Math is Play

I’ve seen a few times on Twitter the analogy:

Reading is to English class as

Play is to Math class

I love it! An important part of becoming a mathematician is to play with math! It is important to me that students play with math in their own way as part of the class. This is why I love Sam’s Explore Math activities, which I make an occasional requirement in my classes.

I especially make sure to have students playing with math anytime we have a day that is not a normal instructional day. For instance, this past week, all juniors were away visiting local colleges. So I had a tiny class with the handful of sophomores who are in that class.

We started the period by playing Set (often an easy hit with students!).

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If you haven’t seen someone play cooperative 3D (or 4D!) Set, you should check out Amie’s stuff!

My new favorite playful math activity to do with students (and teachers! and admin! and parents!) is Manifold. If you haven’t seen them before, basically you get an 8×8 grid like this one:

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and you have to fold it in a way so that one side looks like this:

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and the other side looks like this:

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When you buy it, you get a stack of 100 different designs, that go into increasing difficulty. Here’s one of the more complicated ones (level 26):

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Anyone I’ve ever given these to can’t stop themselves from tinkering. It has an easy entry point, but can get difficult quickly. My students loved them and in a short period of time (maybe 20mins) one of them was tearing through them:

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I hope we all keep playing in math!



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The Importance of Venting

Happy 2019 everyone!

After talking with some teacher friends recently, I was reminded of the importance of venting in our profession. We all know this job is hard: We make hundreds of decisions throughout our work day. We deal with a wide range of emotions (from ourselves, our students, and our colleagues). We encounter moments of frustration and failure, and we have a continually growing pile of lessons to plan and problems to grade…

It is perfectly acceptable to feel frustrated and/or sad and/or defeated and/or exhausted…That is why we need to vent! Don’t hold it all in. Get it off your chest and out of your head by talking to a trusted friend or colleague. Vent!

In my early years of teaching, a dear friend taught me specifically how to vent, at least in a way that worked for me, and I have since trained my friends and partner in how to be a good receiver of venting. Here’s my quick summary:

  1. Find the people you can vent to. A colleague at your school is nice, but I really appreciate venting to those who do not work with me: Wonderful teacher friends I’ve met through the #MTBoS, my spouse, and my best friend.
  2. Figure out how you want to vent. For me, I realized I just want another human being to listen and empathize. I don’t want solutions. I just want to verbally dump it all out. So I am clear with those I vent to that if I want ideas, I will start my story by asking for input. Otherwise, if I talk about work, I’m just venting. I had to specifically teach this to my husband. He really wanted to help out by offering suggestions. I didn’t want that. I had to tell him that venting = him just listening.
  3. Teach others how to receive your venting. When I’m venting about a student or administrator or whatever, I want the person I’m venting to to be there with me. I don’t want ideas or input, but I want them to show me that they are listening and I want affirmation. They can show listening through nodding along or short interjections of “that’s so annoying” or “ugh”. The affirmation part is really important. Short phrases like “of course you’re upset” or “you have every right to feel sad” are often helpful.
  4. Extension: What helps you move forward? Since venting can feel negative, I always want to lighten the mood afterwards. As a receiver of venting, I learned that changing topics wasn’t always appreciated. What I learned from Sam Shah is to exaggerate my commiseration to help lighten the mood. So when someone is complaining about students doing poorly in class, I might lie and say exaggerated things like “your students are horrible” or “I hate your students.” It sounds mean, but with a trusted friend, we both know we love all our students and this is all in fun. This exaggerated extension of the venting often helps to minimize the frustrations and bring some laughter, often allowing us to let go and move on.

As an example, suppose your colleague didn’t do his share of the planning that you needed for tomorrow. Yes, it should be addressed and there may be people on campus you can talk to about it more legitimately. However, the venting I’m talking about is before any of that. You may just need a moment to work through the emotions. Perhaps you call or text a close friend or family member. Here’s an  brief example of a text conversation I might have:


You: “Ugh, ugh, UGH! I can’t believe my colleague. He didn’t finish writing the lesson we both need for tomorrow.”

Friend: “That’s horrible. That really sucks.”

You: “Yeah and now I have to stay later at work and get this all written and copied. I’m so stressed. I have so much to do.”

Friend: “OMG I hate that.”

You: “Yeah, it’s really not fair. I have all this extra work now. So annoying. I’m so upset.”

Friend: “Of course you are. Your colleague is an idiot. What a horrible person.”

You: “Yeah, he’s the worst.”

Friend: “Yeah, tell him he’s fired. I never liked him anyway.”

You: “Ha. Yeah…OK. Back to work now.”


You may not feel happy after the conversation, but at least you let off some steam, got some affirmation that your feelings are legitimate, and (hopefully) got a little smile.

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CMC South 2018

I returned from another wonderful year of conferences at CMC-South. It is always a great conference in Palm Springs, CA around this time each year. (I highly recommend it!) I wanted to share the two big take aways that are sticking with me a day or two later…

1) Math & Social Justice

Dr. K Childs gave a wonderful talk about how math and social justice are (and should be) intertwined. He talked about how they are inextricably linked, and we should not separate them. Math is inherently political.

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He shared ideas of topics for math problems. In the session we did examples with percents and hiring practices.

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It’s hard to explain the power of his talk in this blog. It was a great mindset shift for me to hear him talk about all the ways math is intertwined with social justice. He ended with a great sentiment of

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There is a lot of work to be done on my part to develop problems and activities that truly bring the social justice issues into the curriculum.

