Advice from a Student to Struggling Students

26 Jun

Last year I taught a student, we will call Jane, who struggled through Algebra 2/Trig. Every week we would work after school, sometimes 3 or more days. There were often tears of frustration. Jane realized that Algebra 2 was hard for her if she wanted to succeed she was going to have to work hard at it – she never blamed me, previous teacher, or anyone. She had tenacity like I have never seen and she WAS going to conquer!  But Jane kept at it and succeeded with a hard-earned, well-deserved C.

Jane was in my class again this year – Functions/Trig (pre-calc A/B) and Jane had a much better year. I rarely saw her after school, sometimes before school for a quick question, no tears, and genuinely seemed to like math class now. Meanwhile, in Algebra 2/Trig, I had a handful of “Janes” without the tenacity or work ethic. Without any luck the usual route, I asked Jane to write a letter to these students to try and motivate them. Here is Jane’s letter:


My name is “Jane”, and I am not the best at math.  But Alg 2/Trig? Completely passable.  Let me elaborate a bit.

Last year when I took this class, I had a tough time.   Algebra was never my strong suit and on top of that, I had missed an entire week and a half of school towards the end of the first quarter due to the flu, had to learn the current material of this class, 2 AP classes, and another pre-AP class (along with all my other core classes), as well as catch up on all the work I missed, go to basketball practice/games, and try and fend off getting sick again.   It was not easy, and there were plenty of times when I just felt like giving up, but guess what? I made it! I passed with a C-!!! I had a C the entire year, got a D on the midterm, and barely passed the SOL with a 414, but I passed.

You might be thinking, “Cs? You’re proud of Cs?”  And to answer your question, I must honestly say absolutely.  After getting test after test back with grades varying from 70 to 20 (the only section I passed last year was Logarithms, which we barely spent any time on and were so easy), I was ready to give up.  Practically all of third and fourth quarter, I was positive I was going to fail.  You have no idea how absolutely relieved I was that I passed with a C.  It probably is one of my biggest accomplishments (and I’ve won Rockband in a day along with being named captain of my basketball team, so yeah, it was a big deal).

            So, I’m going to tell you this straight up, and I’m not going to baby you, or sugar coat it: If you want to pass, it is not Mrs. R’s responsibility or your parents, it is yours.  It is your sole responsibility to decide that you are not going to take anything less than a C (or A or B), that you need help, that you need to figure out a way to get help, and actually benefit from it.  No one can make you do it.  You have to want to do it.

You already have the biggest advantage possible: Mrs. R is your teacher!  Mrs. R is the best math teacher I’ve ever had.  She’ll give you points if you try on a quiz.  You don’t have to get the right answer, but if you try and put some work down, you’ll get one or two points, which can make a big difference.  She always has bonus questions, so be sure to take advantage of them!  She is very patient, she gets to the school early so you can review in the mornings if you are unable to stay after school, and she is willing to do things step by step until you get it.

The key to getting the most out of any teacher is asking questions.  No question is dumb, especially in math.  If you are confused about what a term means, ask.  If you don’t understand a step, ask if they could repeat it.  If you forgot how to do something (which is very understandable, you do a lot as a student!), ask for a refresher.  The only way to get anywhere, when you don’t know where you are, is to ask for directions.

There are also numerous other resources for you when Mrs. R isn’t around.  Google is very helpful!  There are many people who struggle with algebra and there are even more people who get algebra and are nice enough to make videos or websites dedicated to helping those who don’t. is very useful if you like watching someone figure out a problem.  Just search the topic that you are studying and there are sure to be several videos explaining it and solving similar problems.  Khan Academy even has practice problems you can solve and you receive points for getting answers right and you unlock achievements!  That makes it slightly more interesting, right?

Once you make it through this class, Functions/Trig will be a piece of cake!  All you have to do is pay attention in class, be sure to do the homework (even if it’s optional!), and memorize a few rules, formulas, and graphs. Here’s a tip for memorization: write.  Just write what you need to remember the night before a quiz several times.  Review that before the quiz and immediately write it down once you get your paper.  Trust me, it helps!  Writing something a lot basically burns it into your mind and then you never forget it!  It’s awesome!

