Monthly Archives: August 2012

New Blogger Initiation 2

This is going to be a quick one (until I start rambling). I’m tired, this is “due” in about 2.5 hours, I’ve spent most of the last 10 days getting back into school mode and fighting with technology in my spare time, and I don’t even care that this was an entire paragraph’s worth of run-on sentence.

Here’s the prompt I’m choosing:

1) Find one worksheet or activity or test or unit or question or powerpoint slide or syllabus or anything that you are proud of. Share it.

Here’s my pride and joy …

(and the guided notes to go along with it … ya’know, if you’re into that sort of thing)

I can’t tell you how much time and effort have gone into creating that one 40ish minute video. I’m proud to say I’m following through on my promise to myself to try different things this year; we’ve been in school 10 days, and I’m yet to really teach anything from the Common Core. We’ve done some team-building, some activities, some pre-tests (paper-based Algebra 1 and ALEKS), some almost interactive notebooks, a really awesome trick you into agreeing with the idea of ‘flipped classroom’ (turns out most students really connect with the idea of “why are we doing the easy stuff in class and then sending you home to work on the hard parts by yourself?”), some not quite interactive notebooks (with bonus not quite foldables paper-folding!), talked about how grades will work once we actually have some, and spent TWO-and-a-HALF DAYS watching that video together last week with frequent pausing. By the way, there is something quite bizarre about watching yourself teach your class in asynchronous real-time (not a paradox apparently).

Oh, and here’s the pre-test since I don’t think I’ve shared it on here yet …

(thus proving I kinda sorta know how to embed documents)

Anyways, today was supposed to be partial roll-out day – part of class session was going to be spent in the computer lab watching a video independently and taking notes over some basic algebra vocabulary (to be followed with a crossword to check if you were really processing or just copying); even more importantly, students without internet access were going to be getting a DVD with the first 5ish lessons already recorded on it. My laptops are slow as molasses at burning DVDs it turns out; no joke I had it sitting back on my teacher desk and would go back there every 30 minutes to start a new one since I only had about eight discs made between last night and this morning before school and probably ended up giving out about fifteen. I was stressed because I just really wanted to get them out and going while the interest was still fresh. Then I notice the YouTube upload for the vocabulary had failed … at about the same I noticed my principal walking in to see what we were up to that day … while my students were up walking around and supposedly pairing off to use numbers on half-notecards to find GCFs and LCMs (which was already partially a stall tactic) … as I recalled that I had mentioned to him in passing that I was going to be trying some different things this year without really ever following up with specifics … while I was sitting at my desk with my back to the class, madly trying to copy the PowerPoint to the common drive and loading one of the burnt DVD copies to have something to show for the chaos that was that particular moment of my life. Oh my, this could go one of two ways …

I survive the day; kids are coming by later  to pick up a DVD (I’m going to have to take a screenshot of the disc menu; I was impressed with how good free software is becoming) in a sandwich baggie since the first batch went quick. Kids are mostly flipping through the PowerPoint and trying the crossword with a decent level of seriousness. At some point, I figure out I can burn DVDs on school desktops amazingly fast when I have about two more left. I bump into him in the front office during lunch – “how’d you enjoy the experiment this morning?” I venture … <insert follow-questions and comments from the boss here>

Much later, I’m settling down to type this and notice a school email …

I cannot wait to share your flipped classroom and ALEKS hybrid with the staff.

I will probably be presenting what I’m trying and how it’s working at one of the first few faculty meetings. Maybe he’s just doing his job and following up on a class visit with a short email, but I’ll actually go with optimism for the moment – I deserve it in exchange for all the sleep I’ve been giving up.

PS – I’m sure I’ll realize this was quite the hot mess when I re-read it later.



Filed under Big Ideas, Getting Started, Technology

New Blogger Initiation 1

Sam Shah’s terrifying brilliant idea to get more math teachers out of lurking mode and into openly sharing surfaced maybe a month after I had decided to start trying this for myself (talk about timing). As I was gearing up for the first week of school, the email arrived; I loved the way it was written by the way. Here’s my choice for week 1:

3. Talk about one or two specific things you plan on doing differently this year… and how specifically you are going to implement them/get the buy-in. Why do you want to do these things?

I was already planning on doing a post or five similar to this and perhaps going ahead and committing some sentences to virtual paper will help finalize and focus (we had three days of school this past week – no real content covered – no syllabus given out to students).

Things I’m fairly excited to try to implement in my classroom this year after spending most of the summer gathering ideas from a lot of different teacher blogs:

  1. Standards-Based Grading and No Zeros/Late
  2. Interactive Notebooks and Foldables
  3. Flipping Lessons
  4. Problem-Solving and Collaboration

And yes, that is a lot to try to incorporate all at once!

