Posts tagged teaching
The Right Way?

Aaron Neal is a mathematics and physics teacher at Burlington Central High School.  After attending some professional development around “Finding Your Why” he was left with some questions about the ingredients that go into great teaching. This is his first guest post for The Shift.


Teaching is not a solved problem.  I love that about it. Every conversation with a student, parent, colleague or administrator is an opportunity to get closer to the solution.  I will never stop hunting for the right way to teach.  It is out there, I just need to keep hunting.  My first thought I ever had about teaching was that a good explanation was all I needed.  Now I know that sometimes the best explanation is no explanation at all. I have grown and changed, had more thoughts and ideas about education than I can remember; however, I am still on the hunt…

Just because I have never even caught sight of my prey doesn’t mean that I don’t know the scent of it.  

I don’t know what the right way to teach is; however, I think that these aspects of how to teach the right way will be the scent that leads me to it.


My time on the hunt has led me to change my practice time and time again.  Here are a couple of examples of my personal journey.

Giving Time to “Breathe” in the Learning

There was a time when I had a schedule with units of learning, quadratics for 2 weeks, linear relations for 2 weeks, a textbook section a day until I ran out and then 2 days for review and a test.  Why does the test need to come 2 days after the end of the unit? The students have not lived in the topic for long enough, they will cram, succeed and forget. They need to breathe it in make it a part of them, understand it, apply it, see how it connects to the next thing, refine, practice, build something with it.  This takes time. I don’t know how to make it work with all the other things that make up the right way; however, when I catch sight of my prey it will include time for the kids to breathe in their learning.

Time Management

Many of us have integrated large scale projects, labs, essays, cross-curricular builds, presentations and more into our practice.  I have been reflecting on this recently as my students embark on the wild adventure that I have built with them. My recent projects have produced incredible creative masterpieces and also a bunch of zeros.  When students were primarily lectured to they were forced to engage in some manner. They were locked in place with the teacher staring right at their faces. They would get a base of material delivered to them.  They may not have cared about the content, understood much of what was communicated to them or even be paying attention fully. They may not have been able to apply it in new contexts; however, most could recall enough to get by on a quiz or test.  When students engage in creative production, most are much more engaged in the problem; however, this is a release of responsibility to them. We design these projects to be a big part of their learning. So for those who fall behind, have a creative block, struggle with group dynamics, etc. they may not just be risking their grades they may also be learning less then they may have in their seats in a traditional lecture.  It is clear to me that it isn’t enough to create an awesome creative opportunity. When we find the right way it will include these projects but also instructional strategies to teach students how to overcome creative blocks, manage their time, work in groups and have pride in their craft.

I am sure there are many items on my list that are things that you feel passionately about.  You are awesome at some of them, struggle with others. I may not be the best at many of these things but as I grow my goal is to improve at as many of these as possible.

The hunt continues...

The Shift would be interested in hearing what’s on your list?  What’s missing from Aaron’s list?

Teaching Creativity

Amanda Williams-Yeagers has written a number of guest blog posts on the Shift. She is also leading the HDSB Empower Book Talk.

Jordie Burton has also written a guest blog post on the Shift. He is an Art Educator passionate about creativity and design thinking. Amanda and Jordie have teamed up with other HDSB educators to use an innovation grant to delve into teaching creativity and design thinking in our schools.

Sir Ken Robinson begins his famous 2006 Ted talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by speaking about the evidence and the range of human creativity. He also begins by talking about the uncertainty of the future. The irony of this, is that this brilliant talk took place twelve years ago.

Today we are still wondering what the future will look like and we are still hoping to prepare our students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. We are also curious about the range and extent of human creativity:

What is the definition of creativity? What environment is conducive to creativity for learners? How can we create an environment that nurtures rather than undermines creativity? How can we support our learners to become comfortable with making mistakes?

Sir Ken continues to say that one of the greatest issues in education is that we educate people out of creativity. He captures this when he says that students,

“have become frightened of being wrong. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

While recognizing that this was said twelve years ago, we are left wondering if this is something that still exists in education today. In fact, we have a number of questions about creativity that are grounding our inquiry. We are using a design thinking approach to ask the questions, “How can we improve students ability to learn to be creative?” “How can we empower students to identify themselves as creative?” and “How can we change a single story of student’s self-image to the untold story of limitless potential?”

