super math teacher

The thoughts of a middle school math teacher


We have been working hard on our exponents unit.  I moved this unit from the 2nd semester to the beginning of the year in order to align more closely with the science curriculum.. THis has allowed us to do some cross curricular activities.

We have done lots of matching card sorts.  These are some of my favorite activities!  Students are able to be successful and can see if they are right.  It is also something that I do frequently.  Students are talking with each other and trying to determine the answer.

We have also done a couple of scavenger hunts related to scientific notation and exponents.  THis gets the students out of the room and moving around.  Always a plus in middle school!

I did a new sort this year.  Students had to match the solution and problem for laws of exponents.  Then, they had to upload a picture of their matches to Google classroom.  THis way, I save some trees and can see the different methods students use.  Especially since there are 14 problems and only 10 solution cards.  Again students were talking and discussing their ideas.  SOme started over multiple times.  Some really weren’t sure how to start.  It gave me a nice little assessment of the exponent rules.


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How thick is a page of your textbook?

Scientific notation is one of those things that many students have difficulty with.  After having a discussion with JP, my science colleague, we decided to emphasize the connections between science and algebra with one activity.  I warned my students that I was going to be evil today (bwahahahahaha).  They did not appreciate that!

I can’t take credit for the activity; I found it online, and made a few changes for my students.  The activity is titled “How thick is one page of your math textbook?”  JP and I had discussed various places that students would struggle.  After having 2 classes do the activity, I was amazed that one major misconception was NOT evident.

Students had to find the measurement of the thickness of a single page of their algebra book.  Of course, there are all the pages with Roman numerals, and a few blank pages, in addition to the 800+ numbered pages.  Every group recognized that they could take the total number of pages that had a number (or were added in) and divide by 2 to get the number of pages.

It was interesting to see the different strategies used to measure one page.  Most groups took the total thickness, which they measured, and divided by the number of pages.  Some groups took just a section, measured, and divided (they used 100 pages, instead of the entire book).  Of course, this measuring led to errors related to precision.

Next week, JP will be taking this a bit further.  Since they are studying elements and the periodic table, he will have them research the size of the different sub-atomic particles, and determine how many of each type of particle will fit in the thickness of one page.

One student, who struggles academically, but really likes math, told me at the end of class that he really thought I made the class fun.  This activity was one that he enjoyed, even though is was challenging.

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Combine Like Terms and Distributive Property

As I started this year, my fourth at AIS in Vietnam, I have realized that my students do not always need every section in the algebra book.  This year is the first time at AIS that I am not teaching students I have taught in previous years.

I decided that the year would begin with a review unit of simple concepts: order of operations, distributive property, combining like terms, along with solving simple equations and rules for operations with integers.

Order of operations was straightforward.  Students worked in their groups solving problems and helping each other out.  Success was immediate, and the few students with difficulties I was able to help.

For Distributive Property and Combining Like terms, we reviewed these concepts, which students recognized.  I gave a notes handout with these two, and after discussing vocabulary and giving a few tips, students were able to finish their notes.

The next class day, I decided to see what students remembered.  I had two files that were fun activities.  Both of them were scavenger hunt activities.  I posted the 10 problems for each activity in the area I call “my second classroom” (this is a large open area on the floor that usually is used for art displays.  It is perfect to allow students to move around, but also has enough room that they can sit and work as needed.)  As I was hanging the problems, my principal walked by.  His comment “I remember this activity from last year!”


Students were numbered, so that there would not be a huge group starting at the same place.  They copied and solved their problem, and then moved on.  Students were able to work at their own pace, which eliminated the fear of not understanding.  Other teachers walked by and stood and watched.  They questioned students who were finished.  They tried to solve some of the problems themselves.

I allow my students to help each other.  This gets them discussing math.  Since this group is new to my style of teaching, it takes them a couple of weeks to get used to having the freedom to talk in class.  I am always circulating, and can easily listen to conversations, as well as join in with a few questions or comments.

This lesson was definitely a success with the students!

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Time for another year!

