NCTM 2019 Activities

I’m excited that the NCSM/NCTM annual conference is back on the west coast. I’ll be in San Diego all week, learning from great educators. I’m also excited to share #debatemath ideas on Thursday (April 4th) in my session.

I also started putting together a list of all the great math teacher get togethers and learning moments not listed in the NCTM booklet. Including:

If you’re around Tuesday or Thursday, join lots of awesome math teachers for happy hour. (RSVP at the appropriate link below)
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If you’re in town Wednesday night, there’s:
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Definitely mark your calendars for this year’s ShadowCon on Thursday afternoon!
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And after ShadowCon, head to Desmos trivia night!
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Lastly, stop by for ice cream (Thursday) or popcorn (Friday) at the Stenhouse booth in the vendor area. I’ll definitely be there for ice cream!!!
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Pi Week 2019 Wrap Up

This year my math department tried to really amp up the “Pi Day” activities into a full week-long celebration of math. We added on to many of the things we did last year, and invited in our first ever “Pi Week Speaker,” Annie Fetter! Here is a brief summary:


MONDAY – Hanging the Pi Chain

Similar to last year, we had each student decorate one link of a chain, representing a digit of the decimal expansion of pi. Students did this during math classes the Thursday and Friday before Pi Week, and then on the Monday of Pi Week we connected our sections of the chain and hung it around the outside of the classrooms!

While our campus is under some construction, we have this little area outside some of the math classrooms with trees. We used part of the Pi Chain to turn it into our mathy zen garden.

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TUESDAY – Women in Math/Coding Project

Our wonderful 6th grade teacher, Jill Kearney, had her students create a coding project that involved the story of a historical female mathematician. The students presented these to a panel of adults. The winners won #mathgals shirts!

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Side note on how awesome Jill is: On Pi Day, she made Pi Cookies for the teachers!

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WEDNESDAY – Pi Week Speaker

For the first time, the math department invited a math speaker to talk an a whole-school assembly. In her 30min talk, Annie Fetter spoke to students about her background story, and her journey in going from a math student who got the answers to someone who asked why. She also talked about the NY Times What’s Going On in This Graph? activity. The students were riveted!

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After her visit, I had students reflect on what she said. I was blown away by their reflections. For instance, one student said:

“While figuring out the answer is sufficient, to be a true mathematician is to wonder why that answer is correct. This brings me to my second largest take away, which is that to be a critical thinker means to focus on the journey, not the destination. In other words, just focusing on the answer is not enough to get you to truly understand the topic and its significance. Instead, focusing on the “why” and the “how” and you got there is the key to success–in multiple aspect of life, not just in math class.”

Huge thanks to Annie for coming to visit and to Jemma Kennedy for helping make it all happen!

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Not a lot happened for us on actual Pi Day, outside the math classes. There were some other school events happening that day. However, this was the day winners of the Scavenger Hunt and Problems of the Day (see below) were awarded their math shirts!


FRIDAY – Math Shirt Day!

Our school has uniforms, so it was a treat for students to be able to dress down if they wore a math t-shirt!



During the whole week we had several math challenges happening, where students could win prizes, including cool math t-shirts! Those challenges included:

  • A Week-Long Scavenger Hunt: students formed groups of 3-5 students and spent their free time each day solving a clue (or two) that would lead them to the next clue. All the clues involved math puzzles!
  • A Daily Challenge Problem of the Day: the entire student body was emailed a math problem each morning. Anyone who could turn in the answer by the next day won a prize! These were challenging problems that were accessible to all ages, as we had students in grades 6-12 doing them.



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The Power of Debate in Math (#debatemath)

I was not feeling that creative or inspired this week, but thanks to Patricia Vandenberg, I was reminded to keep debating in math class. Patricia is a really inspiring teacher. She came to my session on debate in math class at the CPM Conference last Saturday, and by Monday morning (!!!) she was debating with her students.

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My favorite tweet was her follow up:

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I love that last statement. I find it so true in many classes: some of the quietest students start to really speak up when you give them a chance to debate!

By Thursday (so impressed!!!), Patricia had already blogged all about her first experiences. To which Stenhouse Publishers wonderfully responded (did I mention I’m trying to write a book?):

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Mid-week, I realized that I had not done any formal debate activities with my students this week. I needed a #debatemath warm-up! I wasn’t feeling particularly creative. I am in the middle of a unit on solving rational equations with PreCalc students, which is a pretty dry topic. I quickly threw this slide together for my warm-up on Thursday:

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At first, I was embarrassed at the simplicity, but (as basically always happens) it worked wonders! I asked the students to take a few minutes to solve all three problems. Then, prepare an argument for the debate. Having students debate about this seemingly simple prompt brought out so many things for me to hear. Such as:

  • Misconceptions: some students talked about “interesting” in regards to where they often make a mistake in solving. For instance, a student talked about Problem C being interesting because when they cross-multiply and have to deal with (3-x)(3-x), they often forget that it doesn’t become the difference of two squares. As the teacher in the room, I got to hear students share some of their struggles with common misconceptions, and other students learned from hearing this.
  • “Easy” vs “Hard”: some students said that the first problem was “interesting” because it was the “easiest” one to solve. Others talked about one of the other problems being the most interesting because it was “harder.” It brought up a great brief discussion among students at how subjective the words easy and hard were. As the teacher, I got to hear what about the problems made them “easier” or “harder,” tying it back to misconceptions.

Thanks to Patricia for reminding me to keep debating!

Patricia also inspired a teacher near her, Claire Verti, to try it out. Even though Claire didn’t attend my session, she jumped in!

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Thanks to everyone who came out to my session at CPM or who spread the ideas to colleagues. Looking forward to seeing many of you at NCTM!

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CPM Conference Recap

I had a great time at the CPM Teacher Conference last weekend in San Francisco. If you’re looking for a great conference next February (even if you don’t use CPM), consider checking this one out! (But sign up early!)

The most inspiring sessions I went to came from stepping outside of my routines and going to sessions that were on topics outside of what I usually look for. One was on physics and one was on equity.

The session on physics was titled “Why Might Teaching Physics in Math Class Be So Hard?” It was a great exploration of how the same kind of math (in this case, trig) is asked about in such different ways in math vs. physics classes. One activity we had to do was a card sort. Given a bunch of trig problems, which ones came from a math textbook and which came from physics:

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It was fascinating to us how obvious or straightforward the math questions were. They were basically saying “find this missing side of a triangle, and if you’re confused we also drew a picture for you.” While the physics questions were “real life” problems in context. No triangle was mentioned, but if you start to draw out a picture of the situation, you slowly see a triangle and build from there.

At the end, the speaker (Victor Mateas) shared some of the research and his findings about the differences:

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It was a fascinating session, comparing math vs physics questions/texts.

Thanks to all who came out to support my debate math session too!



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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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