Tag Archives: free-choice

SBG and Free-Choice Time: Round Two

This past week I rolled out free-choice time in a more formal way to my fifth graders.  On Thursday I handed out a list of different ways that they might spend their time after quizzing on Friday.  Telling them about this was kind of slow going, as both of my classes seemed sort of scattered and unfocused that day.  I described some of the activities that were more unfamiliar—including a brief demo of Khan Academy—pointed out some of the things on the list that I had made available to them more informally after quizzes last week, and answered a few questions.

Aside from the scatteriness, there was a lot of enthusiasm about the different activities and the prospect of trying them out.  One kid said that he wanted to do them all the next day, and I pointed out that while that probably wasn’t feasible to take on in a single day, he could definitely make that happen for himself over the course of the year.

I also gave them the “present” of a math journal.  Many of them were excited about the prospect of journaling about math.  They dove into putting the nameplates on the fronts and decorating them.  I expected to get maybe a little more skepticism or push-back about journaling in math class as too artsy-fartsy.  There was just one question from a girl who asked if they were supposed to write about their “feelings” in their journal.  She made it clear that she was anxious about talking about her weakness on paper.  She also expressed concern about privacy and whether other kids would see what she had written.

I told this student that in her journal she could write about her goals, her progress, her feelings, her excitements, and her plans.  Then I said that she should think of her journal as a safe and private place to record her thinking and that I would be asking her to share her journaling with me only—so that I could better help her to define and reach her goals.  She seemed satisfied and comforted by this answer.

The homework on Thursday night was to prepare for quizzes using the packet of practice problems that I’d previously distributed, as well as to write a journal entry.  I asked them to write about both their quizzing for the next day and the way there were planning to use their free-choice time.  The entries that they made ranged from a few words to a solid paragraph.  They all have room to grow in this regard, and I’m really excited to see how their thinking and their writing evolve over the year.

Quizzes on Friday went smoothly enough.  Overall, the amount of time spent quizzing went down, as could be expected, what with the prospect of their free-choice plans.  Only a couple of students really sped through quizzing.  I figure that with some direction, this will even out in time.  But letting them go and blow and weigh the importance of different tasks for themselves is what this whole adventure is about, after all.

The range of free-choice activities on Friday included a chunk of students trying out Light-Bot; some using the Geofix shapes again; a few doing logic puzzles; a couple playing Hex; and some metal puzzles here and there.  A couple of kids looked into the Thousand Year Game Design Challenge.

This week is a short week—we don’t have school on Thursday or Friday—so the next quiz and free-choice day is a little ways off.  I’m putting together a second practice packet to distribute—by student request.  I think the idea of having resources that help you to prepare for quizzes is starting to sink in!

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SBG and Free-Choice Time: Round One

Last Friday was the first quiz-buffet of the year in each of my classes.  Some of my fifth graders really took this metaphor to heart and rhapsodized over whether they would be picking up some of the “chicken wings” or “roast beef” and deciding that they would come back later for “dessert.”  In all of my classes the quizzes went really smoothly.  I feel much more adept at putting together quizzes and practice packets and keys than I did a year ago.  It’s also nice being able to dip into the materials I made over the course of last year.

In my high school classes—Geometry and Calculus—most of my students quizzed for almost the whole period.  (Our periods are forty-five minutes.)  Those who finished before the period was over continued working on their first Investigation about defining geometrical objects (Geometry) or a new sheet about limits of sequences and series (Calculus).  I’ve only had a brief conversation with my Calculus students about what Fridays might look like in the future (free-choice time to work on problem sets and projects, with quizzing as an option) and haven’t had a chance yet to discuss this with my Geometry students.  For now I’m just happy to get my high schoolers into an assessment rhythm that feels comfortable to them.  I figure that opportunities for self-direction will open up as the material of these courses unfolds.  Also, there’s a whole lot of self-directed, choice-but-not-free-choice time in my Geometry class throughout the week already—more on that another time.  Still, for my high schoolers I’m currently in a place where I view free-choice time as purposeful but in a supporting role.  It’s an important opportunity for students to direct their own learning of course content and to personalize it, but it’s something that while good in itself is also a means to an end—getting at the content of a field of study.

With my fifth graders, it’s easier for me to see free-choice time as an essential component of the course that can stand on its own.  It’s an opportunity for kids to explore a huge variety of mathematical activities, to help them find some that they love, and to help them build identities as mathematicians and as individuals.  It’s an end in itself that has its own set of goals built in.  I wouldn’t let a high schooler investigate a mathematical game that she was into during calculus class—at least not for any significant duration—no matter how excited she was about it.  Because it’s calculus class.  But for my fifth graders, it doesn’t matter to me whether strategizing about that game is in any way related to the other content that we’re exploring in the course.  It doesn’t need to be laying groundwork for making factor trees or subtracting integers.  Having a kid build up her own relationship with math is at least as important as anything I could teach her.

Writing this makes me want to make high school more like middle school.  Think, think, think…

I decided that introducing the quiz structures and the free-choice structures in the same week would be too much to dump on fifth graders all at once.  (At the very least, it would mean way too much of me over-explaining all at once.)  So I had several activities available for kids to choose from in an informal way once they were done with their quizzes.  These are some of the activities that I’ll “announce” for this coming Friday in a more formal way, and this time around my kids will have the chance to journal about what they’d like to pursue ahead of time.  (They’ll also journal about what quizzes they’re preparing to take.)  I reasoned last week that having some prior experience with the activities in question would make that first planning/reflection this week more grounded and thoughtful.

Anyway, the activities I had for last Friday were: some books to peruse, a collection of metal puzzles, some pattern blocks, Geofix shapes, Hex boards, chess boards, and a logic puzzle—one of those grid ones.  In one class, the first few students to be done with their quizzes quickly took up the Geofix shapes.  (These are so fabulous, fun, and mathematically rich!)  As other students finished with quizzes, they one by one joined the Geofix festivities.  As they built I was able to entice, with minimal prompting—“Hey, could you get this off of here for me?”—several students to become obsessed with some of the metal puzzles.

In the other class, the choices were more varied.  The first wave of students that finished their quizzes also went for the Geofix shapes and grabbed some metal puzzles as well.  A pair of students got to a point in quizzing where they felt stuck, so I told them that they could work on this quiz together as practice.  They promptly plopped themselves down over by the door and dove into the quiz together.  I thought that this was a great use of time for them.  It arose so naturally and reinforced the low-pressure atmosphere that I’m trying to cultivate around quizzing.  They ended up doing a second quiz together as well.  Some other kids played Hex, and the last two to finish quizzing asked me if I had any origami books, which I did.  They had started in on some folding as the bell rang to end the period.

Free-choice lasted between twenty and ten minutes, depending on the fifth grader.  How long each student quizzed was entirely up to them, although I had asked ahead of time that they come prepared to take at least two of the eight that would be on offer.  Most of them took at least four; several were determined to take all eight, and did.  If you’re interested, you can look at their first list of skills here.

Last Friday was a lot of fun, and I got a lot of positive feedback from the kids about both the quizzes and the activities afterwards.  They’re already looking forward to this Friday, and so am I.

Free-Choice Time: Gearing Up

Finding the balance of freedom and structure that is good for kids—who are of course all different from each other—is hard.  Still, I know that giving my students a fair shake at some real autonomy is a principle that I’m willing to work for and stand by.  My dear friend and colleague Paul Salomon and I collaborated last year on making free-choice time happen for our middle schoolers.  For me, this meant that every Friday, my sixth and seventh graders would take their SBG skills quizzes; after finishing these, they were free to pursue whatever they pleased.

Inspired by my mom, I distributed a bingo grid of different activities at the beginning of the year to encourage my kids to dig into a variety of tasks.  It looked like this:

last year's bingo board

(BTdubs, Bloxorz was a huge hit.  You should definitely give it a whirl.)

I thought I would roll out other boards as the year progressed.  I didn’t.  The school year, as school years are wont to do, took on a crazy, unkempt life of its own.  While I introduced a few new activities to my classes over the course of the year, the activities that I put on offer at the beginning were basically the ones that students worked on.  In addition, I never got around to providing the resources for students to actually do some of the activities, so this cut down on their options even more.

To better serve our soon-to-arrive new batch of students, Paul and I are aiming to improve upon our last year’s attempts to provide students with structure and rich resources during their free-choice time.  This year I’m giving out a board that has categories of activities, rather than individual things to do.  Like so:

free-choice bingo board

Really broad stuff, plus a center square that rivals Zombo.com in making the sky the limit.  To accompany the board will be a list of some possible activities for them to pursue:

Those are the ones that I’ve penciled in for the start of the year.  The full brainstormed list currently stands as follows:

…although that will probably be out of date as soon as I publish this post.  Over the course of the year, the list of pursuits that my students will have in hand will expand to include more items from this larger list.  I’m planning to limit the options at the start for a few reasons.  First, I didn’t want all of the possibilities to overwhelm kids.  Second, for some of the activities on the full list, I want to have the chance to introduce the activity in a whole-class setting—for instance, to have a day or two where we talk about cellular automata, run some by hand, and take a look at the Game of Life.  Finally, I figure for the sake of diversity, it won’t hurt to put off the unveiling of Bloxorz for a little while.

An important part of my plan to make free-choice time an opportunity for my students to grow is to have them record and reflect upon the progress they make on their free-choice projects, as well as to help them to set goals for themselves.  Students will be able to write their goals into their bingo grid, and they’ll also have opportunities to goal-set and reflect in their journals.  By design, the items in the list above aren’t very specific.  Yes, here is a Rubik’s Cube.  But what’s your goal?  Try to figure out how to solve it on your own?  Watch some videos online and try to internalize some algorithms?  Solve a cube in under five minutes?  Take one apart?  Only you can decide.   My thought is that putting this decision down in writing–even if it will change a few days from now–can give kids more empowered visions of themselves and of mathematics.  That’s what I’m betting on, anyway.

I’ll have a poster-sized copy of the bingo board on the wall of my classroom.  When a kid completes a goal in one of the categories, she’ll get to write her name into that square on the poster.  She’ll also get to share her accomplishment with her classmates, either by announcing it, making a presentation, or displaying it in the room.

It may feel to you—I know it does to me—that in my description of this supposedly free-choice time, I’m emphasizing structure over freedom.  My excuse is that I don’t have live, kicking, and wooly fifth graders to share this stuff with yet, to run rampant in my classroom and test and break and remold my structures—until they aren’t really even structures any more, but rather the culture of our classroom.  Right now, the build-up of thoughts and hopes just lies in potentia, waiting to go live and spring forth.  I can’t wait to share with you the awesome things my students do!

There’s a lot of good stuff on that list of activities, and I’m excited to uncover, stumble across, and get suggestions for even more.  And I feel that the list is not only good, but that it includes things that often have no place in our mathematics classrooms.  And so if I may…

<ascends soapbox>

We as teachers, by the tasks and opportunities we provide in our classrooms, define what mathematics is to our students.  If we don’t model activities like reading books about math, creating mathematical games, or communicating with “outside” people who are interested in math, then our students may never encounter these activities.  And to me, that’s a lot scarier than a kid missing out on any particular fact, theorem, or skill.

<descends soapbox>

To conclude, let me say that I’m working to find ways of incorporating more free-choice time into my high school courses, but this is a challenge.  While I’ve made room for choice in my high school courses, free-choice feels more difficult.  In the usual mold, middle school is more student-centered, while high school is more content-centered.  Still, just typing this out has got me thinking about how I might construct a similar board for my high schoolers to encourage them to try out different kinds of tasks over the course of the year in a non-deadline way.  Stay tuned for that, and for lots of sharing of how free-choice goes down with my fifthies!

At the moment, though, I would love to hear your suggestions for pursuits for my middle schoolers to take on.  Help that list grow!