A different conversation

Parent teacher conferences were last night. While the tone of the conversations was the same, the information I was able to convey to parents was very different.

In the past, when students were struggling, I’d say something along the lines of “they need to complete their homework and come in for help”. This year my comments were more focused, “She is having difficulty solving word problems involving percents” or “He is struggling with solving systems of equations.”

While I’ve always thought I knew my students relatively well, I now feel that I better know on what specific skills they need to work.

And I’ve been trying to figure out why. I haven’t (yet) gone to a skills based assessment system. I’m not doing things too differently than I have in the past. I’ve always worked with backwards design – what do I want them to be able to do at the end of this unit and how will I know if they know it. I think I’m finally to a point where I have a very specific goal in mind for each lesson. I then adjust the next day’s lesson based upon what they were able to do (or not do) today. This means I do a lot of work each night preparing for the next day. While I plan ahead for the week, it is definitely done in pencil.

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What would you have done?

Yesterday I had a sub for my last two classes of the day. My lesson plans were for the most part the same as they would have been had I been in class – a form of “In your groups compare your results from last night’s assignment and then begin working on the new task”. The only difference was that I held off on the whole class discussions until today.

So, today each group was assigned one problem to present to the class. This went well, the kids explained their work. Other kids asked questions. Others shared alternate methods. I asked a few clarifying questions – of both the people presenting and the people in the audience.

Then a strange thing happened 8th period. As a student is explaining both the math and the thought process behind each step, he is pointing to the screen. This isn’t the strange part. What I found strange were “… and then she…” and “… here she wrote… “. Finally I had to stop him.

Who is this “she” you keep referring to?”

He points to one of his group members.

Why are we looking at her paper?”

He states that her work is easier to follow.

Humor me and toss your paper up there.

He does.


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When Sketchpad is Wrong

Last week we went into the lab to play do an investigation with Sketchpad. The task was to create various polygons, measure the angles in each, and calculate the sum of the interior angles. They were then to formulate a “rule” for the sum of the angles as a function of the number of sides.

Then Sketchpad made a mistake.

“Mrs. B, I know this thing is supposed to be 360. Sketchpad isn’t working.”

I know they’ve “learned” how to name angles in middle school. We talked about it before we went into the lab. Doesn’t matter. I think they think math teachers are just really picky and it doesn’t truly matter.

Then Sketchpad is “wrong”. Then I get to have great discussions with a few individual students.

Then these students get to help those working next to them.

I love Sketchpad.

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Formative Assessment?

We were recently going to do an activity that involved finding the formula for the sum of the interior angles in a polygon.

This required that they know that a few terms beforehand. I wanted a quick way to check their prior knowledge. I didn’t want to do a worksheet. I didn’t want to give a quiz.

So we played Simon Says.

Simon says stand up and face the front of the room.

Turn 90 degrees to the right.

Gotcha, I didn’t say Simon Says.

Simon says turn 180 degrees.

Okay, now face the front of the room (only got one or two that time).

Simon says turn an obtuse angle.

… you get the idea. Toss a few fun things in there too. Like: Simon says hop on your left foot.

We laughed. They moved around a bit. And I knew exactly which terms I needed to review prior to beginning our activity.

Posted in Math, teaching | 9 Comments


Last year I asked my students to fill out a version1 of Dan Meyer’s “Who I Am” worksheet.2.

I looked over the sheets when my students handed them in. I remember liking what they wrote. Then I put them in a file folder and didn’t think about them again until last week.

Looking back at them after having spent roughly 9,000 minutes with each class, I’m amazed at how much information was contained on that one piece of paper. Information that I had access to on day one. Sometimes brutally honest information. Information that I didn’t use well.

Of course, I came to learn most of those same things through the year by talking with my students. Then again, that just may be my rationalization.

So this year I’m going to do better. I’m going to find a way to actually use these insights that my students give me. I just haven’t figured out how yet.

What do you do with your beginning of the year surveys?

1 Here’s a link to .doc of my version of Dan’s worksheet.
2 I occasionally wonder how different things would be if Dan didn’t blog.

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Summer Plans

I’ve been sitting here thinking about all I’ve wanted to accomplish this summer that I haven’t done yet.

Then I realized school has only been out for one week. It isn’t time to panic just yet.

I have a new prep next year: Accelerated Honors Advanced Algebra (which is a different course than Honors Accelerated Advanced Algebra). I’ll be teaching one section of that, two sections of IMP1 and two sections of IMP4. I’ve taught IMP1 for two years now and while there are some things I’d like to tweak, I don’t feel this course needs too much of my attention over the summer. IMP4 was a new course for me (and for my school) this past year. I like much of what we did, but this needs some attention. Assessments need refining. Pacing needs to be looked at.

What will be getting most of my attention will be the new prep. This course is a freshmen level course for our students on track to take BC Calc. The major goal for the summer is re-writing the assessments to include multiple choice and free response questions (with calculator and non-calculator questions for each type). I’m hoping to get that done in the next few weeks so that I can then work backwards to plan lessons that work toward the instructional goals I/we wrote into the assessments.

Initially looking at this course, I’m still struggling with the question: what is the difference between Algebra II and Pre-Calculus. I asked that here – the responses were interesting. (I’ll summarize them in the next week or so1.). It seems that many of the topics we cover are repeated in Pre-Calc (perhaps at a greater depth, I don’t know. I’m still conversing with the Pre-Calc teacher about this). Does the review/repeat of the topics help the students’ depth of understanding? Would it be better to break the topics up by course? Again, I don’t know. Still thinking about and talking about these questions.

I also have a few school workshops to attend along with grad school two nights a week. Most importantly, my husband had surgery about a week ago and is having another sometime this summer2. Supporting him and helping with his recovery is the highest priority. As it should be.

Those are my summer plans. I’ll share what I learn as I’m going and as time allows.

1I figure if I write that here, I’m more likely to follow up…
2Which for some strange reason I feel more comfortable talking about on Twitter than I do here. Huh. I wonder why that is the case.

Posted in General | 2 Comments


I’ve been very lucky to have a great coworker from whom I’ve learned a great deal. We’ve had amazing conversations about teaching and learning. We’ve developed curriculum. Debated goals and processes. Shared links and articles. Random meetings in the hallway have lead to hour long conversations.

I owe much of what I do well to what he has taught me.

Last month I found out he’s leaving – pursuing the next step of his career. While I am very happy for him, the staff he will lead, and the students he will help, I was sad for me. I worried that there would be no one to push me to be better. I worried that the conversations wouldn’t continue.

While I will still miss him, I’ve gotten past my sadness (and fear). I’ve realized that the conversations can still happen – I just need to involve more people. I’ve realized that I may have to push myself a bit more. I’ve shared with him that I hope I can continue to learn from him in this new phase of his career. I may – or I may not. Things change. People move on.

I just read this post of Dan’s. I never ran into Dan in the hallway. We never worked together on curriculum design. I never observed a single class of his. Yet he was still a mentor.

I’ve learned a lot from you these past few years Dan. Thank you for sharing all that you did. Thank you for pushing my thinking. I hope I can continue to learn from you too.

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