“They’re just playing…”

I was recently listening to a conference session by Katie Sellstrom. During the talk, she made a statement that was so simple, it was brilliant. And needs to be repeated. It paraphrases like this: “Yeah, I mean, okay. Maybe you’re only taking this kind of data because the law requires you to. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make the experience awesome for your students.”

Katie was speaking of in-class assessments and formative data and MTSS structures and stuff like that. The stuff that plays into what a lot of people are lamenting about the modern state of education. Education is currently a world of standards, learning targets, data goals, and accountability. I think those are good things. I think that schools should be expected to do a good job growing every single kid in their school. And if they are doing a good job for every kid, they shouldn’t be offended by being asked to prove it. And if they can’t prove it (either because they aren’t keeping track, or because they aren’t doing a good job growing each kid), we shouldn’t be okay with that.

But, we can’t lose sight of what drives change. The ultimate goal is for all students to achieve at a high level. Not simply to do their best, but to change their best and then do the brand new best. And in order to do that, it should be a foregone conclusion that we need the students to come to school. Everyday. All year. Every year. And not simply because the law makes them.

Side note: the data on the negative effects of dropping out are intense and not in dispute and yet, in light of that, many kids see it as a reasonable choice compared to coming to school. So, it should satisfy NO ONE that we have to require kids by law to come to our classrooms. Why aren’t they flocking to them by choice?

Well, for one thing, when the accountability systems started tightening the screws on everyone, many schools (particularly those who need the most growth) decided it was time to buckle down and get to work. #NoMoreFoolinAround Which is completely understandable, but…

… it seemed to often come with a corresponding reduction in the stuff that makes the classroom environment enjoyable. And the concern over that isn’t simply fluffy “kids-should-be-kids, shouldn’t children be happy?” stuff. Not at all. It’s economic. We need those young people to come to school. Enthusiastically, if possible, so that our systems can help them grow. If the learning environment is regularly uninspiring, then we are going to lose our target audience. And everyone loses if that happens.

So, what to do? Well, perhaps we could consider designing academically-meaningful tasks that were also enjoyable. Tools like Desmos, Formative and EdPuzzle (among others) help a lot in creating flexibility in lesson design that can bring a variety of potentially enjoyable elements into core activities. But beyond that, take a look at the two pictures above at the top of this post.

Here, I’ll show you one more.

JustPlaying3

I visted this school in the midst of their “Oral Language Groups.”

It was collaborative play time. (That doesn’t look as good on a master schedule). But it isn’t “just play time.” First things first, the students were all actively engaged. Secondly, about 90% of them were collaborating actively with a classmate. Third, they weren’t all doing the same thing. The students could pick which group they wanted to be at. And fourth, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Behavior issues were low. Students wanting to brag about their work was high. So, can it be aligned to anything? (This is an important question. All activities should fit in with the broader goals.)

Common Core ELA: 

CCRA.SL.1 – Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasive; CCRA.SL.6 – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks…

Common Core Math:

SMP3 – Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others, SMP5 – Use appropriate tools strategically, SMP6 – Attend to precision

Next Gen Science Practice Standards

Planning and Carrying out investigations, Analyzing and interpreting data, Using mathematical and computational thinking, Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Some of those are a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. Strategic play time isn’t “just” play time. Just like maker space time isn’t “just” maker space time. These environments can be built to create academically supportive learning experiences.

Notice: “can be built”… it requires strategic design to make it valuable. So, here are some thoughts I have about how to take “just” play time and make it meaningful.

  1. Have a goal for your students during your play/maker time. What type of learning are you trying to get? Do you want the students to collaborate? Communicate? What do you expect that to look like in this type of setting? How do you intend to communicate those expectations to your students?
  2. Don’t let your goal be an excuse for reducing student autonomy. This isn’t a cookbook chemistry lab. This is play time. And many of the growth pieces that you are hoping for with your students are cut out when you start micromanaging the play. Skenazy and Haidt put it this way: “Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood. In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.”
  3. Take data during the play time. The students are playing. You are not. Your job is to figure out if this thing is working toward your goal. So, decide what data you are going to take. Take it. And monitor their progress. Remember, data isn’t always quantitative.
  4. Have the students reflect a bit. Having a bit off a “show-off something cool” time will give the groups a chance to describe to the class what they made, tell a story about it, and gather ideas for next time while listening to the others.
  5. Be reasonable about how much time you have to devote to play/maker time. It’s possible that given the “have-to’s” of your situation, you can only make this work out once per week. That’s okay. Do the best you can. But please, please… whatever you do… please. Don’t turn this into a reward for learning fast. Planning these in as a reward for behaving and passing assessments sends the exact wrong message and sends that message to the group of students most likely to benefit from the play/maker time. (The message: You struggle in school, so you don’t get to have fun. Stop struggling, then we’ll let you have fun.)

Rushton Hurley says “it isn’t our job to entertain the kids, but if we do our jobs in an entertaining way, then they are much more likely to come along for the ride.” I endorse that message, because them coming along for the ride is exactly what we need them to do. Remember, if we are going to grow them, we need them to be in school. Everyday. All year. Every year.

Let’s start thinking about creating the kinds of environments where a young person would voluntarily do that.

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Desmos for Not Math

If I were Desmos, I’m not sure how I would feel about this development. Mostly because I think it is potentially huge. And they’ve made their mark on developing the best online math application anywhere around.

So, what happens when an ELA teacher looks to you and decides that your platform is better than anything they have available to them and simply isn’t bothered by the fact that it’s a math app?

Well, naturally, that teacher makes an ELA lesson. And then Desmos becomes an ELA application.

I’m not the first person to think this. I have to credit Julie Reulbach for my first exposure to this idea. But, I’d like to submit for consideration a custom Desmos activity I call “The Letter K” inspired by my kindergarten son’s handwriting. (If you want your kindergartener to play, you can see the class code. Go to student.desmos.com and enter “JCFES”.)

DesmosK

This isn’t a stretch. It’s very, very doable. So much so, that in a position like mine, it’s time to stop talk about “this great math app that I know of” and start talking about “this awesome platform I know for building great teaching-and-learning activities.”

Because that’s what it is.

Building (math and science) Knowledge

KevaTweet
There are different types of knowledge. To know how a square is defined is different than knowing how to identify one. These are different that knowing how to draw one with ruler and paper. Or construct one with compass and straight edge.

A square is a pretty simple example, but when it comes to ramps, bridge, exploring mass and rotation, there’s being able to answer questions about it, and then there being able to build object to create examples, non-examples, and solve challenges. And it can help to have the right tools.

My office recently got a set of Keva Planks. Now, I’ve gotten to see these blocks in action a number of times and they are pretty cool. First, there is almost no learning curve. The blocks are all exactly the same. There’s no connecting pieces or fasteners or adhesive. There’s nothing to them. But with them you can build ramps and towers, polygons and prisms. They set up easily, the clean up easily.

Full-disclosure: They aren’t free. (Cheapest place I’ve found them is Amazon… 400 blocks for $90). Ordinarily, I don’t make a point to advocate for expensive tools, but in this case I think it could be money well spent based on the needs of the location. Also, they are durable and shareable. One department or grade level team could probably make good use with one to share.

Anyway, it’s worth looking in to as they allow us to explore types of knowledge that we otherwise might not be very well equipped to explore. (Particularly with those Next Gen engineering practices that are starting to become a reality in many states.)

For another look, here’s my latest podcast: Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes #5 – Keva Planks.

Capturing the engagement of the meme

So, using addtext.com, students and teachers can quite easily make memes.

Memes are one of those things… they play right into our culture’s preferences for communicating. They’ve got the visual component. Often there’s humor. There isn’t a huge time commitment to either write them or read them or share them.

math meme #1.png

The convey a ton of meaning with very few words, which is something that will appeal to our students as well.

math meme #2.png

And, like any effective tool for communication, it has some best practices and strategies and uses that are more effective than others. But because the meme is such a ubiquitous style, the students can chime in on developing and generalizing those.

Memes have something that other pictures-and-word combos don’t have. Consider this…

math meme #4.jpg

… which a student could create and is accurate.

But, could it be that we could take advantage of this medium by producing something like this?

math meme #5.JPG

No, it’s not a sure bet. TV is engaging. School on TV has not proved to be. Math class hasn’t dealt with its basic engagement struggles simply because is has put resources on the internet. And quite frankly, meme are often engaging because they are making fun of someone or sarcastically highlighting a frustration. So, by converting them into a math vocabulary tool, we will pull the shine off of them real quick.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t pay attention to the fact that pop culture has stumbled on a low-cost, highly-transferable, and easily shareable method of communication that also comes with a high degree of familiarity to both the students and teachers.

Do you use student-made memes in your class? I would like to hear how you use them.

Proofs (and writing) are difficult

The moment I started to have success helping student really learn how to write proof in geometry was the moment I realized that”The Proof” is nothing more than a persuasive essay converted to math class. It’s disciplinary literacy. And thinking of them as mathy-style essays can help us isolate some of the reasons the students struggle with proof in general. My experience leads me to think that many of the struggles are the same the ones the students experience with writing outside of math class. They don’t understand the structure, they don’t appreciate the value of honoring their target audience, and they don’t understand the content well enough.

Luckily for us, the ELA department has often hit those three points really hard. As math teachers, we just need to help the students bridge the gap.

What’s the structure to an essay? Thesis, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. Or, in math, “Given angle a is congruent to b, I’ll prove that segment a is congruent to segment b. Here’s the evidence I’m using to support my claim. And here’s what I just proved.”

Who’s the target audience? In math, it’s often either someone who doesn’t understand or someone who disagrees with you. That explains why you need to back up each statement with theorem, definition, or previously proven statement. Take nothing for granted or you’ll lose your reader.

And as for content? Well, have you ever read an essay from someone who plain ol’ doesn’t know what they are talking about? The best structure in the world isn’t going to save them if they can’t define the words they are trying to use.

So, when it comes to proof-writing, I think we math teachers need to appreciate that “writing” really is at the core of it, and the better we make that connection explicit to our proof-learning students, the more likely they are to be successful. And perhaps there’s a role for some meaning collaboration between high school math and ELA departments.

And with that, enjoy the latest “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” discussing, of all things, writing.

New Podcast: Why I love this picture

So, I get the pleasure of supporting a different school community than I have been these past couple of years. As a part of that work, I have decided to start a short video podcast. (The Geogebra post was the first episode.)
Occasionally, that means I’ll be borrowing “thegeometryteacher” content and podcasting new life into it. This is one of those examples. I originally posted this last fall…

 

Here’s the picture…

2016-11-15-09-06-34

I took this picture this morning in Lansing, MI during some wonderful small group math talk. There is one device, an iPad, with an Osmo setup attached to it.

So, here’s why I love this picture.

There’s tech and…

… manipulatives and whiteboard markers and collaboration. Tech fits among the variety of tools available. It’s not the best tool unless it best supports the learning. And sometimes other tools work better. And in this case, the students were being led into learning with all the different tools.

The activity is built around the social nature of learning. 

The kids are clearly sharing their answers with each other and the teacher… there is a constant back-and-forth, sharing ideas and discussing them. They were seeing each other ideas, but…

Their strategies aren’t all the same. 

One girl is using an array. One girl is using groups of three. One girl wasn’t quite sure what to do (so it was a good thing she could see the other two girls’ work.)

The teacher’s hands are off. 

The students are doing the reaching, arranging, manipulating. Remember, the one that does the work will be the one that does the learning.

That’s why I love this picture. it captures so many wonderful things about the right kind of teaching and learning.

A long-awaited solution (featuring Geogebra)

So, a while back, I posted “Circles from Cedar Street” with an intriguing (at least to me) picture designed to kick off the conversation about rotations.

Then, I left it alone. Like, literally. I didn’t solve it. I should have solved it. I let you down.

I especially let guys like Dan down, who also found the problem intriguing. Sorry about that.

But I realized today that it’s never too late to make it right. So, using Geogebra, here’s is one possible solution to the Circles from Cedar Street problem from back in August of 2013.