What I get out of Student Writing

I have been using journaling in math class since 1996 – which was a really important year in my teaching career for lots of reasons, but it was definitely because I was introduced to the idea of math journals.  Since then I’ve done many different iterations for what my expectations are.  Even this year I did something new where I allowed students to write about errors they made on assessments in order to attempt to compare their assessment problems to what they did on homework in the hope of reflecting on the work pre-assessment for future problem sets.

However, a lot of students still use their journal almost like a problem-solving conversation with me, especially after we have already gone over a problem and they still don’t understand a method.  Here is one I ran across just the other day in my lower-level geometry class and thought it just perfectly expressed some of the goals I am hoping to accomplish with journaling.

I’ll call this student Cindy and we had just introduced the theorems about parallel lines through a geogebra lab and this had been the first problem they looked at that took the concepts out of the context of the lines and threw it into a triangle.  For many students this might be an easy transfer of skills (including the algebra, other theorems, etc.) but for the kids I have – not necessarily.  Here is what Cindy wrote:file_001-1

The first thing that Cindy does in her journaling is make her own thinking explicit (which I love).  She is stepping me through her thinking and the questions that arose for her.  This is actually a major step for many students who are confused – are they able to even know what they are confused about?

She writes: “I know the problem probably deals with the parallel line theories that we dealt with.” and then lists the types of angles we studied and then with a big “OR” says “maybe it has something to do with the sum of the angles of parallelograms and triangles?”  Little does she know that what she is doing is practicing synthesizing different pieces of prior knowledge – is it overwhelming to her? – possibly, but she went there and that’s so great!  I wanted her to know that I was excited that that she even thought about the sum of the angles so I gave her some feedback about those ideas.

She wrote down what she knew about the sums of the angles which we had also studied.

She writes her first equation to think about: “5x-5/=180” using one of the angles in the top triangle.  I would’ve loved to know where that was coming from.  What made her write that?  She then notes that “but it wouldn’t work because if x is the measure of the angle than the equation should be set to 180”

There is so much that this tells me about her confusion.  She is not understanding what the expression 5x-5 is supposed to be representing in the diagram I think, or she isn’t connecting what x is “not representing” (the angle) and the whole expression is representing too.  She also is confused about between the sum of the whole triangle’s angles and just that one angle.

She then looks at the two expressions she is given, 5x-5 and 4x+10 and I think makes a guess that they are corresponding angles – she doesn’t give any reason why they are corresponding.  She just asks the question.  But the cool thing is she says “Let’s try it.”  I love that.  Why not – I am always encouraging them to go with their ideas and the fact that she tries it is wonderful.  The funny thing is she does end up getting the same value for the two angles so she asks: “Does this mean that this is correct?” and then “What do I do for “6y-4?” and still has not connected many of the ideas line the fact that these angles are a linear pair and that’s where the 180 comes into play, or even why the angles were corresponding in the first place.  So many questions that she still has, although I am encouraged by her thinking and risk-taking.

This journal entry allowed me to have a great follow-up conversation with Cindy and she was able to talk to me about these misconceptions.  I’m not sure I would’ve had this opportunity to clarify these with her if she had not written this journal entry and then she would not have done so well on the problem set the following week.  I just love it!  Let me know if you use journals and if you feel the same clarifying or communicative way about them too.

See my website for lots of sample entries and also other blogposts and resources about journaling if you are interested.


Yours, Mine and Ours

Yesterday we had a speaker in our faculty meeting who came to talk to us about decision-making process in our school.  He spoke about the way some colleges, universities, independent schools are very different from businesses, the military, and other governing bodies that have to make decisions because we are made up of “loosely-coupled systems.” These are relationships that are not well-defined and don’t necessarily have a “chain of command” or know where the top or bottom may be.  They also don’t necessarily have a “go-to” person where, when a problem arises, the solution resides in that location.  The speaker said that this actually allows for more creativity and generally more interesting solution methods.

About mid-way through his presentation he said something that just resonated with me fully as he was talking about the way these systems come to a decision cooperatively.

“The difference between mine and ours is the difference between the absence and presence of process.”

