The Classroom Chef

Mad props to fellow #MTBoS-ers +Matt Vaudrey and +john stevens for publishing and promoting their book!

Had to support my fellow Twitterfam and here is a little taste:

 The Classroom Chef: Sharpen Your Lessons, Season Your Classes, Make Math Meaningful 

Standards, curricula, and educational trends come and go, but good teaching is timeless.

Chapter 1 Finding Meaning in Math (or any) Class

Risk-taking began our evolution from catastrophic failures to incremental successes, and something incredible began to happen. Students started taking risks of their own.

Chapter 2 Giving Up on Processed Food

What we hope you’ll understand is that the pain is worth it—valuable even—because it pushes you to make a change.

The easiest way to manage a classroom is to keep students engaged and curious.

Students will care if you ask an interesting question.  If our students walk away from this unit with only one thing, it must be meaningful. On a deeper level, the questions we ask must hook the students without compromising the content.

Putting our students first gives us a better start in developing a lesson centered on them.

Explain the learning goal in the simplest way possible.

Boredom is the enemy in math class. Entertainment is not the same as engagement, and students spend most of their time at home seeking an entertaining experience. You—the teacher—have to offer a meaningful experience.

If I’m scripting out my entire lesson without room for the natural flow of a class, what value am I adding to the material?  By contrast, when the class is focused on a story, a question, or a weird idea, discussion flows naturally with the content propelling it.

When we do reach out for input, it’s usually for affirmation, not for improvement.

Chapter 3 There’s No Substitute for Preparation

Success in teaching, however—unlike success in calculus and Spanish—wasn’t tied to effort or desire.

According to the Wongs, students feel safe when they know what to expect; with routine, humans are comfortable. “Students want to know who you are as a person and if you will treat them with respect. It is important that you allay any fears they may have about being in your class. The best way to do this is to smile, exude caring, and communicate positive expectations.” The routine matters more than any lesson you teach.

Giving students a choice in their social interactions, as well as their academics, is one powerful way to establish a culture of respect for the individuals in your classroom. Train your students to listen to your full instructions without moving. Then when you say, “Go,” they can spring into action.

Instead of cold-calling students—or asking the whole class and waiting for raised hands—play a one-minute song, prompting students to talk to their partners. While the song plays, tap five or six students and say, “I’m calling on you.” When the song ends, call on each student, but give no indication if they’re correct or not.

Chapter 4 False Starts and Better Beginnings 

A long appetizer is not a time-suck, but a genuine opportunity to build interest for a lesson. Try something anyway. Your attempt to breathe life into a dusty topic will, at worst, be a welcome distraction to break up the day, or, at best, forge a deeper relationship between the content and the students.

Chapter 5 Serving Up Appetizers in Your Classroom

Reflecting on my own career, I spent too much time validating the interesting answers and not enough time validating the right ones. When we—the teachers—remove the disparity in how we validate responses, our students benefit. A negative response to incorrect answers cements the idea that going back to correct an error is more foolish than stepping up to admit a mistake. However, giving Diane the opportunity not only to correct the error but also to make it better validated that it was fine to make a mistake, as long as she fixed it.

Remember, teaching is hard. Creating great learners is even harder. We owe it to our students to constantly seek meaningful ways to engage them and pique their curiosity.

Pseudo-context like this shows students that math is like vegetables: gross stuff that adults dress up in an attempt to make it attractive to kids.If they’re bored, they’ll find something else to do—and you won’t like what they find.

This is where we might clash with some of the latest educational trends; we would much rather students have a meaningful experience in class than restate a standard. If the lesson was meaningful enough to students that they can recall the theme of the day, that’s a step in the right direction.

Chapter 6 Barbie Zipline

Two questions we don’t ask often enough: What is this missing? How can it be better?

Chapter 7 Mullet Ratio

When all of the students can access the material at their own comfort level, that’s an effective math class. Every student has equal access to argue something none of them know about. When students are frustrated for too long, they begin to lose interest.

Chapter 11 The Plating Presentation is Everything! 

Jamie noticed two things: her students retained the information better when they discovered it, and crafting an environment where students discover the information is really tough at first.

At once, all the students rise and circulate through the other pods of desks. Once all students are seated, Mrs. Duncan says, “Think silently to yourself about what your friend did.” After a minute of silent think time, they discuss the work in front of them with their new table group. After mooching work from someone else in the class, students speak louder and more confidently about the math at their table.

The difference between a great math lesson and a great math teacher is the questions. A great math teacher can ask questions that get students interested in any lesson, much like a chef can transform even a grilled cheese sandwich into a Mediterranean pesto panini. Student responses will be all over the map (at first). And they may take some coaxing to navigate toward mathematical thinking and reasoning.

