Teaching When They Least Expect It


So, yesterday in Algebra one of my students managed to staple himself.  staple

Yes, that’s what I said.  Staple . . . himself.

This may not be odd or exciting news for those of you who have been teaching a while, but this wasn’t your typical “barely break the surface” kind of a stapling incident.  This one went beyond the bend on the staple.

It went something like this.

“Uh…Mrs. Ezell?”

“Yes, Riley?”

“I stapled myself.”

Now added to the list of things only a teacher hears.  “I stapled myself.”

This made me start thinking about all the other things I’ve heard…which almost caused this entry to go in a completely different direction…which could have been titled, “Your eyebrows look much better today, Mrs. Ezell” or “Did you mean for your hair to look like that?” But, that could have led to a bout with depression and a box of Girl Scout Tagalong cookies.  I shook it off and regrouped.

It occurred to me, that while I certainly hated that a student injured himself in my class, it did have somewhat of a positive effect on my classroom.  Sad that I would think that, isn’t it?  Yes, but true.

You see, it broke up the monotony.  It changed the energy.  Because the staple was so deep in his finger, he couldn’t pull it out.  2 words.  Field Trip.  Off we went to the nurse’s office.  After we disinfected it, she brought out these really cool tweezers. Totally legit medical supplies.  Not your mama’s Tweezerman tweezers.  These could have been in an emergency room in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  We gathered around as she tried to pull it out.  She couldn’t do it.  It wouldn’t budge.

Of course, you know what happens next.

Local Algebra Teacher saves the day, film at 11:00

I grabbed those tweezers and said, “OK, Riley…on the count of 3.  Ready?”

He looked at me with this look on his face like, “How did my day turn into this crazy lady getting ready to perform surgery on my finger?”

“OK, here we go.  1 . . .”  YANK. Came out clean as a whistle.


Well, of course not.  Then he would’ve panicked.

It occurs to me that’s often how I teach.  I try to catch them when they least expect it.  Catch them off-guard.  Surprise them. Deny them the opportunity to panic.  Sure, I know what the hard concepts are, the difficult lessons, the tricky math stuff.  But, if I lead with anxiety and apprehension, they are going to freak-out.

Freak-outedness is not a good thing in the math classroom. It is to be avoided at all costs.

So, I lie.  So, I reframe.  I turn it around.

I say things like,

“We are learning the coolest thing today.”  or

“I am crazy excited about what I get to show you how to do today.” or

“I love teaching about multiplying binomials.”  or

“You aren’t going to believe how easy it is to graph systems of equations.” or

“I was telling my family at dinner last night about today’s lesson.”

Now, these are not second graders.  They know I’m full of it.  They tell me so every day.  But, being super cool is not my goal. Although… I am totally and completely super cool.

My goal is to take away their anxiety…not 100% of the time because sometimes a little anxiety is a good and necessary thing.

But, when learning something NEW, having a relaxed and positive attitude is invaluable. Don’t you think?

In order to do that, I often act like a goofball. Seriously.

I do things in front of my students that I would NEVER do in the real world. My goal is to make them laugh until their cheeks hurt and they want to vomit.  To make them look at their table group at roll their eyes, silently saying, “She’s really lost it today.” I sing. I dance. I stand in chairs. I create horrible role-playing experiences. I do impressions. I throw things. I throw candy (always a big hit). I create class competitions based on random math facts and music from the 80’s.  I tie together their prior experiences and knowledge and math concepts with big gaudy bows of goofiness and immaturity (my own).

They try to act above it all, but really, when it comes down to it, they would much rather me be goofy and nerdy than constantly tell them how hard and serious and important math is.

I mean, really.  Nobody wants to hear that.  People want to hear that it’s OK. That it’s fun.  That it’s cool.  That it’s DO-ABLE.

I know I do.  Isn’t that what we all want?

So, yeah. I didn’t count to 3.  I didn’t even count to 2.  I grabbed that staple with those fancy tweezers and yanked it right out before Riley even knew what hit him . . . and I did it while making him laugh (or at least attempting to, anyway).

If I can do the same thing as a teacher, if I can teach them something complex before they realize it’s complex and make them believe that it’s a completely normal extension of what they already know and do it with a smile on their faces, then I have had a good day.  Then I am a good teacher.

And, more importantly, my students have LEARNED and felt good about it at the same time.  Can there be anything better than that?

I’m just saying.

Dueling Titles: Using Interactive Math Notebooks OR Composition Notebook vs Spiral Notebook


Dueling Titles:  Using Interactive Math Notebooks OR Composition Notebook vs Spiral Notebook

. . . the emergence of interactive notebooks (I call it a math journal) in the math classroom has inadvertently created a division, or sorts, among teachers . . . Us vs Them, so to speak.

