Being Picky – Ignite Session OAME 2017

Giving an Ignite talk can be a rewarding but also super terrifying experience. For me it was both. Session participants create exactly 20 slides which will auto-advance every 15 seconds giving a total time of 5 minutes. This year, for the second time OAME invited me to participate in their Ignite session at the 2017 conference in Kingston, ON (my home town).

I wanted to share with you my talk:  Being Picky: How we choose lessons and tools for our classroom.

You can read the transcript with slides below.

I was inspired for this talk by fellow teacher Andrew Stadel and it begins with coffee makers. Here is the super deluxe coffee maker that I was looking to buy for a long while! It has all the bells and whistles, timer, auto shut off, and even a grinder.
and then this baby slides in which is arguably the easiest coffee maker to use in the world, it has only three buttons. I had to make a decision. I wonder? Which would you choose? Why? The why is most important part of the conversation it’s what dictates your choice. That’s because we humans are picky. We’ve got lots of reasons to like what we like. We create a set of criteria based on our wants, needs, beliefs, values. I could swap out coffee makers here for
tv shows or computer choices or hair styles and you’d have lots of opinions, conversations, disagreements, maybe even regrets. How many of you had those haircuts……come on….don’t be shy! I knew you did!

We could also swap those out for our lessons and activities. It’s important that we think about what we want in our lessons to create good student learning opportunities. We need to think critically how lessons we get from others fit into our core beliefs of good learning. For me, I have four criteria I use to evaluate all of my lessons
I want ALL my students to show me their thinking and understanding in interesting ways. I want them to show me what they think first instead of just telling them what to think! I want to open up the questioning that goes on in my room. So I look and create lessons that allow for this.
I want my students to discuss, collaborate, argue, defend, and justify with each other. I believe this helps clarify their learning and understanding so I must make sure that discussion and collaboration happen in my best lessons.
I am always assessing! I’m constantly looking to see who gets what we are doing and who needs help. I need to be able to assess quickly the abilities in my room so I can use that on the fly to decide where to go next. Assessing easily must be apart of my lessons.
Every lesson or activity must have a ratio between the cost of set up and the payoff where the payoff heavily out weighs the set up. Nothing is worse than spending a huge chunk of time, making, cutting, designing and then when you run it the learning outcome wasn’t worth it. The payoff must out weigh the set up.
These are things I value in my lessons so naturally I must select lessons and tools that allow me to meet this criteria! One tool that I use regularly and meets all of these criteria is

A whiteboard. Students can easily show off their learning. They are quicker to get to writing on a whiteboard than on paper. Especially when the boards on the wall. Students get to defend, argue, justify their thinking with each other. I can easily see if students are understanding and the set up ratio is a no brainer. Here’s a whiteboard, marker….Go!
As technology advances it becomes a bit more difficult to choose what we want to use. There are literally thousands of apps, websites programs that are in ED tech and globally it’s an $150 billion dollar industry!! And I know that all of those companies out there didn’t create their software with my criteria in mind. I only want tools that fit my criteria!! So I throw away programs/apps/websites/tools that don’t meet it and keep the ones that do meet it. I want to share two tech tools that meet my criteria and one that doesn’t. First up…

The activities on are amazing and meet my first two check points. Through carefully set up prompts my students can easily show me their thinking in a variety of ways. Their new conversation tools make it easier for us to consolidate and class discussions have never been more interesting.

It also meets my second two criteria. I can see in live time what the students are working on. It gives me the feedback I need to decide to go further. The set up can’t be easier. There are hundreds of pre-made activities ready to just click and run. Just grab a device.

Freshgrade is online portfolio tool that meets my criteria. Showing thinking through pictures is the beauty! Discussions can occur easily and assessment is a snap…which drives where we go next.

Kahoot has been pretty popular lately. Students answer multiple choice questions in a game like format competing against the rest of the class. However, It doesn’t allow my students to show their learning in interesting ways…..just a right/wrong selection. We can have discussion about the ideas but the questions are timed putting a rush on my students thinking and I don’t think that helps good learning.

Assessment is tied in but I see class scores not individual achievement. But hey, its super easy to set up!!! Since it doesn’t meet most of my criteria I decide not to spend time creating on it.

These are my four criteria for lessons and tool selection. If a tool doesn’t meet the criteria then I don’t use it. Our time is valuable. I don’t want to spend time on learning something if it doesn’t fit into they way I think good learning happens.

Going forward you have homework. You need to decide: What kind of lessons do you want in your room? And then create the criteria that will help you evaluate the lessons, activities, tools you get from co-workers, friends, online, or at conferences like this. Be picky! We trust you!

End of transcript

I’d like to thank Andrew Stadel for this post on his Tech Tool Criteria and also Kyle Pearce for feedback and  suggestions and listening to me rehearse!

What are your criteria for activities and tools? Feel free to share them with me through email, twitter, or here in the comments.

Pentomino Puzzles

A few years ago I was introduced to a series of activities (through my then districts math consultant) that builds a driving need for students to createscreen-shot-2016-09-30-at-8-14-39-am, simplify, and solve linear equations. I used the activity for a few years in a row while I taught grade 9 academic. Since then I had forgotten all about it (funny how that goes) UNTIL NOW!

The activity ran as a series of challenge puzzles around Pentominoes and a giant hundred grid chart.

