Finding Good Professional Development

As the school year comes to a close, educators everywhere start planning their required professional development (PD). Of course you have the workshops required by the school and the conferences dealing with your subject area. Hopefully you have some options to learn new technology and teaching methods. The question is do you use what you learn?

I understand that teachers can get overwhelmed by hours or even days of PD, but it is useless unless you actually use at least some of what you learn. If you are unhappy with what your school requires, find some workshops that you are interested in and will actually use. I will be attending a PD Summit in Fort Worth hosted by Texas Instruments and hosting a couple of math workshops myself: Teaching Strategies for Success in a Mathematics Classroom and Promoting Productive Struggle That Leads to Understanding. If your school won’t pay for them (you should always ask), there are several grants that will pay for PD. There are also several online PD options including TI’s Webinars, AETN’s ideas, and My Course Room that provide free options. You would also be surprised at what your colleagues know. Sometimes just asking a fellow teacher for a couple hours of their time to show you how to use a technology they use can be enough for you to implement it in your own classroom.

The point is every educator needs some training that will allow you to grow. If the school isn’t doing it for you, it is up to you to find it elsewhere. Just like everything else in the world, your classroom needs to change yearly to prepare students for life after high school. If you really want to grow as an educator, you have to be willing to learn new things and find good professional development that you will use.


Blended Learning

Imagine the tardy bell rings, you walk in your classroom, and students are on devices or in groups already working. Think this is impossible? Think again. Now I am not promising that one student who never stays seated will jump right to work, but it is possible to motivate most of your students into starting without you.

Blended learning is where a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by web-based online learning. My last blog talked about online learning. Now I want to tell you how to get there from here. Any teacher can start adding bits of online learning into your day-to-day activities. In fact you can find several resources such as my Why of Math YouTube channel to help you out. Khan Academy is another good resource for video tutorials and practice work. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to find several things at once. Search for a few things at first and add to them each year.

The key to good blended learning is to keep the traditional discussion/report out time. True online learning does all discussion on forums or social media. Formative assessment must be taken from this or sporadic quizzes. This is not necessarily bad but definitely different. Blended learning can still take advantage of face-to-face round table discussions facilitated by the teacher which you are already used to doing. Students are also used to this as their milestones and accountability. Remember that this change should be a process. As more and more online tasks are added to the day-to-day activities, students will become more accustomed to procedures and what is expected in this type of setting. Trust me. I use this type of learning everyday, and the students adapt to it well. I still have some normal discipline issues, but in the last two years I’ve only had to fail one student.


CAS with Hydroponics

Real STEM can sometimes be hard to implement in a regular math classroom, but it can be done with a little planning.  It also helps to get a science teacher involved for some topics to consider and help with the scientific concepts that are not covered in math.  One STEM project I use in my class is a hydroponic garden.  

For those die-hard gardeners that are familiar with this method, ours is more aeroponic than aquaponic.  For those teachers who want the plants to actually produce no matter what the students do to it, you may want to purchase an all-in-one kit like Miracle Gro has; but if you want the students to really work for the product, let them start from scratch.  “How does math play into this?” you may ask, but I promise you will be amazed.  I have used both the all-in-one kit and the “from scratch” kit.  The “from scratch” kit is just a Rubbermaid container, fish tank pump, small baskets to hold the plants, some purchased growing medium, lights, and seeds.  You can find this setup on the internet along with hundreds of others.  Mine holds 6 baskets so 6 groups of four can work with one set up.

Now for the math!

It seems growing plants in this method takes lots of measurements and applying the right solutions.  First most plants need the temperature to stay between 55°F and 75°F.  How many of your students can read an old-fashioned thermometer?  Think vertical number line.  Here is a real world situation where students can apply the number line.  The thermometer has tick marks between the whole number so the students can study decimals.  It also models inequalities since the red line needs to be between 55 and 75.  You can use these discussion questions:

  • What values work besides 55 and 75?
  • What values would not work?
  • What other things can you think of that would use measurements this way?
  • How can we control the temperature if it goes outside the boundaries?

Using technology like the CAS you can create a table of collected temperatures over a period of time and graph them to predict what the temperature may do at certain times in the classroom.  You can also discuss why it may happen.  The TI-Nspire CAS can also use a Vernier probe to read the temperature in real-time for different places in the classroom.  Is by the window better or close to the door?

Let’s throw in some percents.  The ideal relative humidity for plants is between 30% and 70%.  For real outgoing teachers there is a free relative humidity calculator at .  Or you can get a relative humidity Vernier probe and plug into a computer and use TI-Nspire CAS software to collect the humidity data over time.

How about light spectrums?  Certain light spectrums are better for certain plants and this is tied to Watts and Watts is tied to cost.  Students can calculate the Watts their plants are using with Ohm’s Power Law (Volts * Amps = Watts).  Remember your CAS can manipulate this equation to investigate the different variables.  Your students can then investigate how much your hydroponic garden is costing.  For example, if it cost $0.05 per KWH and the lights needed to be on for 12 hours a day for 4 weeks, what would the total cost be.  Once again tables can be created and graphs plotted to analyze.

Let’s not forget proportions.  Hydroponic gardens no matter what the type need the nutrient solution that feeds the plants.  Different solutions have different instructions but they are all in ratios.  For example, FloraGro uses ¼ tsp/gallon for seedlings.  If the container holds 5 gallons of water, how much solution do you add?  My students had a higher level of difficulty because the measuring cup we had was in milliliters.  The metric ratio was 33 mL/100 L.  They had to convert gallons to liters then do the proportion.  That TI-Nspire CAS came in handy!

Plants grown using hydroponics grow faster than normal methods but they still take weeks to mature.  You can have these in your classroom year around and just use them when ready.  If proportions don’t come until November, no problem.  If you want to use the thermometer for decimals a month before you do proportions, no problem.  The systems can be planted at any time and studied for however long.

Updated Note: Since I wrote this blog Texas Instruments has started posting STEM activities and even offers kits for teachers on their website.


Blended Learning with CAS

I have been reading about more classrooms using blended learning as technology becomes a natural part of education.  One article stressed that it doesn’t always have to be students 1:1 on computers.  It could be a YouTube video, a teacher made video, Twitter chats using personal devices, etc.  Of course I immediately thought, “What about CAS?”  Although there are CAS applications on computers, there are CAS apps on tablets and of course the TI calculators.  I have yet to come across a teacher in middle school or high school that did not have access to a calculator.  The key is asking for the correct device.

Blended learning according to Google is “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.”  This definition varies with different sources but all have the same basics:  The student is not sitting and listening to a teacher talk for the whole class and some part of the learning is digital.  Most sources state there is a student-controlled path and pace also.  Using CAS covers all of these things.  TI has activities for their devices that allows students to learn by just using the device and following instructions.  Teachers can create lessons ahead of time and send to the device for students to use.  CAS apps allow for downloading pictures from the internet to be used with investigations of skills.  It is not meant to be the ONLY tool in a blended learning environment, but it definitely should be in your toolbox.

This part of the blog post is going on a little tangent, but I get this excuse all the time.  “My school does not have the money for technology.”  Money is always an issue with technology but there is state and federal money allotted to schools for instructional technology.  There are also grants that are fairly easy to get.

  • The first step is to let your administrator know that you want new devices.  Be prepared to negotiate.  The word “calculator” is usually easier to sell than “device” or “iPad”.  If you feel your classroom will benefit more from the tablets, agree to 5 or 6 and use in groups but don’t forget the money needed to purchase apps.  If needed suggest stages, i.e. get 3 each year until we have a classroom set.
  • The next step is be willing to follow through by finding out when the district orders technology and keep gently reminding your administrator.  Do the leg work and find out the costs of different solutions and have it ready at all times.
  • Look for grants! is designed for schools and has companies just waiting to give you money without you having to find them yourself.  A science teacher in our building received TI-Nspires and probes this year by using this website.
  • Finally be patient.  It may not happen over night, but eventually your school will get you what you need.  Assuming your school does not have the money will get you no where.  Not asking will get you nothing.  I have only worked for two different districts but both were not “rich” schools.  Both were rural and one has even been in financial distress.  I have had to wait 6 months, but have always been able to get some technology that I have asked for.  One year I had been asking for a TI-Navigator system which then was going to run around $6000 for the handhelds and systems.  My administrator said they would try but didn’t know when.  I was in my classroom when the office said they were sending a sub because the superintendent wanted to see me.  I tell you I was scared to death!  What had I done that I had to go straight to the top?  It turns out the school had to spend some technology money by the end of the month or they were going to lose it and the amount was very close to the amount I needed for my system.  He asked for a summary of what it was, what it did, and how it would help our students.  He liked my answer and I had the system before the end of the school year.

Blended learning is the future and has been proven to motivate students.  What we once thought would be impossible is now not only possible but inevitable.  Are educators ready?  Ready or not it is here.

CAS with Unit Rates

Using CAS to allow students to investigate unit rates opens up a world of options due to the device recognizing words as variables.  Teachers can actually enter one cup of sugar makes 2 cookies in fraction form on a TI-Nspire CX CAS and get the results shown below.

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Asking questions that promote deep thinking about the topic gets students into the discussion.

  • Why are these true?
  • What stays the same?
  • What changes?
  • What other ratios would work?
  • What other ratios would NOT work?

Asking the right questions is key to starting effective discussions, but what then? Multiple representations help students visually see what the math is doing which in turn leads to better understanding and skill mastery.  Look at the following situation:

Joe can mow 7 lawns in 4 hours.  How many lawns can he mow in 3 days?

Now look how the CAS can investigate this problem using Numerical form, a table, and a graph.

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This allows students to see relationships between “doing the math” and “using the math.”  See how long it takes the students to realize that the data is in hours but the problem is in days.  The number 3 is nowhere in the data which will generate questions from students.  This opens up a broad range of “teachable moments” which is what teachers love to see. The students want you to explain instead of you begging them to listen. Now let’s throw in some geometry.

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This introduces using the unit rates for unit conversion.  Although unit rates are a 6th grade skill, students can see how solving equations will play a part even though they haven’t mastered that particular skill.  Ask the students to investigate how the device got that answer.  You may never have to teach “cross multiply” again. 🙂