Tag Archives: Ramblings

Jing and Geogebra

During the Summer 2012 semester, I decided to have my Math for Education students use Jing to send me a diagram of something that they were supposed to do using Geogebra.  If you aren’t familiar with Jing, it is a free screen-capturing and screen-casting tool from the people at Techsmith, located in Okemos, MI.  And if you aren’t familiar with Geogebra, simply put, it is a free alternative to Geometer’s Sketchpad, but it can do lots more.

First off all, I have to say that I had always wanted to use Jing and screen-capturing with my students, but I wasn’t sure from what angle I wanted to approach it.  Many instructors have students create their own screencasts (a fairly well-known example is Mathtrain.tv).  Of course, I already use screen-casting on the instructor end by creating screencasts for my students on topics they are struggling with or by providing video feedback on student assignments.  I just hadn’t ever had my students do the screen-casting.

Frankly, I was worried.  I was worried about how students who didn’t have easy access to a computer would complete the assignment and I was worried about the amount of class time it would take students to learn about Jing (some students insist on writing down every single detail).  And of course, there were a few students who struggled.  For example, A librarian told one of my students that her Geogebra file was damaged, but what actually happened was that they librarian was trying to use Quicktime to open the Geogebra file instead of Geogebra.

Overall, this was a very good exercise for me and my students.  I learned a lot about what my students actually knew about the topic based on the drawings that they submitted and so the next time we worked on something in Geogebra together in class, I was able to clarify a few of the details of what the students needed to do in the computer to get the diagram that they were supposed to get.

And of course, this was a very low-stakes assignment.  I didn’t want to put a lot of points or pressure on students for an assignment in which they could have very well had a friend or relative complete at home without me even knowing.  And I made sure to stress the importance of the fact that this is the type of software they will need to know how to use when they are teachers in the classroom.

If you are interested, here is a link to the Jing Screen Captures taken by my students.


Learning from Ignite

If you don’t know what Ignite is, simply put, it is a format in which speakers are limited to using 20 slides and each of those slides automatically advances every 15 seconds.  Thus, a speaker must get their point across within a maximum of 5 minutes.

I learned about the Ignite format from past conferences that I have attended.  And I have attended several Ignite Events in the Detroit, MI area (they have them all around the country).

This semester, I decided to have my Math for Education students give an Ignite-style talk on the last day of class.  They had two major content goals – they were supposed to summarize what they learned during the semester and they were required to have at least 5 slides on a topic that I pre-assigned to them (e.g., hexagons, pentagons, etc.).  The other catch is that they only had 30 minutes to prepare their slides and presentation.

I learned quite a lot about my students from this activity.  I saw many of them crack under the time pressure of having only 30 minutes to prepare.  Only about half of the students actually had 20 completed slides.  I heard many of them use mathematical terminology incorrectly.  And many of them were not able to talk an entire 15 seconds about each slide and left a lot of dead air time.

Many of my students complained that they are not good at thinking fast on their feet.  Unfortunately, this is a skill that they will need as teachers.  This is a skill that cannot be taught, but I do believe that it can be learned through practice.  I thought that this was a great way for the students to practice this skill in a ‘safe’ setting.

In terms of assessment, I made it a very low pressure situation and students simply got ‘participation’ credit.  But I learned a lot about my students from this activity.  A lot of students surprised me.  Some of the students who know the content well were the worst speakers and some of the students who didn’t know the content as well were the best speakers in the class.  I had the students vote at the end of class on who was the best speaker and the top two vote-getters got prizes (one got a lesson planning book and the other got a school supplies kit).

One of my students graciously agreed to be recorded and her recorded talk and slide deck are below.  Enjoy!





My First Commencement

This May I attended my first ever commencement as a faculty member.  I really didn’t know what to expect.  People I know who teach at other colleges told me to expect two things – that it would be a very enjoyable experience to see so many students walk across the stage and that it would be very hot sitting on stage.  Both of those expectations definitely held true.  Five of my former students walked across the stage and I clapped and cheered for all five of them.  And it was very hot sitting on the stage.  The room that we were in was the only room in the entire building that was not climate controlled.  The rest of the building had air conditioning, just not the room that we sat in for a dreadful 105 minutes in hot caps and gowns.

But there is a point to this story.  As a part-time instructor, I always wanted to attend commencement to cheer on my students.  However, there were multiple reasons why I didn’t.  One of the reasons was that I was always teaching at another college when commencement was going on.  The other reason was that I felt a little awkward going to cheer on students as they graduate from college with the hopes that the degree they just earned would help them get a new job, when I actually didn’t believe it was true.  I had been applying for full-time jobs for at least six years with no avail.  How could I encourage students that it would be OK and that they would be able to find a job after graduation, when I couldn’t even find a job myself?

