Category Archives: Uncategorized

Another Pascal’s Triangle Gem

At a recent local conference, Jim Rubillo, Annie Fetter and I were saying our good-byes at the end of a fun evening, when Jim’s puzzly side emerged…

What proportion of the numbers in Pascal’s Triangle are even?

Every time I talk to Jim, he’s bound to have a neat problem for me to chew on.  The last time, he shared a fun task involving the harmonic series. Take a few minutes and think about this Pascal’s Triangle scenario…I’ll even leave you some spoiler space.

Jim RubilloAt the ATMOPAV Spring Conference last month, Jim shared an entertaining talk titled “Gambling, Risk, Alcohol, Poisons and Manure – an Unfinished Life Story”.  The talk led the attendees on a journey through the history of statistics, starting with games of chance and the meeting of Chevelier du Mere and Blaise Pascal, through the introduction of formal inference procedures developed at the Guinness brewery, and to identifying statistical abuses in the present day.

Jim is a life-ling educator and former Executive Director of NCTM who happens to live quite close to me.  It was a thrill having him share his ideas with the group.

Had enough time to think about this Pascal question?  Spoiler time is up!

So, which rows are in Pascal’s Triangle are we talking about here?

In theory, we are talking about “all” of the rows in the infinite Pascal’s Triangle, which makes this a bit tricky to think about for kids (and adults as well!).  But Jim shared with me slides which show the proportion of evens in increasing numbers of rows of the triangle.  You will notice that as the number of rows grows, the proportion of even entries also increases, and approaches 1.  What a neat result!  Below is an animated gif I made using a Pascal’s coloring applet which shows the increase in the proportion of even (white space) numbers in increasing rows.

Pascal Zoom

For your class, this is a fun opportunity to talk about the parallels between Pascal’s Triangle, Sierpinski’s Gasket, and fractal area.

Already looking forward to my next encounter with Jim!

Drinking the Statistical Power Kool-Aid

For my colleagues who teach AP Stats, there are few phrases more terrifying:

Today I am teaching Power.

Power: a deep statistical concept, but one which often gets moved towards the back of the AP Stats junk drawer.  The only mention of power in the AP Stats course description comes under Tests of Significance:

Logic of significance testing, null and alternative hypotheses; p-values; one- and two-sided tests; concepts of Type I and Type II errors; concept of power

So, students need to understand the concept of power, but not actually compute it (which is itself not an easy task).  Floyd Bullard’s article “On Power” from the AP Central website provides solid starting points for teachers struggling with this concept; specifically, I appreciate his many ways of considering power:

  • Power is the probability of rejecting the null hypothesis when in fact it is false.
  • Power is the probability of making a correct decision (to reject the null hypothesis) when the null hypothesis is false.
  • Power is the probability that a test of significance will pick up on an effect that is present.
  • Power is the probability that a test of significance will detect a deviation from the null hypothesis, should such a deviation exist.
  • Power is the probability of avoiding a Type II error.

This year, I tried an activity which used the third bullet above, picking up on effects, as a basis for making decisions.


Photo Mar 06, 12 11 56 PMArriving at school early, I got to work making 3 batches of Kool Aid.  During class, all students would receive samples of the 3 juices to try.  Students were not told about the task beforehand, or where this was headed. Up to now, we had discussed type I and type II error, so this served as a transition to the next idea.


All students received cups and as they worked on a practice problem I circulated, serving tasty Kool Aid – don’t forget to tip your server!  I told students to savor the juice, but to pay attention: I promised them that this first batch was made using strict Kool Aid instructions.  Think about the taste of the juice.


Next, students received a drink from “Sample A”.  Their job – to assess if this new sample was made using LESS drink mix than the baseline batch.  Also, I varied the amounts of juice students received: while some students were poured full cups, some received just a few dribbles.  To collect responses, all students approached the board to contribute a point to a Sample A scatterplot, using the following criteria:

Photo Mar 06, 8 50 05 AM - CopySample size: how much juice you were given

Evidence: how much evidence do you feel you have to support our alternate hypothesis – that Sample A was made with LESS mix than the baseline?

As you can see, the responses were all over the place – a mixture of “we’re not quite sure” to “these are strange directions” to “I just don’t trust Lochel – something’s up”.  But the table has been set for the next sample.

Sample A: it was made with just a smidge less mix than the baseline.  So I wasn’t totally surprised to see dots all over.


Photo Mar 06, 8 50 05 AMI poured drinks again from this new sample, and again varied the sample sizes.  I asked all students to think about their evidence in favor of the alternate, and wait until everyone tasted their juice before submitting a dot.

And check out those results!  Except for a few kids (who admitted they stink at telling apart tastes), we have universal support in favor of the alternate hypothesis.

