Saturday, April 16, 2016

How Having a Math Lab Can Benefit Your School

I have been asked this question a lot, so I thought I would blog about it. At my school, we are fortunate to have a Math Lab staffed by almost all of our math teachers every period of the day. We have seven periods in the day, so that means seven teachers staff it and four do not. Some years, we have two teachers staff it over lunch. It really depends on scheduling.

Here's how it works. A teacher sits in the middle of tables, shaped in a U, and students come in and leave as they please during their free period. They sign in on an iPad on a google doc that any teacher, grade chair, or administrator can access and sort. This is helpful, for example, if a student tells their parents they were in the Math Lab, and then we can check. It's also good when we are writing comments and we can quickly see if a student never goes, and then we can recommend that they do. Finally, it's good to see that the Math Lab is being utilized constantly and that the benefits outway the costs.
I did not have a picture of our Math Lab, but this is a general idea.
A teacher is in the middle and can move their chair around to assist students.
Students can just work on homework and ask questions as they work through it, or they can study and ask specific questions. If they were absent, they can come in and get a lesson taught to them that they missed. The teacher in the Math Lab needs to be well-versed in all subjects. Admittedly, it is difficult to help BC Calculus students if you have not taught that material recently. I bring my computer and often Google questions that I don't remember. Often, someone else has posed that question and there are several solutions on the internet you can work from, or you can use the solution manual, which we keep in the Lab.

We also use it for make-ups. If a student was absent, they often go to the Math Lab during their free period to make up an assessment. We have a locked filing cabinet with a folder for each teacher. In the folder, one side says "to take" and the other says "taken." Teachers write the students' names on the test, show whether they can use a calculator, and write the maximum amount of time students are allowed to use. We have a row of cubbies in the Math Lab for students who take those tests. We have silencing headphones we bought from Home Depot for students to use since it can get noisy in there. We also have a small dry erase board on top of the cubby, and we write the time the test ends so all we need to do is look up and check as we are assisting other students.


  • Students can get help during their free period in addition to before and after school with their individual teacher.
  • Students can get a second way to have the material explained to them. One note: It is important to make sure the teachers explain the problem the way the student's teacher does it so as not to confuse them. For example, when completing the square to find the vertex of a parabola, we would ask the student, does your teacher divide by a or factor it out? We may ask to look at a student's notes.
  • Students can get caught up quickly when absent.
  • Students have a quiet place to study and they really appreciate that.
  • Teachers get exposed to all kinds of math in the Math Lab, therefore, they review all topics constantly. So though I have not taught Geometry in 25 years, I teach it every day in the Math Lab.
  • Teachers get to know students and vice versa that they would not necessarily have had in the classroom. There is a great rapport with students in there, and they feel comfortable coming in to ask questions in a "safe" place.
  • It can be costly as I think it costs about the same as a teacher's salary to staff it. So at our school, teachers have five classes and two free periods. Math teachers in the Lab have four classes, a Math Lab, and two free periods.
  • If a teacher who staffs the Math Lab is absent, there will often be a non-math sub in there who can't assist students that day. Sometimes we do have math subs, so this does not always happen. 
We truly believe that the benefits outway the cons, and I'm so happy our school can support this. We had it at my previous job in a public school 20 years ago, too. We did not always have it at our school. A few teachers, including myself who had worked in one, asked for it, and we did it on a trial basis a few periods a day. The response was overwhelming. Students and parents asked for it full-time. It took a few years to happen, but when it did, there was no looking back. It is often shown on the tours because it is a big selling point for our school--students get math help anytime they want. What parent wouldn't want that? We also have a Writing Lab set up in the same way. Questions? Let me know and I will be happy to answer :)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Can You Solve the Locker Riddle? A Ted-Ed Lesson and How to Write One

Two of my favorite problems have become Ted-Ed riddle videos. I wrote about the Ted-Ed Lesson "Einstein's Riddle" here. I worked with the creator, Dan Van der Vieren, the week before his lesson came out when he taught my class how to solve the Rubik's Cube. I was so impressed with his riddle that I asked him how he was able to create it. He told me about the nomination form, and I filled it out and wrote about the problem that I do every year in my classes, The Locker Problem.

The idea, of course, is not to write out all 1000 lockers, but to create a smaller, similar problem and look for a pattern. I use this to teach my students about tenacity, collaboration, and the value of using the solution to a small problem to solve a bigger one.

Within a few weeks, I heard back and was scheduled for a 30-minute interview with someone from Ted-Ed, and we talked about how to change the problem to have a story line, and having something in the lockers that remain open. I brought it up to my Problem-Solving class, and we ended up making a riddle that would involve having to solve a problem to earn an inheritance. Once that was done, I sat one night and wrote the riddle, very excited that the number of words in the sentence that I wanted in the lockers was ten, and that there were exactly ten lockers open. Often when I give this problem, I ask, "Which lockers are touched exactly twice?" So I threw that piece in their as well. As an author of a Ted-Ed riddle, you also need to come up with 5 multiple-choice questions, 3 open-ended questions, additional resources to explore, and a guided discussion question. 

The people at Ted-Ed are awesome! They are extremely professional and always got back to me within 24 hours, offering advice and helping me with any questions I had. And the animation is THE BEST!! Who cannot love that little girl??

Within a few months, it was up! The idea is that teachers can even customize a lesson of their own with the riddle. Here is the actual link to the entire Ted-Ed page that contains the riddle:

My students LOVE these riddles, the first five of which can be found here. They beg for more. Do you have a good riddle? Consider nominating yourself and writing one for Ted-Ed.