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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21 Comments

  1. Posted July 13, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Hey Fawn,
    Wow. Embarrassed to say that as this math camp approached, the one that for me starts tomorrow and runs for three weeks, where I’ll be working with … Actually I have no idea what I’ll be doing, but more on that later. Anyway, as it approached, I had some vague idea of a schedule I would implement in the back of my mind, and the vague idea maybe went something like this: Hour 1–we’ll do some Algebra 2. Hour 2–we’ll do some Geometry. Maybe in between we’ll take a break and do something off-beat. Then lunch. Hour three, I’ll show some video, maybe Professor von Shmohawk from My Why U … Or Vi Hart … And then … one hour a day we’ll do some Problem Solving problem from one of the web sites Fawn recommends!

    Anyway, it is humbling reading about just all the work that goes into putting together a successful problem solving activity–just wanted to take a minute to really appreciate you for doing said work. I don’t think I’m ready to do any problem solving activities tomorrow, on the first day (although we may play thirty-wonderful, if the students are new to me) … I actually don’t know what level I’m teaching or … bla bla bla; will provide more info later. Really, really well written post above. Thanks for that.

    • Posted July 14, 2014 at 12:01 am | Permalink

      I don’t think my post above made a lot of sense. Point was, I had planned on taking you up on your challenge to do Problem Solving, but I did not do any of the prep or leg work, and what’s humbling is seeing just how much you pour in to what you do–I am like whoah, and I feel like kind of a bum in comparison. I AM kind of a bum; still working on developing internal motivation and persistence/perserverence–as you say the qualities we want to teach the children.

  2. Posted July 19, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I love the curve ball! Gonna steal that one :) Thanks.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      As long as I’m not up at bat. Thanks, Jennifer!

  3. Posted July 19, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Well, if we’re going to be honest, I don’t like all of the tasks on your blog either. :P

    I’ve been digesting the 5 Practices today (per your suggestion) and trying to make more sense of this beast known as problem solving, and then you write this. Perfect timing!

    I’m glad that you’re spelling so much of this out for us and I can’t wait for part 2.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Jerkface you are then. I really meant to order the 5 Practices for you, btw.

      Thanks, Nathan.

      • Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea for the last couple of months and completely agree. It makes me wonder about how textbooks like to spoon-feed everything. Here’s a chapter on the Pythagorean Theorem. Now here are a bunch of problems that use the Pythagorean Theorem. Even when textbooks do a mixed review later in the book, they tip off the use of the Pythagorean Theorem. What the hell textbook? Shouldn’t my students have internalized this concept to the point where they recognize its potential use?

        • Fawn Nguyen
          Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          We should write a textbook together. No, not Nathan and I, but our whole twitter/blog community.

          • Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

            An MTBoS “textbook” – that would be amazing! (And fun!)

          • Fawn Nguyen
            Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

            Are you writing the first chapter, Gale?!?

  4. Posted July 19, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Yeah – thanks for letting us into your thought processes. Can’t wait for part 2.

    Can I submit a post request? How do you start the year to get your kids into problem-solving mindset? I assume they walk into your room on day 1 already “schooled” on school….listen to the teacher and spit it back equals success. How do you overcome that resistance?

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Hi Stephanie. I really have never encountered “resistance” like I think what you’re referring to. Maybe because I’m at the middle school? And that’s exactly how I start on Day 1, with a problem-solving task. I start by starting. I wrote here about how I avoid going over rules and procedures on the first day at all cost. I tell them, “You’re here to DO math. It’s not a spectator sport, so let’s roll up our sleeves and get started!”

      I hope to write more about this in Part 2. Thank you!

      • Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        It takes a lot of maturity (for lack of better word) to apologize to students for a bad lesson. I am often so invested in the lesson, I have difficulty admitting it wasn’t good. One time I spent forever making and cutting out Old Maid cards with quadratics. Kids HATED it. My initial reaction, I will sadly admit, was anger that they wouldn’t play my game. Three straight periods of disaster and I finally admitted I chose poorly.

        • Fawn Nguyen
          Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          I remember when I was teaching science, I spent pretty much a full Saturday planning for this Gyotaku (fish printing) lesson. I had to buy the right fish with scales that would yield the best ink rubbings. The kids were instead grossed out by the fish and messing around with the ink. Needless to say, I was upset and felt the kids were ungrateful. I find it’s helpful to laugh at my failures because crying sucks. Thanks, Stephanie.

  5. Posted July 19, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I love this analysis, Fawn. I completely agree with you about the self-sabotaging aspect of crappy handouts. They’re the teacher equivalent of the homework assignment that looks like someone wiped peanut butter off it before turning it in.

    I wanted to add one quick thing: there’s actually a lot of research to support the ‘throw a curveball’ strategy. Interleaved practice is a powerful way of accelerating fluency and encouraging the blending of skills and concepts:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22359276

    Looking forward to part 2!

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the link, Elizabeth. I’ve never heard of “interleaved practice.” Fancy and good to know!

  6. Posted July 19, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for doing this…

    I love the “throw a curve ball” concept. I always seem to find an idea I like outside the scope of my class, or just a couple weeks after it would have fit into the curriculum.

    The part that I always struggle with is the Multiple Strategies one. (probably because I’ve always been looking to fit any activity into the neat-box of what I’m currently teaching. (and I can’t solve every problem with rectangles….just where did you pick that up from??)

    I will say that I agree with you regarding what an amazing resource twitter is. Its given me the colleagues willing to listen, share and commiserate that I really don’t have at school.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Hi Scott. About multiple strategies, I guess that’s why I love doing the visual patterns (shameless plug there) because there’s always at least 2 ways to see how a pattern grows.

      You’re exactly right about “… looking to fit any activity into the neat-box of what I’m currently teaching” because in your mind you’ve already had a SPECIFIC skill you want the kids to learn, therefore you pick something that would use that skill, and that makes perfect sense. And that’s where we inadvertently have pigeonholed ourselves into finding limited or single-strategy tasks. These tasks are very important too and we need to build a healthy bank of them.

      I want to focus on the problem-solving aspect in this post (and in Part 2), so we’re just discussing two different types of tasks. I can’t solve every problem with rectangles either but my mind goes there first! I took a summer course many years ago called “Visual Math for Middle School Teachers” in Portland, Oregon, and the rectangles have stayed with me since. My professor, Dr. Michael Shaughnessy, was NCTM President a few years ago. Cool, eh?

      There are only two of us math teachers at my school, so this MTBoS is truly my extended professional family. So thank you for being a part of this with me, Scott.

  7. Posted July 19, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I was taken by a couple of quotes. Specifically about this or that task being your absolute favorite. We have that strategy in common.

    I also think that when you seem excited, interested, and the activity lives up to the hype in the students’ minds, it improves my confidence taking risks and trying additional tasks that might take a bit of courage to unleash on a class.

    Courage because the memory of a flopped lesson lingers longer and more clearly than the sweet taste of it going perfectly.

    I also like the part about toxic coworkers. Careful what you ask for, though. My vent e-mails can get a bit long at times…

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      “… memory of a flopped lesson lingers longer and more clearly…” Absolutely agree, Andrew. I think that’s because we have high expectation of ourselves too. But kids are super kind to me when I’m honest with them. I’d say to them, “Oh, wow, that lesson was awful, it sucked! Sorry… I hope it wasn’t a total waste of time though because hopefully we learned that…”

      I’m ready for your vent emails, Andrew. Any time. Thank you!

  8. kristin
    Posted April 10, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I thought I was the only one who did this!

    “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?”

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