Monthly Archives: August 2018

8/27/18: Monday Motivation – Kent Haines

Every Monday, I am going to highlight an educator who has motivated me to become a better teacher and this week goes to Kent Haines.

I absolutely love how he emphasizes math games for children. This semester, I’m focusing more on making math playful, so not necessarily games, but at least to make students curious and have fun while doing math. Check out his YouTube Video here: and sign up for his weekly newsletters (they are great!) here:

We also correspond every Friday just to check up on each other. He needed someone to hold him accountable for making positive phone calls home and I needed someone to hold me accountable for making at least 2 blog posts every week. I love that he is making positive phone calls home.

Lastly, I love that he is interested in equity. I respect anyone working to make the math class more equitable.

I don’t know why he went from being a comedian to being a teacher, but I am glad he did. He has so many creative ideas and his mind and heart are in the right place. I’m jealous of his students. “You get to see Mr. Haines 5 times a week?? Jealous.”

Thanks for being my motivation Kent, and I hope we get to see each other at TMC19!

8/25/18: The First Day of School

I always get extremely nervous for the first day of school. First impressions are important and you only get one shot. With all things considered, I think it went pretty well! Here’s what I did in each 50 minute period:

Student Autobiographies

Before school even starts, I send my students an email with a link to a Google Slides where they can start their student autobiography if they want to. I do this before school starts because I know that some students have some free time on their hands (and this only takes 5-10 minutes) and I know that students are often curious to see who else is in the class.

Happy New Year!

I get to class a little early so I can shake everyone’s hand and introduce myself while trying to learn names. I saw a tweet about someone saying “Happy New Year” on the first day of school so I decided to take it and exaggerate it. I went to Target to buy party hats and party horns so we can count down to the start of the period. At least from my end, it seemed like the students enjoyed it, so it wasn’t that much of a fail! Video can be found here:

After that, I did the cups challenge that was inspired by Martin Joyce (look here for what he did: I didn’t have as many cups as he did so I created my own formations that students had to make. I think the students liked it too. Rather than looking at the cups, I really liked looking at the students’ faces. Pure concentration and/or fear that the cups would fall over. The reason I chose this activity is because students collaborate a lot in this class and I thought this would be a good activity that promotes team-building.

20 Words/Phrases

Lastly, I ask my students to think of 20 words/phrases associated with a typical K-12 math class. Not content like Pythagorean Theorem or Number Line, but words/phrases associated with their homework, tests, class structure, their math teachers, etc. This is what one class came up with:

After that, I ask them if this is what they want their math class to look like. After their response, I tell them to think of what you would eliminate and what you would exchange it for until we got this:

I chose to do these activities on the first day because I believe that we need to talk about mindset and understand the importance of collaboration before doing any math. In addition to these activities, I tell my students that we are all on the same team. I think that that is important to state explicitly. I tell them that I want to make them the best math teacher they can be, so please be transparent with me if you are struggling, or if you want me to slow down, etc.

Overall, I think the first couple days went well for me and I am really excited to see my group of 180+ students grow in their mathematical ability.

Thanks for reading.

8/20/18: Monday Motivation – Doug Robertson

Every Monday I’m going to highlight an educator that motivates me and this week’s Monday Motivation goes to Doug Robertson!

How we met:

We were going to Oregon for our honeymoon, and I saw that Doug lives in Oregon so I decided to be brave and ask him if we could meet up, so I can at least give him a handshake. I was basically a stranger to him, but he agreed to meet up and we had dinner with him, his wife, and his kids. It was a wonderful time and his family is amazing.

How he motivates me:

Doug motivates me in several ways…

  1. He’s willing to meet educators he doesn’t know.
  2. His book “He’s the Weird Teacher” is amazing and you should get it. He writes in a way that his personality shines through.
  3. Towards the end of that book, he mentioned that he hopes to inspire educators around the world and 5 years later, here he is doing it, and I hope to have that type of impact one day.
  4. He’s not afraid to call out people, mostly thought leaders.
  5. He challenges the image of what a teacher looks like (himself, and bringing in guest speakers like tattoo artists into his classroom).

