Happy Accidents

When I was growing up in (rural-ish) central New York, we had one TV.  We received 5 local stations through the antenna on the roof (abc, nbc, occasionally cbs if the wind was blowing just right, then Fox came along, and a pbs station).  This was a time when TV programming on the major networks actually ended at about 1:00 a.m. with a video of the American flag waving in the wind and the national anthem playing.  When that was over, there was nothing on TV but static.  This is something my kids can’t imagine. Not that they watch regular TV that often anyway (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.), but every time they turn it on, there are at least 100 shows to choose from on 4 TVs.

This wasn’t the case for my siblings and me.  Usually, the first person in the living room got dibs on what show was on or there had to be a “discussion” to figure out what everyone would watch.  Sometimes this ended in the TV being turned off by Mom or Dad with a “suggestion” that we go outside and get some fresh air.  Other times, we would decide to figure it out on our own and end up on the local PBS station watching a man with a huge perm (this was the 1980s) paint beautiful scenes in about 25 minutes.


We (my 5 siblings and I) were all in awe while we watched Bob Ross paint wonderful paintings while talking to us (the viewers) about everything from his pet squirrels to painting techniques.  And at the end of every episode I felt like I could paint just like Bob Ross!  I never tried, but I felt like I could!

Recently, my kids have discovered the talent and wonder of Bob Ross through YouTube and Netflix. They love his words of wisdom:

  • “Just go out and talk to a tree.  Make friends with it.”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.”
  • “How do you make a round circle with a square knife?  That’s your challenge for the day.”
  • “Any time ya learn, ya gain.”
  • “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

And I love that they love these words of wisdom.  You can find more here.

For Christmas this year, my son and I received Bob Ross T-shirts.  Connor’s has just an image, while mine has a quote as well:


Bob Ross was referring to painting when he said these words; “In painting there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”  In other words, when you paint your mountain the wrong shape, treat it as a happy accident.  It can still be a mountain, there may just end up being a happy tree or a happy cloud that takes care of your happy accident.

I think it works for math class, too.  Recently, I modeled a Desmos lesson for a 7th grade teacher.  The students had been working with expressions and equations but were struggling with the abstract ideas associated with expressions and equations.  The teacher and I planned for me to model Desmos using Central Park to see how students reacted to the platform (this was their first time using Desmos) and how I managed the class using the teacher dashboard.

During the lesson, there was a lot of productive struggle.  Students were working in pairs and making mistakes happy accidents.  They were happy accidents!  Because students kept going back for more.  At times there was some frustration involved and I stepped in to ask questions like:

  • What are you trying to figure out?
  • Where did the numbers you used in your expression come from?
  • What do each of the numbers you used represent?
  • Before you click the “try it” button, how confident are you that the cars will all park?

The last question was incredibly informative.  Many students who answered this question were not confident at all that their cars would all park, but as they moved through the lesson, their confidence grew.

One of the best take-aways the teacher mentioned during our post-conference was  when she mentioned a certain boy and girl who she paired together so the (high performing) girl could help the (low performing) boy.  The exact opposite happened.  The girl was trying to crunch numbers on screen 5 with little success.  The boy just needed a nudge to think about the image and to go back to some previous screens to settle some ideas in his mind before moving ahead with his idea that the answer is 8.  Then, he got to expain how he knew it was 8 with the picture, conceptually, to his partner.  The teacher’s mistake happy accident was in believing her students would always perform a certain way.  When students are engaged in tasks that are meaningful, they tend to perform differently than when they’re given a worksheet with 30 meaningless problems on it (the norm for this class before Desmos).  Ah-has all around and the “low student” shows that he knows more than the teacher thinks.

The icing on the cake?  Several students walking out of the classroom could be heard saying, “That was cool.” or “That was fun.”


