Stoking the Fire in Math Class

By CUE Member and Guest Blogger John Stevens

As winter is upon us, it is time to snuggle up next to the fire and grab a nice math problem. You see, warming up is one of the essential parts of the season, as well as your math class. The problem with most math warm-ups is that they are sparks instead of sustainable fireplaces. You know the kind. The ones that you can watch and enjoy, getting lost in the crackling and heat projected outward to the entire room. Yes, I’m still talking about the math.

Thanks to the development of something called the “Math Twitter Blogosphere,” a name which all of us associated scratch our heads about, there have been a number of alternatives offered in lieu of a traditional warm-up. With the onset of Common Core coming fast, many math teachers are scrambling, working hard to avoid the “we don’t need to write in math class” comment that is pre-loaded into students’ bucket of excuses. These ideas will undoubtedly ignite a flame, plenty of conversation, and the residual effect will be quality writing to justify a reasoning.

So, here we go. These are a list of some of the most engaging ways to get kids talking to start the day:

MON: AnyQ’s; TUE: Estimations180; WED: Graphing Stories / Math Mistakes/ Always,Sometimes,Never; THU: Would You Rather, FRI: Visual Patterns

— Happy Krallidays (@emergentmath) December 18, 2013

Estimation 180

How many marshmallows will it take to make the four leaf clover? How fast can I run across the basketball court? How many ounces does the giant chocolate bar weigh? These questions are all supported by pictures and/or video created by Andrew Stadel as a way to get his students thinking about number sense and reasoning. The bar for entry is extremely low, inviting all students to simply make a guess. As the school year goes on, the guesses get more methodical and the challenge of being correct takes on a mind of its own. There are conveniently 180 of them. If you are feeling like taking on a project of your own, Jonathan Claydon shared his students’ adventure with creating their own estimation task.

Graphing Stories

Graphs are notorious for being the thorn in students’ sides throughout many math courses. One of the major problems is that graphs are rarely exciting to a class of adolescents. Dan Meyer sets out to bring challenge to graphs in a way that is engaging to students.  Whether it’s a change in height, air pressure, weight, or more, choosing one of these and having your students work through the graph is a great way to introduce or reinforce plotting functions and graphing.

Math Mistakes

We all make mistakes. This is the beauty of being human. In math class, many mistakes are absolute and final, leading students to believe that a mistake is the end of the problem, never to be corrected or explored. Michael Pershan has collected a plethora of mistakes made by students at nearly every grade level. Posting a mistake of the day allows students to feel comfortable with attempting the problem, knowing that it is already wrong. Where did the student make the mistake? What could they have done differently? What is one correct way to solve this problem? Explain it to this student in words. There are plenty of ways to differentiate a scenario like this as a way to start the day. If you think about it, the class starts off with a wrong answer and works its way up from there.

Visual Patterns

Giving students, or just human beings in general, a picture to look at is fascinating. There are so many things that we can do to spark the interest of children by just presenting a picture and having them come up with the pattern. Fawn Nguyen is the mastermind behind the website, but many contributors have enhanced the overall quality and quantity of the content on the site. This is a great way to provoke discussion, showing work, and justification without saying so much as, “here is your visual pattern for today.”

Would You Rather…?

Would you rather pay $3.49 per gallon of gas with cash or $3.59 per gallon of gas with credit and a 3% cash back reward? Working with problems like these are great because there is no wrong answer. Facilitating scenarios in which students are forced to make a decision allows everyone to participate and gives an advantage to the student who can provide appropriate justification. There have been many instances where arguments (controlled, of course) ensued due to the passion students displayed about their choice. Not only are these great ways to start a class, but they are often decisions that we are forced to make as adults.


Being a math teacher can no longer be solely the job of teaching number. When I was a student in school, it was common to get 25-40 problems, solve them, and move on to the next topic. There was never any reflection required. In today’s educational landscape, we are asking our students deeper questions. It isn’t so much about playing nice with the implementation of Common Core. Instead, it is about doing what we truly believe is best for our students.

Above all else, the reality is that we are all here to support each other. There are many math sites that ask you to pay for a service, and some of them are well worth the money. However, what I have found by being a part of the online community is that so many math teachers are out there and want to be supported, just like me.  Take advantage of them, become a part of them, and, when the time is right, start to contribute to the burning flame of quality math resources available to all of us.

Here are some extra resources that can be used to provide a spark:

John Stevens

John Stevens

John Stevens is an educational technology coach for a high school district who has also taught high school Geometry, Algebra 1, middle school Math, Service Learning, and Robotics, Engineering, and Design since 2006. He has served as the go-to guy for trying new, crazy, and often untested ideas to see how well they will work.

He co-founded and moderates #CAedchat, the weekly teacher Twitter chat for the state of California. He also is the co-founder and organizer of EdCamp Palm Springs, the first in the area. In his free time that doesn’t exist, he runs a site called Would You Rather? which is dedicated to getting students talking about math. He is an author of Flipping 2.0, a resource that helps teachers take the flipped classroom to the next level. During the summer of 2013, John had the honor of presenting at two CUE Rockstars, one in Lake Tahoe and the other aboard the USS Hornet. John blogs at fishing4tech.com. Follow him @jstevens009 or email him at stevens009@gmail.com

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