Problems: then a miracle occurs

This is a post in the ongoing Emergent Math mini-series: Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects.

Problems - Card

Ah problems. I have to reveal my bias here: I love problems. Problematic problems. Problems are where I honestly cut my teeth as an educator. If you’re reading this blog, might have stumbled across my Problem-Based Learning (more on that specifically in a second) curriculum maps. I’ve blogged about Problem-Based Learning (PrBL) a bit. I’ve learned so much from teachers and math ed bloggers about what makes a good problem, how to facilitate a problem, what kinds of problems are out there. Some of that I’ll share here. Let’s just start with Problems.

The questions on voluminous review packets? Not problems. My first resource on problems, problem-based learning, and problem solving is NCTM’s research brief on problem-solving, Why is teaching with problem solving important to student learning? (2010). In it, it hints at the “what really is a true problem” question:

Story or word problems often come to mind in a discussion about problem solving. However, this conception of problem solving is limited. Some “story problems” are not problematic enough for students and hence should only be considered exercises for students to perform.

This brings us to my personal, current definition of Problems: Problems are complex tasks, not immediately solvable without further knowhow, research, or decoding of the prompt. Problems can take anywhere from one class period to three or four class periods.

So when I say “problems” I mean problems that are genuinely challenging to the problem solver. Even the difficult, toward-the-end-of-the-section questions may not be problematic enough for some students. Also, a problem ought not to be so obtuse or convoluted as to not be accessible for all students. Just because something is real hard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a problem. If someone were to challenge me to make the U.S. gymnastics team, I wouldn’t consider that a problem; I’d consider it futility.

I like to think of good math problems like this: a good problem is accessible enough so students a couple grades lower can attempt it, yet challenging enough so students a couple grades above have to think about it. I actually think this of all mathematical tasks, but it’s particularly apropos of problems.

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Here’s a good problem (from Illustrative Mathematics):

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I like this problem for many reasons. One, it combines two not-often mathematical things: lines and quadratics. In most curricula you have your unit on linear functions and your unit on quadratics. Why aren’t these two things combined more often? I have no idea. Most textbooks presents lines in one unit and quadratics in another, as if they’re in a different universe. It’s like we’re reading a geography textbook about pre-Columbian South America and Europe. But back to our discussion of problems, it’s the confluence of these concepts that makes this such an interesting, challenging, and worthwhile problem.

There’s straight up problems – just give students a prompt and facilitate as you see fit.

There are countless other modes of problems, here are a few.

  • Would You Rather? problems

I’m not sure of John Stevens is the first “would you rather” problem designer, but he certainly codified it with his stellar website. A Would You Rather (WYR) provides students two possible choices and students must decide which one makes more sense to choose: which one is cheaper? which one is better? what deal gives the greatest value? etc.

Fig 5-10.jpg

There are several things that make this format incredibly appealing: 1) Providing students an initial choice naturally facilitates guesses and estimates at the beginning of the problem. 2) Making it a choice makes CCSS.MP3, making arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, a necessary part of the task. 3) In many cases, either answer may be correct, depending on how it’s interpreted, the desired outcome, or the input variables (in the WYR above, the answer may depend on how far away one is from the airport, how much airport parking is, etc.). And 4) there’s something delightful about the “would you rather” framing. Maybe because it reminds me of the “what’s worse?” scene from So I Married an Axe Murderer.

  • 3-Act Tasks

Dan Meyer gave us this format years ago and countless of math teachers have built upon it sense. Following the narrative structure of movie, in act 1 the “conflict” is established and we’re drawn into the plot of the movie/problem. In act 2, our hero / students go questing for the solution. In act 3, we come to a resolution.

Fig 5-11.pngMost often these act 1’s kick off with a video or picture to pique the interest. What do you notice/wonder? What do you think will happen? In act 2, students will work through the scenario presented in act 1, sometimes provided with additional information or knowhow that might be useful to solve the problem. In act 3, students make their final answer and we come to some sort of resolution (often by playing the last part of the video).

Dan has the most comprehensive list of 3-Acts, but others have followed suit with their own libraries.

I’m sure I’m missing others. Please let me know in the comments who I’ve missed.

Like WYR, there’s something inherently appealing about a narrative structure that we’re already used to. We’ve all seen movies, plays, TV shows, and read books. If you can provide a successful hook, we’ll want to see how the movie ends.

  • Just straight up puzzles

While sometimes challenging to align directly to required content, give students mathematical puzzles. NRICH has a great library of puzzle-like maths, or perhaps maths-like puzzles.

And I don’t know if the authors (or you) would consider these puzzles, but I quite enjoy the tasks from Open Middle as puzzle-esque math.

Problem-Based Learning

Let’s take a slight birdwalk into the practice of Problem-Based Learning or PrBL. It uses problems as a means to teach new concepts or knowhow. The problem creates a need (and in the best cases, a desire) that requires the intended content knowledge, additional information, or mathematical dispositions.


