Month: May 2017

Total 4 Posts

This Is My Favorite Cell Phone Policy

Schools around the world are struggling to integrate modern technology like cell phones into existing instructional routines. Their stances towards that technology range from total proscription – no cell phones allowed from first bell to last – to unlimited usage. Both of those policies seem misguided to me for the same reason: they don’t offer students help, coaching, or feedback in the complex skills of focus and self-regulation.

Enter Tony Riehl’s cell phone policy, which I love for many reasons, not least of which because it isn’t exclusively a cell phone policy. It’s a distractions policy.

What Tony’s “distraction box” does very well:

  • It makes the positive statement that “we’re in class to work with as few distractions as possible.” It isn’t a negative statement about any particular distraction. Great mission statement.
  • Specifically, it doesn’t single out cell phones. The reality is that cell phones are only one kind of technology students will bring to school, and digital technology is only one distractor out of many. Tony notes that “these items have changed over time, but include fast food toys, bouncy balls, Rubik’s cubes, bobble heads, magic cards, and the hot items now are the fidget cubes and fidget spinners.”
  • It acknowledges differences between students. What distracts you might not distract me. My cell phone distracts my learning so it goes in the box. Your cell phone helps you learn so it stays on your desk.
  • It builds rather than erodes the relationship between teachers and students. Cell phone policies often encourage teachers to become detectives and students to learn to evade them. None of this does any good for the working relationship between teachers and students. Meanwhile, Tony describes a policy that has “changed the atmosphere of my room,” a policy in which students and teachers are mutually respected and mutually invested.

Read his post. Great, right? How would you build on his work?

2017 May 26. Okay, okay, we have a bunch of font critics in the comments thread!

Featured Tweet

This is a different approach. The cell phones are in jail. But I admire the incentive for parking your phone.

How I Welcome Newcomers to Online Teacher Professional Development (a/k/a the #MTBoS) and How You Can Too

Here is the promise:

There is a community of math educators that meets online at all hours of the day. They trade support and resources and many of the educators who meet there will tell you it is the most indispensable professional development they have ever experienced. If you lack support in your school or district, this community might actually get you through. I’m referring to the the Math Twitterblogosphere, or the #MTBoS, an abbreviation that is as unwieldy and charming as the community it names.

Here is the reality:

Where am I? Who are all these people? Is it rude to just say something to somebody? These conversations look interesting but do I just … jump in?

Here is an ugly bit of unexamined privilege:

Loads of people informed me immediately that, nope, Twitter only works that way if you already have lots of followers, if you’re already in the community, and that it also helps to belong to a demographic that is accustomed to being listened to all the time.

People informed me that their first leap into this teaching community was scary, that getting “shot down” was bad, but bad also was simply getting ignored.

I decided I didn’t want to ignore a tweet from a newcomer to the Math Twitterblogosphere. So about a month ago I wrote up the designs for a Chrome extension and hired a freelancer to build it. The extension highlights tweets from users that meet any criteria I choose.

Here is my “Welcome to the #MTBoS” rule. It highlights tweets from anyone with fewer than 100 tweets, people who are likely new in town, so I can make sure they hear from somebody.

The results have been a blast. I don’t break much of a sweat on these welcome wagon tweets. “Never stop tweeting” is my standard greeting, after a more personal remark. Other times I try to connect newcomers to the resources they’re after. Regardless, people are generally really excited to receive these quick tweets.

That’s someone whose day got made because this little Twitter extension made it easy for me to make sure she didn’t get ignored.

You can make someone’s day too. Loads of these newcomers aren’t following me. Many of them are looking for classroom teachers to follow. Many of them are looking for people who are only a couple of years ahead of them in their careers, not ten or twenty.

You’re welcome to install the same extension, without any warranty, and with only the most meager set of instructions. (If I start hearing that a bunch of you want to install it, I’ll give it a proper download page with a proper set of instructions. 2017 May 25: Updated with that page.)

Hey. Good work, everybody. People are writing dissertations about us. People from outside mathematics education are looking in at us as a model for professional community. This place is special. Let’s keep expanding it – its numbers, its representation, and its heart. This is one idea I had recently. What’s yours?

Featured Comment

Michael Pershan offers his work towards community building: comment on more blogs.

