Category Archives: Student Stories

One Good Thing

This week, the #MSSundayFunday prompt was “One good thing that’s happened in your classroom since the start of the school year.”  I was excited about the prompt, and on Thursday, I had a few ideas for what I’d write about: the pretty, popular girl that took the shy 8th grader under her wing and taught him about how to use the netbooks in the classroom.  The underachieving students who embraced the challenge of learning algebra through Math’s Mates.  The students who actually said “Thank you for teaching me today.”

However, on Friday, the whole world changed and what I thought was good got turned upside down.

Big Thompson Canyon, 2013 flood

Big Thompson Canyon, 2013 flood, posted on Twitter

This is the Big Thompson river, which is about 15 miles south of where I live.  Everyone around here knows the story of the Big Thompson flood of 1976, the stuff of legends.   About 200 people were killed in a monstrous flash flood. The entire canyon road is new since ’76 and was elevated 12 feet over the riverbed to avoid just this kind of calamity again. We are very acutely attuned to the risk of flash floods.  Even though a lot of flood mitigation work has been done, our senses are finely tuned to the monsoonal storms of late July and early August.  NEVER in mid-September.  Never.  Never so widespread and so much at once at such a strange time of year.

It started raining hard Thursday, and by the time school let out, Friday’s school day was cancelled. I was absolutely glued to any piece of information I could gather.  It was a terrible cycle of watching news, surfing Facebook and Twitter, watching videos and viewing images, hearing the gut-wrenching stories, and then playing Candy Crush to numb my emotions.  I tried to get a little grading done.  I was mostly unsuccessful.  We had a dry house and a safe neighborhood, but we could not leave town due to road closures, landslides, water over the roads, and to not interfere with emergency responders.  So we stayed, and I felt guilty about our dry house and good fortune, and I watched the horror playing out, first in the mountains, then in the foothills, then over the plains.  They say the guilt is a normal part of the trauma of a natural disaster.  I didn’t expect it to be so powerful.

I spent a lot of time reading and watching the news, for lack of anywhere to go, any way to help, or any motivation to do anything else.  I felt useless and helpless.

I made a map, because my out-of-state family and friends don’t fully understand where I am and where the flood damage happened.  I didn’t make this map realtime, but as news came across on Twitter or Facebook, I mentally catalogued where the damage was.  Here’s a Google Map I made of the devastation around us, again just based on my recollections. I know there is a ton I missed.  What I want you to notice is how many communities this affected.  My home, and my school, are in Fort Collins but in between two river valleys.  We dodged a blow.

The water icon means there were flooded homes.  A red pin or other icon indicates road damage or infrastructure damage.  It is not a typical flash flood, which happens in one river valley – it seemed to be everywhere at once.

Google Map of Flood 2013

The stories started coming in, and some worrying and waiting.

A dear friend, a teacher at a neighboring elementary school had her school’s entire group of fifth-graders at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park.  Their communication was cut off. The entrance to the camp started to crumble.  Buses and SUV’s drove soggy, winding mountain roads to retrieve the kids and get them to safety, and the kids and families were grateful.

A co-worker sent an e-mail on Friday saying the waters were rising, but she was safe and had enough food for a week, and then we didn’t hear from her for days.  She sent an e-mail on Sunday letting us know the roads had all been destroyed but a National Guard Chinook was going to pick up her husband, her tiny son, and her on Monday.. and they were so grateful.

Another co-worker was hosting a family at his house that had their home destroyed by floodwaters and were evacuated by helicopter. They were soggy and needed clothes, but were grateful.

Our new head custodian had spent the weekend sandbagging a middle school and elementary school in the north end of town, fruitlessly it turned out.  Families from that attendance area are still stranded at the head of Rist Canyon.  Their homes, saved from the High Park Fire last year, now have to be evacuated because there is no access to them from the damaged roads.

