Monthly Archives: August 2013

Math Munch: Pointing at the Moon

Math Munch has changed my classroom. It’s changed my students, and it’s changed me. These changes have been so vital that it’s actually a little difficult for me to place myself in my old shoes, pre-Math Munch.

Here are two stories that can help illustrate part of what’s happened.

My first year of teaching at Saint Ann’s, I taught a class of fifth graders. It was a fantastic class, and I feel like in many ways I cut my teeth as a teacher with them. I bring them up because at the end of the year, they asked to play a game of Jeopardy, as they had a couple of times previously. This time I said yes. I chose some categories—both mathematical and not—and put them up on the chalkboard.

Turns out I have a photo from that exact day!

Turns out I have a photo from that exact day!

After breaking up into teams, we started playing. I noticed that my students were only picking from the non-math categories. Even then I realized on some level that this made sense—that feeling like you’re getting away with something is a pretty strong motivator. Still, at some point during (or maybe after) the game I asked them about it, because a part of me was a little hurt, I think. I remember making a little speech, about how I thought we’d had a great year together and done a lot of interesting math, and I wanted to know what was up with their category selections.

Their answers were of one voice and so sweet: We love you! We like you! We think you’re great! Don’t think that we don’t like you or your class, because we do!

And then I said how I was very glad that they liked me and the class, and that I liked them, too. But more than them liking me or the class, I wanted them to like math. That if we had done this whole year together and they didn’t feel any closer to mathematics, then I felt like I hadn’t really done my job.

It was a pretty serious moment. I’m glad, though, that I didn’t take all the air out of the room, as the photo above testifies.

I think that this experience was part of the seed that eventually brought me to Math Munch.

At the end of this past year, I asked my seventh graders to fill out a survey to help me to place them into their eighth grade algebra classes.


There were lots of useful things said. There were also plenty of sweet things said about our class and me personally. But a lot was also said about particular structures, both explicit and implicit, that I’ve incorporated into my classroom. Something that particularly warmed my heart about the above response is that it doesn’t mention me, but it does talk about things that I value, and it mentions Math Munch.

finger-moon-hoteiThere is a Buddhist saying to the effect that when you point out the moon to someone, it’s necessary that they look beyond your finger in order to find the moon. Otherwise, they might just stare at your finger!

As teachers, there are as many ways to share mathematics as there are to share ourselves. The personal connections I make with my students are important to me. Perhaps at this point—in comparison with seven years ago—I might even say that they are primary to me. And my students’ relationships with me and their relationships with mathematics are of course intertwined and connected. That’s a joy, and I wouldn’t change it.

But I also want my students to have relationships with mathematics that go beyond me. I don’t want them to get stuck on my finger and miss the moon. I want my students to have a connection to mathematics that they can return to and carry with themselves, independent of me. Math Munch helps me to do that. It’s a place away from myself where I can point, a window that is mostly transparent and that shows the great beyond. Math Munch moves the reality of mathematics from my own experience and imagination into theirs, which makes it way easier to point to and way easier for them to catch sight of.

I bet Math Munch could help you and your students shoot for the moon, too.


Old Adventures, New Adventures

I’ve been keeping this on the down-low for many months now, but I’m moving on to new adventures professionally this fall. My seven years at Saint Ann’s were enormously satisfying and growth-promoting, but over a year ago I began a search for a new opportunity to contribute to a community of learners.

Figuring out what I wanted that new opportunity to look like—and then actually finding a slot where it could happen—has been a long and textured journey. I’ve learned something about the educational landscape in the US in the process, and I’ve definitely sussed out some aspects of myself that I didn’t know about or that weren’t in focus for me before. I haven’t said much about all of this before now, because where I’d land was up in the air until just recently, and I wanted to be able to share the news of my transition in a future-oriented way. So here goes!


