L-Q-E vocabulary (or how to drive your OCD students crazy!)

Algebra I, Unit 5, Compare and Contrast Linear, Quadratic, and Exponential functions…

This simple vocabulary lesson generated a surprising result: my kids thought the end result was too messy, so many of them didn’t want to follow the final step!

The activity uses a simple alphabet mind map. It is a 5×5 grid with a letter of the alphabet in each square. The last square contains X and Y. You can print a copy here, or have the students draw their own.

Here is a simple alphabet mind map.

The standards for this unit were that students should be able to identify linear, exponential, and quadratic functions from equations, graphs, tables, and contextual situations, and be able to compare each function with regard to rates of growth.

To achieve these skills, students needed to be able to identify the key characteristics and key vocabulary associated with each type of function. They also needed to be able to discern small differences in equations, the shape each functions takes when graphed, and the changes in a table that would indicate what type of graph the table would produce. Given contextual scenarios, they needed to identify which type of situation would produce a linear change, a parabolic track, or a classic J-curve from exponential growth or decay.

When we started, they could barely list the key characteristics, much less identify which function was associated with each characteristic, what those characteristics looked like, or how to tell them apart. They needed stronger, more fluent use of the vocabulary!

Step One, The challenge: using each letter of the alphabet, fill in the grid with the names of as many key characteristics of each type of graph as each student could think of. (We’d made lists over the previous several days, along with examples, so I knew they would be able to come up with several familiar words.) I encouraged them to start with any word they could think of that they associated with graphs or equations. As they wrote, I then passed out colored pencils for the second part of the task.

Step Two: After about 10 minutes of individual work, we came together in a large group, and I asked each student to share one item from his/her list. I encouraged the students to add new words they heard to their papers, and to use a different color  pencil than they used to write their initial lists. After going around the room about two times, we asked kids to popcorn choices that they had on their papers that hadn’t been covered. We had a few letters that remained without words, so we again asked for ideas from the whole group that would fit for those letters, reminding the students to stay within the linear, quadratic, exponential, and graphing parameters.

We found that we had to ask a few thought provoking questions to make sure some important terms weren’t left out.

(At this point, because we were talking about why these words were acceptable, what they meant, and how they were related to LQE, I had a pretty strong idea of where my kids needed additional help and lessons!)

As my students shared their words, I wrote them on a poster sized alphabet chart that I had prepared beforehand. I gave the students a few moments to make sure that they copied all the words from the collaborative chart onto their personal charts.

Step Three: each child labeled the outside of their chart with the words LINEAR, QUADRATIC, and EXPONENTIAL.

I explained that we were now going to match each term with the function to which it belonged by drawing a line from the word to the function. I warned them that some words might belong to more than one function!

They each picked a color to use for the line that would connect the appropriate words to LINEAR.  The first word under A, asymptote, was determined to be related to exponential, not linear. Not only did they have to decide which function, they had to say WHY and in what way the word connected with FUNCTION. The word Axis was next. Everyone could get behind that as a graph term that could belong to any of the function types, but we only connected words to one type of function at a time. We would come back to ‘axis’ two more times as we matched words with the other two functions! Colored lines were drawn from Axis to LINEAR. This happened with several more words, before the students began to realize this was going to get messy. I was drawing the same lines on my big poster, but I was totally surprised as students began color coding each word with dots, or making these neat lists on separate pieces of paper, sorting out each of the characteristics, because they didn’t like the tangled mess that was happening on my poster. (I explained that they were actually drawing the map for their brain, not their eyes. They were somewhat skeptical…). ‘I can’t read it,’ was the standard response!

Here was our resulting map!

 

I  encouraged the students to use a different color for each category, and we progressed in order through each function, so no one would end up confused. Throughout the matching, as students popcorned answers regarding which words to connect,  I continued to ask for agreement, disagreement, (thumbs up, thumbs down) and ‘why, how do you know,’ from the whole group. This was a very intense, fast paced portion of the activity, with even some of my most blasé students getting involved!

