The Olympics, race walking & tips on redesigning a lesson. Part 2 of 2.

This is part 2 of 2 of a post about an amazing teacher, Mr. Smith, who has significantly impacted my own teaching. Mr. Smith is EQUITY in ACTION.   You can read in part 1 – what I learned from Mr. Smith.  (Read it if you have not – he is amazing & I outlined 6 specific things I learned from him that I try and apply to my own practice).  In this post I will show you how I have redesigned a lesson based on what I learned from him.

First though, I love, love the Olympics (this is related to this post, I promise) & they start this week (August 5-21st in Rio).  My favorite part are all the sappy stories they put to music to tell the athlete’s comeback from something tragic.  Here is an example from the winter Olympics of J.R. Celski:

Or check out one of the P&G ‘Thank you Mom’ commercials.  Sappy & inspiring and meant to make you cry.  Here is the one from 2014 or this one or from London or the one from this year for RIO…

As a almanacteacher I’ve loved the Olympics because of all the data that is out there I can use in my classroom.  20+ years ago I was having students get Olympic data from almanacs – I can’t really remember TBG though. TBG=Teaching Before Google – and graphing the year and speed of the gold medal winning time in the men’s 100 meter race and using this to predict future times.  This is a classic problem that I am sure many of you have done. If you want data there are a lot of websites out there to select from like this one.
 As a teacher, I love the Olympic’s because they remind me that a compelling story engages your emotions and engages you in what is to come.  A story also has the power to help us remember what happened.  The same is true in our classrooms.  When I’ve used a story – sometimes true and sometimes made up (though my students think it is true) – in my classroom engagement has gone up and months/years later I hear from parents or students a repeat of the story.  The Olympics models something I want to do more of in my classroom.  The trick is to have a quick story that connects to real & important mathematics.  I don’t want the story just for the story’s purpose.
As a teacher, I love the Olympics because it hosts people from all over the world and it gives me the opportunity to bring a non-white culture into my classroom.  The Olympics have the added benefit of producing images, video, news articles and data that are easily found from the comfort of my home.  I teach in an urban district with a large number of first & second generation students.  The Olympics have allowed me to find athletes from the countries of my students – they don’t have to be athletes the caliber of Michael Phelps – in fact I avoid the superstars and tell the stories of the lesser known and attach it to mathematics in my classroom.
Three years ago I returned back to the classroom after 5 years in a leadership position.  I was excited to put into practice all the things I had learned while I was out of the classroom.  In my 3rd unit of the year it was time to teach my 7th graders a lesson I had observed Mr. Smith teach (I described this lesson in my last post).  My goal/learning target for this unit was for students to represent proportional (MN state standards) & linear relationships using & connecting all 5 representations of a function.
learning target
5 forms of a functionSide note:  When I worked at my district’s office I created poster’s and a common visual for teachers to use of the 5 representations of a function.  7 years later I still see many of these posters up in rooms across our district.  In my last post someone asked for a copy of the visuals I’ve used.  Here are several versions – use as you like.

walking distances part 1walking distances part 2Walking to Win pt 1walking to win pt 2

The 7th grade arc of lessons I redesigned using what I learned from Mr. Smith are shown above.  It is taken from a great curriculum, Connected Mathematics Program (CMP) from a unit titled ‘Moving Straight Ahead’ – Lesson 1.2 to Lesson 2.1.  I have used the CMP text for many years with good success.  The math in these lessons is rich.  My goal was to have ALL students engage in the mathematics so I redesigned how I presented it.

Questions I ask myself when I plan a lesson or arc of lessons adapted from Kara Jackson, Paul Cobb & my friend Mr. Smith

