Back to Melbourne

It’s been a long time since I’ve written in my teacher’s blog. I was keeping a student blog with cool mathematics and some useful resources too, which is where my blogging energies went when I was living and working in Phuket, Thailand.

In 2016 am moving back to Melbourne to live, after many many years away. I was hoping to do a Masters of Numeracy in Education, but it doesn’t look like the course is running anymore. I have a job in a great school and I’m looking forward to the new adventure.

Hopefully I can find the time to reflect on teaching and learning as I go. There are so many amazing resources I’ve found in the two years I haven’t been writing here. I guess my three of my favourites during that time would be Diagnostic Questions by the incredible Mr. Barton and the Desmos Teacher resources. Ooh, also for wonderful graphs.

While I haven’t blogged in a long time, I still come back here from time to time. It’s like opening an old paper journal, of which I have many from my travels.

now I am Ajarn Melissa – Teacher Melissa in Thailand

It’s been busy. My school year started with twelve hour days and barely a real weekend. I am not here to grumble, no no. I’m in a pedagogical wonderland this year.  I work in an MYP school that walks the talk with growth mindset and SELM (social emotional learning and mindfulness). My busy days came from within and the chance to make something entirely new. A chance born from starting from scratch, a year away from the classroom (a little rusty) and being inspired by the How to Learn Math course with Jo Boaler. Project and inquiry based, messy, student directed lessons take a lot of planning and a lot of patience. You don’t simply crunch through the procedural mathematics of old school classes. It’s much more rewarding. I’ve neglected this blog, twitter and personal reflection and I’m hoping for some change. Reflection has happened but while I am doing other things with deadlines approaching almost daily. I want more time to read great blogs of mathematical teaching legends that inspire me. You see, the good stuff is out there.  All I did was search for @ddmeyer tweets and now I have so many exciting educators to follow and learn from. I have been maintaining a class blog for the kids and hopefully their parents too. Perhaps some of my colleagues read it from time to time. It’s a dream, it’s a goal. My teaching load is nice, my classes are small. I think I started with too many ideas for all of my classes – grades 7, 8, 9 and 10. Hopefully I will have a few posts about what’s been happening in my classes over the next month or so. For now I have many units and classes to plan. Excited to join in with Estimation 180 from next week, with all of my classes. Now I must figure out how to get zombies and exponentials into three lessons. I’m thinking red pens, dots for zombies in graphic novel/comic like sequences. Then I will get the kids to count the zombie dots and graph them. Kids come up with the parameters before their deadly pens get dotting.

How many zombies can one zombie infect?

they move quite slowly and look kind of easy to avoid to me, if the numbers are small. Perhaps running in zig zags would be a working avoidance plan, like the advice for not getting chomped by a saltwater crocodile.

How many zombies do we start with?

How many people are nearby? Is this a school problem or Phuket or Thailand or…

Kids can come up with the questions, I’m just trying to get ready.

New Job – New Country – New Ideas

This is a very brief post because my to-do list before work starts tomorrow is breathing down my neck.  I now live in Phuket, Thailand and it feels like living in a holiday. A suitable transition from a year off methinks.

After an amazing year away from the ‘real world’ exploring the other worlds I will be returning to the classroom in one week. It’s exciting and daunting, as it should be. When I started looking at possible jobs back in March in Salta Argentina Thailand wasn’t in the list of countries to consider because we thought visas for both of us would be difficult. Not the case and I am so happy that my school contacted me about an interview. Their philosophy, along with being an IB school, is one of Mindfulness and Social Emotional Learning (SEL). They take the whole child approach in what looks to be a powerful way.

My classes are small, the people I’ve met so far are impressive, the campus is beautiful, students will have laptops, I have my first ever Smart Board (but can’t get at my Onenote files – thanks Microsoft).

As well as reading about Mindfulness and SEL during my break I enrolled in the fantastic How To Learn Math course through the free Stanford MOOC run by Jo Boaler. Its focus is about putting the “colour” back into the Mathematics classroom and growth mindset. That these two areas have massive crossovers is a lucky coincidence for me as I start my new job. My good friend and colleague of my previous school Rob DeAbreu pointed me towards it.