We followed this activity with a neat card sort, that was another intensive activity in and of itself, and was spread over two days. By the end of these activities, I could tell that more of my students were fine-tuning their selection processes, looking more closely at the details of each equation, graph, or table, and applying the key characteristics lists they’d made to their compare and contrast process!

Here were some lists they made of the key characteristics:

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Are you a 1, 2, 3, or a 4? What’s numbers got to do with it?!?

I, along with a couple of other teachers, are piloting a grading strategy that is generating some interesting conversations on a DAILY basis with our students!

We’ve all read that grades do not improve or motivate learning. In fact, once a grade is given, the student assumes that idea is ‘done’ and drops it, moving on to acquire the next grade.

What I am about to share with you has MY KIDS talking about how THEY can improve their learning… 

First, I have to give credit for the base of this idea to an amazing educator that I work with every day: Rebecca K. She, of course, credits it to an idea she learned in a workshop some years back. Anyway, she started the year off with a cool bulletin board, that looks something like the image above, which I used to create a powerful way to motivate my babies to take more responsibility for their own learning!

The students I am talking about are your average 9th grade (yes, FRESHMAN!!) students, that run the gamut of every freshman stereotype you’ve ever met. Really. (This includes students with personal learning plans and students whose first language is not English!) AND  we’ve got them talking about growth – THEIR growth – as learners. When we hand back a paper, instead of the ‘crumple it up and put it in the bookbag or the trash’ mentality, the comments are varying forms of, “..tell me what these results mean!”

Here’s how it works:

Four numbers, four learner identities:  1. Novice, 2. Apprentice, 3. Practitioner, 4. Expert

Novice: I’m just starting to learn this and I don’t really understand it yet.

I explain to the students that this is where everybody in class starts out. Algebra I will have lots of things that are new to them, and we expect that they won’t be familiar with the material! We don’t expect them to know it all before we teach it. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes you have to be explicit with Freshmen. I think that’s where the name originates!

Apprentice:  I’m starting to get it, but I still need someone to coach me through it.

The apprentice is the beginning of the learning phase. When a student gets a 2 on a problem or a whole assignment, they are in the initial learning stages. As a teacher, I’ve just told them (by marking it a 2) that I know they still need help with the concept, and that I will be supporting their learning. This also tells them that they are not there YET – and that they have room to continue learning. Sometimes we have to give kids permission to not know things YET!

Practitioner: I can mostly do it myself, but I sometimes mess up or get stuck.

This is a proud moment for most of my students. That little 3 next to a problem or on a paper, tells them so much more than a traditional grade. This sends them the message that I get it that they’ve got it! This affirms their learning. This affirms their work. This is personal. Better than that, this motivates them to keep going, to keep learning. They ALL want to be….

Expert: I understand it well, and I could thoroughly teach it to someone else.

Isn’t this where we want our babies to be? You know that if they know it well enough to teach it – THEY KNOW IT!! That peer tutoring thing is for real! Please notice that there are TWO parts of this level: knowing and teaching.

How does this work? 

My (totally awesome) co-teacher, Stephanie W.,  and I, use the following grading process. Feel free to modify it to fit your students, and what is happening in your classroom. We know that what we are doing is working for our kids – you may want to start with this, and then modify as you see what is working for you.

We give an assignment or quiz. We grade each problem with a 1, 2, 3, or 4. We add up all the grades and divide by the number of items. That gives us a number between 1 and 4. Many times that will generate a decimal, say 1.8 or 2.5, or even 3.8. Here is an important point: we DON’T ROUND UP! We DO EXPLAIN the process to our students. It is important for them to understand that this is not arbitrary. They must own the process for this to work. These conversations happen EVERY time we return an assignment. That’s a GOOD thing!

Our goal for our students is mastery, so unless the resulting average is an actual 2 for example, the child is still a NOVICE (1, 1.2, 1.8, 1.9 – doesn’t matter. They are still a 1). Same with 2 point anything – they are still a 2, same with 3 point whatever – still a 3. The ONLY exception is 3.8 and above. If the student has one or more 4+ answers, with clear justification statements, then, and only then, will we round up to a 4. See below for the PLUS explanation!

