Some Fun Approaches

We have adopted a new schedule at our school and we are on a seven day rotation this year. At the beginning of each rotation, I give my AP Calculus BC students a problem set that is due at the beginning of the next rotation. These are just grab bags of problems that I find interesting. Some are calculus problems, but most are just fun stuff I have gathered over the years. On our most recent problem set (the last one of the year) I gave a problem that I think I found in an Exeter problem set. The heart of the problem was the image below. 

We are told that we are to start at hexagon #1. We are allowed to progress at each step to an adjacent hexagon as long as that hexagon has a number higher than the number we are currently on. So, for example, from 5 you can proceed to 6 or 7 but cannot go back to 3 or 4. The question is to determine how many pathways are possible from hexagon #1 to hexagon #13.

I did not know the answer to this question, but I was confident that I (and my AP Calculus BC students) could find the answer.  I approached this problem the way I do many problems, I wished it was smaller and I hoped to see a pattern emerge. I have advocated this problem solving strategy with my students but few pick up on this. I think that this has to do with their sense of freedom as mathematicians. I think that changing the problem feels like a privilege that they don’t think that they have. Need to work on this…

So, I built up a table and saw that if there was just one hexagon then there is just one path. A boring one of standing there. If there are two hexagons, there is also only one path. Hmmm, not promising yet. Three hexagons? Two paths, from 1 to 3 or from 1 to 2 to 3. Four hexagons? 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, 1 to 2 to 4, and 1 to 3 to 4. Now, I am confident that Fibonacci is hiding here. A quick check confirms this and I was pleased with myself for finding a fun problem that did not have an obvious solution.

I used the word obvious for an in-joke. One of my particularly clever AP Calc students will routinely refer to things being obvious in class discussions. His name is Owen and the way he marked his diagram was interesting to me on his problem set so I asked him to explain this in class. He started essentially the way I did but instead of a chart he simply wrote a 1 in the 1 box for # of paths and a 1 in the 2 box for the same reason. Now, his explanation gets interesting. Next, he mentions that it is obvious that if you get to hexagon 3 you have to have gone through either #1 or #2 so that the total number of ways to get to #3 is the sum of these two other numbers. Similarly, to get to #4 you have gone through #2 (one path) or #3 (two paths) and now Fibonacci is obvious. I was so delighted by his approach to this problem.

So I decided to present this problem to my other classes to see how they might approach it. In each class I explained my result after allowing them about 8 – 10 minutes to share thoughts about the problem with their small group partners. While none of my other students arrived at a conclusion in this relatively short amount of time, they did have some interesting approaches. One of my Discrete Math students tried to leverage what he’s learned about combinations by starting with the notion that a pathway along the odd numbers is six steps. Then he said that we could add one even number and this could be done one of six ways. We could add two even numbers to our path. This could be done in 15 ways (using combinations or Pascal’s triangle) and he wanted to simply add all of these up. A super cool idea but we started to see problems here. For example, if we add 6 and 8 as stops along the way in a row, then we have to skip hex #7 so we started trying to enumerate all of the path restrictions. Similarly, we realized that we’d need to individualize the number of odd hex visits in a similar way. Daunting, but a great example of trying to use knowledge he has gained this year. A group in Geometry recognized that the shortest path had six steps and the longest had twelve. They wanted to enumerate the number of pathways broken into these categories. A great idea and a way to get a handle on smaller cases to imagine. They quickly became frustrated by the daunting task of keeping track of these tracks, but I loved the idea.

It was a fun couple of days batting around these ideas. I have been really thinking about the distinction between ‘problems’ and ‘exercises’ and  problems like this one reinforce the ideas I am wrestling with. I am determined in each of my classes next year to have homework and classwork assignments labeled as ‘problem sets’ or as ‘exercise sets’ and I am hoping to help develop some clear strategies with my students to use when they encounter a genuine problem in math.

