# Monthly Archives: November 2017

## The Structure of Parabolas

A year ago, I first envisioned and then taught the parabola as the sum of a parabola and a line.The standard form parabola, ax2 + bx + c, is the result of a line with slope b and y-intercept c added to a parabola with a vertex at the origin, with vertical stretch a.   This insight came after my realization that a parabola is the product of two lines (although I wrote this up later than the first).

I didn’t teach algebra 2 last semester, so I’ve only now been able to try my new approach. I taught functions as described in the second link. So the students know the vertex form of the parabola. Normally, I would then move to the product of two lines, binomial multiplication, and then teach the standard form, moving back to factoring.

But I’ve been mulling this for a few months, and decided to try teaching standard form second. So first, as part of parent functions, cover vertex form. Then linear equations. As part of linear equations, I teach them how to add and subtract functions.  As an exercise, I show them that they can add and subtract parabolas and lines, too.

So after the linear equations unit, I gave them a handout:

I don’t do much introduction here, except to tell them that the lighter graphs are a simple parabola and a line. The darker graph is the sum of the parabola and the line. What they are to do is explore the impact of the line’s slope, the b, on the vertex of the parabola, both the x and y values. We’d do that by evaluating the rate of change (the “slope” between two points of a non-linear equation) and looking for relationships.

Now, I don’t hold much truck with kids making their own discoveries. I want them to discover a clear pattern. But this activity also gives the kids practice at finding slopes, equations of lines, and vertex forms of a parabola. That’s why I felt free to toss this activity together. Even if it didn’t work to introduce standard form, it’d be a good review.

But it did work.  Five or six students finished quickly,  found the patterns I wanted, and I sent them off to the next activity. But most finished  the seven parabolas in about 40 minutes or so and we answered the questions together.

Questions:

1. Using your data, what is the relationship between the slope of the line added (b) and the slope (rate of change) from the y-intercept to the vertex?
Answer: the slope (b) is twice the slope from the y-intercept to the vertex.
b2= rate of change
2. What is the relationship between the slope of the line added (b) and the x-value of the vertex?
Answer: the x value of the vertex is the slope of the line divided by negative 2.
b⁄-2= x value of the vertex
3. What is the relationship between the y-intercept of the line and the y-intercept of the parabola?

Note: I made it very clear that we were dealing only with a=1, no stretch.

The activity was very useful–even some strong kids screwed up slope calculations because they counted graph hash marks rather than looking at the numbers. Some of the graphs went by 2s.

So then, they got a second handout:

Here, they will find the slope (rate of change!) from the y-intercept to the vertex and double it. That’s the slope of the line added to the parabola (b!). The y-intercept of the line is the same as the parabola.

The first example, on the left, has a -2 rate of change from vertex to y-intercept. Since a=1, that means b=-4. The y-intercept is 8. The equation in standard form is therefore
x2 -4x + 8. In vertex form, it’s (x-2)2 +4.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish up this handout and go onto the next step: no graph, just a standard form equation. So given y=x2 -8x + 1, you know that the rate of change is -4, and the x-value of the vertex is 4. Draw a vertical line at x=4, then sketch a line with a slope of -4 beginning at (0,1).

This may seem forced, but students really have no idea how b influences the position of the vertex. I’m hoping this will start them off understanding the format of the standard form. If not, well, there’s the whole value of practicing slope and vertex form I can fall back on. But so far, it’s working really well.

By late tomorrow or Monday, we’ll be formalizing these rules and determining how an increase or decrease in a changes these relationships. So I hope to have them easily graphing parabolas in standard form by Monday. Yes, I’ll show them they can just plug x to find y.

Then we’ll talk about factored form, and go to binomial multiplication.

I’ll try to report back.

## The Evolution of Equals

High school math teachers spend a lot of time explaining to kids that all the things we told you before ain’t necessarily so. Turns out, for example, you can subtract a big number from a smaller one.  Fractions might be “improper” if the numerator is larger than the denominator, but they’re completely rational so long as both are integers. You can take a square root of a negative number.  And so on.

