Classroom Tour 2014

This is the beginning of my third year at Howard, but I changed rooms this year and even though I had never gotten around to posting pictures of my old room, I thought I would share my new space. I teach in our Freshman Academy, which means the only people most of my students see throughout the day are other Freshmen.  We are quartered (quarantined?) in the back corner of the school in what used to be part of the vocational wing before the school lost several of its vocational programs years ago.

Freshman Academy

The maroon box is the Freshman Academy. My new room is under the Gold marker.

I was in a tiny windowless room in the center of the academy, but since I was supposed to have a giant (for our school) Geometry class this year I needed to move. ( The class ended up dropping to 10, but I’m still glad for the change.)  Now I’m in a big windowless room that along with the adjacent two rooms used to be the auto shop. I suppose at that point this pole wasn’t in the way.

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From the back corner. The pole.

My previous room had a pole in the middle of it as well, however being about half the size of this room, it was a problem.  In here, it almost serves as a half-wall between your dining room and your kitchen; dividing a large space into two distinct areas: an uncluttered classroom space, and a behind-the-scenes space for storage and extra large group work tables. I don’t mind this one.

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From the doorway.

I try to encourage student discourse as much as possible in class.  The next two pictures show the labels on the tables and the protocols for when we do more formal structured talk.  My first semester, I had the 1-piece desks with the slanted tops that can’t be put into groups, so a culture of discourse was difficult to foster.  I quickly swapped them out with another teacher who had tables at the winter break.  When students are sitting at the same they table, they know they’ll be expected to interact with each other. I’ve traditionally done groups of four, but I have enough tables and my students are distracted enough by looking at each other this year that I may switch to pairs facing the same direction, at least for a while.

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Place cards for structured talk.

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Structured talk protocols. Habits of Mind. Habits of Interaction.

This is the front of the room. I’m so excited to have a full-sized, usable whiteboard in my room this year.  In my old room, they bolted the Promethean Board right in the middle of the whiteboard as if to say, “You’ve no need for this child’s toy anymore.” I, however, mostly use my Promethean board as a projector screen for the document camera because I hate teaching from slides, and for most of last semester, the pens didn’t work, so this was very annoying. If you can’t be engaging without technology, you won’t be engaging with it; I’m still working on the without.

The orange posters are just hand-written with the Standards for Mathematical Practice. I’m trying to place these and the Habits of Mind and Interaction from the previous photo in a more esteemed position this year, and I think that means grading on them. It makes sense to me that a teacher should only attach grades to that which they think is most important, and since I think being able to think mathematically trumps memorizing the curriculum, I’m trying to find a way to reflect that honestly.

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Front of room with SMP posters. Nice view of the mountains.

My old room didn’t even have a closet, just a tiny cabinet that I kept shut with a bike lock, so the shelving and the giant cabinet in the back are a huge plus.  I don’t even have enough stuff to fill them up! (Looks a little tacky, though. I’ll have to only put the more attractive boxes on these shelves…)

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Wall length storage. INB poster. Word walls.

Below is my “math family photos” wall which used to have two photo-sized mirrors in the collage (so the students could be on the wall, too), until a boy last year spent so much time brushing his hair at one that I popped them of the wall during class one day. (I’d love to hear suggestions for additions especially of women and non-whites.)

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Math family photos. (Top row: Banneker, Descartes, Nye, Archimedes, McKellar, Einstein. Bottom row: Blackwell, Von Count, President Garfield, Gonzalez, Granville, Kepler, Johnson, Adem, Pascal, Newton.)

I ride my bike to work most days as we are a one-car family, The kids think this is crazy.  Some days I do, too, as my bike is a little rough around the edges.

A local university was throwing out these super comfortable yellow and orange chairs when they updated their dorms or something, so a friend snagged them for me for free.

The black lab table holds my laptop, the document camera and anything needed for the day. It’s on bed risers to make it standing-height.

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Teacher zone. Transportation.

A local used bookstore donated gift certificates to every teacher at our school last year, so I was able to start a classroom library of science- and math-related books.  One girl this year upon finishing a test and going to grab a book said, “Ugh! These are all about math!” Yes, yes they are.

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INB storage. Reading materials. Son.

