Radical Self-Care Lesson #27: feed yourself first

Whenever I tune out the flight attendant’s safety instructions on a plane, there is always one instruction I hear as clear as a bell: in the event that the oxygen masks are released, put your own mask on first before attempting to assist others. This is as important in self-care as it is in flight safety.

I hate finishing my after-school chores, walking and then feeding the dog, resting for ten and a half minutes, and then having to make dinner, so after Spring Break, I decided to try something radically different. As soon as I get home, I put some dog food in the doodle’s bowl and do the major food prep for dinner.

Then when I’m done, I walk the dog.

At first, this seemed like a stupid idea, but having done it for a few weeks, I want to tell you something: it’s miraculous.

So now, instead of waiting until I am totally hungry and exhausted and ready to just give up and call for delivery, I therapeutically chop whatever beautiful veggies need to be chopped, or marinate whatever I need to marinate, and THEN I walk the dog. For example, just now, I blitzed a bunch of ingredients in the food processor so that we can have Yotam Ottolenghi’s Thai pork dumplings and noodles in broth for dinner tonight.

Now I can walk the dog knowing that I will be able to throw together a healthy, delicious, meal for dinner later.

But after I walk the dog, I can take a well-deserved nap.

“Just came by to say hello—”

It’s been a challenging fall so far, and I’m paddling as fast as I can just to keep my head above water. There are things that need doing and things that don’t need doing but that I have to do anyway. There are the things that are not my job but that I do anyway because they need to happen, like writing a big grant for the Black Student Union’s proposed Black History Month program. I told them I want them to dream big and that I would help them to find the money. We spent much of last week doing the brainstorming and visioning, and I worked out the numbers, wrote up the grant proposal, and got it submitted by close of school on Friday. It took a lot out of me, but I chose to push it forward anyway because I love them so much and they are fighting so hard to be successful in spite of swimming in this toxic soup of systemic racism that we all are swimming in. Honestly, it isn’t healthy for anybody, but it is especially hard on them. So this was something that was within my span of control to do.

Then Fire Marshall had to go and alert us that there would probably be a first-stage evacuation drill between 10 and 11 this morning, which happens to fall during my prep. It was pouring rain, I needed to revise my seating charts, and I had a bunch of other paperwork to get done. And fire drills always seem to happen during my prep or lunch.

So I did what any thinking person would do.

I headed to McDonald’s.

Besides me and two of my former students, I was the only person under 75 in the place. Perfect conditions for working. I ordered an Egg McMuffin and a large sparkling Dasani water and hid out in the corner with my MacBook Air and Omni Graffle, rearranging names on my charts.

Within an hour, I felt almost human again.

I packed up and made my way back to my classroom for my last three classes of the day. I felt surprisingly light again and I did not bark or growl at anybody. My block 5 Geometry class practiced sequencing proof steps and summoning justifications using their reference sheets, and forcing ourselves to organize proofs quickly gave everybody a chance to practice the rhythms of identifying essential angle pairs and then using their properties.

As students were putting away whiteboards and markers and erasers, one of the BSU officers stopped by my classroom and hovered outside. She is a brilliant, charismatic, outrageously funny young woman, but she is understandably skeptical some days of making progress, and while the three BSU officers and I were brainstorming and envisioning last week, she gave me a couple of those looks that implied, “Why oh why did we get stuck with the wacky-ass, optimistic white lady on this project?”

But she knows me. And she trusts me. I work hard to build on that trust and help to drive this forward.

She was hovering just outside the doorway to my classroom, so I gave kids instructions for clean-up and walked over to check in and ask her what was up.

“I just came by to say hello,” she said, and enveloped me in a big, warm side hug.

She looked away and said nothing else; then she merged into the crowd like a salmon swimming upstream.

You can’t test trust cautiously, and I appreciated her willingness to test-drive open-heartedness and belief in the power of her dreams.

Some days, that just has to be enough.

