I had a wonderful day today. Classroom magic happened. It is so rare and beautiful that I didn’t know what it was at first. I processed with a colleague afterward, and he asked what I put in place that made the magic happen. I had a tough time with this question. I always think I put my best effort into a lesson, but something happened with it during period 7 today that made the whole classroom do mathematics together. So here’s how it went down. What do I need to be sure to do tomorrow to re-create magic?

We started the lesson yesterday. We did whole-class questions on percent of a number and percent discounts, and had volunteers solve the problems in different ways on the board. Kids demonstrated benchmark percents, multiplying by decimal equivalents, converting to fractions, and hybrid strategies. I told the kids to get their netbooks and log on while I gave them instructions for the group work time.

In their groups of 3 or 4, I asked for one person to create a new Word document while the other group members downloaded the activity .pdf file. Their learning target was to compute and analyze discounts to find the best deal.

I got the activity from the Financial Fitness for Life book that I picked up at a recent training. I originally had in mind that the learning target would be to compute percent discounts, but I liked that this activity had different kinds of discounts, not just percents, so kids really had to read the word problems carefully and not just apply an algorithm to get the cost. It also spiraled back to rates and unit pricing, which I liked. I will attach one page of the activity so you can see what it’s like, but you should get the book. It’s wonderful.

While the kids were logging on to the netbooks and downloading the file, I asked for a little multitasking attention and modeled an example problem for them. At MexiFiesta, I have two coupons: One that is “buy three, get one free” and one that is for 15% off my total bill. I planned to buy 3 burritos at $6.00 each and one kids’ meal at $3.50. I thought out loud and analyzed the two discounts I would get, determining that the first coupon would save me $3.50 while the second coupon would save me $3.23, so the first coupon was a better deal.

I told them they would be seeing ten problems, each with 2 possible coupons to use. They would have to analyze the discounts with their teammates and calculate the better deal. The teammate with the Word document would capture their complete-sentence responses and submit the team’s answers and reflection.

They started, but most teams only got 1 or 2 problems in before the period ended. So we continued the next day.

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Day 2!

I asked the students to log on to their netbooks and open the Coupon activity or Word document, whichever they were working on yesterday. While they logged on, they worked on warmup problems on computing percent of a number. Randomly selected students showed their work on the board.

I pointed out one tricky problem in the problem set, in which students paid different prices for peanut butter but got different amounts of peanut butter. I demonstrated how someone could organize the information: dollars, ounces, dollars, ounces… and suggested maybe unit rates would help, but they ought to consider whether dollars per ounce or ounces per dollar made more sense.

I told them to share their thinking with each other and reminded them to capture complete-sentence responses in the Word document.

And then magic happened!!!

I circulated, waiting for a group to need reminding to get on task. Waiting for a group to say “I don’t get this problem.” They never did. The room was filled with the sound of debate and discussion and “I think I figured it out” and “My answer is different” and “How’d you get that” and “We got done 5 problems, let’s do the next one.” They made mistakes, but they worked them out as a team instead of summoning me over. After the first 10 minutes, a student said “We’re all doing math. This is weird. This isn’t like our class.” EVERY kid was doing math and even doing hand computation just to prove they could. No one asked to use the restroom or sharpen a pencil. Anything I said would have been an interruption to their work. There was noise in the room, but it was a busy working noise. Amazing.

They were excited to share their answers and write their reflection statements. They put the netbooks away neatly and got out their journals to capture vocabulary for the next lesson. I was sad to see the class end when it did.

I think I organized the lesson the same for period 5 and also period 1, but it was in that last class of the day that every kid on the room decided to be a mathematician. There are probably other factors I haven’t thought about.

Period 7 is smaller than my other classes, with 20 students instead of 30.

I really can’t think of any other factors that would have played a role. The demographics of each class are really similar as far as the mix of partially proficient, proficient, and advanced students. And to be fair, the other classes did a good job. I just had to do a little policing as well and in each class, there were one or two groups that had a tough time getting things going. Not so in that last class.

Did I just get lucky, or what other factors make magic happen in a classroom?