I still have a lot of sprucing, labeling and such to do, and so much more wall space to fill since my room is almost twice as big, but I’m pretty pleased with where things are for now.



On Being Myself

One of the hardest struggles I’ve had since becoming a teacher is in the tension I feel between being my real self and being a teacher self that I have created.  This is easy for me to track back to its beginnings.  I came to teaching through a residency program where I co-taught with a veteran teacher, who acted as my mentor, for an entire school year.  I learned so much from my mentor that year about the art and professionalism of teaching, but our personalities were very different. This was good for me as a learner because I had come to teaching with a background in youth work where it was basically my job to be a friend to teenagers, so one thing I wanted to focus on during my residency year was the question, “What does an appropriate teacher-student relationship look like?” because I knew I wasn’t supposed to just be their friend.  My mentor had a friendly-enough, though distant, demeanor with his students, but mostly he was in charge. And everyone in the room knew it. He was a big, gregarious middle-aged man, a coach, a not-afraid-to-raise-my-voice-to-assert-dominance-if-needed kind of guy. An extrovert. None of these, save ‘man’ (and now I suppose coach, although I’ve yet to officially coach anyone through a season of anything after a year with the title) would be accurate to describe me. But, being in his room, with his rules, where all scores ultimately reflected on him, I chose, to the extent possible, to mirror his personality for the year; giving the students what I thought was a simplified expectation for how to interact with two teachers in one room, and removing the possibility of choosing favorites or playing us against each other like a child who asks their mom for ice cream after their dad says ‘no’.

And, for the year, it worked. And I learned a lot.

But the next year, when I was on my own, I found it hard to then separate what it meant to be a teacher from what it meant to mirror my mentor. The two, unconsciously,  became almost inseparable. Each year since then, I feel like I have reclaimed some part of myself and reintegrated that into my teacher self, but largely, I still feel like I am playing a character when I teach.

I am an ISFP, which, if you’re not familiar with the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicators basically means that structure is hard for me. I prefer spontaneity and exploration to planning and rules. Read: certain aspects of teaching are hard. (This goes for any of the four personality types with the S and P together [ISFP, ISTP, ESFP, and ESTP], and because of these discrepancies between what we want and what is expected of us, it is estimated that SPs make up only 4% of all teachers and are the quickest to leave the profession. Since you asked (?), the magic combination for teachers is S and J [ISFJ, ISTJ, ESFJ, and ESTJ] These people love rules, structure and feel a civic duty to follow whoever is in authority.  SJs are estimated to make up 56% of all teachers and last the longest. NFs do pretty well too because they also love structure.* Phew!) But I love the teaching aspects of teaching and long to incorporate my love for exploration, creativity and asking questions into my teaching practice.  Something that I think P(r)BL, Inquiry and all the good stuff we know we should be doing does a good job of, and something I think the CCSS does a much better job of than the Tennessee State Standards.

It’s hard for me to feel the freedom to break away because, in a sense, I’d be learning how to teach all over again. But playing a part everyday is taxing, and I know I could do it better as myself.  Last year was so tough for me, but maybe it was the catalyst I needed to drop the facade.  I feel good about this year.


*These stats are from a workshop I attended for my STEM fellowship this year.  I am looking for the official citation for the study, but can’t find it yet.  I will update with to attribute when I do.

Why it’s hard for me to cheer for the USA.

The World Cup has been going on for over a week and I am a fan.  Soccer was one of the first sports I played as a kid, it’s the one I played the longest and the one I had the most fun playing.  I even was able to attend a ’94 World Cup game in Massachusetts while we were living in New Hampshire.  This year, I was going to be the soccer coach at school, but we were unable to get enough participation to have a team. All this to say that I like soccer, it’s the only sport I can even bring myself to watch on TV (exception: the Olympics).

When I was an 8-year-old American kid in 1994 who loved soccer I, perhaps predictably, cheered for the US. I even had a t-shirt replica of the jersey that I wore everywhere.


