Algebra II


A couple years ago, Kate Nowak asked us to ask our kids:

What is 1 Radian?” Try it. Dare ya. They’ll do a little better with: “What is 1 Degree?”

I really loved the question, and I did it last year with my precalculus kids, and then again this year. In fact, today I had a mini-assessment in precalculus which had the question:

What, conceptually, is 3 radians? Don’t convert to degrees — rather, I want you to explain radians on their own terms as if you don’t know about degrees. You may (and are encouraged to) draw pictures to help your explanation.

My kids did pretty well. They still were struggling with a bit of the writing aspect, but for the most part, they had the concept down. Why? It’s because my colleague and geogebra-amaze-face math teacher friend made this applet which I used in my class. Since this blog can’t embed geogebra fiels, I entreat you to go to the geogebratube page to check it out.

Although very simple, I dare anyone to leave the applet not understanding: “a radian is the angle subtended by the bit of a circumference of the circle that has 1 radius a circle that has a length of a single radius.” What makes it so powerful is that it shows radii being pulled out of the center of the circle, like a clown pulls colorful a neverending set of handkerchiefs out of his pocket.

If you want to see the applet work but are too lazy to go to the page, I have made a short video showing it work.

PS. Again, I did not make this applet. My awesome colleague did. And although there are other radian applets out there, there is something that is just perfect about this one.


Trig War

This is going to be a quick post.

Kate Nowak played “log war” with her classes. I stole it and LOVED it. Her post is here. It really gets them thinking in the best kind of way. Last year I wanted to do “inverse trig war” with my precalculus class because Jonathan C. had the idea. His post is here. I didn’t end up having time so I couldn’t play it with my kids, sadly.

This year, I am teaching precalculus, and I’m having kids figure out trig on the unit circle (in both radians and degrees). So what do I make? The obvious: “trig war.”

The way it works…

I have a bunch of cards with trig expressions (just sine, cosine, and tangent for now) and special values on the unit circle — in both radians and degrees.


You can see all the cards below, and can download the document here (doc).

They played it like a regular game of war:

I let kids use their unit circle for the first 7 minutes, and then they had to put it away for the next 10 minutes.


And that was it!

Dan Meyer says JUMP and I shout HOW HIGH?

On a recent blog post, Dan Meyer professed his love for me. He did it in his own way, through his sweet dulcet tones, declaring me a reality TV host and a Vegas lounge act [1]. LOVE!

He was lauding a worksheet… well, a single part of a worksheet… I had created. You see, I’m teaching Precalculus for the first time this year, and so I have the pleasure of having these thoughts on a daily basis:

What the heck are we teaching this for? IS THERE A REASON WE HAVE KIDS LEARN [fill in the blank]? WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA UNDERNEATH ALL OF THIS STUFF?

[Btdubs, I love teaching a new class because these are the best questions EVAR to keep me interested and to keep my brain whirring!]

And I went through those questions when teaching trig identities. And so I concluded the idea of identities is that two expressions that look different are truly equal… and they all derive from a simple set of ratios from a triangle in a unit circle. Equivalent expressions. When things are the same, when things are different…

So my thought was to make graphing central to trig identities. For the first couple days, every time kids were asked to show an identity was true, they were asked to first actually graph both sides of the equal sign to show they truly are equivalent. (And half the time, they weren’t!)

To introduce this, I made this worksheet (skip to Section 2… clearly I had to polish some stuff off beforehand):

Dan asked, I blogged.

[If you want, my .doc for the worksheet above is here… and the next worksheet with problems to work on is here in .doc form too.]

To be honest, I still have some thoughts about trig identities that I need to sort out. I am still not totally satisfied with my “big idea.” I still have the “so what” banging around in my brain when thinking about equivalent expressions. I have come to the conclusion that the notion of “proving trig identities are true” is not really a good way to talk about proof. There’s also the really interesting discussion which I only slightly touched upon in class: “Are 1 and \frac{x}{x} equivalent expressions?” I have something pulling me in that direction too, saying that must be part of the “big idea” but haven’t quite been able to incorporate.