Wow, I thought, he’s talking about PBL.  Right here in faculty meeting.  I wonder if anyone else can see this.  He’s talking about the difference between ownership of knowledge in PBL and the passive acceptance of the material in a direct instruction classroom.

Part of my own research had to do with how girls felt empowered by the ownership that occurred through the process of sharing ideas, becoming a community of learners and allowing themselves to see others’ vulnerability in the risk-taking that occurred in the problem solving.  The presence of the process in the learning for these students was a huge part of their enjoyment, empowerment and increase in their own agency in learning.

I think it was Tim Rowland who wrote about pronoun use in mathematics class (I think Pimm originally called it the Mathematics Register). The idea of using the inclusive “our” instead of “your” might seem like a good idea, but instead students sometimes think that “our” implies the people who wrote the textbook, or the “our” who are the people who are allowed to use mathematics – not “your” the actual kids in the room.  If the kids use “our” then they are including themselves.  If the teacher is talking, the teacher should talk about the mathematics like the are including the students with “your” or including the students and the teacher with “our”, but making sure to use “our” by making a hand gesture around the classroom.  These might seem like silly actions, but could really make a difference in the process.

Anyway,  I really liked that quote and made me feel like somehow making the process present was validated in a huge way!

End of Term Reflections

Phew…exams given…check…exams graded…check…comments written…check…kids on bus…check.  Now I can relax.  Oh wait, don’t I leave tomorrow to drive to my sister’s for Thanksgiving?

Such is the life of a teacher, no?  Just when you think you are on “vacation” there’s always something else to do.  I had an exam on Saturday then worked the rest of Saturday and Sunday finishing up that grading and writing my comments that were due this morning at 9 am.  But wait, I told some people I would write a blogpost about what my classroom is like, so I really wanted to do that too.  That’s OK though, I think it’s important for me to reflect back on this fall term – what worked and what didn’t for my classes.

I have three sections of geometry this year that I teach with PBL and a calculus class that I would say is something of a hybrid because we do have a textbook (as an AP class I needed to do what the other teachers were doing), but I do many problems throughout the lessons.

In my geometry classes, the student have iPads on which they have GeoGebra, Desmos and Notability where they have a pdf of their text (the problems we use) and where they do all of their homework digitally.  My class period for that course alternate between small group discussions in the Innovation Classroom in the library on Mondays and Thursdays and whole class discussions with student presentations of partial solutions (a la Jo Boaler or Harkness) on Tuesdays and Fridays. (We meet four times a week 3 45-minute periods and 1 70-minute period.)  Because my curriculum is a whole-curriculum PBL model, we spend most of the time discussing the attempts that the students made at the problems from the night before.  However, in class the discussion centers around seeing what the prior knowledge was that the presenter brought to the problem and making sure they understood what the question was asking.


Whole Class Discussion in regular classroom



Small Group Discussions in Innovation Lab

If this didn’t happen we end up hearing from others that can add to the discussion by asking clarifying questions or connecting the question to another problem we have done (see Student Analysis of Contribution sheet).

One of the things that I had noticed this fall in the whole class discussion was that the students were focusing more on if the student doing the presentation was right immediately as opposed to the quality or attributes of the solution method.  There was little curiosity about how they arrived at their solution, the process of problem solving or the process of using their prior knowledge.  Unfortunately, it took me a while to figure this pattern out and I felt that it had also weeded itself into the small group discussion as well.

One day in the small group discussions, it became clear to me that the students were just looking for the one student who had the “right” answer and they thought they were “done” with the question.  This spurred a huge conversation about what they were supposed to be doing in the conversation as a whole.  I felt totally irresponsible in my teaching and that I had not done a good enough job in describing to them the types of conversations they were supposed to be having.

This raised so many questions for me:

  1. How did I fail to communicate what the objectives of discussing the problems was to the students?
  2. Why is this class so different from classes in the past (even my current period 7 class)?
  3. How can I change this now at this point in the year?
  4. How can I stress the importance of valuing the multiple perspectives again when they didn’t hear it the first time?