I suppose in some ways this may not differ much from just giving students the problem and teaching as-needed, as you go. In PrBL there’s an intentionality (and even predictability) with how the problem is posed and how the learning is facilitated (for instance, you prepare the lesson beforehand, rather than just winging it).

Facilitating a problem

One of the biggest mistakes teachers make when using Problems for the first time is that they think that by posing a clever enough problem, students will intrinsically work their way through it dilligently, testing out different methods along the way. And to be sure, it’s understandable to think that when you watch a presentation on problem solving in math or participate in a conference session and the participants or audience dilligently work their way through a problem. But here’s the dirty little secret about conference sessions: the audience is entirely composed of adults who are excited about math and presenters are showcasing their absolute best problems. It’s easy to present engaging problems as a panacea when the audience is entirely bought in and the presenter gets to cherry pick which problem or lesson he or she gets to present. So it’s easy to walk away from these experiences thinking that – just like in that session – I’ll present this super-cool problem to my students and they’ll collaborate, problem-solve, and stick to it just like at that conference.

It’s never that smooth. Rather than – like Carrie Underwood – letting “Jesus Take the Wheel” – you need to keep your hands on the wheel and your foot on the pedal (and sometimes the brakes as well). Problems should be facilitated, not tossed in like a hand grenade. So how do we facilitate a problem?

Use routines. The biggest tip I can provide for facilitating problems is something we’ve already covered in this mini-series: provide routines. Routines to get started on the problem, routines to facilitate discussion in the middle of a problem, and routines when students are sharing their solutions.

Consider this sample Problem facilitation agenda:

  • Introduce the problem
  • Facilitate a Notice & Wonder routine
  • Identify next steps and let students begin working
  • 20 minutes later, take a quick problem time out and have groups do a gallery walk routine to see how  and what other groups are doing
  • Give a problem “time in” and have students continue working toward a solution
  • After finishing the problem, have students show appreciations to one another via a routine.

One problem, three routines. And who knows? If students are struggling, you may want to hold a small workshop lesson in there as well. We’re starting to see our Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects framework become a set of nesting dolls.

Provide consistent group roles. Assuming students are working in groups, provide consistent, well-understood group roles.

Fig 6-8 alternate

And – like the problem itself – don’t just provide the group roles and hope for the best, check in with them and how they’re operating. Mix them up. Talk with them.

  • “I’d like the Recorder/Reporter from each group to meet with me at the front of the class for five minutes to discuss your progress.”
  • “Harmonizers – at this point give one of your teammates a compliment.”
  • “I’d like all the Facilitators to swap groups for the next ten minutes.”
  • “Resource Monitors – come up with a question as I’m going to go to each group and you can ask me one question.”

Use these roles, don’t just assign them.

Make Problems the cornerstone of your class

Quality problems won’t be the most often employed mode of teaching in your class, but make them the essential thing that students do in your class. Rich problems make for excellent assessment artifacts. They help teachers find the nooks and crannies of what students can do and know and what gaps in understanding still remain. They foster mathematical habits in a way that lessons and routines often can’t.

To be transparent, part of the reason I began thinking about this mini-series is because I was wrestling with the question: what’s the “right” number of problems to facilitate in a school year? And what are those problems? That’s when I began to think of the music mixing knobs analogy from my intro post.

There are endless ways to facilitate problems – use routines early, often and throughout a problem. Use Problems often and throughout a class. They are the bedrock of your class, and the discipline of mathematics more broadly.

Also in this mini-series:



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Lessons: the stuff we envision, only better


Lessons - Card

When you think of a math lesson, you probably conjure up an image of a teacher in front of the classroom demonstrating mathematical concepts. While that certainly qualifies as a lesson, I’d like to broaden your mental image. Consider a “lesson” any facilitated activity where students are building or practicing their content knowledge. In addition to our imagined lecture, let’s also consider activities such as card sorts, investigations, practice time, and other structured times in the classroom.

Lessons include any activity that involves transmitting or practicing content knowledge. They can vary from whole class lectures to hands-on manipulative activities.

Lessons probably make up the bulk of your course. Students walk in to your room, you teach them some stuff, the day ends. That’s a lesson. How you teach offers endless possibilities. Let’s look at some of these possibilities.

The Lecture

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a lecture. I’d suggest it’s not always the best way to engage students. But oftentimes it is the most efficient way to transmit information, provided you are lecturing effectively. How does one lecture effectively? Despite being perhaps the most oft-used instructional approach, little time if any is spent in pre-service teacher programs in how to do lecture well.

Things to consider:

  • How will you ensure all students are engaged throughout the lecture, not just an eager few?
  • What’s the shortest amount of time you could possibly do the talking? Go with that. And maybe subtract a few more minutes.
  • Are you incorporating visual elements into your lecture?

When you’re lecturing, you want to stop and prompt discussion often, perhaps every 3 minutes or so. Rather than asking a question and waiting for a student to raise a hand, consider utilizing some of our general discussion routines from the previous post. The more you can make your lecture feel like a conversation the more successful the lecture will be.

When you’re lecturing, try to get students in the mode where they’re talking to one another rather than to you. See this blog post on various lecture models.

