Note-Taking Workshop Takeaways

In my last post, I blogged about a Note-Taking workshop I created for my Algebra II students, based off a podcast episode from Jennifer Gonzales at the Cult of Pedagogy. On day 2 of the workshop, I asked for some student feedback and wanted to compare students’ pre-existing note-taking habits in math class to see if there was any correlation between that and their current grades. The survey they took is based off the one developed by UMASS.

Each response was given a point value; 0 being “Never” and 5 being “Aways.” Students average scores were taken across each of the desirable strategies listed above and compared to their overall grades. Here were the results:

GradeAverage Score
D or Below (0 – 69%)1.94
C (70-79%) 2.10
B (80 – 89%)2.28
A (90 – 100%)2.39
Data was collected for 59 students in Algebra II, however, 3 data sets were unusable due to non-sensical responses to self-reported grade.

Granted, this is not a statistically rigorous collection of data, with no control group or analysis of statistical significance, however, preliminary results do indicate that note-taking would appear to be correlated to student performance in math class!

Written Feedback from Students

  • I felt like going over note-taking actually helped me relax some from the stress of studying for the exams. Instead of studying math the entire week, I get a chance to better my note taking skills which is also helping me redo my notes for the exams.
  • I learned how to pull out the most important details and add that to my notes. I also learned about Cornell notes which I’ll definitely be using to study for my exams 🙂
  • I realized that I am a very visual learner, using analogies that can be connected with each other to seal them onto my brain.
  • Honestly it was a good experience but I think because we have an exam next week it would have been better to focus on review
  • It was wonderful, I was able to demonstrate my note-taking skills with the Sketch-Note technique and the Cornell Notes
  • Probably should’ve studied for the mid-term instead of this workshop. yet it was still helpful.
  • Maybe had us do practice of the math concepts that will be on the exam.
  • I really enjoy the sketch notes station.
  • It was fun and interesting to do.
  • It was a good experience.
  • It was very helpful.

Quarantine-ing in Qatar

What a strange year it’s been! What began as physical distancing turned into social isolation, and just as I was beginning to integrate myself back into society, I decided to pack my bags and head to another country.

In a previous post, I reflected on my experience with online teaching for the first time in “China” and how different it’s been.

While I camped out back home in Canada I continued to teach online and wait for the Chinese borders to reopen. Then I found out that I no longer had a job for next year. My plan had been to stay in China and continue teaching at a different school, but coronavirus had other plans for me. So, I ended up working fast-food for a bit as I figured out what my next steps would be. What a humbling experience it was!

While I worked my part-time fast food gig, I continued on with the job search, and eventually landed on a position here in Qatar.

Qatar is an Arab country in the Middle East right next to Saudi Arabia. According to Wikipedia, Qatar ranks third highest in the world for GDP, and about 88% of the country’s population are expatriates (although I have not done much further digging on the statistics).

Is it safe? Yes.

Can you tell I get asked this question a lot?

At the moment, I am working in Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is very modern, clean, and welcoming based on my impressions so far. Though, to be fair I haven’t seen much of Qatar as I have been wrapping up my quarantine here.

My Quarantine Experience

Coming from a low risk country, I was eligible for a one-week home quarantine at my incredibly spacious school-provided apartment.

Quarantine in this apartment feels like I’m in a luxury jail, but with less perks than what Jeffrey Epstein had. I can still order delivery, have access to wifi, and plenty of space to work out, but at the end of the day I’m still stuck (“safe”) inside.

Upon arrival at Doha International Airport, you need to make sure you download an app called EHTERAZ, the covid tracking app for Qatar. It’s a simple colour-coded system that is linked to your identification. Green means a negative covid test result, and you are free to go about as you please, red meaning you have tested positive, yellow for quarantine, and grey for suspected infections.

They shuttle you off into a testing area where you sign some forms and get swabbed for your first covid test after landing.

I was able to be picked up by my Head of Schools, who brought me to my apartment to begin my one week mandatory quarantine.

On day six, you are supposed to get a call or SMS text message about going in to a designated testing centre for your second covid test. After results are processed, and if you get a negative test result the EHTERAZ app on your mobile phone turns green and you are free to roam about.

This was not my experience. What was supposed to be a one week quarantine has, by some unfortunate event, turned into two.

Frustratingly enough, on day six I received no calls or text messages. I reached out to my school HR representative to inquire, and was advised to continue waiting for further instructions, or for my code to turn green. The next day, I decided to call the number listed on the EHTERAZ app. The person who answered the phone also told me to wait for a call, even though I had already completed my mandatory one week quarantine at the time.

So I kept waiting… Eventually, it was communicated to me by word of mouth that I WAS in fact allowed to leave my apartment to get my second covid test since I was already finished my quarantine, which brings us to the present day. As I am writing and sharing my experience with you, I am also eagerly awaiting for the moment when I am officially allowed to leave the apartment and explore Doha.

Hopefully soon I can post updates about Qatar! (Sans quarantine).

Student Autobiographies

I got this idea from Howie Hua! I read about how Howie used Student Autobiographies in his classroom to get to know his students, get them to learn about each other, and help build community in an online setting.

Here’s a link to the Google slides template that I shared with my students.

Last year I taught in China where this would have been difficult to do since I have not been able to find any other free platform that offers the same sharing and editing features as Google Slides.

It’s been really amazing being able to learn about my students and seeing them interact with each other despite being fully online at the moment. I was also able to share out the slides to parents where they could also browse the autobiographies and meet our community of learners!

2019-2020 Year End Reflection

I remember sitting at a meeting table at my school in Suzhou, China late January earlier this year when a colleague said, “Heads up, there’s a virus going around in Wuhan. Very contagious,” and thinking something along the lines of “Well, at least we’ve got our Chinese New Year holiday coming up. Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.” I was, absent-minded to say the least.

Two weeks later, nobody could wander into a public space without a mask, long distance buses stopped running, temperature checks were imposed at major transportation hubs, and cars were restricted entry into locations outside the jurisdiction of their licensure.

2020, I imagine, has not turned out to be the year many has expected it to be. I write this four and a half months after the World Health Organization declared the Novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to be a pandemic.

This dramatic turn of events has had me feeling like the entire world is just holding its breath. For a while, all we could do was observe and wait, not fully willing to settle into what was slowly shifting into our new normal in hopes that we can just pick up where we left off pre-COVID.

By the time Semester 2 began mid-February, I was “temporarily” residing back in Canada. For safety reasons, the school re-opening date was to be pushed back two weeks. Teachers were told that online learning would only be temporary (lasting no longer than 2-4 weeks) to accommodate for rapid changes in travel plans and quarantine measures.

Our school eventually re-opened in May, but by that time, a majority of our teaching staff were out of country and had no way to get back in. China had already closed its borders and our visas suspended. All we could do was wait. I ended up teaching the entire semester online, with many changes and adjustments that had to be made to teaching style, content delivery, and assessment along the way.

Despite the many barriers that were imposed upon us, I remind myself that I still have a lot to be grateful for. I didn’t chance to say goodbye to my students in person, but we found new and different ways to connect online. We missed out on a ton of live in-school events and activities like Pi Day, the graduation ceremony, the school-wide lip dub, sports competitions, but that didn’t stop us from celebrating student achievements through their virtual counterparts. I lost my job too, but at least now I have an opportunity to start fresh. When one door closes, right?

Looking back

When I started the school year, one of my professional goals was to be able to get into more teacher classrooms, of all different subject matters, to learn from and observe my colleagues, and to get teachers in my classroom as well. It was my way of taking small steps towards making #observeme more of the norm at our school.

