Monday, October 31, 2011

How to eat your 1-2-3's
As I paw through my sons' Halloween candy stashes, I started thinking about the many ways that I can incorporate food into classroom math lessons. Aside from my previous posts, there have got to be a lot more ideas out there that I can steal. So I googled "Math + Food" and found all sorts of goodies. Happy eating!

Oh and by the way I'm always looking for new math shirts... add this to my Christmas list, please Santa!?!? Probably a "medium" since it's Men's. Kay thanks.

Pauline's 40 Ideas for Mixing Food and Math - I clicked on this first because I read it too fast and thought it said "Paula Dean's 40 Ideas"... Oops! Still good though. Maybe with less butter on top. My favorite is the geometric solids with toothpicks and marshmallows. Great for vertices and edges too! The air can be the faces.

Vi Hart's Mathematical Food is by far the prettiest site I've been to in a while. Very good applications for musical / spatial learners. He has beautiful and tasty food applications, a blog, music clips and beadwork, and perfect for leftover Halloween treats - Sierpinski's triangle with candy corn!

Measure geometric shapes and proportions with great ideas from Miss Celliana's Files. That bagel and the cheese look scrum-diddly-umptious. And I could see students making somewhat less advanced, but still yummy versions of the cupcake.

Wondering if there are resources in print? Got some budget money left to burn? Check out FoodMaster. The goal is to integrate food science with math in a variety of settings. Current literature is for grades 3-5, but they are looking for partners interested in expanding to K-1 or middle school. We have an "Edible Classroom" student garden housed outside our school, and there are many opportunities to teach life skills here with seasonal foods.

And now for something completely different! Math Goes Pop! The tag line says "Ruminations on the Intersection Between Mathematics and Popular Culture", and that's exactly what I'm seeing so far. There is a tab specifically for Math and Food, highlighting random tidbits like pricing mistakes, combo meal combinations, and Top Chef. There are another 10+ sensational topics like "Animal Math" and "Math in the Movies" on their own tabs, to keep even a non-blogging math teacher and students intrigued for many a day.

Yummy Math has a pile of food-related ideas as well, some of which I've never seen before. Along with interdisciplinary topics, sports ideas, business math, and the very random lessons on "anytime math".

Enough food for thought. Which makes me hungry. For some pumpkin pi.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Math + Halloween = Zombie Fun

Happy Halloween everyone! 

As I search the net for free Halloween music like "Monster Mash" and might possibly pay to download "Thriller" (can't believe I don't have that one yet), it seemed appropriate to highlight some of my favorite Halloween and season-themed activities. Enjoy!

Time saver attention grabber tip: Go to Google Images and type in "Halloween Math" and you'll find cute pictures like this pumpkin that you can paste into your Smart lessons. The kids love it. And they may be fooled into thinking you actually made it ;)

Favorite cheap treat that isn't "halloweeny" enough to offend non-Halloween celebrating students: bring in suckers. They are cheap, tasty, and the rate of consumption of sugar in your class will drop off significantly for 10 minutes unless they are obnoxious enough to bite through it. The most student requests include Caramel Apple suckers, Blow Pops, Jolly Rancher suckers, but most surprising to me, Tootsie Pops! I always thought they were boring. Apparently they're making a come back.

Best middle school math activity, if the other grades don't get angry at you for stealing it: M&M color distribution analysis. We even scored our bags 1/2 off last year from Target!! Although I can't imagine any kids complaining that they got to do it more than once, and you can actually tailor it to meet many different math objectives. 

In the seventh grade MN math standards, students are expected to carry out simple data experiments, make histograms, convert data into percents out of the total, and graph in pie-chart form as well. What better way to investigate the interrelationship of all of these concepts, than by ripping open a bag of M&M's!? (fun-size of course, we don't want to get them too sugared up).

Better yet, record entire classes' worth of data in order to practice mean, median, mode and range for each color and/or each entire package. I also gave a homework extension assignment last year in which students could statistically analyze the types and quantities of Halloween candy they received. What a great way to reinforce and/or replicate the in-class investigation, without feeling like they did basically more of the same thing.