The ’94 US men’s team. I also had the exact same hair as Claudio Reyna there on the bottom left. That was just a 90s coincidence. [via – @mls on instagram]

In High School, I was a punk. What I mean to say by this is that I had my share of dissent for dissent’s sake. I also, as most teenagers do, began thinking more critically about the world in a logical sort of way as well. If you did the math, you then also know that I was in high school on September 11, 2001 which made all of us think a little differently.  I began to learn about the ways the US had been a bully to other nations throughout our history.  How we would support an autocratic leader when it was in our interest and then turn around and take out another (or the same one).  Or give a group of insurgents weapons for their revolution only to have them used against us when we decided things weren’t going the way we wanted. I saw how we were trying to reduce and discourage violence by using violence. And, of course, how on top of it all, the only thing we score highest in among other nations is the confidence we have in how amazing we are. All of this left a sour taste in my mouth for the USA.  Even now as a freshman math teacher, I am supposed to be socializing these students into becoming upstanding and productive citizens, but I know that if we allow them to become the misguided arrogant American stereotype, we are doing our students and our nation a disservice. We need an America that is worthy of our young people.  One that is confident where we excel and humble where we do not, one that is honest in our intentions and knows how to be wrong, one that uses peace, instead of violence, to promote peace.  Our students need to see this.

So, what does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, it’s hard for me to add my voice to the chorus of “U-S-A, U-S-A” when I know many of us were chanting the same thing when we invaded Iraq, annexed Hawaii, or forced Native Americans onto the Trail of Tears because we were confident that this was our land and we could use it better.  I can’t wave the flag knowing some of the places it has been. I bring this up because Sunday, while I was watching the US play Portugal I saw this man in the stands dressed as a San Juan-ready Teddy Roosevelt. Given Roosevelt’s imperialist and jingoist tendencies especially toward the Caribbean, Central and South America, I feel like this was horribly insensitive.


Bad idea, dude. [via – @mls on instagram]

I realized this year that I genuinely want the US team to do well.  We’ve been building up to this since ’90 and have a pretty good team this year. A good showing will only help further the sport in America, but I just can’t get past the past. So I’ll be cheering quietly and reluctantly to myself tomorrow as the US takes on Germany for a chance to move on to the elimination round and feeling kind of guilty while I do it.


On High-Stakes Testing

This week is State testing week for Tennessee high schools which means a couple of things:

1. We haven’t had real class for weeks. Since coming back from spring break two weeks ago, pretty much every class has been devoted, in large part, to review for Tuesday’s End-of-Course test (EOC). To me, there is no bigger waste of time than review. If a student does not yet understand a concept by spring break, the only “good” that can be done by reviewing is (a) making them feel stupid and frustrated for still not getting it or (b) putting it in their short-term memory just long enough to spit it out on a bubble sheet. Either way, they won’t be able to use or apply the concept next year when they need it.

2. The students are anxious. All year we’ve been telling them about this test that makes up 25% of their final grade (a fact they’ve been trying hard to ignore), and now that test is imminent. The date is set, the booklets are in the building, we’re out of time. Of course they feel a little crazy.

3. The teachers are anxious. In Tennessee, EOC scores, namely their “value-added” effect (Aside: When did education become manufacturing? Can’t we use a more appropriate moniker?), count for between 35 and 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Of course they feel a little crazy. (Not to mention the effect scores from Algebra 1 and select other classes have on a school’s standing for “the list.” Administrators are feeling a little crazy, too.)

4. For the next week, I will be bored out of my mind. I will be administering tests three of the four testing days this week, meaning no sitting, reading, drawing, writing, eating, drinking, planning, or even grading for the first three hours or so of each day. How many times will I be able to play, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing…?” Only time will tell.

5. The last two weeks of school will be torturous. Getting students who have already taken their EOCs to concentrate and participate for two more weeks will be like trying to mud wrestle a mannequin made of soap in a giant cast iron bathtub. No matter how many grades you say you’re going to take or tests you say you’re going to give, those kids are checked out.

This list is one reason I am so excited for our implementation of the Common Core next year. Now I know it’d be naive to think there would be no testing push next spring, but I have hope that because of the kinds of assessments we will be giving through PARCC, it will be less realistic to try to get teachers to teach to the test or spend learning time talking about the “letter of the day.” I have hope that the end-of-year assessments under PARCC will feel more like a natural application of the learning the students have been doing all year and less like an “I won’t love you anymore if you don’t do well on this” letter from the education system. Laugh if you want, but don’t burst my bubble yet. I’d like to at least wait until the spring to be disappointed.


