Monday, May 30, 2016



Good for sports, bad for surgeries, okay for a test, depending on your standards.

I'm very grateful to Anne for starting #MTBoS30, and the early adopters that greased the skids for me to do it to. I've blogged more this month than I did all last year!

The posts I'm the most glad I wrote:
  • Queen of Quilts - just for the appreciation of Elizabeth, but I like that GeoGebra bit a lot as well.
  • Not Subtracting - such an opportunity, to tagalong in a conversation with Dan Meyer, Marilyn Burns and the MTBoS.
  • Commentary - for a reminder to myself to think this out. My colleague Clark Wells said this is what he was talking to me about, so there's hope for more local discussion.
  • More Tessallations - for the chance to share student work and math I love. Several students have blogged about it since, and I love that kind of resonance.
Amazingly I still haven't gotten to everything I wanted to write about. A couple of new games, some lessons from last semester, some hand drawn mathart, and the 3rd grade mathart project. (And the Hamilton song parody.)

My take away from the month is that I like blogging. Why don't I do it more?  I think because I've forgotten the reason I started, which is the reason I ask my students to write and try to get my kids to write. It is good for you on the atomic level. The conversation, the curation, the community - those are excellent side dishes. Writing makes you think.

So do I make a commitment to more? 2/month, 1/week, every Monday? I don't know - I'm not very good at these commitments. After not having given up the MTBoS30 each morning, I know I should be ready to be Dread Pirate Roberts. But I'll settle for being a member of the Goon Squad.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

All the Way

Missed another #MTBoS30 post yesterday, but it was in the service of a day chock full from 6 am to midnight, so no regrets. Time with one of the bravest people I've ever met, my son doing well on his first dan (permanent blackbelt) tae kwon do test, church, dinner with family...

With a free Sunday morning, we (as a family, even) finally got to watch the Lyndon Johnson biographical movie All the Way.

It's amazing.

I'm 51 (with considerable less grace and style than this 51 year old) and this was my birth year. I don't remember it, then, but this was the backdrop of my first memories. Kennedy and King being shot, Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate was what I knew about politics and government. It was amazing to watch this movie, with its decidedly modern viewpoint. It took decades for me to move beyond childish black and white images of these people and my black and white judgment of their actions. The filmmakers are good at filming what was actually said then in a way that makes connections to today possible.

Looking back, it's so easy to identify the right side of history. To see bigotry and name it when we are free of it (we think!). My spouse is excellent at challenging us (okay, me) to see what is inequitable now.

One of the things I enjoyed most was seeing Robert Moses portrayed as a young man, working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That fits seemlessly into his work as a math educator. The Algebra Project, interviews (on a Selma anniversary, NPR), or his book Radical Equation. He is one of my dearest heroes.

In All the Way, Dr. Moses is portrayed as too radical to effect change. To be so convicted to principle that he can not compromise for some gains. Dr. Moses makes direct connection between the idea of civil rights and the empowerment of mathematics education. It's so complicated, it could be easy to walk away, and understandable when people do. Education cannot solve poverty, but it's such a necessary part of any solution.

Are we not able to affect change because we need an LBJ? Someone with the conviction that can see a path to equitable education and is enough of an asshole to get it done? I think we are accountable both for holding and proclaiming the principles and doing the problem solving to get to a better place. But I am on one side of it, and often in danger of fighting the LBJs who are probably on our side.

I am humbled by how generally useless academics are in society.

One of the reasons that the Math-Twitter-Blog-o-Sphere (almost as ridiculous sounding as "snick") is so encouraging to me. We are self-organizing and devoted to the education of kids independent of what the government or publishers or pundits say. Now I'd love to see the NCTM play the role of the NAACP in pursuing systemic change, too, but I'll take what I can get. And this band of teachers, working one or six classes of students at a time is getting a lot. God bless you all in your work.

We will overcome.

PS. In the Selma anniversary interview, Dr. Moses is asked what he'd like to hear President Obama say in his address. Re responds: "I'd like to hear him speak about education. We can do all we want about voting and everything else, but if we don't provide an education for every child in this country that's what they need for the 21st century then we will just be sending them to the criminal justice system. We do not have in this country an education system that is dedicated to educating every child, so I'd like to hear him speak out about that." Me, too.

Friday, May 27, 2016


Not too much time today, so I'll just post the GeoGebra thing I've been working on.

I have a Tumblr account as well as this blog, it's a fun mathematical space, and the reblogging is an interesting spin on curation. Here's a post I wrote for a 'my favorites' at Twitter Math Camp 16 to help #MTBoS folk get started on Tumblr.