It is hard to believe that the summer has ended.  School started back for teachers on August 2.  Students returned on August 9.  After numerous meetings in the days leading up to classes starting, classes began.  The first day was an assembly, and then all classes for about 30 minutes each.  On August 10, we started with the A day/B day rotation.

As usual, I took class photos of each class.  This year, my classes are about 20 students each.  Also changing…..Homeroom and my Eagle time (English Language development) are the same students.  My homeroom this year has 12 students (9 girls and 3 boys).


Just from 2 full days of class, this is looking to be a good year!


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Summer has ended

This summer has gone very quickly.  After graduation on June 16, I left for 6 weeks in the USA on June 18.  Now it is July 28 and I am at the airport yo head back to Vietnam for another year at AIS.

During the summer, I spent most of the time in eastern North Carolina.  Of course, there was the trip to Myrtle Beach for a few days.  All I can say is surf and sun, plus a real teacher store.  😀

The biggest trip was to Baltimore for the NCTM Interactive Institutes.  I spent a weeks there, with other math teachers, learning about Mathematical Discourse and Productive Struggle.  I can’t wait to use some of what I learned in my classroom!  I am looking forward to sharing some of the ias with my department at AIS as well.

My sister traveled with me to Baltimore.  We spent the evenings wandering around the Inner Harbor area, where we were staying.  The highlight was the National Aquarium for the afternoon.  In addition, we walked to Federal Hill, which we climbed and got great views of the Harbor. We encountered, by chance, the mascot for the Baltimore ore Ravens NFL team.  We found the haunting Holocast memorial, reminiscent of the boxcars used in Europe in WWII.

I had the chance to have lunch with a former colleague from AIS one day while there.  It was a nice, although short visit.

While in North Carolina, I did a little shopping (of course) and helped Mom with some things that she needed done.  Essentially, it was just a chance to relax and recharge for the upcoming school year.  School starts next week!

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Another year finished!

This year has finished.  This morning was the awards and graduation ceremony for middle school.  It was great to see the accomplishments of these students.

This class of students is special for me, since  many of them were in my grade 6 class my first year at AIS.  Over the last three years, I have watched these kids grow and mature.  Even though I did not teach all of them for three years, they will always be a special class to me.  Good luck in High School next year!


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Dam Sen Park Field trip

As the year is winding down, we are trying to finish the quarter with our last units.  I finished with quadratic equations, and students are now watching the movie October Sky, which happens to tie in with the physics unit in science as well.

As part of the unit, we had the opportunity to visit Dam Sen Park, which is a small amusement park in Ho Chi Minh City.  The grade 8 students had a day at the park.  THey had to ride on a roller coaster and the bumper cars.  Anything else they chose was up to them.

The roller coaster is small by US standards.  It has a maximum height of about 50 feet, includes one loop and a corkscrew.  THe entire ride takes about 30 seconds.  While I did   not ride the roller coaster, my 17 year old niece Katie, who is visiting for a couple of weeks, did.  Her reaction was mixed; it was too short of a ride, and she said it was very small.  Of course, she is much taller than most Vietnamese, so the cars were not designed for her long legs.  watching students ride, we noticed the supports actually moved back and forth as the roller coaster moved on the tracks.

She also rode the bumper cars with students.  There were only 8 cars allowed on the racing area at a time, and all were occupied by my group of students and my niece.  It was funny to watch the boys ram each other, while Katie drove idly around.  It was scary to see the sparks coming from the bottom of the cars.  Another not so safe ride!

In addition, there was a haunted house (very tame by American standards), a ferris wheel (can it move any slower?), paddle boats (always popular in Vietnam), the swings, a DaVinci cradle, and a flume ride (can we say slow…..).

I rode the flume ride with Katie and a few students.  OK, no safety bar.  A sign that says remove your glasses and hats (this was not on the roller coaster…..). The boat moves very slowly to the uphill climb.  I think it took 4 minutes to reach the top of the hill.  THen it was around the bend and down.  Splash!  Whiplash!  That says it all!

