Monthly Archives: March 2013

Daily Student Blog Reflections: I’m Learning, Can They?

My Observation

I have learned SO much this year from blogging and (especially) from reading blogs.  Well, if I’ve learned so much through this specific kind of reflection, shouldn’t my students be able to learn from it?  I’ve seen websites that mention blogging for students, but I never really considered what the students should blog about that would be worthwhile, especially in math.

My Problem

One thing I’m really bad about are “summary activities”.  My previous AP explained to me that if students’ minds are like boxes, then ticket-outs (or some other summary activity) at the end of the period are the keys which “lock the box and keep the information inside”.  I’m not so sure about the metaphor, but I do know that if I could encourage students to reflect and/or think about the lesson in its entirety at the end of each period, their recall ability the next day would most likely increase.

A Solution

So why not kill 2 birds with one stone?  Have students reflect AND think about the entire lesson through blogging?  Right now my tentative plan, when we return from spring break, is to have students get the iPads the last 5 minutes of class (we’ll begin with the last 10 minutes until they get the hang of blogging–oh, and I’ll have to give them class time Monday to set up their blogs).

Initially, I put this idea into the filing cabinet of “going to try next year”, but that’s getting over-stuffed, and I think students this year could benefit right away.  One comment I received back was “create more opportunities for Participation Points“.  I guarantee that students will complain “it’s not worth it!” for the amount of points I’ll give them, but they just want my class to be easier and I’m not going to give in to that silly nonsense.

My Example

I quickly created an example blog using blogger and my Google account (to make sure this is something that can be done quickly), and I created a series of posts where I gave examples of differing quality posts.  Because posting simply accumulates PPs for the students, they have the freedom to choose the frequency and the quality of their posts.  I’ll require them blog for one week so they can see how fast and easy it will be to accumulate PPs this way, however, students will still have the chance to decide what they want to do long-term.  Here’s the blog that took me 5 minutes to create (but then about an hour to come up with the examples)

Which Blogging Software?

Blogger was fast and easy to setup on the iPad.  Edublog looks nice, but when I tried creating a blog on the iPad, it wouldn’t pass the “prove you’re not a robot test” because the Edublog app and Safari weren’t communicating well. also has a nice app, but it looks more built for professional bloggers, and I really just want my students to get their feet wet.  One last option is for students to use the blogging software that is built into their Weebly websites, which they are using for their Senior Portfolios at our school; however, I don’t want them to confuse their Senior Portfolio with their math class blog, but I think I will offer that as an option for some of the students.  I won’t really care to monitor these blogs in the sense that I need to have editing authority over them–I simply need a fast way of checking for recent posts, which I can do using e-mail subscription and my “throw-away” e-mail account.

Are there any other suggestions for blogging software out there?

Other Positives

One other thing I thought of as I was doing this, was I should get fewer “what did we do the day I was absent?” since students will be able to access each other’s blogs through my website.

If students want to study for tests, they can always go back to the blogs, which in many cases might (fingers crossed) be better than their notes.

If you’ve had students keep a blog in your math or science class, please let me know about it so that I can check them out and get more ideas (or be aware of possible pitfalls!).

Here’s my teacher website’s introduction of the blogging idea to my students.  We’ll see how many bite!

Oh, and I think I’m going to require that they use the word “Adventure” or some synonym in the title of their blog.  Perhaps this will help them realize that this is what they should be on in math class: an Adventure!


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Positive Feedback: Encouraging Mistakes

Students in my class recently took an evaluation of me as a teacher, run by our principal, and one interesting feedback I received went as follows:

Sometimes overly gratuitous, although a necessary by-product of higher involvement.

think I know what the student is trying to say here: he/she/it is saying that I’m overly positive or too eager to give praise.  I also think that they see that as essential for having an engaged and “involved” class.  Or maybe that’s me as a teacher thinking about it from an analytical teacher perspective.

Too Much Praise

So is there such a thing as too much praise?

If I were a parent, I could be worried about “you participated–let’s give you an award” problem that many parents have.  But can that problem occur in class?  I suppose if the praise isn’t merited or deserved then your praise would become commonplace and useless.

One Positive + Negative

When I do have to give criticism or negative feedback to students’ suggestions, I find that I often try to focus on pointing out any possible positives as well as making sure they know they are wrong.

“Oh, I can see exactly why you might think that–it’s a good idea, but I think you made one little mistake.”

“Ooh, that’s a great point!  We hadn’t discussed drawing force diagrams yet, so great job being creative!  But does anyone see a possible problem with that?”