#observeme sign I post on my classroom door.

As a department, we worked on re-vamping the way we structured our classes and assessments using principles from cognitive psychology to better help our students learn and retain information (I wrote about it here).

We experienced many successes in our first semester, but still had a long way to go in terms of finding our groove. When COVID hit, I knew we all needed a new goal: find ways to help us and our students successfully navigate the world of online learning.

Starting from ground zero

If I’m honest, for a long time it felt as if we were just keeping our heads above the water, struggling to balance between the uncertain timeline imposed by COVID, as well as expectations from the school, students, parents, and ourselves. Even though we were working long hours, none of us truly felt like we were operating at 100% capacity. A jumbled mess now laid in place of the clear path (or so it seemed) that was once before us.


  • Several cheating and/or plagiarism incidents took place with course assignments
  • High student absenteeism rates, especially at the beginning, which led to snowball effect of select students continuing that trend to the end of the year
  • Inconsistent scheduling (due to various factors)
  • Difficulty communicating with some parents and students


  • Developing a consistent school-wide plan for scheduling, parent and student communication
  • Keeping platforms for communication and e-learning consistent.
  • Incorporating interactive and collaborative elements in online synchronous lessons (e.g. Padlet, Nearpod).
  • Eliminating heavily weighted timed assessments (such as unit tests and final exam) helped alleviate pressures associated with adjusting to an online learning environment. Students had more time to work on fewer graded assessments, thus increasing the quality of work to be handed in.
  • High success and engagement experienced with implementing open tasks on Flipgrid.
  • Moving from weekly to bi-weekly quizzes to help with student workload.
  • Maintaining a positive mindset and staying flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances (school policy, overall outlook of global health crisis… etc.)


  • Keep graded assessments to a minimum.
  • Opt for more open tasks, collaborative projects, or project-based and/or problem-based learning
  • Develop, communicate, reinforce and continually PRACTICE norms for successful online learning
  • May need to rethink mandatory synchronous live lessons. Issues of access may make this a non-equitable practice that may hinder the success of certain students. Providing equitable asynchronous learning options is ideal for ensuring equal learning opportunities for all.

Closing thoughts

For a long time, I was in denial. The practical me jumped in headfirst and did her best to adjust and adapt to changing circumstance, whereas my less practical self refused to accept that this is really happening. Yet, neither of those selves are helpful. In thinking about the past, or worrying about the future, I forget to live in the present.

What I’ve Learned from Online Teaching

I’m no expert, but the COVID pandemic has given me the prerogative to scour the interwebs for useful tidbits on maintaining lively and engaging online lessons. In the last three or so months, I’ve created at least half a dozen new teacher accounts on educational sites and platforms; some of which I use moderately (EdPuzzle, Padlet, Flipgrid…etc.), a few that I use religiously (Zoom), and still others that I’d like to experiment with some more (Nearpod, Brainingcamp).

Transitioning to full-time online teaching has been a process of repeated trial and error, and a test of patience and flexibility in learning to adjust to changing circumstances. I’ve definitely made more than my fair share of mistakes, but here I’ve compiled list of tips and tricks that I’ve found useful for teaching online. Some of these are obvious and are good practice in general, and others are things I’ve learned along the way or things I wish I had done sooner. If there are any tips here that you think I missed, I would love to hear about them in the comments!

Delivering Live Lessons

  • Look AT the camera, not your screen. An easy one to remember for more formal settings, like online interviews, but also at an important one not to miss with your students too. It shows them they matter, you care, and gives them a sense that you are watching.
Like this, but less creepy.

Left: Even though I’m looking at my students on screen, I appear less engaged. Right: Takes some getting used to, but this one has more of the right feel to it.

  • Display your daily agenda, and deadlines on your screen like you would in your regular classroom. This develops helps consistency and create routine for you students.
  • Always pair visual and verbal cues. If you want your students to respond to a question in a group chat, or complete an activity, make sure they can hear and see the instructions, as some may experience audio or internet connectivity issues. (Good practice in the regular classroom too).
  • Allow longer than normal wait times. Again, expect a lag between the time you pose the question to when your students actual hear it.
  • In general, I’ve found that live lessons take MUCH longer than a regular class. Plan more than you need but expect to cover less.
  • Engage students as much as possible. Q&A sessions can get tricky in an online setting and plain old cold calling… well, gets cold. In the next section, I’ll take about some low stakes methods to ensure that students aren’t just tuning into your lesson, only to be playing League of Legends off screen.
  • Start easy. Rather than dive right into the deep end with new content, a class-wide discussion…etc. why not begin with a warm up question? I like to start class with an attendance question that each student will answer (a tip I picked up from my VP). This gives me a quick and easy way to check-in with my students, they get to learn some information about each other, and it allows time for mentally transitioning into learning mode.

Keep in mind it DOES take time to check in with each student individually, so think about the type of question you want to ask, and whether or not you will give each individual student air time, or have them all type their answers into a shared document simultaneously.

  • Record your lesson and upload the video for later access. Zoom does this automatically, but there are plenty of free software out there for you to record your lessons. We are an Office 365 school, so I upload my recorded lessons onto Sharepoint for any students who missed a class.
  • Get a drawing tablet! Perhaps this goes without saying, but it is really difficult (in my math class at least) to pair visual and verbal cues when I can’t draw or write on the board. Having a tablet helped alleviate that issue.
  • Something I wish I had done is model to students how e-learning works. Sara Van Der Werf talks about this in detail here.

Increasing Engagement

  • Set the expectation that students need to turn their video cameras ON right from the get go. This one may not work for everyone due to issues of access, but I found that in my classroom engagement is much higher when my students and I can all see each other. Not to mention this gives me a better way to gauge how they are responding to the lesson.
  • Don’t just lecture. If you are having a live session, use this time to build in as much interactive elements into the session as possible. Information heavy content can be recorded and made available to be accessed later.
Students working through a prompt shared on Nearpod.
  • Make PARTICIPATION, not evaluation, the norm. I thought that I would need to incentivize participation with marks (like marking Flipgrid responses), but looking back I don’t think this was the right move. Whatever platform(s) you are using for online engagement, use these early and often, and keep them low stakes.
Students responding to a Notice/Wonder prompt on Flipgrid.


  • Assessment is not the same as evaluation. Assessment is timely, and gives us a way to gauge where our students are at and for us to figure out how to get them to where they need to be. Assessment needs to happen early, often, and BEFORE evaluation.
  • Prioritize the learning itself, not the marks. I know from personal experience, this can often feel like an uphill battle, not only against whatever policies that have been set, but also against yourself. We’ve been teaching and learning for marks for so long it is easy to forget that the goal of knowing the Pythagorean theorem, or understanding transformation of functions is not so our students can pass the test, but because there is genuine enjoyment to be had! (This point deserves its own post).
  • Eliminate timed tests and quizzes (as much as possible). Ask better, open questions instead (OpenMiddle, Which One Doesn’t Belong, Number Talks…etc.).
Sample task from I ran with my students on Flipgrid.

Tools and Tech

  • Less > More! Really. This one was a biggie for me. Trying to do too much will only drive you crazy. While there is a ton of useful tech out there that can dramatically up our teaching game, it can also be time consuming to learn a new tool. Start small.
  • It’s not about the resource, but how you use it (check out this podcast, episode #70). Contrary to the last point, don’t let the fact that there is so much tech out there stop you from exploring a new tool. Yes, choice paralysis is real, but at some point simply sending your students links to Khan Academy videos ain’t gonna cut it.


