Monthly Archives: March 2018

3/24/18: My thoughts at the gym – Reiterating why the classroom shouldn’t be competitive

I’m an okay gymnast. I can do back tucks, front pikes, aerials, back layouts, but as I look around the gym, I feel inadequate. People trying double twists, double backs, skills I wouldn’t even dare to try. I try my best to just keep the blinders on and focus on my own skills, bettering myself,  and then it made me realize: this is probably how students feel when the classroom turns into a competition. In isolation, I would feel accomplished and proud of what I am doing, but when compared to someone else, it feels very self-defeating, and it made me have thoughts of “I’ll never be as good as him,” and “This person is doing ______ and all I can do is _______.” This brings the idea of deficits rather than what people are adequate on.

Sure, some can say that seeing other people next to you do greater things should inspire you to be better, but that takes a mindset that I’m not sure I can make my students have in a short amount of time. It takes a lot of courage out of me to go up to one of the gymnasts and ask them how they do a particular skill.

So what can I do about it in the classroom? How can I make sure that my students don’t feel this way? I can make sure that I do not value speed; instead, I should focus on the growth. Individualize and don’t compare students. Sure, I will definitely show student work sometimes, but if I do that, I would make sure that everyone’s work would be shown and valued throughout the semester. Everyone is on their own path and they come from different backgrounds and should be treated as such.


Thanks for reading.

3/24/18: Michael Fenton’s Talk about Desmos at Fresno State

A Different Approach to Personalization – Michael Fenton

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It seems like the stars aligned in that the same week that I tried Desmos Classroom Activities, Michael Fenton, Lead Instructional Designer of Desmos came to do a colloquium talk at Fresno State. I taught at the same time as Michael’s talk so I had my class go to his talk because he would give way more information than I could, and my future teachers would benefit from seeing people actually working at these types of companies.

Michael talked about the flaws of some educational technology (I won’t mention them here) and how Desmos is different and how he believes that student outcomes improve when things are personalized. He narrowed his view of using technology in the classroom to three words:

Delightful. Creative. Social.

Delightful – He let us play with Function Carnival where we had to plot the cannon man’s height with respect to time and all of us were engaged. He pointed out that we were laughing. We were having fun while doing math. He also quoted Jean Piaget, “…the joy in being the cause.” Something like Function Carnival where students can make the cannon man do whatever he wants makes students say “I made that happen.” He states that Desmos doesn’t give out badges like other educational websites, but Michael said “You’re not going to get a badge, there are better ways to motivate students without a badge.”

Creative – Desmos allows us to generate something that didn’t exist before. We played with a Challenge Creator where we create a triangle on a Geoboard, find the area, and then it becomes a challenge to other students to find a triangle with the same area as the triangle we created. Michael stated something that a lot of teachers have trouble with: differentiation. With Desmos, we can create the right kind of task that differentiates itself. Students could try the easier challenges or the more difficult ones.

Michael showed us Number Machines, Part 1 and I absolutely love it. This machine gives us the output and we need to find out what the input was by reversing the operations. He also showed us the activity “Adding Integers” where the cards on the left have to add up to the cards on the right.

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Social – I really liked this part of the talk. Technology if used incorrectly could separate each student, letting them to their own thing, but Michael points out that when we use technology in the classroom, make sure that it does not dehumanize the students. Technology should be used to increase rather than decrease interaction. Desmos makes learning more social by getting to see other students’ answers, seeing other students’ challenges, and even play with each other through Polygraphs.

At the end of the talk, I loved how Michael mentioned to hold them accountable. If things are moving in the wrong direction, let them know. I love that growth mindset and the care for feedback that this company has.

The math department had dinner with Michael and his wife after the talk and I got some great information from him. I mentioned that I wanted to feel more involved when doing Desmos in the class because so far, I just look at who has orange triangles on the overview and help them, but he said to sometimes not look at the progress bar to still maintain those relationships with students and honestly ask how they are doing. I also asked about the Desmos Fellows and I really want to join in the next cohort. From what it seems, it seems like a great community to be a part of where we all learn from each other. I can see myself using Desmos for a while because my future teachers should be exposed to this great ed tech resource.

Thanks for reading.

3/23/18: What I Learned from Rochelle Gutierrez at CIME 2018

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When I saw the line-up of speakers before I registered for this conference, I was so excited that Rochelle Gutierrez would be here. It is just an honor to hear her speak, so here are my main takeaways from her talk:

Rochelle’s talk was all about rehumanizing mathematics for classrooms and citizens, so she first talked about practices that dehumanize both teachers and students, such as valuing speed over process, evaluations that do not honor complexity, context, or our own goals, focusing on control/domination, rule following instead of rule breaking, separation of practice from politics/values/ethics, and she asked us why we continue this violence if the practices that dehumanize students and teachers are the same.

