What Makes A Circle, A Circle?

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In the seventh grade curriculum, geometry studies are few and far between. Sometimes students will stumble upon a textbook question regarding angles, triangles, area, or perimeter, but there is little exposure in isolation of geometric properties in our grade level. (Of course, all mathematical concepts are connected, but I digress). In our school, 6th grade is the year for circles, so we were advised to insert a review or to backfill for any or all students who possibly did not receive exposure to the concept. This makes it tricky when some students have lots of experience and other students have none or simply no memory of it. And although this might sound like an unusual problem to someone without 25 or more different personalities in class, it is often par for the course for every teacher and student each day. Some concepts are completely mastered by some students, others are sort of remembered, a few have surpassed curriculum expectations through independent study, and some have no recollection, regardless of the topic at hand. The reasons are plentiful. We as teachers all do our best to expose students to topics that they will claim they never saw, even if we previously taught it to them in the same year! The question is: how do we as teachers prevent this scenario?

We are supposed to be able to differentiate for all levels and reach all students in every lesson. Although I try via various modalities and methods, I have yet to figure out how to accomplish this with fidelity each day. However, one method that I find differentiation is embedded, is in well-developed three act tasks. Today, I used Dan Meyer’s Best Circle task. Here is a link: http://threeacts.mrmeyer.com/bestcircle/.

I am sure there are lots of different ways to utilize this lesson, which I would love to hear about from you if this fact applies. All I can share is what I did with it.

In the first act, four different gentlemen draw a circle. I paused the video clip and asked students to vote on which of the four circles was the best circle. I wrote the names of the circle creators (Chris, Timon, Andrew, and Nathan) on the board. Immediately, Chris received most of the votes. Students let me know it looked the least like an oval. I did not agree or disagree with their comment, but simply repeated, “Ok, less like an oval than the rest, got it.” I then asked, “Is that a true defense?” Students shrugged and expressed that they thought it was as good a reason as they could collectively argue at that point in time. Other than that, students did not have much to sustain their reasoning for choosing Chris. Although they would find out that the majority of their initial guesses was the correct one, a good math teacher always asks, “but why?” A student excited about math wants to be able to answer that question. And boy, were they interested.

Next, I assigned a new task to the students by asking a question: What makes a circle, a circle? I gave them about 10 minutes to determine the answer to this question. They were permitted to use their Chromebooks, textbooks, and each other to come up with research and data to support their opinions.  Students were allowed to revise their original hypothesis based on any information they found.

Work options were offered. Some students worked independently, others partnered with one student, and some collaborated with a group of three or four peers. One student spotted compasses on my desk and asked if he could use it. He went up to the board where the frozen screen shot with the circles remained. He slowly used the compass on each circle. As students researched and revisited words like equidistant, radius, and diameter, I was asked if they could go to the board and use a ruler to take measurements of the circles. When one student witnessed another student trying it out, she commented, “Oh, that is a good idea.” She joined the student, and then another and before my eyes, students formed a small cohort within the class in front of the screen shot with the four circles. Students began debating each other what part of the circle they should measure and whether or not they could make determinations from their measurements. Some were discussing the midpoint, others radius, hemispheres, quadrants, circumference, etc. A few were cheering themselves for their initial guess and others were disappointed that new information changed their previous prediction. When the 10 minutes was up, I shared act 2 with the additional information provided by the lesson. Students were asked whether the area, circumference and coordinate points of the circle were offered for each circle would provide a clue to help solve the problem. This is where it came out that students recalled very little in the way of formulas and the inner workings of a circle from previous learning. I showed them the resolution (the third act), but I quickly realized we weren’t done with the task today. There is so much left to dissect, I did not even want to enter into the explanation Dan provided in the teacher guide. They weren’t ready.
I do have a bit of formal review to do with students, perhaps a day or two of lessons, but we will return to this three act lesson to see if students can in fact determine why the best circle was in fact the best circle. The quick review will come…ahem…full circle. Maybe, just maybe at this time in the next school year, students will still remember some details about what makes a circle a circle.