2) Math & Humanizing

Howie Hua gave a great impromptu talk about humanizing the math classroom. He is a professor of pre-service math teachers, and he is doing such wonderful work! He defined humanizing as

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My favorite take-away was that to help with math anxiety, each time Howie gives out a test, he has students put away their pens/pencils and take five minutes to talk about the test (it has already been passed out). So students can discuss possible strategies with their group for a few of the problems. Then, after the 5 minutes, they work independently on the test.

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I really like this, and I’m wondering about extending this idea to have a group quiz in my class that is entirely oral, no writing allowed. I might give groups 5 minutes to talk through and work out problems orally. However, they would not be able to write anything down (these would be problems that are much more explanation focused than calculations). As they are discussing, I imagine visiting each group and the person I choose (possibly randomly?) has to explain the problem. (Perhaps then they can use a pen or pencil.) I might have different student each explain one problem, but at the end of the day, it would be a group grade on how well each problem was explained…just an idea I’m mulling over…


Overall, it was a great conference. I was glad to spend time with so many wonderful people. We explored the idea of #cancelledschmancelled rogue sessions. I gave my talk on debate in math class, and I was really happy that it finally felt “right.” And I got to share it with two wonderful teachers at my school!

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I’m late in blogging about this, but I really wanted to share: my new favorite start of the year math activity was Skyscrapers! Like Sudoku or KenKen, Skyscrapers are a type of latin square. A full break down of the problems can be found on the wonderful Amie Albrecht’s blog here: Skyscrapers.

I had students build the skyscrapers on paper with candy (which they could then eat). Here’s a few photos:

The students were instantly engaged and asked for more! They have taken to downloading free apps of more Skyscraper puzzles on their phones and showing me their accomplishments.

Thanks Amie!

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Teacher User Manual

I went to a great workshop last week on building relationships among teachers, and I was inspired by the idea of teachers in my department creating a “User Manual” for themselves (that they then share with me…and others?).

We all know the user manual we get when we buy a new appliance or piece of technology. It comes with some information on how it works best and what things to avoid.

So why don’t we do something similar for ourselves?! To help in building relationships and clarifying some of our personal preferences, I want my teachers to take the time to reflect on how they work best (as well as their pet peeves). This manual is a chance to bring up personal preferences and routines so that we know how best to work with each other, possibly preventing some future conflicts. It is a place for some unfiltered brainstorming on how we work best. For instance:

  • What is the best time of day to drop by your office?
  • What is your preferred method of communication?
  • Is there a routine you have during a part of the day?

As an example, for me, having quiet time in the early morning is really important. Before first period is a time where I focus and organize myself for my day, take one last look over my lesson plans, etc., and I prefer that time to be uninterrupted. So I can communicate in my own user manual that the mornings are not a good time to “stop by.” If there is a concern you have first thing in the morning, send me and email about it or to schedule a time to talk.

Here is the link to what I came up with: Teacher User Manual.  I’d love to hear thoughts and suggestions for it before I roll it out!



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Math with Opinions

What is the flavor of my classroom? I have been struggling with what to say to be able to join in on Sam Shah’s amazing Virtual Conference of Mathematical Flavors for a few weeks now. Sam is asking us to respond to the question:

How does your class move the needle on what your kids think about the doing of math, or what counts as math, or what math feels like, or who can do math?

The short answer is: debate. I have spent a lot of time developing structures and strategies to make my classroom a place where students can discuss and debate math!

Those who know me, know I love to talk strategies for debate in the classroom. However, my struggle in writing this post is to be clear that in my classroom, debate is more than the claim/warrant structure I share in 30-60min sessions at conferences. For me, it is a real and important part of the fabric of my classroom culture. I want students to know that anyone can talk and debate math. I want them to know that doing math can involve opinions, and I want them to feel that math can be messy, argumentative and beautiful.

As a former speech and debate student-turned-coach, I saw the power of both public speaking and creating debatable arguments for students. Furthermore, in the subject of mathematics, a subject solidly grounded in reasoning, proof and argumentation, I saw a place to connect debate strategies to content learning. So, I have tried to create a classroom where students do the talking, explaining their thinking and creating opinions to open-ended questions. It is my goal that at least once every school day, students have an opportunity to debate and discuss something (though I can’t think of a day where it only happened once)!

My delight is seeing students struggle as their mindset shifts from the idea that math is where you (a) learn a new formula/concept and then (b) solve a worksheet of similar problems to idea that math is a living subject, where people discuss and debate best strategies or interpretations of information. I want students to not only understand the math but be able to articulate arguments to questions like:

  • What is the best method for solving this problem?
  • Which piece of information is the least important here?
  • How will you most affectively improve this work?


FYI: More about my debate structure can be found on my blog here, here and here (among other posts)!


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TMC18–Cleveland Rocks!

What a delight it was to travel to my old hometown for TMC18, expertly hosted by Dave and others at St. Ignatius HS.  My close friend Mattie and I ran a morning session again on discussion and debate in the math class to a full room. I also convinced 3 of my new co-workers to apply and attend!

As always, I was overwhelmed by great ideas. Here are some things I want to work on this year:

  • Assessing with Desmos (a la Julie and Jonathan)–remember to press pause so they can not go back and change answers.
  • Connecting with other math teachers and coaches about leadership in Heather’s session.
  • Writing in math class! I want each student to have a math journal that stays in the classroom and they write in once a week. Thanks to Cindy at St. Ignatius!
  • Need to check out Games for Young Minds.
  • Remember: you are not an imposter. We are all teacher leaders! Let’s build up! (Thanks, Julie)

So looking forward to TMC19 in Berkeley, CA next July!!


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