What Curriculum Do You Follow?

By far one of the questions I get asked most frequently is “what curriculum do you follow?”.  I see numerous people post this question on Twitter as their district looks to adopt new materials and get so many e-mails from schools who see our math success and assume it must be a result of a book or math program we follow.  People always seem puzzled when I answer the questions with “none”. We follow no specific curriculum or math program where I teach.  We follow the Common Core Standards or KCAS in Kentucky but have the freedom to teach the material as we feel most effective rather than be married to a specific system.  I wont lie I felt a bit vindicated when Education Week posted this article about math programs and their Common Core alignment.  The article definitely helps validate my thoughts that there is not currently a solid Common Core aligned math “curriculum” to follow.  To be honest, even if there were I probably wouldn’t buy in and use it.  As an educator I feel that one of the most important aspects of my classroom is the autonomy to make decisions on how and what to use to get my students to meet the expectations of the Common Core Standards.  That how varies based on topic, day, student, culture and changes day by day.  I don’t think there is a way for a prescribed curriculum to do that.

So what do I do?  Well I use every resource at my disposal to create my own curriculum that is right for every student, class, and teaching moment.  The Common Core Standards defines “rigor” as having an equal emphasis on procedures, conceptual understanding and applications.  In math, we have always had an abundant amount of procedural resources (hello every text book in America).  Numerous conceptual understanding resources have begun to emerge thanks to the work of Dan Meyer and many others on things like the 3 Act Math Tasks that go so much deeper than the skill and drill methods of days past.  Eli and the Desmos people have taken that even further with their amazing online graphing calculator software and lesson plans like Function Carnival and Polygraphs.  However resources on the application piece of rigor have been few and far between.  We’ve all see the “wonderful” forced context and application problems in our text books but I have to believe the writers of Common Core meant applications as so much more than that.

Enter Mathalicious into my life and classroom.  Although I may not follow a curriculum I can tell you that Mathalicious is my go to resource for teaching math through application.  Last week we were able to learn about percents, not through “is over of percent goes above” or “the butterfly method” or “the fish” but instead by looking at coupons.  Most importantly we didn’t just calculate the value of coupons but instead studied the psychology of coupons.  We talked about JCPenney and what went wrong with their “everyday low price plan” and if people would rather get a good deal or a good price.  So instead of spending an hour drilling and killing percent problems we were able to practice percent problems in the context of the real work instead of in the context of a worksheet.  In my mind this is what math should really be about.  Math in the real world is not a series of skill based questions but instead is about using math simultaneously with other disciplines like psychology, sociology, science etc and using the math to solve real problems.

Coming up in class is my statistics unit with a huge focus on variability which we study through the use of box plots.  Yes I could teach it by giving students random data and worksheets with meaningless problems but instead we will learn about variability with the Mathalicious lesson “Wealth of Nations”.  We will look at wealth distribution in the U.S. and the ever growing poverty problem.  We will have difficult discussions.  There will be disagreement amongst classmates on how to solve the problem.  There will be shock about the inequity in America.  However more importantly, there will be learning, real authentic learning in the context of an actual problem that the kids and their families face daily.  I can’t put a value on those type of discussions and learning opportunities in my classroom.

If there is on thing that makes me a little sad in all of this it is that every student in America does not currently have access and the opportunity to have these math discussions.  Every student deserves to have the opportunity to use math as a prism to see the world, to use math to be better citizens, to use math to make the world a better place.  Every student needs access to Mathalicious in my mind.

So no, to answer everyone’s question I don’t use a curriculum.  I don’t use a text book.  I don’t have workbooks or an abundance of worksheets.  Instead I have the world as my curriculum and I don’t think you can put a value on what that is worth.  Maybe this is best summed up by what my students thought of “Wealth of Nations” last year best.


Can you put a value on student’s calling math lessons mind-blowing?  I am pretty sure the answer there would be a resounding no.

