Think about the last time you dined at a nice restaurant. Which part of your meal did you take the most time choosing? Chances are, it was the main course. This is because the main course is, well, the main course. The appetizers, soups, and desserts are wonderful complements, but they all center on the main entrée. It is the same with a math lesson.

The intro (with an engaging hook), formative assessments, and a closure activity are all centered on the main course of a lesson, the instructional activity. And just as a main entrée has to be carefully prepared to make the dining experience memorable and enjoyable, so does a purposefully crafted instructional activity make a lesson memorable and enjoyable. (And effective!)

Engage the 5 Senses

Chef Giussy of Massari Foods

©Ary Woodbridge Photography

So what does that type of instructional activity look like? To answer this question (and continue my analogy), I spoke with Chef Giuseppina Colucci, owner of Massari Foods in San Juan Capistrano, California. She explained that a savory main course must have wholesome ingredients that are fresh, vibrant, and blended together with the right spices in a beautiful presentation to appeal to all the senses.


Chef Giuseppina (Giusy) says the look of the dish is always first. It should be colorful, well-balanced, and creatively plated. And like an artistic main course, an instructional activity should also be visually appealing. Displaying and referencing colorful infographics, charts, organizers, graphs, and pictures before, throughout, and after the lesson can keep the sense of sight activated.


Food critics and talented chefs like Chef Giusy often reference the importance of textures in an entrée. Adding texture to your lesson by creating an instructional activity with tactile elements makes it interactive for your learners. Manipulatives, models, and other hands-on activities are an easy way to energize the sense of touch.


A plated appetizer from Massari Foods.

©Ary Woodbridge Photography

Of course, a signature entrée should be unique and delicious. Chef Giusy likes to wow her clients by introducing them to new tastes using familiar ingredients. An instructional activity should do the same. Add fresh flavor to your instruction by doing something unexpected or using a new approach and sweeten it with a fun activity. Keep that sense of taste engaged by initiating mathematical discussions. Let your students “chew” on the lesson for a while and “digest” the meanings of concepts.


What you hear when you enter a restaurant helps create the ambiance. It is the same for the classroom. Excitement in your voice, or even classical music playing quietly in the background sets the mood for instruction. Discussion of the lesson and active learning are audible evidence of student-centered instruction.


Smell is the sense most strongly connected to memory. The wonderful aroma that arrives with a meal makes it irresistible. The same can happen in the classroom. The aroma (or classroom atmosphere) a teacher creates is what students remember most. If you are excited and enthusiastic about your lesson, it makes engagement and participation irresistible to your students. (Scented pencils don’t hurt, either!)

These are for you! Just click on your grade-level in the menu to take home a delectable activity you can use in the classroom or send home with your students. Enjoy!

1st Grade: Count with Pasta

Pairs of students create structured arrangements of pasta using a variety of pasta shapes (glued on colored cardstock) to practice instantly recognizing quantities to 10.

Pasta glued to cardstock used to help students recognize groups of ten.

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2nd Grade: Nonproportional Models

Students work with partners using three different types of pasta as nonproportional models to represent whole numbers. (Different colored pasta may be used to represent ones, tens, and hundreds, or different sized pasta may be used such as shells, penne, and manicotti.) Each partner creates a different model for the same number.

Use pasta shapes as nonproportional models.

Variation: The teacher gives each pair of students two different whole numbers to model (one per student). Each student works with an elbow partner to create comparison statements using a clothespin for greater than or less than.

Clothespin as "more than" or "less than" sign with nonproportional models.

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3rd Grade: Pizza Fractions

The teacher provides students with paper pizzas divided into 8 slices. Students identify the number of slices in a whole pizza. The teacher displays one slice, and asks students to represent that slice as a fraction (1/8). Students describe, as a fraction, the number of slices of pizza they would like to eat for lunch.

For example, a student might say, “I want 3 slices, so I would like 3/8 of the pizza.” Students discuss a scenario in which a student might say, “I can eat 10 slices of pizza!” If the pizzas are cut into 8 slices each, students discuss that 10/8 represents more than one whole pizza. Students practice using the slices of pizza to create several different fractions.

