What Great Teachers Do

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending my beautiful niece’s wedding. While my family and I were sitting at the table, waiting for the wedding party to arrive, a guest walked in that I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Instantly, I felt myself fill with emotion. As she walked towards our table, I looked at my wife and said, “She was so awesome.” After introducing myself, she remembered who I was and we talked about our lives a little bit before she moved to sit down. I’m not sure that woman knows how much she changed my life; maybe I don’t either.

As a kindergartner, I was small and shy and cried most days. At home, my dad was become very sick from being diabetic and I thought about him at school quite a bit. I had a great teacher Mrs. Erdman who was so sweet and did a great job making me comfortable at school. But, she was going to be having a baby and would be on maternity leave soon. Whoever was coming to replace her had very big shoes to fill. The replacement, Mrs. Tharp, did not disappoint.

I have very few memories from kindergarten, but the ones I have are of me crying at the teacher’s desk, just wanting to go home. Mrs. Tharp would have me come up and she would ask if I could try to stay at school just a little while longer. She would tell me stories about her horses and her dogs and it made me feel good enough to finish out the day. The day came where Mrs. Erdman came back, but I knew I was going to miss Mrs. Tharp.

As my time in elementary school passed by, I had many different experiences at school that helped me grow into someone who absolutely hated school. In first grade, my dad grew worse, had a stroke and was required to do dialysis at home multiple times per day. The only memories I have of first grade were of staying in at recess because of my handwriting. I remember my dad telling the teacher at conferences, “The only reason he comes to school is for recess. He hates it. Is there any other time he can work on his handwriting?” Apparently, there was not.

Second grade was awful. After being sick for what seemed like forever, in March of that school year, my dad died. I was crushed. I don’t have any memories of second grade. All I thought of that year was my dad.

Third grade was pretty great. My teacher Mrs. Kelly that year was really cool. She would read to us every day and do all kinds of voices for the characters. I absolutely love to read today. I’m sure she played a part in that.

Fourth grade was pretty bad. I’m sure it was a combination of many things, but it was the same teacher from second grade. That year was the most trouble I ever got into in school. My mom was called in for a conference a few times during that year. The teacher believed I needed medication. As you can imagine, I reverted back to hating school.

On the very last day of school in the district I attended, you would pick up your report card and find out who your teacher was going to be the next year. I was so happy that fourth grade was over, I couldn’t wait to pick up my report card. But, I was completely surprised by what the back of my report card said. My teacher for the next year was going to be Mrs. Tharp. Yeah, that Mrs. Tharp! The one from kindergarten! Going into the year, I had heard from an older friend of mine that fifth grade was about the last time I would have fun at school. Through him, I knew junior high was going to be all business and I was going to have to grow up in a hurry. So, fifth grade was my last chance to be a kid. I believe now it might have been my last chance to have someone change my mind about school.

So back to the wedding reception. I’m sitting at a table with my family, talking to one of my childhood heros Mrs. Tharp. I was so proud to tell her I was a teacher and how I care about my students to the point that I have cried the past two years when they leave. After a few minutes of catching up, she went to sit with others. Before she left, I’ll never forget her saying, “It sounds like you’ve got it figured out where you’re at.” She gave me a hug and said, “You keep loving those kids, they need it.”

As she walked away, I felt a lot of emotion and struggled to remember what we did in fifth grade. After some thought, I remembered I learned to sew that year, made homemade soap, and even ate some grizzly bear. But I had to really search for those memories. Instead, it was feelings that were easily coming back. I remember how welcoming she was. I remember her laughing and smiling. I think fifth grade might have been the year where I started to think maybe I could be ok even though I lost my dad. I think fifth grade is where I started smiling and laughing again. I know for sure, fifth grade is where I started to like school again.

So here I am now, preparing for my tenth year teaching. As I said before, I’m the teacher outside crying as I say goodbye and good luck to my eighth graders, knowing I won’t see many of them ever again. I’m the guy that emails last year’s students the first week of each year to make sure they are doing ok.
Why am I that way? I believe it is because of Mrs. Tharp’s inspiration. She inspired students to be kind, compassionate, and loving. So, if you read this far and are going back to school in a few weeks, I’m asking for your inspiration this year. Not for me though, but those kids sitting in your classroom that are in dire need of it. Inspire your students to be creative and curious. Inspire them to do things that they don’t even believe they can do. Above all, inspire kids to get emotional, jump out of a chair, and run to introduce themselves to you at a wedding reception twenty-five years after you have had them in class. Inspire kids because the world is so full of discouragement and sadness that kids need every bit of positivity in their lives so they can change the world.

