Reports of my Demise have been Greatly Exagerated (sort of) #MTBoS

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, but there are a bunch of things that have made me hesitant/gotten in the way.  I figured when I got a bunch of emails about Twitter mentions this morning, considering I haven’t really been a contributing member of Twitter for a little while, I figured today was probably the day.  This is going to be a long post. There will likely be a tl;dr at the end with just the news-related parts at the end, but I would like to get the rest out, because there is a lot of thinking going on that needs to get out.

Where have I been?  It starts in August when my wife was contacted about a job at the library she worked at in high school.  She had been looking for a professional library job, and this one fit exactly what she wanted.  We figured that, having a Master’s degree in Math Ed, transferring my certification from Florida to Iowa wouldn’t be too hard, so I told her to go for it.  After about a two month application and interview process, she was offered and accepted the job.  She relocated within two weeks, and it now happily working (actual in the library where I am currently typing this post.)  It was around the time of her second interview, that I decided I should contact the State of Iowa and start the process of getting my certification moved.  I had clearly grossly underestimated the difficulty this process would represent.  I was sent an email back from the licensing board that I was missing somewhere between 6-8 classes and I would not be able to get a math license in Iowa until I had made those up.  I think I found this the most frustrating because when I made the decision to change careers into teaching, I considered a few options.  Florida allows you to complete alternate certification, and you can actually teach quickly if you have a degree and can pass your subject area test.  I decided to stay working for the university and work for four years to earn a Master’s degree so I would have a solid foundation in pedagogy before I started teaching, and so that I would likely be able to transfer my certification to another state when we finally moved out of Florida.  In the ultimate irony, if I had simply taken the test and gotten to teaching when I actually started my Master’s degree, I would have had enough out of state experience to get a license in Iowa.

For the next little while I found that every time I thought about teaching, it left a bad taste in my mouth.  I got very focused on the things I did not do well as a teacher, and this was compounded by living by myself and trying get my house prepped to sell, which exhausted me.  When I got on Twitter to chat, I just felt that I didn’t have much to add to the conversation, and I couldn’t get excited by most of the things I was reading.  I was also rather busy with moving, cleaning and teaching, while also just trying to lead a somewhat normal life.  I did no post about this in October because I have some students who follow me on Twitter, and I wasn’t sure I would be leaving in December, and I didn’t want to share any of this information until I knew for sure what my plans were.  I actually didn’t know my plans until right around Thanksgiving.  And I did leave my job in December.  I couldn’t live 1000 miles from my wife anymore, and whatever craziness the Iowa certification process would bring me wasn’t going to go away if I stayed until May.

So, now I’m in Iowa.  Nevada, Iowa to be precise.  And I don’t know what comes next.  I know I won’t be teaching in a public school for a while.  There are a lot of math classes I need to make it through before Iowa will let me do that.  And honestly, I’m not even sure if I want to teach here.  I love helping students think about math, but I’m not sure I want to be in a system that is so hung up on my transcript and not me as a teacher, particularly when I felt I made the best decision to prepare myself for teaching, and it blew up in my face.  I do have a career to go back to in college student advising, which I have enjoyed and hope to get another job in soon.

I want to thank the MTBoS for all of the kind interactions I’ve had.  Particularly Hedge, who has been the one person who has been in contact with me about all of this stuff due to reaching out after a particularly cryptic tweet.  If I do get back into a better mental place about teaching, and I again feel that I have things to contribute to the conversation, trust me, I will be right back at #MSMathChat and other #MTBoS conversations.  And maybe I will find another way to affect math education that has nothing to do with holding certification in this state.  I’ve always kinda wanted to operate outside of the normal framework anyway.  Maybe this is the kick I need to do that.

I’m not writing this so that you will try to cheer me up about teaching, tell me that I’m great and that it’ll all work out, and I have to keep trying and I will get there.  I need time and perspective.  I need to opportunity to think creatively on how I might get to teach kids math even better than a public school would, even without certification.  Or I need to find happiness doing something else.