If I were asked right now,  gun to my head to answer, I think I suppose I’d argue that “big idea” that a teacher can get out of trig identities are teaching trial and error, the development of mathematical intuition (and the articulation of that intuition), and the idea of failure and trying over (productive frustration). Because I think if these trig identities are approached like strange mathematical puzzles, they can teach some very concrete problem solving strategies. (To be clear, I did not approach them like strange mathematical puzzles this year.) Now the question is: how do you design a unit that gets at these mathematical outcomes? And how do you assess if a student has achieved those? (Or is truly being able to verify the identity the fundamental thing we want to assess?) [2]

[1] Except I got my teaching contact for next year, and I’ll be making more than the tops of those professions combined. YEAH TEACHING! #rollinginthedough

[2] Different ideas I remembered from a conversation on Twitter… Teachers have contests where they see how many different ways a student/group/class can verify an identity. And another idea was having students make charts where they have an initial expression, and they draw arrows with all the possible possibilities of where to go next, and so forth, until you have a spider web… What’s nice about that is that even if students don’t get to the answer, they have morphed the original expression into a number of equivalent and weird expressions, and maybe something can be done with that? I also wonder if having kids make their own challenges (for me, for each other) would be fun? Like they come up with a challenge, and I cull the best of the best, and I give that to the kids as a take home thing? Finally, I know someone out there mentioned doing trig identities all geometrically, with the unit circle, triangles, and labeling things… I mean, how elegant is the proof that \sin^2(\theta)+\cos^2(\theta)=1? So elegant! So coming up with equivalent expressions using the unit circle would be amazing for me. Anyone out there have this already done?

Families of Curves

When I put out my call for help with Project Based Learning, I got a wonderful email from @gelada (a.k.a. Edmund Harriss of the blog Maxwell’s Demon) with a few things he’s done in his classes. And he — I am crossing my fingers tight — is going to put those online at some point for everyone. To just give you a taste of how awesome he is, I will just say that he was in NYC a few years ago and agreed to talk to my classes about what it’s like to be a real mathematician (“like, does a mathematician just like sit in a like room all day and like solve problems?”), and have kids think about and build aperiodic tilings of the plane.

Anyway, he sent me something about families of curves, and that got my brain thinking about how I could incorporate this in my precalculus class. Students studied function transformations last year in Algebra II, and we reviewed them and applied them to trig functions. But I kinda want to have kids have some fun and make some mathematical art.

First off, I should say what a family of curves is.


That’s from Wikipedia. A simple family of curves might be y=kx which generates all the lines that go through the origin except for the vertical line.


I made this in Geogebra with one command:

Sequence[k*x, k, -10, 10, 0.5]

This tells geogebra to graph y=kx for all values of k from -10 to 10, increasing each time by 0.5.

Okay, pretty, but not stunning. Let’s mix things up a bit.

lines 2

Sequence[k*x+k^2, k, -10, 10, 0.1]

Much prettier! And it came about by a simple modification of the geogebra command. Now for lines with a steep slope, they are also shifted upwards by k^2. This picture is beautiful, and gives rise to the question: is that whitespace at the bottom a parabola?

Another one?



And finally, just one more…



Just kidding! I can’t stop! One more!


Sequence[k sec(x)+(1/k)*x,k,-10,10,0.25]

What I like about these pictures is…





And then, if you’re me, they raise some questions… Why do they look like they do? What is common to all the curves (if anything)? Does something special happen when k switches from negative to positive? What if I expanded the range of k values? What if I plotted the family of curves but with an infinite number of k values? Do the edges form a curve I can find? Can I make a prettier one? Can I change the coloring so that I have more than one color? What would happen if I added a second parameter into the mix? What if I didn’t vary k by a fixed amount, but I created a sequence of values for k instead? Why do some of them look three-dimensional? On a scale of 1 to awesomesauce, how amazingly fun is this?

