A more clickbait headline would be Pinterest Greatest Hits. For whatever reason, these activities pop up time and time again in the list of things people pin from me.

With the end of the semester approaching, it's likely you might have a random dead day here and there. You might not think these activities are something high school kids would enjoy, but believe me, they eat these up.

Hotel Snap

Something I do as an actual lesson is Hotel Snap. But it's good any time. Fawn provides a set of rules, but you can modify them to suit your needs. It's an interesting discussion in optimization.

Straw Constructions

An old classic. I keep a few thousand coffee straws in my cabinet. It came in handy this year when a nasty thunderstorm rolled in a 7am and a bunch of kids couldn't get to school.

The number of straws is up to you, typically 20-30. Usually I have them support a tennis ball and the structure can't be attached to the table. I generally set a height requirement of 18 inches off the table surface. I give them anywhere between 25-30 minutes to do this. You can even try bridges or whatever really. It's interesting to see the variety of designs that will work.

Forest Fires

Something I stole from my own 6th grade teacher. Hand out a forest (a blank grid really) and give each forest a key related to the roll of a die (1 = tree, 2 = blank, etc) but create a few different sets. I have four cards, ranging from 33 - 66% chance that a tree will be planted on the roll. The students roll the dice, and if it comes up tree, they color in the square. I have them complete two forests. It takes a while and is very LOUD.

After the forest is planted, have them light the left-most column on fire. Fire spreads left, right, up, and down but not diagonally. I have them spread the fire to its natural conclusion and count up the percentage of dead trees. The cards with the highly probability of planting a tree are more likely to burn everything to the ground. Imagine that. Tree survival rates are all over the place.

24 Game

Simple premise, with all levels of difficulty. Given four numbers and a set of operations (for the set I use, addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division), use each number once to make a total of 24.

I hand out about half a deck to each table, set a timer for 20 minutes and see how many they can solve as a group. The cards vary in difficulty. They get 1 point for the 1 dot, 2 pts for 2 dots, and 3 pts for 3 dots. Someone at each table keeps score and I put them on the honor system as far as the solutions go. You could require them to write them down if you wanted to.

I had a pair of 2 kids manage 17 points on their own and a set of 4 manage 50. For some kids, this is their jam.

AuthorJonathan Claydon

Amidst the many things I do with Right Triangles, I added a bit last year to try an add an idea of what trends in trig ratios mean for angle values. Eventually we use the inverse buttons on the calculator, but it helps to add some process to the magic. Yes, the calculator can tell you, but how is the calculator coming to its conclusion?

First, have them crank out a trig table, 0-90, increments of 5:

A few will mention the patterns. I have introduced the Unit Circle at this point, so I've been hinting that trig is a pattern lovers dream come true. All the patterns! A lot find it interesting that sin and cos have the same values but in a different order.

Next I demonstrate how you'd use the table given a few dimensions of a right triangle. A good moment to discuss the relativity of the words "opposite" and "adjacent."

Random new addition, I gave them a challenge. Using a person (160-190cm) as the leg of a triangle, and with only a tape measure, can you plot out a triangle with a 20º, 50º, and 65º angle with the floor? I set them loose in the hallway to experiment and then had them determine how well they did.

I have them in groups of 5-6 all the time, so to ensure there was enough to do, they had to split their table into two teams.

Some interesting results. A lot of groups were able to get into the neighborhood pretty well. Some were consistently off (see: the Y2 45 40 43 and R2 51 57 48 squads up there). I overhead a lot of interesting strategies. Many correctly guessing that creating a 20º angle would require quite the triangle.

Now were they mindful of the table while doing this? Not really. Most used their own ideas of what 20º, 50º, and 65º looked like and used the table to verify the experiment. One intrepid group immediately sat on the floor and worked backwards from the table to determine everything in advance (W1 on the purple card). Another was similarly calculating, although didn't think about the work backwards part (G1 on the purple card).

For some added practice they tackled this the next day (PDF link):

A few weeks ago we used the tape measures for a linear speed challenge. Fun to see the "today's going to be GOOD" reactions when they saw them set out again.

