Piece By Piece

Image via giphy.

Last time we talked math in this space, I was trying to figure out a way to squeeze way too much content into the last five weeks of school, while still giving my students a chance to practice the skills and giving me a chance to assess their understanding, all while keeping a tiny sliver of their available brain cells focused on math stuff. Because it’s another fantastically gorgeous early May in The Region.

It's May In The Region
“Road Conditions: Wet”.  No kidding…

This week, I needed a performance assessment idea for Conic Sections. I also need to overlay final exam prep with new material in the finite time remaining before June 2.

And, I want to play with Desmos. Or rather, I want my students to play with Desmos.

Put all those ingredients in a blender, hit “Smoothie”, and you’ve got Piecewise Function Art!

Desmos piecewise staff picks

See everything up there labeled “Conics Project”? This project plan of mine is not a new idea, obviously.  I first came across it when Amy Gruen posted about her pencil/paper project back in the day. My co-teacher and I modified it for our Algebra II course that included several students with IEPs.

And then it sat in my back pocket for years until I changed schools and was assigned to Algebra II again this year.

The #MTBoS Search Engine tells me there are some awesome teachers getting cool stuff from their kids regarding this type of project. Check out Lisa Winer and Jessie Hester, to name two.

So I used their work as a starting point, customized it for my students, made up a packet with some sample art, my expectations for the project and the points scale, annnnnd away we go….

I insisted they did the pencil/paper planning first. I want them to make some fun & cool pics, yeah, but first and foremost I want them to get good at moving between representations of functions, and to get some reps on writing and graphing conics. I gave them two days to roll it around and plan at home, maybe sketch a quick picture or two. Then I planned for a pencil/paper Work Day in class Thursday, with the expectation (slightly unrealistic, it turns out) that they walk into class the next day with a list of equations. Then input equations to Desmos on Friday, with the project submitted via Canvas by the end of class.

Docs here:

Alg II (3) Conics Performance Assessment

Alg II (3) Functions one-pager

The initial reaction was… lukewarm: “Ugh”. “I’m taking the L.” “I can’t do this.”

Come on now. Don’t give up before you even try.

Most of them didn’t pick up a pencil before classtime Thursday, putting them in a hole to start. Fortunately I built in support, posting a Desmos Activity (via Stefan Fritz) to our page for them to play with, so they could see how to fine-tune an equation, and to restrict the domain. But the best progress was made in class on Thursday, when I convened some small groups, answered questions, walked through a couple of quick examples of drawing a graph and working backwards to its function rule, and also showing them how to translate a graph.

Next thing you know…

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Guys, for real. In my least interested class, I had 26 kids engaged, helping each other out, graphing, writing, struggling through the rough spots, cheering for each other and squealing with delight at themselves.

If they aren’t at home right now high-fiving themselves, they should be.

Then Friday, the Big Finish:

OK, in reality, my students needed a lot of support to bring this project in for a landing. A lot of them made a pencil/paper design that was way too ambitious to finish even with two days to work in class. Many were asking questions Friday that they should have brought to me on Wednesday or Thursday. Most got down to business in class on Friday, because it was the due date. But almost no one was remotely close to being done.

There’s two ways to handle that: 1) “Too bad, so sad, I told you guys to get started on Tuesday and you didn’t so now you’re out of time and out of luck. F.”

Or: 2) “Look, I can see you guys are making progress. How many of you are happy with your picture as it is right now? Not many, right? But you’re making good progress and probably could turn in something really fantastic with a little more time? Cool. The due date in Canvas is today, but with a time of midnight. Go home, finish it up, turn it in before you go to bed and we’ll call it good.”

In his autobiography “My American Journey“, General Colin Powell stated often one of his life’s guiding principles: “Never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. Good advice from a great man. I’m in, all the way. Why crush my students’ spirit just when they are hitting their groove with Desmos and putting together the equations for a whole big mess of functions? Math is happening here, people. I’d rather ride that wave, let them finish and give me something they can be proud of.

So, midnight it is. And we all get better, together, at teaching and learning.

Piece by piece.


Still Learning

End of Semester 1: imminent. That must mean it’s time for five days of endless, mind-numbing review worksheets so we can all pretend I helped them prepare for a really hard test.

