Category Archives: Uncategorized

My First Ignite Talk

I’m a fan of Ignite talks. They’re short – which makes sharing them and using them in PD very easy – and they’re to the point – which means a focused message to get others thinking and talking.

Here’s the catch. To ensure each talk is short and to the point there’s a format each one follows:

  • Each talk is 5 minutes long.
  • You have exactly 20 slides.
  • The slides auto-advance every 15 seconds.

Sounds stressful, right? And up until a couple of months ago I was always happy someone else was in the hot seat. That is until I got an email from Suzanne Alejandre from The Math Forum inviting me to be one of 10 speakers at the NCSM 2017 Ignite event in San Antonio in April. My emotions upon reading her email were a mix of feeling honored and terrified.

The event has come and gone, so now I get to look back on it with relief and a sense of accomplishment that I took the challenge and saw it through. I’m proud of the final result. I chose to talk about doing less of 3 key things in our math classrooms, which sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually results in getting more of a few things we want. Check it out:

My Other Blog

As you may know, I’m the district curriculum coordinator for elementary mathematics in Round Rock ISD, a school district just north of Austin, Texas. I recently created an RRISD Elementary Mathematics Department blog to share posts on specific topics with teachers in my district. If you like what I write here, you might want to check out the posts over there as well. It’s only recently started, so you’ve only missed three posts so far:

You might notice a theme to all three posts. Maybe.

Here’s links to the three posts:

I’ve been on a bit of a geometry kick lately. In my work, I’ve focused a lot on computation generally and number talks specifically the past couple of years. Geometry is an area I haven’t explored much recently so I’ve been making a more focused effort to do so.

The blog also has a great resources page with lots of stuff for teachers and parents. Take a peek at that if you go by for a visit.

I’ll still be writing here. I just wanted to make sure people knew I was writing there, too.

Mathematically Correct

Last night I posted a short survey on Twitter. I asked participants to analyze the following question.

Question

Then I asked them to answer the question. I purposefully set up the survey so participants could select more than one answer, though I gave no encouragement to do this. All the question said was, “Your answer.” Finally, I left a section for comments.

When I tweeted out the survey, I didn’t provide any details about the problem or my intent. I was trying really hard to see if other people saw the same thing I did without leading them to it.

Turns out many people did. I feel validated.

So here’s the story. This is question #28 from the 2016 Grade 3 Texas state math test, called STAAR, that students took last spring. Back in February, one of our district interventionists emailed me to say that he thought both choice G and J are correct answers. I opened up the test, analyzed the question, and realized he was right. I immediately drafted an email to the Texas Education Agency to ask about it.

Good morning,

I have a question about item 28 on the grade 3 STAAR from spring 2016.
The correct answer is listed as J. This makes sense because the number line directly models a starting amount of 25 people and then taking some away to end at 13, the number of people still in the library.
However, the question isn’t asking for the model that most closely represents the story. Rather, it asks which model can be used to determine the number of people who left the library.
In that case, answer choice G is also correct. Our students understand that addition and subtraction are inverse operations. Rather than thinking about this as 25 – __ = 13, answer choice G represents it as 13 + __ = 25, which is a completely valid way of determining the number of people still in the library.
I look forward to hearing TEA’s thoughts about this question. You can reach me at this email address or by phone.
Have a great day!

About a month later I still hadn’t received a response so I emailed again and got a call the next day. It turns out I wasn’t the only person who had submitted feedback about this question. Unfortunately, according to the person on the phone, after internal review TEA has decided not to take any action. However, they do acknowledge that the wording of this question could be better so they will do their best to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

I told her I wasn’t happy with that answer and that I would like to protest that decision. She didn’t think that’s possible, but she offered to pass my email along to her supervisor or ask the supervisor to call me. I asked for her supervisor to call me.

Surprisingly, my phone rang about two minutes later.

The supervisor asked me to go over my concern with her so I explained pretty much what I said in my email. She said she understood, but if we looked at G that way then all of the answer choices could potentially be right answers. This was confusing to me because I don’t think F would help you determine the answer at all. If anything it shows 25 + 13, which will not give you an answer of 12.

I stressed that my concern is that answer choice G is mathematically correct with regards to answering the question asked. I get that J is a closer match to representing the situation, and if the question had asked, “Which number line best represents the situation?” then I probably wouldn’t be emailing and calling.

