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!

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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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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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! 

Sketch a Scientist

 A few years ago, I read a chapter in Tina Seelig’s book called “The Upside-Down Circus” and the concept was so sticky it did what sticky things do best – it stuck. The Upside-Down Circus is a case study in creativity and design. How do we go from a generic $5 circus show with elephants and clowns to a fully-fledged, high-end spectacle like Cirque du Soleil?  Much like the ideas presented in that chapter, The Upside-Down School is about questioning the traditional assumptions of schooling and education and flipping them on their heads – the same story with a different twist.

In science, one of the first activities I do with my students is have them sketch an image of a scientist. That’s it. The activity is simple but reveals a lot about our preconceived notions of what science is and what exactly it is that scientists do. The stereotypical image of a scientist is presented as follows: a white male with wacky hair in a white lab coat working in a laboratory with chemistry equipment. We talk about what these stereotypes mean and where they come from. We talk about why these images are problematic and what we can do about it. And then, we revise.

Scientist sketches, before discussion.
Scientist sketches, after discussion.
The most interesting part of this activity is seeing the variety and differences in approaches that students take when drawing the second sketch. By bringing to awareness our biases and questioning those initial assumptions, we freed ourselves from the initial, rigid, locked in notions of what constitutes “scientist.” I feel like this is what we need to aim to do more often in our own thinking DAILY. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do more often on my blog as well. 

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Meeting the Students

Last Thursday, I finally got to meet some of the students I will be working with this year and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! I started off by introducing myself as one of the new international teachers at the school. Teachers go by a first name basis at the school, so the students call me “Ms. April.” Since I will be working with them for the entire year, it was only fair that we take some time to get to know each other. I passed out two pieces of paper to each student (one white, one blue), and my first task for them was as follows: 
The first unit we are covering has to do with series and sequences. The blue paper I passed around to students contained a sequence with a missing number. The idea is that answer to their sequence problem would determine the order in which students would speak. In theory, this seemed like a great way to tie in bits of math instruction along with my introductory spiel, but since all of them were English Language Learners, this part of the activity took longer to explain than I had anticipated. While the students worked on the Starter activity, I passed my camera around and asked them to take a #selfie of themselves so I would be able to better learn their names. The students had a lot of fun with this, and I got some pretty nice pictures at the end: 

Picture modified for privacy reasons.
I had a professor in university who started off his very first lecture with the statement, “Ask me anything,” and it’s stuck with me since. I appreciated how he did not choose to just hide behind all the abbreviations attached to his name (trust me, there were many), and owned up to the fact that he was a real life human being who eats, poops, and sleeps just like you and me. So, I let my students ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I figured they were all curious to learn more about the new young and beautiful looking international teacher at their school (ha!). 

Most of them wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about their country and their city, how long I would be staying at the school, and what my hobbies were. I answered their questions in earnest and they shared some facts about themselves. I am from Canada; I’ve had a very enjoyable time in Taldykorgan so far and I love seeing the mountains as I walk to work everyday; my current contract allows me to stay for one year; and I enjoy reading, playing volleyball, badminton, and drawing. I learned that most of the boys enjoy playing football (soccer) and basketball while the girls had a wider range of hobbies, including playing musical instruments, watching anime, and reading. I got the feeling that the students wanted to share more, but their limited English language prevented them from sharing any thoughts that may have been too difficult to express. 

