Math Speed Dating: A Cooperative Learning Activity

Math Speed Dating

I first tried Math Speed Dating in my class this year.  I had a double period to fill, and I had just read about it, and it seemed like it would be fun.  I had no idea it would be such a productive use of time!  I had students actively engaged in evaluating exponential expressions (not the most thrilling standard) for over forty-five minutes!  Not only were they engaged, but they were working together, confidently explaining steps, and eager to understand each other’s methods.  I was blown away!

Here are my top 4 reasons why Math Speed Dating is the perfect cooperative learning activity.

  1. Math Speed Dating increases engagement.

It’s novel.  The students walk into your room with all of the desks lined up in a giant train and half of the kids wonder if they’re in the right classroom.  The activity itself makes students interact with different classmates but for a short enough time so that it never gets too awkward and they never have enough time to start goofing off.  Each time students switch partners, they work on a new math problem, so accountability is high to learn the skill. They want to be able to show their next partner that they “got this.”  All of this works together to keep kids far more on task and actively engaged than if they were solving each of the problems independently on a worksheet.

  1. Math Speed Dating builds confidence.

When the activity begins, students receive the same problem that their partners across from them receive.  This becomes the problem that each student is the “expert” at.  Each time partners change, everyone’s new partner works on the problem that they are the expert at.  So if my partner is having trouble with the problem, I’m the expert at that problem and can explain it.  Students get practice explaining that same problem over and over, and each time their confidence grows a little higher.

Math Speed Dating

  1. Students want to learn the content.

Yes, even if the content is exponential expressions!  Nobody wants to look like they don’t “get it,” especially in an activity called Speed Dating!  This gives students a little more motivation to ask their partner to help them understand a problem—because in a minute they will have to switch partners and solve a similar problem.  If I get help now, I just might be able to impress that cute girl who’s going to be my partner next!

  1. Differentiation can be built in.

When I create the problems for a Speed Dating activity, I typically make the first couple problems the easiest and increase the difficulty with each problem.  This way, when I assign starting seats, I make sure my struggling students are toward the beginning of the row and my higher students are toward the end.  This way, lower students become experts at simpler problems and build confidence as they explain these problems to new people.  My higher students stay challenged throughout as they must explain their more challenging problem to each of their new partners.

There you have it: the perfect cooperative learning activity.  The first time you introduce Math Speed Dating to your students, I suggest you go at a slow pace to make sure students are taking their time to discuss the problems with one another and record their answers at the depth that you expect.  Students might only move halfway down the row before the period is over.  But the more they practice, the smoother things will go, and your students will blow you away with their discussions!

Try out some of my Speed Dating activities in my TpT store!  Each set contains detailed instructions for setting it up in your classroom. Click on each for more information.

Math Speed Dating Bundle

Scientific Notation Math Speed DatingInteger Add Subtract Math Speed DatingExponent Rules Math Speed DatingPythagorean Theorem Math Speed DatingInteger Operations Math Speed Dating


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Class Cheers: Build Strong Community in Middle School

Class cheers in middle school? Before you write this idea off, think of a college basketball game. For two hours straight you see young adults who think they are cool screaming in unison at the top of their lungs. Consider soldiers enduring brutal conditions as they emphatically chant together to maintain morale unity. Or how about a political rally? Young and old professionals alike intently chanting together in support of their favorite candidates. If these diverse crowds can build such strong community through cheering, why can’t we achieve this through class cheers in middle school?

Cheering is so powerful because it says, “I belong.” This is one of the most basic human desires: to feel a part of something bigger than oneself. And which demographic of human beings has more of a desire to belong than our middle school adolescents? Middle school teachers can leverage this desire in powerful ways by creating a sense of belonging in their classrooms. Class cheers may be the simplest and most powerful way to create this feeling among students. A teacher who develops a sense of belonging among students will have

Here are some guidelines in creating successful class cheers that students will be shouting all year:

  1. Short and Simple Class Cheers

Keep it concise and make it extremely easy for kids to repeat. In my class cheer, I shout, “WHO ARE WE?!” and my students respond, “INTENSITY!” It is so simple that not a single student could forget it. And after a month or two, I can pass on the leadership role of shouting the first part to one of the students. Last year, I overheard some boys from our school’s soccer team shouting this cheer. That’s when you know it’s a success! Class cheers that take students all year to remember never take off.

