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Cheers for the RUSMP Vertical Teams!

August 8th, 2013 by Alice Fisher

What is a vertical team?

The Texas Leadership Center (1998)  defines a vertical team as “a small number of people from different levels within an organization who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (p. 18).

Beautiful idea, isn’t it?

However, vertical teaming is not easy for obvious reasons….the time available for implementing and sustaining an effective vertical teaming program is often scarce.

RUSMP has offered its Summer Campus Program (SCP) for 27 years.  The SCP has gone through many changes over the years but, in general, teachers have been continued to be grouped by grade level.  For the past few years, there have been four different classes: elementary, intermediate, middle school, and high school.  Having attended the SCP program back in 1996 and 1997, I honestly do not remember interacting more than a couple times with teachers outside of my grade band.

RUSMP wanted to change this, and so we created opportunities for teachers from different grade levels to interact with one another through problem-solving activities and five common book share discussion sessions.

How did it go?  Marvelous!  The vertical team activities facilitated an exchange of ideas and information among people who operate on different levels and have very different organizational perspectives, but who all share a common purpose.

One of the activities of the vertical teams was to photograph spots on Rice University campus and create short videos discussing the mathematics at the different grade level in the photos.  One of groups took a photo of the installation, “Unwoven Light”, being exhibited in the Rice Gallery.

Cam Watkins (middle school) and Diane Wu (high school) discuss the mathematics underlying this art piece.
Alma Adams (elementary) and Elizabeth Ayala (intermediate) discuss the mathematics of a stairwell on campus.

A teacher participant wrote about the vertical team efforts:

“The learning community that is established throughout the program is amazing.  It is a teaching model I believe all districts should embrace and adopt.  From working as a team in your grade level and then working with a separate group with the vertical alignment, it has opened my eyes to what kids should know and how they look at it to what they are expected to know after me and what that looks like.”

An iBook with more details about the 2013 RUSMP vertical team activities is available to download here.  It includes the four short videos created by teachers from the different grade levels so it is a hefty file.  You can read it on an Apple device/MacBook through the iBooks app.  If you don’t have access to an iOS device or just want to watch video of the iBook, click here.

Kathy Reyes: Math + Art = Fun

June 7th, 2013 by Alice Fisher

Kathy Reyes is a 3rd grade teacher of a self-contained, bilingual class at the HISD K-8 Rice School/La Escuela Rice.  She has taught for 25 years and has been at the Rice School since 2002.  She attended the RUSMP Summer Campus Program for the first time last summer.

During a visit to her class a few days ago, I saw on one of the walls of her room was displayed a “Museo de Matematica”.






She said that the activity came from RUSMP’s Robin Ward who visited the Elementary class for a day during the Summer Campus Program last summer.  Robin is passionate about integrating art and mathematics and encourages both teachers and students to put on their math goggles while looking at art work.  Here is a video of students talking about the art pieces they created that were modeled after Piet Mondrian’s art work.

Piet Mondrian:      

 Kathy’s student:   

Speaking of art and mathematics, I just learned that the first Museum of Mathematics in North America opened in New York City in December 2012.  CBS News Sunday Morning did a piece about the museum…watch it here.

When the CBS News interviewer Mo Rocca confessed to museum founder, Glen Whitney that “I loved math. I loved algebra. I really loved geometry, [but] I hit the wall at pre-cal,” Whitney responded, “…you were only given one road to go through mathematics. You got the impression that once you hit the wall, that’s it. There’s nothing more for you. In fact, math is this extremely, very beautiful landscape. And we’re showing people just one road cut right through the center of it.”  The museum exhibits include a square-wheeled tricycle that somehow “rides like a dream” according to Rocca, and a screen that you stand in front of that displays a fractal version of you by using 3 cameras and video feedback loops…very cool.  You can view photos of people enjoying the exhibit here.

Kathy has helped her students traverse the beautiful landscape of mathematics, and they were brimming with pride when they shared their art work.   Kathy, thank you for letting RUSMP witness your enthusiasm and creativity for a day.

Kay Kubena and Tootsie Pops

June 3rd, 2013 by Alice Fisher

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Kay Kubena who was honored last month as 2013 HISD Secondary Teacher of the Year.  She was first nominated and honored by her peers as Teacher of the Year at Bellaire High School, and then chosen among 12,000 HISD teachers for the district award.  She was kind enough to allow me to videotape some of our conversation.  During our chat, she shared that her favorite course to teach is A.P. Statistics.  Although she has been a teacher for 27 years, she has taught Statistics for only the past 5 years since she’s been at Bellaire High School.  At her former school, she taught A.P. Calculus, A.P. Computer Science, and Precalculus or Algebra 2.  When she was first asked to teach A.P. Statistics, she was understandingly a bit hesitant.  But she now embraces the course, and loves how she can incorporate creative hands-on activities within the curriculum.  I asked her to describe an activity that has been successful in engaging students, and she talked about a lesson on mean and standard deviation that focused on the age-old question, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”  Watch. (youtubevimeo)

