Wow, It’s Almost Like I Planned That

Back before Thanksgiving Break I had built a lesson around Desmos Activity Builder for the first time.  It had come highly recommended by my online PLN, and I knew it would represent (potentially) a huge leap in teaching and learning in my Algebra 1A classroom. There was only one problem.

I had to know exactly what I wanted my students to be able to do, and create an activity using a specific tool that would lead them there. On purpose.

snl saturday night live shocked yikes kenan thompson

I know the value of intentionally planning a lesson. We’ve all been doing it since Student Teaching, right? Except for a long time that really just meant picking out what example problems I would do, selecting some Guided Practice exercises, and picking evens or odds for the assignment.

Not. Good. Enough. Not nearly good enough. Not any more.

I had already played around with using the Desmos Online Graphing Calculator to let my students get hands-on with a specific skill. In years past I have had students use it to graph the athletes in one of Dan Meyer’s Three-Act Tasks, “Playing Catch Up“. The questioning and discussing and back-of-the-envelope calculating that took place before the graphing was the big payoff that day though.

But now, I had the ability to use a powerful tool to let my students see the math we were doing in ways that really were not possible with pencil and paper, plus it let me collect and see all their work in real time, and to insert questions at key moments of the activity to focus or tease out their thought. It was time to jump in.

I took a quick look at one of the sample lessons (“Match My Line” by Michael Fenton) for a reference, closed my eyes, held my nose, and jumped in.

The water’s fine.

The Desmos folks do a much better job of summarizing the set-up than I can. Long story short: you create individual screens, which could contain a graphing task, a question for your students to answer, or text, such as instructions or congratulations.You can create as many or as few as you need to get the job done, re-arrange them, add screens…. whatever it takes.

My simple, 7-screen activity riffed off an activity we had done the previous class meeting, when they had generated a list of pairs of numbers that sum to 6. They plotted the points, and noticed that the points seemed to lie in a straight line. I challenged them to use Desmos to place a line through the points. After letting them flail around for a bit, I gave them a simple equation to try out, and see if they could make adjustments to the parameters to graph the correct line.


Evil, I know. Especially when Desmos features sliders for exactly that purpose.

Screenshot 2015-11-30 at 9.33.26 PM
“Grab ahold of those blue dots. Slide them around. What do you see is happening?”

Now at least a few of my students were able to move the line into position by adjusting the slope and y-intercept. My next question: “What is the equation of the line you just plotted using the sliders?” I was banking on many of them recalling from their first or second time through the class they could plug m and b into slope-intercept form and Oh Look! Equation!

Target Acquired.
Target Acquired.

Alright. Not too bad for my first time. Easy to set up, easy to use. Students enjoyed it. Learning occurred. And if you guessed that I’m thinking to myself: “Self, what other pencil-paper activities of yours could we migrate over to Activity Builder?”, well, you know me so well.

Dan Meyer spent some blog space on exactly that topic recently. “Desmosify Your Worksheet”… that would make some killer Math Department PD sometime, I think.

One Last Thing, on the topic of planning:

We are heavy into “I Do – We Do – You Do” in my district. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in general, just that… there’s a better way. A way that’s more student-centered, both in the burden of work and the person doing the learning. Which is, of course, pretty much the same thing.

Kate Nowak presented on the topic at the NCTM Regional Conference in Nashville, and linked to the NCTM page hosting her slides. The shot: “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do” is the preferred order. I’m a convert. A zealot, really.

Via Kate Nowak by way of NCTM.
Via Kate Nowak by way of NCTM. (

Either way, Activity Builder or Pencil & Paper, I just have to know in advance what I want students to take away, then find a way to nudge them in that direction, ask the right questions, let them rub a couple of brain cells together, then sit back and watch the magic happen.

Like a lot of things, it gets more magical with repeated use.


One thought on “Wow, It’s Almost Like I Planned That

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