Jennifer White: A Current Math Teacher’s Ramblings

Good Morning Future Teachers,

My name is Jennifer White and I am a graduate of NC State University (go Wolfpack!) with a BS in Mathematics, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and a graduate of the Duke University MAT program. I taught Common Core Math 1, AP Calculus, IB Math SL, and PreCalculus in Durham Public Schools for 2 years at Hillside New Tech and Hillside High Schools before moving to the Triad and teaching at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts High School Program in Winston-Salem, NC. I have bounced back and forth from full-scale implementation of the Project-Based Learning curriculum to a scaled back combination of Problem-Based learning with a hint of direct instruction over my teaching career and have been asked to provide some insight into implementation of both in a math classroom. But before I  go on, I’ll let you in on a secret, I still don’t know which works best for my students, I think it is going to be a career-long decision that changes from year to year.

Let me elaborate, I had the pleasure of teaching in a Project-Based School in Durham. Every class that students took was centered around week-long projects, so the full-scale Project Based mathematical classroom worked, for the most part, in that setting. It was my first year of teaching, and I was unaware of all the free resources available out there for math teachers to steal borrow for their classroom. So I, foolishly, thought I could make up every project we’d ever do on my own. Now, were they the best projects the world had ever seen, obviously not. But did they engage my students and cause them to reflect on the world around them? For the most part, yes. I had my CCM1 students take a career placement test that would give them an idea of potential careers that are out there related to things that interest to explore. They had to pick a career, research the salary, create a monthly budget (phone, apartment, car, health insurance, and food) and determine if they were living within their means. I threw a few curve balls at them in the process: a broken foot, a flat tire, needing a new water-heater–real life events that can cause real life hardship for a working young adult that they needed to fit into their budgeting. The project lasted 2 weeks, they learned how to represent their monthly budgeting with linear equations. We didn’t talk about social issues because I was an overwhelmed first year teacher teaching an EOC course. I HAD to get through the content!! Right? 

Fast forward through my second year of teaching, at a new school without the Project-Based focus in a PreCalculus classroom. I tried a full scale project in which students were researching the use of “green technologies” to not only save people money, but help protect the non-renewable resources we have here on Earth. We were learning about conic sections and I knew that you can build a really efficient solar oven using a parabolic structure. I had built them while serving in Peru as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a site with diminishing wood reserves (the main source of fuel for cooking). My Peruvian site thought they were the most amazing thing in the world….The project fell flat. My student did not share the Peruvian enthusiasm. The project flopped for a few reasons that hindsight has allowed me to see (at the time I was just mad/sad/frustrated/needed a tub of ice cream):

  • To respond on the question asked by njcorbet: the project was meaningful to me, not to my students. I was the one who had to carry thorn-covered tree limbs 2 hours down a mountain to provide my wood for cooking, not my students. Some of my students came from households with food insecurities, they were not interested in how to save the environment/ cook a hotdog in class, they were more interested in what the cafeteria was serving for lunch.
  • We did the project in November. The worst time of year in Durham, NC to try and get the sun to help you out by cooking a hotdog. Had the project been done in June when you could had cooked the thing on the sidewalk…well they might have been at least more entertained.
  • I rushed through the material so that I could prepare a group of students who are not sued to projects in a math class, to complete a project in a math class. Don’t rush. It only frustrates you and causes your students to loose faith in the direction you are taking them. If you have to force a project, it is a project not worth doing.

Currently, I’m going on my fourth year of teaching. I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my students in terms of finding the balance between Projects, Problems, and Direct Instruction. I haven’t found the answer, but I’m starting to find what works best for most of my students. Here at UNCSA they like problems — shorter period long mini projects if you will. These problems reflect the material we are currently working on and have them working with groups and researching online to find extra material.

With the election season upon us, and my AFM students being in a Statistics unit, it was a wonderful day when I came across the Donald Trump quote:

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 1.49.06 PM

I quite literally jumped for joy on the sofa, scrapped my plan for teaching “How to Argue with Data” and came up with a completely new task for the day. I asked my students the question, “How do you think unemployment measured?” Blank stares. “No seriously, if you had to pick a method for measuring unemployment, what would it be?” Students threw out a few quick ideas, I write them all down as they say them, no matter how weird/outlandish they might be:

  • Find the number of people not currently working a 40 hour a week job.
  • We can’t count the people in college.
  • So are we using the census?
  • How old do you have to be to work a 40 hour a week job?
  • What is a full time job? How is it different than a part time? What’s the definition of a part time job, because I think I read that a 39 hour a week deal is still part time?
  • Who is Donald Trump?
  • Does being a student count as working?

