Get To The Point

There’s pretty much two types of students right now, as #QuaranTeaching enters its fifth week in my district:

  1. The kids who miss school and their friends so much they pedal down to the school on an unseasonably warm early April day to hang out together and make TikToks in the parking lot. They’d go back tomorrow if the state re-opened the schools.
  2. The kids who wake up every day and think, “I don’t have to see like 100 different ignorant people today, so I’m good”. They knock out their online work in a couple of hours and go back to living their best life.

I’d imagine there are two types of teachers right now too, and I’m one of them.

After some initial apprehension, I’ve found my groove with distance teaching. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to write a book or present on best practices for online teaching, although somebody should. I suspect we will all face a steep learning curve over the summer.

And days like today that involve hours of grading students’ digital submissions are exhausting in a way that I don’t remember paper grading being. It’s a test of endurance some days. But what I think I have done is find a way to meet my district’s requirements for time-on-task and content, while keeping my students interested and engaged with activities that echo our face-to-face classroom philosophy.

I’m asking them to do more, and do less, at the same time. With a mandate to keep activities to a 30-minute time limit, I’m not gonna give them 20 or 25 practice problems, digital or otherwise. Instead, I’m asking them to dig deeper, to explain their process, and to apply what they’ve learned. It’s no different than my approach in the classroom, with the exception of working from behind our screens.

It’s been a minute since I taught geometry. When I got my schedule over the summer, I eagerly anticipated the day in the spring when I could roll out the Spiky Door Project, a production of the great Kate Nowak. It was huge hit when I last assigned it, at another school in another district. A worldwide pandemic meant I would have to make some adjustments to what the project looked like, but it definitely checked all the boxes for a quality e-learning activity.

I rolled it out in stages, first asking students to design the net of their pyramid, draw and label it on paper, and to calculate the surface area. I made this an assignment when we covered surface area in the first half of the module, and let my students know we’d be calculating volume of the pyramid later on, and submitting a formal set of drawings and calculations as a quiz grade.

I embedded a video in Canvas to help them get started, so they could get a visual on my expectations and see what a well-organized presentation of the math work should look like. And the vast majority of my students were able to do some quality work here.

Today I got to see the fruits of my students’ labors. I’ve got 120 or so students across five sections, so as you’d imagine some crushed it like a belt-high fastball and some struggled mightily.

Probably the most common mistake was using the slant height of the face instead of calculating the pyramid height when determining the volume. That’s the kind of thing that, had we done this in-person, in-class, I’d have been able to catch with students individually. Many students took advantage of email or virtual (video) office hours to get help and ask questions, which was nice. I didn’t just drop this on them out of the clear blue sky. We’ve been working on applying what they’ve learned all year long. We talk about “working backwards” – hey, if the volume needs to be between 750 and 2000 cubic centimeters, and you’ve got a base area of, say, 196 square centimeters, what does the height need to be? And can you design the net intentionally to make that happen?

That’s a skill that comes easier to some students than others, for sure. My kids that are photomath-reliant tend to struggle with that kind of question. (Honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about teaching geometry – when you have to write your own equation it’s much tougher to app your way through a class with little to no actual learning taking place).

I took a page from Nowak’s book, and set up a spreadsheet programmed to calculate the surface area and volume of their pyramid when I entered the side length and slant height. That saved a ton of time on what was already a long day of grading – at least I didn’t have to re-do the math on 120 projects. I used the same spreadsheet to record and total their points for each part of the rubric so everything I needed to assess their understanding was all in one place.

All told I was pleased with how this project was adaptable to emergency remote teaching. Broken up into chunks and with appropriate support, it was accessible to all my students. It was authentic enough for me to take a quiz grade on it, which in a very grade-driven environment is enough to motivate many of my students to make an effort.

The part of the project I made optional was the piece that gave the project its name – recognizing that not all my students would have materials on hand to create the 3D model of the pyramid they designed, I did not require it. Some did build a model anyway, which was cool. Maybe they’ll spike their own door at home.