When I asked her how she prepared to teach AP Statistics, an entirely new course for her five years ago, she said she attended several trainings offered by the College Board.  But the one that really empowered her as a teacher was a session offered at A&M with Kathy Fritz.  Kay states that Kathy “was remarkable.  I felt like she opened up that part of instructional strategy of engaging the kids physically as well as mentally, using all their senses.”  She continued, “Changing to Stats, you have just so many more opportunities to be creative.  That’s one thing about teaching…the creativity.  How do you take something that the kids might even not like doing, it might not be that fun, but you want them to learn it.”  Kay believes that teachers should strive to help students develop positive feelings towards a topic.  The topic “might not be the most fun thing in the whole world…you might not be able to make the information itself all bells and whistles, but you can make the delivery of it pretty fun and interesting.  You can also apply it in really fun and interesting ways too.   And that’s what is attractive to kids, and makes our job much more fun if we can do that too.”

A couple of things struck me as I was talking with Kay.  Her expertise with mathematical content is clearly evident.  She graduated from Rice U. with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, no small feat.  But her humility and kindness really shined through.  When she was offered a position to teach at Bellaire, she was ready to teach any class because she was grateful to be at a school with such high standards and expectations.

Congratulations to you, Kay.  We are so proud of you.  You not only inspire your students to learn, but also inspire your colleagues to strive to become better teachers.

Kay is a RUSMP Instructor and will be co-teaching with Julie Burnside the week-long SMART grant program this summer and will be co-teaching with Charlie Burrus the academic year A.P. Statistics course starting in September 2013.   Click here for more information about the A.P. Statistics course.

My Thoughts on Technology in the Classroom

May 6th, 2013 by Alice Fisher

This post is written by Jan Casey, RUSMP instructor:

I attended RUSMP as a participant in 1989, a year before Texas Instruments introduced the TI-81 graphing calculator for classroom use. What a controversy graphing calculators created! Many teachers argued that since the calculators graphed functions for students, that students would never learn to graph functions on their own.We saw that this was clearly not the case. RUSMP consciously chose to be on the cutting edge of technology and included graphing calculator training in the summer campus program soon after they were introduced for classroom use. Within a few years, graphing calculators were in most algebra classrooms in Texas. I’ve been a master teacher for RUSMP since 1993 and have had to master several graphing calculators over the years. The vision of technology in the classroom has not wavered; we still train teachers to use the latest calculator as a powerful tool to teach various concepts.

Fast forward to today’s educational world – not only graphing calculators, but computers and iPads are being used in classrooms in many schools. More and more, teachers are asked to learn how to incorporate new technology into their curriculum. Talk about a controversy!! I see nay-sayers quieted as they watch talented teachers turn learning into a much more enjoyable experience for students.. Concepts are not overlooked, and in many cases the learning is deepened through the use of today’s technology.

Technology affords opportunities for students to really think and solve authentic problems. What I see now is an entire generation of children who think with technology. I even notice that the way I think to solve problems has completely changed as a result of technology. It takes much courage and hard work to keep up with and find good ways to integrate technology into the curriculum. I think that it is critical that the same technology we use in our everyday lives be used in the classroom. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to watch the emergence of technology and can only imagine what children of today are going to be able to do with the help of technology.

My Friend’s Flipped Classroom

May 1st, 2013 by Alice Fisher

I have known my dear friend, Kymberly Riggins since we taught Algebra 1 together at Chavez High School back in 2005.  I have always admired  her willingness to be innovative in her classroom and keep up with the latest trends in technology.  A few months ago, she decided to flip her classroom at the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.  What does it mean to flip your classroom?

According to Ramsey Musallam who wrote an excellent article titled “Should You Flip Your Classroom?” on edutopia.org, flipped instruction “refers to moving aspects of teaching out of the classroom and into the homework space. With the advent of new technologies, specifically the ability to record digitally annotated and narrated screencasts, instructional videos have become a common medium in the flipped classroom. Although not limited to videos, a flipped classroom most often harnesses different forms of instructional video published online for students.”  He also writes that advocates of the flipped classroom “point to its potential as a time-shifting tool,” and that flipping your classroom is a tool to allow you to differentiate instruction and spend more time focused on collaborative activities and higher-order thinking.   Musallam adds that critics of the flipped classroom argue that online instruction puts students that lack Internet access at a disadvantage.   Also, “whether delivered in class or via instructional videos, lecture is still a poor mode of information transfer.”

I have been a student in online courses in the past, but never taught or was a student in a flipped classroom.  So out of curiosity, I visited one of Kym’s geometry classes and videotaped parts of the class.