Our first investigation has led us to investigate a broader definition of the concept of creativity. The organization Creativity at Work defines creativity as “the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality” and that if you have ideas but do not act on them, you are imaginative, not creative. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind says that creativity is “giving the world something it didn’t know it was missing” or as Hugh Howey says “Seeing something that doesn’t exist and then making it so,”. While we continue to work on our broad definition of the concept of creativity, that application of the topic is what matters to us the most.

So, we are putting it out there and asking other educators to support us in our journey and we have lots of questions! We are exploring the idea that creativity has some core elements that can be shared, taught and built. What is the best way to bring that into a classroom? If we want our students to graduate with the ability to think creatively, how do we achieve this? What does teaching “creatively” look like? Are there examples of lessons that explicitly teach creativity? How do we convince our students that everyone has the potential to be creative? 

If you have any ideas, and are willing to help us with our inquiry, please complete this survey and help us by sharing your experiences. We don’t need you to have all of the answers (we don’t either!) we just want you to help us by coming along for the ride.

And with that we leave you with this:

“Creativity is as important now as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

-Sir Ken Robinson

Small Victories
I have been teaching now for over a decade, and I am slowly approaching my 10,000 hours.  I have easily already surpassed 10,000 hours, if you count all the prepping, planning and marking.  So I generally feel that at this point I have a pretty good handle on the classroom.  So it bruises my ego a bit to say that I have a class that is challenging my abilities as a teacher. In fact, I walked into a teacher workroom to loudly declare “I feel like a new practice teacher”!  I have a group of students that struggle with impulse control, focus in class and situational awareness.  This has kept me on my toes, as there are lessons that I have successfully run for years that have gone up in flames this time around.  It has forced me to self-assess how I am running a class period and re-think how I deliver my curriculum.  

The one thing that has helped me through is by reaching out for ideas and support from colleagues.  When I was a newer teacher, I used to think that it was a sign of weakness if I admitted things weren’t going well in my class.  As a result, I probably vented at home to my partner more than I should have and didn’t seek advice and support in school as much as I could have. This time around, I have reached out to other teachers that teach some students, sought out strategies from the Spec. Ed department, and yes, vented to other teachers when it wasn’t going well (every other day or so, thanks Jamie).

Using advice from colleagues, rethinking curriculum delivery, working hard to really understand the learners in my class and keeping a firm hold on maintaining the community building in the classroom have all helped turn things around.  I celebrate the little wins when I can, and the moments of connection I can make with students.  Today, I applied a strategy given to me by my colleague (thanks Mitch!) and it worked: give students an opportunity to be active FIRST, get out of the class for something, then return to class and tackle one task.  So we did just that, we took advantage of a nice sunrise (there are benefits to having a photography class first period in the day!) and ran outside with our cameras to capture the orange-pink sky and the epic clouds.  Coming back together, we all learned a new creative edit in Photoshop, keeping lockstep with each other and helping everyone to stay at the same pace.   We left with the whole class learning a new technique that they didn’t before and all students were on an even playing field.  They all “got it”.  I left the period with a little bounce in my step, thankful for the small victories.

Ignite the Spark
Last year, Halton was able to send 25 teachers to the 2017 OAME Conference.  There was lots of good learning and discussions during the three day conference.  What many realized was that there wasn’t much of a secondary conversation after the conference.  People were inspired, but what was lacking was a way to share that inspiration with other teachers in the board.

Enter Janet Juby and Laura Gatey, who were inspired enough to propose a Halton Mini-Conference in order to promote sharing.  Part of this mini-conference was a series of Ignite talks.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, participants get 20 slides that auto advance after 15 seconds, giving you five minutes to speak about one topic.

Constructing an Ignite talk is a challenge, as you are forced to be very purposeful with what you decide to share.  I spent my five minutes speaking about Risk Taking and why I think encouraging our students to be risk takers is so important.

I was much more inspired by the other nine Ignite speakers.  I was left with a list of things I want to learn more about.

Tammy Knetchel validated my feelings about Interleaving and Spiralling.  She made me wonder what Interleaving might look like in other subject areas.

Erin Kinsella spoke about the need for Wellness in our classrooms.  The more I explore the ideas of Wellness, the more I see it is linked closely to Community Building.

Stephanie Briggs shared a story about her teaching philosophy and her desire to convince others that thinking is always greater than memorizing.

Lindsay Kueh nailed a talk about coding in math classrooms.  She made me want to diver back into coding and find ways to incorporate it into my classrooms.

Sheri Hill asked us why we are so excited about Fridays and asked how we can use play to engage our classrooms.

Todd Malarczuk encouraged us to jump on and off the various educational bandwagons at will.  Find the things that work for you, leave the other things behind and grow your own personal pedagogy.

Virginia Houston told the group about having students build their own Escape Room and show off their own learning by creating something.

Aaron Neal speaking for Michael Szarka, who was absent due to illness, stepped in and improvised a talk from Michael’s slides.  He did a great job convincing us that it’s ok to ask What If?

Matt Coleman joined the math world for a day and talked how we can gain longer periods of time with our students by Hacking the School Day.

What I really loved about the Ignite talks was how everyone focussed on personal inspiration, the teacher’s journey, their philosophy, their “why”, and not necessarily a strategy.   Passion was on display all day long!
No, I'm Not Listening
Students say the best things when they think I’m not listening.  It’s pretty funny actually, if not more than a little frustrating.  Students can be having excellent conversations about mathematics but as soon as I come over to listen they get just a little bit self-conscious and the conversation ends.

I’ve gotten really good at listening from far away.

We’ve been dabbling in project based learning with our grade nine academic classes this semester.  After our first project, we introduced our students to Dandy Candies.  This activity has been around for awhile.  I first was introduced to it at the 2015 OAME conference when Dan Meyer ran it with a packed room.  Since then, I’ve used this activity on and off with my classes, but never as a project.

The premise is pretty simple, show students the video of a preset number of small cubes assembling into packages (prisms) of various dimensions.  Then ask them some questions about what they’ve seen.

“What do you notice?”
“What do you wonder?”

As the person responsible for steering the conversation, I try my best to guide them to the questions I really want them to ask.  Except this time my thunder was stolen!  Apparently, after doing only one previous project, at least one student in the room was wise to my plan.

“I bet Mr. Mitchell wants us to figure out which arrangement uses the least wrapping paper”, said one student.  The entire classroom kind of gasped and went quiet.  Then there was an explosion of conversation at each table group.  This is a win.  Here I thought I’d have to trick my class into asking the right questions.  Somehow, they did it for me.

We spent a week playing with Math Cubes, calculating surface area and preparing a final report on which arrangement of 48 and 128 cube sized candies would need the least wrapping paper or in math speak, had the least surface area.  Then we spent the following week diving deeper into Surface Area and Volume calculations.  Students showed us their understanding in different ways.  It was fun!

It has now been 7 weeks of project based learning and curriculum wise, the grade nine team was all over the map, covering linear relations and geometry without having developed some of the other tools that would make solving these problems easier.  This was on purpose, we were creating a need in our students for them to ask us for better tools.

Up to this point, I haven’t once mentioned the word algebra to my class.  But it was time to introduce them to some more formal methods of problem solving.  Todd Malarczuk provided us with a simple mini project to drive home the need for algebra.

Students were presented with some pictorial representations of different algebraic equations.  You’ve probably seen these puzzles floating around your Facebook feed.  You may have even witnessed some of the arguments that they create.  Well, it wasn’t surprising that the same thing happened with our students, arguments everywhere!  Yet as I roamed around the room observing how the students were working, listening but not listening, I heard some comments that convinced me this was working.

“Drawing apples in my notes isn’t very easy.”
“If a bushel of bananas is four, do we need to know what one banana equals?”
“I wish there was an easier way to do this”

We had created a need in our students for something more efficient.  They wanted to know how to calculate what a coconut equaled, without us having to convince them that they needed algebra.  It was difficult, but by giving students the time to struggle; to try and fail and learn, we had created a community where risk taking was valued.  It wasn’t taboo to ask questions about the math we were learning or wonder about where we were headed.  Students owned their own learning, without us having to tell them that the learning was important.
From Why to Barbie Bungee
Back when I started down this ever Shifting road, I learned that good Innovation starts with identifying a WHY.  Why might I want to let students access technology in class?  Why is building a positive classroom culture so important?  I spent the summer thinking about the direction I wanted to take my classes this semester and why I wanted to take them that way.  Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up my thinking pretty well.

I’ve noticed that try as I might, the students I encounter lack a spirit of creativity.  It seems that many times they would prefer to be presented with the answer rather than seek out an answer on their own.  Thinking is difficult.  Many students say they enjoy learning, but that the stress of grades and assessments turn passion into anxiety.

I want to change that.

In May, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators (OAME) annual conference in Kingston.  I saw lots of great pedagogy that has been put into action and enjoyed many great conversations about how we can move our practice forward.  I felt empowered to try something new and with the course team at my school, we decided to forge ahead with some project based learning in our Grade 9 Academic Math classes.

The course team decided to start with a week of community building, because nothing pumps the brakes harder on curiosity than a week of prerequisite skills worksheets followed by a quiz.  We had fun and laughed by playing team pictionary on our first day of class.  We did some problem solving activities around the game Skyscrapers.  We debated how tasty a banana really is by playing around with Desmos Pomegraphit.  We ended the week by playing Battleship and talking about situations when plotting points might be important.

All in all, in four days we didn’t do much traditional math but the class was primed for our first project, Barbie Bungee.  This is a project that has made the rounds with math teachers for years.  I had heard about it, but never had the chance to try it with a class of my own.

The premise is simple: tie an elastic around Barbie’s legs, drop her, measure how far she drops, add an elastic and repeat.  Then figure out how many elastics are needed for a very high drop and try to get Barbie as close to the ground as possible.

On Day 1 we started with a Desmos Activity followed by a teaser video of some Barbie’s not having much fun.  

We polled the class with various questions: What do you notice?  What do you wonder?  Doing this allowed us to slowly introduce the project and steer the class into asking the real questions:  What makes the “best” Barbie Bungee?  We ended class by defining the “best” bungee as being the one that takes Barbie as close to the ground as possible without physically touching the ground.

On Day 2 we pushed forward by asking students to sketch what a relationship between the number of elastics and the distance Barbie falls might look like.  This prompted some good discussion on what we expected to happen with our Barbies as we added more elastics.  Then it was time for the actual challenge to start.  Without leaving the classroom, students had to build bungee cords for their dolls so that they could be safely dropped from the top of the doorframe.  It was a bit of a disaster, but the teaching team expected that.  Our students hadn’t really been shown the tools to be successful at this activity.  We were, to borrow a phrase, “creating a headache” so that students would feel the need for the math.

After watching our students attempt this initial challenge with no real plans, we pushed pause on Day 3 and did a more formal type of lesson.  We reminded our students about Scatter Plots, and discussed some ways they could use this concept to help them with their Barbies.

No Barbies were harmed...
Given this knowledge, we started Day 4 with a better plan.  Students knew to start small, measure the distance Barbie falls with one band, then two bands, then three and try to find a pattern.  We wanted our students predicting, given that we had not yet told them the real height of our Bungee Jump.  By the end of the period all groups were ready to test their Barbies and were told that the drop on the last day of this activity would be 520cm, or 5.2 meters, or two stories.

Day 5 was the big day, a time to test our students calculations in the real world.  There was a lot of excitement and smiles.  Perhaps not surprisingly, there wasn’t much anxiety.  This was, for all intents and purposes, a test of the students work and knowledge over the past week, yet none of our students approached it this way.  They were eager to have their Barbie’s jump, and disappointed when we told them they couldn’t refine their bungee cord after their failure.  And there were many failures.  

The point of this project wasn’t really to build the “best” Barbie Bungee.  The point was to get kids excited about math class, to get them to think about math class, and to let them have some fun in math class.

At the end of the week the students had learned a lot by doing.  They’ve explored scatter plots, collected data, and made informal lines of best fit.  They were assigned to visibly random groups at the beginning of the week and met people they wouldn’t have otherwise worked with.  

Could my class do well on a formal test about scatter plots and lines of best fit?  Probably not at this point in the course, but this is why I reject testing as a sound form of evaluation.  When a student completes a test and fails, what have they learned?  When students dropped their Barbie’s and they hit the floor, what have they learned?  I’d argue that students that have iterated their way through the bungee jump project have learned much more from their own failures than those who fail a test.  From my point of view we brought some joy into our curriculum and lets students learn through a bit of discovery.  It’s working for us so far!

So that’s my why, what’s yours?
Reasons why we #LoveMyHaltonSchool
There are lots of reasons.

But today, we don't want to list our reasons for why we #LoveMyHaltonSchool.  We'd rather highlight someone else's reason.

Melissa Hickey is an English Teacher at Aldershot High School.  She tried something new this semester that allowed her students to explore their own strengths.  Here are her thoughts:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…

Grade 12 College English students at Aldershot High School were given an assignment: Write an original horror story, then turn that story into an original short horror film.  Students were assigned the task of creating an original short story based on common horror tropes and elements that were covered in class.  Students created script versions of their stories, and storyboards to refer to when the actual filming took place.  It was not only an exercise in creativity, but also in collaboration and innovation, as the grade 12 students were expected to problem solve the details like location, props, costumes, make-up and sound-effects/music scores to make the ideal films.  

But we didn’t stop there.

The next phase of this project was to bring their original short films to the big screen.  

We are fortunate to have a theatre like so close by, as they were more than willing to work with the films the students created and show them on the big screen at their movie theatre.  Students completed their movies, and the files were converted to play at the theatre.  On April 27, the Grade 12 College English class from Aldershot high school got to walk the red carpet and attend the premieres of their own films.  Students got to see the actual products that they created.  They were able to literally see themselves reflected in their learning opportunities, and in the end result of their class assignments.

Thando D. one of the students in the grade 12 College English class, said that he thoroughly enjoyed the assignment, and added that “it was cool to learn how to actually make a movie, and then see my original story come to life on the big screen.  I was the writer, the director and the lead actor in my own production.  That’s cool.”


Students really got the chance to explore their strengths and work together to create the final project.  For those who preferred not to be onscreen, they had the opportunity to focus on make up, hair, and set design.  Everyone had the chance to contribute to their films.  

This was truly an experience to remember, and an innovative project that will continue to evolve with every new class.

~Melissa Hickey

We have the opportunity to explore new ideas with our classes. And that's our #1 reason for why we #LoveMyHaltonSchool!
Call to Action #2 - Twitter Challenge
On June 1st, the Halton District School Board wants to celebrate some of the great things that happen in our schools and community.  The medium for this celebration?  Twitter and the hashtag #LoveMyHaltonSchool.  If you are reading this and are already using twitter, we think that is great!  If you haven’t had a chance to try out twitter yet, or are reluctant to jump into the world of social media, allow us a moment to try to convince you to join the conversation.

We want you to create your own professional twitter account.  We also want you to know that it is ok to sign up for twitter and never tweet a thing.  Being passive in an online community is a great way to be introduced to the ins and outs of the community…and what a community it is!  There are so many educators using twitter, and their practice is enhanced by the sharing that goes on in this space.

So here is our next Call to Action
  • If you use twitter, send out a tweet on June 1st identifying something you’d like to celebrate about your school.  Use the hashtag #LoveMyHaltonSchool
  • If you don’t use twitter, consider signing up!  Then send a short message into the void, introduce yourself, jump into the deep end!
  • Follow some Halton teachers who are already on Twitter to widen your network.  You’ll probably find lots to follow if you search for the #LoveMyHaltonSchool hashtag during the day.

Maybe we should slow might be wondering what the heck a hashtag is anyway?

“Hashtags are keywords that categorize what you’re tweeting about. For instance, you might use “#edtech” at the end of a tweet about how your students use tablets. You can also search Twitter for a hashtag that you’re interested in. This will bring up tweets from other users who have tweeted about that topic.”

Still interested?  Here is a short breakdown of some things you might want to know about tweeting.

Are you an educator, inside or outside of Halton, that uses twitter professionally?  We’d love to connect with you, why not post your twitter handle in the comments!
Want to know even MORE???

twitter handle @
This is your Twitter name. You want this to be both memorable and easy to remember. Sure, you can use your first and last name, but there are a lot of Jane Smith’s out there. If your name is taken, use something that identifies you. Ours are, for example, @DFJH_Mitchell and @MrColemanArt Some of our friends include @pjdavison and @Mrs_Newcombe. Short, spelled correctly, and identifiable is key.
A 140-character public message.
News Feed
twitter home
The home button gets you to your news feed. This is a constantly updated list of everyone you choose to follow. Occasionally you might see promoted tweets too (meaning someone paid Twitter to get seen).
twitter #hashtag
The pound sign before text means that the text can be searched. This is really useful. If you want to find everyone talking about innovative things in Halton you throw the hashtag on the front, and you can find any tweet that someone put #HDSBInnovates in. They can also be used for humor. #MitchellRocks #TwitterIsCool
DM (Direct Message)
All tweets are public and can be seen by anyone at any time unless you use a direct message. A DM means that the conversation is only between you and the other person (or people) in your message.
RT (Retweet)
twitter retweet
Anyone can repost your tweet, which is similar to quoting you. Your name is still attached, but everyone who follows the re-poster can now see your tweet too. This is usually done as a form of agreement or flattery.
Hit the heart when you want to say you like a tweet, or agree with it.
Quote Tweet
twitter quote
Quote was formerly a MT, or Mention. You can attach an original tweet to yours and add your own commentary.
twitter notifications
When someone mentions your handle, or retweets what you wrote, you will get a notification. You can choose if you get text alerts, emails, or phone notifications in your settings.

What Can You Do With This?
I hate end of period bells.  #Observe’em observation day and the Most Likely To Succeed film gave me a lot to think about how the school day can be structured.  I don’t know if we can get rid of them entirely, but I’ve been working on playing with a timetable that offers some flexibility, as well as some opportunities to go deeper and longer in a class period.  What are your thoughts on this one? Pros? Cons?  Would love to hear your ideas and feedback!

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Water the Lawn, Ignore the Weeds
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I wish I could +1 an image
I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators conference in Kingston this past week.  I plan on blogging in detail about my time there, which was amazing!  At one point the #OAME and #OAME2017 hashtags were trending in Canada.  Lots of great sharing was happening, conversations were deep and rich, it was food for the mathematical soul.

Of course, as with all things social media, there were some unhappy voices.  These weighed on me, mostly because I can’t understand why an individual would be called out for mentioning a point that resonated with them.  Our institutions of education grow by sharing, not by shaming.

So this troubled me on the way home Friday night.  It stuck with me Saturday morning until I decided to cut my overgrown lawn.  Distractions are helpful, right?  I wasn’t prepared for my backyard, it was overrun with dandelions and other prickly weeds.  My kids couldn’t play on it without getting bothered.  I had to do something about it.  Out come my weeding tools and after an hour I had a nice pile of compost for the brown bag and I was ready for the lawnmower.  As I was mowing, I was noticing that there were even more weeds hiding under the surface of the grass, waiting to explode onto the scene.  Back to weeding!  Attack, attack, attack!

Clearly adding value to the discussion here

It was then I realized I was doing it all wrong.  I was spending so much time worried about the weeds, pulling them up today only to see a bunch more sprout tomorrow, that I forgot about tending to the lawn.  There was another way.  I could nurture the grass, water it, feed it, so that it would grow so healthy that it would crowd out any prickly weeds that tried to grow.  Of course a few might take root, but if I ignored them and focused on the lawn itself, they would spread much more slowly.

This is, I think, the essence of the OAME community and even the much larger #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog-o-sphere).  Together, we are a lush, healthy lawn.  We value opinions, we encourage discussion, we seek to help those who need it, we offer advice, we nurture, grow and thrive together.  We are the grass of a healthy lawn.  Sure, from time to time there are weeds that like to prick us when we walk on the lawn.  We could spend all of our time attacking those weeds or we can recognize them for what they really are, a pointless distraction.

We are nice people...

So the next time the implication is made that my membership in the OAME means I don’t care about the welfare of the next generation, or that my teaching style "dumbs" down learning standards I’ll just turn away from the weeds and water my lawn.
Teaching and Learning with Desmos
Me and my math classmate and helper Nikolina
The other day, Jamie asked whether I wanted to become a student again for a math period.  All for it, I grabbed my laptop (as I was told I needed it), and ran for the portable.  You see, Jamie was doing a little recording of Stephanie Briggs’ Grade 10 math class for the upcoming OAME (Ontario Association for Mathematics Education) conference, where Briggs will be presenting on teaching using Desmos with Todd Malarczuk. I had heard of Desmos, the online graphing calculator, because well, Jamie won’t ever stop talking about it!  As an art teacher, I never really knew what he was always so excited when Desmos was mentioned. So here was my chance to see what all the fuss was about.

I settled into a group, hoping that my new math classmates might help guide me through the period.  I have to say, it is a little intimidating diving back into high school math, not having done so SINCE high school *cough* a few years ago.  Briggs introduced the day’s topic quadratic equations in vertex form and did a quick review of standard form and factored form.  I calmly wrote down the equations that she was putting on the board and pretended to follow along.  Really though, I was panicking a little because right from the top, I was lost.  I didn’t know what the formulas were supposed to do, and even what all the letters in the formula meant.  I sidled up to my new math pal, Nikolina, praying that she could help, and she was great.  She quietly explained the formulas we had just written down.

Next, Desmos!  Students seemed excited to get started and they were ready, devices in hand.  We were doing “marble slides” , where you were trying to create the shape of the parabola so that marbles slide down the parabola and pass through stars.  Kind of a like a phone game, but with MATH! The only problem was, I had no idea how to manipulate the formula to alter the shape of the parabola, and we weren’t given specific instructions on what to do.  Frozen, and unsure how to proceed, it wasn’t until I confirmed with my seatmates that it was ok to just start stabbing in numbers and see what happened.  Trial and error, look for patterns, trial and error, look for patterns...  Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn.  Now I was starting to get it!  A little journey of self-discovery, which is why Briggs didn’t tell us what to do.  Brilliant!  Slowly I figured out what would happen when I changed the numbers and how it affected the parabola.
Then, all of a sudden, Stephanie Briggs paused the activity for all of us.  We were locked out! There was a chorus of collective groans from the students because they were so engaged and invested in what they were doing! With the class’ full attention again, she did a quick revisit of the formulas we were using, asking about what we had learned so far about how the numbers in the formula affected the parabola.  It was an interesting and effective use of a pause in the activity!  After consolidating our thoughts on the process so far, gleaning a bit more understanding in the process, she un-paused the activity, allowing us to get back into sending marbles through our parabola slides.  I was getting the hang of this, starting to gain confidence and have fun with it.  Not bad progress seeing as I was blindly stabbing in numbers only a few minutes earlier. Briggs was constantly circulating through the room checking in with each group individually during the activity.  The whole goal of the activity was for us to discover and develop what vertex form was, which for me and students at my table group, seemed to be sticking a lot more than if we were just told what vertex form was.  

Stephanie Briggs circulating and helping students through the Desmos activity
All in all, it was an insightful window into Math exploration.  I found it a little like the math equivalent of getting a new type of paints that I’d never used before and just going for it and seeing what happens.  I don’t recall that kind of open ended exploration and play in my math classes.  Students are definitely better for it.  Thanks to Ms. Briggs for the lesson, now I can see why they get so giggly and excited every time Desmos is mentioned!

If you want to play Marbleslides yourself you can go here.
If you feel like exploring some of the other Activities provided by Desmos, head over here.
If you want some Desmos activities, organized by course, to use in your class, head over here.