Technology and Student Achievement

Technology and Student Achievement

Studies show that students who use technology in class tend to be more engaged, score better than students who don’t use technology, learn more in less time, and make more significant gains, particularly among students at risk. However, if best practices for technology in the classroom along with factors that influence the use of technology in the classroom are not attended to, the use of technology in the classroom may not be as successful as it could be.

Factors that Influence the Use of Technology in the Classroom

There are many factors that influence the implementation and use of technology in the classroom. Effective leadership is a key principle of implementation of technology. Planning for the use of technology and providing professional development will affect whether or not staff effectively use technology in the classroom. The plan also needs to allow for realistic growth, not requiring staff to do more than what they are comfortable with. School districts and buildings need to have technology professionals who can not just show how a program works, but also how to effectively use it as an instructional tool. Ultimately, if districts cannot afford the proper technology, there will not be an effective utilization of technology in the classroom.

Best Practices of Using Technology in the Classroom

If technology is only being used to be flashy, the possible gains from its use will be lacking. There are several best practices for technology use in the classroom. Here are four of the best practices for technology use:

  • Alignment – Technology use should be aligned to learning objectives. Also, choose technology that meets the needs of your students.
  • Accessibility – If you are going to assign something outside of class, ensure that all students have access to the required technology outside of class. Be sure to plan ahead. Have something else planned if the technology isn’t working correctly.
  • Assessment – Provide your students with guidance while they are working. Check for understanding with technology just as you would any other learning objective. If some students are struggling with the technology and you are grading something that involves technology, allow all students enough time to work towards the same level of mastery.
  • Reinforcement – Technology should reinforce or supplement your teaching, not repeat what you are already doing. For example, show a video clip of something that cannot be done in the classroom. Also, if you are going to use a Powerpoint presentation, don’t read word for word off of each slide.
Research on the Use of Technology in Education

The following studies show what research tells us about technology use in the classroom:

  • Kulik’s Meta-Analysis Study – This study found that students with access to technology perform better on achievement tests than students who did not. This study also found that students learn more in less time and develop more positive attitudes towards their classes when they use technology.
  • Sivin-Kachala’s Review of the Research – The use of technology showed increased achievement from preschool to higher education for regular and special needs children. Students attitudes and self-concept also improved when technology was used for instruction.
  • Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow – Although not conclusive, the use of technology appeared to create experiences that required higher-level reasoning. Also, teacher and student attitudes improved towards group work and lecturing.
  • West Virginia’s Basic Skills/Computer Education Statewide Initiative – The more students participated in the initiative, the more their test scores improved on the Stanford 9. Teachers felt that the use of technology helped with instructional goals and objectives.
  • Harold Wenglinsky’s National Study of Technology’s Impact on Mathematics Achievement – This study showed that students who used higher-order thinking software showed gains in math scores up to 15 weeks above grade level on the NAEP. Students of teachers who received professional development on computers scored above grade level.

As you can see, the research shows that technology in education has many benefits. Students attain higher achievement and have better attitudes towards school and themselves when they have access to technology. However, if technology is not implemented correctly, many of these benefits will not be seen at the level that educators are looking for.


“Best Practices for Using Technology in the Classroom | CIDDE.” Best Practices for Using Technology in the Classroom | CIDDE. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2015.

“The Impact Of Technology-Enabled Active Learning On Student Performance, Gender And Achievement Level.” Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Computer Supported Education(2010): n. pag. Web.

The Absolute Best Teaching Practice

With grad school beginning, the school year, and my children’s sports all beginning in August, I haven’t had any time to write about anything I’ve been reflecting on. However, those three things have given me plenty of opportunity and motivation to reflect on my practice. I’ve attended multiple professional development sessions focusing on multiple practices labeled as “best practices” in the classroom. However, I believe there is one vital practice that doesn’t happen often and in my time reflecting this semester, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the most important practice to ensure success in the classroom.