Mathematical Surprise

I gave a talk at the Wisconsin state math conference earlier this month and this woman was the best part.

I don’t know her name. I’ll call her Jan. Jan is about to testify to the power of surprise.

I asked the crowd to give me three numbers between 1 and 6, numbers you might get from a roll of the dice. They said 2, 3, and 5. Then I asked all of them to evaluate those numbers in this expression.

Most of the crowd started working on that task, but Jan didn’t. She laughed and said, “I teach second grade,” excusing herself.

I encouraged her to show off whatever she remembered from the last time she worked with expressions like this. She scribbled on the notebook in her lap and we managed to evaluate x = 2 in the time we had, but not 3 or 5.

I asked the crowd to call out the result for 2, 3, and 5. They called out 2, 6, and 20, one after the other.

Then I asked the crowd to evaluate those same three numbers in this expression.

Jan tossed her notepad on the desk, a reaction of “no way, no thank you” to the length of that expression. I decided not to press her at that exact moment, because I had a secret everyone in the crowd would come to understand at different times, Jan last of all and perhaps best of all.

I asked for their result for 2.


“Okay, what about 3?”


“Okay, that’s weird. What about 5?”


I played up my surprise, acting like I didn’t know all of those terms would simplify to 0.

That’s when I noticed Jan. Out of the corner of my eye, Jan straighted up in her chair and then picked up her notebook to sort out what just happened.

I wish I had a sharper vocabulary to describe this transformation, as well as more strategies for provoking it. By showing Jan a situation where order arose from apparent disorder, she felt something in the neighborhood of … cognitive conflict? Intellectual need? “Surprise” feels closest.

I don’t know all the words and I don’t know all the strategies, but I know there are few gifts a teacher can give a student more satisfying than helping her transform from “no way, no thank you” to “okay, let’s sort this out.”


  • I don’t think this experience has much to do with Jan’s growth mindset about herself, or mine about her, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. How was this experience distinct (or similar) to a mindset experience?
  • Think about the design of this activity, all of its different permutations, and how each one might have affected Jan. What if, for instance, I had given given the class those three numbers instead of soliciting them from the class? What if I had only solicited one number? What if all three numbers didn’t evaluate to the same number? How would these permutations have affected Jan’s interest in picking up her notebook?

Desmos Now Embedded in Year-End Assessments Across the United States

Amy X. Wang, writing in Quartz:

Enter Desmos, a San Francisco-based company that offers a free online version of TI’s graphing calculator. Users across 146 countries, most of them teachers or students, are currently logging 300,000 hours a day on the platform—and today, Desmos announced a major partnership with testing consortium Smarter Balanced, which administers academic exams in 15 US states. Beginning this spring, students in those areas will use the online tool in math classrooms and on statewide performance assessments.

When students take their year-end assessment in 15 states, they’ll see the same free calculator they’ve been using at school and at home the rest of the year. That assessment will more closely reflect what they know, rather than what they were able to express through unfamiliar or costly technology.

USA Today has the reaction quote from Texas Instruments president Peter Balyta:

Peter Balyta, president of TI Education Technology and a former math teacher, defended the purchases, saying a TI calculator “is a one-time investment in a student’s future, taking students through math and science classes from middle school through high school and into college and career.” He said TI’s technology is evolving, but that models like the TI-84 Plus come with “only the features that students need in the classroom, without the many distractions that come with smartphones, tablets and internet access.”

This is interesting. In a world where more and more assessments are delivered digitally (and pre-loaded with digital calculators) the sales pitch for hardware calculators is their lack of features, rather than their abundance.

There is clearly a market today for a calculator that lacks internet access. Around 20% of teachers in my survey said they wouldn’t let students use mobile devices on exams for reasons of “test security” and another 10% cited “distraction.”

Open, interesting questions:

  • Are those figures trending upwards or downwards?
  • Will schools and parents continue to pay Texas Instruments an estimated 50% profit margin for more test security and fewer distractions?
  • How do math coaches and instructional technologists help teachers harness the advantages of the internet while also managing concerns about security and distraction?

2017 May 12. Peter Balyta makes a longer case for hardware calculators, one which won’t surprise anyone who has followed this discussion. He mentions (1) lower cost, (2) fewer distractions, (3) greater test security, (4) more features, and (5) availability on tests.