  • Remember that kids have lives outside your classroom. This one is so important, even in a non-COVID situation, but nothing is easier to forget. I often get offended when kids don’t remember deadlines or to submit work, but the reality is that my class is NOT the centre of their universe and I have to be okay with that.

What do you do when students submit low quality/low effort work?

I’ve been taking an online workshop to learn more about practical ways we can implement problem-based lessons in our math classrooms called Empowered Problem Solving by Robert Kaplinsky (#mathhero #teachercrush). In one of the workshop modules we troubleshoot various issues that may arise throughout the process of teaching a problem based lesson, for instance:

  • What happens if students don’t ask for information that they need to solve the problem?
  • What do you do if a student shares a strategy that you don’t understand or did not anticipate?
  • What do you do when students submit low quality or low effort work?

That last question really had me thinking a lot about assessment. When students submit low quality work it is often because they don’t know what the expectations are. Something I do quite often in my classes is share student work samples after an assignment or test to address common errors or mathematical practices. Here’s a brief overview of my journey in providing feedback for my students:

“What Should My Answer Look Like” Posters from MathEqualsLove,
Examples are from my class 🙂

I don’t make enough time for level 3 work, and I should. Within a single semester, my goal is to give students at least two opportunities to do meaningful peer assessment. Of course, I anticipate this to be a gradual process, and it might take some time to get to a point where students can comfortably and confidently do peer assessment.

Assessment is difficult; even with a simplified assessment scheme one two teachers may assess the same student work slightly differently depending on their interpretation of what is “correct” or what qualifies as “sufficient reasoning.” Unfortunately these discrepancies will arise no matter what, but I think there is a lot of value in putting the students in our shoes and giving them opportunities to assess each other’s work.

Inspired by the Empowered Problem Solving Workshop, I’ve created a Mathematical Peer Editing Checklist and Feedback Form with practices I value and that I think is general enough to be used with most and/or all problem-based lessons. I’ve also incorporated an “overall feedback” section in the form based on Kaplinsky’s Levels of Convincing (originally inspired by Jo Boaler #mathhero #teachercrush) that asks students to rate each other’s mathematical writing based on how convincing they think their argument/work is.

  • Do you think this framework would work with your students?
  • How would you modify it to make it better?
  • Anyone have suggestions for a more concise title, as opposed to “Mathematical Peer Editing Checklist and Feedback Form”?
  • Thoughts on my use of the word “writer” to describe the student who’s work is being critiqued?
  • Other thoughts?

What Teaching During the Coronavirus Outbreak Has Been Like for Me

​ Shortly before the start of our Chinese New Year holiday at the end of January, news had started to spread about a new virus in Wuhan, China. By the time I actually left the country, virtually everyone was wearing a face mask and activity at all major transportation hubs (railway stations, airports) had basically stalled. For a while, it seemed like we were able to escape the mass hysteria that was beginning to ensue and enjoy nearly three weeks of worry-free traveling around the Philippines.

My travel companion, Jose, and I had been keeping a close tab on the coronavirus situation, and we were warned by my relatives in Hong Kong to stock up on as many face masks and hand sanitizers as we could while we were in the Philippines as they were virtually sold out everywhere in Hong Kong and China. We had originally planned to return to Shanghai on February 16th but had been notified by our principal that the start of physical classes in China had been delayed until at least March 2. At that point, the number of reported infected people had been raising still and we contemplated travelling elsewhere to ride out the situation. The problem was, we had, and still have, no idea how long this situation would last, nor have we been given any sort of certainty as to a specific return date for work.


The streets of Hong Kong seemed emptier than usual.
Jose ended up returning to Suzhou, where we both work and undergoing a 14 day quarantine, which was monitored by the building management. I made a last minute decision to return to Canada. Both our decisions were spurred on by an unfortunate encounter with bed bugs (we suspect), and us having to deal with two very different sets of symptoms that caused us a lot of emotional stress and worry. Luckily for us, we’re on the path to recovery. As far as I know, majority of international teaching staff from our school are taking “extended vacations” (using this term loosely here) in various countries around the world. A few have opted to go back to Canada, some returned to China, and a few never left.

A snapshot of my class WeChat group. As you can see most of the posts are announcements from me, haha!
With all this in mind, teachers, administrators and staff members hustled to get an online instructional plan in place for the start of semester 2, which began on February 19. Our main learning management system is Moodle and it is a platform that our school has been using for a few years. We use Moodle  to communicate information and share resources and lesson materials. Since we are teaching in China, WeChat (the Chinese equivalent to WhatsApp) has also been indispensable as a communication tool, especially since Moodle was unprepared to handle such a high volume of users, or accommodate our rapidly growing storage needs (our brilliant IT team has been able to curb many of these issues since then, but the server still undergoes regular maintenance causing minor disruptions in our workflow).
I know that many teachers and schools express issues with using WeChat as a way to communicate with students, and this was something I had a lot of hesitations with as well, which is why I’ve never created WeChat groups for my classes in the past. Over my last few years though, I’ve quickly realized that it is really the best and fastest way to reach students, and I’ve joined and created WeChat groups for sharing or keeping up to date with school-wide announcements, communicate with course teams or departments in the school, or get in touch with students who are part of extracurriculars I’m running.
WeChat is not just a messaging app, but also has social media features, payment options, and several other utilities built in. In short, WeChat is pretty much woven into the fabric and lifeblood of what living and working in China is like. That said, it is THE number one tool to utilize if you are looking for a stable and reliable method of communicating with people in China. No server issues, no need for a VPN… so while privacy is still a concern, it is now a part of my online instructional plan. (There is an option to limit communications with contacts to “chats” only so you can hide your social media posts).

Students have been learning with a mix of interactive lessons, course notes, formative quizzes, and live sessions.
Moodle is, and remains, the MAIN communication platform for students to access course materials, view links to filmed live sessions, submit assignments…. And so on. A couple of other tools that my colleagues have introduced that I’ve found extremely helpful for my classes include Zoom, an online conferencing tool, and Loom, a video recording software that uploads any videos you make onto a cloud and sharing a video is as simple as copying and pasting a link.

Given that we’ve been fully online with our learning for about two weeks now, we’re addressing minor hiccups as we go, adjusting the pacing of our lessons, and working on finding authentic ways to assess student learning. We’re thinking about how to troubleshoot potential issues with academic honesty and ways to get an accurate and holistic picture of how our students are learning. The biggest unknown at the moment is when we will be back in the classroom, and how the coronavirus situation will pan out… Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.  ​​

Teaching for a Math Mindset: A Not Yet Successful Study

So I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to teach in the Head Start summer program at my international school here in China. The program is intended to help students going into high school to gain exposure to full English immersion classes in Math, Science, Socials, and Language Arts. I taught four blocks a day for 70 minutes each. Each class had anywhere between 12 – 16 students. Ten days straight; on the one hand, no break (kinda brutal), and on the other, open curriculum (YES! Free reign).

I had lofty plans. I’d been refreshing myself on Jo Boaler’s work about mathematical mindsets (see my previous ramblings here). I was going to do a little study.  Please note that I do not have any experience whatsoever doing educational research. While I have a general understanding of the scientific method, I was mostly doing this out of pure curiosity and a desire to become a better teacher.

Like all good mathematicians and in the name of good science, it was perhaps inevitable that first time was not the charm, and rather than have a very successful, replicable study, I instead gained some knowledge about how I might proceed in the future. Nice.

