisely what he’s going to blog on, but hells bells, it’s going to be fresh.

Indeed, one of these strange creatures may or may not be Bowman. One of these strange creatures may or may not be me. One of these strange creatures may or may not be Chief Justice Roberts.

There is nothing worse than being sick…

… except for being sick for multiple days and through a long weekend. I got sick on Wednesday night, and it’s hung around me — not getting better and not getting worse — for days. I have taken two days off of school (luckily, since I teach mostly seniors and they are done with classes, I did not miss too much) and now I am in the middle of a three day weekend.

If I’m not cured by Tuesday, I’m going to freak out. Not because I don’t want to miss more school (there isn’t too much on my plate, believe it or not). It’s mainly because I can’t stand being sick. My eyes hurt so I can’t read. I am weak so I can’t do work. And I’m whiny, which is why I’m writing this blog post.

There’s another reason too. I want to let all of you out there know that there’s something I need to belatedly add to my “Singing the Praises of Kate Nowak” post. I want to add: she’s a good friend who helps you wallow in your own pity party. Yes, Kate read that I was sick on twitter. And she, from practically another state, had soup delivered to me. And it was from one of my favorite restaurants. An amazing surprise, from an amazing friend. Thank you.

I will make a list of the blog posts I want to write to help me remember these are things I should work on:

  • This year’s multivariable calculus projects
  • A post describing how I did SBG this year, along with the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  • Finish up the line of best fit series I haltingly start and stop
But if I don’t, it probably means I’m too tired and sick to do anything.

Two years later… the SFJC…

Today was our school’s activity award ceremony (not the academic award ceremony). I don’t enjoy talking in front of large groups of people (yeah teachers! who! hate! public! speaking!). When making any announcement in front of my school, I write it all out, and I read from my paper. I did the same thing for today’s activity awards — but I practiced it a few times so it didn’t sound totally robotic.

What did I give awards for? No, not for math club. (Another teacher did that.) I gave certificates of appreciation for the committee members on the student faculty judiciary committee. For two years, I served as a faculty representative on it. And this year (and next year), I am the faculty leader — in charge of it completely.

I wrote about it in 2008 when I first started, explaining what the committee does and why I decided to be a representative on it. In short, it has 8 students (2 elected representatives from each grade) and 3 faculty members on it. We meet whenever there is a violation of community standards. This can be academic integrity violations, disrespect to another member of the community, being late to school too many times, not signing out properly when leaving the building, or anything else. Every violation which is “serious enough” gets sent to us by the dean. There is no in house disciplinarian.

The most awesome thing is that the committee that deals with discipline is 8 elected students and 3 faculty members, and everyone only gets ONE VOTE. Although I might call the meeting to order, students are the ones who truly have the power.

For each incident that gets referred to us, the committee talks to the student involved. We try to understand exactly what happened, and we try to get the student to reflect about their actions in a broad way. Let’s be honest: it’s hard for teenagers (and even us, sometimes!) to think outside of themselves. And students questioning students about their actions, that can be powerful. We aren’t super confrontational (e.g. “how could you have done something so awful to someone else? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!”). Instead, we try to guide students to be more aware of their thought processes (e.g. “why might the school have a policy about lateness?” or “who was affected by your actions?”). Once we’re done talking with the student, we discuss what we’ve heard. We try to come up with a recommendation that will help students. What’s amazing is how lively and thoughtful our discussions are. We aim to have consensus, and very often we can find common ground and reach it. I love the fact that I’ve been swayed to think differently by a case by an argument a student puts forth. They have insights I don’t. (And sometimes, I offer a broader perspective that they might not have.) [1]

Let’s think about what being on the committee means if you’re a kid. You already don’t get a lot of sleep. You’re probably involved with a number of other clubs. And you’re asked, sometimes for a week or two in a row, to show up everyday 40 minutes before everyone else. This year, we’ve met over 30 times. (Some cases take more than one day.) Think about it. These kids are AH-MAZ-ING. They put in time to take on this really challenging leadership role. It’s draining. And because cases are confidential, their work isn’t very visible.

So I wrote a 2 minute speech which captured how I feel about them and their work. It originally was twice as long, and had a lot more specifics in it, but I had to cut it down.

My high school was very different than Packer. Let’s say you wanted to leave class to go to the restroom. You had to get an ugly, heavy hallway pass from the teacher. Part of a teacher’s job included roaming the hallway finding kids outside of class and saying “where’s your pass.” Honestly, it was a great high school. I loved it. But what I see at Packer, which wasn’t in my high school, is the great amount of trust that exists among adults and students in the Packer Community. The existence of the Student Faculty Judiciary Committee is emblematic of that trust.

So to me, the unsung heroes of Packer are the student members who serve on the SFJC. Although we try to be as transparent as possible, much of what we do is confidential – so you don’t get to see all that goes on behind the scenes.