Image result for sike

Borrowing a theme from the great Matt Miller, I opted for the Epic Review OlympicsPlanned ahead, before Christmas Break. Made a Jeopardy review for one day, planned out the rest, made my materials.

Then, the actual beginning of review. Snap back to reality

We only got to like 5 practice items out of the 25 on the Jeopardy game board. That’s not enough. I had students grouped up so they could work together and lean on each other. I hoped that would help more students get more assistance than I could give alone.

But instead:

“I can’t learn like this.”

“My group isn’t doing anything.”

“Can’t we just have a worksheet?”

(record scratch/freeze frame….)

Wait a minute. Aren’t all the MTBoS-inspired, student-centered lessons and activities supposed to be a magic wand that miraculously transforms unmotivated, under-prepared students into raging cauldrons of curiosity?

Image result for magic wand gif
Image via The Telegraph

It turns out…. no. One of my go-to guys, Matt Vaudrey, a teacher who literally wrote the book on crafting non-lethal math lessons, has run into the exact same situation:

Ugh. Yeah. Fine. But it’s not working for the class.

Carly, for example — the student who respectfully pointed out “we shouldn’t be tested on this if we didn’t cover it in class” — called me over during test review last week.

She asked, “Mr. Vaudrey, when are we going to practice more… like… actual math? Like, I understand that all these things (she motions at the review problems printed on colorful “stations” around the room) are important, but like… are we gonna get more notes on, like, equations and stuff?”

Ugh. Carly just loves when school is hard.

Students like Carly are accustomed to math class working a certain way. When their usual method of success no longer works, they get nervous.

It’s not wrong to give students what they require to succeed in class; a variety of nutrients is necessary for a healthy diet. If they want notes, it’s okay to give them that for a meal sometimes.

So, a moment of decision: What’s more important – doing a cool/fun game, or providing an opportunity for students to review/relearn?

(Both? Ideally…)

Call me greedy. Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, offered a choice of two crowns, I call “both”. To the MTBoS Search Engine we go.

And we come away with Four In A Row (hat tip to Sarah Carter/Fawn Nguyen). Long story short, I needed 25 practice problems (in this case, for solving systems). And as Fawn Nguyen points out: Kuta makes it easy. Pick the level of difficulty and type of system to solve, generate the problems, have Kuta make a separate answer sheet so the problems and answers can be printed back-to-back.

So what happened?

  • Cutthroat competition: always a benefit when it comes to getting buy-in from students on an activity.
  • Collaboration after each problem: Students working together to find mistakes and re-working problems (AYKM?)
Two brains are better than one.
  • A triumphant “Yes!” from students who have struggled all year long, when they check their answer on the back and find out they worked the problem correctly:
  • And from another who managed to string together a series of boxes: “I’m taking this sheet home and putting it on my wall!”


Oh BTW: to give the activity a long tail I posted the problem set on our Canvas page for students who wanted more practice on their own before the final.

They got what they wanted. I got what I wanted.

Learning has occurred. For students, and for teachers.

Linear Review: “Children Must Play” Edition

Image result for teacher at the board meme

So: Quiz Review.

I promise my students at the start of each year that I will never drop a quiz on them without scheduling a review day. Now, if they happen to be absent on that review day, that’s on them, not me, but still. I’m not here to play “gotcha”, right?

I also learned way early in my career that me standing at the board and working out problems while they watch me like I’m a trained seal is the worst kind of review.

Seriously, “Sit and Get” didn’t work the first time. Why should I think anything has changed because there’s a quiz tomorrow? So for a while now I’ve been on a quest for quality review activities. (Looking at you, Speed Dating.)

But the reality is, anything can get stale if you let it. Even really good, student centered activities. It helps to have a deep bench. Mix it up. Keep ’em on their toes.

Between the MTBoS and the Classroom Chef/Ditch That Textbook crew I stalk follow online, there are virtually limitless ideas out there. Beautiful thing is, creativity breeds creativity. Reading about my fellow teachers taking chances and putting themselves out there inspires me.

So come time to do linear review with my Algebra II classes, I planned a double-barreled approach: A Desmos Activty based on my Clark County School District enrollment trend project (trend line, writing equations, making predictions), and (inspired by Rafe Esquith, who wrote in his book “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire” that as test prep he’d have his students predict the common mistakes that generated the distractors on the California state tests), a Make Your Own Kahoot.