But it doesn’t.

The question asks, ‘Which number line represents one way to determine the number of people who left the library?” If you know how to use addition to solve a subtraction problem, then answer choice G is totally a way to find the number of people who left the library.

She said that is a strategy, not a way of representing the problem.

“That’s exactly what a way is. How you would do something, your strategy,” I replied.

She decided to redirect the conversation, “Let’s look at the data on this question. 68% of students chose J. 9% chose F, 12% chose G, and 10% chose H. The data shows students weren’t drawn to choice G. It’s not a distractor that drew them from choosing J.”

“I don’t care about that. The number of students who selected G doesn’t change the fact that it’s mathematically correct. If anything we should give those students the benefit of the doubt because we don’t know why they picked it.”

“Exactly,” she replied. “We don’t know why they picked it, so we can’t assume they were adding.”

“That’s not okay. Since we don’t know why they picked it, we’re potentially punishing students who chose to use a perfectly appropriate strategy of addition to solve this problem. There are a lot of 3rd graders in Texas, and 12% of them is a large number of kids. Who knows if this is the one question they missed that could have raised their score to passing?”

From this point she steered the conversation back to the question and how J is still the best choice because this is a subtraction problem.

“But you aren’t required to subtract to solve it! We work really hard in our district to ensure our students have the depth of understanding necessary of addition and subtraction to know that they can add to find the answer to a subtraction problem. We want them to be flexible in how they choose to solve problems. And again, the question isn’t asking students which number line best matches the situation. It just asks for one way to find the number of people who left, and both G and J do that.”

She went back to her original argument that if I’m correct then all of the answer choices could be used to find the answer to the question. She talked about how choice F shows both parts of the problem, 25 and 13, so you could technically find the answer. I disagreed because you end up with a total distance of 38. There’s nothing that makes me see or think of the number 12.

We went round and round a few more times. She wasn’t budging, and I was having a hard time listening to her justifications. She assured me they were going to be much more diligent about how number lines are used in future questions, but this question was going to remain as-is because she believes J is the best answer.

The whole exchange left me livid. In some small way, TEA is acknowledging that this question is flawed, but they aren’t willing to do the right thing by either throwing it out or making it so either G or J could be counted as correct.

They’re just going to do better next time.

But we’re talking about a high stakes test! Our students, teachers, principals, and schools don’t get to just “do better next time.” They are held accountable for their scores now. They can be punished for their scores. People can be moved out of their jobs because of students’ scores. So much is at stake that if a question is this flawed, TEA should show compassion to our students, not stubbornness. They should admit that both answers are mathematically correct and update each students’ score.

Because we’re not talking about a small handful of kids.

12% may not sound like much, but when 327,905 students took this test, that means nearly 40,000(!) of them chose answer choice G. That’s 40,000 students who are being punished because of a poorly worded item that has two answers.

That’s not correct.

Play With Me

On Wednesday I had the chance to visit my first classroom this school year. Sadly, in my role as curriculum coordinator, I don’t get to do this nearly enough. So I relish opportunities like this. Even better than visiting, the teacher allowed me to play a math game with her class.

I had so much fun!

I wanted something simple and quick to get the kids engaged before moving on to another activity. I also wanted it to involve adding 3-digit numbers because her class is in the middle of a unit on that very topic. I also wanted to bring in some place value understanding and reasoning, which are very much related to adding multi-digit numbers.

Basically I brought two decks of cards – one had Care Bears on the back and the other had Spider-Man on the back. I wanted different backs to the cards so it would be easier to tell which cards were mine and which were my opponent’s in case we needed to reference them during or after the game. I also pulled out all of the 10s and face cards, with the exception of the aces. I kept those and we decided to use them as zeroes. I tell you this because if you ever want to play a game that involves digit cards, here is a great way to get some without having to painstakingly cut out cards to make your own sets. Decks of cards are cheap enough. Just use those.

The game was me vs. the class. The goal is to make two 3-digit numbers. Whoever has the greater sum wins. On my turn, I drew a card, and I had a choice of putting it blank spots that I used to create two 3-digit numbers. Once a digit was placed it couldn’t be moved. On the class’ turn, I drew the card for them, but I let them tell me where to place the digit.

My favorite part of the game was at the end when the kids started shouting out that they’d won without even finding the sum. Take a look and see why they got excited: (Just pretend I hadn’t written the sums yet. I took the picture after the game was over.)