I’m delighted to share that I’ll be working at the Princeton Learning Cooperative in Princeton, New Jersey. To get a real sense for the place, you should check out our website. Briefly, though, PLC is a supportive community that helps teenagers that are having unproductive school experiences to leave school and begin directing their own learning and lives. From a legal standpoint, these teens are homeschoolers, but not the kind where their parents sit them down at the kitchen table and teach them school subjects. In some ways PLC is like a free school, but it doesn’t have an attendance requirement. It’s not a school. It’s an “unschooling center.” Even though this is the case, staff members and volunteers offer classes and tutorials that members (not “students”) can choose to take, and each member has weekly mentoring sessions with a staff member to help them in their self-direction.

It’s very hands-on and personalized—helping young people to learn what they want and providing them with opportunities to figure out what that might be. No holds barred. I bet you can see the sparkle in my eyes all the way from over there. There will also be lots of opportunities for me to contribute to the structure, design, and execution of the program. All together, it’s really a fantastic match and I could not be more thrilled to have found PLC. Believe me, you’ll be hearing (if you wish) a whole lot more about it in the weeks and months ahead!

That's me on the staff page!

That’s me on the staff page!

This all of course means that I’m moving on from Saint Ann’s. Leaving a place where I made so many fond memories is definitely tough. Leaving behind my great students and colleagues is tough. And I’m way bummed that Michael and I are currently doing our best impression of two ships in the night.

Still, I’m ready and excited for new challenges. The metaphor that I’ve been using is that when I showed up at Saint Ann’s with by big britches and bigger ideas, they gave me blank canvas after blank canvas, nicely-sized, and all the colors of paint I could want. Seemingly infinite possibilities! And that wasn’t an illusion—there really are infinite possibilities and a lifetime of craftsmanship to learn and employ in the medium of a Saint Ann’s classroom. But “infinite possibilities” doesn’t mean that every possibility is open. Try as you might, you can’t do a tiny painting on a regular-sized canvas without it looking silly, and you’ll have a hard time painting a mural. Making a sculpture is a definite no-go. As an artist (if you’ll bear with me), there are experiences I want to help create for and create with young people that can only happen at a place that’s different from Saint Ann’s. And so I wish it well and recommend it heartily and will keep in touch with folks there, but I’m off to see what other art I can make.

After just a few weeks of interacting with the staff and a few members and parents at PLC, I feel really valued for my skills, my energy, and my ideas. I feel like I’m going to be able to do a lot of good, both for our members and for this community, and I know that doing this work is going to be good for me. What classes exactly I’ll be teaching is still up in the air, but it’ll likely be some math and a lot of other things, like a poetry workshop and a video games class. I’ll also be coordinating the Mondays program. No classes are scheduled for Mondays—they’re reserved for trips into the community and hikes and such, as well as for one-off or short-term workshops and guest speakers. Lots of room to experiment in new ways!

I feel really pumped up and secure in my decision to join PLC. It feels just so, so right. The only twinge I’ve felt is—get this—losing you guys, my wonderful personal learning network on Twitter and the blogs. Since I won’t be a math teacher per se anymore, will I still belong? Will my thoughts and experiences still be relevant to the discourse in this community?

I’m not really all that worried, because I’d miss y’all too much, and I know that I’m involved in projects and conversations that won’t be affected by my relocation. But what this has made me realize and appreciate is how big a part of my professional and personal identity is wrapped up in the goings-on of the mathtwitterblogosphere—with you wonderful people who I get to have as colleagues, co-conspirators, and friends. Thank you so much for that.

So here’s to old adventures and new adventures! And just adventures! Yay!

A #TMC13 Reflection

Twitter Math Camp was wonderful.

I really appreciated how amazingly easy it was to join up for meals and hang-out sessions. I typically find unstructured social time to be really challenging. I’m likely to opt out. I loved how simple it was to fall in with a group that was going out to dinner or to a bar. I didn’t have to be invited, I didn’t have to have an “in”. Whenever I walked into the hotel lobby and there were people there—and there were definitely going to be people there—I immediately felt welcome. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced something quite like that before—being a part of a fluid pack, a ranging throng.