Who would’ve thought anyone would care either way?

Not me.

Certainly not me ten years ago when I was still fighting the battle of “Where is your homework?” or “Where is your baggy of algebra tiles that we spent all class period cutting out yesterday?” or “Where are the notes you took yesterday in class?  The handout?  The rubric for your project?”  And so on.  You get the picture.

And then . . .

While at a math conference one summer (CAMT), I noticed about 2,000 people (maybe a slight overestimate) in line waiting for a session.  It was nuts.  They had been there for over an hour with another hour to go.  Seriously?  It was like Black Friday without the promise of a $10 Crock-Pot. These people were insane.  And, evidently, had wayyyy too much time on their hands.

So, of course,

I got in line.

Turns out the speaker was Dinah Zike – Queen Mother of the Foldable and all things glue-able.  Now, you need to know that I had never heard of Dinah Zike, but as I entered the room and was handed a packet of colored paper and a pair of scissors . . . I knew this was something different from the traditional “sit and get” workshop.

What an understatement.

I folded.  I cut.  I glued.  It was fabulous.  For those of you who don’t know, Dinah is an organizer of information in practical and logical groupings.  Basically, it’s about taking good notes, but in a visually logical and engaging manner, and then housing them in some sort of notebook . . . a math journal.  And, it was NOT boring.  It was fun.  This was going home with me.

Not to sound like a total nerd.


Incorporating math journals into my classroom changed the way I teach.  From an instructional point of view, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

My students start making their math journals on Day 1 each year, and we use them all year long.  In the past 7 years, I have had exactly 1 student lose his math journal.  It was tragic.  He stayed in during lunch with me for weeks recreating what he lost.

When my students leave me for high school, many take their math journals from my class with them into their high school math classes.  No joke.  They text me illegally from the high school bathroom to tell me they looked up the slope-intercept song or balancing equations by treating variables like crackheads (don’t ask).

You see, the thing about math for a lot of people, including ME . . . is that if you don’t use it, you lose it . . . or, more often, you just need help retrieving the information. Sometimes you just need a quick refresher – often just a word or a phrase or a picture. Our math journals serve that purpose.  They are a self-created “cheat sheet”, if you will.

So, on the first day of school every year – everyone cracks open a new composition notebook and we begin.  It’s exciting, really.  Again  . . . a little nerdy.  But I’m OK with that.

What goes in our math journals, you ask?

All notes.  All handouts.  Math Charts. Foldables. Calendars. Tabs. Expectations. Reminders. Manipulatives. My cell phone number. Websites. Reviews. TEKS. And more.

AND . . . a TABLE OF CONTENTS.  An up to date TABLE OF CONTENTS WITH DATES AND PAGE NUMBERS.  Color-coded.  Mandatory.

For the love of Pythagorus, you must have a table of contents.

The only thing we don’t put in our journals is graded papers/assignments.  Not usually, anyway.  There are no absolutes . . . except for absolute value . . . see what I did there?

I make a math journal as well.  One for each class.  We do it together.  Sometimes I model what I want; sometimes we collaborate on the best ways to organize information.  Often they come up with much better ways than I ever considered.  They can freestyle to some degree, but there are constraints.  The information on their pages must match mine.  Also, when a student is absent – all they have to do is grab my journal to get the notes. Works beautifully.

The journals are huge.  And by huge, I mean ginormously huge.  We keep them fastened together with colored rubber bands or brads.  But you know what?  I’ve never had one break or fall apart.  Ever.

Which leads me to my personal preference in the battle of spiral vs composition notebook.  Drum Roll, please.

Top 5 Reasons Composition Notebooks Totally Rule Over Spirals:

  1. They are more fun to decorate and look way cooler.
  2. Those spiral things always unravel and get caught on stuff.  Drives me nuts.
  3. Paper is just BEGGING to be ripped out of a spiral.  It can’t be prevented.
  4. Composition notebooks are sturdier – thicker covers.
  5. Composition notebooks just make you feel fancy & professional.  You know?

Composition notebooks win.  No contest.  Although . . . I won’t hold it against you if you prefer the spiral.  Well, not much anyway. 🙂

But, really, it doesn’t matter which you choose . . .

frankly, you can use a Big Chief tablet if you want . . .

what really matters is that you find a way to help students organize the information provided to them . . .


So . . . there you have it.  My most innermost thoughts regarding math journals and composition notebooks.  Exciting and world-changing stuff.

Don’t even get me started on stick glue vs liquid glue.  🙂

You Can’t Create a Clean-Freak.



You know how every year you have that one student?  No, not that one . . . not the one that makes you question your career choice.

