A Better Question

Week 3 of the MTBoS Blogging Initiative corresponds with midterm week at my school. Reviewing for midterms is not a task that I particularly like.


It’s tough to find the balance between refreshing minds or reteaching skills. Based on my review of our last unit test, I wasn’t convinced that my students truly understand the differences between systems of equations and systems of inequalities and their solutions. So I created this basic comparison:

systems comparison

At this point, we had never placed two similar systems graphs side by side in this manner. We reviewed writing the equations and inequalities together, and then I asked students to make a list of all the similarities and differences they noticed. Students were given 2-3 minutes to write this on their own. Here are some of their responses:

I then asked students to share aloud: “What similarities and differences do you notice?” This question was okay. The responses were okay. But something just didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to put these graphs in a specific context; I wanted students to go back to the basics and see the similarities and differences for what they are; but the discussion was flat, and I wanted more energy…

First period ended and I had some time to think about how I would fix this before I taught the lesson again. I remembered the blogging prompt to write about questioning, and specifically, asking better questions. And then I remembered what Chris Luzniak taught us in his Twitter Math Camp session: “Make the question debatable.” It was my own a-ha moment!

I did everything the same the next period, except for one key point. After giving my students individual writing time, I asked:

“What is the BIGGEST similarity you noticed?
What is the BIGGEST difference you noticed?”

That slight change in questioning is all it took to completely change the dynamic between class periods. All of the sudden, I had at least half the class waving hands in the air to share their opinions. The gist of what students were saying was the same between the different periods, but this time the students were more convincing and provided more evidence for their statements. I wondered if this reaction would continue throughout the day, and it did. All of my other classes had the same level of enthusiasm when I asked them for the biggest similarities and biggest differences.

Today’s experience reminded me that one easy way to ask a better question is to make it more debatable. Check out Chris’ Global Math Department Webinar for more strategies on how to do this!

Favorited Tweets #3

For Week 2 of the MTBoS Blogging Initiation, I’ve decided to write about my favorite tweets. Or more accurately, tweets that I have favorited and quickly forgotten.


1) In Matt Larson‘s engaging ignite talk, he wants us to seek equilibrium by teaching How, Why and When:

2) Graham Fletcher‘s “Progression of Multiplication and the Standard Traditional Algorithm” video enthralls me. I didn’t learn to multiply this way, so it’s extremely helpful to see how the earlier connections students will now be making, are going to make it easier for them learn high school math one day.

3) I am loving all the Desmos Activity Builders everyone is sharing, and these two from Laurie B look particularly fun for our upcoming unit on exponentials:

4) I agree with Sadie! This Common Core coherence map is very helpful!

5) This activity from Dylan Kane gives students the chance to examine the properties and structure of polynomials as they determine which one doesn’t belong.

Update: Here are links to two past posts with favorited tweets:
Favorited Tweets #1
Favorited Tweets #2

Day in the Life of Ms. Kohn Take 3

For Week 1 of the Exploring MTBoS blogging initiative I decided to document one day of my life. Although I’m just posting about it right now, this day occurred last Thursday (1/14/16).


5:11 am Alarm goes off. Hit snooze.

5:20 am More snoozing.

5:29 am Get up and get ready. Orange juice is my morning power beverage. Check email/facebook/twitter while eating my cereal. Forgot to pick out an outfit the night before so I waste a good ten minutes staring at my closet. No food in fridge for lunch, that means I’m buying today.

6:20 am Put out trash and leave for work.

6:28 am Arrive at school. Check mailbox and help a substitute teacher find her way.

6:32 am Arrive in classroom. I am amped up for today! We are doing one of my favorite lessons and following it up with a Desmos Activity Builder lesson that I can’t wait to try. I make some last minute edits to the activity, and queue up all the browser tabs I’m going to need for the day.

6:50 am Students start entering the building and my classroom. I immediately get bombarded with demands to know how many jelly beans are in the container. I refuse to tell them.
They know the winner is going to be announced today, but not until 7:25 am I say. Last minute guesses are welcome. Students hang out in homeroom, play board games, and experiment with my Eno board which is now up and running.

7:20 am Homeroom officially begins. Take attendance. Two students absent. They’re going to be sorry they miss today’s lesson.

7:25 am The bell rings to go to first period, and without speaking, I simply go up to the white board and write down the correct number of jelly beans: 1472. Students from the other two homerooms next door come in to see the answer. There is yelling; they are excited! They still don’t know why we are playing guessing games.

7:29 am This is the 1st of 5 times I am going to do this lesson today. I teach five sections of STEM Honors Algebra 1 to 9th graders. It will get better as the day goes on, as I observe and adapt to how my early students respond to it. Today is the first day of our unit on Absolute Value Functions. The beginning of the lesson can be found here, minus the project part (they’ll get this later). After we dissect the jelly bean situation, I show them this Estimation 180 problem, and we guess again. I take predictions for the shape of the graph and this time they think they have it all figured it out. The shape will be a V, but skinnier! No, wider! No, a check mark! Because there are fewer under-guessing options! We are on to something:
sweetheart graph

At this point, they are ready to explore and play around in Desmos on their own/with a partner. This was my first attempt at duplicating someone else’s Activity Builder and using it in my room. Overall, I was pleased with how it went, but would definitely make adjustments for the future. Some students finished early. I wish there were more challenges, such as what happens when you throw in negative signs. I tried to throw this question in as the day went on, but it didn’t work because I had already made a class code. I also wish I had a question about the absolute value vertex form equation with h and k. So that students could be more specific when they described how the function transforms. Here are some of their descriptions:

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We ran out of time at the end of class to debrief (my fault), and we don’t have class again until Wednesday (1/20), so to be continued!

8:17 am Period A ends. 4 minutes passing time. Run to bathroom. Head to STEM colleague’s room for our common planning period. Our big Winter STEM Expo is tomorrow, so we are doing last minute prep work. Edit presentation rubrics and chat with 10th grade team about last minute details.

9:12 am Period C begins. Algebra 1 take 2.

10:05 am Period D begins. Algebra 1 take 3. Four students actually leap out of their seats when the number of sweethearts in revealed.

10:53 am Lunch! Rush to teacher’s cafeteria and order my turkey wrap. Ask for cookies too. Get a slight look of disapproval when I reject the offers for pickles, apples or carrots as an additional side. No, just cookies please. I already have lettuce and tomato in my wrap. Eat lunch with math colleagues. Discuss our losing the powerball last night.

11:22 am Period E begins. Algebra 1 take 4. By this time of the day, we have some cheaters. Students from earlier have given away the answer, but I weasle out some confessions and we move on with the activity.

12:21 pm Period F begins. Algebra 1 take 5.

1:08 pm Period G begins. My prep. Finally. It’s been a great day but I’m exhausted. Today’s lesson was a high energy one. I always try to show the same enthusiasm with my last class as the first, but sometimes it can be difficult. Check personal email. Finish editing STEM rubrics. Take care of emails. Chat with STEM Director.

1:55 pm School day ends. Go to advisor meeting about upcoming school-wide dance. Return to classroom. Approximately 40 students have elected to stay after school to make trifold posters and last-minute changes to their STEM projects. My coworker has been supervising all of them while I was at the meeting. Spend afternoon giving advice on projects and printing, printing, printing for them.

3:55 pm Write passes for the late bus and start kicking kids out. They are nervous but ready for tomorrow. Here’s a video released after the Expo!

4:15 pm Say good-bye to final students. Clean classroom.

4:30 pm Pack up and head out. Run errands. Sit on couch. Breathe. Check email/facebook/twitter. Make dinner. Have plenty of time to write this blog post… but don’t do it. Take the night off. Watch an episode of the Blacklist (okay, okay, three episodes).

10:00 pm Bedtime.

If you want to read about other past days, check out these posts:
Take 1 – November 15th, 2012
Take 2 – November 18th, 2013