Saturday, October 24, 2015

This One's For Robert

        Robert Kaplinsky is one of my MTBoS role models.  He is the creative force behind the wonderful collection of problem-based lessons found at Glenrock Consulting, a thoughtful and provocative blogger, and the co-founder, along with Nanette Johnson, of one of the quintessential MTBoS sites: Open Middle.  His lessons have inspired some of our most successful projects, including highway signs and movie theater, among others.
     So it was a thrill for me to finally get to meet him at TMC '15.  I was excited to tell him about another one of his ideas that had sparked a lesson so successful it had even our most math-averse students plugging away for days.
    "Thanks for blogging about it," he said.  I was confused.  This was one that had escaped a blog post.
    "But I didn't..." I started, and stopped when I saw his face and realized he was being sarcastic.  I admit I'm a little slow on the uptake.
     Well, we did the project again last week, and it's not going to get away this time.

     What became known to us as "The McDonald's Project" started with this tweet last September:

     I loved the video, and Theresa and I immediately started thinking about how we could use the idea.  After some false starts, here's what we came up with:
  • A list of foods would be provided, and the kids would be challenged to put together combinations to equal 1,500 calories (2,000 being the adult requirement.)
  • Since we knew most kids liked to eat at McDonald's, we decided to limit the food selection to items on the McDonald's menu.
  • We'd use the project in fourth grade, where the kids were working on multi-digit addition.
     Our first hurdle came when we printed out the list of nutrition facts for McDonald's menu items:

The PDF ran 27 pages and contained well over 400 items, with information ranging from the % daily value of vitamin A to total grams of fat.  It was overwhelming.

      The list would need to be whittled down.  Our first idea was to pick out the most familiar items.  But that's not very Danielson, is it?  Why not survey the kids, and see what they like to eat at McDonald's?

Here's the final list.  We added in a few items for balance.  And I know Coca-Cola is misspelled.  That one slipped by the editors.

  What happened next may have been the most important part of the lesson.  Before even explaining the directions, the teacher distributed this sheet...

...and asked the kids to do some noticing and wondering.

    During the discussion that followed, the wondering overwhelmed the noticing because the teacher did something very smart: she left out any units or labels.  So the kids were left with a very pressing question:  What did those numbers mean?
     The first volunteer offered price.  But there was no decimal point or dollar sign!  The class agreed it was unreasonable for a Big Mac to cost $540.00, but certainly $5.40 seemed about right.  Did the teacher leave out the decimal point on purpose?  One student thought the numbers might stand for the amount sold in a year or a month.  Another thought the numbers could stand for the amount left over at the end of a day.  Many students offered their opinion that the numbers stood for calories.  And although they weren't quite sure exactly what a calorie was, they did know that healthier foods, like apple slices and side salads, would have less of them than vanilla shakes and french fries, a wonderful application of inferencing skills that would have made their reading teachers very proud.  Listening to their thoughts as they tried to puzzle this out was fascinating.  It reminded me of this wonderful Graham Fletcher activity, and I made a mental note to try to do more of what Graham calls "undressing tables".
     The class agreed that calories did make the most sense, and after a very brief detour into the world of nutrition, they were asked this question: How many calories does a fourth grader need every day?  We got answers ranging from 1 to 30,000.  We didn't wait long to tell them the recommended daily amount and get them working on the project.

We put them in pairs and gave each a different colored pencil.

There was a lot of trial and error...

...along with a lot of addition.
The engagement level was high.

   We wrapped up the lesson by gathering the kids together and asking for strategies.  Many had started with the largest calorie items like the Big Mac and milk shakes, gotten as close to 1,500 calories, and tried to fill in from there.  It was again interesting to listen to their observations about the foods and their calories; for example they were intrigued by the 30 calorie difference between the chocolate and vanilla shakes.
   The kids revisited the project in the following days, which gave me time to prepare an extension:

Some found this difficult, and needed more direct help from the teacher.  But they plowed ahead with gusto:


     And this work left me with material to work out a problem set:

Here are some of the problems I was able to generate by removing an item from each equation.  I also added the name of the child who had created the original problem in the margin. 

   I'm sure there's a lot more gold we get out of this task, and Robert has great ideas for using the calorie lesson with middle school students over at his site.

     So thanks, Robert, for your inspiration, encouragement and polite but firm way of pushing me to think and work outside my comfort zone.  Looking forward to more collaboration, and to connecting with you again at TMC '16!


