What #Mathissippi Learned at MCTM

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the annual Mississippi Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM) conference in Ellisville, MS. Davis Parker (’15) and Dylan Jones (’15) attended as well, and have shared what they learned below. Take a look, and steal some ideas – specifically…

  • Using Algebra Tiles effectively!
  • Creating “Secondary Circuits” centers-alternative
  • Meaningfully infusing Statistics into Algebra I
  • Using Plickers for quick data collection and sharing!

Dylan’s Findings

My name is Dylan Jones, I am a second year teacher in the Mississippi Delta, teaching 6th – 8th grade mathematics to 50 of the most passionate and energetic students I know. I have had the pleasure of being sent on many professional development experiences on behalf of the Sunflower County Consolidated School District. Recently, I had the privilege of attending the 2016 Mississippi Council of Teachers of Mathematics at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, MS. At this conference, I made connections with iReady representatives, engaged in many sessions to enhance my classroom, and got a chance to participate in a state wide Professional Learning Community (PLC) with fellow math educations across the state.

The purpose of this blog post is to share some of the information gleaned from these sessions. Since I found most of what I attended to be extremely useful, I have narrowed down my post to include the following sessions: 1) How to use Algebra tiles and 2) “Circuits”.

In my short time as a second year teacher, I have been able to incorporate technology into my classroom, increase the level of confidence and rigor, and fully implement secondary centers. One thing that I have always wanted to figure out is how to increase my use of manipulatives. While at the MCTM conference, there was a session on the fundamentals of algebra tiles. I signed up, made friends with the teacher next to me, and we began our journey together! My partner teacher has used algebra tiles for over 10 years now, so she allowed me to hog all of the tiles as I was learning the rules. Each tiles represents a variable (x, y, xy, x2, and y2) and then there are unit tiles to represent the numbers in the equations. I received a template and the facilitators started to walk us through some equations. Right before my eyes, for the first time in my adult life, I started to visualize the zero pairs when I solved for the variable in the equation. The facilitator took us through over 10 different equations, I was blown away. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I wish I had these when I introduced 7.EE.1-4 to my seventh grades in the first nine weeks. Below I have included some pictures to show you how powerful algebra tiles could be in your classroom! I ordered the set from EAI education, here is the direct link, and I used my EEF card and they were delivered in a week.


While I was still reeling from the algebra tiles session, I saw a session for “Secondary Circuits”, to which I though was a cooler name for center rotations. When I arrived at this sessions, I was told that it was not about centers, but yet a way to make work more rigorous, engaging, and where students can assess themselves. I was sold! The facilitator starts passing out what look like worksheets, but have two to three columns of boxes with problems in the top. The facilitator asks us to solve the top left box, use that answer to find the next box, so on and so forth. So I am sitting with about 25 other math teachers and there is not a sound. We are all trying to solve these algebra problems and use out answers to advance our progress. I get stuck about 75% through the first circuit. The facilitators looks at my paper and says that I am operating on the target level question because I completed 75% of the circuit. The facilitator then explains that if a students can complete less than 50% of the worksheet, they are not operating on the grade level question target. If a student completes 60%-75% of the worksheet, they are operating on the grade level target question and if a student complete above 75% of the circuit, they are operating above the grade level target question. For better representation, here is a link to the facilitators TeachersPayTeachers website, where some of her circuits are free! I have also included a picture!


Davis’ Findings

The annual MCTM conference in Ellisville was a unique opportunity to learn and share with other math teachers from the state. Over 300 teachers, representing every corner of the state, were there with the goal of improving their student’s outcomes and to change the way our students see and interact with mathematics.

With nearly 50 different sessions available to attendees, there was a great variety of information to be gathered. The most impactful session I attended dealt with the use of statistics in Algebra 1. The presenter walked us through the process of refreshing students’ knowledge of basic statistical analysis—box and whisker plots, mean, median, and outliers. Often times, statistics is taught as a system of rules and formulas with very little student input. It is rote and boring. The presenter, Dr. Jennifer Fillingim of Madison County Schools, completely flipped this script. Rather than simply copy notes of the board, students were actively engaged in the learning process and contributing to the creation of knowledge.  Through pointed questioning, the presenter was able to draw the needed information out of students, building on prior experiences. Going forward, I am planning a statistical analysis unit for the start of the second semester. We will use statistical techniques to analyze our performance from the previous semester, which will allow us to not only learn the material but also think more critically about how we can improve during the second half of the year.


The second most valuable presentation covered the variety of useful technologies available for our classroom. Specifically, it further interested me in using Plickers in my classroom. Up to now, I’ve used a variety of different quiz-type apps such as Kahoot but have always been a bit underwhelmed. For those unfamiliar with Kahoot, it is a quiz app where students answer predetermined questions on their phones and received points for getting them right in a set amount of time. Students enjoy playing Kahoot, but it’s not ideal for teachers as not all students have functioning smart devices, and it does not give useful data on how students are doing. Unlike Kahoot, Plickers requires only the teacher uses technology (reducing tech issues significantly) and gives student specific data, allowing a teacher to more easily identify those students who are struggling. I am in the process of printing and implementing Plickers in my Algebra 1 classes, and I am eager to see how students respond. Certainly, there are issues of students losing their Plickers materials, but I think it will be a much better system than before.

Kahoot’s ubiquitous loading wheel of death


Plickers only needs one phone and gives useful student data

Overall, the most valuable aspect of the MCTM conference was not the individual sessions but rather the conversations with other math teachers. As a 2nd year teacher, I am always eager to glean wisdom from the veterans who have been in the classroom for many years, and I am hopeful that one day I will be able to provide the valuable insight to others that they have given to me.


