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Last week, my mind began to wander during a meeting and, instead of doodling, I wrote out the date on a post-it and started to “do the date”. How does one “do the date,” you ask? Simple: Today is 3/15/2016. Using those numbers, in that order, create a balanced equation using mathematical operations.

This habit is nearly two decades old, formed while I was a student in Ms. Smith’s 5th grade math class. At the beginning of every math class, students were expected to enter the room, grab a piece of scrap paper, and “do the date” as quickly as possible.

The rules were:

1) Keep the numbers in the correct order from left to right.

2) Use any mathematical operation to create a balanced equation, including parentheses and exponents (but even those have to come from the date). The equal sign can go between any two numbers. You can’t add extra numbers.

3) The highest number of points go to the student who solves it first and the first student to create an alternative equation.

4) Everyone else who creates a “correct “ equation receives a point.

5) At the end of the week, points are converted into Starburst candies (coveted and valuable middle school currency)

Fast forward 18 years. As a school director and former high school teacher, I now know this practice is called a “do now” and is a highly effective way to set the tone and warm up students’ brains for learning. But back in 1995, this was a competition for algebraic glory (and candy). Even the most reluctant math students would sprint to the front of the room to show Ms. Smith their solution, especially on days there seemed to be no solution. Minutes would pass, and Mrs. Smith would circulate, waiting patiently for someone to puzzle it together correctly. If a solution was found after five minutes, we moved on to the lesson. If not, she let us sweat and squirm. I remember the tension growing in the room on days the numbers evaded us, knowing the prize would taste so much sweeter. Sometimes, “doing the date” would take us the whole period. But as long as we were all trying, that was okay. Rarely did a day go by that someone in the class could not, somehow, get it done. And the more we learned about algebra, more varied possible options for solving arose.

Before today, if I had to rank my all-time best teachers or classes, Ms. Smith’s math class would probably not make the top twenty. But, as I skimmed through my old meeting notes, I found nearly every date scribbled over with multiplication signs and parentheses. To this day, I can’t help but look at any date and try to rearrange the numbers in my head to make mathematical sense.

The habits ingrained by this activity have influenced my life as a teacher, but even more as just a regular grown-up (and not just how to pass time stuck in meetings). By letting us take all the time we needed, Mrs. Smith taught us the importance of balancing flexibility and routine, compromise and structure. She showed us that most of the time, there is more than one way to solve a problem. She valued all of our solutions, not just the quickest one.

So, all you teachers out there: keep on keepin’ on. Even the smallest routines you build into your classrooms have an immeasurable impact — maybe not this marking period or school year, but decades later. It isn’t easy, and rarely ever glamorous, but your lessons today will help build grown-ups who can pass it on.

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Guest Post By: Melissa Giroux
Site Director, Brooklyn MS Extended Learning Program

Originally published at Teacher Voice.