Discovering Equity in Action – Systemic Oppression & Coaching

When I began my website, I started writing posts that I was either too nervous to actually submit to the interwebs or that I was simply planning on saving for a rainy day. I found this gem from 5 years ago…

I recently had a meeting with a principal that left me quite upset. It was an initial meeting accompanied by my supervisor and my ELA colleague. The principal had been in the school for roughly a month and the poor guy was coming down with a cold (“It’s nice to meet you. [hand shake] Please wash your hands! I’d hate for you to catch my cold!”) This man’s reputation preceded him: he had done wonderful things in other schools. Perhaps we caught him in a moment of messiness because he seemed scattered, distracted, unfocused. They say the stages of group performance begin with Forming and then Storming… I couldn’t help but feel like I was caught in the middle of a dark storm, abandoned after shipwreck, turbulent waves made violent from the winds. Like the scene in Life of Pi, and this principal is the tiger (“Our VP left a week before school started. I didn’t hire a new one because I figured those funds were better used to get a resource teacher to pull intervention groups.”) I can’t imagine what it was like for him to realize the expanse of the waters he had embarked upon.

The school’s population is predominantly African-American, located across the street from projects. (“They are only just repeating the violence they see at home.”) About a decade ago the school worked to change the face of the school by naming it after a prominent mother who lived in the community (she just recently passed but many of her family are still deeply embedded in the school). The former name, Jedediah Smith, only served as an ironic reminder of the marginalization of the community. Along with the name change came a focus on Social Emotional needs. The administration fought hard to make students feel they were coming to safe school that would nurture their trauma. Unfortunately there was not equal emphasis placed on academics. A student needs to feel proud of their academic achievement, have autonomy over their performance, and know they have an impact on their own learning, no matter how “low” we may consider them. But if we tippy toe around their “inabilities” and send the message “it’s ok you can’t read, we love you” without also teaching them how to read, then we are doing them a disservice. We are doing society a disservice. We are perpetuating systemic oppression. Thus was the state of this school.

We are perpetuating systemic oppression.

I was distraught when I walked away. I stepped into my white SUV, plugged in my smart phone and fixed my pearl necklace. And then sobbed. I had successfully resisted the urge to walk out of the meeting to the line of students and smother them in my embrace. I wanted to call Jonathan Kozol on his red hotline phone (“You named these inequities and then did nothing to fix them!”). I wanted to call the National Equity Project and ask them where the hell they were (“You can’t just ignore a school! Get your ass here NOW!”). My anger at systemic oppression and the denial of its existence by people who look like me was palpable, my blood pulsing the need for action through my own system. Instead I called my husband and sobbed about the blaring inequity in our nation (“How can I get leveled books? We’re broke”), about people’s rants blaming this and that for our schools’ failures (I’m sure they’ve never set foot in a “black school”), and then I hung up and scheduled a meeting with my assistant superintendent.

Working with her was new to me but I knew she came from a good place and was good people. When I finally spoke with her I vented, told her my emotions, told her my reactions. I trusted that she would understand where I was coming from. I put myself out on the line. And she heard me. She let me have my feelings, and then she explained the context. She implored me to trust the new principal, to trust that something was being done. (“But what can be done about 7 decades of oppression!?”)

So this is where I was… excited to work in the schools who were excited to meet me, who were “ready” for the work, the schools where teachers had researched lesson study and were already observing each other. That is still so exciting. But the school that really needed me was the one that couldn’t have me in the same capacity (“Subs won’t come here”). This school needed a dedicated coach. And a VP. And a counselor. Or two or three. I would continue to learn more about the school over the next few years and how I could support. And in the meantime, I supported how I could. By listening to the teachers. By being present once a week for in-the-moment coaching opportunities. By staying positive and bringing tangible, actionable, practical strategies for increasing math engagement. By inviting teachers to PD outside of the work day. By paying them for the time they spent with me after school (when they would have been working on math planning anyway). By sharing with you.

…5 years later, I return to this post and reminisce… I am finishing my 2nd year at this site as their full time math coach. We also have an ELA coach. We have a VP. We have a part time counselor, and a nurse, and a social worker, and a community outreach coordinator, and so much more. And all of this is possible with a massive federal School Improvement Grant. Which will be gone in 2 years. What will happen to our Full Service Community School when the money is gone? We are successfully supporting students’ social emotional needs while challenging them academically. Our scores are improving, students’ mindsets are growing, and teacher’s secondary trauma is decreasing. My fear is that when the money disappears, so too will the academic success. We underfund our schools, we get angry that red-lined schools get additional funding, but we don’t walk the walk. Please… TRUST ME… we need to fund our neediest schools. We need all of these supports. I work with some of the hardest-working, most dedicated teachers who would do anything for their students. They deserve to have these supports in place.