Volunteering in Peru

Hanging around - Cusco

Hanging around – Cusco

It’s been quite a while since I blogged here. The only reason being I haven’t been teaching; I’ve been travelling for almost a year.

That changed in Cusco when I had the chance to do some volunteering through a wonderful organisation called Volunteer Peru, easy to remember. While my boyfriend was off conquering scary mountains on a bike I went to a home for boys in the afternoons and helped them with their homework and also just hung out with them.  They ranged in age from six to about 13 years old.

The boys are orphans, not necessarily without parents in all cases. Some are orphans of the state – parents that can’t take care of their children for a variety of reasons. Home life was deemed unsuitable.

My time with the boys was wonderful. It started with an introduction that I was a Mathematics teacher available to help. A round of applause erupted around the room, not the usual groans and screwed up faces roused from horrible memories in Mathematics classes. I could get used to that kind of reception.

Volunteering in Cusco meant that I would be helping the boys using my Spanish skills. With almost no formal help outside of a great language app and a few lessons in Sucre Bolivia (which was review rather than new) I did pretty well. I learnt quite a bit travelling around and listening – Escuela de Eschucho I tell people.

If you are worried about your Spanish skills Volunteer Peru have a school with excellent teachers. After my meeting it was decided that I’d be fine. And I was a little to my surprise.

Spinning magico

Spinning magico

The Mathematics ranged from subtraction problems to irrational fractions, complicated exponents and absolute equations. That session tested my Español but the boys always helped me with pronunciation and grammar. While helping with the more difficult maths a chat about physics and chemistry developed. There are some brilliant minds there. I hope they get the opportunities to keep going with school.

Mostly I was helping the little kids with subtraction and multiplication. Fernando showed me how he did subtraction. Wow, no idea at first. With many of the boys we went back to basics. I drew a 100 chart, grabbed small rocks from the courtyard area for counters and lots of questioning (in Español) to check understanding. By the end of the rocks, the chart and the problems Fernando kept prompting with “Una mas?” – one more, let’s do one more. When we were finished I gave him a few more to do because he was so proud of his new skills.

The classes are big in state schools in Cusco. Forty students and so many can’t get individual help and fall behind. This after school volunteer program is crucial for children to get the help they need. All they need is a little one on one or small group help. It’s also a chance for them to receive praise for their work and creativity, something else that can be missing in large classes.

Once the other boys saw I could really help there were more cries of “Amiga! Amiga!” when I arrived each day. Thanks to Jonatan, a previous student of UNIS, I taught the boys how to do their nine times tables with the fingers trick. That was a real crowd pleaser and the trick was then taught to their amigos. It was a thrill when they showed me how they could still do it the next day and the next. Their smiles were a mile wide when a multiplication problem had lots of nines. I also helped with science and other work but demand for the Profesora Mathematica was high.

On Friday I rocked up ready with my arsenal of Mathematical vocabulary ready to assist, but it was no homework day. Great to see they get a full afternoon of play. I kicked a ball around, checked out their very cool local game with a spinning thing on a string. Like spinning tops and lawn bowls rolled into one. Watched a few films and then lent them my phone so they could film themselves.

As it was my last day I promised to send the film and some photos to them. I have edited the footage as a movie trailer and also put all of the clips into one movie for them. These will be sent in the next week so that they can watch it on a Friday afternoon as a surprise.

Los Chicos – Cusco for Volunteer Peru on Vimeo.

When I left the boys ran towards me and encircled me for a group hug. The boys I helped individually hung around shyly for personal one on one hugs at the end. I loved my card, loved the boys and loved the experience. I was sad to go.

I am so fortunate that UNIS in Ha Noi, my previous school made community service a priority.

There was one other from the organisation that sent me (more on them below) called Anton from Germany with excellent Español. He was wonderful with the kids and will be there for some time. As well as us there were some young women from another organisation, but they weren’t as confident in how to help out. I was impressed with my crew from the organisation that matched us to the boys’ home and supported us.  It also made me proud of how the students at UNIS Ha Noi approach community service and volunteer experiences, very mature. I think the Cusco organisation would love UNIS students who visit Peru.

Maths can make you happy

Maths can make you happy

I was told that it is more difficult to find volunteers for boys’ homes as most folks want to help girls, small children in kindergarten and get involved in environmental pursuits. I loved my time there and only wished I had done this earlier in my year away so that I could give more time.

Things I liked about Volunteer Peru: They are a very supportive grassroots organisation that have many programs that volunteers can choose from. Background checks are done, language classes are there if needed, homestays are possible for a local feel and also great for language skills. I already had accommodation organised but others said they really enjoyed the experience. On top of all the other things they do to help others they know their way around the tour companies of Cusco and can help you to explore the surrounds. Jimmy and Fabi were great in getting me placed and if I am ever back in Peru, I’d like to go back to the same place and give them some more time.

nb: Volunteer Peru links do not appear to be working any more.

exits stage left


It’s the end of my nine years at my school in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. It’s also only a few months until I leave this city that I love so much to explore other continents.

When I arrived in Viet Nam the plan was to come for one month, ten years later the backpacking pause button is released with Central and South America on the horizon.

Last week was my final one at my school, it was emotional. On Thursday I said goodbye to the kids and on Friday my school and my colleagues. Even though I am incredibly excited about the adventures ahead I will miss this place and teaching Mathematics.

When I applied for a job at my school, I wanted the EAL (ESL) position and was employed as a teacher of Mathematics, Technology and Humanities instead. The Humanities class had all the EAL kids in it. Challenge accepted! I hadn’t taught much Mathematics prior to teaching in Ha Noi because everyone wanted technology teachers when I popped out of university. My degree was a double major in Mathematics and Technology in Education.  I didn’t love Mathematics, I was just good at it. I liked being good at it. I had some good teachers at school but they never inspired a love of the actual discipline and they liked me because I got the answers correct. Now I can look back and see that I was an accurate Mathematician, but I rarely knew the why and what for.  I was simply a computer. That’s how it was done.

At the end of my days at my school I love teaching Mathematics. I developed my craft at my school, where they were always ready to let me try new things.  This is important to model in front of kids too, not everything works and when it doesn’t you just look for better ways.

I suppose I should wrap up how gamefication and Casino night panned out, but I’ll keep it short. It was so cool. Everyone in the room was impressed – the kids with themselves and each other, the parents, the Maths department and people from across the school community. My friend’s son tried to pay for their taxi home with his fake Casino Buck$. Students were astonished by the intensity of the crowd.

Is Gambling a Social Evil? It was our unit question and it is legally defined as a Social Evil in Viet Nam. Kids felt that they won’t be taken for a ride by a Casino because they now know how the Mathematics works behind the scenes. At the end of a previous investigative task on a two dice game a student reflected “I am now a better poker player, when my family plays”. Perhaps this wasn’t my goal, to make better card players, but this kid understood the Mathematical risks she held in every hand she played and that is a success. This particular kid really struggled at the beginning and has left Grade 8 Mathematics truly fascinated and ready to learn more.

We have lots of goal setting, or should I say had, at my school. All very valid, but so many. My goal was simple, to always to make Mathematics an inviting place to be in a school day and for some the best part of the day. I tried many things over the years so I needed to learn some technology or find out about gamefication or collaborate with other subjects, but all the things I tried, they were just small parts for my main goal.

In my “About Me” tab I speak about the awful Ms. Dendle I had for PE in HK when I was a kid.  Boy oh boy could she make me feel like a  loser. I know some of my friends felt that way in Mathematics. I didn’t try for Ms. Dendle, I hid from her.  So, even though she was one of the worst teachers I have ever encountered as a student and a teacher I learnt from her, I learnt what not to do. I guess I should thank the mean-hearted lady or my kids should.

Will I return to teaching after my gap year? I can’t imagine a better job. When the kids work  through breaks because they are so interested and excited by what they are doing, it doesn’t get much better.  Am I too old to call a year off (if the money lasts) a gap year? Possibly, I am not a teenager, but sabbatical sounds far too serious for the fun ahead.

Will I still blog? I love blogging and the pause to reflect. Perhaps it won’t be so much about teaching. If you are one of the small reading circle, stay tuned for a travel and musings blog. If I stop to earn some bucks to cover food and shelter, it will probably be in a school, somewhere in South America.

Will I return to Ha Noi? I can’t imagine leaving it for good. It’s been my home for over a decade. I felt quite with it and worldy when I arrived as a 31 year old. Looking back, I didn’t know much, not really. I feel like I grew up here.

