The Secret Ingredient

Teachers often ask me for lesson ideas, projects or warm-ups.  When you’ve been teaching as long as I have you start to accumulate lots of stuff.  I’ll get a text or email saying, “You have anything I could use to introduce operations with fractions?” or “Have something for the end of the polynomial unit?”  The answer is often…yes!  Then I pick out those great activities and send them along.  You know the ones.  Everyone remembers those classes where the kids were not just engaged – they were having fun.  Not just understanding concepts – they were talking about what they noticed, proving their ideas, and feeling satisfied, confident, competent.  When those moments happen – you remember them.  And you want to share the great news – it IS possible to explore the required content and have a fun and rewarding experience doing so.  But sometimes an activity comes highly recommended and falls flat.  Why?  What’s the missing secret ingredient?

Yesterday a teacher messaged me saying, “I heard you had a really great activity for composite shapes – care to share?”  I lit up.  I DID have a great activity.  Check out this beautiful alphabet I found as a free download here

Found at

As I passed along this cool resource I found myself explaining what I did with it in one class and how I used it very differently in another…

In one class, this alphabet became The Measurement Challenge!  Find the three letter word with the greatest area.  Kids teamed up and got down to business.  Voices in groups were hushed so they wouldn’t give their strategies away to other teams.  Check this out Mrs Sandford – no one’s going to do better than this!  I remember there was a fire drill in the middle of the class.  Out on the field students were discussing the challenge.  Instead of trying to maximize their time out of class – they were itching to get back in so they could try out all their ideas.  Can we do this again tomorrow?  We want to keep trying!  Totally awesome!  The discussion later was even better.  I heard things like, “At first we thought…., then we realized…” Students told me about estimating strategies that they used because “it was a way to save time”.  Estimating was useful!  Who knew!?!  Getting students to estimate has always been a struggle for me.  In this challenge they did it independently – whaaat!?!

In my other class I used the letters a different way.  Students were asked to use measurement tools to accurately draw their name or favourite word or phrase.  We broke out the protractors, rulers, compasses, and bullseyes. We took our time and made our work beautiful. Oh the lovely math art we created! We found the areas as well and noticed interesting things about how the letters looked in the picture and how they appeared when we constructed them according to the given measurements.  “Is that what it means when we see ‘not drawn to scale’ on pictures?”  So much satisfying learning!  

So why the two activities?  That’s when the secret ingredient to a successful lesson became crystal clear.  Consider the students.  My first class was given a challenge because that’s what they liked.  They loved to compete.  They preferred working in teams.  Whatever the task, they were always trying to win.  I took a cool resource and framed it in a way that would appeal to their competitive nature.  My second class were artists.  Precise and detail oriented; slow and exacting.  They may have shut down in a competition scenario but thrived when given the same math work to do with a different spin.

Then, by displaying the work from both classes, I had a nice cross-over effect.  Some students from the challenge class created their own art when they saw the beautiful creations by my artists.  Students from the artist group wondered if the largest area found in the competition was the biggest one possible.  “I bet I could find a three letter word with an even bigger area Mrs Sandford!”  Me:  “Really?  Do it!”  Begin with their preferred approach, then spark a little curiosity and interest in other connections.  Kids start exploring on their own. Yes – On their own!

Now when teachers inquire about a lesson idea or resource, that’s the information I need first: Tell me about your students. The kids are the difference.  No matter how much you know the content, you must also know your students.  They are the most important (and shouldn’t be secret) ingredient.

What word or phrase will you draw?

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