Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case

While this is primarily a math blog, I want share a reading guide I created based on Chris Crowe’s book, Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. Several years ago I taught seventh grade literature, language arts, and social studies. Common Core, learning standards, and daily objectives aside, I thought the best thing I could do for my students was to make them aware of the horrific end to Emmett’s life and for them to learn how Till became one of the beacons for the Civil Rights movement.

The reading guide was heavily influenced by Kylene Beers’ work When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do. Many of the questions were developed using Beers’ strategies. Getting Away with Murder can be a difficult read; hopefully such techniques as the It Says–I Say–And So, Likert scales, Causal Relationships charts, and T-charts will help students improve reading reading comprehension. It also includes comprehension/discussion questions for Socratic Circles, end of chapter activities and assessment ideas.

If you are not aware, Bob Dylan wrote and performed The Ballad of Emmett Till in 1963. To my knowledge it was never released as a single or on an album, but he performed it live on Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in 1962. You can hear it here.

Some days I wish I taught literature. Even though I don’t, I still would like your feedback on ways this guide could be improved.

Here’s the PDF.


Developing argument writing in math using crime scene investigations

Who would have thought Queenie’s claim that Arthur fell down the stairs would help students dissect word problems. Or that the case of the Lunchroom Murder could train students to become astute observers when problem solving.


I’m talking about using elements from Hillcock’s Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12, to develop mathematical practice #3: construct a viable argument and critique the reasoning of others. The book is an English teacher’s bible and this section (beginning on page 36) may help your students become better problem solvers.

The goal is for students to apply claim, evidence, and rules when constructing a math argument. After two-three lessons using crime scene investigations (taught either in math or language arts), students apply the skill when solving problems.

After modeling few crime scene examples, it was time to link this skill to math. So I gave this handout showing how to construct a similar argument in math. A second example has some elements missing so the students need to complete the missing sections. Then I gave a series of word problems for additional practice.

Now that you know what the heck I’m talking about,  here’s the road I took with the students.

Before jumping right in with the math connection, I handed out the Slip-or-Trip-Lesson.  We read it as a class, discussed the evidence, and learned how rules support the evidence when making a claim.

After listing the evidence and rules to support our claim we drafted a police report (Slip-or-Trip-Crime-Scene-Evidence).

Next it was time for students to work independently or in small groups. They developed their claim, evidence, and rules skills on the The-Lunchroom-Murder task.

Finally students linked the crime scene investigations with claim and evidence using Constructing-a-Viable-Argument-in-Math document.

If you give this a try please let me know if it works for you and your students. I think the process not only enhances reasoning skills it helps students to articulate their thought process.

UPDATED 6/28/16 and slightly revised to include direct links to documents.

Additional pre-algebra problems not explicitly referencing claim, evidence and reasoning are in the determining importance file.

Creativity and imagination in the math classroom—reframing projects and project based learning

This week was our monthly curriculum writing committee meeting. We were sharing our successes and challenges regarding the Common Core and I mentioned, “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I hunger for creativity. I want my students to create.” I am truly afraid the kids will lose interest in math if I don’t give them opportunities to use their imagination.

Jennie Winters, our Lake County ROE math/science coordinator, replied that according to PARCC performance tasks using creativity are one of the highest levels of performance indicators.

So why have I limited my students’ creativity? Everyone knows how satisfying the creative process is. Look at Crystal Kirch and other teachers who express their creativity through their flipped classroom videos. Look at Dan Meyer and how he combines his interest in graphic design and filmmaking to create Three-Act Math, 101 questions and now Graphing Stories .

If imagination is the single most important competitive advantage we can have today, (Thomas Friedman, Grinnell College 2009 commencement address) I should be fostering it in math. He says (5:40 mark), “Creativity typically occurs when people who master two or more quite different fields use the framework of one to think afresh about the other.” 

With that in mind, is it worthwhile to examine ways to demonstrate math mastery by combining it with a very different field the student has mastered such as art, music, language arts, social studies, etc?

I’ve been giving this some serious thought of late and have been trying to develop a few of “projects”.