You get the idea, we then go through and answer the “easy” ones. The questions that don’t need the mathematics we are currently learning to answer them. I explain who Donald Trump was (a famous business man currently running as a Republican candidate for President), clarified that we would in fact be using census data to answer the question, and that we needed to decide the answer the the remaining questions as a class.

So we did. We determined we couldn’t count anyone under 16 (because they should be in school), we were not going to count college students and trade school students, part time employees we defined as someone working strictly less than 40 hours a week, and that we can’t include retired people (they said anyone over 65 we’d rule out). So I sent them to a site we had used to create data tables in class. They got an answer, and found unemployment to be approximately 12%, not the 42% that Trump claimed. A few groups who arrived to the conclusion earlier made up a meme poster of Donald Trump looking an awful lot like Grump Cat with the quote “he lies!” across it (did I mention I teach at a school filled with Visual Artists?). Unfortunately it let the room before I got a picture of it…

We then looked over everyone’s conclusions and had a wonderful discussion on why a political party would choose to interpret the data that way (and how you can manipulate the same set of data to get a higher number). The argument landed on:

Who ever is currently holding office will use the [census unemployment] data to tell the story that they have improved the US’s rankings for unemployment because it makes them look good. Anyone who is on the other [political] side will argue the larger [unemployment] percentage because it makes the current people in charge look like they haven’t done any work towards improving it.

Yes! That is how we argue with data! That is the point of this whole unit! I was in teacher heaven.

Why this task worked well for my students:

  • Most students in my AFM class are in either Civics or AP GoPo, so they had the background knowledge on how America runs (or doesn’t at times).
  • Most of my students have social media accounts and were aware of the comment Trump made (the student who asked who he was is an international student…she didn’t know our political system at times can look a lot like Reality TV).
  • Students LOVE to argue. It is in their nature to compare things. While they’d rather it be comparing musicians or actors (I teach at an arts school), comparing political parties isn’t too far off from comparing the East Coast and West Coast rap scene.
  • It was an open ended task, students created the criteria for completion. I just stood there and smiled, nodded, and wrote down what they agreed on. The only things that I brought to the table: the quote and the knowledge of where to find the needed information on the internet. The kids did the rest of the work and analysis.

And in one class period, 60 minutes of my students time, we learned more about How to Lie With Statistics (I mean how to interpret, compare, and describe statistics) than I could have ever dreamed of through direct instruction. Not only that, I heard through the teacher grape-vine that they then cited our research in their AP American Government and Politics class when discussing political leanings on domestic issues such as unemployment, taxes, and big business. I’ve found these types of problems–the short and student motivated questions where they can find the answers, work best in my classroom. At least my classroom here at UNCSA.

The thing I’ve learned the most in these past 4 years is don’t do it alone. There is a world filled with good math teachers using good materials in their classroom. Take advantage of that fact. I stole borrowed the Trump quote from Twitter. I belong to a group of math teachers who all strive for a world of open source teaching material. Freebie lesson plans, critiques, and resources that we all put out there on the web. Sharing is caring style if you will. So if you don’t have a twitter account, get one and then follow the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (#MTBoS). The Trump quote was posted with the comment “man, if only I taught stats, this would be a great task.” And it was!

Another great resource is the #MathChat on Twitter where people post questions, concerns, and ideas on current math topics and curriculum. Follow me, I’ll show you some good people to start following (@JWhiteClassroom) to get you started stealing borrowing. I’m new to the blogging portion of the #MTBoS, but I’ve been stalking the conversation for 3 years, go ahead, you should to. Stalking is encouraged, just provide feedback on anything you steal borrow.

I’ve also gotten an invite for you all to claim a free one month account to Mathalicious, an online membership account filled with Project- and Problem-based learning tasks and activities. They all come with a teacher’s guide (with answers), interactive slides and data tables for you to use with your class, and student worksheets. Let me know if you want to sign up for the free month membership, Twitter connected me with the right people to get you signed up (have I convinced you to get a Twitter account yet?).


2 responses to “Jennifer White: A Current Math Teacher’s Ramblings”

  1. Angie Hess Errett says :

    Jennifer, I’d love to try out Mathalicious. Do you still know how to help me get a month free?


  2. jennswhite says :

    Unfortunately that was a limited time offer. However, I think some lessons are public and you can search for them (I know they tweet them). You can also choose the “pay what you can” model for teachers who can’t afford the full license price. They’re good people over at Mathalicious.


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