This kind of talking reminds me of one of my graduate school classes in education where a professor talked about writing “Lincoln Letters” any time you needed to write to a parent, or even an administrator or fellow colleague.  A “Lincoln Letter” is a letter where you are trying to say or ask something difficult from someone, but you couch the criticism or negative stuff inside of a lot of positive language.  I’ve used this kind of thinking when writing e-mails to parents with children who do little to no work in class, or who speak out:

“Yes, so-and-so has great social skills!  I just wish that they directed those social skills outside of my class and focused more on their math rather than what happened over the weekend.”

Encouraging Mistakes

I think the biggest reason I’ve been focused on adding something positive in class when students make mistakes is that I want to encourage students to be risk-takers in class.  Okay, so I suppose I’m not encouraging mistakes, I’m encouraging them taking risks and admitting the possibility that they will make mistakes.

When I ask them, students will tell me that (outside of assessments) mistakes are a good thing to make, recognize, and learn from.  However, when I ask a question, many students are still hesitant to look “foolish” in front of their peers by making a mistake.

It’s so easy to blame their education up til now, and I am mostly thinking of seniors in HS when I have this problem (seniors who had me last year… oops), so I’m working against 15 or so years where mistakes may have been more frowned upon than what I’m doing, but I can and should continue to look for ways to help them become intellectual risk-takers.

And I’m definitely starting some, if not all, of my classes with the marshmallow challenge.


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Whiteboarding: Getting Students to “Read Your Mind”

Okay, so title is a lie.  I used to hate it when teachers ask those questions looking for a specific word, and then the crickets start cause of the silence of the classroom.  I hope I am quick to jump in and correct myself, usually once I realized I’ve asked that kind of question.  This activity had me feeling a little like that, but since I was flexible, I think it worked out okay in the end.

First, we defined “insulator” and “conductor”, so they had they words, but they were definitely lacking the ideas.  We then proceeded through three PhET Electricity & Magnetism Simulations.  At each simulation, I asked them to write down observations on large whiteboards.  I also told them that I had very specific observations that I was looking for, and when they got one of the observations, I would walk around and mark it with a star from a red marker.  Then, at the end of 5-10 minutes, the group with the most marked observations would win candy (no, I’m not above base motivation).  Students started to realize what I was and was not looking for (“The balloon is yellow”).  At the end of the 10 minutes everyone would read their marked comments and we’d wrap up the discussion with a few specific questions I wanted them to answer.

The activity was good.  Not great, just good.  I liked how it got them talking (this is that really, really quiet class), and they were engaged in the simulations, which was good.  Unfortunately it was less of a “present what you have seen” and more just “read what you found”.  Other students were engaged in their own simulations and had trouble listening to each other (even though at one point I had them close their laptop lids).  With a few modifications, I think this would be a good way to show students Physics ideas and concepts.

Here are the three simulations I used:

Balloons and Static Electricity

John Travoltage

Electric Hockey


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Textbook Adoption Options

This is the year that our school gets (has) to choose math textbooks for the next 7 years.  Even though our school is on so tight a budget crunch that my wife, who teachers in the middle school, was denied a pencil sharpener (true story), we have tens of thousands of dollars coming from the state which if we don’t use, we lose.  And even though I’d rather get technology, supplies, or pencil sharpeners than textbooks, as a Precalculus teacher, I have an option of about 3 or 4 textbooks which are the only direction we can send that money.  Blah.

I use very little textbook in my teaching because I find most textbooks to have this issue, but I feel a duty to select a good textbook because I may or may not be teaching at this position, or even this school, for the next 7 years, and so I want something that my successor can fall back on, especially if they are a 1st year teacher.

So I made a Google Spreadsheet to analyze which textbooks would be good for me, as a Precalculus teacher who is following the previous teacher’s curriculum (now my principal!).  And by “good for me” I mean “good for my students.”

I was shocked by the significant difference between explanations of various textbooks, as well as how good this one “Thinking Mathematically” by Blitzer textbook is.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t cover all of the topics covered by my curriculum, but that won’t be too much of a problem next year as I rarely use the textbook anyways, even for practice problems.  Two things impressed me about this book (not to mention the raving Amazon reviews)–the first is how every chapter, even every section doesn’t start with definitions or even a “this is what this section covers” as so many do.  Instead, every chapter starts with a story, which the author then relates back to the mathematics.  This is how I would like to teach math one day, and I could even assign textbook reading for homework with a book like that!

The second thing impressed me was how the application problems weren’t totally lame.  The first application problem I flipped to was talking about “opium production in Afghanistan”–that definitely catches a HS senior’s attention better than your typical “you want to see how many outfit you could wear with your 3 ties, 2 socks, and 5 button downs…”.

