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St. Cloud, Minnesota By Fawn | Published:

I don’t remember the landing. It’s been a very long flight. Nor do I remember walking through the airport. We have no luggage anyway, like none.

My first memory of America is sitting in the back seat of TuAnh’s uncle’s car — an Oldsmobile wagon with wood panel trim. I’m almost eleven and a half years old, and this is the second time I’m in an automobile, a car car, which is much smoother than a bus or a van, and you’re not squished between strangers. The Oldsmobile is taking us straight home, not having to make a million stops along the way like my last bus ride from Saigon to Mũi Né.

Home is in St. Cloud. I’m not yet aware of how far it is from Minneapolis. It’s dark outside, around midnight dark, but my eyes are fixed on the passing landscape. I’m tired but I want the ride to last; I feel like I belong to a rich family that can afford a car.

TuAnh is my oldest brother’s wife. She’s the prettiest lady. The uncle’s family will share their home with us, and us being six people. The uncle and aunt have six kids of their own for a total of 14. (This is the first time I pause to realize this number. When you live in Vietnam, and there’s still floor space in the house to sleep on, then another kid will be born. My mother comes over to America and thinks it’s an utter shame to use garage space for cars. My goodness, a family of eight can live comfortably in this spacious 2-car garage.)

The aunt has chicken phở already made. It’s the first time I have the chicken version. She says the mint is from her garden. You’re supposed to eat phở with basil, but nobody cares, there’s mint in St. Cloud!

I will sit and watch the news with the uncle. I have no idea what they are saying, but I just like seeing white people’s faces and listening to how fast they talk. The best part is there’s always something on TV, there’s no curfew. I have two favorite shows, The Price is Right and Happy Days. You don’t have to understand very much English to watch The Price because prices are numerical, and English numbers look the same as Vietnamese numbers, except Americans are weird to write $50 instead of 50$. They claim to read from left to right too. I like Happy Days because it’s a show with cute boys, Chachi and Fonzie. (My family calls me Fawnzie. My name morphed from Phương to Fawn to Fawnzie. More recently, my son Gabriel probably sensed that I was stressed in our conversation and said, “Mom, I need you to be Fawnzie right now.” And I knew what he meant.)

English class is the hardest. Each word has way too many letters. While sitting in the school office waiting for the uncle to enroll me, I learn the spelling of the word(s) you say when you want to thank someone: THANK YOU. I don’t get it. I don’t hear the YOU part at all when people say it; until then, I thought it was one word, you know, THENGKEW. I believe Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language. Vietnam is actually Việt Nam. Saigon is actually Sài Gòn. While Nguyen might be the longest Vietnamese word (I don’t know, is it?), it’s just one syllable, so it’s Nguyễn, not Noo-yen. I spend hours breaking up each word into parts, I can only remember the word BECAUSE by seeing it as BE-CAU-SE to write it down. I am a mute in all my classes. I only talk when I’m with my ESL teacher, Mrs. Schnettler. Then eventually — a long long time really — I wake up one morning and realize my thoughts are in English. Someone has flipped the switch in my brain. Except it’s one direction, I can’t flip it back.

I spend the first eleven years of my life seeing only brown eyes, so it’s pretty cool to see other colors, shades of green and blue. Weirder is when kids from the same parents have a mix of colors. Weirdest is when a blue-eyed person sees the same red color on an apple as a brown-eyed person. Speaking of eyes, or just eye, Graham Smith has only one good brown eye, and he’s the one who yells at me to go back to Vietnam. The uncle’s daughter translates his words for me. I want to punch him in the face, knocking his eyeball out of his head, but then he’d be blind.

My sister Kimzie is three years older, so we’re now 12 and 15. (Her name went from Nga to Kim to Kimzie, which is dumb, at least Phương and Fawn start with the same sound, she says she wants to go from three letters to three letters and no more.) We know two lines from a Peter McCann’s song, “Do You Wanna Make Love,” and we belt them out at all hours of the day. Just two lines over and over again: Do you want to make love… Or do you just want to fool around… Then one day, my brother’s friend asks him if we girls knew what the words “make love” meant. We shake our heads and continue singing.

