High School

A Day in The MTBoS Life

MTBoSThis week’s assignment in the 8-week Explore the MathTwitterBlogosphere project is to provide “A Day in The Life” of a math teacher.  It’s Monday morning, and here is my day….

It’s 6:30AM, and I’ve just arrived at my desk.  I’ve always been an early-riser; I don’t like feeling stressed in the morning so it’s always been custom for me to be in my classroom well before kids start rolling in at 7:20.  Weekend e-mails include a student seeking guidance on entering the PA Statistics Poster competition, an update on the Math Madness competition for our math club, and a few items from my local math teacher group, ATMOPAV.  Today in Algebra 2, we will be doing a test review for an exam on exponential and logarithmic functions.  Thanks to the great site Problem Attic, I was able to quickly assemble an assortment of review items for hanging around the room.

We have block scheduling here.  My day consists of 3 assigned periods, and a prep at the end of the day.  This semester, I teach all honors students and will have a more traditional schedule in the spring.

7:30, Homeroom – such a strange time of the day.  A group of students I see for only 5 minutes a day wander in, their attendance is verified, then they move on with their day.  Is there any “real life” analogy for this?  The DMV perhaps? Very difficult to get to know kids this way.  On Friday,Amish I had a conversation with a homeroom student who was excited to travel into the city to visit the Philly-famous Reading Terminal Market.  I encouraged her to visit the Amish people and their fine foods, but the student admitted an irrational fear of the Amish folks.  This led to an assignment from me: have a meaningful conversation with an Amish person, and report out to the homeroom.  I’m happy to share that Kianna talked to a few Amish people, found them “fun”, and is no longer scared of them.  A good start to the morning.

7:40, Learning Resource Center – my day begins with an assigned period in our LRC, where I help out any students seeking math assistance. Some come from study halls, others will visit if they have been absent a few days.  It’s a neat assignment, but can be stressful when a student comes seeking Pre-Calc help, and you realize that you haven’t thought about trig identities for a long time.

This morning’s deep discussion: how many spaces are you supposed to put after the period at the end of a typed sentence?  Young folks say 1; old-heads say 2.  Damn you Twitter and your shortening of everything.

Desks9:00, Algebra 2 – Today is test review day for exponential and log functions.  What I like to do on days like these is to post problems through the room, let students wander, have conversations, work through problems, and ask questions.  What I don’t want to have happen is to have students working quietly and isolated.  Many students have the same needs and misconceptions; I strive to create an environment where those questions bubble to the surface, and it is OK to need help.  At the end of class, we did a quick review of polynomial division as a table-setter for the next unit.  I love having students write on desks, as I can wander around the class and assess work.  It’s a great strategy for facilitating group discussion; just have a bottle of Formula 409 handy.

During this period, my AP Statistics colleague e-mailed me with an issue which will alter my plan for next period.  For years, I have used the “Against All Odds” video series for part of my Statistics class.  My favorite video provides a summary of the Physicians Health Study of 1981.  I love this video, as so much of the vocabulary we stress in experimental design is discussed in a real-life application.  The video is old, to be sure, but effective.  As of last week, the video ran fine on the site.  But today, all of these old videos from the series have been replaced with newer versions.  What to do when a resource you have used for so many years seems to have disappeared?  I have 30 minutes to figure this out…

10:30 AP Statistics – With a quick preview of a new experimental design video snuck in while my Algebra 2 students completed their review, I am set to go.  For homework, these students completed an actual AP exam item from last year which deals with survey design and bias.  This is a problem I graded last year in Kansas City in my role as AP reader, and I saw about 1,500 student responses.  It’s great to be able to discuss the grading procedure with students, and the exercise of working through the College Board rubrics and discussing them so intimately has improved my instructional practice.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE STRATEGIES: To go over the problem, I use my handy 24-sided die to choose a student at random.  Their problem is placed under the document camera and critiqued by the class.  This can be intimidating for the student, but I assure the class that everyone eventually will have their work assessed via camera during the year.   By this point in the year, I hope students have been through this enough times to see the positive value in peer evaluation.  I often start classes now by handing out index cards and asking a quick understanding question.  For example, a day after we had gone over the required elements when describing a scatterplot, the day’s opener asked students to describe a relationship and the use of r-squared.  Many examples went under the camera, and we had a snapshot of where we are as a class.

