# Are Procedures a Dirty Word in our Current Math Classrooms?

I accidentally created an online argument between myself and other passionate educators on a Jo Boaler dedicated Facebook page. After countless hours of endless research and sending messages to math educators I admire, I still had a question that could not seem to be answered. In my perpetual attempt to improve my craft, I innocently asked how to make those “procedure teaching days” meaningful for students who had prior knowledge. So, for example, if we have students who go to Kumon, Russian Math, or even have access to a private tutor and are taught lots of procedures, how can we challenge them on days we are having the rest of the class engage with them? Many of these students feel the discovery piece is a waste of their time since they already know the end result. As often as I remind students that procedures without a solid conceptual foundation are weak, there is still push back and I was looking for a way to engage them, not for my ego, but for their betterment. Furthermore,  if a teaching goal is still for students to be able to perform algorithms to help them “Look for and make use of structure,” what is the best way to make those days of instruction inspirational for everyone?

My post got a lot of comments, and not all were kind. Disgusted responses such as, “You should never teach your students procedures, what are you even doing as a member on this Facebook page” were peppered in along with, “Following, if you find out, please tell me.” Ok, I am exaggerating the first statement, but only a little. The message was underlying and clear. Although my post was not about the straight teaching of procedures, it got me wondering:

Is it true, are procedures a dirty word in our current math classrooms?

Now listen, I am all about trying to have students discover and conceptualize before utilizing any procedure. A circle unit my students recently completed as a review is a great example. Students  measured the distance around a circular object and then across the diameter of it to provide them an opportunity to discover the pi ratio. Before the lesson, I asked them what they knew about pi. They responded that it was 3.145…and used in circles. Many commented on “pi day” celebrations of the past. None knew it was a ratio. This was a small example of procedure without substance.

For the area of the circle, students studied images of a circle being sliced up into wedges and slowly transforming into a rectangle, which they were then able to compare to the area formula for a rectangle, hence, discovering the formula for the area of a circle.

For circumference, students engaged in Rolling Tires 3-Act Lesson by Andrew Stadel.

However, after these periods of discovery are over, students still apply the formulas in and out of context with the procedure. The conceptual piece is enhanced by the algorithm, and vice versa. My critics questioned my inclusion of this piece of teaching, so I have to question it too. However, how will isolated discovery without practice allow concepts to enter the long-term storage area of the brain? Aren’t both needed? I think yes.

I have researched (through the printed word, professional development courses, and on-line videos of educators I admire). The same message delivered in different ways is that the algorithms of the past are not meant to magically disappear. “There is no new math” is a popular phrase. In my current state of teaching, I agree. Algorithms are wonderful, important, and revolutionary methods. It is not wrong to know how to use algorithms, but it is not productive to use them and have no idea why they work. Shouldn’t we have both?

I really want to know.

# What Makes A Circle, A Circle?

In the seventh grade curriculum, geometry studies are few and far between. Sometimes students will stumble upon a textbook question regarding angles, triangles, area, or perimeter, but there is little exposure in isolation of geometric properties in our grade level. (Of course, all mathematical concepts are connected, but I digress). In our school, 6th grade is the year for circles, so we were advised to insert a review or to backfill for any or all students who possibly did not receive exposure to the concept. This makes it tricky when some students have lots of experience and other students have none or simply no memory of it. And although this might sound like an unusual problem to someone without 25 or more different personalities in class, it is often par for the course for every teacher and student each day. Some concepts are completely mastered by some students, others are sort of remembered, a few have surpassed curriculum expectations through independent study, and some have no recollection, regardless of the topic at hand. The reasons are plentiful. We as teachers all do our best to expose students to topics that they will claim they never saw, even if we previously taught it to them in the same year! The question is: how do we as teachers prevent this scenario?

We are supposed to be able to differentiate for all levels and reach all students in every lesson. Although I try via various modalities and methods, I have yet to figure out how to accomplish this with fidelity each day. However, one method that I find differentiation is embedded, is in well-developed three act tasks. Today, I used Dan Meyer’s Best Circle task. Here is a link: http://threeacts.mrmeyer.com/bestcircle/.

I am sure there are lots of different ways to utilize this lesson, which I would love to hear about from you if this fact applies. All I can share is what I did with it.

In the first act, four different gentlemen draw a circle. I paused the video clip and asked students to vote on which of the four circles was the best circle. I wrote the names of the circle creators (Chris, Timon, Andrew, and Nathan) on the board. Immediately, Chris received most of the votes. Students let me know it looked the least like an oval. I did not agree or disagree with their comment, but simply repeated, “Ok, less like an oval than the rest, got it.” I then asked, “Is that a true defense?” Students shrugged and expressed that they thought it was as good a reason as they could collectively argue at that point in time. Other than that, students did not have much to sustain their reasoning for choosing Chris. Although they would find out that the majority of their initial guesses was the correct one, a good math teacher always asks, “but why?” A student excited about math wants to be able to answer that question. And boy, were they interested.