I hope to read this post in another 5 years and know that all of the supports in place now still exist. That more than 11% of students are reading at grade level. That more than 6% of students are proficient in math. Even bigger, I hope that we wake up to the inequities, that we begin to listen that this exists, and that there is an actionable solution of which we are all accountable. at more than 6% of students are proficient in math. Even bigger, I hope that we wake up to the inequities, that we begin to listen that this exists, and that there is an actionable solution of which we are all accountable.

I hope that we begin to see how we are a part in this dysfunctional system that creates the haves and the have-nots. Now, that is really my dream.

Coaching for Equity – with family

Image result for teaching is a work of heart

I believe that:

~To be a successful leader & educator, every choice you make needs to be aligned with your values

~To be a successful coach, you need to listen with your full heart.

~Love & Grace sometimes require hard, honest conversations.

My father in law recently posted an article about the ban on suspensions for Willful Defiance. Now, information about that bill and all the research around discriminatory school practices, trauma-informed response to students exhibiting these behaviors, and healing-centered instruction, not to mention adequate staffing of school psychologists and social workers could easily occupy a lengthy blog post. But today, I want to talk about something much more important.

Why is Coaching for Equity so much harder with family than it is at work?

Disclaimer: I love, deeply respect, and care for my family whom are referenced. I can’t say that enough. And simultaneously, I feel inauthentic to work towards racial, gender, and economic, etc. equity during the work day and then just let that go over dinner. My place of privilege allows me to let go. Which makes it more important to keep it at the center at all times.
I hope this post does not hurt anyone but rather opens communication.

This article from ASCD popped up in my feed today. They delieate 5 steps towards Leading for Equity. Having participated in National Equity Project’s Leading for Equity Institute 3 times (including serving as faculty once, which I’m quite proud of), I was very curious about their 5 steps. To be honest, I’m not thrilled with them. But this caught my interest:

Leading for equity requires us to focus on daily impact and long-term outcomes. As leaders, we have to examine our setting, whether it’s our classrooms, office environments, community events, or other location, and create an environment where we are not simply “accommodating” (for example, hiring a woman of color, but expecting her to maintain the status quo); rather, we are transforming how we operate and acknowledging everyone’s voices. We call this being an “equicentric” leader—a leader with equity at the core of their work. Equicentric leaders continually cultivate a deep understanding of their own biases and construct counternarratives so that they can create sustainable, equity-based practices that measurably and culturally transform their communities.

Being an equicentric leader is to be what UCLA professor of education Pedro Noguera calls a “guardian of equity“: asking tough questions, challenging models that aren’t working, and calling out inequities, even when it’s uncomfortable. If we can learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, even when that discomfort is the awareness of our own biases, we can begin to challenge and change long-standing systemic inequities.

My work days are filled with coaching moves: active listening, relationship building, goal setting, knowing when to lean in and when it’s not the right time. 5 years in, I feel pretty competent at coaching. When to ask just the right question. How to push a teacher’s thinking. All of this is made exponentially harder when the client is not a teacher but a loved one.


In this moment, I believe this is truly the key distinction between coaching at work versus talking with a family member. At work, we have a goal, and we’re all in agreement that we are working towards that goal. But when you’re sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table talking about “that new math,” or an article gets shared on Facebook, these are emotion-laden experiences which have formed opinions. We do not have a shared goal. No one is seeking a discussion on how to support students. Ego gets involved. Their ego over their schema, their experience, and my ego about being a professional in this field and not feeling respected. This is no one’s fault. It just, IS.

There is much more nuance.

I have failed more times than I have succeeded in coaching for equity with my family. But I WILL NOT STOP. Because to be in this work, to believe in ALL children, to work in service of those who have been systemically oppressed for DECADES… I must use my place of privilege and maintain that equicentric stance in all of my worlds. My students don’t just disappear over family dinner. My work is who I am. That’s not true for everyone, but to be a courageous leader it must be true.