Of course, I have known many part-time instructors over the years who work full-time somewhere else, so they never had this issue.  But for someone who worked part-time as a sole means of a making a living, I felt like I would have been a different class than everyone else at the commencement.  Even after attending my first commencement, I still don’t know if this would have been true or not.  I felt strange simply being the only math instructor sitting on the stage.  I felt strange sitting on stage surrounded by other faculty members who are PhD graduates, when I am so close to getting my PhD, but just haven’t cared to finish yet.  I felt strange sitting on stage with my cap put on backward because I put it back on incorrectly after taking it off during the Pledge of Allegiance.  I felt strange sitting right behind the President of the College and knowing that my face was probably on camera on the big screens during the entire ceremony.  I felt strange having people cheer and clap for me, when I thought it was supposed to be a day for the students, not for the faculty.  I felt strange finding out after the whole thing that the cap and gown I was wearing was rented, which means I have no clue how many other people have sat on a stage and sweated in it just like I have.

And yet, despite everything that was strange in my mind about this night, I have to say that I would definitely do it again.  It was worth it to be able to tell my five students that walked across the stage that night that I was there to support them.  It was worth it to have my students tell me that it was great to have been remembered as a student in my class.  It was worth it to see the excitement and happiness on everyone’s face that night.  I came out of this night learning something myself – that commencement isn’t a night to feel strange at all.  It is a night to celebrate.  It’s a night to celebrate the students and all that they have done to get where they are today.  It’s a night to show support for the importance of education.  It’s a night to let loose and forget about the past and look forward to the future.  For the student, a future of being one more step closer to getting the job of their dreams.  And for the instructor, a future of being one more step closer to being able to make a positive impact on the life of another student. 

That’s what educators are supposed to do.  I think somewhere along the line I missed that point.  I missed the fact that above all, I needed to believe in the system.  I needed to believe that as an educator, one of my primary roles is to make a positive impact on the life of my students.  If I was able to do this as a part-time instructor, congratulations to me, because it is quite hard to do this as a part-time instructor


Career Day at the Ballpark

On Thursday, May 17, I had the displeasure of being at Comerica Park for Career Day at the Ballpark.  I can honestly say that if I would have known it was Career Day (shame on me for not checking), I would have exchanged my ticket for another game.

When I got to the game, there were squatters sitting in my seats.  When I asked them to move, I could barely get to my seats because the kids had left half-eaten hot dogs and other half-chewed food items all over in front of the seats.  The parents told me it was okay to step on the stuff, but who really wants to get mustard all over the bottom of their shoes?

When I sat down, to the left of me was a guy who had no shame in spreading his legs apart, waving his arms in front of me, smelling like crap, and throwing food scraps at me.  And to the right of me was the mother of the child who had to be removed from my seats.  The mother was so large that her leg was half-way on top of my leg the entire game.  My comfort level during the game was very low.

In addition to all of this, the kids who were in my seats ended up moving to their seats, 1 row behind me and 4 seats to the left of me.  So, the mother was turned to the left for most of the game trying to talk to her kids that were behind me.  And the majority of the discussion was about how the kid gets motion sick on buses and so they weren’t sure if she should take the bus home from Career Day, or ride in the car.  This is definitely not a discussion that I wanted to have any part in and it’s definitely not a discussion that needed to be talked about for the majority of the game.

All the meanwhile, I have to think, what was the educational value of this trip to the ballpark?  When I was in school our career day was a few tables with brochures set-up at a table during lunch.  And if we wanted to investigate a career more in-depth, we signed up for a job shadowing opportunity.  I remember that I signed up to job shadow at a café and I ended up making pastries all day long.  I learned something about working in food service that day.  I have a feeling that the kids who attended career day at the ballpark learned little to nothing since they were probably more focused on the experience of being at the ballgame than on learning about careers.

Also, I am a little peeved that my tax dollars are going to fund trips to the ballpark like this.  In times when schools are struggling for money and students many times don’t even have textbooks – why is the money that they do have being spent on shipping their kids to the ballpark?  Even if the schools are charging their kids for the trips, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that the buses are having unnecessary miles put on them – extra wear and tear on school busses that many school districts are already claiming need to be replaced.

I am also peeved that the students are being excused from class on a school day for a trip like this.  If the trip were in the evening or on the weekend, would I be a little sympathetic to this?  Definitely.  But in a time when teachers are complaining that they don’t have enough time to teach all the material that is on the upcoming standardized test that is always around the corner, do students really have time to be out of the classroom?  Definitely not.