I had heard of all these ideas already, but seeing other math/science teachers making the structures work in real classrooms made me want to stop making excuses and find ways to incorporate them into my own classroom this year. Each change is due to the same basic reasons. I went into teaching to ‘pay it forward’ and make a difference in young people’s lives. I am a first-generation college graduate; my mom and dad always encouraged me to do well in school and expected me to go to college, but my teachers also helped get me there (especially high school honors and AP teachers). I planned to be a career teacher; in fact, I switched to education from science just after graduating high school (also causing me to have to change colleges – but that’s another story) partially because I could see myself doing it for several decades and being relatively happy. Teaching is a lot more frustrating than I would have thought at 18 or 20 years old; like most teachers, I was pretty good at school, thus it was hard for me to relate to reluctant learners and struggling students my first few years. I’m tired of feeling frustrated or that I’m working harder than my students or that I can’t help the ones who need the most help. Thus, I’m hopefully making the fundamental shift from trying to help my students get up to the level of the content to trying to get the content down to the level of the students. I’ve always been more of a content specialist than a master motivator. I always say that I meet my students half-way and such, but I’ve got to be more intentional about structuring my class in such a way that it happens. The results sometimes speak for themselves; last year (and most years), I am doing everything I can to keep students from failing for the year. This often includes working a few extra days or even a week to give students the chance to drop by and basically do random stuff they didn’t do during the school year to chase those last few percentage points. To stay in this game another two decades, I’ve got to stop getting by and start meaningfully impacting some lives. Ambitious, right?

Standards-Based Grading and No Zeros/Late

I want to do some sort of hybrid SBG system. I already let kids do test corrections on the items they missed for partial credit, but the issue as that too many students simply see it as a way to get a few extra points not an opportunity to learn the things they messed up. Each test I gave last year was 25 multiple choice questions over the entire year; each test was the final exam for the year up to that point. I liked the idea, but students always did about the same for the most part. They did not learn from their mistakes; corrections were an easy way to grub for points not a structure to insure you learn from  your mistakes. Also, I was telling kids “I’d rather your work be late and correct than on time and wrong,” yet I was punishing late work by deducting a minor late penalty (1 point out of 8) and flagging assignments as missing in the electronic gradebook which creates a placeholder grade of zero. I was unintentionally causing some students to turn in work that they knew they didn’t understand and would be a low grade to avoid a late penalty or a zero placeholder in the gradebook – I heard “A few points is better than a zero.” too many times last year. After not using quizzes at all last year, I’m bringing them back with a vengeance; a return to small section-based quizzes probably graded on a 5-point scale. If a student messes up a quiz, they’ll be able to retake it once. If they mess up again, they must come to after-school tutoring before trying it a third time. Many of the quizzes will be five multiple-choice questions, but some will be ‘show-your-work’ problems. Also, the format will vary between the original and the retake – just because the original quiz was multiple choice doesn’t mean the retake will be. The homework from last year was six multiple choice questions and a  show your work problem that often required a student to extend the concept in some way; this will be the source for a lot of the quizzes this year. I don’t plan to use paper-based homework at all this year; I plan to go all-in on some kind of self-checking, self-paced system for practice (possible options include ALEKS, Compass Learning/Odyssey, or Khan Academy Practice/Coach features). The district is possibly providing the first two $$$ options; if they weren’t, I’d be using free stuff on Khan Academy or maybe even MangaHigh. I’m hoping students realize it’s in their best interest both in terms of learning and grades and buy into the system this time. I made a half-try at implementing SBG in one class two school years ago and felt forced to abandon it shortly after the start of second semester. As for tests, I’m currently considering implementing ‘testing weeks’ or windows instead of ‘test days’ – students can select a day (Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday?) to take the test, and they’re not allowed to take the test until their quiz grades indicate they are somewhat ready for it (at least a 2 out of 5 on everything?). I still have to work on the logistics of this idea.

Interactive Notebooks and Foldables

I’ve already been doing guided note-taking sheets in all my classes for at least five years and encouraging students to keep it all organized in binders and to refer to them when they forget things … but they don’t. This is especially frustrating since I’ve been teaching without a textbook for several years now. This time I’m going to try to ‘building our own textbook’ in more of a INB-style and include foldables as well. I saw a presentation on student notebooks a few years ago with another teacher from my department; we both liked the idea but neither of us had managed to implement it yet. We set up the skeleton in class this past Friday, and I already think the notebooks are going to work better than the binders ever have (*fingers crossed*). I want students to understand mathematics not take a guess at how the problem is supposed to be solved based on the way it looks … I hope these structures help develop better conceptual understanding in my students.

