math challenges

One of my biggest "worries" about elementary math programs is the "fill in the blank" nature of the consumable workbooks that come rolled into the package most schools buy.  I get it.  There is a certain degree of accountability, of convenience when you have a structure for students and teachers to follow as they navigate a year-long curriculum.

My biggest complaint is that students are better at "doing a workbook" than learning math.  Know what I mean?  They learn how to do a type of problem...often there is a sample...then they do more problems like that.  They generally are pretty successful--and then a month later you ask them to do that same skill in a new context and who KNOWS if they recognize the skill or how to apply it.  Have you noticed, too, that textbooks either tend to do a separate lesson with word problems or simply put one or two at the end of each lesson?  It's like "word problems" have almost become another fill in the blank--there is no context for them...their content tends to be only marginally interesting (Do your students REALLY care that Becky bought 18 oranges?  I didn't think so.)

I think that's why I have written SO many word problems over the years--on topics and situations that I think my students can really relate to.  I still felt like something was missing. I wanted students "DOING" math, not just answering questions.  I wanted them to have to figure out what a problem was asking--a REAL world problem--and then make decisions on how to tackle it.  I wanted them to work talk about the find multiple ways to solve the problems...and even to debate with others about their solutions.  My "Thinker Tasks" were born.  I made one early this year on the topic of "Back to School Shopping"--and my students LOVED it.  It was challenging for them...but we used it to improve our communication and teamwork skills.   A few weeks later they were asking, "When do we get to do another "REAL" problem?"  I got to work. Soon we had an Amusement Park challenge...a Thanksgiving problem...Holiday Cookies...Valentine's Day...I couldn't create them fast enough for some of my students.

I have used them whole class.  For "fast finishers".  For an enrichment group.  I know I would HAVE to find a way to differentiate them if I wanted to use them whole class, so each one has differentiated components.  I knew I wanted to be able to use them to work on mathematical discourse, so I added in discussion prompts.  I knew I wanted students who were TOTALLY into it to be able to take it farther--so I added in extension projects.  I have even have some more traditional word problems included that go along with the content--but the intent of these projects are for the STUDENTS to take the lead and do the math!

I love that SOME are seasonal like my Back to School Shopping task and my Holiday Feast task...but others can be done at any time of the year.  Lots of flexibility.

Well...I finally have my next one finished--a sleepover problem!  My students had a BLAST--both boys and girls!  I think students love feeling like they have control--so spending someone else's money and organizing someone else's time gives them that power!  Anyway...I have 4 more projects started (they take me a LONG time to do...), and I can't wait for summer to have time to turn them into great projects for next year.  To celebrate its completion, I'm putting ALL the Thinker Task resources on sale today and tomorrow.  I hope you find them as worthwhile as I do.
engaging math tasks
Each task has a "Math by the Numbers" sheet which forms the foundation for the project.

math problem solving tasks
I love watching how much my students have improved on how they tackle "big" problems.  Some take notes...others make tables...a far cry from the first one where I heard, "I don't know what to do!"  I love hearing the 

Interested in checking them out?  Click the image below and it will take you to the bundle of all 7 of can find the individual ones from there!
project based learning
Want to pin it for later?  Here you go!
project based problem solving

Whether you call them guided reading groups...or book clubs...or literature circles--my guess is you have, at some point, put students in groups to read a book!

I do my book clubs differently ALL the time.  Sometimes the entire class is involved in a "round" of book clubs...we have 4-5 different clubs going at once where we may be working on a genre study or a character study or something like that.  Sometimes I have the class doing reader's workshop on their own books and may pull strategy groups...sometimes just a few work on a certain skill during part of the reader's workshop time.

Right now, I have a few students that are really struggling with comprehension and need a group--but are ALWAYS together because of their struggles.  I decided to take 3 of the students and pulled them aside and told them they were going to be in a book group and showed them the book.  I explained that I was going to offer it to the class to "fill" the rest of the slots in the group...and if they wanted to convince their friends to do it, then great!  (Just a little behind the scenes work!)

I then did a book talk with the entire class and really tried to sell the book ("No Talking" by Andrew Clements).  I made a Google form and had all the students fill out the survey to show their level of interest.