Our evaluation goes something like this:

a) Answer that is incorrect, No work shown, or No answer at all: give it a 1.

b) Answer with some work shown (they attempted a solution) but it is incorrect in major ways and answer is incorrect or incomplete; give it a 2 (remember they are still learning and need more help!)

c) Answer given is incorrect, but work is also shown. (OR answer is correct, but NO work shown to support the answer). Student did pretty good, but minor errors and/or mistakes caused the incorrect answer; give it a 3. This student is obviously getting it, but he/she is letting errors get in the way. Maybe they are lazy, maybe in a hurry. The 3 tells them that they are getting it – but they NEED TO BE MORE CAREFUL! (The 3 for NO work shown is to allow us to ensure students are not ‘borrowing’ answers from another student! We are giving them the benefit of the doubt until further notice.)

d) Answer and work is shown and is completely correct. This baby gets the 4!  The student can feel the glow of being an expert. But wait, there’s more! This only satisfies HALF of the description. What about the ‘teaching’ part?

Four “+”? What is Four Plus??? 

‘Four +’ is that special designation for the child who not only knows the material, but can prove to us that they are able to teach the material to another student. Time dictates that we don’t have the opportunity for EVERY student to demonstrate teaching ability (although we do try to build in those opportunities!). We have explained to our students that the way to demonstrate this ability is to justify the work they’ve shown, with brief written explanations.

Written Justification sets the student up for PROOFS in Geometry

Algebra I is a class of foundations. It is important to teach with an eye to the future courses our kids will encounter, and proofs are some of the most difficult lessons for students. One of the Algebra I standards is to be able to justify the steps taken to solve simple one step equations. This is an important step to understanding that there is a mathematical reason for being ABLE to take that step – and not just because the teacher said so! By building this into the idea of EXPERT, we are modeling the concept that understanding – that is, the realization that there are solid REASONS for why math ‘works’ – is a valuable part of the learning process.

What WORDS do you use to tell a parent how their child is doing in your class?

I know this is just a brief overview of this process, but I wanted to share because I feel it is the first solid step in moving towards talking about GROWTH and LEARNING, instead of grades. I believe it is important that we take the focus off of grades, for students and parents. To do that, we, as teachers, have to stop using GRADES as the unit of measure in communicating with our students and parents. Unfortunately, our grading systems, and I’m talking the actual computer systems we have to use, are not set up to show mastery – they are set up to show GRADES!

I already changed my conversations, my wording, my language,  with my students. It will happen with my conversations with parents in my next phone call/email home, as well. Will YOU?

What’s the downside?

My school still uses a grading system built on averaging traditional grading numbers. That means I can’t just put in 1, 2, 3, 4, or 4+. I have to turn these numbers into a grade between 0 and 100 that will accurately translate and describe my students’ mastery of the curriculum.

My solution is two-fold. The grades in my gradebook are tied to one of the required standards, and each of the above levels is tied to a number that has already been given meaning by how it is used as a grade. While the first is fairly easy to accomplish, the second is based on how parents and students interpret grades. A 100, for example is the ideal. That sends the message that the student has mastery of the assignment, or the course. In fact, anything above 93, in my County school system, is an A, and as such, denotes pretty much the same thing as a 100. Same for a B, or a grade in the 80 range. Those two grades are obviously acceptable to most parents and students. The grade of C is a little more ambiguous. The C denotes that the student is somehow less than perfect, but still passing.  While a student may be GLAD to have a C – it does denote that the student is doing the work and IS mastering the concept – it doesn’t have the same cache’ as the A and B grades.

So how do I reconcile the grades with the numbers? 

A novice receives a grade of 65. The Apprentice receives a 70. The Practitioner has earned an 80, and the Expert, a 90. The 4+ student will earn a 100, as long as all problems on the assignment or quiz show justification, evidence that they have not only mastered the concepts, but have gone above and beyond to be able to communicate their knowledge with others.