In the Neighborhood

When I became a teacher, it wasn’t for the love of math. In fact, I had only ever taken one math class in college (Calculus 2) because I had to take it in order to finish the Calculus-based Physics track I was in. As I have written about before, my goal as a teacher was not to further the cause of mathematics, but to get into the lives of the students I taught. So, when my wife and I were ready to buy a house this winter, one of the things on my list was to be in one of the neighborhoods that was zoned for my school.

Since moving to Chattanooga in the fall of 2009, we’ve lived as renters in Highland Park, a diverse inner-city neighborhood straddling the fence of gentrification. We moved here because we wanted to know our neighbors, and we didn’t want those neighbors to be just like us. After leaving our mold-infested, slum-lord owned duplex on the “worst corner in the neighborhood” for a two-bedroom closer to the “nice” side, I was accepted into my teacher residency program and eventually, it was time to find a job. I ended up where I wanted to be, in the high school where the kids in my neighborhood went.

At first, I was nervous to disclose where I lived to my students because, let’s face it, teachers aren’t always their students’ favorite people. But as time went on, I began to reveal more about where I lived. I started to recognize students as they walked around the neighborhood in the afternoons, and they began to call my name when they saw me on a weekend run. When I was running late, I often ended up on the city bus many of them rode to school. And when I rode my bike from work, I would pass them as they walked home after school.

Now, when I hear students talk about going to parties or other teenagery activities in Highland Park I always tell them not to come act stupid in my neighborhood. One of my students this year even calls me the “OG” of Highland Park because I’ve had to tell him that so many times. My students know where I live, and I think even if I’m not their favorite teacher, they like and respect that I’m here. I hear it in their voices every time they tell another student who thinks I live in the suburbs. And I like that. I like seeing my students, and I like that they see me.

So when it was time for my wife and I to stop renting and buy a house, I wanted to stay; to put down roots. We thought about moving somewhere more comfortable, somewhere we could get more resale value, somewhere we could get more house or more trees (oh, trees… I miss you). We thought about moving to another one of the neighborhoods zoned for my school, too, but when it came down to it, we love  being in Highland Park and we didn’t want to leave.


Our house.

I want my students to know that I care about them inside and outside of school, that I care about the state of their school and their communities. I want them to know that I became a teacher for them. That’s why I live in the neighborhood.


Perspective 2014 (OneWord365)

I am a notorious time waster. Especially when I am faced with something I don’t like, or think I’m not good at. For me, this means anything administrative. There are some people who are made for filing and writing reports, filling out forms and keeping records, organizing and alphabetizing (some of my very good friends come to mind), but I am not one of them.  Unfortunately for me, the teaching profession, despite its many shimmering qualities, includes a LOT of administrative tasks, so my planning periods often look a lot like time wasting to the untrained eye.

I have tried over and over to get better about this by simply willing it. When that failed, I tried to schedule extra planning time to offset my evil time-wasting ways. Then when that failed, I got to sleep a lot longer, but still did a horrible job managing my time.

There is a thing my wife introduced me to called OneWord365 where instead of forming long, drawn-out New Year’s resolutions that you’ll forget about in a week maybe if you’re lucky, you choose only one word that exemplifies what you want to be about, or who you want to be in the coming year. I, of course, pretended like it was silly at first, because it’s a task that requires deep introspection, which takes me forever and is hard. But, at school with my students, it’s something I regularly encourage, and at home is something my wife is always patiently helping me become better at, continually lowering the bucket into the well of my heart and waiting as I draw out, and make sense of, the thoughts and feelings inside.

Needless to say (since this post exists) I decided to go for it, and chose the word “time.” I knew I wanted to be more aware and in control of where my time was going and what I was spending it on. I wanted to not waste time on the unimportant things, so I could have more time for the important ones. But, like I said, deep introspection is a slow train for me, and as the week went on, the word I chose started to change as the thoughts and feelings behind it became more clear. I didn’t want to loose sight of the fact that even the horrible boring stuff needed to find at least a little time in my schedule. Maybe I was feeling guilty for thinking aspects of my work life were horrible and boring, but “time” changed to “balance.” And as the train caught speed, I felt like “balance” implied all the demands on my attention were of equal importance, so I ultimately chose the word perspective.


