Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Nobody Puts Kindergarten in the Corner!"

    If the MTBoS has a signature teaching move, it's got to be the 3-Act.  It incorporates so much of the MTBoS ethos: noticing and wondering, estimating, premium student engagement and student-directed learning, collaboration, low floors and high ceilings...a good 3-Act wraps it all up in one beautiful  package.
    Created and spread by middle and high school teachers like Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, and Kyle Pearce, until somewhat recently the pickings have been slim for us primary grade folk.
    Enter Graham Fletcher.  Graham has worked on developing 3-Acts for the elementary school set, and he hasn't neglected kindergarten.  One look at Shark Bait and I knew I had to give it a spin.  So last month, armed with some baskets of unifix cubes...

...I set off for kindergarten.

ACT 1: The Question

Seated on the carpet in the front of the room, the kindergartners engaged immediately.  I mean, aren't worms right in that 5 year old wheelhouse?    They clamored for another viewing, and another one after that.  I had them do some noticing and wondering:
  • The worm is long!
  • That worm is disgusting!
  • Why is it raining?  
  • Is that worm real?
  • I saw a really big worm once!  Bigger than that one!
and, finally, the focus question:
  • How many cubes will it take to make that worm?

I had the kids make some estimates, which got recorded on the board:

ACT 2: The Work
     I explained to the kids that I was going to give them some clues to help them figure out the answer.  In a true 3-Act, the students would need to request the information; here I decided simply  to provide it.  It was their first experience, and I did not want the task to become too overwhelming.   Here's what Graham provided for Act 2:

I showed this to their teacher several days before the lesson.  She was concerned that the kids might not be able to read all the words.  She made a suggestion...

...and Theresa  modified it by adding some color hints.  She ran off a bunch of copies and laminated them.

Their teacher and I had discussed whether or not to read it out loud.  The teacher felt the students still might have some difficulty, but I wanted to see what would happen if we just handed it out.  So I asked the kids to go back to their tables, distributed the clues, and let them have at it.

They got right to work.

There was very little problem.  The struggling readers got help from their classmates.

They compared their worms.  Some kids were a little short.

ACT 3: The Big Reveal

     The kids brought their unifix cube worms back to the carpet for the reveal:

We counted the cubes, both by ones and by fives (plus 2) and established the correct answer as 22 cubes.  The kids who had forgotten the extra oranges went back to their baskets and retrieved the missing cubes, and kids that had too many put the extras back.  Again, they insisted on viewing the video several times, and paid careful attention at the end as the worm began to extend.

ACT 4: The Sequel
     What's a 3-Act without a sequel?  For this task, I wanted the kids to draw and then measure their their own worms, using whatever combination of cubes they wished, then record the results, using whatever way made sense to them.  They dug right in!

A standard response.  This student made a worm 22 cubes long like the worm in the video.

This student made groups of 5 and included an addition number model!

This student used a different method.

Worms have segments, right?


Because he did not group like colors together, this student had a counting challenge.  Can you figure out his method?

.  My favorite worm.  It's partly underground!

 It was time for me to go, so I had the kids come back to the carpet for a final activity: a counting circle, from 1 to 22 and then backwards from 22 to 1.  To follow up, I encouraged the teacher to try having the kids order their worms from smallest to largest.

Act 5: The Reflection
   I had several thoughts looking back on the lesson:
  • The task was perfectly suited to kindergarten.  
  • I was glad that I hadn't helped them read the clues in Act 2, but that I had provided them with the color hints.
  • Maybe I should have pushed them more in Act 2 to come up with what they needed to answer the question, instead of going straight to the clues. I've admitted that my feel for kindergarten isn't all that great, although it's gotten better this year because I've spent more time there.  I think it's time to level up my expectations.  As one of our great kindergarten teachers likes to say, "Nobody puts kindergarten in the corner!"
  • I was struck by their resourcefulness.  I told their teacher that I was impressed by how well the kids spelled the color words; that I thought they would need more help.  Turns out they were copying from the clue cards, as well as from the color words that were posted on a wall in the back of the room. And I loved that there was so much diversity in the ways they used the cubes to measure, and in the way they recorded their results.
     One final reflection: The 3-Act lesson, which reflects so much of what's good about MTBoS project, has another huge selling point: its adaptability.  So while the mathematics of the task changes to reflect the competencies and standards attached to the particular grade level, the core template remains the same.  From kindergarten through high school and beyond, it's something every math teacher should have in his or her tool kit.



  1. I had no idea anyone was doing this for elementary, much less for the primary grades. Thank you so much for sharing Graham's work and how it went for you. I am ridiculously excited about the possibilities for next year!

    1. Thanks for the comment! Graham does amazing work, as do many of his colleagues in Georgia. You'll find 3-Act tasks embedded in the units for every grade level K-5 in the Georgia Frameworks:

  2. Kindergarteners are amazing mathematicians. Great idea to use the colors in the clues! And I know that they students must have enjoyed the video - they don't usually get to learn math that way!

    1. The lesson was a true collaborative effort. Of course nothing happens without Graham's video. The teacher suggested the use of the color clues, and Theresa was able to bring the idea to life by creating, printing, and then laminating the cards. The kids did all the rest!

  3. Great blog, Joe, but I am stumped about the student's counting method! Can you give me a hint?

    1. Thanks Tracy. Here's how I understood what he told me: There were 3 black cubes, so he wrote the number 3 under each black cube. 2 white cubes, so the number 2 went under each of the 2 white cubes, and so on!

  4. As always, Joe, thanks for your commitment to powerful teaching and for sharing goodness. Deeply appreciative of your clarity and resourcefulness.

  5. And a big thanks to you for your continued support and encouragement!