Joy, Standards, and Relevance: Reflections from NCTM’s Annual Conference

How do we cover the myriad of standards for our grade level while also attending to student engagement and enjoyment? How do we make seemingly abstract math content relevant? The following post comes from Crystal Stone (Mississippi ’15) as she reflects on these and more ideas after attending the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Annual Conference this past spring. Check it out and steal some resources and ideas! – EPS

I traveled to my first National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Annual Meeting in April. I didn’t know what to expect. I spent my four years in college studying English and attending literature classes only to be thrown into a middle school algebra classroom. Disoriented doesn’t begin to describe my experience. But my first year was almost over and as it was winding down and state tests were on the horizon, I needed to reinvigorate my creativity.

It turns out inspiration wasn’t hard to come by. I learned about the different ways other math teachers across the nation made algebra more relevant and more fun. This was probably most important for me to make happen for my students’ most dreaded unit of the year: functions. When I start flipping through my program booklet, I had just one goal: go to as many sessions on functions as possible.

My favorite session was a project that involved forced perspective photography. Forced perspective photography is an exercise where you create an optical illusion; you change the size of an object you’re capturing by moving the camera different distances. So for example,

The presenters gave task cards differentiated by grade-level and standard that they wanted to explore. I’ve included them here for you to consider:

What I love about this activity is that it not only makes math fun, but allows students to take ownership over their project. They can be creative and autonomous. It has enough guidance that it grounds them in the math behind the activity and forces them to draw on the knowledge that they’ve acquired throughout the year. But the investigation is also a practical one: in an increasingly digital and visual world, it’s important that students are aware of how images are manipulated and how they can manipulate those images themselves. My hope is that when I try this activity with my students next year they will thinking critically about the images they are creating and the messages those images are sending, too. The beauty of activities like these is they allow for teacher creativity. We can make these activities more math-centered or more interdisciplinary.

The forced perspective photography lab clearly isn’t the only activity I found that inspired me to be more creative and more relevant. I attended a session that discussed how to make flags into math problems. I was particularly intrigued by this session because I recently implied of a geometry project I adapted from Nicole Bishop’s classroom on redesigning the Mississippi State Flag. The presenter explained to us that flag typically have very specific proportions and we can resize them and create problems knowing these proportions. He showed us examples of problems ranging from Algebra I through Calculus. For example,

Even without knowing the exact proportions, we can fit these flags onto coordinate planes to analyze length and create equations. Here’s another image he showed us:


And for those whose students need extra practice using positive and negative integers, there’s always the second quadrant:


His discussion of flags didn’t stop there. He explained that he takes his students for a walk around places with a lot of flags represented in Canada where he teaches. He takes a field trip and allows culture of different people to be part of the conversation of their flags and creation of the transformations of the flags they view in class. You can view more about his presentation and find his worksheets here.

As a result of these particular sessions, I’ve been making changes to my curriculum for the upcoming year. I am considering how I craft interactive math walks this year. I plan to make my units diverse and interdisciplinary. What locations can we visit? Is there a way to incorporate technology? Can I incorporate social justice? These sessions helped provide me with creative examples of how others make the lessons more fun and will help me to create interactive lessons infused with social justice in more math-grounded ways.

Culturally Responsive Teaching versus Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice

From over at my mathissippi blog.

The idea of “teaching for social justice” holds a long history of discourse in the educational world, and as such holds a myriad of terms and (sometimes conflicting) ideas which describe it. When considering the idea of “teaching mathematics for social justice” (TMSJ), it is important to understand the distinctions in the choice of this wording and its relation to other related fields of study. TMSJ holds many common threads with critical pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy, but it is not sufficient to use all of these terms interchangeably.

An immediate consideration of TMSJ is that it is framed as teaching for, not teaching about or teaching with social justice. As Stinson and Wager (2012) summarize of Paulo Freire’s work –

[teaching] mathematics about social justice refers to the context of lessons that explore critical (and oftentimes controversial) social issues using mathematics. Teaching mathematics with social justice refers to the pedagogical practices that encourage a co-created classroom and provides a classroom culture that encourages opportunities for equal participation and status. And teaching mathematics for social justice is the underlying belief that mathematics can and should be taught in a way that supports students in using mathematics to challenge the injustices of the status quo as they learn to read and rewrite their world.” (p. 6, emphasis in original)

Paulo Friere from http://www.wiisaakodewinini.com/artworks/

As such, TMSJ is not composed of a collection of instructional resources and strategies, but is rather based on the disposition of the teacher and the student. A teacher cannot merely conduct a social justice-themed lesson and consider themselves as teaching for social justice; a teacher must in all their actions be working to challenge dominant and oppressive structures which hold back the full potential of their students. In the words of Gutstein and Peterson (2006) “social justice math is not something to sneak into the cracks of the curriculum” (p. 5).

In this regard, TMSJ holds many similarities with critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy, which is grounded in “[driving] teachers and students to acknowledge and understand the interconnecting relationships among ideology, power, and culture and the social structures and practices that produce and reproduce knowledge” (Stinson & Wager, 2012, p. 8), also demands a unique disposition amongst educators. Although works of earlier educators such as John Dewey or W.E.B. Du Bois are thought to be grounded in critical pedagogy (Eubanks, Parish, & Smith, 1997, p. 151; Stinson & Wagner, 2012, p. 8), it is the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Friere that might best be said to have originated the movement around critical pedagogy in the United States (Stinson & Wagner, 2012, p. 8). Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed clearly shows its relevance even to this day, as “nearly every contributing author to [the Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice compilation book] acknowledges Freire as having a significant influence on her or his work” (Stinson & Wager, 2012, p. 9). Because of this evolution from critical pedagogy to TMSJ, it is useful to consider the relationship between a more critical pedagogical approach and other related approaches such as culturally relevant or responsive pedagogy.

