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Senior Letter 2012, or: The Nerds


The Year of the Nerd. Chaos Incarnate. These were the most frustratingly brilliant, most challenging kids to teach because they weren’t robots and had no interest in doing what you wanted because you said to do it. I loved every minute of it. I will miss them.

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The Nerds Take Philadelphia

Nerd Dinner. They’ve Grown So Much!

I do one of these each year. I don’t know what happened to last years, but here is the 2010 version.

Recommended Reading: I stole this idea from Sam Shah, who writes an amazing letter. This is his most recent one.

Recommended Writing: Even if you don’t teach seniors, if this will be the last time you teach a group of kids, do this.

+1 (that’s the new thing now, right?)


I make the false assumption that we are a tight-knit group here in the mathedublogosphere. But sometimes people stumble on my blog with google searches such as

-conan o’brien arnold filing cabinet

-optimistic old man (ed: I’m sorry to whoever came here via that search. I guess google isn’t perfect yet)

-insert holyshit redbull wordpress

and might miss some amazing writers on other blogs. David Cox is one of those. He’s got a special grace in his writing that I’m really jealous of. In an analogy- David Cox:Sarcasymptote::Greg Maddux:David Wells. If you haven’t read his entry to the Virtual Conference on Core Values, you are really missing something special.

Go read it now: Treat ‘Em Like They’re My Own

Mathematical Analysis and Its Discontents, or: WTFCYDWT?!?


It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.

              -Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

I have opinions, and an internet connection!

Disclaimer: You don’t have to listen to what I say. In fact, I’m actually weirded out about how little push back there is on these blogs. Especially mine, since I spend more time floundering and being a shitty teacher than most. So, maybe not so much backslapping or grabassing or whatever.


Third disclaimer: I am sure that those cited in this post would totally agree with me, and have probably actually said the same thing at some point in the past.

Here are some fun facts:

  • 50% of all people looking for roommates on Craigslist will be heroin junkies.
  • 100% of all girls you date that you met at Daniel Johnston concerts will recently have been convicted of a crime.
  • 50% of visits to Columbus, OH will result in being punched in the face by a stranger (and for no reason!).
  • 33.3% of all visits to Six Flags will result in being taped as part of a Candid Camera show.

Of course, these are ridiculous. But true (!), if I limit the data to only my life experiences.

I have a real worry about unbridled WCYDWT (or #anyqs). I mean, I guess I have a real worry about bastardized math. Not just because it can be wrong, but dangerous. Look at the shit that Harold Camping just did: pulled together a bunch of random ass numbers with arbitrary significance and convinced a decent number that the rapture would occur.

The Washington Post even verified his calculations!

I’m not saying that any of you guys are Harold Camping, or that using this stuff in your class makes for bad math. Just the opposite is true. But we have students who are going to experience bad journalism, or politicians invoking some think tank that is politically backed and uses biased data to say whatever they want.  And so when people make these lessons that come out all neatly tied up with a ribbon around it and everything works out perfectly, kids begin to make bad assumptions about the way the world works, and the way math works. Like, that it ALWAYS WORKS.

We’ve all seen the magic that Dan Meyer pulls. We’ve also got the heir apparent, Dan Anderson, who keeps finding some really great ideas and is running full speed ahead with the “3 Act” stuff. I love how you are immediately drawn in. I love the story aspect. I love the engagement aspect. I love how well everything is done.

I’m not sure I always love the conclusions that are drawn.


I totally goofed by not framing this lesson in the 3 Act form, but you totes could. Start with the picture of Wadlow. They will freak out and be totally into it.

I was doing a unit on regressions, and so I had everyone collect data. They had to get the shoe size and height of 10 other people in the classroom. They plotted the points and found the line of best fit for height vs shoe size. Because everyone took different data, everyone had different resulting equations. I had them figure out how tall I should be given my shoe size of 12 (which, FUN FACT: is the same size I wore in 7th grade). I seem to have slightly bigger feet than I should, because most people went over my height by a couple inches. But everyone was pretty close, and thank god no one had me at a gangly height of like 6’6″.