In my experience, sometimes when students are moving forward with the fixed mindset of getting to the right answer and moving on, it is very difficult to change that to a more inquiry-valued mindset that allows them to see how understanding a problem or method from a different view (graphical vs algebraic for example) will actually be helpful for them.

My plan right now is to start the winter term with an interesting problem next Tuesday.

“A circular table is pushed into the corner of the room so that it touches both walls. A mark is made on the table that is exactly 18 inches from one wall and 25 inches from the other.  What is the radius of the table?”


I have done this problem for many years with students and I have found the it works best when they are in groups.  I usually give them the whole period to discuss it and I also give them this Problem Solving Framework that I adapted from Robert Kaplinsky’s wonderful one from his website.  I am hoping to have a discussion before they do this problem about listening to each other’s ideas in order to maximize their productivity time in class together.  We’ll see how it goes.

Modeling with Soap Bubbles

I am so very lucky to have a guest teacher with me this year at my school.  Maria Hernandez (from the North Carolina School of Science and Math) is probably one of the most energetic and knowledgeable teachers, speakers and mathematicians you could ever find – and we got her for the whole year!  We are so excited.  I am working with her and she is so much fun to work with.  I have been teaching calculus with PBL for almost 20 years now and thought I had all the fun I could but no!  Maria is bringing modeling into my curriculum and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

As we started teaching optimization this week, Maria had this wonderful idea that she had done before where we want to find the shortest path that connects four houses.


I let the kids play with this for about 10 minutes and then did this wonderful demonstration with some liquid soap bubbles and glycerin.  We had two pieces of plastic and four screws that represented the houses.  As the kids watched, I dipped the plastic frame into the liquid and voila-file_000

Right away the students saw what they were looking for in the shortest path.  Now they had to come up with the function and do some calculus. As they talked and worked in groups, It was clear that using a variable or one that would help them create the right function was not as easy as they thought.  However,  I was requiring them to write up what they were doing and find a solution so they were working hard.


We have been doing a lot of writing in Calculus this fall so far and they are getting used to being deliberate about their words and articulating their ideas in mathematical ways.

Here is the outline of the work they did in class: Shortest Path Lab

and here is the rubric that I will be using to grade it.


The engagement of students and the buzz of the classroom was enough to let me know that this type of problem was interesting enough to them – more than the traditional “fold up the sides of the box.”  The experience they had in conjecturing, viewing, writing the algebra and solving with calculus was a true modeling experience.

If you decide to do this problem or have done something like it before, please share – I’d love to do more like this.  I am very lucky to have a live-in PD person with me this year and am grateful every day for Maria!


What is “Low Ability” Anyway? Comparing a Point to “Room”

One of my big “beefs” at my school is the fact that we have three levels of tracking – count ’em, three.  There’s the honors track, that of course at a college prep school, most kids think they belong in.  There’s the regular track, that which is still pretty quick and difficult, and there’s the track that the kids who are sometimes, I would say, just not very motivated to learn math, or have less interest in math, or maybe come from a school with a less rigorous math program, are placed in.  These are the kids who probably all their lives have been told they are not “math people” and have been pigeon-holed as an “artist” or “writer” so they won’t actually need math when they get older.  This really, really irks me.  But I do it – I go along with a system that has been in place way before I got here.  I’m only one person – even though I cite Jo Boaler’s list of research showing why “tracking” in general is just a bad idea and hurtful – I know I can’t win.

Anyway, I really shouldn’t complain because the department has let me do my thing with the geometry curriculum and I have written a PBL curriculum for the three levels.  In my 201 book, I have created scaffolded problems that I think work really well with these “low-abiity” kids and often challenge them enough to make them realize how much ability they actually have.  We just started talking about dimension and we watch these clips from Flatland: The Movie, where Arthur T. Square meets the King of Pointland and then meets the King of Lineland.

