Weekly Math Themes for Remote Learning

To cope with my own angst during these extraordinary times, but also to help breathe life into remote learning, I’ve begun exploring using weekly “themes” for Algebra 2. For the sake of my own sanity, I’m haven’t been looking to tie the themes directly to my Algebra 2 curriculum. I’m not fighting that battle right now. Instead, the themes will be filled with lots of tangential math that is generally interesting and useful. I’m also aiming to give my kids more exposure to the cultural and social underpinnings of math. These interactions will be surface-level by design; casual glances that may or may not stir something deeper within my students. I’m OK with this. With no state-testing breathing down our necks, my only hope is to escape the vice grips of the Common Core a little bit. I simply want to add dimension to our class. Alternatives. And, who knows, maybe this work will spark something that lingers when we resume the regularly scheduled program.

So, each week, in addition to the scaled-back algebra 2 content, I plan on offering up videos and readings that elicit the theme for that week and then ask my kids to produce something. This past week, for example, the theme was mathematical genius. I had the students watch a clips about Terry Tao, Jaxon Cota, and Magnus Carlsen, while also read this blog post. I then had them write a short reflection on their noticings, wonderings, and any themes they saw. (I got this whole theme idea passively from Benjamin Dickman, who posted his weekly plans for his Problem Posing class. Of course, I stole his first theme and resources.)

There is around two months of school left and I’m going to figure out the themes as I go. I have been brainstorming, though, and I want to dump my early deas into this post. I’ve been reading Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su — which is stocked with inviting ideas. I may pull from these as time passes.

Here’s what I have so far for possible themes, some related resources, and possible student outputs. It’s messy and incomplete, so bear with me.



Student work + Remote Learning

When it comes to actual teaching during these trying times, one of the biggest obstacles is getting into frequent contact with authentic student work. I don’t how authentic it is, but I have been able to examine student work just about everyday in a way that isn’t totally horrible. Plus, with a little prep beforehand, I’m experimenting with how to seamlessly bring their work into our Zoom sessions to start conversations. Here’s what I’ve been doing. (My pal Michael Pershan wrote a great post on this topic, too.)

1. Before class, students do some math by hand on a given problem I’ve assigned.

2. They scan their work using Genius Scan. Scanned work has some serious advantages over regular photos. It’s clearer and glare and other lighting issues are usually minimized. Genius App is free — and I’m sure there are others like it.

3. They upload their scanned work to Google Classroom. I create a new Assignment for each problem in Classroom so that I’m only looking at work from one problem at a time. I make it clear to the kids that their “grade” for the assignment is based purely on completion, not correctness. That’s the bait I use to encourage them to submit work that is genuine. I think it’s working, but who knows. What else do I have?

4. After they submit their work on Classroom, here’s how it appears on my end:

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In doing this almost every day, looking over their work and providing feedback has worked out far better than I thought it would originally. The whole process feels like it did when I collected work from them in person (minus handwritten feedback). The arrows near the top allow me to toggle between students with ease and leaving a “private comment” becomes a space for direct feedback that is emailed to each student on the spot. Copy and paste is my friend for common errors, which is a nice bonus that comes from typed feedback. In the comments, I have even been including links to other students’ work (anonymously) and YouTube videos that I know would help them. Some kids have told me that the feedback is helpful, but I know there are others that never use it…but this is not unlike the oft-ignored handwritten feedback I used to give them, right?

5. After looking at all of their work, I choose 3-4 interesting ones and paste those into a Google Doc. During our Zoom sessions, which are twice a week, I am developing a routine where I give the link to the doc and then put students in breakout rooms to discuss the work.

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What’s nice about this is that not only are they assessing other kids’ work, which I find to be a worthwhile and engaging task for them, but even if they didn’t do the problem or submit it on Classroom (which is A LOT of them), they still have access to it and can think about math. It keeps all kids in the loop. Well, at least in theory. Most of my breakout rooms are jarringly silent.




Dear Students, (Student Letter #7)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the seventh post in the series

Note: While all of my previous letters were written to individual students, given the COVID-19 crisis, this one is written to all of my current students.

