Math Test Prep – It’s That Time of Year Where We Bore Our Students Into Failure

I know when I was teaching in the k-12 classroom, this time of year was always so frustrating as a teacher and even more frustrating and anxiety-ridden for my students. This is the time of year when standardized testing is occurring or about to occur, in the majority of states. This can mean state-tests or national tests such as the AP exams, SAT and ACT. For me, the biggest ‘anxiety inducer’ was the mandatory End-of-Course tests that all my math students were required to take and pass with a 70% or better in order to earn the credits needed to graduate. No pressure there…..

Things have changed a bit as we move into the new era of ESSA, with many states changing the standardized testing requirements, but there is definitely a lot of pressure on students to perform, and on teachers to get their students to achieve at specific levels. This impacts teacher evaluations, school evaluations, etc. I’ve always hated that these ‘one-point-in-time’ tests have such dire impacts on teachers and schools, considering they do not reflect student growth over time or other impacting factors such as absenteeism.

But – regardless, tests are out there, happening now, and causing teachers and students undo stress. I know, for me, part of the frustration was the inordinate amount of time we were ‘required’ to prep students for the test. This included days specifically set aside to practice for the tests instead of teaching, and a ridiculous number of ‘practice tests’ and test taking prep.  Boring, stress-inducing, and really kind of pointless in my opinion. I felt we spent entirely too much time preparing for tests instead of actually teaching our content and letting students continue to learn. It was as if ‘learning’ stopped and the whole school went into ‘test-prep’ mode, and we forgot what school should be about – engaging students in learning and understanding, not preparing them to take a standardized test. My thoughts were these prep times only increased students anxiety about the tests and often, the long, drawn-out, constant test prep led to student burn-out, apathy, and failure. For many students, they got so tired and bored of ‘practicing’ that when the real test(s) came along, they made beautiful designs on their bubble sheets instead of actually focusing on answering the questions. (Yep – that really happens).

What are my suggestions? Keep teaching. And not teaching to the test or for the test, but teaching. Teach new things. Teach applications of things that might be on the test but  NOT through standardized-test questions, but with real questions, real problems, and real applications of the things students should know for the test. Worksheets with multiple choice answers are NOT teaching, or learning, or engaging. Technology with “practice” problems and right/wrong answers is NOT teaching or learning. Do something with the knowledge students should be able to use and do on these tests. Create interesting learning experiences, where students have to problem-solve and apply the knowledge and talk to each other. Example: instead of 20 solve these ‘systems of equations’ problems on a worksheet, provide real-world problems where a systems of equations is needed to find the solution. Where students have to work together to create the equations and come up with the solutions. Where they get to decide the most appropriate method to solve the system. Way more interesting and much more insightful into what students know and can do.

It’s not that you shouldn’t prepare students for tests. It’s that you should do it in a way where students are applying their knowledge and engaged in applications of that knowledge. It’s not about worksheets and test-taking strategies. It’s about understanding and applying the concepts. Tests suck. Don’t feed the anxiety and the boredom and the apathy towards tests by creating rote, mundane, drill-and-kill test prep. Make it about engaging students in applying their knowledge in interesting, relevant ways. There are many resources out there that can provide excellent ‘test prep’ ideas and problems in a much more exciting way than a worksheet with 40 multiple choice problems. (Bleh).

Some fun #math sites with challenging application problems to use for ‘test-prep’:

 

Annual ASSM, NCSM, and NCTM – A Week of Math Ed Leadership & Collaboration

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Just returning from a week of fun in San Antonio where the annual math leadership and teacher conferences were held. Casio was a proud sponsor of a few events and at NCTM we had such a blast showing off our new graphing calculators (both approved by College Board for use on the PSAT, SAT, & AP exams), the CG-50 Prizm and the CG-500 Prizm CAS (3D graphing anyone?!) Not to mention the added bonus of blowing TI out of the water! (Side note: I will be doing specific posts for each of these in the next couple of weeks showing off some of the new and exciting features).

Thought it would be fun to highlight some of the moments we had sharing math education and technology with the dedicated math leaders and teachers we met throughout the week.

ASSM & NCSM


For the second year, we were honored to sponsor the opening session of ASSM (Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics). Mike Reiners, one of our amazing math teacher leaders and Casio user from Minnesota, provided some technology talking points after the main speaker and then everyone enjoyed some good food and conversation.

