Launching a Task – Tips from Mr. Smith (part 1 of 2)

In 2004 I left my first teaching job of 13 years at a high school to teach middle school (same district).  I was on a mission to learn how to address the math needs of my districts students well before they arrived to high school.  In staff development training I met some of our distracts wonderfully talented middle school math teachers, including one who I will call Mr Smith.  Mr Smith taught math at a school 2 miles north of mine & I immediately knew I could learn a lot from him.  We became friends.  4 years later he encouraged me to apply for our districts math lead position. Mr. Smith has had a significant impact in how I enact math lessons.  In this post I will tell you about what I learned from Mr. Smith.  In post 2, I will tell you how this has changed my own teaching by redesigning how I launch a math lesson.

During the time Mr. Smith and I became friends, there were two major initiatives in our district you should know about.  One, the professional development framework was out of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning (IFL). All teachers in all subject areas received 4-7 days of intense content training using this framework each year.  Second, Vanderbilt University began a 5 year study (from 2007-12), MIST, under the direction of Paul Cobb, Kara Jackson, Tom Smith & others of middle school math teachers and their professional development.  Every math teacher in 10 of our schools had lessons video taped each year, they were interviewed multiple times, they took assessments on content and pedagogy.  Our districts leaders (principals, coaches and up to the Superintendent were interviewed).  All math professional development was video taped.

Mr. Smith and I were both part of Vanderbilt’s study.  Mr. Smith and I were also trained as professional development trainers through IFL.  In Vanderbilt’s study I was both a teacher in the study, for 2 years, and the last 3 years I was part of the study as a district leader providing professional development to math teachers.  We were both videotaped & interviewed a lot over the course of 5 years.

Mr. Smith is one of the best math teachers I know.  Seriously, he is amazing.  His classroom is one of the most visited by principals and coaches in my district.  This is not just my opinion.  My districts head of Research Evaluation & Assessment identified him as one of 6 math teachers consistently making the most growth with students on assessments.  He has won national math teaching awards. Vanderbilt uses videotapes of his classroom, with his permission, in their own PD with teachers.  Vanderbilt even wrote some articles for NCTM, in which they named him Mr. Smith.  
One article, written by Karcomplex taska Jackson and others out of Vanderbilt, for NCTM’s Middle School Math Journal that I want to highlight for you today is titled ‘Launching Complex Tasks.’
.  In the article Jackson & others highlight 4 aspects of effectively launching a complex task so that students are able to engage in productively solving it. Here is a quick summary of their 4 findings (but read the article!)

1. Discuss the Key Contextual Features

“Some students may struggle when starting because they are unfamiliar with the context, or scenario, in which the task is grounded. It is therefore important that the teacher and students discuss any potentially unfamiliar features of the task.”

2. Discuss the Key Mathematical Ideas

“Our analysis of instruction indicated that focusing solely on context is not enough.”

 3. Develop Common Language to Describe the Key Features

“In the effective launches that we identified, teachers did not simply talk to students about the key features of tasks but instead solicited input from students.”

4. Maintain the Cognitive Demand

“To maintain the cognitive demand, or mathematical rigor, of the task (Stein et al. 2000), avoid suggesting a particular solution method to students.”

Read the article!  In the article Jackson, Cobb and others do a great job describing each of
the 4 aspects above as Mr. Smith implements a launch for a 7th grade CMP Lesson – Dancing for dollars.  What I was impressed with most in the article is that Mr. Smith’s lauch was only 8 minutes in length (in a 1 hour class).

Because I personally know Mr. Smith and have seen him teach I want to tell you the story of how he launched another well known CMP lesson – not in the article – and how that impacted me as I redesigned my own lessons (this will be part 2 of my post).  Vanderbilt, with Mr. Smith’s permission gave me access to videos of Mr. Smith’s classroom to use in the PD I did with teachers in my own district.  In one lesson Mr. Smith launched a lesson from CMP’s 7th grade text ‘Moving Straight Ahead’ – the lesson, Walking to Win, is pictured below.

