Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Math Teacher Fail.

Went to FedEx Office (formerly known as Kinko's) with the intention to enlarge this quote (which started out on a regular sized piece of computer paper) to be the same height as the poster.  Even more embarrassing is that I even went there armed with a little piece of paper where I did my "calculations" on how much to enlarge it.  Uh...so yeah, I suppose I'll try again tomorrow when I'm not as tired as I was today.

I will however, save this picture and "calculations" and use it in school sometime.  Great problem for the kids to figure out and an added bonus is that they always love to hear stories about me doing silly things or making mistakes..gotta love 'em.

[Update]: Haha I should perhaps title this "double fail" because someone just noticed that I also misspelled the work believing (I blame no spell check in photoshop!).  Definitely a sign that I need a re-do on this one.  Opps!!

Linear Equations

I have to say that I am so overwhelmed and grateful for all the compliments that I have been getting on my blog and ISN ideas.

I wanted to share the pages I did with my algebra classes today just to show that every ISN page isn't going to be a masterpiece.  I put a lot of time into planning some of the foldables and stuff that I do, but that just doesn't always happen.  Largely because I don't always have the time and energy.

So here's what we did today (ha, even the picture is not spectacular):

As for the rest of the notes I just used this chart.  Each column is going on its own page and we only got through the first couple slope-intercept boxes today.

Not all that fancy and I'm sure I could have come up with something better, but oh well.  I feel like it's fine, but nothing all that special.  Maybe next time I teach this it'll be something more creative and all that good stuff.  This year I had some pages that I really liked and will definitely be keepers, but I had plenty of pages that I wasn't all that crazy about and my hopes are just that this year to improve upon them.

So I share this in hopes that saying that if you are planning on attempting to use an ISN next year, don't get stressed out trying to make it perfect.  Don't get discouraged if it's not always spectacular. It's not going to be.  Starting something new always takes time, especially in teaching.  I honestly don't think I really even figured out my true style of classroom management for like five years.  Sure I thought that I knew what I was doing back in year one, but I look back now and realized that I had no idea.  I expect this ISN to be the same way.  In a year from now I hope to have a better handle on it than I do right now.

You just have to figure out the way to do something that works best for you, and it takes time for that to happen.  I could try to plan everything out right now for this year and plan exactly what I'm going to do, but the reality is that as soon as those kids walk in the door everything will probably change.  The key is just to expect that and go with the flow.

Good luck :)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Three reasons I was wrong about tables

Two years ago my room started out set up in six rows and ended in eight tables.  I'd have the kids move their tables into rows for a particular activity and then back into rows when they were done.  Throughout the year the change over to tables was gradual.  Every time we moved desks, it would be longer and longer until the desks went back into rows and eventually they just never went back.  

If I had sat down and actually thought about it, I'm not sure I would have decided to rearrange desks like this.  These are a few of the reasons that I was not in favor of tables and why I was wrong.

  • Kids won't pay attention in tables.
I thought that if kids weren't facing front then they wouldn't pay attention.  This is one point that I was really wrong about.  It's all about classroom management.  When I let the students know that they would be staying in tables, I let them know that they were expected to behave and pay attention when necessary.  I assigned specific jobs to kids to ensure that they worked well together and were accountable for their behavior as a group.

  • Focus should be on the board.
I think that having the seats facing the board creates a classroom that is more teacher centered.  The focus is on the teacher and the instruction.  When I switched over to tables I noticed that I gave students the opportunity to work together much more often.  It created an environment that was more focused on the work that the students were doing.  Working together became the norm instead of just something they did sometimes.  
  • There's a bigger possibility for distraction in tables.
I thought that if kids were sitting in a group then they would have access to at least three other people that they could distract at all times.  This part is true, but what I didn't quite realize is that in rows there was actually more of a possibility for distraction.  I have a little picture to explain quite what I mean.
In this set up the kid in dark green has five other kids that they could potentially talk to.  And that's an end seat.  A kid in the middle of a row of three would have eight different students around them. When there's like seven different kids I'm trying to separate from each other it becomes really hard to do.

In this set up the same kid only has three other people around him to talk to.  What's even better is that the rest of the kids are really far away from that kid which I like even more.  It was so much easier to create groups of three or four kids that would work well together than trying to plan out rows where there were so many kids all around each other.

I'm very happy I made the switch over.  After making the change for good, I realized there were a bunch of things I loved about the seating arrangement.  My favorite thing is that it makes it so much easier for me to get around to help students and check work.  Instead of just moving around the room from one student to the next, I can move from table to table and address all issues or check all work at once.  If they're all having the same problem I can sit down and help them all together.