Before I share my best practice with you, lets look at some of the others that I use in class or that we have discussed this semester. There is formative assessment, asking higher-level questions, cooperative learning, brain breaks, and pre-teaching. Ok, this isn’t everything we’ve covered, but you get the point. If you would like a list of best practices from Grant Wiggins, click here.

To clarify, I’m not saying these things are not important. I know there is no way my students could have the success they have without the feedback from formative assessment, or the energy and focus gained from brain breaks, or higher-order thinking students engage in while in cooperative learning groups. But, students would never engage in any of those activities if it weren’t for what I believe is the best educational practice.

I could become a consultant or write a book, but my best practice is so simple, the PD would take 1 minutes and the book would be one page and one sentence. I’m sure that someone, somewhere has some data on this practice and can quantify gains and tell you the effect size of my practice. However, I don’t have it, so you’ll just have to trust me.

Are you ready? You really want to know Andy Harridge’s absolute best practice to use in the classroom? The one thing that I believe is most vital to the success of students and teachers and the first and only sentence of my book would be:

Love kids.

That’s it. That’s the secret from Andy Harridge’s book The Secret to Producing Highly Successful Students. Love kids. Love them when you are tired. Love them when they annoy you. Love them when nothing else you have tried is working. Love kids because, if you don’t love kids and they know it, they will never buy into anything that you are selling ever.

In a perfect world, I would win the lottery (even though I don’t play), I would build my own school, and I would make “loving students” my number one priority. I would focus PD on loving students and it would be part of everyone’s evaluation. I would love to see the results if we focused on creating an environment of love, acceptance, confidence, excitement, and love again. Of course, we would talk about formative assessment, cooperative learning, brain breaks, etc. But, above all, students would walk out of my building with no doubt in their mind that they are loved by every single one of their teachers. Once that was realized, I can only imagine what students would be willing to do and the effect this would have on the world.

I Can’t Make it Rain

Every morning at school this quarter, I have the privilege of watching students eat breakfast, socializing, texting, playing games on their phones, or just waking up before they start their school day. It is probably no surprise to people who know me to learn that, for the most part, I enjoy talking to the kids as I walk around and see what they are up to each morning. A few days ago, something happened at breakfast that has had me thinking about my classroom and what sort of learning environment I create.

As I was making my way around the cafeteria, talking to students, I saw one of my students playing the game “Make it Rain” on his phone. If you are unfamiliar with the game (as I was), here is a video of what the game entails: 

I asked my student about the game and then walked away, looking at the time to see how long he was going to play this. As I continued to watch him, I noticed that he wasn’t even looking at his phone at times. He would look away, but continued “making it rain,” progressing through the game. As far as I could tell, he ended up playing the game for 12 minutes straight before he put his phone away and moved on to talking to his friends. Two days later, I watched him and a girl he was sitting with switch back and forth playing “Make it Rain” until it was time to go to their locker to start their day. To give you an idea of this student I’m talking about, he is currently failing two classes and missing 6 assignments. His attendance is very good and he is not a discipline problem at all.

You may be wondering why I paid such attention to this student playing “Make it Rain.” In order to do that, I have to tell you about a conversation I had last year with my principal and an ELA teacher on my team. Last year, we had a student who was failing every class and  never turned in any assignments. When asked what he did at night, he told us about being home alone and playing video games all night long, sometimes past midnight. This led to us having a conversation about our classrooms. What is the video game doing for a student to keep him engaged for hours when I can’t get that student engaged for even 5-10 minutes? As I’ve mentioned before, I take a lot of pride in lesson construction in order to allow for curiosity and creativity. As I watched the student play “Make it Rain,” I didn’t feel that the game had much going for it. You flick your finger, moving money off of a stack. It just doesn’t seem very stimulating. At times it didn’t even seem as if my student was engaged in the game as he would look away for minutes at a time while he continued to play.

So here I sit, still wondering what I could do differently in my class in order to engage students like this in mathematics. I’ve tried everything I can think of in order to make my class more stimulating, entertaining, and rewarding, but feel I’m still missing some students.  I’m currently reading the book Transforming the Difficult Child by Glasser and Easley for completely unrelated reasons, but, in the chapter I just read, they had a great piece about students and video games. Students love video games because they are safe, there is structure that doesn’t change, they are rewarded for success. Once students realize that there are all of these rewards and only a small consequence of starting over, they throw themselves into performing at their highest level.