Content that I had planned to cover in 10 days would have taken closer to 18. The students had an incredible range of English speaking ability, with drastically varied dynamics between groups of students. The schedule did not operate on a cycle, so I saw the same group of students at the same time each day, which definitely influenced their learning experience. For instance, Group C who were absolute angels and ready to learn each day in my first period class were exhausted by the time they got to third period, which led to more behavioural problems in the classroom.

Group A: A challenging group. I saw them the period right before lunch each day and there was a group of four students who were unable to sit still and wandered the class during inappropriate times, such as in the middle of me giving instructions. I lost my cool on this group; shame on me because I wasn’t able to regulate my emotions and respond calmly to the situation. Just to clarify, a “losing my cool” moment for me doesn’t mean shouting or yelling, which is neither helpful nor productive. I simply raised my voice to get the students attention. But, in that moment,  I had lost my cool because I let the students dictate my response rather than carefully assess the situation and respond calmly and accordingly.

Group B: Did absolutely anything in their power to NOT pay attention. Would whine anytime I introduced a new activity. Would put their heads down and sleep in class. I saw this group after lunch each day, they were my last and perhaps most challenging class because of the incredible amount of sleepers and students who wanted to do absolutely nothing. There were definitely some gems in this class that would have benefitted from being in a group with other, more responsive students. Lots of patience and flexible teaching strategies required.

Group C: The first group I saw each day and by far the best group. Students had a decent command of English and I rarely had to repeat myself. They would listen and follow instructions the first time. Students would always do as they were asked. The challenge with this group was pushing them to work slightly beyond their zone of proximal development.

Group D: A diverse group with students who always wanted to be two steps ahead, students who needed a lot of personal assistance, students who got distracted easily, and students who were happy with just coasting along.

I used Boaler’s Mathematical Mindset Teaching Guide as a self assessment tool for how I was and was not strengthening growth mindset culture in my math classroom. I wanted to focus on changing students’ inclinations towards math learning, challenging those who believe math is a subject that defies creativity and passion, and pushing those who already saw themselves as “math” students to expand their definition of what math is. With the help of my math mentor, I settled on collecting data through a mindset survey.

Students took a before and after survey. I added two prompts on the after survey that required students to provide written answers to the following:
– What I think math is…
– How math class makes me feel… 

A source of error here is that for students with low English level, they may not have fully understood the meaning of the statements they were agreeing or disagreeing with. Another possible source of error (though unavoidable) are those students who “did” the survey by randomly clicking boxes just to appease their dear teacher.

I chose content from YouCubed’s Week of Inspirational Math. I chose these tasks because they were all low-floor, high-ceiling tasks and were designed to build good mathematical habits of mind. For example, on day 1, we did an activity called “Four 4’s” which encouraged students to think creatively and work collaboratively to come up with as many expressions as they can that equal the numbers 1 – 20 using only four 4’s and any mathematical operation of their choice (see picture below).

Other activities we did:

  • Escape Room Challenge: A mixture of math puzzles, grade 9/10 content from trigonometry, polynomials, and simplifying expressions. Designed by me and was meant to last one period, ended up taking two.
  • Number Visuals: Students examined visual representations of numbers 1 – 36 and were asked to identify and describe patterns (prime v composite numbers, factorization…etc.).
  • Paper Folding: An activity from YouCubed that challenges students to slow down and justify their answers. (Meaning that, anybody who claimed they were “finished” after five minutes clearly did not understand the activity…)
  • Movie: Students complete an agree/disagree questionnaire and watched The Man Who Knew Infinity about an Indian mathematician named S. Ramanujan making waves in England. Great movie starring Dev Patel. We did a discussion circle afterwards that touched base on prompts from the questionnaire that students were interested in exploring. (E.g. “Math is creative”)
  • Pascal’s Triangle: Find and describe patterns hidden in Pascal’s triangle.

In terms of assessment, I wanted to stay as far away from tests or quizzes as possible. Instead, I focused on providing students with specific, written feedback on their journal entries, group quizzes, and one final presentation at the end. I wasn’t concerned so much with what they knew, but rather the process through which they were learning and engaging with the material.

The Four 4s Activity

Students working on the escape room activity.

Looking for patterns in the Visual Numbers activity

That time a puppy wandered into my classroom. Oops.




Select responses to “What I think math is”
“The most important things we need to learn”
-“Have unlimited creativity”
“Subject between creative and and teamwork”
“is very interesting. make my brain growing”
“Math makes me hate and love”

Select responses to “How math class makes me feel”
“Moer interesting than chinese class”
“It may not very interesting, but OK”
“happy that I learned a lot”
“I feel very good, I meet very good teacher also know the very good friend in the math class”
“I feel happy when I fiand the ancer”
​”Good! make me more confedent”

​A majority of students already had tendencies towards a growth mindset in mathematics, perhaps as a result of the general high regard Chinese people hold for mathematics as a subject. For the most part, students liked math and saw themselves as capable of achieving if they worked hard enough. Of the 59 students I taught, a small number of students (three or four) were of the opinion that they were “just not math people” and were extremely hesitant in trying.

In the end, I can’t really say definitively which factors of my teaching influenced (or failed to influence) a stronger growth mindset towards maths. What I do know is that the switch to low-floor, high-ceiling tasks was extremely freeing — for me and for the students. It allowed us to take a concept or idea as far as we wanted to go. There was no script or prescribed problem set that the students had to work through in increasing levels of difficulty, but rather a greater depth of thinking, and the time and space for that thinking to happen. Despite (or maybe thanks to?) the lack of testing (there were none), students still engaged with the tasks and content at high levels, drawing conclusions they might never have done with a pre-made worksheet of the skills they were supposed to practice.

By building a stronger focus on increased depth of knowledge, it then follows that a necessary norm to advocate would be that math isn’t about speed. When people refer to themselves as not “math people”, that’s usually what they refer to, the fact that they aren’t fast at mental arithmetic. But math is so much more than that.

In all, while it is hard to say from the students’ perspective whether or not they appreciated a stronger switch to teaching with mathematical mindsets in mind, I know that for me it resonates as a noble endeavour. Yes, it is much easier to write a test and spend 70 minutes of your life making sure no one cheats. But take that same test, rip it up, and replace it with a diagram, an equation, a single question, a blank sheet… and possibilities begin to emerge. Some groups may reach a higher level of understanding and some may not, but then again, we teach students, not subjects.

Turn Your Classroom into an Escape Room

I recently attended a professional development session led by a colleague titled, “How to Make Any Worksheet into an Escape Room,” which helped us experience an escape activity from the student perspective. It was the bomb. Dot com. The session touched on ideas expressed in this article, which happens to share the same title.   

Two weeks later, I ran an escape room in my classroom. It was the most fun I’d had all year. 

Cue intro. Goal: Answer the question, “what is life?” Other than that, I gave my students VERY little prompting. I figure I’d let all the mysterious new locks that had been placed in my classroom do most of the talking.

In order to answer the question, they need to collect all four puzzle pieces, which eventually led to this:

The escape activity was designed to work in a linear fashion, so students had to unlock each combination in sequence in order to get to the next clue. 

Clue 1: Integration 
Students were given a numeric code that had to be converted to a word after correctly solving the given integration problem. 

The answer was “SNACKS,” which happens to be a location clue, leading to the refreshments centre where I provide students with water, tea, and snacks. The answer to the first clue was hidden under the snack basket. Many students got stumped at this point and wasn’t sure what they were supposed to do (I didn’t give them ANY other instructions). Once they got going, however, they really got into the flow of it.

Clue 2: Derivatives Matching 
I used a matching activity here from Flamingo Math (teachers pay teachers) and students had to find the four digit number code based on the highlighted boxes. (So they didn’t actually have to complete the entire matching activity).