Next, I assigned a new task to the students by asking a question: What makes a circle, a circle? I gave them about 10 minutes to determine the answer to this question. They were permitted to use their Chromebooks, textbooks, and each other to come up with research and data to support their opinions.  Students were allowed to revise their original hypothesis based on any information they found.

Work options were offered. Some students worked independently, others partnered with one student, and some collaborated with a group of three or four peers. One student spotted compasses on my desk and asked if he could use it. He went up to the board where the frozen screen shot with the circles remained. He slowly used the compass on each circle. As students researched and revisited words like equidistant, radius, and diameter, I was asked if they could go to the board and use a ruler to take measurements of the circles. When one student witnessed another student trying it out, she commented, “Oh, that is a good idea.” She joined the student, and then another and before my eyes, students formed a small cohort within the class in front of the screen shot with the four circles. Students began debating each other what part of the circle they should measure and whether or not they could make determinations from their measurements. Some were discussing the midpoint, others radius, hemispheres, quadrants, circumference, etc. A few were cheering themselves for their initial guess and others were disappointed that new information changed their previous prediction. When the 10 minutes was up, I shared act 2 with the additional information provided by the lesson. Students were asked whether the area, circumference and coordinate points of the circle were offered for each circle would provide a clue to help solve the problem. This is where it came out that students recalled very little in the way of formulas and the inner workings of a circle from previous learning. I showed them the resolution (the third act), but I quickly realized we weren’t done with the task today. There is so much left to dissect, I did not even want to enter into the explanation Dan provided in the teacher guide. They weren’t ready.
I do have a bit of formal review to do with students, perhaps a day or two of lessons, but we will return to this three act lesson to see if students can in fact determine why the best circle was in fact the best circle. The quick review will come…ahem…full circle. Maybe, just maybe at this time in the next school year, students will still remember some details about what makes a circle a circle.

# Stealing from Dan Meyer…again!

Recently, the great Dan Meyer started a strand on his blog called Pseudo-Context Saturday. He shows an image from a math textbook and invites his readers to guess the extremely contrived math context behind the question. It is a challenge right up my alley because I cannot stand contrived word problems that try to convince students that the math I teach them will be useful. All problem solving is useful because life is all about problem solving, so there.

I have enjoyed trying to guess the context, so I thought, if I like to do this, maybe my students would like to as well. Recently, I tried an altered version of this activity where I simply ask student in big bold letters to “Guess the question.” It is not exactly like Dan Meyer’s activity because students already know the context of the day. However, I displayed an image and asked them to guess the question that matched the image. I offered the closest guesser a prize. It went over very well, so I tried other versions. Students have been shown a calculation and an image side-by-side. In addition, I have provided them a context and background (without the image) and asked them to guess the exact question and/or the image. This small tweak is so much more powerful than simply giving students the contrived problems from the book. This easily adaptable exercise promotes student thinking and empowers them to make their own connection between context and procedure. Dan Meyer, you have done it again!

So go ahead, you try it. Guess the context and/or question that goes with the image displayed in this entry from our textbook. Don’t worry, I will provide the answer later. Just another piece of evidence that proves that math is fun!

# It’s Summer Vacation and I Can’t Shut Off my Teacher Brain…

This past year of teaching was revolutionary for me. After years of reading articles, books, and receiving tiny amounts of professional development that may or may not have made an impact on my brain, I evolved. No, seriously. I went from surviving the changes perpetually implemented by the powers that be to balancing those while making hundreds of my own. Granted some were successful and others, not so much…but I digress.

It seems that all of the pieces of advice that were dribbling into my brain finally congealed. Yes, I now have the big picture of what math instruction should look like, until additional research convinces me to change everything again.

I started this past year with one crazy goal. My goal was to make all of my lessons  fantastic experiences for both the students and myself. You know the ones I am talking about teachers. I am referring to class periods where you look around the room and every single student is engaged and no one looks bored. These kinds of lessons provide uninterrupted time frames where no one is staring at the clock; understanding is elevated, amazing questions and inquiry is running amok, and where students actually feel disappointment when the bell has rung. I wanted (ok, still do) every lesson to be like that.

After reading Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler and taking two of her courses this summer, it fully hit me that an engaging lesson is the tip of the iceberg. I suppose I knew this already, but my understanding became deeper. Math instruction is not only about the individual lessons, just as math itself is not about the individual concepts. What my job is really about, is to help students to see math as a fluid subject. Students need to seek out patterns and find the connections so that one lesson (as engaging as it is) does not halt the learning of a concept after the bell has rung. Instead, each lesson should enhance previous learning and build stronger conceptual knowledge and deeper understanding among the connectivity of mathematical concepts.

So, now what? I need to find a way to make that connectedness a focus this year. Now that I see the picture this clearly, I have to find a way to structure my lessons to match. Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, Robert Kaplinsky, Jo Boaler, I look to you for inspiration and resources. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have lots of resources already, but I want more.