As I work my way through this year, I want all those things listed above, but mostly I want everything to find it’s right place. Perspective means doing the little things so I have more time for the big ones, but not fretting if I have to let some of those little things go undone.

Plus, I decided to have my students choose a one-word goal for themselves for the semester. The only catch, it had to be a personal goal, not academic. We spent the first day back from winter break doing this instead of our typical flavor of goal-setting activities. The students chose a word, wrote a few sentences about why they chose it and spent some time reacclimating to school by decorating it for display on the wall. A low-impact first day back, but important all the same.



Why I (Try to) Blog.

Kate Nowak recently wrote a post about her upcoming talk at NCTM New Orleans this spring asking the following questions:

1. What hooked you on reading the blogs? Was it a particular post or person? Was it an initiative by the nice MTBoS folks? A colleague in your building got you into it? Desperation?
2. What keeps you coming back? What’s the biggest thing you get out of reading and/or commenting?
3. If you write, why do you write? What’s the biggest thing you get out of it?
4. If you chose to enter a room where I was going to talk about blogging for an hour (or however long you could stand it), what would you hope to be hearing from me? MTBoS cheerleading and/or tourism? How-to’s? Stories?

So even though I’m a slacker of a blogger, I thought I’d try my hand here.

1. I started reading math blogs during my year of graduate school as I was earning my teaching certification. I was into education because I loved teenagers, not necessarily because I wanted to teach math. Math was just the vehicle, so I was dreading standing in front of a classroom and boring myself to tears. I stumbled upon Dan Meyer‘s TED talk about changing math education and became an avid reader of his blog. As I lurked, I noticed the same people were always commenting on his posts, and eventually discovered an entire community known lovingly as the “MathTwitterBlog-O-Sphere” (MTBoS).

2. I would say that what I get from being a part of the MTBoS is great lesson ideas, and I do get those and use them, but the reason I really keep reading is that I just selfishly enjoy it. I like being invited into other teachers’ classrooms and I like reading what thoughtful people are discussing about current educational practices. And sometimes I remember to use what I see, and sometimes I’m just along for the ride.

3. Whenever I get around to actually writing, it could be for any number of reasons. I’ve written posts to keep a record of what I’m doing as a teacher. I’ve written posts to share about something important that heppened, or get something heavy off my chest. And, I’ve written posts to try to give back to the community that has shared so much with me. This is my main motivation. I want some new teacher to stumble upon the MTBoS as I did and find an even wider range of teachers sharing their hopes, their successes, and their failures. I just sometimes dread finding the time to do it.

4. Finally, if I were to make it to NCTM again (as I hopefully will) and found myself in a room where Kate was speaking (as I hopefully will), I think the most influential thing I could hear would be stories about lessons and conversations and relationships that have been able to happen only because the MTBoS exists. I think it’s the connections that teachers are making with each other that makes joining the community so tempting. So many of us are looking for that teacher to challenge us or to encourage us and, unfortunately, they’re not always in our building. Being involved in the MTBoS gives you access to that, and let’s you be that for someone else. Then, of course, there would have to be a how-to so all of the emotionally-charged teachers thinking to themselves “I want that!” can go ahead and create a blog.


The Elusive First Quarter

Tomorrow marks the first student day after fall break and we have some catching up to do.  First of all, I owe some folks on twitter a few things about my classroom and how I am using Interactive Notebooks this year, which actually fits in nicely with the first “Exploring the MTBoS” post I never did.  But before that, I have some pictures I wanted to share.

On the second day of school, the students used an activity from Sarah Hagan‘s blog called 31-derful.  (On the first day of school, I tried to do the personality coordinates activity from Dan Meyer‘s blog, which did not go very well.  The students were either too shy on the first day to have that kind of conversation with each other, or just didn’t buy in.  31-derful was enough of a game or puzzle to grab and hold their attention.)  Anyway, no one was able to complete the activity successfully all day until one of the groups in my last class came through.


And then, at nearly the end of class, the other group came through as well.



I was really pleased with the activity.  It caused a lot of good thinking among the students, and I even stopped their work a couple of times to have them vocalize and compare their strategies.  I liked how it got them doing the hard part of math (the critical thinking and forming arguments) right away, and I will definitely use it again.

