Balancing the Glass Half Full

I watched in quiet amazement as a server at a Tampa bistro mechanically stacked glass after glass onto an escalating motionless tower. Its only support was in the form of a firm grip on the foundational glass with some pressure against his arm to steady the sway. One by one, the server continued to add to the stack and with each glass, I feared that the entire structure would come tumbling down. As I tore myself away from the potential cup catastrophe, I quickly snapped this picture to commemorate what could assuredly be a very interesting #MathMoment. The waiter’s efficiency can easily be turned into an entertaining instructional tool that teachers and parents can use  with their students.

cup tower


This simple question is the perfect introduction to a multitude of conversations. If I asked my third graders, “What do you notice?,” I would undoubtedly get responses like:

“I notice the stack of cups is as long as his arm!”

“I notice he is really strong!”

“I notice there are still at least two more cups on the table that he could add to the stack.”

“I notice that there’s a man behind him who is also watching to see if the tower is going to crash.”

By taking the time to discuss what is noticed, we put value on the skill of observation and intuition. Take time to notice things with your child.

What do you wonder?

These observations give a perfect backdrop to an essential element of learning: asking questions.

“How many cups can he hold without dropping the stack?”

“How much liquid is in the stack of cups altogether?”

“How much does the stack of cups weigh?”

“Could he carry more if he was using a tray?”

While each of these questions requires more information than this picture can give, it still opens the door to the conversation about how we would reach a solution to these questions. What if we used estimates in place of actual calculations? Couldn’t this conversation take flight by putting these estimates to work? Imagine the endless possibilities one picture, one interesting snippet of time, can have on allowing students to see how real and applicable math really is.


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