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What coughing up snot & funerals reminded me to do better in my classroom. Part 1 of 3 in the CONTRAST Series.

This post is part 1 of a 3 part series of posts on CONTRAST.  You can find Part 2 HERE (coming soon) and Part 3 HERE (coming soon).

I got sick my last two days of winter break and am 17 days later finally almost, not entirely – but almost, over an incredibly annoying cough (the type that wakes you up multiple times each night) and trying to get a seemingly never ending well of mucus out of my head.  The worst part of the 2 weeks is when I would cough up a huge blob of snot.  Today is so much better.  The sun seems to be shining brighter and I don’t even mind the cold as much.  There is something about being sick or having a hangnail to make you appreciate your health.  In fact the only really good thing about sickness is to remind me to be thankful in the times I am not sick.

Last week my good friend Karyn’s father passed away from cancer.  Karyn and I started teaching at the same time and she has since move to the Upper West side of NYC.  At the funeral she shared a poem her father had sent her years ago while giving his eulogy.  I want to share it with you now because like me being sick the last two weeks and now being joyfully thankful to feel better, I think this poem is connected to the work great math teachers do in their classroom.

snot quote inside

This poem is wishing the reader just enough of something bad  so that we may appreciate the good.  The writer knows that it is through the moments of CONTRAST in our life that we take notice of what has always been around us but has been invisible to our conscious mind.  We need the bad to appreciate the good.

In our math classrooms our job as math teachers is to help our students make sense of the patterns and structure in the mathematics before them.  Great teachers know that many times we can support students in seeing this if we allow them contrast what is new with something they have seen before.  Great math teachers make space for students to notice similarities and differences.   We allow them to connect prior learning to new learning.

My students were recently solving quadratic equations.  Some problems they were solving involved using 10+ steps.  When students would get to a point in their solving where the equation looked something like: -2x +17 = -38 they would get excited because they had reached a point where they were confident they could solve the problem.  I reminded them that just a couple of years they found the equation -2x+17=-38 nearly impossible to solve and would grumble loudly and now they shouted with glee with this type of problem.  There is nothing like harder (more complex) problems to make you yearn for and appreciate the days when things were simpler.  I tell students that someday the quadratic equations we are solving will feel like the ‘easy’ problems and they will tell their future math teachers they wish they could solve problems like the ones we are doing vs the ones their future teachers ask them to do.

The poem from my friends fathers funeral reminded me that I need to make sure that I help students see what is obvious to me but invisible to them.  To do this I need to contrast what I am asking them to notice with something.  There are lots of great tools out there to do this.  Check out parts 2 and 3 of my posts on this topic coming in the next couple of days of how I do this.  Until then, I’ve rewritten my friends poem for my students.  Enjoy.

sara vdw poem

Note:  The ‘puzzlement’ line is not my words, they are Dan Meyers from this lovely post he did titled ‘Culture beats Curriculum‘ and worshiping the real world.  READ IT.  It is quite lovely.

More soon, my friends.


Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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