Clue 3: Find the Mistake 
The answer: Students convert correct answer into letter code to unlock the letter lock. 

Clue 4: Calculus Crossword
The answer: Highlighted in invisible ink are the words TRIAL. 

A couple observations: 

  • DON’T set letter locks to be something obviously related to your subject. I stupidly set mine to be “MATH” and had students guessing random four letter words rather than actually engaging with the problem sets that I had worked so hard to create! (I later changed the combo to “BATH”) 
  •  On that same vein, you can set a rule so that students can only attempt one combination at a time. 
  • There’s always that one kid who examines everything with the UV light… so I ended up writing a few random messages around the class not related to anything but just for giggles. 

A great format for STEM OLYMPICS

The same colleague who lead the Escape pro-d was also part of the planning committee for our first ever STEM Olympics (shout out to my buddies Flower, Jeon, Im, Yin and Patel if you’re reading!).  


ROUND 1: Unlock one of three boxes

  • Event began with nine teams of four 
  • Students work in teams of four, they have a choice of which question set they would like to work on, however, once a box gets unlocked, then that box becomes unavailable 
  • The question sets corresponding to each box cover a different range of subjects (ex. Box A might cover Math 10, Science 10, Physics 11 and Chemistry 11 while Box B might cover IT 10, Math 10, Science 10 and Math 11). 
  • Inside each box are a series of “advantage cards” 
  • Only the teams that unlock the boxes proceed to the next stage of competition 

ROUND 2: Gain 5 points in a trivia style tournament 

  • Each box contained a specialized advantage card that can be used in round 2
  • Advantage cards may only be played after the question topic is revealed and BEFORE the question is revealed 
  • Examples of advantage cards: skip the question, make the question worth double points, invite an expert to answer the question 
  • First team to 5 points wins
  • Remaining teams compete for second place 

While it does take some time and planning, the escape room format is a great way to review and preview content for a unit or course. I like that it is completely student driven and there is a great deal of collaboration that happens. The novelty factor with the physical locks also played a great role in keeping students interested and engaged, although it is possible to adapt this activity to be completely digital (Onenote or Google forms). 

Since then, I’ve created two other escape activities with my classes. They’re a lot of fun to make and the possibilities for clues and questions are endless! This is definitely an activity I’m going to keep using in my classes.

First Days of Calculus: Grapher-Explainer Activity

 Never in my life did I ever imagine myself teaching in China, and yet, here I am for a second year at that! Below are images of welcome packages I put together for the members in the Math Department this year, which includes:
– A door sign with the teacher’s name, room number, and teaching schedule
-Stickers, ‘cuz duh
-Coffee, a key element in sustaining the life force of a teacher
-A pack of cards, essential in any math teacher starter kit 
-A math puzzle, fuel for the brain 

I’m super happy with the way they turned out, and I’m looking forward to a good year ahead!  

This year I’ll be teaching Pre-Calculus 11 and Calculus 12, which I’m both excited and nervous about! It’s been years since I’ve taken Calculus and this will be my first year working with twelfth grade students (I’ve been doing a lot of review this summer on Khan Academy). Here’s a fun activity that I found on Kate Owen‘s blog that I plan on using this week with my Calculus 12 students. It’s a great way to review concepts and vocabulary from Pre-Calculus to see what students already know and remember from the course. 

I’ve added some modifications and created an accompanying PPT that’s a full lesson, all ready to go. Scroll down below to access this resource 🙂 I’m a big believer in sharing teaching resources for free, and this is my way of giving back to the online teaching community that has given so much to me. Huge shout out to everyone in the #MTBoS, I love this community. 

The activity works as follows:  

1.Students it with a partner, shoulder to shoulder.
2.One person faces the board, the other person faces away.
3.The person facing the board will be the explainer.
4.The person facing away will be the grapher.

Warm Up: Teacher does warm up round with the students, describing a basic graph (ex. linear function) and students attempt to draw it in their notebooks. Discuss: What prompts were useful? Is there something the teacher said that could have made it easier? 

The Activity: (see above)

Exit Ticket: Given a picture of a graph, students are to write a description that matches it in as much detail as possible.

Extension: Students draw a graph and write a corresponding description. Scramble the results and have students match them!  

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Reflections on My First Semester Teaching in China

Semester one of my first year living and working in China is officially over! Since my last post about the first day of school, I realized haven’t blogged at all this entire semester. I am a little disappointed that I had skipped through all the middle bits, but regardless, here we are.  

This past semester I taught Math 10 and 11 of the British Columbia curriculum at an international school in Suzhou, China. With the exception of a handful of students, all of them are English Language Learners. Some might argue that this does not pose a big problem in mathematics, since the language of mathematics can be viewed as a combination of abstract signs and symbols separate from the English language.  The problem is, it is one thing to understand mathematical ideas and concepts, but another to be able to communicate them. Someone who is well versed in a mathematics should theoretically be able to describe the same concept in more ways than one – numerically, algebraically, graphically, and verbally. Mathematicians strive for precision in expressing ideas, and this is not always simple. Aside from students having to approach mathematics from an ELL standpoint, the issue is compounded when you consider all the ways in which ambiguity arises in the English Language. Take for instance the word “and”; conjunction in mathematics is commutative (A^B is the same as B^A), but you can see from the example below that “and” in everyday English is not commutative. 

The sentence, “John took the free kick, and the ball went into the net,”  would have a very different meaning if the conjuncts were reversed (Devlin, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking).

For my most challenging students, the issue wasn’t so much as getting them to communicate their mathematical ideas well, but getting them to communicate at all. For students with extremely low level English ability, being afraid to speak or ask questions in class was a huge roadblock in developing  a good grasp on the mathematics we aim to study. The most frustrating times were when students didn’t even bother to try. Perhaps this has something to do with being in a culture where “saving face” is important, but students were sometimes so afraid of being wrong that they left entire test pages blank, multiple choice even! (Yes, I know, I was stunned!) You’ve probably heard this a million times but I’ll say it again, mathematics is not a spectator sport! You have to do it to get it, like riding a bicycle. (Am I preaching to the choir here?)

My biggest goal this semester is to get students talking more. About mathematics. In English. A large part of my success will depend on how well I set up a classroom culture of trust and acceptance. This is huge. If I have any hope of getting students to share their original thoughts and ideas they need to know they are safe doing so. Luckily, I’ve got some ideas to help me get started, but the rest will be trial and error (as is most of my teaching anyway). I also plan on working in a slower progression at the beginning of the year to first get students acquainted with some of the language used to describe mathematical expressions before we dive into what exactly mathematics is. With any luck, every student will be able to describe, in English, what we are learning in any given unit. 

Things That Went Well in Semester 1
1) I finally found a groove! Lesson planning no longer takes up hours and hours each day (#win), and I also have a nice support network of experienced teachers to draw ideas from and borrow resources from. Establishing daily routines early on in my classroom (and enforcing them!) also worked wonders. 

2) Brain breaks. I was a little hesitant about these at the start since they seemed silly and unnecessary if the lesson is well-chunked. I learned early on though, not all lessons are made equally and some days really are a drag, especially when are teaching 80 minute blocks. Taking a short 5-10 minute break to stretch/play a game/go on your cell phone provides both myself and the students some much needed refuge from a long period of work. 