The problem is I am supposed to be on vacation.  Is it wrong to spend an entire summer vacation fine tuning my professionalism? It is not that I haven’t done summer work before, but so far, every free day I have had; has been filled up with my math passion. As I read, research, and participate in more conversations about math, I find myself unable to slow down. My thirst for additional math and educational knowledge cannot be quenched!

For now, I am going to embrace the passion and curiosity I have for my own profession. Let’s be honest, the moment I really feel like I have a handle on my profession is likely the moment that I don’t belong in it any longer.

# Flipping my Teaching, Not Just my Classroom

My teaching approach is getting flipped upside down…repeatedly.

It all started with my on-line introduction to Yeap Ban Har’s discussion on number bonds. Here is the link for anyone interested:  Number Bonds . This was the first time my mathematical mind was blown. Throughout my years teaching elementary school, I had stumbled across multiple approaches in computation, but never had the pitfalls of memorizing procedures and algorithms without context been succinctly explained. This is literally a 2 minute 50 second video!

This one youtube video launched my researching life. Don’t get me wrong, I had always tried to search for great lessons, etc., but this was the first time I felt like I was (for lack of better explanation) doing everything wrong in my teaching.

The timing for this epiphany was not super as I was pregnant with my second child and about to take the majority of the school year off to take care of my baby. In between changing diapers, cleaning spit up, and a very snowy winter trapped in the house, any spare moment was spent investigating better ways to teach math. Fast forward through 10 months massive sleep deprivation, the trials and tribulations (and wonder) of having two children instead of one, and intermittent mathematical research, I was back in my classroom wondering what to change first.

I have written a post about my first foray into 3-act math, as the great Dan Meyer was also a new discovery to me during my maternity leave/initial research period. Not only did I “meet” Dan Meyer, I also was “virtually” introduced to Andrew Stadel, Robert Kaplinksy, Jo Boaler, and of course, the DESMOS and MTBOS communities. Although I have never actually met any of these mathematicians in person, this growing group of educators provides me with daily inspiration.

Throughout this year, many 3 act lessons have made their way into my classroom. One that I recently completed, Robert Kaplinsky’s Zoolander had me questioning if what I was doing was working. Were these lessons as amazing I thought? Did they provide students with a context that made the experience and math meaningful? Were students making connections in their brains? Was I providing enough structure? In short:  effective or not?

Whenever I try something new, it is normal for me to question myself. Acknowledging this fact, I can see that this has been a wonderful transformation for my teaching and math learning for my students. These lessons have had a major impact and I know this from events in the last few weeks. Several weeks after the Starburst lesson by Dan Meyer and the Zoolander lesson by Robert Kaplinsky, my students were referencing them in math conversations in the hallway and classroom. You read that right, the hallway!!! Apparently there was a question on the standardized test about scale models and the students were discussing how easy it was compared to the work they had to do in the Zoolander lesson. Another student commented that the Zoolander lesson helped them really understand the concept better than any book and that was why the question was so easy. I rest my case.

The Starburst lesson initiated a debate about sample space. A passionate debate! When does this happen from a textbook example? I have no reference for that. In short, these lessons make a difference.

At the same time I have felt success achieved in my teaching and by my students, it has also been an immense struggle for me professionally. This is especially poignant with my lower performing students. How do I convince them to believe in themselves and see the beauty in mathematics? If they don’t know the basics, can they still participate in these lessons with confidence? How often will they give the line of, “I don’t understand” in lieu of a rigorous debate with their peers and investigative excitement?

In all honesty, I have experienced both ends of the participation specturm from lower achieving students. Although I had read numerous and convincing articles by Jo Boaler, I only just obtained a copy of her wondrous book Mathematical Mindsets. As I am reading it, I am shouting, “YES! Oh my goodness, I agree! And then in the next minute I am asking, “How can I do this every day? When does procedural math come in to play, does it?” What does this look like lesson by lesson, day by day? Does it transform the students the way she says it does? I am so IN and can’t get enough, period.

As I was researching youcubed, I noticed an opportunity for the summer to attend a workshop with Jo Boaler in California. At this time, I cannot afford to fly to California, pay for the workshop and a hotel room, not to mention the childcare issue, but oh to dream. I am going to take Boaler’s courses through youcubed and finish her book soon. Every free moment I have is spent reading, taking notes, and rereading it. It is my current math bible.

I do not have a neat and tidy way to wrap up this blog post. Once again, I am asking the mathematical world for a conversation about balancing the math classroom. Have you read Jo Boaler’s books? Have you tried 3-act math? What were your successes? What were your failures? How can we work together to keep the math conversation evolving and growing? Anyone else in? Leave a comment, tweet me at @drpolakmath, or send me an e-mail at mpolak@ridgefield.org. The larger our community, the greater our collective success in helping all students achieve in mathematics. Who is with me?