Sample B: this was made with 1/2 the suggested amount of drink mix.  Much weaker!


This activity made the discussion of power much more natural.  In particular, what could occur during a study which would make it more likely to reject the null hypothesis, if it deserves rejecting?

Larger sample size: smaller samples make it tough to detect differences

Effect size: how far away from the null is the “truth”.  If the “truth” as just a bit less than the null, it could be difficult to detect this effect.

In terms of AP Stats “concepts of power”, this covers much of what we need.  Next, I used an applet to walk students through examples and show power as a probability.  And like most years, this was met with googly eyes by many, but the foundation of conditions which would be ripe for rejecting the null was built, and I was happy with this day!

Suggested reading: Statistics Done Wrong by Alex Reinhart contains compelling, clear examples for teachers who look to lead discussions regarding P-value and Power.  I recommend it highly!

4 Activity Builder Formative Assessment Ideas

The creative team at Desmos continue to develop engaging lessons using their Activity Builder interface, found at While teachers I encounter have their own favorite activity, many desire to dive in and create their own. But building your own activity, testing it, and hoping it works with your class can be an intimidating task (pro-tip: making your own activity is really hard!).  But there are a few simple ways teachers can use Activity Builder as a mechanism for formative assessment.  Here. I share 4 quick and easy ideas – you can check them out and observe their structure at this link.



I used this often with my Pre-Calculus class in the fall, and the concept works equally well with younger students.  Simply start a new Activity Builder screen, and enter the equation you’d like students to provide.  Place the equation in a folder, which you can hide so students won’t see it when they encounter the screen.  Finally, by making the graph with dashed lines, students can easily see if their submission matches the requested graph, and can adjust accordingly.



Here’s a neat Activity Builder hack you may not know about.  If you have an existing Desmos graph, copy the URL from your graph to the clipboard.  Then, in an Activity Builder screen click the “Graph” button and paste the URL into the first expression line – and PRESTO, the graph is imported into an Activity Builder screen.  I often collect student work by simply having them submit a Desmos URL.  Consider taking samples of student works and create a virtual gallery walk.  Let students view each other’s ideas, comment and make suggestions. Thanks to my colleague DJ for providing neat student graphs!



Have students assess their own learning with a moveable point. Provide an “I can…” prompt and let students consider where they fall in the learning progression.  Hold a class-wide discussion of unit skills by anonymizing student names and using the overlay feature to take the class pulse on skills.



Activity Builder allows teachers to build their own multiple-choice questions, with the option of having students provide an explanation for the choice they make.  In “My Favorite Distractor”, students select an answer they KNOW is wrong, and explain how they know.  This may not work for many multiple-choice type questions, but consider using this idea in situations where the distractors have clear, interesting rationales for elimination.

Have your own quick formative assessment ideas?  Share it here!


A Bulleted Assemblage of Items for the New School Year (but not a list)

The “list” article is a popular device, and one which often draws the eyeballs. Lists are also, often, a cop-out – a way to express many ideas without having to dig too deeply.  I hate lists….

As I start my new school year tomorrow, I give you this bulleted assemblage of items which are on my mind as I look forward to our first day.

  • Fawn Nguyen’s 7 Deadly Sins of Teaching Math is required reading for all professionals. In particular, I strive to pay more attention to my (teacher talking / student talking ) ratio.  I like to think I am strong in this area, but I need to do better. Before the end of the last school year, our district screened the movie “Most Likely to Succeed” to all professional staff.  In an opening scene, the teacher provides first-day freshmen with an opening day task – and then leaves the room.  The students struggle, the teacher eventually intervenes, but a powerful classroom culture is established.  I want to provide more tasks to my students where I’m simply not needed.
  • I have used a number of opening-day activities for AP Statistics over 14 years. Distracted Driving and the Henrico hiring case are two I used most often. But I think Doug Tyson’s Smelling Parkinson’s activity could be my new favorite. It’s a powerful premise which gets kids talking about the possible vs the plausible on day 1, with a hint of simulation thrown in for good measure. I show the video below to the class and right away the statistical importance of what we do for the entire school year is established.
  • Desmos Activity Builder will take on a much bigger role in my classroom.  I’ve created activities for both my Pre-Calculus and my freshman Prob/Stat class to review their understanding, and also to serve as my “getting to know you” opportunity.  Look forward to sharing out how it goes.
  • Shoes.  I hate new shoes. They’re tight and often rip apart the back of my ankle until I break them in.  If we can have pre-washed jeans, then we can have pre-worn shoes.  We need our best people on this.
  • Who knew a cute Pythagorean triple generator could be of interest to so many. After I posted about an interesting share from Ken Sullins at the PCTM summer conference, so many folks chimed in with their ideas.  Thanks especially to Joel Bezaire who shared additional ideas from Twitter Math Camp.  I’m using this in my pre-calc class on day 1.