Other times, though, we have to deal with ambiguities that mathematicians yell at us about later. Which really isn’t fair. For example, consider the definition of variable and then tell me how to explain y=mx+b. Or function notation–if f(x) = 3x + 7,  and f(3) = 16, then what is f(a)? Answer: f(a) = 3a+7. What’s g(x)? Answer: A whole different function. So then you introduce “indeterminate”–just barely–and it takes a whole blog post to explain function notation.

Some math teachers don’t bother to explain this in class, much less in blogs. Books rarely deal with these confusing distinctions. But me, I soldier on. Solder? Which?

Did you ever think to wonder who invented the equal sign? I’m here to wonder for you:

Robert Recorde, a Welsh mathematician, created the equal sign while writing the wonderfully named Whetstone of Witte. He needed a shortcut.

“However, for easy manipulation of equations, I will present a few examples in order that the extraction of roots may be more readily done. And to avoid the tedious repetition of these words “is equal to”, I will substitute, as I often do when working, a pair of parallels or twin lines of the same length, thus: = , because no two things can be more equal.”

First of his examples was:  or 14x+15=71.

Over time, we shortened his shortcut.

Every so often, you read of a mathematician hyperventilating that our elementary school children are being fed a false concept of “equals”. Worksheets like this one, the complaint goes, are warping the children’s minds:

I’m not terribly fussed. Yes, this worksheet from EngageNY is better. Yes, ideally, worksheets shouldn’t inadvertently give kids the idea that an equals signs means “do this operation and provide a number”. But it’s not a huge deal. Overteaching the issue in elementary school would be a bad idea.

Hung Hsi Wu, a Berkeley math professor who has spent a decade or more worrying about elementary school teachers and their math abilities, first got me thinking about the equals sign:

I don’t think this is a fit topic for elementary school teachers, much less students. Simply advising them to use multiple formats is sufficient. But reading and thinking about the equals sign has given me a way to….evolve, if you will…my students’ conception of the equals sign.  And my own.

Reminder: I’m not a mathematician. I barely faked my way through one college math course over thirty years ago. But I’ve found that a few explanations have gone a long way to giving my students a clearer idea of the varied tasks the equals sign has. Later on, real mathematicians can polish it up.

### Define Current Understanding

First, I help them mentally define the concept of “equals” as they currently understand it. At some point early on in my algebra 2 class, I ask them what “equals” means, and let them have at it for a while. I’ll get offerings like “are the same” and “have the same value”, sometimes “congruent”.

After they chew on the offerings and realize their somewhat circular nature, I write:

8=5+2+1

8=7

and ask them if these equations are both valid uses of the equal signs.

This always catches their interest. Is it against the law to write a false equation using an equals sign? Is it like dividing by 0?

Ah, I usually respond, so one of these is false? Indeed. Doesn’t that mean that equations with an equals sign aren’t always true? So what makes the second one false?

I push and prod until I get someone to say mention counting or distance or something physical.

At this point, I give them the definition that they can already mentally see:

Two values are equal if they occupy the same point on a number line.

So if I write 8=4*2, it’s a true equation if  8 and 4*2 are found at the same point on the number line. If they aren’t, then it’s a false equation, at least in the context of standard arithmetic.

So if the students think “equals” means “do something”, this helps them out of that mold.

Then I’ll write something like this:

4x-7=2(2x+5)

Then we solve it down to:

0=17

By algebra 2, most students are familiar with this format. “No solution!”

I ask how they know there’s no solution, and wait for them all to get past “because someone told me”. Eventually, someone will point out that zero doesn’t in fact, equal 17.

So, I point out, we start with an equation that looks reasonable, but after applying the properties of equality, otherwise known as “doing the same thing to both sides”, we learn that the algebra leads to a false equation. In fact, I point out, we can even see it earlier in the process when we get to this point:

4x = 4x+17

This can’t possibly be true, even if it’s  not as instantly obvious as 0=17.

So I give them the new, expanded definition. Algebraic equations aren’t statements of fact. They are questions.

4x-7=2(2x+5) is not a statement of fact, but rather a question.