I think I could list a lot more reasons but I think a lot of them can be found and understood if you read his book “He’s the Weird Teacher.”  Go do it.

Thanks for motivating me Doug!

8/18/18: Where else should we look for Conceptual Understanding?

I like to connect what I do in my math teaching to my job, and since my job is all about building students’ conceptual understanding in math, I like to think about where else we look for conceptual understanding.

There’s this movement in the math field where we push conceptual understanding (for great reason) because we know memorization can only get students so far and that we need to build critical thinking skills. When we see a math test, say, a scantron or even just a SAT score, we might have the question of “Yeah, they did score well, but do they *really* understand math or are they just good memorizers or they just know how to ‘plug and chug’”?

Then I think about conceptual understanding in my hobbies: piano and gymnastics. When I play a song on the piano, sometimes I’m on autopilot, sometimes I’m sight-reading and paying really close attention, but I don’t think I’m really doing a lot of conceptual understanding when I’m actually playing. When I think of conceptual understanding for the piano, I would imagine it being about music theory: Oh, I’m playing a G major chord, this is a D major chord in 1st inversion, a major 5th sounds good because…, etc. I honestly do not do any of that when I’m playing. Am I a bad pianist because I don’t? I know that in math, the process is just as important as the final answer, but could this be applied to music too? When you hear a pianist play, does the question come to your mind saying “Yeah, she plays beautifully, but does she have music theory down too? Does she understand why the music she plays is beautiful?” Berkeley Everett mentioned that jazz musicians use their conceptual understanding all the time and I agree. Most of the time they are just given chords and they need to improvise with only those chords. But what about other musicians? High school marching bands? Do audience members or judges in competitions wonder about the performers conceptual understanding?

In gymnastics, most if not all gymnasts know basic physics concepts, such as being in a tucked position gives you a faster rotation than being in a laid out position, and to always jump first before twisting, but we can definitely get more conceptual. But when we see them perform, I’m not sure if we really say “Yeah, they stuck that landing, but did they *really* know the physics behind how they stuck that landing?” It seems like gymnastics isn’t the place that we ask for conceptual understanding and that even if they do it on muscle memory, it’s still great.

Some ideas that might seem a little “out there” to ask of these people for conceptual understanding include: people tying ties (or shoelaces) and if they know why what they did created a knot, or asking bakers if they really know the chemical reactions in baking cookies, or asking a clarinetist why playing with the register key takes their notes up an octave. All of these examples are ideas of conceptual understanding of what they are doing. Yes, it would be cool if people know the reason behind the things I previously mentioned, but we don’t really find ourselves pushing everyone to understand the whys behind it.

For math, conceptual understanding is the forefront of what we teach students. This isn’t a blog post bashing that. This blog post is centered around the question of “Where else should we ask for conceptual understanding?” A lot of athletes and musicians practice and practice until their difficult routines are muscle memory so they do not have to think about it when they perform. For me, when I play piano, I often mess up when I think about what I’m playing a little too much. I just tell myself to just rely on muscle memory.

This might even be the most ridiculous blog post I’ve written (so far), but it’s something that has been in my mind. So I ask you, what subjects (not just school subjects, but ANYTHING) should we ask for conceptual understanding and what subjects do we allow people being okay to just not think about it and just do it? I can imagine asking doctors, lawyers, historians, and scientists for their conceptual understanding (and I am positive they have great conceptual understanding in their field) but I’m having trouble finding where else to ask for conceptual understanding.

Thanks for reading.

8/13/18: Monday Motivation – Chrissy Newell

Every Monday, I am going to highlight one educator that motivates me to become a better educator and this week’s Monday Motivation goes to Chrissy Newell!

How We Met

Not only is she my twin (both born on August 10), she was the first breakout presenter (along with Jamie Garner) that I’ve seen, which was at CMC Central 2017. We saw each other only two more times after that: once at CMC South 2017 briefly at the affiliate luncheon, though we didn’t talk much because she was on the opposite side of the table and her talk was directly afterward, and once again a couple weeks ago in Turlock just for a hang out session.


