Back in the Saddle … or Back in the Classroom

Yesterday was my 5th opening day here at my current school and my 28th overall as a teacher. I was speaking with a senior who was a little melancholy that this was her last first day of high school. I let her know it was my 32nd first day of high school so she might have more ahead if she chooses.

There are quite a few changes this year for me. Last year our parents association agreed to help fund an AppleTV cart for my room. I now have an iPad that I am trying to learn to navigate and I have a lovely color TV to project GeoGebra, TED Talks, my new Geometry book, class notes and activities, etc. I rearranged my room for maximum viewing space, got rid of two clunky old file cabinets, and I fully intend to get rid of at least one bookshelf soon to create more space. I rearranged my AP Stats curriculum based on helpful suggestions by Josh Tabor and @majorfstats. I have never been much of a room design guy but the fantastic @mathymeg07 designed some fantastic posters for me so my room is adorned with messages for my students. The biggest change and challenge for me by far will be my Geometry course. I blogged about this recently. I wrote a text for our school’s students to use. This summer was taken up with trying to blend years of thoughts about Geometry with recent advances in my own understanding of GeoGebra. Thanks to the help of some twitter pals (especially @jensilvermath, @mathhombre, @mathbutler, and @a_mcsquared) I’ve been making some progress in my mastery of GeoGebra. I hope that my flashy new AppleTV, my PDF text with link outs to applets on GeoGebraTube and to blogs with great activities, and my enthusiastic younger students will lead to a great year in this course. I already have my first piece of editing advice from a student about one of my diagrams. I’m going to work hard at not being thin skinned and looking at all suggestions as ways to make this a terrific text.

So, we’re only two days in but I already have had a number of really terrific conversations with my students. A couple of Calculus BC kids have especially wowed me already. I hand out a problem set on the first day and ask them to work in small groups. I’m not a fan of going over a syllabus on day one. It bores me to tears and I suspect it saps a good deal of enthusiasm from my students as well. This problem set is designed simply as a way to shake off some rust and give me an opportunity to eavesdrop and begin to understand how my Calculus students think. I wrote last year about how I had one VERY quiet class and one interactive class. This year I only have one group of BC students and I think that they’ll be willing to share. I did two of the ten problems on the board and students did the other eight. I was thrilled to see some students use old precalculus knowledge on the ellipse problem and I saw a couple of different approaches to the logarithm problem. My favorite work that I saw from them today involved a minimization problem and a square root curve. I had a student solve this minimum distance question with no calculus at all. He wrote the appropriate distance formula and made a substitution so it was a square root with a quadratic function inside. He then completed the square to factor the quadratic and said ‘I know that this square expression is never smaller than zero, so the distance is smallest when the square quantity equals zero.’ Lovely, lovely work and I appreciate that approach rather than the automatic reaction of differentiating. Don’t get me wrong, I want my students to remember their calculus from last year, but this kind of analysis really makes me happy.

I start my day with my younger Geometry students and they too seem more than willing to engage in conversations so far. It is fun to teach a class that doesn’t feel quite as serious and important as the AP classes can sometimes feel. I’m especially excited to think about the fact that I’ll et to spend time with them watching them develop into better thinkers and then I may get to see them on the other side as they prepare to graduate. I have not had that opportunity as often recently as I want to.

So, nothing major here (yet) but I am certainly happy to be done with meetings and get back to the classroom.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation…

One of the committees I serve on at our school is a group consisting of department chairs and other academic leaders at the school. Late in the winter of this past school year our administration approached this group with an offer/request. A little background first will set the stage. A number of years ago our current science department chair wrote his own set of class notes for his Chemistry Honors class. Since I have been at the school I have seen students with three 3-ring binders (one for each trimester) that contain their Chem Honors notes. These are legendary at our school by this point. Our administration approached this curriculum group and asked if anyone was interested in creating something similar for one of the courses in their department. My department was already in the process of searching for new texts for Geometry and for Precalculus Honors. There were some precalc texts which made us happy enough, but there was little agreement for the Geometry search. I have also been trying to move myself in our curriculum so that I would teach some younger students. I have mostly been teaching AP Statistics and AP Calculus in my four years at our school. This offer seemed like a way for me to work with younger kids AND begin to create a Geometry book that we would be happy with. One that would grow and adjust as we worked with it. So, I took on this challenge and spent most of my summer writing a Geometry book. I leaned heavily on the wisdom of our MTBoS army and I scoured the web for activity ideas (many of which are living in my Virtual Filing Cabinet here) to try and enrich the book. I have always been bothered that students seem to treat their math texts as simply a source of HW exercises and not as a resource to help learn the material. So, I chose to include very little in the way of practice exercises in the text. I will be working with two of my department colleagues to put together HW assignments and activities to help make this course come alive for our students. Writing this was a great deal of work and I am reasonably proud of it at this point. It’s not a work of art yet, but it is my hope that this text will morph and become more meaningful and beautiful in the next few years. This is where you, my dear readers, come in. I want to share my public dropbox link to a PDF of this text. I want to encourage all of you to look it over when you can, to borrow any ideas that seem helpful, to point out where I goofed, and to share your experiences and activities that will make this a better experience for my students. I will keep updating this text based on our experiences teaching it and based on the suggestions/comments.compliments/complaints I receive from students, from colleagues (both here at school and out in the world), and from the parents in our community. 

I am excited to launch this project. I am thrilled to share it with some of the people who have shared so many ideas already with me. I am anxious about the warts we’ll discover as the year unfolds. I am too exhausted by the whole project to have a clear eye for it at this point.

Thanks in advance for any wisdom and advice you are able to share. August 25 is when we launch – this will surely be a regular topic of conversation on this blog for the upcoming academic year.


I would be severely remiss if I did not make a special thanks to Jennifer Silverman (@jensilvermath) for her inspiration throughout this project. She gave me the first significant nudge down this path.