What value(s) of x will make this equation true?

• x= specific value(s)
• no value of x makes this true
• all values of x makes this true.

We can also define our question in such a way that we constrain the set of numbers from which we find an answer. That’s why, I tell them, they’ll be learning to say “no real solutions” when solving parabolas, rather than “no solution”. All parabolas have solutions, but not all have real solutions.

This sets me up very nicely for a dive back into linear systems, quadratics with complex solutions, and so on. The students are now primed to understand that an equation is not a statement of fact, that solutions aren’t a given, and that they can translate different outcomes into a verbal description of the solution.

An identity equation is one that is true for all values of x. In trigonometry, students are asked to prove many trigonometric identities,, and often find the constraints confusing. You can’t prove identities using the properties of equality. So in these classes,  I go through the previous material and then focus in on this next evolution.

Prove: tan2(x) + 1 = sec2(x)

(Or, if you’re not familiar with trig, an easier proof is:

Prove: (x-y)2 = x2-2xy+y2

Here, again, the “equals” sign and the statement represent a question, not a statement of fact. But the question is different. In algebraic equations, we hypothesize that the expressions are equal and proceed to identify a specific value of x unless we determine there isn’t one. In that pursuit,  we can use the properties of equality–again, known as “doing the same thing to both sides”.

But  in this case, the question is: are these expressions equal for all values of x?

Different question.

We can’t assume equality when working a proof. That means we can’t “do the same thing to both sides” to establish equality. Which means they can’t add, subtract, square, or do other arithmetic operations. They can combine fractions, expand binomials, use equivalent expressions, multiply by 1 in various forms. The goal is to transform one side and prove that  both sides of the equation occupy the same point on a number line regardless of the value of x.

So students have a framework. These proofs aren’t systems. They can’t assume equality. They can only (as we say) “change one side”, not “do the same thing to both sides”.

I’ve been doing this for a couple years explicitly, and I do see it broadening my students’ conceptual understanding. First off, there’s the simple fact that I hold the room. I can tell when kids are interested. Done properly, you’re pushing at a symbol they took for granted and never bothered to think about. And they’ll be willing to think about it.

Then, I have seen some algebra 2 students say to each other, “remember, this is just a question. The answer may not be a number,” which is more than enough complexity for your average 16 year old.

Just the other day, in my trig class, a student said “oh, yeah, this is the equals sign where you just do things to one side.” I’ll grant you this isn’t necessarily academic language, but the awareness is more than enough for this teacher.

## Teaching with Indirection

Technology is a great illustrator and indispensable for presentation. But as a student tool? Eh, not so much. Certainly not laptops.   I found laptops very useful in my history class, but primarily as a delivery and retrieval mechanism, or for their own presentations.  I haven’t found that a compelling reason to submit to the logistics of handing out and collecting laptops. But then, I’m a Luddite on this.  Recently, some colleagues were jazzed with several thousand dollars of cool science tools which I oohed and ahhed over politely. But….? Basically data collection. Fast data collection, which the students can analyze.  I guess. I don’t really do science.

A couple months ago, I used laptops and Desmos to teach transformations, and after two blocks that went….well, I suppose, I used whiteboards to do the same lesson in the last block. Far superior. I wouldn’t have even considered the hassle, but last year the school decided all algebra 2 teachers warranted a laptop cart and I want to occasionally acknowledge a gift intended to be useful. I would never–I mean no excuses never–book a laptop cart from the library to teach a lesson. But if it’s sitting around my classroom, I’m bound to try and find a way to use it. Still, even if I had a lesson that would be guaranteed superior to the same lesson on paper, I’d be tough to convince. Taking them out and putting them away takes up close to 15 minutes of classtime. Wasted. If all of my students had their laptops with them at every minute, waiting to be used….maybe. I’ve certainly found uses for phones on an occasional basis. But it’s not a huge gap I’m longing to fill.

Teaching is performance art. Sometimes the art lies in holding students’ attention directly, taking them point by point through a new topic. Other times, it lies in making them do the work. In both cases, the art lies in the method of revealing, of making them come along for the ride of understanding–even if it’s just in that moment.

