Monday, May 24, 2021

Summertime: Math Playtime with Desmos Art Project

Children learn so much and are so engaged in learning when they have time to play, experiment and fail.  Yes...failure is a part of the learning process, a challenging concept for many parents grounded in the "my-child-is-better-than-your-child" culture.  But without time to play, experiment and fail, I would not have learned the following items: HTML (which helps with writing this blog), embroidery stitches (learning chain stitches prior to YouTube can be challenging), and how to use Audacity to create audio files from the video files for the Global Math Department podcasts. Given time to experiment and play, there is much to be learned!

Image of chain stitch
Image from
As a high school math teacher for over twenty-five years, parents would sometimes ask me, "What should my child do over the summer? Khan Academy? A specific workbook? Take a test prep course? Enroll in a math class so they can AP Calculus and not fall behind their peers?"  I would often turn the question back on them and ask, "What is your child interested in doing this summer?"  Often this led to a discussion of what colleges or majors the parents wanted for their 15-year-old child, without the child being present for the conversation.

In each of these conversations with parents, I wanted to respond, "Give your child time to play, experiment and fail this summer. Ask them what they would like to try to learn and encourage them to share their failures and successes with you."  Of course, parents still crave some sort of structure and want their children to continue to do some math over the summer.  If you are a parent looking for this structure or you are a high school teacher that has been told to give a "summer math assignment", you can give an this optional creative task of "Desmos Art Project (Summer 2021)."  A special thank you to Julie Reulbach for initially creating a version of this Activity Builder for easy curation of the student art projects and to Javier Cabezas for creating the modifying colors screen in the activity.

Note to parents and teachers new to Desmos: You will need to create a free account at to see the activity and then "assign" the activity to your child or students. Click on the triangle to the right of the "Assign" button to create a "Single Session Code". Click on "Create Invitation Code" and "View Dashboard". Then, you can copy the code to give to your child or students.

For examples of art projects from the most recent Desmos art contest, go to and encourage your child or students to submit their work in any future Desmos art contests.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Student #106745: You Greeted Me By Name

All of my classes are being held live synchronously over Zoom this semester. One day I said to my MATH 120 (math for elementary teaching) students that I noticed they all showed up to class every day.  This wasn't necessarily true of my other classes.  Then I commented that I thought this was remarkable, especially considering the class is on M, W and F from 4:15 - 5:15 PM.  (Yes, it is a struggle to want to attend class on a Friday at that time.)  I also told them that I noticed that many of them kept their web cameras on.  

What happened next made me realize that connections can happen in a virtual environment.  They told me that I am one of the few teachers that greets them by name when they come to class.  I hadn't really thought of it before.  I use the waiting room and click on student names to admit the students into class. Their name is displayed which makes it very easy for me to say "Hello, NAME. Welcome to class."  Or on a Friday, "Happy Friday, NAME. I hope you have some plans to relax this weekend." Or to a specific student, "Hi, NAME.  Did you get to go for a bike ride today?" And on our last day of class, "Welcome to the final class of the semester, NAME."

If knowing my students - what motivates them, their view of math, how they evaluate their own learning - matters to me, then it makes sense that I should start by learning their names.  Learning names is not my strong suit, and in a face-to-face classroom, I seat students alphabetically by first name with a seating chart to help me learn their names a bit more quickly and easily. Luckily, I teach at a small college and with maximum class sizes of 25, it is a bit easier to learn student names and learn a bit about the students themselves.

You may think that calling students by name is trivial, but my students told me it matters. This makes sense. Our names are closely tied to our identity.  If we are called a name we don't want to be called, we often correct the individual.  For example, I go by my middle name and not my first name. I will change my Zoom name to Leigh, if I notice Zoom has me logged in with my first name, Sidney.  

Names are important not just in life, but in remembering those who are no longer with us.  I encourage you to either watch poet Billy Collins read "The Names", which was dedicated to the victims of 9/11 or read the NY Times online article called "Those We've Lost", a series designed to put the names and faces to the victims of COVID-19.  Understanding thousands of lives lost in both of these tragedies has a different impact on you when you hear, read and think about the indivdual names of the people impacted and their families.

