First Day Plans and Asking Questions That Are Strange

The first day of school is on Thursday.  I’m excited to get back into it all, but also apprehensive about how little sleep I’m about to get and how many names I’m going to take too long to learn.  (ALTHOUGH: looking at my rosters, it looks like I already know about 35 of my 75 students.  Which definitely didn’t happen in my first two years.  Also, I fully expect that total student number to grow by about 15 in the first two weeks.)

I went to the NCTM conference in Philly last year and I saw a presentation by three teachers from Westport, CT public schools – April Harvey, Stacey Delmhorst, and Michele Niedermeier.  I was very interested in a first day activity they discussed in which they gave students a question without any numbers.  Then students would have to figure out what information they needed, and then the teacher would give them the facts, and life would carry on.  I used this method once in my algebra class last year and it went very well.  

I’ve gone in a bit of a different direction, inspired also by the idea of asking curious math questions at cocktail parties such as “if you lined up all the umbrellas in Boston, how far would they reach?”  Again, nobody receives any useful numbers.  The difference is that the problem-solver has to figure out those useful numbers on their own.  I thought this would be great for the first day of school, because students really have to use all sorts of reasoning, but in a way that they’re fully making the work their own.  Hopefully, this gives them a good taste in their mouths.

The question I decided to go with was: If we type up all the text messages that students at our school have sent over the last year, and make a book out of them, how long will the book be?

Here’s the worksheet:

If you look at it, you’ll notice that I’ve asked my students to write out ALL the reasoning that got them to their final answer.  I thought it was important to mention that they should include both their estimations and their assumptions.  My guess is that the assumptions will be uncomfortable for most students.  I’m giving them free range to decide what the book will look like, rather than prescribing page or margin size or anything more specific.  Hopefully that will make the activity a little more realistic, in that if you ever have to create anything at all, you have a whole lot of choices to make.

In the past, when I’ve asked my students to explain their reasoning, they haven’t gone into much detail and don’t know how to organize their thoughts.  I have half-heartedly tried to teach them how to do it, but I haven’t ever created a long-term plan.  I hope that starting the year off with an explanation helps, but I do need to put more thought into later plans.  One thing that I DO know that I’ll do is start the next class with a gallery walk through of everybody’s work and ask everybody to comment on one another’s stuff.  I’m hoping to put up a sheet for praise and a sheet for criticism under each group’s work, but I haven’t met my students yet soo I can’t be sure what I’ll have to do to make that happen in a nice, supportive, group-hug-y sort of way.

I’ll definitely report back on what sort of grand education of the youth happens.



  1. Hoxie

    Not only will your kids work on their reasoning skills, but they’ll also be in tip-top shape for those quant interviews in a few years… hedge funds love questions like this, if I understand things correctly.

  2. Pingback: Please Take Out Your Cell Phones « lets talk about math
  3. Pingback: Portfolio – full year project – handouts, description | lets talk about math

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