# Sweet Math: Dan Meyer’s Starburst Lesson and Probability

When I first discovered that Dan Meyer’s lessons could bring math to life in a new way last summer, I took the time to investigate the three-act math options he created. One that struck me as extremely engaging was his lesson on Starbursts. I saved it in a probability folder knowing full well that probability was slated for the end of our school year. A glimpse of it was so memorable; I actually had the wherewithal to incorporate it into my lesson plan this past week, in April. That might not seem earth shattering, but trust me, it is.

The first act of the lesson launches with the opening of Starburst two packs. The pack reveals one yellow and one pink. A skull and crossbones image appears over the yellow Starburst and an audible yuck is heard in the background.  A second pack is then opened, revealing two yellow Starbursts, which leads to two skull and crossbones over the Starbursts and an even louder yuck sound. Clearly, Meyer does not seem to like the yellow Starbursts. The camera then focuses on a large pile of Starbursts two packs.

That is the end of act one. Immediately, students began to debate the merit of each flavor of Starbursts and began to wonder aloud. I let them question and debate each other for a minute. Alerting them at this time I would not provide them with additional information, I asked them to make a prediction that was both too high and too low regarding how many yellow Starbursts they believed were in the pile. We wrote several too high and too low predictions on the board, and then I asked them if I could provide them with any information to help them solve the problem, what they would like to know.

Immediately students’ hands shot up and the first student I called on asked, “How many packages of Starbursts are there in that pile?” Another asked how many flavors there were. Several students scoffed at the second question and, somewhat exasperated commented, “FOUR!!! Have you never eaten Starbursts before?”  One asked to find out how many double flavor packs there were in the pile. The rest of the students loved that idea and complimented the thinking involved behind that one. And of course, inevitably, one student just wanted the answer. Sigh; there is always the need for that request!

The next two slides I shared were images from Dan’s lesson (Act 2) that revealed that there were 287 packages in the pile and the four flavors of (not by flavor, color) yellow, red, orange, and pink.

Now that students had a bit of information at their disposal, I asked them the following questions:  “In those two-packs, how many packages do you think have two yellow Starbursts? How many do you think have one yellow Starburst? What do you believe the overall percentage of yellow Starbursts is in the pile? Use what we have learned in our probability studies to make a prediction.

Students walked around the room and worked with anyone and everyone to try to figure out the answer. I was amazed as I witnessed the thinking displayed. Many students immediately wrote the total possible outcomes of Starbursts such as yellow-yellow, yellow-red, yellow-pink, yellow-orange, etc. They then used total possible combinations to convert to favored outcomes. With that, they used ratios and came up with their predictions. They found a way to apply the procedural math we had been studying for the previous two days in class on their own accord.

Students shared their predictions and many were close to each other, a few, not so close…Funny enough, many students who had different answers, upon hearing their peers’ strategies recognized probability mistakes that they made. When it was time to reveal Act 3, students were cheering. I love to hear cheering in my class, over, yes, MATH!!! They quickly calculated their percent error and found out how very close (and far) each was in their work.

A specific feature of Dan Meyer’s lessons is that he leaves them quite open for interpretation.  In my mind, he recognizes that teachers are not robots in the classroom and deserve the flexibility to interpret and customize to our heart’s content. This gave me an idea for an extension at the end of the lesson.

I pulled out a bag of Starbursts and had each student grab two. We recorded the flavors of the Starbursts pulled from the bag and made a frequency table displaying the sample space on the board. Unfortunately, we ran out of time, but I recorded our data on a frequency table so we could do a follow up the next day. My first question I plan to ask is:  What type of questions and answers can be generated with this information?

For those who might be wondering, students were granted permission to eat the two Starbursts they selected. After all, I wanted to make sure that this math lesson left everyone with sweet memories.

# Using Zoolander to Reinforce the Concept of Scale

In search of all great lessons, I stumbled across Robert Kaplinsky’s Zoolander lesson, which was created for the concept of scale.  Although teaching scale was months away when I discovered the Zoolander lesson, I immediately created slides and customized the lesson so that I would not forget about it. I waited for months excitedly anticipating the day I was ready to teach scale to try it out with my students. It looked so good!

For anyone who ever chuckled at the original Zoolander movie as my husband and I did, there is a scene where Will Ferrell’s over the top hilarious character (Mugatu) is trying to convince Ben Stiller’s character, Derek Zoolander, to model for his show. To entice Derek out of his model retirement, Mugatu shows him a scale model of a reading center Derek had previously told his manager he wanted to open for underprivileged children. Mugatu promised Derek that he could open the center if he signed on to model for his show. Derek has no concept of what a scale model is, and when Mugatu shows him the scale model of the reading center, Derek thinks it is supposed to be the actual building. He thinks he is being taken advantage of and claims that the building needs to be at least 3 times as large. Robert Kaplinsky bleeps out “3” in Derek’s retort so students have to determine what Derek said. The question students are presented with is, how many times larger should the builders make the actual school?