Anyways, then I put up this picture. I hadn’t had this great of a reaction in a while. Of course, the first question they all asked was, HOLY SHIT, HOW TALL IS THAT GUY?

I mean, HOLY SHIT. So, I put up this picture too.

Could we predict his height if I gave them the shoe size? He wore a size 37.

They had answers all over the place. 7′ to 12′ was the range, if I remember right. They were really confused. Wait, what did we do wrong?


How can we all be this far off?

How can we make our answers better?

Uh.. is it because we all started with different data points? What if we combined all of our data? What if we took more data? I just kept shrugging my shoulders.

What followed was a really good discussion on the dangers of extrapolation, really led by them. They talked about predictions that they had heard about fossil fuels or the price of milk or world population and how it would be really hard to predict what these things would be like way down the road, like when they were 60 years old.

I followed the next day with some canned data (sorry, everybody) that modeled growth rates of sharks over time (I wanted something that they had a little less knowledge of). Plugged it all in, they did a linear regression, and BAM! We could predict the length of a shark given how old it was! The problem was, when we looked at old sharks, they should be something like 70 feet long. And the data just never really seemed to fit right anywhere. So we had to add another tool. Logarithmic regressions to the rescue!

I kept giving them data and kept just letting them assume stuff. We ended up with coffee that cooled to absolute zero, or the population of Brooklyn being that of India in the future. We kept having to refine our tools and refine our methods. (Editor’s note: You know, like logarithmic or exponential regressions. Because not everything is a line, dammit).

We are all afraid of being messy or things not working out, but those are the most valuable lessons. I’ve said before that people who observe my class loved how my classes didn’t get mad when we chased things that were totally wrong. We would just try a new approach when we saw that our answer was incorrect or unreasonable. I think that that is a much more important skill.

Editor’s note: Oh yeah, maybe I should emphasize that I did use the regression to make a prediction that was pretty close, when they found my height. Then, whenever we used a new tool, like a logarithmic regression, we would see the validity of our work. I’m not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just, I guess, throw out a lot of bathwater.

Senior Letter (2010 edition)


(I’ve embedded a document which may not be able to be viewed in your reader. Perhaps click through to the real deal)

I stole this idea from Sam last year. I steal a lot of things from Sam (calculus lessons, cardigans, using binder clips as a fashion statement), but this is one of the best. I meant to put it up at the end of last year as an ode to the class of 2010, but I stopped after this post. As many of you are winding down your year (you lucky bastards who don’t go until JUNE 28 JESUS CHRIST), you should steal the idea too. He is a much better writer than I am, so you should probably check his out.

This is the letter that I gave my students that graduated in 2010. I’m obviously one that doesn’t do well with emotions, and typically when things get touchy-feely in staff meetings I get really uncomfortable and start giving myself mathematical challenges to do. But I am proud of my students, and I thought that this was the most appropriate way to show them that.

Many of them have come back to visit this year, and they’ve mentioned how they have framed the letter, or they read it over and over again while they are away at college. So, my suggestion would be, if you teach seniors (or, anyone, really), do this. They don’t love it because it’s from me, or because it is some amazingly written letter, but because it is something that gives them comfort as they are away from home and in a new, different environment.

View this document on Scribd

Ukulele Dayz


Maybe the biggest change I’ve made over the past year is that I’ve stopped working too damn hard in the classroom[1].

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of teaching, and into my room marches the suits. Not just the principal and the assistant principals, but the whole clown squad of network people from the NYC Dept. of Ed, and the entire math department of another school.

Things looked pretty much like this when they came in:

Ukulele: Martin & Co. -- Harmonica: Hohner C Harp -- Harmonica Brace: Seriously, it's a harmonica brace.

