The Softest Soft Skill of Them All

So, I’ve spent the past week thinking about what on Earth soft skills are to me and what soft skills I have that I bring to the classroom daily. Truth be told, some would say I don’t have any soft skills because they see me as a hard-ass—always demanding more and expecting perfection. Some don’t really know me. Those that do know me know that I have the softest soft skill of all.
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At our school, we have a monthly event where students are nominated by their teachers to be recognized as Spotlight Students. My team takes these nominations very seriously and we each make impassioned pleas for our nominees. I get so emotionally invested in the recognitions for my students that I usually can’t even tell the student she is nominated without crying. Crazy right? A kid is great and I can’t even tell him without breaking down.

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That’s how students know that they each mean more to me than I could ever say out loud. I am so proud of how they carry themselves as compassionate young adults. They care for one another. They trust one another. They are courageous, emerging individuals. They are becoming really great people right before my eyes each and every day and I have the best seat in the house.

Friday we found out that our beloved school counselor, Crystal, died. She had been ill, but she was at school more often than not. She never complained. She was the bravest person I have ever met and she will be deeply missed.

I taught Crystal’s son, Zack, three or four years ago. He was a typical 8th grader and she would say to me, “What am I going to do with him? Will he ever grow up? He’s so sweet, but he’s just a mess.” I assured her that he would grow up to be a wonderful young man and that she needn’t worry. This fall I asked her how Zack was doing in high school. She told me I was right–was well-rounded, well-adjusted and responsible. I smiled and nodded. Then I went to my room and cried.

Shortly after I first found out Crystal had breast cancer, I saw Zack waiting for her in the parking lot after school. I would walk by their car and wave and smile at Zack wanting to speak to him, but being too afraid of my own emotions. I would then go to my car and cry. After a couple of weeks of this, I finally stopped at the car and spoke to Zack. He was happy as usual. I told him how much I thought of his mother and how incredibly brave and strong she was. He just shrugged as if to say, ‘Eh, that’s my mom. She’s one tough cookie.’

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So, do I really have a soft skill that I share with students and does it make a difference? I say yes and here is how I know. Last year at school something was missing. There was little joy. My homeroom was great but the rest of the day was a challenge for sure. I didn’t love my kids, but rather just tried not to hate them. Oh, I started out with good intensions, but it was just a rare group of kids who made it their life’s’ work to make school miserable. At least that is what it felt like. Eventually I showed no emotion for if I was excited and happy, they couldn’t handle it. If I was upset, they went in for the kill. I just became numb, as far as students knew. Outside of school my heart was broken. I was confounded at the thought of kids being constantly disrespectful and mean. I couldn’t invest my heart because I couldn’t have it trampled on again and again. I worked hard on the academics, but that was all. I had to force myself to show up on the last day of school for the awards ceremony. I seriously did not want to be there.

This year is back to normal or even better than normal. You see, kids need love, even from me, and I need to give love. Loving kids, warts and all, is my strongest soft skill. That word “love” is something I thought was totally inappropriate to describe a teacher/student relationship before this year. It is what was going on each year, I just could never admit it until now. It took the lack of love last year to convince me of that. I’m never going back, even when it hurts.

Crystal taught me how to love the unlovable. There are kids that spent a great deal of time in her office. Hers was a safe space for all kids and adults for that matter. Crystal’s greatest gift to me was helping me develop my softest skill and I am forever greatful.

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Completing the square completes me

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My favorite topic to teach is completing the square. Weird, right? I just love it. I start by having kids solve radical expressions. I say “what cha gonna do?” and then say “square both sides!” We then move to solving equations where we need to square root both sides and I catch them in the chant! “what cha gonna do?” “Square both sides.” Really? Then they think. And then they think some more. “Oooo,” they say. X squared = plus or minus the square root of x. Major deal of course. So now the chant becomes, “what cha gonna do?’ and they say, “square root both sides.” Many forget the plus and minus no matter how many we do it. I do this before solving quadratics, which may be unconventional, but it works.

