My CLMS Speech: It’s a great time to be a teacher!

8 Dec

I was recently given the honor of California League of Middle School (CLMS) Educator of the Year for my school. I was asked to give a speech that responds to the following prompt.  Transitioning to Common Core State Standards:  How do you engage your students and colleagues in changes to the classroom?    I was initially underwhelmed with the prompt, but in the end I was pleased with my speech.  I hope you enjoy it. Here it is  (of course, left off my preamble of thank you’s).

It’s a great time to be a teacher. Why? We are having a Renaissance in education. I started teaching about 10 years ago. I had my overhead projector, my colorful Vis a Vis markers, and, of course, I spent many an hour cleaning those darn transparencies. Over the years, tools entered my classroom to make my life easier: the document camera, the LCD projector, the iPad, and even the Smart Board. But the tools, in themselves, didn’t improve my teaching or the students’ learning. Things don’t do that, ideas do. The common core practices inspired me to question and reflect on how to best help kids discover, think, collaborate, model, and explain their thought process. Coincidently or perhaps not so coincidently, there are additional factors currently impacting my perspective and teaching style: the growth mindset (that mistakes are a necessary part of growing the math brain), the maker movement, STEM initiatives, expanding my expertise through MOOCs, and sharing best practices with the larger teacher community through blogging. It sure is an interesting time.

I’m a math and STEM teacher. As a math teacher, common core gave me some room to go deeper into topics, letting the students learn more authentically, investigating certain ideas, working on projects, sharing out their observations. A popular new practice in many math classrooms, including mine, is number talks. It’s where kids mentally strategize how to work out particular puzzles, patterns, or numeric expressions, such as 21 x 19. It’s amazing the learning that happens during these sessions. Kids are decomposing numbers, rearranging them, putting back together. You hear kids say, “What, you can do that?” Talk about AHAs, they’re rolling in. So how do I engage students in changes to the classroom? I ask them questions that make them think, and then I listen.

As a STEM teacher, it’s fascinating to watch my students connect what they learn in their core classes with hands-on engineering projects. My 8th graders are designing 3d models, printing them out on our 3d printer, building robots to accomplish particular tasks, learning how to code, getting first hand experience with the design cycle, and presenting their creations to their peers and others. They are little engineers! It’s funny, about 10 years ago I left my engineering career to go into teaching, and now my teaching career is going into engineering.

By the way, it’s not just a great learning time for our students, but us teachers are really walking the talk of being lifetime learners.   Out of all the confusion and initial frustration with common core, came the best collaboration I’ve experienced as a teacher. Now, practically everyday my cohort of math teachers talk about: what, when, why and how we’re teaching what we’re teaching. It’s so motivating to be surrounded by forward-thinking colleagues who get excited when we discover more effective ways to teach and reach our students.

So yes, I think education is experiencing a Renaissance; a rebirth of ideas, and it’s exciting to be part of the community, shaping it and breathing new life into it. It is a great time to be a teacher!

Pperfect Squares: Breaking the 1000 barrier

12 Oct

It’s always so much fun teaching the namesake of this blog, pperfect squares.  I printed out the lyrics of the song, and together my students and I sang it. The next day, I had them, in partners, list out all the perfect squares beginning with 1. For the next 10 minutes, they were to list as many as possible, in order, on the big white boards. Can you break the 1000 barrier?  The kids work so hard to do this, and about 75% did! Some stayed after the bell to get it.  A week later when we learned about perfect cubes, a student, who loves to rap, created a pperfect cube rap and performed it for the class. It was so entertaining!

Here’s some pics of the kids breaking the 1000 perfect square barrier:


All math teachers should take this class: How to Learn Math

6 Sep

This past summer I took the most enriching web-based class from Stanford’s Jo Boaler called How to Learn Math, for teachers and parents. It was so interesting, enlightening, and I recommend it for all math teachers. It is all about guiding students to adopt the growth mindset .vs. the fixed mindset, and how to help students improve in problem solving by presenting doable but challenging open-ended exercises.