Currently, I teach different levels and pacing of algebra. For my advanced students, I gave them very little to go on after presenting the question and the clip. I highlighted some of the math practice standards they were expected to follow such as persevering in problem solving, constructing viable arguments, and reasoning abstractly. I showed them several Zoolander still shots (provided by Robert Kaplinsky), shared the fact that an average story was 10 feet high in a building, and that Ben Stiller was 5’7”. That was literally all the information I gave them. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was excited to watch.

Initially, a few students asked for more information, but when I told them that I was not providing them with additional information, they rose to the occasion and demonstrated innovative thinking. My job for the lesson essentially became flipping the still shots back and forth on demand as students worked out strategies. They grabbed my rulers from the class stash and started measuring images on the SmartBoard such as Derek’s arm span and the distance from the building to his head. They started debating whether or not the base counted as a building story or whether the giant book on top did as well. In other words, they persevered and applied mathematical reasoning to an abstract problem because they had no other choice. It stretched their thinking and mathematical prowess.

By the close of the lesson, students successfully shared several strategies with very different answers. (Their answers ranged from 54 times as big to 120 times as big). Some students counted the base of the building and the book and others didn’t. A few students compared the model people to the height of one floor and made their mathematical predictions based on that relationship. Several people concluded that there were about 12-13 stories and used the other information to make their calculations for the scale factor. Students also estimated that based on Ben Stiller’s height, the model was about 1.5 feet and made their calculations from that vantage point. What all students were doing, regardless of whether or not they knew how to get to an answer, demonstrated an understanding of the scale factor and scale model concept based on their problem solving application. One student asked me, why are we doing this? As I repeated the question back to him, he rolled his eyes, smiled, and said, “To apply the scale model concept to something beyond the math book.”  Ha! Nailed it!

I then decided to try the same lesson with my other classes, but I knew they would need additional scaffolding. Based on my observation of the advanced students, I inserted additional clues in my slide presentation. Before I showed them the stills and provided Ben Stiller’s height and the average height of a story in a building, I structured the lesson like a Dan Meyer 3-act lesson. After showing them the clip of Zoolander with the scale model, I asked students to write down any questions that came to mind. We shared with each other. Some questions were, how tall is Ben Stiller, how many feet was the model, how many students are supposed to attend the school, what will the budget be for the school, etc. At this time, I let students know that their task was to determine how many times larger the actual school had to be in relation to the scale model. I asked students to come up with a wish list (if I would grant them their desires) of tools and/or information to help them solve this problem. Students asked for the answer (naturally), the height of the model, how tall a story was, the size of the plot of land for the building, and so forth.

Disappointing, but not surprising to them, I provided them with the limited information I had provided my previous class. This included the height of Ben Stiller, the average height of a story in a building, and several still shots from the video clip. I offered them rulers (which was the one change from the other class who just asked for them) and left them with a final thought before giving them time to solve:  Now that you know your task and the limited tools you will be provided, what strategies could you use to unravel this mathematical mystery? How can you work around not having the exact information you want?

Many students who tend to struggle rose to the occasion and illustrated bravery in taking chances in solving the problem. Yet, students who tend to crave procedure and rules were taken aback (as has been a pattern for them with these types of lessons) and continually asked me for assistance. With every question these students asked, I responded with another question. The uneasiness some students experience when not knowing exactly what to do has proven to be almost debilitating.  That makes it my job to make these students feel uncomfortably comfortable. I can’t just give them answers; I have to provide them with tools to independently and confidently find ways to chase the unknowns in math. This is an ongoing challenge for me personally and I am always searching for ways to help students help themselves.

Overall, the conclusion of the lesson resulted in a very similar outcome when compared with the advanced class closure. However, I made another change for this class and used the third act. The third act was sharing the Zoolander clip (previously bleeped by Kaplinsky) where Derek says that the building has to be at least three times as big. The class laughed and commented on Derek’s terrible analysis. A few savvy students reflected, “Well, technically, he isn’t wrong. He said at least 3 times bigger.”

I was on the fence after I used this lesson as to whether or not the process helped students strengthen their understanding of the scale model concept for all levels. For the advanced students and many students in my other levels, I certainly think it did, but perhaps I am justifying a fun experience in my room. Some lessons are like that. Yes, they make a class enjoyable, and yes, they seem like they are mathematically sound, but in the end, as a teacher, you can’t help but question if the lasting impact of the concept was made. I never forget that there is more to a math lesson than being “Really, really, ridiculously good looking.”

# Customizing Andrew Stadel’s Sweet Snacks

Sweet Snacks: A video and concept by Andrew Stadel, customized by Dr. Polak!

I spend a big chunk of my weekends in search of grand lesson ideas. My summers are also preoccupied with this obsession, but the problem with the summer is that I have to wait so long to actually use the lessons I discover, I often forget that I found them. It is not that I am disorganized; my organization skills are pretty top notch. However, that old saying if you don’t use it, you lose it, applies to me in this situation.