This is my contribution to the #MTBoS2020 blogging initiative started by Jennifer Fairbanks. That makes 3 out of the 4 months so far (Solid C, right?). But take a look at the #MTBoS2020 tag for some great thinking about teaching and math from my online PLN.

Barbie Zipline – Valpo Edition

It started so innocently:

When the Classroom Chef  people are so far inside your head that your first thought upon such a questions is: “yes, we definitely should send dolls hurtling down a wire suspended from the top of the football bleachers”…

The teachers I follow online talk quite a bit about risk-taking – teachers stepping out of their comfort zone, doing something besides “Here, you guys, do page 282, #1-30 all. Show your work”.

It sounds great. and honestly, it’s been transformational in my classroom. But “risk” implies the possibility of failure. I’ve had activities fall flat, had them blow up in my face. But it’s been a while.

Planning well, and picking my spots, has helped me pick the right activity at the right time for my students, most of the time. I was confident enough in Barbie Zipline that I started hyping it to my students.

Me: “When you graduate, you’re gonna look back on this day and know it was the greatest math class you ever had.”

Student: “I don’t know, my math teacher last year was pretty epic.”

I’d been bookmarking John Stevens’ blog posts about his adventures in Barbie Zipline design to get the basic idea down, and recognized I’d need to make a trip to see the helpful hardware folks at Ace. Like $55 later, I was ready.


Weather-wise the day was fantastic. I’ve got my beach bag in my car so I knew I had sunscreen packed away for the oppressive late-morning/afternoon sun (always amplified by standing on metal bleachers).

Because you never know when you might have to drop everything and go to the beach. Or take six classes of high school kids outside.

Students were ready. They had planned out their zipline design by selecting a starting height and horizontal distance, pondered the concept of “safe but fun”, brought their Barbie or other figure from home, and hey, class outside on Friday? Let’s Go.


And then…

bummed Cap GIF

I struggled to get the harness right the first two classes. We experimented with several different configurations (including one where I threaded the line through the wrong side of the pulley. Dur. Did I mention I used to teach engineering?). Maybe one of ten groups got a successful trial before my plan period.

Later in the day one of my student helpers, in his haste to reel in the line, managed to create a rat’s nest of tangles that I eventually had to cut.

Hopeless. I bought a 500′ reel of landscape twine, so I had room for error. Good thing.

A couple of classes had a group of kids that proved to me I can’t let them roam on the ground while i’m 40 feet up at the top of the bleachers. I’ll remember that for next time. But we got a couple of worthwhile trials, enough to call the day a partial success. Although that’s a very rough landing for tandem Spidey/Barbie:

So what now? We had fun, yeah, but there has to be more to the activity, to tie it back to the math we had been doing (distance formula/pythagorean theorem). Back to Stevens:

Let’s say this company in Las Vegas approached you and said they wanted a 3,000 foot zipline. You can’t hand them a cute drawing and expect a contract, so based on your data, what would be a good starting and ending height? Why?

So I made a Desmos graph my students could use to set the dimensions for a 3000′ zipline and set their creative juices flowing. Open up a GDoc or GSlide. Tell me why you selected those dimensions, explain why your design is “safe but fun” and select the building in Vegas that will host your zipline. Insert your video.

Responses ranged from minimal to pedestrian to stunning. They did the math I asked them to do on paper, but even better, they used math talk to tell me about their design. Several compared the slope of their Barbie Zipline mock-up to the slope of their proposed Vegas Zipline. It was a beautiful thing.


So the Friday outside didn’t live up to the hype. They probably won’t tell their friends all about it. Several were a bit confused when I asked them to take what they learned from their “proof of concept” to write up an imaginary Vegas Zipline proposal. (“Mr. Dull, our zipline didn’t work. We didn’t learn anything”).

But I learned enough to make some changes for next year. And the write-ups were worth the frustration. We did real math, wrapped up in an activity. There was enough reward to justify the risk.

Also, this kind of encounter with your assistant superintendent and your director of secondary curriculum never hurts:

If you’ve been thinking about making the leap: go for it. It’ll be messy. But it’ll be worth it.