Posted in Algebra 2, AP Calculus, Calculus, Mathematics, Precalculus

Day 2: Learning to Fly

Math is hard. I can’t do math. I have always struggled in math. Math is not my strong suit. I’m going to fail this class. These are things I hear over and over and over again at the beginning of every school year as my stubaggage (1)dents are walking through my door. Certainly they must know by now whether or not they are “good” at math – most of them are juniors and seniors in high school. They’ve never done well in a math class before, why would this one be any different?

Math teachers have the most difficult job in the building. Like all teachers, we the curators of our content and we are charged with disseminating content in a manner which allows students to grasp it. Before we can do this, however, we must slay a much larger dragon. I set out to slay the dragon on the second day of school.

First, I gave the students a copy of the lyrics for a song. I had them read the lyrics and take a few minutes to decide their meaning. I did not tell them that they were song lyrics; most students thought it was a poem. We discussed the possible meanings as a class. The responses ranged from “someone learning how to be an astronaut” to “someone who is really sad.” They had to point out specific lines that led to their conclusions.

After a few minutes of class discussion, I told them that I was going to show them another interpretation of the words. I played a video¬†that I made years ago. The video is a montage of video clips of my baby boy set to Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly. It starts with the baby rolling over, rolls through the crawling and standing phases, and ends with the baby’s first steps.

After the students watched the video, we discussed what they saw. What was the baby doing at the beginning? What did the baby have to do to achieve his goal? Did they think that the baby ever fell while he was learning to walk? Did he get frustrated? What did he do after he fell? Did it ever occur to the baby that his goal was impossible to achieve? Did he ever think that he would never be able to walk?

Babies and young kids are amazing. They have no inhibitions. They aren’t afraid to take risks. They are driven. It never even occurs to them that something might be impossible. And they have no baggage to carry.

As they gain experience, they begin to accumulate baggage. They learn that math is hard. They can’t do math. They always struggle in math. Math is not their strong suit. They are going to fail. I asked them why they would want to bring this baggage into my room. Why did they insist on carrying it? Wouldn’t they be interested in the possibility of getting rid of some of it? I told them that this year, they need to leave their baggage at the door, because if they don’t, then they might as well just pack another bag to add to the pile.

After a few years of experience in teaching, I know that slaying the dragon is nearly impossible. But maybe I can wound it enough to teach my students some math this year.

Posted in Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Mathematics, Precalculus

Day 1: Three Things…

Another first day is in the books. I do this every year and every year I wonder how I am going to make it through the year. It was so much fun, but so exhausting.

This year, I decided to use the first 3 days to establish some norms in the classroom. We really didn’t do any math; but the things we discussed were well worth the time invested. Rather than have a plain old discussion about class norms, I decided to make it a little different.

First, I told the class that there are 3 things that we will do in this math classroom that most other math classes DO NOT do. I told them that it was their job to figure this out, and the clues would come in the form of music. I told them I was looking for three action words, and to listen closely to the words in each of the 8 songs that I had prepared.

One by one, I played clips of different songs that included the words read, write, and fight. Every single person was engaged. They danced in their seats, wrote notes, and did some lip syncing. And best of all, I could “see” the active listening as they were straining to hear some of the words.

When the music was over and they had guessed the three words, we talked about reading and writing in math class. We talked about how we weren’t actually going to “fight” in class, but “debate” instead (you try finding songs with the word “debate” in them).¬† We discussed respectful disagreement and comfortable spaces. And I did it in all of my classes, including honors.

Did we “do” any math problems? No. Did the students hit any of the CCSS? No. Did I lose 50 minutes of “instructional time?” Probably. Was it worth spending the time? Absolutely.

Posted in Algebra 2

Going Off The Rails

I am a planner. I spend hours upon hours planning lessons. Oddly enough, after all the planning, the lessons almost never go as planned. After a few years of stressing over this, I have learned to roll with it. And I have found that some of my best lessons were not planned at all.

One such lesson occurred last fall. Every year, our entire school does two service days. I happened that we were serving in a soup kitchen, and I was peeling potatoes alongside my students. For some crazy reason, they were in awe of my potato peeling prowess. They claimed that they had never seen anyone peel potatoes so fast.

A legend had somehow been born. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but there was a group of students who swore that they could beat me in a potato peeling contest. Knowing how competitive some of them were, I took every opportunity to trash-talk right along with them.contest

Then one day, I found a note on my whiteboard. They wanted a contest. Though I knew I would be losing at least two instructional days, I thought it was worth doing. I decided that we would take the two days right before Thanksgiving (instead of their suggested date in December) – it was perfect timing.

I brought in a 5 lb. bag of potatoes, and set everything up before school. In each class, we picked two students to compete. We talked about the variables involved in the contest – time and potato size. Each student was given 5 potatoes, and they weighed each one. Our data keeper recorded the weights on the whiteboard and the rest of the class had a data sheet where they recorded their data. The students took turns peeling one potato at a time while another student timed them with a stopwatch. Times were recorded for each run.


The next day, we had to decide who had won each competition. Looking at crowded data sheets, it was unclear how to do this. We talked extensively about what to do with the data and decided that graphing it would show us a picture. What followed was a discussion of independent vs. dependent variables, linear vs. non-linear relationships, correlation, and variability. We discussed the slope of the fitted line and what it meant. We talked about whether or not Benen was the winner because he had the fastest time and why two of Joe’s data points seemed to be outliers.

It was a good way to spend the three days before Thanksgiving break. It was non-stressful, fun, and the students were engaged. And it was not planned.