Monthly Archives: September 2013

Common Core Lead-Author

Today, I went to a lecture at MfA where one of the three Common Core Lead-Authors–Jason Zimba–spoke about his work and the development of the CCSS.  He was a great speaker, very open and honest, and I really enjoyed hearing his point of view.  Some quick take aways for me:

  • Emphasis should be increased but equally so among three main parts: conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and application.
  • Much of the Geometry we teach (and the Geo standards) are of very low importance to most post secondary instructors. 
  • Emphasis for college instructors is on deep algebraic understanding and fluency/skill.
  • Perhaps Geo should be a place where algebra is reinforced.
  • Conceptual understanding problem is a “hold your hands in your lap and think for a second” type problem. 
  • Though the CCSS can seem like they are covering a lot of topics, one of the goals was to see the connectedness.  For instance: Pythagorean Theorem, Equation of a Circle, Distance Formula, Trig Identity…all versions of the same thing.  Less memorization, more repetition of the same idea.
  • When schools, cities or states try to add details to the standards, we should “Keep Calm and Go to the Standards”
  • Check out

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Why I MATHetate

I love structures and routines.  I feel like each year I add more and more, and they really do help the class run well, giving scaffolds for discussion and groupwork and classwork etc.

I also think the start of class is very important.  It’s like a first impression you’re making each day.  So, a few years back, I started each class with a moment of silence.  I wanted students to pause, put aside all the stress of other classes, friend drama, hallway noise, etc, and get their mind ready and focused on my class. 

But that wasn’t enough.  I wanted something that was genuinely me/math/my class.  Thus began the mathetation (think meditation).  At the start of every class, the lights go off, students pause whatever they are doing, I ring a (virtual) gong, and we mathetate.  At the start of the year, the chant may just be spelling the word math (M-A-T-H) in a slow chanty voice or reciting a few digits of pi (3 point 1 4 1 5 …) similarly.  Later in the year it can turn into repeating a formula or fact that students should be becoming fluent with (quadratic formula, sin(pi/4), law of cosines).  So, not only are they focusing on math class, they are also having a chance to recite a formula out loud twice a day.  I’m helping them study!  Also, after a few weeks of school, this (as well as the end of class) is student run.  My two students of the week (I call them the Newton Award Honorees), choose and lead the mathetation.

It’s cheesy.  Kids roll their eyes…but they (and I) love it.  Once last year when I was absent, the sub was passing out the work to them, and they insisted that she turn out the lights and mathetate with them before they could begin! 

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Differentiation: A New Vision

I have this dream of a wonderfully differentiated classroom.  All students learning at a level that is appropriate for them, with just the right amount of challenge, engaged and loving math.  However, I’ve never seen this become a reality.  As a result, over the years I’ve doubted the existence of differentiated instruction.  Now, I’m rethinking…

I was at (part one of) a multi-part workshop offered by Math for America this evening titled “ALL-ED: All Learners Learning Every Day” led by Rhonda Bondie from Fordham.  While I think the title is a little ambitious, I was intrigued enough to go to the first part, this very evening.  Much of our talk was about differentiated instruction. 

We were first asked to free write pluses, minuses, and questions about differentiated instruction.  Then we did small group share out.  I discussed this dream of the ideally differentiated classroom and how I wonder if it exists…Then, I started thinking, maybe differentiated instruction exists, but maybe it’s just that my vision is wrong.  Maybe I was sold on a vague idea of differentiated instruction, and I made up my mind what the goal was.  I had an fictional ideal in my mind, and spent my energy and research with regard to differentiation trying to get there.  Instead, I should take the journey of differentiation and see where it leads me…I wonder what may come of it.

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A Bit of a Gamble?

I started my two senior math classes with a promise to the students.  I told them my goal was that everyone will leave my class (and high school) having found some part of math that they enjoy/find interesting/want to study more.  Possible?  I’m not sure, but I want to make it come true.

Here’s how this came about:

First of all, this was in my two sections of what we call College Algebra.  I teach one section of Honors PreCalc to our seniors who are stronger at math (and apply to get in), as well as two sections of College Algebra for the rest of the seniors (a pretty heterogeneous group).