  • I’ve given the same probability problem to my freshmen for the last few years. I love everything about this problem on day 1: it gets kids talking, it gets kids struggling, and it tells me much about their problem solving background.


OK, maybe this was a list after all.  I need to do some last-minute ironing.

The People in My Math Neighborhood

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?
The people that you meet each day

I work with an awesome group of people at a high school outside of Philadelphia.  They are my colleagues, the people I share ideas with on a daily basis, and some of my closest friends.

But in recent years, my math neighborhood has grown considerably.  I suppose I discovered the power of the online neighborhood 4 or 5 years ago, developing and growing a wonderful network of professional colleagues through the #MTBoS. And my relationship with this neighborhood has grown from a mechanism for sharing ideas, to a source of inspiration, positive thought, discussion and reflection.

We are now 3 weeks after the NCTM Annual Conference in San Francisco. It’s easy to forgot the little things which occur in a big conference, and I hopefully will find time to reflect and utilize new ideas later. NCTM this year has done a wonderful job of providing a means to continue reflections and growth outside of the conference, along with archiving session resources.  Here, I highlight 4 sources of inspiration, and friends in my math neighborhood, as I look back on my San Francisco experiences.

GRAHAM FLETCHER – Graham, an elementary specialist from Georgia (or is he Canadian? such a chameleon), challenged teachers to consider the mathematical story we share with students in his ShadowCon talk. How is your story different than the one being told by your colleague teaching the same material just across the hall?

grahamHigh school teachers may be intrigued by Graham’s discussion of fractions, reducing and equivalence and the role of “simplifying”. His talk has caused me to think about the many odd restrictions we place on student work: i.e. “write the equation of your line in standard form”, and their necessity in my math story. Graham’s call to action – challenging teachers to identify their own “simplifying fractions” (something they teach not currently in the standards) – is an appropriate task for all grades.

ROBERT KAPLINKSY – Robert was featured on the MathEd Out podcast last summer, and I recall taking a walk, listening last year when it occurred to me that Robert’s path to becoming a math teacher was eerily similar to mine. His ShadowCon talk, “Empower”, reminds me that no matter how top-down our education world may feel, we all have a role to empower others and become influential in our math neighborhoods. I appreciate the multiple mechanisms Robert suggests for fostering empowerment, and his call to action that we thank a colleague who helped us feel empowered is a wonderful way to close out a school year – and look forward to new things.

PEG CAGLE – I have admired Peg’s ideas for some time now, and was thrilled to meet and chat with her last year at Twitter Math Camp. Even though I rarely teach geometry, I felt pulled to Peg’s session “Paper Cup + Gust of Wind”, and was awed by the simplicity, engagement, theme-building in this simple task. By rolling a paper Dixie cup along a surface, Peg develops a lesson which extends through the school year, building complexity each time.

Day 1:Explain what happens when we roll out the cup

Day 40: Convince a skeptic of the shape it makes. Find its area.

Day 105: find area of shape based on dimensions

Day 140: How can you build a cup from a single sheet (with base) of 8.5 x 11 paper to trace out the maximum area as it rolls?

Day 175 (after trig ratios): how do you NOW find the area of the shape, given its dimensions

This session has caused me to think about other simple tasks which could become full-course themes. Peg’s inspiration came from a cup blowing in the breeze – you never know where the next fun math idea will come from!

CHRISTINE FRANKLIN – Why was I so nervous and awe-struck to meet Christine at the AP Stats forum in San Francisco? Because she is so awesome – and was the inspiration for my NCTM talk on Variability and Inference, geared towards the middle school community. It was at Professional Night at the AP Stats reading 2 years ago where Christine diagrammed the historical path stats has taken in K-12 curriculum, and the parallels between AP and middle school descriptions. Christine was recently named the K-12 statistical ambassador by the ASA, and a sweeter person could not fill the job.

Hoping I never move out of the neighborhood!

Activity Builder Reflections

We’re now about 9 months into the Desmos Activity Builder Era (9 AAB – after activity-builder). It’s an exciting time to be a math teacher, and I have learned a great deal from peeling apart activities and conversing with my #MTBoS friends (run to to start peeling on your own – we’ll wait…). In the last few weeks, I have used Activities multiple times with my 9th graders.  To assess the “success” of these activities, I want to go back to 2 questions I posed in my previous post on classroom design considerations, specifically:

  • What path do I want them (students) to take to get there?
  • How does this improve upon my usual delivery?