AuthorJonathan Claydon

This started, like, 3 years ago? Something like that. At one point I found myself with access to colored paper and a birthday boy/girl in class. I made them a crown. Then it became a thing. Having kids for multiple years doesn't help this. Calculus expects them. I'm getting pretty good at crafting them.

Depending on the timing, it may or may not include an embarrassing rendition of the Happy Birthday song.

There's a giant duct tape shark on my floor. Don't act surprised by this.

AuthorJonathan Claydon

I had great success with more challenging test items last year. Questions in which I wanted students to verify an assumption, to see if they were really buying what I was selling. I tried it with Rationals and Trig Functions.

I still love these questions. Some samples from this year:

It's one thing if you can go through the mechanics of identifying asymptotes, it's another thing entirely if you can validate a claim, even a simple one like this.

AuthorJonathan Claydon

Last year I had a lot of success with students designing their own tasks. From a display point of view it yielded a lot of interesting Rational Functions and Trig Graphs. However, from time to time the desire for open design caused issues. As an introduction for trig, I want to demonstrate that side ratios in 30/45/60 triangles are universal regardless of size. Last year I had students create 9 triangles, 3 of each type. It's one of many Right Triangle things.

This process took about a thousand times longer than I anticipated. And in one class a bunch of kids missed out on the payoff (O/H and A/H have the same value regardless of size) because they hadn't gotten around to figuring out the ratios.

Other instances of this came up and I made a tweet I can't find where I came to the conclusion that the time required for a task is [a lot].

Did myself a favor and preloaded the triangles.

A bit of a "duh" moment, but you have to learn these lessons some times. Discovery activities really only work when everyone has a chance to make the discovery.

AuthorJonathan Claydon
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Do you have a bucket of markers in your room? Do you have children select them for projects or activities or what not?

Tell me I'm not alone here. After a "grab the marker free for all" are you left with a box of sad orange, yellow, and brown?

Someone suggested yellow is too much like highlighter. But I find it weird that the fall color palette would be shunned. This happens every time.

It's not easy being brown.

AuthorJonathan Claydon

There was a discussion some time ago about an article on the need for computer science knowledgable people in high school. In Internet hyperbole fashion, it was titled There are no computer science teachers in NY. The salient quote:

Getting engineers to teach full-time would be a harder sell. Some New York startups offer starting salaries of as much as $85,000 for engineers, plus equity in the company, while on average in the metro area, technologists earn $94,000, according to job board Dice.com. A New York City teacher starts at $46,000.
— http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20140205/TECHNOLOGY/140209942/there-are-no-computer-science-teachers-in-ny

Engineers always seem to be desired, no matter the field. It was hinted at all throughout my engineering coursework. There's no need to worry, everyone will take an engineer. Which makes the salary part a sticking point. Eventually I was summoned into the discussion.

My response is tangential to the point of the discussion, which is, should EVERYONE learn to code? A big argument of its own. I'm here to discuss what's it like being in education without the traditional training.

The short answer is I have lots of answers. Students will ask me what I did in college and kind of double take when they hear I have an engineering degree. The first two things out of their mouth in some order are "why are you a teacher?" and "but don't engineers make lots of money?"

I could go on forever about the "why are you a teacher?" question. But for the seventeen year old audience, I have started to summarize. If you're going to do something for 8-10 hours a day, every day for 30 years, you better enjoy it a little bit. As indicated by the second question, in their opinion, success after high school is gauged by salary, the bigger the better. Blame that on whatever you want, but it's what they think. For someone to have the opportunity and reject it just sounds bonkers. At the same time though, they're fascinated. A real life engineer? Here? In front of me? ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS.

