My Favorite Task & the Magical Teaching Sweet Spot

Posted by on Jan 18, 2015 in Middle School | No Comments

Sara Van Der Werf     

Ramsey Middle School, 7th grade Mathematics Teacher;   President-Elect MCTM
Twitter @saravdwerf

I could not have predicted my favorite day in my 7th grade classroom last school year.  The task I selected for the day was chosen as a quick 10 minute warm-up problem.  The task was not sexy or glamorous.  I had no fancy visuals or manipulatives to use.  The task was 22 words long.  22 words was all it took to create the magical sweet spot of teaching we are all hoping for in our classrooms.

Fall 2013 I returned to teaching after 5 years working at my district office.  Before school began I created a list of 30 things I hoped to do as a teacher of 7th grade students.  One thing I learned quickly is that 30 things is too many!  Ha!  Within a month I found myself focusing on 2 main areas:

  • I will create or find open ended rich tasks with multiple entry points.
  • I will foster an environment where everyone is expected to explain their thinking and comment on the mathematical thinking of others.

My definition of success in my classroom, what I call the magical teaching sweet spot, is when every student is working on mathematics, talking about mathematics with their group members, feeling puzzled and feeling successful.  During this time, all I am doing is moving from group to group asking questions.  During the sweet spot, I am not getting hung up with a couple of students who have no idea where to start as often happens.

On April 15th I experienced the magical sweet spot in my classroom with this 22 word task:

Create a data set of 6 different values with a median of 45, a mean of 50 and a range of 60.

I selected this task because I was beginning work on MN Benchmark (Describe the impact that inserting or deleting a data point has on the mean and the median of a data set. Know how to create data displays using a spreadsheet to examine this impact.) I wanted to review mean/median/range without using a typical skill worksheet, so I selected the task above as my quick opening question for my students.  What followed was not quick, but was the magic sweet spot I seek as a teacher.

Groups immediately began raising hands asking me to remind them what ‘median’ was. I encouraged them to look it up in a math handbook I had made and was loaded on their iPads (you can find it here: – my goal with this handbook is to teach them to look up information versus me being the keeper of information).  Students began arguing and discussing what they thought the solution might be. They took out calculators and began writing.

I looked around the room and every student was working. Every student.  My lowest students had an entry point (most started with the range and felt successful with this).  My strongest students were arguing with one another over whether there was only one correct solution (there was not).  45 minutes later, students had created and presented many possible solution sets. Students left the class knowing the definitions of mean/median and range without me having to give them these definitions for the fifth time since 3rd grade. Students left class having a beginning understanding of the impact of inserting a value on the mean and median because as they created their data sets some values they selected impacted one or both of these measures.

This was my favorite teaching day in 2013-14.  I had many others, but I loved that on this day it did not take anything fancy  for students to feel both the struggle and  success in  mathematics class.  I literally felt like I could see their brains thinking phrases like “Oh, now I remember!”, “I wonder if…”, “Let me try…”, “Now I get it.” and more.  I love that students vacillated several times between being frustrated and being energized to trying something.

Fall 2014 I am still working on the same things to create the magical sweet spot moments in my classroom. During the last year I’ve been reading about the importance of ‘productive struggle’ (google it) in mathematics.  I’ve been challenged by Dan Meyer’s description of a math Classroom: “the purpose of math class is to build a student’s capacity to puzzle and unpuzzle herself”. When my students are willing to be puzzled by a math task and be persistent in solving it so they can feel the catharsis of being unpuzzled, this is the magical sweet spot in my classroom.  Each day I work to create these moments with the tasks and questions I select to put in front of my students.

Here are some links to three tasks that created magical moments in my class this fall:

Fawn Nguyen’s Stacking Cups (many others have done this task too – Linear Equations) with Andrew Stadel’s 3 Act Lesson as a follow up (beginning idea of systems)–act-1

The Stained Glass Problem from Illustrative Mathematics (area and circumference of a circle)

Robert Kaplinsky’s ‘How much does a 100×100 In & Out burger cost’ Task (Linear Equations)

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