Let’s treat math mistakes as happy accidents, something to learn from and problem solve our way through.  When students (all humans) make a mistake, synapses fire.  The brain grows (More on this from Jo Boaler here).  What we do as teachers from this point, determines how much more the brain will grow.  If we treat student mistakes as happy accidents, perhaps their brains will grow a bit more than if we continue to treat mistakes in the traditional manner.

Let’s hear it for Bob Ross.  He probably never thought his words of wisdom about painting would be translated to the math classroom.

Now, go make friends with a math problem.




NCTM Nashville – Twitter, Modeling, and Desmos, Oh, My!

OK, so my timing on this is not great.  This was actually written back in December (still a little tardy) and then the holidays ran over me.  Blah, blah, blah.  Nevertheless, everything below is still relevant.

Having attended and presented at conferences before, I have to say some conferences are good, and some not so good.  NCTM Nashville 2015 was, in my opinion, the best I have attended – hands down!

Here’s why:

On Wednesday evening, in the opening session, Graham Fletcher, Robert Kaplinsky, Laila Nur, Andrew Stadel and Cathy Yenca set the tone for the conference.  They spoke about their personal experiences of improving mathematics teaching and what they use to continuously improve their practice, they all spoke about how accessible and personalized PL for math teachers’ needs can be with a Math Blogs, Twitter, the #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere) that links them all together, and Web 2.0 tools that are not only changing the ways we think about teaching mathematics, but also the ways students engage in mathematics in their classrooms.  One word:  Powerful.  And as I said before, it set the tone for the rest of the conference.

The rest of the sessions, at least the sessions I attended, all connected to the opening session.  In the Desmos sessions I attended with Michael Fenton and Christopher Danielson, the presenters were able to take novices through the simplicity and beauty of this free graphing calculator (which is really much more – see my post on this here) and those of us who are just above the novices had plenty to learn as well.  I even had a Desmos special tutoring session from Cathy Yenca and Julie Reulbach in the back of one of these sessions.

The twitter sessions I attended were always full and the session facilitators, as well as many attendees, lent a hand to those who wanted to get on board “this Twitter math train.” In addition, LOTS of people stopped by the MTBoS booth and were given some “small group” lessons on how to use Twitter, who to follow, and were given some general tips to make the whole experience low stress!  Michael Fenton and John Mahlstedt were the facilitators of the Twitter sessions I attended.  In each of these sessions, attendees were eager to learn more about Twitter and how it could help them become better math teachers.  Even some not so eager people were asking questions near the end of these sessions!

The rest of the sessions I attended (I even co-presented one) had to do with modeling with mathematics – SMP 4.  These sessions were probably the most valuable to me for two reasons:

  1. We got to really dig in to some math and have some great mathematical discussions!
  2. I got to experience more modeling in secondary mathematics which is great since I have just rejoined the secondary math world.

Ashli Black‘s session:  Selecting and Using Tasks to Develop MP.4: Model with Mathematics was all about investigating characteristics of modeling tasks and working with pitfalls.  I recommend following Ashli on twitter: @Mythagon.  She really knows what modeling with mathematics should look like in the secondary math world, she’s a great presenter, and I’m thankful that she took the time to fill out the speaker form last year.  

Michael Fenton‘s session on modeling provided a one-two punch – Modeling WITH Desmos!  This was an incredible session.  Michael’s presentation combining Desmos with mathetmatical modeling was.  I was making sense of mathematics through the models created.  I wish I had learned math this way, initially! While I can’t go back in time to learn this way for the first time, I can make sure that the students in my district have the opportunity.  And it’s one of my goals for this year.

Andrew Stadel’s session: Model with Mathematics using Problem Solving Tasks.  I have to admit, I’ve been using Andrew’s resources from his blog for a few years, but it was a real treat attending his session.  He engaged us in a three-act task: Swing Wraps.  This problem solving task engaged us in mathematical arguments, modeling, and sense making and a few other SMP’s.  Mr. Stadel also did some modeling of his own through the types of questions he asked to the whole group and small groups, through his guiding of the discussion, and through his commentary about the importance of doing these types of problems.

