My First Foray Into Three Act Math

I recently returned to teaching after an extended maternity leave. As much as I love my girls, it was tough for me to be out of the classroom for almost a year. A lot can happen in a year and a lot did happen in a year in our math world. We adopted a Singapore inspired program, embraced the mathematical practice standards, and had Yeap Ban Har train us in a better way to teach math. It was at Ban Har’s workshop where my mind truly experienced a renaissance, if a mind can experience such a phenomenon. Of course, by the time Ban Har reshaped my focus I had already been trained via staff developers of the Math in Focus program. Every lesson structure we discussed and I witnessed allowed little light bulbs in my head to flicker. When I returned to my classroom this past August, I was determined to change everything.

Anyone who has been in teaching will tell you that changing everything, for lack of a better term, is stupid. As true as that may be, I knew the type of math teacher of which I was aspiring to become, so I attempted such a transformation. I furiously researched my new textbook topics and scoured the Internet for lessons that were already brilliantly designed and would complement the objectives I knew I must meet. It was this search that led me back to Dan Meyer.

I had seen Mr. Meyer’s Ted Talk discussing how math instruction must change. But like most people, I need to be introduced and reintroduced to something multiple times before I truly embrace and understand it. I re-watched Dan Meyer’s Ted Talk and then went further to watch examples of his 3-Act Math. In a nutshell (apologies to Dan Meyer here for not doing this explanation justice), three act math includes a conflict/hook, a problem where students must develop ways to overcome the obstacles presented, and a resolution. There are various ways to get that hook, and it is our job as instructors to find it and lead our students’ interest in our direction.

Upon searching for something to do with integers and absolute value, I came across one of his lessons that had students guessing ages of celebrities. Like all teachers out there, I “stole” his idea, and modified it to make it my own. I spent hours debating which celebrities to use in my presentation and how many I needed. Then, realizing that I would be at a different pace with each of my classes; I figured I needed to make at least two versions of this lesson so the celebrities would be different for each class.

Here is what happened in my first class.

I asked the students how good they thought they would be at guessing somebody’s age. The responses varied from, “I am so good at that, to, I am the worst.” After they polled each other quickly on their anticipated success or failure at such a task, I posted a slide with lots of celebrity pictures with the challenge:  Let’s examine your talents. On the slide, I showed Barack Obama, Daniel Radcliffe, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Selena Gomez, Serena Williams, Michael Strahan, and Tom Brady.celebrity slide

Next, I distributed a table with the following categories:  Name, Age Guess, About, Difference.

Record your guess

I then posted one slide at a time of each celebrity and the students had about 30 seconds to record their age guess.

The students were excitedly shouting out their guesses and arguing with each other as each celebrity was shown on the screen. After they recorded their guesses, I posted the actual age of each celebrity in a table that matched the one I created for them. After they filled it out, they were instructed to determine the difference between the actual age of the celebrity and their age guess. We figured out who was the best in the class at this game and who was the worst guesser. Both students were celebrated by a round of vigorous applause. The discussion led to the fact that there was never a consideration as to whether the guesses were too high or too low, just the distance from the actual age.

Eventually, students figured out that this was an example of absolute value because they were measuring the distance from the actual age.

Students were then asked the following question:  “If provided the exact birthday of any of the celebrities from the previous slides, how could you find a more precise difference between your guess and the actual age? For example, Donald Trump’s actual birthday is June 14, 1946. Use this information to find a more precise difference between your guess and the actual age of Donald Trump. Discuss, explain, and problem solve.

Students soon realized that they were dealing with rational numbers. Some students decided to post the information in fraction form out of 12 months, others used 365 as the denominator and were showing the age difference to the exact day, and still others tried to tie in hours! They were all on a mission to be the most precise and my classroom was alive.

Since that lesson, I have referred to the age activity when reminding students about the concept of absolute value. This lesson became one of those lessons. The lessons teachers dream about. Students were inspired to perform all of the problem solving, research, and data gathering independently and collaboratively, without much from me. Most of my work was in the lesson structure and observation. The rest was up to them.

That was a good day.


On a quest to feel like every lesson is my best lesson ever…

Once upon a time, I was not a teacher. Yes, it is true. I began my professional life as a business person. My major in undergraduate school was business administration and my minor was in economics. The way that teaching found me was one of my first professional a-ha moments. It was such an intense realization that I literally changed everything I was doing to become a teacher as quickly as possible. 14 years into immersing myself in education and I still feel that excitement, anticipation, and rush at the beginning of every lesson.

As true as that may be, I don’t always end a lesson with exhilaration as though I rocked the material in a way that allowed my students to own it.  Perhaps I am overly reflective, but there have been those lessons in years past that I have looked forward to teaching because they were guaranteed to leave my students in a better place than they began. These lessons were not rote material; they were hardly about memorizing procedures, because they had something more, much more. Have I mentioned that I am a math teacher?

After making a move from the elementary school to math in the middle school a few years ago, I have arrived at a cross roads along with the rest of the country. There has been a shift in the way teachers are expected to expose students to mathematics. It is met with a mixture of emotions from students, parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and test makers. As true as that may be, I see tremendous opportunity in this shift. Math has not been about simple procedures in a long time. Yes, the rote procedures are necessary and efficient, but the concepts, the puzzles, the real situations in familiar and unfamiliar settings, that is not only a snapshot of what math instruction should look like, it is also what real problems in our world look like as well.

I have had the honor of learning directly from math star Ban Har Yeap, and it provided an epiphany in the lesson structure. This change has without question been for the better. My greatest problem (and this has remained consistent in my teaching career) is I am obsessed with finding that one great lesson for every single solitary objective in my classroom. (In all honesty, I prefer a plethora of lessons to choose from, but that is just me being greedy). I have been dedicating any spare time I can steal to try to invent and/or borrow those lessons. Some days I have a seedling of an idea, other days my husband comes up with something for me to use, but there are many lessons that have not yet achieved the Holy Grail status I am in search of every single day. With superstars like Andrew Stadel and Dan Meyers inspiring me, the frequency of the great lesson has increased and it shows through my students’ reactions and performances. (More on that in another post) It is not enough. I want more.

Here I am, one middle school math teacher trying to re-invent the wheel, but I don’t want to when I know I could quite easily “steal” lessons from the very best and adapt them to our district’s standards and my personality. The toughest challenge at this point has been finding something for every concept. When teaching students ratios or geometry, there are so many great lessons, it is tough to choose which ones to use in a given year. However, concepts like rational numbers are sorely lacking. It could be that I just can’t find the great lessons out there and they exist. A real possibility is that I need to pay for one on a site like, but I just can’t bring myself to do that. You have to pay for the lesson before you see it and I just can’t risk spending money I don’t have on a lesson that may fall short of my great expectations. So I am asking, no, begging the math world…Can we as professionals pull all of our resources together in a camaraderie movement? Is there a network for us to do this? I invite your suggestions, responses, and advice.