Some additional tips for lecturing:

  • Start your lecture with pizazz. Bring in a recent news article that pertains the the topic. Start with a memorable or funny quote. Post a picture or diagram and ask a question about it. For example, launch a lecture on horizontal asymptotes with the following graph and the prompt “Do you think these lines will ever intersect? Turn and talk to your neighbor and explain your reasoning.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 10.04.42 PMCreate a hook that will grab students’ attention. A picture plus the Notice and Wonder protocol works extremely well.

  • Question authentically, not putatively. Questioning to get to deeper understanding is a skill that takes years to hone. It’s important to get genuinely curious about students’ ideas. As much as possible try to avoid the punitive, I-bet-he’s-not-listening questioning. Of course we want students to be paying attention, but we don’t need to “gotcha” students by asking them to derive the quadratic equation on the spot when we’re actually trying to make them feel foolish for zoning out during our boring lecture on the quadratic equation.
  • Talk slower. Every human talks 30-40% (not precise calculations) faster in front of audiences than they do in normal conversation. I’m not sure why, but it just is. Slow down. You need natural pauses and a good cadence, otherwise your words will morph into that of Charlie Brown’s teacher. I found this potentially effective technique:

Mark a paragraph / in this manner / into the shortest possible phrases. / First, / whisper it / with energetic lips, / breathing / at all the breath marks. / Then. / speak it / in the same way. / Do this / with a different paragraph / everyday. / Keep your hand / on your abdomen / to make sure / it moves out / when you breathe in / and moves in / when you speak. 

Before you whisper each phrase, take a full bellyful of air and then pour all the air into that one phrase. Keep your throat open, and don’t grind your vocal chords. Lift your whisper over your throat. Pause between phrases. Relax. Then, take another full breath and whisper the next phrase. Whisper as if you were trying to reach the back of the room.  

The Investigation

As a fan of the Discovering Mathematics series of math textbooks, investigations were a staple in my classroom. These lessons involve an intentionally structured activity that reveals some new mathematical truth.

Using tools or manipulatives

As an example, here is an activity on Triangle Inequality and dried spaghetti:

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Kids use their hands and dried spaghetti to determine the triangle inequality theorem: the sum of two sides of a triangle must be greater or equal than the third side.

Discovering Geometry was big into patty paper activities. These were excellent, cheap ways to get kids using their hands to make discoveries.

Using a highly scaffolded series of questions

This was the mode for my Running from the Law lesson.

In this activity students (much like in the spaghetti activity) identify mathematical concepts through purposeful questions. In Running from the Law, it was the connection between the distance formula and Pythagorean’s Theorem.

The questions are carefully ordered to point out possible discoveries hidden in the mathematical weeds. In some ways these activities mimic a quality activity debrief.

Using technology

The desmos team – and many of their contributors via the activity creator – use the clean interface to construct lessons that allow for students to construct their own understanding through carefully designed activities.

Desmos’ Central Park is a great example of this.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 9.56.02 PMScreen Shot 2018-06-26 at 9.56.09 PM

Students begin by interfacing with a challenge, notably without any discernable mathematics. Throughout the activity, students are prompted to identify what information would be helpful to solve the challenge. Eventually, we build enough knowhow to write expressions that help us out. Each slide presents an additional prompt intended to get students to think mathematically about the scenario.

The Card Sort

Another general type of lesson is The Card Sort. Teachers provide students materials that need to be matched up or ordered in a specific way to make the puzzle work. The most common type of card sort is matching.  Students match two or more like items, typically in the form of paper or card cuttouts.



A twist on the matching card sorts I quite like is that of “dominoes.” It’s like card sorts in that there are cuttouts and students are asked to arrange them in the matching order. But in this case each cuttout has two “things” on it and they match with another “thing” from another card. The result is a circular matching activity:

Fig 5-9.jpg

I like it because it offers an immediate check: the “dominoes” should circle completely around and there shoulndn’t be any gaps.

Things to consider:

  • Card sorts take a little time to build. It’s helpful if you have a template. Here’s one: Card Sort Template
  • Card sorts take significant time to cut out and put into plastic baggies. However, if you do it once – and have students place them back in the baggies at the end of the period – you’ll have them forever. I’ve had some card sorts in baggies for almost ten years now.

The Practice Problem(s)

Some classes and class days incorporate a lot of practice problems, packets even. That’s ok. We can work with that. A packet of a few high-quality problems can be an effective means of deepening understanding. I’ll go ahead and re-emphasize it for ya: a few high-quality problems. Now that we have that out of the way, we can hone in on effective means of teaching on a day – or a time of day – with a lot of student practice. I’ll offer two strategies that make the Practice Problem lesson an effective one.

Same problem, same time

Assuming students are progressing through practice problems in groups (which I recommend), make this a norm in your class: “same problem, same time.” This means that group members cannot proceed to the next problem or next page until all their group members are ready and have demonstrated understanding. Every group and every group member ought to be on the same problem so they may discuss it when it becomes challenging. You should never have a student call you over to ask about a problem that they’re working on and their groupmates aren’t (either because they left him in the dust or vice versa).

