Guest Post: Mistakes by Leila Chakravarty

The Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics continues with this guest post from Leila Chakravarty

Prompt: How do you express your identity as a doer of mathematics to, and share your “why” for doing mathematics with, kids?


I am straight with my students from the moment they walk in my door: I decided to teach math because I grew up being told math wasn’t for me. Year after year I was excluded from the highest levels of math and fought to earn myself a spot, sometimes winning a place, and sometimes losing out. I teach math because I have made every single mistake it’s possible to make and I know that making mistakes can make you feel like you don’t belong.

It started in first grade when two boys who I consistently outperformed were placed in second grade math, but I remained in first, getting sent to the back of the room for finishing my work too fast and bothering people who weren’t done yet. I would like to point out that boys who bother people because they are bored are “being boys” and “need a challenge.” Girls who do so are non-compliant. It continued in seventh grade when I was enrolled in a lower math class despite a strong placement score because my elementary school was notorious for lackluster math preparation.

In a job interview a few years ago I was asked how I planned to teach math when my undergraduate degree is in history. I hadn’t heard that question or addressed that particular deficiency of mine in a while. “I’ve been teaching math for a decade,” I replied. “I plan to continue that.” But, I told my interviewer, I majored in history because the message I got loud and clear in adolescence was that math was not for me. I don’t plan to let that happen to another student on my watch.

I got the job.

Math was not for freshman girls who worked too slow and had too many questions, who needed to study for hours and go to the tutoring center. Math was not for queer brown girls who were homesick, navigating identity, or too distracted by music classes. Math was not for someone with her high school math teacher’s voice echoing in her head:

“How does it feel to be friends with all the smart kids, Leila?”

 “I gave the most challenging problem to the two top students in their sections, and then to Leila, so her dad can help her with it.”

“Sorry, Leila, you aren’t qualified for that class. You have an 89.4% this quarter. You needed an 89.5%. Yes, I know your dad has been in the hospital having heart surgery.”

“Oh, no, Leila didn’t come up with this proof herself.” But that proof was no mistake; I spent weeks on it.

 Math was for the quick, deft, and brilliant: talented people who didn’t need to study, didn’t need to work with others, and certainly didn’t get a 58% (B+) on the first college midterm after studying for a week. I’m 35 now. I have a master’s in Math Education, and my thirteen years in the classroom have been spent in public schools in Brownsville Brooklyn, South Los Angeles and Koreatown as well as a private all-girls school where I currently work.

In those thirteen years I have never encountered a student I would describe as bad at math.

Math has been an equalizer. My students were good at math even as they were enrolled in Read 180 class for being six grade levels behind in reading. Math is something my students were good at even if they couldn’t speak a word of English. My students who are risk-averse after years of parental pressure are good at math too! Even my students whose test scores shelved them in my intervention math class excelled at it, because math is something they could be good at with a little love, a little patience and hard work together. We use math to make art, find connections and reveal social truths and inequalities. My goal is for math to be a source of pride for all of us.

My current students are girls like I was, selected by merit at a top all-girls school. I teach the regular level classes, the classes full of girls who have been told, or who have told themselves, that math is not for them. I look them in the eye on Day One and tell them “I was told this is not for me. I didn’t get the fancy degree with ‘Mathematics’ on it because I believed the mistakes I made prevented from me being successful. I’m here to tell you that this is for you. And me. And your sisters and your moms and your grandmas and your aunties and absolutely everyone else.”  At Back to School Night I look their moms in the eye and say that same thing.

We spend the first week working on puzzles together and brainstorming ways to stay positive when the going gets rough in math class, because, inevitably the going will get rough. “This is going to be hard sometimes. But you can do hard things!” I tell them. We make place mats out of our positive mindset messages and tape them to the desks. I tell them to breathe during assessments. “These are only rough drafts,” I say. “There are always retakes. I don’t care when you come to understand this content, I care that you understand it well, and in your own time. I care that you work hard.” They do work hard.

We light scented candles, make gorgeously color-coded study sheets and play Kahoot, picking our code names from our favorite books and movies. Sometimes I throw them for a loop and play Kahoot with them. I don’t win. They’re always surprised by that, and I laugh and remind them that I never have been fast at math. This last year I had a baby. When I came back from leave I was so sleep-deprived that I could barely string a sentence together. “Keep an eye out!” I implored them. “If you see me make a mistake don’t stay quiet. Save me from my addled brain and help me out here!”

