Evangelizing Desmos

Recently I asked a group of 200 adults (10% were math teachers) to hold up their graphing calculators high in the air.  ZERO calculators were hoisted high up in the air.  Zero. I then asked the crowd to lift high above their heads their cell phone.  Every (well it felt like every) hand raised in the air with a phone – and a few were digging in their bags and pockets.  The world I teach in has changed and so have I.  This change has resulted in a new passion. A new message.  A new way to evangelize. I have a new challenge for everyone that calls themselves an educator or parent.

This post is part 2 from a Keynote I did at the Desmos Conference in Minneapolis recently.  In my previous post I defined what an Evangelist is and asked you to adopt the job title of ‘Evangelist’ for yourself.  In this post, I am going to Evangelize Desmos to you and ask that you join me in evangelizing Desmos to others.  If you are reading this, most likely you are already convinced that Desmos is amazing, but I am going to give you what I think is the #1 reason to love Desmos that most of you are ignoring. (I did too – until recently).

I think in another life I could have been a really successful salesperson who made a ton of money working on commission…..that is if and only if the company I worked for sold an item I am 100% behind.  For some reason I was blessed with infectious passion and enthusiasm that convinces others to act, but I can’t fake it if I don’t believe in the product.

rume toteOne product I can totally sell to anyone that is willing to listen (I make zero $ from this company) is Rume bags, particularly their Medium Tote.  For the last 10 years I have given away over 100 of these as gifts.  I probably own 40 (maybe more) of them I keep at school , home in my car.  They wash like a dream.  They are super sturdy (help me easily carry 2-3 gallons in one bag).  I get mad if I ever get to a store and I have forgotten them – not because I am so green, but because they do not break and hold more than a traditional bag.  The arm hole is large enough to go over my shoulder even when I am wearing my huge winter coat. Those I’ve given these to as gifts – most I see using them over and over again.  It is the one gift I have given that I get tons of complements on years later. There are lots of reusable bags out there, but these are the best!  Really.  Love, love, love them.  I could be an evangelist for their company.

In education there are just a handful of companies & products I could work for – companies I am 100% authentically behind.  One of these products is Desmos.  For the last 2-3 years I have been telling anyone who would listen about Desmos. (Here is an earlier post from Desmos trainings I’ve done this year) I know I am not alone in this. Once someone spends even 5-10 minutes on Desmos, they are sold.  What I have found though that most people Evangelize Desmos a bit different than I do.

Most teachers spread the word about Desmos to other teachers by talking about what I call it’s sexiest features –  most of which are on teacher.desmos.com.  A couple of years ago this started teachers Evangelizing Function Carnival.   A year ago the teacher love was with Polygraph and all the other cool things we could and do on Activity Builder.  A few months back, it was all about MarbleSlides.  Last week, all the Desmos love online has been about the new Card Sort capabilities.  Though these features of Desmos are amazing. I use them.  I love them.  These features are not what I think we should be Evangelizing the most.

Sara VDW’s Desmos Elevator Speech to Teachers, Educators & Parents.

calc 1

I have a calculator museum in my classroom.  I love it. Most adults who look at my museum point at the Casio MS-70L (a basic 4 function) calculator and name it as their favorite.  This often reveals their fear of math without having to name it (or to name it in a safe way).  My favorite calculator in the museum is the TI-81.  It came out in 1991 as I was leaving college and entering teaching.  It was a paradigm shift in technology for the math classroom.  I had a classroom set.  The problem was, I taught at a school with 85%+ free & reduced lunch.  Most of my students could not purchase this calculator for home as became common in most suburban high schools around me.  My students were limited to 50 minutes of access per day.  Until recently, the calculator I have felt the most proficient with since its release in 2004 was the TI-84.  To this day I have a classroom set in my classroom.  Love them. To this day, less than 20% of my students have a graphing calculator at home. Technology has been one of the great equity issues we have not solved yet.

desmos iconToday though, I love something more.  I am an evangelist for the Desmos Calculator.  Everyone should be using it.  Every.One.  The app should be on everyone’s phone. Every.One.   Everyone should have Desmos websites booked marked.  Every.One.