Valentine’s Day Math Vocabulary Poems

One of my favorite activities each year is having the kids write poems on Valentine’s Day with their math vocabulary words.  I have no idea where I got the idea but a few years ago on a whim I decided to have the kids do it and I laughed for days over their creativity so it has become an annual tradition.  I pretty much give them free reign over the assignment allowing them to work in groups or alone.  Some students write real love poems while other take it the other way and write break-up poems which are usually quite comical.  The only requirement is that they use 10 Common Core 7th grade math vocabulary words.  Here are a few of my favorites from this year!

We are spread far apart

On opposite sides of a prism.

I wish I was on a pyramid

So I’d never see you again.

You’re more annoying than a repeating decimal.

I hate you more than taxes.

Our ratio is one to none.

A long division line separates us.

I’m one and you’re -500 on the number line.

Seeing each other would be an unlikely event.

I hate you. I hate you 100%.


Our love is 100 percent

Me and you are like complementary angles

Your face is a circle with a radius of 2

Which basically means I really love you

We can be never ending just like pi

Your absolute deviation gives me a tingling sensation

The percent error of our love is absolute zero

To me you are a hero

Your face to me is to a perfect scale

I hope our love will never fail

Our unit rate is 1,000,000 miles per hour

To me you never grow sour

The percent of us having a baby

Isn’t yes or no….it’s a maybe

Us breaking up is an unlikely event

You are better than a cinnamon mint

Your face is the opposite of plain

To save you I’d jump off a plane.


Roses are red, violets are blue, I hate math almost as much as you.

Not one of your angles are acute, not even a protractor could measure how much I hate you.

Complementary angles aren’t as complicated as you, sure some may call be evil but my hate for you has no equal.

You’re more horizontal than a never-ending line, you’re more stupid than a high school Einstein.

You’re as unequal as a scalene triangle.

You have more edges than a dodecagon, and I’m counting the days until you are gone.


I hope you will be able to use this idea in some way in your classroom.  I would love to see what your students come up with!

Love is like an estimation, you never know how long you’ll be together or the probability of them being with someone else besides you.  The likely event that we peak up is hopefully at the rate of 0% but right now our love is at a percent error, and the frequency we are going won’t be an ordered pair.  I would go to the origin of the Earth for you but you would only go a ratio of the way for me.


I am not sure what I hope to accomplish with this post but I feel like it needs to be written for reasons that I can’t put my finger on.  I feel like Joe and I are at a crossroads with our collab classes and to be quite honest I am not sure what to do.  These kids are the reason I teach.  They have had terrible education experiences especially in math.  They struggle with the language.  They have special education needs.  They have a variety of 504 plans that present other challenges with their learning.  They are socio-economically disadvantaged.  Those are their obstacles but I don’t believe they have to define who they are.  The question I am currently facing is how do I work within their obstacles and meet their learning needs while also teaching the content that I am supposed to teach.

I feel like we have done some good things thus far.  Our warm-ups have been amazing, we have done some good teaching, had some great projects but it doesn’t seem like it has been enough to keep the kids excited about learning.  Feeling a little unmotivated myself after winter break I decided to renew my enthusiasm by focusing on two Mathalicious lessons this week.  I have never hidden my love of using Mathalicious in my classroom.  It is one of if not the most valuable tools I have in the classroom.  Our first two units in 7th grade math, Rational Numbers and Expressions & Equations do not lend themselves as well to the use of Mathalicious (although they just added a great Integers lesson so I am hoping more and more keep coming!) but now that we are in the Ratio and Proportions Unit it is the golden opportunity to throw in some Mathalicious love.