Some things I am trying on to increase my success:

  • Being brave enough to share my successes and failures. This journey is scary, people will judge, people will get annoyed. But my heart is in the right place. So I will share.
  • Gaining Enrollment. I don’t know what this will look like, yet. Perhaps it starts with this post. Perhaps it means a disclaimer when “that new math” is brought up. “I hear your frustration. I have some expertise. Are you interested in hearing?” Offering a conversation, rather than possibly being seen as trying to “impart some wisdom.”
  • Shared Goals: Perhaps when I see that Facebook article, I begin by posing the question, “What do we want our school system to produce? Compliance? Or education?”
  • Removing my Ego. My family may never truly understand what I do. And that’s totally ok! I don’t really understand what they do, although I’m trying to learn. Why am I desperate for acceptance, approval, and respect? I need to let that go. This is not about me. True confidence is born of knowing that they will hear when they’re ready. I just need to keep the messages coming.

Let’s call this, Part 1. Today, this was my #BoldBraveMathMove.

“Will they pass to 4th grade?”

One of the reasons I struggle with blogging is because I have so many small thoughts. I guess it’s a little ADHD. Have a conversation with me and I rarely stay on a single topic without jumping all over the place. Even now, I see the little Twitter symbol and I’m tempted to pause and see what’s in the Twitter-sphere…

Yep… I got sidetracked…

Twitter is amazing for Math Ed. If you’re not on Twitter, DO IT. Just for math ed. That’s all you need. Go to my list, follow the people I follow. You won’t get bored, the worst that’ll happen is you’ll get INSPIRED.


I remember so many times through the years being asked by a parent if their child would “pass” the grade. It’s an interesting question. And it never failed to catch me off guard. I’m curious the background of this. Are there systems where students aren’t socially promoted these days?

Here’s my real issue with this question though:

It’s based on an assumption of proficiency-based assessment.

Which is so effing detrimental!! (Should I start cursing in my blog? Because I do in real life.) I was chatting with a 3rd grade teacher today who is amazing. Incredible. She’d make a bomb-ass math coach. (There, I did it.) She was asked this question, “Will my child pass to the 4th grade?” She was just as taken aback as I always was. She expressed this dichotomy between wanting her students to do well on CAASPP these next two weeks, and also recognizing that it will fail to report the insane growth her students have demonstrated this year.

But at the end of the day, we all want to receive credit for a job well done… a battle won… for our effort to go recognized.

We may say we don’t care, but teachers deserve to be recognized! This teacher has brought her class from an average 1st grade level, to nearly at grade level. But her CAASPP scores will show that her 3rd graders are starting below grade level. That sucks.

I have a dream…

That’s super cliche. Sorry. Not sorry? I do have a dream. That some day, all students will be assessed based on 2 things:

  • What skills do they have?
  • What skills are next for them?
  • (And a 3rd: Where have they grown since last time?)

You could word this a million ways. There are books dedicated to this idea and they all use different jargon. (See what DeVos has to say.) At the end of the day, I just want to know how far a student has grown since the last time they were assessed. There’s this nifty little video explaining Common Core and it talks about the bar used to always be moving. With CAASPP, SBAC, PARCC, any proficiency-based assessment, the bar is always moving.

Ok, I’ll step down…

What assessments do you use to assess student growth? What do you do in your classroom to offset the negative culture that abounds with proficiency-based assessment?

NCSM Day 3 ~ Reflections

Wow! NCSM never fails to fill me with feels, challenge me to expand my learning, and inspire me to fight the good fight! Just when I was feeling completely disheartened and ready to give up… The PEOPLE!! Never in my life have I been surrounded by so many insanely talented educators who are all eager and ready to work collaboratively towards this vision that we all share.

Common Vision? Check.  
Research? Check.
Man Power? Check.
The Will & Drive to do the work? Check.
Plan for how to do the work? Check.

I feel the need to personally thank and shout out to those who imparted wisdom on me these last 3 days:
Annie Fetter, Cathy Seeley, David Woods, Erica Burnison, Geoff Krall, Graham Fletcher, Jo Boaler, John SanGiovanni, Kristin Gray, Kristopher Childs, Marc Garneau, Marilyn Burns, Michael Young, Michelle Rinehart, Nanatte Johnson, Stacy Reeder & Juliana Utley, Rachel Lambert, Robert Kaplinsky, Sarah Ives, Stephanie Reddick, Steve Leinwand, Sunil Singh, Tim Hudson, Tracy Zager, Zalman Usiskin, …

And of course my team who over the last 10 months has pushed my thinking and supported even my craziest ideas (they may have had some crazy fun ideas of their own, too). Words cannot express how grateful I am that we did this together. Jennifer Graziano, Tim Hébert, and Stephen Arndt. You are the Dream Team!

