Lillian naturally comes to mind when I plan a lesson. She eats it up. She goes above and beyond. She’s thoughtful and appreciative. She shares her thinking with the class in mindful and modest doses. She smiles quietly at my jokes. I wish I had a copy of all her math work — especially her written reflections — because each and every piece holds the joy of my teaching. Here’s one:

At the Continuation ceremony last year, Lillian delivered a succinct and grateful valedictorian speech.

A month ago, on March 11, I got an email from her.

I was looking at old pictures on your Twitter and in my camera roll, and I could totally see how much I loved your class. I was tearing up. I’m moving up to Math 3 Honors next year, yet I’m not sure I’ll ever be as excited about math as I was in your class. My current class is something of speed and prior knowledge… Not my favorite environment for growth, but you live and you learn to deal with it.

To this day, I remember so many little things about your classes. You truly changed the way I saw the world. I think my intense activism and political vocalness is in part your doing. I use my voice because you gave me one. I’m not a shy little sixth grader anymore. I’m beginning to come into my own as a badass bisexual intersectional feminist. I’m learning, and you pushed me to do so. There’s a lot of work for me to do on myself and the world around me. Maybe my first pattern equation wasn’t so far away (You told me “just because her equation is right, yours isn’t any less right”).

I miss being her teacher. I miss watching her persevere and hearing her explain her thinking in number talks.

Then, last week on April 7, late in the evening, I saw this video of Lillian posted on Twitter by her friend, Sam. I asked Sam for a copy and got Lillian’s permission to share it here.

I cried hard. Not because her poem is eloquent and powerful and makes me so goddamn proud, but because her message is all too real and urgent. The expectations placed on students by parents and teachers — on top of self-expectations — can be and are enormous.

We talk a good talk — about respecting the child and letting her learn at the speed of learning, about persevering and playing with mathematics, about nourishing critical and deep thinking in problem-solving, about ensuring access and equity, about cultivating a voice grounded in truth and heart.

But I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always walk the walk. I’m bound to a system that requires me to issue a grade at the end of the quarter. I have to do this for each child four times a year. Because that’s just how it is.

At what cost?

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  1. Posted April 13, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Man. This is the whole reason for being a teacher in one post. I have such great respect and admiration for how you continue to change students’ lives.

    • Posted April 15, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      I should add that by “whole reason for being a teacher,” I mean that I never want any learner to feel education from this lens. So, this is more motivation for all of us to reflect on why we make our choices and think about the effect they have on students.

  2. Posted April 13, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    This was distressing to watch.

    I’m in my 11th year teaching, now 6th grade math, after two decades of practicing immigration law. Though I’m charged with teaching math, I really teach life. My students hear from me that if they know lots of math, but leave my class a mean person, then I have failed. If they are not kind to each other, to little animals, to older people, then their math scores are worthless.

    I prep students for exams for selection to one of 8 NYC specialized high schools. But I know that these schools aren’t for everyone. Some of them, I proclaim to my students, I wouldn’t send my enemy too, because of the undue pressure. A student at one told me that his junior year genetics class grade hinged on whether he could cure cancer. Apocryphal, maybe, exaggeration quite possibly, but undue pressure, certainly. Not fair for a 16 year old.

    This blithe pressurization of some students at whatever the cost is unfair and unjust. I know it, and decry it, and don’t let it happen. My students know. I tell them that grades don’t matter.

    But at the other end I find students who are apathetic, some can’t even join in math talks because of social fears, insecurity, lack of interest, worries about life at home and challenges of where they will live and whether they will be safe. Math comes in as a lower peg on the ladder of needs to a safe place to sleep and enough food.

    This week we’re off from school. I had a brainstorm in response to students coming to middle school without proper study skills and some without enough skills to negotiate a new school’s social environment. The response: create a mini skills-course for the first 10 to 12 weeks, replacing an elective, teaching kids how to take notes, study for an exam, as well as how to stick up for a friend, resist bullying, and advocate for ones’ self.

    My principal doesn’t know this is coming, and while I know this is the RIGHT thing to do, I hope that the institutional gravity/inertia doesn’t weigh down my proposal.

    One thing is for sure now: I want my principal and other leaders to see Lillian’s video, to see her bravery, to see her pain.

    It is up to us adults to do something about all the other Lillians who are not yet strong enough to speak out.

    Please tell Lillian that we DO hear her.

    • Posted April 15, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink


      We’re riding a similar wavelength. I’m in my 11th year, and I’m in 6th too. Also, coming from a non-traditional background. And I’ve been planning a similar beginning of the year unit with my students. I realized I needed to do something when I figured out I had gifted student who wouldn’t email me because they didn’t know how (my classroom is one-to-one). Some of these things are taught (study skills, computer skills, bullying prevention) in elective classes, but not all students get them, and they don’t all happen at the start of 6th grade. I need my kids to have some skills right away, so I’m looking for ways to build it into my classroom routine for the first month.

      Fawn, I found myself feeling like a hypocrite with what I say in my class and then having to put a number in the computer to grade students at least once a week. Once I assign a grade, it’s hard to think students will trust what I say about growth or learning through failure or opportunities to try again. Each year, there comes the point when I have a talk with my advanced class about the pressure they’re under for a high grade. They nod along and then seem to believe me that they’re only 11/12, and that grades don’t matter at all now, and they don’t mean much later in life either. A student summed it up this year at the end of my speech, “But, my parents don’t believe that.” Ugh. True and I think the cost is too high.

  3. JDoma
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Thank you. I sincerely appreciated the opportunity to experience this.

