Saturday, September 24, 2011

Real Life Problem Solving, Really?

On September 10, 2011 I attended Dan Meyer's Perplexity Session.  I have been reading Dan's blog regularly and following him on twitter.  I also regularly check his #anyqs hashtag for interesting pictures, videos and discussions about math topics that make math real and meaningful for students.  

So, last year after attending a Classroom 2.0 Live webinar in which Dan was the speaker of the day, I decided to start creating weekly real-life problems with pictures of myself with my family.  I worked to tie the content standards of the particular unit we were studying into things that I experienced on the weekends.  The following link is my "bastardization" of Dan's vision:  Real Life Problem Solving.  

I began my journey while on a trip to a Christmas tree farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  It was a big deal because my husband grew up on a Christmas tree farm in the Santa Cruz mountains and had never paid for a tree and had never had a tree that was not from his family farm.  As we walked for hours looking for the perfect tree, I took pictures of my 5 year old son, my husband, tree prices, snack bar menus and more.  Some were for the sake of memories, others were an experiment in giving my students some examples of how math occurs in their daily lives.

Last year I would compile pictures from my weekend into a Google document, always keeping  the content standards we were studying in mind.  Monday morning I would show the document to the students and ask for questions based on the pictures and information I had on the Google document.  I strayed from Dan's vision significantly because I included information with the picture which I thought would steer the student questions in a certain direction.  Interestingly, my students still surprised me with the things they thought of/about when asking questions.  As they posed questions, I typed them into the document and we decided as a class what questions to explore and not explore.  I gave the students a week to work on the questions and it turned out that I had the highest completion rate on any outside of class assignment EVER.  

I am thinking there are a few possible reasons for increased student interest in solving my real-life problem solving questions, non of which are research based.  First, I shared my life with my students weekly and I got to tell some interesting stories while taking pictures for the problems: such as my son and Star Wars pancakes, getting banned from taking pictures in a super market, why we have piles of mail on our floor, valentines, soccer games, toys, and much more.  Second, I integrated technology by using Google documents, Google data, Google maps, Kiva micro loans, and other links and websites.  I did not have a classroom full of computers, in fact I only had 3 student computers, however, the students worked on the problems from home.  Third, the problems promoted collaboration.  The students would sit in front of a computer, pull up the pictures and questions and discuss, debate, contemplate, assume, and problem solve together rather than work alone.  Finally, it provided an opportunity for students to persuasively argue a position they took when solving the problems.  This allowed for multiple perspectives and an incredible discussion the day the assignment was due.

This year the assignment and process are morphing into a different beast.  I think last year I did what was comfortable.  I took the pictures, integrated the technology, aligned the standards, and allowed the students to ask the questions.  This year I have a different group of kiddos and I have the seven hours I spent with Dan Meyer to learn his process and 3 act plan.  This year I am working to make the process more inclusive and collaborative.  I am also working to make it 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Is it Worth the Battle?

Four weeks into my journey of creating a student driven classroom I have one thing to say: It Is Extremely Difficult!  At the same time I keep in mind the word TRUST.  As I stated in an earlier post, Dr. Metzger trusted his graduate students to take the reigns.  In that same spirit, I remind myself everyday that I do truly believe that my students are capable and that if I stay the course, provide the foundation and not allow the skeptics everywhere to pollute my vision, the students will make it happen.  My heart tells me this, it is my head that I have to shut up on a daily basis.  Since this blog will be documentation of my journey with this process, I want to acknowledge the difficulties I have encountered thus far.

One of the great changes and great challenges has been starting a standards based grading system.  I believe that to truly have a student driven environment, evaluation must be standards based because then everything is driven by students proving they have learned the content standards.  It has enabled me to align every activity to a standard.  I throw out anything that does not provide a valuable opportunity for students to practice and eventually prove they know a content standard.  It also allows students an opportunity to not waste time on things they already know how to do.  They can provide proof of understanding to me and then spend their time on standards they need to master.  Students have multiple opportunities to prove knowledge and time is of no concern.  I do not believe in punishing students for taking a longer time to learn something.  

The challenge of implementing this is immense.  By the time students reach middle school, they are used to not having to be responsible for their learning.  They turn something in, it gets graded, and they are "done".  I have found that students resist taking responsibility for their learning.  They have not been asked to do so in seven years and now that is exactly what I am asking them to do.  This system that is new to students has created great anxiety for them.  The students who are used to striving for and getting the A are baffled by a rubric score for each standard.  They just want to know what their overall grade is.  They are also not used to having to explain their thinking and provide evidence of deeper understanding rather than just regurgitating information.  The kiddos who are what I call "willful non-performers" are uncomfortable because they can't just take the D or F.  I am in their face poking, prodding, asking, and making them provide some sort of evidence of their learning.  It is the students in the middle that seem to immediately embrace this system.  They feel that they finally get a chance to prove their smartness and they are relieved that although there is a pacing guide for the course, they have a second chance and will work hard to prove they know a standard.  

So, I TRUST the process, the students, the parents, myself.  We are in an uncomfortable spot right now.  Interestingly, the atmosphere in my classroom is energetic even though the students are uncertain.  I tell the students daily that I trust them to make responsible decisions.  My classroom is turning into a place of inquiry, and collaboration.  The best part is that they do not look to me for the answers, they are looking to each other.  As Dr. Metzger did with his students, I am teaching mine that we are a community of learners and I am not the all knowing powerful OZ.