3) First week activities. As I mentioned earlier, setting up a warm and inviting classroom culture is key to being able to get students to talk more math, and learn more in general. I spent about a week doing activities and playing games related to math with my students last semester before I started diving into teaching any curricular content. I plan on spending about the same amount of time, if not more, this coming semester settling in with my new classes. â€‹

First Week Activities

Another year, another country, and another school! Phew, all this moving around is getting tiring, and I’ve been teaching new courses every year. I’m so grateful to the MTBoS community (Math-Twitter Blogosphere) for sharing resources and teaching tips and tricks, it makes me so happy to be teaching math! I can’t praise it enough! Sarah Carter from Math = Love, Sara VanDerWerf, and Dan Meyer have been my go-to’s for classroom activities and lesson ideas. 
I’m teaching high school math (grades 10 and 11) this year. My school runs on 80 minute blocks. Here’s what I did.

Algebra Seat Finders and Visibly Random Groups – Rather than making a seating plan or having students choose their own seats I greet students at the door and hand them each a card as they walk in. On the card are algebra problems involving one or two step equations and order of operations that are easily solvable via mental math. The answer to the question will tell them which table to sit at. I’ve arranged my tables into groups of four and have signs taped to the side of the desks so they can easily find the group number. (If you would like to download copy of the seat finder cards I used, they are available at the bottom of my post). 

​I do the same thing each day, so that every day students will sit in different groups. I like this activity because students are doing math as SOON as they enter the classroom.  Some students will cheat and trade cards with other people so they can sit with their friends, but you will come to notice this quickly. I tell students that in this class we are a community and that they will always be working with different people so they get to experience different perspectives and meet everyone in class. Even if certain students don’t get along, it’s low stakes because the seating changes every day. On Fridays I give them a break and tell them to sit anywhere they like. It was interesting for me to notice that given the choice, students tend to sit with classmates with similar level. Peter Liljedahl has done some cool research on visibly random grouping, check out his free webinar here


All these cards solve for x = 1, as my class is arranged in groups of four.
Day 1 

  • Bell Work – Who I Am
    • Start the class with low key student profile sheet from Dan Meyer as I take attendance. Gives students a chance to tell me about themselves. My favourite questions on this sheet are the “Self Portrait” and “Qualities of a good math teacher.  
  • Numbers Quiz
    • Adapted from Sarah Carter. I beef this up a bit and use this as an opportunity to talk about test/quiz expectations (no talking, no asking a neighbor to borrow an eraser or calculator…etc.), and the consequences for cheating. I tell them that this is a difficult quiz and so far no one has been able to obtain a perfect score. All I ask is for them to try their best, and if they don’t know an answer, guess. When I tell them to flip their papers over I usually hear a few chuckles or giggles. Again, I enforce that the room should be silent and let them know I mean business.
Next, I tell them a bit about myself and we grade the quizzes. #2 and #6 (distance questions) are a good chance to incorporate number sense and reasoning as most students have no idea how far it is from China to Canada or how long it takes to run a 21 km race. 

  • Student Quizzes
    • Next, I give them a chance to write ME a quiz about themselves. I take their quizzes and return it to them to be marked. Most students asked basic questions like “What is my favorite subject?” or “What is my favourite food?” Others were more creative and decided to have a bit of fun with the activity… 
  • Personality Coordinates (Dan Meyer)
    • Originally planned to complete this activity the first day, but I was over-ambitious with my planning so ended up introducing it and coming back to it later. First I showed students this diagram:  
I asked them to silently think of things they notice/wonder about the diagram. Then I did my first ever Stand and Talk and went around listening to conversations which gave me a chance to check in on students’ English ability. I teach EL (English Language) learners so I found it helpful to model how a conversation might go the second time round: 
Student A: What do you notice about this picture?
Student B: I notice there are two perpendicular lines. What do you notice?
Student A: I notice the four dots are arranged in a square. What do you wonder?
Student B: I wonder what the teacher will ask us to do with this diagram. What do you wonder?
Student A: I wonder if this is a function. 

We discuss and review parts of the coordinate plan. I ask them a few questions about the dots. (Which two dots share the same x-value? Which dot has the lowest x and lowest y value? etc.) 

The next time we revisit this activity I start with an example: 

  • Name Tents (Sarah VanDerWerf)
    • ​At the end of each class on the first week I asked my students to choose ONE question and answer it in their name tents: 

      • ​1. One thing you enjoyed about today’s class?
      • 2. One question you have. 
      • 3. A suggestion for class. 
    • I write back to them every day. This is a big commitment but worth the time in my opinion. 
    • Some positive feedback I’ve gotten: Fun, engaging class, students enjoy group work and team activities
    • Some things I need to work on: talking slower, writing bigger on the board
    • Some questions I’ve been asked: When do we get the textbook? When do we have our first quiz? Is math difficult? 
​Day 2

  • Syllabus Quiz
    • Rather than giving a long speech about course expectations, school and class policies, I wrote a quiz. Even though I assign syllabus reading for homework most students will not do this. The quiz is open book and is graded (can be done in pairs), and I count it towards their “English proficiency” grade for the course. 
  • Talking Points
    • This one MUST be modeled to students. It’s a little complex, especially for EL Learners so it’s important to explain clearly and minimize the amount of instructions given. The main point is to get ALL students talking and sharing their opinions.  To model the activity, I pick three random students to do a “practice round” with me. This was less effective with my grade 10 students as they are new to the immersion program. Next semester I might film a teacher example of this activity to show students instead. 
  • What is Math?
    • Share our ideas of what math is, give a common definition of mathematics that we will use for the course. 
  • Expectations for the Year
    • Go over things like: cell phone policy, asking to go to the bathroom, materials needed for class, binder expectations, course evaluation…etc. 
  • Name Tents
    • Again, end the day with student writing me some feedback. 

Day 3 – Day 5 
Teach some content and continue reviewing and practicing start of class and dismissal routines. 

Algebra Seat Finders – Groups
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My Thoughts on Classroom Management as a Third Year Teacher


Fawn Nguyen on classroom management

It’s personal.

Wow, I think Fawn Nguyen is absolutely spot on when she says  that classroom management is completely dependent on the who the teacher is and the types of students you have. (Fawn is my heroine BTW – just needed to throw that out there). This seems obvious, but it’s taken me a while to put this tidbit of knowledge into good practice. 

Books like First Days of School and Teach Like a Champion have been invaluable reads, providing tons of practical advice teachers can implement right away. The issue is learning how to filter that knowledge so that it’s true to your own teaching style and well-suited to who your students are. Teaching math in an academic classroom is way different than in a college or applied-level classroom, for instance, and not because the material is different per say, but because the students’ attitudes towards math differ tremendously. I found that students who are in applied or college-level math courses generally have lower confidence in their math abilities. Subsequently, each wrong answer means another failure added to the list and just reinforces what they already knew, “I’m not good at math.” Here, priority #1 is to build a safe and welcoming classroom where a culture of error is the norm, and is celebrated as a vehicle for learning.  Likewise, North American students and Asian students also differ in their attitudes towards math. Comparatively speaking, math anxiety seems to be a bigger issue in North America. On the other hand, students in Asia tend to be really good at math, they respect the subject, and they will work hard at it, even when things get tough. In Asia, the norm is repeat and rehearse everything the teacher’s taught, but the challenge is to get kids thinking independently and creatively.​ 

Different mindsets on math, as told in memes: 

An interesting article here on the influence of culture on achievement in math. 

April’s Tips on Classroom Management 

PictureThe answer is probably yes.

