Making Math Emotional

This post is my response to the prompt for The Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics:

How do you highlight that the doing of mathematics is a human endeavor?

Math was a pretty bland subject for me in school (K-12). It wasn’t until I got into more abstract math (Calculus and beyond) that I had some really engaging teachers and classes that blew my mind and got me excited to do mathematics!

I now try to spread that love of mathematics with my students (grades 6-12). I also want to make math feel more personal and alive. I want it to feel like an emotional, human endeavor. (Think of how emotional students can get about a novel or piece of music. Why can’t the same be true in math?!)

The two big parts of my classroom that help with this are:

  1. #DebateMath! Those of you who know me, know I LOVE to debate in math class. You can find more about math debate routines on my website (and in my upcoming book Up for Debate! this November!!). What I love about having a question (or several) that involves students debating each day is that doing math becomes subjective. Doing math in my classroom is not focused on the objectivity of answer-getting. Instead, students discuss and debate their methods, their reasoning and favorite parts. Students are talking about math, sharing opinions and ideas, and they often develop an emotional attachment to the math they are doing. Whether or not the math we are doing has a “real-world” context, students are continuously able to find personalization in the math that they are doing.
  2. Journals! (lovingly borrowed from Cindy Reagan) I have long wanted to have more opportunities for students to write about math, but I struggled to find the right fit for myself and my students. Then, I was blown away by Cindy Reagan’s wonderful presentation at TMC18. Through her presentation and blog, I was empowered to start journals in math class. In the past year, journals have significantly changed the way my students interact with math. Though they initially struggled/resisted journaling in math class, SO MANY students grew to LOVE journaling. It was a chance for them to look back at their work in the past week or two and talk about their thoughts and feelings. Students quickly seemed to form emotional connections to certain problems and methods. I gained new insights into my students’ thoughts and reasoning, and they got to privately share some of their insights/hopes/frustrations to me in writing.


-For more info on debate in math class check, sign up for my monthly newsletter here and check out the PBS video of my classroom!



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The “Most Important” Project

I have been struggling to come up with an engaging summary project for my Calculus and PreCalculus classes. I’ve tried a few things in the recent years, but had not yet found just the right fit. Then I stumbled across this tweet a few months ago:

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Larissa shared a link to her version of the project. And now, I have my own version: link.

I got a copy of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book on Then, to introduce students to the project, we read the book in what my students called “kindergarten style,” meaning we passed the book around, each student read one page and then showed the associated picture(s) to the class before passing it on. I must say the book is adorable, and my students enjoyed the 5 minutes we spent reading it together. Each page describes a different object, such as:

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I then told the students that we were going to make a book of the important topics from this school year. Each student can choose to work solo or with a partner, and each student or pair will produce two pages of the book: one page will be an important topic from this past year, one will be an important topic we did not get to (polar coordinates, matrices, etc).  I wanted students to both summarize an important topic from the year and learn some math on their own!

Additionally, on the back of each page, I asked students to create, solve and explain one math problem for each of their two topics. I asked them to choose a problem carefully, as we want a challenging problem that will point out different key components of the topic.

The students have just started turning them in. I will show some examples here soon. I’m excited to put them together to make a summary booklet that we can all look through as our closing activity for the year!


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NCTM SD 2019 Reflection

In early April, I spent a week in San Diego for the NCSM and NCTM conferences. It’s taken me some time to gather my thoughts in writing, but here are my big takeaways from the learning!

1. I want to video (myself and others) teaching..a lot!

Dr. Ilana Horn was one of the first speakers I saw. I loved hearing about her work with MfA LA around growth for experienced math teachers. She talked about how a teacher would pose a question, that teacher’s classroom would be videotaped, and Dr. Horn’s team would share specific video clips that are related to the question asked. I especially liked the idea of targeted video study–just looking at short clips that are directly related to a teacher’s guiding question.

I felt a similar message in part of Steve Leinwand’s talk on PD. He talked about how teachers can find PD unhelpful or not useful. And among the strategies he talked about, videotaping was one.

The one-two punch of two great math leaders expressing the importance of videotaping our teaching really stuck with me and make me want to incorporate that as a regular habit for our department next year!

2. Creating inclusive math spaces is imperative. 

It really felt that NCTM was challenging us all to think deeply about diversity, equity and inclusion in the math classroom this year. I started NCTM with a pre-conference day on social justice math. We talked openly about deficit based thinking and explored the types of problems that embrace diversity and social justice issues in math class.

Two wonderful educators of color gave the opening and closing keynotes. I was blown away by all they said. Additionally, Chrissy Newell gave a great ShadowCon talk about gender diversity in mathematics, focusing on her (and her daughter’s!) #mathgals project. Dr. Talithia Williams ended the event with her powerful personal stories about being a woman of color and pursuing a career (and advanced degree) in mathematics. I can’t wait to read “Power in Number.”

3. Students (and adults) need play in math.

Two Chrises–Christopher Danielson and Chris Nho made me think deeply about the power of play in math. Christopher Danielson led on session on categorizing hexagons. My table had such a fun time coming up with names and rules, a great way to develop geometric definitions with playfulness. Additionally, Chris Nho challenged us to think: if adults continue to read outside of school with book clubs, why don’t we continue math with “Problem Clubs.” Why are kids the only ones allowed to have fun?

4. #DebateMath is everywhere!

Tweeting was abounding before and after my session on #debatemath! We were trending on Twitter!


Twitter hype aside, I really did see debate math everywhere. So many sessions talked about the need for student discourse and/or the importance of developing argumentation. Others talked about the need for clear routines for students to think critically and debate. I went to an excellent presentation by Mario Valdez where he brought his students (how cool!) to show his routines for his 5th grade students to explore and discuss challenging math problems.


Thanks to everyone who came out to the #debate math session!

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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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