Category Archives: measurement

My First Three-Act Lesson

My co-worker Regina and I took a stab at our first three-act math lesson. Well, we took a stab at writing a lesson to provide some motivation for learning about measuring liquid volume, and it sort of morphed into a three-act lesson along the way. However we got there, it was fun to write, and the teachers we shared it with at a PD session in March really enjoyed it. Here’s hoping I get the chance to develop another three-act lesson sooner rather than later!

Writing this lesson came hot on the heels of spending a day with Dan Meyer at the recent Texas Association of Supervisors of Mathematics meeting. He offered some advice for designing engaging learning experiences that I couldn’t wait to try out:

  • Start a fight
  • Turn the math dial down
  • Create a headache

If you’re intrigued by his advice – and I hope you are – I recommend checking out his recent talk at NCTM. You’re only going to get about 45 minutes with his ideas about engagement instead of the 6 or so hours I got, but I guarantee it is still time well spent.

A Gallon of Ice


  • Texas: 3.7D and 3.7E
  • CCSS: 3.MD.2

Act 1

Watch the video.

  1. What do you notice? What do you wonder?
  2. How long do you think it will take for all of the ice to melt? Estimate – Write an estimate that is too low, an estimate that is too high, and your just right estimate.
  3. How much water will be in the jug after all the ice melts?

I recommend bringing in an empty milk jug so students can draw small mark and their initials on the side of the jug to show their estimate. Start a fight! The students will want to know if their answer is correct. I did this with teachers during a PD session, and they had quite a range of answers. At this point, the math dial is turned down low, so we did not talk about units of measurement, just an estimate of how high the water will fill the jug once the ice is melted.


Act 2

Watch the video.

  1. How long did it take the ice to melt? (Sadly, it finished melting while I was sleeping, so the most precise answer we can give is longer than 11 hours but less than 20 hours, since I checked the jug again at 7:00am.)
  2. Whose estimate was closest to the actual height of the water in the jug? (Resolve the controversy!)
  3. How much water is in the jug? Estimate – Write an estimate that is too low, an estimate that is too high, and your just right estimate.

This is where you start to slowly turn up the math dial. Question 3 is a great question to find out what your students already know about units of volume. They might very well be stumped depending on their prior experiences. You might have them imagine other packages and containers that have liquids in them and think if there are any words they know that describe how much liquid is inside. It’s totally fine for the estimates to be sort of weak here.

The whole purpose of this question is to create a bit of a headache – get the class to a point where you (or your students!) can say, “I think we need to know a bit more about measuring liquids so we can come up with estimates we’ll feel confident about,” and then take a break from this three-act lesson to do some explorations of measuring liquid volume. After doing that, which might take a day or two, show the Act 2 video again and then give the students a chance to add on or revise their estimates.

Here are some estimates made by 3rd grade teachers at our PD session:


I can tell the teachers were hooked when they reacted in shock when they found out I wasn’t going to reveal the answer right away. Just like with students, we took a detour away from this lesson. We wanted to spend a bit of time sharing ideas for how students can explore measurements of liquid volume. But they wanted to know the answer! One of them was really worried and wanted to make sure we would tell them before they left the PD session.

I couldn’t have been happier.

Act 3

All is revealed! Now that your students have some personal experiences with measuring liquids using various units and you’ve given them a chance to add on or revise their estimates, it’s time to find out the actual volume!

And of course I spilled some water! When I was first filling the jug, I had to cut a flap in the top to make the opening wider for ice cubes to fit. Unfortunately, I forgot about it when I was doing my first pour and water did not come out like I was expecting. Thankfully it was only a small amount.

There’s so much going on in this video! You’ve got quarts, and half gallons, and cups, and fractions of cups. All great stuff to talk about! But I purposefully tallied the number of cups throughout the video so that students could at least come up with 8 2/3 cups. However, this is a great opportunity to talk about how we can read measurements differently depending on our units. For example:

  • 8 2/3 cups
  • 1/2 gallon and 2/3 cup
  • 69 1/2 ounces
  • 2 quarts and 2/3 cup

This is different from making conversions; it’s more about the choices available when reading a measurement off a tool. You don’t have to go here, but I think it is important for students to know that they do have choices in how they read a measurement given the options provided by the tool. Learning that flexibility here is only going to help them when they start encountering questions related to measurement conversions down the road.

And that’s a wrap! If you try out this lesson in your own classroom, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


Weighty Matters

This year I won a grant from our district’s Partners In Education Foundation. (Yay!) With the money, I was able to purchase quite a few platform scales for every third grade team in our district. Today I got to visit a class using the scales, and I got to see the amazing Julie Hooper teach a lesson I developed with my partner Regina. It was so much fun!

The class started with a computation warm-up which made my math heart happy. It was so amazing to listen to Julie’s students solve the problem in so many different ways. They were so comfortable doing it, too. You can tell they have internalized the idea that they are able to solve problems in ways that make sense to them.

After the warm-up, the class dove into the day’s lesson. Julie started by asking the students to name things that are heavy and things that are light.

She asked some thought provoking questions after they had compiled their list.

  • Is 100 pounds heavy to you?
  • Do you think it’s heavy to a weight lifter?
  • Are big things always heavy?

I love how the conversation got the students thinking about their current conceptions of weight.

Next, the students had the opportunity to explore two different scales. Julie asked them to notice and wonder as they tried out the scales. I noticed that 3rd grade students *love* to put as many items as they can on the scale all at once. They couldn’t believe how much it took on the larger scale to make the dial move.

After having some time to explore, Julie asked the class to think about which scale they would use to measure different objects in the room. The reason for this is because one scale can measure weight up to 11 pounds while the other can only measure up to 2 pounds. She was curious to see if students had already started noticing that the bigger scale would measure heavier things while the smaller scale would max out unless the objects were lighter.

After all of this exploring, Julie brought the class together to focus on the scale and to make connections between the scale and the number line. The class talked about whole number connections first, but then she drilled down to fractions and mixed numbers.

Finally, Julie asked the students what unit of weight they thought the fractional parts might represent. Someone volunteered ounces. Then she asked a wonderful question: “How many ounces do you think are in a pound?” Many students thought there must be 8 ounces in a pound, which makes sense given the number of parts between 4 and 5, but then she transitioned to the other scale to see what students would notice.

She wants the students to figure out that there are 16 ounces in a pound, but unfortunately she ran out of time for the day. I did like that the final comment from a student was, “That scale goes up to 4 pounds.” Just wait until they continue their work tomorrow!

Thank you to Julie for letting me spend an hour learning with her students!