One thing that was lacking in my early years of teaching middle school was, what some might call, the hook. You know, the thing that gets kids interested in the story of the problem before you have them do any math. By story I am not referring to the dreaded word problem (a.k.a. story problem). No, what I'm referring to is a set-up that gets kids thinking, questions, or at least listening. Dan Meyer is awesome at this... and I'm getting better. How did I do this?
I like this approach because it doesn't take an overhaul of your lesson plans or curriculum. It doesn't even take that much time. What it does take is a little creativity and acting. Now, I'm not an actress and I wasn't even in drama club in high school. However, if you teach, you already have a little acting experience! ~ACTION!~
I think an effective teacher needs to get excited about the content they are teaching. You have to show that excitement to the students and watch a little of it rub off on them. Do I find math the most exciting thing in the world? Well, in some ways, yes, but certainly not every topic I teach is my favorite... but my students don't know that. Algebra? Yipee! Polygons? Woo-hoo! Similar Figures? Yes!! See what I mean? And if you aren't feeling it? "Fake it 'til you make it," is a good motto. Think of it as method acting.
I did a math talk the other day. The problem was this:
A sundae has
2 scoops of ice cream and
3 oz of hot fudge.
If the ratio stays the same, how much hot fudge is needed for 10 scoops? 5 scoops?
Okay, a good old ratio problem, right? And it's about ice cream (kids love ice cream!) and it's a real-life problem (yay, real world problem solving!). Except... yawn... it's boring!
Q: But why? A: There's no story behind it.
So, instead of just plopping the problem up on the board, I started by telling a story instead. I told the students that I believed there were two types of people in this world based on how they ate an ice cream sundae. I described an ice cream sundae with ice cream and yummy hot fudge. I really played up my descriptions until they were all just about drooling (especially my kiddos right before lunch, poor things!) Then I said that one type of person dives right in eating yummy chocolatey bites, going from top to bottom. The only problem is at the end they have some bites that have no hot fudge. The other type of person eats carefully putting a little hot fudge in each bite. Saving enough hot fudge so that each bite, even in the bottom, had at least a bit of fudge in the bite.
After I talked about this theory of ice cream eating, I had students raise their hands and vote for their favorite eating style. They all were super engaged in this and totally into thinking about an ice cream sundae. Then I asked what they thought the best ratio of ice cream to hot fudge was. I threw that word ratio in there, but they didn't even flinch. It was a real-world context and the math dial was still turned down pretty low. We discussed their ratios and rationale.
Now the Math
Then, finally, I introduced the first part of the problem. We discussed and I introduced the first question. We discussed and then the last question. I could say a lot about how to do the discussion... questions to ask, etc. For now, I will keep the focus of this post on the story and build-up. But, I can say that the math discussion went well, students were engaged, and even my reluctant mathematicians were into it.