The six of us have now moved out to our own house. It’s a big white house with a big yard, there’s a porch too. In the winter, the snow would pile up as high as the single detached garage in the backyard. I make Jell-O by just leaving it outside for 30 minutes. I remember the few days in the dead of winter when we run out of oil to heat the house. I learn to ride my bike around the block, in the summer that is. A friend was surprised to learn that I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I was 13. I told her it was kinda tough to learn to ride when I didn’t own a bike growing up. Obviously, I didn’t know how to swim either. What sad kid doesn’t know how to swim in the “land of 10,000 lakes.”

I get to visit St. Cloud this August; it’ll be my first time back since I left in 1979. I’ll be facilitating a full-day workshop, and St. Cloud will just be 70 miles away. I’m flushed with nostalgia and gratitude — going back to my first home in America.

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Posted in Shallow Thoughts | Tagged | 41 Responses
Another Round By Fawn | Published:

Exhausted and hungry, I walk to the restaurant a hundred feet from the hotel’s lobby. The hostess greets me and asks how my day has been. I tell her it’s been a long day, that I just came in from LA on a 5-hour-plus flight. She asks about my reason for being in Philadelphia. I tell her I’m here for a math conference, and she volunteers, “Oh… I’m not a big math person.”

I follow her to my table and want to say:

What the fuck does that even mean that you’re not a big math person??? Are you a small or minuscule math person then?!? I don’t care if you say that you’re not big on eating raw octopus or fried worms, but math??!!

Her nonchalant proclamation is the last thing I want to hear this evening. She doesn’t know that her words form the straw that breaks my mathematical patience’s back. I am hungry, how dare she! She doesn’t know that I hear the likes of that statement each and every time people learn I’m a math teacher.

I think about my keynote at 8 AM tomorrow and how I open with a story about running into a former Navy SEAL parent at the gym only to hear him confess he’s afraid to see me because I might ask him a math question.

So many people don’t like math — they are just not big math people.

My annoyance at her words quickly turns into sadness and guilt. I know I have students who may utter the same words leaving my class. While I believe I have made great strides in improving math learning and math teaching in my classroom, I haven’t done enough, there’s still a lot of work to do.

I can do better and I will, I get another round of teaching mathematics starting on August 22.

Have a restful summer, everyone.

Posted in Teaching | 14 Responses
House Cleaning and Lesson Planning By Fawn | Published:

I posted this on Facebook:

There is something else that I do way better than teaching mathematics, even though teaching has been a 25-year plus career. That something is house cleaning.

Then, a friend asked for advice on this, adding, “Will desperately be awaiting your response.” I responded with:

Thought no one would ever ask. :) Here comes the list, the order is important.

  1. Throw everything out.
  2. When done with step 1, repeat step 1 again bc we both know you really didn’t throw everything out.
  3. With remaining [ideally just 3] items, ask, “Is it really really pretty?” If so, it should be displayed in your home in a pretty spot. Ask, “Is it useful, like a wine-bottle-opener type of necessity?” If so, keep it in a drawer.
  4. Unless it’s a piece of furniture, a houseplant, or a 4-legged friend, forbid it from touching your floor.
  5. Counter space is only for items that do not fit inside a drawer/cupboard and are used almost daily — e.g., toaster, Nutribullet, knife block.
  6. Swiffer products should be regarded as essentials like toothpaste and TP.
  7. The person who did not put the TV remote control away in a designated spot shall be banished from the home (or get punched in the face).
  8. Make your bed every morning.
  9. Never go to bed unless the kitchen is clean. (If you dread this, then don’t cook.)
  10. If you find the above 9 steps difficult to implement, then try step 1 again.

Friends and family have seen me in action and tossed out this comment, “You like to clean, don’t you.” I always want to respond with, “Hell, no. I’d like to be on the beach drinking a margarita right about now.” I have to clean because I want to live in a clean place. Pretty sure it’s not an OCD thing, my classroom and my home have harbored enough episodes of disarray and germful cultivation.

It turns out that the above ten steps mirror — in a stretchy kinda way — how I do lesson planning. Something very cathartic about removing stuff.