Rochelle gave us some examples of what counts as rehumanizing math classrooms:

  1. Participation/Positioning – authority shifts from text/teacher to other students; students as meaning makers
  2. Cultures/histories – students reconnecting with their own histories or ancestors/roots.
  3. Windows/Mirrors – Students being able to see themselves in curriculum and in others (appreciation, not just critique) Becoming the best person in their own eyes
  4. Living Practice – Understanding mathematics as something in motion, students thinking of math as a verb, not noun.
  5. Broadening – Decentering of: Algebra/Calculus/Number Sense, symbolic representation, and favoring the general case to make room for other forms that allow students to see more qualitatively or other forms that would count as math.
  6. Creation – students inventing new forms of mathematics not just reproducing what has come before.
  7. Body/Emotions – Invitations to and examples that draw upon other parts of the self (e.g. voice, vision, touch, intuition over logic), the senses matter for any real world problem (can’t just pretend); a critical element is joy.
  8. Ownership – mathematics as something one does for oneself, not just for others. Desire to “play” or “express oneself” through mathematics.

Here are some more ideas that she had, separated into “low risk” and “high risk” actions:

Rehumanizing Mathematics (low risk)

  • Refuse a “standard” algorithm
  • Require the body in the classroom in order to do mathematics
  • Refuse to privilege abstraction over context
  • Refuse terms like “misconceptions” “abilities” “achievement gaps” when talking about students
  • Interrogate the idea that our society will improve if everyone goes into STEM fields
  • Affirm intuition as just as important as logic
  • Survey students, colleagues: What is dehumanizing? What are we prepared to do about that?
  • Challenge the unearned privilege that mathematicians have in society
  • Invite students to present their ideas in languages that are familiar to them.

Rehumanizing Mathematics (high risk)

  • Bypass typical policies to place students into honors courses or “gifted” groups
  • Make transparent the culture and history of mathematics and how those relate to power structures in society (whose mathematics?)
  • Choose not to be on the same page as colleagues every day (because students are unique)
  • Call a meeting with someone in authority to propose a new curriculum or way of learning.
  • Organize informational sessions for community members
  • Organize protests/walk outs/die-ins with lists of demands

Rochelle had a list of questions to consider but here are the two that really piqued my interest:

  • How does the elitism that is created by specializing in STEM fields justify the dominance of others who are outside the field?
  • How do we involve everyday citizens in radically reimagining a more humane practice of mathematics?

For the first question, society tends to view people in the STEM fields as “really smart” which can cause elitism, and even within the field, I know there is some intimidation factor, throughout the ranks. I bet that students feel the same way entering our classes too. That’s why I try my best to make my math classroom as much of a safe space as possible and that their ideas are valued. How can we minimize the elitism overall though?

For the second question, citizens first need to be informed that the typical math practice is not humane. Students are treated as machines who compute algorithms, stay in their seats, are able to memorize quickly, and are hardly allowed to be creative. Rochelle said “Students are following arbitrary rules for 15 years. That guarantees your place in society. This creates a docile society” and I wholeheartedly agree. We need to have students see themselves in math.

Overall, I absolutely loved everything that Rochelle had to say. We need to treat students as individual people, and if we want more people to appreciate math, we need to make sure that they see themselves in math. Students are not machines where we give them algorithms to compute and formulas and theorems to memorize. We should appreciate them for who they are and make them see that math serves a purpose in their lives.

I’ll end this post by a quote from Rochelle: Get off the sidewalk and into the street and make history with us.

Thank you for reading.

3/22/18: What I learned from CMC Central 2018

I love going to CMCs so I was looking forward to this one in Visalia.

I was first greeted by Duane Habecker (@dhabecker) asking “Are you Howie?” and he said that he loves the things I post on Twitter, which was shocking because I thought the same about him. He is actually the first person to say that to me and that reiterates how powerful Twitter is.

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I sat at a table with Alice Keeler, Mong Kon Mo, and Chris Brownell and it was indeed a party table.

Here is what I learned from the conference:

Leslie Hamburger – Developing Teacher Expertise to Work with English Language Learners

Leslie talked about English Learners and how we can help these students in our classrooms. Here are some of my favorite quotes from her talk:

“We need to engage and capture all students. Demographics are not destiny. We can definitely make a change. It depends on the quality of the education.”

“Less focus on vocabulary but more on conversation.”

“You don’t learn language by memorizing words in isolation. You learn language by doing and experiencing.”