I also couldn't imagine doing the ISN without having the kids in tables.  I'm planning on explaining how I do supplies later [update: check out supplies here], but the quick idea is that each table has a basket of supplies that they all share.  When getting new papers to use for the day it is someone's job to get all papers for the group. I also have another person in charge of cleaning up.  Without tables, I would have 25 different kids all trying to do the same things instead of just 5 or 6.

From what I've seen and heard, I'm not sure that this setup is as common in high school so I'm looking forward to switching things up there and giving it a try.

What do you use?? Tables or rows... and why??

New vistaprint order

Ordered these return address labels today from Vistaprint. The ones I ordered of course actually has my info on them.

I plan on having kids stick them inside their notebooks/folders so that they always have my contact information and the class website address.  I ended up getting 280 of them for free and only had to pay $4.58 for the 7 day shipping (the 7 day shipping was actually cheaper than the 14 day shipping..go figure).

What have you made from Vistaprint recently?

[Update: Ordered these on a Monday, got them on Friday.  Vistaprint is awesome]

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Back to School

For the past 4 years I've taught eighth grade in a school set up with teams.  The kids are put onto a team in sixth grade and stay on that team for all three years.  This means by the time they got to me they knew each other very well (almost too well a lot of the time).  Because of this, there was no real need for icebreaker activities.

This year, I will be teaching in high school where most of the kids did not go to middle school together so I'm looking for some fun out of the ordinary getting to know you/teambuilding type activities.  I've got one or two things that I've used from time to time but I'm looking for more ideas!

If anyone has any suggestions on things that you've used, I'd love to hear!  Thanks!!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

School Supplies

Target is my favorite.  

I can't wait to get into my new classroom and get it all set up.  I'm going to wait until my summer job is over so that I really have time to be in there.  It's going to be a lot of work, but I'm excited to start from scratch yet again.  So far in 6 years of teaching I've been in 4 different classrooms so setting up a new room is nothing new.  

Until I can actually start, I calm my excitement by shopping.  Here's some fun things I picked up from Target recently and some projects that I'm looking forward to:

The roll on the left is wrapping paper and I really like the pattern.  I've seen people using cute wrapping paper for all sorts of projects online, but I never seem to find any.  It's kinda hard to tell here, but it's a dark brown color.  As of now, I'm thinking of using this on the front of my desk to make it look less boring.  The one on the right is black and white and contact paper.  I used this in my room last year and loved it.  I have a couple ideas floating around my head, but I haven't quite decided where this is going to go yet.

I found this rug at Home Goods (my other favorite store) and had to have it.  My classroom last year had carpeting in it and I really liked having it.  The new room doesn't have carpet so I'm planning on putting this in my "office area" underneath my desk and computer area.  It's a nice flat weave rug so it's good and durable and should't get in the way of my chair rolling or anything.

Roxy had to try it out as soon as I laid it out on the floor.  I think she likes it too.

I couldn't pass these up either because they're so pretty.  Last year I chose a fun pattern for my ISN and this year this guy in the front is going to be the winner for sure this year. I cover the front of my notebook and personalize it, but on mine I don't cover the entire back to make sure I can still see the design.  The three folders in the back were only $1 and matched the notebook so I just needed them too.

This binder is a nice big one and is going to be for all of my algebra stuff.  I have binders with my algebra stuff from the last few years, but I like to start a new binder with each new course I teach.  This one will certainly be easy to find.

In an impressive surge of self control I made it out of the dollar spot with only these.  I'm a huge sucker for containers, especially ones that are in the dollar spot.  I never really have something too specific in mind when I buy them, but I always find them a perfect home.  The baskets are really good sizes so I have no doubt that these will find something fantastic to do.  The little pencil cup had to be bought because at the moment I can't pass up something that is yellow and grey.  I'm obsessed with the color combo.  

I can't wait to get all this stuff into my room and start setting things up.  My classrooms have frequently been described as being very homey.  Even with high school I still plan to create the same environment.  I spend so much time in that room everyday so I figure it better be a room I like being in.  I think that it creates an environment where the kids are comfortable being.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Integer Foldable

The first real page that I do for pre-algebra is on integers.  By the time they get to me in 8th grade they have certainly learned how to add, subtract, multiply & divide integers but they usually still don't have the hang of it.  I've tried number lines and algebra tiles and rules and they still struggle.