20160914_115316

“You have a 9 and a 4 in the hundreds place. We have a 5 and a 9.”

“Interesting, and how does that tell you you’ve won?”

“Because the 9s are the same. And we have a 5 which is greater than 4. You should have put your 5 in the hundreds place.”

“I was hedging my bets and I lost.”

Such wonderful thinking from a 3rd grader! How often do students rush to calculate and find an answer to a problem? How amazing that these students were paying attention to the place value that matters most in these numbers – the hundreds – and then comparing the digits to determine who had a greater sum?

Since I was just the lead-in to the day’s activities we only got to play once, but I would have loved to play again. I would have liked to change it up a bit. I would still construct my number on the board, but then I would have allowed everyone to create their own number at their desk using the cards that I drew on their turn. At the end we would discuss who thinks they have the greatest sum and talk about their placement of digits.

Even though I didn’t get to play again, I’ll take the time I did have. It was the highlight of my week!

More Than Words

Yesterday Tracy Zager shared a heartbreaking post that every teacher should take a few minutes to read.

The gist of it is that teachers need to be mindful about the messages they send students and parents about learning and doing mathematics. Sometimes damaging messages come across in the form of words – “You may not talk to anyone as you work.” – but they also come across in our choices of lessons and activities we do in our classrooms – such as a long pre-assessment that most students will “fail” because they unsurprisingly don’t yet know the content from their new grade level.

But there’s hope! This Tweet sums it up nicely:

I’ve been especially encouraged while reading the latest blog posts from the members of my Math Rocks cohort. Back in July we watched Tracy’s Shadow Con talk. Afterward everyone took Tracy’s call to action to choose a word to guide their math planning at the start of the year.

Flash forward a month and the school year is finally getting underway. Our latest Math Rocks mission was to re-watch Tracy’s talk and to watch my own Shadow Con talk since the two are very much related. Then they had to choose one of our calls to action to follow and write a blog post reflecting on their experiences as they kicked off the school year.

The results have been so inspiring! I’ve collected all of their posts in this document. Take a look. Just reading the titles of their posts makes me happy, and if you go on to read them, I hope you’ll finish with as big of a smile on your face as I have.

Math Rocks Redux Part 1

This time last year, @reginarocks and I kicked off our inaugural Math Rocks cohort. We spent two awesome days of PD together with a group of 30 elementary teachers which you can read about here and here.

And this time this year, we kicked off our second Math Rocks cohort which you can read about in this very post!

20160725_082410

For those who want to stick to the present and not go back into last year’s posts, Math Rocks is our district cohort for elementary teachers to grow as math teachers. Our two focus goals for the year are building relationships around mathematics and fostering curiosity about mathematics. The cohort meets for two full days in July followed up by 9 after school sessions, September through January, and a final half day session together in February. It’s intense, but so rewarding to get to work with teachers for such an extended amount of time!

I want to write a post about this year’s Math Rocks cohort to give you some insight into what stayed the same and what changed. Now that we’ve gone through this once, we knew there were some things we wanted to tweak. Without further ado…

One thing that stayed the same was kicking off Math Rocks with a little Estimation 180! The purpose behind this was twofold. First, we did it as a getting-to-know-you activity. Once everyone was ready, we had them mingle and make friends while answering questions like:

  • What is an estimate that is too LOW?
  • What is an estimate that is too HIGH?
  • What is your estimate?
  • Where’s the math? and
  • Which grade levels could do this activity?

Second, throughout day 1 we snuck in a couple of activities like Estimation 180 that were created by members of the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (#MTBoS for short). Later in the day we introduced the cohort to the MTBoS, and it’s nice to be able to say, “Oh by the way, remember those Estimation 180 and Which One Doesn’t Belong? activities we did? Those are created by members of this community we’re introducing you to. Isn’t that awesome?!”

Last year we did a community circle after the Estimation 180 activity, but I scrapped it this year in order to streamline our day and add time for the biggest change to day 1, which I’ll talk about in a bit. Instead, we moved right into the ShadowCon15 talks from Tracy Zager and Kristin Gray that serve the purpose of setting up our two Math Rocks goals.

