What I Did Differently This Year

A roundup of things I did differently, or that I continued to evolve with, this year in my Math classes:

Visibly Random Groups

Groups of 3 students sitting together. New partners & new desks every day. I used playing cards given out at random as students entered class to assign students to tables – with hanging numbers indicating which tables made which group. More details about VRGs here.


2 to 3 days per week I used Kahoot as our bellwork. Kahoot is an interactive quiz that the kids answer using cell phones/tablets/laptops. I have created a bank of basic skill-based multiple choice questions for each of my courses and we often start class by playing 10 randomly chosen questions. Correct answers get points & the faster you answer, the more points it’s worth. The kids really love this & it’s a great way to practice basic skills.
What’s especially cool about Kahoot is that they have pre-made question banks for lots of different topics and courses, so you can play this with almost no prep work required. Julie Reulbach does a nice job of outlining her experience with Kahoot this year in a blog post here.

Problem-based Learning

As much as possible, I try to start with a problem to solve, instead of starting with a lesson. Sometimes this is a hands-on activity in the style of Al Overwijk & Bruce McLaurin. Sometimes it’s 3-act math in the style of Dan Meyer. Other times it’s a word problem from a textbook stripped down to make it more open (like here & here) and solved on vertical non-permanent surfaces (see next). Students always started by estimating the answer (too low, too high, best guess), collect data/measurements if needed, and then solve. And at whatever point students get stuck, or need to learn something new, that is where I go to the board for a mini-lesson before having groups return to finish solving the original problem given their new knowledge/skills.

Vertical Non-permanent Surfaces

In our visibly random groups of 3, we solve the problems on whiteboards & blackboards. This gets students up out of their chairs, working together, thinking. They try out different ideas because they know it’s easy to erase whatever doesn’t work. It allows me to see everyone’s work all at once and give prompt feedback on their progress. Students can also look around at other boards to get ideas if they’re stuck. More details on VNPSs here.

Khan Academy

Now hold on with your booing & your hissing … Math teachers love to have a hate-on for Khan Academy. It’s not a replacement for a math teacher, and it has it’s disadvantages, but they have some good exercise sets that can be used as homework instead of problem sets from the textbook. At the beginning of the year the homework on KA was optional as I explained here, but in the 2nd semester the homework for my grade 10 academic class was mandatory and tracked daily.
The students sign up with you as their “coach”. You can set a certain exercise as homework with a due date. The site then summarizes who has and who has not finished their homework. You can also see how many problems they have attempted to solve and whether or not they got the correct answer. The advantage for the students is that if they get stuck, there is a “hint” button (which isn’t so much a hint, as the next step explained) and a link to the infamous KA-created video related to that specific problem.


Instead of teaching unit by unit, I have continued spiralling the curriculum. This means teaching every expectation in the curriculum over the first few weeks, albeit in an introductory fashion. Then we cycle through all the material for a 2nd time, delving deeper. And then again a 3rd or maybe 4th time through depending on time. Mary Bourassa has a good explanation here of spiralling.

There are a few smaller things I introduced also such as the wireless keyboard, a “tech tub” with 5 chromebooks for students to borrow when needed, posters of course expectations & mathematical processes on the walls, etc.

For next year:

  • Make my evaluation tools match the group-work, problem-based learning we do in class.
  • Work on recording the observations & conversations that can inform a student’s final grade in addition to the products they create (tests, tasks, projects, etc).
  • Improve my Link Crew class that I taught for the first time last year.

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)