Stealing from Dan Meyer…again!


Recently, the great Dan Meyer started a strand on his blog called Pseudo-Context Saturday. He shows an image from a math textbook and invites his readers to guess the extremely contrived math context behind the question. It is a challenge right up my alley because I cannot stand contrived word problems that try to convince students that the math I teach them will be useful. All problem solving is useful because life is all about problem solving, so there.

I have enjoyed trying to guess the context, so I thought, if I like to do this, maybe my students would like to as well. Recently, I tried an altered version of this activity where I simply ask student in big bold letters to “Guess the question.” It is not exactly like Dan Meyer’s activity because students already know the context of the day. However, I displayed an image and asked them to guess the question that matched the image. I offered the closest guesser a prize. It went over very well, so I tried other versions. Students have been shown a calculation and an image side-by-side. In addition, I have provided them a context and background (without the image) and asked them to guess the exact question and/or the image. This small tweak is so much more powerful than simply giving students the contrived problems from the book. This easily adaptable exercise promotes student thinking and empowers them to make their own connection between context and procedure. Dan Meyer, you have done it again!

So go ahead, you try it. Guess the context and/or question that goes with the image displayed in this entry from our textbook. Don’t worry, I will provide the answer later. Just another piece of evidence that proves that math is fun!

Is The Common Core Just Misunderstood?

commoncorelogo-color2Please forgive me if you hate the words Common Core. I don’t try to go out of my way to write about something controversial, but I know the potential firestorm for this topic. My first question to all those that abhor the Common Core is:  Do you every wonder why the Common Core came to light? Although I have background knowledge, I quickly did an Internet search to see what explanations abounded. Terms popped up like, ‘college ready’, ‘consistent expectations for all regardless of zip code,’ ‘national standards,’ etc.

There are a lot of people, both in and out of the education field that hate that explanation, so it is not one that I will support in this entry. Preparing students for the real world, yes, obviously that is something that we focus on as much as possible, but what does that even mean? The meaning probably depends on whom you are speaking with. All I can offer is my interpretation. I want to prepare students to think critically and deeply about any problem, whether numbers are involved or not. My hope is that students analyze problems carefully and reflect seriously about all options before trying to attack any problems in the “real world.” I think the Common Core actually helps with that objective.

Please allow me to offer my classroom perspective. I have been teaching math to students for 15 years. 10 years was in an elementary setting, and the last 5 have been in the middle school.  Within that 15 year span, teaching philosophies (as well as several math programs) have come and gone. Throughout all of the math trials and tribulations, one consistency remained; students were not retaining the math. I know this is not just a phenomenon I have witnessed, because if it were, there would be no Common Core. The traditional way of teaching math would involve students learning an isolated concept. After learning it, students would study it for several weeks with lots of practice examples. The examples might be peppered with some derived textbook problems and culminate with a test. This is how I was taught and I know how many of you were taught as well.

Immediately after the test, many students would promptly forget about the past concept(s) and move on to another topic. Some of the details would re-emerge as necessary, but many students would notice that previously learned concepts drifted out of their minds after moving on to another topic. There was little transfer of knowledge from the temporary memory to long-term memory storage in the brain. Some students would retain rote procedures, and be promptly labeled as math people. Those who were unable to remember were labeled another way.

This was and continues to be a huge problem. Math concepts build on one another. They only have the opportunity to do so when students actively make connections from one concept to another in experiences where they witness the fluidity. For those who label The Common Core as fluff and not real math, please allow me to assure you that it was not designed to eliminate the algorithms. In everything I have studied, the algorithm (procedures we all learned growing up) is still the goal.  The difference between direct procedural teaching and problem based learning is that students receive the opportunity to investigate the why first.  The investigation allows students the chance to actively make mathematical connections with the ‘why’ to the procedure. Often, when students are given a problem, it creates the interest in the procedure that would never have been there if it were the only teaching point. What does this mean for our students? Instead of promptly forgetting procedural math, visual and problem based learning allows students to double down on their understanding and have the option to not only solve a specific problem in a unit, but provides students with tools to figure out how to solve all problems as efficiently as possible.