DSCF3005At NCSM (National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics) we were able to connect with many math leaders at our exhibit booth. We had a great time sharing our new calculators at our Showcase workshop and everyone walked away with a brand new CG-50 prizm to explore

 

Benjamin Banneker Association Reception at NCTM

It was a privilege to sponsor the BBA Reception at NCTM for the 2nd year in a row. What a great group of math educators who work so hard to ensure equity for all students. We were excited to continue our scholarship for a deserving student to support their future education endeavors.

NCTM & The Calculator Face-Off Challenge

NCTM was a big endeavor, with game-show stage and podiums, screens, lights, calculator displays. Thanks to the amazing team of Chris and Lionel from Events Special Effects and our own Casio Exhibit gurus John and Jason, the vision was made into a reality and it was a pretty beautiful booth if I do say so myself. Kudos to the team – it’s hard work designing, building and creating everything, but they did an amazing job. Some behind-the-scenes photos:

We had some crazy fun at the booth with hourly game-shows, and T-shirt spotter program where we gave away Kindle-Fire to those spotted in our t-shirts. We had G-shock watch giveaways, calculator prizes for our volunteer contestants and a magician, Mark Paskell, doing some magical give-aways and tricks. (My mind is still blown away by the reproducing bunnies….) 

We loved all the connections and interactions we had with math teachers, showing offthe amazing capabilities of all our calculators, but definitely our newest CG-50 and CG-500 graphing calculators. The look on our game-show participants faces when our CG-50 just blew the TI competitor out of the water was priceless. I know I am excited by the number of converts!

Here is a slide show highlighting some great moments from the games, demonstrations, sharing and talking with math educators, winners of our T-shirt spotter program, and some magic as well. Thanks to all the great math educators who came by and participated! Big shout out to our Casio teacher contestants, Jennifer North Morris, Tom Beatini and Mike Reiners.

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Math Fun in San Antonio – NCTM 2017 Annual

Next week is the NCTM Annual Math Conference in San Antonio, TX.  It’s a great time to go to Texas, as the weather hasn’t gotten too hot. I remember the last time NCTM was in San Antonio, when I was still teaching high school, and met up with all my teacher friends. We had such a great time, not only going to different workshops at the conference, but exploring the area (a trip to the Alamo was a must) and eating and shopping along the River Walk. I am going this year as part of the education team for Casio, where there will be a lot of fun to be had at our exhibit booth and sponsored events.  I have been going to NCTM Annuals for over 23 years (what?????), and as usual, I am looking forward to reconnecting with math educators and friends from all over the country, many of whom I only get to see this one time a year. So, it’s more than just a place to learn new ideas and collaborate with like-minded educators, it’s a time to renew friendships and share memories. I certainly am hoping to catch up with as many folks as I can, even if just to share a cup of coffee or a hug as we pass in the conference hall.

Naturally, the goal of attending a conference is to learn new things to bring back to your classroom or to the educators you work with. It’s one of the aspects of these conferences I love the most – the ‘renewed’ energy and excitement that occurs when you see a strategy that you want to take back to your class or you learn a new approach to a familiar concept that you know will resonate with your students, or you find that perfect resource for an upcoming unit. I always consider these conferences as a way to reaffirm why we teach math – seeing what others are doing, sharing stories and ideas, and leaving with at least one or two ideas that are going to spark your students creativity and understanding. For me personally, I always had a key focus (say Algebra, or Geometry or technology or manipulatives) to narrow down the workshops I went to, with the goal to find a few new resources, ideas and strategies to incorporate into my teaching over the summer so that next years classes would be even better. This type of focus helped to make ‘teaching’  a new adventure every year, even if I was teaching the same subjects, and it also made sure that as a teacher, I was always challenging myself to be better and find relevant strategies and multiple ways to help my students learn.

One aspect that I always look for is technology applications and resources. I am a firm believer in the idea that technology, whether it be a calculator, a tablet, a computer, a video, can be a valuable resource to help students both learn and develop mathematical understanding, but more importantly to visualize abstract concepts and explore ‘what if’s’.  I am sure there are many of you out there as well looking for some technology workshops as you attend NCTM this year, so I wanted to share some workshops from some of the amazing teachers that work with Casio, as these are always such great hands-on experiences.