I assigned the Desmos Activity as a do-at-home, which was probably a mistake. Other teachers I follow have had great success using AB this way, but the mistake I made was not priming the pump with an in-class Activity. Not too many of my students logged on to try it out after-hours.

Live and learn. I did do a little crowdsourcing for the slides, and got some good feedback.

That’s a good first step.

Still, I took some time the next day to debrief and walk through (OK, more of a 10k-pace run) through the activity screens, pointing out how the students that attempted the activity had the chance to apply what they had learned about slope to a (semi-) interesting problem.

Next up: a chance to dig in to the common mistakes that derail my students. Time for “Make your Own Kahoot!”

It was a two-day review of linear equations for an Algebra II class, which sounds excessive. But I think it was worth it. Day one, I challenged them in pairs to write their own Kahoot!-style multiple-choice question. With good distractors. No ridiculous, obviously wrong answers, but instead answers generated by common student mistakes, just like the testing companies do.

Photo credit: me. Brainpower credit: my kids.
How many ways can you mess up slope? Let’s see…

Then I collected the questions and answers and went home and made the Kahoot quiz.

Next day, we played their quiz.

Good folks have their issues with Kahoot.

Which is fine. I wouldn’t do it every day, or every week, for that matter. But damn, do the kids love it. You should have been in the class where one kid picked “harambae” as his screen name.  (Get it? Haram-BAE”). Rich.

Doc here: diy-kahoot-ch-2-review-directions.

Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun?

Oh, hell yeah.



One-Man Book Club: The Classroom Chef

Can we make their day suck a little less?

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the takeaway from the most heartbreaking story in “The Classroom Chef” by Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens.

I’ll be pretty honest. A lot of days in my first few years of teaching, (and even in recent years) I was way more concerned with how to make my day suck less. With keeping my sanity for the long stretches where I felt like I was the only human being in the class that cared if anybody learned any math.

Image via fractuslearning.com.

There’s a section of the book titled “The Time Matt Yelled At Kids”. If there was a similar section in a similar book titled “The Time Steve Yelled At Kids”, the subtitle would have to be “Hunh. Which Time?”

The futility of the power struggle with teenagers was made clear to me one day, many years ago, as I was making my way around the room, passing out the worksheet for an activity we were about to do. I couldn’t get a small group of students to stop talking, so using a tried and true method, I slammed the stack of papers across the corner of a student desk, hoping the loud noise would get everyone’s attention. In the five seconds of silence that ensued, one of the guys who was in the midst of the talkative group looked at his buddies and deadpanned, “Wow, he’s tweaking for no reason.”

Actually I was tweaking for what I thought was a good reason. We had work to do, and they wouldn’t shut up. Of course, they wouldn’t shut up because I hadn’t done anything to convince them that my class was worth their time and attention, but I didn’t come to that realization until much later.

But his comment stayed with me all weekend. I was tweaking for no reason. Why should their bad behavior get me stressed out? Their bad behavior should make them stressed out.  I vowed to find a more effective classroom management strategy. Preferably one that involved actual consequences that work.

I’m still looking.

But I do know that screaming at 15-year-olds: 1) makes me feel like an ass, and 2) doesn’t change their behavior.


The Classroom Chef Cover
Take a look at classroomchef.com and @classroomchef on Twitter.

So, I’ll grab another line from Stevens & Vaudrey: How can we make this better?

As I mentally process the book, it’s a two-pronged question: Better for me? Or for my students?

Turns out that making class more interesting and engaging, respecting all students and giving all of them an opportunity to contribute accomplishes both. It’s still pretty ugly some days, but by instituting many of the approaches that my online PLN (the #MTBoS) champions and that Stevens & Vaudrey illustrate in their book, we’ve been able carve out a space where kids who hate math and hate school, hate it a little less.

 “Teaching is hard – we owe it to our students to constantly seek meaningful ways to engage them.”

That line that will stick with me for years after reading this book. Change is hard. Doing something besides opening a textbook to a page I just looked at last night, offering half-hearted notes and a 25-problem homework assignment is hard. Finding student-centered ways to assess (the authors call it “gathering”) learning is hard.