One of those lessons I found (was unable to use immediately) and then promptly forgot about was Robert Kaplinsky’s calorie lesson for inequalities. This was serendipitous because this year, as I was hopelessly searching, tweeting, i.e. begging for inequality inspiration, I had come across a three act math lesson called Sweet Snacks by Andrew Stadel. After tweeting him for some guidance with his lesson, he promptly tried to sway me away from his and towards Kaplinsky’s calorie lesson as Kaplinsky’s lesson was superior in Stadel’s opinion. His tweet reminded me that I had found and planned to use Kaplinsky’s lesson, but I saw something spectacular in the Sweet Snacks lesson as well. I am so happy that I found a way to use them both!

I utilized Kaplinky’s lesson for equations instead of inequalities (see previous blog post for details), and I then got to work to customize Stadel’s Sweet Snacks. I started the lesson with my class by telling them that I was going to share a short video with them of a math teacher hero of mine named Mr. Stadel. They were instructed to think about any questions that came to mind and anything in particular they wondered about. Of course, we would discuss immediately following the video.

As this is a three act math lesson, the first act involved Stadel’s son sitting in a shopping cart as Stadel pulled 8 boxes of Teddy Grahams into the cart. The video then switched to Stadel pulling 8 bags of “Circus Animals” (Animal crackers,) into the cart. The video zooms in closely on the young boy in the cart as he pulls out a 20 dollar bill out of a wallet. The wallet clearly has no additional cash.

My students wanted to know why anyone would buy so many boxes of snacks , how much did each box cost, what the two Teddy Graham flavors were, and whether \$20 was enough for all of the sweet snacks in the shopping cart (JACKPOT). Of course, off topic but hilarious and worth a share in my opinion, was “wondering” why a cut out statue of Guy Fieri appeared in the video and whether or not his hair was ridiculous.

I asked them what kind of information could help them with the math questions. Students quickly agreed they needed to know the prices of the sweet snacks. And with that, I shared Act 2.

It was immediately revealed that the Teddy Grahams were \$2.49, while the price of Circus Animals was \$3.49 .The students asked me to rewind the video several times so they could count how many bags of each were put in the cart. It was obvious to them quite quickly that \$20 was not enough money. Mr. Stadel could only purchase items that were \$20 or less. I was silently cheering my students’ recognition of the inequality example without me needing to articulate its existence in a direct instruction type of way.

This is where I prompted students to translate the scenario into an algebraic inequality. Students had already solved basic procedural inequality problems in the previous lesson. Sweet Snacks, provided a context for the types of examples they had seen. They were all sure that Mr. Stadel could not afford all of the bags of Teddy Grahams and Circus Animals with only \$20, so I asked them to write the math language to demonstrate that fact. It was not easy for them, but eventually, students came up with:  8(\$2.49+\$3.49)=\$47.84 >\$20

The next question, naturally, was, what are the combinations of sweet snacks he can afford? Students were instructed to write an algebraic inequality using the prices given of Teddy Grahams and Circus Animals. They had the option to write an inequality with one sweet treat or both sweet treats. In addition to writing the inequality, they were asked to solve it and graph all the results. If able to finish quickly, they were asked to write a second or third alternative algebraic inequality and/or help out a neighbor.

When we shared out and compared, we talked about the constraints of budgets. Every household has one, even if students were not privy to the information that gave details about the restraints their parents must use to control their purchases. We all have to stay within the range of some sort of budget. Do not spend more than x amount; do not let your bank account fall below x amount. This is life for all of us!

They had calculated combinations of sweet treats that were possible to purchase with \$20 and possible combinations that would have exceeded the \$20 within this short amount of time.

Keeping this in mind, I asked students to write an inequality to represent how many Teddy Grahams Mr. Stadel would be able to purchase if he had \$20, but also had to pay an additional 6.33% sales tax on his total purchase. Sometimes there is tax on snacks, depending on where you live. This was another off topic, but interesting conversation from the perspective of 7th graders. Believe me, I could write a separate blog on off topic comments. This is not that blog! Once again, they were asked to write, solve and graph their results.

In the next scenario, I presented a circumstance where there was no tax on this type of food. So obviously, a new algebraic inequality needed to be written, but I didn’t stop there…Students were asked to write an algebraic inequality to represent the Teddy Grahams Mr. Stadel would be able to purchase if he had \$50 (woohoo, more money), AND had a 20% coupon off the price of his total purchase.  They did great with synthesizing all of the different math concepts in this particular problem.

At this point, I was convinced students were more than ready for the manufactured inequality problems from our textbook and they proved my hypothesis quickly. Let’s be honest, textbook questions are about a dime a dozen, but they do serve a purpose. The problem with most textbook lesson ideas is that they offer instructional inspiration at a very superficial level. That is why I am always in search of a way to bring the level of instruction to a deeper and more meaningful place with my students. This, of course, is why I continue to be an enormous fan of Andrew Stadel, Robert Kaplinsky, Dan Meyer, and the magnificent math community that allows me to become a better teacher every day.

