Deconstructing a Lesson Activity – Part 1

[I’ve decided to break this post into two parts because I don’t want to bore and/or discourage you, and I need to take a breather. These two posts in particular are truly my labor of love because if there’s one thing that I find myself proficient at implementing in the classroom it is problem solving. I hope you’ll find some parts useful.

I’ve done a fair share of posting actual lessons and pictures from my classroom in this space and on my 180 blog [that’s no longer available, sorry]. But I’m afraid they appear polished and therefore unhelpful to teachers who are trying to implement problem solving, white-boarding3-Act lessons, or any taskoriented activity in their classrooms.

So here’s my earnest attempt to deconstruct the structure of a lesson, get down to the nitty-gritty, take small bites (and spit out what you don’t like), and make it real because if it ain’t real to you, then it ain’t gonna happen for your kids.

Some important prerequisites. I need you to have this mindset or else we’re not going to accomplish anything.

  1. You care that kids learn something meaningful in the 45-minute period that they are with you. You might be thinking, Of course I care or else I wouldn’t be teaching. No, I don’t mean that. I mean the “something meaningful” part. What did you intend for your kids to learn today?
  2. You might very well fail at implementing a 3-Act in your first attempt. And fail again and again. But you can’t give up. You can’t give up because the kids need you to persevere, it’s the same MP1 that you ask of them. Cry and bitch about it at home. Adopt a puppy if you live alone. Eat ice cream. Drink a beverage with higher alcohol content if you need to. Get a punching bag or go to the gym.
  3. You need to be okay with leaving some children behind on some days. I’m not a miracle worker. Neither are you. One hundred percent student engagement 100% of the time is a myth sold by the snakes-oil salesman. You can’t differentiate every lesson. You can’t reach and motivate every child. But you will reach and motivate the ones that you can. You’ll die trying because you love these kids, but you’re going to realistic about it.
  4. Surround yourself with helpful colleagues. They listen and are willing to observe your class and give critical feedback. They remind you to eat. They eat lunch with you. They don’t badmouth kids when their lips are moving. They believe Happy Hour is invented for schoolteachers and feel it’s sacrilegious if they went without you. The toxic people in your life can just piss off. If no one is around and you really need to vent, please email me at fawnpnguyen at gmail dot com. I am a much better listener than I am a writer.

Piece de resistance. I carry out the lessons through the lens and language of these bodies of work. It’s okay if you don’t have the 4 books, but I highly recommend them if your school or personal budget allows.

  1. 5 Practices For Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions by Margaret S. Smith and Mary Kay Stein
  2. Thinking Mathematically by John Mason with Leone Burton and Kaye Stacey
  3. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.
  4. 12-minute video of Dan Meyer’s TED Talk: Math class needs a makeover
  5. Improving learning in mathematics: challenges and strategies (PDF file) by Malcolm Swan
  6. 8 Common Core Math Practices
  7. The Art of Problem Posing by Stephen I. Brown and Marion I. Walter (I just borrowed this book from UCSB last week. It’s wonderful. Nat Banting reviewed it here.)

Picking the right task. Think of this as Step 0 of the 5 Practices. If I picked the wrong task, then no sound pedagogy or fancy technology would be able to save me. I’m done. Lesson sucks. Game over. That’s how important this step is. What is a “right” task?

  1. It’s age appropriate. I don’t mean for you to go searching under tabs that read “6th grade” or “algebra 1” either. What’s age appropriate for your 6th graders might be too high for my 6th graders. Know your kids. An inherently good task would cover a wider range of consumers. If it’s early in the school year and you don’t know your kids well enough yet, then choose a higher level. It’s a crime to underestimate children’s mathematical abilities. Dan Meyer speaks volumes about “low-entry high-exit” tasks and Ladder of Abstraction.
  2. It has multiple strategies. At least 2 ways of solving. Single-strategy tasks are like culs-de-sac. There’s nothing to do except to turn around. Think how fruitless and boring it would be if you asked kids to share their different strategies and there wasn’t one to begin with. Also, just because you’d struggled with a task does not necessarily mean all your kids will. Maybe there was a more elegant solution that you did not see. Be humble, ask another colleague or throw it out on Twitter for others to give it a try. (Please tell me you have a Twitter account. Mine is @fawnpnguyen.) And if your gut thinks there’s another way to solve a problem, then be honest with the kids and say exactly that. They’d be thrilled to death to learn that they’d helped you see something differently. My favorite moments for sure.
  3. You are crazy about the task. I can’t speak for what tasks/problems turn you on, but I know what my favorites are. (And every.single.time we do a new task, I half-jokingly say to my students, “This one is my absolute favorite!” The kids roll their eyes at me, but they know I’m passionate about it.) It’s hard to get kids to like things that we ourselves do not care much for. That’s kinda fraudulent. I’m be a big fat liar if I say that I like all the tasks Andrew and Nathan have on their sites. Your chosen task is your baby — you’ve personally nursed and nurtured it. Kids sense this and they’ll handle it with care too.
  4. Throw a curve ball. Meaning offer a task that does not line up with your current topic right now. I know this sounds strange. (I’ve never read or heard anyone else suggest what I’m suggesting). Normally teachers look for a task that lines up with what the kids are learning. Sure, I do these “tasks” too, but I really call them “exercises.” Exercises help you practice the skills you’re learning. The tasks that this post is referring to are problem-solving tasks, and true problem-solving has no prior diagnosis and certainly no given prescription. Don’t do Taco Cart right when you’re teaching Pythagorean Theorem. Unless you want to do it as an exercise, then sure, go for it! The beauty of this is you can reach into your folder of best tasks, close your eyes, and pick one! Be a rebel, break the rules. (Don’t forget it still has to be an appropriate level task.)

Custom tailor the lesson. This is hard work. I don’t care if His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself wrote the lesson, I still need to tweak it so it works for me and my kids.

  1. Great lesson but terrible handout. I see this all the time. Take the time to re-type it. Is there wasted space or not enough? How’s the font size, the heading, the outline? Can you improve on the graphics? Are students asked to work on page 2 but keep having to flip to page 1 to see the sketch or data?
  2. Do you have to pass out the handout at all? How about starting from scratch as in having the kids take out their own paper to create data and meaning for themselves? Remember that any question that appears on a handout may potentially rob a kid’s opportunity to ask that question for herself. There are certainly good handouts that have just the right amount of information and provide easier access points for kids. Please create them.
  3. What level of technology is involved? Disaster abounds when an activity requires at least 15 computers and you only have 5. Adapt it or scrap it. No more than 2 kids should have to share a computer. Will the server crash if everyone got on the system? Did you review the YouTube video for all the potential peripheral garbage and comments that might be on there? To be safe, how about you projecting the video from your teacher computer instead? And I need to add here that I beg you not to incorporate technology into a lesson for technology’s sake. Technology should enhance the student’s learning. A shitty lesson on the interactive whiteboard is still a shitty lesson.

Up next: Deconstructing a Lesson Activity – Part 2

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