Thank you to my students for helping me to remember that names do matter.  If I see you on campus at some point and I don't recognize you, please greet me by name.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Thank You Murphy's Law

We switched to online learning very rapidly in March of 2020. Classes were in person on a Friday and moved online on a Monday. Murphy's Law came into play - it turned out that I was to give one of my exams of the semeter on that Monday. I pushed the exam off by one class day to give me time to get the exam put on Canvas. Unfortuantely, it isn't as easy as it looks. My images did not show within the exam and students still had to do part of their exam on paper and scan and upload it. The exam was in two places and grading became a nightmare. For consistency, I like grading the same question across all student papers at the same time. I can see common errors and score student papers in a similar way for those errors. Canvas does not let me do that, which is a major drawback. Plus, most students uploaded their work in 4 - 6 image files. Grading took about three times as long as it did before and my feedback was limited since I could not type in math formatting.
This fall classes are still being held virtually via Zoom. This and my disasterous issues with assessments in Canvas, led to me to decide to use Desmos Activity Builder for quizzes in my Functions and Derivatives class. It has worked really well and the students adjusted to it quite easily. Several even commented that they liked taking the quizzes in Desmos Activity Builder during a mid-semester check-in survey. Doing quizzes in this way has been so much better that I don't see myself going back to paper quizzes even when we return to face-to-face learning. 

Why would you want to do assessments in Desmos Activity Builder? I can think of four main reasons: they are easy to create, support a variety of student responses, it is easy to manage classes and you have the ability to quickly give students feedback. I'll comment on each of these. 

1) Easy to Create: I can easily embed images within my quiz without having to upload them some place else, link it and check a box to make sure students can see it. I can also design a question that allows for student written input. An example of such a question can be seen in the student work below. Plus, it is very easy to copy one quiz and modify it to create a second version of the quiz.

2) Variety of Student Responses: In Canvas, I can ask a multiple choice question, but would need to ask a separate follow up question to have students explain their choice. In Desmos Activity Builder, that can all be done within the same question. Students also have the ability to type in their answers in math format by clicking on the keyboard. Formatting of math answers is not so easy in Canvas. Here's an example of a question involving rational functions with the math keyboard for students to easily enter their solution.

3) Managing Classes: In September of 2020, Desmos added a "Manage Class" option. This makes it easy to assign activities to classes of students. Why would you do this? If you don't use the "Manage Class" option, it is challenging to see who is taking the assessment and who is not. You might see there are 24 students logged in and you should have 25. Who isn't taking the assessment?  With "Manage Class" all your students names are already listed on the dashboard and you can easily see who has logged in and who has not. Plus, there is easy integration with Google Classroom. For more information about this feature, watch this brief video from Desmos

4) The Ability to Quickly Give Students Feedback:In March 2020, Desmos released its Feedback feature within Activity Builder. This allows teachers to give feedback to their students, including the ablity to type feedback with math formatting. As an added bonus, I can easily grade a single question for every student and then move to the next question! Students can see that they have feedback when they log into As a teacher, you can see if they have read their feedback by looking at the teacher dashboard. The grey triangle means a student has read the feedback and the green triangle means the student has not read the feedback.  
Thinking this might be something you want to try? I have two recommendations. First, if you are new to Desmos Activity Builder, I recommend going to to get started and to see how to create your own activities. Second, start small with just one or two slides of student input. Use Desmos Activity Builder as an exit ticket or warm-up. 

Interested in an activity to getting started?  Here is one of the quizzes I gave a few weeks ago.  If you have an account at, you can copy and edit this quiz on Polynomials, Rational Functions and Limits

Thank you, Murphy's Law, for giving the impetus I needed to broaden my use of Desmos Activity Builder.  If you would like to learn more about Desmos and Desmos Activity Builder, I invite you to join me for my online seminar with BER called Making Best Use of Desmos to Strengthen Your Math Instruction (Grades 6 - 12).  Click on this link to see information about dates and how to register.