Culturally relevant pedagogy, which has also been labeled “culturally appropriate,” “culturally responsive,” and “culturally compatible” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 159) shares some fundamental similarities with the more critical approach to TMSJ. As Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) explains, culturally relevant pedagogy can be thought of as comprising of three categories: academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness (p. 160-162). At first glance, these categories might seem well aligned to TMSJ: Ladson-Billings frames meaningful academic success around student culture and identity, she notes cultural competence as “utilizing students’ culture as a vehicle for learning,” and she explains critical consciousness as “a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows [students] to critique…cultural norms” (p. 160-162). Ladson-Billings even cites Friere in her defense of culturally relevant pedagogy, stating that approaches that achieved academic success for African Americans during the civil rights movement in-spite of were “similar to that advocated by noted critical pedagogue Paulo Freire” (p. 160). Friere and critical pedagogy are clearly an influence on Ladson-Billings.

propagandaHowever, there are some fundamental differences between Ladson-Billings’ culturally responsive pedagogy and Friere’s critical pedagogy, and it is these differences that separate (and at times muddle) the idea of TMSJ. In critical pedagogy, the school system is seen as “a major part of society’s institutional processes for maintaining a relatively stable system of inequality,” or the “hegemony” of a small group of elites over a broader society (Eubanks, Parish, & Smith, 1997, p. 151). This hegemony is counter to TMSJ and strikes out in a myriad of ways. Educational standards frame the purpose of schooling as “merely preparing for professional success,” while standardized tests are both held up as valid measures of success and used as “gatekeepers” which help determine the “intellectual elites” of our society (D’Ambrosio, 2012, p. 202-207). It is not just that students are failing academically; it is that the academic system is set up to sustain hegemony. This idea of hegemony creates inherent issues with the culturally relevant approach to education. While Ladson-Billings (1995) frames culturally responsive teaching  as “[getting] students to ‘choose’ academic excellence” (p. 160), critical pedagogy states that we need to rethink our society’s entire idea of academic excellence (Eubanks, Parish, & Smith, 1997, p. 152). If we consider our educational system to be a structurally unsound house,  culturally relevant pedagogy would have us work to repair and remodel the house, while critical pedagogy would have us demolish the house and start anew. Even though Ladson-Billings (1995) speaks to the importance of infusing cultural competency and critical consciousness in tandem with creating academic success for students, Friere (1970) counters this approach of seeking social justice within the context of the current system, saying –

Unfortunately, those who espouse the cause of liberation are themselves surrounded and influenced by the climate which generates the banking concept [a system of oppressive education], and often do not perceive its true significance or its dehumanizing power. Paradoxically, then, they utilize this same instrument of alienation in what they consider an effort to liberate…[One] does not liberate people by alienating them. Authentic liberation – the process of humanization – is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it. Those truly committed to the cause of liberation can accept neither the mechanistic concept of consciousness as an empty vessel to be filled, nor the use of banking methods of domination…in the name of liberation.” (p. 79)

If the definition of TMSJ is to retain the element of “using mathematics to challenge the injustices of the status quo” (Stinson & Wager, 2012, p. 6), it requires more than a culturally relevant pedagogy. While TMSJ incorporates elements of culturally relevant pedagogy (cultural responsiveness, critical consciousness), it aligns much more with critical pedagogy in its determination to not simply work within the current, unjust educational system, but to rebuild it in a democratic way.


D’Ambrosio, U. (2012). A Broader Concept of Social Justice. In Teaching mathematics for social justice: Conversations with educators (p. 201-213). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Eubanks, E., Parish, R., & Smith, D. (1997) Changing the Discourse in Schools. In P. M. Hall (Ed.), Race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism: Policy and practice (p. 151-168). Taylor & Francis.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Gutstein, E., & Peterson, R. (2005) Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools.

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice34(3), 159-165.

Stinson, D. W., & Wager, A. (2012). A sojourn into the empowering uncertainties of teaching and learning mathematics for social change. In Teaching mathematics for social justice: Conversations with educators (p. 3-18). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Creating Secondary Math Centers

Centers day is my favorite day of the week. My students have fun, learn from each other, and do most of the talking. On top of that, I uncover tons of relevant information on student mastery and growth. But let me clarify – our centers have not always been this fun and successful. They used to be pretty miserable. Today I’m going to share how I created a meaningful and joyful structure in my classroom using math centers. The first step is organization. Most of the materials are in one packet and students just work on whatever page that corresponds with the Center that they are located at. When designing centers, you want to ensure that everything is ready and waiting for students to engage. Timing and directions are another important part of organization –  consistently behavior narrate expectations to ensure that your students receive feedback on their alignment with the directions and have an opportunity to quickly correct if needed. By having each Center last for 6-8 minutes I also ensure that students have ample and urgent work to complete, cutting down on time to get bored and act out.

