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.


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.

Structure & Novelty

Last Monday I was one of four staff members who gave a 25 minute talk to the rest of the staff at West Hills High School.  The topic was student engagement. I came up with ten ideas that permeate my thought process when designing my lessons: five structures that  guide my class and five ways that I chase after novelty-embedding.

The time constraint was outrageous, the process of culling my thoughts was motivating, and the audience was inviting. A win all around.

Here’s the edited down version. It does not include video of students taking a Shot at the Glory in #6 :

My idea for the talk title was inspired by the same words @delt_dc used in a tweet recently. Thanks, David!

Electoral College Game

I created a game for my math classes that centers on the Presidential election.

Give each pair of students a blank political map of the U.S. Then take turns to initial a state, one after the other, until all 50 states have been initialed or marked up by the duo’s own system. That is, each student chooses 25 states, representing the states “won” by each candidate. Each pair then gets a map of the electoral votes by state.  Calculate the sum of their votes, and determined who wins the highest office in the land. Some poor kid will give up California, Florida, Texas, and New York right away. That same kid probably gets beat in Connect 4 with an opponent’s first four chips too.

English: Electoral college map for the 2012, 2...

English: Electoral college map for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 United States presidential elections, using apportionment data released by the US Census Bureau. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Five eighths of the fun occurs because most students can’t identify all the states and they definitely aren’t keen to how many electoral votes each state has. Knowing state locations and their ballpark populations is a huge advantage here. The big take away is that a candidate may win the popular vote and not the election.

From  start to finish, the entire game probably takes 15 minutes. It doesn’t fit my standards for today or tomorrow, nor did it when I had my students play. But it does fit my goal of having students look at the numbers behind a real-life event. I also hope it ramps up their civic interest.

This weekend I saw Ron Larson present at the California Mathematics Council South annual convention in Palm Springs. He previewed his new book, Math & YouIn it he has an extension devoted to Math & the Electoral College which is is online simulator that one can play with to show how winning the popular vote doesn’t always win the candidate the election.

Marshmallow Minute

Billy started with 14 marshmallows in his mouth before the minute began and then ate 8 marshmallows every 10 seconds. Claudia started without any marshmallows in her mouth and ate 3 more every 4 seconds. Who will eat the most in the group over the course of ONE minute? What if we uncapped the minute and went forever?

I made an activity called the MarshmallowMinute that had students working in groups to eat a given number of marshmallows every so many seconds for ONE minute. I wanted them to absorb the concept of rate of change, with more than their eyes.

The MarshmallowMinute was initially designed for students in my Intermediate Algebra class, which is a lighter form of Algebra 2. Really, this activity is a first year algebra activity that can extend deeper depending on the course.

This activity provided context, fun, eating, yelling, and a jumping off place to go from graphing linear models to linear systems. It also gave another opportunity to discuss domain and range, as well as discrete (LiteBrite) vs. continuous (Etch-a-Sketch) graphs. 

Beware: one student did not understand he was supposed to EAT the marshmallows. At the end of his minute, he found a home for them in the trashcan. Poor kid.

Frustration alert! Finding fresh marshmallows that don’t stick together is more difficult than one might think. I’d actually consider making it the “Skittles Sixty Seconds” or “Popcorn Pandemonium” on my next go around.

ISTE 2012

A month has gone by and I’ve been meaning to list all the sessions I attended at this year’s International Society for Technology in Education. I saw so much in such a short time that I don’t want to forget it all. More important than remembering though, is actually using my newfound nuggets of educational wisdom.  ISTE ran June 24-27 in my hometown of San Diego. Here they are:


  • Flip Teaching Secondary Mathematics-Best Practices in Action with Jason Roy (awesome meeting him)
  • Couldn’t get in to see the kickoff keynote with Sir Ken Robinson! The venue was closed due to being at capacity.



  • EduTecher’s Web Tools Will Make Your Classroom Rock! with Adam Bellow
  • Revolutionize Teaching and Learning with QR Codes with Derek Kaufman
  • Technology and Mathematics: The Right Angle with Frank Sobierajski


  • PBL Meets STEM: Delicious Main Course of Resources and Ideas with Michael Gorman
  • Data Reveals Stories: How Students Can Use Data for Learning with Ewan McIntosh

I’m very grateful for my district footing the bill for me to attend. I also know I have a long way to become the teacher I want to be.

The Throne of Balance

[This post is part of the Virtual Conference on Core Values, found here. ]

Balance sits on the throne of my classroom, sometimes nodding its crown in satisfied approval, sometimes shifting its scepter in unimpressed exasperation. Intentional choices and every once in a while just plain luck help create this balance. This quest for balance lies at the heart of my classroom. In fact, it’s one of the 8 Keys of Excellence I infuse into my classroom throughout the school year.

As the teacher I am expected to be master of my content. That was implied when the ink dried on my contract.  Of course I need to know things like why roots are so important and how to find them, for example, and why any student should care about a feasibility region, factoring a trinomial, graphing a line, or any one of the many state standards I’m paid to teach.  It is my job to know these things and have effective methods for teaching them.

But here’s the rub.  Experience has taught me that it’s also my job as a professional educator to find the often elusive point of balance-the point between bludgeoning my kids with overkill and knowing when to call an audible. It’s my job to recognize and adjust.  I keep a mindful watch on the mood of the class with a well-worn quiver of adjustments. These adjustments don’t forsake the integrity of the lesson but rather chase after balance. I make adjustments like throwing out the window what my stubborn brain thinks we ought to cover in a class period (sometimes by expanding what we do), refereeing between enriching classroom comments and unproductive classroom banter, recognizing when disillusioned students need to hear more about the big picture of why they’re in school and less “oh, one more thing” squeezing in of information. It’s about balance.

It’s also about balance when I make the choice to start class one minute late because I ask a girl how she’s doing at the door and she breaks down in tears over a family tragedy.  It’s about balance when I commandeer a few minutes of instructional time to address an ugly outbreak of hate talk on campus.  It’s about balance when I prevent myself from teaching in the ways I was taught in high school because they’re familiar and the unfamiliar can be scary.   It’s about balance when I flop a lesson, because deep down I’ve given myself the creative permission to fail, full well knowing that glorious fruit may yet come of my attempt. It’s about balance when I try to see my adolescent students through the eyes of their parents and not as students who are wallpapered with varying percentages of understanding.  It’s about balance when I acknowledge that my class is but one in my students’ six class lineup and not to get bent out of shape if they don’t breathe math.  It’s about balance when I bury the reckless comments I have swirling in my head that I want to unleash on talkative students by telling myself there’s a more loving way to get their attention than by belittling.

When I began as a teacher I thought I had a handle on this balance.  I didn’t. I was green.  I saw getting through the math as the goal.  Now I don’t. I teach people first, math second.   I tell my students that I don’t get paid extra to be funny, interesting, or motivational. If I ever am, it works towards achieving balance.  When balance reigns supreme it is detectable and makes me and my students feel like royalty.