Doc Cam

The new video on experimental design is nice, but not as great as the older one.  The experimental design chapter is one of my favorites, with so many opportunities to think creatively.  Hoping to talk share our “old wives’ tales” project for this unit in a later post.  Looking forward to my “hallway bowling” activity for next time, which provides need for matched-pairs.

12:00 – Directed study – All students here have have a half-period directed-study built into their schedule.  Most teachers are assigned one to watch.  Fortunately, many of the kids in my directed study are in orchestra, so they choose to leave and go practice.  Many days I will have visitors seeking math help, but today is pretty quiet.

1:15 – After a lunch-time spent dissecting the Eagles victory with colleagues, I had my prep period at the end of the day.  Most of my time was spent writing and revision tomorrow’s Algebra 2 test.  Such a tough balance trying to develop an exam with enough rigor for honors students, yet be a fair measure of student growth.  The students should be in good shape.  Getting ready for the next chapter in stats, thinking out how my portfolio project for Algebra 2 will work, and a track and field discussion with a colleague round out the time.

Time passes…nice walk…dinner…Monday Night Football and….

9:00PM – #alg2chat – one of many weekly twitter chats I keep my eye on, this is a nice community of folks who share their successes, pains, ideas, and resources.  This week, the discussion bounced around from completing the square (where a twitter colleague looks forward to trying the box method), to synthetic division (and Dr. James Tanton’s railing against it), to a discussion of matrices and where they fit in a HS math sequence (answer – all over the place).  For me, this is the most powerful aspect of the MTBoS, having a network of enthusiastic educators looking to share ideas and make their lessons better.


Exploring the MathTwitterBlogoSphere

explore MTBOSThis month, some of my Twitter Math Camp friends are hosting a fun, month-long event called “Explore the MathTwitterBlogoSphere”.  You can check out the website for more details, and each week promises a new task designed to encourage math teachers to reach out via blogs and twitter.

For the first weekly challenge, Sam Shah has asked participants to share their favorite rich task.  Even with having taught for 17 years, it was not easy to come up with one task which I felt summarized my philosophies, but here is what I feel is my best question.  It is one I have given many times in algebra 2, and our freshman-year prob/stat course:

How many zeroes are there at the end of 200! (200 factorial)?

That’s it.

Here’s why I like this problem, and why I enjoy giving it:

  • It’s has a simple premise.  Sometimes I need to embellish with “think about multiplying out 200!  It would be a really long number.  That number has a lot of zeroes at the end.  How many are there?”  But besides having to know what factorial does, it is plain and simple in premise.
  • It requires thinking about the nature of numbers.  Brute force doesn’t work well here.  When I first started giving this problem, I think I used 25 factorial, but then technology started to catch up with me.  One year, a few students used Excel, which gave a wrong answer, as it began to konk out at bigger numbers.  Even if students can now find an “answer” through some tech means, the challenge to explain the “why” remains.
  • The answer is secondary.  Communicating your reasoning is king.  This problem present great opportunities to utilize math vocabulary: factors, commutative property, grouping, etc.  I grade this task almost exclusively on communication, and students are often surprised to find that a math task can require such a level of revision and reflection.
  • I can move towards a generalization if I need to put my foot on the gas more.  If a few students seem to have the answer and communicate a solution, I can challenge them to develop a formula which works for any number factorialed (is this a word?).

Rich problem solving experiences have always been a part of my classroom culture.  This problem is one of my favorites.


What’s My Role in the #MTBoS?

If I could change the MTBoS to make it better, I would make it less of an “underground”, almost secret, society and work to make our ideas more mainstream.  Let’s co-write articles for NCTM.  Let’s share beyond the 140 characters.  Let’s begin to become a force for change beyond our followers.  I look forward to the day where my colleagues don’t look at me with strange glances when I mention a great activity I found on a blog.