Again, my Centers days go well only when I begin with ridiculously clear and explicit directions. I always share our centers rules and make sure to check for understanding in order to ensure that students are listening and have internalized the rules. Here is what I share:

p1 p2 p3

After grounding ourselves in the overall structure of centers, we clarify the directions for each station. I no longer have to do this for my students,  but it is important the first time you conduct centers to make sure everybody understands what is expected. Below is a breakdown of all directions on the first page of the centers packet. Here is the First Page of my Centers packet that I gave two weeks ago. Also, I think you should follow up the directions page with a page that has a rough outline of your classroom and what students should be doing at each station. The following is an example of a graphic that I display on the Smart Board while students are working at stations. This gives students a graphic reminder of what they should be doing at what Center:


Centers Directions

Center 1: KABOOM

·         During the Game of KABOOM, students will practice some of the concepts that they’ve learned throughout this review week

·         The Table Manager will serve as the judge for the KABOOM game!

·         Everyone should be having fun at this station! Do not ruin it by getting into petty arguments about the game!

·         Once the timer is up and Mr. JB tells you to transition, the team manager will come to the front and write down the name of the winner!


Center 2:  Student Work Corrections

·         At this station, students will be responsible for correcting student work with the people at their table.

·         Each question is answered WRONG. Therefore, students must use 2 FULL SENTENCES to explain what is wrong with the student answer.

·         Students must also show the correct answer on the page with the correct work shown.

·         All writing at this station must be done with a RED PEN

Center 3: Match Solutions to Equations

·         Students will match and connect all equations on the left side with the solutions on the right side.

·         Make sure to utilize your white board and marker to break down all equations.

·         There is one solution for every equation, make sure each one is matched up.

Center 4:  Kaboom

·         During the Game of KABOOM, students will practice some of the concepts that they’ve learned throughout this review week

·         Everyone should be having fun at this station! Do not ruin it by getting into petty arguments about the game!

·         Once the timer is up and Mr. JB tells you to transition, the team manager will come to the front and write down the name of the winner!


Center 5:  Exponent and Square Root Review Work

·         At this station use the Real Numbers  chart to answer all multiple choice questions.

·         Next to each multiple choice question you are responsible for WRITING ONE SENTENCE explaining how you know your answer is correct.



Types of centers in my classroom

There is an endless amount of ideas for centers that teachers can use to help develop your students as Math Scholars. Kaboom is an awesome fast paced game for students to focus on correcting common computational errors by incentivizing it with the creation of a board game. This Center is not used to have students produce lengthy justifications for their work. Instead this game exists to give students speedy remediation that will hopefully help with reoccurring computational issues going forward.

The following are directions for the game Kaboom that is huge success within my class! I would tape these directions at the table for Kaboom

Students at table 4 will play a game of Kaboom!

  1. The team leader will serve as the judge during all games of Kaboom!

  2. During Kaboom, students will take turns pulling strips from the KABOOM box

  3. The judge will have the answer key. If a student gets a question right they get to keep their strip. If they get it wrong the strip goes in the middle and nobody gets it.

  4. If Students get the “KABOOM” strip, they must put all of the strips that they have

  5. The student with the most strips at the end of the center time wins!

  6. Judges must keep track of who wins and at the end of each game write the winners name on the board

  7. Each game of Kaboom will last for 7 minutes.

  8. No one is allowed to argue with the judge.

  9. Winners of Kaboom will each win a piece of candy.


When filling Kaboom Cans with questions it is important that it contains multiple choice questions that are not too intricate. This is supposed to be a fast paced game so I would just fill the cans with questions that are purely remedial  like the four below. I’d fill each can with about 18 questions.


The judge will be given an answer key as followed. To save you some time, I would just look up multiple choice questions from the internet and just use those questions. The answer key will probably be made available on whatever site you get the questions from.


The special strips that add an element of luck are as followed. I would include about four of each of the following four strips.


Kaboom is an awesome game, just make sure you behavior narrate and make your expectations explicitly clear at all times. Things can get dicey during competition, especially when pride/candy is on the line. With that being said, this is a great activity to get student to focus on sources of common mistakes.

Getting students to work on error analysis is really important in my class because it allows students to recognize common patterns and traps that they are falling into! Essentially the student becomes the teacher!  Error Analysis really helps to develop students as metacognitive thinkers. I use this Station get my students to point out some of the common mistakes that they make on Exit Tickets and have discussions with each other about the work. This is a copy of the blank center page.


And here is a copy of the same student work filled out by one of my students with his corrections on it.


The last center that I used this week was a matching activity in which students had to match solutions to corresponding equations. I made it up myself and it encouraged great discussion amongst students about the material.


Also, you should have an extra activity at the end of the Centers packet for higher students who finish their assignment/packet early. This extra activity isn’t just supposed to be something “extra” that kids can do, but instead it serves the purpose of ensuring that students who finish early have something to do to ensure that they are not distracting others. Usually I include more difficult problems at the end, but sometimes I put a Sudoku at the end of the packet as a special challenge to students and if they are able to finish one, I give them a bag of hot chips .Just don’t let students access any computers with the Sudoku or they will look up the answers like my student Lyric did one time.

In conclusion, Centers can be a great way for students to have fun in your class while developing themselves as math learners. The more diverse and flushed out your centers are the higher chance there is for success! Make sure that your directions are incredibly explicit and that you are constantly moving throughout the classroom while behavior narrating. Do not use centers too often in your class because if the appeal wears off then students can get bored/apathetic really quick. I try to pull it off once or twice a month at most!

On Thursday, 11/19 I plan on rolling out a Centers session in Cleveland in which you will go through and participate in some of the Centers that were talked about within this Blog Post! Please register on the course catalog and attend if you need any help developing these, and please reach out with any questions, comments, or concerns about the integrating Centers into your Math Classroom!

