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?

zoolander_school_large (1)

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.

Starbursts

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.Jo Boaler's book

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?

Advertisements

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.”zoolander_school_large (1).jpg

Customizing Andrew Stadel’s Sweet Snacks

teddy_honey_01Circus AnimalsSweet 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.

 

bread calorie mathcopy-of-what-does-2000-calories-look-like

 

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.

A Review of Mr. Stadel’s Rolling Tires

The teachers in my grade level were instructed to insert a circle unit (just the basics folks) into the scope and sequence for the advanced classes this year. The idea of teaching circles made me happy because I loved teaching circles to my fifth graders; back when I taught at the elementary level. One activity based on the now defunct Growing with Mathematics program involved students’ self-discovery of the pi ratio. Although I used the activity as a brief introduction, I knew I needed to up my game for my seventh graders.

Upon my searching of all circle lessons (wow there are so many!), I stumbled across Andrew Stadel’s 3-Act Math plan for Rolling Tires. Essentially, Mr. Stadel is rolling two different sized tires towards a tower of toilet paper on a makeshift table. That is the premise:  toilet paper and tires. Naturally the students were captivated.

I had rehearsed my 3 act math questioning technique with a few Dan Meyer lessons already, so I felt prepared. I showed act one and asked the students to discuss the questions that came to mind. Oh my goodness, they couldn’t get their questions out fast enough. “Will the tire knock down all of the toilet paper? Will the tire hit the target? Is the tower of toilet paper sitting on a table or something else? How quickly are the tires rolling? What is the diameter of each tire? What is the circumference? How many times does each tire need to rotate to get to the target?”

Many students asked me to replay the video over and over again. I was instructed to pause it at certain points, and conversation exploded in the room. The conversations were all about math, geometry, and calculations in real life and it must be said, the students and I were happy.

I asked my student investigators, before showing act two, to consider what specific pieces of information they would want to be provided with in order to satisfy their own varying levels of curiosity. It was the moments following that question which proved Mr. Stadel created a genius lesson. Without saying another word, my math family began to debate each other about the merits of having the radius, diameter, or circumference of each circle. In the middle of the debate, one of the students (I will call her Jan) interjected, “Hey, it doesn’t matter which piece of information we have, if we have the radius, we can find the area, circumference, and diameter. We already know pi is a constant ratio.”

Boom. Just like that, that one student changed the course of the classroom conversation. I asked the other students to clarify Jan’s comments to each other as I walked around and listened in on their dialogue. As I checked in with the students, it became clear that they all understood what she meant and I had this lesson to thank for the reinforcement.

I then showed act 2, which presented the diameter of each tire, the distance of the tire track, and the distance from the tire to the target (if it actually hit the bullseye). The question Mr. Stadel presented, which many students had asked in their own inquiry, was how many rotations would it take for each tire to hit the target and would it actually hit the target?

The students worked furiously and shouted out numbers to each other regarding the circumference. One student started to calculate the area and her partner corrected her with a visual. She actually rolled her water bottle on its side and demonstrated why circumference (kind of like the perimeter) would be important information to answer the question.  She asked if I still had string left over from the other lesson and showed her how the length of the string would be helpful to see the distance each rotation covered on the ground.

When most students arrived at their own conclusions (most saw no reason that both tires would not hit the target, but questioned whether or not the force would be powerful enough from the smaller tire to knock all of the toilet paper over), I asked if they were ready to view act three and most responded yes. However, one student protested, “No, don’t show it yet, wait!!! I am not done!” This is a math teacher’s dream.

We all agreed to wait a few more minutes, and then I played act three. The students screamed when the big tire hit the target and complained endlessly when the small tire missed the target. Questions continued to abound.

“Why did he miss? Was his aim bad? Did it have something to do with the tire being smaller? Why did he highlight the central angle of the circle? Why is that significant?”

I don’t need to describe this lesson any further because it is clear that it had students going beyond any math textbook exercise and yet still provided so much actual understanding of a concept. As I continue to search for lessons that produce results like these I must give Mr. Stadel a huge and grateful shout out for this lesson. Mr. Stadel, I am officially a big fan!!!

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 teahcerspayteachers.com, 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.