Don’t give up.  As long as you try, no one can fault you.  Algebra is hard!  Hard, but manageable.  Always remember that you are smarter than you think and always try.  Trying makes things so much easier.

Good luck and don’t stress!  It’ll be fine.

I love this letter! It makes me proud of Jane for realizing what she had to do to succeed and being able to put it on paper.

So, I gave a copy of this letter out to 10 or so struggling Algebra 2/Trig students in February. Most actually acknowledged and thanked me for it (really they should thank Jane). Jane did sign her name, and some knew her. I never heard if any actually spoke to her about it. Of those 10, the majority did indeed pass, some barely. Did Jane’s letter make a difference? I know so for one, I hope so for the rest.

May we all have a “Jane”!


Reflections from Students

25 Jun

I am finally posting after way too long. Not being able to access my any blog from school meant that I had to post at home. Even when I thought … “I’d like to share this on my blog …” by the time I got home and did the home stuff that feeling had evaporated. So, here comes summer (out 1 week today), and as I begin to unpack some of the stuff I lugged home and start to think about what I want to accomplish, I found this –

We had a a CRAZY May and June, running different schedules every day for 6 weeks! Our day was generally the same in May – 1st block 3 hours, 2nd block 90 minutes interrupted by a 25 minute lunch, 3rd block 40 minutes – and in June – 1st block 2 hours, 2nd block 2 hours, 3rd block 90 minutes interrupted by a 25 minute lunch – 4th block 20 minutes.  And to top it off, the blocks were all different period orders each day and you may not see a specific period for 3, 4, 5 or more days. Keeping up with those days and keeping the lessons figured out was a job in itself.

So, on one of those 20 minute periods when my students had finished the curriculum and all exempted out of their final exam, I gave them a feedback assignment. Two pieces of paper – one  colored and one white. On the colored paper they were to write good things and on the white paper, bad things. I was pleasantly surprised with what I received:


“I like how you posted up corrected homework answers online so I could go through and look at what I didn’t understand”

“I found the tests/quizzes to be on topic and easy if I knew the information”

“You were one of the sweetest teachers I have had this year. I actually wanted to come to your class and learn one of my favorite subjects.”

“You understand how the Smartboard works.”

“Thank you for staying after school for help.”

“Whenever I needed help you were always there to help me. I really appreciate the letter you gave to help motivate me, it was really thoughtful and it definitely did motivate me.”

“Notes online.”

“I think the amount of homework, the quizzes, and your teaching all were great and I wouldn’t know Algebra 2 the way I do without you.”

“Strict but fair.”


“I should have done all of the extra credit opportunities. And the homework.”

“There should be more incentive to do homework.”

“I have to do my homework.”

“Understood what you would teach in class but them screwed me in the test.”

“Not using the calculators – it was just cruel.”

Wish I had the opportunity to do this with all classes, but the schedule did not warrant. More posts to come as I unpack. Looking forward to #TMC13 and learning how to twitter!

Training, Fire Drills, Paper Placemats, and Animal Functions … oh my!

22 Sep

By 8 am Friday morning, I thought the day was going to be AWFUL! I had to deal with a bout of tears before school and a student barfing during 1st period. Luckily, the day, and the week now that I reflect, was pretty darn good!

1. Training Pays Off

First period Friday, my Functions/Trig (pre-calc) class was working through problems in prep for Monday’s test. I was AMAZED at how engaged they were … I heard talking about math, I saw students going to other student’s desks to explain. I am a proud momma bird math teacher!

Looking back I realized that I have been setting the stage for the last few weeks. First the classroom is set up in “pods” of 4 all facing the board (need a picture) and I have encouraged the students all year to “work with your group”. WOWZERS! It paid off. I put the solutions on the board and circulated. I did help some students, but I found many going to their groups before raising their hand.