It Wasn’t on Purpose, but I like it…

This post relates to the previous one on the Casino Task and Gamefication.

Levels Posters - collecting badge(r)s

When students believe that everyone in their group is ready to show they have completed a level, I interview them to check.

I choose who will speak, so all of the group members must be ready. They can send me away, if they realise some more work needs to be done.

The part that I did not deliberately plan for, but it should have been an obvious side benefit of the levels and gamification, is that students are practising for the assessment interview with little question and answer sessions as they work towards designing a successful casino game.

I comment on their notation, their mathematical language, clarity of communication, interesting ideas and more.
Students make a note of the feedback so that they can use it for the final interview.

Supersonic Badge(r)

Extra Supersonic Badge(r)s are handed out when students impress me with the following:

    • eloquent mathematics
    • great team work and support of each other
    • thinking outside the box

Casino Night and Gamification

Spending about 30 hours marking assignments to learn not very much at all was a Spring break holiday activity that I did not enjoy. Working with the kids during classes meant there weren’t too many surprises for me in the reports.

Something wasn’t right and I tried to think how to make the marking process just as valuable for the kids without the bonus  hours and hours for me after the task is done. I like to return work quickly to students, so 30 hours (outside of teaching,planning and meetings × 100) makes that a terribly difficult goal, unless you do have holidays to complete it all. Before you begin to think, or maybe it’s too late, that I am a very slow marker, I have over 60 students, in Grade 8, and they produce large reports, not just problems that are right or wrong. No tick, cross, tick, tick, cross… My kids are mathematicians, exploring, investigating and applying.

Another issue is electronic marking. It takes longer than old fashioned paper copies. I’ve been thinking about that too, but that’s another blog post.

For the final task of the year, for Grade 8, the final large task, I had to do a rethink or seriously consider running away. It’s the Casino Task and if Casino Night doesn’t happen, lots of people are disappointed. It’s a big school event and kids ask about it when they commence Grade 8.

A lot of time goes into Casino Night. Kids design their games before they build them, using the MYP Design Cycle. The idea in my head was if I know the work so well before I sit down to assess it, then I should be able to assess as they progress. Another challenge is to assess students individually even though it’s a group task. Individual reports only do so much for this.

Instead of taking you through all the ups, downs and swirls of my thoughts I will take you to the solution. If you want to see how students chose their groups, you can check out this Google Doc*.

*NBF = new best friend



Students will work through levels earning badges (the images at the top of this post) as they proceed (gamification) with extra points available.

Each level has a minimum number of points required.

When students accumulate enough points, they can then, and only then, begin to create  their game.

When creation begins, they will have:

    • design of the equipment: the parts of the games (spinners, dice, lucky dip…), betting board, sign and rules
    • plan of who needs to do what in the groups with expected times
    • the Mathematics behind the probabilities and the house odds

It is expected that they work as a group ensuring that everyone is comfortable with the Mathematics.


While they are being busy like the elves in Santa’s workshop, I will call them over one by one to interview them about their game.


Each student will describe their game and why they believe it will be successful on Casino Night. I will assess them there and then applying two MYP criteria: Knowledge and Understanding and Communication.  The Reflection  criterion must wait until after the big night.

    • The Mathematics behind the events of their game will need to be explained.
    • How they made their games attractive to customers to keep them at their table – Mathematics and Design.

Students, as always, have the assessment criteria at the beginning of the project.

I decided it would be easier to show you, so I took what I made as a Onenote Notebook for the kids and put it into wikispaces, so I could share it with other Mathematics and MYP teachers.

Here is the G08WikiSpaces

I would like to say a HUGE thank you to Clint Hamada, @chamada, (our school tech faciliTATOR and all round great guy for bouncing ideas off) and EARCOS. I did not go to EARCOS, but Clint went and saw John Rinker‘s, @johnrinker, presentation on Gamification. Very timely!

Thanks to @zomoco for the ideas of internet memes for award badges – the kids LOVE them

Roaming Free in the Maths – Google’s 20% Time by Accident

rolling down a hill

rolling down a hill by woodleywonderworks licensed under CC by A

It isn’t actually 20% of allotted time for Grade 8 Mathematics, more like 17%. Close enough when not dealing with NASA type accuracy.

There has been a lot of discussion about The Khan Academy. It’s made some people very happy and some people sound quite vexed. I personally like it. Is it what is fascinating and wonderful about mathematics? No. Does it help some of our kids progress with skills? Yes, it does.

My grade 8s have the joy of Mathematics five times every fortnight, every Tuesday and Friday an alternating Wednesdays. The Wednesday lessons are slightly shorter than the others. After we finished our unit on Statistics and Linear Equations we then looked at the Mathematics they had been applying to their investigations in its simplest or purest (abstract) forms. They had been successfully applying it, but it then posed a challenge for some when it lacked a context. Quite interesting to go the other way. It is at this point where I like to give students a chance to fine tune their algebraic skills so that they are ready for high school Mathematics and Science. Not just a few lessons, but a regular time in classes to work on their skills, particularly algebra. This is where Algebra on Demand came from.

Every Wednesday my Grade 8s take a break from their unit, currently Probability, and do what they need to. The original plan was the Khan Academy, but this has changed in a very exciting way. It was the students who led me there.

Now my students choose what they do:

  • Khan Academy for skill mastery. Some of my students have their parents and tutors as coaches. Some parents have even joined in.
  • Work from other schools.  Our Korean and Japanese students often have extra Mathematics, needed for entry into schools back home.
  • Interesting Student Led Investigations. These students started using Khan for Mathematics beyond our Grade 8 curriculum. This led to them asking questions which lead to investigations purely out of interest. That’s a win! I don’t ask for written reports. Sitting with them, seeing what they have found and discussing the Mathematics is feedback enough that they are pushing themselves further. Why take the fun away?
Being able to move around the room and check on progress is key. I also really push the idea that I am a resource to be used, as are their fellow students. I did not mean for this to be the Google 20%, but it happened and I love it. The students really like that they get to choose to where to focus their mathematical attention.  I love this class.
Outside of this we are doing what we do in Mathematics in this exciting time of using technology. It is not chalk and talk. It is not just Khan. It is not just textbook. It is not just investigations. It is so many things.
Can The Khan Academy replace a Mathematics curriculum and teacher? I don’t think so. Is it useful? I do think so.

Algebra on Demand is HERE – The Khan Academy

Many moons ago myself and Clint Hamada, @chamada, discussed how we could better prepare our middle school students for high school mathematics and other lucky disciplines that use it.  The Algebra unit was finished and we were moving on, as you do, to the next unit. However, you know deep inside as you move on that some had not mastered the skills or the understanding, that more time would have really helped. Pacing and the differentiation of mixed ability classrooms has many challenges. We wanted to reach all the kids and ensure that they felt they had the mathematical muscles for high school.

The key, I believe, is algebra, the language we use to solve problems. Not so much being able to do a ton of problems, but to understand how it works, why the notation is helpful and not actually awful. If kids can do some algebra and apply some correct notation, then problem solving becomes easier. The different strands of mathematics also become more approachable. Those wily letters confuse students and have for an eternity. The little letter x can cause early heart disease.

Salman Khan explains it best, in his TEDtalk, with his bicycle anedote. This is the problem we were trying to fix, the Swiss cheese gaps of maths:

Salman Khan talks about Algebra (and more) on Demand at TED

Salman: “… imagine learning to ride a bicycle, and maybe I give you a lecture ahead of time, and I give you that bicycle for two weeks. And then I come back after two weeks, and I say, “Well, let’s see. You’re having trouble taking left turns. You can’t quite stop. You’re an 80 percent bicyclist. “So I put a big C stamp on your forehead and then I say, “Here’s a unicycle.” But as ridiculous as that sounds, that’s exactly what’s happening in our classrooms right now. And the idea is you fast forward and good students start failing algebra all of a sudden and start failing calculus all of a sudden, despite being smart, despite having good teachers, and it’s usually because they have these Swiss cheese gaps that kept building throughout their foundation. So our model is learn math the way you’d learn anything, like the way you would learn a bicycle. Stay on that bicycle. Fall off that bicycle. Do it as long as necessary until you have mastery. The traditional model, it penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but it does not expect mastery. We encourage you to experiment. We encourage you to failure. But we do expect mastery.”