Participation Quiz

What are the norms of groupwork you want to see in a given problem work time? Make those public and identify when those moments are happening – or not happening. This can easily be achieved through a document camera or anything that’ll project a document.

In this case, the teacher identifed “plusses” and “deltas.” Or, positive behaviors or phrases students are exhibiting and behaviors that need to be changed.

Fig 6-2.png

In this case, plusses include “OH I GET IT NOW!”, all heads in, paper in middle, “how do we solve this” and other markers of persistent problem solving. The deltas include “crosstalk” and “phone out”. At the end, you can debrief with the class with this document: how did we do today? What do we need to focus on for tomorrow? What ought we celebrate?

Note that the teacher has maybe five “plusses” for each “delta.”


That’s four lesson “types,” which is certainly not exhaustive. This exercise through the DNA of our classroom is not meant to be exhaustive or definitive. But it is meant to give us some common vocabulary. And, as with routines these activities are malleable, and even interchangeable. You may wish to employ specific sharing Routines throughout your Lesson. You may wish to follow up a Lecture with a Card Sort (is that a Lesson followed by another Lesson?).

What other lesson types or structures ought we add to our list?

What else ya got?

  • I have this facilitation one-pager from Necessary Conditions (Krall 2018). That might give you a nice menu of teaching techniques.

Also in this mini-series:



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Routines: the driving beat of your class

This is a post in the ongoing Emergent Math mini-series: Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects.

If our model of Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects is a four-piece band, routines are our persistent drum beat. It keeps the pace going and maintains the momentum within and in between activities. Routines occur every day and throughout a class period. They help students get prepared to learn and used as learning tools themselves.

Routines - Card

Routines become more useful with repeated use. They can be deployed for several reasons. We’ll cover four of them here: routines to help students settle in, routines for math talks, routines for problem solving, routines to promote general discourses, and routines to help close the lesson and wrap up the day.

Settling-in Routines. These are routines that help prepare students for learning. They help transition students from, say, entering your room and getting settled in at their desk. Or from the warm-up to the day’s lesson. Or to help students obtain or put away necessary supplies. There isn’t really a name for these routines, but rather a norm. In my classroom, the norm was always the following:

  • Check the agenda
  • Begin the warm up

I had a warm up every day (including the first day of school, the last day of school, the exam days of school, etc.) waiting for them. Sometimes they were math-content related, other times they were math-play related, and other times still they weren’t math related at all. This “routine” helped prepare their brains for maximum engagement.

Math Talk Routines. These are routines used to energize students brains around multi-faceted math problems. Many of my warm-ups allow for a math talk routine to be the first thing we do. These are excellent for estimation tasks or visual patterns.

Problem-Solving Routines. After posing a challenging problem – but before fully letting go and having students get to work on it – engage pupils in a routine to help them decode and identify actionable next-steps for the task at hand.

General Discourse Encouraging Routines. These are routines you can use liberally throughout a class period when you want to encourage deeper consideration for a prompt or statement.

  • Think-Pair-Share.
    • Ask students to think about a problem silently (~1-2 minutes).
    • Prompt students to pair up and share their thoughts with their partner. (~2-5 minutes)
    • Ask students to share our their or their partner’s ideas (~5-10 minutes).
  • Turn and talk.
    • Don’t proceed too quickly through a demonstration or problem solution. Don’t ask for hands. Instead, ask students to briefly “turn and talk” to their neighbors to discuss what they would do next.
  • “Explain her answer” (from Necessary Conditions, Krall 2018)

    Teachers and students are used to the tagline of nearly every math problem ever assigned: “Explain your answer.” Leanne has an interesting twist on this prompt: “Explain his/her answer.” A student responds to a question posed by Leanne. Leanne asks another student to explain that answer and whether they agree, or if that is the tack they would have taken. This twist forces students to listen to one another while assessing the veracity of their claims.

Wrap up Routines. These are routines for when you are wrapping up the lesson or are looking to debrief the day. It’s possible you may wish to remind students of the concepts taught throughout the day or assign academic status on one another.

  • Agenda Rewind
    • Post the day’s agenda and ask students to place a sticky note where they had an “aha” or an additional question.
  • Gallery Walk
    • Ask students – or student groups – to spend 1-2 minutes at a peer’s artifact. Discuss and give feedback (optional). Rotate as a class after the allotted time to give an opportunity for everyone to see everyone else’s work (and give feedback if desired).
  • Appreciations
    • Ask students to publicly acknowledge a classmate who made their experience better by their presence or their actions.

You’ll likely use several different routines throughout a class period.

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The more you use specific routines, the more effective they will become. Routines are especially important for Students with Special Needs as they often thrive with oft-used and reliable structures. Become nimble with routines and you’ll maximize class time and student discourse.