I just wanted to get some of this out and down on paper, let you guys, who have been so great to me for the time I have been a part of this, know what’s going on with me, and try to sort things out in my head.  Thanks for reading.  I hope all is well for all of you.

tl;rd: My wife got a great new job halfway across the country, we have moved, but my teaching certification won’t transfer, so I’m looking for some other type of job in Iowa.  Hope all is well for you.


Growing Pains

There’s gonna be a lot here, because I haven’t blogged this year, and for that I apologize. Gonna try to do once a week from here on out, because there are so many things I need to get out of my brain that I can’t when I don’t blog.

The beginning of this year had been crazy for me.  I now have a homeroom, which I didn’t last year, which is no small task at our middle school.  I also no longer have a mentor teacher with 30+ years of experience to help me out. In fact, I am helping out another teacher who hasn’t taught math before, I have been working with our curriculum all summer, and I am now on our tech team and heading up a couple of groups/committees.  So, plenty more on my plate, and I am still trying to navigate my way through my second year of teaching.

Some Good

I have had a better start to the year in some respects.  My bellwork structure (shoutout to @iisanumber, for a great structure in her math maintenance!) has been much better and is giving me the opportunity to open my students’ minds to ideas outside of using standard algorithms.  This has also helped with classroom management, so they know whta they should be doing when they come in.  I also use random seating in pairs every day, which was confusing to them at first, but now they seem to enjoy not having the same seats, and getting to work with many different students.  I still feel that I am at my best when we are playing games or working on activities where the students are up and moving around.  We have played a rational number addition and subtraction war game (although my fractions on that were a little too hard), a yahtzee-like game for addition and subtraction of integers, and I have had both 7th and 8th graders using desmos for graphing lines and doing transformations.

Some not so good

I still lecture too much.  I know it’s not true, but I always feel like I just have to explain something in one more different way and it will finally click for all students, even though I know deep down that isn’t true.  I need students doing more of the math and thinking in my classroom.  In the words of Dan Meyer (at least that’s where I heard it first) I need to be less helpful.  It is hard and uncomfortable, not just for me, but for the students.  They seem used to “Here is how to do this type of problem, now do 25 for homework,” and for some reason, they only want to learn that way.  I have to put my foot down and demand more thinking from them.  They need to see that trying something is so powerful, but they are all obsessed with finding the absolute right answer the first time they try anything.  I think this type of learning leads to my other issue I have seen with segmentation.  Students can’t seem to generalize ideas at all.  I know I am working with middle school students, so age may be somewhat of an issue, but it seems like they can learn to apply for a specific type of question, but cannot take previously learned ideas and try to apply them to a new situation.  I am shocked by the number of them who believe the only way to be taught something is to have me tell it to them, explain steps, and then have them repeat the said steps.  I think these are inter-related, and I need to make a more concerted effort to get my students to do more actual math and thinking for themselves in my classroom, and I need to do significantly less “modeling” and “telling.”


In light of this, and several poor quizzes last week, I am going to try out some centers for some different concepts this week.  I haven’t used centers before, although I’m not sure why, because they seem to be a hit with everyone I talk to, but I think this will get me more of a chance to get students to do their own math a thinking every day, and I will get more time to work with them on an individual basis.  Any tips and tricks for this would be much appreciated.

I thank anyone who stops by and reads.  Any ideas about how to help make sure my students are doing more of the thinking are more than welcome.

Reflections on #TMC14

After a couple of days of reflection, vacationing, and reading, I have some ideas coming out of TMC14.

The first portion of this post is going to be my reaction to some of the conversations coming out of the conference.  The thoughts started rolling in my head with this blog post by @thescamdog and the subsequent comment by @ddmeyer: link

I think this is good, constructive criticism.  Having an explanation of why something is our favorite could be very beneficial to the MTBoS at large.  I also happen to give a My Favorite, and there has been some other chatter that made me think even more about what I presented, so I thought I would give a little space here for that.