I then took the results and found the three students who showed the most interest and added them to my group.  They were all pretty excited to be a part of this special group...where they all "chose" to be in it (well...sort of).  I told them that it would primarily be a discussion group without much writing or extra work.  It was going to be all about enjoying the book and practicing our discussion skills.

I decided to use some of my "No Talking" novel study but, instead of having the students write responses in their reading notebooks, I passed out the prompts for students to use as bookmarks--and thinker questions to prepare for discussion.

I met with the group each day and we talked about two chapters.  Some days, some students jotted ideas down on the back of their "bookmarks" when they had things they didn't want to forget. We have had some GREAT discussions about competition among students and have had VERY strong opinions about what we think the characters should do!  It has been fun and relaxing and the students don't even feel like they are in class--it's a very "grown up" book club! I love that some of my strugglers were mixed right in with highly engaged readers--and the modeling of thinking was FANTASTIC.  It was a gentle reminder to me that when we consistently put students in "ability" grouped reading clubs, we may be missing some wonderful opportunities for modeling.
 Here is the resource I used for my ready-to-go discussion prompts (they are meant to be glued into notebooks for written work) and some of the other resources included in this resource.
So here's my question.  How do YOU do book clubs?  Do you switch it up or do it in a similar manner each time?  Do you have requirements in your district about how to do book clubs?  Finally, what books would YOU like to see me tackle in my next "Novel Units" resource ?  I'm curious!    Thanks for stopping by.  Interested in seeing my "No Talking" unit?  Just click the image above.  
So the other day I blogged about choosing research topics with my students--and how I worked to find out how to create research teams that would work well together--and with topics the students are passionate about.  Miss it?  CLICK HERE to take you back to it.

Because we now have topics, it's time to really dig in to the research process.  I am a huge believer in the gradual release model, so today's lesson was all about my teacher modeling, then some guided practice, and then some "Try it yourself!" time.  As we work through this project, I will be doing each step along with them on a topic I have strategically chosen--the circulatory system.  We have studied the skeletal, muscular, and digestive systems, so I thought it was a perfect way to continue our human body studies AND tie in the literacy component.  

Each of my research teams has their "big" topic (their "watermelon" topic, their "main" topic...whatever you want to call it) and we now need to start to narrow it down to something manageable--yet accessible with our print and online resources.

I started by showing them this chart.  They helped me add in the red "subtopics" and I introduced our easy evaluation system.  After we brainstormed the list, I told them we would be using our circulatory system books to decide if we could find a LOT of support/details in the resources, some, or not much at all.  This would help us decide if the topics were feasible or not.

So after talking through a few examples, we worked together to generate more research questions that fit our smaller topics.
As we did this, I pointed out that some of our questions seemed to be a little bit limiting.  I had already explained to them that our "project" was going to be a 5 slide Google presentation--so I pointed out a few of our questions.

"How much blood do we have?"

"Does our heart grow?"

I asked them--do you think we could write a 5 page slide show to show our learning about this topic?  We all agreed that--no--some questions could be answered in one word or one sentence or with a number.  We talked about how those facts might be INCLUDED in a research project but that they, alone, probably weren't research-worthy.

Our next step was to take some time to evaluate our brainstormed topics.  I had gathered all the circulatory system books in the library (and reminded them that sometimes we can find books just on the main topic, but we sometimes need to think outside the box too--I pulled books on the circulatory system but also found the heart, blood, and even just "human body" books because I knew that the circulatory system would be  part of that bigger book), pulled our the old science textbooks, found an article, and then I reviewed with the students how to "skim".  I modeled how I would skim through the resources using our brainstormed topics as a "lens"--and our goal was to see if we thought our resources could help us learn about those topics.  I reminded them that there ARE other resources we could use...websites, encyclopedia, and so on--but that we would use our print resources to give us a feel about whether or not our topic would be solid.

 After spending some time looking at the resources, we came back as a large group and discussed whether or not each topic seemed to have sufficient information to help us create quality projects.  We had some great discussions!
So, after going through these steps with them, I then sent them off to work with their research teams to try it together with THEIR topics!  First, they made webs and generated lists of questions.  After that, we grabbed our tubs of books (we had gone to the library earlier that day to use the online catalog to check out all the books we could to help us!), and practiced skimming to find the topics and to assign them their "grade"!  By the time we finished, groups had  pretty good idea of which topics would work--and which probably would not.  I loved being able to hear the language that I had modeled in our "shared" task being used as they worked with their teams.
The students are SUPER excited to have gotten started with the process--and I am confident that the gradual release model is THE best way to help students navigate these complex tasks step by step.  Stay tuned for updates!