The final issue I will address here: What happens when a student makes no effort at all. Our students never do that, do they??? In that instance, the student has given us no information on which to base a grade. Effectively, they have NOT TURNED ANYTHING IN. The grade in the book becomes an NTI, and we are made aware that we need to step up our efforts with that student. An NTI is a zero, until the student completes an assignment on that material, and we can assess mastery. From there, the averaging work of the gradebook takes over, and the grade reflects the whole course mastery. Grades in this context are fluid, and can be changed by future mastery as evidenced by quizzes or testing situations.

The system is not perfect, but the teachers with whom this is working believe that we have created a system that truly tells us where our kids are with the curriculum, and allows us to modify our teaching darn near immediately, so that we can address the areas in which they need further help – which is the actual point of all this grading, isn’t it?

Here is the poster we use in our classroom to explain the levels. Our students get their own mini copy for their notebooks. We utilize a small chart of “I can” statements for each unit – no more than 3 – 5 statements – that allow the students to chart their progress. Here is the chart for our Unit 1 standards. The kids get this, too. You can use any “I can” statements you need for your particular units.

At the beginning of each unit, the STUDENTS determine their pre-assess level, the quizzes give them the mid-assess levels, and then the unit tests are the post-assess level. The students keep track of these themselves. We incorporate a running conversation DAILY of what their goals are, where they think they are with these goals, and how they are going to get to the 3 and 4 levels. I have personally found this is a great way to have the students tell me where they are at the end of instructional and practice periods throughout class. I simply ask them where they think they are – 1, 2, 3 or 4. The majority of students are incredibly honest, because we are all speaking the same language. The ability to quickly assess and modify my teaching is been made incredibly easy! Grading has become a process of assessing growth, not despairing over what they don’t know. I LOOK FORWARD to grading the work, knowing most of my students WANT to have a conversation about where they are, and what they need to do to get to the next level. Let me know if you would like the rest of the “I can” levels we are using with this course. I’ll be glad to share!

 

 

Knowledge Machines are here; How will you use them?

There was a time when school was about learning the three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Sounds like the beginning of a long ago time story, doesn’t it?

After reading this 1993 article from Wired, I realized that Papert’s ‘Knowledge Machines’ are, in fact, here.

Continue reading “Knowledge Machines are here; How will you use them?”

What do you mean, it “…can’t be solved?!?”

I came across an Algebra I review problem the other day on Classworks. The challenge was to solve a quadratic using the Quadratic Formula. One of the answer choices was “can’t be solved.” Which I did not notice.

I was working with three students who did not understand what to do. Once I wrote out the quadratic formula, (actually, all I had to write was the negative b plus or minus!) they began to remember. One boy immediately told the other two how to find a, b, and c. That required a discussion about standard form, so we had to do a little rearranging of the problem given on the screen. Once we got the formula equal to zero, the second student plugged the numbers into the correct places! The third began offering solutions to various parts. I thought we were doing pretty good! Until we came up with a negative under the radical.

Like the music in Jaws… Dum, de dum, dum… They looked at me, dumbstruck.

“What do we do, Ms. Maxcy?”

I asked them if they had learned about imaginary numbers. (Of course they hadn’t – yet. This was only Algebra I! But sometimes I forget which level I am teaching… Which is another story altogether!!!)

Still not checking the given answer choices, I blithely proceeded to give them a brief ‘reminder’ lesson on real and imaginary numbers. They continued to look at me blankly.

As I magically (to them) unraveled the answer as 2 plus/minus 2i sqrt 11 divided by 3, they stared at me. Then they stared at their answer choices. They looked back at me.

“It’s not there, Ms. Maxcy.”

At this point, admit it, we teachers think, “it’s got to be there, that’s the right answer; why is it not there? Gosh, did I do it wrong?” And then we doublecheck our answer. And then it hit me. This was Algebra I. We don’t teach imaginary numbers. Yet. It was then that I finally looked at the answer choices…

The correct answer was there, but it wasn’t the correct answer at all! 

