First Day

This year I am teaching three classes: AP Calculus AB, Geometry A, and Applied/Consumer Math. I taught Geometry A last year but the other two are new to me. Each class did a different activity but they all had a similar theme.

In all classes, we started with Kate Nowak’s Snowball Activity followed by her “Who I Am” sheet. (I told you I was lurking last year) This got students out of their seats and talking to each other. I am always amazed how quiet students are on the first day. I know that won’t last for long! From there each class had a different activity.

AP Calc: I had 10 Fermi problems and each group of 3 or 4 picked a random problem. They worked on group whiteboards and shared out to the class. The group that estimated the number of hairs on your head actually used a group members head to estimate 1 square inch and then they counted the number of hairs in this one square inch estimate.  Students were immediately engaged and enjoyed hearing other groups’ problems.

Applied/Consumer Math: These two classes completed the Marshmallow Challenge. Many of you have done this so I won’t take time to explain it. Out of two sections the best was 20.5″.

CaptureThis group built a tall structure and when they placed the marshmallow on top, it started to sag. As you can see they used the string to anchor the tower. It took them a few times to find the perfect balance point but after they did it was relatively sturdy.





Geometry A: These students worked in partners on this activity stolen from Brooke Holt. She does a great job at describing the outcomes so if you are interested in reading more about it check it out.

After all classes finished their activities we debriefed. Why did we do this? What went well? What didn’t go well? I took notes of conversations that were happening and brought up some of these.

After this, I showed all my classes the same PowerPoint. It started with the old woman, young woman optical illusion which you may have seen before.



I had students come to the board and point out what they saw. Lots of “oohs and aahs” when they saw the one they had not originally seen.

Then I showed them this,



Unlike the first slide, I asked them to shout out as soon as they had an answer. Of course, everyone said 5. Is that what you said? You’re correct, but did you notice that he has 6 fingers……

Again, “oohs and aahs”


I showed a couple other images similar to these. Just about when we were finished I would always have a student who would bite. “Why are we doing this?” or “What does this have to do with math?” Great question. I would then get on my soapbox and talk about good habits of a mathematician. To not rush into a problem and just look for the answer (How many red balls). To talk to others because they offer different perspectives (old woman, young woman). To be not so concerned with the answer as the process (AP Calc activity). To test hypotheses and fail before you succeed (marshmallow challenge). The importance of asking questions and communicating when working together (Geometry A drawing activity). I then showed all students this flow chart which I saw this summer at a PD and loved.


I talked about not getting stuck in the loop of surface knowledge and confusion. I stressed that it is okay to be confused in math class (paused and waited for those looks) but as long as you push forward and do the things listed you will succeed.

Right before getting off my soapbox I listed many ways to be “smart in math class.” None of these things involved the answer.

To finish each class I handed out and quickly talked about the boring syllabus.

I hope this first day sets the tone for the year. The first couple of weeks I want to make sure I point out specific instances in class where students are doing the sort of things I talked about on the first day.


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