Today was the first day I got to teach a class this year! I’ve been coming in to school daily since mid-August 15th, so there was quite a bit of anticipation for actual teaching. The class that I’m teaching is called Problem Solving. This class was largely developed out of the Crossing the River with Dogs book by another teacher but has been, and continues to be, heavily adapted. The first section that I plan to teach in this 8 week course is Draw a diagram. Specifically, the Farmer Ben problem. It’s where you have to count up the number of cows and ducks that Farmer Ben could have if he had 22 animals which have 56 pairs of legs.

Before we got into a problem, we started in a circle. My plan is to do a circle kind of sporadically through the class, in order to build community and support my school’s restorative justice initiative. Once we sat in the circle I asked kids to think of a problem they solved and then choose one of three questions out of a hat:

  • What helped you understand the problem?
  • What was the process you took to solve it?
  • What were other ways it could have been solved?
  • How did other people help you solve it?

In retrospect, I probably should have started with something fun like “what are you watching on Netflix.” Instead we heard everyone listing all of the problems in their life on the first day of class. A few people harped on their personal flaws, or biggest mistakes, or some other horrible things that happened to them, and how they worked their way out of it. It wasn’t a mood lifter, probably going to have to tweak that for next time.

Next we counted off into groups of 3 and started doing VNPS using the Farmer Ben Problem. I wanted kids to think and to be a little uncomfortable, and that definitely happened. There were a few things that left me wondering whether I was setting kids up for failure.

One of Peter Liljedahl’s shifts for creating a thinking classroom was about reading the problem out loud instead of putting it up in words. Hopefully it will underscore the importance of paying attention and listening. Immediately after I finished reading it people asked me to read it again. After reading it the second time one student asked me to read it again and he had a look on his face like I just asked him to walk across fire. “I read it once, that’s why you need to pay attention,” I said, ushering him towards his white board, “you have to ask your group mates.” A few minutes later it was clear that he was standing on the side of his group mates while the other two members of groups were barrelling towards a solution. I checked in with the group and those two students knew just what they were doing, but that first student was silent and making a face that said “I have no idea what’s going on.”

Meanwhile, another student was making a face that said “I suffer from anxiety. Working independently on math problems was my sanctuary. Now my heart can’t stop beating, and I just want to go do the problem on my own.” This left me a little stumped. The student and I spoke after class, but I struggled to help this student connect the group work we are doing, to any real world that she has imagined. If anyone has any ideas of how to tweak the VNPS for these two students, let me know in the comments.

My first ever implementation of VNPS went very well for the majority of my class. Kids were talking and thinking together with a familiarity and comfort usually reserved for weeks into the cycle.  Some groups didn’t want to stop working after the time ran out. It is definitely something I am going to have to keep doing and keep tweaking. Next time I do it, I might use a 3-act of some kind that could have us do Act 1 in the circle, and Act 2 on the whiteboards.