Thursday, March 31, 2011


I love love love puzzles! And I forgot all about this fun puzzle (not my original idea, but I cannot remember where it came from) until recently. I made some of these a few years ago, and we just pulled them out for our math strategies classes to review a few of the tested standards for the Kansas 10th grade math assessment.

Here is how it works:  You start with a template that looks like this, or you could make your own by creating a table in word.

Each border between shapes is used for a problem and answer, or two pieces of matching information. This one shows the names of properties and corresponding examples.

I usually tell students which piece goes in the middle, to help them begin.

Then students just have to match the edges like a puzzle.

I've written a few of these, and I have learned there is a ton of potential for varying the difficulty level.  You can write distracting answers along the outer edges to make it more challenging, or not.  You could tell students which piece goes in the middle to help them get started, or not.  You could white out the happy faces and write in different directions so that students don't know which side is "up".  You can repeat answers, or not. I recommend trying to solve the puzzle yourself before you give it to the students, though. The puzzles I wrote ended up having a lot of variation in difficulty without my even realizing.

Here is the template.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Best Advice from a College Professor

I got some advice from a college professor my freshman year that I really took to heart. When we were getting ready to head out for a break (like Thanksgiving, or Spring Break), he would tell us to make our vacations a true vacation. He would tell us to write all the papers and finish all the projects before we went home, and then leave all the school work behind and truly enjoy the time with our families and friends. You don't have to feel guilty because you should be doing something else, and you don't find yourself stressed out at the end of the break over what you didn't get done.

I realize this is not earth-shattering advice, but the 18-year-old version of myself thought it was genius. I have tried to carry that advice into my professional career. I will not take work home for vacations. Occasionally, I try to do the same for weekends. I make lists, I cross things off, and I use my time on the job as efficiently as possible. I have turned into a true anti-procrastinator.

Last friday, I left my classroom for Spring Break with all the grading complete, plans laid out for the following week, and a clean desk. I walked floated out of the building and I did not think of school for the entire week. So refreshing!

I love my job, and I want to be good at it. It actually takes effort to NOT sit around mentally evaluating my grading system or how I can do a better job teaching properties for logarithms or what I should do for an end of the year project in Calculus. But I am convinced these mental breaks make me a better teacher. So I give myself permission.

Thank you, Mr. College Professor.  I am not sure I remember all the identifying characteristics of the various architectural styles, but you taught me how to relax.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How High is the Ceiling?

I wanted a right-triangle solving activity for my basic trig unit in Algebra 2. Students are learning how to find sohcahtoa using different types of information, and how to solve right triangles. We also do a bunch of practice questions, similar to what they'll see on the ACT.

Don't know where, but I remembered seeing this angle-measuring device where you could point at the top of a tall object and pull the trigger and it would tell you the angle of elevation. Then you can solve the right triangle and figure out the height of the object.

I made my own using items from around my classroom. I was super proud of myself.

Supplies needed:  Note card, drinking straw, tape, string, paper clip, and paper protractor.

For the lesson, I projected the picture below. I gave the students some time to look at the picture and to discuss what measurements they would need to solve for the height of the ceiling.

I put them in groups of four and gave them this handout**, a tape measure, and a high-tech angle-measuring device* of their own. They were supposed to start with the height of the ceiling in our classroom and check with me. After approving their process, I sent them out to measure ceiling heights in different rooms around the school.

When they returned to the room, I had posted the actual heights of these ceilings. I was inspired by dy/dan to contact the architects for this information, and I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly they responded and how enthusiastic they were to help out.

Everything went pretty smoothly, but answers were not as close to the actual as I had hoped. A few groups were very close, others as much as 4 feet too short. That gave an opportunity to talk about what changes could be made to achieve better results. Overall I was happy with this activity.

*Prior to posting this, I did a little research and found out this thing is called a clinometer. Then I did a google image search and found a bunch of pictures just like the thing I created. Embarrassing. My husband (Mr. iEverything) found that there is also an "app" for that.