I had this brief moment of panic, like I’m a first year teacher again. In my head, I think, “oh god, I’ve gotta impress these people with my amazing explanatory powers, and show them I am SOOOOO SMART.” I almost blew it. I ran to the front of the room and started to talk, because I figured that is what these clowns had come to see, right? Great pedagogy? Not me playing ukulele.

But then I remembered these tweets from the winter:

sarcasymptote: Principal told me I got tenure today. Immediately told him, “oh yeah? paperwork went through? then TAKE YOUR MEETINGS TO HELL.”
sarcasymptote: I then spent the rest of the day kicking over garbage cans and telling teachers I don’t give a shit. The next 25 years will be great.
Hell yeah! I’ve got tenure! I’m just gonna show these guys what I would normally[2] do.

We are working on the ambiguous case for the law of sines, which I decided to do by just giving a few examples and having kids work through them and just screw up over and over again by trying different things until they get it. (I did an exploratory thing last year with it that involved spaghetti, but the takeaway ended up being an algorithmic way of determining if there will be 0, 1, or 2 triangles by comparing one side length to the height and other side, which I thought was dumb and not really the conclusion I wanted. This year, I just focused on the unit circle. But if you are interested, I’ve got it.) They had about 4 examples to work on and were getting some of the weird results you would expect if you just jumped in – “MISTER! I’VE GOT AN ERROR!” or “MY CALCULATOR ISN’T WORKING” or “THIS SHIT SUCKS! I’M CONFUSED!”

The old me would have been running laps around the room, sweating profusely, trying to SAVE THE WORLD WITH TEACHING, or some shit. Because if I just help them one more time, they are going to get it. But then, they would come back the next day and couldn’t do it again, because I had just explained how to do it and not let them struggle with it at all. Learned helplessness just festered.

What I’ve been doing a better job of, though, (but see footnote 2 and know that IT STILL ISN’T GOOD), is backing off and letting them struggle. I taught a year in Ohio, and I remember thinking about the horrors of watching teacher after teacher planning other lessons or grading papers while their kids just did work from a book. I WILL NEVER DO THAT, I said. But I was dying, and my kids weren’t getting any better, with me just running around helping everyone that said they were stuck. I needed a compromise.

Enter: Ukulele Dayz. I brought my ukulele to school one day because I had a rehearsal to go to after, and I started playing it in class as a joke. Not only did they not complain, but they said they kind of liked it[3]. So I started to do it more. And I noticed something. They stopped asking me for help when I was playing ukulele and would instead turn to their neighbor and ask them. Good God, that is what I’d been asking you guys to do forever! Hot damn! It was beautiful: I could still move around and check up on their work, but when they asked me to help them, I would just say, “Ugh, I’m too busy playing ukulele.” (Luckily, my Asst. Principal loved the idea and totally agreed with the reasoning). The kids didn’t think of me being lazy or not helping them, because I would still have discussions with them about work, but they didn’t complain when I refused to help.

So, after the observation, Team iPad and Co. wanted to talk to me about what they saw. The main comments they made were about the patience that my students had, and the perseverance when things weren’t working out. They were shocked that, after students completed a whole problem trying to see if a second possible triangle worked, and it didn’t, they didn’t get mad. They were amazed at the level of discussion my students could have, and the solutions they came up with when they encountered stumbling blocks.

I’ll be honest, my class is still REALLY teacher-centered. I’m not a good enough teacher to get away from that yet, and I don’t have the time to develop good student-centered activities for 3 different preps. But my students can have really good mathematical discussions, both with me and with each other. I’ve still got a long way to go. I can be boring A LOT. My default is still to lecture, and even though more kids can have high-level discussion, some will sit there and drool. Too many of my kids can still fly under the radar and get away without doing too much work. I don’t do shit for differentiation in-class. But I have been able to make at least a day or two each week one where I have them work through stuff and figure it out on their own, all while getting some good ukulele practice in.