Heck of a lot more interesting than crunching meaningless worksheets' worth of random numbers, if you ask me. And tastier too!

Another branch of math you can easily relate is of course Geometry. There are endless corny jokes about "pi", in which you could carve the number or the symbol into a pumpkin and call it "Pumpkin Pi". Or maybe you want to measure the circumference and diameter of the pumpkin in order to derive or "make pi". 

In our current unit we are studying transformations in the coordinate plane and similarity. The possibilities are endless when it comes to pumpkins! Analyze the size, type, rotation/reflection of various polygons in the pumpkin's face. Rotate, dilate or translate pumpkins around the Cartesian plane. We are making "Mug Wumps" from the CMP Course 2 "Stretching & Shrinking" unit. 

While practicing the art of enlarging the Wump characters, especially around Halloween, the little guys are bound to turn up with fangs, costumes and other imposter artifacts. Just go with it! It's fun and educational, and leads to great conversations on similar versus not.

Lastly, and my personal favorite, is dressing up in some pop culture reference. My current faves are vampires and anything related to the Hunger Games. Anything that makes the students laugh (either with you or at you is fine!), but that also sparks conversations, helping both teachers and students get to know each other better.

I bought this last year along with obnoxious jingling cat-shaped bell earrings, and I think I'll wear it again. If it still fits. After all, Breaking Dawn does come out in theaters in a few weeks! YESSSS.... Go Team Nessie!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Zombie students disrespect my authoritay!

Before I begin my post, let me just pat myself on the back that the "student edition" of Coordinate Graph Art for Grades 6-8 is now available! Only $9.99 per copy on Amazon. If you have a school district interested in a classroom set, that would be willing to set up a P.O. for "", I'd be happy to offer a 20% bulk discount. Just let me know at

Now onto some more troubling subject matter, which I am sure has plagued every teacher on the planet to some extent. What do you do with a student who intentionally attacks your teaching style? Or your subject matter? Or the validity of an assignment? Or the grading qualifications for an assignment?

Normally this is not something that I would take personally. I know the 7th grade math standards like the back of my hand. I've developed specific goals and objectives for everything we do in class, and I feel I have articulated the reasoning behind each assignment specifically to students, on several occasions, in words, picture, text, email, blog and Facebook entries. So how does a contrary, snarky, sarcastic piece of student work, turned in late, with no attempt at completion of the actual assignment, get under my skin so badly!?

I need some therapy here, so stick with me. Maybe by blogging about it, I'll feel better. So here's some background. We are in the beginning phases of a unit on similarity, scale change, and transformations in the coordinate plane. Many 7th graders in particular have a rough time retaining %/decimal/fraction concepts, and extra connections between ratio/rate/unit rate/slope and scale factor/dilation/transformation is crucial. Thus leading into why I insist on completing the Illuminations Paper Pool unit every year.

Although the State of Minnesota has hereby decreed that all 6th graders should now understand ratio concepts, proportional/linear relationships are still a huge part of the 7th grade standards. Whether or not students have retained a significant portion of that which was learned in 6th grade, I still feel the need to scaffold them from numerical ratios into geometric ratios, through the lens of the Paper Pool project. I highly encourage all nay-Sayers to click the link above and play around with it. You'll see what I mean really quickly.

#1. Reminder: Middle School is a time for defiance. Don't take it personally when a student calls your assignment meaningless, questions what the relevance is to real-world applications, and then further to assert that real-world assignments are pointless. My response: "Are you alive? Do you buy things? Do you look at pictures? Do you look at yourself in the mirror? Do you use Google Earth to look at your house or MapQuest to look at directions? I'm sorry, but proportional relationships DO matter."

#2. Reminder: You may have explained the goals and objectives of the lesson seven times, but your students may not be auditory processors of information. I have been getting all worked up over two particular students' defiance of my "telling of the 7th grade MN standards" several times, and how it personally relates to THEM.

While I have given the students Myers-Briggs personality inventories, learning style inventories, information processing inventories, and extensive annual and unit pre-tests, I am lazily forgetting the fact that 90% OF MY STUDENTS ARE NOT AUDITORY PROCESSORS! As I type this, I'm banging my head against the wall. DUH, you can "say" a million times what the "point" of the lesson is, but if they're not listening, it DOESN'T MATTER! Note to self... write objectives down and type them on my Smart lessons.