I would be remiss if I didn’t also appreciate and acknowledge Mikila Fetzer, my Coordinator, for always pushing us and believing in us. And lastly but most importantly, my husband, whose honesty is a necessary evil and whose unconditional support keeps me going when my belief falters. Thank you babe.

My takeaways from today are numerous, so let’s get to it!

  1. The 5 Practices came up ALL 3 DAYS!! If you haven’t picked it up and read it in a while, go read it. And then share it with your team, and read it again!

Today I was thinking that Step 1: Anticipation can be really hard because we don’t always KNOW how students might solve. As teachers we don’t always have the content knowledge.

This is why opening up the task to allow many representations is SO important! We need to learn alongside our students! Jo Boaler quoted Cathy Humphreys saying,

“We should only ask [students] questions for which we don’t yet know the answer!”

So what kinds of questions are those?
-How did you think of that?
-What are you wondering?
-What connections are you making?

2. Give students time REGULARLY to discuss/defend/argue over a statement.

-There is no subtraction involved in multiplication.
-You always have to begin adding in the ones place.

3. How do you ensure that you are having meaningful conversations with each student in your class at least once a week? See Also: What does “meaningful” mean?

4. ASSESSMENT!! Ugh. In short: You cannot “teach” your students about Growth Mindset while simultaneously giving students tests that perpetuate a fixed mindset!!! This might be my new motto, so be prepared to hear me say this repeatedly.

Regarding both 3 & 4: Formative Assessment Practices are embedded in everything that students are doing. Tracy Zager says, “There are 4 channels for getting information about what students are thinking: Products, Observations, Conversations, & Student Self Evaluation.” Between these 4 strategies, you should have ample evidence of learning. AND they promote Growth Mindset. Right? And when you consider how you are going to record the evidence of student learning, it doubles as your opportunity to track the meaningful conversations you’ve had with students! 2fer! Voila!

5. Annie Fetter said it, Tracy Zager said something similar, it’s just a good teaching practice… take the question off the word problem! Let students Notice & Wonder, argue, defend, discuss, and then compare their models & representations. Such an easy way to open up your instruction and create more equitable outcomes.

6. If you haven’t enrolled yourself in Jo Boaler’s online courses yet, you have no excuse. Go! Do it!

7. I’m elated that so many teachers used Jo’s Week of Inspirational Math this year. She shared with us so much wonderful data around students who take her online course for students. Do that, too! Oh, and did I mention that Jo not only has a new book out called Limitless, but she’s also going to work with the California Department of Ed to rewrite the Math Framework!? SCORE!

I’ll continue posting resources in the coming days…

I’m sad I have to wait another year for NCSM. CMC is calling my name. I have a few ideas I’m throwing around for presentations for next year. If you have any interest in working with me on an idea you have, let me know! Teamwork makes the Dreamwork!!

 Viva la Revolution!!

NCSM Day 2 ~ Reflections

Have I mentioned how much I love NCSM? The organization, their mission, their values, the people, and most of all the conference. I typically say “NCSM” and mean the conference, but they are so much more. And all who work tirelessly to put this conference together deserve due credit.

  1. I’m always inspired hearing Marc Garneau speak. Today he shared a few different ways to think about assessing using a Learning Progression. If you don’t already know, I believe STRONGLY that the greatest barrier in public education to equitable outcomes is our grading system. And I also believe that a Growth Based Assessment system is the key to liberation & inclusion. This image was thought provoking. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

2. Achieve the Core has extended their absolutely amazing Coherence Maps to include High School standards! If you haven’t already played with them, go play!

“The greatest gift you can give yourself is to stop and listen to your students.”

~Marilyn Burns

3. I never walk away from the great Marilyn Burns without some amazing ah-ha. I will never forget her words, “The greatest gift you can give yourself is to stop and listen to your students.” That will be with me forever. Today I walked away thinking about advocacy for our students. My own 6yo is struggling in Kinder. It’s amazing that situations that were so easy and clear for me as a teacher now feel so muddy as a parent. It gives me empathy. She challenged me to think about removing even more scaffolding, showing only Figure 1 of a growing pattern and allowing students to come up with Figure 2. Then let other students continue the pattern! So awesome!

NCSM is so inspiring, and disheartening at the same time. Our students deserve change. But change is soooooooo slow. How do we make change happen faster?