We solve equations with a squared term, a linear term and a constant or two and we discover how to complete the square in order to be able to take the square root of both side after some massaging. It’s awesome. It’s magical. It has absolutely nothing to do with quadratics as far as students know. We are merely balancing equations.

Then we do go into quadratics. There is always some smart alec that wants to dive into the quadratic formula. I hate this, but soldier on. They may NOT use the quadratic formula until they can prove it. End of story. We go into vertex form of a quadratic. They dig the structure and can assemble the vertex form of a quadric if they know the vertex and the multiplier. We then look at discovering coming up with a quadratic equation with far less information. We know the structure of vertex form because that is taught in Math 1 (supposedly). Of course the structure is re-taught. But, now we have a reason for knowing how to complete the square. Yeah! It’s so similar to coming up with the slope intercept form of a linear equation. Plug in what you know (what you are given) and chug away. That there must be a perfect square trinomial to make the square root of both side s of the equation is the secret weapon. All must balance. No illegal moves. Taking the multiplier into consideration is a challenge, but we get there.

Because I introduce completing the square multiple times and early, it sticks by the time we prove the quadratic formula. It gets revisited when we do geometry and prove the Pythagorean theorem. The sparks and light bulbs that go off are so fun!

I tell my kids when we first complete the square that this is a skill that could make them a hero some day. When I first started teaching algebra 7 years ago, my daughter was in a college chemistry class. Her class had a problem that looked unsolvable until a student suggested that they complete the square. That student was a hero. I tell my students that some day they too can be a hero with completing the square. They are instructed to notify me the day this happens. Sadly, no notifications so far.

I think that success in teaching completing the square comes from students being exposed to it over a period of time, even before they really need it. If you wait until they need it, the mind is too clogged with other ways to solve quadratics. I tell my kids, too frequently solving a quadratic via the quadratic formula is like taking a barge down a river. Completing the square is a kayak. Have fun! Use it. Be a hero!

 

Intro to Desmos for Middle Schools PD

screenshot-2016-10-17-19-18-02Last winter I decided that I needed to take the plunge and finally present at NCCTM. I had been using Desmos activities regularly in my classroom and even ventured into creating my own activities so I decided to share with my fellow middle school teachers. I couldn’t get into a Desmos training session last summer as I had hoped. I begged and pleaded, but it was not to be. Kristin at Desmos did hook me up with some major swag though! So nice. Pencils, stickers, notepads. My attendees were happy.

I hate going to a PD where I’m told not to teach as a talking head as I am in fact being taught by a talking head. I decided in order for my participants to really get the feel of Desmos activities, I would write my presentation in Activity Builder and they would activity participate that way. Here’s the link:

student.desmos.com Class code: SB73B (Yes, I know I have an error on my card sort. Fix that if you use it.)

We didn’t get through the entire activity in the 45 minute session, but the resource will be there forever for participants to use, copy, modify and train from if they wish. There are so many super good things at learn.desmos.com PD, but I just incorporated a couple of them into my presentation. I had to own it to sell it, you know? I also made a newsletter type handout for my participants. I promised to post it here because it has hot links in it. pd-desmos-newsletter-by-vaughn

Search “NCCTM Middle School Teacher Training by sbvaughn” if you want to copy and modify. One comment on screen 13. I linked to a sampler of activities put together by the Desmos staff. I set it up with the intension that some participants could play the teacher by creating a class code and some could play the students by using that class code. I wanted several minnie classes running throughout the room. Time got the best of me so this didn’t go off as planned.

I want to give special thanks to @heather_kohn who worked through my original presentation and made insightful suggestions for improvement. I, of course, can’t say enough good things about the staff @Desmos. The resources, the swag, the encouragement, the product, the passion, are more than any teacher could have even imagined so I will just say, thank you.

Making It Real

So, I went TMC16 and for whatever reason, I kept running into Denis Sheeran @MathDenisNJ. It was almost annoying. For both of us. I did get his book Instant Relevance https://www.amazon.com/Denis-Sheeran/e/B01JAWZQIE this fall and he told me he would love to hear what I think. So here it goes.