  1. Throw everything out.
  2. When done with step 1, repeat step 1 again bc we both know you really didn’t throw everything out.

If you’re at all familiar with my teaching practice, it’s what I try to do all the time, like here, here, here, and for the last two months now, I’ve been removing the visual pattern steps and leave kids with just one step to build on.JANROSS Sandalia JANROSS - de Sandalia Fiesta - 542485f - bestplacestobuykratom.siteWe remove the question when we do notice-and-wonder. We remove the correct answer when we do Which One Doesn’t Belong, we remove anxiety when we do Estimation 180. We invite great discussions when we do #smudgedmath.

  1. With remaining [ideally just 3] items, ask, “Is it really really pretty?” If so, it should be displayed in your home in a pretty spot. Ask, “Is it useful, like a wine-bottle-opener type of necessity?” If so, keep it in a drawer.

I have a hard time letting students use class time to make things pretty.

What’s beautiful to me is a paper full of mathematical thinking — a big mess of it — with scratch-outs and start-overs and AHAs! And I get what pretty is, like anything and everything created in Desmos is pretty. (My students use GeoGebra and Geometer’s Sketchpad too.)

  1. Unless it’s a piece of furniture, a houseplant, or a 4-legged friend, forbid it from touching your floor.
  2. Counter space is only for items that do not fit inside a drawer/cupboard and are used almost daily — e.g., toaster, Nutribullet, knife block.

Steps 4 and 5 make me think of the furniture in my classroom. I’m seriously connecting with some folks to get my walls covered with whiteboards. (Earlier this month, I finally got to hear Peter Liljedahl talk about Building Thinking Classrooms at #OAME2018. Alex Overwijk walks the talk.) I’ve already asked my superintendent/principal if I may get tables next year instead of the same clunky student desks that I’ve had for the last 15 years.

  1. Swiffer products should be regarded as essentials like toothpaste and TP.

Essentials, like equity and access. I’ve become weary of the true deployment of these two words. There are broad guidelines, but looking at my own practice and those around me, I’d be lying if I thought for a moment that we have access and equity all squared away and project nothing-to-see-here-move-along. I’m convinced that every teacher move speaks to how much we care about equity and access. So, the more intentional we can be in our lesson planning — from the questions that we ask, to the groups that we form, to the wait time that we give, to our body language — the more we can make strides in this endeavor.

  1. The person who did not put the TV remote control away in a designated spot shall be banished from the home (or get punched in the face).

All kidding aside (maybe), this one is about respect. Literally, it’s about putting things back where they belong. It reminds me to always give credit to the source, to share the lesson, to pay it forward. The teacher species Herohomo supersapien has been known to beg, borrow, and steal, and now, put it back.

  1. Make your bed every morning.
  2. Never go to bed unless the kitchen is clean. (If you dread this, then don’t cook.)

Fresh starts. Do-overs. We all have bad-no-good-horrible-vomit lessons. We tell our students to pick themselves up and try again, and again. We need to practice forgiving our bad lessons with grace and gratitude. The #MTBoS community gets this. Jonathan’s tweet was part of this thread.

I don’t know about 10 crap ones, I mean I am Fawn Win, so maybe just 8 for me.

  1. If you find the above 9 steps difficult to implement, then try step 1 again.

Like house cleaning, lesson planning can also be an asshole, especially on the weekends. On that note, I’m gonna hit the beach in an hour, the laundry and the lesson planning will just have to wait.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | 6 Responses
Broken Straps By Fawn | Published:

Robert Kaplinsky drops me off at the front of the district building. I make my way to the room where I’d be presenting. I set up. I go out to the hallway, walk around, long enough to get lost. I’m looking for something. I don’t know where my backpack is. Where did I leave my phone? I don’t have my wallet either. Maybe I left everything in Robert’s car. I’d call him if I had my phone.

I take a few more steps and look down because I feel something is coming off. I’m wearing flip-flops. It’s broken. No, both straps are broken.

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I can’t walk in these. I stare down at the broken straps. No, the straps didn’t just get pulled through their intended holes, they are torn! I note the crude and cruel fate that my shoeless feet are in right now. More importantly, why am I wearing flip-flops to a presentation?