In the hearings, your elected representatives ask the insightful question that often resonates with the person who appears before us. And when we deliberate, time and time again I am shown such thoughtfulness about the cases we hear, and empathy towards those who come before us. The committee members help others see the importance of acting with integrity. I feel strongly that these students should be recognized for their dedication, their thoughtfulness, and their infinite willingness to arrive at school early to listen to their classmates.

I will give you your certificates later, but right now please stand when I call your name. Hold your applause to the end.


Please give these students a great round of applause.


I would like to specially recognize the seniors on the committee – Student A and Student B. They have served on the committee for three years. That’s way too many donuts, and a lot before school meetings. I’ve seen them grow into two of the most thoughtful, empathetic, and passionate people I’ve known at Packer. As student chairs this year, they have modeled what a leader should be to the younger members on the committee. They have always acted with the utmost integrity, and in every case, they stand up for what they believe in. They are not quiet voices, and for that we are grateful. We are in a better school because of them, and I can’t imagine Packer without them next year.

Student A and Student B, thank you.

It has been a lot of long hours on my end this year. Running the committee is so much more work than I imagined when I agreed to take it on. And it also has shown me how hard it is to be a really good leader.

[1] To be clear, sometimes students come before us and we listen to what they say, and we believe that they didn’t actually violate any community standards. But when we do find someone clearly violated a rule or core value of the school, then we generate reflective questions and have thoughtful conversations.

Why I’m Useful

Sometimes I feel like I’m so hyper-into-teaching that it can be annoying to my colleagues. Like: they mention something to me (a program, a website) and about 95% of the time, I know about it. Annoying. Or I’ll be excited about something I’ve come up with and I’ll share it with then — and then I’ll be like “why am I geeking out about this?” and feel bad for geeking out on them. And sometimes when I don’t want to work, I will be like “hey, blah blah blah blah blah” and I’ll parasite my colleagues free time.

But I use some of my powers for good too. Sometimes I can troubleshoot tech questions. I love working on intractable math questions. And once in a blue moon, someone asks me how I might teach [X] — and then I really go crazy because that’s the type of question I love, and something I haven’t done in a while because I’ve been so busy with a billion other things.

All of that is to say: I can be useful.

One of my favorite things I’ve done for one of my colleagues was during last week — comment time. We write narrative comments on each of our little angels, and it’s intensive and long, and my colleague had 64 kids to write on. She needed some motivation. So I made her this gem:

As she write more comments, she got to fill in more things — and every so often there was a surprise for her! (The last 10 comments, the home stretch of 55-64, were on a separate index card for her to fill out.) How fun as this to make? I am proud of it, and she said it helped her!

So there. I do kinda rock sometimes. I know it.


On Friday, last period, I was giving a test in my calculus class. This week has been really l — o — o — oooooo — ong because we had to write and proof narrative comments on our kids. It’s consumed me for last weekend, and this whole week. So it felt good, on Friday, to be done.

I was antsy. Right before the last period, I saw another math teacher, and I told her I wish I were doing something other than proctoring a test. She said “we should switch! you should teach my geometry class!” At first, I was all like nooooooooo and that’s crazy but then I said “what’s the downside?” (I told her I could only do it for about 30 minutes because I wanted to field any questions my kids had.)

So I went. I taught geometry. I was teaching sectors and arc length. It was weird being in a new classroom, with kids I didn’t know. But it was that weirdness that was fun. I’d point to a kid in a blue shirt and say “hey you, blue shirt, what’s the …”

What was great was that I wasn’t really following a script. So I first showed them how to get the area of a circle if you know the circumference… this little trick:

Then I threw up three circles on the board, and I shaded in a 90 degree sector, a 120 degree sector, and a 212 degree sector. I asked them to find the areas of these pieces in partners. I told them I wasn’t giving them any help — so they have to use their brains.

They did that fine. A few struggled with the last one, but their partners helped. I then asked them to come up with a formula for the area of a sector with radius r and angle \theta. They did great!

Then I did the same with the arc length for the three circles. They used their knowledge (use the proportion of the whole circle!). Some partners came up with the formula first and then applied it to the circles, and some solved for the arc length of the circles and generalized it to the formula and saw the connection.

Finally, we re-wrote the general formula for both, and I said they should NOT memorize them. They should think about the logic we used to come up with them, and use that logic to come up with the formula.

It was fun to do this sort of impromptu teacher exchange. I think if we did this every so often (planned or unplanned) and the new teacher could just do a little strange song and dance, it could liven up a class. I’m pretty sure my kids would LOVE to get a new teacher for a day. It’s like an alternate reality for a day!

P.S. The math teachers had planned on switching classes on April Fools day, and start teaching without acknowledging any students’ comments or mentioning anything about it, but April 1st fell during Spring Break.