Episode #25: How Do I Avoid Lesson Flops? [Math Mentoring Moment]

May 20, 2019 | Podcast | 2 comments


In this math mentoring moment you’ll meet Carol Edlin, a travel bug who entered teaching with a business degree, but over time began teaching math courses. What is she to do when your background is not mathematics and you’re trying to make math moments that matter for all of your students? Stick around while Carol shows some vulnerability when discussing her lessons flops and we’ll whittle away to reveal her real struggle.

You’ll Learn

  • How to plan with more intentionality;
  • How to move from “dipping your toes” to going “all in”; and,
  • How to consolidate learning.


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Carol Edlin: But it’s interesting what it sounds like. It’s like you got to go all in. You can’t just like put your toe in and then pull it back out again. You really need to jump in the pool because otherwise it messes up the kids because if you’re not doing it on a continuous basis, it’s not productive.

Kyle Pearce: In this Math Mentoring Moment you’ll meet Carol Edlin, a travel bug who entered teaching with a business degree, but slowly and surely began teaching math courses. What is she to do when your background is not mathematics and you’re trying to make math moments that matter for all of your students?

Jon Orr: Stick around while Carol shows some vulnerability while discussing her lesson flops and we’ll whittle away and reveal her real struggle. Cue up that music. (singing)

Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. I’m Kyle Pierce.

Jon Orr: And I’m John Orr. We are two math teachers who together…

Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of math educators worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark engagement…

Jon Orr: Fuel learning and ignite teacher action. Welcome to episode number 25. How do I avoid lesson flops? A math mentoring moment.

Kyle Pearce: Are you ready, John?

Jon Orr: Oh, yeah. I can’t wait. Let’s dive into this episode with Carol while she shares some of her challenges in the math classroom and she looks to reach every student in a school with high ELL and ESL learners with the Math Moment Maker community. It can be easy to pick an interesting looking task and just try it your class, but as you’ll hear in this episode, Carol realizes that planning with intentionality is so important in order to assure the tasks run smoothly.

Kyle Pearce: Before we dive in, we have had over 100 founding members join the Make Math Moments Academy. Those educators who have already started sharing their past successes and challenges within each other. They’ve been learning with our brand-new mini course titled the concept holding your students back, so you too can eliminate the guesswork and stop throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks. The Academy provides you with resources you can count on. Take a moment right now check out the Academy and see if it’s a good fit for you. You can learn more at makemathmoments.com/academy. That’s makemathmoments.com/academy.

Jon Orr: Okay. Let’s see if we can’t help find some next steps for Carol to push her practice forward. So we are here with Carol Edlin and we can’t be more excited to chat with her. Welcome to the podcast, Carol.

Carol Edlin: Well, thanks for having me.

Jon Orr: It’s all our pleasure. We just want to start off with a couple questions we want to get to know you a little bit, we want the audience to get to know you. Can you tell us just a little about yourself? What do you teach? Where you from? What’s your teaching story?

Carol Edlin: Well, I teach in San Diego at a middle school. I am actually not from here. I grew up in Colorado and moved here in my 30s. When I started teaching, I didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. It was something that was a means to an end because I realized I wanted to travel and the way for me to travel was to have my summers free. And I liked teaching. I have a degree in business and I was able to become a business teacher from the beginning, and it was a lot of fun. I taught marketing and business law, and since I had enough math credits from my business education, I was able to sub in and take over some math classes when there was at the beginning of the year and high enrollment and the school that I used to teach at, so I started in the math area from there.

Carol Edlin: Because I wanted to travel so much, I was able to find a way to teach overseas and I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1999 to teach at the American School of Buenos Aires, and I was hired to teach math. So I went down as a full math teacher and I was given geometry and algebra one and algebra two and International Baccalaureate math studies. I had never really studied that much math so it was quite an eye-opener.

Jon Orr: That story I think hits home with both of us. Teaching in Buenos Aries definitely sounds amazing. I myself when I first started teaching, I moved down to the Caribbean and taught on the island of St. Martin for a few years.

Carol Edlin: Oh, cool.

Jon Orr: And like you said, mine was an American school that I taught in an Ontario school which was perfect for me being from Ontario. It was a very small private school there and I did my first two years teaching there and teaching math and actually I taught business, and math, and physics, and accounting. And so I was the guy that did everything down there because the school was so small. Kyle, I think you got something similar, right?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. It wasn’t for as long as you both were abroad, but I had an opportunity one summer. I think it was my second year teaching to go and teach computer science… Well, not computer science courses, but it was more like computer courses for business and photo editing, and Excel, and PowerPoint and all of those fools on a cruise ship for a summer. So that was a really cool experience.

Jon Orr: It sounds like party time.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah.

Carol Edlin: Yeah, right.

Kyle Pearce: Well, I got my traveling in. My wife at the time was we weren’t married yet. We were just engaged to be married and she went to South Korea for the summer with a friend to do some teaching English over there. So it was tough being away, but at the same time it was a great experience to get to go and see all kinds of different parts of the world. So it sounds like traveling is in your blood, and just to be clear it sounds like you might be teaching at the high school level maybe I missed that. Is that true high school?

Carol Edlin: I started as a high school teacher and I have a single subject, a California single subject credential in business with the supplementary in math, and what that does is allows me to teach up through ninth grade math, but I can’t teach elementary school because I don’t have the right credentials. So I am stuck in the middle. I just came back to the States three years ago and I’ve been teaching now for two years in a middle school so I’ve taught sixth, seventh, and this year eighth grade math.