At the same time, I also got to have some really fantastic one-on-one or tiny group conversations. It was really neat how larger and smaller group interactions so naturally and seamlessly flowed into teach other.

There were super silly times, and hilarity, and shenanigans. Dance parties and fro-yo runs and an end-of-camp hug-it-out. We screamed at the tops of our lungs, we bursted out in uncontainable laughter.

But there were also these quiet moments. Intense, heartfelt conversations with people I’m used to having jocular give-and-takes with on the Twitter machine. There were long, meditative walks. There was vulnerability, and openness, and deep trust. We were our whole selves. It was remarkable, but totally explicable, because these were people who I already knew well—even though we were meeting face-to-face for the first or close-to-first time.

The people. What amazing, wonderful people. For illustrative purposes, I’m going to single out two whom I got to spend the most time with, and one with whom I spent almost none. But there are so many, many more—these folks are just indicative of the experiences I had.


Dan Goldner, leading his PBC session.

I’d interacted with for years with Dan Goldner (@dangoldner), mostly through reading his blog, but we met for the first time at TMC. I already knew that I liked and admired Dan, but suddenly I had the flood of awareness that I knew almost nothing about him, about his life. Suddenly there were so many new layers and nuances and a passion that I had only before seen through the lens of a screen. So many good times— nerding out over a Daily Desmos challenge poolside, problem-wrangling in our morning sessions, being guided in his standout session about problem-based classes, hearing him describe and process his coordinating efforts with his department over dinner. So much. And I know there’s much more in the future. Thanks, Dan.

Jasmine Walker sharing her My Favorite.

Jasmine Walker, sharing her My Favorite.

I had zero knowledge Jasmine Walker (@jaz_math) before TMC. Bizarrely enough, we got to meet in person without a previous digital relationship. (Though we did later figure out that we had had a brief email exchange earlier this year.) Turns out that we two strangers—suddenly connected at some guerilla PD—had seemingly millions of things in common  that we could jam on: unschooling and computer programming, navigating Twitter and building culture in schools. From our first problem-wrangling session, to dinner and lunch, to rapid-fire reflections on the car trip (thanks, Wendy!) back to Brooklyn, there was, again, so much. And I know there’s much more in the future. Thanks, Jasmine.

And finally, Dan Anderson (@dandersod). We’ve been blogging and tweeting together for years, and more recently we’ve worked together on Daily Desmos. I shook hands with Dan and said “hi” one of the first days. And that was it. “Life just got in the way.” Did I miss out? On Dan, yup. But this is the way of the world. If you’re attuned to great things, of course you won’t be able to experience everything. (Twitter lesson #4) But that is the joy of abundance. Next time, Dan. In the meanwhile, we’ve got the interwebs. Thanks for all of the awesome you do there.

There's me and Dan Anderson at the same dinner table. So close, and yet so far!

There’s me and Dan Anderson at the same dinner table. So close, and yet so far!
PS Dan reminds me that we also got to do “radian arms” on the way to dinner.
I’ll try to rustle up the photo!

The internet is good at connecting people, but it’s the connecting to people that matters, not the medium.

This article came out in the Times a bit ago about how your teens and early twenties are when you make your best friends for life, and that in your thirties and beyond friendships arise in more niche-y fashion, or come out of convenience.

For me, #TMC13 was a loud, vibrant tsunami of a rebuttal to that article.

Twitter Math Camp isn’t special because of what happens there. It’s special because of what happens before and after, because of what happens here—on the internet, on blogs, on Twitter. Friendships aren’t made at TMC—they are revealed. So if you attended Twitter Jealousy Camp this year, don’t be too jealous, because you get to ride this incredible wave for the next twelve months and beyond.

But I do hope you get to come next year. And I hope I get to, too. :D

Finally, a couple more thanks yous:

  • To Kate and Elizabeth, for coordinating a wonderful PCMI morning session, and to my awesome co-participants.
  • To Lisa and the organizing committee. Amazing.
  • And to the whole gang of you. I feel so lucky to have gotten swept up into this whole wonderful shebang. (And thanks to you for that, Sam!)