Basic Trust and Allowing

We’re doing a lot of “speed dating” in Algebra 1, practicing our slope-finding and slope-using skills. I had created a mini crib sheet to help students develop fluency in going from two points to an equation of a line in slope-intercept form.

One of my most brilliant students is an African-American young man. Brilliant, funny, determined, respectful, stubborn, wise-cracking, mathematical, maddening, but determined. For whatever reasons, he has a low opinion of his own mathematical capabilities, even though it is clear to me that he is one of the most remarkable minds in a remarkable class and school.

But he’s stubborn. Oh so stubborn.

Here’s his pattern that I have observed: Self-doubt/self-deprecate (“I’m so stupid” is a frequent quote); ask his Asian-American or white table mates how they did something and try to defer to their methods; try on their methods and get mad at himself for not fitting into an ill-fitting set of “shoes”; self-deprecate and start the cycle over; pray for the experience to be over so he can get back to his passions.

But he is brilliant. Oh so brilliant.

So I had to try something different.

Since we had an odd number of people present in class yesterday, I had to step in as a “participant.” Speed dating requires an even number of participants. So I stepped in, chose a problem card, and traded with him. We were sitting next to each other rather than across because of some ridiculous room logistics. I used my crib card and he used his half-understood, ill-fitting method as we each worked our own problem.

He was watching me out of the corner of his eye as I worked slowly and methodically. And his eyes widened when he saw me casually flip over my problem card to confirm my answer. He burst out with, “Wait, WHAT????” He grabbed my paper (it was friendly, not aggressive), flipped his own crib card back over to reveal my template, and demanded, “OK, show me how you did that.”

Without editorializing, I showed him my three steps. He drank them in in with rapt concentration. And then he went on to do the next 15 problems quickly and quietly, without a single error or glitch. In this moment, he became one with the same model of flow I see in him out on the football field. In that moment, he connected with his own mathematical genius.

Sometimes as a teacher, the hardest thing is giving your students space and time to trust their own inherent agency — to trust  that your naturally intelligent students will naturally gravitate toward the saner, more reliable practices you may be suggesting. Because they are smart, they will naturally choose to align themselves with better methods if you allow them to. If this method is better, they will arrive at that understanding out of their own innate intelligence. They have to come to their own valuing of these practices on their own. This is a matter of respecting their boundaries. Allowing space for my student to make his own choices about using — or not using — the simplest, most reliable practices allowed him to experience empowering self-knowledge in math class. I need to keep remembering that is the most important thing.

Spanish Flea

There is something so gratifying about planning and implementing a fun and effective day of teaching. All day long, I went back and forth between Graphing Stories (Algebra 1) and Dance Dance Transversal (Geometry). I broke Graphing Stories down, and we really took our time analyzing all of the pieces of the first story, then narrowing down to just what we wanted to graph. And in Dance Dance Transversal, we had to do “finger-dancing” on gameboards on our desks — that’s how crowded my room is.

But I hope that I never forget how 7th block went “WOAH!” each time I launched the new music and the new level of Dance Dance Transversal. Level 2 — Spanish Flea. Level 3 — The James Bond Theme (WOAH!!!). And Level 4 — Mission Impossible (WOAH!!!!!!!!!).

Joy in mathematics is infectious. I felt bad for the few kids who either opted themselves out or shut down, but we will practice again tomorrow. All I know is, it was worth it to feel the rush of delight every time they felt challenged to a new level — both of mathematics and of silliness.

The organism moves towards health

Five restorative practice circles today — one for each of my four Algebra 2 classes and one for my 12th graders’ College Prep Math class.

The one for my seniors at the end of the day was just amazing. They really stepped up and became accountable to each other and to themselves as a class. I am anticipating that that can become a wonderful course.

We use my knitted dodecahedron as our talking piece. They like that I have knitted a math object. They like that I am walking my talk.I never cease to be amazed at the magic that being honest, open, and direct with adolescents can unlock. Some of them continue to be blockheads, but only because they are not ripe yet.