Kyle Pearce: Oh, and what’s your perspective there? How is that turning out for you compared to some of the experience you may have had abroad and teaching some of the older grades?

Carol Edlin: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s really tough. I missed the high school. I missed the maturity level of the high school students and it’s been a rough couple of years, but I’ve also been teaching in a rough couple of… The two schools I’ve taught in are pretty rough schools. They’re lower income, a lot of refugees are in the schools. The one I’m teaching in right now actually is more that way. Today, I just got a child from… I can’t even say the name of the country because he spoke so soft and he doesn’t speak any English, but in African country I have a lot of refugees, a lot of English language learners and it’s very different. The age as well as just the circumstance because in Argentina, I was teaching children of diplomats, so it was a very different dynamic.

Kyle Pearce: Sure, sure. I’m sure there’s lots of learning so far and probably a lot of learning still to be had I’m sure when you’re put into a very different situation. It’s so interesting. So I’m sure we will come back to some of those pieces. We’re wondering as we asked most people when they come on the podcast, what is your most memorable moment about math class? And we say about math class because maybe it might be your math class experience as a student or maybe it’s from maybe when you were teaching, but what comes to mind when the word math class is said?

Carol Edlin: Well, it’s interesting because I thought about this question and I was a teacher and a student at the same time because when I went to the International School, and they told me I was teaching geometry and I did not do well in geometry in high school and I have not had a geometry class since high school, so I had to teach myself geometry. I was that teacher who was doing the lesson the night before. I did every homework problem the night before I gave the kids the homework problem, and I taught it to myself as a 35-year-old woman, and I actually got it.

Carol Edlin: It was the weirdest thing. I never got it in high school. It didn’t make any sense to me in high school. I couldn’t understand the theorems, I couldn’t understand why we had to do what we had to do, and as I taught it to myself in Argentina, all of a sudden everything made sense. It all fit. It all made sense. And I found an incredible joy in teaching it to the students. We did a lot of fun stuff. We did things, tessellations and one of my favorite things was making a Christmas tree for the entry of the building of our high school using the Sierpinski triangles. My administration bought into it and got me glue guns and got me green construction paper. And we made this huge tree. I don’t remember how many levels it was. It was a long time ago, but it was really fun becoming a geometry teacher.

Kyle Pearce: Very cool. I want to commend you for doing the work necessary. I know that sometimes it can be a challenge even if… I know that when I started in my career I thought I understood the math through high school but when I came to actually teach it, I remember myself doing a lot of that same process for those first few years where I felt like I was only a few days ahead of the kids and I wanted to make sure I understood it deeply. So I’m glad to hear that you did the work. It sounds like you put a lot of time and effort into that and that’s so important for us to really understand the content in order for us to be able to be able to stand even the slightest chance of helping our students to understand it.

Carol Edlin: Yeah, it was hard. I was single and I didn’t have children at the time so I had the time to put in which is not the case today, but I’m glad I had the time and I’m glad I was able to do that. But what I think was just so interesting is that everything connected. And in high school when I was learning it, it just seemed so arbitrary and so bizarre just these theorems and postulates that didn’t make any sense, but it helped me to learn that we learn the math at different ages, and I know that that’s what’s being talked about all the time now with Jo Boaler and a lot of these other people and you guys but it’s not necessarily how fast you do it because somebody can be five minutes behind the next person and maybe I had been five minutes behind in high school but my teacher didn’t give me that extra five minutes and so it never connected. So it’s really cool to think that your brain matures and your ability to learn mathematics also matures.

Jon Orr: I just want to stay on this just a little bit longer because it really interests me like when you said that you didn’t get in high school and you just gave a couple reasons but I’m wondering if we can dive in on that just a little bit longer. What else do you think may have caused you not to get it when you’re in high school other than a couple things you just mentioned?

Carol Edlin: I don’t know because I had… My geometry teacher, she was one of my favorite teachers. I didn’t get the geometry, but I liked her. So it wasn’t like it was because I didn’t like my teacher. I don’t have an answer for you on that one.

Kyle Pearce: And maybe it might be like you articulated very clearly that our brains all mature at different stages and all of our experiences are so different from birth to high school ages where all of those things impact where we are and our readiness and the prior knowledge we have to bring and even maybe some of the outside factors going on in our lives like am I distracted by other things going on. Is their issues in my family? There’s so many things for students when we were students and also for the students in our classrooms right now. So really interesting. Thank you for sharing.

Kyle Pearce: We’re wondering to get us started and we started off on a positive note with maybe something that you feel has been going well for you over the last little while in your class so it may be something that you’ve tried or maybe even reflecting on and feeling like you’re seeing some changes there. Maybe you’re not at the end of that journey but you’re seeing that you’re heading in the right direction in that particular area.

Carol Edlin: Well, I’m really struggling right now because actually I got very lucky this year. I was partnered up with another teacher who’s teaching eighth grade math who has been just a godsend to me and giving me resources and we talk about what we’re teaching every day and we worked together. We use a flip chart is what it’s called on our promethium boards and he really works with me to make sure that we’re doing the same thing and if I don’t understand what the standard is and how we should go about teaching it, he’s really there to help me. I feel very, very lucky to have him as a… He’s not a co-teacher but as the other counterpart of the eighth grade math department.

