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.