You know what else is cool? You can just plot individual curves instead of the family of curves, and vary the parameter using a slider. Geogebra is awesome. Look at this .gif I created which shows the curves for the graph of the tangent function above… It really makes plain what’s going on… (click the image to see the .gif animate!)

sec animation

Okay, so I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do with this… but here’s what I’ve been mulling over. My kids know how to use geogebra. They are fairly independent. And I don’t want to “ruin” this by putting too much structure on it. So here’s where I’m at.

We’re going to make a mathematical art gallery involving families of curves.

1. Each student submits three pieces to the gallery.

2. Each piece must be a family of curves with a parameter being varied — but causing at least two transformations (so y=kx^2 won’t count because it just involves a vertical stretch, but y=k(x-k)^2 would be allowed because there is a vertical stretch and horizontal shift).

3. At least one of the three pieces must involve the trig function(s) we’ve learned this year.

4. The art pieces must be beautiful… colors, number of curves in the family of curves, range for the parameter, etc., must be carefully chosen.

Additionally, accompanying each piece must be a little artists statement, which:

0. Has the title of the piece

1. States what is going on with each curve which allows the whole family of curves to look the way they do, making specific reference to function transformations.

2. Has some plots of some of individual curves in the family of curves to illustrate the writing they’ll be doing.

3. Has a list of things they notice about the graph and things they wonder about the graph.

At the end, I’ll photocopy the pieces onto cardstock and make a gallery in the room — but without the artist’s names displayed. I’ll give each student 5 stickers and they’ll put their stickers next to the pieces they like the most (that are not their own). I’ll invite the math department, the head of the upper school, and other faculty to do the same. The family of curves with the most stickers will win something — like a small prize, and for me to blow their artwork into a real poster that we display at the school somewhere. And hopefully the creme de la creme of these pieces can be submitted to the math-science journal that I’m starting this year.

Right now, I have a really good feeling about this. It’s low key. I can introduce it to them in half a class, and give them the rest of that class to continue working on it. I can give them a couple weeks of their own time to work on it (not using class time). And by trying to suss out the family of curves and why it looks the way it does, it forces them to think about function transformations (along with a bunch of reflections!) in a slightly deeper way. It’s not intense, and I’ll make it simple to grade and to do well on, but I think that’s the way to do it.

What’s also nice is when we get to conic sections, I can wow them by sharing that all conics are generated by r(\theta)=\frac{k}{1+k\cos(\theta)}. In other words, conic sections all can be generated by a single equation, and just varying the parameter k. Nice, huh?

PS. Since I am not going to do this for a few weeks, let me know if you have any additional ideas/thoughts to improve things!

Recent Quadratics Stuffs from Algebra II

I am just finishing up my quadratics unit in Algebra II. We spend a lot of time on quadratics, doing everything from factoring, to completing the square, to the quadratic formula, to all sorts of graphing, the discriminant, 1D and 2D quadratic inequalities, quadratic linear systems, systems of inequalities, etc. Tons. And we didn’t even get to do the project I enjoy involving pendulums and quadratic regressions. Le sigh.

I’ve posted much of my quadratics materials before, but I thought I’d share some new/updated ones. I’m a bit exhausted, so forgive the shortness of my descriptions.

1. My Vertex Form worksheet was motivated by my frustration with students just memorizing that y=(x-2)^2+3 has a vertex of (2,3) because you “switch the sign of the -2 and keep the 3.” Barf. (FYI: we haven’t done function transformations yet.) So I created this sheet to “guide” students to a deeper understanding of vertex form.


2. My Angry Birds activity was inspired by Sean Sweeney, but modified. I had taught students how to graph (by hand) quadratics of the form y=x^2+bx+c and y=-x^2+bx+c. Students also had been exposed to the vertex form of these basic quadratics. But they hadn’t been exposed to quadratics where the coefficient in front of the x^2 term wasn’t “nice.” So all I did was give them four geogebra files, and had them play around. By the end of the activity, students recognized how critical the “a” coefficient was to the shape of the parabola, they started conjecturing that if you had the “a” value and the vertex and whether the parabola opens up/down that you could graph any parabola, and one pair of kids were able to convert a crazy angrybirds quadratic (with a really nasty “a”‘ value) to vertex form.

