Musings and Strategies From the Teachers Next Door

STEM from Stories!

April and I are so excited to bring together our love of all things STEM with fiction literature! Toward the end of last year, we went searching for lessons or ideas that bridged fiction with STEM. It was really hard to find! In fact, we didn’t find much. It was disheartening to think that problems with which fictional characters are faced would be irrelevant to the children who were engaged in reading the story. If it was irrelevant, why would children begin to think of how such a problem could be solved?

So we began a mission….piquing students’ curiosity about problems with which their favorite characters were faced. When students become curious, they become expert problem solvers. When students own the problem, or can relate to it, they have “bought in” to finding a solution. The very first experience I had with this process was back when we read The Wishing Spell and constructed a map as a means to help the main characters make their way through a foreign land. We found that not only did the students become engaged in creating and engineering a map, they began to comprehend the text! They not only had mapped their way through the Land of Stories, but they mapped their way through the book. They were curious about new words, new concepts, and began to use evidence from the text without even being prompted. You see, when you care about something or someone (fictional or real), you begin to know them and they become a part of your conversation.

This was a HUGE discovery for us! We didn’t have to ask the questions! They asked their own! (If we’re being honest, they were better at posing questions). So April and I have spent most of our free time finding books that will help students of all ages become better problem solvers; from the very young to the very old. Lessons can be adapted to most any age. In many ways, we connect these lessons with the technique with which we teach math. Use the tools that are available to create solutions to what sometimes may be very complex problems.

For the next 24 hours, you can download our Design Brief for The Wishing Spell.  It’s our gift to you.


It’s GAME time!

What better way to celebrate a weekend and family than to engage in a friendly battle of Wits and Wagers. Have you played it? It is a completely awesome game that challenges players to estimate answers to different questions. Then, after everyone has made an estimate, you have a chance to place your bets on the estimate that seems closest to the answer. The thing that I love about this game (aside from the absolute awesomeness of everyone putting into practice their powers of number sense) is that everyone is on equal ground. Talk about a low entry point. That makes it perfect for the whole family! Even if the youngest family member is 5. Or 6 in my case. And as in my case, those young ones can win! Big time! I love the togetherness that games within families create and I love them even more when we sharpen our math skills while we have fun.

So that night of family fun and this post by GFletchy got me really thinking about the mathematical value of games. I love that Graham went into a classroom and literally turned the teaching upside down! I don’t teach lower grades, so I don’t have one of those 0-99 charts, but if I did, you can bet that I would turn it upside down come Monday. Milton Bradley, I bet, was onto this technique. Take a look at the game boards:chutes-and-ladders-1 orenstein_Candyland-1980s

Even Candy Land, though it has no numbers, kids start counting from the bottom. They win when they reach the top. They make gains as they move towards the top. Maybe it’s time to break these goodies out in class!

Kudos to Graham for giving this a try! I see the look and use of the 0-99 chart doing a 180!

But what are the KEYWORDS?




My team collab teacher was absent the other day. In her place was an older man whom I had never met. He was quite friendly and immediately introduced himself and was very quick to ensure that I understood that he was a retired teacher. Had been a teacher for 30 years and that he was there to help. Awesome! I was truly excited to have such a seasoned educator come in and contribute to the class.

At the time of the initial meeting, the students were in rotation (their specials classes). As they returned and entered the classroom, they fell right into their bell work. On this particular day, there was a story problem dealing with decimals that they needed to work through. They have been instructed on the procedure for these questions, so all of them are very familiar with the overly repeated chant of, “We make sense of problems and persevere in solving them!”

After some time of the students having been busily engaged the entire time, knowing that they are never finished and there is always another way to solve a problem, we began to discuss our solutions. This is the part of class that I love because we listen to one another, we are able to ask questions of one another or comment on work that we really like. It is our practice time of SMP #3 (construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others).

As we are discussing, the well seasoned substitute cuts in and asks, “But what are the KEYWORDS that told you to solve the problem that way?”


All eyes were on me. Pleading with me to bail them out. Questioning why we were looking for keywords. Asking why we don’t have those words posted? SCREAMING to me…KEYWORDS?! You never taught us KEYWORDS!!!

I just smiled. And restated his question in more familiar terms, which of course redirected them to explain how they made sense of the problem.

I am certain the substitute was aggravated that I wouldn’t just make it simple for them and teach them the keywords to look for. Well….I will never again teach keywords. I did in the past, and it didn’t take long to realize that keywords get confusing.  Keywords, as well as “rules”, often have expiration dates.