Use paper "pizzas" to illustrate fractions.

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4th Grade: Geometry with Pasta

Students use various pasta shapes to construct models of geometric figures. For example, wagon wheel pasta may be used to represent points, fettuccine noodles may be used to represent lines, and lasagna noodles may be used to represent planes. The teacher and student discuss how each type of pasta displays the attributes of the geometric figure it represents.

Use pasta shapes to illustrate points, lines, and planes.

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5th Grade: Graphing Pepperonis

Pizza with equal number of pepperonis on each slice.Pairs of students are given a photo or drawing of a pizza cut into equal slices with the same number of pepperoni on each slice, a large graph of the first quadrant in the coordinate plane, and several paper pepperoni pieces. Students create a table of values in which the x-value is the number of slices and the y-value is the corresponding number of pepperoni. Students create a graph of the coordinate pairs by gluing the paper pepperoni pieces onto the corresponding points on the coordinate grid.

Graph plotting number of pepperonis against number of pizza slices.

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6th Grade: The Pasta Problem

The teacher places students in small groups. Each group is provided a different type of pasta (e.g., bow ties, multi-colored curly noodles, shells). The teacher poses the question, “What do we need to know to determine how many pounds of pasta it takes to feed 50 people if a serving size is 3 ounces?”

Each group brainstorms how to solve the problem. The teacher polls each group and records the ideas on a whiteboard or other display. The teacher and students discuss the ideas and develop a problem-solving plan. Each group solves the problem using their particular type of pasta. (The teacher may provide a kitchen scale or the original box of pasta to help determine the amount of individual pieces of pasta in a serving size.) Once completed, each group shares their type of pasta and their solution to the problem.

Piles of pasta.

More Ideas

  • For an extra challenge, have students determine the number of pieces of pasta needed to feed 50 people.
  • Consider playing instrumental Italian music quietly in the background to set the mood!
  • Display fun facts about pasta around the classroom to engage your students as soon as they arrive!

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7th Grade: Pasta Permutations

The teacher places students in small groups. Each group is provided three different cans of vegetables, four different types of pasta (in a box or in plastic baggies), and pictures of two different types of sauce. The teacher instructs students that, when given the signal, each group will use the cans, pastas, and pictures to create as many different meals as possible. One student in each group will record the different meal combinations. Each group creates a tree diagram on a small poster board to represent the different options for meals. When the posters are complete, each group shares their results with the class for discussion. The teacher may then change the parameters and repeat the activity. Final discussion may include the “shortcut” to determine the number of meals possible (multiply each amount).

Cans of vegetables, cans of tomato sauce, and pasta shapes can be used in a permutation activity.

More Ideas

  • Consider playing instrumental Italian music quietly in the background to set the mood!
  • Display fun facts about pasta around the classroom to engage your students as soon as they arrive!

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8th Grade: Appetite Scatter Plot

Students work in small groups to conduct a survey that looks for an association (linear, non-linear or no association) between the number of slices of pizza a person can eat in one meal and another factor such as shoe size (Each group may choose the second factor to compare.) Students create a scatter plot of the data by gluing small paper slices of pizza (or using pizza stickers) on a large graph of the first quadrant in the coordinate plane, labeling each axis accordingly. Each group analyzes the graphed data to determine if there is an association between the data, and if so, describes it. Groups present their results to the class for discussion. The discussion may be extended to include which population this sample might represent and how well it represents it.

Scatter plot appetites and shoe size.

More Ideas

  • Consider playing instrumental Italian music quietly in the background to set the mood!
  • Display fun facts about pizza around the classroom to engage your students as soon as they arrive!

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Special thanks to Chef Giuseppina Colucci and my colleagues at Mentoring Minds, Marian Rainwater, Dr. Sandra Love, Karen Crawford, and Stephanie Christian, for their contributions to this article.


About Mathematical Matters

This article is part of the Mathematical Matters series, which examines all things math for elementary and middle school teachers, from the nitty gritty to the philosophical. Look back in the archives for classroom tips, activities, and strategies for making math fun and impactful for your students . . . because math matters!