Sunday, September 27, 2015

Meatball Surgery

     This summer our district renewed its commitment to Everyday Mathematics, purchasing the 2015 EDM4 for all grade levels K-6.  Theresa and I have spent the past weeks helping teachers navigate their way through many of its improved features, which include: a different online platform, a revised order of units, and new manuals, assessments, games, differentiation options, and manipulatives.  So far so good.
      One morning last week I stopped by to check in on one of our grade 4 math teachers. She was busy at her back table, writing out a bunch of posters:

         She explained that she was copying over problems from the student journal:

Read these problems.  When your eyes glaze over, raise your hand.

And you thought you were done!
    It was her intention to put the kids in groups and have them spread out all over the classroom floor, an idea I supported fully.  But I had seen these problems over the summer, and didn't like them.  Wordy, dense, unengaging, and contrived were four adjectives that came to mind.  Time for some meatball surgery.

I suggested separating the question from the scenario.  Put out some post-its and ask the kids what they notice and what they wonder.  Or tell them it's a number story with the question removed and see if they can guess the question.  Just give them time to process all that information without the anxiety of having something to figure out.  
      For an opening math message, I suggested she find a picture of one of the tall buildings and do a simple notice and wonder.  Perhaps a visual and a small discussion might help set the table for some of the comprehension work that would follow.
     When I got to class later that morning, I saw this up on the SMARTBoard:

Trump Tower.  The kids had some interesting observations about its shape and composition, and were very curious about its height.
     She divided them into groups and gave them the surgically altered problems:

They noticed and wondered...
...and came up with their own questions.

When they finally received the actual assignment, most of them were ready to give it a go.

Each student in the group got a different colored pencil.  A way to make sure everyone participates.
     We stopped the kids several minutes before the end of class and gathered everyone together to take a look at some of their addition strategies under the document camera.
     Later, I went back to take a look at the manual.  This was Lesson 1-6: Guide to Solving Number Stories.  The heart of the lesson, which was slated to take 30-40 minutes, was composed of three parts...

1.  Math Message.  Instead of the Trump Tower notice and wonder, here's what the kids were asked to do:

   Read the Math Message problem on journal page 13.  Be ready to explain what you already know from the problem and what the problem wants you to find out.

(I've voiced my criticism about math messages like this.  I'll just say that many kids in the class would not even make it past the first few sentences before completely shutting down.)  After an unspecified amount of time, the teacher is instructed to move on.

2.  Using the Guide to Solving Number Stories.  Instead of giving the kids the scenarios with the questions removed and asking them to notice, wonder, and/or come up with their own questions, the teacher was to refer the students to this guide...

     ...and use these questions...

  • What do you know from reading the story?  
  • What do you want to find out?  
  • How can you find the number of stories Terrell needs to climb?  
  • What will you do first?  
  • What strategy or tool can you use?  
  • What is the unknown quantity?  
  • What number model might we write, using a letter to stand for the unknown, to represent what we want to find out?  
  • Are you finished?  Why or why not? guide a whole class discussion on the problem solving process.
     After helping the class come to a consensus regarding the correct solution to this problem, and reviewing some of the different addition strategies employed by students, the teacher is to move on to the next step.

3. Solving Multistep Number Stories.  The teacher is instructed to put the students in partnerships to complete journal pages 13 and 14.  Remember them?

page 13

page 14

     Back together as a whole class, the teacher is instructed to ask volunteers to share solutions to the problems.
     This is pretty standard stuff.  And kids need strategies to solve number stories. But it's unimaginative.  There's too much whole class, teacher-directed discussion, which means more opportunity for kids to tune out. My quick meatball surgery was intended to lower the barrier to entry to these difficult-to-access word problems, and to get the kids more involved in their own learning. It's nothing amazing or revolutionary, only the best I could do given the time that I had. The classroom teacher had good instincts.  It's only her second year teaching, and I'm confident that given a little time and some good PD she will be able to make those changes and decisions on her own.
     But it's really not a sustainable model.  Teachers, especially elementary school teachers who are responsible for teaching multiple subjects, do not always have the time to perform the kind of surgery lessons like this require.  They may not even be aware that other types of strategies, activities, and instructional practices exist.  A lesson from a curriculum interested in making math meaningful, accessible, and engaging should deliver them right to their classroom door.  Is that an unrealistic expectation?


  1. Love your thinking. Such a straight forward, go to fix, pictures, what do you notice and wonder, Have you ever seen a tall building, been to NY city? Love student generated questions. Even if they don't come up with the one you are looking for, they are more open to answering it once they can think of their own questions.
    Good job Coach!

    1. Thanks Amy! It's true, in my experience anyway, that students are more motivated to answer their own questions then the ones in the book or on the journal page. They also like answering the ones their classmates come up with. And you're left with a whole bunch of them, and they're differentiated in complexity. What's not to like?

  2. Well done Joe! Your subtle nudges and adaptations to cookie cutter curriculums are second to none.

    I don’t think your expectations are too high because districts are paying for a product under the assumption/expectation that they will meet the needs of all students. You’ve listed some great examples where curriculums fall short.
    With that being said, I believe teachers are placed in a difficult situation because they do not have the opportunity to perform meatball surgery (like you or I) and therefore teach under the mindset of “Well the district bought this program so I have to teach it”. I believe the responsibility lies on districts and school leaders. Curriculum development will not change until consumer demand changes.
    I think this is where Desmos is unique. They’re creating a product that meets many of the expectations you’ve requested. As schools and districts shift towards Desmos, so too will the market.

    1. Thanks for the comment Graham. I'm not sure how we get the consumer demand to change, at least on a scale that would impact that kind of curriculum development. One lesson at a time, one classroom at a time, one teacher at a time-that's what I focus on to not get discouraged.

    2. As a numeracy coach I am faced with this challenge all the time with teachers using the district bought curriculum. They want to teach the resource and not the standards or the kids in their classroom. It's much easier to get them to try something new with all of the great resources/ideas from Mtbos peeps. Thanks all.

    3. Thanks Jaymie. As Graham always says, "All of us are smarter than one of us." I think that there are some very small, subtle changes we can make that don't require a tremendous amount of work but that can have big impacts.

  3. Ugh, I'm posting for the first time because of the @exploreMTBoS challenge (out of my comfort zone). Anyway, thank you for this post. I keep coming back to it because I it makes modifying problems that are provided in a curriculum seem doable.
    Also, my name is Julie; I can't figure out how to comment other than anonymous.

    1. Welcome to the MTBoS and thanks for commenting, Julie! I agree, simply removing the question is a quick and easy way to make the problem more accessible. It's a small move that can have a large impact.