Algebra 1 – Unit 1 Interactive Notebook Pages | The Foundations of Algebra

Starting the year off right is SO important for any class, but especially in Algebra in particular, since everything that is done in the first unit is used throughout the entire year. Students NEED to have a strong foundation, or else they’ll be fighting an uphill battle all year, which is no good. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what topics are most important for students to know (from vocabulary to skills), so that each following unit has a strong foundation.

Here are all of the notes I used with my students during the 1st unit of Algebra 1. 

Day 1 – Real Number System
To start the unit off, we began by talking about the real number system and how we classify numbers. Instilling this vocabulary is very important in helping students be able to hold fluent conversations about math. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had in Algebra 2 (or Pre-Calc!) over the years that have asked “what’s an integer?” and they are unable to complete a problem that they otherwise know how to do solely because they lack the basic vocabulary and don’t understand what the question is asking. This is silly, and I want to prevent these things from happening as much as possible. Math really is its own language, and helping students learn it will allow them to be more confident and much more successful in the long run. 

Next, I introduced my first flowchart of the year. I want to instill in students that their notebook is really a great reference, and that there are tools in there that are really meant to help them. We quickly filled out 3 flowchart examples, to show students how they can use this if they get stuck on their homework. (Note: flowcharts are included in a separate bundle and are not part of the Unit 1 interactive notebook kit, which contains notes and warm-ups). 67

To finish off the class, I used the warm-up on Closure from my set of Unit 1 Warm-Ups as an exit slip. I don’t always have a special, topic-specific, pre-printed exit slip for my lessons because I often use these exit slip templates that I print off in mass quantities at the beginning of the year. That said, it’s really nice to have a formal exit slip for the first few experiences of the year. 5

Day 2 – Properties of Real Numbers
I like to begin each day with a recap warm-up over the prior day’s lesson. Students work on the warm-up during the first 3-5 minutes of class and then students present solutions.

The second topic we covered was properties of real numbers. This used to be a really boring topic to cover, until I started asking students to generate examples based off of the rules I’ve given them. Students can participate at any level, from volunteering their favorite numbers for an example to generating an entire example to demonstrate a property. The more you involve students, the more fun it is. Also, coming up with corny ways to help students remember one property from the next is pretty fun, too. 101112

Day 3 – Order of Operations
Recap warm-up over the prior day’s lesson. We’re really working on establishing a routine where students know that they will be presenting solutions/answers. For this warm-up, in particular, I let students know that they would have to justify their choice of property and convince the class. 

Next, we moved on to reviewing the order of operations. I use PEMDAS, but I’ve included 3 other options (GEMDAS, GEMS, and BEDMAS) to fit whatever your needs are. I like to pick problems that I know will trigger common mistakes or misconceptions with students that way we can have great discussions about it during the lesson before they create any bad habits (or to, hopefully, fix any prior misconceptions such as you HAVE to multiply before dividing and add before subtracting). 14151617

Next, we did a review activity on Order of Operations and finished the class with an exit slip (again, this is a warm-up from my set of Unit 1 Warm-Ups that I’m using as an exit slip, instead).18

Day 4 – Evaluating Algebraic Expressions
No warm-up, today! Straight into notes. Evaluating algebraic expressions is just an application of the order of operations and the substitution property. Like normal, examples have been chosen that I know typically trip students up so that way we can have much deeper conversations about the underlying math. 

Day 5 – Quiz
We started off class with a quick recap warm-up on evaluating algebraic expressions and I had 4 students present solutions. From there, students had a few minutes to review their notes and ask questions if they still had any, and then we moved into a quiz. When students are done quizzing, I like to have them work on some sort of coordinate graphing connect the dot worksheet. They love coloring and it reinforces the skill of plotting points, which will be crucial throughout the year. 

Day 6 – Combining Like Terms
We’ve made it to one of my favorite topics–combining like terms! From past experiences, I’ve noticed that students realllly want to combine x’s and x^2’s, so adding the conceptual understanding of why that doesn’t make sense is super important to me. Other common misconceptions are included, and students are asked to explain what’s going on. 

Day 7 – Distributive Property
To start off the class, we did a recap warm-up on combining like terms. At this point in the year, I’m not worried about my students writing their answers in standard form. I do, however, typically try to write my answers that way most of the time, and then I ask my students if it matters that our order is different, which helps to reinforce the idea that the sign in front (no matter where it is in the final expression) always goes with the term. 

We moved onto the distributive property. First, we did examples of just distributing, and I made sure to include lots of examples I know could make students uncomfortable. Just about every combination of distributing is covered. From there, we distribute and combine like terms. I particularly like the 3rd example in that section of the foldable because I know how tempted students are to subtract before distributing. 272829

Day 8 – Translating Expressions, Equations, and Inequalities
Like normal, the day started off with a recap warm-up over the distributive property. 

We moved on to filling out a KEYWORDS foldable for translating words into math symbols. I asked students to generate as many words/phrases as possible, and then I filled in the rest. This doesn’t cover every possible keyword, but it gets the vast majority and is a killer resource for your students to refer back to. 313233

After filling out the keyword foldable, we moved onto the main notes for the day. Color coding is SO important in making this a successful experience for your students. Color-coding helps them slow down enough to process, and it helps them know exactly what they should be looking for so it’s not overwhelming trying to do it all at once. 