We had a great conversation about why the King of Pointland keeps saying “Hello Me, Hello Me” and can’t really understand why there’s anyone else there.  We talked about why the King of Lineland doesn’t understand where the Square is because he only understands the directions of left and right.  One of the kids goes, “Is this kind of like what happened in the movie Interstellar? I think he went through a black hole and just appeared in the future or something.” Now, I hadn’t seen that movie but then another kid said, “Well, I’m not sure it was like that.” But then one of the other students says, “No, the King of Pointland is kind of like the kid in the movie Room.  Did you see that movie?”  I nodded in understanding and so did many of the others in class. The student went on, “In Room, the little boy grew up thinking that “Room” was his whole universe so that was all he understood, and that’s why the King of Pointland seems so nuts. That point with no dimensions is all he can understand – there’s no one else in the world.”  I was so blown away by that analogy.  She really had an understanding of the idea of the limitations of being alone in the universe of a point. I had never had a kid in a “regular” or “honors” class make a connection like that – but then again, Room just came out!

Repost: Always Striving for the Perfect Pose

Back in 2010, I wrote an blogpost comparing teaching with PBL to doing yoga. Since I have been doing Bikram Yoga for almost a year now and still can’t do “standing head to knee pose” *at all* – I thought I would repost this one just to give myself some perspective, and possibly many of you out there who might need a little encouragement at this beginning of the year time. I know that every year when students begin a year in a PBL math class the obstacles return. Parents are questioning “why isn’t the teacher teaching?” Students are questioning “why is my homework taking so long?” Teachers new to the practice are questioning “When is this going to get easier?” and “why aren’t they seeing why this is good for them like I do?” The best thing to remember is that it is a process and to understand how truly different and hard it is for students who are used to a very traditional way of learning mathematics. Give them time, have patience for them and yourself and most of all reiterate all of what you value in their work – making mistakes, taking risks, their ideas (good and bad) and be true to the pedagogy.

Here’s the original blogpost I wrote:

I don’t think my professor, Carol Rodgers, would mind me borrowing her yoga metaphor and adapting it to PBL. I use it often when talking to teachers who are nervous about falling short of their ideal classroom situation or teaching behaviors. I think this can happen often, especially when learning best practices for a new technique like facilitating PBL. There are so many things to remember to try to practice at your best. Be cognizant of how much time you are talking, try to scaffold instead of tell, encourage student to student interaction, turn the questions back onto the students, etc. It really can be a bit overwhelming to expect yourself to live up to the ideal PBL facilitator.

However, it is at these times that I turn to Carol’s yoga metaphor. She says that in the practice of yoga there are all of these ideal poses that you are supposed to be able to attain. You strive to get your arms, legs and back in just the right position, just the right breathing rhythm, just the right posture. But in reality, that’s what you’re really doing – just trying. The ideal is this goal that you’re aiming for. Just like our ideal classroom. I go in everyday with the picture in my head of what I would want to happen – have the students construct the knowledge as a social community without hierarchy in the authority where everyone’s voice is heard. Does that happen for me every day? Heck no. I move the conversation in that direction, I do everything in my power for that to happen, but sometimes those poses just don’t come. Maybe I just wasn’t flexible enough that day, or maybe the students weren’t flexible enough, maybe we didn’t warm up enough, or the breathing wasn’t right. It just wasn’t meant to be. I have exercises to help me attain the goal and I get closer with experience. That’s all I can hope for.

So I tell my colleagues who are just starting out – give yourself a break, be happy for the days you do a nearly perfect downward facing dog, but be kind to yourself on the days when you just fall on your butt from tree pose. We are all just trying to reach that ideal, and we keep it in mind all the time.

Journals: Paper vs Digital: The Pros and Cons

I was totally honored the other day when I saw some tweets from TMC16 from @0mod3 and @Borschtwithanna


And yes it’s true, I’ve been writing and practicing the use of metacognitive journaling for very long time – probably since 1996 ever since I read Joan Countryman’s book about mathematical journaling and heard about it in many workshops that summer.  I wrote a rubric (make sure you scroll to the 3rd page) while I was at the Klingenstein Summer Institute for New Teachers (that’s how long ago it was) and since then I’ve been refining that rubric based on feedback from students and teachers. A few years ago, I finally refined a document called How to Keep a Journal for Math Class to a degree that I really like it now.  However, please know that lots of math teachers do journaling differently and without the metacognitive twist. I do believe that metacognitive writing is essential to the PBL classroom (read more here)

So this morning, I was asked this question on twitter


Which is something that many people often ask so I thought I’d respond with a more in-depth answer.