Our office manager’s parents were stranded in Estes Park with water in the basement.  But, she emphasized, the water was clear water… and some people had lost everything… and she felt so blessed and grateful.

Downtown Estes Park

Downtown Estes Park. Posted on twitter via 7 News

The band director is good friends with the band director in Lyons, where they lost all of their instruments, indeed the school was underwater, and are looking for replacements and help with cleanup and reconstruction.

Lyons flooding

Lyons flooding. Not the school, but other structures in town. Lifted from Sky Fox live cam

Our health tech is a regional coordinator for the Red Cross, had been without much sleep for two days and was the go-to person for the local evacuation shelter.  She said they had been overwhelmed with donations of material goods and volunteers, and were so grateful.

I stopped by the local evacuation shelter with air mattresses and diapers, a donation that felt so inadequate, but the attitude was very much one of gratitude… humble gratitude everywhere.

Today is Monday, and we had the day together as a staff for a collaboration today – a healthy day back at work.  We processed the events of the weekend and bonded a little.  We expressed a desire, maybe even a need, to do something. All the while, rescue helicopters droned overhead. They were graced today with clear, cool weather, and they drew people out of their homes, knowing it could be next spring before they make it back.  How could you leave?  And yet they did, all day long.  I now know the difference between a Black Hawk’s whirr and a Chinook’s thum-thum-thum.  All day they headed into the mountains.

Chinook helicopter, likely with relieved people and pets on board

Chinook helicopter, likely with relieved people and pets on board. Photo taken over my house

Communities are coming together to help, and we will too.  We tossed around ideas. We’ll plan with our students for how we’ll rebuild the community.  We’ll move mud, pump sewage, pull out carpet, dig trenches.  I’ll get over my guilt at being spared and will dig in to help.

I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to please make a donation to the Red Cross of Colorado, or the Salvation Army.  Their trucks have been everywhere disaster is, helping everyone and anyone.  Many people are going to weather through this just fine. There are many who need real help and could have a long winter to get through before being able to return home.

In the midst of all of this, there are not one but TWO good things: gratitude and hope.  The students and I will have to work with that.  They come back tomorrow, all of us changed from the experiences of this weekend!

The open question on my mind, is this.  I’m curious how you would answer it.  Tomorrow morning, I’ll walk into the classroom to 30 pairs of twelve-year-old eyes on me.  How do you begin your first academic class after a weekend like what these kids, and their loved ones, have been through?  What do you say and what do the kids need you to say?  Do you get right to the math and enjoy the distraction of a good word problem?  Do you process?  If so, for how long, in what way, and with what purpose in mind?  Chew on that, and I’ll have to let you know how things went when I figure it out.


Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Outside the Classroom, Student Stories


Gender Equity… Dance vs. STEM

In my spare time, okay, not that I have spare time, but in the couple of hours a week that I carve out for being responsible for my own health, I take clogging lessons.  I got interested in it while helping my daughters practice, and when their studio offered an adult class, I jumped on it and haven’t looked back.  I like making exercise and rhythm part of my life.  I’m well aware of how beneficial the arts are to a well-rounded education, and I feel it’s made me a more creative, thoughtful, energetic, and resourceful person.

The gender gap in dance is one that is obvious, and glaring, and hasn’t budged for decades.  My adult dance class is one of the few with a male dancer in it.  Most classes have no boys at all.  The hip-hop dance classes are the least unbalanced, but that means there will be two or three boys in the class with seven or so girls.

For me, it leaves a question in the air.  Why don’t we care?

The gender gap in STEM education and tech jobs spurs a call to action.  We create girls’ computer camps.  We create science field trips just for girls.  We analyze our data and fret over the unfulfilled potential of our girls.  Why is there no similar call to action to get more boys involved in dance?

I did just a tiny bit of research today online to find out about the gender gap in dance.  The few tidbits I found out are that the gender gap in dance is wide and hasn’t budged in decades, and that interestingly, and these pieces of info were fascinating, the wage gap in the performing arts favors men, and boys tend to get more attention and are called on more often in dance class.

