How Kobe Bryant challenged me to be a better math teacher.

best shooter ever
Resource from previous post that includes the Kobe Graphic.

Hello friends! In the past I’ve blogged HERE and HERE about this topic – though it was buried in middle of other messages. With the recent passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter (and several others), I have taken an image I wore around my neck while teaching out of storage and used in it in multiple professional development events I’ve led in the last month. It has resonated with many I’ve shared it with, so I thought I’d re-blog about it so you all can be challenged in the same way I have been by Kobe Bryant and a graphic representing his NBA career. Feel free to watch this short video explaining this OR read below the video link for more.

Hit Play to hear me talking about my favorite Graph and how it challenges me to be a better teacher.

In 2016, I found the following graphic from an article on the cover of the LA Times the day Kobe Bryant retired.

What do you notice? What do you wonder?

When I first found this graphic I used it with my students. I removed information and asked them to Notice & Wonder. Here are some of the things student noticed and wondered. (note: I’ve been using this graphic with teachers so some of the notice/wonders are teacher words)

Students noticings (boxes) and wonderings (thought bubbles)

After some Notice/Wonder I revealed that indeed this was a Shot Map from Basketball and that the purple dots represented made shots and the gold dots were missed shots. I revealed that these dots represented every shot Kobe Bryant ever shot in his 20 year NBA career – all 30,699 of them. This graphic was in the LA Times the week he retired from the NBA.

I highly recommend you check out the LA Times version of this graphic because every point you see in the graphic you can hover over and get information on the shot (which game…etc) and you can break apart the layers and see the success of different types of shots and so much more. Check it out HERE.

Graphic on Lanyards

I loved this graphic so much I laminated it and wore it around my neck. My math teacher peers liked it and asked for copies of it too and wore it around their necks. It was a great conversation starter. An elevator message about Productive Struggle and Mathematics. Kobe Bryant missed 55 percent of all the field goals he attenmpted and was still consdered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. In the era of Jo Bolar and growth mindset we used this graphic to normalize struggle in the mathematics classroom. We would say, “You are not going to get fast answers (purple dots) all the time. There will be times in math you struggle. Sometimes a lot, but you can be considered the most amazing math student of all time even if you struggle. The yellow dot days are just part of your journey to be a great mathematician…etc…etc

This graphic was great to use with students. I would hear them say “I’m having a purple dot day!” with excitement or sometimes tell their friends, “Don’t worry. Stick with it, you are just having a gold dot day.”. Despite it’s success – our (me and my math teacher peers) were using this graphic with the wrong people. Our students were amazing. They are not the ones that need to change the most for them to be successful. We, their teachers, needed to push ourselves to change. We started using this graphic with ourselves.

My A-ha for how useful Kobe Bryant’s Shot Map was for my career came the day I did some arithmetic. Check this out. I calculated how many lessons I might teach in my entire career as a math teacher.

Shockingly, the number of lessons a career math teacher will teach in a career is pretty darn close to the total number of shots Kobe took in his career – 30,669. This mathematics gave me a new lens to bring to this graphic. What if every dot in this graphic represents one math lesson I will teach in my career.

I will have lessons that work (purple dot lessons) and lessons that don’t (gold dots). I could be considered the greatest teacher of all time even if I have more missed lessons than perfect lessons. In this testing era I started using this graphic as healthy self talk for the stresses of my job. In the testing culture, I don’t need leaders, data meetings or others to point out where I am getting it wrong. I am already harder on myself than anyone else. This stress could result in me leaving the profession. To stay in, I’ve had to use positive self talk to quiet the negative voices.

The coolest thing about this graphic for me (and I would argue for other teachers) was found in articles written about Kobe at the time of his retirement. People were arguing where Kobe ranked in the best list of the greatest NBA players of all time. One argument for Kobe to rank high was that his Shot Map was different than many other players. Many players played to their strengths and their dots were clustered to the left (if they shot left) or to the right. Some players maps had dots almost all in the inside. Others only from 3-point land. Kobe was considered dangerous (and therefore GREAT) because he could successfully shoot from all parts of the field. He was a balanced player.

I started thinking about me in my classroom. When I entered teaching I taught from the part of the teaching field I was good at – the part of the field I had found success in as a student. I collected purple & gold dots from only one part of the field – using a “I do, we do, you do” teaching motif. One day I took a risk using a radical math curriculum and asked students to make meaning of a rich task. It was bumpy at first but then purple dot days came and I saw students making meaning of math concepts I had not taught them.