Here’s how I do it…for quite a few years now, I’ve kept with the same color-coding scheme, so in my mind “turn around words” are pink, “parentheses words” are green, and “equals” words are blue (along with words that turn into inequality symbols). Feel free to use whatever colors you like, but these color-associations are permanently ingrained in my brain. 

Pass 1. Students read through the problem and look for any turn around words they need to highlight in pink. 

Pass 2. Students read through the problem and look for any parentheses phrases they need to highlight in green. 

Pass 3. Students read through the problem and look for any words that denote an equals sign (or inequality sign) that they need to highlight blue. 

Pass 4. Students translate the expression. 3435

Day 9 – Solving 1-Step & 2-Step Equations
Surprise, surprise! The day started off with a recap warm-up over translating expressions, equations, and inequalities from the day prior. 

Before moving onto the main event for the day, solving 1-step and 2-step equations, I like to take a bit of class to pause and discuss exactly what a solution to an equation even is. So many students in Algebra 1 (or even Algebra 2 for that matter) can solve equations but have no idea what their answer really means. This one page is a great mental reference point for the entire year and should not be skipped over. 3839

Then, with the knowledge of what a solution is in mind, we moved onto solving 1-step and 2-step equations. Checking answers is something that is really important to instill in your students, and it also helps to reinforce the idea of what a solution is. I ask my students to check their answers on every problem that they solve, during the first unit of Algebra 1. 4041

Day 10 – Solving 1-Step & 2-Step Equations Activity Day
Solving equations can be hard, and we’ve been doing a lot of new things, so today, after the warm-up, we did various activities to review solving. My favorite was the 2-Step Equations Mystery Sum Activity (which is an exclusive freebie if you join my email list!) because it’s so collaborative and requires students to work together to spot-check and correct their work. 

Day 11 – Solving 2-Step Inequalities
Last note day of the unit! Prior to solving inequalities, I like to do an investigation to help students internalize when a sign flips, and to see why it’s necessary. Due to the extremely similar nature between solving equations and solving inequalities, I skip over solving 1-step inequalities and just focus on 2-step inequalities. I find this works great for my students and allows us to focus on problems that have components that could trip them up. 

Day 12 – Review
To start off class, we did a recap warm-up over solving 2-Step inequalities and then spent the remainder of the period reviewing for their test. 4748

Day 13 – Test

I hope this post gives you a ton of ideas of how you can start your year in Algebra 1. If you like these notes, you can find them all here

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Fun and Rigorous Activities You Need to Try on Pi Day

Celebrating Pi Day in my classroom hasn’t always been at the top of my list, and at times, I’ve not even been a fan of it at all (please don’t revoke my math teacher card!). Most of the time it just seems like a party day that, ultimately, ends up being a waste of time that I could’ve really used as an extra instructional day. That said, I love to celebrate and have fun as much as anyone, and I think community building is SUCH an important part of a creating a thriving math classroom culture, so I have definitely started to rethink my stance over the years.

I am not shy about saying I think there are some Pi Day activities out there that are a total waste of your time. If you’re honest with yourself about why you’re doing them, then you do you, but I knew that there had to be a better way to help students develop their love for math than just making paper chains.

A few years ago I decided to use Pi Day as an investigation day. The day has two main components:

  • A circle investigation where students will derive the formulas for the circumference and area of a circle. Seriously, how many of your students actually KNOW why C=2πr? I bet you they can sure as heck regurgitate it to you, though. This activity helps put context behind these formulas they’ve been using for years.
  • A coloring activity where students calculate the area and circumference of circles. Each answer should show up twice, providing the color-coding key for the pi-day picture. No this isn’t the most rigorous thing, but it’s the reward for deriving the freaking formulas for circumference and area. They deserve a bit of color and chill time. And every age of student seems to love to color, it’s one of the universal truths of education. I’m telling you, from my freshmen to my seniors, they love coloring.

If you want to add in extra fun, you can give students a slice of pie as a reward for finishing the circle investigation. I’m cheap, so I’m not about to buy 20+ pies, but I’ve had coworkers who have incentivized students to bring in (storebought, of course) pies on Pi Day with small amounts of extra credit or a homework pass. If that’s something you’re interested in, I bet you can get creative.

First things first, let’s take a closer look at the circle investgation. It starts off by letting them discover what pi is, and then they derive the formulas for the circumference and area of a circle. My favorite part is the proof of the area formula for a circle…I think I have it laid out in a really cool way that is also very pattern-based for students. It also allows them to built upon their prior knowledge, which is fantastic! I also have some snazzy GIFs included, which (1) is just plain neat-o, and (2) really helps connect with your visual learners. QR codes are used so your students can pull up the GIFs to get hints and to check themselves.

For the record, all of my students already know the formulas for circumference and area, but I strongly doubt any of them actually know why those formulas work. Most of my students have been regurgitating those formulas for years without actually knowing one bit of the “why” behind why they work. So, from Algebra 1 to Pre-Calc, I think all of my students will really benefit from the conceptual understanding and process of deriving formulas that are introduced in this activity.