**Definition of "Cafegymatorium", from the handout:  When your school is destroyed by a tornado, this is the room you use as a cafeteria, gym, and auditorium in one. The name has stuck, even though we have a new school now with separate areas for each. :)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Scavenger Hunts to Share

Here are two scavenger hunts I've used in my classroom:

1.  Proportion Scavenger Hunt. For Kansas tested standard 1.3.A1, adjusting estimates, we teach students to solve by setting up a proportion. This is meant to correspond with that standard, but I think it would be a great activity for anyone teaching students to set up proportions from a written description.

This is posted by permission from the authors, Paula Miller and Kelly Hughes, from Arkansas City High School. I have been trying to persuade them to write their own blog, but no luck yet. Thanks for letting me share your activity with the world (or at least, with the 5 people who read my blog). You guys rock!

2.  SOHCAHTOA Scavenger Hunt. This one was hand-written by my 18-year-old student intern. It includes finding sohcahtoa given different types of information. There are degrees and radians, angles larger than 90, special triangles, and some unit circle questions.

My intern seemed pretty excited when I asked him about posting it here. If you find this to be helpful at all, or if you have any suggestions for him, would you leave a comment? Our vocational program is working with his future college to try and get him some credit for his pre-college/pre-teaching experience.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Scavenger Hunt

I got the idea for a scavenger hunt from some friends.  They created a proportion activity that I use in my math strategies class. I hadn't tried to use it for anything else, until recently.

The setup is pretty simple, you just make up a bunch of cards with questions on the bottom half and an answer to a different problem on the top half.  Each card has a distinguishing feature like a symbol or something, and you tape them all around the room.

I had students stick with a partner, to help answer each other's questions. Students are supposed to choose one card to start with, and work out the problem on the bottom half of the page.  Then they look around the room for the answer.  When they find it, they record the symbol in the answer key and work out the next problem and so on . . .

Remember my Rock Star intern? I asked him to create a scavenger hunt to review in the middle of my basic trig unit for Algebra 2. The topic was finding sohcahtoa, given different types of information. He wrote all the problems himself, and created a page for students to show their work and record the corresponding symbols.

Rock Star thought about everything! He made sure that the answers to every problem were different, but yet similar enough that it wasn't a dead giveaway. He proofread his solutions carefully and there were no mistakes (well, I had to make two teeny tiny corrections). The number of problems he selected was the perfect amount. Everyone finished, but there wasn't a ton of extra time at the end of the activity. I couldn't have done it better myself.

This was my first time entrusting my intern with the creation of an activity. I will admit that I was fully expecting cautiously preparing for the day to be a disaster. But it couldn't have been more perfect. I loved this activity and I will definitely laminate it and use it again. Students were up and moving around, and they were pretty focused.  Even my class with focus issues worked really hard.

I am thinking of how nice it would be to continue to utilize Rock Star's help, and I have decided:  This kid is not allowed to graduate.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rock Star in Training

Our school has a set of vocationally funded courses for students who are interested in becoming teachers. In the first year students take Child Development and Careers Working with Children. The second year is Teaching as a Career. For the third year, students enroll in Teacher Internship where they are placed in a classroom according to their interests. It is a high school version of student teaching, I guess. I am lucky enough to have one of these interns in my largest (24) Algebra 2 class this semester.

My intern is a senior who wants to be a High School Math/Physics teacher. He is currently in my Calculus and Physics classes, so the poor guy is in my room for three periods a day.

I have been trying to give him a variety of teachery experiences. He has taught a few of my already-planned lessons. Recently, I had him write a short quiz. When I offered him the opportunity to grade the quiz, he was super excited. I probably shouldn't have told him that he will be less excited about that part of the job later on.

I am remembering what it was like to start out as a teacher and how much of this stuff isn't learned in school. You learn it by doing, and messing it up, and figuring out how to do it better next time. Take this quiz for example: He realized when he went to grade the quiz that some of the directions weren't clear enough, causing students' answers to vary a little from what he actually wanted. He told me that grading the quizzes was a huge learning experience, because it helped him to realize how he could write a better quiz.

