“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.

Effective collaboration means embracing dissent

As professionals, we give ourselves and each other a lot of credit for being good collaborators.

We do this because there is a notion that collaboration is what professionals do. It’s the Law of Detachment, right? If we are professionals, then we collaborate. We are professionals. Therefore, we collaborate.

Except that, as with most things, it isn’t that simple. For starters, basic professionalism requires that people play nice with each other which is related to, but different than from effective collaboration. Second, collaboration is a skill. It must be practiced. There’s explicit expectations. It’s more than just sharing space while working.

Finally, and most important, collaboration is going to require people to be faced with dissent — or at least be willing to do so.

And not simply because it’s polite to do so, but because the dissent makes your final product better. And the goal of collaboration is to allow multiple people to create a product that is better. By better, I mean a product that will have be more effective, efficient, more smoothly implemented and long-term sustainable.

And the stakes are rising. These last six months here in the US have ramped up a lot of frustration among educators of all kinds. The election and related sound bites matched with different changes at the state levels (here is Michigan, we’ve got state-level assessment changes, new science standards, new student literacy laws… just for starters) are generating many, many, many opportunities for meaningful collaboration.

The tricky part is that when we are frustrated and stressed (and many of us are), we don’t want dissent. It FEELS a heck of a lot more productive to knock out a plan amidst conversation where everyone is (more-or-less) on the same page to begin with.

But, in so doing, we lose the chance for the dissent (which shows up in the form of “yeah, but”). And the dissent is how the thoughts go from ideas to effective solutions.

Put another way, Michael Fullan says:

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another one of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

Groups of like-minded people are often biased. They often have blind spots built around their common appreciation of the issue in question. They often have a hard time empathizing with people who either disagree or are agnostic to the issue in question. This is generally true regardless of the group or their nature of their agreement.

Put specifically, folks problem-solving around inquiry and PBL need explicit instruction advocates on their team to create effective solutions. Standards-based grading folks need to keep their traditional-grading colleagues at an arm’s reach. You want to do a better job of supporting those unrepresented students, your problem-solving group better include some folks who think those kinds of supports shouldn’t exist. You want to create that maker space, go find the person who thinks makerspaces are a waste of time and resources. Progressives and conservatives need each other to navigate these modern issues (that extends beyond the realm of education, by the way).

It’s not the most comfortable, particularly when the issues are charged with emotion. It may not even be productive at first. We need to learn to frame these conversations differently.

Statements like “we want to create a makerspace” might need to become “We want to create a more effective use of the media center. Here are some ideas we have.”

There will be misunderstandings, some of those will be ongoing, and possibly loud. But in the end, it opens the door for a better solution. A solution with more roadblocks anticipated and prepared for. A solution with a broader embrace of the realities of the implementation. A solution that wider appreciation for the struggles of a diverse group of people who will be operating within the solution.

In short, a better solution.

And it begins with embracing each other for the value we bring to the solution, particularly the folks who say and think things we disagree with because you want those folks to show us all of the ways our plan is ineffective. Expose our bias. Reveal our blind spots. We all have them. And if they don’t get exposed during the planning process, chances are when the solutions are rolled out, they will be exposed then. And your window for that solution might close with the problem still the problem.

And once we’ve made the decision that our chief goal is creating meaningful, lasting solutions we’ll need to learn to identify those who disagree with you not as folks to be avoided, but rather folks who are essential to the problem-solving process.

Have you seen Desmos Polygraph?

Most of us are  old enough to remember the game Guess Who, right? It looked like this:

Guess Who

It went like this: You and an opponent each had a board in front of you that looked like this. Then you had a card with a face on it. So did your partner. By asking only questions that could be answered by “yes” or “no”, you needed to eliminate all the faces that were not on your opponent’s card in fewer turns than your opponent.

So you might ask “Does your person have glasses?” or “Is your person wearing a hat?” Based on the answered, you could flip some faces down because you knew they couldn’t be correct.

Okay. Now apply that to math. Imagine instead of human faces, it’s parabolas.

Polygraph Parabolas

They also have one for lines, hexagons, rational functions, quadrilaterals (both basic and advanced).

Still yes or no questions. Students still have to determine which pictures to eliminate based on the answer to the yes or no questions. Set-up is incredibly easy.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, if you can think of a set of pictures you’d like to see, you can create your own Polygraph activity.

I thought it would be cool if there was one for systems of linear functions.

If you haven’t taken the time to explore Desmos yet, I’d say it’s about time.

Excellent Classroom Action – Art and Geometry in the Elementary Classroom

I’ve written about the connections in math and art before. The visual nature of Geometry lends itself quite nicely to this. I found that the right pairing could bring in the engagement of the visual arts while maintaining fidelity to the content.

Exhibit A: Sarah Laurens, 5th grade teacher at North Elementary in Lansing. Mrs. Laurens reached out to me excitedly while I was in her building to see a math activity that she was leading her students through. They involved quilts hand sewn by Sarah’s grandma.

2015-05-06 12.25.132015-05-06 12.24.33

The activity went like this: Students were in groups of threes and fours gathered around one of grandma’s quilts. Each quilt was made of a series of geometric shapes. Sketch the primary “unit” shape of each quilt and identify each of the polygons that are contained within it. On the surface, it is a fairly simple activity, but listening to the students talk to each other.

[Students looking at the black and blue quilt above left]

Student 1: “Those are just a bunch of hexagons.”

Student 2: “Hexagon’s, no… no… those are octagons”

Student 1: “Yeah, yeah… same thing.”

Student 2: “They’re not the same, one’s got six sides and one’s got eight.”

Student 1: “Well… wait… one… two… three… four… five… six… six sides! See I told you!”

[Students looking at the purple and while quilt on the above left]

Student 1: “That’s an octagon with kites around the outside.”

Me: “Are they kites?”

Student 2: “They look like kites.”

Me: “They sure do. How many sides do they have?”

Student 1: “One… t, th, f… oh! five…. They’re pentagons!

2015-05-06 12.23.10

Ms. Laurens and her students were comfortably saying and hearing words like “regular”, “tessellation”, and using definitions to make sense of what these shapes are, and using the definitions to settle disagreements (the foundations of proof…)

2015-05-06 12.31.172015-05-06 12.30.03

Interesting images like these were leading to some interesting conversations as well. I’m thinking of  a conversation I heard between two students who were trying to make sense of the shapes they were in the picture directly above to the right. They were trying to to determine if the purple section in the middle was one big shape or two smaller shapes put back-to-back.

Then after some discussion, they realized that their answer would be the same either way. (Quadrilateral was their choice for the shape name. The word “trapezoid” was getting thrown around, but the students were having to be prompted for it).

I very much enjoyed getting to see these fifth graders exploring. Ms. Laurens was excited, the students were engaged (and this was clearly not the first time they were expected to be a self-directed and collaborative).

I’m just bummed that my schedule forced me out the door before I got to see Ms. Laurens’ closure of the activity. The students were wrapping up their discussions as I had to head out the door.

Activating the student-learner (emphasis on active)

I always found it tricky to get students up and out of their seats meaningfully. I know that cooperative learning manuals are full of ways to get students meandering around the classroom, but I always liked to try to make sure that the movement was meaningful as a tool to help them learn the content.

In the past week, I’ve seen two examples of meaningful active learning in the realm of Geometry. And as it happens, both are from my neck of the world.

One comes from Tara Maynard who teaches middle schoolers in Zeeland. Her post on “Dance, Dance, Transversal” plays off the mechanics of Dance, Dance Revolution while putting the students in an experience of having to know the different angle pairs coming out of parallel lines cut by a transversal.

Photo credit: Tara Maynard

Photo credit: Tara Maynard

The thing I like about this is that in the end, this is a vocabulary exercise, but Tara has found a way to use movement and activity to add some life to it in a way that fits pretty naturally. This is a nice pairing. And, as she states in her post about the activity, she pairs the students up so that one can watch the feet of the other to make sure they aren’t making mistakes and reinforcing poor understanding. She also includes the file so that your students can play, too!

The other comes from a pre-service teacher at Central Michigan University. Tod Carnish used Twitter to share a nice idea to help students explore geometric transformations. And as much as it hurts for me to say nice things about Central folk (Go Broncos! #RowTheBoat), this seems like a pretty solid idea.

Transformation Tweet

Sticking to the idea that transformations are really just the organized movement of vertices, why not have those movements represented with the students acting as the vertices? Think of the ways that one could use this as an introduction to function notation of the transformations? Characterizing the movement by it’s vertical and horizontal components?

Nice thing about these two fine educators is that they love to share. If you have questions about their work, or want to drop them some props, I’m sure they’d love to hear from you!