  1. Casual Language

Use casual language in your cheer as opposed to academic language. Students will be much more comfortable repeating your cheer if it doesn’t make them sound like total nerds. One of my Teach for America mentors years ago made up a cheer that he began by shouting his room number, “TWO-OH-FOUR!” and the students responded, “SO HARDCORE!” Ten years later, I still remember this cheer! There is even more power when words from your cheer are a theme in your class. My Teach for America mentor called his students “hardcore math students” whenever they put especially strong effort into class. I constantly tie “intensity” into different aspects of my math class.

  1. Wild Enthusiasm

The longevity of the cheer depends on the teacher’s ability to sell it. You should have your students shouting it at least twice per class period when you first roll it out. And you have to be wildly enthusiastic about it. The kids need to see you having fun with it, even when they don’t really seem into it. Remember, your students simply want to belong. At first, they need to check out if everyone else is getting into it before they’ll feel safe to take part. The more passionate you are about leading the cheer, the quicker you will win your students over. Once you get four or five kids shouting the cheer, the rest of the class follows suit pretty quickly.

Class cheers can very quickly become a highlight of your students’ days and even your day. Something special happens when the entire class is passionately shouting a unifying anthem. And once you’ve engrained the first cheer into your class’s identity, challenge your students to come up with the next cheer themselves!

As you begin thinking up your first class cheer, think about cheers you’ve heard at sporting events, consider nursery rhymes or even choruses of popular songs. To give a final example of a cheer, this is the cheer our eighth graders used at an all school pep-rally last year: “We’re grade 8! You know you can’t wait! To be like us! Cuz we’re super great!!”

What is a class cheer you’ve had success with?

More Resources on Building Community
Creating a Rock-Solid Middle School Community
Cooperative Learning Math Activities


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Race to Nowhere Review

Race to Nowhere Review

Race to Nowhere

Our kids are stressed out, sleep deprived, and have their identities firmly tied to the grades they receive in school. School is no longer a place for children to eagerly explore their world and feed their natural curiosity. Instead it’s a terrifying place where they are constantly evaluated and fed ceaseless messages that they must achieve to have value.   Even worse, the torment doesn’t stop when the bell rings, as students are receiving increasing amounts of homework, robbing them of opportunities to play outside, spend time with their families, and just be kids. Is this what we want for our children?

This is the bleak picture painted by the documentary “Race to Nowhere” which you can find on Netflix as of July 2016. As an eighth grade teacher, I confess that I’ve been completely blinded to this reality. But as I was watching, I slowly started to realize the harm I do to my students every time I harp on their grades. I regularly use grades as a threat: “If you don’t do ____, you’re not going to like your grade.” This is not the mark I want to leave on my students!

Professors and employers are beginning to see the effects of this obsession with tests and grades. Medical school professors note that their students feel entitled to know exactly what is going to be on the test and don’t want to think about anything beyond it. What happened to the thrill of being posed a challenging situation and using problem-solving skills to creatively solve it? The biggest concerns of the new generation of lawyers are how many paragraphs they need to write as opposed to going out, finding problems, and solving them.

We mean well, but we cannot put so much at stake on an end-of-year test and expect to produce young adults who are deep thinkers and creative problem solvers. Instead of teaching testing skills, we need to teach kids how to persevere in solving new problems, think critically, draw conjectures, justify their methods, and effectively communicate their conclusions. The focus must be off of grades and placed on learning for the excitement and challenge that it brings. I highly recommend this “Race to Nowhere” for teachers, parents, and anyone involved in America’s education system.

As teachers, we can do a world of good for the students whom we see daily for an entire school year. We can carefully consider the homework we assign and make sure that it is purposeful. The Race to Nowhere website gives the following criteria for teacher’s to reflect on when assigning homework:

  1. Homework should advance a spirit of learning
  2. Homework should be student-directed
  3. Homework should promote a balanced schedule.