# How an Average 2, 000 Calories a Day Diet Inspired a Math Lesson

All of the seventh grade math teachers have been in a room lamenting about the content in our curriculum. One topic of conversation was equations. How, do you make fantastic, hands-on lessons with equations? There is no shortage of such lessons if your topics are geometry or statistics, but equations, rational numbers, inequalities? Everything is so contrived.

Ok, so perhaps I might have contributed to the complaining, I won’t confirm or deny. Regardless, I was motivated to find or create something better. Within the context of rational numbers, I had used Dan Meyer’s age activity, I had even made my own for a few, but equations and expressions? I was stumped. I tweeted out to Dan Meyer and Andrew Stadel and the world asking, no begging, for ideas. Granted, I only recently began tweeting about math and have a total of 3 followers, but that is not the point.

The angels in the twitter universe answered my math prayers and Andrew Stadel recommended Robert Kaplinsky’s lesson idea for inequalities. Since I had already spent time creating an inequality lesson based on Mr. Stadel’s sweet snacks activity, I didn’t think I wanted to throw out all of my work before even trying it. As I analyzed the 2, 000 calorie lesson, I noticed an option to use it for equations. Eureka, I thought. Now I have a great lesson for inequalities and equations!

For those who have never seen the 2, 000 calorie clip, I implore that you view it. The funny coincidence is that I had stumbled upon it during my summer searching for all things math, saved the link to a folder, and promptly forgot about it. Thankfully, Andrew Stadel reminded me of its existence.

Robert Kaplinsky offered up a video that showcases the amount of food it takes to reach the daily recommended 2, 000 calorie consumption. Some of the foods featured include McDonald’s menu items, carrots, eggs, bacon, bagels, pizza, and even M&M’s. It is fascinating for someone of any age to watch.

For a brief introduction, I reminded students that the daily recommendation for an average person is a 2, 000 calorie diet. We quickly discussed if the average American consumed more or less and one of my students shared that he once read that the average American consumed 3200 calories a day. I don’t know if he was right, but it captivated the rest of the students as they started to discuss what this overeating would lead to for the average person.

Before I showed my students Mr. Kaplinsky’s amazing video, I created a slide on a Google Spreadsheet listing all of the foods that would appear in the video. I asked them to consider the quantity of each food needed to yield 2,000 calories, and in that regard, to write a number that was deemed too high and too low for each. The stipulation was that the too high and too low guesses couldn’t be extreme; they couldn’t guess that 3 million M&M’s were too high, for example.  As Dan Meyer has pointed out, having students do this instead of asking them to just guess the exact number removes the pressure of having to be “right.”  In addition, it forces students to think beyond one number and analyze the situation in a big picture sort of way.

What this estimation process also inspires students to do is become invested in the lesson. They paid close attention because once they generated all of their guesses; they want to know their degree of accuracy. I believe curiosity is one of the greatest motivators in the math classroom.

As students were mulling over their guesses, I was asked, “Dr. Polak, aren’t avocados super fattening?” Before I even tried to respond another student interjected, “Yes, but it is the good kind of fat.” The comments and questions ran the gamut from, “I love Chipotle to what is a Cobb salad?” Basically, the students were IN.

After enough time had been provided, I played Robert Kaplinsky’s video. The reactions were priceless. Many were high fiving each other if their guesses had been close and others were giggling at just how far off they had been. A very brief discussion about nutrition emerged and then students were diving into algebraic equations. The directions were simple. The students were instructed to create an equation that would help them solve the questions about to be asked on upcoming slides. They were also directed to perform substitution to check their solutions.

The first slide, displayed a clipped image from the video of bagels. Students were asked to write an equation and determine how many calories there were per bagel. Students came up with 2000/x=7 and 7x=2000.

The next question asked was how many slices of bacon were equal to one donut. This question presented a challenge for them and many struggled. Students got out of their seats and went to consult other students across the room with their interpretations. Energy rose, anxiety increased, and anticipation mounted. At the end, there were three equations shared that all worked, but the voted-on favorite was (2000/50)x=(2000/6.6).

The scenarios increased in complexity and students were grappling, laughing, complaining, and collaborating to solve. A few wanted me to just give them equations to solve; others felt it was just too difficult, while many were eager for the next question at the next level. Without exception, they all wanted to know whether or not they were right. Naturally, I asked them to use substitution and their math sense to make that determination…Although I eventually confirmed with solutions presented on the slide.

When asked for their takeaways from the day, students’ comments included, “I never realized how quickly calories add up and the types of combinations that might make us overweight.” Perhaps that comment is not exactly related to solving algebraic equations, but it was a good point. Another added, “I learned that I prefer to solve an equation, not create one myself.” (Laughter ensued) Still, someone else said, “I understand equations better now. They are not just questions from a book, but there is meaning behind them.” Someone else added, “It shows the math serves a purpose.”

