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.

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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:

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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.

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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:



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:

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.

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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