#3. Reminder: "Real World Applications" doesn't mean anything to students in middle school because they DON'T LIVE IN THE REAL WORLD. They live in a semi-cocooned existence, shrouded by parental supervision, religious activity (most of which is extremely helpful), strenuous athletic competition, or the opposite, total indolence. (aka. video games, Farmville, Black Opps 2, Call of Duty, you name it). What the "real world" of having a job, making money to support a family, their future career/livelihood, only has any meaning if they have actually THOUGHT about it.

I pride myself in "real world connections", but now that I've had a couple "zombie beverages" which for a Friday night, you can probably guess what they are, I am having a sort of out-of-body experience... thinking back to my days as a middle-schooler, and what mattered to me then. Was I thinking about my future? Heck no! And if I was, I was so completely lost as to what in a million possibilities I might be doing, that I couldn't possibly narrow down even one... so what benefit does a "real world assignment" really serve?

Which leads me to....

#4. Reminder: Teenagers are constantly reinventing themselves. Any time you can develop curriculum, in any branch of any subject, that connects to what they are doing at that precise moment, is time well spent. What are they interested in now? What are they reading now? What is current in the media/movies now? And are you willing as a teacher to constantly re-invent yourself to reach the Pop-Culture and Pop-Art of what is NOW??? 'Cuz let me tell you, it's a lot of WORK.

#5. Reminder: What is the gender of the student who is defying you? I am a woman, and I cannot honestly say that I have ever had a female student defy me. Why is this? Might it have something to do with the fact that we have different motivations, ways of thinking, understandings of our world, or that the majority of the educational system is run by women, while 50/50 or a minority of our "successful" students are males?

There is a constant brushing under the rug of gender issues in education. I actually got to the brink of destroying a relationship with a close colleague over the factor of gender in learning and teaching in America, and it still floats like a palpable fog over every collaborative minute I spend with the person. GENDER DOES MATTER. Especially when you are a male student, and you've had NOTHING but female teachers in your math classes for the last 5-10 years of your existence.

You start to wonder... why aren't there more MALE teachers in the world? In math? Is teaching really a valid profession, if men choose not to do it? Why should I respect my teacher? If she were really that good at math, WHY ISN'T SHE AN ENGINEER!?!?!? (like all the other men)

Which leads me to my final point...

#6. Remember: YOU LOVE YOUR JOB! It is your DUTY as a teacher to express verbally and objectively, whatever your gender, that you CHOSE this job. I myself have worked in international transportation, studied and taught Spanish, been a stay-at-home mom, considered majoring in Aerospace Engineering, only later to decide after touring the U department that it was the most BORING thing I could do with my time... but have I told this story to my students lately? No!

We forget as educators that our students want to know US just as well as any story characters in the books that they are reading. In order for us to be role models, they have to understand where we've been, where we're going, and what makes us tick, and WHY on God's green earth, we would choose such a poor paying profession to exercise our talents, with few to no opportunities for either recognition or growth. Because we love to see that passion ignited in our students, and feel like we had some small part to play in it.

Anyway I am turning into more of a zombie by the minute and I don't really know if I answered exactly why defiant students make me feel so bad as a teacher... but I think the bottom line is, if you're a student, and you're going to write a sassy rebuttal to an assignment that has been given, please remember that...


By intentionally defying your teacher, you are stating that you think your teacher doesn't have a clue. You don't believe in his/her ability to decide what is good for you, you don't see the value in what they are trying to teach you, and above all, you are insolent and unfeeling enough to record it on paper. OUCH.

I hope that some day you regret it. Although you're probably too doped up on your own hormones to even remember that you wrote it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Have you flipped for Flip-Class yet?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic workshop marketed for G/T students and teachers interested in DI. The presenter is one of the most exciting people I have met in a long time, and I wanted to give him a free plug for his upcoming training in IL on 11/10/11. Google this topic and you'll find all the registration materials you need.