But, damn, is it worth it.

The Entrees section is the meat of the book (pun intended), but I feel strongly like anyone ready to make the leap to a new way of teaching should consider the Appetizers and Side Dishes first.


The video hook for Dan Meyer‘s Three-Act task “Playing Catch Up“. One of my personal favorites.

“Guys, I want to share a little piece of video with you. Take a look at it, and tell me what you think, what questions you have, after watching it.”

“Is that you, Mr. Dull?” “Why is that guy wearing a suit?” “Damn, he’s slow!”

But somewhere in there, some kid is thinking (and may even say) “who’s gonna win the race?”

That is a video hook. My students don’t need any special kind of math knowledge to wonder about the outcome of a race. Everyone can jump in. Discussion ensues – what Stevens and Vaudrey call “math fights”. That’s the point of classroom appetizers. To create a low barrier to entry, get people talking, arguing even, and only then, after they’re hooked in, let them math their way to an answer.

The big payoff is creating a class culture where risk-taking is allowed, and encouraged. If it’s done right, eventually that curiosity with unanswered questions spills over into more mundane math tasks. Get them talking to each other. Trading ideas, working together to solve problems.

As the authors put it: “Immerse them in a kitchen of opportunity, conversation, collaboration, and critical thinking, and watch how they respond.”

It’s not an overnight change though. Taking a cue from one of my teacher-bloggers, I started using themed bellringers last year. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “why are we doing this?” or “what’s this got to do with math?”, or watched them sit and wait for me to give an answer to an estimation exercise, rather than trying to work through to an answer themselves.

For 10 years we tell our students to sit down, shut up, take notes, get the right answer, and pass the class. Now all of a sudden we want them thinking, putting answers out there that might be wrong, sharing ideas with (not copying answers from) fellow students. It’s gonna take a while.

Stick with it.


It’s a Friday morning. Late fall.  A corny novelty hit of the early 2010s is playing loudly from my room during passing time. My algebra 1 repeat students are filing into my classroom while I stand at the door. One of our most decorated seniors, an outstanding student, is on her way to class down the hall, walks past my room, hears Rebecca Black singing of the glories of everyone’s favorite day, and asks me sarcastically, “Are you proud of what you’re doing right now?”

Yes. Yes I am.

This is what Matt & John would call a “side dish”. In my class we call it “Friday Fun”. Just a quirky little thing we do every week. We also play the theme from “Rocky” on quiz days. As the authors say, side dishes serve a dual purpose: make class more fun for students, and make class more fun for teachers. The big payoff of all of this is, our kids see us taking risks. Sometimes they see us fall flat on our face. Some of them start to think that maybe it’s OK to take a chance in Mr. Dull’s class.



So You Think You Can Dance excited jason derulo lets go impatient
Image via giphy.com

These guys didn’t need to convince me with 200 entertaining pages. I’ve been following Matt for years, reading his blog, asking his advice on Twitter, borrowing his best lessons. Using his music cues (and some of my own). But after tearing through “The Classroom Chef” in two days, I have my guiding principles for the school year:

  1. Your students deserve better.
  2. The world needs more education geeks.
  3. Can we make their day suck a little less?

I’m holding on tight to the rest of my summer. But I’m going to be ready to tear out of the gate on August 17.

Let’s Go Eat.



Do You Even FOIL Bro?

It’s Pre-service Teacher Time in my building. I’m hosting 3 students from the nearby regional campus of Purdue University. They’ll be making 8 hours of observations, occasionally helping groups of students work through problem sets, and trying out some textbook tactics for redirecting wayward students.

As we all were, they are well-scrubbed and eager. When they arrived (midway through a class period) earlier this week, I gave them about a 20-second rundown on what we were doing and let ‘er rip. After a class and a half, during my plan period, we spent a little time debriefing.

Pre-service teacher takeaway: “This school… is nothing like ours.”

(Covered “not pretty, but real” here, last fall, with my first round of observers this school year.)

For years I’ve been on a mission to make sure my students aren’t just robotically following a set of steps, but instead working towards real understanding of the math we do. As an example, when multiplying binomials, we talk about using the Distributive Property twice, rather than the shortcut FOIL (first-outside-inside-last) which names the four partial products of the multiplication. The idea is that by using terminology “distributive property” , students will be prepared to multiply any polynomials, not just a pair of binomials. I literally have said “FOIL” zero times this school year.