A couple of weeks ago I read the Lorax to my sixth graders. In groups they completed two ratio and unit rate activities related to the story. The lesson was from a recent issue of Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. On the fly, I decided to make a mini-project out of it. “Choose problem 5 or 6 and turn it into a poster to show me your understanding of ratios and unit rates based on the story.”

Problem 5 read: Suppose the Once-ler cuts down 4 trees every 15 minutes using the Super-Axe-Hacker.

  1. How many trees will be cut down in one 8 hour day? Write your solution in the form of a unit rate (trees per day).
  2. Using this ratio, how many trees would be cut down in 1 year (assuming the Once-ler worked 5 days a week?
  3. Using this ratio, how long would it take to cut down one million trees.

Problem 6: Three Truffula Trees can be made into 12 Thneeds.

  1. What is the unit rate of Thneeds per tree.
  2. Using that unit ratio, how many Truffula Trees would need to be cut down to make 1,000 Thneeds? What about 1,000,000 Thneeds?

The energy level in class blew the acoustical tiles off the ceiling. Here’s what the groups produced. As you can see some groups included more “math” than others. Granted I didn’t have a rubric and it was “just for fun”, but with some tweaking I think it could a performance assessment. At a minimum it’s a creative outlet for students.


Selecting the right medium

If I explore this further, the key will be for students to select their “mode of representation”. I had many students whose strength is art. As a result they were able to take the framework of one to think afresh about the other.

A project that was less successful was one where I had students create videos demonstrating mastery of a decimal multiplication word problem by having a baby, toddler, or dog solve it. The idea was to parody an E-trade commercial, using cuts, split screen, or other editing techniques to show the problem while the “talent” solves it. I was expecting more than what the students were able to deliver because 1) most were not experienced filmmakers, and 2) I didn’t have an exemplar to show them. Only one group produced a video that met the criteria. If I do this next time, now I have an example.

Project based learning success

One project I am most proud of is “Blowin in the Wind”, yet it needs more student creativity,

In 2010 I was fortunate to have been selected as a Siemens STEM Fellow. Fellow STEMmer Kelly Frederick’s class and mine collaborated across several time zones to study wind power. I received a grant to purchase a KidWind turbine kits and the students studied surface area of various blades and blade pitch to generate electricity. They designed their own blades and tested them to see which groups performed the best. The kids Skyped and used Edmodo to share their research.

I’ve been doing it ever since. I was worried I’d have to give it up with the new 6th grade common core curriculum, but the project fits like a glove. What I would like to do is bring in a more creative component.

What would you recommend?

The focus is on the learning: goal setting and progress monitoring

When I say goal setting I don’t want students to think, “My goal is to get an A by the end of the quarter.” The goal is to reach a level of proficiency on a learning standard. And when I say progress monitoring I don’t mean the students should only check their grades on-line. It means the students chart their progress and reflect on what needs to be done to demonstrate proficiency.

These ten minutes of class may be the most empowering time for my sixth graders because it is their time to reflect on their progress. Plus, by shifting the focus from grades to learning the students have put the horse in front of the cart. Granted it has taken some time, but they know the conversation in my classroom is about learning.

I’ve only been doing goal setting and progress monitoring since the start of the year (along with Standards Based Grading), so I would love your feedback on what works for you.  

In my classes, students set goals using Marzano’s 4 point proficiency scale knowing that 3 is the target. Every time students complete a formative assessment, they monitor their progress using a version of this Student Goal Setting 7NS1 document. They keep their goal setting sheets in a three prong folder at school.

It’s a simple but powerful process; students monitor their progress by shading in a bar chart. The visual representation makes an impact. They own their learning, and they identify “growth opportunities.”

Here’s an example:

progress monitoring
Students completed the first section after the pre-test. The second and third sections were completed after each formative.

What I like about the scale is how it’s not connected to a grade. I know that eventually I need to issue a grade, but the focus remains on learning until I need to convert it.

As far as results? When converted to grades zero students in my four math classes earned lower than a 75% in the first quarter. The real test will be this winter and spring when students take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. I know it’s not solely due to goal setting. Formative assessments and standards based grading are other variables that  enter into the equation.

Hattie’s and Marzano’s research convinced me to try it. My experience thus far has convinced me to continue.

I’m interested in learning how others are implementing goal setting and progress monitoring. Please share your experience.