International Day of the Girl 2019


16839b616fc57ba94a01508efd925f96Today is International Day of the Girl.   It is intended to focus on the needs and challenges that girls face.   In some places around the globe, those challenges are central to their very survival.   In other places, the challenges are not quite as large and all-encompassing but they are never-the-less very real.

Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about what girls need in a math classroom.  My list derives from the lessons that my girls have taught me.

Girls need each other.   There is a lot of research about the effects of stereotype threat and how it plays out in terms of performance (I highly recommend Claude Steele’s book, Whistling Vivaldi).   Every year, I see the truth of it in my classes, no matter how hard I work to mitigate it.

Somehow, every year the magic of the master schedule hands me one class that is 75% female and several classes where the class is 70% male.   Every year, there is magic in the air of that mostly girl class that produces tremendous growth in each and every one of the students (including the boys).    I think that the girls feel safer taking academic risks and growth comes with that venturing forth.   I also think that the class becomes an incredibly collaborative place during that hour.

While I can’t give each of my girls the gift of a classroom dominated by girls, I try to give them as much of that magic as I can.     I could choose to mix up my table groups and use the girls to help manage classroom behavior, but I don’t.   I choose instead to make my table-groupings single-gender groupings.   A few years ago, I started asking the girls in the boy-dominant classes if this was something that they would prefer.   Every single time, the girls have chosen to stick together.

Girls (all kids, really, but especially girls) need the chance to make sense of math.   It is not enough for most of them to learn a set of procedures or sequential steps.   They need to see how ideas fit together and why things work.  If they are given the chance to explore ideas and to look for connections, they discover that they are good at math.   Too many of them (even though they are Gifted) have to learn the oh,so important lesson that everyone can be good at math.

Girls need time to do math.   When I take away the pressure to work quickly, girls are free to think more deeply and they perform better.   They thrive when they get the message that “good at math” does not equate to speed, especially when I back that message  up with instructional choices (e.g., letting them stay after class to finish a test or come in during lunch to get an early start so that they don’t feel so much pressure during the test).

Girls need to know that I believe in them.   Girls need to be asked the hard questions, not just the easy ones.   They need to know that I know they can answer them and will stick with them until they do.   They need to know that I know just how capable they are.

Girls need to know that math makes a difference.   Seeing how math makes a difference in the world, how it can make the world a better place, makes math more meaningful for girls.

Girls need to know that it is OK to make mistakes.  Girls have often received the message that they have to be perfect.     They need to know that perfection isn’t all it is cracked up to be.   They need to know that making mistakes and then figuring out where the miss-step or misunderstanding is can be incredibly powerful.   They need to learn that mistakes can be fixed.   They need to learn to be brave, sometimes even fearless.

Today, on International Day of the Girl, and everyday, here’s to all the  girls that are learning to be brave and bold and strong and discovering that they can indeed do anything.


Who do you think you are?

Middle school is a time when kids start to ask some fundamental questions about themselves.   They grapple with big ideas.   “Who am I really?,”   is not something they utter aloud but it is something that creeps into their world.   They grapple with this question as they navigate changes in friend groups and explore new extracurricular activities.   They ponder it as they walk into classrooms and dive into curriculum.   It rattles around in the recesses of their mind as they walk the tightrope between childhood and adolescence, figuring out the push and pull of their relationship with their parents, trying to grow up but not yet quite ready to do so.

As I get to know students each year, I grapple with the same question about each of my students.    “Who do you think you are and who are you really?”    To begin to find the answer to that question, I give my students a survey during the first week of school.   I ask them a number of questions, but there are two that I always find most telling.   I ask them whether they like math and give them a continuum to select (make an x on a line scoring themselves from 1 – I hate math to 10  – I love math).   I also ask them whether they think they are good at math and give them a continuum to select (make an x on a line scoring themselves from 1 – I am terrible at math to 10 – I am amazing at math).

This year, the responses from two of my students on these two questions stood out.   Both of the students were girls.