Dr. Cash takes a new perspective on DI in his engaging book, and gave me lots of tidbits that I have already implemented into my curriculum to reach those various "types" of G/T kids, and various other types of equally unique learners. And he'll make you laugh from beginning to end, which is all we really want out of a day off, right!?

Anyhoo, after listening to Dr. Cash all morning, we were treated to a variety of break-out sessions, and as would make sense, I followed the math group over to the math session. I had read the brochure and wasn't quite sure what to make of it, until it began. Then my heart started pounding, my brain began racing, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since!

So what exactly does it take to get a Zombie teacher into "crazed" mode? (other than several caffeinated beverages) The newest topic to hit the educational waves... although it's so ancient in its core principles, as to be laughed at for calling it a "new idea". It's called FLIP CLASS. 

What the heck IS flip class, you may ask? Well, it's what people used to do all the time before education became an institution. It's called TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR OWN LEARNING. Grab a book, or in this case, an online lecture, watch the lecture, interact with the materials provided, TRY YOUR BEST AS A STUDENT TO FIGURE OUT THE CONCEPT FOR YOURSELF. AT HOME.

When you return to class the next day, the teacher gives a warm-up or sort of pre-assessment of the topic, allows students to self-grade and self-sort into instructional groups (independent, semi-independent, direct instruction), in order to complete the homework or assignment IN CLASS. Hence why it's called the "Flip-Class" method. Because they do their instructional piece at home, and their work in class. 

The biggest benefit to home learning is that students can spend as much or as little time as they need on mastering the concept, and then come in and get the help they need (or not get the help they don't need) during class. Please click on the link above to read more... as I'm probably not explaining it very well. Maybe the "Lost" metaphor, used by our Flip-Class presenter and high school math teacher Andy Schwen, would help you too. I know that my students responded very well to it, and I was able to look through their homework papers to see their self-identification (Dharma, Smoke Monster, or Lost). 

The Dharma Initiative
Your advanced and/or 
independent learners

"This is OUR island. We know it, we live here, we can survive and we DON'T need your help". This group is for the kids that either already understood the homework concept/ objective, figured it out on their own quickly, or are very capable of managing their own learning. They sit in the back of the room and work on the homework either together or individually, and when they're done, they work on extension projects.

The Smoke Monsters
Your semi-independent learners

 "We are starting to figure out this island. If we work together and help each other out, we can probably survive on our own. We at least know to RUN AWAY from the Smoke Monster!!!" This group is for students who kind of understand the concept, but want to talk about it and try to figure it out with their neighbors before asking the teacher for help. Students in this group should sit in the middle of the room and work with 4-5 other students on homework and concept mastery.

These groups are not static. "Smoke Monsters" can discuss the flip-lesson they watched the night before, ask each other or a "Dharma Representative" for help when they get stuck, before asking the teacher. Otherwise they should be able to complete the homework/assignment relatively independently. Students may get up and switch groups at any time, if they have made a breakthrough and want to move "up", or if they hit a wall and need to move "down". Which leads me into the third group:

For students who need 
direct instruction

"We just fell out of a plane and are walking around dazed and lost. What is this place? What is going on? Am I alive or dead? And why do I keep seeing a white unicorn running through the underbrush?" This group is for students who tried the flip-lesson and couldn't make sense of it, or were absent, or for those few learners who always need to be shown one-on-one before it "clicks".

"Lost" students meet up front, and are scaffolded through the first few problems until they get it. As soon as that light bulb goes off, they can get up quietly and go join the Smoke Monsters. After 5-10 minutes, you will probably be left with 2-3 students who may very well need guidance through the entire assignment. And that's the POINT! Everyone is getting what help they need, when AND if they need it!  Assuming there is time left, everyone reconvenes towards the end of class and discusses common problems, finishes correcting homework, and turns it in. 

No late work! No excuses! No confused parents! Students are held accountable!

Now for the buy in... think it over... check out the linked articles and blogs... I will dedicate my next few posts to debunking myths and possible concerns over the flip-class method, and also to keeping a log of how Flip-Class is going in my own classroom. My goal is to phase it in slowly... 1 lesson per week, maybe 2... we'll see how it goes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Coordinate Graph Art : Student Edition soon to be published!

