Building Student Motivation – Using Reflections

I read somewhere that having students write down one or two things they remember about a lesson helps “make it sticky.”  I think this is probably from a book I haven’t read yet, but have heard spoken about, called Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning.

Since I teach middle schoolers, I also want to show that I value their opinion and voice.  Many haven’t been asked what they think about a lesson.  I hold a personal belief that simply asking people for their feedback helps to create motivation and buy-in in a class (I mean, “class” as shared experience as opposed to “class” as a particular lesson or subject).  Part of the battle, particularly with all the baggage students bring in about math, is getting them to buy into both me and my class, without even thinking about it as math.  Just associating positive experiences and willingness to try and learn with the physical space and group.

All this is a long-winded way to say that, as a result of the thoughts above, I began giving students daily (we’ve been good about averaging 3-4 per week) reflection sheets.  (I use these: feedback form).  They’re half pages, and I just keep a stack lying around.  I’ve been into icons this year.

So far, there’s only been positives to this endeavor:

  • Students ask questions – both about what they don’t understand or something they’re now wondering.
  • I see what salient things they remember from the lesson – this can be very interesting, and often surprising!
  • They’re feedback is often heartwarming.  A student even said, “another great lesson!”

To be honest, this is coming late as a post because I was going to post some samples.  I still want to do that, it just escapes me every day as it moves to the bottom of my to-do list.  So, that’s a goal for this week – some images of the feedback!

Week 1 in Reveiw

So far, this has been the best first week of teaching!

At the end of each class, I have students write:

  • 2 things that they learned
  • 1 question they have (optional right now)
  • 1 piece of feedback (something they thought about the lesson – positive or negative)

The response to the lesson that introduced the Socratic-type discussion (I did the questioning sequence I wrote about to introduce base 2 and reinforce base 10) was great!  Some comments:

  • “I liked this lesson because I learned something I didn’t know before.”
  • “I still don’t really understand base 2, but I loved the lesson.”
  • “I loved the lesson because it was challenging and hard.”
  • “I liked this lesson.  I’d also like to do more problems like the Noah’s ark problem.”
  • “I love it because you start out with something so baby and then expand on it.

There were lots of questions about base 2 and whether or not there were other bases.

In addition, in the “what did you learn” category, a lot of students wrote about base 2 as their first thing, but then included something about no realizing that the connection between the columns we use and the number of numerals we have.  I’m really excited to have this to go back to and expand on what we talk about scientific notation in a few weeks. I think the students are going to be really excited to see that connection (instead of the traditional, “move the decimal point x spaces to the left/right).

We ended the week with the Factor Craze problem.  This will be a separate post.  I’m not sure how I’m going to end this problem – and exactly what I want the students to get out of it – but the first day of work they got through finding some numbers.  I think we’ll focus on looking for patterns.  Anyway, next time!



Opening Scientific Notation + Laws of Exponents Unit

In about a week or so, we’ll start our first official “8th Grade” unit.  We use the EngageNY sequencing, and our units (or “modules,” as they are called) are based on the Common Core.

I’m going to write about how I teach a bunch of this stuff, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to open this unit.  You know, I really always hate that scientific notation (converting numbers in and out of) seems to get reduced to moving the decimal point a certain number of places left or right.  It irks me the way rules like adding zeros when you multiply by 10 or 100 (instead of thinking about it as moving the decimal point) irk me.  I want students to know the shortcut – it’s useful, I use it all the time, and I want them to be able to see how cool multiplying and dividing with the number 10 is.  BUT.  I want them to know why it works.  Especially because when they’re trying to memorize lots of rules, they always get them mixed up.  And also, ugh memorization.  And finally, I’m really not convinced my 8th graders really get place value and how it goes up by a power of ten.

And then, the other night, I was lying awake in bed thinking about this, and I was like – teach them binary!  And then maybe look again at basic place value stuff.  And then connect it to scientific notation/Laws of Exponents.

So I did some searching, and came across this article.  I like questions, and this sequence of questions that helps this group of 3rd graders seemed like an easy entry for my 8th graders.

The plan, transition, etc. clearly needs to be thought out more.  I have some time since we’re doing a bunch of diagnostic-y stuff to figure out where they’re at skill-wise and problem solving-wise (and teaching procedures like Estimation 180).

Question, though: has anyone taught/reinforced place value with students?  Good strategies, lessons, ideas?

Using Estimation 180

Last year, my co-teacher and I used Estimation 180 as our daily warm-up for class.  We then expanded it into a project where students made their own series of estimation slides (this was inspired by suggestions from a Twitter exchange) and then students ran the warm-up procedure with their own slides.  Below, I’m breaking down how each part went, and what we hope to change and add in this year.


1.  Students come into room, get binder, open to their Estimation 180 recording sheet.

2.  Students respond to the estimation projected on the board by completing the day, description, too low, too high, my estimate, and my reason columns (timer is set for 2-3 minutes).  This is supposed to be independent (or #oyo – on your own – as we tag it in my class), but I don’t get too stressed if students are talking about it.  I like that they’re excited.

3.  At our school, we use Cooperative Learning Structures (CLS) that were developed by Kagan.  We use either a timed pair share or a timed round robin and students share with each other their estimate and their reason (often they also like to share their too low/too high).  This gives everyone a chance to share (about 2 minutes).

4.  I take a few answers from the whole group.  I push them on their reasons, having them identify and say whether or not they used prior knowledge and/or context clues.  I like to get them thinking beyond “it looks big” and think about why it looks that way based on the context (big and small being such relative ideas).  I also remind them about using units of measure.  For example, if we’re measuring something, students will say, “I think it’s 2.” And I’ll say, “2 peanuts?” And everyone will giggle and the student says, “No! Inches.”

This actually happened yesterday.  We have a new student who is from Jamaica, and uses the metric system.  And the students were totally thrown off.  So we had to talk about that.

5. So then, I say, “drum roll please.”  All the students drum their desks.  As the year goes on, we do finger rolls (drum rolls with just one finger) and other types of drum rolls.  They really love drum rolls.  Apparently, 8th graders don’t get to make loud noises enough.

6.  I reveal the answer to various responses throughout the room.  Usually, “awww, I was only __ off” or “nooooo” or “yesss!”

7.  We then calculate our error and percent error.  Students get 2 minutes to do this and can use calculators.


So, for the first two months, I use Andrew Stadel’s work on the Estimation 180 website and I facilitate the procedure. Last year, I did this throughout the entire year until the end when the students presented their own (in the same format as above – they have to lead the CLS and everything).

This year, I’m going to have them lead the ones that are pre-made (starting around November, so that everyone gets a chance to practice presenting.  They’ll get the task sheets with the parameters for making their own in January.  They’ll have time to make their own, and then we’ll start students presenting those.  Last year, we had students choose one of their slides to present.  This was great, but they didn’t really get to see the progression that some students had built into their presentations.  But, I don’t have 30 weeks to give each student all 5 days.  So…maybe I’ll have them choose 2 slides?  Or maybe we’ll post them around the school and let students try estimating.  Or! Maybe, at least in my co-taught class, I’ll have them present to the 6th or 7th graders….that would be cool.


Here are some of the resources that we created last year:



This is the start of a new school year!  Last week, the students piled into my classroom which, for the first time in several years, was pretty pulled together for the first day!

This first “week” was really only two days.  During the first day, we have an extended advisory period, so math class ends up being about 25 minutes long.  I showed a Prezi that covered some big ideas about class: the importance of struggling, that I really value being nice in class as we work through new ideas together, making mistakes is important (but so is making it right – both in math and if you hurt someone’s feelings), being here, prepared, and relevant are musts, and that they really need to use a pencil.

The second day we actually went over one of the warm-ups we do – Estimation 180.  Last year, I did this every day as the warm up.  This year, I think I’ll do it 3 days/week and add in some other warm-ups for the other 2 days.  I’m going to do an entire blog post on our Estimation 180 procedure.  It’s a pretty fun and easy way to start class, and it’s also a year-long project that my co-teacher and I turned into a portfolio piece last year.  We’ve also modified the response sheet to give students so more room to write.  Because I like to reinforce the idea of percents as equivalent fractions that are out of 100, the model shows a proportion set up for determining percent error.

I’m really proud that this year we spent the period modeling what to do in each box on the sheet and why we did it.  At one point, as I was bouncing around the room from my left foot to the my right, the class was chanting, “prior knowledge” and “context clues” as the elements we use to make good estimations.

We briefly touched on benchmarks in one of my classes, which led me thinking last night in a whole new direction for the start of the next unit.  That will be a next post, for sure, because I’m going to need some help figuring out exactly what I want to do.

I’m excited to keep up with this blog this year! I’ve been reading for a while, and the discussion on Twitter this summer about reading and interacting really got me thinking about contributing.  I think that there’s value in just reading for a while – I don’t regret it at all or feel guilty about it – but I think I’m ready to at least create a space to grow on my own.  Onward!