Better Questions

The best compliment I have ever received came from a student at the end of my first year of teaching. (Yes, my first year, when I was naive, clueless and a general mess of a human being and teacher.) I had a student named Emma. She was one of those rare students who enjoyed thinking deeply about mathematics. She was never satisfied with a procedure. She wanted to know why and how. She often stayed after class just to talk about a math problem we had done in class. At the end of our year together, she approached me in her quiet, always thoughtful manner and said, “Ms. Lee, I really liked having you as a teacher because you asked me really good questions. You asked me questions that really made me think about math.” Cue, Ms. Lee, standing still, mouth agape, speechless. She will never understand the compliment she paid me, the late nights I stayed up that first year just thinking about questions–what would I ask them, how would I ask them? If they came up with this strategy or got stuck here, what would I ask them to move them forward or connect back?

All of this is to say, I take questioning seriously. I think it’s vitally important to getting kids to reason, critique, and problem solve. Never say anything a kid can say. Ask them a question. Make them say it instead. I have two question moments to share from this school year:

  1. The question I’m always trying to get better at asking:

What does it mean to be proportional?

Proportionality if the central concept of 7th grade math in Minnesota. Every year I teach proportional reasoning strategies-unit rates, scale factors, scaling ratios, setting ratios equal to each other, etc-but every year I feel like students never quite get a good clear grasp of what it means for two quantities to be proportional to each other. This year, I tried to be more deliberate in my attempt to tie proportionality to fairness. I came up with a unit question, “How can proportional relationships help us make decisions about how resources should be distributed?” This helped me in planning the questions/problems I asked students to work on and helped ground the complexities of proportionality in something 7th graders are always keen to argue about, fairness. One problem that finally got them to reason, think and question fairness while using their proportional reasoning strategies came when I asked this warm-up question:Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 12.09.24 PM.pngSome students were hell-bent on 20/20. Other students had a gut-feeling that this wasn’t fair because there were more girls. Students who found unit rates (questions per gender) were finally able to shed some viable proof on why the 20/20 plan wasn’t fair. They were using math to construct arguments and their arguments were grounded in the concept of proportionality. My only regret, this question came at the end of the unit. I need to give them more questions like this throughout the unit that make them wrestle with fairness by using their proportional reasoning strategies.

2. The question I’m still searching for:

My friend tells me he was born on Thanksgiving Day, November 28. Instantly my noticing/wondering wheels start spinning. I wanted to know how often since then his birthday has fallen on Thanksgiving.  At first, I thought maybe every 6 or 7 years, depending on leap year. The actual answer? So incredibly more fascinating than I could have ever hoped for. I’m left with more noticings and wonderings than when I started. In fact, I have so many questions now that I don’t know what exactly I would ask students.


What do I ask students?

What if he was born Nov. 27, 1990? Would his birthday repeat in the same pattern? How does the timing of Leap Year effect the pattern? What are all of the possible dates that Thanksgiving can fall on? Do they all repeat in the same pattern?

Any suggestions here would be greatly appreciated!



My Favorite

I have so many “favorites” when it comes to why I teach and what happens in my classroom everyday. Here just a couple:

  • My favorite way to stay organized: Notability. I hate paper. I lose paper within minutes of first being handed it. Notability helps keep all of my papers organized in a place where I will be able to find those papers weeks and even years later. I use Notability to store and organize notes that I take at workshops, articles I find, answer keys, and student worksheets. My students are 1:1 with iPads, so I also have them using Notability to do all their note-taking. They groan at first, but then realize how incredibly organized it keeps them since they don’t have to keep track of papers.
  • My favorite part during a math lesson: The few times I get students to challenge and question each other. It’s the space between the right answer and the wrong answer. The space where a student either knows something doesn’t make sense and asks a question or he/she knows it does make sense but wants to know why.
  • My favorite part about teaching junior high students: When you finally figure out what makes a kid tick. That kid that’s been challenging for me all year. He/she is unorganized, disruptive, and unreceptive to any help or feedback until that moment when I figure out how exactly he/she wants me to relate to him/her.


Is this how my students feel?

A concept has been explained to them multiple times, from multiple different angles. At a very basic level, they get it. They practice it in low stakes situations where they get reinforcement and encouragement, but every time they get their test back, Fail. They fail over and over again. They try, and try again, but it never seems to pay off. Why can’t I get this? Frustration sinks in, hope fades, they give up.

I’ve always been a quick learner. If I don’t get something, I go home; I research; I practice until I get it right. I don’t like to make mistakes, but I’ve learned they are inevitable and invaluable, so I tell myself to embrace them–make them make lots of them, but make sure you learn from them. Don’t make the same mistake twice. Enter my fourth block class. For nearly 90 days, I’ve tried and tried and failed. Everyday I fail. The basics and fundamentals of managing student behavior have been explained to me multiple ways from multiple people from multiple different angles. I’ve read blogs, attended conferences, listened ardently to the advice of colleagues. I get it; fundamentally I get it–If I have to redirect a kid more than twice, it’s no longer the student who is an issue, it’s me; follow-through on expectations and consequences; replace 3 minutes of math time with non-math time; give them brain breaks. When it comes to game time, though, I fail every single day. I lay out expectations at the beginning of class and don’t follow through on them. I redirect a kid over and over and then give up. I let kids argue with me, “It wasn’t me talking, Ms. Lee. Why are you always singling me out?” Is this how my struggling students feel? They practice. They tell themselves this time is going to be different, but then it isn’t. I get it. Give up. For three years, I’ve been telling myself that this year, this time it’s going to be different, but it isn’t. I walk from my classroom to my office with my head hung low. I know that I have failed the 80% of the class who show up to learn,  who do what I expect every day.

I’m a mathematician, a problem-solver, but I don’t know how to move forward. For the first time in my teaching career, I don’t want to go to school tomorrow. I don’t want to face that fourth block, that block with whom I have earned neither integrity nor respect. How do I move forward? I’m starting to become that student I struggle to teach the most.

But Explore MTBoS asked me to take a crappy day and notice the good, so here are three shiny starts I can pull out of my Wednesday:

  1. I hooked my 8th graders into thinking a boring stamp investigation was pretty interesting after talking about the rare 1856 British Guiana 1-cent stamp that sold for $9.5 million at auction in 2014. They came up with the growth factor/growth rate connection seamlessly.
  2. Both of my 7th grade classes (including the naughty fourth block one) took full advantage of quiz-fixing time in class. They worked with their groups, asked great questions and really wanted to understand where they went wrong.
  3. I worked with a student who had been struggling lately in class. She just needed a little one-on-one time to straighten out a couple of concepts, but she advocated for herself, and that’s awesome?

#MTBoS #ExploreMTBoS

Turtle Races – Understanding proportional relationships

To help my students understand what proportional relationships look like on a table, graph, equation and verbal description, I created the Turtle Races. I was inspired by an activity I did with Terry Wyberg at the University of Minnesota that used turtles races as a way to match different representations of different functions. Because I teach 7th grade and all of our standards center around the idea of proportionality, I adapted this turtle race idea to help my students understand what proportional relationships look like as a table, graph, equation or verbal description.

I tried this lesson for the first time last year. It was okay, showed potential but need some logistical changes in execution. This year it went really really well! All groups were able to match the pieces with little help from me, and most groups were able to completely fill in the missing pieces.

I treated the questions more as a post-game analysis activity. Students had to start them on their own at the their seat. They used their matching to start making some connections between time, distance and proportionality. Only after we talked about #1 as a class, did I let them find a partner to finish the questions.

Here are the materials. Post any questions and I’ll try to respond to them!

Turtle Races – Student version

Turtle Races – KEY


Blogging Initiative Kick-off

My initiative at the beginning of the school year to blog more has not gone well (only two posts in nearly 90 days of teaching!). With the help of my mentor Teri Owens and Explore MTBoS I am making this pledge:

I, Laura Lee, resolve to blog in 2016 in order to open my classroom up and share my thoughts with other teachers. I hope to accomplish this goal by participating in the January Blogging Initiation hosted by Explore MTBoS.
You, too, could join in on this exciting adventure. All you have to do is dust off your blog and get ready for the first prompt to arrive January 10th! #MtBoS #ExploreMTBoS


exploreMTBoS  MTBoS Blogging Initiative