The student edition of my book is being published as we speak. I hope to have it available on in the next week. The keys have been removed, and in their place, are full-sized copies of the corresponding graph paper needed to complete each puzzle. Students will now be able to cross off coordinate pairs as they graph them, in the workbook, with no copies needing to be made by the teacher.

It is currently for sale electronically in my eStore at so check it out!

A very dear teacher friend told me that a few local schools were interested in ordering class sets, and I said, "Of the teacher book? With the keys? Why?"... and then I went, D'OH! might want to start working on a student version that a kid could keep all to themselves, that would actually justify the purchase of a class set. And maybe make me a little more money ;)

So keep an eye out on Amazon for the new title, under ISBN #978-1466455382. The free preview is available at: 

This now makes me realize, the book is set up for right-handed students... I wonder if I should write a left-handed version!?!?!? AHHHHH!

Saturday, October 15, 2011


No, it's not just pay day. Although if you want to assign monetary value to each minute lost in redundant, unnecessary communication, then this site does nearly equate to willing the lottery.

Hoobble Homework is now available on the android market and is as easy to use as Facebook. In fact, you can even LOG IN with your Facebook account! I am not getting paid for this publicity, I swear, I am just really really excited about it. Can you tell?

What is Hoobble?

Hoobble is a free website that allows teachers to update homework online. Once they have generated a class and added homework, an "embed" button appears, in which teachers can copy and paste the embed text into their school website, and it will AUTOMATICALLY UPDATE THE HOMEWORK TO MATCH THE MOST CURRENT CONTENT ON HOOBBLE.

Great. So how is this different from everything else out there?

Parents and students can create free accounts from their home computers. They can also DOWNLOAD THE FREE APP to see the homework FROM THEIR CELL PHONE if they have an Android phone.

Most importantly, if multiple teachers choose to sign up and enter their homework there, parents and students can see all the homework in one place, without having to go to each teacher's website of choice. Parents can even create multiple "profiles" for their different kids, so they can see any and all homework that is listed in the system.

That sounds complicated.

It's not. Follow the below instructions and you'll be up and running in no time.

1. Go to and sign up for a "Teacher" account.

Hoobble Website - Click Here 

2. Click "login" in the top right-hand corner.

3. EITHER log in using your Facebook account, or Under "Get Help" on the bottom right, click "Register".

IF you register using an email and not facebook, you will get a verification code sent to the email you provided. Log into your email, open the Hoobble registration email, copy the verification code and paste it into your browser. Hit enter. You should get the following screen if it worked.

4. Now you can click the "Login" button again, and actually log in this time. I have made a dummy account, shown at right, that you are welcome to try out.

Just email me at if you want to try it.

5. Complete the "Create Account" fields. Type in something like Mrs. Bellm or Mrs. Mandy Bellm or Math 7. Something obvious for parents and students to find when they look up your school. Make sure your account type is set to "Teacher". Then click "save".

6. You will be sent to an "Instructions" screen. It will inform you that you must create a "profile" before you can enter homework (logically!).  It even has an active link that you can click to go to "your settings".  Click it.

7. Click on the only choice on the screen, which is "Add Subject".

8. Select your school. If it is not in there, select "Add School" and type in your school's information.

9. When your information is correct, go ahead and hit "OK". You will be redirected back to the "Settings" page. If you teach multiple subjects or classes, repeat steps 7-8 until all the classes you teach show up on the Settings page.

10. Now you can click on the  "My Homework" tab from the top menus and start adding homework!

11. Click the "Add Homework" button to add a new assignment. If you have multiple classes built, you will have a drop-down menu. Select the class you want to add an assignment to.

12. Enter something in "Group". If you differentiate, you might type "level A" or "gold level". If everyone has the same assignment, just type "Everyone" into the group. You must have something typed in that box or your assignment will not save.

13. Click inside the field to the right of  "date" and a calendar box will appear. Click on the date you want the assignment to be posted under. It will then populate in the date box. 

