Clog: “What am I supposed to be doing again?”

It’s the end of the cycle, which means it’s time for deadly beast that is “project work time.” each day of the project is like taking a step deeper into a rushing river of distractions and potential side tracks. Imagine fording a river, like in Oregon Trail, and somehow get all of my kids across this river. Throughout the project process, some kids inevitably get swept down stream for one reason or another, and I need to catch them and save them, while also making sure all the other kids don’t also get off track, or finish soon and leave everyone behind.

What is the river?

So when I think of this metaphor, I have trouble putting my finger on exactly what is making it so hard to get my kids to the promised land. What is this dangerous water that they have to cross?

On one hand the river represents time, and the students who get washed away in my attempts to get every one across end up way behind where they should be, and it is almost impossible to catch up. With projects that have sequential parts like the Road Trip Project, the lack of a finished part II, means they can’t really finish part III. They are forced to spend a period neither finishing part II, because they need help, or getting done with part III with the rest of the class, and basically have to come to Saturday school or after class if they want to pass.

On the other hand, maybe the river represents content understanding. Those who make it all the way across get the most understanding, but those who get washed down the rapids may be the ones who didn’t really understand the content that we are assessing in this project. They end up with patchy content understanding, and run the risk of carrying that misunderstanding down the river towards the next class where there will certainly be rocky rapids in store. I have a lot of experience with crafting scaffolded supports for my projects to help students avoid not finishing, but the student still may wind up down the river in terms of understanding, and it is hard to know if the scaffolding becomes a life jacket (I wanted to say crutch, but you know, a thing that students depend on more than they would if they were strong enough not to need it).

(Re) Starting the project

My search for the right metaphor is indicative of my search for a one-shot success project that will always get students to do everything within the allotted time. With our student population, at a transfer high school in New York City attendance is often a huge problem. The projects help to both improve the attendance, while at the same time suffering the most from the lack of attendance. Attendance could be another river which catches students.

So, weirdly enough, the person whose lack of attendance was the problem today was me. I spent the last two days at a conference in California and so the kids worked with the subs, although many were not really working. When I arrived back in class, I was afraid everyone would be at different places with the project. Sure enough, when class started I had about 3 or 4 kids asking me “What am I supposed to be doing again?” To figure out where everyone was I made a quick check list of the things that they could have finished, in order from the start of the project, and asked them to check off whether they had done them or not as soon as they walked in the room. This let me know what they needed to do and also let them know what their next steps would be. A number of kid wanted to hang onto the checklist throughout class so they could do all the things on the list. I think I am going to keep the kids on track throughout the project using this check list and hopefully it will become a nice daily ritual as we all try to keep our head above water through project time.

3 Blog posts that can help you write better tasks

When schools from Boston to Texas are missing school,teachers may start thinking about how to tune up the tasks they give their students.  Some recent blog posts, and one from the past, can show different ways to think about the tasks that we assign our students.

What are you students bringing to your task?

In Andrew Gael‘s blog there was an interesting post about describing a number of ways to present students with a task that asks them about area while keeping in mind each of his students’ “mathematical strengths, goals and cognitive pathways your students use to access the content.”  In “There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Task” he effectively makes a framework for thinking about task in terms of the kinds of thinking students would use to finish the task.

What do you want your students to do?

Kate Nowak described a framework which explores another way to improve a task in her January post “On Making Them Figure Something Out.”  When teaching a concept to a student, Kate implies that in the worst scenario you could “Tell Them Something.” Better than that, you could “Make Them Practice Something”, and perhaps even “Make Them Notice Something” or “Make Them Do Something”.  “But lots of times, the learning that comes out of MTDS and MTNS doesn’t really stick that great.” Kate writes, “They can maybe do an exit ticket, but ask them a question that relies on The Thing in a week, and you just get a bunch of blank stares.”  In this post she explains how she turned a MTDS task about the discriminant into the penultimate type MTFSO, “Make them figure something out”.

How Mathematically Complex Is The Task?
If you want one more way to look at tasks, and don’t mind looking at a post from 2009, Mr. Vasicek wrote about the “Task Analysis Guide” which was originally published in a mathematics journal and looks at problems in terms of cognitive complexity.  The different scales in this guide include “Memorization”, “Procedures without Connections”, “Procedures with Connections”, and “Doing Mathematics”.

If you want to give some of your tasks an upgrade, all of these teachers give you ways to think about tasks that can help illustrate tangible next steps to improve student learning.

Clog: The shattered pieces of my experiment with groups

“Look around at your groups guys, all of these people are going to work with you to get your work done, so make sure you get them to come!”

That was the last thing significant thing I said to my “Understanding Data” class on Wednesday before my typical end-of-class chatter (i.e.”put each folder in the box, and your assignment in your bags bag and trash in the trash can etc.). As I walked back to the room I thought to myself “Great Scott! I may just have hit on a secret attendance improving strategy!” As a transfer school full of kids who most often have a checkered history with school attendance, we are constantly looking for ways to keep kids from back sliding and having enough attendance in classes to avoid it feeling like a drop-in session. “If kids are in groups,” I thought to myself, “and accountable to their groups, then they may be motivated to come to school!”