Right there in front of me, there was the answer that the students were supposed to choose: choice “D) Can’t be solved.” 

Right there in front of me, there was the answer that the students were supposed to choose: choice “D) Can’t be solved.” This is a terrible choice! It’s not the right answer! It’s not a good answer! Okay, so we don’t teach them imaginary numbers in Algebra I, why don’t we just list the result with a negative under the radical as the answer?!? 

The kids get used to seeing the beast (negative radical) and we teach them how to simplify in Algebra II or geometry, depending on your school system. But, please, NOT “can’t be solved”!

That is just setting them up for trouble ahead! Lay the foundations, don’t build a wall that will have to be torn down later. Please!

Rant finished. Thank you for listening.

Murder Mystery Solved with Trig!

Dateline: April 14, 2016

The murder of Maria, whose body was conveniently found at right angles to Leg Streets A and B, has been solved! Investigators found the weapon across the river, apparently thrown there by her assailant while he was running down Leg Street A in an attempt to escape. A quick thinking officer (who had majored in math at the police academy) was able to calculate an angle measure for the angle made by the throw from the perp and the street leading to the victim.  Another savvy investigator was able to determine the distance from the suspect to the location of the attack.

With the mathematical evidence in hand, investigators were able to triangulate a conviction. Math teachers everywhere weighed in, saying it has the proportionate ability to change the way investigators do business!

Dimensions of the prisoner’s defense will be released at a later date. Film at eleven.

Okay, so I don’t really have film (we forgot to assign the job of reporter!) What I do have are a room full of kids who can now set up the proper proportions for trig problems!

Here’s how the crime went down:

Scene 1: Before the murder, I handed six students a few props:


Each student had to use the prop to arrange themselves into a triangle. The other students watching were, um, helping. (that’s what they called it!)

A short q&a followed:

Me: Okay leg A, are you opposite or adjacent to angle b?

Hapless Student holding Leg A sign: “I’m opposite, um, no, I’m right next to him (indicating student holding the angle b sign)! What does adjacent mean, again?”

We were able to sort out the definitions, and the students holding the leg signs got pretty good at determining whether they were “opposite” legs or “adjacent”  legs. A big moment came as students noticed that they could be opposite OR adjacent. More importantly, they were able to articulate WHY the status would change.

 More importantly, they were able to articulate WHY the status would change.

Scene 2: The next six students were given the cards. This time, I stood back and let the first group help position the players. A little skirmish ensued as Leg A and Leg B were being positioned. After a brief discussion about whether or not leg locations could be interchangeable (did Leg A have to go in the same place as the first triangle?), it was decided that as long as a leg were placed on each side of the 90 degree angle, it didn’t matter what we called them.

The opposite and adjacent discussion began again. It was fun watching students correct these new players, or making them guess by giving them tantalizing clues!

(If you ever want to know what you look like teaching, give your students the reins. Mimicry is not dead!)

Scene 3: With everyone up to speed on definitions, the murder could now commence! Maria was positioned. Ryan was immediately suspect, as we put the crime scene tape in his hand and instructed him to escape a bit down the hall. The “weapon” was given another piece of crime scene tape and told to take off in the opposite direction. The “hypotenuse” was asked how far the “perp” had thrown the weapon. We stretched the crime scene tape from the suspect to the weapon location. It was at this moment that I heard several students say “Hey, we made a triangle.”

It was at this moment that I heard several students say “Hey, we made a triangle.”

(Scary, I know, right?)

After a bit more discussion, the students determined that we needed an angle and we needed the distance from the body to the suspect to set up a proportion to solve for the distance. Two students were dispatched with the piece of crime scene tape that had been held between the victim and the suspect (Leg A, for those of you following along). Twelve inch square floor tiles assisted in the crime scene measurement. I used my oversized protractor to come up with the angle measure, and we were ready to set up some proportions!

