When Math Just Happens

As I continue to meet my Annual Learning Plan goal of increasing communication in math, I’m constantly looking at ways to incorporate more problem solving into math. Up until now, I’ve been making very deliberate attempts to do this — be it asking open-ended questions or exploring word problems — but today things changed.

We’re currently working on this Global Teapot Project thanks to a fantastic teacher in Hawaii, Melvina Kurashige. Coupled with our Social Studies Unit on Canada’s Trading Partners, students are working in groups to design a box to send five teapots off to five different classrooms from around the world: including one in Australia, one in Manitoba, one in Wisconsin, and two in Ontario. Their box designs need to depict Canada’s connections with the United States. Students have researched this topic and sketched pictures using various tools from pencils and paper to the computer to an iPad app. Some students even used Minecraft. After creating their designs, they had to explain how their pictures relate to the topic of Canada’s connections with the United States, and why their designs are the best ones to use for the box. Students are sharing their thinking in various ways (from written reports to movies), and incredibly engaged by this project.

This morning, a student approached me asking if we needed boxes for the project. She just moved, and she has tons of boxes at her house. I was initially going to use pizza boxes for students to cut-up and tape together for their teapot boxes. Moving boxes seemed like an even better idea though! I said that this would be fantastic, and the student texted her mom asking. By first nutrition break, her fantastic mom had already dropped off a pile of boxes. Yeah!!

Since we’re not creating the actual teapot boxes until next week, I found a corner in the classroom to store the boxes and thought nothing of them again. Then I had Social Studies with my teaching partner’s class, and that’s when things changed.

The students saw the boxes right away, and got incredibly excited about them. As students worked on their designs, math conversations started to evolve. Students began to whisper, “I wonder how big our box needs to be.” Then they wanted to check.

Students came to ask me and instead of giving them a size, I had them look at the teapot.

One student got a ruler and started measuring around the teapot. Another student put her thumbs together, spread her hands out wide, and said, “The teapot is about this big. We’ll need more room in our box though. The teapot needs to be wrapped in bubble wrap.” Now students were thinking in terms of standard and non-standard units of measure.

Some students were adding up how much cardboard they would need for the entire box. They started multiplying by the number of sides on the box. As one boy said, “Remember, we have the four sides we’re going to draw on, but we also need a top and a bottom. That’s six sides.” Now students were starting to use addition and multiplication in meaningful ways. They were even exploring surface area and volume, and all without realizing it.

Watching the students today (and wishing that I was videotaping them as well) made me wonder: when we create math problems for students, do we forget about the importance of making math meaningful? When the students started wondering and exploring today, they saw the purpose in math, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. Next week, the students will be learning the formulas for determining the volume of different prisms. Maybe now they’ll really realize the purpose in this math and have an even greater interest in it as well.

How do you promote mathematical wondering in your students (of all ages)? I’d love to hear your ideas!


4 thoughts on “When Math Just Happens

  1. What a great reflection Aviva! This is exactly the kind of approach to teaching and learning we need to celebrate: just creating the conditions for the experience and getting out of the way to observe; choosing very carefully when to jump in with a reflective question for guidance. Your students were engaged because this was a problem THEY created and formulated. I’m going to keep watching. Please keep the great stories coming!

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Cam, and for the positive feedback! I agree with you when you say that the students were engaged because “this is a problem that THEY created.” I’m starting to wonder how I can ensure this happens more in math. There’s sure to be many more reflections to follow. 🙂


    • Thanks Karen! I absolutely agree. Even when we try to create math problems that are supposed to be “meaningful,” I’m beginning to think that the only really meaningful ones are the real ones.


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