Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Move Your Desk Friday

Some of the greatest things that happen in a classroom are unplanned and unpredictable.  Students one period decided to move their desks wherever they wanted in the classroom, and it actually produced more learning than I anticipated.

This surprising fruition happened during the last period of the day on a Friday.  As a reward for productivity during the week, I was letting my 8th period students pick their seats on Fridays.  This particular Friday happened to be after a 7th period Homecoming assembly.  Needless to say, Geometry was a low priority for students.  In hoping to get something accomplished during this 8th period, I announced as students were walking in the classroom that they couldn't pick their own seats.  I was getting my computer and lesson set up and listening to the grumbling students.  One student said "I'll sit in my own seat," and proceeded to pick up his desk and move it near his friend.  Other students started taking his cue and moving their desks to wherever they wanted.  Knowing that they weren't going to be productive if I stepped in with my authority demanding that the classroom be run my way, I let this happen.  By the time everyone was situated, I looked up and had 12 students sitting in the front row.  I couldn't argue with that!

We proceeded to have the best period of the whole semester.  It looked messy, but not having students sitting in rows, groups or pairs felt right.  There were clumps of students and also some sitting alone.  It felt less like an institution and more like a club gathered to do some math.  As I taught, it was completely silent.  And when I gave students time to work, they were collaborative and engaged.  We made "move your desk wherever you want Friday" a weekly thing and I incorporated it in my Honors Algebra 2 class as well.

Here are some things I've observed on Fridays.  When I first told my HA2 class they could sit wherever they wanted, as long as they were in the own desks, students chose extremes.  They sat as far away as they could, right under the Smartboard and practically on top of each other.  It takes a few minutes to get situated.  While the student was right in front of the SmartBoard, I just wrote on the wall, and gave him the task of advancing the slides.  One time two friends put their desks next to each other and then saw another student sitting alone.  The friends split up and moved to either side of that student.  I've observed may groups of 3.  By having desks in pairs in rows, if students choose their seats, a group of 3 friends might be leaving someone out.  But by physically moving desks, students can gather in groups of any number, or work individually which some prefer.  To increase engagement, it helps to shake up the routine.  How do you change the routine to re-engage your students?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

March Madness

I made some students very happy today by giving them probabilities to help them make their March Madness brackets.  FiveThirtyEight.com has an interactive bracket that was great for this Honors Algebra 2 lesson on probability.  After reading Jennifer Wilson's blog about #askdonttell lessons, I wanted to try it with the NCAA tournament.  The idea is that you give students a picture and have them come up with their own questions about the image, and then let them find answers to those questions.  Below I'll describe how I executed the lesson based on this lesson plan.

I briefly showed students the bracket and some of the probabilities of certain teams winning.  I asked students "What questions do you have based on these probabilities?"  They had to write down at least one question.  I then narrowed the topic for their questions by asking "What questions are raised based on probability concepts we've covered this unit?"  I gave students time to write down more questions, then had them write their favorite question on the wall.

I had anticipated students would have the following questions:
-“What’s the probability that Kentucky wins?” (fill in the blank for any team)
-“Which team has the worst probability of winning?” 
-“How is this determined?” Answer: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/march-madness-predictions-2015-methodology/
-"What's the probability of picking a perfect bracket?"  Youtube video answer 

Students did ask the questions I predicted they would, and a lot of other great questions too.  I showed students the methodology for how these probabilities were calculated.  I then showed the short video for finding the number of possible brackets.  We then answered questions that had a quick answer ("Which team will win?").

As students were writing questions on the wall, I quickly decided which ones I thought students could answer with their background knowledge and the interactive bracket.  Some of these questions were complicated and in depth so I guided them by asking some questions I had made up before class.  We answered these questions together as a class.
-Why does the outcome of the Providence game not add to 1? (This is when I had a discussion about play-in games and why some teams in the bracket were grey instead of black.)
--What is the probability of Arkansas and UNC playing each other in the Sweet 16?

-What probabilities are complements of each other?