Walking to Win pt 1walking to win pt 2

In lieu of the video, I will give you a quick description of the launch.

  • Mr. Smith, from the back of the classroom, says “Race Walking!  Who can tell me something about they know about ‘race-walking’?” (the words ‘race walking’ are the only thing written on the board at the front of the room)
  • Mr. Smith’s 7th graders excitedly start shouting out what they think.
  • One male student says “That is the crazy walking people do where they wiggle their hips”.
  • Mr. Smith tells this student to stand up and show the class. The student pauses but then stands up and starts speed walking across the room wiggling his hips and waving his arms to the giggles and delight of the students in the room.
  • Mr. Smith says who knows who the best race walker is?
  • No one answers.
  • Seamlessly, Mr. Smith starts typing on his computer (which is projected for studentsjefferson perez.PNG to see) the words ‘race walking’ into the google search engine.  He then clicks the images link and up pops a picture of Jefferson Perez (note: the video of this lesson was from 2008 when Jefferson Perez was the top race walker in the world).
  • Mr. Smith asks his mostly Latino classroom, “Where do you think Jefferson Perez” is from?  Students shout out all kinds of random answers “Minnesota” “Texas” with many, many  enthusiastic “Mexico!”.  You also hear one quiet male voice from the back of the room say “Ecuador!”
  • Mr. Smith say’s, “Yes, Jefferson Perez is from Ecuador. How did you know that?”
  • The student replied.  “My parents were born in Ecuador.  I recognized the flag.  He is from my country.”
  • Mr. Smith said, “Jefferson Perez is not only from Ecuador, he is the best male Race Walker in the world right now.  How fast do you think he can walk?”
  • Students start shouting out guesses using words like ‘speed’ and labels like ‘miles per hour’  and ‘meters per second’.
  • Mr. Smith says, “Today your group is going to do a task about a 2 brothers in a walking race.  What have we been doing in class that you think will relate to today’s task?”
  • Students shout out words like slope, rate of change, graphs, equations, tables, 5 forms of a functionlanguage…..
  • Mr. Smith says “Yes, today your group will work to use all 5 forms of a function to describe the walking rates of the the 2 brothers.”
  • Mr Smith then directs groups to start working.
  • Groups immediately grab their task card, one per group, and work hard for 25-30 minutes as Mr. Smith walks around the room asking assessing and advancing questions.
  • Mr. Smith closes the class with a 10-15 minute closure where he calls on 2 groups to share what they found.  His choice of groups was intentional based on what he saw students working on as he went around the room.

Mr Smith’s 41+lMEMvVTL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_launch lasted less than 10 minutes.  Mr. Smith’s learning target – one he uses most of the year – was for students to ‘represent relationship with tables, equations, graphs, context and language (5 representations of a function).  Mr. Smith’s lesson was a textbook picture of lessons described in Mary Kay Stein & Margaret Schwan Smith’s book ‘5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions’ which came out 3 years after Mr. Smith’s video.

One day at a PD I showed a group of young math teachers the first 10 minutes of this video.  Mr Smith was in the room as I did this.  I then asked the group to brainstorm what was effective about the launch.  Their responses were typical of other groups I had used this video with:

  • His students were all engaged.
  • He helped students understand the context of the problem.
  • He found something current to connect the context to.
  • He quickly solicited from students the math language they would be using in the task.
  • It was fun.  Students loved when the student got up and walked silly.
  • When the student walked around students could visually connect his walking with the math concept ‘rate’.
  • and so on…they were so impressed with Mr. Smith’s use of race walking to set up the lesson.

Later when participants were working on something else, Mr. Smith came over to me and said, “You know Sara.  The reason I used ‘race walking’ as a context for this problem is jeffersonbecause most of my students are from Mexico.  I have only one student in my room who is from Equator and others assume he is Mexican or they pick on him because he is not Mexican.  I wanted to find a context that would give this student status in my classroom.  I wanted to promote his expertise in the room in a safe way”.   When Mr. Smith said this, I almost cried.  This is why Mr. Smith is so amazing.  Hes not only planed a quality launch that would discuss key contextual features & math ideas while developing a common language & maintaining the tasks cognitive demand – he was also working hard to find contexts that would honor what he knew about the backgrounds of his students.  His goal was to 1st build relationships with students and know them and their families/communities deeply.  This knowledge of his students backgrounds was equity in practice.  His planning of how he launched each lesson to maintain its cognitive demand is why his students are always so engaged in rich mathematical discourse.  His test results prove his students continually make growth.

I get asked all the time what textbook Mr. Smith uses.  Principals and other teachers think the secret to his success must be in the text book.  He does not use a textbook.  Many times I’ve been asked to get lessons from Mr. Smith so that others can use them (seriously, how great would it be if he had a blog).   He was very open and generous and would give us some of his favorite photos he used to build tasks around (he was noticing and wondering before it became an Ignite talk).   One day though he pulled me aside as his friend and said, “Sara, I would love to give everyone my lessons, but I don’t keep them.  I change them every year based on my students and what is happening in the news and their communities.  I just start every planning session with what do the standards say my students should be able to do and I build a context around it that honors my students”.   Wow.

I know most of us can not do what Mr. Smith does – build new math lessons every year.  Thank goodness there are some great text’s out there as well as all the rich material available from the #MTBoS community.  That said, no matter what complex tasks we select to use there are some lessons we can take from Mr. Smith and apply to our own planning and classrooms.  Here is my list of what I have learned from years of knowing him:

  1. Our first priority needs to be building relationships with our students and ‘studying them’.  Studying students means getting to know who they are.  Where they come from.  What they are passionate about.  It means I will engage with their communities and families.  Planning lessons is impacted deeply by this.
  2. Planning any task starts with the standards and the intended learning for our students is key. It is an issue of equity that all students – despite their financial background or how 4 things to do to launch complex tasksthey enter our classrooms, have access to rich grade level (or above) instruction.
  3. It is possible to find rich grade level tasks and plan how to enact them that will allow all students to enter and grow further from where they entered the task.  The best tasks have multiple entry points for students.
  4. One rich task is better than a sheet of practice problems.
  5. You don’t have to use a task in a book exactly as it is written.  You can change the context. Visuals help.
  6. Planning the launch and the questions you will ask students is important.  Mr. Smith used questions to plan similar to the ones found in Kara Jackson’s NCTM article I referenced above.  Mr. Smith would add one question to this list though…How can I plan a lesson/launch that will give a student or students greater status in the classroom?  How can the context I plan engage more students?

Kara Jackson and others continue to do PD using the learning from their research.  Here is equitya power-point I found online Kara did entitled “Specifying Equity in Practice: Setting Up Complex Tasks”.  The word her her title that caught my attention was ‘equity’.  Here is what I know about Mr. Smith’s classroom.  95%+ of his students were poor and/or students of color – many, many immigrants.  You could walk into his room on any day and see 100% of them engaged in grade level math, rigorous task with a high level of group and class discourse.  The decisions Mr. Smith made in planning his lessons gave equitable access to every student to high level mathematics.  He changed their lives.  Mr. Smith & his classroom are ‘equity in practice’.

WHEW!  That is a lot of words.  In my next post-part 2…sometime in the next few days I will talk about how the lessons I’ve learned from Mr. Smith have played out in my own classroom.  I will show you how I’ve redesigned a lesson and talk about why I made these choices.  As a bonus I will connect it to the OLYMPICS – which I love and start next week.  The Olympics are great source for developing math tasks  More soon…..I’ll link here when I post.  If you have read this far, I admire you.  I hope you have a Mr. Smith in your life.












Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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