In the first investigation, students are to find and measure 5 circles using string and a yard/meter stick. I’m going to let my students go on a bit of a circle scavenger hunt around to school that way they’re not all using the same ones, but I also have 5 circles to print out for classes/students that I know might not be able to handle that amount of freedom. I plan to have my students work in groups of two or three. If you do decide to have them bring in pies, this would be a super fun option for them to measure all the pies (especially if they’re in varying sizes).

After students are done with the three parts of the investigation, they get to move onto the coloring activity to apply what they’ve learned. I don’t know what it is about coloring, but all of my students LOVE to do these types of activities. Regardless of age or gender, they are all down to color. This activity is also self-checking because of the way it’s set up. There are 10 problems in total that are broken up into two columns. Each of the answers from the first column will match up with another answer from the second column. The way that the problems match up creates the color-coding key for the picture.

I would love to know what you do in your class to celebrate Pi Day. Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

If you would like to use these activities in your own class, you can find them here!

Mystery Sum Activities – The Perfect Practice Structure + FREE DOWNLOAD

This winter, I’ve been working with my first ever student teacher. One of the first things that we did was make a list of different practice structures and the benefits of each one. He had definitely heard of some of them from his MAT program, but several of them were brand new. One of the newbies, was a “Mystery Sum” activity, which happens to be one of my all-time favorites. I got to talking with the other math teachers in my department, and none of them had heard of it either!

Since Mystery Sum Group Challenge Activities are one of my favorite practice structures, I figured I’d share all of the details with you! Be forewarned, I will say it’s the most time-consuming of the practice structures if you’re making it from scratch.

To give you an example of how it works, I’ll walk you through my Solving 2-Step Equations Mystery Sum Activity (you can download it for free here, if you join my mailing list!).

Students work in teams of 4 to complete the mystery sum group challenge. The way this activity works is that there are six suits of cards (I make them with a flower, crown, star, peace sign, lightbulb, and phone but you can really use whatever). Each suit has four cards (one for each student). The cards are actually numbered. I always have it set up where the cards within each suit are differentiated as follows:

Card 1 – Basic
Cards 2 & 3 – Basic/Moderate mix
Card 4 – Moderate/Advanced mix

I do let my students know that each card is leveled so they can pick an appropriately challenging problem to work on. They’re pretty good at self-reflecting and choosing the right card.

Once students are in groups of 4, each student gets a work recording sheet, and each group gets an answer recording sheet. Finally, we’re ready to go. Also, teachers, this part is really important, this is an activity that you absolutely MUST have an answer key pre-made. Students will be checking in with you rapid-fire, so you need to be ready. I always include an answer key with my activities, so you don’t have to do any extra prep!

Now that students are in groups and they have all of their supplies, you’re ready to begin! Each group gets a suit of cards (each suit contains 4 cards). Students will take their designated number, and begin solving their problem on their personal work recording sheet. Once students get their answer, they will write it on the group answer recording sheet. After the whole group has finished their problems, they need to find the sum of all of their answers to the problems within that suit. Once the group has found the sum, they can check in with the teacher.

Now, we’re getting to the part that I LOVE so, SO much about this activity! At this point, the group should check in with you about their sum. If they’re correct, then exchange the suit of cards they’re working on for one they haven’t done yet.

If they’re incorrect, that’s where the magic happens! Don’t tell them anything other than the fact that their group has not found the correct sum. It is up to them to work collaboratively to find the error(s). This activity promotes so many things that are the best parts of math class:

  • Collaboration
  • Error analysis
  • Persistence
  • Precision
  • Effective team communication

Plus, it’s differentiated! Seriously, what else could you ask for in an activity?

Once a group has made it through all six levels, I like to have them go become helpers around the room.

It’s fantastic to see students progress over the course of the activity. They may struggle a bit initially (which is a big reason why this is a group activity so they have built-in support), but as they progress, suit through suit, they pick up speed and accuracy.

Hopefully, I’ve given you an idea of why Mystery Sum activities are one of my absolute favorite practice structures around.

If you’d like to try out an activity without having to make one yourself, you can download my Solving 2-Step Equations Mystery Sum activity, here by joining my mailing list! I promise to never spam you, and will only send updates about sales, new resources, giveaways, and the occasional tip or trick that I’ve learned.

The DIY Christmas Tree – Surprisingly Mathematical

Oh, the sweet irony of living in a town that ships Christmas trees all over the nation (seriously, they helicopter them out by the bunch), yet I don’t have room for one in my house.

A few years ago, after seeing a few ideas of DIY space-saving Christmas trees on Pinterest, I was inspired to make my own (or should I say I was inspired to enlist my dad to carry out my vision?).


Supplies Needed:

  • 4×8 plywood
  • Hot glue and a hot glue gun
  • Tree colored garland (I think I used 2 packages of this)
  • Green, yellow, and brown paint
  • Jigsaw
  • Chalk Line
  • Measuring Tape
  • Pencil
  • Picture hanging kit (both to attach to the back of the tree and to the wall)

I bought a piece of 4×8 plywood from HomeDepot or Lowes. I think it was around $13. Again, it was several years ago so some of the details are a bit foggy.  I also got two packages of 30foot garland that looked like pine needles. It was super cheap, around $10 for both packages. I already had all of the other supplies.