Okay, so still fairly new at this teaching thing, but here are some things that worked for me:

0. Plan a good lesson. I’m echoing Fawn on this one when I say that having an engaging lesson solves soooooo many potential discipline issues in the classroom. Kids will act out when they are bored. I know this because I WAS this. I mean, I was an A student throughout high school and a MODEL student at that. One summer I took a physics and had a teacher who literally read the textbook to us.  I can do that myself, thank you very much. So, rather than sit in silence and boredom, I discovered that the reflective properties of light were pretty fun to play around with. I was particularly intrigued at how various angles of light rays from the window would bounced off the shiny surface of my watch right into – yup, the teacher’s eyes. 
1. Learn names. I always make it a point to know the names of all my students and connect with them in some way. To me, there’s nothing worse than being called “you in the red shirt” or “hey you.” Teach students, not the subject. 

2. Don’t repeat student answers. I first noticed this during my observations of a veteran teacher while I was student teaching, and it completely changes the way discussions flow in the classroom. If a student answers a question, and the teacher repeats the answer (usually in a louder voice or with elaborations), in the students minds this translates to, “Information is not important, unless it comes out of the teacher’s mouth.” If a student says something really insightful, ask them to repeat it instead – you’ll have reinforced two important messages to a) the student: “Your contributions are valuable!”, and b) the class, “We have a lot to learn from our peers!” It is so vital for teachers to give students opportunities to be responsible for their own learning.

3. No Opt-Out. I got this one from Teach Like a Champion. The premise is simple, if a student does not know the answer to a question, they cannot get away with “I don’t know.” You might ask another student for their thoughts, you might provide a hint, you might just say the answer outright, but you will always go back to the student who said, “I don’t know.” “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer in my classroom. We want students to get from:
                                                                  “I don’t know” therefore “I don’t have to try”, to 
                                                                  “I don’t know, YET” so “I’m going to keep trying.”

4. Keep it simple. If you’re like me, you probably have a list of 20 different procedures, routines, and policies you’d like your students to do and maintain throughout the year, but this is not realistic! I ended up  flopping on most of them. My first two years of teaching have been chaotic, and I’m slowly coming to accept that it will be this way for a while. Focus on the five most important guidelines and procedures that your classroom cannot do without, then build from there. 
5. Document everything. The biggest lifesaver for me last year was getting students to fill out “Action Plans” for whenever they made a bad choice. There are many variants of this on Pintrest. Student Responsibility Cards for homework were also cool, but didn’t work out that well for my classroom because I didn’t follow through on consequences.  So I’ll keep the first and toss out the latter. Links to some documents I used below.

6. Give logical consequences. When I was little, my punishment for making bad choices was always the same; mum would make me stand facing the wall with my arms up, and fingers pinching my ears. I guess it was supposed to make me feel ashamed of my actions, but it doesn’t make sense. Let’s remedy the behaviour, and not punish the student. Examples of logical consequences below. 

First Day Plans #sundayfunday #MTBoS

Yay! So excited to actually start contributing to the #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blogosphere) community, and to start blogging more in general! This Sunday Funday blogging initiative is the perfect excuse to set aside some me time each week and reflect on my teaching. 

I’m now going into my third year of teaching, and so far, each year has been in a different country, which has made each “first day” even more special. 

My First First Day

Country: Kazakstan
Subject: Math
​Grade: 10 

In my very first day of my very first full time teaching job in Kazakhstan (blog post here), I spent the first day getting to know my students, telling them a bit about myself, talking to them about my expectations for the class, taking selfies of all the students, and giving them some general advice about how to succeed in math class. I found that it was important and effective to start building those relationships with my students from day one, and by learning all their names as quickly as possible, I let them know that I notice them and care about them. 

Prior to preparing my first day lesson plans, I soaked up as much information as I could with all the resources that were available to me. I had read First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong and a few other teaching books, browsed the internet for countless hours looking for ideas and inspiration, watched this entire video by Agape Management, and looked for elements of each that I thought would be suitable for my teaching style. What didn’t work, however, was the fact that I did not start the year knowing where I wanted my students to be by the end of the year. This was difficult because I didn’t know much about the culture, the style of teaching that students were accustomed to, and I had never taught a class full of ELL students before (hence why nobody laughed at my jokes). Moreover, I did not have full autonomy over the classroom (it was supposed to be a co-teaching type environment but ended up feeling more like I was “guest teaching” a few times a week); my co-teachers were not fluent in English, and had different visions of how they wanted to run their classrooms, which made it difficult to have consistency when it came to expectations and rules. 

What ended up happening was that the first day allowed me to start building relationships with my students, but it did nothing to help me manage my classroom (because nothing was consistently enforced). If I could re-do my first day, I would spend more time getting to know my co-teachers​, and specifically, these are the questions I would ask:

1. What are your classroom rules and expectations?
2. What are your beliefs about learning in math? (i.e. How do students learn best?) 
3. What are your beliefs about teaching in math? (i.e. How can teachers best reach their students?) 
4. Describe a typical day in the math classroom for you. 
I learned that it is important not to go in assuming that your teaching partner will have the same views about teaching and learning as you do, and not only that but that I needed to take the time to get to know and understand their views! Had I done so much earlier I would have discovered that hands-on activities, student investigations, or differentiated teaching and learning weren’t a common tools in their teaching toolbox. The general style of teaching I observed included very fast-paced progression through the units, with lots repetition and mental computations, but very little time spent developing the concepts or looking at their applications. Knowing this, I would have modified my first day presentation to include some math activities that integrated both styles of teaching.

The Second First Day

Country: South Korea
Subject: Science
Grades: 8 – 10
In my second year, I taught in South Korea and had full control over my own classroom, which made it significantly easier to plan and organize everything the way I wanted to. My first interaction with my students, however, was not on the first day of class. We had an “orientation day” in which both students and parents attended brief 10 minute presentations by all their teachers. 

I began by greeting every student and parent at the door with a handshake. I called the students by name as they walked into the classroom, which took a lot of time for me to learn beforehand, but was so worth the reactions! Prior to meeting all of them, I borrowed the previous years’ yearbook and memorized the faces and names of all the students I would be teaching in my classes. Some of them looked stunned that I knew their names already, when none of them had a clue who I was yet!  

At the front of the room, I had copies of letter to parents and the course syllabus which I asked each student to pick up as they walked in. In my presentation, I talked briefly about who I was, my educational background, and what students can be expecting to learn this year. My primary goal was to let them know that I care about them and their learning, and that while this year would be challenging, they would also be supported by me. 

Then, on the actual first day of class, I had students fill out a “Get to Know Me” form, we played an icebreaker game (two truths and a lie – my favourite to this day), I talked about the rules and expectations, and I ended the day by teaching them my class dismissal routine.  What I DIDN’T do (but wish I did), however, was any science, and that’s about to change for this year. 

This Upcoming School Year

Country: China
Subject: Chemistry (?), TBD
Grades: 9 – 12 (?) TBD

As in the past, my main goals for the first day of school are:
1) get to know my students, and
2) set the tone for the rest of the year, 
but how I plan to achieve them will change somewhat. 

1 – Getting to know my students.
Ideally, I would like to learn student names as quickly as I can, before the first day, if possible. But regardless, I would still like to use name tents with feedback, an idea that Sara Vanderwerf talks about in her blog. I think this is a great way to connect with students individually and on a more personal level. I would also like to take pictures of the students with their name tents so I have a visual record as well. A modification I will make to Sara’s version of the name tents is that I will provide some open-ended prompts that the students can respond to, so that they have a jumping-off point for organic thoughts to develop.  For instance: 
– I noticed … 
– I wonder … 
– I learned … 
– I wish … 

I also really like the Talking Points activity from MathMinds and plan to modify it to make it chemistry specific. 