Activity 1: Explore

Ask students in groups to choose this tile and place it on the hundreds chart so that it covers a sum of 135. The task seems so simple to start but unpacks some great math.

Allow them to determine this sum anyway they like.


I circulate and listen to their strategies. I give them very little feedback at this point. After a few minutes I choose some of those groups I heard interesting strategies to share..then let any other group share out their strategy.

img_2198Activity 2: Keep Exploring

I have them use the same tile and try again. Place the tile so that it covers a sum of 420. Listen to those strategies! Most groups that didn’t have a strategy before will try to adopt a strategy they heard last round. At this point most students will catch the strategy “If I divide the sum by 5, being like the average then I should have the middle number in the shape.”

This is where I stop and have a formal discussion as to why dividing by 5 here works? Will this always work? Will this always work with other shapes? What other shapes will this work with then?

We formalize the strategy.

Our big problem to start is not knowing where to place the tile. Let’s say I label the middle square n. What will the square immediately to the right of n always be? The left? The top? The bottom? Have them check this out by placing the tile repeatedly back on the grid.

Now let’s add all of those expressions up


The middle square must be a multiple of 5!!! I have them try this strategy out by throwing out another sum and have them place the tile.

Look at another tile!


We go back and outline that we could have chosen a different square to label n. Which results in a new equation and solves for different value…..but results in the same placement of the tile!!


We continue by me having them select different tiles, giving them sums, having them create equations and solving them. I love how hands-on this lesson is. Holding the tiles adds some “realness” which I feel drives the need to solve these equations.


this year when I remembered this activity I wasn’t sure I still had the tiles kicking around (I found them later). I immediately made a digital version with Explain Everything.


The digital version gives each student their own copy and while working in groups can chat about what strategy worked and what didn’t. Before on the paper version….only one student could hold the tile. Also, when students have to voice their strategy through Explain Everything they have to have careful thought. They think about the words they want to use. We this careful thought they get to make their thinking visible for me!

One new addition to the activity I get to make here is that they can create their own pentomino…..and then their own puzzle to share with their classmates.



Since then I also created the activity with some help from the team over at Desmos


Click to access and rune the activity

I love their new conversation tools….I get to pause the class and discuss when needed!


Students can even sketch their new tile and create an expression to match! screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-9-24-03-am


Desmos even added some nice extension questions. Love it! screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-9-24-23-am


In the future the next time I explore this lesson I see a blend of hands on tiles with digital support. I think having the best of both worlds here can pack a powerful 1-2-3-4-5 punch!

Pick your favourite!

Download the Explain Everything Pentomino Puzzles .xpl file. 

Access the Desmos Activity



One Best Thing

The MTBoS Blogging initiative has begun! Check out the two options to blog about. 

I choose option 1 which is writing about something good that happened during the day.

Week 1: One Good Thing

Today was a good day! In my mailbox was this little package.


It’s a package created & designed to make students feel amazing!

It’s from Knowledgehook.

Knowledgehook is an ed tech company specializing in  creating “engagement tools to measure and improve student learning“.

My students have been completing practice questions using their Homework product. An added, amazing bonus is when a student completes a mathalon (completing the majority of questions from the course) Knowledgehook sends in the mail a real (heavy duty) medal. Along with it is a pennant we can hang in the room.

Today a student in my class got that medal! We presented it to him in front of the class. IMG_0411
He looked a tad embarrassed, but I could see he was super proud! Big smiles. Later he told me he was going to wear it home to show mom!

That was today’s good thing.

Sneaking in Factoring

I started a series of new warm ups for my MPM2D class today. My goal is to sneak in factoring as warmups throughout the semester. By the time we need to learn it (like when we need to factor to solve equations) we will have mastered it already. I also previously snuck in multiplying binomials when we tackled quadratic patterns as Mary Bourassa did in her 2D class.

So today I gave them this slide and said I want you to solve a puzzle!

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 9.04.00 PM

They broke out their iPads and used the Algebra Tile app to put together the rectangle. The kids worked away and you could see them trying to put tiles in a way to make the rectangle

….and they soon found out that they had to fit a certain way!! 
On take up we made sure everyone had either my rectangle or a rotated version.

Then we did this one…..

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 9.04.25 PM


After we were done I asked the class: “If the combination of squares and rectangles makes up the area, what are the dimensions of the rectangle?” They had a little bit of a hard time here, but finally could see the x + 4 and the x + 2 as the length and the width. I then wrote …

 And then I heard some “aaah”s. We had previously seen both versions of the quadratic expressions and discussed why the factored form helped us out quite a bit if we wanted to find the x-intercepts.

We stopped there….It only took us 15 minutes. Tomorrow we will do a few more…..always writing the factored form after. I will also try to get students to notice efficient strategies to make the rectangles.

  • Why did you put 4 x terms along the width and 2 x terms along the length?
  • How does that relate to the number of singles?

Where I hope to go with these warm ups is to factor all types of trinomials:

  • Perfect Squares

    This time…..make a square

… and get this…



  • Trinomials of the Type ax^2 +bx + c


  • Completing the square too!!!!


This time…make a square

We’ll be definitely working our way out of the app and onto paper with area diagrams…





Completing the square


Completing the square

I think working with these puzzles for the next few weeks first will give us a strong base when it’s time to factor to help solve equations and then complete the square. I think I’ll track all the warm ups we do like this and I’ll post them all!