Dear Students,

We’re three weeks in, and this remote learning thing is beginning to settle in. The Zoom sessions, mounds of emails, and teaching from my bedroom have somehow developed into routines. It’s all still quite strange, but markedly less strange than what it once was.

I wonder how you all are feeling about it. It may be hard to judge with many other aspects of your young lives evolving at the same time. Your stories are vastly different now than they were a month ago. Many of you are still picking up the pieces. Your families have been hit hard. Illness has gripped your reality, you have lost loved ones. For some, parents. Sadly, it seems that every day I learn of another one of you who has been wounded by this vile and unmerciful pandemic. Even though I have lost both of my parents, I simply can’t understand your loss. Others have had guardians lose jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, yet are still required to log on and fulfill empty demands. And for those privileged enough to have not been directly touched by this virus, many of you have expressed a sap in energy and severe lack of motivation. Through extended bouts of isolation and nothing but more bad news arriving each day, you are feeling helpless, alone, and uncertain about your future.

For these reasons and many more, being your teacher right now is hard. I mean, seriously, what am I doing trying to teach you polynomial long division? Is that what is important right now? And why am I having you drudgingly scan and upload your work to Classroom every day? So I can feel like I’m assessing your math thinking? Why am I tyrannically and insensitively pushing deadlines? I have cut the curriculum in half, but why have I given you so many grades? Am I leading with lessons — or love? Why am I attempting to recreate our in-person learning experience? Don’t I see that this will never be possible? I’m staring at a green dot!

I’m sorry, I’m just confused. And I miss you…and our classroom. I’m worried about not doing right by you and your needs. Right now, I don’t think I am. I haven’t been as sensitive as I should be during this time and it’s getting to me. I was already apprehensive about where I saw teaching and learning headed before this virus threw a tarantula on our lives, and now that it has, I don’t know what the hell to think. It’s hijacked our way of life and forced us to exist only as screennames on Zoom and Google Classroom. I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for me.

Speaking of Zoom, you have to excuse me each day as I plead with you all to activate your camera and share your faces with me and the rest of the class. I get that you don’t often want to be seen at a time like this (especially you, 1st period), but I find seeing you awfully comforting. Noticing you sitting atop of your kitchen counter eating ramen starts a conversation. It gives me something to hitch my floating mind to. It makes you human again. You see, I used to be able to walk up to you at any time and create a moment out of thin air. I could ask you about the essay you’re working on in ELA, your new hamster, or how your mom is holding up at her new job. Now I don’t even get to hear each of you speak unless you do it on your own (maybe that should change?), let alone see you. Even if you’re having a crummy day, please know my day will always be better after seeing you. It’s all I have.

I want to strike the right balance of compassion and accountability, but instead, I’m being held hostage by a screen and a keyboard. There’s a pressure — both externally and internally — to make things as normal as possible for you. Well, THIS ISN’T NORMAL. Putting those words in all caps — and this letter in general — is a self-imposed prick on my finger; a reminder of what’s important. Being aware of how ensconced I now am in remote learning is in itself a check for myself. With the school year now permanently severed and with us being detached for so long, I fear that the humanity that I tried so hard to solicit in our classroom is being drained out of me one Zoom session at a time. Gradually, over the last month, my settling into remote learning has pivoted my attention away from your struggles, hardships, and the state of flux that your lives have become. I’m getting comfortable staring at a green dot and it is getting scary. I apologize.

In lieu of that apology, I have nothing to offer you but my word that I will be more critical of how I serve you in the months ahead. I promise frequent non-academic check-ins and a greater emphasis on community and togetherness and less of a focus on the strictures of curriculum. I promise to remember that you are more than a green dot or screenname. I promise to do my best to lead with love, not lessons.

Sincerely Yours,
Mr. P

Haiku #6

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing Haiku about my teaching practice. This is the sixth post in the series.

Teaching and learning have both been upended in recent weeks and, while I am energized by change, I’m still searching for ways to process this one. Our new normal has arrived with no mercy for what we took for granted. Who would have thought I would miss my trapezoidal desks and the fight my SmartBoard always seemed to give me. I miss making copies and catching up with colleagues who I never see around the building. I miss the building. Maybe it misses us too.

School reborn on screen
Empty classrooms left confused
Where are the humans?