The first student indicated that she sees herself as good at math but that she hates it.  This struck me because most 6th grade students equate “liking” math with “being good at math” or “hating” math with “not being good at math”.    I don’t agree with the coupling of these two things, but I understand why most entering 6th graders tie them together.   I find myself wondering why this particular young woman feels this way and wondering how it came about.    I wonder if she doesn’t like it because someone made it tedious and boring rather letting her discover its richness.   I wonder if she was the only girl in group of boys who made her feel uncomfortable.   I wonder whether her experiences as a student of color has impacted her feelings.   I wonder what she likes and how I can bring that into our class.

The second student indicated that she sees herself as not very good at math (this young woman has been identified as being “gifted” in math)  and as not liking it.    I wonder what experiences brought her to this conclusion.    I wonder if she thinks that being good at something means it should be easy or if something happened to shake her belief in herself.   I wonder if she has somehow gotten the idea that fast means good.   I wonder if she knows how deeply she is thinking when I ask her why and she explains her thinking.

As I consider who these two girls think that they are, I wonder if I will be successful in helping them find a slightly different answer to that question.   I certainly intend to try.

What Mathematicians Do…..

During the last five minutes of class today, I asked my students to write.   I asked them to write about what mathematicians do.   Here are a few of the things that I saw when I was peeking over shoulders.

Make mistakes but stick with a problem until they get it. 

Notice patterns.

Explain their thinking.

Figure out new ways to solve a problem. 

Find creative ways to solve a problem. 

Talk to each other. 

Help each other.  



Not a bad start.   Not bad at all.


Dabbling with Desmos

Desmos has been something that I have wanted to explore for several years.   I have had good intentions to put aside some time and play with it.   That time has never materialized, though, for a number of reasons.  When I looked over the schedule for NCTM’s Annual Conference last spring and saw Ivan Chang’s (@drivancheng) session How to Desmoify Your Math Lesson to Promote a Growth Mindset, I made sure to build it into my schedule.

The session was really well done.   The presenters built in time to play within the software and gave great guidance on building  a lesson for Desmos.   They talked through the idea of starting the plan for the lesson on paper, making it dynamic, and doing multiple iterations.   They talked through good pedagogy (building the lesson to start with discovery and sense-making, moving on to solidify understanding, and then formalizing the concept).   They demonstrated how student work can be projected in real time and how it can be anonymized to protect student privacy and ensure that there is academic safety.

When I returned home, I decided that I want to begin by using some Desmos lessons that have already been curated.   I picked three lessons that pertain to CCSS standards relevant to my course from their “favorites” list to try.

  1.   Battle Boats – This is a lesson on graphing on the coordinate plane.   Usually, I have students play Battleship when I teach this concept, so this is an extension of that idea that uses Desmos.   I think it will be an easy entry point for our first foray into Desmos.
  2. Inequalities on the Number Line – This is a great lesson that enables students to construct an understanding of how/why the graph of an inequality comes about as they plot points on the number line that fulfill the inequality and then see how the graphs change when all the points their classmates also plotted are added to the number line.  I really like the way that it builds the idea of a ray as the solution set and the way that it builds the idea of a closed or open circle.
  3. Graphing Stories – This is a nice lesson matching graphs to stories.   It is similar in concept to a lesson that I already teach.   After looking at this lesson, I decided to use this as a model of sorts for creating my own first Desmos lesson.     I like the idea that if it crashes and burns, there is a back up plan for second period.   Thus far, I have built the introduction to the lesson and a card sort activity.   I still need to build a closing formative assessment.

In building my first Desmos lesson, I learned how to build graphs with complicated step functions using their software in order to get the graphs that I wanted.  I also learned how to build a card sort in Desmos.   Given that, even if I decide the lesson isn’t as good as the existing lesson in the Desmos “favorites”  and that it would be better to use their lesson rather than my own, I feel like the time was well-spent.