I only realized after the fact that our hang out in Turlock was the first time we actually REALLY talked in person, but what I love about Chrissy was that the conversations felt effortless, as if we’ve hung out for a while. Lots of laughs were made, and she was nice enough to pay for my meal.

How She Motivates Me

Chrissy motivates me to do more presentations. She never told me to do more presentations but she does lead by example by speaking at so many conferences. She also motivates me to just be approachable. Act like you’ve been hanging out with the other person for a while. Content wise, she is SUPER knowledgeable. She makes me motivated to do numberless graphs, co-crafting questions with students, and realizing that we need to not just do Number Talks, but also gather data on Number Talks as well to drive instruction.

Thanks for motivating me to become a better educator, Chrissy!

8/6/18: Monday Motivation – My Parents

This Monday Motivation goes to my parents. Since my mom’s birthday is July 25 and my dad’s is August 15, I figured it’s right to dedicate a blog post to them in between their birthdays.

My Dad – My dad was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. He is the oldest of 7 brothers and sisters. He said he was an average student, but he had to stop education in 8th grade because his parents couldn’t afford education for all the siblings. He would recount when his teacher would call out the names of students who didn’t pay tuition to the entire class Embarrassed, my dad dropped out at around 12 years old and worked for my mom’s dad, who owned a rice factory until he got drafted to the Vietnam War at the age of 17.

My Mom – My mom loved school. In Vietnam, they ranked each student and in a class of about 100, she was always #1 and would be sad if she dropped anything lower than that. However, she had to quit school in 4th grade because she kept getting sick and the teacher basically kicked her out. After she was kicked out of school, she was studying to be a monk.

When the south lost the Vietnam War, my parents escaped on a cramped boat in the late 1970s and went 10 days with hardly anything to sustain them. Pirates would come on their boat to take jewelry. After 10 days, they landed in Thailand where they were in refugee camp for one year, where even then, only had one bowl of rice a day.

After they were accepted to come to the United States and they have chosen their English names, they made money washing dishes at a restaurant until my mom’s dad opened up his own restaurant, where my dad would become a cook and my mom would become a waitress. My mom told me that she cried so much because she didn’t know English, and one of the first english phrases she learned was “HOT MUSTARD” because a customer would shout it at her, hoping that she would understand what it meant.

A couple years pass, and it was time to send my sister and I to public school. We lived in a poor neighborhood in Hanford, where the elementary school closest to us wasn’t that great, so even though 1. We were poor and 2. We aren’t Catholic, my parents sent us to a Catholic school because they wanted to provide us a good education and they didn’t think we’d get beat up there.

Now here we are in the present, where my sister is a microbiologist for Tulare County and I am a math instructor at Fresno State. I’d say that my parents were extremely successful in raising their kids. They literally came here not knowing the language, with no money, yet somehow made it work.

How they inspire me to become a better educator

They showed me that “being educated” has different meanings. No, they did not have any high school education, but they know 4 languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and English)! That is something I wish we appreciated a little more. I said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d give up my math degree to be fluent in multiple languages. I now try to look for multiple intelligences in my students because of this. There’s not just one way to be “smart.”

My mom taught me to be patient and kind, my dad taught me that love comes in different forms. It’s not always the explicit “I love you” but things like, “Hey, let me wash your car for you” or making sure that bills were being paid while I was growing up, and I wish I appreciated that a little more while growing up. Their lives are an example of what it means to be selfless and I try to model that selflessness to my students.

Lastly, they showed me perseverance. If we try hard enough, we can get out of our situation. My dad fighting in the Vietnam War, both parents being on a boat for 10 days, 1 year of being refugees, coming to a new country with no money and needing to learn a new language, they still pushed through. They showed me that I can do anything that I put my mind to.

Thanks for being my motivation mom and dad.

Thanks for reading.