Longer Answers

Let's address the salary thing for a minute. Where I live, if you get an engineering degree and have a decent GPA (3.0+), you'll probably wind up in the oil industry, though it's not required. There are a thousand companies servicing every aspect of it. Those people start somewhere in the $50k range. It goes up pretty quick. If you land something at a big outfit like Chevron, you're talking $70k+ within a few years, and big time bonuses if you get an extended international assignment (which is pretty much guaranteed). Other less profitable industries have lower starting salaries but you'll be up to six figures soon enough. I worked in construction for three years, my offer letter was for $46k in 2006, that's about $54k today. It climbed to $53k by the time I quit in 2009. Had I stuck around I'd be a high level manager of some sort and possibly close to double my entry pay. Plus 10 years of stock interests and profit sharing.

If you poke around school districts in Texas, most of the urban ones have starting tiers in the mid-40s to low-50s. My district base tier for a bachelor's degree is $50k. (Come work with me, guaranteed cheaper than NYC). In 2009 I started at $45k. My salary has risen less in 7 years here than it did over the 3 years I worked in an industry. It's to be expected, even in a thin margin (3% is standard, 10% is amazing) business like construction.

From a content point of view, I'm overqualified. I'm not as rare as you'd think. If you ask around there are lots of engineering and math degree types that attend TMC and participate in the greater Teachers of The Internet thing. All of them walking into the education business for a variety of reasons. In terms of classes taken I surpassed the high school stuff after like week 2 freshman year. The funny thing is most students wouldn't consider someone with a math degree as equally overqualified. Even though they could out-math me while blindfolded.

Ok, so I left money on the table and I'm overtrained. Would I do it over again? Absolutely. I have some opinions on office work, they are mostly negative.

Qualifications Are No Guarantee

Slowly, I've gotten ok at this teaching thing. Did I pick it up in college? Maybe. The big thing I learned about myself in 4 years of college is what I can do under pressure. I could learn to be productive or I could learn how to find another field of study. Towards the end we had a nice study group and all five of  us found success in teaching one another. I'd be good at one subject, my friend would be good at another. Endless discussion about homework and exams and whatnot. Then we'd take a break and play chess. Because, nerds.

Through that experience I realized you know material the best when you can explain it to someone. But teaching is so much more than being able to deliver material. Any of my engineer colleagues could stand up and flick through a presentation and pass out a test (and think it was the pinnacle of the art form). Any of them on paper are qualified to teach whatever math and science you want to give them. The intangibles like personal skills, adaptability, and the fundamental recognition that a 16 year old has less experience with this stuff are what matters. Many people I graduated with couldn't explain the lab reports they wrote.

And I was nothing special my first year. I had to invest time learning the material. What might make me different is the engineer side always wants to know "why?" which spawned two instances of hacking a curriculum to pieces. I can rebuild it. I have the technology. Others might be content to let a textbook handle that.


Did studying engineering give me some innate advantage? Maybe. Did studying engineering enhance a pre-existing aptitude? More likely. Are engineers the solution? No.

If you started a campaign to convince engineers to enter education, you would find some gems certainly. Several times I've visited Freshman Mechanical Engineering Seminar to talk about myself and I always have a few saying they have a real desire to teach in the future. These people exist. But I don't think your degree makes you more or less likely to be successful in education. There's too many variables. You'd have better luck pushing back on pre-service programs.

AuthorJonathan Claydon
6 CommentsPost a comment

Do you have a regressions unit somewhere? You may know about Penny Circle and Barbie Bungee. Ever wanted something a little more complex to discuss?

Weather Underground has you covered. I live near the ocean and hurricanes are a thing we have to pay attention to from time to time. If you've never been affected, you may not know that hurricane season in the Atlantic runs all the way to November. In the Pacific, typhoons can develop all year long (there were four at once in July). Weather Underground, among other places, has great hurricane tracking charts once a storm has been named.

Great discussion points here. Why is the yellow circle getting wider? Why is the forecast only five days? How does the actual path of the storm compare to the model?

You could make a series of warm ups or something out of this if you found an active storm. The only catch is these charts disappear once the storm has dissipated. There are some other fun charts to poke around with as well (including historical paths of storms that originate from the same latitude as the current one).

AuthorJonathan Claydon

Every year for many years now there's been an odd thing on my whiteboard.