Back inside the room, our eager detectives checked their trig proportion info sheet (yes! They used their NOTES!) and settled on cosine, adjacent and hypotenuse. I stood back and watched them argue over who was going to set up the problem, exactly how to set it up, and how to enter the information into the calculator. Then I watched them convince one another which answer was correct.

Concrete to representational to modeling AND peer tutoring…I love it! I would say that a murder wasn’t the only thing that got solved today!

“It isn’t that I don’t like math. Learning takes time in math, and I don’t always get the time it takes to really understand it.”*

How many more of our students feel this way, but instead of telling us with words, they distract, joke, sleep, or skip class:

…Math is such an interesting subject that can be “explored” in so many different ways, however, in school here I don’t really get to learn it to a point where I say yeah this is what I know, I fully understand it. We move on from topic to topic so quickly that the process of me creating links is interrupted and I practice only for the test in order to get high grades.

Taking Time Learning Math:A Student’s Perspective by Evan Weinberg

Would I want to come to my class?
This question haunts me. What are my kids seeing, feeling, thinking? Why does this kid come, but stay totally uninvolved? Why does this child talk, constantly, but about anything but math? Where did curiosity go? Is my class a class I would look forward to?

My personal enjoyment of math comes from the struggle with ideas and the satisfaction I get from my connection of and understanding of the relationships among those ideas. It’s like a huge puzzle that will take the rest of my lifetime to fully understand. The student’s comments in Evan Weinberg’s post resonated with what I see happening with my students. They are not learning math so much as preparing for a test about math.

They are not learning math so much as preparing for a test about math. 

The current situation of ‘learn how to do this; learn how to do that’ mentality is slowwwwly changing over to ‘understand why this is so; why does this relationship work’ exploration. It will need a shift in how we teach, letting kids struggle and connect ideas (we must facilitate this exploration, but not down some tightly designed path), and changing our view of grades and mastery. I can’t say I don’t have the answer- I am working on an answer that works for me and for my students. And I’m sure I am not the only one teacher who has found the path that is taking them closer to the ideal.

This post grew out of my response to Evan’s column. His response,

“I completely agree that this is a shift, and it is ongoing. Clearly, despite the changes I’ve made to the way I teach, students still get the sense that the test is the important part, which means there is still a great deal of improvement yet to be made!”

*Taking Time Learning Math:A Student’s Perspective by Evan Weinberg

But his software told him that formal education was just another way to download information into your brain and “a painfully slow download” at that—so he started reading, meeting people, and asking questions.

Could this be why formal “college seat time” is going away, and has already begun being replaced by things like certificate training, MOOCs, the rise of information available on the Internet, and why a resurgence in apprenticeships is already on the horizon (it just looks different, because entrepreneurs are the new apprentices)!

The title is a quote from a treatise on Tim Urban’s blog  about Elon Musk. Urban is trying to understand Musk’s success by examining how he thinks, and how Musk’s thinking affects his choices. Read the full 4-part series here.

As a teacher, and as someone who reads widely on any subject I feel I need to know more about, the title quote makes powerful sense. Author Urban calls this ‘first principles’:

‘A scientist gathers together only what he or she knows to be true—the first principles—and uses those as the puzzle pieces with which to construct a conclusion.’ *

For me, first principles is something I’ve always practiced. I just didn’t call it that. I love to learn, to read, to gather information, and test it out against what I know. I learned early not to take what others say without checking and confirming- maybe because as a kid I was rather rebellious (my dad says I have to learn everything the hard way!), maybe because my naïveté allowed me to be made to feel stupid, and I do not like to feel stupid! As I read further into the analysis of Musk, I found a companion to my own thought processes, albeit worded differently than I would have ever thought:

‘ Musk sees… his brain software as the most important product he owns—and since there aren’t companies out there designing brain software, he designed his own, beta tests it every day, and makes constant updates. That’s why he’s so outrageously effective, why he can disrupt multiple huge industries at once, why he can learn so quickly, strategize so cleverly, and visualize the future so clearly.’ *

Urban’s statement about this awakens my “spidey sense”** as a teacher. All of us have hardware (our physical sense) and software (our brains). As a teacher, I feel strongly that this is the goal of my interaction with my kids: to teach them how to learn quickly, to strategize cleverly, and to visualize the future clearly. This is where success, innovation, and fulfillment (yes- doing that which we are so passionate about) must spring from. Our world’s future is at stake if we don’t bring out in our children these abilities.

