Words (and images) to avoid in the middle school classroom

When I taught middle school, I sometimes worried that they taught me more than I taught them. Middle schoolers are masters of the double entendre and they love nothing more than twisting their teachers’ innocent words and drawings in perverse ways.

I leave the following list to your imagination. How might a middle school teacher have meant to use the following words and images, and how might a student take deviant pleasure in hearing and seeing them used?

Final warning

The following is completely immature and inappropriate. Yet each example comes directly from my own middle school classroom. Middle school teachers, back me up on this, please!

And, of course, let’s see your additions to the list in the comments.





Pull out (especially if what we are pulling out is balls)

In a Connected Math probability unit, there is a problem involving blue and orange blocks. Students are trying to list out all the ways two orange blocks and two blue blocks can be put into two containers. Students typically abbreviate orange with O and blue with B. This all goes well until they put all four blocks in one container and list them out: blue, orange, orange, blue.

The formula for area, A, of a square as a function of its side length, s, is A=s*s



12 responses to “Words (and images) to avoid in the middle school classroom

  1. These in by email:

    page 69 (or any problem whose answer is 69)


    Do it (especially if two people are doing it together)

  2. Inadvertent use of a problem or solution leading to the number 420 is trouble for some kids. Beware — not as bad as 69, but still bad.

    Depending on the class, too much use of “stretching” and “shrinking”…

    Nice cylinder!

  3. Thanks for this – gave me a laugh with my coffee this morning 🙂

    I once saw a principal talk to an elementary school assembly about the fact that someone had been stealing the computer mice’s balls. He eventually gave up trying to get a sensible answer from students.

  4. Sometimes when we’re working with combining like terms I use real life examples when talking about variables. For example, for 1N+2N=3N, I might ask if I have one nickel and you have two nickels, how many nickels do we have together? Inevitably when I ask, “What’s something that starts with ‘n’?” my students come up with “nuts.” Luckily I have been teaching middle school long enough to know not to ask, “If I have one nut and you have two nuts, how many nuts do we have all together?”

  5. I try never to use “p” as a variable…..because when you have “2p” you are in trouble.

  6. It’s pretty hard to avoid the first picture in calculus class…

    • Good point, Sue. But in Calculus, we can usually count on our students to behave like adults. A few snickers perhaps, but no complete loss of classroom decorum.

  7. Pingback: Connected Mathematics posts | Overthinking my teaching

  8. I needed an extra example one day in algebra, and just changed a few numbers around. Unfortunately my final result was c=3. I’ve not made the same mistake again.

  9. Chris Lusto adds the following to the conversation via Twitter:

    Teaching tip-o’-the-day: Just go ahead and write out “sum of exterior angles.” Putting S_EXT on the board in giant letters is problematic.

  10. This is an older post, but it’s new to me 🙂 Followed your “middle school” tag cloud and got here. I’ve been teaching middle school for 22 years (or more?) so I’ve heard and seen and said pretty much everything. Just a few days ago, I said the word STRIP (as in strip away or isolate the variable) and one 8th grade boy couldn’t contain himself. So sadly immature.
    My biggest blunder earlier this year was when I said, “What was the height of the tree when you FUCK it in the ground?” I meant to say “… First stUCK”

  11. Say it with symbols, pool area problem on the quiz. 100 drawings that all looked like a penis. (sigh)

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