This contrasts to the STEM gender gap, in which the boys outnumber the girls, especially in computer science and physics, but are still paid more and get more attention and are called on more often.  Or at least, that’s the way it used to be.  Is it still true?

We don’t apply the same level of urgency to getting boys into the arts as we do to getting girls into STEM.  Presumably, it’s because the job market in the arts isn’t perceived as growing as quickly or having as much earning potential.  Does that mean we’re right to apply no energy into getting boys to enjoy dance?

As a point of reflection, I’ve done a project a couple of times when I felt my classes (and I) were in need of a movement break.  Instead of doing math warmups, we planned a flash mob.  We’d find a funny dance on youtube and practice it for ten minutes a day, and then plan a secret day and time to play the music and have the math classes coalesce and just start dancing.  The students LOVED it – boys and girls alike.  It helped create community, a sense of purpose, got us some much-needed physical activity, and made us laugh.  I have no data to inform whether this is a good educational practice or not – so is it?  How important is a dance break for a student’s educational well-being?

I welcome your thoughts!


But then… “that” student

In my last post, I talked about one student who had a successful year and grew quite a lot in his mathematical ability and engagement.  I also thought about another student for whom things didn’t go so well.  Those are the ones who pull at your heartstrings, aren’t they?  You try, but you don’t reach them, and you spend a long time wondering why and what you could have done differently.

This young man (let’s call him John) was always a mystery to me.  He was a delightful kid every morning when he came into the classroom.  He greeted me cheerfully, told me a story about his weekend, even brought me little trinkets like a cool rock he found in the yard.  As soon as a lesson started, though, he would talk to those around him and shred his papers and supplies into little piles of trash in his desk.  I try very hard to have many more positive interactions with kids than negative ones.  I really believe in this.  However, I rarely had positive interactions with John outside of our morning hellos.  I was almost always asking him to get a pencil, find his supplies, move to this seat and that so he wouldn’t talk to his neighbors, or write something down so I could see what he knew.  I would fill out his point sheet at the end of the day and really try to think of something positive that happened, but on so many days there just wasn’t much that went well.  He did almost no mathematical thinking, the whole time he was in my class.  I still don’t know if he has any sense of fractions or percents or negative numbers.  He never showed me.  He wrote what seemed to be random numbers on most parts of his assessments, or argued with the paraprofessional and didn’t finish them.

There were factors that made it harder to work with him… the class was a needy one, and many kids were needy but also hard workers – I can look back and tell I avoided helping John on many days, because I could help another kid who was eager and willing and not spend ten minutes with John to try and get him to put pencil to paper.  The class was big, and I had chatty kids – I couldn’t turn my teacher eyes off of them long enough to make any headway with John.  It took a very long time to get anything done with him even when he was in the mood to work, which was rare.

We had a couple of meetings with his parents, and they ended with a commitment from him to try harder, but nothing ever changed for long.  I remember one conversation I had with John’s case manager in the hall.  She was almost in tears.  She had poured time and emotion and so much hard work into his education, and he fought and fought her.  He demanded attention, acted out, and made it hard for her to work with kids who were engaged in their education.  She had tried really hard to build a relationship with him and she was exhausted.

John did not make any measurable academic growth, and I still think and think about it.
What could I have done differently?  What would you have done?

One failing on my part, I think, was that I leaned on his case manager and paraprofessional too much.  I really should have scheduled some one-on-one time with him after school or during my planning time, to work with him on math when I wasn’t distracted by having a class in the room.  With kids in Special Education, I always know they have a case manager who will go to bat for them, so I sometimes do less to advocate for them – I pass off the responsibility.  John’s case manager was as devoted as they come, but there’s no substitute for just sitting down with a kid yourself and talking about math.

What do you do with “that” student – the one you aren’t reaching?  How do you turn things around?