No, I mean the clean-freak obsessive-compulsive kid . . . the one who can’t handle even the smallest bit of dry erase marker left on the board, who finishes his work early with the sole intention of organizing your back bookshelf, who volunteers, even BEGS, to come in at lunch if it means you’ll let him clean your desk (“Please, Mrs. Ezell, Please!  You can’t live like this.  It isn’t healthy.  Your piles are all mixed together and it’s giving me a headache, and please tell me you aren’t drinking out of that cup.”)  

I have ALWAYS had that kid  . . . every single year . . .                                                                                                                                 AND, because I am the sole teacher of 6-8 grade math, once I get that kid                                                                                                 I HAVE HIM FOR THREE YEARS.  

Like I said, I have ALWAYS had that kid . . . UNTIL this year.  It breaks my heart, but I don’t have that kid this year.                                      

Do you hear me?  I don’t have that kid!                                                                                                                                                                                           

I have been left to my own devices this entire year with no one to keep me organized.  I was OK at first.  September wasn’t too bad. The piles were manageable.  Pencils weren’t sharpened, but I could find one . . . usually.  However, by early October things were starting to crumble.  I tried to hold on.  I tried to remember the words and lectures from my former clean freak students who kept me alive . . . sadly, I have failed them, every single one of them.

It is now the first week in February.  I fear I will be forced to move to another classroom so that this one can be gutted.  I worry that there is no coming back from this . . . random paperclips everywhere (many completely unbent or chained together), map pencils mixed in with markers mixed in with glue mixed in with pencils (none with erasers), post-it notes and little scraps of paper with important stuff written on them (I don’t know what any of it means), 4 staplers (I don’t own 4 staplers), and styrofoam cups from who knows when half-filled with who knows what  (tea, Diet Dr Pepper, green smoothie . . . at least I hope it’s green smoothie).

I tried to recruit a new clean-freak.                                                                                                                                                               It can’t be done.  

I thought maybe one of the 8th graders could be coerced into helping me.                                                                                                 No.  

I thought maybe they might feel sorry for me.                                                                                                                                               Not even a little.

I thought I could bribe one of them.                                                                                                                                                               There aren’t enough Blow-Pops in the world.  

I tried threats.                                                                                                                                                                                                 They laughed in the face of danger.

You see, I have discovered one of the core truths of the universe . . .                                                                                                         You can’t create a clean-freak.  You can’t wish it to be true.  

There is no happy ending to this story.  I will muddle through the rest of the year.

I will hold tight to the promise of next year and the possibility a clean-freak might move up from 5th grade, or maybe a new kid will move into the district.  

There is always hope.  I will try not to cry . . . anymore.

In the meantime, please keep me in your thoughts.  It’s a long time til June.



If at First You Don’t Succeed….


I’ve been thinking . . . which some would say is dangerous . . . but that’s another conversation.  I’ve been thinking a LOT about grading and allowing “redos” for missing grades or for low grades or even for not so low grades.

On one hand, students need to learn responsibility and accountability so it makes sense that they need to turn-in assignments when they are due and they need to be held accountable when they don’t study for a test and make a 60. Sure, they do . . . makes sense . . . otherwise we’ll be raising irresponsible citizens who won’t be successful in the “real world”, right?

Ehhhh…I don’t know.

In my job, if I’m asked to submit an analysis of test scores and I don’t do it, my boss doesn’t fire me.  Nope, I’m not that lucky . . . JOKE 🙂  There is some consequence for my choice, but I still have to submit the analysis of the test scores.

I don’t get out of the work.

If I’m required to submit my lesson plans following a certain format and I use the wrong format, I don’t get off the hook.  Nope, I would have to redo my work until it was satisfactory.

I don’t get out of the work.

So . . . the question that begs to be answered is this – why do we, as teachers, let our students get out of the work?


For me, when I really, really, really think about that question, the answer is apparent.  I should never let my students get out of work.   Which creates more work for me.  Which really freaked me out when I was considering doing this . . .  like, kept me up at night wondering if it was really worth it.  I fought it.  I came up with excuse after excuse of why it was a bad idea.  I forced my husband to endure several long car rides while I debated the issue aloud . . . poor guy.

But, my thoughts kept circling back to, “I should never let my students get out of the work”.

So, I did it.  I’ve done it.  It’s did.  My students can redo all assignments and tests (except six weeks tests, semester exams, and the Big Daddy benchmarks) . . . more than once if they so choose.  A few still don’t believe it.  A handful of them don’t like it.  Some of them haven’t redone anything.  It’s their choice.

And, that my friends, is the point.  It’s their choice.  It’s up to them.  They hold all the cards on this.  They have control over their own academic destiny in my class.

I hear what you’re thinking..I used to think it too…they’ve always had control over their own destiny as students…but have they really?