When I ordered the book, I thought, “crap that’s a lot of money at this time of year.” See, I just set up my classroom. Then the mail came and I thought, “Are you kidding me? This is the shortest book since Jonathan Livingston Seagull!”

So now I think this. ALL BOOKS THAT ARE MEANT TO HELP TEACHERS BE BETTER SHOULD BE THIS LENGTH!! I am so serious. I’m beat at night. I can’t do much more than 5 pages. I want to learn more and become a better me. I really do. But some books are so boring and so long and I have the attention span of a gnat. I teach middle school for crying out loud.

So, thank you Denis. I never felt bad or distracted or loserish as I read your book. And this happened.

I took pictures. I had a bag if rolled up coins in the mud room that have never made their way to the bank. I wondered what I was missing out on so I figured my kids could help me.

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I showed them a pic of the sac of coins. They guessed high and low. Then the best thing ever happened. One girl who I just moved from math 8 to math 1 (thank you county for being so great at giving us quality tools to place kids properly when they move in—sarcasm intended) said, “hey that’s like one of these things we’re working on. Can I show you?” She walks up to the board and does this.

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I am blown away. I should be smart enough to see all the connections, but I don’t. I need my students to do that. I love this gal. I love my job.

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My 1st class, math 8, worked as a class to figure out how much $ there was. I introduced the problem to my math 1 kids (periods 2 & 3) and then they pursued it to the end in small groups after they finished another task in class. They totally dug it.

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Math 2 kids are a bit harder to impress, but they finished the entire task as an opener as I progressed through fotes.

All of this is just my way of saying, thanks Denis. It works. I get it. I dig it. I’m doing it.

2016 First Ever Room Tour

Let’s start with my very favorite thing in case you check out before the end or the tour.

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My husband and I visited Boston two weeks ago and we toured Fenway Park. He took some pictures during the tour and I didn’t think much of it because that’s just what he does. I headed for the beach two days after we got home for one last hurrah before school. When I got home he had a present for me. It was this photo mounted on a canvas. He said it was for my classroom, because I’m a little different. Isn’t that the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard? I’ve been teaching ten years and he now gets it. What a guy! BTW, if you don’t know the story, the red seat marks the spot in right field where Ted Williams hit the longest recorded home run in Fenway.

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This is my front door. See my Varsity Math sticker? Bottom right: #ObserveMe Notice.

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Look around and you’ll see lots of recycled items: jean pockets to hold calculators and whiteboard markers and odd socks as erasers; CDs to cover old filing cabinets that will hold commented and graded student work for return; carburetor lamp; type writers circa 1927 and 1941; rotary phone; old chair.

Can you spot #TMC16 inspirations? Birthday (function) wall; Varsity math badge;

MTBoS nods? Mind Set bulletin board; not yet; #ObserveMe feedback forms are on the clipboard on the middle bookcase

Vaughn originals: Pencil sharpener for the hallway secured with red duct tape; posters; bad artificial tree that says “Math, you can’t fake it”; shoulder partner buckets for supplies

Misc: Vertical work surfaces; standards for mathematical practice; 36 student desks (moving 4 more in tomorrow)

Well, that’s my first room tour ever. Hope you found it above average.

 

Top ten signs school is about to start…

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10. You get giddy at the sight of the back to school supply isle at Walmart (don’t judge).

9. You start going to bed earlier but stop sleeping.

8. You keep reminding your spouse that the next real meal may not be until Thanks Giving.

7. You become hyper-creative and see uses for items like Cool Whip tubs, Ice Cream buckets, stray socks, pieces of string…

6. You scour Pinterest for 87 ways to use frozen hamburger.

5. You start paying attention to what day of the week it is.

4. You nest and make sure the house is in order, or at least that it will be ok until Christmas.

3. You iron for the first time since Christmas break.

2. When you go to the copy room, the laminator is already warmed up.

1.  You suddenly remember that you forgot to lose five pounds over the summer.

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