“Sharing is caring” does have a nice rhymey ring to it. Although lately, I’ve felt a little bit like my version comes off as ‘sharing is pushing and over-feeding’. I’ve had teachers in my department inquire about problem solving and desire to get kids to invest and engage. I like sharing what I’ve discovered and what I have found that works, but sometimes I get so excited about sharing resources that I end up like Tommy Boy and his pretty new pet. I sometimes fail to realize that trying new approaches can be uncomfortable, unpredictable and downright scary and not all teachers want to dive into the change head first as I did.
Here’s a great example: we had final exams in 2-hour blocks right before Thanksgiving break. To say that the kids get “restless” by the middle of the second day is sugar-coating it. A new teacher in our department, (let’s call her Sheryl) sent this picture with the caption, “My algebra kids were bored after their final and built this with their textbooks.”
Of course, my brain couldn’t just let that one go and say, “Nice book tower, Sheryl.” Dan Meyer calls this perplexity and modeling this behavior is a key to getting students curious. Instead, my eyes lit up and I thought, “what a great math problem!” As we looked at this photo, I said, “what do you think kids will notice and wonder about this photo? Do you think you could get them to come up with how many books are in the 10th row or the nth row?” Of course the question that’s raised, legitimately, is “what do you do when students say ‘there are green books and red books’ or ‘some are faced forward and some are faced backward’?” This is the part that I believe is scary for a lot of teachers is relinquishing control of the immediate direction of the lesson and not being so certain about how students will respond. At least when we give them a quadratic to factor, we have a pretty good idea of the limited number of directions they can move to arrive at a singular correct answer.
But what I believe is imperative here is validating and acknowledging those seemingly math-less observations and creating a math opportunity with it. With the instance of “some are red and some are green,” we can now extend that declaration of color to ideas like percentages, ratios, and so forth. But by first validating this red/green response, we’ve invited this student to the conversation and made them part of the creation of the problem we are about to solve. Now they are empowered by the process and more motivated to step in to the problem-solving ring. Whereas before, this same student might have disengaged completely.
A recent example of this from my own classroom: We were beginning Dan Meyer’s 3-act task using the Penny Pyramid. When collecting wonderings, one student asked how many 1996 pennies were in the pyramid. He was born in 1996, and was probably just fascinated by that year, but I didn’t want to dismiss that from the discussion. I have a bucket of pennies in my room that I use occasionally for probability experiments, and I hoped that this kid could draw from his knowledge about samples to make a reasonable estimation of how many 1996 pennies were in that pyramid. As it turns out, that students off-hand question turned into a great math discussion about random sampling.
But back to this book tower: After I’m sure that I’ve thoroughly freaked out this new teacher with my enthusiasm over a book tower, something awesome happens. This new teacher, races into my room after 1st period on Monday and says, “I did it! I did the book tower, and it was AWESOME!” I’ve had some great moments with other teachers, but that one is going to rank pretty high on my list for a long time. At lunch, she was STILL raving about it. She even said that the students were so engaged, that they ran out of time talking about it during class. Maybe there’s hope for Tommy Boy after all.