2. Fire Drills Aren’t All that Bad

Since we are required to have a fire drill weekly for the first month of school and monthly thereafter, I took the opportunity this week to use the time to get to chat with a student about their non-math life! It was nice to get to know something personal about one student and their interests – turns out our schools Robotics Club is so popular that they have to limit the membership. So my student, who has been part of this for the last 2 years, was in a tie because it was “selection day”. We talked about the club, its purpose, what they do and why he was interested. Now I want to go to one of their meetings after school to show my interest in that student, and maybe I will find others in my class who share this interest.

3. Paper Placemats

Thursday the hubby came home, asked wha’ts for dinner and decided he wanted to go out. No big deal since I was grading papers until he walked in the door and had not even thought about which dinner from the list I was going to make. So down to our local greek/italian/family restaurant just to find out it was family night with face painting … not good for us for that night. So to other local place we come and they have paper placemats. Well, I was explaining some things that had come up in class, using the placemat as a scratchpad. When our server cleared the table we got into a conversation about high school math. Our server revealed that he was worried when his kids got to high school math because he could not do it. That lead to the rather than say I don’t know how to do ____  change the comment to why don’t we google ____ (or ask the teacher for some sites/resources) and figure it out together!

If I changed one parent from the “I can’t do it therefore  you can’t do it” mindset, I have made progress this week!

4. Animals in the classroom

I realized that some of my Algebra 2/Trig students still don’t understand function notation. So I put the following on the SmartBoard:


(minus the blue mathematical interpretation which came after they solved the problems). Surprisingly, not a single student struggled when I gave them the problems with pictures, but once we change it to letters/letter combinations …. “it’s confusing” “that’s not the same”. Next time I am going to start pictorially and teach them the language of mathematics! Maybe, I’ll do a matching game of some sort where they have to match the pictorial representation to the mathematical representation.

All in all, it was a good week. I learned that training pays off, about a students, and came up with a new approach to teach a (review) topics. Now I am going to trade the school circus for the real one, literally. We are off to the Big Apple Circus today … with clowns and a ringmaster and hopefully lions and tigers and bears, OH MY!

Sudoku as Review

17 Sep

A while ago I came across a Linear Equations Sudoku puzzle at While I liked the idea, it just didn’t meet my requirements, so I decided to make my own!


I have given this to all three of my Algebra 2/Trig classes to review for their quiz tomorrow. Students loved it! They worked for the 20+ minutes we had left in class without complaint and without asking about the grade, and would have kept going if time had not run out. I even had a few students ask for more activities like it. Success!

So, how did I do it? I made a 10 x 10 table in Word, set both the column width and row height to .4.  In the first row label each grid R thru Z and the first column A thru I. Now find a Sudoku puzzle blank from a newspaper, book, etc. and fill in the same location. Use those numbers to find problems with that answer.

This format is powerful – you can use it for just about any type of problem, even quadratics – just put the constraint that solutions for the puzzle must be positive zeros 1-9 inclusive. And, with a Sudoku puzzle in just about every newspaper finding a set-up is fairly easy.

Here are my answers, just in case: Functions_review_Sudoku_Answers

Remember, sharing is caring. Enjoy!

This Week’s Eatings

16 Sep

Summer Linguine, Super Natural Everyday, p. 137I have made this before, so I will be making the following adjustments: julienne the zucchini instead of grate and add almonds for texture

Orange Glazed Chicken Skewers, Clean Eating, August/September 2012, p. 75

Lime Seared Haddock, Clean Eating, August/September 2012, p. 76

Butternut Squash Pizza, Vegetarian Times, September 2012, p. 66. Changes will be … increase the amount and saute the spinach, add before cooking, use Naan bread for the crust (I have leftovers from last week), and cook on the grill.

Chimichurri Steak, Clean Eating, August/September 2012, p. 79. Do white potatoes instead of sweet potatoes as the haddock has sweet potatoes with it!

This week my yoga class also begins! Yay! It has been two years since I practiced and I am excited to get back into it. Before my hiatus I had been practicing for over 10 years and was going twice a week! I got frustrated with the class/instructor/ambiance and just quit … should have tried to find a different class/studio.