  1. What do I know about my students?
    • ‘study my students’ learning needs
    • ‘study my students’ communities & backgrounds
    • 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?
  2. What are the math goals for this lesson?
    • standards
    • what came before this lesson?
  3. What is the task that will allow every student to enter and grow?
    • high ceiling/low floor
  4. What are the key contextual features of this task?
    • Is there a visual I can use?
    • Should I change the context?
  5. What are the key mathematical ideas of this task?
    • which ideas may be unfamiliar to students
  6. How can I develop a common language?
  7. How will I maintain the cognitive demand of the task?
As part of my planning I knew I wanted my 7th graders to move (this Elana lasis a daily goal).  I knew I wanted them to notice and wonder (thanks Annie Fetter).  I knew I wanted them to connect the idea of rate of change to the 5 forms of a function.  I knew I wanted them to feel the idea of ‘rate of change‘ down to their bones.  Here  is what the start of the arc (2-3 days) of lessons looked like in my room.
I put up this picture and asked “What do you notice?” followed by “What do you wonder?”
My students noticed many things but talked about her weird legs.  They wondered if she was in a race.  They wondered if she was running. They wondered who she was.  I told them this was a photo from the 2012 women’s 20K race walking event.  I then showed part of this video of Elena Lashmanova in the 2012 Olympics and had them notice/wonder again.
Elena Lashmanova wins the 2012 Women’s 20K Olympic Race
meter stick
Students love the video as they like mocking how silly the participants look.  I tell my students…Elena, from Russia, won the race.  At the time she was the fastest female speed/race walker in the world.  (nhold meter stickote:  If you watch the video – b/4 & around the 1:20 min. mark you will see the 2016 favorite for Rio – Liu Hong – Russia’s race walkers have been banned from the 2016 Olympics)
I then held up a meter stick and asked ever student to predict (I had them each record a guess in their notebook b/4 having students share) how many meter sticks Elena could walk in 1 second.  Students start saying things like “I think her speed is _____”  They naturally used words like ‘rate‘.  Here are some of their guesses.
elena guesses
I then point out the 6 meter sticks I’ve taped to the floor in my room and ask who wants to ‘race walk’ as fast as they can across our room.
Because they are 7th graders, they love to move any chance they get and I’ve always had tons of volunteers – in fact too many for the time I allow (though the next several days I have more and more students walk the room).  As each student gets up to walk I start my stop watch and have students calculate their speelashmanova raced.  What I’ve loved about doing this is students who normally tune out – engage.  I’ve loved that students develop a sense of what 1 m/sec feels and looks like b/4 I assign the task.
After about 2-3 students do a silly race walk as fast as they can – student’s ask how fast ‘Elena’ is.  I tell them we need to do some math first before I will give them Elena’speed.
I then give groups the task to work on.  It looks something like this. – though I change the names of the students to reflect the cultures of the students in my room.
Alana, Gilberto and Leanne are middle school race-walkers.  Represent this information using all 5 forms of a function so that your group will be prepared to easily answer questions about their distance at various times during their races.
 After working groups represent the data above in a variety of representations of a function.  It looks something like this.
5 forms of alana
After groups have created graphs and/or tables and/or rules as a class we use what they’ve created to answer questions like “How far ahead is Leanne at 15 seconds?” or “If we look at just the graph, who is the slowest walker?  How do we know?”.  I have my students then practice walking the 6 meter sticks in the room at each student’s race.  We simulate the race with 3 students walking at each rate.  I then ask “Do you think Elena is faster or slower than these students?  Why? Remember, Elena has to keep her rate of speed constant for 20 kilometers.”  Student’s debate what they think about Elena.
I then put up thiselena lash information (without the orange & blue rate of 3.9 m/s calculated) and ask students to calculate Elena’s rate of change in meters per seconds.  This is a great math task in itself for 7th grade students as they need to convert time and distance (I make them look up the conversions on their iPads).  We had a great discussion about the meaning of the distance of 20K – connecting this distance to walking 4 times around a lake a mile from our school with a circumference of 5K.  Students are motivated to figure it out because many believe they could out walk Elena.  After we calculate Elena’s speed several students request seeing if they can walk as fast as her on our 6 meter track in our classroom – meaning can they walk 6 meters in approximately 1.5 seconds.  We remind students of the rules of race walking (not running).  It is hilarious to watch students try.
There is more to the lesson, but 2 days later we worked on Henri & Emile’s problem above. We renamed Henri and Emile to be Gus and Anja.  Gus and Anja are the children of my amazing friend and the teacher I co-planned these lessons with – Sonja Krasean.  The point of this lesson is to apply what we’ve learned about rates and look at a relationship that is not proportional and also find a point of intersection.
gus facts
My co-worker, Sonja, filmed her children (ages around 10 and 5) in a race.  She showed her older son in the first race beating his sister by a long distance.  In the second race he gave his sister a head start and she cut off the video before the end of the race and flashed the following question.  gus anjaThis was our launch.  (students LOVED seeing our personal lives involved in their lesson).  Students then jumped in and started trying to solve this using a variety of methods – most used tables, but some started by making rules for each of her children.  (and many used DESMOS!)  It was great!
gus anja 5 forms of a function


  • Taking away words from the tasks I use from books has led to much higher levels of engagement in my students.
  • The time I put into my LAUNCH (set up of the task) pays off huge in engagement of students.  I, along with the teachers I co-plan with, love using personal stories from our lives and families (though we often embellish the stories – though students think they are true).  This has allowed us to speed up the time it takes to build relationships with our students.
  • We love using current events in the Launch to lessons  – presidential elections and the ratio of electoral college votes to people living in state for example – whenever possible to widen our students world.
  • In our ideal world our Launches would have a social justice theme to them.  We love connecting the math we are studying to the communities our students are living in.  To do this well part of my homework each week is to study my student’s communities, to learn more about the voices that are different from the way I present myself in the world (middle age, middle income white woman).  I can not bring my students world into my classroom unless I am engaged in consistent ongoing learning myself.  Frankly this is the most important questionswork (homework) all teachers should engage in every week.
  • When I was the K-12 math leader for my district my email tagline was “BE
    INTENTIONAL”.   Lessons that engage all learners require intention.  To be intentional myself I create things like a list of the orange questions to keep eyes on what is most important in my planning.
  • Though I write about what I try to do well, I am no different than anyone reading this.  Have days I get things right in the classroom and other days I don’t.  When I get things right, I reflect on what may have caused this.  When things don’t go well, I reflect on one thing I could have done differently.  I don’t beat myself up.
  • I love the Olympics and I love bringing this into my classroom.  I love that often I can find a sport my students may or may not know very well and highlight a female athlete or athletes from other countries – especially if it can give momentary status to a student or group of students that feel ignored in my school or my classroom.  I have passion for the Olympics and that passion is contagious with students – even if they can’t stand race walking.  When I am enthusiastic, my students seem to engage even more – not only in the context but also in the math.

If I were to teach this lesson this fall, I would use Mexico’s Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez as my launch.  She set a national record of 1:28:48 in the 20K race in the last few years and has won several international awards.  Mexico considers her one of their medal hopefuls in this year’s Rio Olympics.  I have a large number of students who are from Mexico.  I love finding ways to bring their home country into my classroom – not to mention honoring a female athlete.  Even if I had only one student from Mexico – and even more if it were only one – I would still use her this fall.  Here are is a quick video of her winning a race and a profile in Spanish.


If you want to catch a sport you’ve probably never watched before – check out the race walking events. The Race Walk dates in Rio – Friday’s August 12 (Men’s 20K) & 19th (Men’s 50K & Women’s 20K). I’ll be watching.  The Olympic people claim Rio will be their most beautiful setting yet for Race Walking.  The USA has 2 Rio hopefuls Maria Michta (#27 in world)  and Miranda Melville in the women’s 20K race walking event.  The 2016 favorite in Rio is China’s Liu Hong.  She is ranked #1 and was the 2015 World Champion.

I will be watching and googling during this year’s Olympics looking for inspiration for my classroom math lessons (Advanced Algebra level) in 2016-17.  I will be asking myself, …Who are the athletes from Mexico, Somalia, eastern Africa….and all the other places my students come from?  What is a sport or story I can connect to Advanced Algebra content?

If you’ve used the Olympics in some authentic way in your classroom I’d love to hear from you.  Comment below.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.  Email me at

(WOW, this is another long post.  I am making a start of the school year resolution to upload at least one short post for every long post.  Something for me to work on….)

UPDATE 8.19.16

Here are the winners of the 2016 Olympics Women’s 20K Race Walking event.

20k racewalking medals

You can watch the entire race at this LINK (the end of the race is around 1 hour 33 or 34 minutes).

In my post I wrote mostly about the silver medalist Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez from Mexico.  YEA!  Go Maria.  Congratulations to Mexico.

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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