You can read more here:

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Math Scavenger Hunt: Cooperative Learning Activity

Math Scavenger HuntThere is something about scavenger hunts that is captivating to a child. Something thrilling about searching for particular objects and checking items off a list in hopes of completing it before anyone else. The Math Scavenger Hunt takes these aspects of a traditional scavenger hunt, mixes in a healthy amount of math content, and creates an activity that students can’t get enough of!

The idea is simple. You pin ten to twenty problems around the classroom on whatever topic you’ve been covering. Each card has an answer in the top-right corner, but it’s the answer to another card. Students are able to start at any card. Once they find the answer, they have to go hunt for the card that has that answer in the top-right corner. Once they find it, that’s the next card they must complete. If students correctly solve each card, they should finish at the card they began with.

For all you visual learners, here is a very simple example. Picture each of the following four cards taped to a different wall in your classroom:

scav hunt exYou start at any card. So let’s say you start on card three, which you write on a recording sheet. You figure out that -2 + 2 is zero. Now you go find the card with 0 in the corner, which leads you to card four. So after card three, you record that card four comes next. You figure out -2 – (-4) is positive two, so card two comes next. Since -3 – 3 is negative six, card one comes next. We’ve now been to all cards, so we can expect that the final card will take us back to where we started. Negative 4 plus two is negative two, which is card three–right where we started! Now, this would take many students about two minutes to complete. You would want about twenty cards with these types of short problems. With problems that would take students more time, you might shorten your activity to eight to twelve cards.

There is so much potential with using a Math Scavenger Hunt! Here are a few of my favorite strategies:

  1. Cooperative Learning with the Math Scavenger Hunt

    Students are up, out of their seats, running around the room, releasing the energy that has been building up all day, and completely engaged in completing Math problems. This is the perfect environment for cooperative learning! Students will naturally begin working together with their friends, which usually works out well as long as they remain focused on the task. To add more structure, you might limit groups to two to three working on the same problem. You could also pair students up to have lower and higher students working together. To ensure partners are both working together, you could give pairs only one recording sheet with the directive that they must switch who is writing for each problem.

  1. Conceptual Understanding with the Math Scavenger Hunt

    I make it imperative for students to show their work when completing the Math Scavenger Hunt. Otherwise, it’s easy for them to copy or just guess at answers. I allow students to draw pictures, create diagrams, write explanations, or any other method to show that they truly understand the math. For example, in the four integer addition and subtraction problems I showed above, I would have students draw a number line for each equation. I always create recording sheets for each scavenger hunt that I create with significant space for students to show their work.

  1. Small Group Instruction with the Math Scavenger Hunt

    While your entire class is actively engaged in this activity, you have a great opportunity to call a small group of four to five kids aside to work with you on small group work. You can work on anything you think they need extra practice on, or you can tie your focused instruction to the Math Scavenger Hunt. Choose one of the posted problems and make extra copies. Distribute these to your small group and guide them through solving the problem together.  After they complete the problem, they can go find the next card together and work on it without your support!

  1. Extending the Math Scavenger Hunt

    So what do you do with the kids who blaze through the scavenger hunt, gets all problems correct, and shows their strategies in detail? Have them make their own Math Scavenger Hunts! Give them a couple parameters, such as four to six cards focusing on a specific skill. You could even require that two of the solutions are very similar. Your high achievers will have a blast figuring out the intricacies of making their own games!

  2. Differentiating with the Math Scavenger Hunt

    I love creating two-track scavenger hunts.  They are basically two different ten-card scavenger hunts mixed together.  The first track has ten basic problems and the second track has ten problems on the same skill but are more challenging.  This gives students who need more practice with a skill the option to work on basic problems.  Students who are comfortable with the skill can move on and be challenged.  The first two Math Scavenger Hunts at the end of this post each contain two tracks.

