It’s complicated

I’m not a big TV person, but I can get down with some Wheel of Fortune. It’s pretty fun to watch and Vanna and Pat are seemingly ageless…which blows my mind.

But as much as I like the show, this puzzle from last night’s episode bothered me:


They didn’t choose English, social studies, or computer science. No, they mindfully chose math (and physics) to associate with “complicated.” This is exactly the sort of damaging groupthink that fosters fear, anxiety, and stereotype threat of mathematics in my students (and society) and makes my job so dang hard. We can be better than this Wheel. C’mon now.



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NCTM 2018 Annual Conference


So this week I attended two days of the NCTM 2018 Annual Conference in Washington D.C. I’m so fortunate because my school has a funder, PDT, that fit the bill. This was my first NCTM Conference — and I’m pretty sure that without their generosity there’s no way that I would have been able to attend.

While I was overwhelmed with the massive selection of workshops, thousands of people, and the dizzying amount of corporate sponsors, I did my best to stay focused. I narrowed my takeaways to two, one big and one small.

Well first let me just say that, naively, I was surprised by how lackluster some of the sessions were. None that I attended were horrible, but there were several that I was very unhappy about. This was true also for my colleagues that attended. What can I say, I’ve been spoiled by MfA — where the quality of PD is through the roof. After a while, I just started looking for sessions facilitated by folks that I knew and could bank on, like Sara Vanderwerf. She never ceases to inject me ridiculous levels of inspiration.

Anyways, back the takeaways. This school year, while I’ve adopted a more problem-based learning approach in my classroom, I’ve been crying inside at the loss of my standards-based grading structure. By pouring so much energy into reimagining my classroom, I sort of gave up on integrating SBG with PBL.

Well, with that being said, it seemed as if the entire the conference was screaming SBG at me. I attended a session with Dave Martin (he was incredible) on differentiating assessments and SBG and I walked out knowing that I have to find a way. My kids deserve meaningful, accurate assessment. There were several other sessions that also forced me to rekindle the love that I have for standards-based grading. This was the biggest and most impactful takeaway.

On a smaller scale, I went to a session by Chris Shore, the pioneer of Clothesline Math. I have played around with Clothesline Math once before after reading about it online, but this was an opportunity to experience it firsthand. It was awesome! Interestingly, his focus was on functions, yes functions, on the number line. It’s such an intuitive tool for building number sense. I’m definitely making plans to bring the open number line to my students before the end of the year. In fact, I hope that it can become a staple.





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I have a senior in my fifth period algebra 2 class

I have a senior in my fifth period algebra 2 class who, after failing 3 of the 4 marking periods, has lost all hope in earning credit for the class or passing the Regents exam. Neither is going to affect whether he graduates or not, so over the last few months there has been a slow, gradual decline in his effort and overall concern for our class. It’s come to the point where he comes to class and simply puts his head down for the majority of the period.

I’m horrible and very awkward at outwardly motivating students, but I’ve tried by encouraging him to take pride in his work and preaching the importance of finishing strong. During these one-on-one conversations, he smiles, nods, and looks right through me. He doesn’t care and is very open about this fact.

I’ve also called home. Nothing. I’ve asked other teachers in my school for advice how to reach him. However good natured, they laughed at me. I’ve made it personal by asking him for a copy of his college admissions essay, reading it, and being genuinely blown away. This yielded insight into who he was and a personal connection between the two of us, but there was still no change in his attitude.

So this is exactly the point in this blog post where I’d love to start transitioning into a description of something awesome I did to get through to him. That magic trick that, according to mainstream media and most politicians, all teachers are expected to perform with every student. Well, I haven’t been able to do that. He’s still very much uninterested in our class and I’ve done nothing to change this.

There are lots of issues surrounding his struggles, but I can’t help but look in the mirror. In many ways, I’ve failed him. I could’ve poured more energy into him and his situation earlier and more often.

I’m not proud of it, but there were days when his head was down and I looked the other way, when I made a conscious decision to focus on the other 23 students who were alert and attempting to understand (many half-heartedly) the mathematics at hand. In those moments, I mindfully refused to address his lack of motivation and interest. The truth is, I was at a loss. I just didn’t know what to do. I felt handcuffed. I was frustrated at him, at me, at the situation. I still am.

And I’m not tap, tap, tapping these thoughts out on my phone’s tiny screen on airplane while chaperoning a trip over spring break as a cry for help or to earn sympathy. At least I don’t think so. This just seems like a deed that needs to be done, for myself. It’s to hold myself accountable to never give up on this kid – or any kid like him.

Or it could be because I’m 33,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by 24 teenagers with nothing better to do than think about my students.


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Example analysis from DeltaMath

With so much problem-based learning happening this year, I’ve been mixing in plenty of algebra by example-esque problems. They work really well because they get kids to analyze math work on their own and then use it to solve a similar problem.

I’ve been writing some of these problems from scratch (horribly), but DeltaMath has shown up on the scene and helped out in unexpected ways. At the beginning of the year, I originally intended for DeltaMath to be a review of the problems/topics we learned in class. I assign them one big assignment that’s due the day before the next exam and they do it over time as we explore ideas in class.

That’s happening, yes, But what I’ve found is that the kids are also using the DeltaMath to learn the new ideas by means of the examples, not just review them. They’re independently leaning on their own analysis of DeltaMath examples to learn rather than on me to hand-hold them through examples in class. Independent learners, yay!!

The result is that someone regularly comes to class saying “…on DeltaMath I learned that…,” when presenting a problem we’re discussing in class – even when its an introductory problem on a topic. And, more often than not, this opens the door for a complete student-led class discussion around the problem.

For example, take this “Factor by Grouping Six Terms” problem that I assigned earlier in the year:

Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 3.54.03 PM

When they click the “Show Example” on the top, a worked-out example appears:

Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 3.56.51 PM

Students can even filter through different types of examples of the same problem by clicking “Next Example.”



Posted in mathematics, PBL | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments


We teachers learn early on that exams should reflect what students have learned. They should attempt to measure what was taught, to capture student understanding in a way that helps drive future instruction.

But lately, I’ve been asking myself, what if I included material on exams that students haven’t explicitly learned? What if I expected them to stretch what they did learn to apply it in a new way?

Specifically, I’m thinking that 10% of each exam would be stuff that students have never seen in class or homework. It would be unknown to the kids before they saw it on an exam. This 10% would push students to expand and enrich what they did learn. It would allow me to bridge pre- and post-exam content and possibly preassess things to come. It would trigger meaningful reflection afterward which, I hope, would cause students to genuinely learn something new. It would also help me measure how far their understanding of the mathematics will take them into uncharted territory — which is probably worth it in and of itself. And besides, the oh-so-high-stakes Regents exam in June is filled with problems that neither they nor I could have predicted…so why not prepare them for this all throughout the year?

All that sounds great. But what scares me is the unethical nature of it all. This is where my preservice days haunt me. How could I possibly hold my kids accountable for material they’ve never interacted with? Is that fair? This unpredictability for the students is making me second guess myself.

Although, I am only thinking about what’s expected now — which is that exams will follow suit with the problems they’ve already done. But what if this unknown 10% was a norm that was baked into our classroom culture from jump? What if it was something students understood and acknowledged going into every exam, an inherent challenge I placed on them to demonstrate their mathematical abilities to new ways?




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