Here are the pros, I’ve found over the years of having students journal digitally:

Speed/complexity: Students are used to typing, using spell-check, inserting pictures, graphics and naturally including documents, links and thinking in the complex way that digital media allows them to.  It allows their journal to be more rich in content and sometimes connect problems to each other if their journal is say on a google doc that can connect to other html docs.  If they create, for example, iBooks or Explain Everything videos, there is even a lot more richness that can be embedded in the file as well – their creativity is endless.

Grading/Feedback: I found grading in Notability or on Google docs or some other digital platform really nice that allowed you to add comments with a click or audio extremely easy and quick.  I did not receive feedback from the students very often about how the feedback helped them though.  If you use an LMS like Canvas that integrates a rubric or integrates connection to Google it’s even nicer because you can have those grades go right from your assignment book to your gradebook.

I love having kids use digital platforms for writing/creating in mathematics when it is for a project or big problem that I want them to include many pieces of evidence, graphs, geogebra files and put it together nicely in a presentation or portfolio.  Not necessarily for their biweekly journals. Some guys who make use of digital journals in interesting ways are @GibsonEdu and @FrasiermathPBL at the Khabele School in Austin TX.

Here are the cons, in my mind of using digital journals: (which might be the “pros” of paper journals) – which is the side I have come down on.

the “real” writing factor: there is some research about the actual physical process of writing and the time it takes for kids to process their thoughts.  I do believe that when i want kids to be metacognitive about their learning and also want them to be thoughtful and take the time think about their initial error, think about what happened in class discussion to clear up their misunderstanding and also then what new understanding they came to.  That’s a lot of thinking. So I want them to take the time to write all that down.  Sometimes typing (like what I’m doing right now!) is a fast process and I’m not sure I do my best writing this way.

practice in hand-writing problem solving: this is re-enacting doing homework and sitting for assessments (in my class at least) and I want them to do this more regularly.  If in your class kids take assessments digitally or do homework nightly digitally then maybe they should do their journal digitally as well. This also give me practice in reading their handwriting, getting to hear their voice through their handwriting and seeing what it looks like on a regular basis.  In a time crunch on an assessment it honestly helps me know what they are thinking.

Conversational Feedback: I feel that when I hand write my feedback to them I can draw a smilely face or arrows or circle something that I want to emphasize more easily than when it is on something digitally (this is also true in a digital ink program – so that is something to consider, like Notability for example). I give feedback (see some journal examples on my blog) that is very specific about their writing and want the to improve not only in the math aspect of their writing but in how they are looking at their learning.  I want them to respond and I want to respond in the hope that we are starting a mathematical conversation about the problem.  I have received more questions about the feedback in the paper journals (like “what did you mean by this?”) than on the electronic feedback – not sure why.

Portability: I find that small composition graph paper notebook is extremely portable and easy for me to carry home to grade.  The students bring them to their assessments and there is nothing else in the notebook (no homework at all and no access to the internet) so I am not worried about academic honestly.

There are probably more but this is it in a nutshell – please add your comments below or tweet me to let me know your thoughts!


Adventures in Feedback Assessment

On an assessment students did for me today I gave this question:

An aging father left a triangular plot of land to his two children. When the children saw how the land was to be divided in two parts (Triangle ADC and Triangle BDC), one child felt that the division of the land was not fair, while the other was fine with it. What do you think and why? Support your justification with mathematical evidence.

 So this student had a hard time with this question. Since there was no height given and the bases were different, she was unable to think about how to compare the areas. She was however able to say that it would be a fair split if the areas were the same. So since I am doing this work this year with giving feedback first and then grades (see past blogpost “Why teachers don’t give feedback before grades and why they should”) I wrote this feedback on the problem set: 
 I am trying to get her to remember a problem we did in class where there was a similar problem we did with an acute triangle and obtuse triangle that shared the same height:

The area of the shaded triangle is 15. Find the area of the unshaded triangle.