One of the biggest changes between the first quarter this year and last year has been deciding to do equations and inequalities at the same time instead of in succession.  Last year, the students had quite a bit of trouble all year with solving inequalities even thought it’s largely the same as solving equations, so this year we did them together to better highlight these similarities.  It seems to have worked pretty well so far.  We’ll see what they remember when we get to systems.

Oh yeah, and there was the surprise of switching out a section of Algebra 1 for Geometry (for which I had two days notice).  Although I’ve not had a chance to really catch up with all the planning I would have done over the summer had I known I would be teaching Geometry this year, I have absolutely loved teaching the class.  The subject matter is so much more interesting to me and I love being able to take a class to learn paper-folding constructions while sitting around a big table together or spend a few days doing logic and logic puzzles because conditional statements came up in a discussion.  Amazing.  (That class hates my Standards-Based Grading policies, though.  More on that later!)

It’s been such a crazy first quarter with all the changes from the Geometry class, a mostly new administration, the 9th grade putting together a cross-curricular grant, trying to buy a house, and finding out we are becoming a 1:1 iPad school (this November!) that I have felt overwhelmed from the beginning.  I was hoping after fall break I would feel all caught up, but I feel like I’m still making it up as I go.  This year is definitely going to be an adventure.



Law of Large Numbers, or a Sigh of Relief

So by now, the suspense must be absolutely killing you.  My room was fine when I got back.  No one stole the dice and got caught gambling in the bathroom, and maybe half the work I left was actually completed thanks to the interventionists I had in my room.  The worksheets worked pretty well, although there was some confusion as to whether “dice” meant one or two… (at this point I cried a little bit).  So we had to end up taking a couple more days to work on probability and do the exploration the right way.  Students were wholly unimpressed that the sum of the probabilities of all of the possible outcomes was 1 for both theoretical and experimental, and I lost a dollar to a student who had a 1 in 200 probability of winning it, but we ended up with a really nice set of graphs illustrating the law of large numbers by looking at the outcomes from a partial group, 1 group and the whole class.

The green and orange were white-washed to help the students focus on the whole class data and the theoretical.

The green and orange were white-washed to help the students focus on the whole class data vs. the theoretical.

Besides that, Denver was a whole lot of fun, and I got to meet some awesome people from the #MTBoS.  It was like that movie where the kid playing the video game is actually waging an international war; All of these people in computer world turned out to be real, and really interesting!  I was going to attempt to do a few math recaps, but something I learned about myself at NCTM is that I am a very poor judge of sessions.  Still there were some good takeaways, and they may eventually find their way here.

Oh, also I report for in-service tomorrow!


Denver (or Leaving the Nest)

It’s been an interesting Spring semester.  We ended up having another lock-down the first week of March as more insanity ensued outside the school walls. Spring break came and went bringing with it a southern snow storm (i.e., no accumulation).  We began the countdown to state testing a few weeks ago; next Monday there will be exactly 10 days left.

On April 4th, we found out there was a lot of money left from our School Improvement Grant and were encouraged to find conferences and professional development opportunities before the money disappears at the end of June.  So, of course, I applied to go to the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Annual Conference which, at that point, had a start date less than two weeks from then.  Monday at 5pm, I found out I was approved to come.  Then today, winter storm Yogi gave me a nice relaxing day at the airport to read.

So, I’m in Denver and missing my wife and son terribly.  But since this is a math blog, we’ll get back to that.  This is my first time leaving my students with a substitute, since when my son was born in the fall, my students were split among the other two Algebra teachers.  I struggled a lot in trying to figure out what to leave for them to do while I was gone because I’ve been a student in a room with a sub before, and great distance weakens authority greatly, right? (Thanks, high school history!)  The last thing in our curriculum before the state testing is the probability unit, so I created these two worksheets to guide them through a project on experimental vs. theoretical probability.

They’re a little leading, but I wanted to make sure they would work without me having to press them in person.  I’m kind of nervous about leaving dice with the sub.  I can imagine scores of things that could go wrong.  To make myself feel a little bit better, I left a message on the board at the front of the room that just said,

I trust you

<3 BC

We’ll see what’s waiting for me when I get back.