College of Arts and Sciences

Growing up, every Tom Cruise character was that super-confident, super-cool guy that could bluff his way through any situation with quick wit and a smile. Who didn’t want to be Joel Goodson or Brian Flanagan or Maverick?

But I definitely also had an appreciation for people who planned every move with military precision. Who could see the downstream consequences to actions that everybody else missed. See: Jane Craig in Broadcast News. So: going by the book, or flying by the seat of our pants? Painting by numbers, or just making some happy little trees?

Image result for bob ross memes

Is teaching an art, or a science? If you’ve been around the game for awhile, you’ve probably concluded it’s both.

Joshua Eyler of Rice University turns the question on its head in a 2015 blog post, proposing that “the most effective teaching is that which helps students learn to the greatest extent possible”.

So how might we change the art vs. science question to reflect this positioning of learning?  Though we’ll have to sacrifice the nicely compact nature of the original, a new version of this question might ask whether achieving a deep understanding of how our students learn (both in general and about our fields) is more of an art or a science.

The sorts of collaborations with students that might reveal this knowledge could certainly be called creative and even artistic.  I also think there is something of an art to being attuned to students’ individual approaches to learning (or their Zones of Proximal Development) and adjusting our strategies and techniques accordingly in order to ensure we are helping as many students as possible.

What about science?  I have to admit I’m biased here.  As someone who is writing a book on the science of learning, I lean more heavily in this direction.  Because learning has its basis in the neurobiological mechanisms of the body, I think science has much to teach us about learning.  Learning is also rooted in the social world as well, so the fields of sociology and psychology provide further opportunities for understanding.

Brain science and psychology and making adjustments on the fly for what our students (collectively or individually) need at the moment? Yeah, that sounds exactly like what teaching is. “All Of The Above”.

That was us a couple of weeks ago. I know the look I saw on my kids’ faces after the logs quiz. It’s never a good sign, but that “I don’t get this and math is stupid and I quit” feeling in February makes for a long last 13 weeks for everybody involved.

So I called an audible.

I’m hardly the first to roll out this activity. My favorite instructional coach was doing Barbie Bungee before I was even teaching, long before Twitter and Desmos had even been thought of. The great Fawn Nguyen and Matt Vaudrey have raised it to an art form.

But I gambled that it would be just the antidote for the Math Plague that was threatening to decimate my classroom. Plus, worst-case scenario, I could justify it (at least to myself) by saying that the linear concepts and DOK 3 activity would be ideal for my students in the weeks leading up to ISTEP re-testing season.


I leaned heavily on Mr. Vaudrey, who is kind enough to post his materials for anyone to use, and to reflect on his own lessons so that folks downstream might be able to anticipate the stumbling blocks for their students. I teach in the new STEM wing of my school, in what eventually will be a combo computer lab and build/makerspace. So I had some essential ingredients on hand: measuring tools, lots of space, and plenty of surfaces at a variety of heights. What I didn’t have on hand, I sought out: eight bags of #32 rubber bands at WalMart, and 8 WWE wrestling figures from my son’s collection.

Day One I tried to hook them in with an insane missile silo bungee jump, then set them up with a figure, a bundle of ten rubber bands, a data collection sheet, and let them go about the business of jumping.

Perfect world: each group of three or four students would have had about 8-10 data points. Reality: most got 4-5. Several got only 3, and one group managed to record only one distance. Those guys are gonna need some extra support.

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Day Two, time for some estimates backed up by math: How many bungees would be needed to jump off the top of my projector? How far a jump could their figure make with 25 bands?

And in one of those glorious moments of teaching, I had set the hook. Students were madly pouring over their data, trying to use it to give legit estimates to the questions.

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Teamwork, baby. Teamwork.

(It was about this moment that I decided that I would honor their efforts at thinking and reasoning and doing actual math on their own by entering some points for the three-day project as a quiz grade. By department policy quizzes and tests account for 75% of a student’s grade, so a good quiz grade is like finding a hundred-dollar bill on the ground outside your classroom.)

So we dumped data into a Desmos graph, let some groups with few data points share some numbers from other groups (that’s that extra support we talked about), made a trend line, set a horizontal line at 533 cm on their graph, and talked about how many bands they’d need to safely make a jump from the top of our two-story Robot/Quadcopter Arena.

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Letting Desmos do the heavy lifting to free up brain power for thinking.

Quick group huddle to compare numbers, then after a few minutes of table talk I stopped to see each group, ask about how they came up with their number, and (this is key) have them agree on one number, write it down on their page, and circle it.

Day Three, the Tournament Selection Committee has announced the pairings, and the teams are ready to jump.

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Not that I’m craving attention or anything, but yeah, I totally posted the brackets on the window of the arena that faces a heavily traveled hallway.

I pre-assembled strands of ten bands to accelerate the assembly process, then students built their bungees and gathered, two teams at a time, on the second floor. We quickly found out that everyone in my 2nd hour class had seriously miscalculated the number of bands they needed. Fig after fig crashed to the floor. Lacking other options, and wanting to avoid the buzzkill of a six-way tie for last, we finally decided the “less dead” fig would move on.

The afternoon class seemed to have had some better estimates and we had some competetive matchups, as well as some gamesmanship as some teams attempted to scrunch two or three bands together in their hand on the railing to avoid a figurative skull fracture (high school kids, right?). The extra-long bungees in 2nd hour made a great math conversation starter (“what happened, you guys?”). I used Matt Vaudrey’s feedback form, and found out that Barbie Bungee was a near-unanimous hit.

Barbie Bumgee Feedback

Would this three-day activity had made more sense back in September when we were doing linear stuff? Probably. Would I have had the confidence to step back from the curriculum map for a minute when my students needed a breather if I hadn’t been hanging out on the periphery of the #MTBoS with its brilliant minds and fantastic lessons and activities? No way. Would I have tried Barbie Bungee without being able to follow a well-worn path? Not sure. I’m down with taking chances in the classroom, but I’m not sure I’d have been wise enough to add the Desmos piece if Vaudrey hadn’t blogged about it. And that made the whole project. We’d have been dead in the water, guessing a number of rubber bands for the Big Jump without it. Which means we would have missed the math altogether.

What I do know is: my students bought it, real learning happened, we all got the stress relief we needed, and I came out looking like an improv artist taking a prompt and making comedy gold.

Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.

Art. And Science. It’s a Both/And.


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.

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“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.