When today’s class started and I’m looking at a class with roughly half of the students that I had the last class. Every group was missing at least one member, a couple groups only had one member! Last class there 28 kids There were only 2 groups of four, the one that begged me to let them have a fifth member, and the group students who weren’t here in the last class and had no idea what was going on. It was a little sad, but after trying to arrange the groups into mostly pairs and threes, and postponing some of the task for Monday, it was still pretty nice to have the kids work in groups. Once groups finished work they worked on some reflection writing.

Students were brainstorming different methods of determining whether something is an outlier using sets of data that I prepared. The group part of the task would have been to compile all of everyone’s data so that they could look at which of their so-called outliers really lie outside of everyone’s data, and which ones actually look normal when placed around the larger set of data. Instead, I asked the smaller groups to work on clearly defining a mathematical test that they could all agree on which would show why the outliers are outliers. Some groups said “If it’s more than 1000 higher than any other number” or “twice as much as the other numbers.” I think this could lead to an interesting conversation about why we need the Mean and the Standard Deviation, as well as the Median and the IQR. We will soon talk sample size and the law of large numbers, and having these posters around the room will be good references for putting large groups of data and reducing error.

So, as sad as it was to only see a fraction of the students I was expecting in my class, it should not affect the momentum of class too much. The kids who missed will get an email asking them to essentially do the same task on their own, and we can do a nice gallery walk at the start of Monday’s class about everyone’s ideas. When we have them work on further group work, it will be good to have this experience to look back on. Maybe next time I’ll require them to exchange emails or whatever else in order to stay in touch with their group. We can still make this experiment work!

The Juice Counter: Using technology to talk about juice mixtures

So in my class I thought up a good uses of technology in a “flashes of insight” late last night.  One idea was to come up with a way to have the students play around with the ideas of what mixtures of juice would be orangey-er than others.

This is from the Proportional Reasoning Task from the Shell Center. Click the image to see the full task

I had my Transition Math students work on this yesterday, but I didn’t have a lot of success. This class is for students who typically “get-by” in math, and will probably have trouble understanding the basics of algebra, like proportional reasoning.  Virtually all of them have said some form of “I never understood fractions!”

The trouble yesterday was partially because so many kids only saw me as an answer, and didn’t trust each other enough to justify one juice mixture being more “orangey” than the other. Without a way to really check and see if their strateg was right, they didn’t really see a way to reason through to deciding which cards should be in what order. So I tried a couple things. One thing was showing a video of orange juice concentrate just to make sure they weren’t confused by the concept of juice in a can (a student yesterday was horrified by it). I also had them do a gallery walk of each others work, and I tried to talk through a comparison of a few juice listings on the board.

After class today I created the little tool so that kids could experiment with the different colors and test to see which is more “orangey”. I think I will have students get on their laptops and compare two different versions of the tool and compare their answers in that way. I still need to do some work on it but It seems pretty useful.

Here is the counter:

Original code is here:

Now I need to work on what happens when students use this to compare different kinds of juice mixtures. I will come back here and post some results and student thinking when I can.  Let me know if you can think of any intersting questions that could be explored by using this.

Clog: “I have no idea what that is!”

Today in class I was teaching the “Mixing juices” task and found out that kids don’t know about concentrate cans of juice.  This is the part of the task where kids are given a number of cards with various juice mixture recipes.

Kids kept saying they had difficulties, and it sounded weird that after five or ten minutes of talking about, the language kids used didn’t really relate to the problem.  Instead of saying cans of juice, or cans of soda one kid would say “the grey cans” or the “The empty ones.”

After class a student came up to my desk and I was explaining again the task and she legit didn’t undrerstand.  “You know, when you make juice from a can?” I said.  “Like this.”

Then she recoiled back with a look in her eyes that was a mix between disbelief and disgust as she said “I don’t even know what that is!”

Unfortunately, I think students had a similar response to the talk about ratios.  Representations of a rational relationship between juice and water was treated pretty differently by the students in both of my classes, and not just because of the orange juice in a can business.  I think the concept of a rational relationship, the need for it and the usefulness of it, is one that doesn’t make sense.  Scores of kids immediately turned the ratios into fractions, decimals, and percents when thinking about the order the cards would go in, but not seeing how that number makes sense.  One girl in particular took a card 2 juices and 3 cups of water on it and came up with 66%, but on another card 1 juice and 2 cups of water she wrote 33%. I figured this out at the board, 10 minutes after this task was supposed to end and had to tell kids we would come back to this.  In my head I realized that this could have been a rich conversation at the board, or in groups, but I didn’t have the time, I wasn’t prepared for the variety of responses that I would see, and I was worried about what this student would think if we dissected her thinking in front of the class on day 4.  It was pretty rough.