All in all, the students were animated and lively. The lesson was fun, but I was unsure whether or not I had truly met the objective of helping them with understanding two-step algebraic equations. To find out, I followed up on two separate days with (what I called) calorie math warm ups.  One of those questions was directly offered to me from Robert Kaplinsky himself after I tweeted him a request for a better tie-in to two step equations. That question was, “What is the maximum number of carrots or eggs (I let them choose) you could eat if you had already eaten 720 calories and wanted to eat exactly 1800 calories? Their responses that afternoon let me know the objective was met. Very quickly, the majority of students demonstrated how to interpret real information, come up with an equation to represent a situation, solve the problem, and interpret the information. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few who still needed scaffolding, but by the end of the review, it was clear that the lesson itself had been time well spent.

Robert Kaplinsky, Andrew Stadel, Dan Meyer and so many other mathematicians have changed the teaching game. These wonderful professionals selflessly share their resources with the world to use. The looming question for me after any lesson is always, did I do enough? If I didn’t, what can I improve for the next time? Sometimes, after lessons like these, I cannot think of any improvements, even if I know I can somehow do better. Granted, I already made small changes in my slides to make a clearer presentation, but overall, there wasn’t much I could think to revise. Although there is always room for improvement, as of this teaching moment, I am reveling in gratitude for the opportunity provided to me by Mr. Kaplinsky.

# In Defense or Offense of Teaching Procedural Math? An Open Letter to Everyone.

Dear Mathematicians, Parents, Students, Educators, and All Interested Parties,

Is it a sign of weakness for a teacher to admit perpetual confusion on the best way(s) to administer instruction? Although I have been teaching for about 15 years, only a few of them have been spent teaching math at the middle school level. Since making the glorious move to middle school, the distinct advantage of pouring all of my extra time and energy into one subject has both reinvigorated my purpose and sent me down a path of wonder.

In my quest to prevent any student from truly thinking he or she does not have the math brain, the amount of articles consumed by me is, to say the least, staggering. Can I remember who wrote most of them? Not usually. I peruse for content. Only after multiple exposures from the same author do I start to take notice. This is why a few names have made their ways to the corners of my cerebrum  where the long term storage of my memory lives (Thank you Sousa). I usually refer to the information annoyingly as, “I read an article that stated…” Yes, I have turned into one of those people.

My favorite pastime is to research lesson structure ideas as this is my professional focus. Some of the names that continually pop up in my consumption within that topic are Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, and Yeap ban Har. Each of these math gurus share a common thread, which is that mathematics is a subject that spans beyond mere procedure. Although I could not agree more that math is not strictly procedural, each time I read an article I find myself asking, is there still a place, and furthermore, a need to teach procedure(s) in a math class?

If it is true that the best teachers steal from the best, in some small way, that categorizes me as the best. I have “stolen” lessons from my teaching counterparts, Dan Meyer, and Andrew Stadel.  The stolen lessons have been glorious experiences.  However, I do not believe any of the stolen lessons would have been successful if students had not possessed the background knowledge on procedures as well. Now I wonder, did I enhance their conceptual learning or detract from it with that viewpoint?

Our district was blessed by the personal teachings of Yeap ban Har. I spent a good month after that momentous training opportunity trying to design my lessons just like him. This was not easy to do with only one real half-day of training, but I really gave it my all. Some lessons went astonishingly well, others, not so much.

What I do know is my goal is to do better every single day. This is where I feel as if I am on the giant hamster wheel of math instruction.

In my mind, if students do not learn the concepts behind the math, the procedures for any and all algorithms will be meaningless. They will learn a series of steps, study them for a quiz or test, regurgitate them, and then quickly dump the total experience from their memory. Obviously, this reality is not true for all students. Those students who are excellent at rote memorization might remember the steps, but will they have any idea why they are performing them? If they don’t, can that be considered effective math teaching or learning? On the other side of this paradigm, sits many students who demonstrate conceptual learning but struggle with the rote procedures. For example, several students in my class this year forgot how to subtract opposite signed numbers using an algorithm, but when I placed a number line or integer tiles in front of them, they knew how to solve the problem immediately and could explain their thinking. Is their learning inferior because they cannot demonstrate their understanding in an algorithm?

The articles I have been reading lately push my questioning even further. I believe Jo Boaler flat out posited whether or not it is necessary for students to memorize their times tables. Is this type of thinking correct for educators, and more importantly, for students beyond the classroom?

Here is where I flat out ask the community for feedback.  Is there an appropriate balance needed in our classroom between concepts and procedures? Are procedures completely out of date or still necessary? Do we need to argue the opposite ends of the spectrum, or consider that the ideas are not opposing but supporting of one another? I ask you, in a growth mindset sort of way, to reflect carefully. Perhaps someone out there can inspire me to jump off of the hamster wheel, if only for a moment.

Sincerely,

A math teacher looking for answers.