One of my favorite ever mathart sources was @tilman's  There's a site that has a bit of a similar flavor,

The other day, they had this:

Nice, right? Rotating ellipses... what I always try to think of is how can this be generalized? Rotating conic sections (definitely sometime will do!)... what if it didn't just rotate around a point? What if it followed a curve? One idea I really liked from the dailyminimal was having a start and stop point. So ...

el bigote
You can choose how many ellipses, make your own parametric curve or hit the random button, design your own ellipse, use the red and green to pick starting and stopping point... hopefully lots of flexibility.

On GeoGebraTube, so go play. If you make something cool, let me know!

Thursday, May 26, 2016


In the Nature of Mathematics course we were talking about China today. The main activity was the students trying to figure out the nets that make the Liu Hui solids, which I learned about from Jennifer Silverman. It's wonderful seeing the students engage in 2D/3D thinking. Today we started with the Tangram instead of Magic Squares, because the students had been frustrated with Archimedes Stomachion. They were challenged, but successful, and we got onto some neat puzzles in some groups using multiple sets and making squares of different sizes.

Here's the handout:

But what I wanted to write a note about was the idea of commentary. Mathematics in China followed a bit different path than in other ancient cultures, perhaps because there was more prevalent instruction. Lost is the origin of their ancient text, Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Arts. Instead of the advance coming from a collater, the big jump was Liu Hui writing a commentary on the text. To get the feeling of it, I asked students to solve one or more of the sample problems:

Chapter 6:12. A good runner can go 100 paces while a poor runner covers 60 paces. The poor runner has covered a distance of 100 paces before the good runner sets off in pursuit. How many paces does it take the good runner before he catches up the poor runner.

Chapter 7:1. Certain items are purchased jointly. If each person pays 8 coins, the surplus is 3 coins, and if each person gives 7 coins, the deficiency is 4 coins. Find the number of people and the total cost of the items.

7:18. There are two piles, one containing 9 gold coins and the other 11 silver coins. The two piles of coins weigh the same. One coin is taken from each pile and put into the other. It is now found that the pile of mainly gold coins weighs 13 units less than the pile of mainly silver coins. Find the weight of a silver coin and of a gold coin.

Chapter 8: 1. Top-grade ears of rice, one bundle, medium grade ears of rice, two bundles, low grade ears of rice, one bundle, makes 39 dou. Top-grade ears of rice two bundles, medium grade ears or rice three bundles, low grade ears of rice one bundle makes 34 dou. Top-grade ears if rice one bundle, medium grade ears of rice two bundles, low grade ears of rice three bundles makes 26 dou.
And then to write a commentary on it. This is new territory. So I had them share in groups, and pick someone to share with the class.

Mostly what they shared was their solution, so I asked a commentary type prompt after each. Usually I'd be hesitant to put people on the spot, but these are senior students and we've had a pretty open classroom culture so far. I asked about solving with different representations, how you would describe in general the solution method, and an extension question about the mathematics. As they got into those discussions, it occurred to me that this might be a good framework for thinking about writing in our foundations classes. As the students discussed the idea of commentary, they noted that it seemed like a good way to draw attention to the idea of generalization, and a support for student reflection.

So thanks, Liu Hui! We'll see if I can get students writing their own commentaries on the mathematical arts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Polygonal Spiral

I have a fascination with spirals. Exhibit 1, my GeoGebraTube materials, searched for spirals:

That's some of them...

By the way, if you haven't been following Megan Schmidt's spiral adventures, you're missing out.

I've been interested in polygonal spirals for a while, but then my student Andrew's tessellation got me thinking again.
It's Archimedean since the spirals have a kind of constant width. At first I thought it was triangular, but it's clearly hexagonal. Interesting that two of them fit together to fill the space... that's something I need to think about more.

To build them in GeoGebra I made a list of N directional unit vectors, and then a scaling sum to get a spiral of points, like 1*v_1, 1*v_1+2*v_2, 1*v_1+2*v_2+3*v_3, ... with a modular function to reuse vectors in order.

Then I connected up to points 1/Nth of the way to corresponding vertices to make trapezoids. Then I rotated them N times, around a center I located by intersecting the perpendicular bisectors of points I wanted to correspond.

GeoGebra geek paragraph: The colors are the hardest thing to get, because in GeoGebra you can't set the color of different elements of a list. My current workaround was suggest by someone on the GeoGebra forums a few years ago, and I keep reworking it.
Execute[Sequence["Delete[R_{"+i+"}]", i, 1, oldN]]
Execute[Sequence["Delete[R_{"+i+"}]", i, 1, oldN]]
Execute[Sequence["R_{"+i+"}=Element[list8, "+i+"]", i, 1, N]]
Execute[Sequence["SetDynamicColor[R_{"+i+"},  "+i/8+","+(.5+(i*(-1)^i)/(2*N))+","+1-i/8+",.75]", i, 1, N]]
Essentially you constantly create and destroy objects from the elements in your list, and then set their color.

Usually I have a list of color names and run through them with the SetColor, but in this one I wanted a higher opacity, so made up a way to set R, G and B values in the SetDynamicColor command. 