Ok, but how do I know if I’m doing it well?: Checking for quality

The easiest way to tell if a routine is successful is to see if every student is discussing the math. It sounds simple, but it does require some intentionality:

  • Have someone observe or video your class and map the conversation. Who’s talking and what are they saying? Because we can target the video to, say, the first fifteen minutes of class, or the wrap-up, we can be judicious with our videoing. We don’t need to watch a 50-minute long video. We just need to review a 5-10 minute clip where you’re implementing or practicing a routine.
  • Or use this tally-template to check for academic safety (Krall 2018).


Also in the mini-series: Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects:

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Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects: the DNA of your math classroom

This blog post introduces a new mini-series from Emergent Math: Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects.

all four icon

In my time in math classrooms – my own and others’ – I’ve developed a rough taxonomy of activities. Think of these as the Four Elements of a math class: the “Earth, Air, Fire, Water” of math as it were. Or perhaps think of these as the Nucleic Acid sequence (GATC) that creates the “DNA” of your math classroom. Or the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat of a class. 51dtoe1qufl-_sx260_Speaking of which, the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat, suggests “if you can master just four basic elements … you can use that to guide you and you can make anything delicious.” While I’m certainly not the first to think about teaching-as-cooking, I’m compelled by the way Nosrat distills cooking into four essential elements. I’d similarly posit if you can master these four elements of math instruction – Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects – and apply them in appropriate doses at appropriate moments, you can craft lessons and an entire course year for maximum effectiveness and engagement.

Let’s define our terms – after which we’ll criticize them.

Routines – Routines are well-understood structures that encourage discourse, sensemaking, and equity in the classroom. A teacher may have many different types of routines in her toolbelt and utilizes them daily.

Lessons – Lessons include any activity that involves transmitting or practicing content knowledge. Lessons can vary from whole class lectures to hands-on manipulative activities.

Problems – Problems are complex tasks, not immediately solvable without further knowhow, research or decoding of the prompt. Problems can take anywhere from one class period to three or four class periods.

Projects – Projects apply mathematical knowhow to an in-depth, authentic experience. A project occurs over the course of two to four weeks. Ideally, projects are outward facing, community based, and/or personally relevant.

These definitions may not be perfect. I’d encourage you to come up with better (or at least more personalized) definitions and toss ’em in the comments. I reserve the right to change these definitions throughout this mini-series.

To be sure, these four elements often blur and lean on each other: you might teach a lesson within a project. You may employ a routine while debriefing a problem. Many times I’ve been facilitating one of Andrew’s Estimation180’s as a routine and it wound up leading to a full on investigation (which we’ll call a “lesson,” I suppose). Is Which One Doesn’t Belong? a routine or a lesson? Or maybe it’s a problem. It honestly probably depends on how you facilitate it.

Most of the time, however, you’ll be able to walk into a classroom and identify which one of these four things are occurring. If students are engaged in some sort of protocol, they’re in a routine. If the teacher is standing at the front of the class demonstrating something, we’re looking at a lesson. If students are engaged in a complex task, we’re probably in a problem. And if students are creating something over the course of days or weeks, we’re probably in a project.

But why bother with such distinctions?

Perhaps I’m overly interested in taxonomy, but I find it helpful to sort things into categories (perhaps it’s a character flaw).

The real answer to the question of “why bother with such distinctions” is that I was trying to describe the difference between a “traditional” math classroom and a more “dynamic” one. Both of these terms are meaningless, even if they do connote what I’m trying to convey: traditional = bad; dynamic = good. Traditional classes are ones where teachers are lecturing most of the time. Dynamic classrooms are ones where kids are working in groups most of the time. But even that’s not a sufficient clarification: good classrooms employ all kinds of activities, including lectures, including packets.

So it began as an attempt to describe the ideal classroom juxtaposed against a teacher-centric one. A teacher-centric classroom might employ lessons 85% of the time, while a dynamic classroom might employ lessons 55% of the time (I’m making these numbers up entirely).

Then I began to find it challenging to talk about Projects vs. Problems. In my work I’m often asked to describe an ideal classroom: wall-to-wall Project Based Learning (PBL) or Problem-Based Learning (PrBL) or a mixture of both? And how often ought we actually teach in a PBL or PrBL learning environment? How does an Algebra 1 class differ from an AP Stats course?

I’m not going to answer these questions for you, but I hope that this framework will equip you with the vocabulary to design your best math class.

And just like halfway through my adolescence, they discovered a fifth taste (“umami”) we can’t discuss these four elements without the thing that binds classes together: active caring. Perhaps it’s backwards, but we’ll conclude this mini-series with a discussion about active caring and how it’s essential. The best routines, lessons, problem, and projects in the world are moot to a classroom without caring. I suppose it’s a bit too on-the-nose to make a Captain Planet reference with the fifth planeteer’s power being “heart” but that works well as a metaphor if we’re looking for a fifth, I suppose.

One last metaphor: you know those sound boards they have to mix songs? Those ones with a million knobs? And in every movie about a band there’s always a really cool scene where the band is killing this one song and the sound engineer slowly pushes those levers up while bobbing his head and looking at the producer all knowingly? That’s kind of what we’re doing here: playing with the knobs and seeing what it sounds like. We want to get better at each of these instruments individually, and put them together to make beautiful music. Or food. Or genes.