At lunch, some members of the lunchtime Dreamers Club stopped by my room to ask if I wanted to buy a bracelet in support of the Dream Act and the Dreamers’ Scholarship Fund. It would be hard NOT to be moved by these kids.

I fished $2 worth of change out of the bottom of my purse and chose a purple rubber bracelet. Politics looks different when you know the people involved personally.

Calling circles means that the kids own the class. It means that they need to own the class. It gives them an active stake in the healthy functioning of the classroom organism. As my great teacher Dr. Fred Orr always used to say, “The organism moves towards health.” Kids naturally want to function in a healthier environment. They want what is real, what is authentic, and what is health-giving. The circles take time to hold, but they give back energy severalfold.

My mentor at SF State, Judy Kysh, always says that time building  community in the math classroom is never wasted. Today I experienced that and remembered.

– Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

Joyful learning is gloriously messy… and I wouldn’t trade that messiness for anything

So far, so good at my new school. I continue to be amazed at how tiny my sixth graders are and how grown-up my eighth graders can be and how fortunate I am to teach in a school and in a district that values schools and learning and where none of my kids come to school hungry. I am figuring out my commute across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, finding the most untraveled (and stress-free) routes, and getting myself into some kind of new routine. I am even making peace with our modified block schedule, all the while making my views clear that at this age, frequency is more important than duration.

The one thing I’ve been having trouble with is how incredibly dutiful and risk-averse my students are. Yeah, yeah, first world problems, I know.

Still, a dutiful and risk-averse student is unlikely to experience flow while doing mathematics, and that doesn’t sit well with me. 

So I decided to blow things up with a block period problem-solving workshop.

For the eighth graders, the choice was easy — start them on Exeter’s Math 1, page 1, and tell them, “GO!” I knew they’d get hooked because it is everything they crave: mature, relevant, rigorous, juicy problems, sequenced to reveal connections they have long suspected but never experienced.

The sixth graders were another matter. They are still getting used to being in middle school and, as a wise colleague said to me the other day, the transition basically takes them all year. They are whip-smart and well-trained, but they are also tiny and cautious and eager to please and succeed — and at age 11, that is a recipe for anxiety I remember all too well. Tightness in my stomach. Trouble sleeping. Trying to remember to bring everything I need from my locker to each class and not always succeeding at that. Worry about who to eat with at lunch time.

It seemed to me that they might need to “break structure” even more than my eighth graders did. But there aren’t many wonderful problem-solving curriculum resources available for people that small. So that meant I needed to improvise.

I found a bunch of Singapore Math word problems that were structurally challenging, but insipidly written. I changed all the character names to Sesame Street Muppets and renamed the school in the problem set “Muppet Middle School.” I posted the solutions in the “Homework Self-Checking Station” in the corner, reviewed the instructions with them, and set them loose.

And it was glorious.

They gobbled up the challenges one after another, and I loved hearing conversations about how Elmo had lost 1/3 of his marbles and then given away another 2/5 to his brother. I could relate to losing 1/3 of my own marbles, but I said nothing about that. Instead, I showed them how to use my red-yellow-green progress indicator cup stacks, gave out mini-whiteboards and markers and erasers, and let them rip.

Some of the problems were really hard! At one point, when I was working with one group, I realized that *I* didn’t understand the problem either. So we wallowed in confusion together! I told them about my friend Mr. Shah’s motto that he has his students use — if you don’t understand the problem as it is, see if you can solve an easier version of the problem.

Kids loved being invited into this kind of productive struggle. We were all over the place — scribbling on the big whiteboard, sitting on the carpet in groups surrounded by calculators and yardsticks, and lining up rulers on the linoleum to measure the length of a single sixth-grader’s step.

With two minutes left in the long period, I called everybody back together for a little closure and some reflective questioning. I asked, How many people found it helpful to hear other people’s thinking and to have to explain their own?

Every single student raised his or her hand.

When the bell rang, there was a mad scramble to put all the materials away, but it was a joyful, enthusiastic scramble — the kind you see when kids can’t wait for the next opportunity to engage.