NCSM Day 1 ~ Reflections

I had the honor of both attending and presenting at my national conference today, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics. I have so many takeaways that I’d like to share. Honestly though, I’m so overwhelmed by being surrounded by incredible educators. I’ve had this naive belief that I’m at the forefront of some frontier. But I’m not. And it took NCSM 2018 to show me how little I know. You know the old adage, “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know”? Seeing presidents from decades past present about the history of math education is both inspirational and disheartening all at once. My son is in kinder. My son deserves better. This is personal and urgent and feels insurmountable. There is so much work to be done and you have the power to change outcomes for our students.

So we’ll take this one step at a time…

My takeaways from Day 1:

  1. NUMBER LINES!!!! I’m going to argue that we need to be using Number Lines in damn near every lesson! Stop avoiding them! They are not the exception, they are the rule!
  2. Stacy Reeder & Juliana Utley presented about some amazing ways to support student’s basic fact fluency. Stay posted for a new section on my blog dedicated to Fact Fluency which will include the games they shared! #nomoretimedtests
  3. Tim Hudson (@DocHudsonMath) never fails to inspire me with his messages of growth-based assessment and conceptual learning. Today he shared a video from Daniel Schwartz from Stanford. Take ONE minute to watch:

4. DocHuddy also shared some online resources that have somehow escaped me! Maybe I knew and forgot, or maybe I’ve had my head buried in sand. Regardless…


No Seriously. Just go spend an hour downloading all of these resources and planning how you’ll incorporate them into your lessons for the next 3 weeks!!!

6. Wondering how to encourage Growth Mindset with your students? Let them play MasterMind. Simple. Easy. Done! My suggestion? DonorsChoose 15 of them so you can let students play when they first get to school in the morning. They play 1 game, then join you at the carpet for morning meeting.

7. Post your takeaways below!! Keep it going! #NCSM19


I was assigned the task of finding a visual pattern that would only take 15 minutes to facilitate during our NCSM presentation. Boy, did this send me down a rabbit hole! Jump in with me! Keep scrolling… don’t miss the best part!

I started at Why wouldn’t I? Fawn Nguyen has created this amazing site filled with awesome visual patterns! As I was clicking through I found the one below that stood out to me… one by the amazing Megan Schmidt. And that’s where I found bricks. Models built with LEGO bricks. How cool!? I needed to find a way to make this work.

So I started playing with my son’s LEGO bricks. I arranged them in a variety of ways and tortured everyone I saw with them. It’s a funny kind of torture, when you approach someone and ask, “Want to play with LEGO bricks with me?” It’s all fun and games until you start asking math questions. Then they get this funny look on their faces… [insert evil cackle]

I landed on this pattern which seemed to work with every age from 4-104. Ok, that’s kind of a lie. I had to adapt. I hope you have as much with this as I have.

Here’s the original pattern.

I wanted a reasonable combination of constant & change.

To varying degrees and in every circumstance imaginable, I asked people to create Figure 4, guiding them through reasoning about:

  • how many in each Figure
  • how many stay the same (are constant)
  • which ones change and how you see the change
  • how to describe the Figures using the variable n to represent the Figure number within an equation

To my wonder and excitement, every adult engaged in this task was successful in creating an equation!

Jo Boaler Quote

What equation do you get? Post it in the comments below!

The beauty is, there isn’t ONE RIGHT EQUATION! And how many people said to me, “I never understood what n-1 meant before!” or “I can see 2n for the first time!”

Giddy with excitement, I kept going… I couldn’t stop there! Jo says “high ceiling” so I took that literally. We went UP!

“If I put these green bricks here, what would you do to Figure 4?”

Even my 6 year old LOVED this part!

My little Mr. 6 reasoning about Figure 4.

Ok… a little secret: with the little ones, I scaffolded. *sigh* I know! Check out how I started them off! This is my 4 year old getting started with her #VisualBrickPattern. After this she moved on to the one above.

“Now what does that do to your equation?” Even those who proclaimed “I am NOT a math person!” were suddenly adapting and adding to their own equations! (This is where I began feeling a bit like a Dr. Seuss character!)

Now this is the best part…

It took me about 8 tries to get the wording right.

“Can you please use this new bag of different sized & shaped pieces to add or edit/change what’s in front of you. But it still has to continue a pattern!”

I am not lying that not one single person added to the pattern in the same way. (No… the children weren’t all able to do this part… but even the most fixed mindset adult COULD!)

Let me rephrase: every single person I’ve asked to complete this last part of the task has created a unique pattern!

And I might add… each person was able to describe how their new pattern affects their equation!

If this photo gallery below is the highlight of my career, I’m happy!

Won’t you try it out for yourself? Share! Tweet! #VisualBrickPatterns