Only three or four people are walking about in the building. No one sees me. No one notices me standing idly in the middle of the hallway with non-functional sandals. I yell out to the woman. She comes over. I point to my feet, hoping she’d notice what had happened to the straps without my having to explain. My voice is full of deep self-pity, “I’m trying to get back to my room. Where I’ll be presenting today. I don’t know the room number, but it exists, I was there earlier. I don’t have my stuff. Like nothing. I have no shoes.”

I jolt awake.

As if the nightmares before the start of school are not enough. I have #PDNightmares now. I’m about to board my flight, excited to facilitate another full-day PD. I’m wearing my favorite Italian leather boots, thanks.

Posted in General | Tagged , | 3 Responses
Maybe Less Tech in Math and School? By Fawn | Published: March 17, 2018

I’m sipping hot sake while waiting for my food. I scan the restaurant, about half full already for an early Friday evening. Two kids are on their smartphones at the table with their parents. They don’t even look up as the waiter arrives to take their orders; I guess the parents already know what to order for them. At the next table, I see a young child sitting in his high chair and watching a video on a propped up smartphone. Nearly every kid in the restaurant is doing something on his/her phone. Never mind the adults.

This scene is all too familiar, too common — so common that it would be “odd” if we didn’t see this. And we’ve been seeing it for some time now.

I embrace technology like it’s the softest fluffiest stuffed animal. I need my laptop and cell phone — every goddamn thing is on them. (I still need a real book to read from, however, like this one that just came in the mail because the Internet said I should read it.)

But the restaurant scene is particularly jarring to me because I’ve always valued meal times as sacred, a time to say grace and connect, a time for storytelling, a time for pause and reflection. Dinner time is a time to be social. Ironically, our children are silent at the dinner table because they are on social media with 600 of their best friends. I’ve seen kids with earbuds on too while dining out with the family.

If children are plugged in at dinner time, then I’m going to assume that they are plugged in most of the time at home. This makes me wonder if schools should embrace less technology. I witness that we have over-digitalized everything, not because there was a critical consumer-ish need for it, but because we felt the weird need to do so. Recently, I tweeted this and meant every character.


At BTSA mentor training, 1 of the prompts was “How do u incorporate tech into a lesson?” My knee-jerk response, “You don’t.” It’s back to that tech for tech’s sake that irks me. It’s like asking, “How do u add aspirin into your diet?” #ButIDoNotHaveAHeadache @ddmeyer

— Fawn Nguyen (@fawnpnguyen) March 10, 2018


We have an incredible privilege to reach our students in the space and time that we have them. I want them talking and interacting more than anything! Learning mathematics is a social endeavor. Here’s my perennial classroom routine, “Turn and talk with your neighbor.” I want to bring back the arts of speaking and listening, reading and writing, debating and presenting. Last week, Jennifer Wilson (you’re missing out if you haven’t heard Jennifer speak in person) wrote about how time is needed to develop MP3 in our students, “It takes time to determine the conditions for truth.”

I’m happy and grateful that technology is here to stay. But I hope we seek opportunities to connect more humanly.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , | 15 Responses
Scoring an Ordered List By Fawn | Published: January 31, 2018

My 7th graders have a question on their exam that asks them to put eight numbers (integers and fractions) in order of their distance from 0 on the number line, starting with the smallest distance.

These types of questions are tricky for me to grade, and because there are eight numbers in this sequence, the task of grading it fairly suddenly becomes thorny and irksome.

Let’s change the question to this:

Put these numbers in order from least to greatest: 5, 7, 2, 3, 1, 4, 6, 8

The correct order is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (you’re welcome) — for a possible score of 8 points. How many points would this response earn?

1,  2,  4,  5,  3,  7,  8,  6

So, only the first two numbers — 1 and 2 — are placed correctly. Is the score just 2 out of 8 then? But I want to give some credit to 4 and 5 being next to each other, likewise with 7 and 8.