AN INTRODUCTION TO ARITHMETIC SERIES (click here to check out the activity)

My unit or arithmetic sequences and series often became buried near the end of the year, at the mercy of “do we have time for this” and featuring weird notation and formulas which confused the kids. I never felt quite satisfied by what I was doing here.  I ripped apart my approach this year, hoping to leverage what students knew about linear functions to develop an experience which made sense. After a draft activity which still left me cold, awesome advice by Bowen Kerins and Nathan Kraft inspired some positive edits.

seatsIn the activity, students first consider seats in a theater, which leads to a review of linear function ideas. Vocabulary for arithmetic sequences is introduced, followed by a formal function for finding terms in a sequence. It’s this last piece, moving to a general rule, which worried me the most.  Was this too fast?  Was I beating kids over the head with a formula they weren’t ready for? Would the notation scare them off?

plotsThe path – having students move from a context, to prediction, to generalization, to application – was navigated cleanly by most of my students.  The important role of the common difference in building equations was evident in the conversations, and many were able to complete my final application challenge.  The next day, students were able to quickly generate functions which represent arithmetic sequences, and with less notational confusion than the past.  It certainly wasn’t all a smooth ride, but the improvement, and lack of tooth-pulling, made this a vast improvement over my previous delivery.

DID IT HIT THE HOOP? (check out the activity)

DAN.PNGDan Meyer’s “Did It Hit the Hoop” 3-act Activity probably sits on the Mount Rushmore of math goodness, and Dan’s recent share of an Activity Builder makes it all the more easy to engage your classes with this premise. In class, we are working through polynomial operations, with factoring looming large on the horizon.  My 9th graders have little experience with anything non-linear, so this seemed a perfect time to toss them into the deep end of the pool.  The students worked in partnerships, and kept track of their shot predictions with dry-erase markers on their desks. Conversations regarding parabola behavior were abundant, and I kept mental notes to work their ideas into our formal conversations the next day.  What I appreciate most about this activity is that students explore quadratic functions, but don’t need to know a lick about them to have fun with it – nor do we scare them off by demanding high-level language or intimidating equations right away.

The next day, we explored parabolas more before factoring, and developed links between standard form of a quadratic and its factored form. Specifically, what information does one form provide which the other doesn’t, and why do we care?  The path here feels less intimidating, and we always have the chance to circle back to Dan’s shots if we need to re-center discussion.  And while the jury is out on whether this improves my unit as a whole, not one person has complained about “why”…yet.


Last night, the Global Math Department hosted a well-attended webinar featuring Shelley Carranza, who is the newest Desmos Teaching Faculty member (congrats Shelley!).  It was an exciting night of sharing – if you missed it, you can replay the session on the Bigmarker GMD site.


How Do We Assess Efficiency? Or Do We?

A problem on a recent assessment I gave to my 9th graders caused me to reflect upon the role of efficiency in mathematical problem solving. In particular, how much value is there in asking students to be efficient with their approaches, if all paths lead to a similar solution?  And should / could we assess efficiency?

The scene: this particular 9th grade class took algebra 1 in 7th grade, then geometry in 8th.  As such, I find I need to embed some algebra refreshing through the semester to dust off cobwebs and set expectations for honors high school work. For this assessment, we reviewed linear functions from soup to nuts. My observation is that these students often have had slope-intercept form burned into their memory, but that the link between this and standard form is weak or non-existant.  Eventually, the link between standard form and slope ( -A/B ) is developed in class, and we extend this to understanding to think about parallel and perpendicular lines.  It’s often refreshing to see the class see something new in the standard form structure which they hadn’t considered before.

The problem: on the unit quiz, I gave a problem which asked students to find the equation of a line parallel to a given line, passing through a point.  Both problem and solution are given in standard form.  Here is an example of student work (actually, it’s my re-creation of their work)….

linear problem

So, what’s wrong with the solution?  Nothing, nothing at all.

Everything here answers the problem as stated, and there are no errors in the work. But am I worried that a student took 5 minutes to complete a problem which takes 30 seconds if standard dorm structure is understood?…just a little bit.  Sharing this work with the class, many agreed that the only required “work” here is the answer…maybe just a “plug in the point” line.

My twitter friends provided some awesome feedback….

Yep, we would all prefer efficiency (maybe except Jason). Thinking that I am headed towards an important math practice here:

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP8 Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

It may be unreasonable for me to expect absolute efficiency after one assessment, but let’s see what happens if I ask a similar question down the road.

Confession, I really had no idea what #CThenC was before this tweet.  Some digging found the “Contemplate then Calculate” framework from Amy Lucenta and Grace Kelemanik, which at first glance seems perfect for encoruaging the appreciation for structure I was looking for here.  Thanks for the share Andrew!

Yes, yes!  Love this idea.  The beauty of sticking to standard form in the originial problem is that it avoids all of the fraction messiness of finding the y-intercept, which is really not germane to the problem anyway. Enjoy having students share out their methods and make them their own.

What do you do to encrouage efficiency in mathematical reasoning?  Share your ideas or war stories.