Another idea I’ve been toying with is some sort of homework assignment that addresses a few or all of the 5 Questions to Ask Your Students To Start the School Year from @gcouros but my problem with this is that I don’t want it to JUST be about rapport building, it needs to address or be linked an aspect of science (or science learning) specifically… to be determined. 

2 – Setting the tone for the rest of the year.
We will, presumably, be doing chemistry so I would like to begin the first day with a demonstration, or an activity related to the nature and processes of science. Some ideas I would like to try:

Stacking Cups (Dan Meyer) – related to concepts of measurement, accuracy, precision, and estimation
Candle Light Activity (Art of Teaching Science) – importance of observation (qualitative and quantitative) in science, making inferences and predictions, chemical and physical properties 
Ira Remsen Demo (Michael Morgan) – observation, predictions, inferences, chemical safety, chemical reactions 

I believe that it is important to talk about my expectations and what students can expect out of the class, however, what I DON’T want to do is just read the syllabus on the first day. A prof once suggested just letting the students read the syllabus at home and talk about it the following day so they can ask questions about what they read, or doing a quiz if necessary about the content in the syllabus.

First Day Plan (rough draft):
1) Greet students at the door
2) Have an activity for them to get started with on their desk (either to quietly read the syllabus or fill out a Who I Am handout)
3) Introductions myself and the course
4) Student introductions + talking points
5) Do some science! 
6) Dismissal routine 

Concluding thoughts

My first day experiences thus far have been pretty nerve-racking and exciting. I’m slowly learning to strike the right balance between talking about rules and procedures to relinquishing control, and giving voice to the students. This is particularly difficult in a room full of ELL students, but  once they gain confidence in their ability to speak and be heard, I found that they had a lot to contribute. With international schools, it is usually the case that the students are well acquainted with each other already, so usually the introductions are more for the teacher rather than the students. Even though students may already know each other, however, my role as a teacher to facilitate a safe and positive community cannot be ignored. This was made prevalent to me in Korea when I realized that students still felt unwilling to work with particular classmates even though they had been in the same classes for years. â€‹Regardless of country, language, or culture, my biggest take away for the first day of the school year is to BUILD RELATIONSHIPS and ESTABLISH COMMUNITY. I will keep this in mind as I continue to plan for my first day of school in China this school year! 

Little Experimentations in Teaching Drama


A little secret about teachers – we BS a lot, we are well practiced in it, in fact. There are generally two types of BS; the first kind is the half-hearted BS you tell yourself as an excuse not to do the dishes or mow the lawn. There’s nothing wrong with a few dirty dishes. Right now, there are more important things to do” – the means isn’t really important so long as you achieve your goal.  The second, more refined kind of BS is the kind that has a little more conviction behind it. It’s the kind of high-tech BS machinery you never realized you possessed that only gets unleashed in the final hours before a major project, paper, or assignment is due. It is the BS that has the essence of utter crap and yet somehow manages to surpass even your highest expectations. Let’s face it, there is something tasteful about BS-ing with conviction; teachers do it and improvisers do it. There’s an argument to be made about stepping up our BS game as teachers and helping our students do the same, and we have a thing or two to learn from improvisational theatre.

Teaching, like improvisation, is a performance art. Both have entertainment value (or the potential of, at least). Both require quick thinking and have elements of spontaneity. Both operate within a system of carefully defined “rules”.  Good teaching, like good improvisation, requires that students and teachers (the “players”) are closely attuned. In improv, this tuning process happens early on as players establish a “base reality” for the scene – the who, what and where. Only when this base reality is set, can players begin to explore the world that they’ve created together. In teaching, this is analogous to establishing students’ prior knowledge on a subject. The prior knowledge is the base reality in which both students and teacher can build new learning upon.

Improvising is wonderful. But, the thing is that you cannot improvise unless you know exactly what you’re doing 

– Christoper Walken

 Everybody can improvise and everybody can teach, but things always sound easier than they actually are. So naturally, when I found out I would be teaching drama, I underestimated how difficult it would be to do it well. I claim to be a math and science teacher, but I also dislike the whole ‘I’m-not-an-English-teacher-so-it’s-okay-if-I-can’t -spell’ type excuse. Who says a math/science teacher can’t teach drama? Armed with vague memories of middle school drama, some words of advice from my colleagues, and a lot of research, I taught a group of grade eight students the basic elements of improvisational theatre.

The dream: foster greater teamwork, collaboration, and creativity amongst my students. The reality: a lot of reluctance, awkward silences, and miscommunication. Students were reluctant to participate because it potentially meant making a fool of themselves in front of their classmates. There were awkward silences because they were uncomfortable with the idea that they could control the dialogue rather than do what they were told.  Miscommunication happened because students focused too much on making themselves look good at the cost of sloppy scene work.

Our first attempts at simple improv games failed tremendously. The foundation of trust wasn’t there, and students had not yet learned the art of failing spectacularly. I challenged my students often and constantly pushed them towards more complicated tasks and scene work. What I didn’t realize, however, was that my students probably needed a much gentler progression, and more scaffolding. If I were to teach improv again I would spend more time on the fundamental concepts and revisit them often. I would tell my students that you don’t need to be loud to be heard, and I would focus more of my feedback on things that were going well rather than things that weren’t.

Even though my little experimentations with improv failed in a lot of ways, I learned much from the experience and would do it again in a heartbeat. Not only did teaching improv put me out of my comfort zone in terms of teaching, but we had a lot of fun! In the beginning I did a lot of “telling”; I read up on the rules and common pitfalls and communicated these to my students in hopes that they would avoid them. This did not work. They did those things anyway. But they got really good at doing those things, so for half a class, we just practiced doing scenarios in which your partner either blocked or wimped* in a scenario and we talked about what that felt like and how to make it better. Then we tried adhering to the “yes, and” rule and discovered that it was harder than it seems! With repeated trials and errors, we slowly progressed to a point where a few students felt comfortable performing on stage, others began to feel a little less intimidated, and everyone learned a bit about what it means to work together effectively. 

Teaching and learning about improvisation was like figuring out how to have a great conversation. When a scene goes poorly, it is usually because a player is too much in their own heads and not focused on their scene partner. Much like in life, this is annoying because we seldom have great conversations with people who try to make everything about themselves. As we continued to explore improv, both my students and I became more mindful of how certain responses can either help or hinder a scene. A friend of mine gave me some good improv advice, “You should always make your partner look good,” which is another way of saying, “This isn’t about you.” For example, your scene partner makes an offer and says, “Wow, the view is amazing from here,” and if you say, “What view?” then you are putting a lot of pressure on your partner to make something up to progress the scene. If instead you respond, “I have really bad vertigo, I need to get off this cliff,” then you just made your partner look good by taking their offer, and adding some valuable information to it.

Wouldn’t it be great if all class discussions could flow so smoothly? Where all students are equal participants, building on the ideas of one another, and each adding something of value? I see value in teaching and learning improv outside the drama classroom.  This article makes some good arguments for why and how improv can be incorporated into all subject matters, and has some great sample games and activities that can be modified for all grade levels. If you are a teacher who is curious about how improv can be implemented into other subjects, I highly recommend reading this paper.

Below are a list of Tina Fey’s four basic rules on improvisation, taken from her book Bossypants. In my next blog, I will elaborate on how I believe these rules are connected with my teaching practice. â€‹

*Blocking: Rejecting information or ideas offered by another player. One of the most common problems experienced by new improvisers.
                    Player A: Look at that dog!
                   Player B: What dog?
Wimping: Accepting an offer but failing to act on it.
                  Player A: We should go to the movies.
                  Player B: Yes.