If I could pick one thing to be able to teach and magically have the kids understand, it would be integers.  But unfortunately, I've got no magic here.  So instead I have them record the rules and examples so they can refer back to it as much as necessary in the hopes that eventually it'll stick.

On the right side we record the rules in a foldable:
Outside of the foldable.  I let kids write the words and symbols and color however they want, they like it.

Inside of the foldable

This is an example of a foldable that I complete over a number of days.

This is what it looks like with the left side pages.  Notice that the left side is actually three pages taped one on top of the other so that they flip up.

On the first day we record the rules for multiplication and division.  I will usually have them come up with the examples on their own giving them a little bit of direction (for same signs I tell them to pick one with two negatives and one with two positives).  After recording the rules we tape down the bottom page on the left side.  This is just a practice worksheet with multiplying and dividing.

On day two we do addition rules.  Then we practice on the left side.  The addition worksheet is the middle one.

On the last day we do subtracting.  I use "keep, change, change" because that's what most of my kids are used to.  I always tell them though that if they use "keep, flip, change" or "add the opposite" then they should write that instead.  Then they tape the top worksheet in on the left side and practice.

Inside the subtraction flap, I have them use a highlighter to change the signs and label the "keep, change, change" so that if they were to look back in the future, they can see exactly what they did.  Otherwise, I worry that if they just copy down what I'm doing they will just look back in the future and see an addition problem and have no idea what happened.

This is a set of pages where my left side is not spectacular or creative, it's just the practice that I felt they need.  There are tons of other things you could put over here depending on what your kids needed. 

Now the other part of this foldable is that after we make it, I refuse to just tell kids how to do these types of problems.  If I come over and they ask something like, "Wait, so 2 + -10 is -8, right?" instead of just saying yes I will open their ISN and guide them through the problem always asking the same questions:
   "Are you adding or subtracting?" adding ... I open the addition tab
   "Are the signs the same or different?"  different ... I point to the different sign rule 
   "So are you finding the sum or difference?" difference
   "Is that what you did?" yes
   "So is it the right answer?" yes
About this time they usually get annoyed that I didn't just tell them yes.  After we go through this process a bunch times they won't bother asking me because I know I won't tell them and instead just look up the rules themselves.  Exactly what I wanted :)

Also a note on differentiating just in general- for most of my kids the rules is sufficient.  For something like this, I've found that most of them prefer to just have specific rules to refer to.  There are always some though that I can tell are totally lost and with them I will have them use a number line to work through addition/subtraction problems.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Kuta Love

Have you been using kuta software?  If not, you need to go download the free trial right now.  If you already know about it, feel free to skip this post because you already know how awesome it is.  I must warn you though that once you use it, you may not be able to live without it.

What is it?  It's really simple.  As they say it's:

And that's exactly what it is.  It's a program that generates worksheets and answer keys.  Sounds like no big deal, but I assure you that it is (for me at least).  Don't get me wrong, I love a good hands-on creative type math activity.  But I also love practice.  Kids need to practice skills in order to master them. Kuta software gives you all the practice you could ever want.  

If you don't want to download it, at least go check out their free worksheets.  They have ready made worksheets in almost every topic you can think of in pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and algebra 2.  When they say "No Fluff" they mean it.  You can't change fonts, colors, or anything like that.  It doesn't look pretty or anything, it's just solid math problems.  All of the worksheets look something like this:

Nothing fancy. Just math.

When you download the trial or if you buy the actual program you can create custom worksheets and you can really tailor the problems to be EXACTLY what you want.  For example, if you're making a worksheet of solving equations you can check boxes to turn off and on the following settings:
  • use integers only
  • use decimals
  • use fractions
  • variables on left side
  • variables on right side
  • variables on both sides
  • distribute once
  • distribute twice
  • choose the range of numbers that will be used
  • include special cases
And this is only one topic.  It's so quick to use.  You don't have to dig through lists of problems and choose the one you want, they're all generated based on formulas so you just tell the program how many of each problem you want and you're done.

I also really love the ability to create different versions.  When you choose to print, you can just type in how many different versions and it will automatically create that many different copies.  I absolutely love this for something like integer practice that is so easy to just copy.  You can even choose to take off the version numbers so that the copies really look the same (unless you look at the problems of course).  This is an awesome way to catch kids cheating on homework.  They don't look carefully enough to realize that I've passed out 3 or 4 different versions and it's clear they didn't do the work when they hand in the answers to a different version.  Gotcha.