Carol Edlin: I feel like this year has been a lot better because I’m used to this age group and how to deal with the rules which I was very lax on last year, but coming in and having a procedure and having a warm up, and having the students understand how things are going or should be going every day and it seems to be making things a lot easier whereas I think as a high school teacher I was a little bit more laid back and wasn’t as tough as I found I needed to be, which is where I struggle with these ideas of project-based learning and teaching using tasks because I’m afraid of letting the kids get off task or off of a topic and not being able to bring them back. I don’t know if it’s the age group or me, or the fact that I’m not really sure how to run these types of classes.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. There’s definitely a huge difference when you go from one level whether it’s a grade level, but in your case going from secondary or high school all the way back to middle school. We’ve got students at a younger age. There’s different sort of procedures and norms that take place in classrooms. I know I can relate because I’ve spent the last couple years formally coming from secondary from high school and I now spend a lot of my time in K through 8.

Kyle Pearce: So I’m going into classrooms and it’s like I am learning something new every single time I go in, do any type of co-teaching or actually delivering a lesson about norms and about structure, and about things that I take for granted coming from secondary land and those are definitely challenging and it’s great to hear that you’ve seen some successes in that area. So I’m wondering could we go a little bit deeper with… You had mentioned project-based learning and so forth. Can you help folks listening in get an understanding of what that looks like or sounds like to you when you reference things like project-based learning or these activity-based sort of investigations that you mentioned earlier?

Carol Edlin: Well, I’d have to start from a little bit back. When I was in Argentina, we taught out of a book. I was not a trained math teacher and so I had never really heard of standards. I left for Argentina in ’99. We just taught chapter one, chapter two, chapter three in order and every single lesson and just like I remember hearing one of your earlier podcasts you teach three lessons then you have a quiz and you teach the next three lessons and you have a test in chapter two.

Carol Edlin: And when I came back a couple of years ago, all of a sudden, I’m presented with these standards and project-based learning and I had not a clue and last year I paid my way, my principal. I was lucky enough to have given me the three days of substitutes, but I got my own hotel, my own plane ticket and paid the fee to go to the NCTM conference and I just happened to stumble into Dan Meyers how good lessons go bad I think was the name of his seminar that he gave his presentation.

Carol Edlin: And I saw this three act math thing where he was talking about Girl Scout cookies and volume and the Nissan car. Oh my god, I got so excited I thought this is what I want to do, this is how I’m going to get my kids excited and I went it to some other of the workshops and I just had tons and tons of ideas. I took tons of pictures with my phone, I took tons of notes. I went back to the classroom in April. I tried that three-act bat lesson about the Girl Scout cookies in volume, because that’s what we were doing in seventh grade and it flopped. I didn’t know how to do it.

Carol Edlin: And so I’ve been trying to read as much as I can. Over the summer, I read a bunch of books and that’s how I found you guys because when I was at the NCTM I didn’t know what Twitter was really. It was something that the stars did and Donald Trump and whatever, but I never had gotten involved in Twitter. And so I got on to the Twitter’s of you all and of Dan and of Joe Boaler and a few other ones that I can’t think off the top of my head trying to figure out how I can make these lessons engaging to my students and how I can incorporate it into my lessons so that they are excited and paying attention and wanting to learn this math. And that’s where I’m stuck because I can’t seem to make the jump from these tasks or these projects.

Jon Orr: I don’t know if you listened to all the podcasts so far. Probably not. There’s been a few and there’s one particular episode where we I think say exactly this story.

Carol Edlin: I listened to one through four. I started to listen to five and I stopped, but today, I was listening to five. So I do… You were talking about how do you make that transition into doing these kinds of things? One of the things you guys mentioned was the preparation, but I still don’t quite know how to prepare because kids started asking me questions and I didn’t know how to answer them. And then I started feeling, “Oh, I don’t want to put myself in a position where I don’t have the answer or even know how to find the answer.”

Jon Orr: We were in that situation where we saw Dan and we took it back and it was a flop. And I think we’ve got a couple suggestions here for you, but I’d like to hear more about why you think it was such a flop. I wonder if you could imagine or go back in your memory to that lesson and walk us through what that looked like. I know you’d have to be really brave to say that aloud but we’re wondering what that looked like for you. You said a couple things about questions that kids had, but I’m wondering with that particular lesson that you first tried if we could hear what that sounded like I wonder if we can give you some tips.

Carol Edlin: Well, honestly. The Girl Scout cookies. I guess that one was not as bad. I mean, I was able to get through it. I think what ended up happening is I didn’t know what to do after we looked at it and I ended up giving them how you find the volume because I didn’t understand that they had to figure that out on their own. I was like, “Well, how are they going to get this if I don’t tell them that its width times length times height?” And so I gave them that and we did the estimating, but I probably after listening to your other podcast, I should have said… Some of them said two, and I’m like, “Okay. That’s ridiculous. Of course it’s not two.”

Carol Edlin: And then one of them like, “You had said it’s a million.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, that’s also ridiculous.” Now after listening to you, I’m like, “I could have said let’s take a risk and let’s see how close we could get,” and let them continue with it. But after we got done looking at the three different videos, I think there were three in that one, I didn’t know how to give them practice problems for example. I didn’t know how to get them to do some work, to then be able to… I don’t know if I’m supposed to be giving practice problems or if that was enough for them to learn it or if I had to do bring in other resources, but the other one that I did with my accelerated sixth grade class was there was one where you had a guy standing in front of a wall with a bunch of dollar bills. Have you guys seen that one?

Jon Orr: Yeah.