One of the largest obstacles of this philosophy is the incredible push back against it. This does not just come from parents, but also from fellow teachers. Change is hard, no doubt about it, but I have seen with my own eyes the difference between students memorizing a procedure versus deeply understanding why they are using it. The difference is stark. The reality is that the transition has not been easy and we all feel the growing pains together. But fear not…

I truly believe that I am a much better math teacher today than I was 5 years ago. I can imagine and hope I will be that much more effective in 5 years compared with the way I teach today. This means my students will be better prepared for that scary real world we love to discuss. I credit my continued improvement to the Common Core because of my virtual colleagues. Math superstars like Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer, Robert Kaplinsky, Fawn Nguyen, Yeap Ban Har, and Andrew Stadel were likely brought together by The Common Core initiative. Thanks to social media and passion, we now have resources that allow us to collectively and positively impact our students’ minds.

I accept that challenge. The question is…do all of you? If the answer is yes, please stop picking apart The Common Core or shuddering at the mere mention of the term as if it were ‘Voldemort’ from Harry Potter. The Common Core’s evolution came from student necessity. It is time that we work together to address the ongoing needs of our students, parent communities, and even the frustrations when we fall short. Two words should not undermine our purpose nor our passion that were actually developed to ignite them both.

It’s Summer Vacation and I Can’t Shut Off my Teacher Brain…

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This past year of teaching was revolutionary for me. After years of reading articles, books, and receiving tiny amounts of professional development that may or may not have made an impact on my brain, I evolved. No, seriously. I went from surviving the changes perpetually implemented by the powers that be to balancing those while making hundreds of my own. Granted some were successful and others, not so much…but I digress.

It seems that all of the pieces of advice that were dribbling into my brain finally congealed. Yes, I now have the big picture of what math instruction should look like, until additional research convinces me to change everything again.

I started this past year with one crazy goal. My goal was to make all of my lessons  fantastic experiences for both the students and myself. You know the ones I am talking about teachers. I am referring to class periods where you look around the room and every single student is engaged and no one looks bored. These kinds of lessons provide uninterrupted time frames where no one is staring at the clock; understanding is elevated, amazing questions and inquiry is running amok, and where students actually feel disappointment when the bell has rung. I wanted (ok, still do) every lesson to be like that.

After reading Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler and taking two of her courses this summer, it fully hit me that an engaging lesson is the tip of the iceberg. I suppose I knew this already, but my understanding became deeper. Math instruction is not only about the individual lessons, just as math itself is not about the individual concepts. What my job is really about, is to help students to see math as a fluid subject. Students need to seek out patterns and find the connections so that one lesson (as engaging as it is) does not halt the learning of a concept after the bell has rung. Instead, each lesson should enhance previous learning and build stronger conceptual knowledge and deeper understanding among the connectivity of mathematical concepts.

So, now what? I need to find a way to make that connectedness a focus this year. Now that I see the picture this clearly, I have to find a way to structure my lessons to match. Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, Robert Kaplinsky, Jo Boaler, I look to you for inspiration and resources. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have lots of resources already, but I want more.

The problem is I am supposed to be on vacation.  Is it wrong to spend an entire summer vacation fine tuning my professionalism? It is not that I haven’t done summer work before, but so far, every free day I have had; has been filled up with my math passion. As I read, research, and participate in more conversations about math, I find myself unable to slow down. My thirst for additional math and educational knowledge cannot be quenched!

For now, I am going to embrace the passion and curiosity I have for my own profession. Let’s be honest, the moment I really feel like I have a handle on my profession is likely the moment that I don’t belong in it any longer.

Flipping my Teaching, Not Just my Classroom

My teaching approach is getting flipped upside down…repeatedly.

It all started with my on-line introduction to Yeap Ban Har’s discussion on number bonds. Here is the link for anyone interested:  Number Bonds . This was the first time my mathematical mind was blown. Throughout my years teaching elementary school, I had stumbled across multiple approaches in computation, but never had the pitfalls of memorizing procedures and algorithms without context been succinctly explained. This is literally a 2 minute 50 second video!