Seriously there is SO much I love about this.  I could go out about this forever, but you should go check it out yourself.  It's also not all that expensive for a school to buy.  I wouldn't buy it myself because that's a little bit of a stretch, but I would try to talk you supervisor into it :)

*I know this kinda sounds like an advertisement here but I promise you it's not, I just really love it...it makes my life so much easier.

Ok this is so random but one time I was watching a TV show and the teacher was handing out a worksheet to the kids and I recognized the worksheet so I paused the show and took a picture of the TV.  Is it weird that I'm this into a program that makes math worksheets? Yes, I'd say so.  I never claimed to be normal though :P

In case you were wondering this is one of the free worksheets from the Algebra 1 page, it's on multiplying polynomials.
Oh you weren't wondering? Well now you know anyway.

Learning Styles

Along with Multiple Intelligences, I also have them do a Learning Style survey

Learning Style pages.
Right side page flipped over.

Page 8 Learning Style Survey
This page is a survey that the kids take to identify what their personal learning style is.  The survey is split into three parts (visual, auditory, kinesthetic).  They read each statement and mark it with a 0 if the statement does not apply to them, a 1 if the statement sometimes applies to them, and a 2 if the statement strongly applies to them.  When they are done with each section the add up their numbers.
Learning Style survey.  As you can see, I am certainly NOT an auditory learner.

Underneath the survey, the kids tape down a page of learning style suggestions.  I like this because they are pretty specific and some of them are really unique ideas (if you are kinesthetic, chew gum while studying).
Learning Style suggestions

Page 7 Learning Style Activity
On this page I had them use the suggestions from page 8 to draw some ideas of the best ways for them to learn
Learning Style activity. 

I think that these pages are especially important because kids need to understand that not everyone processes information the same way.  Most of the time kids don't know anything about learning styles and they think that they are "dumb" when in reality they just aren't studying or learning in the right way.  A kid that isn't a particularly strong auditory learner might end up thinking that they aren't smart in a history class where the teacher lectures, but as soon as that kid starts to draw pictures and make flashcards they realize that they can do it.

I've had kids complain to me that they aren't doing well in a particular class where the teacher lectures and they tell me that the reason is, "I'm a visual learner, of course I'm not going to be doing well when all she does is talk."  This makes me smile because I'm glad that they know this information about themselves.  When this happens though, we have to have the conversation about how they can help themselves in this type of an environment instead of just blaming the type of instruction they are receiving.  It's always nice to know though that something I did stuck with them :)

Download Folder (there's a bunch of stuff in there)

*I don't take credit for creating ANY of these.  I would link to where I got them from but I have no idea where to even look*

Unfortunately, I can't find the file for the learning suggestions so the survey is all I have uploaded.  A few commenters though have found some though so scroll down and check out their links!

Multiplie Intelligences

As a part of my first week of school/getting to know you type of activities I have kids do a couple of assessments to help them learn about themselves.  One of these is a survey on Multiple Intelligences.  This is what I put on the next couple pages in their ISNs.

Multiple Intelligence page with both sides closed.

Left side flipped open.  Taped down inside the foldable.

Right side flipped over.  Nothing on the actual page.

Page 6 Multiple Intelligence Survey
This page is a survey that the kids take to identify which of the areas they have strengths in.  It is divided into 8 sections and kids check off statements that they identify with.  They then tally up each section and record the number.

Page 5 Multiple Intelligence Graph and Info
This foldable is just a sheet of paper folded in half.  On the outside kids use their survey scores to create a bar graph.  It's the same information from the survey but I think that it's a lot easier to interpret the scores graphically.

On the inside of this page is just some information and suggestions on what the multiple intelligences really mean.  I just have the kids highlight the areas they were strong in and read a little more about what that means.  I like the graph on this page, but I'll admit I'm trying to think of something more they can do with the information once they read it.

Another thing I'd like to add about the ISN here is that you should try to get into it too, not just have the kids doing everything.  I had done this all ahead of time so that the kids could see what the finished product should look like.  I found the especially important in the beginning as the kids were getting used to the ISN.  They were always a little hesitant and always wanted me to walk around with mine and show them what it should look like.

Download Folder (there's a bunch of stuff in there)

*I don't take credit for creating ANY of these.  I would link to where I got them from but I have no idea where to even look*

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

ISN Introduction Page

This post is all about the pages I put in that introduce what an ISN really is.  This section goes along with all my first week of school stuff.  Since I use the right side as the input and left side as the output, I'm going to go through the pages in that order.  