Watch the TEDtalk to see that The Khan Academy is  now so much more than video tutorials. It has interactive exercises including hints and teachers get detailed data on their students. It’s like the worksheets, tutorials and that was used to create the Algebra on Demand wiki, that my blog is named after, but slicker, prettier, better. It’s really exciting to see it come to life. Salman Khan says that games are coming too, which is all that Algebra on Demand tried to deliver. Clint has set up Google accounts for all of our Grade 8 students and I am using it with my IB Diploma Mathematical Studies students too.

The kids log in with a Google or Facebook account and then nominate a coach. My Diploma kids were first, before our Christmas break, so they have nominated myself and Clint so we can both follow them.  They can nominate their parents and tutors as coaches too.  When our kids move on to the next grade and teacher, they nominate them and the data follows them. Can it move from one Google account to another? I don’t know. This is a question for Salman and Bill Gates and Googlers. When international kids move on, they lose their old school email, so how they keep their data? These emails are the user names we use for Khan Academy Google accounts.

Homework for Grade 8 this week: watch the TEDtalk with their parents.

At first when my Grade 8 kids went on I wanted them to do the exercises on linear equations, but most started at addition, right at the beginning and then followed the concept map routes. Now I am very happy they did that. The Swiss cheese gaps are being filled. An all too common problem in international schools. I went to a lot of schools as a kid across hemispheres and continents. Having a birthday right in the middle of the year meant that changing schools was rarely linear with grade level progression. Grade four was a lot of fun, but there was no maths, grade five didn’t really happen and I missed half of grade six. I still HATE my eight times tables and don’t mind telling my students that. Perhaps I can utilise the Khan Academy too. My boyfriend does. I’ve told other mates about it studying post-graduate courses facing what they believe is the horror of mathematics again. I’ve been a fan of The Khan Academy for some time, but now it’s supersonic with more on the way. Free self paced education for those with access to a computer. Hooray for Salman Khan.  And he used to do evil maths – hedge funds.

Will it replace what we do in the classroom? Impossible. Investigations and projects need a different structure, but I don’t see why we can’t provide a regular time slot to help prepare middle schoolers for high school and beyond.  My work is done and I didn’t even do it. Nice!

Here is the wiki that came about from the early days of Algebra on Demand: 

Now I need a new name for my blog.

Patterns and Prediction

“This was really useful for our last lab in science”.

That was a win. In mathematics this year I wanted to address a problem I saw when proofing reports last year. In a nutshell I was proofing middle school reports and there was a glaring area requiring assistance. Processing data needed attention. I delved further as mathematical assistance would probably help.

IB DP Question: Obvious Pattern. Dubious Data. Getting kids to observe and analyse

Bivariate data analysis. Kids weren’t choosing scatter graphs and were asking technology to find trend lines without much work at how that happens.

I think teaching this is in a scientific context is the best way. Teaching in context just makes sense. In our curriculum the mathematics came at the end of the grade 8 year, so this year it is combined with algebra. We’ve called it Patterns and Prediction. Science likes it so much that we are planning to kick off next year with this unit.

One of my goals for my students is for them to be able to converse with anyone. I have a few things I do for this, but talking about the weather, it’s handy. To prepare students for their Interdisciplinary Unit (IDU – MYP term) we used data banks of Latitudes and Temperatures. Each class had to form a hypothesis and then we used Google docs to collaborate when collecting data.

Using the science departments guidelines we took grade 8 students on a journey that included:

  • Data collection – Google Docs
  • Data storage – Google Docs, Excel
  • Data Manipulation – Excel and Autograph
  • Scatter Graphs – Excel and Autograph
  • The Language of Analysis – using the wonderful 100 People website (see page 23 of PDF)
  • Trend Lines (Lines of best fit)
  • By eye using the shape of the data and the centroid. Find the y-intercept via extrapolation, then find the equation in slope intercept form
  • Using technology – Excel and Autograph.
  • Presentation of a report – fonts, layout, hard page, table headers, table formatting and labeling

They are now forming their own hypotheses and hunting for data (we have set up a Diigo group to get them started) so they run their own lab. Students will be using all of their mathematics and science classes this week and will be assessed in both classes.

Have a look at the graph above that I included for practice. Can you see the problem? It’s not with pattern spotting. It’s what the pattern predicts. Glad I am not  a bunny.