Several times I've conducted staff development in my room and no one asks about it. My kids could tell you all about it though, it might be their favorite part of the room.

It's a game. A very silly game. And for once, it's being played at max capacity with all my classes.

How does it work? Well, I like to encourage community. My kids sit at six tables (rainbow colored because those index cards are easy to find) and I set things up so that they talk to each other quite a bit. Throughout the course of a grading period they also unite through this game.

What are the rules? Ever changing.

  • try to get 50 points by the end of the six weeks
  • on the first day of the week you can win/lose points via random number generator
  • you can win points via Estimation 180 challenges
  • you can win points my making me laugh
  • you can win points by being productive
  • you can win points for being in last
  • you can win points by saying something astute
  • you can lose points for being a hater
  • you can win points by asking for them
  • you can lose points by asking for them
  • you can win points on your birthday
  • you can lose points for bad jokes
  • you can lose points for mentioning that your group is tied with another

The list goes on and on. Kids are first introduced to the game in Pre-Cal. They spend the first six weeks trying to figure out the bizarre rules. To kick the game off I'll just randomly start putting numbers into this chart. Almost immediately I'll get "what is that?" to which I reply "what is what?" and go about my business. At no point will I ever codify how the thing works, other than vaguely mentioning the end goal of 50. Often I hand out points in unfair ways. "That's not fair!" "This is rigged!" Correct.

Eventually they pick out patterns and on several occasions I've seen a hand fly over to cover the mouth of a table mate who is about to say something worthy of a points deduction. Or an entire table quickly scream "NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!" in a similar scenario. Outside observers would be shocked by the intensity of the beginning of the week giveaway. You'd think they'd won the actually lottery.

The Calculus kids walk in and already know what's up. We also have a little discussion about not revealing the secrets of the game to the young ones. Because the young ones will start asking soon enough. You'd say that sounds silly, but it's true, every year I get reports from past students stone walling eager new players.

It's a fun little classroom management thing. I've never played it with Calculus before so it's fun to see "experienced" players having another turn.

If you're looking for a method of team building and you have the kind of personality to hand out imaginary points that don't matter for a litany of things (it's a tiny fraction of their overall grade filed under participation), I highly suggest this game. It is an endless source of entertainment.

AuthorJonathan Claydon

My biggest initiative of the year is a more aggressive approach to Calculus. So far it's been yielding some positive results, but we're still in the early stages. I am pretty impressed with this group so far though.

An issue that was the subject of discussion at TMC was homework. I was having issues with students taking it seriously, the eternal battle. I posted solutions and started making assignments lag, as in, everything had been covered several days previously. It was also weekly to help out the ones who work. I've kept that up with posted solutions through a bit.ly link, and they're making use of it:

Naturally the spikes are the day before and day of the due date. I could write a whole other post on why I'm fine with that.

It was a step in the right direction. There was a little friction in that I was using the textbook for assignments. Part of the problem was finding enough relevant material in the book to make an assignment to my liking. We've recently adopted a new one and it has similar problems.

Stewart, Single Variable Calculus, 7th Edition

In 28 exercises I see 3 discrete assignments. It's a drive by of topics, no time to really stop, and an obsession on special cases (B) and theory (C). Solution? Scrap the book. I've taught everything else without for so long I can do it here. Honestly I like it. I'm not dependent on someone else's idea of Calculus curriculum. Plus, if you really really poke around Calculus books, they aren't the most AP aligned things in the universe.

My rationale is that if I'm going to give homework it should be with purpose, and it should be painless. My handmade assignments are short (15 items max) and focused (one topic of concern). I want additional practice, but making them slave away for hours is silly. Based on how long it takes me to make the solutions (and assorted typos), I can't imagine they're taking more than 45 minutes on the things.

Six weeks in with four assignments given, I've got completion percentages of around 90%. It dipped a little bit last week, I suspect other classes taxed them a bit at the end of the grading period. Can I win the fight against senioritis? Maybe.

AuthorJonathan Claydon