Here is a great article that lists 13 of these rules.  Interestingly enough,  keywords made the list…  number 2, actually.

What rules should be added to the list?

Little Debbie Delirium

A friend of mine posted this picture online and he was so thrilled at the loot he picked up at the Little Debbie discount store. I immediately saw an opportunity!!


Standards:  5. NBT.5,  5.NBT.7

ACT 1: Look at the picture. What do you notice? What do you question?


Possible questions:

How much was all of that?

How many cakes are there?

How many calories would that be?

*There are lots of additional questions that could be asked, but for fifth graders, these are the questions on which I would focus.

Have students estimate the answer to their question. Write your estimate. Write one that is too high and one that is too low.



Included in Little Debbie Loot:

24 boxes Swiss Cake Rolls at $2.50/box

6 big boxes of Oatmeal Cream Pies at $1.99/box

6 boxes of Banana Pudding Rolls at $1.50/box

10 boxes of Devil Cream at $1.50/box

1 box of Fudge Rounds at $1.50/box

2 boxes of Cupcakes at $1.30/box


Little Debbie Info



Have students present their solution. This is a great place to have students practice SMP #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

Do not skip Act 3 even if you think you do not have enough time! The bulk of learning and understanding takes place in ACT 3!



Have fun with this one! We would love to hear your experiences with this!


It’s True! Math Makes Sense!

I had been losing sleep. I had been wracking my brain. I kept coming up with NOTHING.

Even the shower, which is normally where I do my very best brainstorming, was not helping me with this ever perplexing problem.

How in the WORLD am I going to help my students understand division??

Oh, I had tried all the strategies I could think of. I had tried manipulatives, acting it out, actually having the students divide anything I could think of to try to help them “get it”. And they did. For about a minute or until they spotted a double digit divisor and then it was as if the concept of dividing had morphed into a calculus problem. I had a problem. And it was pretty huge. We work a lot with division in fifth grade.

And then….a life line. I hadn’t asked. It just appeared as if out of nowhere and at EXACTLY the right moment. Graham Fletcher came through with this post. What I love about this post is that now I have been introduced to Joe Schwartz and Nicora Placa. Two more awesome educators who share some really awesome ideas, strategies, and experiences aimed at helping elementary students grow into great thinkers, problem solvers, DIVIDERS. I’m pretty sure that isn’t a word, but who cares?? Do you know what they shared? This treasure!!!!

My small groups this week underwent a division intervention. As we went through the lesson, and we’re folding strips of paper, making quotients, and subtracting, inevitably, in EVERY group I heard a collective, “AAAAHHHH!” It was a gasp. The room got a little brighter. They UNDERSTOOD!!! One of my students said, “Oh. So THAT is why you subtract!”

One of my students who has struggled to understand math probably most of her elementary years, was in one of my groups. She diligently went to work. She was very quiet the first day, not sharing much, but always busy. She worked hard. The next day, as we went to groups, I met with those students again. This day was quite different from the previous day. The girl who had struggled, was now the teacher. She took over the group and taught division as if she had been born dividing.

Now THAT is an awesome week! I love it when my kids take over and teach one another! I love it when educators come together and share! So a huge shout of thanks goes to these awesome collaborators. Math really DOES make sense!


The Wizard of Oz

3 Act Task

CCGPS1.NBT.1-6, Standards of Mathematical Practice 1-8

ACT 1:

Ask Students:  What do you notice from the video?  Write down students’ observations.

What do you wonder?  Write down responses.

Ideally, you want to guide your students into identifying the problem themselves.  Make sure you validate ALL responses, no matter how silly they seem to you.  We like to write all responses down, on the board, on chart paper, it doesn’t matter where, it just matters that all students feel heard.  For true learning to take place, students must feel safe which means they are free to take risks, free to fail, and free to share.  The beauty of beginning a task this way is that every student has noticed something, which means ALL students have an entry point into the discussion.  All good tasks begin with an entry point for ALL students, not just a few.

Possible questions:  (Be prepared to have students ask ridiculous questions!   Acknowledge and validate all questions, but suggest that we put some questions in a parking lot since we can’t figure out those answers from the clip….and some would require speaking to the Tin Man himself 🙂 )

  • How much oil does it take to limber up the Tin Man?
  • Why are they using oil?
  • Where are they putting the oil?
  • How many squirts did they use? *** (This is the question on which we chose to focus.)
  • How many joints he have?

