Intellectual Need

So…Have You Always Taught Math This Way?

I’ve been asked this question several times over the past 15 years or so.  Most recently at a workshop I facilitated for middle school teachers.  The short answer is no.  My teaching has evolved.  I strive to improve my practice every day.  Below, is my response to the group of middle school teachers.

When I first started teaching, I used what I learned in college about teaching mathematics – you know . . . using manipulatives, group work, classroom discussions.  All of those things that I still use today.  But, when things didn’t go the way I anticipated, I seemed to always fall back on the way I learned which was primarily stand and deliver.

At the end of my first year, I spent some time in my room, at my desk and wrote down all of the changes I wanted to make and how I planned to make them.  This was probably the best idea I ever had!  Throughout the summer I reread that list and, when necessary, created things that would help me reach my goals.  I didn’t reach them all, but the next year was much more successful.  Couple that with the summer PL that I took and the way I was teaching math was really beginning to change.

One of the first changes I made was to incorporate children’s literature into my lessons.  One of the PL’s I took that summer was a Marilyn Burns workshop where we  learned that there are a tremendous number of books with mathematical connections.  We learned how use the books to introduce mathematical concepts and problem solving, how to ask better questions, and one of my big “take-aways” was to listen more!

Over the years, I’ve continued to look at literature as a place to begin lessons.  And all was going well, but I still wasn’t getting the the amount of  buy-in from my students that I wanted.  I was excited about the math, but they weren’t.  Then, one morning, I was riding to work with my wife, Kim.  We were listening to a morning radio show in Atlanta on 99x called the Morning X with Barnes, Leslie, and Jimmy.  On that morning, November 10, 1999, Jimmy was laughing about a news story that he couldn’t wait to share.  As he was reading, I was scrambling to write it all down!  The story went like this:

Earlier this morning a man held up a GA-400 toll booth.  His stolen getaway car broke down and he is now on the run with a 58 lb. bag of quarters.

When I got to school, I turned on my computer, printed the story out on a transparency with a picture of some quarters and put it on the overhead.  Here’s a sample of what happened:


Several students as they entered the classroom:  Mr. W., what’s that on the overhead?

Me:  I heard that on the radio this morning and wanted to know what you all thought and if you had any questions.

Multiple student responses:  “Oh, ok.”   “That guy is stupid.”   “What kinds of questions do you want?

Me:  Whatever questions come to mind.  You can write your thoughts and questions in your journal.

What I got from these 5th grade students at the beginning of class amazed me.  They were totally engaged in the problem.  The problem context had them so curious, they wouldn’t let go.

Some of their questions:

  • How many quarters is that?
  • How much money is that?
  • How tall would a stack of 58 lbs of quarters be?
  • How far could you run with a 58 lb bag of quarters?
  • How big is the bag of 58 lbs of quarters?
  • How long would a trail of 58 lbs of quarters be if they were laid end to end?

This one context from a morning radio show kept my students focused on the mathematical concepts of weight, length, decimal computation, and time for over a week.  More questions came up as new ones were answered.  They had developed not only a curiosity, but an intellectual need to know.

This is what I had been searching for.  A context that engaged my students in mathematics so deeply, that they wanted to figure out the answers to their own questions.

It wasn’t easy to find stories like this back then.  But now, they’re everywhere.  Just Google bizarre news stories. Since then I’ve learned, along with a whole host of others (check out some of the people I follow), that I can create these contexts using all sorts of media to get the same results (3-Act Tasks).

Below is a copy of the original context I used with my students.  The image has changed over the years, but it is essentially the same document.  And it works just as well today as it did 15 years ago!  I just wish I had a recording of the news story!  If you decide to use this, please share your experience.  I’d love to hear about it!

GA400 toll problem