Monday, October 6, 2014

The Math Message is Dead! Long Live the Math Message!

     I see this in many classes I visit:

It's a Math Message!

     Back when I was in teacher school we called this a "sponge activity".  You might call it a "do now". Either way, it's meant to be something kids can work on for a few minutes as they transition into math class.  Teachers have it up on the board, and the kids copy it down in their math notebooks. Maybe it's a skill review, maybe the introduction to a lesson, maybe something to keep the kids occupied while the teacher gathers his thoughts and plans together.  Whatever it is, it has to go away.

Here's an example from the 5th grade manual.  Typical scenario: 4 kids are finished in 5 seconds, 5 kids can't find a pencil, 3  have no notebook, 7 are trying to multiply 37 x  62,  and the rest are praying that the teacher won't call on them. 

Here's one from grade 3.  For classroom scenario, see above.
Another gem from grade 3.  This question may have been interesting to its writers, but I have seen it cause many 9 year-old eyes to glaze over.

Here's a sample from grade 2.  How long do you think it will take a second grader to get all that money out of his tool-kit?  Paging Mr. Stadel.

Finally one from grade 4.  How long should the teacher wait for everyone in the class to be prepared to read the numbers aloud?  

     I confess to having used these on a regular basis when I was a classroom teacher.  But stepping back now as an observer, I have come to the conclusion that we must re-imagine what a Math Message can and should be.
     Last year the fourth grade teachers agreed to scrap the traditional Math Message in favor of daily estimation180 tasks, something I've blogged about repeatedly (here, here, and here for example).  Theresa and I encouraged the third grade teachers to replace their traditional Math Message once a week with estimation180 tasks, some of which were created and produced by the fourth graders.  We even got the fifth graders into the act, with tasks from the estimation180 site along with ones Theresa and I created to tie into the curriculum, including a series on volume:

volume1movie from Joe Schwartz on Vimeo.

and another starring a balance scale:

1marker from Joe Schwartz on Vimeo.

     While we were happy with the results, we felt that this year we needed to expand the repertoire.  So we've started to experiment with two new "do now" tasks in the hopes that we can add them into the Math Message rotation.  Neither are revolutionary, but we feel they represent a vast improvement over what they're replacing.
    The first is "Always, Sometimes, Never".  Here's one Rich and I tried out:

Seeing this up on the board for the kids to mull over made me happy.

     The kids got to work in their notebooks, and while they may not be so great at explaining, defending, or proving their positions yet, we do see levels of engagement, thinking, and excitement that we rarely see during the traditional Math Message.
    Many students felt it was "always", though several students did mention decimals, one brought up negative numbers, and, "Is 003 a 3-digit number?" was a question that got lots of debate.  One student even tried to rewrite the statement to make it Always True.  It was a mathematically rich and engaging 5-7 minutes, it reinforced concepts we're teaching this unit (and that we revisited during our mid-workshop interruption when we looked at the problem 8.4 - 5.73), and completely blew the doors off finding out how many days older Amy is than Bob.
     The second is to ask the kids to do some noticing and wondering.   I tried this out in second grade, when I used the technique to introduce a game.  I've encouraged teachers to use 101qs as a source of interesting pictures that can inspire kids to notice and wonder.  And it wouldn't require much work to turn this:

Into this:

  What conversations might this Math Message provoke?  What type of thinking might it inspire?  We don't need to use our imaginations.  We just need to go forth and give it a try.


  1. I do something like this in my College Mathematics class. (It's math for non-technical majors.) I call it the "Math Minute" and it's just a little something to get our brains warmed up and may or may not be directly related to that day's topic.
    For example, in one session, we tried to figure out how many ways you can arrange a deck of fifty two playing cards. This got us talking about permutations, factorials and scientific notation.
    Good sources of inspiration are Project Euler and the Numberphile channel on YouTube.

    1. I'm not sure how wide-spread this practice is, but it's Interesting to know that it's used in college. I'll check out Project Euler and Numberphile. Thanks for the suggestions and for stopping by to comment.

  2. I love the idea of turning the Math Message into a Noticing and Wondering activity! That takes that content to a whole new level, and would be way more interesting. Of course, some of the kids still won't be able to find pencils....

  3. Thanks Annie. You should also know that I'm using your Noticing and Wondering Ignite video as the basis for discussion in our school math PLC meeting later this month. My hope is to get teachers to experiment more with the Math Message. Yes, there will always be those who are pencil-less, but maybe there will be a little more motivation to find one!

  4. This is empowering our struggling learners and it is amazing to see. Where was this approach when I was in school?

  5. This post brings to light the huge issue of time. I can't help but think of how many times I wasted minutes (which quickly turn into hours) using "math-message-like" work. On average, we get about an hour of math time each day and spending 10 or so minutes on can be extremely counterproductive in the grand scheme of things.
    Meaningful Math Openers: Getting the Most Out of Every Lesson by Joe Schwartz
    Kind of has a nice ring to it, eh?

    1. You're right, all those minutes begin to add up, and valuable instructional time is lost. Thanks for the suggestion! Could be the subject of a presentation proposal, or the title of a book we could co-author.

  6. "What do you notice? What do you wonder?" is language we constantly use in reading and writing workshops. How BRILLIANT to bring the same language and thinking into the math workshop!!

    1. Thanks so much! Noticing and wondering was something I picked up from the folks over at The Math Forum. There are powerful connections we can make between math, reading, and writing for our students which can help strengthen student understanding.