Carol Edlin: Then they pull back and then they pull back again, and you have this room covered with dollar bills in this museum. And so I printed out the floor plan and the blueprints and I divided the kids up and then we just didn’t know what to do. We did some division and it just… I got stuck. I said, I don’t really know how to proceed after we divide… We figure out what is the distance between the dollars and then you divide it, and then what? I mean, it just didn’t… I didn’t know how to have that flowing into the next part, I guess. Does that make sense?

Kyle Pearce: It totally does. It totally does. This is again… We’re feeling your pain because we know what that is like. I’m wondering when you selected… So for example I know what I did when I came across Dan’s material and then later some of the others that are great, Dane Euler for high school is great. So many others are out there, and what I tended to do is I grabbed that lesson that was modeled in that session because I guess probably two fold. First of all, I felt comfortable with it because I just did it. So I knew it. I just felt like I had planned my lesson.

Kyle Pearce: And then secondly, it was like I didn’t have to go digging for something and I just sort of wanted to try it out. So that’s probably what happened with the girl guide cookie example. You saw it and you were like, “All right. Let’s try this out and let’s you know take a risk and see how things go.” I’m going to butcher the name of the task with the dollar bills on the wall, but I’m picturing Robert Kaplinsky site but I could be wrong.

Jon Orr: No, I think it’s a Dan site.

Kyle Pearce: Is it a Dan one?

Carol Edlin: I think it’s Dan. I don’t remember where I found it.

Jon Orr: We’ll double check and put it in the show notes for sure.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, we’ll check it out. For sure we’ll dig that out. But with that particular problem, I guess what motivated you to want to try that one particular task on that particular day?

Carol Edlin: Well, I am just looking for problems that were based on volume and area. Volume, I used for my seventh grade and areas where I wanted to use for my sixth grade, just because that’s part of our standards. So I googled or I went through looking for something that matched with that standard and that’s how I came up on that. I also thought it was cool and I thought the kids would find it was cool and so of course none of them believed it. I believed it when I saw it but they’re like, “No, this is fake. There’s just no way.” So it was hard for them to buy in because they didn’t think it was real. But that’s how I found it was just going through… I think it must be Dan’s that I have a huge Excel worksheet in my Google Drive that I must have downloaded from him.

Jon Orr: He’s got one of those.

Carol Edlin: He’s going got tons of different standards listed next to it. That’s how I found it.

Jon Orr: We keep saying this, but that’s probably what I did first too. It’s like I found his spreadsheet and I scanned it for what I was looking for. I think that’s what we all do. We’re looking for a new lesson. A lesson to address a learning goal that we’re looking at or a topic and we go and we find one. We’re like, “Okay. I’m wondering what did you do next? You found this lesson online and then what?

Carol Edlin: Then I downloaded the pictures and the video. I downloaded the blueprints to the museum space and there was a copy of a dollar bill on a grid so they could count how many millimeters or centimeters it was. It was done in your type of measurement. It’s not US measurements. And so each kid got one of those. I said to the kids I wanted them to group up and to try and figure out how many dollar bills would fit in this room. And we talked about the columns because there’s a couple columns in there.

Carol Edlin: The doorways that wouldn’t be covered, they had. They all went and found the area of all of the spaces and found the area of the dollar bill and then I didn’t know where to go from there. I was like, “Okay, well, I guess that’s what we found.” And it wasn’t the million dollars that it said it was the way the kids figured it out. We didn’t get even close to a million and I just said, “All right. We’re done,” because that was all I knew how to do from there. I don’t know if I answered your question all the way.

Jon Orr: No, I think you did. That’s great.

Kyle Pearce: I think that’s great. That’s helpful for us to get an idea of where you’re coming from when you selected that task. So you had a learning or a standard in mind?

Carol Edlin: Goal, yeah.

Kyle Pearce: What in your mind did you feel like your students might be bringing with them to that lesson? When you entered that particular lesson, was there certain things that you felt like students had in their tool belt that they might be able to access or was it more like, “Let’s just see what they have with them because I do that sometimes as well is let’s see what they’ve got and use it almost like a diagnostic.” What was going on there?

Carol Edlin: These kids were accelerated sixth grade and they’re top, top, top kids. I remember doing some of the which one doesn’t belong and I would put the numbers up. I wouldn’t do graphs but there’d be a three, a nine, an eight and a 17 or whatever. I had these kids last period, and I’d do it in all of my classes. This was my only accelerated class and these kids in the accelerated class would come up with things that none of the other classes had come up with. I mean, in the other classes they’d repeat, I’d hear the same thing over and over.

Carol Edlin: Well, this doesn’t belong because it’s got two digits or something like that but these kids would come up with amazing things, things that I had never even thought about why this wouldn’t belong. And they’re just top-notch kids in their ability to think and to explain, and to do mathematics. So when I saw this, I didn’t know what they really had except for I knew that they would be able to figure it out just because of the way they were able to figure out all the problems I put in front of them.

Kyle Pearce: Interesting. Yeah, for sure. So it sounds like these students are you said accelerated so clearly they have a lot going on there in order for them to be that particular program. Do you feel like there might be some students there who are maybe not so eager to take risks like maybe feeling like they’re dependent on being sort of pre-taught before they attempt something. I know that for me for years I used to teach a lesson and then scaffold up until I got to word problems and then the lesson fell apart when kids were, “Now, I can’t do these word problems.” Do you think there might be some of that there or any other factors like that. Are you feeling from maybe the classroom culture or maybe what they believe math class should be?