Oh yeah… Unfortunately, the clown squad liked my class so much that now they keep bringing in other teachers and other clowns to observe. Just yesterday, another group of 7 weirdos came in, and within 3 minutes, one of them pulled me aside and said, “Do they always talk to each other like that? They are all helping each other out so well!” That, at least, made me feel alright.

1. Of course, those who follow me on twitter and know of my insomnia and working on average 14 hours a day know that this does NOT mean life is easy. Just a little less exhausting in the classroom. GO BACK

2. To be fair, when I say “normally,” I mean, on the days I don’t repress from my memory from where I suck so badly I want to crawl into my physics closet and never come out. Which, I guess, would be more normal than what I describe here. But, it’s my blog, OK? Let me pretend. SORRY TO MAKE YOU KEEP DOING THIS

3. The same principle doesn’t work with an accordion. NOT THAT I DIDN’T TRY.

A Fully Sincere, Snarkless Public Service Announcement


I’ve been reading this awesome book that Sam recommended to me called the Emperor of All Maladies (which won the Pulitzer Prize this year), with the  subtitle “A Biography of Cancer.” The author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, writes so effortlessly, looking at the history of cancer and the fight against it, that you really get a great sense of the development of science and understanding how medicine works, but also the relationships between doctor and patient, particularly when the doctor is loading your body up with tons of drugs that have never been used on a human before.

I’ve been really lucky in that, so far, most of my family and friends have made it through fairly unscathed by this horrendous, mutant bitch, and what people have been affected have made it through thanks to the amazing doctors and medicines that have been developed. My grandfather had a huge tumor on his brain that was removed and he was back to playing golf shortly. My aunt has been in remission for years.

The problem is, there are SO MANY PEOPLE who are not as lucky, or are not able to get the kind of care that my family got. My awesome roommate just had to move back to California to take care of her mother, who just had a pretty serious surgery to try to rid her of cancer. I have already had multiple students miss most of a school year because of cancer.

I don’t really share this with many people, mostly because it isn’t the kind of thing that just pops up in conversation all that often. But: when I was in college, on a whim (or, probably the case, following some cute girl), I went to some place to be a part of the National Marrow Donor Program. I didn’t think much of it, until a couple years after I finished college I got this weird phone call that I was a potential match for someone who needed a bone marrow transplant. They said that the odds were still pretty slim, but they would run a couple more tests and let me know.

Soon enough, I got a call saying that things looked good, but they needed to do more blood work. So I went to some lab where they drew like 20 vials of blood to run all sorts of tests for West Nile Virus and HIV and the like. I took surveys looking at my health history, went to the lab a few more times to have some even more extensive blood work done. I did a 3 hour physical, where they pulled out all the stops. Finally, I was cleared to go. I’d never had to have surgery for anything, and I definitely had never in my life had general anesthesia. I woke up with this searing pain on my ass, where they had cut small incisions to insert this HUGE needle into a pocket in the pelvic bone over and over and over, extracting marrow. I spent a long time in the hospital bed feeling uncomfortable, except for the couple of times I got up to vomit. The next day was the day I famously watched an entire season of 24 from start to finish, because I couldn’t move. The day after that, I foolishly went back to work, where I wheeled around to kids desks in my chair and felt really terrible all day.

Within a couple of days, though, I was fine. I remember specifically choosing to have the surgery on a Tuesday, since that Friday was St. Patrick’s Day, and I wanted to make sure I would feel good enough to go out drinking.

And, somewhere, (I don’t know anything about the guy, other than that he was a guy), someone is alive and well enough to have great days, to have crappy days, to go out drinking with friends and have a blast, or to bitch about politics or the future of education.

I’m about halfway through the aforementioned book, and I’m continually astounded at how awesome and smart people can be. Yet, somehow, fixing the problem entirely eludes them . So many people, working tirelessly, trying to rid the world of cancer.

I’m glad I found a way to help them. You can too. Join the National Marrow Donor Registry.