What I find strange is how the Blitzer Precalculus book is not “adopted” by New Mexico, so we can’t use state funds to purchase that book, and I think that would fit the curriculum better, but beggars can’t be choosers.


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Race Across the Room! Activity

Yeah, a lame name, I know, I gotta find a better one.  But all the students were surprisingly really into it!

Okay, so I started the day with the following Dr. Seuss “Sneetches” video. (It was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, so yeah, this was a few weeks ago.)

Not at all related to what we’re doing in math, and only vaguely related to something we did earlier in the year (functions & inverses), but it’s got a good moral to the story, and got them out of the Monday Doldrums (even if it took a little longer than I wanted to at about 12 minutes…).

Then, after a brief discussion of how the video is related to math (see powerpoint below), I explained the rules of the “game”.  Basically, it involves students working on a problem, and when they get it, they bring their answer up to me.  If they got it right, then they can go to the next “station” (aka a folder with a small sheet of paper inside).  If they got it wrong, then they basically gain the ability to ask others who are struggling with the problem.  The first question started on the powerpoint (2nd to last slide), and then they moved to the folders and “stations”.

The carrot in front of them were the participation points (as you can see from the powerpoint above).  First place earns 40 points (they need 100 each week, so that’s a sizeable chunk!), and each place you drop, the people earn 2 points fewer at each interval.  My idea was that the difference was small enough that they wouldn’t strongly want to cheat to get ahead (or pester their friends for help too much), but it’s just enough to motivate every student to start out the problems on their own in the hopes that they can solve them before some, if not all, of their peers.  And I’ve got to say, it actually worked in both of my classes!  I don’t know if it is because they really wanted the participation points, or if they are just naturally good students & hard workers (mostly true…), but they were definitely hurrying around the classroom, trying to get the answers and understand what they had wrong when I told them “nope, try again!”  I was definitely unhelpful, and I was impressed with how little they complained.  Perhaps they’re used to that from me by now? 🙂

This activity didn’t work nearly as well on the second day, where some of them were stuck on the same problem and, with no-one finished yet, they had no-one but unhelpful Mr. Newman to “help” them.  Of course, those students were also on the right track and just making a few mistakes here and there where, if they looked carefully, they easily could have seen what they were doing wrong (for example reading the problem I gave them instead of assuming what it was saying!).  But hopefully they learned their lesson.  Overall, I’d say it was a good review activity, as long as I didn’t burn 20 or so minutes explaining an unrelated activity (for some reason, I forget what I was telling them, but I feel like we didn’t get a full 50 minutes to work on it).


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Participation Points: A Statistical Analysis

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk about Participation Points at the Global Math Conference, and I didn’t receive a whole lot of immediate feedback like I thought I would have.  Perhaps I didn’t explain it well, or perhaps people were fed up with me taking more than my allotted 5-10 minutes, or because of the fact that I was very late due to a Tennis match running late.  Whatever it was, I was expecting tons of questions and got just a few.  One question I’ve been asking myself since I started this, 3/4 of a year ago, was “Will this work?”.  By that, I mean “Am I prompting and creating in students the right kind of study habits to help students learn my material and to help students when they leave my class?”

In an SBG (Standards Based Grading) classroom, students must get the concept of “In order to make a good grade here, I have to show the teacher that I understand.”  I hope that my quizzes and tests motivate that attitude in my students, but I also want my classroom to address those issues that SBG doesn’t directly address (SBG advocates would probably argue that these issues are indirectly addressed, and that this is a better way to do things).

Now that it’s been going on for 3/4 of a year, I have data that could perhaps attempt to answer that question: I can ask the question “Has this been working?” I’ve got a running tally of students’ participation points, test & quiz scores, and overall grade, which I could plot and look for relationships.  I got the idea because in Precalculus, we’ve been going through regression lines and correlations, though now we’re about a week past that, and I have no idea why I didn’t think of this sooner.

The question that this data probably most accurately answers is “If you do Participation Points in my class, will your test & quizzes grade reflect that?” and the more obvious “If you do Participation Points in my class, will your overall grade reflect that?”.  I’ve plotted, on the same graph for convenience and comparison, “Participation Points vs Test & Quiz Grade,” and “Participation Points vs Overall Grade.”

PPs vs Grade

Yes, I showed this to my Precalculus classes, and yes, we had a great discussion not only about what the data means, but what that should mean for a students’ study/work habits in my class.  We also created graphs for their own class, so they could see if the trend was true for just their class.