Here’s a copy of the original plan I had for my dad:


Originally, I had planned that I wanted the tree to be 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, with a 6-inch stump at the bottom.

My dad had other plans, though. He said that we could reduce the amount of cutting we had to do if we rearranged where we put the tree on the plywood board.  This is how he suggested positioning it:


To simplify things even further, we decided to make the side length of the tree 6 feet, instead of the original 6.18ft. This slightly reduced the height of the tree, but it made for easier measurements.  The original side lengths and heights can be compared using the Pythagorean theorem, or trig if you wanted to!


Once my dad marked off the 6ft line on the left edge of the plywood board, he used his measuring tape to swing an arc around the cutting board, hinging from the upper left corner. Could your students figure out what the radius/diameter of this circle would be? Hint: it’s not 6 feet!

Once he drew the arc, we measured 3 feet across from the 6ft mark on the left edge. At this point, he brought out a chalked line (something I’ve never seen before!). He had me hold it from the upper left corner, and he pulled it to the 3-foot mark along the arc he just made. Once he had it taught, he pulled the string up a bit and then it snapped down on the plywood leaving a very visible, straight chalk line (burnt orange in color).

We then measured off 1.5 on the bottom of the tree, and then made another chalk line from the upper left corner down through the middle of the tree, continuing down a few inches further. Geometry vocabulary that applies: bisection!

We then were able to measure off the stump of the tree. I think I made it 3×6″ or 4×6″.

I used Microsoft Word to make a big star. I printed it, cut it out, then traced it on the plywood.

At this point, it’s time to cut out the tree and the star!


The next thing I did was paint the tree. I happened to have a bunch of dark green spray paint left over from an old project, so I spray painted the tree. For the stump and the star, I used some old Crayola paint that my parents have had since I was a kid (seriously, they’ve had that paint since I was 7 or 8). It worked like a dream!

After the paint is dry, I started to hot-glue down the garland to the tree, in a zig-zag pattern. This is the part that took the longest, by far. It was very useful to have a second person for this.

After all that was done, I hot glued down a picture hanger to the back, and hot glued on the star to the front.

Using just regular ornament hangers, I attached two strings of LED lights and some ornaments.

Here’s the finished project:



Also, right next to the tree I have a wax warmer going with a fir tree scent. It really brings the whole package together.

All in all, I think I spent about $25 on supplies. I love how it looks (it really does look beautiful!), and it’s super easy to store when it’s not in season–I just hang it up in my garage.

I hope you enjoyed reading about how math unexpectedly showed up in my real-world DIY Christmas tree project.


How to Make the Most out of the Last Day Before a Big Holiday Break + GIVEAWAY!

Keeping engagement high the last day before a big break from school (like Thanksgiving or Winter break) can be difficult. Students can barely contain their excitement, teachers are beyond exhausted, and you’ll still find yourself surprised after all these years about exactly how many families decide to begin their breaks a day early.

Here’s what I do…

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Typically, I try to end a unit before going on a large break. I really don’t like having a week (or two!) off in the middle of a unit, so I’ll always try to test before going to break. That being said, I always try to avoid doing it the very last day before break, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the number of students who are absent the day before a big break is astounding. I don’t want to have to go through the hassle of before/after school makeups for 10+ students–plus, the odds that they’ll do as well with a week+ in between is highly unlikely. On a more personal note, I also refuse to give a big test on the last day before a big break because then that means I have to spend my break grading. Teachers deserve breaks, too! Do yourself a solid and plan to give the big assessment the second to last day before a break that way you actually have time to grade.

So, that brings us to the big question…what do you do with that last day before a big break?! I always try to use it as an opportunity to review essential past skills in a game-like format or incorporate in other activities that I normally wouldn’t be able to fit into a unit. For example, before Thanksgiving break, I like to play my Domain & Range of Continuous Functions Connect4 activity with my Algebra 1 class. Domain and range is such a critical skill for success in high school algebra courses (both Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Pre-Calculus focus heavily on it) and is typically a trickier topic for students, so reviewing it at key points throughout the year has really helped improved my students’ long-term skills. We review with a fun Connect4 game, which is essentially like BINGO but 4×4 instead of 5×5. It’s incredibly low prep for us teachers, and the students can never get enough!

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Right before Winter break, I typically review solving one-variable inequalities because we move onto rearranging/graphing two-variable inequalities and systems of inequalities right after we return from break. Having a firm reference is a total plus and makes the future lessons go off much, much easier! To review, I normally use my BINGO game with some individual student whiteboards. Again, as a teacher, this activity is just about as close to no-prep as you can get (just print out a few BINGO cards and you’re set!), but students love it!

Slide1  Slide4

In both cases, since these are topics students have seen before, they think it’s an “easy day,” and are SO into it. What they don’t realize is how important it is to interleave practice and spiral back to core concepts, so this ends up being a total win-win situation.