And no one has asked about it. Until now.

One of my 19-year-old observers, fresh out of calculus class at a suburban high school, asked me: “Have you heard of FOIL?”

Image via http://www.fieldofdreams.it/IMAGES/Moonlight%20Graham%202.jpg

As Shoeless Joe Jackson said, famously, with a shake of the head: “Rookies”.

They meant well. I just let it ride and we continued our quick debrief before they had to head out. I sent them on their way with two assignments: go look up the free e-book “Nix The Tricks” by Tina Cardone, and do a search for the MTBoS.  I figured that would be way more effective than me trying to squeeze in an explanation before they had to take off. (Note To Self: ask them if they did a little googling when they come back around next week). But, Long Story Short: as Cardone says on pg 117:

As students repeat the procedure they will realize that each term in the first polynomial must be multiplied by each term in the second polynomial. This pattern, which you might term “each by each” carries through the more advanced versions of this exercise.

Here’s what that looked like in our class notes:

I foiled your plan.
I foiled your plan.

I used that pattern as a set-up for factoring trinomials of the form ax^2 + bx +c, hoping that it would lead seamlessly into factoring by grouping. I took great pains to remind them they already know how to do the distributive property, and how to factor out a GCF.

I planned this out intentionally, to make learning happen. I think all I really did was confuse them. But on the second day, when we finished the notes and carved out time in class to begin the practice set… a glimmer of understanding.

Kickin’ back. Image via http://www.bdcwire.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/bougie.gif

Awwww, Yeah.

We’ve been working hard to create a culture of perseverance in solving problems (SMP 1 baby!), counting on that mindset carrying over to a willingness to struggle with new concepts. It’s an uphill battle, when we’ve trained our kids for 10 years to sit there, be quiet, copy what the teacher writes down, and maybe regurgitate it on a test. It’s a big leap for a student to say “hey, it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, I’m gonna try to figure this out”. And I’ve actually heard that this year. No lie.

Students gotta have the tools to be able to struggle with a problem tho. The first tool: understanding the math that holds up the new skill we’re learning. I’m happy to play the role of the helpful hardware man.


The Power of One Good Thing

A million years ago, when I was in the midst of my coursework for my teaching degree, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in on an teacher in-service day. My supervising teacher for that field experience course insisted upon my attendance – he wanted me to see first-hand that part of teacherlife. As in-services go, it probably wasn’t horrible. I didn’t leave the building shouting from the rooftops, but I didn’t die of boredom either. Back in class, my methods teacher asked how things were going and I told her about participating in the PD session.  She told me something I remember vividly to this day: “Your goal in every professional development day is to find One Good Thing. If you can come back with one thing you can use out of the seven hours, you got what you needed from that in-service day.”

Sometimes that One Good Thing has been hard to find. But I’m a big fan of the concept. I’ve been told I’m an Optimistic Pessimist. That One Good Thing in class? I’ll hold onto it like the scent of the perfume of a loved one. I’m the guy who actually had a file folder of little notes from students that I kept on hand as a pick-me-up. Of course they disappeared in the move from Vegas back to the Region. But the thoughts my students took time to put into words are still there.

Turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks like this. There’s actually a One Good Thing blog, featuring real contributions from actual teachers. I might have first stumbled across it when Sam Shah mentioned it on his blog. Or maybe I’m just thinking it was him. He contributes there regularly. I don’t read it as often as a I should. Or contribute there at all.  Maybe I should work to change both of those deficits.

I teach sections of Algebra 1A for students who have previously failed the course, in some cases multiple times. Many of them hate math, hate school, and hate me. So we take baby steps. Sometimes starting from: can I just get everybody paying attention and at least have note-taking materials out? I have promised them we will never take a quiz without a review day first. And not just me standing at the board and doing math while they stare at me like I’m a trained seal. I mean them doing math, me circulating around the room, listening in while they help each other, offering some help when needed, formative-assessing myself senseless.

Wait… I thought you just said they hate math? And now you claim they do math math on their own while you float about the room?

I don’t blame you if you call BS. This is the magic of what I’ve come to call the Kate Nowak Style Of Review. Executive summary: all students are working, and the activity is self-checking, thus allowing teacher to target help to those most badly in need. A few weeks ago I wrote about an activity I created that bombed. (Hey, it’s a learning opportunity for me, right?). So this time around, back to the tried and true: Row Games. Here’s the docs:

Alg 1A Solve Inequalities Row Games Review Pt 2

Alg 1A Solve Inequalities Row Games Review Pt 1

See now, here’s the thing: Baby Steps aren’t just for students. I’m learning every day too. Sometimes, it just takes a little reminder. As a For Instance: after I told my students we had a quiz coming up, one of the students (who remembered the Speed Dating review from the last quiz) said, “Can we do more review like that? Because it really helped.”


Yes. Yes we can.

Then, once we finished the Row Games review, which was a smashing success, BTW, we started talking about ways to study at home for a next-day quiz. I mentioned using some of the previous homework assignments as a source of practice problems, and one of the little cherubs said, “Or, we could just do the other column from today’s work!”

One Good Thing.

I’d say “My work here is done”, but I think I’m really just getting started.



GIF via Gifrific.

Coaching And Teaching

It’s no big secret that for a lot of people in my business, these two activities overlap. It’s gotta be a Top-Ten Interview Question. Maybe Top Five: “Will you coach?” Baseball, robotics, spell bowl, class sponsor, something.

And it’s no big secret that taking on an extra duty means a hardship on family. I rolled home about 8:15 Wednesday, my wife’s birthday, after helping to coach the boys tennis team in a match. My season is short. For a lot of guys and ladies in my building, that’s a year-round reality. And nobody is getting rich off their staples. So I’m not looking for sympathy.

Sometimes in the winter I leave school late on purpose just to catch the sunset over the football field. Feeds my soul.
Sometimes in the winter I leave school late on purpose just to catch the sunset over the football field. Feeds my soul.

Also, not hidden: coaching is what teachers do. In season and out. In the classroom and out. In our families and out.

But, a little reminder from time to time never hurts. Exhibit A: My Facebook has been filled with proud parents helping their kids leave the nest. Off to college, new cities, new jobs…. you probably see the same smiling-yet-trying-not-to-cry faces in your feed. My 19-year-old son moved out this summer, joining his best friend from high school in a southern college town. He’s not going to school, but is trying to get a job and get settled in, then maybe try to enroll in classes.  And you know the drill: where’s the nearest pizza place. That delivers. McDonald’s (with wifi), 7/11 (or Circle K, or White Hen, or whatever), grocery store, bus stop, mall, Catholic church. Google helps, having a roomie who knows the town helps… but still. We’re just hoping some of the stuff he picked up from us over the last 19 years sticks. We can’t be remote-controlling him from 1100 miles away. I’ve got to rely that when it counts, he can apply what he learned.

Exhibit B: We’ve got two freshmen teamed up at #2 doubles, a traditional entry point for new players. These guys are really new – never played before. Which is fine – we’ll teach you. It’s what we do. So in a match the other day, one of our newbies and a returning veteran were paired at doubles. Halfway through a set they picked up their gear and the scorecards and came off the court. What’s wrong? They thought the match was done when they had *played* six games, not when one team had *won* six games. Of course we coached them up, sent them back out, and had them finish the match. We relied on them being able to keep track of score for themselves without us looking over their shoulder every point.

Leading me to: The Classroom. I’m teaching two sections of Algebra 1A to students who have previously failed the class. Our objectives might be *slightly* different. I want them to actually learn.  Many of them want to jump through hoops, put the right squiggles on a piece of paper, and slide by with a D-minus-minus-minus. Just like we’ve trained them to do for 10 years. We talked from the outset that I wasn’t interested in propping up their grades with a lot of fluff points or BS extra credit. I want the grade the earn to reflect what they know. What they can do. So when their next teacher tries to teach them Algebra 1B she doesn’t shake her fist at the sky and wonder what the hell was going on in my class.

I want them to be able to *do* math, even when I’m not standing next to them, holding their hand. Just like I want my son to be able to do life on his own. Just like I want my athletes to know the rules and strategies of the game (and execute them on the court). If that’s gonna be the case, then my activities and assessments better reflect that.

