Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.
What students may not realize when they sign up for Jennifer Moriarty’s video game programming courses at Denver’s CEC Early College high school, is that they’re actually signing up for math.
To Moriarty that’s what creating a video games is all about: “solving a massive and fun math problem.”
Moriarty talked to Chalkbeat about what turned her into math-lover, why she builds forts with her students, and how off-task behavior is like a canary in a coal mine.
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In 2017, Moriarty was selected as a state level winner for the national Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
I didn’t really like mathematics until college calculus, when I fell head over heels in love with it. I had this amazing professor who focused on its beauty and magic, and all of the sudden I was smitten. I wanted to help more people feel the same way about it.
What does your classroom look like?
Fun and funky. Computer desks are clumped in groups to help facilitate collaboration, and we have chairs with wheels to encourage kids to move around and help each other. We usually have the overhead fluorescent lights off, instead relying on strings of blue LED lights that wrap around the room and a few gentle lamps to help set a relaxing mood. We have an assortment of odd items, including an old piano, a skeleton, and a few video game systems.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sticky notes! Even though we’re a high-tech classroom, we use this low-tech tool for a variety of tasks because they get kids on their feet and moving around. They’re great for “parking lot” and “word wall” posters, as well as for making notebooks more interactive. I’ll also write math problems on stickies, and students will take them to the whiteboard to solve with a partner. Students use them on their project planning posters, by breaking large projects into smaller tasks and moving them back and forth from columns labeled “to-do,” “working on,” “stuck,” and “done.”
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
It’s too hard to pick, they’re all so fun. Creating a video game is really just solving a massive and fun math problem, so as soon as students have enough skills under their belts to begin working on projects, the class just flies. I love the bugs that kids’ code will sometimes have, like a PONG ball that bounces off invisible paddles mid-screen, or Pac Man ghosts that go haywire. These episodes usually give us all a good giggle, and are always fun and interesting opportunities to figure out what happened with the math to cause the problem.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
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I want and expect kids to not understand all my lessons fully. I want students to be thrown into projects where they don’t know how to complete all the required tasks, and then use their problem-solving skills to work through areas that confuse them. It’s important that students become comfortable making lots of mistakes and collaboratively struggling through tough and frustrating problems.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I see off-task behaviors, like cell phone use or long off-topic conversations, as canaries in a coal mine. They point to some underlying problem with the environment. Are kids bored? Are they stuck? Do they not understand the purpose of a project? Usually just walking around asking those questions will help me figure out the problem.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
We do a lot of culture-building activities at the start of every semester — everything from building forts to physical challenges. I also usually ask a tough get-to-know-you question as kids walk in the door each class. Finally, video games! I open my classroom during lunch and after school for gaming, and often get quite a crowd. I can kick my students’ butts on a few games, which gives me a bit of street cred.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I recently started doing tons of home visits, and I’d say that in doing them, my perspective about home visits themselves has changed. I now feel that if I’m really struggling with a student, it’s the ultimate way to show that I care and to get to know them better. I also love home visits because of the food. On one occasion I had beans and homemade fry bread and learned Navajo string games. Another time I had “mild” enchiladas that were so good I finished my plate despite the fact I was almost in tears from the spiciness.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
“La Belle France: A Short History,” by Alistair Horne.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
When I was a struggling first-year teacher, my mentor, Kerri Schultz, came into my room and looked at my chalkboard after a failed attempt to teach the quadratic formula. I remember her explaining that I needed to break my steps into smaller, bite-sized pieces. I still use this framework when I plan my lessons: How can can this idea be broken down into bite-sized steps? It’s also something I require of my students — They need to be able to describe their processes in bite-sized steps as well.