This is also a great opportunity to do some of the non-content related activities that you’ve been dying to use all year long. Team-building and perseverance-building activities are perfect for this time of year! Here are a few ideas:

  • Play 31-derful (a team-building, strategy/perseverance activity). Here’s a digital version.  (NOTE: this activity is pronounced “thirty-wonderful”). You could totally play this game with a regular deck of cards, too!
  • Spend a class period doing Number Challenges. Here’s a full blog post with free downloads! This activity is great because it reviews order of operation skills, group work norms, and focuses on building perseverance.
  • Play Petals Around the Rose. This is a free online activity where students must figure out the rule for getting the score of a roll of 5 dice. This game is AMAZING! It is a total testament to perseverance. Students will both love it and hate it all at the same time, but they’ll hate it in the best of possible ways–trust me, they will ask you to play it again. Don’t give them any spoilers! They may not figure it out in one class, so keep them waiting. If you have an extra 2 minutes at the end of a class period a week later, play Petals Around the Rose. Everyone finish their quiz early? Play Petals Around the Rose. The only thing you can tell them is that (1) the name of the game is Petals Around the Rose, and the name of the game is everything, and (2) the score is either zero or even.
  • Do a team-building activity like The Maze. This activity is super-low prep and gets your whole class to listen and work as one. Plus, it’s super fun!


Since this time of year is so hectic, I wanted to treat you a bit, so I’m participating in a giveaway! There are two ways you can win:

****Giveaway Open W 11/21 – Su 11/25****

  1. Leave a comment below telling me (a) what the hardest part of the holiday season is for you as a teacher, and (b) what product you’d most like to win from my store (<$10). I will randomly select a winner, and you will be emailed the product of your choosing.
  2. Enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway for a chance to win a $50 gift card to! Again, a winner will be chosen randomly and contacted by email. Make sure to enter the gift card giveaway here!

For additional chances to win, check out these fabulous ladies’ blog posts! I’ve teamed up with each incredible woman, below, to write posts about keeping engagement high and students motivated at this difficult time of the year. Each blog post will have another opportunity to win, so make sure to check them out!

  • Jean from Flamingo Math is writing all about how to keep your students motivated mid-year! Read her tips here!
  • Kristin from Samson’s Shoppe is sharing her top three tips for how you can survive the holiday and testing season! Read her three tips here.
  • Carolyn from Engaging Science Labs shares a super hands-on activity for making a periodic table! As a math teacher, I got a bunch of ideas from per post about how I could apply it to my own classroom!


Number Challenges – A Team-Building Perseverance Challenge

If you’re looking for a great way to get your students working together, talking about math (particularly the order of operations), and working on perseverance, then search no further! This set of Number Challenges is perfect for any secondary math class.


Originally, taken from Math Equals Love, I wanted to reformat her activity because I didn’t have as much wall-space as she did, and I also wanted to add an extra element of reflection to turn the lesson’s focus more to perseverance, than order of operations (the math is definitely a welcome addition, though!).

I used this activity on the first day of school with my Algebra 1 students, but I think it would be perfect for a “top-up” lesson right before a big break. What I mean by that is, throughout the year, some messages need to be revisited and “topped up.” Perseverance and working as a group are always great things to revisit and place an emphasis on so that skills don’t backslide. Sometimes we have to intentionally be explicit when we teach students how to do these skills, so activities like these are a great framework for a larger conversation about the many “soft skills” that come up in a math classroom (like perseverance and teamwork).

To find the original activity instructions, check out Math Equal’s Love’s original blog post! Here’s a link to the plastic pockets I used, which allowed students to write on the papers with a dry erase marker (this is not an affiliate link)!

Here’s the copy of the number challenges! Print them double sided and place them inside of the plastic pockets so students can work on them with dry erase markers! I make two for each level and had groups of 3 working on different number challenges. When they finished one challenge, there was always a different number challenge waiting to go.

Here’s the perseverance reflection form that I had students fill out as an exit slip. It made for fantastic conversations the next day!

If you give it a try, let me know how it goes!

The Maze – A Teambuilding Challenge for Middle & High Schoolers

Teambuilders are not normally “my thing.” Maybe I just don’t have the personality to sell them correctly, but I’ve found they normally are a bit of a letdown, especially with older high schoolers.

On top of that, many of them are designed for the most extroverted of students, which doesn’t sit well with me. Again, that could just be due to my naturally introverted nature.

With all of the above in mind, let me tell you, The Maze went off beautifully! From freshmen to senior, shy to outgoing, everyone loved it!

Here’s how it works:

Create a 4×4 grid. You can use painters/masking tape, chalk (if you’d like to go outside), softball/baseball bases, you name it!


Next, you’ll need to design a secret path through the maze. Here’s the path that I made. IMG_4330

From here, have students make a line or a circle around the grid and have someone start. Students can only move in the four main directions–left, right, forward, and backward. If they are correct, say nothing and allow them to keep going. If they mess up, they go to the back of the line and the next student gets to try.

Students get SO into this and do an incredible job at watching and listening to their classmates. Natural leaders will surface and help coordinate the efforts. As more students try out the maze, the faster and faster they go–always learning from the students before them and being guided by their classmates. By the time someone finally makes it through the maze, the success is celebrated as a class!

After students have made it through the maze, here are some possible future variations:

  • let a student make their own maze and be in charge
  • make students do the maze in total silence, only with non-verbal communication
  • increase the size of the maze. 5×5, 6×6…10×10?!

What are your favorite team building activities for secondary students? Share in the comments below!

Question Stack Templates (10, 12, and 16 problems)

Question stacks have become quite popular on math teacher Twitter due to the blog posts from Math Equals Love.