Flipping Lessons

I need more time in the school day to do meaningful work related to the ideas above, games, and other activities. The part of my class that students can do most easily on their own is not practice; it’s completing definitions and basic examples. I’m not sure how much more argument I need to hear to be a fan of the idea of flipped lessons. I’ve bought a Wacom Bamboo writing tablet on sale (~$65 instead of ~$80) at a nearby Best Buy and downloaded some free video software (CamStudio looks to be the most useful thus far into the experimentation stage). I’ll post my first efforts at creating a flip video soon hopefully. I just need to find the time to get two or three lessons ahead of where I’m at in class so that I can begin to phase this in early.

Problem-Solving and Collaboration

If I can get flipped lessons going, I should have time for some problem-based learning in class using resource like 3 Act math (even if I only steal other people’s first acts to use as lesson ‘hooks’ this year) and perhaps other things I can scrounge up from MAP or Exeter or Park. I don’t really want to do full-on project-based learning (even though PBL is an emphasis in our district), but I definitely need to include more PrBL. I’ve benefited a lot this summer by interacting with other teachers through their blogs. How can I carry that idea forward into my classrooms? We’re starting the year in teams or groups, and I spent a lot of the first week trying to stealthily develop the idea that everyone in the group has to work together, we all have jobs to do (get the kit, get the papers, turn in the papers, throw away the trash, etc.), and be helpful not judgmental because we’re all in this together. I’ll see how much progress I made on this front next week when we actually start working on content together. For example, I hope to foster more discussion in class by using stolen whiteboard strategies (especially the Mistake Game).

This post has turned into quite a lengthy ramble, but it really did help me continue to clarify the changes I plan to make this year; I might even be ready to crank out a syllabus to give out to the kiddos tomorrow!


Filed under Getting Started

Talk about jumping on some bandwagons …

My wife is pretty awesome (no, that’s not the bandwagon I want you to jump on …). She probably got the idea for this from Pinterest, but we discussed, modified, and created a version to use in our classes. It beats having the kids write some basic facts on an index card or buying the ‘about me’ sheets from a teacher store.



Most of the first two days of school will be occupied with students taking a ‘how much Algebra 1 do you remember?’ pre-test and then scoring it themselves to analyze strengths and weaknesses before we begin the review. I like to include review at the start of each class and hope that this pre-test will help most of them realize why I feel review is necessary (or show me that it isn’t!).



During one of the first math department meetings of the year, we decided to use a pre-test in Algebra 2. I made this one, and I really started liking the idea after deciding to design the key in such a way that students can grade it for themselves and hopefully reflect on the results.

I’ve also modified a game that wife is planning on using during this first week; I figure it’s about the closest to a ‘party game’ activity as I can do. I write a two-digit (or three-digit?) numbers on paper and tape them to students’ backs. The students’ goal is to figure out the number on their back by asking their classmates ‘yes or no’ questions. Students have to cycle through the class a few times asking questions (and mixing/mingling in case they don’t already know each other). The hook is that questions can only be answered with the word “maybe” and you are supposed to use inflection, body language, non-verbal cues (except head shakes/nods), etc. to communicate whether it’s maybe yes or maybe no. The students will have until the following song completes to come up with a guess for their number:

Of course, this song has been a huge hit this summer inspiring all sorts of shenanigans on YouTube. I think I’ll use this version from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as it adds to the silliness. I will probably come up with some sort of sheet to help them track their questions and then we’ll have a discussion about which questions seem to be more or less helpful. This will hopefully lead into why there are names for different types of numbers (natural, even, odd, prime, multiples, etc.). I will edit to include the form for the “Here’s My Number, Guess Me Maybe” game when I produce one.

I know this is a little late for the official Sunday posts on ‘first day of school’ and “#Made4Monday” but oh well …

to recap:


  1. social media connections (Facebook/Pinterest)
  2. Call Me Maybe meme
  3. twitter #Made4MathMonday and #hsSunFun


Filed under Games/Activities

I am Keith Devlin’s pet guinea pig …

Let me begin with an admission of guilt: I should probably be getting my classroom and first few days’ activities finalized right now. Okay, now for something

book coverOne of my favorite books about math is Keith Devlin’s Math Gene. I first read it a couple years into teaching, and parts of it made me rethink and retool my thought processes on how people learn math.  Devlin stresses that everyone is capable of mathematics as it is very much a human activity and argues language and mathematics are interconnected products of the human brain. I’m not really doing the book justice with such a short blurb, but I would recommend it to any math teacher. Anyways, I heard a while back that Keith Devlin was going to offer a free online course on mathematical thinking. The sort of class many undergraduate math majors take sophomore year and realize (if they haven’t already) that math after calculus is going back to the basics, making them more abstract in many cases, and then proving concepts that maybe you had been taking for granted – i.e. the focus of mathematics shifts almost completely away from calculating (skills) to understanding (concepts).