I’m planning a review on solving equations early next week, and I’m bouncing around some #MTBoS-inspired ideas for an activity that will involve grouping kids together, having all students active, and allowing for them to check each other’s work.   Pretty much @k8nowak and @mathequalslove living rent-free in my head, designing review activities. I’m for sure not going to stand at the presenter and do problems while they play on their phones and ignore me.

My hope (and my pedagogical belief) is that student-centered style of review is the way students best learn for the long-term. I’m hoping when I send them out on the court, into an apartment of their own, for the quiz, that they’ll be able to take what they’ve learned and apply it, display it, and be proud of it.

Here we go.


So I’ve been thinking about community today. Like a lot of people, my brain spends a lot of time working in the background trying to connect seemingly unrelated things. Today, it didn’t take much to connect the dots.

Timestamp this one about 10:30 am. Just got back from a five-mile run. I’m training for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in November. Posted this to my online running group:

"You say 'VeggieTales" and everybody loses their mind."
“You say ‘VeggieTales” and everybody loses their mind.”

I hang out online in a wacky running group started by U of F professor and Runners World columnist Ted Spiker called the Sub-30 Club. The “Sub-30” refers to running a 5k race (or training run, or Zombie Apocalypse Escape, probably) in under 30 minutes. If you need a frame of reference, a decent high school cross country runner will take about 18 minutes to cover the 3.1 miles. Some members call that breakfast, others are straining mightily to achieve it, and others take creative license to consider “Sub-30” to mean “Sub-whatever goal I have”. Those are my people.  The online posts range from race reports to post-run breakfast photos to shoe porn to rampant silliness. Sometimes all in the same post. Thus, new shoes and Lime Cucumber Gatorade and VeggieTales. 10 hours and about 20 comments later, the thread is still cracking me up. Veggie quotes, Silly Songs on running playlists, even a woman who used “I Love My Lips” as intro music for a college research presentation on bacteria in lip balm.

The coolest thing about the group is how everyone supports each other, through Personal Best times, disastrous training runs, encounters with snakes, and yes, finally reaching that elusive goal, whatever it is.

They got my back.
They got my back.

So many of us want that kind of community when we walk through the doors at school every morning, or into the lunch room, or at a faculty meeting. I happen to have been blessed with a world-class Lunch Bunch the last few years. But I have also burned through a lot of bandwidth trying to find ways to do what I do better. I have had the singular pleasure of spending most of my career teaching students who are re-taking their algebra courses, sometimes for a fourth or fifth time. What am I gonna do? Same old Stand and Deliver? Take your book home, kiddies, and do this problem set? Talk louder? I needed a better way, and some years ago stumbled across a TED talk by this tall math teacher, with whom it turns out I shared a disdain for textbook word problems. If you’ve been to a math workshop or inservice in the last six years, you’ve probably seen it.

And thus my introduction to a rag-tag band of teachers who call themselves the MTBoS (“MathTwitterBlogosphere”). They’ve all got more teaching smarts in one fingernail than I have in my whole brain. And even better, they share an attitude of sharing – what works and what doesn’t – knowing that some other teacher can pick up and take off from there, maybe improving on their groundwork.

Fast-forward to this afternoon, scrolling through my timeline and I come across this:

Sums it up perfectly. An online community of teachers, trying things out, sharing, getting better. Exactly what we are all looking for. I spent a small sliver of my summer break working on a curriculum mapping project, collaborating with two other algebra teachers in my district to put together our plans for the Algebra 1 course. In addition to pacing, we were to include resources for each section. And the MTBoS spilled out of my head and into our Google Doc. My collaborator looked at me and said, “I don’t know where you come up with all that stuff. I mean, I look on line, but I don’t know where to go to find it.”

Been there, done that. So guess what? Now it’s my turn to share. I was offered a opportunity that afternoon to introduce a room full of grade 6-12 math teachers to my online community. I gave them a handful of places to start, some twitter accounts to follow, and let them all take it from there.

The same support I get from the Sub-30 Club, I get from the MTBoS. and like a lot of the recently converted, I want everyone else to have that experience too. I hashtag some of my tweets “#SundayNightPD”, which has pretty well killed the Sunday Night Blues for me. I’m learning tonight so my students can learn tomorrow.