Honors Class

The challenge with teaching an honors class is making sure you have interesting enough questions to keep your smartest students on their toes while not intimidating the hard-working middle of the class into hatred and helplessness.

First exam was Thursday evening, and so Friday’s quiz question was the following:

Have a conversation with the exam you took last night. Was it a victory lap or a street fight? Did it go better or worse than you expected? In the conversation start figuring out what message your exam has for you.

Everyone thought the exam was a formidable opponent. There was plenty they knew how to do, and also some spots where I made them think. Many are concerned to see how they did, but they also express having better knowledge of what to do to prepare and resolve to destroy the next exam.

My favorite comments:

  1. I kind of enjoyed it. I’ve never had a challenging math test. They have always been straightforward and procedural. This one made me think. … This class has been helping me break my habits of memorize, plug and chug. I would not have done well had I used those methods.

  2. I wish you would just give me numbers, but you are an Honors Exam and that’s what I should expect. By the end, I felt better about you. You made me think and you were challenging, but I think we may be friends. … You taught me that I can think through a problem, even if I am not sure where to start.

    (This second commenter, a young lady, got a 100 on the exam!)

Now I better hope I can come up with a good next exam …


One downside to teaching is that there are days when, in another job, I’d just stay home in bed and allow myself to be ill. But I’m not in another job. I’m a university teacher.

Today was one of those days.

My throat was in agony whenever I tried to talk, and I had to get the microphone working in order to teach.

In my morning room, I can’t tell that the mike is working, but I need to talk quietly or it won’t be long before I’m not talking at all. And when I can’t hear that it is working, I keep trying to compensate.

Then there’s the muzzy-headedness, and mistake after mistake after mistake where I just don’t line my points up very well. This is frustrating for the students; I get it. They begin to talk amongst themselves, and then I try to compete with my voice which is a painful disaster.

You know that moment when you are about to start to cry, from feeling like you are the biggest screw-up in the world and nothing you can do right now will change it, right in the middle of class, in front of the 60 students out of a hundred who bothered to show up the day after an evening exam …

I managed to channel it into irritation instead. “Look, guys, I know I stink today, and I know I’m hard to follow, but I can’t compete with you (talking while I’m talking). So make up your minds whether you are going to help me out or whether we just want to go home and don’t really care about learning this after all.”

It got better after that, but I was still wet-eyed in line to order my lunch.

The honors class in the afternoon was better, but I appealed to their mercy straight off. We laughed at a few things and did one problem with minimal talking to help save my voice. The no-talking problem … now something about that was interesting. I want to try that again.

The Advantages to Being Female

One of my students was rubbing his face this morning in a characteristic gesture that I recognize from my past week of extreme stress.

“Hey,” I called out, “is everything all right?”

He told me he was really stressed. I don’t know what I said; we got started with class. We talked for a moment about questions and concerns with regards to the exam tomorrow night. Then I taught my lesson.

I had a crowd after class, someone wanting to learn some math, some concerned with logistics, and the young man who was rubbing his face, who wanted to tell me what was up.

Apparently he made an error in recording his exam schedule, and missed an exam he was supposed to take yesterday at the disability center. The instructor wouldn’t make alternative arrangements, and he has to take the exam with the rest of the class without the additional time he’d normally get.

You don’t see young men get to the crying point often, and when you do, you know they are under a phenomenal amount of stress.

You can’t bullshit someone in a situation like that. “Oh, it will be all right,” that’s just empty words. We know it’s just one exam, but to this student at this time, it’s the entire world.

You want comfort at times like that from a caring authority figure who can let you know absolutely that you are okay and you are not a fuck up.

I’ve been paying careful attention to how this one has been doing all semester; he’s not getting the disability accommodation on my quizzes, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that situation is working for both of us.

I put my hand on his shoulder, and I told him that if he was doing in that other class what he was doing in mine, and he could calm down between now and that exam, that I was confident that he would get through it okay. More than okay. I’m convinced he’ll do well.