  4. Posted April 13, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I honestly am overwhelmed at this post Fawn, the strength of that young woman is incredible and you must be truly proud to have touched her life like you have. One thing I will say is that it’s these moments that make our profession, that reward us in such a way that you could never put a price tag on it. Having students come up to you in the parking lot, knock on your window and saying “Remember me? I’d like to tell you how my life is going…” can never be duplicated, substituted or forgotten.

    Thank you for your posts Fawn, and thank you for how much you care for your students- it shows and is being rewarded.

  5. Posted April 13, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for sharing this. I think students issues are the same there [USA] and here [Spain]. Can you please put subtitles (english is enough) and I would show up this video to my collegues (unlettered in english). Thanks

  6. Donna
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Very powerful. Probably the thing I have found the most difficult in my 35 years of teaching is that requirement to issue the grade at a set point in time. Hopefully along the way and in between I have been able to help young people to believe in themselves and what they can learn and do – without too much homework.

  7. Gloria
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    This made me cry, too. I teach at a small private middle school; we write narrative reports instead of giving grades. I wish teachers at public schools could do the same.

    The poet makes me think of my high-school age daughter and her friends, who do face the pressure of grades. I tell my own child that her health is the most important thing, that what you learn matters more than what grade you get, and that it is okay with me if she gets Bs instead of As. But for a lot of her friends, sleep deprivation is just a normal state.

    I recently came across a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals: “Don’t let them eat their seed-corn; don’t let them anticipate, ante-date, & be young men, before they have finished boyhood.”

    At what point are we taking from children something they can never get back?

  8. Björn
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Wow. USA, Spain, Germany… Even if there are some subtle differences, the pillars of the education system seem to be the same. It’s amazing to hear how Lillian uses her voice to let off all the steam that has been building up regarding so many things that are fundamentally wrong about the way education works. Makes me wonder just how many students could join in because they feel the same way but we never get to hear or see it. And, yes, we can try hard to make math class meaningful, fun and worthwhile, but at the end of the day it’s the grades that count. A number (or letter) to summarize months of human interaction, of struggling, failing, succeeding, developing, growing. And, yes, at the end of the day these grades will determine which doors will be open to students in our society. But at what cost? My oldest son will start school next year. He’s looking forward to it like it’s the thing everybody is waiting for, a kind of magical place. Right now, I wish he didn’t have to go…

  9. Sharon Soule
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing this!
    My high school seniors and I often have this discussion. The pressure they feel is enormous and I feel like it is such a triumph for them when they can realize how important it is for them to get off of that treadmill and learn to enjoy and actually savor the time they have now. In my calculus class, I have to actively work to keep the pressure off of them and I devote time to teaching them to take the pressure off of themselves so that they can have just a little sanity in their lives.
    Somehow, as a society, we need to figure out how to stop sending our students the message that grades and SAT scores and AP tests and admissions letters from colleges are the most important measures of their value in this life.

  10. Posted April 15, 2017 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Read “Schoold on trial” book. There is another way of grades and assessment. Another school is possible and now it’s a reality. The pitty is that is a minority in our society.,

  11. Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Hey Fawn,

    Thank you very much for this post. It has had a real effect on me. I’ve written a blog post about it and created a short film to help me process it all. Hopefully it will deepen the conversation around the issues that this post brings to light. Here’s a link to the post and film:

    Understanding Lillian

  12. Heidi Shimamoto
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing this Fawn. I too struggle with the whole business of having to assign letter grades to my students. They are so much more than that! I want my classroom to be a place where students learn and grow. But I fear that grades often squelch that process. Honestly, if I didn’t have to do grades, I wouldn’t. I don’t know how to come to terms with grades and the pressure to achieve them. It is difficult to know that I am part of the system that makes children feel this way. Thank you ,Lillian, for sharing your feelings so eloquently and for making us adults stop and think.

  13. Posted June 2, 2017 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    So Powerful.

    When I came across this post, I was finalizing my own poem for ignite at OAME. I wanted to comment then. I wanted to tell you how much Lillian’s poem touched me. I wanted to share how much the issues that she is agonizing over often keeps me up at night. I wanted to reach out and somehow express my appreciation of Lillian’s bravery.

    But more than that, I wanted to, once again, tell you that I could see you in Lillian’s poem. As she’s put it, your presence in her life was influential and contributed to her every step that moved toward that stage.

    “I use my voice because you gave me one.”

    I wanted to also tell you that you have also inspired us fellow teachers with every story you have shared.

    Alas, I had made myself a promise to myself and my family that I wouldn’t return to blogging or commenting so that I could focus on finishing obligations that had been long overdue (now I’ve lifted some of them off my shoulder so my ban’s partially lifted!).

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Fawn. Stay amazing. Lillian’s message is important, and I think ever more so as the educational policies and landscape in your country is encountering some major challenges.

  14. Mark Grimm
    Posted June 26, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this. I teach math at a small k-12 public school, grades 8-12. Rural, poverty, and 99.9% Latino heritage. We just graduated 13 seniors, about the average here. For the last 10 years or so, the senior class has asked me to speak “for them” and “about them” during graduation ceremony. I always tell them they should seek out a “real” commencement speaker, hahaha, but they seem to always want me to do it. So I do. When they ask me I feel obligated, you know? This “speech” basically entails a short story or two about each student. Sometimes funny, sometimes very emotional. It’s hard not to cry, so I finally quit trying not to. The speech is almost never about any academic or athletic achievements, just about relationships. You know when you spend 180+ days a year with these kids, it’s pretty hard not to love them, even through all their crap. Grades, standards, tests, crazy. The kids are what it’s all about. Thanks again for your awesome thoughts.

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