If I could go back in time, I wish I could take my own math class. I wish I had a teacher telling me it’s gift to take your time, to make mistakes and make revisions, and to want to consult with your partners a lot. I wish I had a daughter I could raise with the solid confidence I never had, but I have two sons instead.

My older son is about to enter elementary school. He’s four and a half and just striking out on his own, trying things like putting his shoes on by himself and sounding out words. He makes a lot of mistakes, and he glances at me grumpily, uncertainly and says “Mistakes are cool, right Mimi? Because mistakes are how you learn.” I can hear in his voice that he doesn’t like making mistakes any more than any of us do, but I affirm for him that yes, mistakes are cool.

Mistakes are how you learn.


Made 4 Math Monday: Games, Grams, and a Polaroid

This is a remix of the ZAP! game that I made 7 years ago. I decided to change the name to Bazinga! because Sheldon.

I found this 22x28 poster board at Hobby Lobby for $2.99, library pockets from Naeir, glitter stickers from Dollar Tree, and index cards from....7 years ago. lol

I just wrote on the cards this time because I hate cutting. I'm just now realizing I didn't put any numbers on the pockets yet. I wanted to you use stickers but also, ew. So I will just write them on and save myself the trouble.

Here's the list I used:

  • Bazinga! (lose all points) 
  • Switch scores with another team 
  • Add two points to your score 
  • Bazinga! all teams 
  • Add two points to another teams score 
  • Add two points to all other teams score S
  • Subtract two points from your score 
  • Subtract two points from another teams score 
  • Pick another team to Bazinga! 
  • Subtract two points from all other teams score 
  • Double your score 
  • Multiply your score by 1/2 
  • Multiply your score by 2 
  • Youngest team members rotate to the next team  
  • Tallest team members rock, paper, scissors to win two points 
  • Shoot a basket for 3 points
FYI, I used wheelofnames.com to make a list of all the practice games I use. I turn homework or worksheets into a powerpoint of problems and then spin the wheel to choose which game we play.
Custom colored. Obvi.

Another thing I halfway did last year that I am doing better this year is a monthly theme for my Instagram board. I decorate a bulletin board to look like Instagram. It's the same name as my teacher IG account, @msmilligram.

Each month, I ask the students to send me pictures around a theme...baby pics, prom, homecoming, Valentine's Day, summer break, etc. But I basically made it up randomly. This year, I'm going to use this picture of my blank board and put a caption on it with the theme. Then I can post it to Instagram so they know the monthly theme.


I updated last week's post with this Polaroid photo frame but I had to share it here too because it's so cute! I also added velcro speech bubbles for each grade.


Made 4 Math Monday: Syllabus/Newsletter Image

I am currently reading The Essential Conversation for the #ClearTheAir chat on Twitter, which focuses on communication between parents and teachers. Newsletters were mentioned quite a bit and so I threw out a question to Twitter.

I got a lot of great responses and it really motivated me to try it out. I've tried various different forms of a syllabus over the years but not sure how effective they are. Sophomores-seniors have had me already so they know the rules and routines. I really only need them for freshmen and even then I am not sure they are helpful.

So I created a template that will serve as my syllabus and then my newsletter. I made thiscute Polaroid photo frame that says Happy 1st Day! on it and will take a "first day of school" picture of every student.

I also made velcro speech bubbles for each grade and an arrow that says "My Last" for seniors. Then I will print each photo out and mail it home with this letter to the parents:

Hopefully the parents will e-mail me and then I will use their address to send out a newsletter.

Here is the syllabus:

I made it in powerpoint but saved it as a png file (when testing this out, GIF and JPEG both didn't load correctly on my phone). Now it acts as picture so that I can text it out through Remind or send it as an inline photograph through e-mail. 

Here's how I would change it to act like a weekly(ish) newsletter:

The changes are adding in a quote of the week, celebrating birthdays for that week, and then under each course I would list quizzes or tests or new skills.

I also made a second page where I can attach class photos:

So the first week I would send out the 'syllabus' from the first picture. Then the following weeks after, I would send out the the last two pictures. Gmail made this even easier by allowing us to schedule e-mails. I plan on scheduling it to go out on Sundays, which means I have the whole week to put it together.

If interested, here is the powerpoint link (font is KG All of Me):



After yesterday's post about the negative side of my mathematics experience, I could sit and talk about this topic forEVER. This is where I excel.

I said to my friend Rachel once that I wish there was a job where I could decorate classrooms and do the clubs and just sit and talk with students all day, without teaching math. "Oh," she says, "you want to be a parent." While that is super true, my classroom and my students will have to do.