  1. What a wonderful post to read. Thank you so much for this! I have a few thoughts to share:

    First, I LOVE your take on the video. While it grew from the same inspiration, it is truly a different lesson that many teachers would love to use. The way it was rolled out so reminds me of some things I recently heard from Dan Meyer where he talks about turning up the math dial to increase engagement. Think about how much differently the lesson would have gone if it was presented as a word problem that said something like this. "Find foods you can eat for 1500 calories or less." Students would have complied but not found it nearly as engaging.

    Second, I guess my next push for you would be to start encapsulating these great ideas on a lessons page so people can easily find them. That way you can list the standards used and some of the handouts and save the next teacher time. When you find time for it, let me know so I can publicize it and add it to the problem-based lesson search engine.

    Third, realize that this is much like when someone starts a chain reaction at a Starbucks drive through and buys a coffee for the person behind him or her. That person buys for the next person and so on. Sometimes these lines go on for over 400 people. Where I am going with this is that while I greatly appreciate your kind words, people like Dan, Fawn, and Andrew did the same thing for me. You may not be thinking about it but you are actively doing the same thing for future MTBoS members: you are inspiring them through your sincerity and hard work. Plus, I am certain when you see educators with amazing ideas to share who are just missing an audience, you will go out of your way to help them too.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write this up. It was fun reading.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Robert. One of the great things about the MTBoS is that you can tweet out something like that video clip, and others can take it and find inspiration.
      I know that I should get things on my blog better organized and accessible ; you're not the first to make that suggestion. I need to make the time to do that.
      I also know that I am now part of that "Starbucks line". I'm proud and honored to be in that line with you and everyone else in this amazing community.

  2. I love this idea. Thanks for also sharing Graham Fletcher's Undressing Tables. Robert is right, your work is inspiring to me. I shared some of your stuff during an Ignite talk at an EdCamp. Are the PDFs from this activity available to the public?
    Thanks for all that you do.

  3. Thanks Matthew! I'm glad you're able to find some of what I do useful and inspiring. Making files available is clearly something I need to take the time to figure out how to do. I promise I'll get to work on that. For this activity, the list of McDonald's foods will depend on what your class likes to eat. Here's the link to the nutrition pdf...
    ...which I should have embedded in the post. If you try this out, let me know how it goes.

  4. Joe, Thanks for this work. My third graders are working with addition and subtraction with larger numbers so you put this out at the perfect time for me. I'll write up the way I used it but wanted to let you know I love the way you used Fletcher's ideas about stripping the data. I pulled info from this site I chose to use the Fruit and Snacks categories to get started. We had a very similar conversation about what the numbers meant: price? amount in stock? But then I have a kid whose mom is a nutritionist and he asked "Could these be calories?" From there I had them find ways to equivalent amounts of snacks and fruit. Great stuff and thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Mark. I like how you took the idea and made it your own, and used it to suit the needs of your class. Graham's idea about stripping data from tables is very powerful. I know that I need to encourage teachers in my school to use it on a more regular basis.

  6. Joe, thank you for sharing your ideas! As a principal, I rarely get to apply these sorts of lessons with kids, but I shared this activity at our staff professional development this week and had a great time watching teachers wrestle with it! The "what do you notice, what do you wonder" construct was new to them, but it really resonated. And they loved the way the undressed table required them to make sense of the problem and persevere in solving it. As we shared out strategies for creating a 1500 calorie equation, we were able to incorporate and model number talks strategies, and celebrate the many correct ways there were to approach the problem.
    A couple of my favorite moments: 1)In the "wonder" phase, one teacher hypothesized that the number represented the percentage markup for each food item. 2)My kinder team decided the numbers were too large to work for their students, but they thought using Weight Watchers points would give kids the right kind of practice!
    Again, thanks for putting your work out there. We all get better as we learn and grow from and with each other. I've shared your blog with my staff, and I won't be surprised if I see more adaptations of your lesson ideas in our classrooms. And hopefully your Starbucks example will help to encourage them to publish their own fabulous ideas, strategies, and experiments.

    1. Molly,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know how your staff reacted to the activity. I especially love how your kindergarten teachers were thinking of ways to adapt the task for their kids. And actually finding out how much the food is marked up would be a great task for middle school kids.
      It's true we all get better as we learn from each other. "All of us are smarter than one of us," is what Graham Fletcher always says. Please continue to share and encourage your teachers to add their voices and ideas into the mix.