On Curriculum, Part One: What Doesn’t Work

For some reason I feel compelled to write about teaching even though I just quit teaching. Quit? Yes, I resigned from my job this year and am taking a break from teaching high school math. Why did I do it? Honestly, I don’t think I can adequately articulate it, and I don’t owe anyone an explanation, but quite simply, I needed a break. I have a sneaking suspicion that I shall return to teaching again some day (probably sooner than I realize), but in the meantime, I’ve been pursuing some of my other passions and working on acquiring some new skills.

I’m still very interested in being part of the conversation on teaching high school math, and I still use Twitter every day to keep up with it. In fact, I have so much to say on the topic that I figured I might as well blog about it. I hope that blogging will be cathartic for me, helpful to other teachers out there, and helpful for me if/when I return to teaching.

So that was quite an introduction to a post in which I wanted to talk about curriculum.

I’m inspired to write about curriculum because the school where I taught had such a horrible, out-dated curriculum, and it was a huge burden for me. I’m pretty sure the curriculum pre-dated my own high school years, so I was shocked that I was required to teach it to my students. It was the most rote, procedural, and repetitive mathematics that I have ever come across. It made me think of the Cold War era, which I actually don’t really know anything about as I was born after that time, but if I could imagine it, I imagine different countries putting their young people in little school factories to see who could solve equations by hand the fastest.

Such was the imagery in my head because the entire curriculum at my school was built around solving equations algebraically. Here is the procedure for solving quadratic equations. Here is the procedure for solving exponential equations. Here is the procedure for solving trigonometric equations. And so on. Naturally, this led to an incredibly teacher-centered classroom. For each lesson, there were pages of notes that the teacher talked about. Then the teacher did some examples. Then the students were supposed to mimic the teacher exactly on a worksheet of 25 identical problems. It was brutal. I felt so sorry for… everyone involved.

Now, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t teach solving equations. The concept of what it means to solve an equation is a fundamental part of mathematics. During my first year of teaching I quickly realized the lack of conceptual understanding my students had as a result of our pathetic curriculum. Our assessments would be filled with equations to solve, but not a single student could answer the questions: What does it mean to solve an equation? What does it mean if a number is a solution to an equation?

When I discovered this discrepancy, I just felt terrible. Why were we making students do something that they didn’t understand? Hey kids, memorize exactly what the teacher did, regurgitate it on an exam, and then do it again. There’s no need to understand it. Heck, you can get an A+ grade without actually understanding anything. I quickly realized that no genuine learning was happening. It was sad.

My last two years of teaching I incorporated the two italicized questions from above into the first non-review unit almost every day. (Yikes, don’t get me started on how our curriculum wasted the first unit of every year on “review”.) Last year, I finally had more students answer the first one with something along the lines of “find the values that make the equation true” than students who said “IDK” or “get the answer”.

Besides a lack of understanding, our curriculum lacked efficiency and modern technology. Before becoming a teacher, I was first and foremost a mathematician, and I assure you that no mathematician was solving by hand some of the equations we made our students solve by hand. Mathematicians use technology. If I were to come across an equation that I knew I could solve by hand, but that would take me more than 60 seconds, I would turn to my computer or pick up my Iphone and use Wolfram or Desmos to find the solutions and then carry on from there. I don’t waste my precious time doing a rote procedure when a computer can do it so much faster. I spend my time on bigger and better, more important and more relevant mathematical ideas. Our students should be doing likewise.

Again, I’m not saying that students shouldn’t know how to solve equations or that mathematics is purely conceptual. However, telling students to memorize a specific procedure isn’t that important or that useful. Rather, let students explore equations, find methods that work for them, and develop fluency. As they do this, they will acquire and practice important mathematical skills such as: manipulate equations, model with equations, create different representations of equations, and solve equations efficiently.

Finally, this type of curriculum is also very boring. Be silent. Watch teacher. Work in isolation. No creativity. No thinking. No discussion. There is a complete lack of genuine student engagement. Those poor kids. It’s no surprise that so many dislike math/school. And poor teachers! Our curricula can set us up for failure or, at least, prevent us from seeing the successes our classrooms are capable of.

Wow, am I still complaining about my old curriculum? It appears so. I guess I had to get something off my chest. Stay tuned for On Curriculum, Part Two: Making it Better.

Leave a comment

Filed under curriculum

End of 3rd Quarter

Hi everyone.