Pages 3-4 "Math ISN Information"

Page 4 is for information on the ISN.  This page is just all the information about what the ISN is, what it'll be graded on, and so on.  Get the paper here if you'd like it.  (Like the course guide on page 2, print it straight to the Xerox, double sided, at 75%)  Tape it in so that it flips.

Page 3 is where the kids take guesses as to what they think the ISN is going to be like.  They drew some really cute pictures for this.  I wish I had taken pictures of some of theirs because they were soooo much better than mine.

ISN Course Guide & Expectations

This post is all about the first few actual ISN pages.  This section goes along with all my first week of school stuff.  Since I use the right side as the input and left side as the output, I'm going to go through the pages in that order.  

Pages 1-2 "Class Policies and Expectations"

Page 2 is for the course expectations.  The first thing that goes in is my Classroom Expectations.  I print two of these per sheet of paper and have the kids cut them to fit.  This gets taped down to page 2 using four pieces of tape in the corners as shown below.  

When I give the kids directions on setting this up, I show them the picture below on the Smart Board so they know exactly where to put it and how to tape it.
The next sheet also goes on page 2.  This is where things get fun.
Front of the Course Guide
Back of the Course Guide
This is a double sided page (if you can print directly to a Xerox machine, you can print double sided at 75% and it works perfect).  This page gets put right on top of the Classroom Expectations and the tape only goes on the left side so that this page flips like a book.

Page 1 is where the kids now process the information.  This part is where I started to fall in love with the ISN (it's the little things).  For my first 5 years of teaching I would hand out the Course Guide and I highly doubt that kids ever looked at it again.  They certainly didn't take it home and reread it.  The activity on the left side here forces them to do that.

This is a "high-five" (idea courtesy of Krystina) they trace their hand...which they LOVE...and write one piece of key information in each finger.  Let them have fun with it.  I had kids that colored the nails, drew on jewelry, watches, etc.  What was so cool about this was that the kids actually went through all of my class information and picked out what they thought was most important.  

Simple yet so awesome.  My favorite part of this was actually what I got to learn about the kids. Some kids focused more on consequences (three missed homeworks = detention and things like that) while others focused on rewards (perfect homework for the marking period = 2 pt grade boost)

It was also fun that the kids were SO excited to do this page for homework.  I had mine done to use as an example and all period they just kept asking, "Are we really going to get to trace our hands??!" "Can we color the nails?!" And these were 8th graders.  No matter how old they get they still love this stuff.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How I use my ISN

The big thing with interactive notebooks is that they can be whatever you want them to be.  You can use them however you want.  I learned about them from the fabulous science teacher on my team Krystina (go check her out here right now if you haven't already).  After seeing the unbelievable stuff she was doing I was jealous and wanted to do them in math too.  I thought about what was going to work best for me and came up with what I use.

I use one composition notebook for the whole year.  This works for me because
I do not put new things into their ISNs everyday.

My end goal for the ISN was for students to use their books as a how-to guide.  Even though we don't always add something new, they are required to bring it with them to class everyday and also to bring it home with them in case they need to look something up (I doubt they actually all do bring it home if there's no HW in it but oh well).

How to find rate of change.

I decided that I didn't really want all of the daily activities and investigations (I used connected math) to go in there, I just wanted the "good stuff."  To me, this is all of the skills that I teach them how to do.  

On average I might put in anywhere from 1-3 new pages in a week.  
Depending on how I'm teaching the skills it goes down one of three ways.
  1. When I want kids to develop a rule/procedure themselves we will usually spend a day or two working through some type of discovery activities.  I do not put these into the ISN.  In addition to the ISN I have them keep a three ring binder (or section in another binder) for all of these kinds of things.  After they have a good idea of the skill, we will then formalize it with a rule or definition and that goes into the ISN.
  2. When I have something that I want to do direct instruction on, we will do the ISN page first and they they will use the rule/procedure/foldable to do practice activities for the next couple days.
  3. Sometimes I will also work on the same ISN page for a couple days.  Integers is an example of this.  I will have the kids make a foldable on the first day (will be posting this sometime soon.) Then on the first day we go over the rules for multiplication and division, fill them into the foldable and then do practice.  The next day we fill in/practice addition, and the third day we fill in/practice subtraction.  So in this scenario we are using the ISN three days in a row but only really creating one set of new pages.  
How to write a linear equation.
This is the main reason why I only go through one book a year.  Things like do nows, most homework, and investigations all go into the binder.  I don't ever check the binder and it gets cleaned out after each unit.  You could certainly choose to do it a different way if you want to have them put everything into their ISNs.  There is no right or wrong way to do any of it.