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I’ve tried to come up with some metrics to score this, and then I would want to apply the same metrics to different sequences to see if any would break my invisible “fairness” barometer. For example, whatever score I came up with for the above sequence, I think the below sequence should get a lower score because the 7 and 8 are farther upstream than they should be.

Anyway, I have some ideas. The above two sets are Sets A and B below.

I wonder if there’s a way to score an ordered list that half of us math teachers can agree upon. I’d like for my students to think about this too. Meanwhile, here is a spreadsheet with my scores if you’d like to take a look and play along. Just enter your name in row 1 (and link your name to your Twitter, if you want) and the scores you’d assign to these sets.

[02/01/18: @MrHonner had a similar question over 4 years ago: Order These Things From Least to Greatest.)

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , | 22 Responses
How I Use “Between Two Numbers” By Fawn | Published: January 28, 2018

I’m overwhelmed by the number of teachers who have asked how I use Between 2 Numbers (B2N) in my class. So this post is for all three of them and for anyone else who might be interested.

It has become one of our regular warm-up routines. (We do visual patterns and math talks, too. Duh.) Before I launched the site, I was just referring to this routine with my kiddos as a “tidbit.”

Take tidbit #5, for example. I ask three questions on Google Form, the first two are identical.

Question 1 is asking for a guess, an estimate, a gut check, a what-do-you-think.

Question 2 is the exact same question, except now, students are allowed to search the internet and use their calculator to figure out the answer. However, on a few of these entries — like #2 and #6 — I let kids know ahead of time that they may NOT search the internet but may still use their calculator. The reason is the internet readily provides the answer with a simple search.

Question 3 is always the same.

When about two-thirds of the responses have come in, I then make an announcement that I’m setting a timer for two (or so) more minutes. When the timer goes off, I ask for all students to please submit their form.

I show the class their guesses for Question 1.

In their math journals, we go over the calculations to get to the answer. Then, I reveal their responses to Question 2. (Thank goodness this class had done well on this question. On others, not so great and some downright dismal results, yup, my kids need more practice working with ratios and using the calculator.)

The site has allowed us to:

  1. Learn some fun facts
  2. Explore large numbers, imagine the magnitude of these numbers relative to other large numbers
  3. Work with scientific notation and use the [EE] key on the calculator
  4. Work with equivalent ratios

We have a friendly competition among the four classes (two 7th-grade classes and two 8th-grade classes). One of the students suggested this scoring scheme, and it’s what we use: 3 points for the class with the highest percentage, 2 points for second place, 1 point for third, and the 0 for the lowest.

Of course, Jules Bonin-Ducharme (@jboninducharme) is responsible for translating all the entries into French! (You just need to hover your mouse over the section links near the top to see the entries in French.)

I hope you can find some time to try this with your kiddos, and I’d love to hear how it goes.

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Send Doughnuts By Fawn | Published: December 15, 2017

I had a wonderful time working with a roomful of teachers over two days at my Grassroots Workshops last week. During a morning break, I talked with a teacher who was concerned about not being able to reach all her kids, that there was a handful of students who were failing the course, and that she’d tried everything. I said, “But you are reaching the other 25 or 30 kids in your class.” She said, “Please tell my principal that.”


Dear Principal,

Your teachers are working really really hard at this thing called teaching. The role of a teacher is not unlike that of a parent. And if you’re not a parent, then think of being a neurosurgeon or an astrophysicist, being a parent is way harder than that.

It’s practically guaranteed that your teachers have not reached all their students today. But, there is tomorrow and the day after that. Please remember that Teacher A in room 23 may not have reached all her students in the academic sense, but she smiled and said hello to Melissa, gave Joey a granola bar and Jake a sharpened pencil, laughed at Amanda’s joke.

Your teachers need your implicit trust and continued support to thrive. Show them you have their back and give them feedback frequently, but wrap each feedback in kindness, empathy, and humor. This makes all the difference in whether or not they want to show up for work tomorrow.

Some years ago, I had a principal who asked me the same question more than once, like he forgot or didn’t hear my answer the first time. He asked, “Fawn, how do you motivate kids?” I replied, “I don’t know. If I knew the answer, I’d write a book and make millions and quit teaching.” Now that I think about this, clearly he thought I’d given him the wrong answer, therefore he had to ask me again in hoping that I’d learned something over the course of two weeks.