Disclaimer: I feel like some of this comes naturally because I teach at a tiny school where the students have gone to school together all of their lives and everyone knows everyone.

  • Names! I always know everyone's names before day 1. I have the same students every year so I only have to learn freshman names and I usually know 80% of them already by...osmosis or something. I also go out of my way to make sure I pronounce them correctly and ask if they want me to call them something else.
  • Laughter! I try to throw in some jokes right off the bat to release the tension and awkwardness of school starting. It's not as great as when it spontaneously happens throughout the year but it helps.
  • Greetings! I definitely have rbf and the students always say they think I am mean until they actually have me in class. I'm always at the door but it's very hard for me to not cross my arms so I look mean but I try to give compliments or ask questions to students as they come in or pass by. As the year progresses, I can see it manifest more when the students greet me first or come talk between classes. Also, once the bell rings and class starts, I like to ask the class how they are doing, how was lunch, how are they feeling, etc. I don't get a huge response but one time a student told me I'm the only teacher who actually cares about how they are doing. The little things matter.
  • Compliments! I try to give compliments often but only authentic ones. I know when we'v moved from a class to a community when students give me compliments back. I don't want that to sound weird or anything, but it's like they start out really focused on themselves and I feel like when they start to give me compliments, they recognize that I am a person too.
  • Birthdays! My first day of school activity always involved them writing down their name, birthday, and their favorite candy. I tell them that I will bring them candy for their birthday and immediately the heads swivel in disbelief. When the first student's birthday comes up and I *actually* bring them candy, I immediately have buy in. Even if you don't want to buy candy, there's a million things you can do: send out a class Remind birthday message, write it on the board, give them a sticker or pencil, let them sit in your chair, draw a message on their desk, etc. Celebrations matter.
  • Random questions! Every week I post two random questions and ask students to respond. I always read them and respond back. When students start to ask random questions out loud during class or 'save' a random question they've found to tell me, I consider that a success.
  • Questions! This is my favorite way to get to know people of any age. Ask them about anything. Start by asking every kid about their weekend, if they would like to share anything. Then, just look for ways each day to ask them questions about anything. How did the game go? Did you dye your hair? Where did you get that shirt? Where do you work? What did you do for your birthday? If you actually like your students, you will naturally want to know more about them anyway. But be prepared for them to start asking you questions to....my favorite movie/song/book are always the hardest for me to answer.
  • Body language! As the year goes on and students are coming in to class, I start to see more eye contact, head up, smiles, and talking as they enter the room. Then when I see eyes downcast or shoulders slumping, I can take the time to ask if they are okay. Just notice the children are actual children, k? And don't assume the negative body language has anything to do with you.
  • Classroom jokes! You can't really make them happen but once they do, I love to bring them up again so we can laugh together. There is never too much laughing together.
  • Sharing! When students share their pencils or their knowledge or repeat the directions for each other without my prompting, I feel like they care about each other and are looking out for one another. 
  • Pictures! I have a bulletin board decorated to kind of look like an instagram feed and each month I have a theme. I ask students to send me pictures related to that theme and keep the board full all the time. Everyone wants to be seen!
  • Extracurriculars! For me this is mostly sports but anytime you can spend time with students outside of the classroom, you add in another dimension to your relationship and perspective. Going to games and concerts to see students perform show them that you literally, will show up for them. 
  • Traditions! Every Monday, I ask them about their weekend. Before we go on breaks, I ask them what they are looking forward to. At the end of the year,  I give out an award to every single student in every single class. I also give them a list of nice things their classmates said about them. No one ever wants to miss that day and it is a great way to wrap up the year. On picture day, we all take a class picture too. On the last day before Christmas break, we have a Christmas sweater day and I always show the movie Elf. It's my favorite Christmas movie and the kids know it. I don't give free days. Now this might sound weird to say out loud but I'm one of the only teachers who abides by this. As the students get older and the classes get harder, they will tell me they came back from a doctor's appointment just for my class or they were sick but came because they didn't want to miss math or even not go on field trips because they don't want to miss class. Now they say they don't want to get behind in class but I also know it's a little bit because they don't want to miss me. ;)
  • Effort! I preach all day every day that effort is attractive in all areas of life. I think the students enjoy my classroom because I've built a classroom culture of effort. I put effort into everything: how I dress, how my classroom looks, how my curriculum works, how I teach, how I treat people. And it shows! I mean imagine....out of all the classrooms you visit each day, only one has Kleenex and air freshener and decorations of any kind and pictures of you and your friends and water and cups for you to drink out of and a teacher who asks about you and asks you things and is happy to be here and happy that you are too.

To me, the key to students feeling like they belong is making them feel connected to you. They need to feel noticed. And every day has hundreds of little moments to connect. Those repeated moments build all year into a beam of support that each student can add to their network. And each beam takes them a little closer to who they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do.

And I just can't leave this post without saying.....if you don't really like students, why are you even a teacher! If you like your students, it should be somewhat natural to get to know them better. But I also recognize that when you are good at something, it can be hard to put into words since it does seem so natural to you. So while these seem so obvious to me, I really hope it can trigger something for you to try or share as well.

I would love to talk more about this in the comments or on Twitter!


Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics

 “Though this virtual conference is focused on humanizing mathematics, it sometimes helps to think about the opposite. De-humanizing mathematics. Please share a time when doing mathematics was a dehumanizing experience for you.”
-The Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics

Generally I did well in school in all subjects up until college. I can only remember one terrible time when I was in second grade. I wasn't understanding a concept and I remember telling the teacher that I didn't understand, almost in shock....because it didn't happen to me very often. And the teacher said "Well you better jump on the train because it's leaving the station."

I remember instantly feeling butterflies in my stomach and tears in my eyes and literally imagining a train with my whole class and teacher leaving me all alone. "But I don't know how to get on the train!"

And now I have no idea how the situation resolved or any other details.

Fast forward to high school. Again, I did well in school, I was salutatorian, did well on standardized tests, helped others with math, on the math team, etc.

And then college was a brick wall. I cried nearly every day and called my mom to say I couldn't do this. I had decided to be a math teacher because math was like a puzzle to me and I felt like math was actively learning new skills instead of just memorizing facts like the other subjects. But truly, all of my college math classes felt like they were in another language. I had no idea how this connected to anything I would ever teach in high school. How was Calculus and Modern Algebra and Discrete preparing me to teach high school math? How was it that no one else was struggling but me? How was it that I was the top of my class and struggling so bad? How would the rest of my class make it?

I went to the math lab for peer tutoring every day after class. I went to office hours all the time with my professors, usually not even knowing what to ask, but knowing I needed help. Honestly, I still don't really know how I passed most of those classes.

One of my classmates was the same age as me and was also becoming a high school math teacher. I felt like she was my equal in so many ways. I could tell she had been successful in high school and active in clubs. She was friendly and confident, things I had been in high school but somehow had completely lost in college. So how did this all come so naturally to her? She was actually a tutor in the math lab...for the same class we were taking!

I would hear people talking about future math classes we would have to take and literally imagined the words swirling around my head...how could I know so little? How could I hope to teach anyone anything about math?

I made it through, mainly because I'm not a quitter. And I only ever wanted to be a teacher so.....I had no back up plan. lol

One day I was at church talking to some friends, basically have a break down over everything. And my friend says "Ok, what do you love doing? What makes you excited? What problem do you want to fix? What comes to your mind first?"

And my response was "to help people when I see confusion." Like I wish I could speak other languages so I could help people who aren't understanding.

So he says to me..."Elissa, you want to be a teacher."

Why did I need to hear someone else say what I already knew to be true?

I honestly don't know how I made it through those classes or how any of that helped me. I really and truly don't. I still don't know any Calculus. I don't know the big picture of the things that I'm teaching. I don't know how everything connects.

When I go to TMC and we have to do math, I always hesitate. I already know that I don't know what to do. I already feel ashamed that other teachers do this for fun and I don't know how to start. I'm not afraid to ask questions but I am afraid to ask too many questions. So I wait, hoping to figure out the one question to ask that will magically unlock all the understanding for me. Or I just clench my teeth and wait for it to be over and get back to teaching strategies.

Honestly, doing any math about Algebra 2 is still dehumanizing to me. It still makes me feel like a fraud.

I am a better teacher than a mathematician. I will never get any more degrees in math or discover any theorems.

But my gifts and my experiences shaped me into a teacher who does two things: explains how to get on the train and doesn't let the train leave anyone behind.

Anytime a student mentions that I never leave anyone behind or that I try to make sure everyone understands, my second grade self smiles.

When I am teaching a new concept, I look for the butterflies and wanting-to-cry-eyes so I can explain more, better, again.

Whatever it takes for all of us to leave the train station together.

P.S. Remind me of this post the next time I complain about never getting far enough through the pacing guide. ;)