15 years ago I met my math teacher peer, Allison Rubin and her students moved/danced in math class every day and were so engaged. Research confirmed that students who move are more engaged in math – yet I hesitated to try this with my students. It was a part of my teacher Shot Map that had ZERO dots. I feared the yellow dots that may come and when they did come I stopped. I never had purple dots on this part of the field because I gave up.

Kobe Bryant is quoted as saying he would get up every morning and shoot 500 shots, eat and shoot another 500 shots. 1000 shots a day. Many gold and many purple.

To diversify our teaching to do what research says is best for students – we teachers need to be like Kobe and take risks and stick with them through the gold dots (failure) to get to the purple dot lessons (SUCCESS!). Luckily, I did this for movement. I started with Stand & Talks – something I’ve done for 10+ years every single lesson and every single student talks about math every day (purple dots galore). I’ve added other #mathMovement activities that lead to discourse like Balance Points and Movement with common Math Routines. Purple dots, purple dots – with a few gold dots.

I have lots more parts of my teacher game to continue working on – places from the field I rarely if ever go due to fear or neglect. I am pushing myself to think about the equity work I’ve engaged in. It has been lots of reading, talking and not enough action yet. I want to be bolder to work to dismantle the structures I’ve established in my classroom that advantage some and not others. I want to learn more, but more importantly do more. I want to use more of Peter Liljedahl’s Building Thinking Classroom work on Visibly Random Groups and de-fronting my classroom and having students work more often vertically. I want to incorporate more math routines like #CthenC or Contemplate then Calculate….and so many more things to work on.

I hung Kobe’s graphic by my work space in 2016 (and still have it hanging there) without words to Challenge Myself that if I want to be considered the best math teacher of all time, I need be be a balanced teacher. I need to work on the parts of my teaching I am not good at yet. It does not come without fear. But am I willing to decenter my comfort to do what is best for students. To do what research says is best for students?

This graphic hangs by my work space to CHALLENGE myself to diversify my teaching.

Kobe Bryant has been making me a better teacher since 2016. He has challenged me to be more balanced math teacher and to work on the parts of my ‘Shot Map’ I’ve avoided or feared. A few days after Kobe’s passing I was scheduled to do a day long PD with HS teachers in Los Angeles. Our training space is in a building downtown on the 18th floor with huge windows overlooking downtown. On that day I looked out he windows to see Kobe’s face and the numbers 24 and 8 covering buildings all over LA. As our PD started I shared this image with teachers. All but one had never seen this graphic of his 30,669 shots. The graphic book-ended our work together that day. I’ve heard from several teachers that this picture challenged them more than anything else I’d shared from my previous visits. My hope is you too will be challenged to use it.

A note to LEADERS (principals, coaches, superintendents…): One reason many of the teachers I work with are afraid to change is a fear of disappointing you and the testing culture in our nation. They would love it if you told them that you know ‘Gold Dot’ days will be part of the norm as they implement best practices and together you will work towards ‘Purple Dot’ days.

If you would like copies of Kobe’s graphics/badges and all sorts of things I used with students and displayed inn my classroom, click the link below for a google folder full of resources.

BONUS: The Sexiest Job in Mathematics

I’ve used Kobe’s graphic above in all the PD I’ve done in the last month since Kobe’s passing with thousands of teachers. At breaks and during lunches I always have teachers come up and ask me how this graphic was made. My response to them is, “The people with the sexiest jobs in mathematics make these visuals“.

What is the ‘sexiest’ math job out there? I decided to as the #MTBoS community what they thought and see if it matched what I said. Check out this thread.

I want to make an argument for what is in my opinion the ‘sexiest’ math job a student can pursue right now. Sexy is just my term to distinguish between what is desirable to students and what is not. I don’t think saying to students ‘you can be an Engineer someday, so pursue mathematics‘ or ‘learning math could lead to becoming an actuary someday and there is lots of money in this‘ is motivating for most students. You know what is potentially desirable for many students (thus the use of my term ‘sexy’) are jobs that can connect our students to their favorite sports team. I believe ‘Sports Analytics’ is the sexiest math job in 2020 and the next several years beyond. One could have zero athletic skill, but excel in math and be in the room where the excitement happens at the highest level if you pursue this career.

The movie Moneyball made this job field come alive. In the last 10+ years – almost all major sports teams (and college programs) have invested heavily in these positions. Anyone who wants to broadcast sports these days invests heavily in Sports Analytics. The number of real-time data nuggets coming out of sports casters during games and scrolling across the bottom of our TV screens all come from this sexy math profession. What sports do your students love? Start finding the data being created for these sports and share them with your students.