Carol Edlin: In that particular class a little bit, but not so much because they were just so eager to learn. For an instance in the class that I have right now, so I’m teaching a regular common cores with common core eighth grade and we’re just finishing up being able to graph a line from slope-intercept form and a little bit of standard form. We’re starting next week to do systems of equations, and these kids are not the kids that are wanting to… If I say, “Okay, what do you notice?” I don’t think they’re going to participate that much because they’re not wanting to put themselves out.

Carol Edlin: What do you wonder? Nothing. Why are we doing this? That kind of thing is what I’m going to get from the kids I have today. I would like to figure out a way to bring in something fun like this to do systems of equations, but I have no clue because these kids from last year they would do anything I put in front of them because they were just so eager to learn math. The kids this year not so much.

Jon Orr: I’ve definitely been in that situation also. For me, it comes down to setting that or bringing that culture on a regular basis. And what I mean by that is I think when I first started doing these tests, I viewed them as like one-off tasks. I would do it. I’m like, “Okay. Here’s that grade test. It’s going to fit right in here.” And will normally teach the lesson and normally kids will do the work and then you know what, I’m going to make them engaged on this one idea because I found this great lesson. So I’ll put it in here.

Jon Orr: And so when I do that, my students react in a way that it’s like I don’t… First, I don’t know what’s going on because this is not the way class normally runs. So that’s a natural reaction to be like, “Okay, wait. What’s going on here?” And then they’re not sure what to do. And I think what happens is when we view it that way, they don’t get used to that being something that’s allowed in class. So I guess to elaborate more on that, that if I’ve always just taught my lesson and gave the examples, and asked them to do some practice questions which can be fine, but then when I throw the task in there, it’s almost like all of a sudden there’s now student voice involved and kids will be resistant to give that voice if one, it’s not consistent in the class.

Jon Orr: If all of a sudden we’re doing this, what do you mean? I don’t usually do this. And then the other, it’s like, “How is the atmosphere so that if I say something will it be well-received?” There’s definitely that culture that has to exist and I’ve been in situations like that with other teachers where I go into the class and they’re trying that lesson that just… They’re just putting it in there’s a one-off lesson and it just flops hugely because it’s not a regular thing.

Jon Orr: And when you go back to when we first did it, that’s what happened. It flopped majorly because we were just sticking it in, in one spot and thinking this is going to be the savior of this particular learning goal, but because it wasn’t part of our culture, it just doesn’t hit the mark the way you see it in the workshop or you see it on the internet. And one thing that we’ve done to address this is to do more of that culture building than we used to.

Jon Orr: So for example one thing that I do now on a regular basis is I spend 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of class, maybe 10 more 10 minutes the beginning of class doing small versions of this. You brought up which one doesn’t belong? And I’ll do one of those a week where I’m asking students to turn and talk to each other but which one doesn’t belong and they have to make a choice and then now we voiced those out loud. And those are great because you can’t be wrong as long as you have a reason. You are definitely bringing that culture of student voice into your room and the students get used to saying stuff out loud that they know, one, they can’t be wrong and everyone has an opinion to that.

Jon Orr: Another thing we do is we’ll do an estimation of 180 tasks at the beginning of class. And I do this at all levels, high school all the way down to… They can go down to very low levels. And I do the same thing. It’s like, what’s too high, what’s too low, what’s your best guess? In the first five times I do that, everybody has to say what their guess is. And if you make it part of your regular routine, then when it’s time to do the notice in wonder, it’s not a shock to their system, and I think that they will adapt to that. Sometimes I’ll have a tough class and that tough class is like oh. And if it’s one of the first times you’re going to get some kids that are like, “What’s going on here?” And that’s their notice and wonder.

Jon Orr: I write those on the board. If I say what do you notice and wonder turn and talk to your partner and they do that, and then when we it’s time for us to say them out loud and the kid is like, “Why are we doing this?” That’s my wonder. I’ll write that on the board and the kid is like, “Wait a minute. I didn’t get the reaction that I thought I was going to get from the teacher.” That goes on the board and then the next time we do it, it’s not such a big deal and they know that because I definitely… I love that question. That question, I go right back at the end of the lesson.

Jon Orr: When we solve the problem and we brought out the learning goal, made it explicit, we can go right back to that student and say like, “Why didn’t we do this? What do you think now?” And so I think the biggest thing is changing your classroom culture so that it’s accepting of all of these techniques that are new. I’m not saying you’re not doing that already, I’m just saying I think that can help for sure.

Carol Edlin: It’s interesting what it sounds like. It’s like you’ve got to go all in. You can’t just put your toe in and then pull it back out again. You really need to jump in the pool, because otherwise it messes up the kids because if you’re not doing it on a continuous basis, it’s not productive.

Jon Orr: It becomes a guessing game of like, “Okay. What’s today going to be like?” And this is exactly what we did like, “We’re right there with you.” I would try once a unit to do a three-act math test, and I’d get all geeked out about it. I was excited and it would be like, “Huh, that didn’t really go over too well.” I missed a lot of pieces like the whole culture piece John talked about, but then there’s also a piece that I wanted to mention as well which may or may not apply to your situation where when streaming or we call it streaming in Ontario here or tracking or a different placement of students is going on.