Workshops:

  • Thursday, April 6 – 9:30 – 10:30, Room 213AB Conv Center: Exhibitor’s Workshop What’s New At Casio: Viewing Mathematics through a New Prizm (or Two) 
  • Thursday, April 6, 3:15 – 4:30, Room 217C Conv. Center: Polar, Parametric, Rectangular Graphs – Really See the Connections! with DeeDee Henderson
  • Friday, April 7, 11 – 12:00, Room Presido ABC (Grand Hyatt): Conceptualizing Polynomials with Jennifer N. Morris
  • Friday, April 7, 1:30 – 2:45, Room 224 Conv. Center: Conics – The Ugly Duckling of Algebra 2 with Denise Young & Tracey Zak Johnson.
  • Friday, April 7, 2:o0 – 3:00, Room 008AB Conv. Center: The Probabilities and Mathematics of “Wheel of Fortune” with Mike Reiners
  • Saturday, April 8, 8:00 – 9:15, Room 006D Conv. Center: Hands-on Activities + Technology = Mathematical Understanding through Authentic Modeling with Tom Beatini

We will also be having a fun time at the booth, Thursday – Saturday, playing games, having give-aways, talking and doing mathematics with our hand-held technology, so be sure to stop by and say hi (Booth #631) and come play with math. I will be there most of the time and hope to meet some new math educators and give a hug to old friends!!

The Power of the fx-991EX – It’s Not JUST Solar

I read the Casio Twitter feed and FB feed every day, just to answer questions and see what followers might be saying. Recently there have been some kudos shared about the fx-991EX solar powered scientific calculator that got me curious. In particular. that the fx-991EX does engineering problems so well and they would be lost without it (someone said he uses it in all his higher-ed courses). This was intriguing to me since I assumed engineers, with their complex calculations, would more likely use graphing calculators like the Prizm or ClassPad or even engineering software.  Naturally, I set out to explore some of the ‘engineering’ capabilities of the fx-991EX, since I hadn’t really spent too much time with this aspect of the calculator.

As I refreshed my memory of the menu and capabilities of the fx-991Ex, it kind of boggled my mind how
much this solar-powered scientific calculator can do, and with it’s QR code capabilities, it can even show graphs and printable spreadsheets and tables. (See my previous posts about Graphing & QR code capabilities). After looking a little more closely at all the menu icons and what each does, I understood why this one calculator would in fact be sufficient for engineers, or really anyone. I spent some time playing around with different features that I had not previously explored, and have shared a couple of my explorations in the video below.

For those of you who have not experienced or explored this powerful little calculator, I suggest you do. If you are at NCTM San Antonio this April, stop by the booth and get some hands-on experience, or just explore some of the videos, or download the free 90-day emulator trial and give it a go.  You can access our Quick-Start Guide to get you on your way.

Fractions with a Calculator – Looking for Patterns

calculatorI have been working with teachers and using manipulatives, both physical and virtual, to help students think about fractions and develop conceptual understanding about fractional operations, versus just memorizing rules or tricks, as we so often do with students. There are fraction circles or fraction strips that work well as physical manipulatives, and there are several virtual manipulatives as well (i.e. DynamicNumber.org for any Sketchpad users out there, and the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives to give just a couple resources).

Manipulatives are a valuable resource in math class as they allow students to visually represent numbers, manipulate them, get hands-on with the math, and make some connections before moving into just the numerical representation alone. When working with fraction manipulatives, from my own experiences and those I have had with students, the manipulatives can constrain the number of possible examples we can provide students (either because a teacher might not physically have enough for all students or the manipulatives themselves only go up to certain values). As an example, most physical fraction circle manipulatives allow you to work with a limited range of fractional values – halves, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, eighths, tenths and twelfths. Virtual manipulatives offer more options, which is nice because students should see more than just common fractional pieces or ‘nice’ fractions – sevenths, or elevenths or twenty-fifths as an example. Obviously, the idea of manipulatives is to provide that hands-on experience, visually see what’s happening, and then create conjectures.

Another tool that is often overlooked, particularly at the elementary level, is the calculator. Obviously, when dealing with fractions, you want a calculator that uses natural display, showing fractions in their numerator over denominator form so students recognize the fractional number. I realize many of you might be thinking that the calculator is a bad choice because it provides the answers….but that in fact is an advantage here when trying to help students recognize patterns and develop their own understanding of fractional operations.  We want students to recognize what seems to be happening – test it out on many examples before they come to a conclusion.  A calculator (like the fx-55Plus shown above) is a great way to do this.  If you don’t have manipulatives, you can actually use a calculator like the fx-55Plus to help students understand fractional operations.

Let’s take fraction addition. Obviously, we are going to start with adding fractions with like denominators.  You can put several different problems into the calculator and students can observe both the added fractions and the answers. Students can talk and share what they notice about the multitude of fractions they are adding (all with like denominators). They can make up their own addition problems and see if the pattern or things they notice hold true. Fraction and answers showing up quickly help them discern patterns because they can quickly see many examples, and use ‘funky’ fractions, not just the typical ones we tend to always rely on (i.e. halves, thirds, etc.). It’s even okay that the numerator might occasionally end up larger than the denominator – the pattern still holds true (i.e. the denominator remains the same, the numerators are added together).