‘When your childhood attempts at understanding are met with “Because I said so,” and you absorb the implicit message “Your own reasoning capability is sh*t, don’t even try, just follow these rules… ,” you grow up with little confidence in your own reasoning process. When you’re never forced to build your own reasoning pathways, you’re able to skip the hard process of digging deep to discover your own values and the sometimes painful experience of testing those values in the real world and learning you want to adjust them—and so you grow up a total reasoning amateur.’*

Teaching our children the value of ‘first principles’is critical in education. It’s what our children lack: the need to know for themselves, and not rely on what they are told by others: what ‘conventional wisdom’ says must be true.

‘A command or a lesson or a word of wisdom that comes without any insight into the steps of logic it was built upon is feeding a kid a fish instead of teaching them to reason. And when that’s the way we’re brought up, we end up with a bucket of fish and no rod—a piece of installed software that we’ve learned how to use, but no ability to code anything ourselves.’*

My need for ‘first principles’ has been leading me to those ideas that will train my students for their future- one that will require them to code for themselves, going beyond ‘established’ wisdom’, carving out innovative solutions, and finding a future that enthralled and fascinates them. Without this, it becomes easier for a population to become manipulated by a leadership that does not have their best interests at heart. For more on this idea, check out How the Oil Industry Conquered Finance, Medicine, and Agriculture, by James Corbett. In it, Corbett references an essay by Frederick T. Gates, the man intimately connected to the origins of public schooling as we know it. The essay, The Country School of Tomorrow, Gates lays out his plan for education,

‘… we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand… We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up from among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from among them lawyers,
doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply.’*

From my view, I think we have chillingly succeeded (thanks to Rockefeller and his billions), in the first quoted section of this essay. I look with hope on what is happening as teachers everywhere have begun to break with tradition and seek to teach for understanding, and to teach students to think independently. Read a little further down Mr. Gates’- Frederick’s, not Bill’s- essay, to find the sweet hope and goal of education that  somehow became lost in the ‘monetization’ of public schooling,

‘…all that we shall try to do is just to create presently about these country homes an atmosphere and conditions such, that, if by chance a child of genius should spring up from the soil, that genius will surely bud and not be blighted.’

All of our children are budding geniuses- in their own time and in their own way. Finding and nurturing that bud is my ‘action plan’. I think I’ll continue upgrading my ‘software’ in pursuit of being the most effective teacher I can be, sharing what I find, in order to improve our education system in whatever way I am able. Excuse me while I go fill my ‘goal pool’ so that I can plan my ‘strategies’ to maximize my ‘experience’ and ‘feedback loop’ so that I can move my ‘goal attainment mechanism’ forward.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

*The Cook and The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce, T. Urban, Wait, Why Not

**No, I was never bitten by a radioactive spider. I am an intuitive woman (which some of you will no doubt see as a redundant phrase…)

Let’s quit calling them 21st Century Skills; These babies are useful in any century!!!


Dan Meyer has struck again:

“I spent a year working on Dandy Candies with around 1,000 educators… In my year with Dandy Candies, there was one question that none of us solved, even in a crowd that included mathematics professors and Presidential teaching awardees. So now I’ll put that question to you.” Dan Meyer’s full post

What is it about a challenge like that?!? Of course I had to follow the thread! 

I read the over 100 comments as writers posed solutions, wrecked solutions posed by others, and even wrecked their own solutions! I watched as they systematically used the faults in their solutions as a springboard to better – but apparently still breakable – solutions.

