Unit Pictures

In a recent post I talked about my love of unit problems from back in the day when my school used the Interactive Mathematics Program text.  I loved using unit problems because on day 1 of the unit students were presented with a large task that allowed students to see the need for learning additional mathematics throughout the unit to solve the problem.  I loved using unit problems because it gave me something I could post and refer to every day to link the current learning to a goal. Since returning to teaching 3 years ago, I have not yet crafted a unit problem for every unit.  I’ve missed what unit problems gave me.  I did though figure out a way to create a sense of wonder and engagement with students another way.

3 years ago when I returned to teaching I taught 7th grade.  The core text in our district was CMP.  What is great about the CMP text – that I am not sure all CMP teachers do is that the cover of the text gives clues about the mathematics and context of the problems in the book.  SO…..on day 1 of every unit I would pass out the new text – great little booklets and the students first task would be to look at the cover and write down at least 10 things they noticed.  (Yea, we were noticing & wondering – my favorite).  For example, let’s look at the cover of a CMP 7 book titled ‘Moving Straight Ahead’.  What do you notice?


My students noticed things like….

  • Graphs
  • Shoes
  • Stairs
  • Dripping Faucet
  • Equations
  • Tshirts
  • Old school phone
  • DVD player
  • Coins
  • Linear
  • Straight Line

I then would say, “based on what we noticed, what do you think we will be studying?”  Students would say we are going to learn about what Linear Equations are (duh, the words are on the cover of the book).  I then would say, “based on the cover, what do you think a linear equation is?”  Students would then name what they noticed about the graph (staight lines) and equations (variables…).  I then would say, why do you think the faucet, tshirts, coins and phone have to do with linear equations?  Students made all kinds of guesses – some right and some wrong – but I did not let on which guesses fit each category.  All of this noticing & wondering took 10 minutes.

These 10 or 15 minutes I spent looking at the cover with my students were the best use of time on day 1.  It paid off big time throughout the unit.  Not only did on day 1 students say the word ‘linear’ before I did, every time we started a new task in the book I would see students turn back to the front cover to see that picture there.  On day 1 I had primed their brain for what was coming and for many students they were curious – at least a bit – about what a bag of coins had to do with math & linear equations.  When we got to the problem and they leaned the relationship between coins and linear equations there was always a sense of relief or closure in students. The 10 minutes I spent on day 1 kept students intrigued more than just showing up some day and randomly talking about water faucets.

Here is another front cover from a CMP 7 unit.  What do you notice?  What do you think a student would be learning in this unit?  Why do you think each picture is on the cover?

accentuate the negative

Last fall I returned to High School.  The teachers I worked with, we did not use a text and instead choose to create our own units – some of the work being done by our district office math leads (names & order of units).  I knew I wanted to create some sort of visual for each unit so that I could have a similar experience to that I had in middle school.  I knew starting a unit with students guessing what we would be learning about would be more effective with visuals.

Here is the visual we used in our first unit, sequences & series.  What do you think we studied?  Why do you think each photo is there?

unit pictures2

On day 1 I gave students a half sheet version of these visuals to glue into their notebook.  We did not have a text, so their notebook would do the job of being the text we referred back to.

I did not have time last school year to create something like the visual above for all 8 of my units – BUT now that I am teaching the course a 2nd time this year this is one of my first goals – to create a visual like this for each unit.  To create something I can post and refer back to as we learn the math concepts in each unit.

Lastly – for this post…..In my syllabus at the start of the year I did not want to write sentences about each of our units that I was pretty sure no one would ever read, so instead I created this visual for my syllabus.  I probably loved this more than my students as I posted it by my desk and the visuals were a faster way of reminding me of what was next than any words I would have posted near my desk.  Love it.

unit pictures

ps.  I think this may be my first post less than 1000 words.  I am proud that this one is exactly 903 words. #workingonmakingshorterblogposts

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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