Secondly, I had been thinking a lot about how much I want senior math to be the class where students really see the “real world application” of math that we always talk about.   I want to find ways to show them how math is really used, in business, finance, technology, etc…something more alive and exciting than “you can use sine and cosine to find the height of a building if you measure the length of its shadow and the angle of elevation.”  Booooring.

Lastly, and most importantly, on the first day of class for each section, I did a quick icebreaker.  Students had to stand, say their name, and tell us one thing about them we can’t know just by looking at them.  Several students in each section said some version of “I hate math” as their fact.  Just stop and think about it:  these students had to tell me one fact that was not immediately obvious by looking at them, them could brag about aaaaaanything in their lives that they want, and the one thing they most wanted to communicate to me is their discomfort or frustration or fear etc etc etc of/for math.  I think this is not to be taken lightly.  I am in no way upset with students for saying this.  In fact, I’m so glad that they felt they could be this honest with me on the first day…I just took it as further proof to how important my job is this year.

So, with all of this in my mind, and hearing several students openly discuss their frustration for math, my mind jumped into action and I voiced my gamble on that first day.  Wish me luck!  I’m determined to succeed!

ps. Not to brag, but within a week of starting classes, I’ve already won over one student!  She told me she never liked math before, but my class is now her favorite class!  Success!!


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I did it.  I broke the mold and wore my first bowtie.  Obviously, I can’t hold a candle to the fashion stylings of the great Sam Shah, but here I am:


How’d I do?  Should I get more?!


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My Struggles

I realized in looking over my old posts this weekend (as I’m trying to really keep up with blogging this year), that I really only blog when I have a positive idea or activity to share…and maybe sometimes a question to pose to those who may be reading this.  My point: I never really talk about my struggles.  So I want to be me expressive of all parts of my teaching this year.

Here are two struggles that are big on my mind lately.  Comments appreciated!

1. Building Numeracy.  I know we all think about it/talk about/play with the idea.  We have bootcamps and special days in our classes to “review” or “refresh” these old topics.  But how can I build strong basic numeracy (I’m talking arithmetic, decimals, fractions, estimation) in every lesson?  I teach two classes of senior math.  It’s does not end in any state exam.  It has students of a wide range of ability (though many of our strongest math seniors are in my honors class), and I honestly think all students could benefit from deeper thinking about the math they learned before high school.  I want to do this in a way that is (a) truly effective and (b) incorporated into other topics as we learn more math.

2. The Checked-Out Student.  No matter how interesting or how important the lesson is, I often have a student or two who is just not invested.  He or she is usually not even going to try.   When it comes to classroom management, I think it is important at times to “give students some space.”  It’s ok to be low energy once in a while, and I don’t want to harass a student who is well meaning and just having a bad day or whatever the case may be…but what about the student who is continually disengaged?  How do I positively and effectively get that student to buy in?  I don’t have any great answers to this question.


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TED Talks in Advisory

My advisory (all seniors) meets for 50mins every Tuesday for a period that is totally up to me to plan.  I love the freedom.  Last year (with freshmen) we all used the StoryCorpsU curriculum which I mentioned in an earlier post.  I found it somewhat successful.  So, I wanted to try a grown-up version of it with my seniors using TED Talks!  I loooooooooove TED Talks.  They download onto my phone for me to watch on my subway rides.  I post them on Facebook at times.  I love them.  Some can be very motivational or inspirational, and I hoped I could find some that would work for my lovely (but of course a bit jaded) seniors.

For the first week, I used “The Skill of Self Confidence” by Dr. Ivan Joseph.  It’s on youtube here.

I stopped it around minute 8:20 partly because I didn’t want to bore any students with a lengthy video and partly because I loved the idea of writing a self-confidence letter.  I stopped the video there and had the students write their own “brag sheet.”  We didn’t share out.  It was private for them.  Afterwards, we had an open discussion about the ideas in the video, and students later filled out a feedback form.

The feedback: they loved it!  They want more!  I’m so excited.

One note: On a suggestion from Sam Shah, I’m going to include popcorn as a part of the TED Talk watching experience.  I think it’ll heighten the experience.

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