A Day in December

Today is a weird day. The following events happened in one 45-minute class.

A student broke down and cried because she is struggling with understanding percentages.

Something clicked for some students and they can find 1.5% of 450 and 2% of 1.25 without a calculator. They find one percent of each number and use that to find the percentages they needed. 

Most students did very well on Info Gap activity, while some groups needs a little nudge. They are getting better at asking for the information.

While it was nice to see the fruit of our labor, I was also reminded that not all the needs were met and there are always more work to do, and areas for me to get better. 

Today was just another day in December, waiting for Christmas break that is two weeks away!


Open House

Exactly one week ago, my principal reminded the staff about the upcoming open house. This open house is a little different to me than the past in many ways:

  1. I do not speak the same language as the parents do.
  2. I have 15 minutes to do a learning activity with the students and parents.
  3. The goal is to have the parents experience what learning is like for the students, rather than an introduction to the class or Q&A session.

I was pretty stressed out about it and I do not have any idea on what to do. I hate Thursdays, because I only have 45 minutes of prep time all day. I used my prep time (last block), less than an hour away from having parents coming in to my classroom, to come up with something.

I was going back and forth with many different ideas, different warm up routines, and I  shot down my own ideas before I came up with the next one. My goal was clear:

  1. I want the students and parents to do math.
  2. I want the math to be accessible to everyone
  3. I want everyone to think

So I made a quick PowerPoint and included these two tasks, one for each grade level.

I chose Which One Doesn’t Belong because the 6th graders really liked it and we have just finished our first unit on “Area and Surface Area” today.


I did this with one class but not the other. One class did a pretty good job, and they came up with many great ideas and reasons. However, one of my parents did not engaged with the tasks as much as I wanted to, and that might due to unfamiliarity with the tasks. There are so many great things to highlight with the tasks. Unfortunately, I forgot to mention why this task is so important to me–it helps students to develop their reasoning skills and academic language.

The 6th graders and 7th grade class were engaged in Find the Next Number task with their parents. I did not like this task as much in the first place as I thought it was a little closed ended. I also don’t want my parents to leave my classroom feeling either successful or unsuccessful, I want them to know that their reasoning is more important than their answers and that there are different correct solutions.

Find the next number.png

I introduced the problem, allowed some time for the students and parents to find solution to the problem, and invite students along with their parents to go up to the board and explain their next numbers, in both English and Russian. After each explanation, I asked the room two questions: “Do we agree with their explanation?” and “Does anyone have a different answer?”. Almost always, the response is thumbs-up for the first question, and thumbs-down for the second. It’s cute to see the kids teaching their parents to do thumbs-up and thumbs-down to respond to my questions.

On the second question, I threw in my next three numbers:

1000, 500, 250, 150, 50, 5

I said, “One of the students came up with this, and this is also a right answer. Can anyone figure out the rule for this sequence is?”

The whole room started thinking again. I moved on and invited other students to explain all the other problems. I ended the session by acknowledging the parents for participating, and sharing that this is how my class is, where students do most of the work, thinking and talking. Before they leave, some parents asked, “So are you not going to tell us the answer?”  I put a smile on my face and said, “Oh, the rule is that the next number has to be smaller than the previous number”. Some parents left the class feeling satisfied.

My goal was accomplished!


Week 4: Writing Workshop, Surface Area & Table to Equation

I did not write about week 3, and I don’t remember what happen that week either, other than I’m extremely exhausted and stayed home almost all weekend.

Week 4 is a weird week. Classes were interrupted due to MAP Testing, assembly and writing workshops with visiting authors.

Writing Workshop with Visiting Authors

The workshop was about writing a scene that includes a specific time, a specific place and a change. The students did a great job in general, and this one is my favorite:

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I have no idea how the students came up with Flatland-like idea, but I do know he just watched The Matrix for the first time not long ago. This 6th grade students’ mind is going to be a little messed up for the next few years. That happened to me when I was in his age.

7th Grade – Proportional Reasoning

The 7th graders have been developing proportional reasoning in the last few weeks. In week 4, they are moving from representing proportional relationships using tables to equations. Most of the students were able to relating the quantities with an expression. Some students struggled to make sense of the equation. Hopefully next class would help.

I noticed that OUR and Chinese Math utilize the same problem and context in different lessons to further develop new ideas. I wasn’t a big fan of this at first, but my students seemed to ease into new ideas a little quicker.

6th Grade – Polygon, Polyhedra, and Surface Area

Unit 1 of 6th grade OUR is amazing! My students were able to develop their own definition of polygon and polyhedra, and identified the properties of prism and pyramid. The structure and the tasks in OUR helped me to fulfill my personal goal for this year: “Students tell me before I tell them”.

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Examples and non-examples are such powerful visual to help students refine and develop their understanding. My students were able to engaged in meaningful debate on the definition of polygons too (let’s not forget that they are ELs).

Math in Russia

I learn that Russians use “,” as their decimal separator. For example, 1.75cm is 1,75cm in Russia. Apparently the number of countries that use decimal comma is more than the ones who use decimal point. It’s quite an interesting read.

The long division in Russia looks a little different too. I’m excited to learn new ways to express the language of math.


Math in Week 3

Thanks to this photo, I remember something from week 3. Upon looking at this very long pencil from my student, it got me thinking, “how long is this pencil, and how long will the pencil last?” I told my class what I was thinking and they got interested. So we measured the pencil each week, wrote it down on a small piece of paper and stick the paper to the wall.


Unfortunately, one of his classmates broke his pencil. We continue to measure of the pencil anyway. I learned that this student uses 3cm of pencil in one week. And now I’m wondering how many centimeters of pencil do most students use on average.

Keep noticing and wondering……


MAP Testing in International Schools

All three schools that I have worked at (US, China, Russia) utilize NWEA’s MAP Assessment to monitor students’ growth throughout their academic career. This tool is particularly important in international school settings since it is the only external examination that most school use to track students’ achievement in Math, Reading and Language Usage, particularly in the years before students take TOEFL, SAT, IB exams, etc.

I find the MAP assessment useful and informative in understanding students’ strengths and areas to improve (in terms of strands and standards in CCSS). I also appreciate having an external assessments to validate and document students’ growth. While I understand that NWEA is an American company, it still makes me cringe when I casually spotted some culturally unfamiliar items on my students’ screen in International School. Here are a few examples:

  1. US-based currency
    1. I took me some time to understand nickle, dime, and quarters while I lived in the US. Reading these words for the first time while having to make sense of the problem is hard, especially for most of my ELs who have no experience using U.S. currency.
    2. It might be more difficult for students to make sense of their answers such as “$10 for a meal” when it cost them 200-400₽ for a meal in Russia.
  2.  Customary Units
    1. Same as point #1 above. My students know that inches, feet, yards and miles are units of measurements, but how are they supposed to know the conversions between them? The most experience my students have is getting a foot-long sandwich in Subway, or getting a 5.5-inch iPhone X.
  3. Unfamiliar items:
    1. My Chinese and Russian students do not know what a bagel is. In fact, most of the world don’t. I can’t think of any other at this moment, I’ll add to the list in the future.

I believe that NWEA can easily modify their test by taking away customary units and US coins on their assessments since students in 145 other countries are taking the test as well. I’m not too concerned about the other unfamiliar items since the world is getting more globalized each day, and it is difficult to determine what is available in each country.

In spite of all that, I still believe that MAP is a good tool, and I do see a lot of improvements made over the last few years. I hope that external assessments, in general, can do a better job at making the test questions accessible to non-US population, especially when students in over 100 countries are using them.

Week 2

I would love to participate in #teach180, but I am not ready for this yet. Instead of #teach180, I am committing to #teach37, meaning I will be writing and reflecting on 37 weeks of my school year.

Week 2 in one sentence: I’m exhausted.

This year, I’m using Illustrative Mathematics’ Open Up Resources (IM-OUR) with my grade 6 and 7 classes. I’m pleasantly surprised how well the curriculum writers in IM-OUR team know the students. The lessons were just challenging enough and each lesson builds on another, deepening students’ conceptual understanding every day.

Even though the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs encourages teachers to develop their own curriculum, I cannot agree enough with @misscalcul8 that “teaching and curriculum writing are two different professions”. I am very thankful that IM-OUR decided to make their curriculum public.

I am spending at least 3 hours every day planning and adjusting the lessons to make it relevant to my students. I had to find ways to help my English learning students (> 90%) to make sense of the problem and gain access to the content. I had to changed some of the American context to something they are familiar with (e.g. Chicago map to Kazan map). I like most of the problems in IM-OUR in general, but I wonder how I can make the problem even more open ended, yet accessible to the students. I would like to do a better job at launching the tasks.

Here are some of the mistakes or rusty moves that I made this week:

  1. I randomly chose students to share their thoughts and it got very messy. I did a better job throughout the week to use the five practices to facilitate discussion.
    1. It is very hard to use the five practices well, especially when some of the tasks is less than 10 minutes long and I spent a huge chunk of my time to reexplain the tasks so that my students understand problem.  The focus of week 3 would be doing a better job at making sure students understand the problem before releasing students to work.
    2. It’s hard to monitor students’ thinking when most of them don’t write things down on paper, or they don’t talk to each other as much as I wanted to. Maybe I need to choose a better tasks or spend more time teaching students to work in groups. Perhaps vertical non-permanent surface (VNPS) might help, but I don’t have access to that yet.
  2. I set a clear learning target for each day and I get too caught up with that. I feel anxious when students have not make sense of the new concepts for themselves. I ended up had one student shared their discovery and summarize the learning for the day for everyone. Learning is a messy process and I want to be comfortable with that. Moving forward, I would like to provide more time and opportunity for students to make sense for themselves before doing a recap together, even if it takes a few days. I want to remain faithful to my goal for this year: “Students say it before I say it”.
  3. I am starting to see some learning gaps between students and I wish to narrow the gap. Equity has always been my huge focus every year, and it is also one that I struggle with the most. It’s hard.

Good things in Week 2:

  1. A student gave me a hugged and thank me for a great week of math.
  2. Another student thank me for accepting their mistakes and let them know that mistakes are good in my class.
  3. Participated in two Global Math Department’s Webinar this week. There’s a lot to reflect and think about to promote thinking and equity in my classroom.
    1. Being Equity Minded in the Teaching of Mathematics
    2. Building Thinking Classroom
  4. Read Laura Baucom‘s post on “Belonging is different from invitation, and the distinction matters“. It really hit home to me since I often took me a long time before I feel belonged. I’m also thinking about what I can do better to help each and every one of my students to feel belonged.

Favorite Task of the Week:

First Week of School 2018-19

First week of school can be nerve-racking for teachers, parents, administrators and students. This first week of school is quite challenging for me for a number of reasons:

  1. It was my third week in a new country where I understand very little of its language and culture.
  2. Because of that, I don’t think I know my students well enough to plan lessons that are appropriate (needs review) for them.
  3. I am starting in a new school that is relatively young (fifth year operation).
  4. I am adapting to a new curriculum (IB-MYP) that I still have minimal understanding even after reading a handful of documents.

Now that I survived my first week, I’d say I’m pleased with how things turned out. I used Noah’s Ark problem (courtesy of @fawnpnguyen) on the first day with my 6th grade classes, and they instantly loved it. Most of the students are able to get to this point:

Noah's Ark

Most students came up with the idea that one polar bear weighs the same as two kangaroos, or four seals (refer to second deck from top). We spent some time discussing it and clarified our understanding. That’s where we stopped on the first day.

As for my 7th grade classes, the students get to work on four fours. This task was surprisingly challenging for them and I wonder if they had the opportunity to play with numbers in the past. Looking back, I could have presented the tasks a little better by modeling how it looks like to play with math and experiment with different operations using four 2s or four 6s.

The next few days are filled with other tasks like Good Group Work and Visual Numbers from Week of Inspirational Math (YouCubed).

On top of that, I also tried name tents with feedback and “What is Math?” from Sara Van Der Werf. I really loved name tents with feedback and will definitely do them again for the rest of my career (though I’m not sure about doing it with my 7th graders next year since I had them this year). The name tents provided an opportunity for me to connect with each and everyone of my students. I’m particularly glad that I got to understand the quieter students in the classroom because of this first-week routine.

I am glad that I did an activity on “What is Math” with my 7th grade classes. My two classes gave me very different responses about what is math to them, and I’m glad we now shared a common understanding of what math is for this year.

This poster serves as a powerful reminder for me to provide opportunities for students to do that each and every single lesson. Credit: @saravdwerf

All in all, I am very thankful for all the energy, kindness and grace my students gave me this week. They were very eager to participate and share their ideas even though they have to work extra hard to find the word to express themselves. I’m thankful that they are trying to involve me in the conversation by switching it to English when I’m around (even though I’m comfortable with them speaking Russian in class).  I’m thankful that they accepted me to be part of their lives and made me feel belonged.

Random Fact: Since every Russian public school starts school on September 1st every year, only 70% of my students showed up in the first week of school (a week before September 1st).



TMC18 ended about a month ago, and I have been thinking about my #1TMCThing ever since. I have attended a lot of great sessions in TMC, and anyone of those ideas from the sessions could be my #1TMCThing. The thing is, I will be teaching at a new school, in a new country, with new curriculum (IB MYP), and with new student population (90% English Language Learner). In addition to that, I will also be working on graduate school coursework while teaching.

With all the transitions into consideration, my #1TMCThing this year will be making learning accessible to all learners (EL focused). The first four years of my teaching have been focused on:

  1. Surviving
  2. Building positive relationship with the students
  3. Classroom management
  4. Understanding standards and unit design
  5. Encouraging sense making and student discourse
  6. Problem based learning

While I have not mastered most of those aspects of teaching, the need for me to step up my game in teaching ELLs suddenly became greater this year. There are so many great sessions in TMC and I thoroughly enjoyed all my sessions. Unfortunately, I also missed out on many other great sessions. Looking back, I am still puzzled on how I managed to not choose a single session on teaching ELs in TMC18. Thankfully TMC is more than a four-day camp. The wiki page and the people I met were supportive beyond those four days.

So how do I make learning accessible to my EL students? Here’s what I stole from Sara VanDerWerf:

  1. I would like to encourage students discourse using Stand & Talk routine
    • The goal is to have “students say it before I say it”.
  2. EL Strategies for the Secondary Math Classroom
    • I got this from TMC wiki page and find it very helpful even though I did not get to attend this session
  3. Always believe that my students are 30 seconds away from understanding the concept

I will also try to do what I felt comfortable doing in the past few years, such as getting students to talk through routines like Which One Doesn’t Belong, #NoticeWonder, and Number Talks.. I am curious to see how well they work with my students and how I can make it more effective for my students.

Hope that I’ll find a way that works for me and my students in Kazan, Russia to learn and enjoy math.