What’s All This “Box Factory” Business?–Part 1

You may have heard me or my students mention the Box Factory lately, and wondered what in the world we were talking about.  Let me tell you about this fabulous math work we’ve been doing lately.
In 5th grade, we have a unit on 3D geometry, focused around finding volume of different kinds of rectangular prisms and figuring out a formula for how to do this (l x w x h or b x h).  This year we incorporated a unit by Cathy Fosnot, which created a context for this learning.  Enter the “Box Factory.”

The basic premise of the investigation is that kids work in a box factory and have to figure out certain things related to volume and surface area (although these things are not specifically named until later in the unit).  There were three parts, and kids worked small groups to investigate the answers to these questions:
1.  If the box factory wanted to create boxes that held 24 items, how many different boxes could they create?  What would the dimensions be of those boxes? Which box would be the cheapest one to produce? There were 16 possible answers to this question, and the students used cubes, graph paper, equations, drawings, or whatever necessary to figure it out.  They had to then create a poster to show their strategies and explain their thinking to show to the other groups.

2. How much cardboard would you need to cover each of these boxes? This one extended the conversation into surface area, and invited students to now look at the outside of the box, instead of just the inside.  Most groups figured out that if they used the formula (2 x L) + (2 x W) + (2 x H) to determine how much cardboard they’d need.  The cheapest boxes to make would be ones that are closest to the shape of a cube, as opposed to a long, skinny box.

3.  If the factory created three sizes of cube-shaped boxes–2 x 2 x 2, 3 x 3 x 3, and 4 x 4 x4, how many units could each hold?  If it costs 12 cents per unit, how much would each box cost?  This one looked at the inside again, and added another layer of multiplication (with money) to figure out the final answers.


All throughout this investigation (which goes for about 10 days), the focus is on kids discovering strategies for volume, rather than just giving it to them.  Through the posters they create and the Math Congress conversations we share, they are also working on sharing and representing their thinking.  They are learning how to make their representations clear and concise so that other people can understand exactly what they did.

This poster-sharing part is not new to me in Math Workshop.  But Fosnot’s unit added a layer I’ve never thought of before in math–revision.  Much like when mathematicians publish proofs (and like we’d just spent time on in Writer’s Workshop!), students were able to get feedback from others on what worked, what was confusing, what they should add or take away.  They they had the opportunity to revise and edit their posters before they shared.  With each new poster they created, they added new ways of showing their thinking clearly.   They did this by discussing with their group, and then leaving suggestions on post-its.  We used the “Plus-delta” model to share something we liked and something we’d change:


So by the third time around, we were pretty great at showing thinking on our posters.  Even though you didn’t see all the steps, you can still appreciate the clarity and organization of these:







Have you ever done a Cathy Fosnot unit before?  How have you used revision and feedback in math to clarify thinking? What strategies do you use for teaching volume? We’d love to hear about it!

8 thoughts on “What’s All This “Box Factory” Business?–Part 1

  1. We just finished the Box Factory. My students loved it. This is my second year teaching Cathy Fosnot’s units. I plan to do the Field Trip unit and Best Buys as well. Her “Math Congress” feels so similar to Lucy Calkins’s units of writing and writing celebrations. I now have my first and second grade teachers teaching the primary units and hope it spreads to the rest of lower school. I am truly hoping my head of school will send me to their summer institute in August.

    • Our primary teachers started using her units last year, but this is our first try at them. I agree that they are similar to other things. It’s actually the way I used teach–way back when I first started teaching and we didn’t have programs to follow. This is the only unit we have so far, but are going to add her fraction one next. She’s coming back to our school district next summer, and I’m beyond excited to learn more!

      • Way Cool that you get to work with Cathy. My kids last year loved the Field Trip and deciding if the division of the subs were fair. What math program does your school use?
        (I see we both read Ivan for the Global Read Aloud. What a positive experience that was!)

  2. Yes but not as a read a loud. Several of my students have read it and really enjoyed it. Are you reading it next? I wonder what will win the Newbery this year.

    • We read it a couple of books ago. We had some amazing conversations about being kind, including others, how to respond respectfully to those who are different than us (and who isn’t?). We read alot of books that are nominated for our state award, the Mark Twain. Because of Mr. Terupt was a favorite from this list. I have never really done anything Newberys. I feel a little embarrassed saying that, but it’s true. What have you Newberys have you read?

  3. Pingback: Math Warm-Ups Oct. 29-Nov. 2, 2012 « 20somethingkidsand1kookyteacher

  4. Pingback: What’s All This “Box Factory” Business?–Part 2 « 20somethingkidsand1kookyteacher

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