With a calculator, you can use messy fractions with not your typical denominators and even numerators larger than the denominator. For addition, our focus is on what patterns do the students see with the numerator and denominator and do those patterns hold true no matter what fractions we are adding? We can get into simplifying the answers at some point, but at first, the focus is on the addition.

Once students have the idea that with a like denominator, you add the numerators, you can then switch it up. Let’s add fractions with unlike denominators.  You can encourage smaller numbers in the denominator and numerator to start, and then once students think they have the pattern, they can ‘test it out’ with some larger digits in the numerator and denominator. The thing here is the denominators are different and so how does the end result differ (if does) from when the denominators are the same? What might be happening? Test it out.

The beauty of the calculator (again, one like the fx-55plus that quickly and easily shows fractions in their natural display), is that students can create many examples to look for patterns and then quickly test their conjectures on different problems to see if it works. You are encouraging critical thinking, problem solving, and communication using a simple tool that provides much more diverse fraction examples than you can provide with manipulatives alone.

My point – when helping students develop number sense, especially with fractions, don’t rule the calculator out as a tool. You should use multiple tools with students to provide them with different ways to develop their own conceptual understanding. Calculators can be a tool, even at the elementary level.

 

 

 

Multiple Representations on the Casio Graphing Calculators

One of the key things we try to help students with when studying functions is the idea of multiple representations – i.e. graphical, symbolic (equation) and table.  Ideally, we want students to be able to discern what the function represents or looks at no matter what representation they are given, and to be able to find patterns and important components about that functions from all representations.  Students should never learn about functions just through graphing, or just through symbolic manipulations or just through looking at data points in a table – they should be able to go back and forth and determine which representation is the most useful for the situation.

Unfortunately, too often, the emphasis is on one representation at a time, or at most 2. Let’s look at the graph and find the minimum, maximum, or intersection. Or, let’s find the roots of a quadratic by factoring, or symbolic manipulation. Or, here’s a table of points, where are the x-intercepts or the y-intercepts? Ideally, we want students to be able to look at all of these representations simultaneously so that they see the relationships between the representations and come to understand what the points represent in the table, in the equation, or in the graph.

Technology is one way to show all these representations at the same time, and then quickly manipulate and explore. There are obviously many technology tools out there, but as I have stated in previous posts, the most accessible technology tool for most students and teachers is the graphing calculator, not only because of it’s affordability, but because it is a tool most students have readily available.  It would be nice if all students had computers or tablets for daily classroom use, but that is still NOT the reality.

I have put together a quick video showing Casio’s three graphing calculators – the fx-9750GII, the fx-9860GII, and the CG10/20 or Casio Prizm, and how they can display the equation, graph and table representations of a function on one screen. No matter which model you have, you can achieve the same functionality, allowing students to work with multiple representations and explore relationships quickly and efficiently.

Check it out:

Math Magic or Calculators?

I was perusing my news feed trying to find something of interest to write about, and came across an article entitled “The Common High School Tool That is Banned in College” i.e. the calculator. It’s an interesting article, worth a read,  basically comparing the high school perspective on the use of calculators to the college perspective or non-use of calculators. There is no right or wrong answer – I think it depends on the math content, what you want students to do (i.e. basic algorithms to solve problems or using mathematics to solve deeper problems).  Depending on your goals, the use of calculators and technology differs. As with any technology, calculators are a resource that needs to be used appropriately, and we need to be teaching that.  Common Core Mathematical Practice #5 – Using Appropriate Tools Strategically is all about this. Calculators have their place and are important to help explore and expand mathematical understanding, but we have to help students understand when their use is necessary and not a ‘crutch’, as stated in the article.

This was on my mind obviously, when I then ran across a tweet post by Go!Math Videos @gomathvideos that shared a TedX talk by Arthur Benjamin entitled “Faster than a Calculator”, which naturally sparked my interest and seemed related to the question of should we be using calculators. In the video, Arthur Benjamin has members of the audience use calculators while he does calculations in his head. He then goes on to wow everyone with his math ‘tricks’ (what he calls mathemagics). He ends by doing a 5-digit square calculation by thinking out loud as he ‘solves’ a problem. It’s fascinating – he changes numbers to words to help him solve – he is definitely using his own ‘algorithm’. The video does not answer the question should we be using calculators – but it definitely shows that calculators are just one way to get a solution and it may not always be the fastest. Anyway – just some fun for this last post of 2016. Enjoy!

Wishing everyone a Happy and Safe New Years!