Monthly Archives: September 2014

3 Acts: Volume of a Box

I’ve done this activity before, but I can’t seem to remember whether I’ve blogged on it. Here’s the gist of it (with pictures!).

  1. Ask students if they can make a box out of 8.5 x 11 paper. Give them paper, scissors and stapler (or tape).Paper Box
  2. Once they’ve made the boxes, ask the students (or let them ask) “What’s the biggest possible box with an 8.5 x 11 paper?”
  3. Let them make guesses first (way too high, way too low, just right).Guesses
  4. Point out that we should get a bunch of trials and have students, as a class, decide which boxes to make (students select which box they’ll make which is different from other students. Have students make one box each to contribute to the table.Stack of Boxes
  5. Plot these on Desmos. Then put the boxes on the board so we see what each of the points represents.Boxes on the board
  6. Talk with students about equation for volume. Have some students provide the equation.Table and Equation for Boxes
  7. Plot the equation and click on Desmos for the maximum (this is Precalculus, not Calculus). Acknowledge who was the closest and have students write down what they learned.Boxes on the board with equation


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Practice Logs

After going to Rick Wormeli’s conference on SBG, and after reading Tina’s post on Goal Setting, I was challenged to give my students the ability to grow on their own. In previous years I had participation points, but Rick convinced me of the “fluffiness” of those[1], so I’ve done away with them this year. However, I was convinced that students need to keep track of their practice habits and their own grade (without having to go online). So I created the practice log. See my Chemistry Practice log below:

At the start of the year we talk about ways to study, and I provide them with my website, which has a page for each standard and lots of study and practice stuff for them on each page.

Seemingly unrelated event: I got my first smartphone for my birthday at the start of the year. I use it to take pictures of students’ practice logs every 2 weeks so that I have a point of discussion with the students and (if necessary) with their parents. I try to tell them a few times a week “everyone take out your practice log and fill it in with anything you’ve done lately!”  Students could lie and say they’re doing stuff when they’re not, but since it’s not for a grade, I don’t think that’s too big of a worry. Furthermore, it would be readily evident if they weren’t doing the thing they said they were doing (“So where’s this worksheet you claim to have completed?”) and it’s more for the students’ benefit (“You have been studying these types of things, let’s look at a more effective use of your time.”).

Since I’m (almost) following the nice and neat format of one standard a week, it’s a rhythm that, I think, students appreciate. It’s easy to know where we’re supposed to be and what you can be working on at this moment. Here are some examples of students’ practice logs 7 weeks in.

As you can see, some students are better about keeping up with their grades and practice than others. The “Pretest” and the “Checkup” are multiple choice quizzes that don’t affect a student’s grade. I leave my iPad on at the front of the classroom and they scan their little quarter-sheet of bubbles using GradeCam. Then the quizzes are 1, 2, or 3 (no, 2/3 isn’t 66%… one day I’ll blog about it), and I take the most recent grade. So their grade for each standard is at the very bottom of that column.

The hope is that this empowers students to take more control of their learning, but I can definitely get better at this. One thing I can do is talk with students individually more about their practice sheets. Or I could reference it in e-mails or phone-calls home. I do neither of these things. But the structure is there and the students are getting used to it–I just need to reach out now.

How do you empower students to take control of their own learning?



[1] These participation points were me giving a grade for effort alone. It obscures the grade that is supposed to represent how much knowledge & understanding the student possesses at any given time, which is one ideal of SBG.

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Augmented Reality: Exploring the Gold-Foil Experiment

This summer I stepped up the Augmented Reality aspect of my classroom by making a few more models that I thought would help with understanding Chemistry. One of these models I haven’t written about but may be my most fun yet is my model of the Rutherford Gold Foil experiment. Here’s a link to the model, and the slow-motion version of the model.

Below is an image which acts as a marker AND the item you can scan to get the model (pretty awesome, if you ask me!). I tried to make one for the slow-motion version, but it wasn’t distinct enough, so I’m going to have to work on that if I still want to use the slow-mo version.


To use this tool, just download the augment app (iOS or Android), click “scan”, and view the image above.

My gut reaction was to show the cool model and have students figure out what the model meant. But that would be too open-ended and would focus too much on the model, which shouldn’t be the point of the lesson. On the opposite end is the lame idea of explaining everything and then showing the model as an afterthought.

The best would be to use the model at the appropriate time and present it as the experiment. (“What do you expect to happen according to the last model?” and “What do you notice happening to some of the protons as they collide with the gold foil?” and “What could explain why this is happening?”) The tough thing will be making it so it doesn’t take too long.

I haven’t videotaped myself viewing this model (hope to get some footage of students soon), so I’ll just include the rendered video from Blender below (this is the slow-motion video).

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Classkick — Cool New (Free) App

Dan Meyer usually rails against apps & website rather than for them[1], so when I read that he was saying how good an app is, I thought I should check it out.

And it looks awesome. I had high hopes of Nearpod, but the I didn’t like a few things: (1) The entire class had to stay on the same slide, (2) students could only write on some of the slides, (3) teachers couldn’t really give individual feedback, and (4) students (on our network) were often kicked out and had to log back in, which was an arduous process.

By comparison, Classkick is very fast to get students logged in: just a 6-digit/letter class code to type, which is unique to the class period and the lesson, so I guess you could have students in the same class on different lessons if necessary. To reinforce how fast and easy it is to setup, I heard about it during my planning period, and was using it in class (with a lesson I had created) 50 minutes later. Was it the best lesson in the world? Probably not, but then again I was just planning on lecturing/doing practice problems, so this was so much more interesting.

Students’ Interaction & Usability

I felt really comfortable using the interface and creating a lesson was super-quick. Dan has a good point about the writing taking up so much space, but since you can scroll down, as well as make one page per problem if necessary, space doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. Space-management seems to be more of a problem as some students just thought to write/answer on top of the prompt (see below).

photo 2


I was missing a good chunk of my class to extracurricular activities, so I decided to not tell my students how to do stuff and instead see if they could figure out little things, like being able to ask for help, help each other, hide teacher/helping student comments, scroll down, etc. These are “advanced” juniors in math class so I was hopeful, but ultimately some things weren’t as intuitive as I thought they would be for the students and this disappointed me. Many of the students didn’t take time on each slide as I thought they would and just went “fast-forward” to go to the next one. I had to ask them “why are you skipping slides” to which they responded “oh, you wanted us to do each one?”  *Face-palm*

Here are some specific examples of students interacting with the features:

  • The “scroll down with two fingers” function isn’t intuitive, but it does allow for much more white-space on which to work (certainly not infinite, though).
  • The “ask for help” is a great idea, and I love that students can help each other, but with this small class (6 students at any one time because of extracurriculars), nobody really helped anyone else. I could see this working if the class was larger or if students had more time to get use to the program (which I plan on using again!).
  • One student changed the colors of her pen, which I didn’t notice that you could do the first time around (I played with this for maybe 15 minutes before using it in class!). I thought that was awesome that she found out something that I hadn’t discovered yet. She even wisely used color coding.
photo 1

The question at the bottom that you can’t see asks “What do you notice?”

Pros and Cons

Writing on iPads is a pain, as you can see from my horrible handwriting, and my students’ worse handwriting. But I would say that hand-writing for equations for students is infinitely better than typing into notes or something foolish like that on the iPad.

I like how easy it is to insert images, though I had to really blow up some images and their was quite a loss in quality of the image when I did that (I blame the iPad more than the app for low resolution screenshots).

Students being able to move at their own pace is a huge plus.


Each page could only scroll down so far. One student decided to combat horrible handwriting by using huge handwriting, which I was fine with, but he ran out of space before finishing his answer to “What do you notice?”, which is a bummer. If pages could go farther (or on “forever”) that would be nice.

It would be nice to give teachers an option to type prompts. Yes, I can record my voice (which would be annoying to hear 20-30 times in a classroom), and yes I can type, save it in Dropbox, screen shot it, and then use it, but that seems a bit excessive for typing a simple sentence like “What do you notice?”

Along with the last one, it would be nice to be able to create content through the computer. I much prefer using a computer over an iPad, and I was frankly surprised that you had to create the content on the iPad. Fortunately the experience was much better than I feared it would be, but in the end I’d still rather create content on the computer.

I’ve gotten used to Doceri on the iPad for content creation, so I kept finding myself wanting to zoom in and out so my handwriting would look better. I think if this would be added, it would overcome a lot of the problems mentioned above. I know you want to strike a delicate balance between simplicity for students’ sake and power of an application, but I think this is one item that could add tremendous value to this app.


This is an app I would highly recommend that you check out–it’s the kind of thing I had hoped Nearpod was when I first found it. I think students will use the features more fluently as we doing this a few more times, and next time I’ll go ahead and jump in and explain features I think that are important. Also, I’ll spend more time preparing the assignment so it’s more interesting to students. I’m excited to think of the possibilities! I will definitely report more on using this in the future.

[1] In his defense, most apps & websites are garbage and I agree with the vast majority of his assessments of them.


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SBG & Student Struggles

Today was frustrating for me. I recognize that it’s one of those things where one bad experience, even in an otherwise very good day, just turns your day bad. I’ll try to explain concisely.

A student, let’s call the student J, didn’t want to take a quiz for which he was absent during his “study hall” (we call it Academic Support) because he had homework which was due the next period.

My furious personal thoughts: “But you’ve known since last week that this quiz was to happen on Friday and when you were absent during my class on Friday you told me that you would take this on Monday and now it’s Monday and you’re refusing to take the quiz!!!”