Coming up in this mini-series:

  • Routines: the driving beat of your class
  • Lessons: the stuff we envision, only better
  • Problems: then a miracle occurs
  • Projects: what they’ll remember in 20 years
  • Active Caring: the essential ingredient
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Working while sad

Until recently, I would have classified myself as a “happy” person. Now I’m not so sure.

Every day when I or my wife picks up my son at school there’s a 50/50 chance he’s in the counselor’s or principal’s office because he hates himself for something he did or didn’t do. When something – anything – negative happens, it’s a flip of the coin. Sometimes he’s able to slough it off. And sometimes, he goes into a complete and unstoppable downward spiral. He says he’s the “worst person in the world” or the “dumbest person in the world.” Neither of those things are true, nor is he receiving that message from anyone at home or at school (who have gone above and beyond trying to make emotionally safe accommodations).

So all day I’m on edge about 3:08pm, when his class lets out. Will I see my son bounding out with joy, ready for a rollicking afternoon of fun and games? Or will I see that grimace on his teacher’s face when we make eye contact which tells me everything I need to know about how the next few hours will be?

I check my inbox constantly, anxiously just waiting for that email to show up with the subject matter that simply states his name or something foreboding like “Today…” with my wife, his teachers, his counselor, and his principal all cc’ed. Once that email hits, or once I see his school on the caller ID, the rest of the day is over. It’s time to go pick him up early because he won’t be rejoining the class and he’s unsafe at that point. (I just checked it again.)

It’s not easy to enjoy things when your brain is occupied with such concerns. It’s very difficult to work in a profession that requires social interactions. It’s hard to do much of anything – go out to lunch, exercise – when a significant part of your brain is wondering “Is my son wanting to hurt himself right now?”

When people ask how he’s doing, my answer is “good,” because there’s a good chance that yes, at this very moment, he’s “good.” So it’s technically, possibly not a lie! But he’s not good. He struggles with mental illness in a way that we are all unprepared for. That I am unprepared for.

Thankfully, by dint of never seeking medical attention for myself, I have a fair amount of money stored away in an HSA, which I will be using to attend to my own mental health as I start therapy this month. Even after just two sessions, I feel better equipped to manage my own emotions and responses to challenging situations. Even just talking openly and getting acknowledgement of how goddamn hard life can be has been helpful. And hopefully with hard work it’ll get better.

So I guess I should end this blog post with a Point of some sort. So it’s this: consider whether talking through your anxiety / stress / struggles might help. Really consider it. If you have HSA dollars, use ’em. If you have free counseling sessions associated with your work (as my wife did at her previous job) use ’em. Or seek out a therapist that works on a sliding scale if the price point is challenging (which it truly is! Side note: my insurance will pay through the nose for medication and zilch for therapy, which is both dumb and Another Story).

Don’t try to go through things alone. Don’t bottle things up. Talk to your school counselor. Talk to a therapist. Talk to a pastor. These people are great at what they do. They’ll help you feel better about what you do too.


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When 1/25 ≠ 2/50: team teaching


My son attends an “open concept” school, a term that belittles the potential for such learning space. Before he started attending that school, I had heard of “open concept” as a fad that passed through schools in the 1970’s and fell out of fashion due to their unwieldiness. I had an image of two hundred students corralled in a gym-like room with their teachers trying to shout over the hundreds voices reverberating off the walls.

First off, that image is woefully misrepresentative, at least at my son’s school. Each “pod” has two grade levels in it. And even each pod has enough physical distance and visual blocks between the grade levels that there’s never really an issue of noise. In fact, the first thing that struck me when I was touring the school a few years ago was how quiet it felt. The students in the “open concept” school were much better at regulating their voices and being aware of their peers needs than in a smaller classroom with fewer students.

But that’s not the biggest boon offered by this open concept – as realized by my son’s school. The biggest boon is that teaching is a team approach at this elementary school. Each grade has 50 students with two professional instructors. While each student technically assigned to a home teacher, the day is fluid.

When you have two teachers teaching 50 kids, rather than one teacher teaching 25, it opens up endless possibilities for small group workshops, differentiation, and enrichment. One teacher can work with a handful of students while the other teacher can facilitate the rest of the grade. If one teacher is passionate about, say, Science and the other Social Studies, they can utilize their particular teaching strengths or passions. The two teacher divide and conquer certain subjects and certain concepts. By having the same room, their planning time is more natural and organic.

Even more than the logistical, technical, and pedagogical advantages of a team teaching approach for elementary school is the assurance that there is nearly always an adult in the room who knows every student on a deep level (and vice versa). Substitute teachers were always difficult for my son to handle: they don’t know the rules, they’re not following the schedule, and so on. Now, even when one teacher has a substitute, with rare exception he can make eye contact with the other teacher that knows him well and how he struggles in certain environments. If one teacher needs to go to an IEP meeting, the class doesn’t get put in “time out” or “baby-sitting mode.” If a kid is having a melt-down one teacher can take him or her aside without pausing the entire class.