Just like last year, we had the participants reflect before Tracy’s video. They had to create three images that symbolized what math was like to them as a student. It’s fascinating (and concerning) to see how many images involve computation facts practice of some sort:

Even more fascinating (and sadly disturbing) was listening to participants’ horror stories about fact practice as a child. One person talked about the teacher hitting students on the back of the hand for getting problems wrong on timed tests. Another one said the teacher had everyone in class hiss at students who got problems wrong. Hiss! Can you believe that?!

We only made a slight change to this portion of the day. Last year we prefaced each video with a description we got from the ShadowCon site. This year I let the talks speak for themselves. It seemed more powerful to let Tracy and Kristin build their own arguments without priming the pump so much.

I mentioned earlier we left out the community circle in the morning to make room for the biggest change to day 1. Let me tell you about that. Introducing goal #2 leads us into one of the biggest components of Math Rocks, joining Twitter and creating a blog. In order to build relationships and foster curiosity, I want my teachers to experience being members of the MTBoS during their time in Math Rocks.

Last year I gave directions here and here on our Math Rocks blog. I shared the links to those two blog posts and set them loose to get started. To say we ran into problems is a vast understatement. I severely underestimated the support needed to get 30 teachers with widely varying comfort levels with technology connected to Twitter and blogging. No offense to them – they were great sports about it – but I definitely threw our first cohort in the deep end and I’m lucky (and thankful!) they all came back for day 2.

20160725_111254

This year I slowed things down quite a bit, and together we walked through the process of creating a Twitter account and a blog. I ended up spending about an hour and fifteen minutes on each part. That’s how much I learned from last year’s experience! Slow and steady wins this race. For those who were comfortable getting started on their own, I gave them their tasks up front here and here so they didn’t have to sit and wait for the rest of us.

Oh, that reminds me of another behind-the-scenes change this year. Instead of using a blog to share missions, I decided to try Google Classroom. I made separate assignments of creating a Twitter account and creating a blog, and the documents I linked in the previous paragraph were linked to those assignments. I haven’t done much else with Google classroom yet, so I’m not sure if it’s going to be a better choice or not, but so far it’s working out okay.

Doing all of that pretty much took up the rest of day 1, with the exception of a little Which One Doesn’t Belong? to give us a break between introducing Twitter and blogging.

20160725_141507

All in all, I’m happy we were able to keep so much of day 1 intact. I feel like the structure of it does a nice job of establishing our goals for the year and I’m happy I was able to find a way to get everyone connected to Twitter and blogging in a less stressful way.

Day 2, on the other hand, is completely different from last year, and I look forward to writing about that in my next post.

 

Writing Numberless Word Problems

So you came across my post on numberless word problems, you got excited by the idea, but you’re left wondering, “Where does he get the problems from?” Good question! I thought it was high time I answer it.

For starters, I try to avoid writing problems from scratch whenever possible. I can do it, and I have done it on numerous occasions, but I’ll be honest, it’s mentally exhausting if you have to write more than one or two problems in one sitting! It takes a lot of work to think of context after context for a variety of math topics, especially if you don’t want to feel like you’re reusing the same context over and over again.

I’ll let you in on a secret. More often than not, I base my questions on existing questions out in the world. I don’t reuse them wholesale, partly because I don’t want to infringe on copyright and partly because I don’t want to deprive teachers in my district of an existing problem they could be using with their students.

I always change names and numbers, and as needed I tweak the contexts and questions. This is so much easier than writing problems from scratch! Basing my problems on existing problems makes me feel like I’m starting 10-20 steps ahead of where I would have otherwise!

I’ll share a few problems I’ve created to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. I based all three of them off grade 3 2015 STAAR sample questions released by the Texas Education Agency.

Problem 1

Here’s the original problem:

 

Question3

First, I thought about how I could adjust the problem to make it my own:

  • I decided to change the character to Jenise.
  • I changed “flowers” to “carrot plants.”
  • I changed 21 to 24. I did this intentionally because 24 has so many factors. You’ll see how this plays out when you get to the sample questions I created later.
  • I removed the number 3 altogether. Again, this plays out later when I created questions about the situation.

Note: This step is only necessary if you want to create a unique problem. The released tests are free to be used, so you could just as easily convert this exact problem into a numberless word problem. Again, I don’t want to steal resources from my teachers so I’m opting to change this into a new problem.