Check Out the Hook While My Data Revolves It


Comrades! Fellow Humans! Welcome! I know it’s been a while, but …

I spent most of the summer on this, so I wanted to share it. A much more entertaining post will follow soon with the trials and tribulations of the year thus far. One of the biggest thorns in my side has been the fact that along with teaching 3 preps (2 new to me, and all by myself), I also am the data coordinator for my school. What does that mean? I don’t know, really, but somehow I was picked to be it because I knew how to do text to columns in excel, I think. But ANYWAYS, over the summer I taught myself some excel and developed this spreadsheet for my staff. Here is an example of a BADASS formula that I had to create:

=IF(D$41<>””,IF($B4<>””,IF(D$3<>””,SUM(IF(‘Data Grid (2)’!$F$9:$BC$9 = D$3, (IF(‘Data Grid (2)’!$F12:$BC12 = ‘Data Grid (2)’!$F$11:$BC$11, 1, 0)), 0))/COUNTIF(‘Data Grid (2)’!$F$9:$BC$9,D$3),””),””),””)

So, some caveats:

1.) If you are better at excel than me, then please help. I will take any critiques or advice on how to make this better, or at least more efficient. My main concern is that most people on my staff are stupid when it comes to excel, and rather than click on the help menu, they will bitch about being stupid with excel and complain about it until I come and fix it for them, so I tried to make it as idiot-friendly as possible.

2.) Because I work with people who are excel idiots, I locked everything down. If you would like to use this for your class or distribute this to other teachers in your school, but would like to change some stuff (for instance, it can only handle 50 questions or 35 students in each class) the password is “buttface.” Classy, I am not.

3.) A much larger discussion (and blog post) is needed to discuss the merits of using a large interim assessment within the classroom setting. Just for posterity’s sake, full disclosure:

-I have gone to SBG, so I don’t really give multiple choice tests anymore. I hope that you don’t really either. BUT: my state test is MC, so on occasion I give a practice Regents exam and use this to help analyze the data.

-It is helpful for teachers who are not SBG to still view tests by topic rather than as a whole. This spreadsheet is sort of a compromise for those who want to still give MC tests, since it still will break down the test not only by each question, but aggregate the different topics and show how your class did as a whole on the topic AND how each individual student did on the topic. In the past, I would give a small quiz a couple of times a week and tracked the data over time. To be honest, because this is based on averaging data, it doesn’t show growth very well if you keep saving into the same spreadsheet. I use different spreadsheets for each assessment I give.

-Our school requires that teachers give 4 interim assessments throughout the year. These are formative assessments, which for most would mean that it does not count as a grade but is merely used to assess where students have trouble and help them fix those deficiencies. That is how I would use this tool. It is easy to identify where each student is struggling so that you can break your class into groups and have them work on specific skills using whatever resources are available to you.

So, anyways, here are the instructions I sent out to my staff. Just so you know, the first bit are specific instructions for how to run the tests through the scantron and copy and paste them into the spreadsheet. If you don’t have those capabilities, it really doesn’t take that long to type in student responses by hand, if you use the 1-2-3-4 option rather than a-b-c-d.

Oh yeah, and I’m also a real jackass, especially to my coworkers. Excuse the occasional biting tone.

View this document on Scribd

After you’ve looked that over, here is the actual spreadsheet file (remember, all of the formulas are locked down. Play around for a bit. If you need to change something, the password is buttface:

NEW 2010-2011 Analysis Template

(and, of course, there are plenty of easter eggs hiding in the spreadsheet. If you leave it locked, all kinds of fun error messages pop up).

AND, to help you see how it can be used, here is an example of a spreadsheet that has been filled in (the first page is actual data from my physics class, the other two tabs have fake data put in there)

Analysis Example

For real, though… no one ever taught me how to do this, so I’ve just sort of developed something that makes sense to me. If you have any better ideas that can easily be implemented for an entire staff, let me know. And again, we are required to do data analysis on interim assessments at our school, so saying “data sucks” is not helpful.


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