After the sharing, I showed the students some pictures that represented me and where I am from. In particular, they were very interested in my grade 8 class photo. I explained to them that I grew up with people from many different ethnicities, and that there was no single colour of skin that defined “Canadian.” Also posted some examples of my artwork from high school since drawing is one of my hobbies. I got a big reaction from the boys when they saw my pencil crayon drawing from the cover of “World of Warcraft” which I wasn’t expecting. I think I gained some massive cool points for that. 
I shared with the students what my reasons were for teaching, and talked a bit about my teaching philosophy in language that was more accessible to them. I framed my classroom expectations within a brief talk I called “How to Ace Math Class.” There are only three rules in my classroom and they are not optional. They are: listen ACTIVELY, take good notes, and participate! I took some time to talk about what each rule entails, and explained the rationale behind each one. I chose these specific rules because I learned from the experience international staff that the students will often chat among themselves during instructional time, and that they are used to being spoon-fed information so it is not unusual for students to sit passively in class. I think if I were to teach in Canada, I would have to rethink these rules a bit. Keep in mind that many teachers in Canada and the US will spend at least the first week discussing expectations and classroom procedures, I only had 20 minutes – and that is longer than most local teachers spend on this topic. The culture here is just different, and the norm is to jump right into curricular content. The good news is that there are no major behavioural issues with the students. As I learn more about my classes, however, I will continue to introduce and rework new routines and procedures on an as-needed basis so that we can have a successful year together. 
My concluding message? “Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous,” (advice from one of my teacher idols Tina Seelig).  

Adventures in Kazakhstan – First day of classes!

Today was the official first day of classes, and I did absolutely nothing. As someone who values organization and preparedness, I am left feeling adrift. I feel like I’m stuck in a cycle of restlessness and unproductive-ness, and I’m itching to get out of it. But since everyone is assuring me that this is normal, I am doing my best to just go with the flow. 

Flexibility is Key
To give you a little bit of context, all international teachers are paired with local Kazak or Russian speaking teachers for every class we teach. An international teacher may be working with anywhere between 3-7 national teachers each year. As a result, curriculum planning is arguably one of the most difficult  parts of the job. Aside from those who teach English, a majority of national teaching staff only understand limited English. Google translate is not always the most reliable, which means I have to muster all the charades skills I have just to communicate simple sentences with the local teachers whom I work with. To add to the challenge, the school timetables are still in the process of being finalized since every school within the *** network (acronym omitted in case of publishing issues) must wait for a set of directives from the headquarters in Astana before the real planning can begin. This means that everything is currently being run on an ad hoc basis, and will likely continue this way until mid-September. Since I’ve had so much free time in the last two days, I’ve mostly been reworking my introductory powerpoint and reviewing key concepts for the first unit I will be teaching (whenever that may be). 

Aside from wanting to just hit the ground running (a sentiment I’ve been warned I might later regret having), my experience at *** have been very positive so far. The staff are supportive and the students are extremely talented and well-behaved. 


A little snippet from my “first day” introductory powerpoint.
Some Background Information About the School (‘Shkola’)
For those who are new to my teaching journey, I am a new teacher at the *** school of Math and Physics in Kazakhstan. *** is a network of schools around the country whose aim is “to increase the intellectual capacity of Kazakhstan as well as to implement the best Kazakhstani and international practices.” The locals usually refer to *** as the “President’s School.” *** is an extension of the public education system in Kazakhstan, but students must pass an exam to get into the school, and they must  maintain their grades to stay.  The schools have a trilingual policy in which students receive instruction in Russian, Kazak, and English. 

The facilities are clean and well maintained. The hallways are MASSIVE compared to the schools in Canada. There is a canteen that is open all day, where teachers and students can have lunch for cheap (a regular meal at lunch would cost me no more than 3 USD). In all, there are over 300 staff members that assist with various upkeep activities at the school; from security to plant maintenance (they take their plants very seriously here). 

The Teachers (‘Uchitelya’)
International teachers are invited from around the world to help shape the new educational models and introduce innovative teaching practices into the country. Out of the 170 or so teaching staff, there are about 20 international teachers. One of my favourite things about teaching in Kazakhstan is getting to know the other international teachers in our staff team. A lot of people back home think I’m crazy for coming here, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one! I have colleagues from England, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Germany, Kenya, the Philippines… and now we’re all in Kazakhstan! They have all different types of accents and have taught all over the world. I love listening to their stories and hearing about the experiences they’ve had prior to teaching in Kazakhstan.


The moment you realize you just fit right in.
That’s all for now. Stay posted for updates about my teaching journey, and what it’s like living so far from home. Leave a comment below if you have questions or words of encouragement, they will be most welcome. =)