In some ways, yes.  But in others, not so much . . . not AFTER they’ve turned in the assignment anyway.  Before, they would turn in a test and think it was all over but the crying.  Now they know IT’S NEVER OVER . . . they decide if they find their grade acceptable or not . . . if they want, they take the steps to change it.  Their success, or lack of, is totally their decision.

If Bob is happy with a 70 on that test over multi-step equations, OK.  If not, he can retake the test (a different version, of course).  If SusieQ doesn’t like the 92 on last night’s homework, she is welcome to do another assignment covering the same concepts.  If Vicki blows off her project and makes a 20, she knows she has the option of completely redoing it . . . and if her MOM wants to conference with me about that 20, I will make sure that MOM knows she can redo the project as well . . . see how I did that?

So, am I glad I did it?  YES.  I really am.  Is it more work?  YES.  It really is.  But, not as much as I thought.  And, most importantly, it has shifted things . . . from teacher to student . . . which, surprisingly, has led to a less stressful environment for all of us.

They know that if at first they don’t succeed, they can try, try again  . . . and again  . . . and again.

It’s Kinda Like Potato Chips . . .

English: A pile of potato chips. These are Utz...

English: A pile of potato chips. These are Utz-brand, grandma’s kettle-cooked style. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Technology . . . like opening a bag of potato chips, I find myself unable to stop after eating just one.  My students cram them in their mouths so fast they swallow without chewing, all the while reaching for another handful.

You know how it is.  You don’t even think you’re hungry.  You weren’t even thinking about eating potato chips.

But.  Then.  You see the bag.  Maybe you don’t even open the bag.  Maybe someone else opens the bag.  “Want one?” they ask.  You don’t want to be rude.  “Sure, why not?” you respond.

And that, my friends, is all it takes.

Soon you are up to your elbows.  Greasy fingers.  Crumbs on your shirt.  Truthfully, the only thing to do at that point is wipe your fingers on your jeans and swipe your screen, looking for the next perfectly shaped chip . . . just one more . . . three at the most . . . OK, just a handful . . .

I am of the PONG generation.  Rotary dial phones.  When Pac-Man and Asteroids were the arcade games of choice . . . because they were the ONLY choices.  Childcraft Encyclopedias with actual pages to turn.  I was there at the beginning of remote controls for televisions.   I witnessed the arrival of the automatic door at the local grocery store.  “Be careful,” my mom warned, “It could cut your arm off!”  Typing class in high school with White-Out . . . ASDFJKL;

We didn’t know what we didn’t have.

And. Then.

It all changed, didn’t it?  In the blink of an eye.  PONG got put away on a shelf in the garage along with my Mattel handheld basketball game.  And, once you open that bag of chips . . .

Computers, cell phones, gaming systems, digital this, gigabyte of that, social media, and apps, apps, apps.  It’s like living in an episode of that future-themed cartoon “The Jetsons”.  I am often confused.  I don’t know this new language.  But I hold tight to the chip bag before me.  And the more I eat . . . the more I get!  OK, so maybe I don’t GET IT, but I can keep up with the conversation . . . most of the time.

You see, I teach.  I teach junior high students.  I didn’t (and don’t) have the option of saying, “I’m just not into technology.”  I had to get it.  I have to get it.  Because THEY have to get it.  Things aren’t changing back.  If I want my students to be prepared for their future – heck, for their present – I’ve got to help them.  That’s my job.  That’s what I do.  Students need to be guided through this technological world in which they live.  Notice I say guided, not necessarily taught.  Any and all of my junior high students can teach me under the table when it comes to technology…and they know it.

BUT.  They still need guidance.  They need to be taught about choices and the impact of their digital footprints.  They need to consider the implications of their words and pictures and videos.  They need to be taught to question the information they can access so easily and know how to check its validity.  Back to the potato chips…they need someone telling them to read the label…someone telling them they don’t have to eat the whole bag TODAY . . . someone telling them that there are some bags of chips that they should leave sealed.

For that, they need me.

You see, if not me . . . if not their teacher . . . then who?  Parents? Church? Girl Scouts of America?  Nope.  Should it have to be me?  Not at all.  But it is me, nonetheless.  Little Susie needs to know that the racy pictures she sends to her boyfriend are never going to be completely deleted and can be considered child porn.  Little Stuart needs to know that the comments he puts online using the “f” word along with all the other high-impact profanity he knows will be looked at by admissions offices at colleges along with the photos of him and his buddies passed out amidst a sea of empty beer cans that his prospective employers will one day view.

So, I embrace that bag of potato chips . . . for the sole purpose of helping my students . . . yeah, right.  If you know me, you know I love a bag of chips.   And, if my love of chips can be combined with helping my students, I am in fried potato heaven.

Go on.  Open the bag.  Bet you can’t eat just one.