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Posted by on August 25, 2012 in Lesson Reflections, Student Stories


Peeling back the onion

For teachers in Colorado, our most important metric is how much growth a student makes in a year’s time.  How do you help students grow?  There are so many pieces to that puzzle.  I’m fortunate in that I work in a terrific, high-functioning team.  We are very goal-oriented in our planning.  We reflect often on how our lessons went and what we need to change.

I remind myself often that I don’t need to get all of my students to be proficient in every skill we teach; I am responsible for making sure my students grow from wherever they started to wherever they end up.  To that end, I need to know from where they are starting.  We do a lot of pre-assessing on my team.  We group the kids every Friday into flexible math groups, and many Thursdays, they can expect a little quiz to find out what they know and what they need to know.

And yet there’s more to all that pre-assessing and data gathering.  Sometimes, it helps me if I think of a particular student that I felt had a real turning point during the year.  Last year, I had a student who I will call Aaron.  Aaron was a very quiet, bespectacled kid who rarely made eye contact, never turned in homework, and only did minimal work at his desk if you hovered over him.  His test scores had dropped steadily over the years, crossing into Unsatisfactory territory when he was in sixth grade.  He was new to the school.  In the fall, I decided a good first step would be to figure out if getting him to complete his homework would turn things around.  I called his parents and set up a meeting to alert them to what was going on.  I learned from them that he had a really difficult fifth-grade year in math and things started to go downhill then.  I suggested he stay after school for homework help for a while until he started to find his feet.

The homework time was valuable for both of us.  I used the time to gather information about his strengths and weaknesses.  One afternoon, while he was working problems on proportions, he puzzled over the problem:  2/9 = x/27.  I knew then that Aaron didn’t understand proportions, but I wasn’t about to teach him proportions unless he was ready to learn it.  So I asked some questions to find out what he knew.
Me: “What if you think of it as equivalent fractions? Two-ninths equals how many twenty-sevenths?”
Aaron: “I don’t know.”
Me: “Maybe an estimate then. Is two-ninths greater than half or less than half?”
Aaron: “Less than half.”
Aha.  Aaron did know some things about fractions as a portion of a whole. This was really helpful.
Me: “What would be less than half of 27?”
Aaron: “10?”
Me: “What made you say that?”
Aaron: “Well, 10 is half of 20.  And 27 is more than 20 so 10 is less than half.”
It’s not a terrible estimate.  Aaron’s numerical reasoning skills really weren’t bad at all, I realized at this point.  He has decent number sense and this is a strength.
Me: “Okay. If we scale up the original fraction, we can find the value of that x.  What’s 27 divided by 9?”
Aaron started counting on his fingers.  But I wasn’t discouraged one bit.  When he started counting on his fingers, I knew that Aaron, while not knowing his basic facts, did know a meaning of division.  He knew it meant how many times a number goes into another.
I started the homework session with a student who had an unsatisfactory standardized test score and a string of failed tests.  But I ended the homework session realizing I had a student that understood division and knew that a fraction represented a portion of a whole.  He was ready to learn proportions, with the help of diagrams, manipulatives, grids, and some flash cards to help him with his facts.  He wasn’t ready to abstract the proportions yet, but he was ready to learn about equivalent fractions and what they represented.  We had a starting point.  We worked from there.

When I gave feedback to Aaron, I told him about just what I’ve written here.  I didn’t give him meaningless praise, but I told him I noticed his good number sense and his understanding of division.  I said I thought he would make great strides this year and that he was ready to make a leap.

And he did.  He grew a ton.  Aaron’s standardized test score moved up a performance band, from Unsatisfactory to Partially Proficient. He failed tests less often.  He talked in class and engaged in group work.  He smiled more often.  He may make another leap this year – I certainly hope he does.

I think of Aaron often and how in my assessments, I need to dig deeper to find out what the kids know – not just what they don’t know.  From there you can grow.

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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Lesson Reflections, Student Stories