7 Deadly Sins of Teaching [Maths]

‘Tis the eve of FDOS (first day of school, duh), and I’m no longer nervous or anxious. I’m washing these laptop covers for my homeroom students only because that’s what some of my colleagues did with their kids’ covers. I will not let a kid taunt me on FDOS with, “How come Mrs. So and So gave her students clean covers?” Oh yeah? Well, did you ask if she’d adopt you for the next 180 days?


I committed all 7 sins at one time or another, but there’s no shame involved — says a recovering Catholic — instead, it is a reflection of sorts.

Giving extra credit. I don’t care where you teach, how old your students are, what your zodiac sign is, you’re going to have at least one kid who’ll ask for extra-credit “work” at the eleventh hour of the grading period. Don’t do it. Say no and walk away because the tears might come streaming down his/her face and you have to ration the use of Kleenex. And you should be ashamed of yourself for giving students extra-credit points for bringing in copy papers, sticky notes, dry-erase markers, tissue boxes, doughnuts. Yes, you should send me some.

Giving timed multiplication drills. Maybe there’s a well-documented success story behind this madness that I’m not aware of, but to me, it perpetuates the myth of faster-is-smarter. This practice raises self-doubt and affirms the why-should-I-even-bother mindset.

Giving out the equation. That’s like giving away life’s secrets to someone who flies to Paris to have lunch. Meaning, they don’t need it, nor did they ask for it. Your students’ conversations, their conjectures, their models — are all at the heart of a math class. To give away the equation is to passively (and aggressively!) dismiss our students’ abilities to think for themselves. It’s okay to eventually give them the equation in due time, just don’t start with the equation. Imagine if I just gave my students the equations for slope and area of a circle.

Teaching from one source. No one source is that good. The creators of that source would be fools to not concede that point. It’s like eating out at the same restaurant or boasting that you can make chicken 50 different ways. No you can’t, and nobody cares. Let one or two sources be your structural outline, your mainstay, then supplement it with your favorite lessons or other teachers’ favorite lessons. Remember, any well-crafted lesson outside of the textbook that you can bring in is your gift to your students. Tell them that. And with our prolific #MTBoS, you cannot afford not to supplement.

Talking, talking, you’re still talking. I pretty much end every workshop with this reminder: The more you talk, the less your kids learn. I plan each lesson using this as my go-to guiding principle. Math is a highly social endeavor, so for the love of Ramanujan and Lovelace, please stop talking so much so your kids may talk! Every question you pose is an opportunity for your kiddos to ponder [quietly by oneself first] and share their thoughts with peers. Every question! If you fret that your kids don’t talk in class, then I wonder about two things, 1) Do students feel safe enough to talk in your class? and 2) Is the question you’re asking interesting/worthwhile/challenging to even bother? (I must have asked hundreds of lame, boring, worthless questions, but I’m not giving up. I practice and get better.)

Keeping up with the Joneses. That colleague whose hair and complexion are always perfect is just not as funny as you are. That teacher whose students all adore her probably owns a cat that wants to kill her. And that “amazing” teacher whom everyone talks about probably sucks at everything else in life! And he might be a compulsive hoarder of all things creepy! So, don’t mind them. We’re not here to compete with one another. We’re here to make mathematics rock for our kids. There is one you and 24 hours in a day. Make time for yourself, make time for your family. We all have shitty days that rob us of our wits and sensibilities, but recognizing that and committing to having a better day tomorrow are worthy endeavors. Our students need us more than they care to admit.

Being an asshole. I already stated from the beginning that I’m guilty. No one wants to learn from someone who’s mean and angry and bossy. When we try to establish authority in the classroom, we may inadvertently end up being perceived as this person. The meaner we get, the less students want to have anything to do with us, so the angrier we get. It’s a vicious cycle, and everyone is losing. We’re the adult in the room, charged with a magnificent duty to establish a learning culture, which will not happen if we don’t behave like an adult. Children are said to be resilient, but they are also impressionable, and their impressionable minds are vulnerable — vulnerable to criticism, to shame, to false praises.

Let’s pray for more patience, more kindness, more badass. Here’s to us — and to a great school year!

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 15 Responses

Growth vs. Proficiency

I usually take copious notes when attending conferences. It’s more of a self-discipline gesture to make me sit up straight and pay attention. I even try to sit in the front row. (The only time this backfired was in Psychology 101 when the professor had to talk about herpes and I was sporting a gargantuan one of the simplex 1 type on my upper lip. Not cool.)

I’m sharing the following notes from last year’s SDB Conference because we passionately voiced and argued — and confirmed and challenged — one another’s thinking and teaching practice.