Anyway, this week Joe and I decided to focus on two lessons “Harmony of Numbers” and “Jen Ratios” to intro the ratios unit this week. I will write a separate post on those lessons but I want to focus here on what those lessons did in our room this week.  Once we hooked the kids with that first Piano Guys video in Harmony of Numbers they were on the edge of their seats.  There was little to no being off task or bored or unengaged.  They were excited to come to class every morning and eager to get started.  It was fabulous.  We stopped at key points in the lesson to reinforce skills that they were lacking and they seemed to get it and we loved every minute

So what is the problem?  Well I have a lot of content left to teach but am really feeling the need to try and teach the rest of it through Mathalicious as much as possible.  On the pro side of that, I have the Ratio and Proportion, Geometry, and Stats and Probability units to go and those all have a plethora of really strong lessons developed by Mathalicious.  My hesitation just comes out of fear that what if it doesn’t work and even though I think they are learning we come the end of the year and it flops?  I know we aren’t suppose to talk about state tests or teach to them (I have never taught to the test for what it’s worth) but let’s be honest when push comes to shove those scores are a part of teacher accountability and I have to think about that somewhat.  I have a lot of content left to teach but is it better to miss some of that and get the kids excited about learning real world math and cover what we cover or do I need to do what so many of us do and just plow on through whether the kids learn it or not?

The problem is I know the right answer here and that is to abandon the direct instruction altogether with this crew (which I already had for the most part) and just use Mathalicious and a few other resources as a tool to get the kids excited about applying math and let the chips fall where they may.  It is just a little scary to take the plunge.  I am thinking two Mathalicious lessons a week with additional resources inserted as needed would be life changing for the kids and for me .  Anyone want to convince me one way or another?

Magic Number

I taught a disastrous lesson about two step equations in my 1st hour collab class one day.  Painful really isn’t even strong enough to describe it.  It was too much too soon.  I tried to lead with some real-world type situations to get the kids to discover more of using two step equations on their own and it flopped.  The kids left confused and I left frustrated with both myself and them.  I have about 4 minutes between 1st and 2nd hour so I used it to revamp the entire lesson in hopes of salvaging the day.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the MTBOS as I remembered reading Julie Reulbach’s blog on magic numbers which led me to Sadie’s blog on the same topic.  I have absolutely no idea why it took me so long to jump on this band wagon.  I guess I always thought my kids were getting it using traditional instruction but this year they most definitely weren’t.  Those 4 minutes between classes were some of the best planning I have done all year.

I started class by telling the kids we were going to take a little break from math and do some magic tricks.  I was going to secretly pick a number and give them some clues to help them guess it.  The first person to guess the number would get 100 e-bucks (our team money incentive system).  I started out with simple things like I take a number multiply it by 2 and add 2 to get ten, what is my number?  A couple hands go up and say “four”.  Great.  We step it up a bit.  I take a number and divide it by 9 and add 12 to get 15, what is my number?  More hands go up than the first time with a correct guess of 27.  I start to think maybe we are on to something here.  I kept making up examples on the fly with more and more hands going up each time.  When I see I have nearly everyone I ask them to jot their own magic trick down on their table and miraculously they all do it with no complaining.  They were hooked.  I started letting them guess each other’s numbers until it seemed they had it down backwards and forwards.  We started discussing their methodology and how they were guessing these numbers.  Almost everyone said they worked “backward” if the clue said multiply by two add four get 10, they subtracted 4 and divided by two to get the magic number.  I knew that was my window to move on.

I handed out these Steps sheets and started guiding students through turning their magic tricks into equations.  Some of their work is below:

20141216_201408 20141216_201416 20141216_201449


All the kids did beautiful work and once their equations were written they quickly began to see the connection between “working backward” and finding their magic number.  I began selecting their equations and we began solving them using the equality properties rather than just “magically”.  The transition was so smooth for them it was hard to believe…why did I wait to so long to try this?!

Here are a few of the kids comments:

It made me understand the equation.  It made it so easy.

This helped me because its easier.

I like it because it helps me learn hard math.

I like magic number because you have to think really hard and it is also really fun.

I like magic number because it helped me understand how to get the answer through the steps.

It helped me because when we did examples of it it started to get to me.  When we did it into steps it made sense like adding or subtracting the opposite.  Then once we got it, it finally made sense!

I understand it more now than yesterday.

I like it because it is fun to figure out and challenges my brain which I love.  It helped me a lot!

Thanks MTBOS for the inspiration and “involuntary collaboration”!

What I Can Do

To be honest I have been in a funk lately.  The kids I teach this year have touched my heart in so many ways but that has come with its own consequences.  I have been too focused on what I haven’t and may not be able to do for these kids.  I cannot fix their home situations.  I cannot fix the things their young eyes have already seen and the problems they have dealt with.  I cannot fix years of bad school and math experiences that have left them hating school, math, and themselves.  I cannot fix the fact that some of them feel unloved, unwanted, and unimportant.  All of that and more has left me feeling ineffective and overwhelmed by the challenges that face these kids and myself as I spend the rest of the year with them.  My lesson first hour today totally fell apart in so many ways and I ended the class frustrated and ready to give up.  But then 2nd hour started , I adjusted, we moved on and I realized that just like I tell the kids I have to stop focusing on what I can’t do and start focusing on what I can.

I can greet these kids with a smile and a kind word everyday knowing that it may be the only one they hear all day.  I can give them an hour a day of a positive math experience for 177 days this year.  I can praise them for the little things they do right instead of only mentioning the big things they may do wrong.  I can cry with them when their parents have had a fight or they just found out they have to move because their family can no longer pay the rent.  I can send food home with them over long breaks because I know their cupboards are empty.  I can make sure that everyday they feel loved, cared for, and safe when they are with me.  I can be their cheerleader, their biggest fan, their advocate, and their safe place.

And for me they can continue to me my motivation and inspiration to never stop trying to change the world.

Gobbler’s Dilemma

I think every teacher struggles with keeping the kids engaged and learning during “short weeks” of school before breaks.  This year, my team of teachers at school seemed to have an extra challenge as not only did we have a two day school week but we also owed the kids a cross ball tournament as an incentive for winning the school’s annual food drive and I needed to give a common math assessment to every student on the team as well.  An idea was quickly born to have every teacher on the team (Math, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts) give my math assessment in their 1st hour on Tuesday morning followed by the Mathalicious lesson Gobbler’s Dilemma in every class.

Gobbler’s Dilemma lends itself very easy to this plan as the math involved is very straight forward and easy and the focus is more on the logic and strategy involved in stores deciding if they should be open or closed on Thanksgiving.  I provided the lesson guide and student handouts to each teacher for their class and as a team we went through the lesson on our planning period to make sure everyone was ready for Tuesday.  Our team of students included 2 classes that are taught in a collaborative setting (2 teachers) due to special learning needs and 2 classes of Advanced Pre- Algebra and the lesson seemed to work equally well in both classes.

The basic premise of the lesson is for students to use the information given and logic to decide if their store should be open or not on Thanksgiving.  I did make some modifications for our collab class by creating the chart for Question 1 on the board in a lay out that was a little more easy to follow.  They seemed to really be struggling with the “matrix” style chart so we created more of a list on the board as a class and then they were able to fill in the matrix chart with fewer issues.  I also modified question 3 a bit to help with student focus.  Question 3 calls for students to engage with a partner in a strategy game to see how stores must make the decision to open on Thanksgiving or not without knowing what their competitors are doing.  Instead of having students do this in pairs we did it as a whole class.  The students were store A and I was store B.  I selected a class spokesperson who would poll the class about if they wanted to open Thursday or Friday while I was in the hall.  Both the class and myself would write their decision on a mini-white board and then would reveal our decisions when I came back in the room.    I really liked that modification the best.  It allowed the students to engage in the strategy game but also allowed me to help drive the discussion and  keep things on track on what was a high energy day for the kids.  They also loved playing against me and wanted to try and beat my store however they could.

This lesson is a great example of how engaged students can be when involved in a lesson that they view as important and worthwhile.  For the 65 or so minutes we worked on the lesson they were engaged and really thinking deeply about the math and how it impacted the decision making of stores nationwide.  It was also fabulous for the “non-math” teachers on our team to get to engage the kids in a mathematical discussion to show them that regardless of content area intelligent adults should be able to talk about math.  Below are some of the kids reviews of the lessons.  Excuse the misspellings I am typing them as the kids wrote them!

I liked this activity because it is using math with real work things that are interesting to 7th grade students.

It was fun because I’m very competitive and love things like this.

I liked it because it was competitive.  It was a fun way to spend time.  Questions were difficult to understand.

I did like this activity because it’s using math in real life situations.

Dear Mathalicious, I really enjoyed your lessons.  They led to great and interesting conversations.

The lessons Mrs. Powers reached today was interesting and I learned.

I like this lesson, the reason is because maybe I can stop stores from doing Black Friday on Thanksgiving with a good reason why.

I like this lesson because I like going to the mall, so I can relate to it.  And this is kind of cool because it gives you a little idea of how stye run the stores and make money.

I loved this lesson because it made me feel like I was real store owner.  Also that is changed the way I look at stores that open at Thanksgiving.

This lesson is cold and we should do it more.

I liked the lesson.  I think that the dision we made was good and we learned and had fun.

For me, the lesson was  a fantastic way to keep the kids engaged and talking about math on an otherwise chaotic day.  I am sure Gobbler’s Dilemma will be a part of our team Thanksgiving tradition from here on out.  Here’s hoping Mathalicious comes up with a great lesson ASAP for the day before Winter break!

He Said 2n-3

If you aren’t using Visual Patterns in your classroom please start tomorrow!  This amazing site developed by one of my “math idols” Fawn Nguyen has been one of the most amazing additions to my classroom this year.  We do Visual Patterns every Thursday for Tough Pattern Thursday and I would be lying if I said I haven’t wanted to throw in the towel on it more than once.

Wow those early weeks of patterns were tough with kids constantly focused on finding the common difference and then never being able to move forward into writing an expression that was always true for n number of steps.  There was so much productive struggle on those early days (I have decided to call it productive struggle to make myself feel better about life) that I didn’t know if we would ever get to a good place with patterns.  Each week on their weekly reflection when asked what they needed help with student after student kept writing Tough Pattern Thursday.  I thought about changing the warm-up, I really did but Tricky Model Thursday just didn’t have the same ring as Tough Pattern.  Instead we kept pushing through and miraculously week after week they started getting better.  Yes it took some guidance from me, some leading questions, some paraphrasing, and some modeling but they really started getting better.  Even more amazing was the fact that on their weekly reflection Tough Pattern Thursday started moving from what they needed help with most to their favorite part of the week.

And then came last Thursday when one of my students who I will call “Z” brought me to tears with his description of the pattern.  What you need to know about Z is that he is an English Language Learner who has been perpetually novice on state assessments and below grade level in both reading and math for as long as he can remember.  He gets frustrated in math, not as much because of the numbers but because of the reading and language involved.  I have remedied as much of it as I can for him.  I gave him a list of the numbers and their spellings to eliminate some of that frustration and we have focused on vocabulary as much as we can to try and make Z feel more successful in class.  I have watched him over the course of that last few weeks get more and more comfortable with the pattern each week and started to get the feeling something big was about to happen and then it did.  Last Thursday Z’s hand was the first in the air when I asked for thoughts on the pattern.  I wasn’t really ready to get at the algebraic part yet and was just looking for thoughts and ideas on how to break the picture apart but as soon as I saw his hand I knew I had to call on him.  I expected him to have some thoughts about what came next or how he was thinking about it but that isn’t what I got at all.  Instead in his still slightly broken English Z excitedly said “2n-3!  2n-3!”.  Without a doubt that is in my top 5 teaching moments thus far.  The look on Z’s face and his classmates face were priceless as we checked his expression for accuracy to find it was dead on.

Will Z finish the year on grade level in math this year and will he finally rise above the novice category on the state test I really don’t know.  However I do know that he will never forget 2n-3.  He will never forget the confidence that came out of math class that day.  He will never forget that he too can do and be successful at math.  And me, I will never forget that success is much sweeter when it doesn’t come easy.  Thanks Fawn for bring Visual Patterns to our classroom it has taught us about more than just math!