Today's "bright ideas" post is the result of me digging for a stamp in my mess of a desk drawer and finding this roll of Post-it correction tape--AKA "Boo boo" tape.  I have used this in the past to fix anchor chart errors and other crimes against displayed work needing a bit more than white out.  I left it out on my desk and thought, "I should really use this for something."
 And so I did!  I started using it for all sorts of things!  I left a student a note in their assignment book on a piece--I'm always afraid post it notes will fall off and get lost.  It worked perfectly!  I used it when a student needed to know the call number of a book to get from the library--I wrote it right on a piece and stuck it to the library pass.  My FAVORITE use over the last week or so (since my archaeological dig) was when I was working with some context clue task cards with a few intervention kiddos.  I really wanted them to not just pay attention to the "mystery word", but to think about what TYPE of word could fit in the space.
After the students had brainstormed words that COULD fit, I let them peel off the boo boo tape to see what the word actually WAS.  They seemed to like this more interactive way to check their work.
Tried to get a picture of the student PEELING the tape off...but those were all blurry.  Here is my closest shot--POINTING at the tape!
I started to think about other ways to use the tape...covering up answers on other types of problems, covering a second direction that you don't want students to see right away, or even as a sort of using pieces with different consonant blends to stick in front of phonemes to make new words.  

Anyhoo..thought you might have a roll or two in YOUR drawer as well--and maybe you have some other ideas!  Chime in below if YOU have creative ways to use correction tape in YOUR classroom!

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Don't forget to check out all the other "Bright Ideas" posts listed below.  If you see something you like, please leave a comment.  We bloggers LOVE to hear from you!

We are getting ready to start our next big literacy unit--more work with research and text structures.  Our curriculum suggests that this unit center around topics we have studied this year--where students learn to ask deeper questions and take the topic in new directions or infuse a new "slant" or perspective on the topic.

Each year I do this a little bit differently in my quest to be efficient and really make the learning experience meaningful for the students.  I thought I'd share with you today how we worked to generate our list of topics in case you might like to try something similar down the road.

First of all, I have to say--I LOVE doing team research.  I am a huge believer in having students work together at all stages of the writing process.  Let's be honest--there are 25 of them and only one of me!  The more they can collaborate and truly learn to support each other, the more feedback they get and the better their product.  That being said, each student DEFINITELY does their own work.  In fact, if there is a research team of 3 working on "lightning", their end products will definitely each have their own 'slant" or focus.  One student may end up focusing more on the science of electricity and lightning...another may focus on the dangers of get the drift.  They share resources, they read together, they practice taking notes together, they make suggestions to each other, revise and edit with each other, and truly serve as "experts" on the topic.  I started doing research this way four or five years ago and I'll never go back.  I love NOT having 25 topics to worry about...I can meet with small groups and be FAR more effective with my conferring.  This year I ended up with 11 groups--I was hoping for 8 but it just didn't work out.  

Want to see more of what I did to get our topics?  Check out the photos below.
 The students were getting pretty excited about just THESE topics, so we took some time and make a list of all the different science and social studies topics we have covered this was fun to watch them remember things from way back in the fall.  "Oh YEEEEEAH!  I remember that NOW!"

I explained that it was time for them to try narrowing down those topics and finding new "slants" to take--in other words, related topics that students might really enjoy studying.  I sent them off in pairs and trios and assigned each group ONE topic.  They made a bullet pointed list in their writer's notebook and then, after about 15 minutes, we came back together for me to record their thinking on the class chart.
 We had some great discussions about what might make a good topic, what might make a topic tricky (ex. Are there a lot of resources out there that talk about the first explorers in Wisconsin?  Probably just our old Wisconsin text books...not much fun for researching!)  I recorded most decent ideas on the chart and then I got to work.

Once I had accomplished this, it was time to find out which students were interested in which topic--so I made a Google form to collect some information.  We had a LOT of topics, so it took a while for students to read and rank each one.
 I knew I had a few hours of work ahead of me that night--and I was right.  
It took a while to really make teams I thought would work well together and had topics they were truly interested in learning more about...but I think I did it!  I shared the research topics with the students yesterday and told them their teams and they were REALLY excited.  
Next steps?  Generating lists of questions about their topic.  Stay tuned!
Yep...still on vacation--but you can still check out a few blog posts from the past!  I thought today I would share one of the most popular fraction posts from that series of 16 posts that led to my major fraction unit.  Interested in this one?   There are 15 more!  Click HERE to read it.

Want the resource that came from it?  Click the image below...

I'm on vacation!

That's blogging.  No working.  I hate to have my little blog sit empty all that time, so a few times this week, I'm going to feature a "Blast from the past" post--either a resource you might want to check out, a lesson idea, or some other inspiration!

Today's post is about a book that you might want to consider if you are trying to move to a more workshop-like model.  Check it out!  Just click the image below to take you to the old post.

Linking up again with the infamous Farley over at...

As always, I love reading her post about what is going on in her life and classroom--and then sitting back and enjoying some of the great other linked up posts!  

Today I am now on Spring Break!  It is a much needed mental break...but man, I would like to find the person who created "Clash of Clans" and have them spend some time with my fourth graders--unsupervised!  GRRRR

As I think about the next few months of school, I know I need to set some organizational goals--both for my classroom, my files, my home, my EVERYTHING.  This is the time of year when I feel the wheels come off and I am riding downhill without any breaks.  Piles are everywhere and I feel scattered.  Not a fan of that AT. ALL.
I had to mention will power twice in my pathetic hope that speaking it (ok...typing it) more often will help it magically sleeping with a calculus book under your pillow before an exam.  Or was that M&M's...can't remember.

Finally--my name.  As long as I have been teaching, I have been a HUGE believer in constructivist learning...I have always wanted my students to be free to express themselves, to look at things differently, and to be willing to take creative risks.  When I decided to jump into this blogging thing, the concept of the "art" of teaching kept surfacing...and "The Teacher Studio" was born.  It's been a wild and crazy ride.  Thanks for stopping by...and make sure to click on Farley's logo above to see all the other great posts!  

It's the first Wednesday of April which means it's time for our monthly linky - Math IS Real Life!! If you want to see how the linky works, or just want other real world math ideas, check out our Pinterest Board of all the posts so that you can look back and find some great ideas and REAL pictures to use in your classroom!
If you are linking up, please include the below picture AND a link back to all four of our blogs - feel free to use the 2nd image and the links listed below!


A monthly REAL WORLD math blog link-up hosted by
Sometimes the best "Real world" math is simply an awareness of the magnitude of math!  This was especially true a few weeks ago when we took my son to California to tour a few colleges.  When a friend of mine learned that we were headed to San Francisco, she said, "You HAVE to go to Muir Woods!".  We took her advice and we spent several hours exploring the wonder of some "nature math'!

We were not only amazed by the numbers we saw...but the idea of  "perspective"--and how comparing huge objects to "known" objects helps you understand the true value of the number.  Here are some pics from our visit.

We started by doing a little reading once we first got into the park to see exactly what we were dealing with. Wow.  That's all I can say.  Wow.

So we were faced with the decision of just snooping around or about going on one the official trail hikes.  How bad could a 2 mile hike through the woods be?  UMMMM...the entire trip was up and down canyon walls...stepping over roots, etc.  My arthritic knees were killing me!  So...mathematically speaking, does 2 miles always equal 2 miles? NO!  Not when one mile is completely uphill and the other is completely downhill!  
As we navigated through our hike, we just kept finding example after example of seeing the relative scale of objects.  YIKES!
As we got deeper into our hike, the views were just amazing, and it didn't take long to be able to visualize the HUGE numbers we had read about earlier...I mean, 40 foot diameter?  I am good at estimating 40 feet--it's the length of a gymnastics floor exercise mat...but a TREE with a diameter that size?  Mind boggling.

So...after spending hours being awe-struck by these magnificent beasts, we continued on our way for our tour of Stanford.  We walked. We walked some more.  Then we walked some more.  At the end of the day, we were exhausted--and this final picture shows yet another LARGE new Fitbit steps record!  We even put some more steps on after this was taken.  No wonder we were tired!

Don't forget to check out the other MIRL posts below! Check back over the next few days - more will be added!!