Before discussing the topic of “growth vs. proficiency” within our small groups, we were asked to answer these two questions individually:

  1. What is the difference between growth and proficiency?
  2. How can we measure both accurately?

I wrote:

  1. Growth is individual progress, whereas proficiency is achieving some set of standards. One can grow but not achieve proficiency.
  2. Not sure. Can we ever measure these two things accurately?

Then the conversations began, and I jotted down some stuff:

  1. Growth is more social, proficiency is more academic.
  2. Both must be motivated.
  3. Both cannot be fostered if the classroom culture and teacher mindset are not in sync.
  4. Both must address how a kid learns best.
  5. A young child appreciates nature, but knowing the golden ratio is cool and requires knowing division.
  6. No one is born proficient, without growth, there’s no proficiency.
  7. We need to let growth and proficiency be time independent.
  8. It’s wrong that a kid can’t get a high school diploma when she’s a brilliant artist and can’t do algebra 1.
  9. We need to teach kids to reach their own goals instead of ours.
  10. To achieve proficiency, we should have standards, and we should agree on them.
  11. Types of tests should not be designed for the ease of testing.
  12. Proficiency: report card for the school, reputation of the institution, snapshot at that time. Growth: distance traveled over time, point A to point B can be a dramatic growth.
  13. Story archived on NPR: A teacher brought up a low group of kids to meet standards and was awarded, but she was penalized when she had a high group of kids and they didn’t see growth.
  14. Students think they are what their grade is.
  15. When you measure proficiency, you can see growth over time.
  16. Proficiency ≠ Excellence
  17. Setting the bar is not a teacher thing, it’s an admin thing — if you don’t make proficiency, you go to PI, and PI is hell.
  18. We teach to a bell curve, and we teachers are a bell curve. One size does not fit all.
  19. Growth is more individual, many different aspects of that kid, such as attitude, mindset, social behavior. Proficiency is more measurable, toward a whole group, show mastery, attach a number to this measure.
  20. Suggestions: students track their own progress, journaling, blogging; teacher is transparent in their expectations.

Some questions:

  1. What about teacher proficiency?
  2. Can we combine growth and proficiency? Can they be quantified?
  3. Growth is effort, how do you measure that?
  4. How do we strike a balance between growth and proficiency?
  5. How do get politicians out of this process?
  6. Who decides what proficiency means? Do students have a voice in this? (Teachers grade differently.)
  7. How can we communicate with everyone else to put equal weight between growth and proficiency? (We’re on a constant treadmill to keep up with the changes.)
  8. Portfolios are good, but how do you implement and grade them?
  9. Project-based learning has pros and cons, how do you give a grade for that?
  10. Are students learning social interactions, problem solving, communication, collaboration?

Two thoughts precipitated from this discussion for me, then and now. It might be that our schools are set up to measure proficiency, but they misinterpret those scores as measures of growth. And however we choose to define growth vs. proficiency, how do we ensure equal access to promote growth and proficiency? Professor William Tate, earlier in April at NCTM Annual Meeting, gave the Iris M. Carl Equity Address, he said, “The greatest threat to math instruction is the empty seat problem.”

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 32 Responses

Catching Up

According to my online Social Security account, my earnings record shows:

  • 24 years of full-time teaching
  • 2 years of half-time teaching
  • 1 year of subbing

It also shows this not-so-fun fact:


And this, which I find morosely funny:


Had I known ahead of time how depressing these numbers would be, I would have become a farmer instead. Grow cannabis or something. 

Anyway. It’s been a busy summer. I attended my first TODOS Conference in Scottsdale, AZ. I facilitated for NCTM’s Deep Dive for three 2-hour sessions on Ratios and Proportional Reasoning. Then I presented for CUE in Brentwood, CA, on Computational Thinking.

Thankfully I managed to squeeze out some time for a week-long camping trip at Shaver Lake and a trip to Oregon for my niece’s wedding.

I have three big commitments for the remainder of the year:

  1. BCAMT in Vancouver (BC) in October
  2. NCTM’s Innov8 in St. Louis in November
  3. CMC-North in Asilomar in December

We have a new principal this year, and I have a new math colleague (she and I make up the math department). My teaching assignment this coming year remains pretty much the same — 6th and 8th grade maths — except I’ll also teach an elective period of computational thinking (problem-solving) to 6th graders. What’s new is our block schedule which I have mixed feelings about as I’m not familiar with it. Kinda nice not having to see the brats every day though. :p

In summary, I need to work until I’m 104 just to afford rent on a two-bedroom in drought-stricken southern California. But hey, where else are you going to get summer-like weather year-round?