Before I became a parent, I judged all parents. You’re a horrible parent because your child is a brat and disrespectful. It’s your fault that your spoiled kid is ungrateful and entitled. What a loser of a parent you are that your kid fails half of her classes and makes all sorts of excuses while doing so. You must be a bigger asshole than the little asshole you’re raising.

Then, I gave birth to three kids. At one time or another, honestly, more like an extended period of where’s-the-goddamn-light-at-the-end-of-this-tunnel, my own flesh and blood were disrespectful, ungrateful, entitled, jerks, assholes, whiny, rude, arrogant, mean, neurotic.

But, if you had said any of these things about my kids to my face, I’d probably stab you with a fork. I’m equally defensive as I’m protective. Until you walk in my shoes, you have no right to judge me. I’ve been a teacher longer than I’ve been a parent. One role blended into the other.

When an administrator makes a statement or asks a question to imply that his teachers are not working hard enough, it unravels the trust like pulling on a loose thread of yarn. Sure, there’s ineffective hard work, but it’s hard work nonetheless. Teachers want pretty much anything and everything to help us do a better job, but this advice or suggestion cannot come at a cost of making us feel any smaller and more unappreciated.


Dear Principal,

Please stop being evaluative, start being helpful and send doughnuts.

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Green Olives By Fawn | Published: November 13, 2017

My 7th graders are working on “percentages of” problems currently, and late last night, I saw this problem on one of Don Steward’s handouts.

There are 75 olives, 40% of which are green. I eat some of the green olives until 10% of the olives that remain are green. How many green olives did I eat?

How would you solve this?

I solved it using algebra. Then, immediately, I thought, Fawnzie, since when do you use algebra to solve stuff like this. C’mon, do your rectangles.

I think of 40% as 2 of 5 boxes.

So, 75 olives must split into 5 groups of 15, so there are 30 green olives.

Then, I ate some olives to end up with only 10% of the remaining olives are green.

Well, since I didn’t eat any of the 45 black olives, so these 45 must make up 90% of the olives remaining [in the 9 boxes], so 45 must split into 9 groups of 5.

Oh, look! I began with 30 green olives, I now only have 5 green ones left, so I must have eaten 25 of them.

Okay, your turn.

There are 80 olives, 75% of which are green. I eat some of the green olives until 20% of the remaining olives are green. How many green olives did I eat?

Because if I tried to show my kids the work below, or versions thereof, a few might just shit in their pants.


Posted in Algebra, Course 2 (7th Grade Math) | Tagged , , , | 10 Responses
Global Math Week Starts on October 10, 2017 By Fawn | Published: September 27, 2017

It was the summer of 2012 when I talked my colleagues, Erin and Melissa, into signing up for a week-long training in Palo Alto, California, to start a new Math Teachers’ Circle (MTC) program in our area.

It was there that I first learned about Exploding Dots from Diana White, an associate professor from the University of Colorado Denver. Diana said that Exploding Dots was developed by James Tanton — and I recognized his name instantly because I have his book Solve It and have seen many of his great videos online.

Exploding Dots is way fun! It was like playing a game [with an exploding dot machine] that became more and more challenging, and this machine invited us to make connections and explore different algorithms. And when we got to explore a fractional base, my mind was blown. Of course, we wanted to share Exploding Dots immediately at our first MTC, so here’s Nate Carlson, one of the leaders at our site, facilitating the session back in September 2012.


If you’re not familiar with Exploding Dots, you want to get in on this!

And this brings me to the Global Math Project (GMP)! Founded by James Tanton, Raj Shah, Brianna Donaldson, and others, the GMP is launching its first Global Math Week, starting this October 10, 2017. Its goal is to do what the Hour of Code did for coding, but for mathematics. The goal is to reach 1,000,000 students across the globe to do Exploding Dots! (Over half a million students in over 100 countries have already registered!)

Please register and join me and my 130 students in grades 7 and 8 to experience this wonderful and joyous content of Exploding Dots!

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Posted in General, Problem Solving | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Responses
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