14. Now you have freedom to choose which boxes you want to fill with what. Your assignment choices are "learn", "read", and "make". You do not have to use all three of these boxes, but you must fill in at least one of them. If a box is left empty, it will not show up on the published assignment.You can type as much or as little as you like in each box.

15. When you are satisfied, click "Create".

16. Viola! The assignment has been published. It is now viewable to you, parents and students. If you see something that looks off or wrong, you can click on "details", "edit", or "delete" to look at it more closely and/or change it.

17. Continue adding homework for the week/month/year/millenium until you are satisfied with your updates. DON'T FORGET TO CHANGE THE CLASS NAMES IF YOU HAVE MORE THAN ONE!!!

Here's what mine looks like for this week. Since I teach multiple classes, I can see both of them at the same time.  You'll notice I have clicked on "weekly homework" so it is gray. You have to click the arrows to go to the week you want, otherwise it will default to whatever week it is right now. You can also click the "daily homework" if you'd rather just look at one day at a time.

I also noticed that I have a bad habit of forgetting to change the date, or putting in this week's date instead, so when I went to look for the homework, I couldn't see it. If this happens to you, just page back and forth to the previous/forthcoming weeks until you find it. Then click the assignment and click "edit", change the date to the correct one, and hit "save".

18. Now comes the fun part.  This is the only "techy" part. I promise. Hang in there, you non-techy people. You don't need to know what it is or what it means, you just need to follow the steps carefully. If you do it right, you'll look way smarter than you really are. (like me!) (I mean, I look smart, but I'm really not. I just know some tricks ;)

Go to the "Settings" tab from the top menu again, and click it. Then click on "My subjects" in the bottom right corner. You should be able to see your class or classes listed, with three choices to the right of them, that say (embed/update/delete). To transfer all the information that you just typed into Hoobble, to your school website, click the "embed" button. A pop-up screen will appear that looks like this:

19. Highlight all the text in that little text box so it turns blue, and then right-click your mouse, and select "copy". 

20. Boot up your school website. Decide where on your website you want this information to post. IT NEEDS TO GO INTO A "PLAIN TEXT" FORMAT BOX. Most school website programs already have this format anyway. It's usually a welcome page or a default setting page that is blank, but you can type in it and sometimes add pictures to it. What I suggest to new teachers who can add tabs to their website, is to have a tab dedicated to homework for each class you teach. Here is what mine looks like.

21. Go to the homework tab or welcome page, or wherever you normally type your welcome and/or homework in manually. YOU NEVER HAVE TO DO IT AGAIN!!!! HALLELUJAH!!!  Click in the text-box like you are about to type. Now right-click and select "paste". Some text boxes only allow you to paste by hitting CONTROL+V. Either way works. Your lovely little text should now show up in your text box. Here's an example of what mine used to look like, when I manually typed it in, and what it looks like now, with the text box embedded.

22. Now for the MAGIC.  (Assuming you pasted it correctly into a plain-text formatted site)

Save your updates. View your site. You should now have an interactive, live-feed, full-color menu that parents and kids can click on, drag up and down, and press the links to see more assignment information.

If it didn't work, it is probably your website that has the problem, not the Hoobble app.

Here is the fully functional Hoobble app, embedded into my updated website. Tell me which interface you like better.

The old-school text on the bottom of the picture? (which I used to think was pretty high tech)

Or the new Hoobble homework box on top? (DUH!)

You can visit my TeacherWeb Site, if you want to play around with the text box and interact with it. Click either the "Math-7 Homework List" or the "Accelerated Math HW List" tabs to check it out.

And that, my friends, is a wrap. You may have to instruct parents on how to download free apps from the Android market, but my guess is, if they have an Android, they've probably been playing with it non-stop and/or could figure it out on their own. Just make sure they spell it right. H-O-O-B-B-L-E. I do not yet know when or if the app will become available for iPhones.

To sum up the benefits, which I now cannot remember if I stated:
-This is a one-stop shop for parents, whether or not they use it on their phones or just their computers. They can see all of their kids in one place, IF all their teachers are on board and choose to use the system. They can check homework from home, work, on the go, and yell at and/or ground their kids from the cabin if they are lucky enough to get a signal for their phone.