Persistence and Patience

Neither of the qualities in the title of this post are apparent in abundance at this time of the school year (exams here start on May 21!!!) so I am especially pleased to be able to write about today in my two Geometry classes. They each took a quiz with me in their last class and I asked them to read ahead to the next section (more on that later) before meeting again today. After a brief warm up we reviewed the quiz and I returned papers. Then I presented them with this image from our Geometry text

 

Now, at this point we have established that the measure of a central angle in degrees is equal to the measure of its intercepted arc in degrees. We have proven that the measure of an inscribed angle in degrees is half of the measure of its intercepted arc in degrees. I told them that my dream for today was to derive some formula relating the measure of angle EFC to some combination of the arcs BE, EC, CD, and DB. I reminded them of what we already know and suggested that using what we already know is often pretty helpful when trying to learn something new. I then stepped back and let kids toss out ideas. In one of the two classes I took a walk to the water fountain and popped in on a colleague for a two minute chat. I came back into a room with people debating and waving their hands in the air to show what segments they wanted to draw. I wish I saw more drawing at their desks, but it was good engagement. In both classes they wanted me to name the vertical angle pairs at the hinge point F. I was a bit surprised that neither group wanted to name arcs yet, but it worked out just fine. I dropped a hint that another segment drawn would help and this spurred some lively debate about what segments to draw. BE and DC were popular but I pointed out that the vertical angles were not included really in these triangles that were formed. Some folks wanted some radii drawn. One girl was sad when we named our vertical angle pairs. She saw that BFE and DFC were clearly equal but that they faced arcs that clearly weren’t. I was pleased by this observation. There was a real desire in each class to assume that BD and EC were equal and I wish my diagram was more clearly designed to discourage that. We finally settled on drawing the chord BD which created two inscribed angles that we called x and y creating arcs called 2x and 2y. The heavy lifting and guessing were done by that point. Arriving at the conclusion that we now need a relationship between one angle and two arcs came in a couple of steps. In both classes I made a clear statement about what we just discovered and they seemed pretty pleased with themselves, if a bit tired from the exertion. In my morning class we were on our 90 minute block and I gave them some practice exercises that we will revisit tomorrow. In my afternoon class that ended the day we simply left the discovery on the board. I start tomorrow morning with that crew and I am excited to pick this up again.

In each of my classes I have 14 students. One was absent today, so I had 29 overall joining in on this conversation. One of them, when I mentioned my dream for the day, said ‘In the reading last night it said that this angle is the average of two arcs.’ [Thank you Niko!]

One student. Now, it is entirely possible that other students did the reading I requested. It is possible that some read the section and were confused by it. It is possible that some read it and forgot the conclusion. It is possible that some who read it simply did not feel like saying anything out loud. It feels more likely that few (maybe only 1?!?) did the reading.

I could dwell on that, but I am dwelling on the discovery we made. I am dwelling on the persistence and patience of my students today. I am dwelling on what went right to end a day that started poorly for me.

 

Later, I’ll dwell on how I can help overcome the likely habits of not reading that I am faced with. I’ll save that for a less beautiful day than today.

Sad Little Girl

Two posts today, both kind of brief. They are about two aspects of my life. The first is my dad post, my Geometry teacher post is coming later today.

 

I have a 14 year old boy and an 8 year old girl. They are very different people. My son does not stress out about school in any visible way. While I hear parents in our community talking about their 8th graders spending hours on homework, I never see that. He is up an down in his school performance but he does not seem to judge himself by these exterior reports on his progress. Sometimes I wish he was just a little more concerned, but he’s doing just fine.

My girl cares deeply about these exterior reports on her performance. She wants her teacher to think highly of her, she wants to please us. I am charmed a bit by this but I also wish she was less stressed about these types of things. This morning she was unusually quiet and reserved before school. I thought it might be her allergies – she has pretty wicked seasonal allergies and spring has just exploded on us here – but that was only a small part of it. She was worried because in PE this morning she was due to take part of the annual fitness test. This made her super sad. She loves to run and play with her friends but she has already begun to identify some friends as ‘sporty’ friends and she does not see herself this way. She had tears in her eyes because of anxiety about a fitness test this morning. This brought tears to my eyes as I thought about other students crying in the morning because of an upcoming Geometry test (or an upcoming Biology test or whatever), I was shook up thinking about the impact on self-image, on feelings of self-worth, on just the general task of living through the day that I saw a glimpse of. I am so sad to think that I am seen as the cause of such stress in my students’ lives. I wish I had some insight into how to battle this for my daughter and for my students. I know with my daughter I can talk to her about how her time in running around a field has nothing to do with how much I love her or how I value her. I try, in an appropriate way, to let my students know that their grade on a paper is not an evaluation of them as people, just a snapshot of them as learners. I need to be more explicit with them more often as I was reminded this morning. I also need to be more explicit more often with my two lil Dardys at home.

Man, what a bummer of a way to start my day today. My next post will be about a much rosier ending to the day (at least the school portion of it.)