Alexa Evans – Implementing Three-Act Math

During my first year of teaching, I constantly thought things like, “I can’t wait until next year so I can try this differently” or “I need to prioritize this more next year.” Honestly, I haven’t followed through on everything, but something that has been very rewarding in my classroom is more regular use of Three-Act Math lessons. These types of lessons allow every single one of my students to engage with the material and leave the classroom feeling like they made a meaningful contribution.

I begin the lesson by showing the students a picture or a short video clip, and simply asking them to write down what they noticed and any questions they have. I make sure to take the time to write down every thought that my students share, because this validation early on in the lesson really gives them the momentum to grapple with the math later on. I love seeing my lower-achieving students, who are normally a bit uninterested during my lessons, shooting their hands into the air to share their thoughts. And even though there is a low entry point for everyone, I always have a handful of students who begin to lead us toward the important mathematical concepts. After considering all of the students’ questions, I present them with the main question we’ll be answering and ask for their answers.

I love this part of the lesson because I really get to see my students start to make sense of the mathematics. It’s also the point where students begin to notice that they don’t have all of the information they need to fully answer our main question. In other words, they start to get those headaches. It’s only after students articulate what information is missing that I fill in those gaps and present the Tylenol. I then allow them to discuss with a partner or two to work toward a solution.

I have found that managing this group work in a Three-Act Math lesson is easier than managing my class in more typical lessons. Because I make sure that I begin with an intriguing stimulus, and take the time early in the lesson to place an importance on the students’ voices, they are very invested and eager to work toward a solution. Again, even my lower students are engaged after experiencing success early on. Three-Act Math lessons are the best way that I have found to foster meaningful student discussion and create an accessible environment for everyone in my classroom.

Grow That Metacognition! Meaningful Feedback on Performance Tasks

Below, Davis Parker (Mississippi ’15, Cleveland High School), shares how he has used performance tasks to build student metacognition – how students think about their mathematical thinking. Davis talks about the intentionality behind his design, execution, and feedback around a recent performance task. I love the feedback activity that he does with students which allows them to not only understand their own rubric rating, but to also use peer responses to grow in their understanding of what great mathematical thinking and communication looks like.  Read on below!

(Note – Davis refers to the QUASAR rubric throughout his post)

The assignment:

  • Students were given a performance task to gauge their ability to work creatively with absolute value functions.
  • In approaching the assignment, I wanted to create a task that gave students significant room for creativity, strategic thinking, and communication. I wanted it to be Math-lite, requiring as little number crunching and slick computation as possible, but allowing students to showcase their reasoning and problem solving skills.
  • The first question set the table for the entire assessment and allowed a low floor for students to enter. It read as follows: “Drake and Meek Mill decide to climb a mountain to settle their differences. Draw a graph that could represent their altitude (y) as a function of time (x). Explain your reasoning in complete sentences.”
    • On this question, students received points for drawing a hill/mountain looking graph and articulating the reasoning behind their graph. While it was hard to differentiate between math and strategic knowledge on this question, I gave students math knowledge credit if they properly interpreted the meaning of x and y-intercepts. With regards to strategic knowledge, students received credit for drawing a graph that could be interpreted (in some way or another) as the trajectory of people climbing a mountain. Ultimately, a student’s strategy was only as good as his/her ability to explain it.
    • If students drew a linear equation but gave sufficient explanation that Drake and Meek Mill never came down (or that they didn’t return on the graph), I gave them points.
    • Students were docked for graphs that didn’t begin at the origin or somewhere along the x-axis.
  • The second question gave students a specific function (y= -2|x-4|+8) to model their path and asked, “how high is [Drake and Meek Mill’s] peak? How long does it take them to reach the peak? How long does it take for them to climb the mountain? Explain your reasoning in complete sentences.”
    • Points were given for an accurate graphical representation of the function as well as correctly identifying the peak height (8), peak time (4), and total climb time (8).
  • The third question forced students to transition from mathematical knowledge (graphing, vertex, etc.) to more strategic knowledge by asking, “At altitudes greater than 6km, Drake needs to use his inhaler 3x/hour. Meanwhile, at altitudes greater than 7km, Meek Mill needs to use his inhaler 5x/hour. Who uses his inhaler more during the hike?”
    • This question forces students to navigate through two distinct measurements (time and distance) on their graph. While the altitude deals the y-axis of the graph, the real question lies on the x-axis with the time. An ideal student would recognize that the number of inhaler uses is dependent on hours, not necessarily kilometers
  • The last question was meant to showcase students communicative and strategic understanding by asking them whose asthma is worse, Drake or Meek Mill?
    • The key aspect of this question is that there is no correct answer. While Drake has to use his inhaler at lower altitudes, MM has to use his inhaler more often. It allows students to approach the question from either side and still come to a strong, evidence based conclusion.

The execution:

  • The most common complaint from students was, “I’ve never done anything like this before! Is this even math?” It seems they’d been trained to think math was 100% worksheets and computations.
    • On a surprising yet positive note, the students outperformed their average quiz score on this assessment, which strikes me as proof that they have underutilized mathematical skills in the way of strategy and communication.
  • The key was keeping students engaged in the problem and having them work through the whole sheet (1 page front-and-back). As the bookend questions required zero mathematical knowledge, even the most struggling student could gain considerable credit if he/she simply finished the quiz. Lastly, including popular culture figures allowed them to feel as if they had an actual opinion on the question at hand. You’d be surprised how many students took the time to confirm that Drake was the superior MC to MM.