I realize it’s not possible for schools to employ team-teaching. The numbers have to work out kind of nicely, with the number of teachers-per-grade being even. The physical space needs to be amenable to such a work space. The teachers require a level of professionalism and trust that isn’t as necessary when everyone is siloed. But it works at my son’s school and it works for my son. Every day he knows there will be someone in the class who knows him, and he never goes a day without seeing friends from previous years.

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Stop Thief!, The Fugitive and introducing equations of circles

When I was a kid, we had this super high-tech board game called Stop Thief!. The gist was this: someone committed a crime somewhere on the game board, which was rife with jewelry displays, unattended cash registers and safes. Your job as the detective was to identify where the thief was. The location of the thief was tracked by a phone looking device that calls to mind those old Radio Shack commercials with car phones. After each turn, the invisible thief would move some number of spaces away from the crime scene. The phone made these noises indicating where he could be – opening a door, climbing through a window, breaking glass. Based on these clues and the number of turns that elapse, you’d try to identify where he was.

Fast-forward a few years. We all remember this scene from The Fugitive:

These are the artifacts that were going through my head as I designed this lesson, linking the pythagorean theorem and equations of circles. In it, students must overlay a circle to establish a “perimeter” (side note: shouldn’t Tommy Lee Jones have used the term “circumference?”).

While this task only starts from the origin, you could quickly modify it to have other starting points, which would allow students to explore what the equation of a circle looks like when you center it wound non-origin points. I’d expect that to occur the next day or later in the lesson as part of the debrief.

Feel free to tweak it to make it better. The desmos graph is linked below, along with a couple word handouts.


(Note: a version of this task will appear in my forthcoming book from Stenhouse Publishers, Necessary Conditions.)

The set-up: a crime has been committed and it’s up to the students to establish a perimeter based on how much time has elapsed. After using the pythagorean theorem a few times to identify buildings the thief could be hiding in.

PrBL - RunningFromTheLaw-01

Given the time that’s passed and typical footspeed, the criminal could be anywhere up to 5 kilometers from the crime scene.

Which of the buildings above could he be in?

[Desmos Graph]


Additional resources:

Running From the Law

Running from the Law Student Handout

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Necessary conditions: understanding groupwork with a three-legged pedagogical framework

At some point this year (2018), I’ll have a book for you to read from Stenhouse that proposes a framework for effective math classrooms. These are the three broad ingredients that create a successful math classroom as well as how a student experiences math. They are:

  • Academic Safety – the social/emotional state of a student and her self-regard as a mathematician
  • Quality Tasks – the thing that students are doing, working on, and/or creating
  • Effective Facilitation – the short- and long-term moves that promote mathematical thinking and sensemaking

Every successful math classroom I’ve been in has each of these three hallmarks in spades. In fact no successful classroom I’ve been in hasn’t had each of these hallmarks working for it. They’re our necessary conditions for great classrooms.

They work independently and in concert and can be the lens through which we can better understand classroom issues. Let’s take a common issue of unproductive or inequitable groupwork. Effective strategies will tackle one, two or all three of these elements. Let’s use this framework to better understand the issue, before we jump into the solution.

Fig 1-2

Is the issue one of Academic Safety?

Students may not be engaged in groupwork if they self-identify as a “non-math person.” It’s possible they’re only living up to the social academic status they’ve been given. How do students see themselves as mathematicians? Do they see themselves as mathematicians? Do their peers see one another as mathematicians? If so, how so? Are they publicly acknowledging the mathematical smartness of their peers?

Is the issue one of Quality Tasks?

I’ve been in classrooms where the issue around groupwork began with the fact that students weren’t being assigned groupworthy tasks. If you’re going to require an assignment occur in a group setting, the task ought to require (or at least be enhanced by) groupwork. Tasks are often developed for individuals but assigned to groups.

Is the issue one of Effective Facilitation?

How was the groupwork time introduced? Did you just assign the task and say “go” or did you have a structure in place? Do students have specific and understandable roles or is it the onus of the student to figure out where they fit into the groupwork dynamic? What norms are present in your classroom (and no, not the norms that are on the wall, but the ones that are actually present)?

Once we start to answer some of these questions, we might be able to better identify potential solutions. Maybe the classroom needs defined group roles. Maybe a norm of “same problem, same time” needs to be enacted. Maybe tasks need to be developed to push students deeper into the math content. Or maybe it’ll generate additional questions or additional need for understanding the issue at hand.

And as I mentioned, it’s possible (probable) that issues will bleed between our three pedagogical elements. Certain tasks can reinforce messages about mathematical self-regard. Unstructured groupwork can reinforce issues of academic status. It’s messy work, this teaching. Hopefully this framework will help you better understand the complex dynamic of a classroom ecosystem.




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Counting Idling Cars

pickupI’m sitting in my car, waiting to pick up my son from school. It’s too cold to wait outside  this time of year so I keep the heat on, the engine running, and continue listening to the Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast, the nerdiest podcast about basketball out there. I’m also quite anti-social, so I prefer to sit in the car, rather than, like, talk to people.

