Algebra Graffiti.

“We should do all our assignments like this, it’s the only time I ever get them done,” a student told me the other day as we were cleaning up.

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because you’re standing over me and I can’t get the next problem until I finish this one.”


I’ve come up with a new way to do assignments that lets me differentiate and monitor every student incredibly actively.  It can be fairly exhausting for me as the teacher, but I think it’s effective for the students.

Plus, we get to write on the tables.


The idea hit when I saw a tweet where an elementary school teacher was practicing vocabulary words with her students by having them write the words in dry erase marker on their tabletops.  Of course I wondered…can I write on my tables?

The answer is yes – some colors erase with a dry sponge, others take a little spray of water to come off.  From there, I realized I could individualize assignments easily.

The directive: complete X problems (depending on content) to get full credit on an assignment.

The preparation: I categorize “types” of problems from the section of content we’re addressing (problems with whole number answers, problems with decimal answers, and problems that need rearranging before solving, for example).  I make a note to myself that each student will complete a few problems of each type, with a few problems left over as wiggle room when we work.


The process: I start each student out by writing a similar, entry level problem for the content at the top of their table space.  They solve and raise hands for me to check.  Correctly solved, or one tiny mistake to fix?  You get a certain colored star in a problem box (I usually use gold, silver and green for these)

Incorrect, or you need me to walk you through the problem?  You get a differently colored star (usually I use red and blue for these) that lets me know you need a second problem before that box can be “complete”.


I write a new problem at the top of their table space – the same type of problem if they need more practice to master it, a new type once you’ve mastered that type.  I use the workbook resource guide with our textbook so I have plenty of problems at my fingertips, and I let the students’ questions and work guide me to the correct level of difficulty to give them.  Some students end up getting challenge problems for the last few, while some are still working on the essential content from the section.

If they don’t complete enough problems in class, they can come in during our first period guided study time or during another free period they have to finish up.  I had a student come in the other day just because they wanted to do more problems, so they could write on the tables more.


Yes, I do end up running around the room like a chicken with my head cut off sometimes, and sometimes I hear “Miss Mastalio, you forgot to write me a new problem”.  Yes, this does work well because of my small class sizes and I do think it would be a lot harder with more traditional student numbers.

It doesn’t work for every assignment, for various reasons, nor do I want it to get ‘old’ and have the novelty wear off, but it’s been effective when we’ve used it.

Plus, everyone loves to be told they can graffiti on the tables.  It feels rebellious, but you’re doing math.  Whatever works.


National Poetry Month

Let me go outside my content area for a minute so we can celebrate National Poetry Month.  I LOVE POETRY – I have since I was a little kid and my elementary school librarian used to let me check out the “big kid” poetry books even when I was in, like, second grade.

There’s a lot of poems that I love, including the Erlkonig, which we had to memorize in high school German, and Immortal Autumn, which I had to memorize in my violin studio in college (for some reason).

BUT, I have two all-time favorite poems.  The first is from Emily Dickinson, which I have loved for a long time.  My love for it has only increased as one of my favorite authors, John Green, has started to use it to refer to the success of his favorite soccer teams…

Hope is the thing with feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
The second is by William Ernest Henley.  It gives me chills every time I read it.
Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.
Now that I’m looking at them side by side, the two have extremely similar messages.  I guess that probably says something about me.


Sometimes, when you get in that mid April school year funk, you have to take action to prevent that spiral of burnout and negativity from consuming your life.

One of our staff (who is trying to remain anonymous as they work their magic, so I won’t drop names…) has started making the rounds and leaving positive messages for students on classroom desks.  Almost the whole math department has gotten hit with the positive message bug at this point.

The best part is that this person doesn’t always tell the teachers that it’s happening, and does it after school, so teachers walk in to all this happiness in their classroom!

Our support staff and administration have also been writing positive notes to various students who bring that positive attitude to our building and handing them out during passing time.  Just a wave of positive messages flying around the school makes this time of year so much easier to get through!

Happy Friday!

Alternative Ed: What it Really Is

So I’ve decided to try to be one of those blogging teachers.  I can already foresee that I probably will be terrible at regular posting, but you know, I always encourage my students to at least try, so I’m taking my own advice.

One of my favorite teaching blogs for a long while has been Love, Teach.  Her blog detailed experiences in a Title I school up until she left this year, and her most recent post about misconceptions of a Title I school really resonated with me, because I deal with misconceptions about my building and students literally every day from literally everywhere in my life.

I teach at an alternative high school.  It turns out that people do not know what that means, but they really, really think they do.  And they tell me about it – even my own parents.

When I was first looking for jobs during my student teaching experience, I applied to the alternative high school basically because it was an open math position in a city I was interested in.  In my interview, I was immediately convinced that it was where I needed to be when the principal started crying because of how strong her emotions were when telling me about the students.



Since that moment, around three years ago this time, I have encountered so many misconceptions about the place I teach.  Here are some of them, along with the truth.

1.We have the “bad” kids.  

While some alternative education settings are a disciplinary consequence for trouble students, our building does not operate that way.  Every student has to apply and go through an interview process to attend, and we only accept students who will truly benefit from our setting.