I also heard a ghost of an admission that there may not be a single solution,

as timteachesmath writes, “Which broken algorithm is best so far? An algorithm that fails for ‘720’ but works for 95% of really composite numbers less than 720 might be better than one that works for ‘720’ but only works for 80% of really composite numbers less than 720.”

There is a Lesson here!!!!

I teach algenra 1 and geometry; that means 9th and 10th graders. I want to challenge them with Dan’s problem.

It’s simple, right? We are just talking about a box of CANDY!

I can see you now, shaking your head in disbelief: 9th and 10th graders able to frame an answer to a problem that even 1000 math teachers couldn’t solve.

Not only that, I can give this lesson to both algebra AND geometry!

Here is my explanation of the sequence of activities that would make the most sense to their budding understandings of math:

Essential Understanding: The best packaging involves the least surface area.

  1. The least surface area results from the tightest (closest) configuration of a cube’s side lengths.
  2. The surface area is a result of the combined areas of the six sides of the candy box.
  3. To find the minimum surface area for any number of candies, check for the following conditions: a) if the number is prime: 1, 1, the prime; b) a perfect cube: root squared times six; c) numbers with three primes: use the three primes; d) numbers with four or more primes: Multiply groups of the prime factors back together to find three products. These three products will be the three factors that will be the measurements of the box.
  4. Calculate the surface area from the measurements of the box.
  5. The box with the least surface area will have the factors that are closest to each other. It is possible for two of the factors to be the same number.

720 is a great example for (d):

Prime factors of 720 are 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 5

While they can be multiplied back together to create numerous factors, not all sets of three factors will give us minimal surface area.

Some of the sets of three that can be created are:

4, 4, and 45;

8, 6, and 15;

10, 6, 12;

And so on, until we get the multiples 8, 9, 10;

Checking for the optimal area involves a handshake (multiplying) among each of the three numbers – 8 times 9, 8 times 10, and 9 times 10, adding the products together and multiplying by 2.

Does anybody else see the individual lessons embedded in this process? This one problem is incredibly rich!

It’s not the solution, it’s the building of understanding!

The interactive process of doing this by hand is a wonderful opportunity to teach finding primes (6n-1), (6n+1). Students might also feel the need to learn how to find prime factors (and learning that all numbers are products of primes!). The question would arise about the geometry of area vs surface area. (Think of the manipulatives! I wonder of my kids would feel silly stacking cubes of jello!!!)

We also wouldn’t be able to ignore the eminently practical side of saving the planet through minimal packaging – not to mention the extension of how many candies we should pre-package for the best shipping (i.e, how many boxes can fit into a bigger box? Can we afford to package odd sizes and still keep our costs low enough to generate profit and sales?) (ooh! I can teach my kids to design boxes – quadratics, anyone?) Here we could also lead the class into the sales curve (parabolas – more quadratics! I’m in Heaven!)

By Jove! I think I figured out why Algebra and Geometry finally got together! They complete each other!!!

And I love the fact that once my students come to this understanding of the problem, they could begin to write a viable solution, either in algorithm or in code. Or maybe their understanding leads them to the conclusion that a single algorithm isn’t possible – did somebody just whisper the word “proof”? (You did just think that – you know you did!)

Just think of the STEM project ideas this activity could generate…

As many of Dan’s commenters pointed out, this is tedious by hand. But the truth of the matter is – they knew how to begin solving the problem by seeking to understand the problem to be solved! These are the skills our children need to learn. These are the lessons we need to teach. Let’s quit calling them 21st Century Skills; these skills really are useful for any age, anywhere. I’m living proof! (I’ve made it this far on those skills, haven’t I? LOL!)

Math Problem of the Week

I get to be the sponsor for my school’s chapter of Mu Alpha Theta. This is an awesome group! Unfortunately, all but three students graduated last year, and one of those transferred to the new school!😩.

Continue reading “Math Problem of the Week”

Engaging students: to ask better questions, we must become better listeners


But, why????

When I was young, I would ask “why?” Not once, but Continue reading “Engaging students: to ask better questions, we must become better listeners”