This idea of where the height of obtuse triangles are is a really tough one for some geometry students. But more than that the idea of sharing a height and what effect that has on the area is also difficult.

We will see tomorrow if this student is able to take my feedback and see what whether the division of the land is fair.

By the way, here’s a response that another student had:

Just in case you can’t read it:

“Because the height is the same, it’s the ratio of the bases that would determine which child would get the most land. I think the division of land was not fair, because the heights are the same so therefore the bases are determining the area of the plot. If x=5 then child one would get A=20, child 2 would get 12.5 and that makes the original plot of land 37.5. This means child 2 has a third of the land (12.5:25) (part:part) and half of child 1’s) Even without x=5, the child 2 would only get a third of the land.”

We’ll see what happens!

Getting Kids to Drive the Learning

It doesn’t always work this way, but it would be awesome if it did.  When PBL is perfect or ideal, the students are the ones who make the natural connections or at least see the need or motivation for the problems that we are doing.  Yeah, some of them are just really interesting problems and the get pulled in by their own curiosity, but as all math teachers know, we have a responsibility to make sure that students learn a certain amount of topics, it is quite that simple.  If students from my geometry class are going into an algebra II class with trigonometry the next year where their teacher will expect them to know certain topics, I better do my job and make sure they have learned it.

So how do I, as a PBL teacher, foster the values for the problem-based learning that I have while at the same being true to the curriculum that I know I have a responsibility to?  This is probably one of the biggest dilemmas I face on a daily basis.  Where’s the balance between the time that I can spend allowing the students to struggle, explore, enjoy, move through difficulty, etc. – all that stuff that I know is good for them – while at the same being sure that that darn “coverage” is also happening?

So here’s a little story – I have a colleague sitting in on my classes just to see how I teach – because he is interested in creating an atmosphere like I have in my classes in his.  We have just introduced and worked on problems relating to the tangent function in right triangle trigonometry in the past week and now it was time to introduce inverse tangent.  I do this with a problem from our curriculum that hopefully allows students to realize that the tangent function only is useful when you know the angle.FullSizeRender (3)

So as students realize they can’t get the angle from their calculator nor can they get it exactly from the measurement on their protractor (students had values ranging from 35 to 38 degrees when we compared), one of the students in my class says, “Ms. Schettino, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to undo the tangent?” and the other kids are kind of interested in what she said. She continues, “Yeah, like if the calculator could just give us the angle if we put in the slope.  That’s what we want.”  I stood there in amazement because that was exactly what I wanted someone to crave or see the need for.  It was one of those “holy crap, this is working” moments where you can see that the kids are taking over the learning.  I turned to the kids and just said, “yeah, that would be awesome, wouldn’t it?  Why don’t you keep working on the next problem?” and that had them try to figure out what the inverse tangent button did on their calculator.  They ended up pressing this magical button and taking inverse tangent of 0.75 (without telling them why they were using 0.75 from the previous problem) to see if they could recognize the connection between what they had just done and what they were doing.

At the end of the class, the colleague who was observing came up to me and said, “How did you do that?” and I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “How did you get the kids to want to learn about inverse tangent? I mean they just fell right into the thing you wanted them to learn about.  That was crazy.”  I really had to think about that.  I didn’t feel like I did anything honestly, the kids did it all.  I mean what made them all of a sudden care about getting the angle?  Why were they invested?   It doesn’t always happen in my classroom that’s for sure.  This is not a perfect science – there’s no recipe for it to work – take a great curriculum, interested kids, an open, respectful learning environment and mix well?

I do think however that a huge part of it is the culture that has been created throughout the year and the investment that they have made in their ownership and authorship in their own learning. We have valued their ideas so much that they have come to realize that it is their ideas and not mine that can end up driving the learning – and yes, I do end up feeling a little guilty because I do have a plan.  I do have something that I want them to learn, but somehow have created enough interest, excitement and curiosity that they feel like they did it.  It is pretty crazy.