Making an effective first impression

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My geometry students explored Dan Meyer’s “Best Circle” on Day 1.

 

It is customary to start the year by helping the students understand their role as a member of our math community. So customary, in fact, that toward the end of the day, it seems most students have seen 3, 4, or perhaps, 5 different “here are the procedures and policies in my classroom” lectures.

I choose a different approach for two reasons. First, I feel like the students are appreciative of the chance to do… something… anything… other than listen to another description of the classroom policies and procedures (which, aside from late work policies and grade categories, are probably pretty darn similar teacher-to-teacher anyway). And second, there’s only so much value in telling students stuff.

It’s usually better to show them.

 

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My ALG 2.0 students explored Dan Meyer’s “Toothpicks”.

 

My classroom expectations are almost all focused on the effective learning of mathematics and being an effective member of a mathematical learning community. I could lecture them about what this looks like. Or I could let the students group together in teams of 3 or 4, give them a mathematical task, and let them explore. Consider it “Classroom Policies and Procedures LIVE!”

In case you’re curious, these are the expectations for each member of our mathematical community.

1. We stay on task.

2. We seek out the tools that we need.

3. We ask questions instead of quitting.

4. We are responsible for having something to offer to the team, and then our the team to the class community.

5. We make sense of the answers we get, examining if both the answer and the procedure for getting it are reasonable.

 

If every person in my classes did that, we’d be just fine. Always.

 

The problem with Day 1 is that you have to be very, VERY careful assuming ANYTHING about the background of the students coming into your classroom. I was fortunate that my ALG 2.0 class was almost entirely made up of students whom I also worked with in geometry. This is rare. In general, I don’t start gaining a real understanding of each group of learners until I’ve watched them explore math tasks the first couple times.

So, this is when you make the entry point to activity as low as you can get it. Up the mathematical intensity only once you are sure everyone is still on the same page. This is when you establish norms. Remind them to get back on task. Require a contribution from each group. Gently ask follow-up questions. Offer the students a variety of resources and then brag on their creative and effective use (even if it is something as simple as using multiple colors to organize work).

Central Park by Desmos is a perfect fit, by the way. As are the activities from the pictures.

It’s important to take advantage of the opportunities given to you as a teacher on Day 1. After all, you never get a second chance at a first impression.

And if Day 1 goes well, when the student’s are shaking off the summer rust, then imagine all the fun we’ll have on Day 2!

Why I’m not THAT worried about the future of math education…

A New York Times article by Elizabeth Green has made its social media rounds lately. “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?” has been tweeted/shared a couple million times by now, with good reason.

It’s actually a really good article with some good story-telling and relevant history, and all the data and examples to back up the title. It’s worth a read. (It isn’t a quick read, mind you, but a good read.)

As far as I can tell, the thesis of the article is in the middle of the piece:

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work.”

The “traditional way” that Ms. Green speaks of is summed up a bit later in the piece.

Most American math classes follow the same pattern, a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it a cultural script. Some teachers call the pattern “I, We, You.” After checking homework, teachers announce the day’s topic, demonstrating a new procedure: “Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

Green goes on to say that quite often teachers recognize the limitations of the traditional model, but have a hard time reforming it largely because of poor resources and ineffective training. From later in the piece:

Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones. Textbooks, too, barely changed, despite publishers’ claims to the contrary.

So, here we go. Sounds like a big problem, right?

Well…

I’m not that concerned. Ya know why?

First off, I don’t want to give the impression that I think that Green is writing untruths or is exaggerating. That isn’t where I’m taking this. American math education needs some serious work. But see, that’s where I get encouraged.

Let’s look at a specific bit of content. How about volume and surface area of prisms?

So, my textbook provides this:

Prism Clip

taken from Holt’s Geometry, 2009 Edition, Pg 684

 

These practice problems fit in with the “I, We, You” model that Ms. Green described in her article. Right on cue, the textbook appears to be pitching to our education system’s weaknesses.

But those weaknesses have entered a brave new world where teachers who have found models that work are not only willing, but also able to share them freely for anyone and everyone who might be looking.

For example:

Andrew Stadel’s “Filing Cabinent” is, by content standards, just another prism surface area problem. But, the situation he sets up is anything but ordinary.

Timon Piccini’s “Pop Box Design” asks a relatively simple question in a context that is approachable by practically everyone.

Dan Meyer’s “Dandy Candies” pushes the envelope on video quality, pushes the same content, and includes it in a blog post that discusses a competitor to “I, We, You.”

All those fantastic resources are available… for free. And the creators can be reached if you have a question about them.

A movement has begun. An (ever-growing) group of math teachers decided that it was one thing to discuss reforming math education and it was quite another to effectively reform math education. The group is getting larger. It’s inclusive. It’s welcoming. It’s free to join. And it doesn’t expect anything from those who join. Everyone does what they are able. Some share lots. Some steal lots. Some do both. The bank of resources is growing.

And this isn’t legislated reform. There is a genuine desire for this. I spoke in Grand Rapids, MI this past spring and was amazed that the crowd that was willing to gather to hear someone talk about reforming math education. Nearly 100 folks crammed into a room to have, what ended up being a rather lively, discussion about how to engage all learners, push all learners, and keep as many learners as possible interested in meaningful mathematical tasks.

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They had to turn people away from a talk on effective math lesson planning.

So, Ms. Green is certainly right. Americans stink at math. But there is a growing group of teachers who are aware of the problem, interested in seeing it solved, and now, more than ever, there are places they can turn to, people they can reach out to (and who are reaching out to them). And it is all available for free on technology that practically everyone already has.

So, forgive me, but I am quite optimistic about where this might take us.

 

For your students’ sake: Don’t stop being a learner

Yesterday, we designed an Algebra II lesson using 3D modeling to derive the factored formula for difference of cubes. As we began to finish up, Sheila (@mrssheilaorr), the math teacher sitting beside me made a passing reference to being frustrated trying to prove the sum of cubes formula. Me, being a geometry teacher by trade decided to give it a try perhaps hoping to offer a fresh perspective. I mean, I was curious. It looked like this:

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On the surface, it didn’t seem unapproachable. I quickly became frustrated as well. Most frustrating was the mutual feeling that we were so stinkin’ close to cracking the missing piece. Finally, Luann, a math teaching veteran sat down beside us, commented on her consistently getting stuck in the same spot we were stuck and then, as the three of us talked about it, the final piece fell in and it all made sense (it’s always how you group the terms, isn’t it?)

Then this morning, it happened again. Writing a quiz for Calculus, I needed a related rates problem. Getting irritated with the lousy selection of choices online, I decided that I needed to try to create my own. And I wanted to go #3Act and after some preliminary brain storming with John Golden (@mathhombre) (Dan Meyer’s Taco Cart? Nah… rates of walkers not really related…) we found some potential in Ferris Wheel (also by Dan Meyer)! Between my curiosity and my morning got mathy in a hurry.

First I tried to design and solve the problem relating the rotational speed in Act 1 to the height of the red car. That process looked like this:

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Meanwhile Dr. Golden found a video of a double Ferris wheel, which was pretty awesome. Seemed a little it out of my league, so kept plucking away at my original goal.

It clearly wasn’t out of Dr. Golden’s league, as he took to Geogebra and did things I didn’t know Geogebra was capable of. (You’re going to want to check that out.)

So, what is the product of all of this curiosity and random math problem-solving? As I see it, these past 48 hours have done two things: Reminded me of what makes me curious and reminded me what it’s like to be a learner.

I have a feeling my students will be the beneficiaries of both of those products. There’s a certain amount of refreshment that comes from never being too far removed from the stuff that drew us to math in the first place. The problem you want to solve just because you want to see what the answer looks like.

And this curiosity, the pursuit, it feeds itself. In the process of exploring that which you set out to explore, you get a taste of something else that you didn’t know you would be curious about until it fell down in front of you. (For example, Geogebra… have no idea what that program is capable of, which is a shame because it is loaded on all my students’ school-issued laptops…)

And this process breeds enthusiasm. Enthusiasm that comes with us into our classrooms and it spreads. I’m not trying to be cheesy, but much has been said about math functionality in the modern economy, how essential it is in college-readiness and the like with few tangible results. Let’s remember that there are kids who are moved by enthusiasm, who will respond to joy, who will pay attention better simply because the teacher is excited about what they are teaching. It won’t get them all, but neither will trying to convince them of any of the stuff on this poster.

Now, who’s going to teach me how to use Geogebra?

The Anxiety of Open-Ended Lesson Planning

It’s been about three years since I started weaning myself (and my students) off textbook-dependent geometry lesson-planning and toward something better. I’ll admit the lesson planning is more time-consuming (especially at the beginning), but most of the time expenditures are one-time expenses. Once you find your favorite resources, you bookmark them and there they are.

As we pushed away from the textbook, I noticed two things: First, the course became more enjoyable for the students. This had a lot to do with the fact that the classwork took on a noticeably different feel. Like getting a new pair of shoes, the old calluses and weak spots aren’t being irritated (at least not as quickly). Out went the book definitions and “guided practice” problems and in came an exploration though an inductively-reasoned course with more open-ended problems (fewer of them) that seemed to reward students’ efforts more authentically than the constant stream of “1-23 (odds).”

The second thing that I noticed, though, was that I had less of a script already provided. The textbook takes a lot of the guesswork out of sequencing questions and content. When the textbook goes, all that opens up and it fundamentally changes lesson planning. The lesson becomes more of a performance. There’s an order. There’s info that you keep hidden and reveal only when the class is ready. Indeed, to evoke the imagery of Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) it should follow a similar model to that of a play or movie.

But, see… here’s the thing about the “performance” of the lesson plan. The students have a role to play as well… and they haven’t read your script… and they outnumber you… and there is a ton of diversity among them. So, when you unleash your lesson plan upon them, you have a somewhat limited ability to control where they are going to take it.

Therein lies the anxiety.

If a student puts together a fantastic technique filled with wonderful logical reasoning that arrives at an incorrect answer, you have to handle that on the fly. It helps to be prepared for it and to anticipate it, but the first time you run a problem at a class, anticipating everything a class of students might do with a problem can be a tall order.

Case-in-point:

The candy pieces made a grid. The rectangles were congruent. Let's start there.

The candy pieces made a grid. The rectangles were congruent. Let’s start there.

The Hershey Bar Problem was unleashed for the first time to a group of students. Our department has agreed to have that problem be a common problem among all three geometry teachers and to have the other two teachers observe the delivery and student responses (I love this model, by the way).

The students did a lot of the things we were expecting. But, we also watched as the students took this in a directions that we never saw coming. The student began using the smaller Hershey rectangles as a unit of measure. One of the perplexing qualities of this problem is that the triangles are not similar or congruent. Well, the rectangles are both. So, as we watched, we weren’t sure what conclusions could be drawn, what questions the students might ask, or how strongly the class might gravitate toward this visually satisfying method.

We didn’t want to stop her. We weren’t sure if we could encourage her to continue. We just had to wait and watch. That causes anxiety. It feels like you aren’t in real control of the lesson.

Adding an auxiliary line changes the look of the problem, "How were we supposed to know to do that!"

Adding an auxiliary line changes the look of the problem, “How were we supposed to know to do that!”

In the end, most of what we anticipated ended up happening. The team trying to estimate rectangle grid areas ended up seeking a different method for lack of precision and everything got to where it was supposed to. The experience is valuable. But the anxiety is real.

This student was trying to make sense of the perimeters and areas

This student was trying to make sense of the perimeters and areas

And I suspect that the anxiety has a lot to do with why the textbooks continue to stay close at hand. When the structure leaves, the curriculum opens up. When the curriculum opens up, the task of planning and instructing becomes more stressful and (for a short time) more time-consuming.

If you are reading this and on the cusp of trying to move away from your textbook, please know that this is the right move. Your book is holding you and your students back. You can do this. I won’t say that there is less stress, but with more authentic lessons, there’s more authentic learning.

The Hershey Bar Problem (#3Act Revised and Updated)

About a month ago, I posted The Hershey Bar Problem in which I discussed, among other things, the ways in which I rip off other teachers work. This is an example of that. This is a Dan Meyer rip-off pure and simple. I just want to cover myself in that regard.

As usual, all constructive feedback is welcome.

Here’s the rest:

Act II – Dimensions of the Hershey Bar or Dimensions of the segments after the cuts.

Act III

Sequel #1

Sequel #2

“Right and Wrong” vs. “Good, Better, Best”

So, I’m finding that I am becoming hooked on showing student work back to the students for them to explore as an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of mathematical topics. But I’m learning there are a couple ways to handle this situation.

I could show this picture…

Geom #4-D

… and ask if the reflection is right or wrong. Which would activate a certain type of thinking. But it is a short and stifling line of thinking, especially when you consider that most hand-drawn student work isn’t perfect so “wrong” is the most likely answer. Then it risks becoming an annoying knit-picking session, which might have a negative effect on engagement.

A different approach would be to acknowledge that which we all know (that nobody’s perfect) and ask the question differently. Suppose I show the follow four photos together…

Best Reflection

… and ask “Which of the reflections is the best?”

That question opens up a lot of potential thought-trails to wander down. As I did this activity with students today, the class settled on three criteria for rating these reflection attempts. The first is that the image and pre-image should be congruent. Attempt A won that battle (with B at a close second). The next thought was that the image and pre-image should be the same distance away from the line of reflection. Attempt B was the closest (with D pretty good, too.) Finally, the students thought that the segment connecting the image/pre-image pairs would should be just about perpendicular to the line of reflection. Attempt B took that contest quite comfortably.

The students concluded that attempt B was the best reflection and I was able to confirm that by showing them this photo, which seems to agree quite strongly with that conclusion.

Best Reflection - Act III

If you want to try this activity, go ahead. I’d love to hear some feedback on how it went in your class. I’m still dealing with some quality control issues with some of my multi-media projects, so I apologize for that. I didn’t notice it to be too distracting when I was showing it to the students, but there is still room for improvement.

Best Reflection – Act I

Best Reflection – Act II (reflection distances)

Best Reflection – Act II (reflection angles)

Best Reflection – Act II (segment lengths of image and preimage)

Best Reflection – Act III

Bankshot 3-Act Revised

In my previous post, I presented Act I of a 3-Act geometry lesson that I called Bankshot. I also called out to the #MTBoS to support me by offering feedback of which I received two excellent comments that were rich in suggestions, particularly in the aspect of improving the student experience.

If you want to go back and look at the first draft and/or read the comments that got left, then feel free to check it out.

Now, all three of us agreed that the action begun and ended too quickly. Danny Whitaker (@nemoyatpeace) suggested that I slow the video down. In addition to agreeing with Danny’s suggestion, Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) suggested that there was more I could do to set the situation up and make the clear what was going on before the I roll the film.

Danny also suggested that I cut the film before the ball bounces into the wall. Another interesting suggestion that Dan made was to include multiple attempts. I thought that those are both interesting suggestions.

You will see my attempts to respond to the feedback in this second draft of “Bankshot”. I start with a more direct set-up of the situation. I also added a second attempt from when I was filming to give the students something to think about. Now they have at least four guesses they could make. “Both hit target,” “both miss target,” “first hits, second misses,” or “first misses, second hits.” You will notice also that I slowed the playback down which cost us the sound. It’s possible that a bit of background music will be needed in a third draft, but that is something that we can talk about.

All right, #MTBoS, here is my second draft of “Bankshot.” I look forward to more feedback.