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | 5 Responses


these narratives

all lives matter

black on black shootings

he shouldn’t have resisted arrest

he had a criminal record

the police just doing their job

best that you do not speak to me today

about any one of them

tomorrow is not good either

because these narratives

are all irrelevant

Posted in Teaching | Tagged | 12 Responses

Jewish Mother


I had some friends over for dinner a few evenings ago. I made pho, but 2/3 of my guests had never had pho before, so I made another soup to make sure no one went home hungry. (We would later have pound cake and four different flavors of Ben & Jerry’s for dessert.)

As I got up from the table to get more food for my friend Rob, he said, “You’re like a Jewish mother.”

I smiled, it was not the first time I’d been paid that compliment. I love to cook only because I love to feed people. Originally this blog was meant as a food blog, my first post on fawnnguyen.com was about our Thanksgiving dinner in 2011.

Cooking and eating — acts that would save me from my miserable childhood.

The shame of being poor was all too obvious. My own body betrayed me, how would you hide your bones from threadbare clothing, how would you tell your tummy to stop growling. How would you hide your hunger.

My parents worked very hard to make sure there was food on the table — make that the floor, we ate sitting cross-legged on the floor — but there was never enough food. I had feelings of resentment toward my parents for having so many damn kids that they couldn’t fully feed. Thank God my younger brother died at birth or else there’d be eight children to feed.

My childhood memories, if I were brave enough to revisit them, would revolve around being hungry and craving for this food and that food. I now wonder if my siblings have the same memories. If they don’t, then they are big fat hairy liars. Or they were the culprits of my childhood hunger as they ate all my food.

I remember the two young boys’ faces and bodies as if I just saw them yesterday. My childhood self observed their plump faces, their bodies filled out their school uniforms, their suspenders stretched taut against their bellies. They were not hungry, they were fat, they were happy, their grandma beamed with pride.

I wanted to be like them. Fat and full of food. They knew no shame because their bones were not showing, their bellies did not grumble while doing school work. Of course they went to bed full.

Then I came to America. My 6th grade classmates called me chicken legs. I ate and ate until no one called me chicken legs any more. This is my freezer right now, not because I like ice cream all that much, I have them just in case you come to visit.



Posted in Cooking, Shallow Thoughts | Tagged , , , | 11 Responses


Under the Goodies tab at Whole Brain Teaching:

A WBT classroom is a constantly rewarding, no failure environment.  Rewards without threats of failure are good for brains!

When Timmy doesn’t know the answer to a question, or answers incorrectly, quickly say, “Tell Timmy ‘it’s cool!”  Your class says, “it’s cool!”  Tim isn’t embarrassed; you quickly supply the right answer.  Perhaps best of all, when you make a mistake, your class will give you a merry, and forgiving, “it’s cool!”

No. No. Really? Seriously?

Mrs. Quiggle: Timmy, where on the number line is four-fifths?

Timmy: Ummm. Between four and five?

Entire Fucking Class: It’s cool!

T: Yeah? It’s cool? I got it right?

Mrs. Q: Oh, four-fifths is right here. Right about here. If you can just imagine this space spliced up… Yes, that’s right, it’d be sitting right here, Timmy.

T: So I did not get it right.

EFC: It’s cool that you said four-fifths is between four and five, Timmy. We wanted you to be merry.

T: Who’s Mary?

Mrs. Q: They meant merry, dear, like Merry Christmas! Oh, oops, I shouldn’t have said the word Christmas. I’m so sorry.

T: So the class wanted me to be merry-as-in-Merry-Christmas because I said the wrong answer?

EFC: We wanted to be forgiving too, Timmy.

T: Forgiving? Like I committed a goddamn sin? And what’s so cool about my giving a wrong answer? This is so goddamn embarrassing!

Mrs. Q: Oh, watch your language, dear. But you shouldn’t be embarrassed, dear! I mean you shouldn’t be because I quickly supplied you with the right answer!

EFC: Remember, Timmy, we’re in a WBT class where your farts don’t stink and your wrong answers are cool.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | 6 Responses


Ethan Hall, teacher and web entrepreneur from Israel, emailed me this morning asking me to check out his visual patterns generator on dudamath.com.

There’s a lot of cool graphing tools other than the VP generator.


I’m kinda blown away. Go play! Go do math!


Posted in Algebra, Course 1 (6th Grade Math), General, Geometry, Math 8, Problem Solving | Tagged , , | 5 Responses

Half Century Plus One

I remember reading Shireen’s wonderful post last year when she turned 50 and thought, We’re the same age, and I want to celebrate turning 50 too! Well, I missed my chance to write something last year, but it’s never too late, so I’m stealing Shireen’s prompt “50 things I’ve learned about teaching” and broadening it to “51 thing I’ve learned about teaching and growing” because I turned 51 last month.

