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Converting Improper Fractions: The Zebra Cake Challenge!

major-payne  As I slowly walked down the hallway to my classroom I told myself, “Last school year was a complete disaster but this year is going to be different!” If I could paint a picture of the students that I had last year, it would look like a scene from Major Payne. Every morning when I entered the building I felt like I was entering boot camp and I was the drill sergeant. As you can imagine on the last day of school I was speeding out of the parking lot on 2 wheels!

Well, this school year has been much better. My class sizes are much smaller and the students’behavior is not an issue. Even though the behavior is not an issue, student engagement is at the is at an all time low. I’m not a teacher who believes that school should always be fun, however I do think that most of the content taught should be interesting to students. I believe that most of the teachers on my grade level are struggling with trying to find ways to authentically engage our scholars.  School isn’t always fun, but it should be interesting to students.

If you teach elementary math you have quickly realized that elementary math is not so elementary anymore. The math content has become more complex for the teachers and students. When I present at math conferences the 4th and 5th grade teachers are so grateful for the math strategies that I give them because the 4th and 5th grade math curriculum is the old middle school curriculum. About 2 weeks ago I had a brief conversation with my former 6th grade math  co-worker. She told me how the students are coming to 6th grade with all of these different strategies. My response was that the math content for 5th grade has changed and the teachers have to use simpler ways to teach more complex math content to younger students. On top of more complex math content the students seem to mentally check out.

The Challenge

My conversation with my co-worker got me to thinking about how I teach fractions to my students. When I learned to use unit fractions to teach fractions it made teaching fractions to my students so much easier. Even though using unit fractions to teach converting improper fractions to mixed numbers has made the delivery easier, it didn’t solve the student engagement issue. The students couldn’t remember how to convert between improper fractions and mixed numbers. They always had to look in their interactive notebooks or I had to prompt them. zebra-cakes-set-upSo this year I decided to implement more STEM activities in my classroom. I don’t know where the idea of creating a Zebra Cake Challenge came from but in my mind is sounded like a good idea!  I created a challenge using some of the components from the engineering design process .

The previous day I taught the students how to use unit and non-unit fractions to create 1 whole. They seemed to have a good understanding of that concept, so I was hoping that they could build on their knowledge of unit fractions to help them to see improper fractions are fractions greater than 1. I teach 3 math classes and I was lucky that my first class were my higher students so they would be my guinea pig group! The lesson was okay but the students had a difficult time using what they knew about unit fractions to create an improper fractions and a mixed numbers. So, during the next 2 classes I decided to guide the students’ thinking by stopping the students at certain points in the lesson. The lesson was so much more than I could have ever imagined!

All of my students were engaged in conversations with their table mates. Even my SPED students were contributing!


A Teacher’s Reality

I know that some teachers that are reading this post and are thinking, “I already spend enough on my students.” This is true. If you are thinking about trying The Zebra Cake Challenge I recommend that you talk to the store managers at Walmart, Dollar General, and Family Dollar about donating the supplies. The worst that they can say is no. Teaching is trial and error. Sometimes you hit and sometimes you miss. I was very glad that challenge was a grand slam!

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I help math teachers who teach high need students to effectively manage their classrooms and deliver high quality math instruction. Learn more about me


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