This one youtube video launched my researching life. Don’t get me wrong, I had always tried to search for great lessons, etc., but this was the first time I felt like I was (for lack of better explanation) doing everything wrong in my teaching.

The timing for this epiphany was not super as I was pregnant with my second child and about to take the majority of the school year off to take care of my baby. In between changing diapers, cleaning spit up, and a very snowy winter trapped in the house, any spare moment was spent investigating better ways to teach math. Fast forward through 10 months massive sleep deprivation, the trials and tribulations (and wonder) of having two children instead of one, and intermittent mathematical research, I was back in my classroom wondering what to change first.

I have written a post about my first foray into 3-act math, as the great Dan Meyer was also a new discovery to me during my maternity leave/initial research period. Not only did I “meet” Dan Meyer, I also was “virtually” introduced to Andrew Stadel, Robert Kaplinksy, Jo Boaler, and of course, the DESMOS and MTBOS communities. Although I have never actually met any of these mathematicians in person, this growing group of educators provides me with daily inspiration.

Throughout this year, many 3 act lessons have made their way into my classroom. One that I recently completed, Robert Kaplinsky’s Zoolander had me questioning if what I was doing was working. Were these lessons as amazing I thought? Did they provide students with a context that made the experience and math meaningful? Were students making connections in their brains? Was I providing enough structure? In short:  effective or not?

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Whenever I try something new, it is normal for me to question myself. Acknowledging this fact, I can see that this has been a wonderful transformation for my teaching and math learning for my students. These lessons have had a major impact and I know this from events in the last few weeks. Several weeks after the Starburst lesson by Dan Meyer and the Zoolander lesson by Robert Kaplinsky, my students were referencing them in math conversations in the hallway and classroom. You read that right, the hallway!!! Apparently there was a question on the standardized test about scale models and the students were discussing how easy it was compared to the work they had to do in the Zoolander lesson. Another student commented that the Zoolander lesson helped them really understand the concept better than any book and that was why the question was so easy. I rest my case.

The Starburst lesson initiated a debate about sample space. A passionate debate! When does this happen from a textbook example? I have no reference for that. In short, these lessons make a difference.


At the same time I have felt success achieved in my teaching and by my students, it has also been an immense struggle for me professionally. This is especially poignant with my lower performing students. How do I convince them to believe in themselves and see the beauty in mathematics? If they don’t know the basics, can they still participate in these lessons with confidence? How often will they give the line of, “I don’t understand” in lieu of a rigorous debate with their peers and investigative excitement?

In all honesty, I have experienced both ends of the participation specturm from lower achieving students. Although I had read numerous and convincing articles by Jo Boaler, I only just obtained a copy of her wondrous book Mathematical Mindsets. As I am reading it, I am shouting, “YES! Oh my goodness, I agree! And then in the next minute I am asking, “How can I do this every day? When does procedural math come in to play, does it?” What does this look like lesson by lesson, day by day? Does it transform the students the way she says it does? I am so IN and can’t get enough, period.

As I was researching youcubed, I noticed an opportunity for the summer to attend a workshop with Jo Boaler in California. At this time, I cannot afford to fly to California, pay for the workshop and a hotel room, not to mention the childcare issue, but oh to dream. I am going to take Boaler’s courses through youcubed and finish her book soon. Every free moment I have is spent reading, taking notes, and rereading it. It is my current math bible.Jo Boaler's book

I do not have a neat and tidy way to wrap up this blog post. Once again, I am asking the mathematical world for a conversation about balancing the math classroom. Have you read Jo Boaler’s books? Have you tried 3-act math? What were your successes? What were your failures? How can we work together to keep the math conversation evolving and growing? Anyone else in? Leave a comment, tweet me at @drpolakmath, or send me an e-mail at mpolak@ridgefield.org. The larger our community, the greater our collective success in helping all students achieve in mathematics. Who is with me?