Promote Struggle – A Hero’s Journey in Math Class

While in Miami for the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute we saw a speaker from Pixar (I can’t recall his name) discuss the aspects of Story. More specifically he spoke about the Hero’s Journey. That talk really hit home for me. Below is how I interpreted his message and how it relates to my classroom.

A Hero’s Journey

All of these characters take a hero’s journey….

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Since I’m a math teacher describing the Hero’s Journey is best done with……a graph (English teachers will know it’s shown as a cycle).

On a time vs. Tension graph the Hero’s Journey looks like this: Time is the length of the journey….or story. The tension is felt by the audience. 

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In the beginning the hero is introduced, the main conflict is introduced, his/her world starts to change. As the story continues the hero must battle the forces of evil & go through struggle. They must experience conflict. It’s the conflict that the hero learns about themselves. They learn their strengths and weaknesses. It’s the struggle that makes the ending awesome. Its the struggle that make the hero see the solution. It’s the lessons they’ve learned in the struggle that let’s them go aha! I know what I need to do! The story would mean nothing to the hero and the audience if the climax was much earlier in the timeline. As the story ends the character returns to a NEW normal. They take their learning and come out stronger on the other side. 

This curve we see above is nothing new to us. This curve is what learners go through. It’s a Learner’s Journey too.

Now, if we take a look at our traditional math classrooms we have a format much like this:

Photo credit: Kyle Pearce

Photo credit: Kyle Pearce

Let’s look at that structure on the Time Tension graph. 

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After we take up homework, we introduce the new lesson or topic or problem to work on. It’s unfamiliar so tension in our students starts to increase.  But what happens is that as the tension rises it immediately falls back down. And my good buddy Kyle Pearce mentioned to me that the tension doesn’t fall all the way back to the axis….a good number of our students feel that tension permanently. 

Why does the tension fall immediately?

We make that happen. We relieve students of their pain by immediately telling them HOW to solve the problem.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 9.59.24 PMIt’s Our examples & solutions. Students don’t get a chance to struggle & discover, Therefore the math formula, strategy or algorithm means nothing to them! The memorizers will memorize and do ok, and the non-memorizers lose again. The ideas and strategies have no real value to them. 

I think students should feel the need for the math they learn. They should experience struggle ….just like the hero.Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 10.20.30 PM

Let’s take the old model of our lessons and change it to match the Hero’s Journey. It’s the struggle that adds value to their learning. Let’s move the reveal of math rules etc farther in the timeline. Let’s let the students productively struggle through problems. The reveal of the “math” will mean so much more after students see and/or feel the need for it. 

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An example in my class this week came when I wanted to teach students how to determine an equation of a quadratic function when given some key points.

I gave them this simple Desmos Activity Builder slide.

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Students already knew about vertex form of a quadratic function so I knew they could put in most of this equation. It’s the “a” value that they really didn’t know how to get efficiently. So I saw a lot of this…

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Students used trial and error to find -1/4 as the right “a” value. But we then asked “How do we know that’s the right one?” We then discussed plugging in a point to check to see if the right side equals the left side. They had a few more slides just like this but with different points. By the end of the last slide you could see that they really wanted a more efficient way of determining the “a” value than guessing and checking. This is where I stepped in and we discussed the idea of using one of the points and the equation to solve for the “a” value. Everyone was on board! They all had struggled before we discovered an efficient strategy. They all wanted it. If I had started class by showing them the first slide and then just telling them how to do it, I would see lack of understanding of why and bored faces.

It’s the struggle that makes the math worth it! Let’s let our students be Heroes. How are you promoting struggle in your classroom? I would love to hear of your ways. Leave a comment below.

Click here to grab the Desmos Activity Builder Activity I showed above.

[Update: April 2018]

To help you wrap your mind around this lesson model I’ve created a Hero’s Journey Lesson Template. The exercise is to choose a lesson you have coming up in your class. How can you modify that lesson so that the flow follows a hero’s journey? Use the template below to help plan your lesson out.