I felt grateful that I had taken the risk to let their natural capacities and curiosity carry them as far as they could go. I hope I can refine my own skills and strategies for designing this kind of learning experience and become more effective and deliberate in doing so.

An engaged kid with an INB is a beautiful thing…

At the beginning of school, we were instructed that starting this year, we could not require students to purchase supplies. Instead, there was a budget for school to purchase needed supplies for students.

I don’t claim to understand this. It’s way above my pay grade. I only know that I needed to get those comp books in fast. My whole shtick (or perhaps you might call it my whole pedagogical framework) depends upon setting this up fast. [Don’t these people understand my need for street cred??? — ed.]

Fortunately, the powers that be (i.e., our school’s executive secretary) seemed to grasp this urgency and got the comp books ordered quickly. They started arriving today, just in time to get my second sixth grade math class to start the week with setting up their INBs.

I haven’t taught sixth grade before, but I can already tell that this is the class that is going to be a handful. They have math right after lunch, which is not a good time for any adolescent to switch gears into math.

But it is what it is. And I had INBs.

I asked one of my tiny minions who struggles to stay on the straight and narrow to hand out the comp books and steeled myself to wrestle with my new document camera.

And we began at the beginning.

There is something magical about asking kids to work with scissors and tape in what is often their least favorite class. Something about using scissors and tape dissolves resistance.

All of a sudden, this rowdy, resistant bunch of eleven-year-olds were the very picture of focus and determination, folding and cutting and copying down every word I write, and circling or highlighting everything I suggest might be useful.

They are getting used to the idea that we are taking seriously their need for tools. For precision. When I say fold, they fold. When I say snip, they snip. Every year it is a miraculous transformation in their bearings. They are shifting into a state of flow. At this moment in the year, I don’t care what it is that catapults them into a state of flow. I only care that they melt into it.

When I experience this moment, I know that there is magic in true learning transfer. It is a journey that depends on finding the hidden door at the bottom of their hearts — that place that has never gotten disconnected from their inherent joy in learning.

– Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)


In the file box next to my desk at home, I have a folder labeled, “Treasures.” At the end of every school year, some of the cards and letters and notes from students or parents make the cut and get filed under “Treasures” — the gifts from the heart that sometimes surprise me at the end of the year. You can’t know who you’ve reached in the moment. These are my records of those connections.

As I was continuing on my epic quest to restore some sense of order to the house, I happened on what looked like an orphaned quiz paper, folded into quarters and possibly run over by a skateboard back and forth several times. I was about to just pitch it into the recycling bag because I was on a roll. But some voice from the unconscious told me to open it before I did.

And I’m glad I listened.

It was the first 9th grade quiz of the year from one of my last year’s 8th grade algebra students. He was not one of my best students, and not even a particularly well-behaved one. He was the kind of kid I might call “spirited” on a generous day. On a less generous day, I’d have described him as a handful. He is  a lovable goofball, but he is also the kind of kid who just just how to press my buttons and drive me bonkers.

He had come back to visit me at school the day he’d gotten that quiz back. He had just started attending a very rigorous high school, and no one had been too sure how well he would do in a setting like that.

But he knew what he had learned. He trusted the process and believed in himself.

He came back to visit me and give me his quiz paper to keep.

He’d scored 100%.

Gratitude Practice

Another tough day in a series of tough days, but I remembered to restart my gratitude practice. I keep a spiral notebook just for this purpose, and each night before I can go to bed, I have to write down one good thing from that day and express gratitude to the Universe.

It can be a small good thing or a big good thing (haven’t had one of those in a long while), but I write the date and write down what it was. If it was something sane or health-giving that I did despite the odds being stacked against me, or if it was a health-giving choice the Universe supported me in making, I give myself credit in black ink on the white page. And then I say “thank you.”

The entries are short, but they build up. And sooner than I expect, I find that the very fact of the list itself — entry after entry, day after day — encourages my courage.

And that, I believe, is the whole point of teaching and learning.

So thank you all for bearing witness to my journey.