[.doc] [files]

If I’m teaching Algebra II next year, I want to ask if I can get rid of quadratic inequalities or some of the other more technical things we do, and make an entire unit/investigation on using geogebra and algebra and angrybirds to investigate quadratics.

3. My discriminant worksheet is below. It worked okay, but students still didn’t quite understand the difference between y=ax^2+bx+c and 0=ax^2+bx+c, which was the goal of the sheet. So it needs some refinement.



4. Finally, below are my attempts to get students to better understand quadratic inequalities. I started with a general sheet on “visualizing function inequalities,” and then I made a guided sheet to bring more detail to things. I found out that students didn’t quite understand the meaning of the schematic diagram we drew, nor did they understand why to solve 0<x^2-4x+3 we have to draw a 2D graph. Well, to be more specific, students could do the process but didn’t fully grasp why we graph y=x^2-4x+3. I changed up this worksheet this year, but maybe I should go back to last year’s worksheet.



C’est tout. With that, I’m exhausted and going to bed.

Believe it or not… a log question which was briefly stumping us

Hi all,

A teacher approached me with the following question.

The function \ln(x^{-2}) has a graph that looks like:

It makes sense that the function exists for all negative x values, because when you raise a negative number to the -2 power, you’re going to get a positive number. And you can take the natural log of a positive number.

Then the teacher said to consider the following function: -2 \ln(x), and the graph looks like:

Notice that you can’t input negative x values, because the domain of natural log doesn’t allow for it.

Here’s the question.

According to the log rules/properties, we know that:

\ln(a^b)=b\ln(a) (obviously).

So \ln(x^{-2})=-2\ln(x). But the graphs are different.

We went a little crazy trying to figure out what’s going on… For about 3 minutes, we were having a great conversation. But we quickly converged on the little text that accompanies the log rules in any textbook… and this text says that these rules work but are only valid for a>0.

I kinda love this as an in-class exercise (I’ll probably forget this when I get to logarithms, but maybe posting it here will prevent me from forgetting it). Because it will force kids to (a) be confuzzled, (b) talk through ideas, (c) go back to the definition and qualifications for the log rules, and (d) see that these rules are indeed valid (we didn’t break math), but they are a bit more restrictive that we might have thought.

What I love is that \ln(x^{-2})=-2\ln(x) isn’t actually an identity. But we are so used to using the rules blindly, robotically, that we never think about it. But for it to be a good mathematical statement, you need to qualify it! You need to say this is only an equivalence for x>0. This was a good reminder for us.

Review Activity for Rational Equations

Last year, I did a review game that I got from Sue Van Hattum. I wrote that:

[this game] forces students to ask themselves: what do I know and how confident am I in what I know? (It’s meta-cognitive like that).

I set kids up in pre-chosen pairs, and they are asked to work together. In fact, I gave kids their new seats for the quarter, so this was their introduction to their new seat partner! They then are given a booklet with problems — and each pair is asked to work only on ONE problem at a time. (For those who finish a problem before others, I have alternative problems for them to work on.) When I see almost all pairs are done, I’ll give a one minute warning… Then I ask all students to put their pencils down and pick up a pen. We go over each problem, kids correct their own work, and using the honor system, they figure out how many points they have. (Scoring below.)

You can see three sample questions from our review game below…

[The .pdf and .doc file of the 6 questions are linked.]

I explained in my last post how scoring worked…

Each group started with 100 points to wager — and they lost the points if they got the question wrong, and the gained the points if they got the question right.

Some possible game trajectories:

100 –> 150 –> 250 –> 490 etc.

100 –> 10 –> 15 –> 30 etc.

Anyway, what was great was that the game really got students engaged and talking. Each student tended to work on the problem individually, and then when they were done, they would compare with their partner.

(If you try this, you have to make sure that students know NOT to skip ahead… everyone is working on one problem at a time. Then you go over the problem, and THEN everyone starts the next problem.)

So there you go… I don’t do reviews a lot, but for rational expressions, rational equations, and circuit problems, I figured we’d need a day to tie things up. And since this is one review I think works amazingly, I figure I’d share it a second time! Thanks Sue!