Why I Blog

The incomparable Kate Nowak asked the MathTwitterBlogosphere (MTBoS) to weigh in on these questions in preparation for her talk at NCTM in New Orleans next spring. She’s a featured speaker, and rightly so. Here are my answers.

1. What hooked you on reading the blogs? Was it a particular post or person? Was it an initiative by the nice MTBoS folks? A colleague in your building got you into it? Desperation?

Dan Meyer, the great pioneer of math ed blogging turned me on to the blogging world.  After I watched his TED talk, I noticed the url for his website. I went to it. I have been a changed teacher since. I was sucked in. It was like discovering a lost civilization. His blog linked to other blogs, like Kate Nowak’s and Sam Shah’s and the many other talented teachers who were creating material that made me feel like a rat pushing a lever for more dopamine.  I was blown away by this thoughtful, reflective network of math teachers.  They gave voice to the same issues of learning and teaching I was experiencing!  They wondered, they ranted, they celebrated, they questioned, they created. It was like teaching therapy, entertainment, and lesson inspiration all rolled into one.

2. What keeps you coming back? What’s the biggest thing you get out of reading and/or commenting?

The blog world allows me to be an invited thief.  I find and use lessons all the time that have been vetted by impressive teachers the world over. Which seems like a better sell to students, examples from a textbook leading students to do p. 135 #1-30, or a lesson on how much a 100×100 cheeseburger from In-N-Out costs? C’mon.

I also read for motivation and to reconnect with the heart of teaching. Many posts are not about lessons or activities. They are about the emotions we feel when our best efforts fall flat, when we triumph, when we wonder how to move on. Too many times I’ve told my computer screen, “I’d love to be a student in this teacher’s class.” I’m a better teacher when I interact with the math ed blog world. It gets me to a place of flow.

3. If you write, why do you write? What’s the biggest thing you get out of it?

Content is alway marinating in my brain. If I have to put pen to paper, it forces realizations.  I write to flesh out my own thoughts, to ease the mental friction.  If I have to put down a coherent flow of ideas, then I have to make sense of what I believe. Writing forces me to develop my own thoughts. I’m always thinking about math teaching and math learning.  I owe the MTBoS for the increase. As a result, I’ve also started thinking about learning and schooling in general, in any subject. That’s good for students and for me.

I  write because it’s easier to email a link than to constantly have to repeat the same thing over and over to inquisitive parties.  If I’m sharing an activity or a position of mind, having a web presence is essential. Explaining, Shot at the Glory is here. See how easy that is?

I also write for the thrill of it. No one knows what will happen. Every post is a small act of creation that goes bouncing around the internet, sometimes slowing down, sometimes stopping, and can at any moment reaccelerate, casting itself into the limelight for another round of relevance.

4. If you chose to enter a room where I was going to talk about blogging for an hour (or however long you could stand it), what would you hope to be hearing from me? MTBoS cheerleading and/or tourism? How-to’s? Stories?

Explain WHY you blog and how YOU got into it. What was the tipping point for your entry into this world? Point it out explicitly, beyond platitudes. Show HOW you’re a better educator because of blogging. The current bloggers who just want to see Kate Nowak, speaker extraordinaire, in person will nod their heads, the uninitiated will perhaps think, “huh, maybe I should blog.” Your largest mission lies in winning over the people who show up to your session because they have an inkling to blog and then end up doing so.

I would hope for a link to a one-stop place on your site that pulls together a how-to-start-a-blog and a way to find other MTBoS blogs (David Wees has culled a bunch), so I can refer others in my district to this place.

Show how anyone in the audience can easily be rewarded with rich content on an upcoming topic. Insert crowd participation here.

It might be cool to share and highlight some blogs you like for completely different reasons to give the audience a sense of the diversity in the MTBoS.

Mission #1: Exploring the MTBoS

Logarithms grow painfully slow. Students hear me say that but they don’t get it. I want them to really understand this type of function. I want them to grasp how slowly these graphs march off through the Cartesian plane in their deliberate quest to be part of the infinite. If a student cries out, “logarithms grow as slowly as their inverse exponential counterparts grow quickly” I’ve won. Okay, that never happens. But when I say that and they nod their heads instead of squint their eyes, it’s a start.

Consider graphing y=log(x) on a typical whiteboard coordinate grid where every square is 1in. x 1in.  and this whiteboard grid is at the front of the class for all to behold its power. There’s no pinching or dragging this graph. The axes are fixed.