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I learned that I need to provide abundant language practice and that I should not grade grammatical errors and I loved the language continuum and the question if our class is more of a monologue or dialogue. 

Jeanie Behrend – The Power of Student Thinking

In Jeanie’s talk, I learned about Cognitively Guided Instruction. She had the idea that “Kids bring a lot of knowledge with them. We teach it out of them”  and showed us examples of how students can solve the problem without the teacher really teaching them the concept. For example, first graders can already solve 9+_=7 which was extremely surprising since 1st graders are not expected to know negative numbers. Jeanie also showed us how 3rd graders can already solve this problem: It costs $40 to buy a child’s ticket to the San Diego Zoo. If you have a coupon for $1 off per ticket, how much would it cost for 12 children to go to the zoo?

We were all impressed with how students came up with the solution.

One student did 30+30+30+…(12 times) and 9+9+9…(12 times) and added the sums up.

One student even did an area model with (30+9) and (10+2), one used extended distributive property, one did (40-1)x12, one wrote 12 39s as 6 78s, and kept doubling and halving. All of these were impressive and our group couldn’t believe that the teacher didn’t talk about any of these methods. The speaker suggested that perhaps an older brother/sister taught them the more advanced methods like the extended distributive property. One concern that our table had though, was “What if students don’t come up with a way that we wanted to talk about? Could we rely on older brothers/sisters to teach them a method so we can then talk about it?”

Lastly, I learned to put more context into problems. For example, 1200 divided by 20 means nothing to them, but if we talk about 1200 candies divided for 20 people, or 1200 eggs in 20 baskets, that makes problems more attainable for students.

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Duane talked about effect size and how we can’t really change their home life, but we can change what happens in the classroom by nudging them in the right direction. Having student self-efficacy, student discussion, problem-solving instruction, and integrating prior knowledge mitigates the negative effect sizes that a  student’s home environment or motivation might have. The biggest takeaway that I got from Duane’s talk is the Bansho/5 practices method, which is basically You Do, We Do, I do (aka Upside-down teaching) and that I should read “5 practices for orchestrating productive mathematics discussions.”

Duane gave us an interesting fact:

Percent of class time 8th graders spent inventing their own methods…

Japan: 45%

America: 1%

This shows that we need kids to be in discovery mode. The very act of trying to discover opens up what math can mean to our students.

I loved how Duane prepared his presentation so we are all learning something. He had 38 slides without the intention of covering all the slides, but instead, being prepared to talk about something else just in case we already know the material. For example, he asked us if we all knew what a Number Talk was, and when he found out we all did, he decided to talk about something else. That is the flexibility that I would love to have when I teach.


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I got the Margaret DeArmond scholarship which provided a reimbursement for the conference as well as gas money. I HIGHLY recommend everyone who is a newer teacher to apply, especially if the school doesn’t provide that much funding.

Overall, the main takeaways that I got from this CMC that is affecting my teaching now boils to 3 things: 1. Let students practice speaking and focus on the intent, not spelling. 2. Students will amaze you with their way of thinking if you let them try to figure it out on their own. 3. Always have some sort of back-up to a lesson so students can learn at least one thing new. It’s always nice to meet other educators, especially when you have seen their work on Twitter, so I can’t wait for the next CMC.

Thanks for reading.

3/21/18: My First Time Using Desmos Classroom Activities

I have used Desmos graphing before but I’ve been a little apprehensive with the Desmos classroom activities. I’m the type of teacher who doesn’t want to take too many risks but I am glad that I was brave this time.

For my Math 100 class, we did the Parabola Polygraph and for Math 10A, we did the fraction Polygraph and Tile Pile. In general, the students really liked the activities. When they had their “teacher hat” on, they love the idea that we can pause the entire class and that there is collaboration involved. I really like getting feedback from students so I asked if they wanted to see more or less of Desmos classroom activities and the overwhelming majority said more, so that’s a plus!

For me though, I had to get used to not helping them too much. There were points where I kind of felt useless because students were doing their own thing, which at first I thought was a bad thing but after I thought about it for a while, it is not such a bad thing after all if students can work independently or with a partner. After a period or two, I focused on looking at the orange triangles to see who I can help, and after that, I felt a little more useful. However, I’m not really talking to everyone as much as I usually do, but that just takes practice.

Would I use Desmos Classroom Activities again? Oh yeah. I just have to refocus what the role of the teacher is, and I believe that that is to create a learning environment, and Desmos does just that. Since I teach future teachers, I told them about and had them search for their own activities and they were in awe. No need to reinvent the wheel, we have friendly educators who love sharing and make things easier for other teachers. 🙂

Thank you for reading.