I’ve enrolled in the course; fortunately, it begins several weeks after school starts. It may not be in person, but I didn’t feel like I could pass up the chance to sit in on a course by one of my favorite authors. If all goes well, I’ve got a few other courses that have piqued my interest. Some people ask ‘is this the future of education?’ – no, I don’t think you can completely replace classroom teachers with technology, but the buzz surrounding online learning such as Khan Academy and Coursera is not likely to disappear anytime soon. Flipped learning probably isn’t a fad.

I’m sure I won’t be the only math-ed blogger (especially since I can just barely include myself in that category at this point) to participate in this grand experiment, but I haven’t seen a lot of other posts about this yet. Let me know if you happen to find this post and will also be participating!


PS – My next post will likely build upon this theme and be about some of the technology I’ll be using in classes this fall.



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Filed under Technology

Time for the Obligatory Dan Meyer Post (and more!)

I was at a conference two weeks ago now (thought about this then but just getting started and such), and we watched Dan Meyer‘s TEDtalk during a breakout session on STEM education. The presenter prefaced the video by saying she didn’t feel like she could make the case any better than Dan and asking those of us in the audience to raise our hand if we were familiar with him and his work. I was surprised when I was the only person in the room who raised their hand – in fact, I kind of blurted something like “C’mon, I can’t be the only person!” to the other fifteen or so. Later, I gathered that most of the other teacher were actually science teachers, but I was still a little surprised. At the time of writing, the video is creeping up on a million views on (not sure if that includes the views from their official YouTube channel or not). Personally, I consider this essential viewing for any other math teachers and have shared it with several others. In case, you’ve somehow managed to find this post without being aware of Mr. Meyer’s blog:

I’ve now watched this at least five times and still find it interesting; now if I could just perfectly internalize his approach!

I want to paraphrase something that a science teacher said to the group that I wish I had been able to capture the exact quote…

I feel sorry for the math teachers; they are downtrodden. … extra meetings to create plans to meet goals this time and stress from supervisors constantly looking over their shoulders … math test scores are almost always the lowest. … Some kids just aren’t prepared, and you work really hard to get them as far as you can even if it won’t be enough to ‘pass the test.’ … You don’t hear it enough, but you’re making a difference.

Not an exact quote, but it gives you the flavor of her sentiment. I appreciate her comments, but I’d rather they weren’t necessary. The work being done by the best blogotwittosphere is pretty amazing. I’ll try hard during this next school year to be more like some of the teachers that have chosen to make themselves online leaders (i.e. they are putting their content and thoughts out there to be ‘followed’ or ‘subscribed’ to …). It won’t be easy, but I want to be more effective at helping to answer the question “Is Algebra Necessary?” with a resounding ‘yes, and let’s make it a less miserable experience while we’re at it.’

One more fairly keen insight from that particular breakout session before I forget about it …

The presenter passed out strips of paper with ‘habits of mind’ printed on them. We were supposed to sort them out groups “Mathematics,” “Science,” and “English/Language Arts.” Here is the list; try to sort them for yourself:

  • Determine the meaning of symbols and domain specific words
  • Integrate information expressed in words with visual representations
  • Ask questions and define problems
  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  • Construct explanations and design solutions
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively
  • Construct viable arguments and critique reasoning of others
  • Engage in argument from evidence
  • Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment in research, and speculation
  • Plan and carry out investigations
  • Analyze and interpret data
  • Develop and use models
  • Model with mathematics
  • Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information
  • Compare/contrast experimental results with information text
  • Cite textual evidence to support analysis
  • Use appropriate tools strategically
  • Attend to precision
  • Follow precisely a multi-step procedure
  • Look for and make use of structure
  • Analyze the structure used for organization and to enhance understanding
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning
  • Use math, information/computer technology, and computational thinking

I discovered pretty quickly I was fairly terrible at this activity. I have read the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice several times, but I do not have them memorized. I wasn’t accidentally grabbing just science statements either; I wanted to include a few from English as well. For any readers who might want an answer key:

Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  4. Model with mathematics.
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
  6. Attend to precision.
  7. Look for and make use of structure.
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

The science standards were slightly modified (verb tenses):

Next Generation Science Standards Key Practices

  1. Asking questions and defining problems.
  2. Developing and Using Models
  3. Planning and Carrying out Investigations
  4. Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information
  5. Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  6. Engaging in Argument from Evidence

She modified some part of the Common Core English Language Arts to create the other red herring statements, but I’m not as sure about the specifics of what and how on these. [EDIT: I think this is the source.]

Of course, the point is that academic domains are artificial creations by humans; the core skills (some refer to them with buzzwords like Habits of Mind or 21st Century Skills) that we really want our students to develop long-term are not mutually exclusive clumps that can be easily labeled.


Filed under Big Ideas