I know that’s still just empty words; it requires my authority and his conviction of my ability to stand in judgment to carry that message through. It couldn’t make everything better, but I think it helped.

Honesty and ass-kicking

“I have this policy about honesty and ass-kicking: which is that if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.”

Quote from Taylor Mali’s What Teachers Make which is a poem that is performed in this video. Performance poetry is called Spoken Word Poetry. Other videos on Taylor Mali’s Website

One painful thing, that is also humorous and ironic, is that there are a substantial number of people who ask you to be honest and blunt with them, and then when you do, they explode in anger and indignation.

If you listened to them, you’d believe it is because you are just wrong, wrong, wrong in every single way.

But if you can catch it from just the right angle (which is hard to do with an irate and indignant person in your face), the situation is really really funny. You asked for it, so I had to let you have it.

I will do you the honor of taking you at your word. If you explode afterwards, I am old enough and wise enough to know that is a reflection on your character.

Posted in me


  1. You have a right to your feelings.
  2. You have a right to set boundaries to feel safe.
  3. Anyone who attempts to revoke your right to your feelings or to set boundaries is someone scary.

Now, it may just be that the person is clueless, but lack of empathy on this is a danger signal that you cannot ignore.

Predators and bullies will try to negate your feelings and push you into situations where you don’t feel safe. The only defense you have is to own your feelings and to own your boundaries.

A predator will flatter you to let your guard down. A predator will cast you as a bitch if you don’t do what they are asking.

You know how this plays out in a bar: “I’m just trying to buy you a drink! You don’t want me to buy you a drink? Why are you being such a bitch?” No one has the right to argue with you when you say no. This is the clarion call of the predator. Hell, yes, I absolutely am such a bitch. I do not want your drink. I said so clearly. Now buzz off.

But a bar is an easy situation. What happens when this is your boss? “Can’t we just have a cup of coffee and talk this over just the two of us?” If you don’t feel safe, you have every right to request that a neutral third party is present. But for many it’s harder to set this boundary.

I think I am lucky that I do not find either of these situations ambiguous. Trigger my lack of trust, and I will take action to protect myself. Even so, I still get the arguments.

On this count, I am flabbergasted.

I am shocked by how many people are unable to see or unaware that when a boundary like this is set, that if you wish to reestablish trust, the only way to go about it is to be very very respectful of the boundary. No sneaking around it, no flattering your way out of it, just respect and forthrightness.

This is one of those topics that makes me see red.

If there is one book you should read on this topic, it is The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.


A word I use a lot, and spend a lot of time thinking about, is grace. It defines the core value of who it is that I want to be in difficult circumstances. I do not want to be angry. I do not need to be righteous. I do not want to be superwoman. But I want the power and the rightness that comes from being someone who thinks and acts and speaks with grace.

When I am thinking about grace, I slow down. I will take deep meditative breaths, and move my hands as I move my lungs. I will reach in and reach out in sweeping movements, as if my body can imitate the state that I am trying to achieve with my mind. When I am upset and thinking about grace, I change my actions and movements even when I cannot quiet my emotions and thoughts.

I took martial arts for years, and I know I was one of the clumsy ones, not a dancer, not a gymnast. But here’s a truth, and the truth is that if you practice anything long enough you will get better at it. I am sure when I left the class that I had internalized the principle of moving from my center, not that I do it perfectly all the time, but that if ever my consciousness rests on my body, that is what my mind is asking my body to do. And I can see it, in myself and in others.

And grace is like moving from your center, or all those graceful dance or martial arts moves. It comes from the core of your values. It has to be rooted deep in your connection to the world and everyone else in it.

It is the idea that what is is, but you can deliver things hard or soft or just right, and grace is all about the just right. And it isn’t one eloquent thing; grace can be funny or firm or angry or kind, it comes in all those flavors depending on what it needs to do.

And grace is all about redemption, but, for me, not at all about religion. It is redemptive for the giver and redemptive for the receiver. At least if both have the grace to accept the gift of grace.