Exemplar: I used the template to model how I use the Pentomino Puzzles activity to teach solving linear equations.

You can see that we slowly build up the need for a helpful efficient strategy to solve the puzzles. When my students have struggled and persevered 3 or 4 times to solve a tough puzzle, the timing is now perfect for us to step in and help them develop that skill of solving equations.

Download your copy of the Hero’s Journey Lesson Template.


Introducing Trig through Slope

Here is our lesson today to introduce trigonometry for the first time. We had spent a few days with solving problems with similar triangles. We are spiralling and have done  lots of work recently using slope and the distance formula to classify triangles. I wanted to capitalize on that familiarity with slope to introduce the tangent ratio for the first time.

We started with this….again

Most students like last time chose A and their reason was it was less steep. So I asked “How much less?” “How do we measure that?”……SLOPE was the response and they calculated the slopes to verify.

Next I had them do this…
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I stressed supreme accuracy and added “Try to create a size of triangle you think no one else will make”……I had them measure their rise and run and enter them in this table on the board.


I also kept a running table in Desmos…


As more students added their triangles I could hear them say, “I bet all the slopes should be the same” , “They’re all similar triangles” We took a moment to discuss similarities and make it clear we all have similar triangles and that the ratio between the rise and the run should all be the same. We also discussed why some of our triangles did not have a slope of 1.7. I had them repeat the process with an angle of 45 degrees.


I said out loud that MY slope ratio was 1….and I could see all their heads bobbing up and down….”Yep, we got 1 too”.


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I asked them again to create an angle/triangle (Had them keep the same orientation of the triangle as I did in my diagram) that no one else would.

Measure the rise and the run, then calculate your slope. Keep your triangle and slope hidden, especially from ME.

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Keeping their angles and ratios hidden from me I said…”When I point to you tell me your angle….and I’ll magically tell you your slope” Cue the Oooohs and aaaahs.

I played up the magic bit. I held my calculator up to shield the screen from them.

I pointed at one student they told me “34 degrees”. I punched on my calculator mysteriously and said…”0.67.” The student yelled out….”Hey that’s right”. I went around the room pointing at students and telling them their slopes (ratios). I could see it on their faces, they wanted to know how I was doing this……Boom Let’s talk about Trigonometry.

So I said:

“In math we have these things called functions….they’re like black boxes that take an input and do some number crunching and spit out an output. One function you have used already is the square root function. You give the function 9 and it spits out 3. We math people use a symbol for this function so we all know what is going on. There is another function that will calculate the slope of a right triangle if you give it the angle. So we could write something like this “(I used one of the students angles).


“This is what I was doing when you gave me your angles….I was using the function to calculate your ratio between rise and run. But we don’t usually use the term slope when we talk about right triangles. We use fancy words.” I had them draw a right triangle in their notes and we labeled it with Hypotenuse, opposite and adjacent. Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 5.07.34 PM

“Instead of using a slope function…..we use the word TANGENT. And instead of using the word rise we use the word OPPOSITE and instead of run we use ADJACENT. So we can write this tangent function equal to the rise/run = opp/adj.”

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“And we math people don’t like to write too much so we really use this version.”

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Then we practiced using the tangent button on our calculators. They pretended to be the magicians and checked each others ratios. We practiced using the inverse tangent button to find angles.

Once we were comfortable we moved into writing the ratio and finding the angle out. We also used this example to write the tangent ratio of the other angle.Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 2.21.05 PM

and then one more for lengths:

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Since we are spiralling I gave them the homework set (Mary Bourassa Style) to work on….here.

Tomorrow I’ll introduce the Sine and Cosine function.

Using slope here to introduce trig allows us to take something familiar and make something new. Students could see the progression happen and not have trig just thrown at them.

Would to love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you introduce trig?


Sneaking in Factoring

I started a series of new warm ups for my MPM2D class today. My goal is to sneak in factoring as warmups throughout the semester. By the time we need to learn it (like when we need to factor to solve equations) we will have mastered it already. I also previously snuck in multiplying binomials when we tackled quadratic patterns as Mary Bourassa did in her 2D class.