Furthermore, I don’t think it is appropriate to go on a school sanctioned trip in which schoolchildren are exposed to an environment where people are drinking, using foul language, and are dressed provocatively.  I don’t mind when families go to the ballpark (actually I do because some people don’t know how to sit still themselves, let alone their kids), but at least when the parents are sitting with their children, they are not out at the ballpark being exposed to these things when they should be in school.

Thus, obviously, I am not a fan of Career Day at the Ballpark.  Please remind me not to forget to check what day it is next year.

Summer Plans 2012

So, this is my annual post where I organize my thoughts on what I need to get done before the end of this summer.  If I recall, last summer my plans fell into 5 categories.  I will try to sort my thoughts for this summer in a similar manner.

1.   Conferences:  This summer the conferences I am attending fall into multiple categories:  the ones that I was supposed to present at, the ones that I am presenting at, and the ones that I am not presenting at.

  • eCOTS (Electronic Conference on Teaching Statistics) – I was supposed to record a presentation for this on-line conference, but the conference organizers did not return my e-mails reminding them that they had not yet set-up a time to record.  Oh well.  Here you can a version of what I was going to record.
  • MIJEC (Michigan Joint Education Conference), June 18, Ypsilanti, MI.  The title of my presentation is “Using Games and Activities to Engage and Connect Mathematics across the Curriculum.”
  • MICTM (Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics), August 1-2, Traverse City, MI.  The title of my presentation is “Teaching Important Concepts through the Use of Games in the Classroom.”
  •  Screencast Camp, August 3-5, Okemos, MI.  Yes, technically this is an ‘unconference,’ but I learned enough at Screencast Camp last year that I think it qualifies as a conference.  And here is my video overview of what I learned at last year’s camp.
  • MCC Math & Tech Workshop, August 6-10, Muskegon, MI.  Yes, technically this is a ‘workshop,’ and I am not even really attending it.  I just have plans to hang out with the people for the week and volunteer if I am needed.

If you did not notice, the last three bullet points put me on the road from August 1 through August 10.  This means that you should not try to contact me during that time as I will probably be unavailable.  But then again, that is not true at all since more than likely I will be more attached to my computer during that week or so than any other time during the summer.

2.  Teaching:  I am teaching a meager 3 courses as well some math workshops for my college’s Achieving the Dream Initiative this summer.  They are Mathematics for Education I, Intermediate Algebra, and Mathematics for Education II.

  • Mathematics for Education I – I just finished teaching this class in the Winter Semester that just ended.  I will be making three minor changes to this class:  I will not be using MyMathLab in the summer since I was unable to have the book request in on-time, I will give my class a course pack at the onset of the semester to limit the number of handouts I pass out throughout the semester, and I will be using Canvas as the LMS instead of using ANGEL.
  • Intermediate Algebra – I have not taught this class since last Fall Semester.  The only changes I plan to make are to give my class a course pack and to use Canvas as the LMS instead of using ANGEL.
  • Mathematics for Education II – I have not taught this class using this book yet (and the sad part is that it is the only time that I will be teaching this class using this book since we are changing the book).  I have a massive amount of prep to do for this class still and that will take up a good portion of my summer.
  • Achieving the Dream Workshops – This semester I signed up for a supplemental assignment at my college to develop a 2-day Math Workshop on Factoring Trinomials as part of my college’s Achieving the Dream Initiative.  The hardest part – developing the coursepack for the workshop – is already done.  The workshops will occur sometime in the middle of June.

3.  Events:  Over my first year as a full-time math instructor, I have finally picked up a hobby – watching Detroit Tigers baseball!  Having a hobby is something that I never had time for as a part-time instructor.  I would teach 7 days a week (on-line teaching never stops), and in my spare time I would grade papers or start getting ready for the next class.  Here is a short list of some of the things I plan to do this summer:

  • See Detroit Tigers games
  • See opera at the Detroit Opera House
  • Attend a Mosaic Youth Theatre musical
  • Attend a play at Meadowbrook Theatre
  •  Volunteer at Rochester Heritage Days
  • Attend a play by Stagecrafters in Royal Oak
  • Go on walking tours with Preservation Detroit
  • Attend a concert somewhere in West Michigan
  •  Attend the Michigan Green Living Festival

And this is all of the stuff that I am planning to do before my extended trip to Traverse City, Lansing, and Muskegon, from August 1 – 10.  Most of the events are in Detroit.  Maybe that is a hint to me that I should move closer to Detroit?

4.  Big Projects:  Everyone always has some “big projects” that they want to get done during the summer.  These are the ones that top my list, at least the ones that I can actually tell you about.