-The more teachers who jump on board, the more useful of a tool it is. The less button-pressing and manipulating and repetitive communicating will go on between teachers, parents, students, administrators, etc... because the information is all stored in one place.

-The automatic updates from Hoobble to parent phones to your school website, using the "embed" tool, will keep everyone in the loop, and provide a long-term record of when assignments were given, thus improving accountability. 

-BEST OF ALL!??!??!  IT'S FREE!  'Nuff said.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

PBJ Sandwich lab hilarity

Who would have thought, something silly like Sunflower Nut Butter would start a new trend!? What a smashing success the PBJ (or SFBJ lab) was. I don't know how many students actually liked the flavor of it, but we put those two jars and another two loaves of bread and several knives through the ringer and back.

Launch to the lab: "Many five-paragraph essays were vague at some points, even the A-papers. It was common to see sentences such as, 'The x-axis goes horizontal and the y-axis goes vertical and there is an origin in the center of the graph, and now you know how to graph!'. Well, no, unfortunately, I still don't. Or I don't know that you know how to graph." That got some blank stares. 

So we started a discussion of what steps actually are involved in making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich... and compared that thinking process to writing an outline to a paper. Then, we thought about how to break down the steps of each of our "bullet points" into its components, in order to complete the directions correctly. And then the fun began. They could not touch the materials. They could only look at them on the table. I know for a fact that some cheated, and went home, and made a PBJ sandwich step-by-step in order to perfect their directions. But whatever. You KNOW that scientists do that sometimes too ;)

The first day, I had 3 groups (1st and 2nd hour) and 4 groups (3rd hour) who were ready with their so-called procedures. During the trial run, the jars got spread on the bread, the bread got stabbed with the knife, the bag got ripped open from the side, and the jelly got smeared on the back-side of the same slice as the peanut butter. The success rate was around 60%. 

After doing the demo to the lab, my table was SWARMED with other students who wanted to try it for themselves, to see if they could be more specific. Some wanted to try it as is. Some wanted to try it with nachos or burritos or getting dressed (argh! start with your underwear on, PLEASE). Others wanted to make their siblings write the directions so they could play teacher/skeptic. Which I can't blame them for. It was really fun to think of how to mess with them ;). 

On the second day, results were better. Students had learned from prior mistakes about taking the lid off the jars, and placing the lids on the table, and of picking up the knife before sticking my own hand in  the jars. Still, some errors were found, and I got to dump the jars upside-down onto the bread, and my favorite, "cut the sandwich into 2 equal parts"... I PICKED UP A SCISSOR AND CUT THE SANDWICHES IN HALF!!!!

Awesome. I wish I had gotten a picture of THAT! I will say, though, the second day had a success rate closer to 80%, up from 60% the day before. And more importantly, students were starting to realize the mistakes in their directions as they were reading them, instead of after I had completed the directions. I heard groans and "d'oh"'s and other semi-appropriate exclamations as I flipped the bread around, turned the knife upside down, and then dropped it on the table. Memories were definitely made in my class this week. 

This may seem frivolous and a waste of time to those nay-sayers out there, so let me lay the objectives out for you. 

1. Giving clear directions and being able to articulate them in a meaningful, logical, understandable way is not only an important life skill, and cause of many a misunderstanding in life, but also it is a 7th grade language arts standard. 

2. I have the benefit for the rest of the year of using various code phrases, like "It's a sandwich!" or "That's definitely not a sandwich... your bread seems to be upside down", to tactfully tell certain students that their process needs refinement. Whether we are writing another essay, completing a lab report, giving a small group presentation or just sharing in class, I can say "be more specific" and hold up the scissor I used to cut the sandwich with, and they will get the idea. 


They laughed while we learned. They learned while they laughed. They were inspired and wanted to go home and replicate the feeling in their own way. And they received valuable life skills that will apply not only to many other aspects of their math career, and 7th grade, but to becoming better human beings, more understanding of the difficulty of clearly communicating meaning to fellow beings. 

3. Many students tried (or at least smelled) sunflower butter for the first time. They had never heard of its existence, nor realized that they could buy it at nearly any store, nor how difficult life is for highly allergic students to get around in the real world. We had a short, but meaningful discussion, about how wonderful it is for kids (and grownups) with allergies to have even a "fake" version of a favorite ingredient. 

While some students disliked the flavor of the sun butter, I reminded them that to a kid who could get deathly sick from smelling, let alone tasting peanuts, this is a really special treat, that makes them feel kind of "normal" for a while. We talked about what it must be like to find foods to eat when you are milk- or -egg or nut-allergic... how difficult must it be to find anything to eat at all, let alone something healthy or that tastes good? I felt, at least, that it was a good reality check for many of my kiddos. 

4. Essay writing quality will undoubtedly improve, due to this activity, and already has, in the 10 re-writes that I have since graded. Each student was given specific feedback as to how to add "meat" to their essay, and after the PBJ lab, they saw exactly what I meant. How specifically do you make an input/output table? What specifically does it help you to understand about linear vs. non-linear data? Do you prefer a table to a graph? How do you make a graph from a table? What is better about a graph that you like?

As the day winds down and I sink back into my zombie tired state, I will now head to the bathroom to clean the remaining sun butter goo from under my nails. I spent a whopping $10 over 6 classes and 2 days of labs to facilitate this wonderful learning experience. Lesson for me for next year? GET A P.O. for MACKENTHUNS AND STOP SPENDING YOUR OWN MONEY ON WORK!!!!!!!!!!!!   

You'd think that would sink in one of these days.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


We are entering the mid-trimester week of our fall semester! I cannot believe how fast it has gone by. It sounds like a broken record, I say that every year; but, this year especially, I feel that I have lived every second possible over the last five weeks to its fullest. 

Many firsts have taken place in my classroom: first Barbie Bungee, first graphing performance assessment, first 5-paragraph essay IN math class, and tomorrow, another first! The dreaded "peanut butter and jelly sandwich" lab moves from the science classroom into the math classroom. 

Why, you might ask? Well, because the number one, biggest issue that I saw from students in their five-paragraph essays, was an inability to articulate precise meaning and directions. Great, you know how to make a graph, but specifically how do you get to a coordinate on the grid? What is it used for? How can you use a graph to understand change in math? The essay topic was describing linear patterns in graphs, tables, equations and words. While the class average was 80% in my regular classes and 90% in my accelerated class, the inattention to specifics in language and procedures was a major red flag in nearly every essay. 

Hence the PB&J lab... though with nut allergies in today's classroom, we will be using "Sun Butter", (short for sunflower butter) instead. Same concept, new twist. And I have NO idea how it will taste! Neither does my kitty Toby, but he sure was willing to sniff it out! (I hope that doesn't invoke pet allergies now)

So what exactly is the point of the PB&J or SFB&J lab? Whatever you want to call it? The point, which I referred to in my "Ghosts of Zombie Teachers Past" blog, is to master the skill of giving specific, exact, step-by-step instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You can't say non-specific things like "put the peanut butter on the bread" because you probably forgot to tell the lab rat to open the jar, or to open the bag of bread, or to open the lid to the peanut butter jar, or to take a piece of bread out, or to put it on a plate, or to pick up the knife, or to put the peanut butter on the knife.... get what I mean? Or what I meant to say? D'oh! Do what I mean, not what I say.

The main objective for students is to sit down and stare at the materials, and to work in their heads, breaking down a seemingly easy task into its components. The best reward for correct completion of the procedure... is that you get to eat the sandwich! More likely, it will be a big mess of sunbutter on the desk, bread on top of the bag, jelly on fingers, and so on and so forth. 

Students will have the image engrained in their brains forever that there is a reason for precision and accuracy in life. Especially in math and science.

I am hoping that after this activity, our next attempt at writing for meaning in math class will demonstrate much more thoughtful reflection into the individual steps and procedures we do in our brains, to solve mathematical problems. It is NOT good enough to be able to solve a problem, if you can't explain how you solved it, or why it is the correct answer, or even if it is the correct answer. And most importantly, what it means in real-life terms. 

Isn't that the whole purpose of math? Of school in general? Of LIFE in general? 

Peace out, PB&J zombies.