It’s the end of 3rd quarter, and we’ve got a grading day. Actually half-day. So I thought I should blog since I got the time! No kids! It’s some sort of miracle. I’m fortunate at my school to have a prep period and a department planning period… but during my prep, I can expect to supervise 8 to 10 up-to-no-good-but-so-lovable seniors. Up-to-no-good is definitely putting a positive spin on it. During my plan period, I can expect to supervise two or three accelerated freshmen for whom school comes easy and are mostly bored with it, and two or three sophomores who care, but need me to give them 1-1 tutoring in Geometry.

In short, having some time to myself in my classroom is some sort of miracle. It never happens. Now if only I had something interesting and substantial to blog about.

The kids are the best part of the job though. Forget grading, planning, and prepping. I do what I do because I believe in those little punks. They’re beautiful, lovely, funny, and smart. They deserve the best.

OK, here’s something worth blogging about. I just taught right triangle trigonometry to my Geometry kiddos. I love introducing trig. This year it conveniently followed a similarity unit, so I introduced it with a quick lab measuring sides of triangles and computing SOHCAHTOA ratios. Huh, weird, for any 30 degree angle in a right triangle, the ratio of the opposite side and the hypotenuse is the same. Huh, weird. (Similar triangles, anyone?)

Then we do some boring, but straightforward practice. Then the next class we go on a field trip. I love to advertise this next bit as a field trip, even though we only go down two floors to the Commons.

I start by having them estimate the height of the ceiling in the Commons (we regularly do Estimation180 in Geometry). Then I have them take out their telly-phones and download a free clinometer app. The only issue is the kids who say, “but I don’t have any room on my phone”. Maybe if you deleted some of those dang selfies, kid.

I crappily, but enthusiastically, model what they’re supposed to do. (My teaching career is a work in progress, OK? Year two is better than year one, at least.) I pass out the awesome, giant tape measures that the math department owns. We disperse down to the Commons. Chaos ensues, naturally, but we’re on a field trip in math class, so it’s a good thing. Tape measures are being stretched out, kids are pointing their phones at the ceiling, and most kids are sketching a triangle and writing down some sort of trigonometric equation. It’s my favorite day of the year.

Eventually we return to the classroom. My least-focused kid (one of those with an ADHD star next to his name in Infinite Campus) happily sits down and gets to work solving trig equations. How could he not? I just let him run around the Commons for 10 minutes.

They’re beautiful creatures, ya feel?


8.4 trig lab

8.5 trig invest how high is ceiling (I think this was adapted from something from Tina Cardone @ drawingonmath ??? Not sure. But I definitely stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you all.)

Leave a comment

Filed under fun, Geometry, grading, trig

Why Do We Memorize the Unit Circle?

Let me preface this blog post by saying I teach a “lower-track” Alg 2/Trig class. (The school tries to spin it as “we have many options for math classes, blah, blah, blah, so that students can be successful”, which is great, but it’s also silly not to call it what it is.) Almost all of my students are seniors, and the average student is going to a 2-year college. Some will go to a 4-year college. They’ve got a lot of potential, but they’re not particularly motivated by academics.

So keep in mind I’m thinking of my students, not a group of juniors in Pre-Calculus who will take Calculus AB next year; however I think the following question applies to those students as well.

Why do we make students memorize the unit circle?

Isn’t it more important to understand what the unit circle is? Memorizing a few selected values didn’t help with conceptual knowledge of the unit circle, and I ultimately felt like I was making them memorize it simply because I could. And then I could give them a quiz. I almost feel dirty about it because instead of making sure they actually know what the unit circle is and why it works, I had them memorize a bunch of numbers.

I love trig and love teaching trig, but I’m not sure memorizing the unit circle is helping any of my students actually learn trig.

Any feedback is appreciated! Thanks!


Leave a comment

Filed under FST / Algebra 2, trig

Happy Thanksgiving Week

Listen to them. Love them. Even if you don’t or can’t.

Some random thoughts from today.

I want to get better at differentiating. I have some meager ideas, but it’s a start.

Let them pick which homework problems to do. Assign some level 1, level 2, and level 3 problems, and they pick x of them to do. Any x that they want.

And be really frank about the levels and what they can expect from working at that level. Be direct about everything.

I need more challenges for the upper end. The kids who are bored.

Tell them the minimum requirements and what grade they can expect by doing that.

Get them hyped about level 2, level 3, and beyond. They want to be challenged.

Constantly remind them of positive behaviors. If you want to be an A student, do this. Or just tell them to pretend to be an A student even if they’re not.

I want to get better at soliciting responses. I want to get better at letting them do the talking.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Note on Equity

Yesterday one of the guidance counselors sent out an email asking for nominations of a sophomore student to send to a leadership conference. This student was supposed to demonstrate leadership and contribute positively to the school community.