Desmos arrived on the scene in 2012.  I returned to the classroom 3 years ago and have used it both with Middle schoolers and High schoolers.  What I love most about it is the online Desmos Calculator & app.  I know, I know….you love teacher desmos.  I do too. I use all parts of Desmos regularly.  You better believe I will be using the new card sort features this fall. But I love the Desmos Calculator and phone app the most.  DESMOS IS A GAME CHANGER.  Desmos is an equity and access answer for all our students.  Let me tell you why & why I am so passionate about this.

data 2

I am confident the vast majority of teachers/principals reading this have at least one student living in poverty.  I do.  I work for our state’s large urban district near.  Many of my students are immigrants.  I am not in a position and never have been as a MS or HS teacher to require my students to buy a graphing calculator for home use.  As a leader in my district and state, I’ve had easy access to data.  Here is a screen shot of 2015 MN state math testing data broken down by poverty (FRL) and race.  Poverty matters in our state’s test scores.  Race matters as well (I’ll talk about this in future posts).  If we are going to increase the math outcomes for our students in then we need to extend our students learning experiences outside of their 50 minutes of math a day.

For my entire career I’ve said the graphing calculator – I used TI products all of my career – were the great differentiation tool in the classroom.  I’ve always had a set of graphing calculators out at tables for my entire 25 years.  My students struggle with arithmetic skills can use these any time (unless I am teaching these skills) to help them access the concepts in their core math class.  My top performing students I often find exploring things on the calculator that I have never taught them.  They learn things on their own.

3 years ago, I started using both Desmos with middle school students (I was at a 1 to 1 ipad school then) and my TI-84’s.  Once introduced to Desmos, at least 2/3 of my students selected this when I gave a choice.  My top performing students were using at home and would show me things they discovered.  This year I returned to high school.  It was not a 1 to 1 school.  I did have access to crome books -they were great for student.desmos activities I created.  For the day to day random investigations, they were not as convenient to get out quickly.  During this time I was also working in our school’s math center with students at all levels at math.  This year changed how I viewed Desmos for ALL students.

25 years

For my first 21 years of teaching, all my students in poverty had almost no access t math technology outside of the classroom.  4 years ago this changed.  We now have Desmos.  It is free.  I like many of you started telling my students “Use Desmos”.  “Put Desmos on your phone”.  Guess who did what I asked?  My students who I hve easily reached my entire career and a few other students.  The vast majority of my students were not using Desmos outside of the classroom – despite it being used multiple times every week in class.  What was the problem?  I was modeling the use of Desmos on the computer almost exclusively (as this is the only tool I had access to). Despite Desmos being an option for 4 years – my guess is many of our students that need it the most are not using it.  The good news is we can change this.

If I let it, here is what my classroom would look like.

kids with phones

Most students have phones. Like 95% or more have phones.  This includes my poor students and immigrant students. Their phones are not always charged.  But when they don’t have a phone they are using their friends phones.  You know who else has phones, their parents.  I had allowed phones all year occasionally to take pictures of things – class notes, HW, friends work.  When I allowed this, phones came flying out of their pockets.  The world has changed.  So I did midyear.

In the math center, students would walk in and ask for help.  They would set their phonemy phone next to their notebook and look to me for answers.  Anytime I tutored something that could be answered or visualized on Desmos I would ask the student to use Desmos on their phones.  Most did not have the app.  I would turn my phone over and point at my desmos sticker and using the schools wifi we would download the free APP together.  Then we would use it together.  One student at a time I was going to change my school of over 2000 students.  Some of my regular math center students would come back and thank me for showing me the app telling me they were using it at home.  Some would help other students in the math center download it to their phone.  I was quietly starting a revelution.

solve equationsOne day in class I had all my students get out their phones and download the app.  I then had them check their homework solutions using desmos on their phones.  3/4 of my students had phones.  1 or 2 per class went and grabbed a crome book.  The rest worked with their neighbor on their phone.  No one complained.  In fact they were engaged.  It was quick to enter equations and check what they had done algebraically with the visual.

Using phones became more regular.  Fearing loosing control and students using phones for Snapchat and other things, I started slowly.  This did not happen.  Students knew that if they asked to use Desmos on their phones, 90% of the time I would say yes.  All of a sudden some of my students who had not worked outside of the classroom started working outside of the classroom on math.  I was able to change what I asked of students outside of the classroom because now all of my students had access to powerful technology.  Not only that, they carried it around with them all the time.  No Excuses.  They had a graphing calculator always.

What changed?  What am I asking of teachers and parents?  Here is the big change.  I started modeling the use of Desmos on the tool students would be using the most outside of the classroom – on their phones.  Computers/tablets and Desmos are great – but if even one of your students does not have regular access to computers and wifi – start also using phones.