The highlight was the ice palace.  As you enter, you are given the option of wearing a coat.  Katie and I decided not to, but the students did.  It was a pleasant 32 degrees Fahrenheit inside!  That of course feels great when the outside temperature is about 95 degrees with 90% humidity. Inside were ice carvings of famous buildings, a bar (the kids pretended to be DJs), a pirate ship.  It was great just to be inside, however cold it was!

It was a long fun filled day for teh students.

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Factoring polynomials

I hate teaching factoring of polynomials.  Every year, it is a struggle to get students to remember how to factor the different types of trinomials.  So many rules and tricks!  It is confusing.  This is what I have always heard from students as they try factoring.

This year, I changed my method.  I wish I could take credit for it, but I found it somewhere online.  It is the tic tac toe method.  It works.  And my students actually understood the method.  THey could apply it to all types of trinomials!

I watched mt students during the test.  SOme students knew the other methods for factoring, but most used the tic tac toe method.  Even my students who struggle with math content all year were being successful.  I count this as a win!

The steps are explained in my powerpoint, below.

Factoring polynomials

Here are some samples of my students’ work.



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Adding and Subtracting Polynomials

This activity was done the day before spring break.  We had finished exponents, and were starting the polynomial unit.  I needed to keep my 8th grade students engaged, introduce key vocabulary, and do something that would be kind of fun for them.

Sarah at Math Equals Love wrote about a quick activity that she did a few years ago.  I decided to use her activity.  After reading her blog post, I made a few modifications for my students of higher ability.

Students worked in pairs and received dice and a set of cards with 3 different cards.  hey drew the cards (one from each color) and created a polynomial.  After drawing cards to create a second polynomial, they rolled the dice to determine addition or subtraction. I gave students a recording sheet to show their work.

Since this was essentially combining like terms, something we had done back in September, students were successful after a few minutes.  Most continued to work according to the directions.  However, I have a few students who are of a higher ability.  Therefore, I needed to modify the directions for them.

Thai and Lisa were instructed to draw 2 cards from each color.  This had them combining like terms within their polynomials.  Then they added or subtracted.

As students completed the first time through the cards, they were instructed to mix up the cards and continue.  Some students mixed all the colors together into one stack, and then drew the top 3 cards.  This resulted in polynomials that had different terms.  Combine like terms, fill in terms with coefficients of 0, arrange the cards in standard form……all of these skills were used in the activity.

I would say this was a successful activity.  students were able to add and subtract polynomials that they created.  They demonstrated that they could combine like terms within polynomials.


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Zombie Attack!

Exponential growth and decay can be so boring to teach.  How many times can I use the “start with a penny and double it every day or $1000000” question?

To keep students interested, I related the exponential growth and decay to a zombie attack.  Students who are usually the least interested became the most engaged with this scenario. The start of the lesson just shows a powerpoint slide titled Zombie Attack! with Zombies.  This got the attention of even the laziest students.


Students then worked in their groups through a series of questions in order to determine how many zombies there will be on any given day.  They make a graph, determine the correct equation, and make predictions.  The discussion was definitely at a high level.  All of these are skills needed as they move into high school and the IB and AP courses.  Of course, they must read carefully the information presented in order to determine the number of zombies on any given day.  Students who read the headings of the chart were able to quickly fill it in and start the discussion questions.  Many students just interpreted the chart as how many total zombies (including the original zombies) there were, not how many newly created zombies there were.


Working cooperatively allows students to discuss their ideas.  Those students who are less sure are able to contribute without being ridiculed for a wrong answer.  Seeing students who are less successful become leaders in their groups is rewarding in itself.

This activity is definitely a keeper…..much better than last year’s zombie attack.  Students were definitely engaged and sharing their ideas with one another.

The follow up homework assignment also related to zombies.  Two word problems about zombies….designed to make students think.

After teaching this to all 4 of my classes, students have an understanding of how exponential functions work.  They may not always get the correct answer, but they can identify one given a table, and know what the graph should look like.  They also can see how an exponent can greatly increase or decrease a value.  In addition, through the lesson, they were able to discover that the value can never be equal to zero.  They were able to explain why as well.

This was probably one of my most successful lessons over the past few years.


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