Next, I think about how I want to scaffold presenting the information in the problem. I create slides, one for each phase of revealing information. Remember, the purpose of a numberless word problem is to give students an opportunity to collaboratively identify and make sense of mathematical relationships in a situation before being presented with a question. There are several factors that dictate how much or how little new information to present on each slide:

  • Students’ attention span
  • Students’ familiarity with the type of situation being presented
  • Students’ familiarity with the math concepts involved in the situation

Here’s how I broke down this question into 4 slides:

Slide 13-1

Slide 23-2

Slide 33-3

Slide 43-4

Thinking this would be used in a 3rd grade classroom, I opted to break it down quite a bit to draw emphasis on the language of “rows” and “same number in each row.” If I already knew my students were comfortable connecting this language to multiplication and division, then I probably would have combined slides 2 and 3 into one slide.

At this point, I stop and think about what question I want to ask about the full situation on slide 4. If I were a teacher, I might select a question and keep it in my pocket. After discussing slide 4, I’d ask my students what questions they think could be asked about this situation. Students need opportunities to generate problems for themselves, not just be told the problems we expect them to solve. I could allow them to answer their own question before answering the one I had planned (or instead of!).

Here are a few questions I generated that I might ask about this situation:

3-q

This is where changing 21 to 24 in the problem adds some richness to the potential questions I could ask about this situation. This is also the reason I removed the number 3 from the original problem. Not specifying the number of rows allowed me more flexibility to ask about either the number of rows or the number of plants in each row.

Problem 2

Here’s the original problem:

Question2

I like this problem, so I didn’t want to change it too much. Here are the changes I decided to make. Remember, I always change names and numbers; context and question are tweaked as necessary.

  • I changed the character to Mrs. Prentice.
  • I changed the food from “yoghurt cups” to “pints of ice cream.”
  • I changed the flavors to chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.
  • I changed all three numbers. However, I noted that there was a way to make ten (6 + 4) in the ones, tens, and hundreds places across the 3 numbers, so I tried to create a similar structure in my numbers with 3 + 7.

With those changes, here’s how I scaffolded the problem across 5 slides:

Slide 12-1

Slide 22-2

Slide 32-3

Slide 42-4

Slide 52-5

Depending on my students, I might have combined slides 4 and 5. Keeping them separate means I can play it safe. I can reveal each number one at a time, but I can also breeze through slides 3 and 4 if the situation warrants it and spend more time talking about all three numbers on slide 5.

And finally, it’s time to think of some potential questions that can be asked about this situation:

2-q

By the way, this is a great time to point out that I don’t have to pick just one! I spent valuable time crafting the situation and my students will spend valuable time making sense of the situation. Milk it for all it’s worth!

I could pose one question today for students to solve and discuss. Tomorrow we could revisit the same situation, maybe just talking about slide 5 together to jog our memories, and then I could give them another question to solve about this situation. I could even pose 2-3 questions and let the students choose which one they want to solve. Be creative!

Problem 3

Here’s the original problem:

Question1

I like this one because I’m able to take a 3rd grade problem and make it fit concepts for grades 3-5. In this case, I didn’t change as much of the original problem because the context is so simple. Here are the 3 slides I created to scaffold presenting the information:

Slide 11-1

Slide 21-2

Slide 31-3

It’s important to remember that the power of a numberless word problem lies in the conversation students have as you reveal each new piece of information. That conversation is driven by the questions you ask as more and more information is revealed. Here are sample questions you could use as you discuss each slide of a numberless word problem:

  • What do you know?
  • What information have you been given?
  • What do you understand about the information given?
  • What kind of problem could this be?
  • What information do you know now?
  • Does this new information help you?
  • What does the new information tell you?
  • How does the new information change or support your thinking?
  • What operation(s) does this situation make you think about?
  • What kinds of questions could be asked about this situation? (This can be asked on several slides, not just the final one.)

The fun part for this particular situation was thinking of all the different questions I could ask:

1-q

So there you have it – three very different examples of numberless word problems. As cool as I think numberless word problems are, please note that not every problem needs to be a numberless word problem. We have to be intentional about when and how much we provide scaffolding to our students. However, knowing about this type of problem is a great tool to have in your belt when you’re looking for ways to help your students develop a deeper understanding of the mathematical relationships in real life situations.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments!

[UPDATE – I’ve made a page on my blog devoted to numberless word problems. Check it out for more resources.]