Here's the result! It was hard to think about how else to dynamicize it, since it's a pretty rigid structure. Any ideas?

On GeoGebraTube, too.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Khayyam's Cubic

So I'm going to try to think aloud about something I asked my students to do today. It's on this activity, about one of our greatest human minds (IMHO), Omar Khayyam. No reason for this guy to be less famous than Leonardo.

How would you try to solve \( x^3+x=4 \)?

So first I think about some concrete values. 0+0=0, 1+1=2, 8+2=10. OK, one solution between 1 & 2. No negative solution. Accessing calculus (which seems like cheating) derivative is \( 3x^2+1 \) so monotone increasing. I think that means this is a root with multiplicity 3, as one root, two imaginary is an 'S-curve' as my students say with the one root. (I should look into that at some point.)

Algebraically, I think about factoring as is, which seems like no help. If I'm right about \( (x-a)^3 \) for some \( a \)... that means \( x^3 - 3 a x^2+3 a^2 x-a^3=x^3+x-4 \). So is \( a=4^{1/3} \)? That doesn't work! And then there's no way for \( 3 a x^2 \) to be zero. So I take back what I said about multiplicity! (I really do have to look at that more.)

So next I would look at numerically grinding it out. Something closer to 1 than 2 and proceed from there.

To solve it with a graphing calculator - piece of cake. At least for a decimal approximation.  Here it is
on Desmos, along with Khayyam's geometric solution.

The last thing I want to do is to verify that his solution works. The question of how did he derive this is important, but I'm not going to get to it here.

So the equation of the circle is \( (x-b/2a)^2+y^2=(b/a)^2 \) and the parabola \( y=x^2/ \sqrt(a) \). So... hmm. Substituting the parabola equation into the circle gets us a quartic!

So why a circle? It gets us a right triangle, which gives us proportions.
\[ \frac{x}{(x^2/ \sqrt{a})} = \frac{x^2/ \sqrt {a}}{b/a - x} \\
\frac{\sqrt {a}}{x} = \frac{x^2/ \sqrt {a}}{b/a - x} \\
a(b/a-x) = x^3 \\
b - ax = x^3 \\
b = x^3 + ax \]


(The mathjax is displaying odd for me, \( \sqrt a \) is square root.)

I did think it was interesting that none of the students had any idea how Khayyam was drawing parabolas before graphing. Maybe we'll have to do some directrix learning.

p.s. Deborah Kent and Milan Sherman (Drake University) wrote a great extended piece on this.

Monday, May 23, 2016

More Tessellations

In class we talk about Islamic tessellation art, going from this Google doc with images and resources. (The student's Google doc is editable, and they add their work to it. The full class one is 30 pages now of previous classes work!) Then the students get free time with pattern blocks, grid paper and some online applets.

Some of my students' work. With a few of my attempts at think further questions...

 Erin blogged about this, too.

 Anthony made this on triangular grid paper. I think I wished he differentiated the cubes a bit - but it's his vision!

 Very interesting tessellation from Becca. She made this cool piece and then saw what she could make from it. In our Facebook group I asked "So the fundamental domain is the smallest piece that repeats to fill the page. What might that be here?"

Marty made these two. The hexagonal symmetry is a powerful pull with pattern blocks.

 Is Heather's hexagonal? On FB I asked: "Hmmm... so what's the ratio of red to blue if you go on to fill the whole plane?"

I thought there were interesting connections between Brianna's pattern blocks and Nick's triangular grid design.

On FB I asked about Brianna's: "Another good one for the fundamental domain question: what's the smallest set of blocks that you could repeat to make the whole pattern? I think this one would include parts of blocks!"

One more from in class: Andrew made overlapping triangles and was seeing what would happen.

Some work shared on the tessellation page:

Some Math Toybox creations from Hannah.


Jordan's triangular grid creation and Kourtney's square grid.

A few more rolling in:
Tabatha's online tessellation - nice detail work around the red vertices.

Nick's (the other one) square grid. He notes "I did try to get alot going in this. all of the negative space (not colored in) creates triangles. each center piece, negative space square behind center pieces, the Octagonal shapes around the negative squares, all rotate from left to right, clockwise. all of the corner pieces reflect from column to column horizontally and vertically. Embarrassing enough it took me a long to make this work. The initial "pattern" i thought of like a stamping, which would be the top and bottom row. then I worked inwards."

And we'll finish with Andrew's finished work. I like the Archimedean polygonal spiral... might have to make something like that.


Sunday, May 22, 2016


Daniel Mentrard is one of my GeoGebra heroes. The guy can seemingly do anything, and he is generous with help for his lessors.

Recently he posted this:

Don't stare too long - this is hypnotoad territory.