She also offers a How to Learn Math, for students. I haven’t taken this but will, and then I will most likely have all my students take it too.

Mini-Project on Translations, Reflections, and Rotations

1 Jun

I’ve been incorporating more art into math this year. This project continues this theme. I had the students draw a pre-image, and then accurately translate it, reflect it, and rotate it into images. They could do these transformations in any order; they just need to document all the transformation rules and label the vertices correctly. Here’s some student work:

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Geometry – Construction Projects

11 Apr

It’s that time of year again…when parents and administration tour the school and my room to see interesting, creative, and, hopefully, relevant projects completed by my students. I try to pick a project that by its nature will be unique for each student. This way it will make the room more fun to explore, and the students can learn from each other’s work.

This year in my Algebra 1 class we are currently doing geometry : constructions, transformations, and congruency. This is because the students are going into an integrated common core curriculum in high school and I am preparing them to skip freshman Integrated 1.  Anyway, for their open house project, I gave each student a unique design (given design) that they had to reproduce using constructions (only a compass and straightedge). I got the idea and designs from this pdf after searching the web for such projects (thanks Mr. Baroody).  On a poster they needed to 1) write out the steps they used to construct it,  2) show the finished construction with the construction marks, and 3) create a clean finished copy without marks. They also were required to do this again with their own design. Here’s my one page set of Construction Project for the students. The students loved doing this project; they worked on it inside (2 days) and outside of class (a lot). Some used this online construction tool to help them figure out the construction method; this tool is super handy once you get the hang of it.

Here’s some of my students’ work (for this first one a particularly artistic student put a paintbrush in her compass to construct the eye):

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Yes to Retakes and No to Zeros

18 Feb

Back in 2008 I attended the ETS conference on Assessment for Learning, and Ken O’Connor’s breakout on grading  had a lasting effect on me.

Regarding retakes, he gave the compelling argument regarding parachute packing. Do you want to use the parachute from the packer who was doing excellent packing work but recently got sloppy with the packing, or the packer who started off badly, but has been doing perfect packing in recent weeks? I would go with the latter. What matters is that the student eventually learns how to master the topic, and not all students learn at the same rate. Here’s my retake philosophy this year:

  • Only one retake allowed (from my experience if a student doesn’t study and get help before first retake, they don’t do it for subsequent ones either)
  • Students must retake assessment week following original (implemented this because students were waiting too long)
  • Retake score overrides original score (good or bad; this encourages studying)
  • In the gradebook, in the comment field for that student’s test grade, I document that the student retook the quiz, and I state the original and retake score.

I think it was Ken O’Connor who also introduced me to the no-zero grading policy. Why are grades A-B-C-D all separated by 10% point while we give the F a 50% band? If a student falls into this F abyss, they may never get out even after they have worked hard their grades begin to get better We all know how averages can be skewed.  For more information on this, read Douglas Reeves’ article, Case Against Zero. Here’s my no-zero philosophy this year:

  • Apply no-zero philosophy on assessments
  • If students get a 25% on a test, I put 25% on the test that I hand back to the student; however, I enter 50.25 into the gradebook. This lets me retain the actual grade info while still giving them a 50% F.

Both of these policies, retakes and no-zeros on  assessments give students a second chance to succeed. They are also great discussion points when talking with parents on how their child can improve in my class. There is never a time when a student should lose hope.

Constraining Horizontal/Vertical lines via Desmos

18 Jan

Students seem to always have trouble grasping that x=2 is a vertical line, and that y=2 is a horizontal line. I understand their issue with this;  x is the horizontal axis yet x=2 is a vertical line. Boy, that’s confusing! In class we talk about how it’s counter-intuitive, and we repeat the “x=2 is vertical because it cuts through the x axis at 2″. To help the students understand this more, and to get in more domain and range practice, I had them write their initials in Desmos. A good structured yet open-ended activity where students could go simple with basic block letters or get creative with more curves (parabolas), etc.


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