Reflections on NCTM Boston

Wow it was a great few days in Boston for NCTM 2015.  I was thankful for a great crowd for our 8 a.m. presentation and hope all the participants went home with some great strategies for reaching their struggling learners.  I was able to meet some AMAZING and INSPIRING teachers that I have tweeted and blogged with over the last year.  Mainly I came home excited to get back with my students and implement some of the great ideas and strategies that I heard.  Here are my final thoughts on the sessions I was able to attend this year:

The Math Practices Have to Be Our Foundation

I have written posts before about how I ignorantly blew off the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practices when we first implemented the Common Core.  In my mind I thought they were secondary to the standards.  Throughout the last 4 years it has become very apparent that the opposite is in fact true.  If you start with the Math Practices as your foundation the standards will come naturally.  That seemed to be the theme of lots of presentations this year from Dan Meyer to Steve Leinwand everyone was focused on how teachers could be more intentional and deliberate about making the practices the focus of their classrooms.  As teachers if we are going to truly help our students become mathematicians we must bring the 8 Practices to the forefront of every class.  Although I feel like I have come a long way in implementing the practices I think this year’s NCTM made it even more clear that I have to do an even better job making them the focus of my classroom.

The #MTBoS is the Place to Be

I thought it was AMAZING that the #MTBoS had it’s own booth this year at NCTM.  A huge thank you and shout out to Justin Lanier and Tina Cardone for all the amazing work they did to organize it.  I had so much fun manning the booth for a while on Thursday and got to talk to so many fun people who stopped by.  Last year when I went to NCTM Nola I had no idea about blogging and was a Twitter minimalist.  It is crazy how much that has changed in the last year.  I was intimidated when I first got started by al the big names and long time participants but I am so glad I braved it out and found my place.  It was so evident this year at NCTM the reach that this group of people has had.  It is hands down the best PLC, professional development and support group I have ever been apart of.  I hope their reach continues to grow after this year’s conference.  It is an honor to be a part of such a fabulous group of teachers.

Jo Boaler Rocks

I was so excited to see Jo Boaler on the program for this year.  She has been the biggest difference maker in my class this year with her How to Learn Math for Students course.  Jo was as inspirational as I thought she would be.  In my opinion her research is a game changer in math education.  The most exciting news I thought she delivered was that How to Learn Math for Students would have Spanish subtitles available before the 2015 school year…how amazing is that for my ELL students?!

Mathalicious is the Greatest Teaching Resource of My Time

I realize the above title is just a matter of opinion but I truly have never had a resource quite as good as Mathalicious.  I loved Karim’s presentation this year which focused on the topic of “Why Math?”.  He made the point that when kids whine about homework and math class the question they are really asking is “why math?”.  I loved the points he made about checking to see if your lesson was about content or application and it made me reflect upon what my class is about each day.  His recommendation was to ask yourself every day what class was really about.  If the answer was math then that wasn’t an application lesson.  I don’t know how that Mathalicious crew has cranked out lessons as quickly as they have this spring but it is loaded down with amazing new lessons and NCTM was just one more reminder of how lucky we are that they have taken their application idea and run with it.

Steve Leinwand Drops the Mic

Per usual Steve Leinwand killed it.  He always gives the most hilarious and thought provoking presentations to me.  His focus like many others was on the math practices and the need for us to help kids become mathematicians.  I think I tweeted every other word out of his mouth but what most stuck out to me was his declaration that every class needed a “convince me, show me, explain, why, and how do you know” mantra.  Isn’t that what the math practices and us at teachers are trying to get at?

Favorite Tweets

I tried to tweet my most favorite blurbs of the week mainly for myself but in case you don’t follow me on Twitter these are the tweets I thought that were most note worthy.

“Rigorous math is equal time on procedures, concepts, and applications” Karim Kai Ani

“I do, we do, you do is not modeling” Dan Meyer

“If the text book says it is modeling it probably isn’t” Dan Meyer

“Kids have instant access to math facts.  Doesn’t that mean we need to change the way we teach?” Steve Leinwand

Where Do I Go From Here?

What a Year

In so many ways this has been a year of growth for me personally and professionally. Personally my life has changed in ways I never planned on but I have learned to adapt and find strength I didn’t know I had. Professionally this year has been amazing. It has been an honor to co-teach with Joe Payne for the first time. I have had the opportunity to teach the most amazing group of kids that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Kids that hated math, thought they were stupid, that didn’t believe they could succeed and kids that have completely transformed since August.

I don’t claim that I have been a perfect teacher this year. Joe and I have learned so much over the course of working with these kids. We have tried things that worked and things that didn’t work. We have had ideas that we never followed through on, initiatives that we started and then fell to the wayside, and some ideas that were so bad that I won’t mention them out of embarrassment. However, through it all the kids have grown leaps and bounds. I’ll never forget those first weeks when on Math Talk Monday or Tough Pattern Thursday the silence was deafening. The days when the kids lacked not just the math ability but also the confidence to go out on a limb and try something without fear of being labeled a failure yet again. However we kept going and pushing and hoping that it would get better. I laugh at those days now when on Thursdays the kids fight over who gets to say the pattern or on Mondays when their ideas for Math Talk are so plentiful that I run out of space on the board to write them down.

The “GAP”

Quantitatively the kids took the MAP test last week and I won’t lie I was nervous. I don’t judge my student learning based on standardized test but I also know that others do. In order for me to continue to think outside of the box and teach the way I know is right for these kids I needed them to give me some solid data to stand on. I’ll be honest, I told the kids that. I told them I needed them to show the world that a different approach to math could change lives and then I awaited their scores. They killed it. I was nervous I won’t lie but the kids were confident, they went in that computer lab and just nailed it. I left school that day pretty much feeling like the teacher of the year.

My high from the day quickly dissipated as I began to fully analyze the results. Don’t get me wrong as a class the results were amazing but taking another look I began to realize that I had to do more.   You see the groups I did well with were not the groups that traditionally teachers fight over teaching. By far the greatest results were with my populations that were labeled as ELL, Special Education, and Socio-Economically Disadvantaged.   In fact, every subgroup that we tested that is traditionally thought of as a “GAP” group out performed our non “GAP “ group. In a lot of ways this wasn’t surprising to me. I know that my heart lies with teaching struggling learners but for some reason this data hit me hard. It convinced me more than ever that these kids need us. I don’t think they need our content knowledge, or teaching methodology, or research. They need our belief and confidence that they can and will be successful in math. These kids aren’t dumb. They have had poor math experiences that have led them to a dislike of numbers and by beginning to shift that belief you are opening up a world of opportunity to them.

Now What?

That leads me to where I am today which is a little confused about where I go from here. Our school schedule only allows Joe and I to teach one class together next year, which means I will have less opportunity to work with the students who have captured my heart. I know I want to have a larger impact that what I currently have but the question is how. Where do I go? What do I do? How can I help more than 30 kids, or 60 kids? I want to help all of them. I want to see every kids face light up when they figure out a pattern or first realize that 17 X 31 is really just 10 X 31 + 5 X 31+ 2 X 31. Where do I go from here?

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.