Students come to us for a variety of reasons.  Many of my students struggle with serious mental health issues, and we have trained counselors, support staff, and a mental health therapist on our staff that can help them find ways to succeed academically while also dealing with severe anxiety and depression.  Our class sizes are small (maximum 15 students), which helps many of these students able to operate in a classroom setting more comfortably.

Our policy is that everyone at our school can be themselves, whoever that may be, which means that many LGBT students feel very safe and accepted here.  They may not have struggled academically at all in traditional high schools in the district, but instead had issues with the judgement of their peers.  We have a no tolerance policy for this type of judgment, which sounds like a pipe dream but is truly a reality of students presenting themselves however they feel most comfortable – whatever gender expression, significant other selection, dyed hair, clothing, or makeup options that may entail.

We have students who are parents – who simply cannot succeed in a traditional high school because there is no support to help them attend school while simultaneously attending to the needs of their children.  Our onsite daycare gives them peace of mind to know that their kids are in a safe place while they learn, and our Teen Mom Advisory helps them learn parenting skills and gives them hope for a future that is not limited by the fact that they are parents.

We have students who have devastating stories of their lives outside of school – they have experienced trauma and loss and stress and abuse far beyond anything I can even imagine or comprehend at times.  Some of our students have our building and our staff as their only safe place – the only place they get food, the only constant in their lives.  Again, our support staff works with them to help find safe housing and navigate them through very tough situations.

These are not bad kids.  They are kids who are dealing with more than most adults I know ever could, and trying to graduate high school at the same time.

2. Our classes are “easier”.

I really don’t have another way to say this besides the fact that even other teachers in our district often have the belief that we water down our classes or make them easier to pass.  The truth is that we follow all the same curriculum guidelines that the rest of the district do.  Because of our size and all of our support resources, we are able to give each student more individualized instruction, which might make it seem like it is easier for them to learn the content, but…it’s the same content.  Same graduation requirements.

(Even some way cool classes that the other high schools don’t offer like CSI, Anime, Zombie Apocalypse Survival, Urban Farming, History of Music, and Sports Statistics).

3. Our teachers are here because they aren’t able to get jobs other places.

We have so many really incredible teachers in our buildings.  They love their jobs.  They stay after school to make silly video projects or giant graphs on the hallway floors.  They get together on Friday nights to support students.

Our teachers have to figure out ways to reach students that other teachers have let slip through the cracks.  We have to teach students Algebra while they struggle with mental health issues and sometimes not knowing where they’ll sleep that night.  We have to take their stories into account and still follow a pacing guide.  It takes a special dedication and a lot of outside the box thinking.

They’re here because they want to be, not because this is their only option.  Some of the best teachers in the district (I think) teach in our building.  Teachers who have been teaching for over 30 years could definitely bid into positions at other buildings if they wanted, but they stay because it is a GREAT place to work.  I know few adults who love their jobs as much as I do, and I feel sorry for them.  I wish they could know the magic of working here.



The good news is, we’ve done a LOT of work in the last two years since our new building opened to try to change community perceptions of our school and our students.  So here’s the truth.

1. Our students rock.

They’re winning.  They’re beating their family situations, homelessness situations, mental health issues, and learning disabilities.  They’re proving wrong every teacher, parent, classmate who ever told them that they couldn’t.  They’re showing that they can be wholly themselves and define their own versions of success.

They’re writing bills to present to the state legislature, running for school board, planting crops, and GRADUATING.  (There hasn’t been a single graduation of the 5 I’ve attended so far where I haven’t cried with pride afterwards)

My Sports Statistics students successfully used their analysis-based predictions to win our March Madness pool.

Just take a scroll through our twitter for more.

2. Our teachers rock.

They give their time, energy, and expertise to our students every day.  They use research based practices to improve instruction. They get support from John Deere and publicity for our urban farm project.  Give up lunch periods to play basketball with students.  Try new things in their classes every day to try to help their students learn more.

They celebrate every little success with students, and reformat their ideas of what success looks like to fit every student individually.

They participate in book studies, go to conferences, and collaborate with each other to try to be better every day.  Half our staff got trained in Project Based Learning during our time off in the summer last year.  Our math team is creating an online resource bank where students can go when they miss instruction that is specifically aligned with our curriculum.  Did I mention the really cool classes earlier?  All the teachers who teach them developed the curriculum for them on their own time and using their own passions and expertise.

3. Our staff rock.

Our support staff are some of the most inspirational people in my life.  They take students to conferences.  For our students who thought college was never an option, they bring college fairs right to our building.  They participate in our weird, silly spirit days.  Check in on students who have been gone to see how they are, to let them know we’d love them to come back.  They give students rides to school and take them to doctor’s appointments.

They develop lunch groups and before school clubs that are safe, fun places for students to fit in.  Our principal greets every student by name in the morning as they walk in, as do our case managers.

They create an in school food bank for our students who go home hungry to be able to serve their needs.  They get clothing donated for students to wear to job interviews.  They set up a student store with hygiene products and baby supplies and anything else a student might need, and give it away for free (we’re always accepting donations).  They make sure that this school is a safe place for every single student who walks in the door.



I love my job so, so much.  I love my students a ridiculously intense amount.  If you feel like you had one of the misconceptions of our building before…please come visit.  You’re welcome anytime.  We’d love to show off.