One of our jobs is to teach students how to think critically, ask for more information, and identify what’s important. They need our patience and guidance as they practice their critical thinking skills, especially early in the year.

We have two pieces of good news about student questioning: you can start tomorrow honing those skills, and your class culture will naturally become more accommodating. The process of teacher growth can start right away. I just made a commitment to learn, to be better, and I’m following through.

My kids can solve problems, but what is problem-solving? Simply put, it is what you do when you don’t know what to do.

Some of the typical questions I ask kids when they are finishing up their work are, “Does it make sense? If someone else sits down and looks at your work, will they be able to understand it? Did you go back into the context? Where is the proof? Can you show your thinking another way? What equation could you write that would represent your work?” In the lesson above, my standard was “looking for students to use knowledge of base ten and the relationship between addition and subtraction,” but the students didn’t see that as the focus.

 Chapter 12 How to Make Your Own Entrée

The attitude of I’m not a math person is far worse than the attitude I struggle in math. The latter is an admission of a current challenge, one that can be beaten with hard work, while the former implies some are born with a math muscle and some are not. This attitude is corrosive to our students, our own work ethic, and our society as a whole.

We’re saying use your best when you know your students need it.

When improving a lesson, aim for relevant and settle for interesting.

In handing over the ownership of the mistake to someone else, you empower the students to find the faults and correct them.

Students will naturally buy into a classroom culture when they feel like their voices matter, and these questions can help involve student voice: Is this working? What can we do better tomorrow? What did we like about the lesson? If there was one component to keep from this lesson, what would it be? If we could change something in the lesson, what would it be? Where could we have done better? Notice that these aren’t “I” questions; they are “we” questions. The responsibility for the tone of the classroom falls on the teacher. When students see you value the process of teaching, they will begin to value—and take responsibility for—the process of learning. The class culture, then, is the responsibility of all , but it begins with you involving your students in the process of creating a better learning experience. We must listen to our students’ point of view and use our professional judgment to determine what will work best. Creating a class culture where it is acceptable to appropriately criticize work is difficult, but necessary, for the growth we seek in our classrooms.

The best thing I learned from working with Mandy is that if I ask for input only from teachers in my content area, my lessons will never be truly diverse and inclusive.

Chapter 13 The World Needs More Education Geeks

Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.

Chapter 14 Make Your Lessons Pop

What can I do to make this lesson more powerful?

How am I going to engage my students?

“Curiosity is far more powerful than engagement.”

Be committed to reaching all students by any means necessary.

“If you’re bored, the kids are definitely bored.” The opposite of bored isn’t entertained; it’s curious.

Chapter 15 Rethinking Assessment

This is an opportunity to show students that four core subjects don’t dictate their overall intelligence. I want my kids to know they are smarter than me about something.

Teaching is truly an art, but asking Russell to prove what he knew in a way we chose stole his imagination’s ability and desire to create. I learned from doing this type of assessment students will work as hard as they can when given the freedom to do so.

Instead of giving students more time to produce a better product, defeating The Suck encourages teachers to give less time to get a better product.

How can you do something student-centered in your classroom to allow students the freedom to prove what they know? And what would they do if they got to choose what’s comfortable for them? 

Model risk by trying new lessons; show students that you’ll deviate from what’s comfortable.

Model risk by showing vulnerability.

Model risk by encouraging guesses.

Chapter 16 Risks and Rewards 

If you don’t know the answer, take a guess. Take a risk. While it is true that classrooms are unforgiving places to learn to teach, the stakes are really low if your students like you.

Here’s how it looks: You try a risky lesson. It goes okay. You give a regular lesson. Students are more interested in your style because you tried something risky. You try a riskier lesson. It goes okay. Students are more interested in your risky lessons. You try a still riskier lesson. It goes awfully terribly horrible and ends in a fireball engulfing the village . You give three days of regular, safe lessons in a row, and a student asks, “Can we do something fun today?” Your students prefer risky lessons, even if they fail spectacularly. A fantastic belly flop is still better than stepping down the ladder into the shallow end for 180 days in a row. You’ll be easily forgiven by students, because your risk usually pays off, even if a few lessons don’t.

 Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey , once said, “A teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.”

 Teachers love talking about teaching; bad teachers love talking about bad teaching.


  1. I love how you wrote this summary. I am totally going to copy you! I really enjoyed this book and it inspired my favorite lesson of the year! I wrote a little bit about it here: http://www.elementarymathaddict.com/2016/04/first-grade-math-fight-fractions.html?m=1

    Thanks for writing!

    Jamie Duncan

  2. I am using your info as a prep to attend a workshop hosted by the two classroom chefs. Your take-aways have been inspiring.

    1. They are great guys! Check them out on Twitter.