I thought about who to nominate. A student who immediately jumped to the front of my mind was a black male who fits the criteria and is an awesome person in general. He’s kind of quiet though, so I wasn’t sure whether to nominate him or not. I ended up not nominating anyone and decided to let other teachers make the nominations.

Today the guidance counselor sent out the list of nominated students. The black male mentioned above was on the list. I immediately thought, oh, good , I’ll vote for him.

Then I saw another name on the list, a white male, who I have in class this year. I didn’t think of him yesterday, but he is a great leader, and I am so thankful to have his positive influence in my classroom.

So, of course, the typical internal debate ensued. Do I vote for the black kid or the white kid? Does the black kid “need” my vote more? Is this an opportunity that he might not get elsewhere?

I went back and forth for quite awhile, and then started scanning other names on the list. Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps I was having the wrong debate. I was so stuck on racial equity, but what about gender equity? How come I immediately focused on two males for a leadership conference?

I am regularly in disbelief (and sometimes in shock) about the lack of women in leadership positions, yet here I was debating between two male students to send to a leadership conference. Although I immediately considered racial inequity, I almost didn’t even acknowledge gender inequity. Weird. This made me wonder if I am somehow influenced by societal norms about men assuming leadership positions.

Once I came to this realization, I completely changed tactics. I recognized many female students on the list and quickly settled on one who I think is, and will continue to be, a great leader and positive role model.

She happens to be white, but I’m completely satisfied with my choice.


Leave a comment

Filed under conversations, culture

Take Aways from Green Lake

Yesterday I had the good fortune of attending the Wisconsin Math Council Conference for the first time, and it was a lovely experience.

I went with my colleague who is also a first year teacher, and we ended up in some really great sessions.

My favorite session was definitely Get Up and Move, which was exactly how it sounds. I learned some great new strategies for getting kids out of their seats and moving, including Bucket Sort, Musical Math, Relay Race, and Clue. I think my kids sit too much, and I want to get better at doing fewer, chunked activities rather than long work times, so doing a practice activity where they’re out of their seats and moving sounds like a win-win.

I also went to Jo Boaler’s keynote. I’ve been following Boaler’s work for awhile now, so I didn’t really learn anything new, but her presentation was so lovely and her message so true. I can’t agree with her more, and I hope to see a major shift in mathematics education soon that encompasses her ideas on mindset, mistakes, and success in the math classroom.

One session that I wish would have existed is lesson planning or unit planning. I feel like maybe I should have learned that in teacher school, but whatever. I want to get better at planning.

Leave a comment

Filed under collaboration, conversations, Uncategorized

Fun with Expected Value

I just taught expected value in FST and really enjoyed it. The two main tasks I used were: The Carnival Candy Game and Dan Meyer’s Money Duck.

The Carnival Candy Game

You’re at a carnival and you get to pick one piece of candy from a bag. The color candy you draw determines how much money you win. I used starbursts, and I set it up like so:

starburst data as jpg

The students didn’t win money; rather they won that many starbursts. (I had a different bag of starbursts for prize winnings because I made sure that the candy drawn was replaced each time to keep the probabilities the same for everyone.)

This was enjoyable because naturally all the kids wanted to pick the purple one. Not surprisingly, most picked pink, yellow, or red, but I have 45 FST students (two classes), and the 44th student did pick the purple one.

Then I asked them to calculate the expected value for their prize winnings when playing this game.

Then I said, suppose it costs $5 to play this game. What does that mean for the player? What does it mean for the carnival game host?

Money Duck

Love the Money Duck. The students were very engaged by the idea of the money duck. I basically followed Dan Anderson’s lesson plan for this one. Like Dan’s students, and as I commented on his post, my students also wanted to determine the possible/impossible distributions based on what they saw in the video instead of in theory. I slightly fixed that in my second class by stopping the video after the first $1 money duck, explaining that the video was made up, and stressing that we were interested in what is possible, not necessarily what the company actually does.

Like Dan, I had my students come up with company names, probabilities, and price. They then had to compute expected value and their profit. I also compiled the data in a spreadsheet, but didn’t really do anything with it, unfortunately. If I did it again I would like to have the students do some more sharing and comparing between groups.

money duck groups jpg

I definitely recommend both tasks.

And then things got even better. Today was the grand opening of a new Cabela’s nearby my school, so several of my male seniors told me how they all skipped class this morning (well, some of them probably had open campus 1st period… I hope) to get in line at the new store because the first 500 customers received a gift card up to $500. One of them said, “But Ms. Cummins, they didn’t tell us how many were for $500″. It turned out that they all got $10 gift cards except for one who got a $25. It was perfect. I told them I was going to write a test question about that.


Leave a comment

Filed under FST / Algebra 2, fun, probability