I spent days planning a math lesson for my 1st grade class at the Beijing Foreign Language School. I was told to make the lesson as interactive as possible since my students spoke very little English, so I decided on a math race game. When it came time for my lesson, I stood at the front of the class holding a piece of chalk, waving two students forward to begin the game that was inspired by my own memories of racing to the blackboard to complete math problems in front of my elementary school classmates.

At the shout of “san” (the Chinese word for three in Chinese), the students copied a 2-digit math problem I had written on the board. They raced each other to solve it first, as the winning student would earn one point for their team. At first they were shy, but within five minutes it was clear they were having fun. They began raising their little hands to the board to hide their answer from their opponents, frantically scribbling out their work in chalk, all while their teammates shouted and jumped in the background encouraging them to go faster.

###### An Unplanned Lesson

After about 10 minutes of the game, the teacher tapped me on the shoulder and asked if we could end the game. I was surprised but immediately agreed, thinking it was time for PE or lunch. When the students had sat down, the teacher then announced to the class that I would be teaching another interactive math lesson. I froze. I hadn’t prepared another lesson. 19 pairs of first grade eyes were staring at me, expecting something as fun and interactive as the game they had just played. I panicked for a few moments, trying to think of another game or lesson on the spot.

###### Math and Pizza

I asked the teacher if the class had learned about fractions yet. She responded that they hadn’t, but I could try teaching them. I decided to base my lesson on a universally loved topic: food. I asked the class how many of them liked pizza. All hands went excitedly in the air. I then drew a pizza on the chalkboard, dividing it by four cheese slices (yellow chalk), two vegetable slices (green chalk), and two pepperoni slices (red chalk) to make an eight-slice pizza.

When I asked how many cheese slices there were, the whole class shouted four. I used the yellow chalk to write a four as the numerator, and the white chalk to write eight as the denominator for how many total slices were in the pizza. The students loved the lesson. They shouted out all the correct answers for how to write the fractions and even started suggesting different pizza toppings for me to draw. By the time I had ended the lesson, the class knew how to add and subtract fractions.

Even though I couldn’t teach math in their native language and the students had never seen fractions, I was able to connect with my class by teaching a new concept based on something they knew and loved to eat. My lesson with the students made me realize that learning and understanding new ideas is can be done by using a familiar topic. In this case, it was pizza that saved the day.