The driver of the car in front of me is doing the same (presumably, minus the podcast listening), ditto for the car behind of me. Maybe they’re reading “The Pickup Line,” an e-mag specifically for parents who sit in the car, waiting to pick up their kid from school. It occurs to me: boy there are a lot of cars idling in front of the school right now. I’d guess about 40. But y’know, someone should really count these up.

I get typically get to the school about 10 minutes before the release bell rings and I’m sort of in the middle of the pack of idling cars. I’d guess it’s about the average of when most cars arrive, again, most of which are idling. While I don’t conduct this environment-destroying practice all year long – when the weather is nice I’ll get out and check my phone, rather than talk to other parents – I practice it for maybe half the school year. That’s about 80 days or so.

80 days x 10 minutes of idling per day. Boy, 800 minutes of idling seems like a lot doesn’t it? And if there are indeed 40 cars at my son’s school, averaging a similar amount of idling time, we’re looking at 32,000 minutes of car idling. That’s over eight days of just idling.

We have a train that goes through town and we have signs encouraging us to turn off our car, rather than sit there idling, while we wait for the train to pass through. And I sometimes follow that instruction! I should probably follow it more often and more aggressively. But what about idling in the school pickup line? Or along the side of the school for us anti-socialites?

How much gas are we wasting?

How much Carbon Monoxide are we putting in the air?

How much gas waste / CO is the entire town/state/country contributing?

Would it be better to just switch off the car and start it later?

Boy, oh boy, someone oughta do the research on this…

What about at your school? How much gas is wasted in a day, week, or school year? Could students do the research? Could they create an awareness campaign for reducing gas waste (and presumably promoting cleaner air at their school)? Seems like something a bunch of go-getter students could handle.


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Why we teach the “other stuff”


“I don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t know how to talk to him.”


I’m sitting in a coffee shop with my back facing a mentor and her mentee, a college student who is apparently struggling through her semester. I can hear them clearly, even though I’m trying not to eavesdrop. The mentor is pleading with her mentee to email one of her professors to get help with an assignment, or even figure out when office hours are. “I don’t even know what to say!” the student response. The mentor patiently describes what questions to ask and how to start off the email, to no avail. “I don’t know how to talk to him!” she keeps responding. Pretty soon the student starts doing that thing that teenagers do where they start laughing when they’re really uncomfortable . It’s an unintentional defense mechanism employed by nearly all adolescents. She’s embarrassed by her inability to perform a seemingly simple task, so she starts blushing and laughing.

“I don’t want to talk to someone else.”

“That sounds like so many words.”

Later on, the mentor is trying to get the mentee to call the registrar’s office to find some information about something or other. Again, the student giggles that she doesn’t know how to talk over the phone. The mentor clearly cares deeply for her mentee. The mentee is clearly embarrassed at how nervous she is communicating to professionals.


Teachers sometimes scoff when we implore them to teach those other things. Things like communication skills, groupwork skills, self-reflection, these are “soft skills” that don’t appear in our scope and sequence. The state test doesn’t address them, and we have too much content already to cover to worry about these phony-baloney skills. I’m a math teacher, I teach math, that’s what I do. That’s my responsibility.

I can’t speak to the mentee’s instruction, but I’ve seen it frequently enough. Listening to her, she was paralyzed when it came to communicating with other adults, or at all. This is something she did not learn, let alone practice, while in High School. And now it’s preventing her from succeeding at the post-secondary level. Her paralysis wasn’t that she didn’t know her content well enough, it was that she didn’t have the ability to find out how to further her content knowledge. Whether that was technically the purview of her secondary math teacher or not, the responsibility to prepare students for post-secondary life falls on each of her teachers and the system in which they teach.

Does that mean that it is your responsibility – as, say, a math teacher – to teach students how to make phone calls? Or email professionals? Or create a study group? Or manage their time? Or teach all of those non-math skills?

Yes. Yes, it is.

The reason I taught math was because I love math. The reason I taught math the way I did was because I wanted students to grow as communicators and problem-solvers. Thankfully, I taught in a school in which we were unified that these were indeed skills we wanted our students to have when they graduated. I now coach in a model that aspires to make that happen for all students.

In our classrooms, we have students call and set up meetings with mentors in the business or academic communities. We have students stand and defend their work. We assess students on eye contact as well as content knowledge. And we teach them how to do it, not just tell them to and let them flounder. We do these, not in isolation, but as an entire school. In my class, this included these activities, as well as complex math problems that required collaboration, presentation of new and novel ideas, and practice and structures to handle it when these proved exceptionally difficult.



I’m heartened by these mentor-mentee relationships. Whether they were established via a specific program or they grew organically, there’s genuine care there. As exasperated as the mentor was, she showed active, authentic caring. I’m glad the mentee has that support system in place now that she’s in college. She’ll need the skills her mentor offers, as she clearly didn’t receive them in High School.

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