  • Finalize the results on the supplemental instruction program that I piloted with the statistics classes at my college this semester.  Preliminarily, it appears that there was a significant increase in the final exam scores over the previous semester; however, there was not a significant change in the final grade in the class.
  • Work on creating some new math games for the presentations I am giving later this summer and for a presentation I am developing with a colleague at my collage who works in the ESL department.  Yes, I know, it is about time that I add some new games to my website, http://bit.ly/algebragames.
  •  Work on adding some material to the Intermediate Algebra website that I am creating for my second-year probationary project at my college.  My first year ended this last week, so I have until around the beginning of next May to have this website fully functional and completed.
  • Work on creating additional screencasts to add to the ones that I have already created to help students review for the departmental final exams at my college.
  • Work on a course pack for the calculus class that I am teaching in the fall.  I really want to create this particular course using bottom-up design, something I have always wanted to do, but have never really had the time to focus on.  Since I am starting now, I hope that I will be able to have everything the way I want it by the time the Fall Semester rolls around.
  • The textbooks are changing for my Math for Education and Everyday Math classes in the fall, and I will need to give myself appropriate time to read through those books as well.  Specifically, the Everyday Math class is using two paperback, novel-type books.  I have not taught from books like this since I taught Middle School English classes.

 Yes, these are the major projects I have on my plate.  So, I guess it will be a pretty busy summer for me, whether I want it to be a busy summer or not.


Here is why I believe that the FOIL method for multiplying two binomial expressions should NOT be used:

The underlying premise of the FOIL method is that students must first be able to identify a binomial.  However, most instructors do not seem to stress enough that the FOIL method can only be used to multiply two binomials.   We can only speculate on the reason for why they might not do this – Maybe they only teach multiplying binomials so they do not need to make any distinction or maybe whey wrongly assume that students will be able to identify a binomial.  However, in my opinion, if a student cannot identify a binomial, then they should not even be using the FOIL method.

Either way, what worries me the most is that fact that a student will get to a problem that involves multiplying expressions that are not binomials and will not know what to do.  If I would have taught the student the distributive property that can be used in every case, rather than the FOIL method that can only be used in the special case of multiplying two binomials, wouldn’t that have been a better use of class time?  

I have also had students who have asked me if they can use the FOIL method to multiply two trinomials and I, of course, tell them that they cannot.  But then the student objects because they  have just multiplied two trinomials using the FOIL method and want to show me that their answer is correct.

Even in the cases when the student has shown correct work and has arrived at the correct answer, I still have to cringe at the fact that the FOIL method involves the student multiplying four times and multiplying two trinomials involves the student multiplying nine times, but the student still wants to argue about the fact that he can use the FOIL method on every problem.  There is a big difference between four multiplications and nine multiplications.

I honestly believe that students would benefit more if we simply dropped the FOIL method and instead taught them the distributive property along with a review of counting properties by asking them to count how many different multiplications must be done before they even begin.  It is definitely one way that we could help increase ‘number sense’ in our students.

And ultimately, FOIL is for baked chicken, NOT for multiplying binomials.

PEMDAS is NOT a Word

Here is why I believe that the PEMDAS method for remembering the order of operations should NOT be used:

1.  PEMDAS is not a word.  In general, I believe that for mnemonic devices to have the greatest impact, they should be easy to remember words.  PEMDAS is not easy to remember and PEMDAS is not even a word.

2.  PEMDAS implies to students that there are six steps in the order of operations:  Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction, when in fact, there are only four steps in the order of operations.   How can we expect students to properly remember the order of operations if we are providing them with such a misleading mnemonic device?

3.  PEMDAS should not be used simply because it is the way that students want to be taught.  One student told me the other day that he was confused by the way that I was doing the order of operations simply because I was not using PEMDAS.  I told this student that he could continue to use PEMDAS if he wanted to, but he would continue to get incorrect answers (He is one of the students who thinks that PEMDAS has six steps).

4.  PEMDAS simply does not work.  If PEMDAS worked, wouldn’t students actually understand the order of operations?  The fact of the matter is that PEMDAS does not help students understand the order of operations.  PEMDAS did not work for students when they were in elementary school, why should it work for them in college?

I truly believe that my position as a college math instructor requires me to present the material differently than the students saw the material the first time that it was taught to them because whatever they were taught the first time obviously did not stick long term.  Although my ultimate goal is to help students refresh their memory, why should I refresh someone’s memory about something that is misleading and simply does not work?

Below is an example of the Order of Operations using the GEMS Procedure.  I prefer the GEMS Procedure because GEMS is actually a word and GEMS implies that the order of operations actually has four steps and not six steps.