Have students make an estimate of how many squirts of oil Dorothy and the Scarecrow will use on the Tin Man.  Have them make an estimate that they know is too low and another that they know is too high.  Place these numbers on a number line.  Then have students estimate where they think the actual number of squirts would be on the number and discuss the reasonableness of their answers (SMP 6).

Act 2:


Give the students this picture, or pull this up on your interactive white board and ask, “How many joints are there on the Tin Man?” We came up with 14, but don’t feel like you are limited.  This is a great way to differentiate based on your class.  You could get very detailed and include finger joints, or you could keep it to 10 and only deal with multiples of 10.

Now you need to decide how many squirts you heard on the video for each joint.  At times, we heard 2 and other times we heard 3 squirts per joint.  Have your students decide what they heard and be ok with different groups having different estimates for the number of squirts per joint.

Ask:  Now that you know how many squirts Dorothy and the Scarecrow used on each joint and the number of joints the Tin Man has, figure out how many squirts they used on the Tin Man?

Act 3:

This is the reveal.  DO NOT SKIP IT!!! No matter how little time you think you have, do not skip this step!  This is where the real learning begins.  Have students share their answers and their thought process (how they got their answer).  Using your teacher superpowers, help students evaluate their work, learn from their mistakes, and critique the work of others. (SMP 3)

One idea we have found helpful is to post students’ work around the room and allow time to comment together – what we like, how we could improve our answer, and finally compare our work with others.


     One of the changes I have decided to make this year in my math classroom, along with probably most of Georgia’s math teachers, is to really help students think through problems so as to be articulate with their thought process. Yes, this decision was SOMEWHAT inspired by the new Georgia Milestones assessment, but not entirely.

I have already been quite vocal about my passion for the 8 SMPs. Focusing on these has revolutionized my classroom. No one ever says they are done! EVER!  We received a new student last week from a county just outside of Atlanta. He is extremely bright! He began class by answering my bell work using just a number. That was it. Nothing else. And there he sat. The students seated nearby took one look at that and audibly gasped. It caught my attention. When I inquired the group as to the problem, the students quickly pointed out that “the answer isn’t good enough!” Inwardly, I smiled as I walked on. I didn’t have to say a word. My students understand that there is more to a correct answer than the number. They also understand that they are never done.

This knowledge, mantra, whatever you want to call it, came about because from day 1, we have talked about the 5 Finger Method of problem solving. I owe a huge amount of thanks to both Mike Wiernicki and Turtle Toms for their hand drawn rubric that I found in Mike’s virtual filing cabinet. I discovered,over the course of the first week, that when presented as it was, my elementary kids had a very hard time recalling all that they needed to include in constructed response questions. So, I made it a little simpler. But the premise is the same. I love that by starting with a “What I know” and a “What I need to Know” Tree Map, students of all levels know where to begin which provides an entry point for all learners.

My absolute favorite portion of the rubric is the “connections”. In my classroom this is where they connect the problem to other math by using the inverse operation and checking, but it can also mean “make a connection between the math you used here and your home or community”…it is SO fun to watch the students make those connections.

So, as a thanks to both Mike and Turtle, and in an effort to pay it forward, here is a 5 Finger Method pack. It includes the visual, a teacher rubric (for grading purposes), and a student rubric (in an easy to understand format for grades 3-5).

While there are other methods to solving constructed response math questions, such as “ACE”…my opinion is that you can “ACE” a constructed math question but yet fail to make connections and ultimately bomb on those standarized tests that require a constructed response.

I hope you find this to be as helpful in your room as I have found it to be in mine! Happy Labor Day!

Five Finger Rubric Slides

Exploring the MathTwitterBlogosphere

Fun missions & prompts, Always ready! Blogging initiation starts Jan 2017

Math Exchanges

Kassia Omohundro Wedekind

Number Strings

a community for number string design

Bridging The Gap

Connecting Research and Practice in Education

Math Minds

In Math, the Journey IS the Destination.

emergent math

A search for math pedagogy

Questioning My Metacognition

Trying to be a better teacher

Ramblings of a Gifted Teacher

Ramblings from a Veteran Gifted Education Teacher to Teachers, Parents, and Advocates

Talking Math with Your Kids

Because children enjoy using their minds

Under the Dome

Thoughts about Teaching


Rethinking the modern American classroom

The Blog

The latest news on and the WordPress community.

Denise Gaskins' Let's Play Math

Helping families to learn and enjoy math together.

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging

%d bloggers like this: