What follows is an email I sent back to Erin, a teacher who read the book and this blog and rightfully had some questions.

I (and John) are thrilled that Classroom Chef has opened us to have these conversations more often.


Hi, Erin.

I’ve been sitting on this email for a few days. It’s ready for print now:

First: Wow! You’re asking these questions in your second year of teaching?* I’m way impressed; my second year was full of some pretty terrible Direct Instruction lessons and not much else.

Okay, in order:
1. I get the idea of creating exciting lesson plans that engage the kids, but then what? Do you have them do traditional practice problems? On your blog, you mention that your students take out “today’s assignment” and you post the answers on the board. Does that mean it was yesterday’s assignment that they have all ready completed? Or the current day?

If your department has policies on homework, quizzes, and tests, this is where they fall into place. I’m a long-term sub right now, so I’m doing what the Full-Time teacher wants to do, even if I don’t agree.

Anyway, if you choose to assign homework, figure out the purpose of the homework before you assign it. That very question was kicked around on Twitter this weekend by teachers more veteran than I.

Is the purpose rote memorization? Repeated practice? Extension and application? Or just a written response to the day? Of those four, I like the last two. When I have the option, homework was a couple practice, then an extension, then a written response to something. Four questions, 2-10 minutes.

Later in my career, I’ve printed the answers on the back (reinforcing that I care more about the process of learning than the result, then had students check the answers with each other. If there were still questions after that, it was a good sign that the topic didn’t stick very well.

2. In that same blog post (I know it’s from a few years ago), your board with your agenda says “magic brain, note, stretch, practice, challenge”….Would you mind explaining how that goes? You explain in detail your pre-class routine, but is there another post with the rest of your class schedule?

For the post in question, here’s how that lesson went:

  • Magic Brain – you may have seen the “Big X Method” to teach factoring. Magic Brain was my attempt to remove the “method,” and practice the skill of noting the sum of two factors and the product of two factors. I’d draw the X, like you see in that link, then tell the class, “I have two numbers inside my magic brain. Added, they make ____, multiplied, they make ____. Show me on your whiteboard if you can read mymind.” We practiced that for a bit, then…
  • Note – Usually, the agenda would say “Notes,” but this day had only one topic; factoring trinomials. We took a “note,” did a couple practice problems on their own in the notebook, then…
  • Stretch – We had 90 minute periods. This was before I used the “stand and talk to your neighbor” song, so we regularly took stretch breaks during class. Plenty of research shows the correlation between body activity and blood flow to the brain, but I now know that every 40 minutes is far too seldom, especially for middle school.
  • Practice – After the stretch break, whiteboard practice of factoring polynomials. Then…
  • Challenge – we returned to the Daily Doozy and tackled the college-level problem that we started with.

3. Basically, I’m just trying to figure out a good solid routine that incorporates those fun and engaging things like “math talks”, and “estimation 180”, and “Would you rather”, and “3 act tasks”, but then what about practice problems and homework? Necessary or not? Will the kids “get” what they need without those practice problems? Do you just teach the barbie jump line and then they get it?

This is my favorite question from your email; I’m thrilled that you’re interested in the most effective way to make a topic stick, and it’s my hope that teachers like you begin to fill the profession and dilute the negativity and status quo that contaminate teacher’s lounges around the country.

Yeah, there’s some strong language there, but you’re clearly on the right track by asking the question, so here it goes:

For now, the standardized test doesn’t ask questions the same way that research says kids experience learning. Instead of, “On a bungee jump, what is important?” the tests say, “Barbie is bungee jumping from a platform 80 feet above a bridge. Each bungee stretches 0.5 feet per 10 pounds of weight. How many bungees does Barbie need if she weighs 150 pounds?”

Until standardized tests move the goalposts of math education, we’ll have to play on the field with terms they define.

So you gotta use Barbie Bungee to whet their appetite, then move them slightly further and further toward abstraction. That might mean using practice problems for a homework assignment that use the language above, or doing a performance task that closer aligns to the SBAC or PARCC.

In short, when students enjoy coming to your class, appreciate the effort you put into their learning, and respect you, they’re more likely to tolerate bad math problems without digging in their heels.

Clearly, I can write for pages about math education and the subtle shifts that I think will make it meaningful. Infinitely more important than my voice in your classroom is yours, Erin.

Keep asking questions, keep pushing on the fences.

~Matt “Not An Expert” Vaudrey

* In a later email, Erin noted that it’s her 10th year teaching, second year in this classroom.