I chose this set up was because I really wanted my kids to see their book as something valuable.  I worried that if I put everything in then they might see it as just their notebook for the year with all the work they did.  With connected math a lot of the investigations we do are good, but in my opinion not worth holding onto.  I wanted them to think of their ISN more as the "highlights" of the year, or all of the really important stuff.  I wanted them to feel that when we put something into the ISN that it was something big and important, and I think I accomplished that goal with the way I set up.

How to make a box and whisker plot.

Monday, July 23, 2012

She doesn't teach like you

I've taught 8th grade for the past four years.  By the end of the year I feel like the kids are my own and I worry about them when they go to high school.  I love when they come back to visit and catch me up with everything that's going on and how they're doing.

This year I heard the same comment more than once.

"She doesn't teach like you do."

Part of me takes it as a compliment, but mostly it makes me sad.  They say this in explaining why they aren't doing well in math this year.  These are kids that don't have a history of being great students.  They aren't the most motivated, but in my class they were.  They participated, they studied, they came for extra help and they passed my class.

I know that blaming their teacher isn't right, and they could probably be doing a lot more to help themselves. Trust me, I know this, but it still just makes me sad.

In longer conversations with them on the subject I asked whether maybe it is just that they liked me better as a teacher.  I told them that I'm sure their teacher is just as great and smart and good at explaining things.  They disagreed.  They said that the difference is, "It's like she doesn't want to teach."  Whether or not this is true, it's so disappointing that the kids feel this way.

If nothing else, my kids know that I want to teach them.  I teach them during every free moment that I have, whether it's required or not.  I don't even stop at math.  I help them set up binders for all their classes.  I help them study or look things up for history or science or even health.  I help them learn tricks to remember things and make flashcards.  Sometimes this takes a lot of time, but I feel that if I don't do it no one else will.  Nothing beats the feeling when that kid comes running into my room to share the A he just got on a history quiz that we studied really hard for.

The reason they did well for me was because they knew I cared.  They knew that I really wanted to teach them.  They noticed that when they opened up and let me help them that they started to improve and feel more confident in themselves.  I could have easily take the "It's not my job" attitude, but I just can't.  I know it's not my job, and I'm certainly not getting paid anything for my extra time but I can't just give up on them.

This is why it makes me so sad to hear, "She doesn't teach like you do."  It breaks my heart to see them struggling again.  I have no idea about the quality of instruction they're getting, but I do know that all they really want is someone to care as much as I did and not just write them off as the lazy, unmotivated kid yet again.

DIY Whiteboards

I've seen this all over all the cool math kids' sites and I wanted to get in on it!

At my last school I had a set of small dry erase boards and I used them all the time.  I saw the shower board dry erase board ideas all over the place so I decided to check it out.  $15 for that much whiteboard seems too good to be true.

I ended up getting the board from Lowe's and found two different options.  They have a smaller more expensive one called Mark-r-board and bigger one that's 4' x 8' called tile board.  After comparing the two side by side for like 10 minutes I couldn't find any difference and bought the larger one.

They even cut the board for free which is awesome.  I tried to talk the guy into cutting it all down into the little sizes I needed and although he was super nice he laughed and said the machine was just too big.  What we decided on instead was the following cuts (in blue):
He first did the middle cut, then he cut each half into 1 foot strips.  It made it much more manageable and I could even carry all the boards no problem.

I came home with 8 of these:

At home I used a saw to cut each of the long strips at 9" increments (dotted lines).

It got me five 9" x 12" boards and a little leftover from each strip.  In hindsight, I probably should have done 9.6" and had none left over but oh well.  

The left side has no dotted lines because I actually din't cut those yet.  I'm going to wait and see how many kids I have and then cut more if necessary.  I definitely won't need 40 though so I'm looking forward to figuring out what to use the rest for.

Once they were all cut the edges weren't very nice looking so I just took sandpaper and sanded them down which was easy and made them all look nice and finished.

Finished product!

Update (7/14/14): I wanted to add a short update on these here after having them around for over a year now. Unfortunately I don't love them. So many people have said they work great but regardless of what type of marker I use they just don't erase that well. I even went back and bought the smaller slightly more expensive one that's actually called "Mark-r-board" thinking it would erase better but nope. I had that one cut into large sheets for group work and used them maybe twice before it just wasn't worth it.

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