Below are links to several Math Scavenger Hunts that I’ve created centered around seventh and eighth grade Math standards. Each set includes a recording sheet specific to that scavenger hunt, and I always include problems with similar answers to make sure students are truly solving the problems. Be warned: once you try one Math Scavenger Hunt with your students, they will beg and beg to do another!


thumb1thumb1Integer Add Sub Scavenger Hunt 8x8       Creating and Solving Eqs 8x8    8.g.7 pyth scav hunt 8x8


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Using the Seating Chart to Differentiate

using seating chartThe seating chart.  Possibly a teacher’s most important decision with dramatic consequences and benefits.  What better to use your seating chart for than differentiation?

I figured out early on in my teaching career that effective differentiation is the key to good teaching. If I’m always teaching the whole class in the same way, I’m teaching way over the heads of my lower students and boring to death my higher students. Enter behavior problems galore! So for me, it was never “why differentiate?” but instead, “how the heck do you do it??” I remember the year I finally became brave enough to try differentiating. I would make three different lessons for every class I taught! It’s a wonder I didn’t burn out after two days of implementing this!

The answer to successful differentiation is absolutely NOT writing three lesson plans for every class that you teach. Nor separating all your students into small groups and trying to meet with each group twice a week. These methods are completely unsustainable (unless you have super small class sizes). Instead, set up your seating chart at the beginning of the year to allow for smooth differentiation for the rest of the year. Continue reading

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Creating a Rock-Solid Middle School Community

creating a rock solid middle school communityHow important is building middle school community?  Here’s a story of two radically different school years. First is my first year teaching eighth grade. My. Students. Hated. Me. Everything I tried to teach them was met with brash defiance. Kids would constantly refuse to do any work in my class or accept any consequences for behavior. I remember one week being excited that ten homework assignments were turned in—out of 120 students! Then there was the time one of my students leapt out of his seat, grabbed the American flag hanging in my room, and ran circles around the classroom, screaming at the top of his lungs. This sums up my welcome to eighth grade.

The next school year, students loved being in my classroom. They respected me and rose to the high expectations I placed on them.  Students consistently turned in completed homework . I loved being at school every day. The difference? This second year, we eighth grade teachers banded together to create a middle school community in which all students felt a deep sense of belonging.

Human Hungry Hippos. Kids covering each other’s faces with shaving cream and seeing how many cheese balls they can stick to cheeks, chins, and foreheads. Students using toilet paper to turn other students into snowmen. Popular boys publicly practicing their best “pickup lines” without realizing they are part of a hilarious practical joke. All during the school day. This is the forming of a rock-solid middle school community.

I have become convinced that one of the greatest sources of adolescent misbehavior is the feeling of not belonging. Everyone (teens especially!) has an innate need to feel that he or she belongs to something bigger than his- or herself. With this need unmet, defiant and disruptive behaviors often emerge—the inner child crying out to be noticed, accepted, and valued.

I believe that teachers can combat a majority of the disruptive behaviors that drive us to our wits’ end by creating a robust middle school community that students can feel part of. This turns school into a type of refuge that kids enjoy coming to, regardless of what life at home is like. If they enjoy being at school, they have little incentive to act up! Since my grade level began focusing on building middle school community, we have seen noticeable results. Students have become more respectful, they have been putting more effort into their work, and a general feeling of joy has begun to permeate all aspects of our day.  Here’s how we create our middle school community: Continue reading

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Who Are My Students?

who are my students2

Teaching in the inner city in a low-income neighborhood, you get used to the same problems year after year. Unfilled positions.   Lack of subs. Inordinately large class sizes. Ornery kids taking advantage of the chaos. If there’s one thing a teacher learns in this position, it’s how to be flexible. We are routinely asked to take on things never conceived of when accepting the job. And though it’s usually phrased in the form of a question, the expectation is that we will happily comply.

