Pi Day (with minimal mention of digits)

Today, we celebrated our belated Pi Day! It was delayed due to inclement weather…


Though my #MTBoS friends were there to comfort me in my time of need!

Our spring trimester focus is always financial literacy. So, we spent most of last week researching recipes, planning for a shopping trip, going to the bank, shopping for ingredients, and making pies. Yes, I said it. We made pies for Pi Day, sue me! Now, finally the time had come to eat our pies, but first…we had to do some more math!

First we reviewed of some of the digits of Pi, highlighting that when rounded to the nearest hundredth it matches the numerical date of March 14th, which is subsequently known as “Pi Day” for this reason. I also wore my Pi shirt, which gives the students an opportunity to see that there are A LOT of digits in this number known as Pi and that I’m a nerd. We did, however, skip the traditional digit memorization activity for several reasons including working memory and tedious boredom.

Instead we estimated, explored, and discovered the circumference formula with our pies and some string.

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Betsy DeVos & the Rights of Students with Disabilities

This blog rarely veers into discussions of national education policy, but after the events of last night’s confirmation hearing for the Secretary of Education nominee, that time has come.

The nominee, Betsy DeVos, is an advocate for school choice (pro and con). Essentially, she believes that federal education dollars should follow students to the schools they choose to attend (public, private, religious, charter, etc.) and not directly to the schools through state funding. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado summed up some of the pitfalls of school choice, “There’s no practical difference between being forced to go to a terrible school and [choosing] between five terrible schools.” As a teacher of students with disabilities in a private institution, I understand that not all public school settings are appropriate for every student. However, I am personally against the dismantling of public education in favor of privatization.

One aspect of the hearing that struck me, as an advocate for students with disabilities, was DeVos’ lack of understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When asked about it directly by Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, this was the exchange that followed:

Should the rights of students with disabilities be left up to the states? Should we be taken back to a time when students with disabilities were excluded from education in favor of exclusionary special classes or, worse, institutionalization? The correct answer to that question, if you were still on the fence, is no.

However, evoking such a dark time in our country’s past, such as Willowbrook, may seem hyperbolic, but when a nominee for the highest education job in our nation displays a staggering ignorance of a federal law which protects the rights of an often neglected population of students, well, nothing seems too unrealistic to consider. We must consistently grapple with the follies of the past in the hopes of not repeating them.

IDEA is important because it explicitly protects the rights of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment where all stakeholders, especially the students and their families, give input on how to best meet the student’s educational needs. To mistake or be unaware of this federal law is unforgivable. Period. And as Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, whose son has cerebral palsy, said “It’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law so that my child, and every child, has the same access to high-quality public education.”

UPDATE [1/19/17]: Senator Maggie Hassan discusses IDEA and Betsy DeVos with Chris Hayes on MSNBC


An Instructional Routine for “Which One Doesn’t Belong?”

We are currently studying geometry. The standards for geometry list one important understanding to develop before 4th grade, “Reason with shapes and their attributes.” If you click through the link you can read more about the specifics, but the activity that gets students reasoning about shapes and their attributes the most, in my opinion, is Which One Doesn’t Belong? This activity allows students to share their thinking about shapes and their properties without the fear of being wrong. Why? Because every answer is correct as long as you can justify your reasoning! You can read more about how I implement “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” in my class and you can use it for more than just geometry.

But this post is about how I used this activity as a basis for an instructional routine. Continue reading

Beat the Back to School Blues…Play a Math Game!

Coming back from winter break can be hard. Everyone is sleepy, unfocused, and daydreaming of the holiday gifts that await them at home after school. And that’s just the teachers!

But seriously, getting back into the groove of school is hard for everyone, and can be especially hard for students with disabilities who thrive on clarity of expectations and routine. Creating the perfect situation for students and teachers to transition from a holiday break can be a challenge. So this year, we played games!

When visitors come into my room and see “games” on the agenda they assume that means “free time.” That, however, is not the case. As Van De Walle, Karp and Bay-Williams write, “A game or other repeatable activity may not seem to incorporate a problem but it can nonetheless be a problem-based task. The determining factor is whether the [game] causes students to be reflective about new or developing mathematical relationships. Remember that it is reflective thought that causes growth and therefore learning” (63).


Tips from Marilyn Burns (Source)

Marilyn Burns describes why games have been a staple of her teaching repertoire, “Games can motivate students, capture their interest, and are a great way to get in that paper-and-pencil practice.”  Further, in their book, Routines for Reasoning, Kelemanik, Lucenta, and Crieghton relate that learning experiences for students with disabilities must be: authentic, meaningful contexts, multisensory, language rich, and full of opportunities for multiple practice. Games provide all of these features. They are by definition, competitive. Competition is, itself, a meaningful, authentic context. Most games are inherently multi-sensory. While playing games students must communicate with each other, thus creating language rich environments. And finally, most good math games make students do as many (or more) problems as they would on a paper-and-pencil worksheet.

Since my students have a wide range of academic abilities, it is necessary that we have access to a wide range of math games. Here are the math games we play, and please let us know which ones you love so we can play them too!

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3-Act Task: Finding a Balance




Act 1

What do you notice?

What do you wonder?

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The First Day of School

I’ve never really written about what we’ve done on the first day of school before. Usually my excuse is that I’m too busy with everything that needs to get done in the first days of school. Then I read Tracy Zager‘s post about her daughter’s experience on the first day of school. After reading Zager’s take on first days of school, it made me think about how special educators handle all of the things that have to get done when classes start. Last night it was even the topic of the bi-weekly twitter chat for teaching math to students with disabilities, #SwDMathChat.

Needless to say, “There will be no talking;” “You may not work together;” and “I can not help you;” are not part of my first day of school lesson plan. In the past we have done engineering team-building activities such as The Marshmallow Challenge and The Cup Stacking Challenge. This summer during the first Mini NYC twitter Math Camp conference, teacher-educator Nicora Placa introduced me to the book, Designing Groupwork and the task, Master Designer.

Master Designer is a great beginning of the year task, because it highlights the following three groupwork behaviors, “Helping students do things for themselves;” “Explain by telling how;” and “Everybody helps.” These groupwork behaviors set a very different tone than “There will be no talking;” You may not work together; “and “I can not help you.” These three groupwork behaviors relate directly to math classes of all kinds. In my class, we want students to be trying math problems on their own, at least at first. We also want students to be able to explain how they solved (or didn’t solve) math problems. We also want students to see their classmates as sources of information and not solely relying on the teachers in the room.

Here’s how it went…

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Word Problems and the Problems with Words

Yesterday, I posted a new 3-act task on the blog. In the tradition of digital mentors like Graham Fletcher, Andrew Stadel, and Dane Ehlert, I will rarely post an activity on the blog that I don’t intend to use in my own class with students. Today, we did Make It Rain.

Here is what my students noticed during Act 1

  • There’s a lot of money
  • There are 20’s, 10’s, 5’s, and 1’s
  • There are more 20’s than 10’s

And here’s what they wondered…

  • How much money is there?
  • Why did it go from greatest to least?
  • Why was it being spread out?
  • What kind of bills were in the pile?
  • How many of each bill is there?

My students are used to analyzing their questions collaboratively. Some of the students noted that we couldn’t answer the “why?” questions without asking the person in the video, who we did not have access to (even though it was me!)

So, then our wonderings looked more like this…

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