It’s hard to do that if you put technology in the students’ hands. First, they’re too easily distracted. Second, it’s too easy to do without understanding.  A colleague of mine simply worships Dan Meyer, and loves all the Desmos activities.  They are neat. Without question or caveat. But I have limited time, and I’d rather have my students doing math directly, by hand even, than have them work on laptops or phones. Some Desmos activities do, absolutely, require the kids to work or show their math directly. Others are an interesting form of guess and check, designed (hopefully) to help kids understand patterns. The first, I like, but am unconvinced that the time and distraction suck are an improvement over handwritten work. The second, no. Not generally interested unless I have time for games, and I don’t.

This piece is only partially about technology, though. I wanted to talk about designing experiences, and for me, technology doesn’t give me the freedom to do that. Not with my kids, ability levels, and existing technology, anyway.

But how can I claim that technology is a distraction if I’m busy performing for the students?

Well, recall I said it was great for illustration and presentation. I love my smartboard, although I move pretty effortlessly between smartboards and whiteboard walls.

I have learned it’s very simple to screw up a lesson by speeding it up, but far more difficult to do slowing it down. I like introducing a topic, sometimes in a roundabout way, and having the students do the work alongside. Consider the example displayed here. These aren’t power points of my lecture. I start with a blank screen. I give the instructions, give the kids time to follow along, then use their input to make my own diagram. That way I can circle around, see that everyone’s on track, understanding the math, seeing connections.

I spend a great deal of time looking for ways to build instruction step by step, so that the vast majority of my students have no reason to refuse the effort. Draw a square. How hard is that? Besides, most of them enjoy drawing and sketching, and this beats posters.

Ideally, I don’t want them to see where we’re going. But then, remember I’m teaching advanced high school math. At various times, I want students to understand that math discoveries don’t always go where they were expected. The best way to do that, in my experience, is give them a situation and point out obvious things that connect in not so obvious ways.

Thus, a trigonometry class is a great place to start an activity that begins as a weird way of breaking up a square into similar triangles. The sketches in the first steps are just a way to get them started, suspend their disbelief.  The real application of knowledge begins at this step, as they identify the equivalent ratios for the different triangles. A geometry-level skill, one from two years ago, and one we try to beat into their heads. Proportionality, setting up cross products, is also something students have been taught consistently.  A trig class is going to have a pretty high percentage of functional students who remember a lot of what they’ve been taught a lot.

Which is important, because this sort of activity has to be paced properly. You have to have a number of pauses while students work independently. The pauses can’t be too short–you have to have time to wander around and explain–but not explain everything to everyone, which would take too long and kill the mood. Can’t be too fast, either, or why bother?

Ideally, students should be mildly mystified, but willing to play along. As I wrote several years ago, start slow, build student trust in your wild notions. If you keep them successful and interested, they’ll follow along working “blind”, applying their existing knowledge without complaint. Don’t deliver and they won’t follow. Which is why it’s important to start slow.

So in this particular activity, the students drew a square, some triangles, and found ratios without knowing when, or if, this was going to relate to trigonometry. Now, finally, they are using class-related knowledge, although SOHCAHTOA is technically covered in geometry and only reviewed in the early months of the year. But at least it does have something to do with Trig.

I’ve only done this once, but I was surprised and fascinated to note that some students were annoyed that I reminded them about the 1 unit substitution after they’d built the proportion statements.  I liked the structured approach of two distinct moves. They didn’t. “Why you make us do this twice?” griped Jamal, who is better at math than you might expect from his pants, defying gravity far south of his pelvis, much less his perpetually red-eyed stupor and speech patterns. (“He’s a c**n,” he informed me about a friend a month ago. I stared at him. “It’s okay. I’m half c**n, so I can say  that.  Like, my family, we all light-skinned but we c**ns.” I stared at him. “OK, I ain’t no c**n in your class.” I mentioned the discussion to an admin later, suggesting perhaps Jamal needed to be told that c**n isn’t n****r , and is an insult in any vernacular. “C**n?” she said, puzzled.  “Like….raccoon?” It took me a few minutes to realize that she was a Hispanic, so it was indeed possible she had no idea what the word meant. I should have gone to our African American admin.)