I am so impressed by his natural teaching ability. When he explains things, he asks leading questions instead of just giving the answer. He knows how to do whole class instruction with ease -- not too fast to confuse the students, not too slow to bore them. When several students have their hands up at the same time, he helps by going around and answering their questions. The students seem to be just as confident with him answering their questions as me. He is pretty much a Rock Star.

I love that he is getting the opportunity to have some real teacher-like experiences, even before stepping foot into college. I'll be glad to call him a colleague one day soon.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Logarithm Love

I just finished what was maybe my favorite unit ever! Logs and exponents . . . My students struggle with it every year. I get questions like "When are we ever going to use this?", and "Who had so much time on their hands to think this stuff up?" Translation, "Not only do I not understand this stuff, I don't understand the point of learning it". This unit was at the top of my list for improvements this year.

It seemed like the scores were higher than what I usually see for this test. To compare, I looked up the scores from last year's test. This year's class average was 4% higher than last year's. I know I am comparing two different groups of students, but this year's class has struggled more overall than last year's class. I feel like my improvements made a difference. So what did I do differently?

Time: I am lucky enough to have some flexibility in what I decide to teach and how much time I spend teaching it. So, I let myself take a couple of days for reinforcement instead of teaching something new every day. That really has me thinking about my course as a whole. I want to look for ways that I can go deeper with fewer topics for next year.

Accessories! This unit was interwoven with a ton of fun. I used my own log & exponent dominoes (shared below), Log Flash Cards, and Stations Review. I also used f(t)'s Add Em Up and Log War. It is like you take a basic t-shirt and some jeans, then you add a fun necklace, a cute jacket, and the perfect pair of shoes. Yes, I just compared math to fashion! What I mean is -- these activities made the unit more attractive and engaging for students. And they also completed the unit by providing extra practice and reinforcement in fun ways. That seemed to also bring a deeper level of understanding. If I had unlimited time, I would make a ton of these types of things and use them more often.

Still room for improvement:  Students consistently did poorly on any question where they had to use properties for logs. I want to find a better way to teach that next year.
Log and Exponent Dominoes

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How To Get Students To Do Anything

It feels kind of wrong to be writing about cookies on my math teacher blog.

But it also feels wrong to post pictures of baked goods without including the recipe.

I don't do much with extrinsic rewards, but students at my school know about my cookies. I've been told that they are the best someone has ever tasted. Better than Grandma's, but don't tell Grandma. They really will do just about anything for one of these cookies. I know this because I asked them. "We'll do anything", they said. One girl added, "except eat bugs". But several others agreed that they would, in fact, eat a bug in exchange for a cookie.

I got this recipe from my sister. When we have a family gathering, she is always in charge of dessert. I should also add that I am only an average cook. The magic is in the recipe:

The Best Ever Chocolate Chip Cookies:

Mix together: 1 cup soft butter, 1 cup brown sugar
Add: 2 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla
Then add: 2 1/4 cups flour, 1 package instant vanilla pudding (Secret ingredient alert! Use chocolate pudding to make them more chocolatey), 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt
Stir in: 2-3 cups chocolate chips
Bake: 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes

The oreo cookie version was not my original idea. I have seen it multiple places on the web lately. I think you can make them with any type of cookie dough, so I just use my sis's recipe. You just put a scoop of cookie dough on the cookie sheet, top with an oreo and then another scoop of cookie dough. (Three cookies in one!) Smoosh it all together a little and try to get the cookie dough to completely surround the oreo.  Bake according to cookie dough directions, plus maybe an extra minute or two.

I guess some schools have forbidden this type of thing.  Not my school yet, obviously . . . but I am sure our turn is coming. Until then . . . enjoy!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


We have been using our advisory periods for extra review sessions in preparation for state assessments. I am working with an advanced group. They have had a pretty good attitude overall, but they aren't exactly thrilled about doing an extra 25 minutes of math.

To make matters worse, three of our sessions have conflicted with the student-produced school news broadcast. They love the broadcast, and were not happy about missing it. Someone said "I feel like we're being punished for being good at math."

I can understand them feeling that way. So, I whipped up a batch of these . . .

. . . chocolate chocolate chip cookies with embedded oreo, to help ease the pain.

If only they gobbled up math with the same enthusiasm . . .