Check out this feature on Lakers Genius Data Scientist – Diana Ma.

Read more about data’s impact on sports HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE. Also, check out this post on famous Statisticians and this article: Visualizing One Million NCAA Basketball Shots

Sports Analytics has created even more cool graphics like the one I highlighted above from Kobe. Check out this example:

The best NBA players at every spot on the floor

How Mapping Shots In The NBA Changed It Forever

You can finds tons of Shot Maps like Kobe’s at ESPN and other sports sites. ESPN makes real time graphics like Kobe’s. Check out a recent NBA game, January 27th, of my home NBA team, the MN Timberwolves (they are not doing so well – be kind) and the Kings. Check out the game time probability. This game went into overtime – These graphics have the potential in your classroom for great mathematical conversations.

This data is created in real-time during the game.

The Graphic I blogged about above for Kobe is pretty darn cool to look at and even more fun to interact with if you go to the LA Times Site. There are tons of graphics like this created every day and week for sports of all kinds. If you want to spice up your math classroom with authentic real time data – start following statisticians and sites that create graphics. Let’s be honest – most teachers never have enough time to teach the entire resource/set of standards they’ve been given and the thing that gets cut the most is the ‘Data & Probability Unit’. Such a shame since data literacy will be a necessary job skill for almost every student you currently teach. What if? What if? What if you could embed data and probability experiences in your weekly routine with your students? It is pretty easy to do if you are following on social media (and other places) places that visualize data and make it interactive.

I learned a lot of where to find this data from Jared Engel, a young mathematics teacher in the Milwaukee area. He teaches Geometry and AP Stats. Check out a graphic he used recently with his students.

He found this graphic at ESPN’s site and covered up some of the labels and asked his students to notice and wonder. After doing some notice/wonder he revealed the titles he had covered. As a class they told the story of this data.

When I asked Jared where he found this graph to make his graphic he said, graphs like this are made, in real time, for every basketball game at ESPN’s website. Check out this LINK for a Marquette & Xavier game (remember Jared is in WI). CLICK on ‘Gamecast‘ at this site to see the graph. Find the ‘game flow’ graph and CLICK on ‘Win probability‘ How might you use graphs like this in your classroom to tell the story of basketball games? What other graphs might you find at ESPN’s site you could steal and use?

Back to the sexiest job in Mathematics – Sports Analytics

Image result for nate silver obama
Nate Silver poster modeled after Obama era poster.

On famous Statistician in the US is Nate Silver. Nate gained fame during Obama’s first election when he out predicted others down to most counties across America. As a result he made the cover of Time Magazine and the NYT’s gave him his own company to fill with other statisticians. If you are not following FiveThirtyEight – stop what you are doing and do it now. FiveThirtyEight is a website full of sports, political and so much more data and visualizations. 538 is the number of electoral votes needed to with the presidential election. Why wouldn’t you pay attention to this site in an election year?

Collin Malaney is a young math leader in Minnesota. He is the secondary math lead for St. Paul Public Schools. Collin connected me with the site ‘Chartr’ – A data storytelling site. (seriously good tag line – a ‘STORY TELLING’ site – data can tell a story – what if math class looked like this?) Enter your email to receive free charts sent to you. How might you use these in a class to tell a mathematical story?

Here is the graphic that popped up when i went to ChartR right now…


What could you cover up in the graphic above to make an interesting discussion in your class? Here is another graphic…


Data People to Follow on Twitter:

  • ChartR
  • Five Thirty Eight
  • Data is Beautiful
  • What else? Where do you find data and visualizations you can bring into your math classroom? Comment below or tweet at me and I will add your selections to this list.

If you think sports analytics is just for the pros – you are so wrong. Check out this small town Minnesota High School (Pine City HS) who was featured in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years back on how the use of Sports Analytics (the coach was the HS math teacher) transformed their game (I’ll give away the ending…they only shoot 3-pointers and lay-ups the entire game as they have the greatest potential, using mathematics to get points). Check out their story HERE at the WSJ and HERE with a video from our local news staion.

Check out the coach presenting at a Coaches Conference.

Where can I work on my blogging?

OK – I am done now. This post was way, way longer than I set out to do. Crazy. One day I’ll work on my blogging Shot Map and start working on writing concise informative blog posts. When I do – even when I have yellow dot blog posts – perhaps someday I’ll be considered among the best education bloggers out there. I am not done learning yet. I have lots of practicing to do. Hopefully you will find some purple dot nuggets in this blog post you can bring into your own work. Go be amazing, my friends.

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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