It is all about reaching for something that is one step greater than who you are, one step gentler, one step calmer, one step firmer, one step more right than you’ve ever been right before. It is all about reaching and reaching just like the martial arts practice. Move from your center. Move from your center. Move from your center. Focus on your center. Focus on grace. Until you get it down, and even then, every moment when you need it you must keep your mind’s eye on grace.


I have a prize student. Some insane luck brought us together. I got assigned to teach a class no one else wanted to teach and decided to make the best of it. He happened to be in the class that first semester when I didn’t know what on earth it was I should be doing. Since I didn’t know what I should have them do, I threatened to make them do two final projects unless they came up with one of their own. I didn’t need threats on this one, to be honest, he had an idea for me. I remember looking at his project proposal, with the professional looking diagrams, and thinking, “Oh my gosh, look at this.”

Thus began a great run for both of us. I thought his work was pretty cool, so I asked him to submit it to the local journal of undergraduate research. He got that published. He made a video for my class that blew my mind, so I had him enter that in another contest. Won that one too.

I saw an advertisement for the undergraduate thesis program. He seemed interested in doing more with his project, so I asked him to apply. He did. Got in. Wrote an undergraduate thesis, and was named runner up for outstanding STEM thesis. He got the nomination for the Goldwater Scholarship and picked that up ($7500!) He went to MathFest this past summer, and walked away with another $150 award.

Now, my student is amazing, but the #1 reason he’s won all this stuff is that he’s had things he wanted to do, and when he was encouraged to apply for things he went out and did it, bringing all of his diligence and conscientiousness into play.

My job has been to stand behind him and cheer, see the opportunities, and apply the professorial push when needed.

He’s the nominee for the Marshall Scholarship, which is one of the 2 year fellowships to do graduate study in the UK. I was proud of that. Today I found out he’s also going to be the nominee for the Churchill Scholarship, which is similar to the Marshall, and maybe slightly better known. Why? Because the original nominee wasn’t working on the application materials, and he was.

So, lesson: Apply. And when you apply, be conscientious about it. Do the work in front of you. I don’t know if he’ll win either scholarship, but in my mind, he just improved his odds. And by doing nothing more than keeping on top of the things he needed to do.

I hope he knows how proud of him I am. Watching all this evolve is more than I ever thought I’d get to see as a teacher. I’m going to miss him when he graduates. What a ride, what a ride! these last 2 years have been.

Turbulent Days and Gratitude Exercises

Trying to keep a positive attitude under stress is definitely not very easy.

I’m trying to think of something wise to say, and mostly I just want to complain and stress. Neither of which is going to do me or anyone else any good.


One thing that sometimes helps is a gratitude exercise. Which is, to simply list some good things in your life that you are grateful for. I don’t really think this is going to calm me down or make me feel better, but it won’t make me feel worse. And it helps reinforce the brain pattern of focussing on the positive.

  1. I am grateful for a social ride tonight, overcast and cooler weather (but still plenty hot), and making it okay on my commuter bike.
  2. I am grateful that my classes are going well, and that I am providing an appropriate level of challenge for my honors students.
  3. I am grateful that my paper is fixable, even if I am stuck right now on what to do with it. I will try again tomorrow. It will be published.
  4. I am grateful that I sometimes take interesting pictures.
  5. I am grateful that I get to take so many pictures. Grateful for digital cameras and “what the heck” and somewhere to post them.
  6. I am grateful for books. Sometimes when everything else feels bad, I can lose myself in a good one. Most recently deeply enjoyed book was Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, a follow up to Graceling. I am looking forward to reading her middle book, Fire, when the library gets it for me.
  7. I am grateful that I have good people around me who will help me get my issue resolved, even if I don’t completely trust the higher-ups involved.
  8. And I am grateful that I can set a limit and stick to it. I can walk out if there isn’t a better option.
  9. I am grateful for good friends and good food.
  10. I am grateful that the six-legged creatures have remained outside today.
  11. I am grateful for anxiety medication, and refills of such. It was a 3 dose day today (4th coming before bed.)
  12. I am grateful to make a blog post.

That’s enough for today.