So today I gave them this slide and said I want you to solve a puzzle!

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They broke out their iPads and used the Algebra Tile app to put together the rectangle. The kids worked away and you could see them trying to put tiles in a way to make the rectangle

….and they soon found out that they had to fit a certain way!! 
On take up we made sure everyone had either my rectangle or a rotated version.

Then we did this one…..

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After we were done I asked the class: “If the combination of squares and rectangles makes up the area, what are the dimensions of the rectangle?” They had a little bit of a hard time here, but finally could see the x + 4 and the x + 2 as the length and the width. I then wrote …

 And then I heard some “aaah”s. We had previously seen both versions of the quadratic expressions and discussed why the factored form helped us out quite a bit if we wanted to find the x-intercepts.

We stopped there….It only took us 15 minutes. Tomorrow we will do a few more…..always writing the factored form after. I will also try to get students to notice efficient strategies to make the rectangles.

  • Why did you put 4 x terms along the width and 2 x terms along the length?
  • How does that relate to the number of singles?

Where I hope to go with these warm ups is to factor all types of trinomials:

  • Perfect Squares

    This time…..make a square

… and get this…



  • Trinomials of the Type ax^2 +bx + c


  • Completing the square too!!!!


This time…make a square

We’ll be definitely working our way out of the app and onto paper with area diagrams…





Completing the square


Completing the square

I think working with these puzzles for the next few weeks first will give us a strong base when it’s time to factor to help solve equations and then complete the square. I think I’ll track all the warm ups we do like this and I’ll post them all!

Distance Formula without the Formula

Today in MPM2D our main goal was to discover how to find the distance between two points. But since I’m spiralling the 2D course I wanted to think big picture…I  wanted to tackle this overall expectation: verify geometric properties of triangles using analytic geometry.

We started with this beauty from Would You Rather  —

Students argued and discussed which ramp they would rather push that crate up. Most of the class picked A with their reason being it’s less steep and less work. One of the students who picked B said “I want muscles… I’m going to push that crate up the steepest slope“. Another student picked B because they wanted less distance and wanted to “get it over with“.

I left the discussion hanging here knowing I was going to come back and revisit this with more ammunition.

I showed them this video

and we completed the Corner to Corner problem (see the lesson plan here) to remind ourselves of the Pythagorean Theorem.

We came back to the Would You Rather problem from above and practiced finding the length of each hypotenuse to see how long each was.

I then presented them with this……and said our goal was to find the length of this line segment.

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Find the length of this line segment

I asked…”If I could help you out or provide you with more info what would you want?” Most students said they would want either a ruler or some sort of dimensions or units to look at.

So I  brought up the grid on Desmos and asked if this was enough.

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Most students thought it was…..I could see them drawing right triangles on their whiteboards and filling in the lengths of the legs. But one students yelled out “What is the scale?” ….Everyone paused! ….. I brought up the axis!

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Students finished drawing their right triangles and said that was easy! We did one more just like this (giving them the grid and axis) to practice.


Here’s the next challenge: I took away the grid but gave them the coordinates of the endpoints. Find the length of this line segment.

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I let them struggle a bit here. The majority of the class prevailed and had a similar solution on take up:


Student words: “One leg was the difference between the x-values and the other leg was the difference between the y-values”

We did another in the same format to practice this discovery.

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Then I took it up a notch…

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The three points shown represent vertices of a triangle. Classify the type of triangle.

And I saw a lot of this…



I’ve been following Mary Bourassa’s Blog and I stole creating my own homework sets from her….so I left the class to complete this. Love how I can ask lagging questions in my homework. Students get multiple opportunities to master skills.

So we’ll take up those questions tomorrow and we’ll summarize the strategy to find the length of a line segment using this formula…daum_equation_1443477587316

Access: Pre-made Desmos graphs