To further prove my point, here is an example of a problem that is incorrectly done using PEMDAS versus a problem that is correctly done using the GEMS Procedure. 


I know that the GEMS Procedure is not going to become ‘mainstream,’ but I can hope, right?

Upcoming Conferences in Michigan

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear instructors complaining about the lack of professional development activities.  There are plenty of conferences to attend, wherever you live (I happen to live in Michigan).  I honestly believe that one of the keys to a successful teaching career is attending conferences, networking, and building a personal learning network.  To that end, I have compiled the following list of upcoming conferences in Michigan.  I hope to see you there (At this point, I plan to attend all of these).


Macomb Community College Math and Technology Workshop


Math in Action 2012


2012 Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) Conference

Michigan Developmental Education Consortium (MDEC) Conference


Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Great Lakes Section Meeting


2012 Michigan Mathematical Association (MAA) and MichMATYC Meeting


2012 Michigan Joint Education Conference


Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM) Conference

2012 Muskegon Community College Math and Technology Workshop


Meaningful Play 2012

MichMATYC Fall Conference


Detroit Area Council of Teachers of Mathematics Fall Conference

Taking the Fun Out of Enjoyment

Last weekend I cleaned out my apartment over a period of three days.  I was even called a hoarder on Twitter.  Anyway, three days and multiple bags of trash certainly give a person a lot of time to think and reflect.  The majority of what I was throwing away was papers from when I used to teach at other schools as a part-time instructor.  I had to keep the papers at home because I never had an office.

What struck me as odd though is looking through all of the student work I had kept from over the years and realizing that I used to have fun in my classes.  I used to have students do in-class presentations on famous mathematicians, create games and puzzles related to the unit we were studying, and do a lot of other fun paper-based activities when I first started teaching.

But now that I am trying to create more games, activities, and projects for my classes, I actually feel like my classes are less fun than they used to be.  The students still think that the classes are fun.  I am just saying that my own perspective has changed.  Does this mean that I am headed in the wrong direction and that I am headed for doom?  Or does it just mean that I am not as naïve as I used to be and I am more focused on the specific objectives of each game, activity, and project?

I go into every semester thinking that it will be different, that I will have lots of games and activities for my students to do throughout the semester.  But somehow it always turns out that after the first few weeks I begin to get buried in grading and the usual junk that always comes my way as the semester gets underway.  I am not sure how to prevent this from happening, except by better planning on my part.

So, what I can I do differently to ensure I will have fun in class, as well as my students?  Do not get me wrong, I really enjoy teaching.  I tell that to my students all the time.  I make sure that my students are very aware that I enjoy and like what I do for a living.  But I feel as if I have come to a point where I have taken the fun out of enjoyment.  Is it really possible to enjoy something without having fun?  I really hope that I am wrong and that I am not headed for doom.

First Day Policies and Activities

Below is a list of rules that I plan to give to my students on the first day of class to try to prevent some of the behaviors that bothered me last semester from occurring again during the upcoming semester.  If the tactics in the handout seem a little extreme, good, I mean them to be.  I want students to realize that certain behaviors have consequences, both for the low achieving students and the high achieving students, both at school and at home.  I know that I will not get through to every student, but if you like my handout, feel free to tell some of the stories in your own classroom.

Download this file

As for how I am going to present the rules on the first day of class, I am going to use the grid below.  The students will be given a blank version to fill out while I am giving an overview of the course policies.  I plan to give this to the students before I even pass out the syllabus.  So, the first piece of paper the students will receive from me is a sheet of paper that they have to take notes on.  I hope that this will instill in them the importance I place on taking notes in class, as last semester I had way too many students who did not take notes and then when they did not understand how to do a problem, wanted me to redo the entire examples for them.  By the way, I got the idea for the grid from Dan Meyer’s First Day Wiki.  He has example of one that he uses in a high school geometry class there.   

Download this file

Another thing that I am going to do on the first day of class is the coin problems that are listed below.  I got this idea from last year’s MichMATYC Fall Conference.  The idea is to give students logic problems to work on in small groups on the first day of class so that they can get a feel for working in groups in a less intimidating setting.  I hope that this activity will help instill in my students the importance that I place on group work and participation in class.  I really believe that students learn the most when they are given the time and opportunity to explain the material to each other during class.  And for your convenience, the answers to the problems are on the second page if you want to use them in your own class.  I actually got my selection of five coin problems from a website of multiple coin puzzles. 

Download this file

For those of you teaching statistics, you may be interested in Sugar Coated Statistics or this blog post from the Sage Statistical Blog on Starting it Out Right.

I hope you enjoy your semester!