I misunderstood it. I thought it was a single triangular tile, sometimes flipped and sometimes rotated. So I got playing around with it, trying to generalize to other cases than the hexagonal. I made a simple triangle, with two triangles in it. The red has vertices on the border, and the blue has vertices in the region. (The commands are Point[<object>] for the first, and PointIn[<region>] for the second.) The other command is Sequence. The basic structure is usually something like Sequence[Rotate[thing, i*360o/n, centerpt],i,1,n].

GeoGebraGeek paragraph: The fine point in this one is I wanted it do do something differently for 2, 4, 6 than for 8, 10, 12. So I defined a Boolean variable, a = n >7. Booleans read as both true/false and 1/0. The numeric is handy for dynamic coloring (eg. turn something green if it's where you want it) or for goofy stuff like this; Sequence[Rotate[thing, i*(1+a)*360o/n, centerpt],i,1,n/(1+a)]. That makes it skip every other side for the values where they'd overlap.

Then some motions and - voilà - you get a kind of tiling.
I like the hexagonal and the square symmetries the best. Though that dodecagonal could be neat with a complementary triangle tile for the gaps.

With World Tessellation Day coming up, I've been thinking about tessellations a lot. I've mostly concentrated on Escher style, but I think I want to look more into decorating plainer tiles and then seeing the results of the symmetries, too.

The sketch is on for play, of course. (Some of my other tessellations are in this geogebrabook.)

Now I'm thinking one of the decorations should have been a quadrilateral. Next time!

A gif of using the sketch; A decagonal symmetry.

Square symmetry and dodecagonal for the same decorations.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


Just a cartoon.

With love for all the great WODB out there.

And a HT for @mathtans.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Learning Slow

My spouse and I have been learning Tai Chi with a seniors' class, and it is awesome.

We've been going for maybe 15 months, and we haven't finished the first form yet. (Yang 24)

Marna is the teacher, and she is great. She knows her students, what they need, and how to help them reach it. She does lots of formative assessment, watching us, trying just hands and just feet, sometimes having us watch her. If a student forgets, it's okay. If a student is new, "just fudge it until you understand." She lets us know the benefits of what we are doing. She shares with us stories from when she learned from Paul Lam. She knows that doing what we're doing is the point. Even if some students really want to know and keep the form.

We had a short break while she had two knees replaced, and then she was back teaching exercise classes over two counties.

I'm learning patience as a learner. I hope I'm learning patience as a teacher.

As well as to focus on what doing math is doing for my students.

Let's breathe, shall we?

p.s. I know the title sounds like bad grammar, but it's what I mean.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alphabet Introduction

Tina remembered this from LiveJournal... which for some reason made me have to do it, because I almost did it when I saw it on Anne's blog for the same reason. #MTBoS pressure?

A- Age: 51
B- Biggest fear: devastating situations for my kids. (I want challenges for them though...) And spiders.
C- Current time: 2:56 pm
D- Drink you last had: french pressed Sumatran
E- Every day starts with: checking email and Twitter
F- Favorite song: Non-Stop, Hamilton
G- Ghosts, are they real? Yes
H- Hometown: Grand Haven, MI
I- In love with: mathy pictures
J- Jealous of: the GVSU folks in Tanzania
K- killed someone?: Whosoever has anger in their heart...
(K- kitchen; last meal you've cooked: kielbasa and roasted veggies.)
L- Last time you cried? all the time. I'm a mushball.
M- Middle name: John
N- Number of siblings: two
O- One wish: healing for Alex
P- Person you last called: Karen (spouse)
Q- Question you’re always asked: what are you?
R- Reason to smile: no matter what, God is good.
S- Song last sang: Cabinet Battle #2
T- Time you woke up: 6:20
U- Underwear color: superhero
V- Vacation destination: TMC16. Dream... Puerto Rico or back to Ireland.
W- Worst habit: procrastination
Y- Your favorite food: peanut butter
X- X-Rays you’ve had: Teeth
Z- Zodiac sign: disbelief
(Z- last zoo you visited: John Ball Zoo)

(my suggested alternatives)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Brown vs Board of Education

62 damn years. And still the New York Times can print this:

Why this does not fill everyone with rage, I cannot understand.

This does not include Title I, which was designed to make supplemental education for lower income students possible. Over and over statistics show that we are falling short. The best predictor for success in school is zip code.

Is this just unfixable? If it is, is it because of financial inequality? History of white privilege? Racism, current, prior, explicit, implicit?

Man, I'm bumming myself out.

I'm part of the problem. I work at a university that struggles to increase diversity, despite being within 30 miles of 3 very diverse cities. My kids go to a 95%+ white high school, because we had a chance to live close to the water and couldn't resist.

From where will hope come?

I know education helps, but expecting education to fix inequality while being broken is foolhardy and unfair.

Empowerment is the only way out. And math has to be part of it.

Sorry to be a downer. Recommendations from me include: