Gimme a Break 3 Act Tasks

I was recently asked to do some more 3 Act Lessons in our 4th grade rooms with fractions! I can’t even say fractions without smiling!  I can’t even say 3 Act tasks without smiling!  I have to say what I love most about 3 Act math tasks is that our most struggling students not only have an entry point to grade-level material, but they are successful with it.  There is nothing like the look on a student’s face who has just proved to him or herself that he/she can be successful in math class AND have fun doing it!

I looked through my usual go-to sites for 3 Act tasks and had already used many of them with students so I did another google search and found a wonderful blog by Kyle Pearce that had many different fraction tasks using Kit Kat bars.

Our students were (like most 4th graders) struggling with the concept of adding fractions with like denominators.  They needed a visual representation and they needed time to puzzle with it.  I used Kyle’s Task 2 for our first experience.  I really liked this task because it could be viewed as fractions with like denominators or structuring to one whole and adding on.  So many times, students go right to a procedure instead of taking time to think about the most efficient way to solve a problem and this problem sets that up very nicely.  Many students were able to visualize that the two halves could combine to make a whole first and then just add the one fourth.  We had tech problems on this one and ended up writing out most of the answers on paper, so unfortunately I don’t have student work pics.

The next lesson was Kyle’s Task 3 in which students had to subtract fractions with like denominators.  I really liked this task because it allowed students to visualize mixed numbers and improper fractions by providing a picture of “one whole” in the context of subtracting fourths.

Each student worked with a partner to view and discuss the tasks.  This question is one that we asked after watching the first act:

task 1 question

After Act 2, we asked:

multiple choice.png

question 2


We had two correct answers as options and noted that to students.  One was in the format of mixed numbers and the other was the improper fractions.

At this point, we had several students who were still struggling with how to represent this situation mathematically. Before moving on to the next question, we let them view the correct answers and wrote them out so they could choose which to solve.

We then had them:drawing

Here are a few responses:

After the reveal, we had volunteers come defend their answers and discuss which strategies they used.  Finally, we had students tell us the math:

whats the math

It’s really easy to gauge which students are on track after the lesson and which are still struggling by their answers and their explanations.

After talking with students during and after the activity, it was apparent that this visual model was a great support for naming fractions both as mixed numbers and improper fractions.

We will definitely use this one again!


Objective: Tell Me At the End

In our district, teachers are required to post their objectives somewhere in the classroom for each lesson including the “what” and the “why.”  I’m a huge fan of inquiry based lessons and I think this can really ruin a great lesson.

Since 3 act tasks are all about exploration and questioning, I never tell my students what the objective is when we are working on a 3 act task.  My first slide always starts out: Objective: Tell Me At the End.

When I started doing more 3 act tasks in classrooms, I noticed some visible tension when I showed this slide and announced to students that “Today I’m not going to tell you what we’re learning about in math.  You are going to tell me.  We’re going to do some wondering and some thinking and some talking and some questioning and then you’re going to tell me what math you did today.  I know I (or your teacher) usually start out by saying today in math we are going to learn about blah blah blah.  But not today.”

I can truthfully say that this is one of the best things I ever did in math class.  Students really seem to enjoy the wrap up when they get to tell me what math they did.  The best thing is that they usually come up with about 4 more objectives than what I would have written on the board.  It’s also a natural closure for the lesson and students get to have the final word.

Now that several classrooms have had me teach a few 3 act lessons, I can hear students start talking early in the lesson about what math operations they will be using which really opens up some great dialogue and reinforces vocabulary.  I have to wonder which objective they will remember at the end of the day.  The one the teacher wrote on the board, or the one they typed out?

3 Act Lessons with Nearpod

Both of my schools are part of the Ignite initiative in our district which means that my 3-5 graders are 1:1 using Chromebooks and K-2 are about 1:3 with iPad minis.  It is really exciting to finally get to make use of the opportunities offered on the web for boosting student engagement, modelling with mathematics, and student collaboration and reflection.  But what I was most excited about, was finding a program or app that would allow me to make 3 Act tasks more interactive for everyone.  I wanted each student to get the opportunity to share their thinking after they discussed their thoughts and strategies with their groups.

I started by trying our Canvas management system and put the tasks on an assignment page.  The problem with that was that students could look ahead at the reveal if they scrolled down and the reports that I got weren’t great.  I then tried making a Canvas module that would allow me to put each act on a different page and have multiple assignments.  Still clunky.  Still less than meaningful reports.

I tried presenting the tasks on my device and using TodaysMeet for students to share their solutions.  That didn’t keep the information very neat and it was difficult to see everyone’s thinking (I do love this website for number talks though:).

After trying each of these and being disappointed, I was on the hunt for something better.  One night, at a district “Appy Hour” I was excited to see a session that might be just what I needed…and it was!  I started using Nearpod right away.

Pros: Presentation is completely controlled by me when students are on their individual devices.  They cannot progress to the next screen until I move mine.  This to me is very important in a delivery method.

Students can write, draw, or take a picture of their work and upload it.  Then I can share it to each device while they explain their strategy.

Works on Chromebooks and is great for K-2 on iPad with ability to draw with their fingers or take a picture of their manipulatives.

Multiple question types.


Limited size of video uploads.

Many features are not available in the trial version and the gold version is quite expensive.

Check out my 3 Act posts to see some examples of the reports and images I can collect from students as they solve these tasks.



Contemplating Math Instruction…

I have really been struggling lately with balancing “test prep” and quality math instruction.  Teachers begin to stress the test as early as the first day of school, but for many it is a balancing act of preparing students for the ever-looming MAP test and providing them with high quality math instruction.  At the beginning of the year we review our pacing guides, start a calendar to make sure we hit all the major points before March, and begin the mad dash to teach!  Although we have instruction days well into the middle of May, we rush to cram in as much as possible to be ready for MAP.  In my opinion, our new math curriculum adoption is a good one.  We use My Math and it does a very good job of providing conceptual experiences for students to build on as they move to more abstract concepts.  However, we have to cut out or glaze over many of the lessons in 3-5 in order to “fit it all in” before MAP.  Teachers struggle with this conundrum and are rightfully irritated that they must spend less time exploring and more time cramming.

We have been trying out inquiry based lessons and 3 Act Math tasks whenever we can find the time…which got me thinking…should we have to find the time?  Isn’t this the type of math we should be doing all of the time?

So I began digging into some word problems and watching students as they solved them.  What I realized (much like what Dan Meyer explains in his Ted Talk) is that although we have contextualized these problems to involve real world objects and scenarios, they are in fact, NOT real world math.  They are plug and play procedural drills.

Tonight my son was running a fever and I couldn’t find that little Tylenol measuring cup they give you with the medicine, so I looked on the back of the container and saw that I could dispense it to him in teaspoons or ml.  For his age and weight, he needed 1 1/2 tsp of medicine or 750 ml.  I found a plunger that had a marking for 500 ml, but the rest of the marking had worn off, so I had to determine how much more than 500 ml I would need.  Of course this is an over-simplified problem for a math teacher, but I have found that many students when faced with problems like this, have no way to start a solution.

So what are some of the hindrances teachers face when providing quality math instruction?  What are the answers?  If you could write the assessments, what would they look like?  Am I the only one who gets shivers down my spine when someone mentions “test prep?”

Assessments are fantastic planning tools.   They are necessary and integral to quality instruction.  I am responsible for providing professional development for teachers in mathematics and part of that job is helping them plan how they will prepare students for the MAP test.  I struggle with this on a daily basis.  My philosophy of teaching screams one thing and my state screams another!  I feel like I am selling out, but I also feel that I would be letting down my district if I didn’t push the prep.  I just wonder if we should stop more frequently to ask “what’s our purpose” when it comes to assessments.  Sigh.