Normally, I truly am happy to comply. I was sent to Phoenix by Teach for America and I knew I’d be teaching in extremely challenging circumstances. That first year, for instance, was horrendous. As a computer science major through college, I was equipped to teach solely by a meager five week crash course put on by Teach for America over the summer. I was then thrown into a sixth grade classroom composed of insolent rebels, who relentlessly endeavored to take over. My classroom was a nightmare of papers strewn all over the place, and my principal even came in after school one Friday afternoon and spent THREE HOURS helping me to create organizational systems! So yea, I never had the fantasy that this would be a normal job.

Despite the challenges, I’m fiercely committed to giving my students the best I can. After that hellish first year, I spent five years teaching third grade, where I fell in love with the profession. And then, with much fear and trembling, I moved back into middle school to eighth grade, which I began loving even more than third. However, each year since I started teaching eighth grade, I’ve been asked to do something that always causes the same moral dilemma. Midway through each year, I’ve been asked to add a significant number of students to my already large classes. Always the same story.   We lost a teacher. The long term sub can’t handle the kids. We can’t fill the position. By this time, I’ve already built a strong community with my current students. Procedures are in place and students are making solid progress as a result. Radically changing the makeup of my classes will put us back to Ground Zero.

As I’ve wrestled with this dilemma time and time again, I’ve often come to the question, “What’s best for my students?” Which has made the dilemma even more difficult. Because the answer is obvious.  What’s best for my students is unequivocally NOT to double their class size! Adding even ten more students to each class is going to cause at least a two-week hiatus in the progress we’ve been making as I re-teach my procedures to the new group.   That’s ten more students I need to give attention to, taking individual time away from the originals. That’s ten more papers to grade, cutting back on the amount of time I can spend writing meaningful feedback on each one. But if the answer is so obvious, why do I always feel so terribly bad about saying no? By this past year, I’ve developed enough rapport with my administration that I could have said no, and they would have worked around me. But I haven’t been able to do so. And I think it’s more than my people-pleasing nature.

Last year, I was the only eighth grade math teacher for 240 students. The other position never got filled. Three teachers went through the class and none could handle the behaviors. One hundred-twenty students spent the first half of their eighth grade year without Math. Even the most difficult children were complaining that they just wanted to do some Math! For a month, I considered the possibility of taking them all on. It would mean class sizes of sixty to eighty. Eighth graders. One classroom. And only me. Could that possibly be what’s best for the 120 I already had? How much attention could I really give anyone if I had class sizes of eighty? Continue reading

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Teacher Tip: Peppermint Oil in the Classroom

teacher tip peppermint
There is nothing worse than a full day of testing: the yawns, slobbering mouths on the desk, kids breaking down under stress and pressure. And then testing finishes for the day…and you still have two more periods to get through with kids who are DONE for the day! On these days, I like to diffuse peppermint essential oil in the classroom. It helps not only the kids, but also myself, stay focused throughout those days in which focus is sorely needed!

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Meet the Teacher!


Meet the Teacher day is coming up soon for many schools nationwide!!  This is our opportunity to set first impressions and begin positive relationships with students and their families.  Here is a great hands on activity that will dust the cobwebs out of our students brains that have been building up all summer!

Many students will not know how to approach this, so it is a good opportunity to walk students through a problem and reassure them that you will be a supportive teacher.  And parents will love watching you interact with your students in such a unique way!

Here’s the solution:

Fill up the 3-cup jar and pour it into the 5-cup jar.  Fill up the 3-cup jar again and pour as much as you can into the 5-cup jar.  There is now 1 cup of water left in the 3-cup jar.  Empty the 5-cup jar.  Pour the 1 cup of water from the 3-cup jar into the 5-cup jar.  Fill the 3-cup jar back up and pour it into the 5-cup jar.  There is now exactly 4 cups of water in the 5 cup jar!

Happy back to school!

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How I Failed at Middle School and What Changed

how i failed graphic pic

Let me start by saying that teaching middle school did not come naturally to me. In fact, I felt like a complete failure at it. I taught 6th grade my first year of teaching, and not a weekday went by when I didn’t wake up at 4am in the morning from anxious dreams, praying that Jesus would come back! Yes, that bad. Sixth grade is a hard year to start in if you lack confidence and experience. They know. I think back at that first year of being hazed by my students and pity who I used to be. I was unprepared and clueless. This was me: I had a 6th grader throwing nickles at me one day while my back was turned. I had a kid cut my phone cord. The kids shouted at me in class. And I was at a complete loss for how to earn, much less maintain their respect.