It’s not obvious to all students that the ratio labeling each triangle side is the length of that side. That is, if the base is one, then the length of the secant line will be the exact value of the secant ratio, and so on. Breaking the diagram into three distinct triangles helps, but I do recommend spending some time on this point.

So, for example, say if the angle is 30 degrees, what length would the side labeled sine be? What about cotangent? They already know about sine and cosine lengths, since I introduce this after we’ve covered the basics of the unit circle. But it helps to prod them into realizing that the cosecant length would be 2 units, and so on.

My students are familiar with my term “mother ship”. I use it in a number of contexts, but none so commonly as the Pythagorean Theorem. I ask them if they’ve seen Independence Day,  or one of the other zillions of alien invasion flicks in which the little independent saucers  all go back to the big behemoth. Because aliens will centralize, else how could humans emerge victorious? Just as all these little buzzing pods lead back to the big one, so too do so many ideas lead back to Pythagorean. Even its gaps. The Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t do angles, I point out. That’s why we started using trigonometry to solve for sides of right triangles. Originally, trigonometry was developed thousands of years ago to explain planetary motion, and was defined entirely in terms of spheres and chords. Not until Copernicus, a few hundred years ago, did we start to define trigonometry primarily in terms of right triangles.

Until this activity, I’d always taught the Pythagorean identities algebraically. I start, as many do, by reminding or introducing them to the equation for a circle, then talk about a radius of one, and so on. Then I derive the secant/tangent and cosecant/cotangent versions, which is pretty simple.

But I really like the geometric representation. The three triangles are spatial, physical artifacts of what is otherwise a very abstract concept. Ultimately, of course, these identities are used for very abstract purposes, but whenever possible, links to the concrete are welcome.

Besides, isn’t it cool that the three triangles reflect what the algebra shows? I suppose the fact that the triangles are all similar plays into it, but I’m not enough of a mathie to grasp that intuitively. The students, of course, don’t yet know the algebra. The Pythagorean identities are the one new fact set this lesson delivers.

Remember, I don’t use these images you see here in the lesson; rather, they represent a combination of what I say and draw during the lesson, pausing as the students work things out themselves.  Could I do this with technology? Sure. Could they? In my opinion, no. But it’s debatable, certainly. BUT–I also couldn’t do this with a book.
Is it just me, or do students take an absurdly long time, over many lessons and with many reminders,  to memorize the unit circle? I mean, my god, there are five values for each ratio. They go in order–big to small, small to big. How hard could it be? But after a couple years of students looking at me blankly at the end of the term when asked what the sine of pi over 6 is, I’ve learned to beat it into their heads. Some teachers never use the unit circle to teach ratios. I do not understand this. Steve teaches it all with co-functions and trig tables; I have taught any number of his students who know vaguely what it is, but have no conceptual understanding of it. They know the values, their operational ability is no different, but where’s the fun? The unit circle is an amazing entity.

I am a big fan of Desmos. At algebra 2 and higher, I ask my students to download the Desmos app. My students learn how to graph, how to create functions, how to explore functions. I want them to know Demos as a tool when it makes sense. Really.

So eventually–although I haven’t done it yet–I’m going to show my students this puny effort to automate the concepts we explored manually in this lesson.  Hey, I can use the laptops! It will be a great example of inverse calls.

But not right away. Look, my classes do a lot of repetition.  Plenty of worked problems. It’s not all discovery or exploration–in fact, relatively little time is spent on these. My students need to know how, building capacity. Why is the glue. The better a student is at the basics of math, the more important it is to smack them around with why, occasionally.

But I’m a performer.  English teachers talk about grabbing up front with the hook. But in math, ending big, revealing the path they’ve been wandering, is my goal. So when I draw in the circle, put in the coordinates, and hear “Holy sh**!” and various stunned gasps, following by a smattering of applause, I know my planning paid off.

“The f***? Damn. This been the unit circle all along. Shee-it.” That would be Jamal.