Since I allow students unlimited retakes on assessments with them receiving the highest grade earned, I feel I’ve created a classroom where taking chances is safe. From the first day, I show students what is expected in my class and how our classroom works, creating structure that doesn’t change. While students are working on solving a problem in their Kagan groups, I am constantly walking around making a huge deal of student success. So, it seems as if I am doing everything that Glasser and Easley believe students look for in video games. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that I can’t make it rain.

What Standards-Based Grading Has Shown Me

For the past year and a half, my principal and I have often engaged in conversation about grades and grading practices. As this school year started, I wanted to find a way to attempt a standards-based grading system in order to get a more detailed description of how my students were performing.  After using the system for two weeks, I’ve seen the holes in the current system we use and am very happy that I started doing it. So, what do I do?

First, I grade each part of my assessment in terms of what my learning targets were for the week. For example, one of my learning targets this week was: “I can simplify exponents with the same base.” So, the first two questions of my assessment covered this target and were each scored out of two points. One point if the students knew to add the exponents and one point if the students knew they could only add the exponents for the same bases. I then continued this practice for each of my targets this week. Finally, I grade each target separately and then total it up to give students a letter grade because, let’s face it, that’s what most parents want.

Speaking of parents, I share this standards-based grading system through a “report card” with parents each week using the Google Sheets script autoCrat. This is a mail-merge script that allows me to send each parent and student their grade along with how they did on each skill. I put all of the information in a Google Sheet and, after running the script, each student gets something that looks similar to the following:

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 11.58.56 AM

I used this as an example because it was a standards-based report card similar to this that drove a great email exchange between a parent and I. The parent was worried about her daughter because she usually got A’s and B’s and she wasn’t sure what was going on with the daughter. What I find funny is that her daughter was still getting a B, but the word “emerging” had her confused. She didn’t know how her daughter was still getting a good grade when she didn’t know how to do two of the skills on my assessment. I pointed out that she knew how to do three of the skills really well, one pretty good, but two she needed to work on. Before, the mother would have seen a B and been happy. Now, she realized her daughter needed to work on two skills.

Another parent emailed me, thanking me for sending her this detailed report because it gave her some relief after talking to her daughter.

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 12.16.56 PMHer daughter had told her that she bombed her quiz and was worried about her grade. In reality, she knew three of our five skills really well, one she did ok on, and one she needs to work on. The reason she thought she bombed her quiz is because she earned a C+. The last target involving the distributive property and combining like terms held more weight than the rest of the questions, skewing her grade. When the mother emailed me she said, “So it really wasn’t terrible after all was it? She just needs to work on one skill and maybe get a little better on another?” That’s exactly right. Before, her and her daughter would have had no idea that she knows how to do three things really well.

Although it has been extra work for me, I’m really glad I started using this system for grading in my class. The students, parents, and I are getting higher-quality feedback than we did before. I’m also thinking of linking each target to a Khan Academy video in order to give students a means of learning the material in a different way before they retake their assessment.



My Focus this Year: Curiosity and Creativity

Each year, it seems as if I focus more attention on something I feel is lacking in my classroom. In previous years this has been things like technology, cooperative learning, and assessment. This year, I tried to think of something that I thought was of utmost importance for the success of my students in light of the Common Core. So, I’ve decided this year’s focus is fostering creativity and engaging students through curiosity.

I first started thinking about how to engage students in my classroom through curiosity after I had the opportunity to listen to Ramsey Musallam speak at the Chicago Tech Forum this year. Here is a short TED talk from him, similar to the one he gave in Chicago:

So, the first day of school this year, before I introduced myself or talked about class or anything, I put up this picture and asked students to estimate the weight of the soap. (This was taken from the website Estimation 180 which has 180 different things to estimate, one for each day of the year.)


After approximately 1 minute, I moved on to my next slide introducing myself, without telling students the actual weight of the soap. In each class, some students looked around at others or got weird looks on their faces. It always led to a conversation something like this:

Student: Are you going to tell us the answer?

Me: Why? Does it really matter to you to know whether or not your answer is correct? Does the weight of soap really affect you?

Student: No! But Knowing whether or not I’m correct does bother me!

Me: Of course it does! You’re curious!

I then explained to students that I was going to try to use this to my advantage throughout the year. (For those of you feeling uncomfortable right now, the 16 bars of soap weighed 4 pounds.)

Another strategy I am using is to try and not give students the question I am asking. I achieve this through pictures and videos, often from the website 101 Questions. Here is an example of one from last year.

When the video was finished, did you ask yourself, “When are they the same height?” I feel this is mathematics in its truest form-looking at a situation and trying to use mathematical concepts and properties in order to find when they are the same height. (Again, if you are curious, it occurs when there are 7 cups in each stack.)

Activities like this lead me to my second focus: creativity. When I propose this situation, I allow students to find the answer however they would like. I give them all of the dimensions they need, but I don’t give them cups. The reason for this is that if we just stack them until we see at 7 they are the same height, there wasn’t a whole lot of mathematics occurring. Instead, students use lots of different strategies in order to solve the problem. Some draw pictures, others subtract lengths lots of times, and yet others use a system of equations in order to find the answer.

I also see student creativity in my algebra class this year when we have to come up with a scenario that would fit the graph of a linear piecewise function. We first watched this Dan Meyer video and graphed his elevation vs. time.

I then gave students this picture and asked them to write a scenario that would fit this graph. Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 11.06.30 AM


The students exceeded my expectations on this. There were so many scenarios from slides to short roller coasters. One of my favorites was a man rock climbing, getting stuck twice, falling, hitting the ground, and then rolling down a hill. It was so great. The kids were laughing and competing for the best story, and, in the end, very engaged in the lesson.

Now comes the daily challenge of finding a way to make as many mathematical concepts as I can encourage curiosity and creativity in my students. So far, students seem to be having a lot of fun and even talk about the things they see outside of my class that make them think about mathematics. Until next time, stay creative and curious.

My Try at Differentiation

A few weeks ago, I had something haven’t had all year: extra time! We had finished up our unit on the Pythagorean theorem and had 3 days before the end of the quarter. Instead of starting something new, I thought I would try to extend our learning with those 3 days when a student in class made this observation: “The Pythagorean theorem only works though if you know two of the sides. What happens if you only know one?” I answered him by saying, “Look at your calculator. You see the buttons ‘sin, cos, tan?’ If I give you one side and an angle,  you can find everything else you want to know about the triangle.” It was this conversation that persuaded me to teach trig with the 3 extra days I had.

I started the first day using Geometer’s Sketchpad to show students that the ratios of the sides of a 30-60-90 will always be the same, no matter how I dilate or translate the triangle. I showed them what each of these ratios were called and then we took off. Some students were confused at first and I assigned them the role of finding my third side with Pythagorean theorem,  once someone in their group had two sides of the triangle. We did this for two days and then used inverse trig functions to find angles on the third day.

Once fourth quarter started, we began a new unit over volume of prisms and didn’t use trig at all that week. We took an interim assessment after a week on volume and I wanted to see how many students actually learned trig. But, since trigonometry isn’t one of the 8th grade CCSS, I didn’t want it to adversely affect the grades of those who didn’t understand it. So I made it an extra credit question on our quiz, asking students to find two sides of a right triangle, given an angle and a side. I ended up with 26 out of 96 students getting the question correct after a week of not doing anything with trig. I was pretty happy with this and thought that, even though 70 out of the 96 didn’t know how to do it, but about 28% of my students were allowed to learn and master a concept beyond what was expected of them. I would love to have extra time to do this every unit and maybe will next year, once I’m more familiar with Common Core. Overall, I was very happy with everyone’s participation during class, even if they didn’t understand the trig. I challenge you to try doing something that you feel is too difficult for your class as well, the results may surprise you.

Two New Ways I’m Using GAFE in Class

A few years ago, I started posting my notes from SMART Notebook on a WordPress blog for students to read if they needed them. I would export them to a PDF and then upload them. Some students would read them, but it always seemed like I was going through the work of putting them up there for about 5 students all year long. This year, my district switched to Google Apps for Education (GAFE), so I started using Blogger. I have a few students in class that have bookmarked the page so they can get to the notes for class very quickly. However, I still felt like I was doing it for just a few students. Different students told me they tried to get to my blog, but were having problems finding everything. So I decided to change things a little bit to make it easier for me and them both.

Google Calendar Instead of a Blog

By using Blogger, I already had to upload my notes to drive in order to link to them in Blogger. So I thought more students would see them if I just added them as an attachment in Google Calendar. I’m also able to attach anything students may need for an assignment in class. For example, I can attach graph paper, or a picture students may need, or a screen capture of the exit ticket. It seems as if more students are using the calendar because they can see what we are doing throughout the week. I also share the link to the calendar with parents so they can see what we are doing or get notes if their child was sick. I also keep my Blogger site going and just embed the calendar at the top of the page. In this way, students who bookmark the page to get the notes can still get them and others can take advantage of the calendar. Here is the link to my Eighth Grade Math page to see what it looks like with the calendar embedded.

Weekly Autocrat Newsletter

During the last two units I have taught, I haven’t given any homework. I’ve used an exit ticket every day as a formative assessment. There are days were students don’t finish the problem or don’t do it correctly. I want them to show me before we take an assessment that they can do it correctly, but I don’t want to have to print out a picture of the triangle for Pythagorean theorem or solid for finding volume. Instead, I started using the mail-merge script, Autocrat, in order to send out a weekly newsletter with a link to all of the week’s exit tickets. Here is a video of how to set it up. Here is a copy of the newsletter I sent out last week to each student. It is a personal letter for each student with links to each exit ticket. They can then email me their answers once they have it completed. Students have preferred this because missing assignments don’t pile up on them and they can usually get me the answers right away.

If you send out a weekly newsletter to parents or students, I would suggest using Autocrat in order to save paper. My own children get all types of paper copies of letters and schedules. We use Skyward in my district so it is very easy to get parent emails. The more paper we save, the more we can help the budget. Also, if you are a parent like me, I prefer electronic copy over hard copy. Overall, I encourage you to try using something new with GAFE. It was easy to do the calendar and Autocrat both. I have also used Doctopus and Goobric this year as well. These two things allow you to assign and collect a document for each student through Doctopus and grade it using Goobric, all without using any paper. My district doesn’t have all of the new add-ons for Sheets or Docs yet, but once they do, I’ll post some more things I’m doing with those.

Why Some People May Not Like Math

When I taught stats, the first day I would ask students which was most likely to kill you in the US: a poisonous snake, a vending machine, or falling out of bed?  Students mostly chose the poisonous snake. Others figured it wouldn’t be the obvious choice of the snake, but they couldn’t decided which of the other two would be more dangerous. It turns out that 7 people die a year from snake bites in the US, vending machines kill 13 people each year and falling out of bed kills 450 people annually. Students couldn’t believe it and some even accused me of lying. I then asked which was more likely to a child: a gun in the house or a swimming pool in the backyard? Again, they were shocked to find that children are 100 times more likely to die from drowning in their pool than be shot by the gun in their house. I use this to introduce the class because I told students how important the study of statistics is because we need mathematics to make sense of everything around us because we usually do a very poor job as humans. As I taught this past week, I started to see this at work in my class and thought about how it’s possible some people may not like mathematics because it defies their logic.

At the beginning of the week, students were asking me all about the probability of a choosing a perfect bracket to win the $1 billion from Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans. I showed them how there are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 possible brackets. We then did the math to find, if every person in the world could fill out a bracket every 3 minutes, it would take about 7,291 years to complete all the possible brackets. Business Insider then posted an article saying that, if you used some knowledge about the tournament, there were more like 128,000,000,000 possible brackets. At this rate, each person in the world would only have to fill out 17 brackets to cover the more likely possibilities. You are 730 times more likely to win the Powerball jackpot. Some students in class then claimed I was wrong. This couldn’t be. There was no way it was that difficult to have a perfect bracket. The math defied their logic.

As long as we’re talking about Powerball, I’d like to bring up something I heard months ago when the jackpot was over $400 million. While buying a ticket, I heard another person say, “I won’t play now, too many people are playing. I’ll wait until it goes down and not as many people are playing. Then, I’ll have a better chance of winning.” That isn’t true. If they chose the winner by putting every ticket-buyer’s name in a hat and drawing one out, then that man would be correct. I didn’t bother explaining this to him though, it would have defied his logic.

Currently in class we are studying volume and I showed students this video made by Dan Meyer. In the video, he takes two normal 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of  paper and rolls each one into a cylinder. One he rolls vertically, the other horizontally. He then pours popcorn into each one to see which would hold more. When students were asked which held more or if they held the same, almost all students said they would hold the same. Their explanation was that it was the same sheet of paper, which would then result in the same volume. Some even talked about how height and radius would change, depending on which way you rolled it, so the volume wouldn’t change, just the dimensions. We then found the volume of each and students claimed that somehow I was lying to them or had tricked them. One student even said I switched out one of the pieces when they were finding the volume of the other. Even after we did the math, they couldn’t believe that the two had different volumes. The math defied their logic.

My wife and I recently watched “White House Down” and I probably felt the same way students do in my class as I watched it. There are so many things in the movie that defied my logic. In fact, my wife says its hard to watch movies with me because I point out all of the unrealistic flaws in any movie. But, it’s possible that I’m the one that wrong and the movie is logical. I mean, I did just see a book on Bigfoot in my school’s “non-fiction” section.

What Am I Really Doing?

As I gave ISAT tests this week, I had a lot of free time to reflect on conversations I have had during the week. I was fortunate enough to have a great conversation with my principal, Bob Beem, after school Tuesday. My wife has also been having conversations with people about Common Core on Facebook. With all of this going on, one main idea kept coming up: What is the real purpose of my teaching? What am I really doing when I am teaching these different concepts and different strategies? What is the reason parents send their kids to my class?

It seemed to all start earlier this week when my wife was having a conversation with someone she went to school with about Common Core. This parent was upset about the new ways that students are being taught different concepts like multiplication. I can understand this parent’s frustration, especially if they have not been informed about the changes or if the teacher teaching these things really doesn’t have any faith in the new ways. While talking to my wife about this, I asked her the question “Why do our kids go to math class?” I think if you asked parents this, they would say that they want their children to be able to “do” all of the mathematics they should be doing at that grade level. However, I have never been at the store, looked on the shelf and seen a box with “2.99x + y = 20.” But, I do see that milk is on sale for $2.99, I have $20, and I need to decide how many I can buy, including tax. There are many different ways I can get this answer, the important thing in life is getting the answer and feeling confident in it. Although some people may not like the new way multiplication is being done, some students may finally understand it and be able to use it in their lives. At the end of the day, I think all of us can agree that our goal is for students to be able to successfully use mathematics, not just do it.

I believe being able to do mathematics involves recognizing how things are related in the real world and then making a decision and planning how I am going to get to an answer. In real life, the use of mathematics isn’t always posed as a question. We see things in life and then ask ourselves those questions. If we have the ability, we can then use mathematics to come up with the answer to our own questions. For example, one day in class I showed this video.  The video is from 101 questions and was uploaded by the highly talented Andrew Stadel. (He’s a great follow on Twitter, if you are looking for some great math educators.) The video doesn’t ask a question. It shows the blue cups being taller when the stacks are 1 cup tall and the styrofoam cups being taller when the stacks are 20 stacks tall. The video then cuts out and shows the two stacks at the same height. In every class I showed this, kids asked right away, “When are they the same height?” That’s mathematics to me. I gave them the dimensions of the cups and they did the rest. After it was all finished, I then showed them this video, which shows them how many cups are in the stacks when they are the same height. Most student got it correct and were very excited with their success.

These two things brought me back to thinking about standards-based grading again. If I believe that students should be in a math class in order to learn how to use mathematics, what does 83% mean? Does it mean that they can use mathematics correctly 83% of the time? Not usually. What that grade reflects is a student’s ability to answer questions correctly, possibly save their notes, sometimes get their rules sheet signed, and even at times bring in the correct amount of Kleenex boxes. Almost none of these show the ability to use mathematics. Maybe someday we’ll have a better way of evaluating and grading our students than letter grades. I’m thinking it might be sooner, rather than later.

When all is said and done, maybe nothing will change. Maybe everyone else is right and I’m completely wrong. However, I think that students benefit any time their teachers reflect on their teaching and discuss it with other educators. Any time teachers think of what they could do better, students win.