Active Caring, a how-to

I’ve given the book talk (by other names) a few times now, and I’m noticing some patterns of what’s really resonating. One small, but significant piece that’s fostering conversation is a section around Active Caring vs. Passive Caring. I’ve blogged a bit about this in the past, so feel free to check out those posts. There appears to be an appetite for this conversation to occur in schools. Feel free to use this chart as a starter set of active caring action moves.

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One question that comes up is, “How do I find time to display active caring to each and every student?” A secondary teacher may have well over a hundred students a day, segmented into blocks of time possibly as low as 45 minutes. How is a teacher supposed to show active caring to every student every day?

The short answer is: you probably can’t. Let’s be real honest. If you have a tight schedule and a large student load it’s challenging, bordering on impossible, to take time out for every student every day. It’s a simple math problem: if a teacher has, say, 120 students and five classes of 50 minutes (250 minutes total), you can spend about two minutes per kid before even getting into the day’s lesson.

Rather than throwing up our hands and saying we can’t do it, I’d propose the opposite: we need to be structured, methodical, and intentional with our actions around active caring. Here are three suggestions for tackling this math problem.

1. Make a list. 

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Print out a class roster and with days of the week and record when you’ve had an interaction you’d classify as one of active caring. If you have a good memory, you could even do this at the end of the day or after a hald-a-day. Try to get around a quarter of your students every class period. That way, by the end of Thursday, you can see which students you have yet to have an active caring interaction with and you can make sure to be intentional on Friday. Keep yourself accountable to showing each student active caring no fewer than once a week.

2. Build in structured personal check-in time.

As students are working, build in, say, five to ten minutes where you are not answering questions about the assignment, but are rather floating and checking in with students. Be disciplined about it. Set a timer if you need to. Depending on the length of your class period and the way your day’s lesson is structured, consider whether you want to block off this time toward the beginning, middle, or end of the class period (or possibly bookending the class period).

3. Work as a staff or grade level team to identify personal connections 

I’ve seen a few staff, department or grade level teams do this.

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Print out the name of every student and place them on the wall around the room. Teachers place a sticky dot by every student they have a personal connection with. Look for patterns and anything (or anyone) that stands out. This can help a school know which students might not be receiving the level of care that we’d hope. It can prevent students from falling through the “care gap.”

What are some of your strategies for ensuring you are demonstrating active care for all students?

Mathematical play, but, like, for older kids

Chris and Melissa gave a great talk on the importance of mathematical play at NCTM-Seattle last week. You can see their Math-on-a-Stick work on their website. There you can see pictures and examples and of children enjoying and playing with math in interesting and delightful ways. One of my many takeaways from their keynote was that play is math and math is play. In their talk, they referenced research that lays out seven attributes of play. Play (a) is purposeless, (b) is voluntary, (c) is inherently attracting, (d) involves freedom from time, (e) involves a diminished consciousness of self, (f) has possibility for improvisation, and (g) produces the desire to continue.

When I saw the mics set up I A) assumed there were going to be questions and B) just knew one of the questions was going to be “but what about older kids?” Sure enough, there was a question about how adolescents might play with math. The premise – which I kind of (but not entirely) disagree with – was that older kids wouldn’t be engaged by things like pattern machines, tiling turtles, and Truchet tiles. Chris and Melissa gave good answers about the age band of the kids of math-on-a-stick and spoke to the non-zero amount of older kids, but I’d like to offer a few examples of older kids playing with math. Unfortunately, I didn’t take as much time playing with math as I should have as a teacher. So I’ll share a few ways I and my kids play with math as regular ol’ humans.

Me: Baseball Prospectus and Sabermetrics

I was trying to think of the first time I played with math post-pubescence. I was such a baseball fan in high school, partially because the Cleveland Baseball Team was quite excellent at the time (despite not having any rings to show for it), but also because of stats. I began reading the great baseball writer and sabermetrician, Rob Neyer. I began organizing various baseball reference spreadsheets. I felt like I was finding out secrets of baseball that most managers (and fewer commentators) knew. Things like “on-base percentage is more important than batting average” and “home runs yielded are a better predictor of future pitching success than other categories.” This secret information yielded by mathematics helped me understand the game while also helping me win my fantasy league to boot. (Note: I’ve written a bit about this before.)


My daughter (age 13): Animation

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My daughter is a phenomenal artist. She draws all day, every day. If there is a Gladwell-ian 10,000 hours rule, she eclipsed that at least year ago. She likes to create animations, frame-by-frame. Moreover, she likes to animate to music. She plays with math by timing out the different scenes in a potential song and crafts them into a music video.

My son (age 11): Scorigami

Scorigami is a concept created by Jon Bois, a content creator for SB Nation. A scorigami is a final score of an NFL game that has never occurred before. For instance, the score of seven to eight has never occurred before. Were two teams to end up with that final score, that would be a scorigami. Because of the interesting numbers and combinations of numbers that occur in a football game, many scores have not been achieved in an NFL game. Scores in football come in 6 (touchdowns), 3 (field goals), 2 (safety or two-point conversion after a touchdown), or 1 (extra point, but that has to come after a touchdown, 6).

For instance, there has never been an 18 to 9 final score. There has been an 18-10 final score, but never 18-9.

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Every Sunday we watch football and keep an eye out for potential scorigamis. Once it gets to the fourth quarter and we’re looking at, say, a team with 11 points, we’re in scorigami red alert mode. My son plays with math by keeping an eye on the scorigami grid, including the density map, to identify how scores could occur throughout the Sunday games.

Here are a few more rapid fire examples of mathematical play I’ve seen or experienced from adolescents:

  • Google Sketch up
  • Messing around with pascal’s triangle
  • Fantasy sports
  • Games of chance
  • Des-man

What about you? What have you seen or done that might constitute as mathematical play that secondary kids might be interested in?

Update (12/6): Within hours of publishing this post, my son had an idea for mathematical play (he did not call it that).

Mario Party is a video game for the Nintendo Switch. It acts essentially as a board game with little mini-games throughout. Characters roll dice and move around the board collecting things. What’s interesting and made this ripe for mathematical play is that each playable character has a different die. They all have six sides, but have non-standard values.


For example, the six values for the Luigi die are 1️⃣1️⃣1️⃣5️⃣6️⃣7️⃣. The six values for the Peach die are 0️⃣2️⃣4️⃣4️⃣4️⃣6️⃣. You can also have dice that give you coins instead of moves for some rolls. The goomba dice yields +2 coins, +2 coins, 3️⃣4️⃣5️⃣6️⃣.

For seemingly no reason at all, my son decided last night he wanted to tabulate the average (mean) values to determine the best character die. He also assigned commentary (“high risk, high reward”) to the dice. I do not know how he factored in the coin values.

He then sorted the dice into tiers – really good, okay, and bad based on the mean rolled value.

Why did he do this activity? Well, he’s not allowed to have screen-time during the school week, so this might have been his way of coping. But regardless, it was generally pointless, which, when it comes to mathematical play, is essentially the point.