The grading:

  • First question (MK: 1, SK: 1, C: 1)
    • The most important aspect of grading question #1 was making sure whatever the student graphed and whatever the student wrote reinforced each other. In the case of student #1 (part A), I docked communication points for a weak explanation. While the slope does in fact increase then decrease, the student failed to connect his reasoning to the original problem. Meanwhile, student #2 (part A) gives sufficient explanation for his graph by relating the vertex to the mountain peak and identifying the variables x and y.
  • Second question (MK: 2, SK: 1, C: 1)
    • This was the most math intensive question of the quiz as it forced students to graph an absolute value function accurately and interpret the results of the graph. The key aspects of the graph were the vertex and x-intercepts. Most students were able to accurately place the vertex, yet many struggled to properly slope their function such that it intersected the x-axis at 0 and 8. Students who failed to do this (student #4, A) lost significant mathematical knowledge credit. From a strategic perspective, students were rewarded for first identifying the vertex then graphing from that point. Additionally, they received credit for properly interpreting the zeros and vertex of the function.
  • Third question: (MK: 1, SK: 1, C: 1)
    • Students received mathematical knowledge points for relating the x-axis on the previous graph to the y-axis. The question forced them to take a y-axis measurement (altitude) and convert it to an x-axis measurement (time). Students who properly did this and performed computations correctly received full points for their work (student #2, B). From a strategic perspective, students received credit for understanding the need to multiply each individual rapper’s rate by the time above a certain altitude. Even if they incorrectly identified these values, they received points for their strategy (student #4, B). Some students had great strategy and math but had weak communication (student #3, B). These students received points for their thinking and computation but very little for communication, as they didn’t effectively explain their thinking or answer the question. Student #1 had a very interesting answer here because he knew to multiply the given rates by some fixed value, but he incorrectly used the altitude instead of the time. Here, he received ½ credit for strategy and close to full credit for communication, as his reasoning is quite clear.
  • Fourth question: (SK: 1, C: 1)
    • Students received credit for clearly articulating an opinion based on results from Q3. Some students received little to credit (student #3, B), while others (student #1, B) received close to full credit, even if they had incorrect conclusions for Q3. The key to Q4 was having a logic-based opinion that was built off the answer to Q3. Even if a student didn’t answer Q3, they received credit for saying that Drake has to begin using his inhaler earlier or that MM has to use his more. There was no right or wrong answer, just good and bad reasoning.

Student responses

  • Student #1
  • Student 1's Task Responses
    Student 1’s Task Responses
    • Across all classes, student #1 was considered to be the worst of the example. What stood out was his poor reasoning and especially poor communication. A common response was, “do people really talk like that?” Fortunately, student #1 didn’t exist and was an answer sheet I filled out with common mistakes. I would strongly encourage other teachers to do something similar if they are trying to show common mistakes.
      • Score: MK: 1.5, SK: 2, C: 1.5
  • Student #2
  • Student 2's Task Responses
    Student 2’s Task Responses
    • Just as student #1 was considered the worst, student #2 was generally considered the cream of the crop. Students appreciated his clear writing style and mathematical computation.
      • Score: MK: 4, SK: 4, C: 4
  • Student #3
  • Student 3's Task Responses
    Student 3’s Task Responses
    • Student #3 was by far the most interesting case. Most students gave him low marks, as they were put off by his poor communication style. What they didn’t recognize was the strength of his reasoning and math skills. For instance, on Q3 he does a terrific job strategizing and drawing a model of when each rapper would use his inhaler (as well as the total # of uses). Student #3 clearly has solid mathematical reasoning, yet it is hidden behind a veneer of sloppy language and organization. He’s like a raw athlete: great potential but very little polish. In fact, this assessment helped identify him as a student who could very well be pushed to not only become a good mathematician but an outstanding one.
      • Score: MK: 3.5, SK: 3, C: 1.5
  • Student #4
  • Student 4's Task Responses
    Student 4’s Task Responses
    • Student #4 received better reviews from her peers than her teacher. Her organized graphs and clear writing were convincing indicators of her knowledge, yet she had significant struggles with her graphs. On all 3, her graphs incorrectly intersect the x-axis, and she misinterprets her previous graph on Q3. To be fair, her errors on Q1 and Q2 were more than likely a result of sloppiness than ignorance, yet she ended up receiving roughly the same score as student #3. What makes that result so interesting is that students #3 and #4 received the score for almost the exact opposite reasons. While one was an effective communicator, the other struggled mightily. While #3 had accurate graphs and strategy, #4 missed the mark. The key is that they both have terrific potential in mathematics, but that they need distinctly different practice going forward.
      • Score: MK: 2, SK: 3, C: 4

Performance Tasks are extremely valuable, if only because they break the monotony that Math class can become. They also allow every student to show off what they can do, as opposed to primarily punishing them for what they can’t. Going forward, I want to keep the PT structure of bookending the assignment with more qualitative, opinion based questions that provide students with low barriers to entry. Additionally, I think exposing the students to the QUASAR rubric is productive because it allows them to see behind the curtain and understand what exactly I am look for as a teacher.  In fact, I don’t plan on taking my upcoming PT up for a grade but rather have students grade their peers and give them valuable feedback. Lastly, I’d encourage other teachers (and myself) to do their best to keep students engaged with the assessment through its entirety. Students often surprise themselves (and their teachers!) with how much they do in fact know.

I hope this review has been helpful, and please leave comments below if you have any questions.



“Other teachers just tell, but you had evidence” – The Math Modeling Cycle in Action

What’s in this post:

  1. Why mathematical modeling is super important in tearing down “country club” mathematics
  2. An example lesson I taught that incorporating the modeling cycle
  3. All of the resources from that lesson.