Now before I go much further, let me warn you that I never took a statistics course until required to by my Education Grad school (I got a BS and an MA in Math without having to take a single statistics course–not even in high school!), and so I suppose this is one part of statistics that I just can’t stand (or I don’t have a good idea about and so act like I can’t stand it).  My question to myself and to my students is “What does this data mean?!?”  We know that R^2 being close 1 means that they are “more correlated” and that is a good thing, but I find that I simply cannot answer the question “Do participation points help me with my test scores?”  Or if I try to answer it, I get some answer like “maybe” or “sort of”.

What’s nice is we can discuss practical things, such as “hey, if you averaged 110 points for Participation Points, then the lowest you would have made is an 89, or a B+!” (Yes, I know I have to be careful with my language because that’s actually not true–just because it was true for students in the past does not mean it would have been true for anyone under any circumstances).  So yes, we discussed a handful of those points and observations, but when it comes down to it in the end, statistics simply cannot answer questions as elegantly as algebra problems can.

There is enough of a correlation there for me to be happy with participation points.  There are far too many variables going into this to expect a 1:1 correlation of Participation Points to understanding.  Often the Participation Points are a way for me to give confidence to those students who do not often experience that in a sit-down, pencil-and-paper assessment such as a test or a quiz, and my hope is that the confidence I am giving them will translate to a better work ethic.

Thoughts, ideas, or questions?  Please, I want feedback on this idea because otherwise I’m an island of teaching out here going in many wrong directions on my own!


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Augmented Reality, Used!

When I first discovered Augmented Reality, my mind was blown.  And yet, I couldn’t think of a good way to incorporate it into any of my 3 classes that couldn’t already be done with other materials.

The other week, however, I think I successfully used the Augment app for the iPad, and I’d like to show what I did.

First off, I saw this awesome video:

I asked my students to watch it for HW.  Of course I had 2 out of 13 watch it. *smacks forehead*

So I showed them all the way up until the guy pulls the feather off the balanced sticks and I ask “okay, so what happens?”

I then have them pull out the iPads and look at a model I created (didn’t take too long, but then again, I’ve been playing with Blender a lot) so they could visualize all of the sticks being balanced with the feather at the end.  If you have an iOS or Android device with a camera, download the Augment app and scan this QR code through the app:

If you don’t have an iPad and your browser, OS, & graphics card all support WebGL (My broswer, OS, & graphics card all supported WebGL, just not together (doh!).  So I had to reboot into Windows 7.  Yay for dual boot.) then click the link below (I’ve been trying to make it interactive?).

Balancing Sticks — Realistic (click to view in 3D)

Balancing Sticks -- Realistic

My students examined the model, went “ooh” and “ahh” as they moved their iPads around to see all the sides of it, and proceeded to look profoundly confused.  At that point, I hinted at things such as “center of mass” and “let’s draw force diagrams on these spots”, and I gave them the following, nearly identical 3D structure, except with red balls at points that I thought they should examine in more detail.  Yes, there are a lot of red balls.  Here’s the QR code and 3D image:

Balancing Sticks — Marked (click to view in 3D)

Balancing Sticks -- Marked

After this, my students drew force diagrams and were able to predict where each of the remaining sticks fell very accurately.  Reflecting on it, I suppose you don’t need a force diagram to figure that out, but the AR sure helped them visualize it, and it was good practice for them sketching force diagrams.

Furthermore, I had initially thought that this was a break from what we had been working on–momentum–but after some reflection, I realized that “Center of Mass” connected the two concepts, and we hadn’t yet talked about Center of Mass in our class!

This lesson turned out to be “eh”, but only because I didn’t spend enough time on what I wanted to be their “end result”.  That and I’m not entirely sure how to teach about center of mass when all we’ve talked about in class are point masses.  On day I’ll feel sufficient as a physics teacher.

I think the AR definitely augmented the lesson (sorry for the pun), but as you noticed, it wasn’t central to the lesson, nor should it have been.  If I required students to create their own, or somehow interact with the AR I created, the students would have missed the point of the lesson.  Instead, I was glad that I stumbled upon this video and then only after much of the lesson was thought out did I realize “hey, I could totally use AR here!”

I’m still going to be on the look-out for better ways to use AR, and hope, one day, to involve students in the creation of the 3D models!

I’d like to thank Jim Pai and Brian Kolins for their fellow nerdy enthusiasm over discovering Augmented Reality.

Notes about technology used:

1. I used this Augmented Reality app to allow students to view these models in “augmented 3D”.

2. I used Blender to create the models, which I then exported to wavefront (.obj) to be able to import into the Augment website in #1. (Actually, I now forget whether I used COLLADE (.dae) or wavefront (.obj) but either should do the trick.)

3. I used Sketchfab to import the 3D model and show it on the blog.  Unfortunately, it seems that does not allow “iframes” which is what is required for it to look like this (simply embedded in the post, rather than just a link).


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