Jon Orr: If you’re dealing with students who tend to be the, quote-unquote, “math kids”, the ones that are the stronger ones, we call it a rich program here or gifted programs or whatever it might be, you’re now dealing with a group of students who have been put on this pedestal, and maybe rightfully so because they have lots of prior knowledge and they’re quite intelligent, but in reality though sometimes they can have an even more challenging time trying to build into this culture that John’s describing and part of the reason is because they’re scared to be exposed that maybe I’m not as smart as I thought. I’ve been told that I’ve been smart against what the research from Carol Dweck and growth mindset and all the language around trying to push students and promoting students and celebrating their successes through effort instead of through smarts like it’s something that I was born with and Joe Boulder talks about those things as well.

Jon Orr: This could be really, really challenging for those students to tear down that wall, that barrier to be open and be okay because a lot of times too, if I’m doing a three-act math test and I’m truly asking them to notice and wonder without me sort of setting the stage and saying, “Hey, today we’re going to solve ratios and here’s a task we’re going to do, it’s sort of like, “Well, there’s nothing to notice and wonder anymore.” So by trying to build that culture and making math class a place where we throw out ideas and we support each other and we’re not judging each other based on what we say and the predictions that we make even if my prediction is off significantly, it’s like we accept those predictions and we try to unpack why that person might have came up with that prediction.

Jon Orr: So this could be something for you to think about and I know in my experience some of my more strong students tend to push back hardest at least when I started. So that was just a personal experience. It might have just been a fluke, but I’m wondering if maybe there might be something to it for you as well to at least have it in the forefront of your mind.

Carol Edlin: I agree with you. It’s interesting I heard you say something about that on one of your other podcast. So the students who usually get A who have learned the trick of memorize the formula and remember the questions that you put in your homeworks or in your classwork so that then they can use those. If they memorize that or they know how to do it then they can pass the test and they get their A’s. They push back a lot when you get these different three acts or more than notice and wonder kind of thing. It was funny because I was thinking about this when I played a game with my… We call it step up, but it’s more like a remedial math class, a step up math, and I played Cannibals and Missionaries with them on the computer. You do all know that game?

Jon Orr: No.

Kyle Pearce: No.

Jon Orr: Can you fill us in a little bit?

Carol Edlin: It’s a logic game. You have three cannibals and three missionaries who come to a river and they have to cross the river on a raft two people at the most can be on the raft. It cannot be without a person. It can’t come back without a person. You have to get all of the six people on to the other side and you can never have more cannibals than missionaries or the cannibals will eat the missionaries. So you have to figure out how to get everyone across… And I have a couple of math students who are very good. They do very well in my class. They’re A students.

Carol Edlin: Well, they got so irritated and so upset that they could not figure this out within a couple of minutes. I took a while. Everyone pretty much got it or I wouldn’t say everyone, but I’d say by the end of the period 75% of my students got it. But the ones that are the A students were angry. They were angry before five minutes were up because they didn’t get it and they wanted to get it now. And I didn’t gave them the answer. I made them keep working and they were pissed and frustrated. One of them closed the computer and said, “I’m not going to do it.” It was very interesting watching the behavior. But he opened it up again and he finally got it, but oh my goodness.

Kyle Pearce: I have a very similar experience. I had a problem that I’ve used with students as young as grade five and I gave it to some grade 11 IB students. I was not there, it was sort of through the grapevine passing it on to an IB teacher and they challenged their students and literally they were saying how the problem was dumb, and doesn’t make any sense and blah, blah, blah. And meanwhile like the day prior, I was in a grade five class, kids were rocking it. They obviously didn’t go nearly as far as we would with a grade 10 or 11 class, but in reality the kids in the grade five class solved it less efficiently, but they were on task, rocking it and the students gave up so quickly.

Kyle Pearce: And again I feel like there’s that pressure to know it fast. We have that culture of math is about answers and doing things quickly, and not making mistakes and all of these things that we want to make sure that we try to turn around for our students. So that’s a big piece, but then the last piece that I want to share before we start talking about maybe some next steps and maybe some reflecting is after we got our classroom cultures going, and I say going because it’s never done. You’re constantly trying to build that culture and make it stronger and stronger and more supportive and all of those things, but what we realized after some time is like we were feeling better about the culture. Kids were participating.

Kyle Pearce: We were getting some buy-in in this type of teaching approach, but we realized that the same kids who were struggling prior to us doing this, were still struggling when it came to actually doing the math and doing the sense-making. So they were stuck or giving up and what we realized is that we did not spend nearly enough time on the intentionality of the tasks that we were using, so we were picking our standard or our curriculum expectation as we call it here in Ontario. We would pick that volume of a cylinder. We would pick that and then we would do the task, but we didn’t really pay enough attention to like what were we hoping the kids would be able to pull out of that particular task, that particular lesson. What were we going to consolidate?

Kyle Pearce: What did they have or what did they need in order for them to be able to access that task? So those were things like big, big wonders and it’s something we still work on today. It’s not like it’s an overnight solution but once that got on our radar, we started to think more about it, reflect more, plan more, before our lessons and we were seeing significant changes in the ability of some students to be able to actually tackle the math. So that was something I wanted to make sure that we threw out there as well just for anyone listening who might have similar issues and maybe they’re getting that classroom culture going but they’re just feeling like the wheels are still spinning, but now maybe somewhere else so hopefully that’s helpful.

Carol Edlin: It’s funny. I didn’t know how to plan so I didn’t. I mean, it was, “All right. We’ll here’s the lesson.” Did you guys do the Kit Kat 3X?

Kyle Pearce: I did do a Kit Kat on fractions and adding subtract.

Carol Edlin: Yeah. So I did that one and I had no idea how to plan for it, so I just started showing the videos. And I did that in my step-up class this year and I got a little lost and I wasn’t really sure where to go because I didn’t know how to plan for it. I think that is a key and it’s something that I’m still I have to think about what they’re going to say and that’s the part where I get lost. So how am I going to know what they’re going to come up with then? But I do think that that’s a very important part because without it, any of these that I have tried the Kit Kat, the Girl Scout cookies, the $1.00 wall, those are all ones that I think if I could have prepared better but I think that’s where I’m probably going to need most of my help.

Jon Orr: That was one of the things I think that has helped me the most is realizing that if I’m going to go to the internet and I’m going to choose one of Dan’s tasks or one of Andrew Stadel’s tasks from their spreadsheets, or what, Kyle’s tasks, some of those… I know when I go to Kyle’ site, tapintoteenminds.com, Kyle is really great at giving you a walkthrough on what to expect, what that might look like in his classroom which is like half the planning right there. In some of the other sites, it might just show videos when you get there.

Jon Orr: So one of the biggest things that that helped me was I would do the problem myself for sure and when I would do the problem myself for sure to see what I would do to solve that problem, but like what Kyle said is you want to write out solutions that you think your students will do based on the information or the knowledge they have coming into that. So if they don’t know anything about volume yet and you’re doing the volume question, you’re thinking, “Okay. Well, how will they solve this without volume?” So you might think they can’t, so that you’re ready for that so that you can step and then go. You might have sparked the curiosity and got their attention to go like, “I want to solve this problem, but I don’t know how yet. I wish I had a way to do it.”

Jon Orr: And then you can step in and go I was prepared for this moment and now we’re going to bring out this, build into the idea of where volume of a prism comes from. And so then you can explicitly go through that with your students and then you can turn back to the problem and go like, “Now, let’s use it to solve this problem.” Or it might be they have some. If you’re working with rates and ratios or you said earlier the linear relations. They might have some inkling on how to use slope to graph the line, but not have any formal techniques yet.

Jon Orr: And so when you plan to do a lesson like that, you’re going to map out what you think they might try as a solution and you might have four to five different ways they might try that or maybe two. But the fact that you’ve planned that piece is when you see that from your student who’s trying that, you prepared for that so you can direct them where to go next. And like what Kyle said we have this learning goal in mind we want to get to so that you can… When you see those solutions, you’ve also planned what are your moves next? If you see a solution that it’s not quite there, how are we going to move those students towards that learning goal we want to bring out?

Jon Orr: So I think writing out those solutions in advance definitely helps me be ready for what the students are going to do and it also helps me plan some of those possible questions like you said at the very beginning that sometimes kids bring up questions and it makes us feel uneasy because we’re not ready to answer those questions. And I think the more planning you can do about what the solutions might look like can help you with that too. And also planning for the end like you want a plan where do you want to go ultimately and you want to get there either that period or maybe you’re planning to just cover over a couple periods. But I think that explicit planning is one of the most helpful things for using these types of lessons.

Carol Edlin: Definitely. I’ll try that on this next one.

Jon Orr: Awesome.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome. And planning Jon and I know now. We wish we knew it a long time ago. We realized that that’s probably the most important part, and again the biggest miss for us. We do spend a lot of time on that in our online workshop so if you haven’t checked out the four-part lesson series that we have online, make sure you check that out. And then in the full workshop, we have a whole module on planning. So that is an option as well if anyone out there is sort of struggling with the same thing, that’s a place you might be able to go to dive a little deeper there beyond what we were able to address today.

Kyle Pearce: At this time, we’re wondering if we can get into the reflection portion of this conversation and we’re wondering if you can imagine your math class like three months from now if you were to make some changes, maybe some changes that you’ve heard from this conversation. What are you hoping that your math class would look like and then maybe we can go into maybe some takeaways that you might be able to try to put into practice now then maybe some that you might still need to do some reflecting on to put in later?

Carol Edlin: Well, it seems silly, but I mean what I’d love to have it look like is the kids working on interesting problems where they’re engaged and they’re excited, and they’re learning, and I’m still covering the standards so that I don’t get in trouble with my admin. Instead of just worksheet after worksheet or writing in our interactive notebook which is something I actually really think is cool that was something-

Jon Orr: Those are pretty cool.

Carol Edlin: … before that didn’t exist before I was back in the states. So, yeah I would like to see that engagement. I’d like to see them being able to learn and do fun stuff at the same time, which they’re not doing right now.

Jon Orr: Right. Those are some good ambitions there for sure. We’re during also from this conversation what would be a big takeaway from you? We talked about a lot of things here a lot of big ideas, a lot of specifics too but what would be a big takeaway from this conversation for you in particular?

Carol Edlin: I would like to find a task. Something to hit system of equations. And we have to do testing next week, state testing so I have next week to plan to then start implementing the week after. And so the takeaway is the planning is really to… I am lucky. I have a 9th grade son so I might put him to work to be my guinea pig to come up with ideas for him to say this is where he might go with it and so I can come up with some different strategies or know the question or the answer to just possible questions and the planning of it.