Making them can sometimes be challenging, so here’s an editable question stack template you can use to save time (it’s a PowerPoint file).

As a pro tip: To make a really quick answer stack, I use Kuta worksheets and add screenshots (using the built-in snip program on my computer) in each box of the original problem and then the answer in the answer box. I’ve uploaded the file in PowerPoint format because it’s much easier to move around screenshot pictures in PowerPoint than it is in Word. If you’d rather hand type things, then please do! The file is 100% editable.


20 Things to Do Before the New School Year: BTS Checklist

It’s that time of year again…you’ve had a bit of a break and now your mind is going wild with ideas for the new school year.   To keep your time and efforts focused (and your stress levels down), I’ve created a list of 20 things to do to prepare for the new school year.

bts teacher checklist

    1. Create a rough pacing guide for the year.
      Without an idea of where you need to be by the end of the year, you will have a tough time adequately spacing out the remainder of the year.  Maybe you have a unit that you LOVE to teach and want to spend more time on it this year–plan for it by figuring out where you can save time elsewhere.  If you’re teaching the same class this year that you taught in the past, reflect about what went well, what didn’t.  Did you feel like your students needed more time on any units in particular?  Also! Don’t forget to add a few buffer days in at the end of the year!  I can’t tell you what they will be, but unexpected things will happen and you need room left in your pacing guide to absorb the unexpected.  Maybe there’s a surprise assembly that gets thrown in at the last minute or someone in the staff lounge burns their popcorn (…for the 3rd time…) and sets the fire alarm off.  Maybe you have a particularly bad weather year and lose time to snow days.  You’ll be happy to know that you have room to push things back a day or two with no stress about having to cut something else at its expense.  When you’re making this rough pacing guide, you don’t need to list out what activities or notes you’ll be giving–just think about what topics you’ll be covering in the unit and how many days you expect to need.  This is what mine looked like for Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 last year.