So, in conclusion, here’s what this all boils down to:

  1. Join Twitter and become a part of the #MTBoS
  2. Allow students to model the problems they solve with mathematics.
  3.  Take a look at Desmos – a long hard look – one that allows you to see it for more than just a free online graphing calculator that students can use to model with mathematics (that should be enough-but there’s oh-so much more to it!)



Desmos Math Addiction

Hi, my name is Mike… and I love using Desmos with students.

This is not a bad thing at all.  I’m not giving up time with my family to spend on Desmos. It’s just that whenever I think I’ve exhausted all of the ways to use this fantastic tool with students, the Desmos team adds a new activity or game that I can and want to use right away!  These people know how to keep us wanting more!

Here you can find out what Desmos is all about!

Now, for all of you teachers out there that haven’t engaged your students in this amazing math tool, let me move from a user to a pusher.  4 reasons why you should use this amazing tool with your students:

crazy about math

  1. It’s completely free!  (not just this first time – all the time)
  2. It’s a graphing calculator that works beautifully online or as an app for students to Model with Mathematics – SMP 4.

This is a screenshot of how my son, Connor, used the Desmos Calculator to make sense of transforming quadratic functions.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.43.34 PM

3.  When you sign up as a teacher (again, for free) you can assign activities and games (yep, they’re all free to use, too) to your students and you can check their progress from your teacher page.

So, beyond the graphing calculator – which is amazing on its own – as a teacher you can assign an activity to your students based on the content they are investigating. Try Central Park  – it’s my favorite activity.  (If you like, you can go to the student page and type in the code qqbm.  I set this up for anyone reading this post. Feel free to use an alias if you like).

And as far as games go, check out Polygraphs.  It’s like the Guess Who? game for math class. Trust me, your students will love it and there are polygraphs for elementary as well as secondary. The polygraphs are all partner games, so students will need to work in pairs.  I’ve even made a few:

Polygraph: Teen Numbers

Polygraph: Inequalities on a Number Line

Polygraph: Geometric Transformations

4.  As you get sucked in to this tool, you may begin to think to yourself, “Boy, I really wish there was an activity for ______.  If only knew how to create an activity for my students to use on Desmos.” That’s taken care of, too, with Activity Builder and Custom Polygraph (and, yep, you guessed it – they’re free to use, too)

And before you begin to doubt whether you can create an online activity or polygraph, the Desmos team has already taken steps to make this extremely teacher friendly.  Before you know it, you’ll have your own Desmos activity published!

Finally, as a great end of year gift, Dan Meyer blogged about the latest from Desmos – Marbleslides.  If this doesn’t get you to use Desmos with your students. . . well, I’m sure they will think of something else, soon. But seriously, try this out.  I have re-learned and deepened my own understandings of mathematics by trying and reflecting on many of these activities and games, and then having my own kids do them (and then they ask me why their teachers aren’t using them – “Can you talk to them, Dad?”).  The conversations will be happening this semester for sure!

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 5.22.36 PM

But the best part about all of this is that students get to use the calculator to investigate graphs and compare graphs and equations/functions.  They get to notice and wonder about what matters and what changes a graph’s slope, and y-intercept for linear functions and what changes the vertex and roots of parabolas.  They get to investigate periodics and exponentials and rationals and so much more.  They get to engage in activities and games that have components that ask them to reflect on what they’ve learned in the games and activities themselves.  The students are doing the mathematics.

Then, in class, we get engage students in talking about the math they’ve investigated!  How sweet is that?

You see, as great as Desmos is, it can’t take the place of great teaching.  It’s a tool that can help us become better at our craft and help our students gain a deeper understanding of mathematics!  Sounds like a win-win!

So, I guess I don’t have a Desmos math addiction.  Addictions have adverse consequences and I see none of that here!  I just have – as we all do thanks to Desmos – access to a powerful mathematical learning tool!  Thank you Desmos.  I can’t wait to see what’s coming next!