Gravity Maze – Learning to Work Backwards

This year, I am attempting to teach my students problem solving strategies in a slightly different way than I have in the past.   They will be playing with games and puzzles that uncover specific problem-solving strategies.   As we debrief the game play, my hope is that we will be able to de-privatize their thinking and everyone will gain experience with these different problem-solving strategies.

Gravity Maze is a game by ThinkFun that challenges players to construct a three-dimensional maze utilizing a specific set of parts.   The goal is to put a marble in the  “start” position and have it run through the maze in such a way that it ends in the “end” position.    For each challenge, there is a specified start point and end point on the board.  Players then must determine how to construct the three-dimensional maze going from start to finish using the specified parts for that particular challenge.   When they think they have accomplished the task, they test the maze by depositing a marble in the “start” piece and seeing if it ends up on the “end” piece.

As is true of many problem-solving challenges, there is more than one way to complete the task.   However, “working backwards” from the end back towards the start is pretty effective for many of the challenges.   As the class debriefs play with this puzzle, I am hoping that the discussion will bring out the “work backwards” problem solving strategy (among the other strategies that students may also use).

Scars Left Behind


Curiosity and excitement fill their young faces.   There is a growing look of confidence and increasing sense of calm.   There are also a few traces of fatigue.  ( Starting middle school can be exhausting.)   On some faces, I also see the traces of scars left behind from days and years  past.

Some of the scars, they have begun to share.   Some have written that they don’t think they are good at math even though they clearly are if I can see it after only three days together.   Some have written that they think they are good at math but that they hate it.   I find myself awake in the small hours wondering what must have happened to make them feel this way.    Others have written bits of the stories that have left scars that won’t soon heal.

Some of the scars, they have kept hidden probably out of self-preservation.      Some of those scars are from a time so long ago that they may not even remember and some are so fresh that I know they must still be raw.   They don’t know that the events that left those scars in their lives also touched me.   I have known their families on some level for a very long time.   I have seen them as preschoolers and elementary children trailing along behind as their parents came for IEPs or conferences.   I am sure they don’t remember me from those early days, but I remember them.   I remember them “before” and I am only beginning to get to know them “after”.   They don’t know that while my scars from those events don’t cut as deep, the events that caused those scars will never leave me.

As this new year dawns,   I am left with an overwhelming sense that this year is important.  Every year is important, but this one feels especially so.    I feel the weight of the responsibility before me.

A New First Day for A New Year

Today, we went on a quest.    It seemed like a good way to start our year together.   I hope my students will see this whole year as a quest, filled with puzzles and challenges, problems to solve, twists and turns and surprises, a grand adventure.   So, we began as I hope we will continue.

Our quest began with a puzzle to solve.    Each table group of four was a given a set of five envelops (one for each person and one to be shared by the table).   The challenge was to use the pieces in the envelops to collaboratively build five equal-sized squares.   The catch is that no single envelop contained the pieces to build a square.   They must work together to achieve the goal.   There were a couple of strings attached to the puzzle.  First, a team member can’t take a piece from another person.   They can, however, offer a piece to someone.   Second, each team member has to play a specific role.   The role is determined by the card on their desk.   There are four different roles:   Look Ma, No Hands (you can’t use your hands during the challenge);  Speak No Evil (you can’t talk during the challenge) ;  See No Evil (you must do the challenge while blindfolded); Mean Girls (everything you say must be mean).

(You can read more about this non-verbal problem-solving task here.  )  When a team successfully completed this challenge, they received this clue.


They had to decipher the clue in order to find their second task, which was to discover the ground rules for our class.   IMG_0409

Here, they found the task tucked behind the poster.


Once they completed the task and deciphered this clue , they arrived at the next challenge.


After solving the Tower of Hanoi and receiving the clue to next station,  students arrived at the next station.  After finding the clue and completing the task (collecting the parent letter and survey),  they then had to find the next clue.


This directed them to their final destination for today’s class.


Students learned some of the lessons of how our class will work and discovered some of the important places in our classroom.   They did the exploring, the thinking and the talking.   I was just there to give them a little coaching when they got stuck.     It was a good day and a good beginning on our much larger quest.