Kyle Pearce: Right on. That would be great and off the top of our mind, we’ve got a few four systems of equations. I know Andrew Stadel basketball shots. We’ll put that in the show notes. I’ve got a couple as well. One that I tend to use for system of equations is the detention buyout, which is a quirky situation where three students get a bunch of different detentions and the administrators are giving three different options to buy out of detention and the students have to determine… They have to determine which is the best buy for each-

Jon Orr: It’s a fun one.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, for each student. And then also the counting candies sequel. So we’ll put all three of those in the show notes, but our challenge to you would be if you do pick one of those or maybe you find something else is to take that task and really tear it apart yourself and try to solve it. We like to try to think about solving it as many ways as you possibly can. It can be very challenging to try to put your mind in the minds of your students and to try to think of like… I would like sometimes to think about a student who tends to maybe come up with some interesting or different or maybe peculiar unordinary solution strategies. What would that student maybe be thinking and then maybe also thinking about a student who tends to struggle a little bit more? What’s that students access point to the task?

Kyle Pearce: What might I be able to do? What questions and prompts might I be able to sort of have already for that student or maybe even warm-up activity prior to introducing this task to get them thinking. Not pre-teaching, but to bring out some of that prior knowledge so that they have a little bit of that leaping point and are able to tackle that task. Is that a challenge that you’d be willing to accept?

Carol Edlin: Oh, for sure.

Jon Orr: Awesome stuff. Awesome stuff.

Kyle Pearce: Well, we’re wondering if it’s okay with you, we would love to maybe follow up with you on the podcast maybe six to nine months from now to see how things are moving along a little bit of accountability there for you so that you know we can touch base again. Obviously, you’re more than welcome to touch base with us through email or Twitter or Facebook, however you choose, but to get us back on the show and see where you’re at with that classroom culture and building that intentionality into your planning, would that be something that you’d be open to coming back on?

Carol Edlin: Yeah, that sounds great. Six to eight months gives me a lot of time.

Kyle Pearce: Absolutely.

Jon Orr: Absolutely. [crosstalk 00:48:33]

Kyle Pearce: And it’s a slow process for sure. Take a little bit at a time. I think the thinking is the most important part here. It’s not the physical doing, but the thinking and reflecting. Those are the big pieces where I think you’re going to see the biggest, the most significant difference and hopefully the podcasts episodes that are coming out every week will be something that you can put your earbuds in, build on some of the things that we were chatting about and what we’ll be chatting with some future guests as well.

Carol Edlin: Oh, you guys get to walk with me in the morning so that’s good. That’s where I get my podcast on my morning walks.

Kyle Pearce: I need the exercise.

Jon Orr: Yeah, exactly. You got to get out there and do some stuff. Carol, we want to thank you for joining us. I know that every time we talk on this podcast, I get a lot of great information to take back to my classroom too from you and Kyle. And we just want to thank you for joining us here and I guess we wish you all the best luck back in the classroom.

Carol Edlin: Thank you very much. I appreciate all the help.

Jon Orr: Well. There you have it. That was Carol Edlin from San Diego, California. We’re looking forward to checking back with her to see how she’s incorporated her biggest takeaways from this call over the next six to 12 months.

Kyle Pearce: Me as well, Jon. I was really impressed with how far Carol has come considering she’s entered the profession with a business degree not a math degree, and then began teaching mathematics at the high school level. She then managed to figure things out and then move down to middle school and it sounds like she’s well on her way to getting things sorted out there as well. In order to get better, we must all be willing to do the work necessary to better understand the content in order to be the best teacher we can be. And despite the fact that she’s doing the work, she still acknowledges the fact that there’s always work to be done. So hats off to Carol for wanting to continue to do more and get better at this thing we call teaching. So lifelong learner there. It’s been a pleasure having a chat with Carol today.

Jon Orr: This was another Math Mentoring Moment episode with many more to come where we will have a conversation with a member of the Making Math Moments That Matter community like you who is working through a challenge and together we will brainstorm ideas and next steps to help overcome it. If you want to join us on the podcast for an upcoming Math Mentoring Moment episode, where you can share those big math struggles, you can apply over at makemathmoments.com/mentor. That is makemathmoments.com/mentor.

Kyle Pearce: In order to ensure you don’t miss out on new episodes as they come out each week, be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. Also, if you’re liking what you’re hearing please share the podcast with a colleague and help us reach an even wider audience by leaving us a review on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play or whatever platform you are listening to right now.

Jon Orr: Show notes and links to resources from this episode can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode25. Again that is makemathmoments.com/episode25.

Kyle Pearce: Well, until next time, I’m Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High-fives for us.

Jon Orr: And high fives for you.



LEARN MORE about our Online Workshop: Making Math Moments That Matter: Helping Teachers Build Resilient Problem Solvers. https://makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop

Thanks For Listening

To help out the show:


  1. Robin Jones

    Kyle and Jon,
    This is the first podcast I have taken the time to listen through, as I am not a novice teacher and have coached teachers for several years in math. My objective in listening to this particular podcast was to gain some bullet points on lesson prep. Instead, I found myself learning how to do a better job coaching. You both spent a lot of time having the teacher walk you through what she remembered and why she came to the conclusions she did. You did not rush to provide solutions, though she asked several times in various ways. Instead, you kept probing for more information. You very gently brought her around to the need to complete the tasks herself before giving them to students. Even in the end, the big take away she gave was her need to find a specific task. Again, you met that need first, before coming back around to suggest that completing the task as many ways as possible with the end in mind, would up her success. You were able to assess your coaching success when she shared her idea of using her 9th grade son as a guinea pig. Thank you for a great example of coaching!

    • Jon & Kyle

      Thanks for reaching out Robin.

      We’ve done some reading on coaching. One of our favourite reads that we apply over and over again is The Coaching Habit. It has so many great tips. When you read it you may even be able to see how we’ve applied it here in this interview.


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