I presented on how I use card games in the classroom.  If you didn’t get a chance to see it, those games will be posted up on the Middle School part of the TMC14 wiki (Middle School) hopefully by the end of the weekend.  So, to satiate Dan and John, why do I like using card games?  I like practice.  I come from a classical music background, so I am eminently familiar with practice.  One thing I sometimes struggle with the MTBoS community has been that we come up with really cool “teaching” activities where students create their own ways and learn new things, but I often miss where students get to practice their skills.  Games allow for us to put practice into a more enjoyable package for students, while also making sure they are getting the repetitive practice they need to master a skill.  I was actually heartened when I read this comment and portion of Dan’s post (link).  I like to see my students play skill building games because I know some of them are not getting quality practice at home, so I at least know they are practicing some at school when we play games.

If you gave a My Favorite at TMC, and you have a blog, give Dan and John what they want and take a post to explain the why of your My Favorite presentation.

What else did I take away from TMC?  By tweaking @iisanumber’s Math Maintenance to fit my own school situation, I finally have a routine I am comfortable starting each class with, and it will meet a few needs of my students that I have been struggling with.  Also, I am going to try random groupings and some work on non-permanent vertical work surfaces (I cannot currently remember who I talked about with this and who presented on it) as well as creating homework that has 10 or fewer quality problems as I was discussing the effectiveness of that with someone as well.  I am sure there are other lessons I heard about that will spark things in me as well, but those are the ones that stick out the most.

Mostly what TMC did for me was get me re-energized and thinking about math teaching again.  I had a rough end to the year and even a rough beginning to the summer, but now I feel like I am ready to get back in there and make some positive changes.  I hope after some good reflection, you all feel the same as well.


New beginnings and #TMC14 Day 1

So it is time to revive my too-long dead blog.  I just became a little overwhelmed with everything that came from being in a new environment, teaching my first year, and putting a few other responsibilities on myself, my blogging just slipped last year.  #TMC14 has given me a renewed energy for great teaching and innovation in my classroom.  This seemed like a good time restart my blog and set a challenge for myself.  In reflecting, I was trying to make my blog posts too involved and just too long.  The challenge to myself is to do a mini-blog everyday; just a little note about something going on in my classroom.  I will then expand on one topic every Sunday morning.  I think having this structure will help me keep accountable and get my into a rhythm of blogging.

With all of that out of the way, as I mentioned above, I am in Jenks, OK at #TMC14 and it has been an overwhelming experience to meet all of the other teachers with such a passion for innovative math instruction.  It has been great to put avatars with faces, and I cannot believe the passion present in these rooms.

I thought a little about some of the other sessions in the morning, but the middle school session always seemed to make the most sense.  I felt very affirmed by the discussions of use of games for number sense and sense making in the middle school classroom, as it is something I try to use often.  Discussions about how to use games, like review games vs. skills strengthen games vs. games for teaching concepts pushed to me to consider using them in ways outside of review or eating up some extra time.  The ways Justin(@justinaion) and Max(@maxmathforum) presented how to consider the use of games challenged me to be more intentional about my use of games.  I am stoked about where we can take this game development idea over the next couple of days.

The keynote speaker was also very affirming for me.  I always felt pulled to middle school because I felt the mathematics was important and it was a final checkpoint before students progressed into the scary world of Algebra I-Geometry-Algebra II, etc.  Steve’s (@steve_leinwand) words about how important we as a group of people are, as well as alternate solving solutions and the basic necessity of ratio and proportion concepts rang very true to me, and I hope to bring these ideas back to my school with not just myself, but my whole faculty.

Chris’ (@pispeak) session about debating in mathematics way eye opening to say the least.  As he stated, you see debate in other classrooms, where opinions can vary on different ideas, but I had not considered how you can apply this in a math classroom until today.  I love this as a structure to allow students a little more comfort in explaining their solving methods, and a way to use vocabulary in the classroom.  I cannot wait to apply this as I move forward.

Kathryn’s (@iisanumber) session on math maintenance was exactly what I was looking for in a way to include review and test prep in my classroom.  I know that standardized tests are a reality, and I know that I need to up my acknowledgement of them in my classroom.  This structure is going to allow me to include work on these as well as fill the gap in my beginning class routine which was lacking last year.

The thing I am most taken by is the conversations that I have found in non-structured times.  A discussion of the usefulness of poker in probability on the walk to the high school, a lunch-time discussion of a catapult project, making two points change places on a body-scale number line, computer programming and occam’s razor discussion on the walk back and a very involved dinner conversation about keynotes and everything else under the sun are just some of the highlights that I can think of off the top of my head.  Everyone has been nice, accepting, and just willing to allow you into a conversation and will converse with you about any mathematics concept.  I feel like I have found a bunch of allies and a support system that will push me to innovate and persist as I keep working to become a better teacher.  I look forward to new adventures on day two!  Time for 9:00 my favorites.


Human Coordinate Plane

So, I haven’t had a lot that I wanted to blog about recently, until I decided to do something a fun my 7th graders on Friday.  I went to home depot and got a 50 foot rope and a can of black spray paint.  I cut the rope in half and spray painted every foot.  I laid one rope piece across the other, and voila! Coordinate Plane. Setup wise, if I had to do it again I would’ve gotten more rope and painted more than a foot apart to give the students some more space, but it went pretty well all the same.

When I initially took them out there, I gave them all a note card that was folded in half.  The outside had a coordinate, and the inside had instructions on changes in the x and y values (x+3 and y-7) of the point.  The changes in those x and y values actually corresponded to another person’s coordinate.  So I had each student find their coordinate and then I chose a random student to start.  I asked him, given his changes in x and y, in what direction will he be moving?  I then asked him to predict who was standing in his new spot.  After he did this, I had him count off the changes in both numbers, and take the place of the person standing there.  That person then followed the same pointing in the general direction of movement then predict who was standing in their new spot directions.  We did this until everyone had moved and the last person had taken the first person’s place.  The only thing I had trouble within this lesson was that my second class is much smaller than my first, but I used the same set of cards, so it didn’t work out quite as cleanly.  I should’ve made them their own set.

Next I wanted to graph some equations.  My students do not know slope or y-intercept or how to graph lines, they simply no how to graph points (x,y) and how to connect those dots to make shapes.  We have been working on functions and two-variable equations recently, and graphing x and y values that make those true, so I asked them to do that.  I split them into two groups, so I could have two lines, and at first I had one do x+y=5 and the other do x+y=7.  Very quickly someone came up with the fact that they were parallel.  We did some other things (graphed x-y=5 and 2x+y=5 and x+2y=5) and they really started to get that they always made straight lines.  We also had good observations about 2x+y=5 being steep and x+2y being flat.

The best part was when we got back to the classroom, in both classes, I had students say they wanted to do more things like that.  They thought it was fun and they felt like they really understood what they were doing better with coordinate planes.  I was also a little shy at first even taking them outside, because I’m new and hadn’t seen others do it very much, but I had multiple teachers tell me that they were glad I was getting the students outside and doing active things.

Have you done anything with a human coordinate plane before?  Please let me know your successes, failures, and ideas in the comments!

Thank Yous to the MTBoS

First, I want to thank everyone for their kind words here and on Twitter about my last post.  It made me feel like I am doing at least a few things right in my classroom this year.

This week, I was working with 7th graders on scale drawings, and I spent quite a bit of classtime working on a problem where we first scaled the sides and then found the area of the room and then we found the area of the unscaled room and then scaled and we found different answers (although we eventually found that if you square the scale and then scale the unscaled area, you end up with the same answer).  I thought we had a good talk about this, but then a student asked me if their answer was right to another problem, and they had just multiplied the area and the used the scale, which we had literally just proven not to work. I was a good opportunity, though, to let her table partner explain why that didn’t work.