After answering my questions together, I starred 4-5 student questions on the board that I wanted us to answer. Students had to choose at least one of those questions to answer. They could use computers, phones, or the SmartBoard to look up any information that they wanted. It was really fun watching them work together to solve the questions they had written. As students were finishing, some of them started to compare their personal brackets they had made with the probabilities given on the interactive bracket. One cool thing that happened from this #askdonttell mentalitity, was that students kept asking new questions all period. Once they started asking questions, their creativity and interest continued to grow. Their continued questioning naturally led them to solve more problems too.

I asked students to tell the class how they answered the starred questions and what the answer was. If a different group solved the problem differently, we discussed that too.

I closed the activity by asking students if they would make a bracket based on a) math b) their heart or c) a combination of math and their heart. A few students were going to make a bracket just based on these probabilities. Most students were going to make decisions with some math but mostly with their allegiances to certain colleges.

When I began the lesson, some students were nervous because they don't follow college basketball. I talked about how people make brackets based on all sorts of different reasons. Some are based on how teams did during the regular season, some people pick based on favorite colors or mascots, and others pick based on complicated mathematics. Once we started asking questions and answering them based on given probabilities, every student was engaged and their lack of knowledge of basketball wasn't a deterrent from participating.

I loved doing #askdonttell because students chose what we learned during the class period.  With some careful planning ahead of time, I was able to supplement their questions with ideas I wanted to make sure we covered.  They say two heads are better than one, and in this case the whole class was better than just one teacher in coming up with an engaging, interesting lesson.

Friday, March 6, 2015


When a student writes “Love Math” on her fingers during a math lesson, it’s noteworthy and worth celebrating.  My colleague, Dave Sladkey shared a blog post with me by Paul Bogush about a Chopped lesson plan based on the tv show on the Food Network.  I tried it with an Algebra 1 lesson and loved the student engagement, math conversations and creativity that I saw.

I began the lesson by showing the first 4 minutes of an episode of Chopped.  Students were hooked.  This video clip introduced the 4 contestants and the rules of the challenge.  Contestants are given a mystery basket of ingredients which they have to use to create a dish in a given amount of time.  One of the contestants had tattooed “Cook Well” on his fingers which inspired my student’s temporary tattoo.  For my lesson, students had to create a video (using Flip Videos) to graph and compare quadratic, linear and exponential functions, with the given vocabulary and the following ingredients:  paper clips, rubber bands, blocks and a cup.  As soon I gave the directions students got right to work.  They had 30 min. until the end of the period.

This lesson was easy to facilitate because I answered every question based on the show.  The most frequently asked question was if students could use other materials (markers, tape etc.) besides the given ingredients.  The clip we watched explained that contestants got access to the pantry and fridge, so my students did too.  Other objects they used were markers to write on their desks, graph paper, tape, pens and pencils.  Students asked if they had to use all of the paper clips, blocks etc.  I responded, “Is a chef allowed to measure their ingredients?”

I observed some great things while students were working.  The diverse use of the objects impressed me and made me think about the limitations I impose on students by expecting them to do things the way I demonstrate them.  Students were asking each other math questions and teaching each other concepts along the way. They were engaged for the full 30 min. activity and excited about their end product.  I tried this lesson for two different classes and observed that between those two classes only one student asked me if this was for a grade.  I love that the lesson was engaging enough that students were willing to put a lot of effort in without a grade being the motivating factor.  Students were deepening their understanding of current concepts, demonstrating knowledge and collaborating all at the same time.

There were definitely some things to improve upon.  Every group had at least one math error in their
video which surprised me.  I was glad that I could catch those mistakes and address them before the unit test.  Some groups ran out of time making their videos.  Some of the groups struggled to use each ingredient in a meaningful way and other groups left out the required math vocabulary.  Next time, I’m going to find some incentives for creating a complete, polished video.  On Chopped, contestants are judged on presentation, taste and creativity.  I think I can swap math for taste to judge the quality of the end product.  I can't wait to try this lesson again.