Feeding Body and Mind

9 Sep

Just in case you are wondering, our dinner menu for this week is as follows:

Creamy Pearl Coucous with Shallot, Fennel & Radicchio, Vegetarian Times, September 2012, p. 73

Roasted Shallot, Squash, Grape and Green Bean Salad, Vegetarian Times, September 2012, p. 71
minus the salad part; I am increasing the veggies and making this more of a “casserole”

Grilled Cod with Scalloped Tomatoes (from the Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook)

Philly Cheese Steak Pizzas, Food Network Magazine, September 2012, p. 102
using Naan bread instead of pitas or prepared pizza crusts

Bacon & Broccoli Rice Bowl, Food Network Magazine, September 2012, p. 109

Chicken with Arugula Pesto, Food Network Magazine, September 2012, p. 109

Hubby and I went to the farm market and grocery store today, so we are all set with ingredients!

The weather looks to be really nice this week (upper 70s, low 80s) so maybe we will get out and walk, but at least our windows are open so we can hear the birds that are visiting our feeders outside the dining room and kitchen windows. I like to work at my dining room table so I can watch the birds! I especially enjoy watching the Chickadees take a bath in the dish of water on the table.

I spent my afternoon writing a quiz for my Functions/Trig quiz next week. I have been modelling some of my problems that we use for in class discussion and homework on the Exeter problems as discussed at Global Math Department.  And I just figured out how to make a link here (big props for someone who does not text and is just learning web 2.0)!
The past week was a good, but tiring one. We had Back to School night on Day 3 … so 14 hours at school that day! I love how my room is set up … 7 groups of 4 so the kids are beginning to understand that I want them to talk about math (have to find another desk for one class). I have challenged my Functions/Trig (pre-calc AB) kids with Pythagorean Theorem using quadratics and introduced my Algebra 2/Trig kids to point-slope form (which is SO much easier).
Cool opener … I had the kids (on day 1) work in their groups to
1. write the equation of a line given a slope and a point
2. write the equation of a line parallel to (1) through a given point
3. write the equation of a line perpendicular to (1) through a given point
While they were working on this, I circulated around the classroom and praised those who were on the right track (and let them know if they were correct) and encouraged those who were lost to talk to the others who were on the right track. After about 10 minutes, I challenged the class and gave whiteboards out to those who wanted it. I had student put up a slope and 3 points on the Smartboard and we raced to write the equations. I won by a landslide each time, but it was a great entry into point-slope form. I then went over the 6 problems with the class. 
Not sure why half of this post is italicized, but my attempts to undo it result in nothing! Oh well.

Day 1 … DONE!

4 Sep


Students … not happy to be back and way too quiet (this will change). Incensed that I actually taught today.

Teacher … tired, sore feet and ready for a good dinner, glass of wine and some quiet time. All in all a good day; only one student who seemingly causes me to worry as he is in 6th period (last of the day) and tried to sleep through class!

On to this week’s challenge:

"Algebra 2 and Precalculus are a hodgepodge of ideas."

As I tell my students Algebra 1 takes all those skills you learn in elementary school and middle school and apply them to three topics (1) writing and solving equations of lines (2) writing and solving equations of quadratics and (3) graphing.

Algebra 2 is the same stuff – we are still writing and solving and graphing – but instead of looking ad nauseum at lines and a little less ad nauseum at quadratics, we are going to spend time writing, solving and graphing many different kinds of problems:

  1. absolute value
  2. piecewise
  3. quadratic
  4. polynomial
  5. rational
  6. radical
  7. exponential
  8. logarithmic

But instead of spending half-a-school-year really exploring and learning these topics like you did in Algebra 1, now you get one-quarter to one-third of a quarter. And, we are going to add a few other topics like sequences and series and statistics.

And, in order to be prepared for the state SOL exam (back acronym, stands for Standards of Learning), you need to complete all of it in three quarters. The SOL is usually taken early during 4th quarter, which leaves 4-6 weeks for “enrichment” exercises.

We shall see if PreCalculus follows similarly as it is my first year teaching it. Stay tuned….