In the last few week’s, there has been a lot of back and forth discussion regarding the present and future of the “Math-Twitter-Blog-o-Sphere”.  The MTBoS is the community of math educators who share ideas, stories and friendships through Twitter and blogs.  Its a wonderful and growing community of diverse educators, many of whom have formed real relationships through the love on online math sharing.  But it’s also a place which can be intimidating to new tweeters and bloggers.  To be honest, until about a week ago, I had to keep looking up “MTBoS” to remind myself what it stood for.

Last week, discussion of the MTBoS was featured at the weekly online conference at the Global Math Department. The “If I could change” prompt I completed above was one of the closing activities from the hour of sharing.  Some quotes which struck me from the discussion appear below.  I apologize if I don’t cite names here, as it was hard to follow who was speaking all of the time on the playback.

“I feel very isolated in my own department” – I could not agree more with this.  More than anything else this community not only makes it safe for me to share new, perhaps game-changing, pedagogical ideas, but lets me hear from educators I respect and admire on a daily basis.  There have been times when I felt   uncomfortable with sharing ideas locally, for a number of reasons, and the MTBoS makes it safe to be creative and different.

“I know stuff, and I am obligated to share it” – this sums up nicely my rationale for the blog.  I’m often surprised when I look back on the lessons I have developed over 16 years, and more surprised when other teachers find them unique, when it never really occurred to me I was doing anything special.  There’s such a great feeling when I read someone else’s blog, see a lesson and think “man, why didn’t I think of that?”, and immediately share it with the 40 math teachers in my department.

“What’s relevant is that it is for the kids” – perfect!  There are a lot of bells and whistles is teaching ideas, including an avalanche of tech tools.  Sometimes it helps to take a step back and think “how does this improve anything?”  If there is a MTBoS mission statement to be written, it must be written around the idea that we all want to help kids learn math better.

It seems like a good time to evaluate my personal mission as part of the MTBoS. I can’t state that I am a “primary” member; rather, I tend to hover and grab ideas or join discussions when time allows or interests dictate.  So, who am I, what am I doing here, and how am I contribtuing to the good of the cause?


I started blogging about 2 years ago because I felt like I had a lot of math stuff worth sharing.  I had always enjoyed sharing teaching ideas and lessons with colleagues in my building, and blogging just brought it to a whole new level.  There really isn’t a rhyme or reason to my posting schedule.  When I come across something neat, or a great experience occurs, I blog about it.  I also have a backlog of a lot of drafts of incomplete ideas, which I hope to get to…someday.

The blog has been helpful in that it is now a warehouse of some of my teaching experiences.  When a collegue now comes to me looking for an idea, or wanting more info on something, I can now send out blog links.  I am sometimes disappointed when I don’t get feedback on ideas, but then I can look at my blog stats and see which ideas are being “pinned” on Pinterest, or linked to from other places.  It’s often suprising to me some of the activities, which I never thought to be special, get picked up and shared by new teachers.  It’s a good feeling to help out new educators in building their filing cabinet of teaching ideas.


I now get my best classroom ideas primarily from items I see on Twitter.  From articles to videos to classroom lesson ideas, I am constantly looking for something new to share with colleagues.  My advice to my local math teacher friends is to join twitter and follow just a few primary folks at first.  You don’t need to check in every day or every hour.  The beauty of twitter is that will all be there when you have time to look.  There seems to be a fallacy out there that twitter is a time-consuming intrusion.  And it can be, if you want it to be.  It can also be a wonderful, low-pressure way to think outside of your building.

I use twitter to participate in chats.  During the school year, my favorites are #sbgchat (standards-based grading) and #statschat, along with #mathchat.  Where else can you rub virtual shoulders with authors and national experts?


I actually have met very few of the people I follow on twitter.  At the AP Stats reading a few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet Shelly (@druinok), and touch base, and I look forward to meeting many more at TMC13 in Philly later next month.  Twitter’s great, but there is no replacement for a real, face to face, argument over how to teach complex numbers.  I look forward to it over a few beers.


The end of the school year bring with it the end of my tenure as an instructional coach in my district.  By choice, I am heading back to my high school classroom.    Part of my decision is based on all of the great ideas I have acculumulated and hope to bring to to my classes.  It’s a bit overwhelming really.  The blog will continue, but maybe with some more classroom focus.  I doubt I will change the name of the blog, as many people have it linked.  But a new tagline should be coming.  Suggestions encouraged!