Because it’s not in me to quit, and I had a two year agreement with Teach For America, I took a hiatus. In 3rd grade. I taught 3rd grade for 5 years, and I loved it! I came into myself as a teacher and gained confidence in my teaching ability. But, something inside me felt like I had left things so unfinished as a middle school teacher. Two years ago, when an opportunity came up, I went back to middle school, this time in 8th grade math. And you know what? Nothing had changed! I came back with experience and confidence under my belt expecting things to fall into place, but I had not prepared myself for what a special group of kids middle schoolers are. My students resented the high standards I set for them.  They defied my authority every opportunity they got.  My first year in 8th grade, I somehow managed to get every student to consider me their personal enemy.  I had one kid, in the middle of a lesson, run to the American flag, take it out of its holder, and run circles around the perimeter of the classroom, screaming at the top of his lungs.  That’s what type of classroom management I had.  That’s the type of rapport I had with my students.

That summer, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the school year. And I continued to reflect throughout the school year.  I noted every small victory I had.  I considered every choice that I made that resulted in a frustrated and angry student.  I constantly thought about what I could have done differently.  Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to change a group of students’ opinion of you once they have formed it.  But the good news is, in our line of work, you get a brand new group of kids every year.  Each year, you get a new opportunity to re-invent yourself. So I did.

Last year, despite having class sizes between 50 and 70 kids (read about how I ended up with such a huge class here), my year-end surveys had responses like this:  “Thank you Miller for the amazing year I had as an 8th grader at Andalucia. It was an amazing year full of laughter and fun. I really enjoyed every day of it.”  And “Mr.Miller, I had an amazing 8th grade with you and the hulk squad! You all made this year the best, I learned A LOT in this class . I enjoyed every minute and I’ll miss you!”  (Hulk Squad was our homeroom’s name).  My year of reflecting paid off.  I reinvented myself as a teacher and the same high expectations that previous groups of students despised, came to be respected and desired by this new group.  What made the difference?  What did my experiences teach me about how to get through to young adolescents and convince them that you do indeed care about them?

Here are the game-changers:
1.  Relationships
2.  High Expectations
3.  Engaging Lessons
4.  Preparation
5.  Efficient Grading

Relationship.  This is where it all begins.  It is said a child doesn’t care what you know until they know you care.  Our effectiveness is severely limited if our students do not truly believe that we deeply care for them.  This year our 8th grade team focused on building a community with our students. We built a climate where positive relationships thrived and kids felt a sense of belonging.  When kids know you care about them, they grow to sincerely appreciate the high expectations you set on them.  They realize that you see something in them that is truly great.  The relationship is the key.

I strive to design my lessons in a way that maintains my high academic and behavioral expectations, but also excites kids about learning and keeps them engaged.  I frequently work in cooperating learning structures, so kids are actively working with one another in a highly structured way.  This can take time, but it is extremely worth it.  Differentiation is also essential here.  If the lesson is way over a student’s head, you’ll lose him quick.  But if it’s way too easy for your five little geniuses, they’re the ones who are going to start looking for ways to entertain themselves.  Each lesson must address all levels of learners (which is not always as difficult as it sounds, if you know a few tricks).

Finally, time must be spent outside of class preparing quality lessons and grading effectively and efficiently.  If you allow these tasks to take too much time, you’ll quickly get frustrated and burnt out (as will the people in your life that are closest to you, just ask my wife!).  It takes time to learn, but there is a way to plan lessons effectively so that every second in the classroom is used productively.  This sends kids the message that you truly care.  And grading can be done in a way that provides kids timely feedback but doesn’t keep you up all night.

 Stay tuned for specifics on how I worked these game changers into my routine. If you’ve ever experienced having objects thrown at you while you are trying to teach, trust me, there is hope for you yet!

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