At parent teacher conferences I had a sign that said “Parents, download Desmos on your phone”.  I had interpreters work with my parents who did not speak English.  Parents were amazed.  When I told them the app could be used without wifi, I was a hero.  It was a big win.  I highly encourage you do it too.  This year I will have a one pager with directions & why I am passionate about it.  I may make a video to post on our schools website and to tweet out to our families.  If I create this, I will share it with you here.evangelize teh phone

What’s next?  At the end of the school year.  I fell in love with the online Desmosdes account calculator even more when I had EVERY student sign up for a free account.  Some already had.  It took less than 3 minutes to do so.  Here are the directions I had at tables. Signing up for Demos Account I did not have to help anyone.  Anyone.  I did this because we were doing a super quick Desmos conics art project.  (Sidenote:  I am 99% not a single student stole their art from somewhere else on the web – my co-teachers felt the same.  I will blog about it sometime and tell you how I did this).  As students were using this on computers and their phones – working in the lunch room on the project on their phones.  I realized, this is a tool I need to exploit.

This summer I am working on what I call a Desmos Dictionary.  A set of Desmos online graphs we will post on our schools website and have students download and save on their personal account this fall.  I will blog about this soon.  Here is a picture for now though of what the first prototype (though the real one is animated) looks like.

des dictionary

My plan for fall 2016:

  1.  Use Desmos Calculator and Teacher Desmos week 1.
  2. During week 2 or 3.  Have every student download the Desmos app to their phone.  Give directions on how to bookmark it on a home computer.
  3. Week 3 or 4.  Start modeling the use of Desmos on their phones.  (I am hoping to figure out how to get 8 – 1 per group – old ipod touches or ipads that students can use if their phone is not charged or they forget it – this is totally not necessary, but it would be nice – let me know if you want to donate 8 ipod touches with charger to my classroom – they don’t have to be new)
  4. Weeks 5+ Use Desmos (I will still have TI-84’s out until they die off in the next several years) regdes dic 2ularly.
  5. In October – at parent conferences – introduce Parent’s to Desmos.  I hope to translate to Spanish and Somali whatever I produce.
  6. I have 8 units that I teach.  For each unit I hope to have 1-5 Desmos Dictionary definitions for my students to download and save on their Desmos account that they can refer to via computer or phone.  I also plan to have some class activities saved here.  I love seeing the backside of teacher desmos  – but if an activity is one that a student could benefit from outside of class, I plan  to use the calculator vs. activity builder.  My goal is to find ways to extend the learning experience for any student that wants to explore further.

I will update my blog within the next year with tweaks that I make to this plan.

Really, anyone who has used Desmos for as little as 5 minutes is a Demos evangelist.  I am asking you to join me in evangelizing the part of Desmos I believe has the power to change the educational outcomes for ALL students, not just the white middle class and wealthy students our nation continues to do a phenomenal job educating.  For the first time in my 25 year teaching career we have a tool that will extend a students learning experience for the day.  It is free.  It is better than anything else out there – even the stuff that costs hundreds more.  Our challenge is many students will not use Desmos outside of the classroom until we regularly model (use) it in the ways they will use it the most.  For now that way is on their cell phones.  Please join me this year in consistently using the Desmos calculator app with your students on their phones.  Model it use and watch what happens to your students – particularly your students in poverty.

Thank you to the DESMOS team for your business model to keep this tool free for students first and for me their teacher.  If you need me to talk to your funders or to find students to talk to your funders.  I will gladly do so, anytime.  Thank you DESMOS for saying ‘not yet’ when we ask for Desmos to do something it does not do yet.  Thank you DESMOS for being so responsive to teachers, student, parents…everyone when we ask questions via twitter or the question mark button.

As always, I would love to hear what you think.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.  Comment below.  Email me at saravdw@gmail.com  Go forth and evangelize Desmos.

Slides from my Desmos Keynote: Desmos Keynote

Endnote: The same students who have 1 or more Casio or TI graphing calculators at home are also using Desmos on their laptops and phones.  The message above is not about those students.  This message is for the students (my guess is we all have at least one of these students, for me it is over half of my students) that do not have the resources to have daily access to a TI calculator or a computer with WiFi.  (note:  most students will say they have access to WiFi now days, even those in poverty.  When you ask them how often they can use WiFi you will see the discrepancies between wealthy and poor students).  My school’s students report high access to wifi outside of school.  This is not the daily reality for many.  They have access to wifi at their aunt’s house or the library.  Not everyday at home.

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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