So I told him “No, you have to take the quiz first”. He responded with “Okay, give me the quiz, I’ll just write my name on it and give it back to you”, knowing full well that students can retake quizzes for full credit. Not only that, but he knows that I will hound him and force him to retake the quiz until he does better, so from his point of view he “doesn’t have to worry about it.”

I confided my frustration with a fellow teacher.  This teacher does not use SBG and has deadlines for students that are immovable. He pointed out that for my class, failing the quiz was a “chronic” problem, whereas finishing the homework for this other teacher, who had deadlines, was a “crises” problem. The student views the latter as more immediate and therefore more important, whether rightly or wrongly so, so when given 50 minutes to do work, the student will choose the latter. This teacher confided how some students, who don’t do their work, are relieved to find out that they missed a deadline because it’s no longer hanging over their head. He confided that he would rather them be incredibly disappointed rather than relieved, and I wanted to shout “But is this what is best for the students?!? To be left off the hook???”

My first thought was “okay, how can I move my work to ‘crises’ level for the student without setting a deadline because I believe in retakes for students and a growth mindset.”[1] So I sent a long e-mail to the single mother of this child (who I was informed had been in the hospital last week), asking for the student to study at home and to come in to my tutoring sessions here a school. My next thought was “how can I make the student’s life miserable so that he caves in and studies? He’s already 4 quizzes (weeks) behind his peers and I need to get him to study on his own at home. So I’m going to require him to bring his lunch into my classroom and study. Want to goof off at home and not study? Okay, you’ll lose your lunch here at school.

But do I really want to make an antagonist out of this student? Just because he’s frustrated me once several times, should I make him view me as his enemy? One of the things I like about SBG is how it’s easy to show the students that we’re on their side. This is tough for me to do, but perhaps it’s the “tough love” action that I need to take. As long as I do it out of care for the student and not spite, then it can and will be the right thing to do.

While I’m on that, I need to look back because there are other students who haven’t pushed my buttons but who are doing just as poorly in class. I need to mandate that they come to tutoring as well (I’ve done this for a few students…). I think I’m going to make a sign-in sheet for the students so that’s one less thing I have to keep track of. Then again, I’ll have to chase them down if they’re not there… but at least I’m doing what’s right.

Any ideas to help out with this situation? [2]

[1] Actually my first, first thought is “all teachers should allow retakes/extensions of deadlines so that this doesn’t happen!”.

[2] That felt better just to get that off my chest. Thanks, #MTBoS


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My Physics Class on the Ropes Course

My school is fortunate enough to have a ropes course on campus. Not only had I never done it, but most of my students hadn’t done it before, and for Physics students that’s a tragedy. So I decided to do it, not as a physics lesson, but as a team-building activity. We’ll definitely look at the physics later on, but to start, I care more that they learn a few other lessons. Here are some pictures of one challenge, which is definitely Physics-heavy.

IMG_20140903_105018463 IMG_20140903_110020166 IMG_20140903_110813355_HDR IMG_20140903_110821607

BFPM, anyone? Here are the things I typed down that I wanted them to take away from today’s “lesson”.

  • You can learn so much by trial and error, but if you aren’t willing to make mistakes, you’ll never learn.
  • It is more rewarding, I think because you learn more, to learn without someone telling you how to do it.
  • I specifically asked not to do the course with you guys. What do you think would have happened if I had been working on it with you? What does that mean about the classroom?
  • Talking about opposing forces: be as specific as possible. Take time to analyze.
  • Use your partners/teammates. “A cord of three stands is not easily broken.”

We already did the Marshmallow Challenge. I hope these things are working to build the type of classroom culture that is best for learning physics using a Modelling curriculum.

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Picture Frames & Quadratics

Fawn Nguyen shared an awesome practical lesson on solving quadratics. Since we’re reviewing that in Precalculus, and I love doing fun lessons, I thought I’d do it as well. Note: I haven’t gotten my students to beg (yet).  I decided to use another teacher for the picture–he’s our Spanish teacher and he & I often make fun of each other to our students since we’re such good friends. Some of our students think we hate each other. It’s great.


So I wrote the following instructions on the board–this is an activity I wanted them to start after their quiz, so I had to explain it just by the writing on the board. I added the “tip” afterwards.



One student came up with the idea of cutting every slice of paper in half repeatedly until all the sides were full.  Pretty clever of him. So I made the unspecific rule “make as few cuts as possible”.




We’re not done: we’re going to finish this on Friday. And I’m always disheartened by how unmotivated many of the students are. They had 3 sheets of paper for trial & error, yet they were reluctant to cut anything. Some of them “gave up”, even though they did the very thing I told them not to, and they easily could have made each side longer.


One student got pretty close and claimed to have done “all the math necessary”, yet his sides & top/bottom were off from each other by a whole cm. It’ll be good to look more closely at his math with the class.


It was disheartening for them to give up and not beg. Perhaps that’s a difference between middle schoolers and high schoolers? I need to work on their curiosity and perseverance. Any suggestions?


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