PAEMST Spotlight: Christopher Piasecki, NBCT
Christopher Piasecki, NBCT teaches 8th Grade Math and Science at Fairhaven Middle School in Bellingham Public Schools
Check out the rest of our PAEMST Spotlight interview series here.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach and why?
As a student I did well in math classes because I was good at memorizing, but I don’t think I had a strong conceptual understanding of the mathematics I was learning until later in my studies. The “aha” moments I experienced when I finally understood why the mathematical ideas worked and how they were all connected are the types of experiences I try to provide for my students. One of my absolute favorite lessons to teach is a visual lesson on completing the square, one of the algorithms I memorized as a student but never understood. Students begin the lesson by attempting to build squares with algebra tiles and adding missing tiles to complete the square. By the time students engage in the lesson they have used area models to multiply and factor polynomials so many students naturally gravitate toward using area models for this process. The first time I taught this lesson I was blown away by how many students could explain how to complete the square and why it makes sense visually. It was the first time I had a group of students that preferred to use completing the square to solve quadratic equations! A great extension to this activity is to have students develop the quadratic formula by using the same process for a general quadratic equation
What is one concept your students struggle most to understand and how to you try to address this struggle?
I have found that students often struggle to understand how to create and interpret algebraic expressions and how variable expressions are related to other representations such as tables, graphs, and written descriptions. To help students develop a deeper conceptual understanding about variable expressions I provide students with a lot of opportunities to explore and represent visual patterns. Using a lot of the work from Jo Boaler and Youcubed, I have students start by investigating how visual patterns are growing (or shrinking) and showing the changes they see with color. After working with visual patterns, students spend time creating other representations like tables, graphs, written descriptions, and finally algebraic expressions. Throughout the process I encourage students to show connections between the representations with color, arrows, and written explanations. After students create expressions to represent pattern growth, I have students examine different expressions and discuss if the expressions are equivalent and how the different expressions connect to the visual pattern.
Where do you see more opportunity for collaborating with other disciplines to teach math or science?
I think a logical first step for math teachers is to collaborate with science colleagues to incorporate real problems into our math classrooms and give students opportunities to apply concepts they’ve learned in math class in new scientific contexts. Beyond science I’d love to work with social studies teachers to help students explore relevant social justice issues through a mathematical lens. Students can use mathematics to measure and quantify data and engage in academic debates based on mathematical evidence.
What are some of the jobs and pathways you are most excited to see your students preparing for?
I’m excited to see my students pursue their passions, whatever they may be. I have students who love music, computer programming, writing, engineering, and art.
I hope in my classroom students learn the habits and skills they need to successfully follow their passions.
Through mathematics I hope they learn to collaborate with peers, problem solve, and develop the mindset that with enough hard work and dedication they can accomplish amazing things.
What experiences do you think best prepared you for your teaching career?
My experience studying engineering at Drexel University taught me important lessons about productive struggle, collaboration, and provided me with opportunities to learn and apply a lot of the mathematical concepts that I now teach to my students. After college I moved to Telluride, Colorado and began working for the Telluride Adaptive Sports Program (TASP). At TASP I learned to create individual lessons based on students’ needs and change those plans on the fly when things sometimes didn’t work out the way I had planned. I was incredibly lucky to work with amazing students that helped me to develop an asset-based mindset that I have carried with me into my teaching career and has helped me to view every student as unique and exceptional.
How do you keep current on emerging trends in your field? Any publications, blogs, etc. that you love to follow for interesting research or stories?
I seek out interesting professional development opportunities through my professional memberships like NCTM and WSMC, local university partnerships, and my district. I’ve also recently started listening to a podcast called Making Math Moments that Matter, hosted by Kyle Pierce and Jon Orr. They bring on well-known math education professionals like Jo Boaler, Peter Lilejdahl, Dan Finkel, and Peg Smith to discuss their research and publications as well as classroom teachers to answer questions, plan the implementation of new strategies, and talk about lessons learned from the classroom. I’ve learned about so many great resources from this podcast including an online portfolio that I am using for assessments in my classroom this year.
The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) is the highest recognition that a kindergarten through 12th grade science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or computer science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching in the United States. Awardees will be announced this spring.