When students enter her classroom, the first thing that they do is look at a projected spreadsheet with names and assigned tables.  They are placed in different groups depending on how they performed on the online quiz that was assigned for homework.  Those who did well on the short assessment (missed 0-1) are in the “green” group, those who missed 2-3 are in the “blue” group, students who missed 4-6 are in the “yellow” group, and those either did not take the quiz or got at most 2 correct are in the “red” group.  The assignments are different for each group.

Students find homework assignments on Kym’s class website.  A typical assignment consists of watching a video (no longer than 15 minutes), taking notes in their interactive notebook (another blog topic), and then completing the online quiz (usually 8 items).  A list of assignments for both her geometry and precalculus classes is available here.

After students are seated, Kym goes over the online assessment and answers students’ questions.  Then they work in groups on their differentiated tasks.  A template of the daily agenda and a sample agenda are available here.  Watch a clip of students explaining the format of the class.

During a 90 minute class, about 20 minutes is spent at the beginning of class going over the quiz, and the rest of the time is spent on problem-solving in groups.  Kym is available for questions, but students also get help from one another.  Watch a clip of a student getting help from Kym.  Watch a short clip of students working in groups.

When I asked one of the students what she thought about the flipped classroom vs. a traditional classroom, she shared that “with watching the video at home, you get to pause, rewind, and learn at your own pace.”  Listen to her entire response here.

I asked Kym a couple questions about flipping her classroom.  One of the interesting things I learned is that she had given her students a survey when she first flipped her classroom and asked how often do they watch the assigned videos.  About 30-40% replied very rarely.  When she asked why, students responded that “I forgot,” or “I just didn’t.”   Their reason not to watch the videos was never lack of access to the internet.  After these survey results, she started adding more incentives to motivate students to watch the videos.  The rest of the Q&A is available here.

There has been a lot of hype about the flipped classroom, but as Mussalam writes in his article and as Kym demonstrates, “the flipped classroom is a simple concept that needs no title. Good teaching, regardless of discipline, should always limit passive transfer of knowledge in class, and promote learning environments built on the tenants of inquiry, collaboration and critical thinking…good teaching comes in many forms, and the flipped classroom mentality can be one of many solutions for educators.”

If you are interested in flipping your classroom, Musallam outlines the following steps:

Step 1: Identify your current or desired teaching style.

Step 2: Ask yourself this question: Given my style, do I currently use class time to teach any low level, procedural, algorithmic concepts?

Step 3: If yes, begin by creating opportunities for students to obtain this information outside of the classroom. (More info on creating annotated and narrated instructional videos).

Step 4: Include a system that encourages reflection and synthesis of homework-based instruction (Click here and here for ways to make instructional videos more interactive and reflective).

As teachers experiment with different techniques and technologies, we can recall what author and educator Parker Palmer once wrote:

“Good teaching cannot be reduced to one technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

Let us know what you think about the flipped classroom.  Are you ready to flip?

NY Times Op-Ed: Child Migrants, Alone in Court

April 11th, 2013 by Alice Fisher


Many of you heard and were inspired by Rice Professor Richard Tapia at the 2013 RUSMP Spring Networking Conference.  He has been a long-time champion of underrepresented minorities in mathematics and science and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2011.

Recently he forwarded to us an op-ed piece by Sonia Nazario, author of the book, Enrique’s Journey.  She wrote to Tapia that “I wrote this op-ed because it’s an issue I feel passionately about and one I believe this country needs to address.  I also wanted to share a bit of good news: Enrique’s Journey, adapted for younger readers, will be out this August for junior high school students. If you know any teachers who might be interested in a preview copy, please let me know! ”

Her op-ed piece titled, Child Migrants, Alone in Court is available here.

“Students First, Not Stuff” by Will Richardson

March 3rd, 2013 by Alice Fisher


Recently, Carolyn White shared with us at RUSMP an excellent article titled “Students First, Not Stuff” by Will Richardson.  The article is available here.

Richardson writes about how this “moment of technological explosion raises a host of important questions for education leaders that speak directly to the way we think about the potentials of technology in school.”  If we think that technology is simply additive, the nature of our questions as math teachers will be: Should we get iPads or laptops? Casios or TIs? Which apps are best to teach fractions?  These are important questions, but Richardson posits that real issue is not about the best gadgets or latest technological fads.  It’s not about “layering expensive technology on top of the traditional curriculum.  Instead it’s about addressing the new needs of modern learners in entirely new ways.”

Richardson encourages readers to start long-term, broad conversations about “what teaching, learning, and being educated mean in light of the new technologies we now have available to us…to understand the implications fully, we need to start with the questions that focus on our students–and not just on the stuff.”

I encourage you to read his article and respond to the question:

“What does it mean to be MATH-literate in a world where knowledge, information, and facts are easily accessible in a student’s back pocket?”

You can watch Will Richardson’s TEDx talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni75vIE4vdk.