Before Our Students Can Persevere, We Need to Trust Them

Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.  That’s the first Standard of Mathematical Practice in the Common Core, and for good reason. Perseverance is fundamental to mathematics – you need to give the content a chance if you are ever going to uncover its essential understandings. While it is easy to pin this off on students for not engaging (how dare you not persevere! I spent a lot of time last night coming up with this activity!), us math teachers actually have the greatest impact on our student’s math agency.

A traditional strategy to encourage students to persevere at problem-solving.

Many of our students suffer from a deep anxiety of mathematics, and this leads to otherwise competent students performing poorly simply because of their anxiety. This is compounded with students of color and women, where stereotype threat adds another barrier between capability and performance. And here’s the catch: “traditional” teaching techniques amplify math anxiety. Dan Meyer talks about “country club mathematics,” where students are implicitly and explicitly told that math means to “…calculate quickly and accurately with memorized formulas…and then raise your hand politely.” This is fine if you are a member of the country club, but alienating for those who are locked outside. When you imagine such disempowerment compounding across a dozen years and thousands of daily experiences with school mathematics, it’s suddenly not very surprising that many students (especially students of color and women) have no will to persevere with mathematics. Their attitude has absolutely nothing to do with competency. It has everything to do with our willful exclusivity.

So let’s break down the country club walls. Lucky for us, we have a bulldozer ready and waiting – our humble friend mathematical modeling. Here is how the modeling cycle is defined in Common Core (thanks to Dan Meyer and Felton, Anhalt, and Cortez for laying this out so nicely):

  1. Make sense of a situation
  2. Create a model to solve the problem
  3. Compute a solution with this model
  4. Interpret what those results mean in context
  5. Check the validity of your solution (and, if that fails, go back to step 1 or 2)
  6. Share your conclusions and reasoning

The “traditional” approach often jumps immediately to step 3 – we tell students “here, I put all of the information for you into this nice block of text. And here is the equation you should use. Just plug in that information correctly and spit out an answer. And don’t forget your units!” Stop! That’s not how the real world works!

The Modeling Cycle in Action

In order to try out the modeling cycle, especially how students first react to such instruction, I headed to Ruleville Middle School. In Ruleville I partnered with Scotty Jean-Baptiste and some of his incredible 8th grade students. The task that I implemented was based on the “Water Conservation” task detailed in this article from MTMS. I adapted the task into a “Developing the Question” structure which Dan Meyer demonstrated during his CHAMPS presentation last year (please, Mr. Meyer, come back to Mississippi!). Below I have detailed each part of this lesson and the student responses. I was impressed with the ability of Scotty’s students to go from hesitant, to curious, to exploratory with this unfamiliar structure which countered country club mathematics. You can see the raw data of their responses here.

  1. Make Sense of a situation.
The only question I forbid was
The only question I forbid was “Why isn’t Mr. Smith’s bathtub nicer?”

To begin I introduced myself to students and let them know that I was going to show them part of a video I had recorded that week (I realized afterwards that Mr. Meyer already had a similar Three-Act Math task already designed – womp).I also handed out a super minimal worksheet with 6 “boxes” for us to organize our thoughts throughout the process. We watched the first few seconds of this video, which showed a split-screen of my bathtub filling up from the faucet (top) and from the showerhead (bottom). I then stopped the video and asked students “What are you wondering? What questions do you have?” They filled their responses into the first box of their worksheet. Given that students had not experienced the modeling cycle before (or at least this year), they were understandably caught off guard – this isn’t how math lessons work!

WonderingI had students share their responses, wrote these on the board, and asked who else was wondering something similar. This gave me a bank of student-generated questions that we could come back to again at the conclusion of the lesson. It also served as a point of affirmation, where students saw that they weren’t alone in their thinking.

CompareBut we did have a specific question to address, and so in the second box I had students write our question of the day: Which uses more water, a shower or a bath? We immediately followed this up by coming up with an initial guess and justification. Where did the students stand on this? We had an even split (and nobody saying that it depends).
I let students share out some of their justifications, which showed a lot of nuance for the context. Many in the shower group justified their response with the fact that the shower only “trickles” water, while the bath group countered by saying that you run the bath once and then you’re done.

  1. Create a model to solve the problem

The fourth box is my favorite, and really determines the direction of the task. I asked students “well, what do you want to know?” This part of the cycle is vital because it students are elevated as fact-finders and creators of knowledge. Students, rather than teachers, get to determine what variables we should consider for our model. We teachers are often terrified to do this since we worry that students won’t provide the “right” variables or will draw complete blanks, but I challenge us to take a back-seat and try this out. Given students a chance to be knowledge-creators. Even though they had never engaged in a modeling activity before, the students in my lesson came up with some pretty spot-on answers about what we needed to know.Variables

Now, with more time I would have students actually get on computers (or I could do this from the front board) to try and find answers to these questions. For the “time to take a shower or bath” they could even conduct a student poll and average their results. There are lots of directions to go here. In anticipating these variables, and knowing that I had a limited class time to conduct the task, I had already pulled some different sources, including actually revealing the full “word problem” version of the water conservation task.

Some of our
Some of our “research”
  1. Compute a solution with this model
  2. Interpret what those results mean in context

We discussed this for a bit and then I let students have at it. I encouraged them to use the back of their papers and their whiteboards to sketch out their work, and then to use box 5 for their final conclusion and explanation.

students2 students1Student work

It was a blast. One group settled on an average of a 15 minute shower while the other used 30 minutes as their average. Given that one of the students said she took 45 minute showers (she was a really big proponent of Team Shower), I encouraged them to see how a 45 minute shower average would change their results. Students suddenly started to realize that their results really depended on a lot of different things (our variables!). As groups began to stumble upon this realization, I began asking “how long would the shower have to be in order to use more water than a bath?” since that was ultimately what I wanted us to validate with our video from the beginning.

  1. Check the validity of your solution (and, if that fails, go back to step 1 or 2)
  2. Share your conclusions and reasoning

We had about 10-15 minutes of exploration before I pulled the groups together and had each one share. I loved that students had used different shower lengths for their model, since that allowed us to really have a discussion about how those variables impacted their results. In a perfect world this is where I would have wanted them to go back and refine their answers – their conclusions were from before they discussed with other groups. However, time was running out and so we moved on. I was happy that a majority of the class had changed their mind from their original views – 75 percent had referenced on their worksheet that different variables result in different results (although only four fully responded in writing to the original question comparing baths and the showers).


We went back to our original video and I asked students to make a prediction about how long the shower will take to fill up the bathtub. Again, in a perfect world we would have tackled this specific question collaboratively in box 6 instead of me quickly having them estimate, but time was short. Regardless, they seemed to enjoy watching the time-lapse, especially as we approached and then passed more and more predictions. The students I spoke with afterwards really appreciated how different it was from their typical perception of math lessons. “Other teachers just tell,” one student said, “but you had evidence.”

This was the first time (at least to my, Scotty, or the students’ knowledge) that they had engaged in a modeling lesson. Concerns of management, timing, and control often keep us teachers from ceding control of thinking to our students, but this is an absolute necessity if we ever expect them to persevere and overcome challenges. “Nobody rises to low expectations” as the old saying goes. Our students not only have the potential to meet and exceed high expectations, they have a right to do so. It is time to tear down the country club walls and give all of our students the opportunity to succeed.

All of the Resources

My PowerPoint (I’m telling you, it is bare-bones. We don’t need a fancy presentation when our focus is on student thinking and discussion)

An explanation of the Worksheet (ditto.)

Dan Meyer’s version of the shower versus bathtub comparison

MTMS article that includes the Water Conservation task and discusses the modeling cycle

Student Voice in Critical Conversations – Probability and the Lottery

Culturally responsive teaching in mathematics – good in theory, impossible in practice? Time and again teachers feel overwhelmed by the idea of CRT in practice. It’s not that we don’t value critical dialogue with our students, but it often seems daunting in addition to the standards we are expected to teach in a given school year. How can we access critical and community knowledge when we get so caught up on the classical math knowledge?

The key is to integrate multiple banks of knowledge into instruction. In the following task on experimental and theoretical probability, students are asked to not only understand the math terms and processes, but to explore the intersection of their lived experience and the content. Megan Lonsdale (Mississippi 2013) recently conducted the task with her classroom and reflected on the experience below. Before considering her reflections, I encourage you to look at the following guiding documents and artifacts:

Why did you choose this task? Why is this sort of task important for students to engage with in Byhalia and elsewhere?

Megan: I chose this task because we had just started the probability unit and I had noticed that my students were struggling to understand the difference between theoretical and experimental probability. I wanted a task that would not only help them see the difference but a task that would also spike their interest and get them excited to talk about the differences that they see and how probability can help us interpret the world around us. Before starting the task I actually had no idea that the state of Mississippi didn’t have a state lottery. I was interested to hear that since my students are located so close to Memphis, this was not something a lot of them had realized as well. This sort of task is so important for students to engage in because math doesn’t just exist in the classroom. Math can help us interpret the world around us and help students develop a social consciousness. I want my students to be able to leave my classroom with not only a better understanding of math but as critical thinkers. 

How did the task go? How does it compare to other tasks or activities students have engaged with? What have you learned from this experience?

The task went well. I had a great time doing this activity with students and the reflections I received from students were also positive. I enjoyed showing students that math exists beyond the classroom walls and I definitely want to do that more often. I think one of the major differences with this task and other tasks I have used in my classroom is how relevant this was to my students lives. Even though I have used plenty of hands-on activities and different tasks in my class, nothing I have used has been this relevant and this Mississippi. My students were engaged and thoughtful and since they were more engaged and interested in the work, my students were better able to interpret the difference between theoretical and experimental probability. I learned that it is so important to use tasks that are engaging

What did the task tell you about students? What didn’t it tell you?

I went to several PDs about CRT this week so one of the major things I noticed about this task was the lens in which my students view the worlds and the lens (or window in the case of the article I read for Teaching Beyond Black and White) that I view my students in. One thing that really stuck out to me was after reading the article about how the lottery preys on the poor, a lot of my students made comments about how horrible it was that it lottery preyed on the poor but I noticed that my students did not associate themselves with being poor. Even though the majority of my students meet the federal requirements for free and reduced lunch and would be considered poor, it is all about the lens in which we view the world. My students do not view themselves as poor because (I am assuming based on conversations with students) that they’re doing okay. They have what they need and they have met people with much less. I had to take a moment to consider the lens in which I was viewing my students since their statements after reading this article were definitely shocking to me. 

Where do you want to go from here?

I want to incorporate many more tasks like this in my classroom since this was a great success. My students not only got a better understanding for the difference between theoretical and experimental probability but it gave students a voice in legislation that could potentially impact the state of Mississippi. This task taught my students an important lesson that math is extremely valuable in analyzing the world around you and being able to form an opinion and justify that opinion with facts.