  1. De-clutter. When Megan and her hubs visited me in my 2-bedroom apartment in February, she looked around and asked, “Where’s all your stuff?”
  2. Smile and say hello to strangers.
  3. Tell students how awesome you are.
  4. Buy fresh flowers for yourself. I get whatever is on sale at the market, like right now I have two bunches of gladioli for $1.99 each. IMG_4113
  5. When a kid is rude or mean, stop everything and point that out. Then you can add, “I care about you and everyone in this room, and I need you to be kind.”
  6. You don’t have to continue with a bad lesson.
  7. Share with your students your hobbies and maybe your adulthood fear.
  8. Commit to listening to someone without interrupting and judging.
  9. Call a parent to tell him how much you appreciate having his child in your class.
  10. Add butter to your cooking. To sauté anything, I heat up equal amounts of olive oil and butter, add a ton of garlic (and/or shallots) and cook until fragrant, then add your food and toss everything up. Season with just salt and fresh ground pepper.
  11. Plant some fresh herbs and eat them! I’m always growing rosemary, basil, and mint. IMG_4114
  12. Tell people you love that you love them. Say it all the time, even when you’re slightly mad at them.
  13. Catch students being good. Go overboard with praising them.
  14. Ask students to pick up any trash around them, and model this.
  15. Tell students how much you respect and appreciate a colleague.
  16. Splurge on something for yourself. I have a set of high thread-count sheets.
  17. Always leave a place neater and cleaner than how you’d found it.
  18. Get to know all the dogs in the neighborhood.
  19. Avoid all mean people. Because mean people suck.
  20. There’s probably a reason why certain people are mean.
  21. Be the first to say sorry, especially to your family and students.
  22. Let the person you love have the last word.
  23. Find humor in self-deprecation.
  24. Find strength in self-love.
  25. Remember that fibbing is lying.
  26. Show gratitude daily. Remind yourself of all the things you do have.
  27. Tackle a challenging math problem. Make this a regular thing.
  28. Tell that one person to fuck off because he/she had hurt you for the umpteenth time. Then walk away and stay away.
  29. Laugh out loud with your students. Be funny. Have fun.
  30. Create a classroom environment that your younger student self would want to be in.
  31. Reach out to your colleagues for guidance. Reciprocate generously.
  32. Try to keep your classroom tidy and clean. Sanitize all surfaces!
  33. Always put children first. Feed them first. Take care of their needs first. (Your students are these children.)
  34. Sing loudly in your car when driving alone.
  35. Most of the time, it’s not about you. Be okay with that.
  36. When people need to vent about their family member, they really don’t want you to agree with them.
  37. Always be on time. Update your ETA if you’re running behind.
  38. Don’t underestimate students’ abilities. Don’t overestimate their sensitivities.
  39. It’s likely that whatever topic you’re teaching is not the student’s top priority right now. It’s only school. It’s not for everyone. It’s not you.
  40. Have more last-minute picnics.
  41. Only your opinion matters when it comes to how that outfit looks on you.
  42. Go hiking more. Rachel does it best.
  43. Make time for your friends. Sam does it best.
  44. Deliver a plate of homemade food to your next-door neighbor. Make it pretty and include the recipe or list of ingredients. (Not cool should they die eating your food.)
  45. Eat a new food. Thai? Moroccan? Persian? I think it’s the only way to truly know its people.
  46. Give less homework or give none at all. (I’m working on this.) Encourage children, big or small, to play outside.
  47. “Feelings are boring. Kisses are awesome.” David has this t-shirt.
  48. Ask for help. And be willing to help because it was probably not easy for the person to ask for your help.
  49. “Forgive but never forget.” Like the tattoo on my daughter’s arm. 2016-05-27_18-59-20
  50. Be the teacher you’d want your own child to have. Teach hard. Teach true.
  51. Consider stabbing yourself with a sharp pencil before committing to writing a list of 51 anything.
Posted in Shallow Thoughts, Teaching | Tagged , | 8 Responses

Making a Difference

Why it’s so hard for me to leave the classroom. I’m making a difference here and now.




Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 5 Responses

Dividing Fractions

My 6th graders have been working with dividing fractions for the last two weeks. We explore these four ways, in this order:

  1. Number line
  2. Rectangles — I wrote about this here.
  3. Dividing by one
  4. Common denominator

It’s completely intentional that we work with the number line and rectangles first. I want my kids to see the answer and that it should match their intuition and understanding.


Posted in Course 1 (6th Grade Math) | Tagged , , , | 9 Responses