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Silver Lining

So I did a craptastic lesson yesterday. Minimal preparation – just a short slide deck as an intro, and then an assignment sheet out of the consumable book from the scripted program I’m supposed to be teaching. I certainly didn’t feel a lot of inspiration, and it certainly didn’t feel worthy of the accolades of being a story teller I’d gotten for my annual report.

So I was already to put it behind me – I came home, fixed a cocktail, and browsed the interwebs for some inspiration and relief. I started digging through H’s archives (a lot of previously unfound but top notch blogs have hit my radar since I actually started my own, and their archives provide some good brain food) and found a link to Next Vista.

On a whim, I checked out the multiplying decimals one, which matched the lesson I had just done. Now, I realize this site is just tidbits, something kids can use as advice for homework, and that they shouldn’t really be considered proper lesson plans, but watching that made me realize how many teachers I’d seen that focus on “how” rather than “why”, and that even my steaming pile of a lesson that day might have had something to offer.

It may, it may not. I may be stating the obvious here, but I don’t get into enough other classrooms to be able to say whether it is. If I am, please be gentle, and if I’m not, I hope that this may help in some way. I just don’t know.

Here’s the lesson:

After a couple of review problems from the previous day (adding and subtracting fractions), and a verbal preamble, I hit them with two review slides covering material from before winter break:

I had to point out the examples, and step through them. After a couple of minutes to solve the problems, I led the class through a shout out of not just the answers, but the where each part came from to reinvolve all the kids who’d checked out. I made a particular point of getting the unsimplified fractions each time. By the end of each slide, I had almost complete participation. After all, this was review – something they knew already, and could be successful at.

Then I hit them with this next slide (which will show up as a bunch of slides because it has a lot of build in it). And the slide isn’t the trick – it’s how you present it.

I stop explaining. I’m done telling the story. I’ve set up the characters, provided the background, and now I provide the conflict (the new problem). It is now up to my students to continue – I become the audience. Each step of the build is only revealed after they tell me what it is.

The only part visible at first is the problem – not even the first equal sign. I read it out loud to them, and trail off in a long “Uuuhhhm…”

Then I wait.

Eventually someone will yell out to turn them into fractions (after all, I did set them up for this). I’ll give another “Huh?” and ask another student to explain. Once they do, I’ll ask two more students to tell me what those fractions are.

Some more kids immediately jump on figuring out what 25*33 is – not all of them, but enough. Everyone is more than happy to multiply the denominators for me, though. That’s great, because even though it’s easy, that’s the key to the whole thing.

And here’s where the first Aha! happens – someone will notice that the new fraction looks like one of the ones we made from decimals, and point that out. I act confused for a bit to get them to explain, and let other kids join into the explanation. This is the climax – the kids are telling me why multiplication of decimals works the way it does.

The resolution of the story is told by them as well. They review the steps, and realize that they can get rid of all that fraction stuff in the middle, and come up with these rules on their own:

After that, it’s a matter of having them go to town on the worksheets to practice their newly discovered skill.


My silver lining is that, even when I pound out a bare bones basic lesson, with 3 slides and a prefab worksheet, I’m still creating a story. It may not be the most engaging story in the world, but it’s enough that the class will follow it, and it’s clear enough that they can pick it up and finish it for me. They can explain to me how to do what they learned, without me having to explain it to them first. I take this level of thinking on their part for granted, rather than a special accomplishment. Maybe that’s not so craptastic after all.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Rushton Hurley | January 12, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mr. K,

    Great post about your experience teaching decimals and fractions. We have some more videos about the nature of fractions that, once we finish off, I’d like your opinion of. Hopefully that will happen in the next month or so!

    Even better, I wonder if a follow-up discussion might happen with your students about how to tell what they learned to others their age. Naturally, I’d like it to take the form of a video that we could put up at If you’re up for talking through such a project, please let me know.

    Rushton Hurley
    executive director, Next Vista for Learning