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  1. Review and reflect upon your classroom procedures and policies.   Were you happy with your classroom management from last year?  If not, this is the time to figure out what you’d like to do differently in the upcoming year.  I also like to remind myself of my behavior management philosophy and protocols that way I’m mentally sharp when a situation might arise.  It is of the utmost importance that you are consistent from day 1.  You also want to consider the day to day procedures you’d like your students to learn and how you’d like to manage the general flow of paper throughout your classroom.   Do you have a plan for what a student should do if they were absent?  What if someone needs to make up a test?  Where will they turn in work? These are just a few questions to consider.  Really think about how you want your classroom to operate.  Out of everything on this list, this “to-do” is the most important because it sets the tone for your year.  Whether you’re a new teacher or a veteran, I would suggest reading my blog post that covers 6 things you can do to stop wasting your own time in the classroom. You can read it here.
  2. Decide on your desk arrangement. 
    At first this may seem like a superficial “to-do,” but hear me out.  The way you arrange your desks has a lot to do with the type of classroom you want to run.  For example, if you plan on doing a bunch of group work, then having your desks arranged in rows is probably not going to allow the type of discourse you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you run a study hall class, then rows could be perfect!  I really like arranging my desks in pairs so students always have someone to bounce ideas off of or in U-shapes so I can easily crouch down in the middle and talk to the group or an individual student.  That being said, I have a colleague who loves arranging her desks in horizontal rows of three.  She loves it and it works great for her.  I tired it and hated it because it was difficult to get in and out to talk to individual students.  There’s no specific arrangement that’s guaranteed to be your classroom bliss, so don’t be afraid to switch it up if you don’t like it after the first few days.
  3. Make a seating chart and label your desks. 
    Whether or not you assign seats or let students pick their own, it’s essential to make a seating chart because it will help you learn those 100+ names SO much faster.  I like to label each desk with a number (bonus: it makes forming groups for activities really easy!) and I have a set of popsicle sticks that have the same numbers that students draw from on the first day to find their new seats.  Once they draw a number, I record their name on the seating chart and refer to it often in the first weeks of school.  Learn more about how I save time creating seating charts here.
  4. Let go of old things.
    Something about teaching seems to really bring out the inner pack-rat in us all.  Go through old papers and RECYCLE things that you haven’t used in years.  If it’s really something you think you might want to use in the future, scan it and then file it in an appropriate folder in your computer (I always have a folder for each class, then semester, then unit so things are easy to find).  At the very least, put all of the paper and old student projects in boxes labeled by semester (or quarter/trimester) and store the boxes away.  If you haven’t gone to the box by the end of that semester, it’s time to LET IT GO! There’s probably a reason you haven’t used the stuff anyway.
  5. Paint/mark calculators and other school supplies.
    Are you a fan of getting your stuff stolen? No? Didn’t think so.  Buy a can of yellow spray paint and spray the back cases of your calculators.  Or, do what I did last year and use metallic sharpie on the tops of each calculator.  I like to do this every year because the paint or sharpie rubs off over the course of a year from frequent (and not always so gentle) student usage.  Also, spend 5-10 minutes sharpie-ing in your school initials on any other supplies you expect students to use frequently and actually want to get back.  Bonus points if you add annoying stickers, tape, flags, etc. that ensure no student would want to keep it unless they really needed it! Last note, this is also helpful for when another teacher needs to borrow some of your supplies because it makes it a lot easier to make sure they return everything to your classroom.
  6. Create weekly agenda region in your classroom.  
    This is a bit of a 2 birds/1 stone item.  Not only does having a weekly agenda displayed in your classroom help you stay focused during the week, but it helps your students stay organized, too.  I like to teach my students to self-advocate if they will be gone in advance or if they were absent, so having a weekly agenda posted is huge for that.
    Classroom Weekly Agenda
  7. Organize your teacher space.
    Maybe it’s just me, but something happens to my desk drawer in the last two weeks of school.  It’s like all of my pens conspire to run out of ink at the same time.  My whiteout has turned into a goopy mess and I have 6 rulers.  SIX!  Spend a few minutes sorting through your supplies and making sure that you actually have supplies that work.  You don’t want to find out that all of your pens have dried out or you don’t have what you need.  It’s one of those small things that allows your day to day to run a bit more smoothly.  Having to track down a pad of sticky notes is the last thing you need to worry about when you have 5 students trying to get your attention.  Also, if it needs tweaking, make sure that your teacher-space (desk, podium) is set up how you like it. Think of all of the things you’ll need and that will come across your desk during the year.  Will those things have a space?  If they don’t, it’ll just end up in a pile, or worse…lost! I have a spot to keep my copies of the notes I give (sorted by period) and a pre-worked key of the examples I plan to give that way I don’t have to go searching for it as a new class is coming in.
  8. Plan out your first day(s) of school. 
    Now that you have the basics out of the way, it’s time to think about how you’re going to set the tone for the year.  The first days of school are so important.  I would suggest telling them a bit about yourself letting them know what to expect during the year (your classroom structure, etc.), and show them that your subject can be FUN! Don’t forget to be incredibly consistent with all of the rules and routines you’ve decided upon for your classroom.  During the first few days, students will notice everything.
  9. Update your syllabus and review your grading scheme. 
    My first year teaching, I had a pair of twins in my Algebra 2 class.  The class was given an assignment to write about the similarities and differences in the process of graphing each of the three main trig functions and, when I went to grade them, the two twins’ essays looked remarkably similar–almost as if they filled out a Mad Lib and just picked different adjectives.  Turns out, one twin snuck into the other’s room and copied her work.  I took this to the administration but since I didn’t have a plagiarism policy in my syllabus, not much happened.  Lesson learned.  Long story short, think about the last school year.  Was there anything that happened that you wish you would’ve had a specific policy stated in your syllabus?  I find it can be incredibly helpful when dealing with parents to be able to say that the policy was fully detailed in the syllabus…which you signed and were aware of.  I, for example, need to be much more specific about the late work and test retake policies for my college credit classes and how those policies differ for students who take the class for college credit or not.  Also, this is a great time to reflect upon your grading scheme.  Is there anyway you can spend less time grading, but still give impactful feedback? If you only give one quiz per unit, did you find that was enough feedback for students along the way?  Maybe you give 2 quizzes per week–were students exhausted or did it motivate them to stay on top of things?  Reflect.  Change what didn’t work and keep what did.
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  10. Set up your class website/Google Classroom site. 
    For years I had a regular classroom website (I used Weebly), but this last year I had a Google Classroom site for my Statistics classes, and I must say that I’m a convert because it took much less time to update.  Whatever platform you plan to use, make sure it’s set up and ready to go that way you can explain it to parents at open house night and show it to students at the beginning of the school year.  I use my classroom site to share review keys with students, a PDF of our textbook, the syllabus, and other useful links.
  11. Create an Open House flyer or presentation. 
    I love to use Open House as a way to share the spirit of the class with parents, but also let them know all of the basic information that will help their student be successful in my class.  I include things like supplies they’ll need, how and when to get help, what to do if you’re absent, etc.  Here’s the flyer that I use each year (you can download it for free!).
    open house flyer template
  12. Prepare emergency sub plans (x3).
    If you have kids or elderly parents, this “to-do” goes double for you.  Most of the time when we need to get a sub, we can adequately prepare sub plans and (most of) our students will be able to engage in some sort of lesson or activity that will move them along in their learning. Unfortunately, to make sub plans like this for all of the different classes I teach in a day normally takes a good hour or two, for me.  If you are ever in a true emergency situation, then you will not have 10 minutes, let alone an hour to work on sub plans.  I have a binder I keep on a bookshelf in my classroom labeled “Emergency Sub Plans” and inside of it I have general classroom policies and expectations and I have three sub plans along with a key for each one.  Next to that binder, I have 200 photocopies for each of those three sub plans put into large, labeled expanding file folders (they expand to 6 inches wide!). Luckily, I have never had to use my emergency sub plans, but I feel better knowing that I have them if I need them.  Here’s what I have for emergency sub plans:

    • Emergency Sub Plan 1: Logic Puzzles
      I have a packet of logic puzzles from Weatherly and emoji logic puzzles from Mrs. E Teaches Math.  I love including logic puzzles because it reinforces group-work norms, paying attention to detail, and the emoji puzzle is really solving equations in disguise.
    • Emergency Sub Plan 2:  Person Puzzles
      I have a ton of “Person Puzzles” that I got from Clark Creative Math that are perfect for an emergency sub plan.  I typically Person Puzzles for a few different topics that I know will always be good to review and revisit.  Students enjoy doing these because they get to learn something new about someone famous, or they get to prove that they were right about them all along.
    • Emergency Sub Plan 3: Pattern Sheets
      I have a bunch of Algebra coloring sheets from Aric Thomas that cover every Algebra topic you can imagine.   These are great because they end up being fairly self-checking.  The way it works is depending on what answer you got, you shade a box with a particular pattern.  If you’re doing it right, the overall image ends up having a cool pattern to it.  Students can easily compare with others to see if their patterns are coming out the same and then can fix any mistakes.  Just like the last emergency sub plan, I pick a few of these that I know my students will always need review on, and use this as an opportunity to keep their skills fresh.
  13. Make a teacher binder.
    A teacher binder should be an extension of you.  What do you need on a daily basis?  How will you keep everything together?  My teacher binder includes a section for my rough year-long pacing guide, weekly plans, PDU log, parent contact log, meeting notes, meeting handouts, CCSS power standards, a mapping that shows how much each standard gets tested on SBAC, and our school schedule (we have three different schedules each week, so I like to have it handy).  It doesn’t need to be fancy, just functional!

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  14. Plan out your first two weeks of content instruction.
    This is a big time investment (unless you have already taught the class for a few years), but it is so worth it and you’ll thank yourself later.  If you can stay a bit ahead from the beginning, your year will run much more smoothly and you won’t find yourself scrambling when something pops up that eats up all of your after school time.  The first weeks of school are exhausting enough, so having a solid plan all worked out will lessen the stress and make the transition into the school year much easier.
  15. Run copies for the first week. 
    Spend a quality hour with the copy machine and print everything you will need for the first week of school.  Aside from having a game-plan for the first week, nothing reduces my stress levels like having all of my papers printed and ready to go.  Have you ever had that gut-sinking experience where you NEED those copies for your first period class only to find out that the copier is broken, out of ink, or out of staples and there’s only 45 minutes before school begins? Just thinking about it induce a feeling of anxiety.  To sleep easier at night and not have to worry about whether or not I’ll be able to make my copies before school starts, I like to get the first weeks worth of copying done well before any of my students ever show up on the first day.
  16. Revise materials from last year.
    If you still have energy at this point, try and review the materials you used last year and see if anything needs revised.  Personally, I’m just way too busy during the school year to fix things as I go so this gets left as a summer task, but I do leave notes to myself or I highlight things I need to change in orange as a note to my future self that something wasn’t right.  You don’t need to fix everything at once, but look through the first few units and see if there’s anything glaring that needs to be changed (like when I wrote “assment” instead of “assignment,” or when I gave my students about 1 vertical inch of space to write something when they really needed 5).
    Revise old notes
  17. Find ways to use your walls as a resource for students. If you’re not utilizing your walls as a resource in your classroom, then you’re missing out!  Think about what your students need frequent reminders of or common themes that continue throughout your course and think of ways you could create a reference section on your wall.  My favorite sections on my wall are the perfect squares/perfect cubes area, my special right triangle area, and then the parent functions area.  I use these three sections in Algebra 1 through Pre-Calculus nearly every single day.  My wall almost becomes a public record of our learning and the common themes of math.  Whatever it is that you teach (from English, History, Science, Math, Art, etc.), think about what’s essential to your subject.  If you teach math, here’s a few free wall displays to get you started!  One last thing on this topic: don’t worry about making it super pretty.  Your first priority should be function.  If you have the time to make your classroom walls #pinterestgoals worthy and doing so would make you happy, then go for it! Otherwise, make it functional and your students will get the exact same use out of it either way.
    Use your walls as a resource!
  18. Prepare a few freezer meals!
    Okay, so my last two “to-do’s” aren’t about school, but they are important.  I like to prepare a few freezer meals (meals that you pre-prepare and store in the freezer until you’re ready to just pop them in the oven or crockpot) before the school year starts.  Teaching can take a LOT of our energy and time, and taking care of ourselves can easily fall to the wayside.  I don’t know about you, but some nights I come home and am just not up to cooking.  Luckily, I know I have a few back-ups in the freezer that I can just transfer straight into the oven for an hour and then we’ll have a nutritious dinner ready with about 1 minute of work (take out of freezer, put into oven, done!). If you search Pinterest for freezer meals, you’ll come up with more recipes than you could ever possibly make.
  19. Relax, seriously!
    Like I touched on in the last point, teachers have a tendency to overwork themselves and not take enough time to fully recuperate from the previous school year.  You can’t be your best teacher if you’re not feeling your best, so take care of yourself.  Enjoy your summer vacation! Do something you love, spend time with your family, have a few lazy days (or a lot, you’ve earned them!). Don’t feel like you have to do everything on this list.  Feel free and take my permission to treat it as food for thought and pick and choose what works for you.

If there’s anything else that you make sure to do each year, let me know in the comments! Also, if you’d like to know more about any of these “to-do’s,” let me know and I’ll gladly make a separate post!

This post is part of a back-to-school tip series designed to help get secondary STEM classrooms set up for success!  To read more amazing BTS tips check out these links: