Tag Archives: projects

Who Built That?

“Who built that?”

We did. The whole school did.

“How long did it take?”

All day long.

I had that back and forth at least ten times with students last week at MArTH Madness.  Over the course of four periods, most of our school’s fourth through twelfth grade math classes split time between four different mathematical art stations in classrooms and a 3D construction zone in the cafeteria. (“MArTH” is our  inside-neologism for mathematical art–conceived in something like the following fashion.)

I was “in charge” of the 3D construction zone. We had sets of Geofix shapes, Polydrons, pattern blocks, and unifix cubes.  Most abundantly, we had a number of Zometool kits on loan from the company that makes them.  (A sweet deal, by the by, and worth checking out.)  We had a free-build area and a “big project” area.  The above picture is what our “big project” turned out to be.

It’s an example of MetaZome. Each component is a scaled-up version of individual Zometool nodes and struts. I got the designs for the metapieces from this website. At the end of the day, we also make some “un-meta” versions of our creation.

My experience of working with students on this project really left an impression on me:

  • I love that no on could claim credit for building it, but that so many people were so proud of having a hand in it.
  • I love that kids from fourth through twelfth grades all contributed in real ways.
  • I love that no one–including me, the “supervisor”–had a pre-determined plan for what the final outcome would be.
  • Similarly, I love that it wasn’t clear that the project would amount to anything, until all of a sudden it did. After a period or so we only had some partial metanodes constructed–it really didn’t look like much.
  • I love that once things started coming together, the students totally took over. They started putting the metapieces together without direction from me and started coming up with new ideas of what to try. All of the stuff with the yellow metastruts came out of student ideas and requests. I just played the role of enabler.
  • I love that kids, parents, and faculty universally thought that end result was “cool”.

An occasion. Some supplies. Some direction from me. A lot of unformed potential. Everyone interacting. Everyone finding a task that fits them. Small successes. A collaborative product to feel proud of.

This is what I want my classroom to be, and what it only sometimes approximates. Needless to say, this experience felt really good. Plus, it was a great reminder of what’s possible when all the pieces come together.

Mad props go to Paul and Anna for making MArTH Madness happen. It was so much fun to be along for the ride.

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A First Plank Across The Feedback Swamp

Much of my geometry class is built around a series of what I call Investigations. My students just wrapped up their work on the second one of the year.  This Investigation explores different kinds of geometric properties through a set of problems–position, size, shape, connection, and dimension.  For the Investigation, students can try their hand at several of the problems, but after initial forays they choose one problem to dig into and then do a write-up about their results.  You can view the collection of problems here: Investigation #2.

On Wednesday, my students turned in their write-ups and we had time for most of them to do a short presentation about their work.  On their warm-up for the day were a couple of  housekeeping questions, as well as the following:

What kind of feedback do you want on your first two Investigation write-ups? Are there parts of your work for which you are especially interested in my feedback?

Over the summer, I wrote about a minor epiphany that hit me about my struggles with giving useful and timely feedback to my students about their work.  In short, I always end up feeling swamped and overwhelmed by wanting to “do right” by my students–to give them the individualized attention that I know they deserve. To help to get me around this sinkhole, I realized that I should be asking my students about the kind of feedback they want.  I figured that this would make the task of giving feedback feel less like an infinite task where I needed to be all-seeing and say the “right” things and more like a conversation where the goal is to be relevant and helpful.

In teaching, of course, nice theories need to be borne out in practice.  What would my students say when I asked them what kind of feedback they wanted?

Here are a few:

“I would like some pointers on how to write a clearer math paper.”

“I would actually like very harsh feedback.  No sparing of feelings please.”

“Things I could have done more precisely.”

“I would like feedback about how clear I am in explaining and if my calculations are correct.”

“I don’t know.”

These are all great first stabs, including the last one.  These responses will each help to focus my reader’s eye and will shape the comments I give to individual students.

By asking and continuing to ask my students about what feedback they want on their assignments, I hope–and dare even expect–that they will become more reflective about their work, both upon its completion and during its progress.  I can already see it making me feel more comfortable and confident in giving feedback.  And I know that it will help me to better serve them and to let them know that I care about them and that I want to help them to meet their goals and to flourish.

Choice in Class: Three-Pronged Attack

So at the EdCamp session about choice, I shared three ways that I’ve tried (and am trying) to encourage student choice in my classroom:

  • “free choice” time
  • wide-open projects
  • goal setting

When I wrote those up on the board at EdCamp, I had them associated with three of the classes that I’m teaching this coming year–fifth grade math, high school geometry, and calculus, in that order.  Upon further reflection, I’ve begun to see how I want to have all three features embedded into all of my classes, as well as how they all rely upon each other.  I’ll say more about these three prongs individually at a later date–and writing about how they actually happen in my classroom on a day-to-day basis is what I’m here for.  For now, I just want to say a few words about each to give some context.

Briefly, free choice time is time set aside in class when students are working on their own thing without my giving them direction.  I make available a variety of resources and suggest a range of possibilities.  I did this for the first time this past year with my 6th and 7th grade classes.  Each week on Friday after their SBG-style quiz buffet, students would pick up some new activity or continue on their ongoing project.  As a point of reference, think of Google’s “20% time”.

By wide-open projects, I mean some piece of extended work where the steps haven’t all been laid out for the student.  Further, the end products that individual students produce may look very different–either because they’ve investigated different problems, or approached the same problem in different ways, or because they’ve chosen to share their efforts through different media.  It’s easy for me to point to examples from my geometry course, like this project about geometric properties.  But now that I think of it, the free choice time activities could fall into the same category.

For goal setting, I mean asking kids to figure out what they want to accomplish and helping them to do so.  I’ve done this some with my middle schoolers with their skills quizzes–which ones they want to prepare for and take the following week–and now that I think of it, in helping them navigate their free choice time activities.  This year I plan to ask my 5th graders to reflect on both their quizzes and free choice time activities as weekly journal assignments.  However, my mind for whatever reason has recently been thinking about this in the context of my upcoming calculus class–having my students do the same kind of journal reflecting, for one, but also helping them to establish larger goals about what “success” in the class will mean for them.  A student could decide that basic proficiency on the items on my skills list is what he’s after.  Or maybe he wants to get almost all of them, but to try tackling some additional challenge topics.  Or who knows what.  Allowing him to make that decision and then helping him with following through on it seems huge to me in terms of motivation and learning that’s bound up with integrity.

To summarize: give students the time to dig into a rich variety of possible activities and the freedom and guidance to choose among them.

Finally, I should say that at Saint Ann’s we don’t give grades to our students and that curriculum is by-and-large decided upon by each teacher for his or her classes.  The way I give an account for how my students use their free choice time is the same as how I report on anything else they accomplish–through a semi-annual page-long report, individualized for each kid.  Having no grades definitely frees me up to take chances with what I do in my classes, and not having to worry about attaching points to tasks makes something like free choice time easier to legitimize in my classroom.  But even with no grades, fostering student choices is countercultural, it runs against my own inherited habits and thought patterns, and it’s really hard.  Still, I deeply believe and hope that real student agency and empowerment is important and that it can happen in any school.

I’m excited to find out whether these ideas resonate with your own experiences and your own hopes.