I also have recently realized that I have planned a lot of interesting problem based activities for my 6th and 7th graders, but ever since we started graphing in Algebra, I have found it hard to find good activities.  I have also gotten some pushback, from students and parents, when we try thinking activities that I “haven’t been teaching them anything,” which I have tried to explain to both parties, but I can’t always get them to understand that my class will be a little different than what they have had previously.  Because we were moving away from graphing for a little bit and into solving systems of equations, I thought it would be fun for them to explore finding the intersections of systems of equations.  But that ended up more like pulling teeth.  When I asked them how we might find where they had the same output and input, one student suggested making a function table and looking at the values.  We had some good thoughts about what numbers to plug in (always start with 0 and see if the outputs are getting closer or further away) but when we realized that the answer to the first pair of equations was a fraction, the class got derailed again.  We talked about graphing both lines, which would be a good suggestion if we could perfectly tell from a graph what fraction this might be, but unfortunately that wouldn’t work either.  It took quite a bit of prompting to get them to think about setting equations equal to one another from slope intercept form.  And then it became apparent how many of them we just not paying attention when I asked them to explore 5 pairs of problems for homework and I got comments that ranged from “what were the answers to the ones we worked” (I had already erased them) and “what do I do with the equations to find the answers” (which I refused to answer since we had spent a good 30-40 minutes working on just that).  I also worry that there wont’ be actual thinking about this on their part and it will come down to asking their parents, reading something in the book, or just googling it, but there’s no helping that at this point.  Oh well.  I guess we will try again on Tuesday.

6th grade on Friday was a good time, though.  We played single-step equation Bingo.  They showed some great strategies.  They still struggle with solving singles-step problems with fractions, so when we had those, many would copy them down and use time when they had an easier problem (such as 8x=8) making sure they got the correct answer or checking their answer to fraction problems.

After a tough week I was pretty bummed on Saturday morning and I was cruising Twitter looking for some guidance and and motivation.  I would like to thank @brennemania for linking to Emergent Math’s excellent Problem Based Learning Starter Kit and helping me find some of that guidance and motivation.  Reading this (as well as Dan Meyer’s Unengagables article linked to in this post) helped me realize that I wasn’t the only person struggling and that I could do good things if I kept trying.  I feel like I need to bookmark both of those and read them once every couple of weeks to keep myself motivated.  This is the biggest thing that has helped me since finding the MTBoS is support to pick me up when I am feeling down and the inspiration to try new things and learn from my mistakes.  Thank you to everyone who I have interacted with here or on Twitter for helping me stay positive and giving me feedback on my teaching!

Students Writing Their Own Problems

While I was participating in the Twitter #MSMathChat this week, we got onto the subject of having students write problems, which is a strategy I used while my students were working on adding and subtracting negative fractions and mixed numbers.  @JustinAion and @J_Lanier strongly requested that I do a blog write-up of how I structured this activity, so here it is.

I have a full class set of individual-sized whiteboard that I find incredibly useful in situations like this.  I gave every student a whiteboard, and I asked them to draw a line own the middle and label one side as addition and one side as subtraction.  I then wrote a fraction or a mixed number on the board with the instructions “Write one expression for addition and one for subtraction that contain at least one negative fraction and have an answer of the number written on the board.”  I also asked that they not write the answer, only the expression.  I then collected the whiteboards and handed them back out so every had someone else’s expressions, and I asked them to make sure that the expression was equivalent to the number on the board.  I then asked a few students to share.  Sharing was very open, because if the written problem was wrong, no one had to know who wrote it because no one had their own board back.  As they shared their equation, I asked if they thought it was a correct expression, and then had another student walk through how to get the answer.

I started with 1 2/5, and most students began writing 2 term expressions, but one student in particular wrote 1 2/5 + 1/5 + -1/5, which she thought was gaming the system, but actually gave me a great opportunity to review the inverse property of addition.  Once she had written one with 3 terms, other students felt more free to write in more than two terms, and I got some pretty long equations.  This made for some excellent expressions (I wish I had taken pictures), and forced a bunch of different students to think about complicated problems.  After the students had figured out how to “game” the system by writing simple problems, I would throw a more difficult rule onto my instructions (For subtraction, one number must be a whole number, for addition, you had to use fractions or mixed number with different denominators, etc).  As I added rules, it turned into a nice back-and-forth with them trying to fit their “easy” problems into my new rules and me trying to come up with new rules to push them,

Overall, I enjoyed this more than continually having to come up with my own problems for them to solve, and it offered them a different perspective on the operations.  They seemed to like writing their own and solving other students’ problems.  I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I would change, outside of giving very specific instruction about them not doodling on the whiteboards.  I actually just used a similar activity today where they were writing algebraic addition and subtraction equations with a specified value for X.