Now imagine that this rich Desmos graph of the common log below were on this aforementioned static whiteboard.

Question 1: How many inches would we have to travel from the origin to reach a height of six inches? Six inches, that’s all. Start from the graph on the board in my room and follow the curve until it has climbed to a height of six inches.

Question 2: Where in San Diego county would we be? The answer would astound most any student. Would we find ourselves in neighboring Mr. W’s room? Tijuana?  La Jolla Shores? The Laguna mountains? That’s the two-fold question. Go in any direction. Ignore the curvature of the Earth to play this game. Flat map.


The answer is 1,000, 000 inches, since 10^6 is 1,000,000 and so log(1,000,000) = 6.  After some conversion, students will come up with 15.78 miles. But how to interpret that on a map?  15.78 miles in any direction. Enter, Mr. Circle and the need for a compass. Students have to make sense of the map they’re given, its scale, and how to measure off 15.78 miles.

When I ask the question now I give them a paper Google map, and tell them to go at it. It’s a 15 minute or so activity that connects logarithms, geography, geometry, measurement, and their imagination.  In the near future when the access to tech is no biggie, they’ll pull up their own map and use tools like this website http://www.freemaptools.com/radius-around-point.htm and we can compare reaching heights of seven inches, one foot, etc. The shifting of the map wouldn’t be a problem on a device. Technology here would reduce the thinking involved to construct a circle of a given radius, but it’d allow deeper conceptual questions.

radiusmapI think when I get to logarithms this year and after students have played with the flat map, we can talk about the Earth’s curvature and what that really means. If the Earth curves roughly 8 inches per mile, how would the results change? Now we’re getting to “how” questions which are supremely better than “what” and “where” questions.

I also want the play with the metaphor of a ride and the value of thrill. Here’s what I’m thinking. A huge ride is built whose track is shaped like the common log function (or any log function for that matter.) The further you go on the ride, the more the ticket to ride costs. But the further you go, the greater the thrill at the end. For at the end, you stop, pivot, and come screaming straight down. Where is the most thrill for your money? Justify it. And I’ll need a cool name for the ride. Suggestions taken.


My school district is hosting TechFest 2013, an edtech conference put on by the GUHSD staff for the staff. Conveniently, it’s even being hosted on my campus.

I’m presenting on a project that has been met with enthusiasm by students called The Golden Moment Project. It involves music and math, specifically the golden ratio.

I’m also presenting on Desmos, the new online graphing calculator that is turning heads in many a math class. The slides below were put together by the talented Kristen Fouss and altered slightly.  It is geared for newbies. I’ve been a TI fan since the mid ’90s. I’ve recently become a fan of the Casio. But, after meeting Desmos, I’m starting to play favorites.

My Goals for the 2013-2014 School Year

Today is the first day of the new school year. I’m probably more excited than ever, mostly because it’s another chance to improve. If the 10,000 hour rule has merit, I’d better step it up.

I will be more conscientious and deliberate in my attempt to…

1) Create more math discourse in class.

2) Slow down. Let learning happen. Flick it into action, but don’t force a forgery.

3) Use technology when it makes things better, not just digital.

4) Find even more of the good in kids. Find even more of the good in my colleagues.

5) Be more explicit.

6) Prepare like a feverish planning beast, but be ready to scrap it all if I pickaxe into an   unanticipated pocket of education ore.

7) Celebrate my students’ achievements.

8) Approach content literacy in a newly appreciated way.

9) Renew myself throughout the year in tangible ways.

10) Be ready to fail. And then try again.

What I Noticed, What I Wondered at #TMC13

I took a red-eye to Philly two weeks ago to be part of Twitter Math Camp at Drexel University from July 25-28.  Last year the Math Twitter Blogosphere (MTBoS) hatched an idea to create its own professional development,  “guerilla PD” it was coined. It happened in St. Louis. Save for the nearly 40 who attended, the rest of us were all in “twitter jealousy jail.” This year I made it happen. I found this in my Christmas stocking. I am indebted to my wife for her unfailing support as well as to the Noyce Program at UCSD and my own school district.

A la the generous folks at Drexel’s Math Forum who are known for their “I notice, I wonder,” here’s what I noticed and here’s what I wondered:

(1) I noticed that avatars did not tell the whole story of each’s multidimensional personality, nor could they. I wondered what mine told others.

(2) I noticed that hanging out in the Sheraton lobby could be both engaging and intimidating in a sea full of math Twitter celebs. I wondered who else felt that.

(3) I noticed that a tremendous number of hours must’ve gone into the logistics of making TMC13 happen. I wondered if those volunteers feel appreciated. I hope so.

(4) I noticed that there were about triple the number of tweeps this year. I wondered if the grassroots passion that created the first TMC in 2012 will continue to live on in further TMCs. I hope so.

(5) I noticed that there were some darn smart mathematicians there. I wondered if I belonged.

(6) I noticed that if you open a banana in front of everyone while presenting, you get all the banana jokes later. I wonder what would’ve happened had I taken a bite. No telling with this group.

(7) I noticed that the more I hung out with people, the more I wished I could learn about them as individuals in addition to them as educators.

(8) I noticed that this subset of the MTBoS was ultra proactive in its pursuit of improving math education.  I wondered how everyone stayed so juiced to create such awesome things. I also wondered how many of the attendees read Seth Godin.

(9) I noticed that it was up to each of us to plunge in and get to know each other. I wondered how difficult that was for those on the introvert side of the spectrum, so NOT Nathan Kraft and NOT this rag tag band of musicians and their dulcet tones.

(10) I noticed how refreshing it was to be in the presence of well-planned presenters. I wondered how often our own students think the same. Seeing Max Ray, Glenn Waddell, Karim Ani, Fawn Nguyen, Tina Cardone, Kate Nowak, Chris Lusto, and all the “My Favorite” presenters was an inspiration. I wish I could’ve seen the others!

TMC13 was a great experience, and with passing time, the memory of it keeps getting better. I hope to keep connecting with those I met there. I also hope to connect with those reading this blog. Look me up (@johnberray) or leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Bottle of Dreams

Last fall I wrote a post for my school’s blog, West Hills Stories.  It’s about endings. And beginnings. Here it is:

Every once in a while I create an experience for my students that is cool and even surprises me. My “Farewell Address” is one such activity. Several years back I decided to define an end-of-the-year moment of closure with each class. I wanted a time to celebrate our year together, to reminisce, to toast the wide-open futures of each student in the room.  I wanted more than the perfunctory collecting of books, doling out of grades, and ticking down of the clock that seems to define intervals of learning.

Here’s how it works. I advertise my farewell address as a “do not miss” moment. I commandeer the last ten minutes or so of class. I bring in bottles of water, one for each student. I tell each student to grab a bottle and crack the lid but not to open it.  Many guess that a toast is coming. And they’re right. But I embellish the farewell address with thoughts, advice, challenges and requests. I recognized there’s a good probability this might be the last time we ever speak, so it needs to be meaningful. The moment is bittersweet.  Each year I make small tweaks to how I do it, what I say, and what I request. Some years make me tear up. Last year was one of them.

The students are aware that the toast is really a sip of bottled water. But for some I transform their vision of it from just being ordinary water to being a “bottle of dreams.” Most think it’s funny, but buy into it. They can look at the water for what it is, or they can visualize it being whatever they want it to be. It’s about belief. It’s about the power of their minds to pretend for the sake of silliness that it’s a potent non-alcoholic elixir that marks the start of new beginnings, especially for seniors. The moment is simultaneously deep and light-hearted. I ask them to keep it as a reminder of the farewell address.

During this year’s graduation procession, as students were leaving the field, I had several of them tell me that they still had their bottle of dreams. Students saved an empty water bottle for years because of the meaning we attached to it! How cool is that?  My farewell address has become one my classroom traditions, and will only get better.

The Profession Chicken Sexer

A day-old chick

A day-old chick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A statistics gem to tweet about and use in math class:

“In the 1960s, one hatchery paid its sexers a penny for each correctly sexed chick and deducted 35 cents for each one they got wrong.  The best in the business can sex 1,200 chicks an hour with 98 to 99 percent accuracy.”

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (p. 51) by Joshua Foer

What’s a chicken sexer? Never thought I’d learn about such a subject, until…well, I read Foer’s book. Here’s the rub. Male chickens are not as desirable on a chicken ranch as their female counterparts, but it takes roughly four to six weeks to identify the sex of a newly hatched chick.  This is a costly problem on a chicken ranch.

In the 1920s, veterinarians from Japan figured out a way to tell the males from the females of day-old birds. The discovery of such a method helped ranches increase their profits.  Those who graduated from the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School were quickly employed in the agricultural world and earned celebrity status. These so-called chicken sexers turned a handsome profit, earning as much as $500 a day, in steep contrast to the scenario above.