Session Thoughts: Project Based Learning

sketchnotes from the session

Through coincidence I met Anthony Rodiguez the previous week in Chicago at an unrelated meeting and while exchanging our session titles I realized he was already on my calendar for NCTM Boston. After getting to spend a few days with him in Chicago I was looking forward to this session even more as Anthony has an enthusiastic and grounding presence and I really want to spend some time picking his brain over a meal.

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Session Thoughts: NCSM Ignite!

I always enjoy a good Ignite talk so I headed to the NCSM one after dropping things off at the MTBoS booth. This was my first attempt at live sketchnoting, and wow is an Ignite a trial by fire with how fast some of the presenters talk! If you’ve not seen an Ignite before, you can catch video from prior ones here. My sketchnotes and thoughts below the cut.

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in which I sketchnote all the things

Quick Links to Sketchnote posts from NCTM 2015:

I’ll be working through these of the course of this week. I plan to post the sketchnote itself and then some of my thoughts on the session along with any relevant links. If you are interested in reading more about how I got into sketchnoting, head below the jump.

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In which British comedy is investigated

While my grades in Algebra 1 and 2 may lead one to believe I knew what was going on, those classes were agonizing for me. I can still vividly remember the frustration I felt because nothing seemed to make any sense and my ability to memorize steps is sub-par. To this day I find it easier to remember only the formula for the volume of a sphere and then use calculus to find the formula for surface area rather than actually memorize to formula for surface area.

Strange, I know. But it works for me.

In my last post I was thinking about what it’s like to not know something. But in addition to not knowing, I think the utter confusion one can feel in a classroom is also something important to keep in mind while teaching and lesson planning and working with students. To that end my mental index popped out the card for a skit from the British sketch comedy show That Mitchell & Webb Look called Numberwang. Yes, yes, I know it sounds like I am leading you to a dark place on the internet, but I’m not. Look:

There are other episodes along with A History of Numberwang, which I recommend watching as well. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I asked some tweeps if they had seen the skit before, and Carl Oliver came back with this:

As that kid without conceptual understanding in algebra, this skit is pretty much exactly what it was like in class for me. Confusing, almost no stated rules I understood, and at any moment the scene might change or I might be shoved in a box for not achieving Wangernumb.

Next time I go to make lessons for others, I need to keep this skit in mind and think about how I can plan for conceptual mental grappling and not just learned memorized performance in front of a live studio audience.

That’s Numberwang.

In which sticky notes are examined

If you ever see my desk you will find a bunch of sticky notes. They are not reminders so much as errant thoughts and little quotes I like enough to write down to ponder while I avoid over work. In example:

“He doesn’t get mad when things are hard. He just works. And I think that’s something I don’t have and not enough people do have.” – John Green on his brother, Hank

Yesterday I was looking through the app from Cuethink and admiring how it seems focused on getting students to communicate their mathematical understanding. Many of the things I enjoy most in the math sphere involve articulating mathematical understanding. The Math Forum‘s Notice and Wonder. Number talks. Task Talks. Doing math with others. Listening to my niblings explain how they figured out a puzzle. Crouching down at a group’s table in class to just listen. The following sticky note resulted:

“I think adults sometimes forget what it is like to not know something.”

When I think back to most of my math classes in middle and high school, they were warmup, homework checkoff, lecture with 3ish examples, homework time. Pretty much every day. I have no memory of ever doing a project in math. Not getting math meant going in for help and listening to an explanation again. Watching a new example. Sometimes trying to explain my understanding was involved, but having so little experience articulating my own conception of mathematics that was usually a non-starter. Not knowing to knowing was just a matter of listening more carefully or repeating some more examples, no?

When I think back to my first few years in the classroom as a teacher I can say it looked a lot like that. But I still didn’t give space for student’s to articulate their understanding (at least not students beyond those with Hermione-esque tendencies). I went into teaching because I enjoy working with teens and I love math. I stayed in teaching because I started learning how to give space for students to communicate their understanding and found that listening was fascinating. Watching a student going from not knowing to knowing and figuring out their path is one of my favorite things. Especially when they take paths I would never see because I know.

I’m curious how many people out there yelling one thing or another about education and classrooms and educators remember what it’s like to not know something. Or perhaps it’s better to ask if they remember what it’s like to not know something and also not know how to get to knowing something. As much some claim school is about content I will argue it’s more about going from not knowing to knowing and the many strategies life will demand one learns to survive and do good and be awesome.

So what stickies do you have at your desk?

In which absurdity is declared underrated

With the holiday’s coming I start thinking about how to handle two weeks of almost non-stop interacting with people who I only get to see once a year or so. How do you recap a year’s worth of adventure in just a few hours? What stories will you tell? How do you get others to tell their stories?

Perhaps it’s odd to some to even be thinking about some sort of strategic battle plan for conversations, but my current life in the woods with occasional flutterings into civilization to do/attend professional development has skewed my perceptions toward human interaction. And I’ve been learning French.

I’d never noticed it in English before until I saw that French-speakers do the same thing with respect to opening pleasantries. I know that a normal respond to “Hey, what’s up?” is “What’s up?” I know this. I have followed that script as long as I can remember. And, granted, there is some tonal work involved to indicate a level of current expressed happiness, but still, what’s up with the parroting? This happens in French as well where responding to “Ça va?” with “Ça va” a thing. And how many student interactions do you have on a daily basis that boil down to those two words? As you stand at the door while students file in how many “what’s up”s pass through your lips?

It’s normal human interaction: polite, superficial, rarely remembered. It’s a script. Follow it, and you don’t need to think.

And yeah, I know, TIME. It’s not possible to have unique conversations beyond the generic pleasantries with every kid in the class. The math just doesn’t work out if you actually want class to start before the bell rings again.

But what if you tossed out some crazy to a few random students as they walked in? How many students hear “what’s up?” and continue into the room on cruise control? And then through the class in the same setting? Engaging, but never all the way there. Why should they? Routine has been established by two words. The status is quo.

I believe in disequilibrium as a powerful force. How much more alert are you when something odd or unexpected happens? Kate’s a fan of instigating arguments. I especially like her moral that “confusion and mistakes are necessary for learning.” But why wait until the math to sow confusion? Why not start as they walk in the door?

Due to a childhood spent reading a lot of Far Side and Douglas Adams, I have a healthy love of the absurd which causes me to love the TED Ideas article on turning small talk into smart conversation that came across my dash today. This bit caught my eye first:

We stagger through our romantic, professional and social worlds with the goal merely of not crashing, never considering that we might soar.

Not crashing. Auto-pilot. Only partly engaging. How many students do you have in that pattern? I live in that pattern far more than I’d like to admit–doing what needs doing but not pushing hard because I might fail or be uncomfortable. Shaking that mentality is a work in progress and will probably be something I always keep an eye toward. But this isn’t about my personal fears of mediocrity.

This is about a challenge to myself and for you: break the parroting. The TED article has some nice ideas on this. I personally like their framing of not giving the expected response, such as

Beverly: It’s hot today.
Gino: In this dimension, yes.

What sorts of responses could you give to the “what’s up”s and “hi”s students toss your way as they walk in? Current news? Ponderings of world domination? Sneaking in odd comments that actually relate to a problem you are working on that day with the class? Hah, I can imaging doing that daily and once the kids are on to you they start dissecting your responses for clues to that day. They start engaging with the class before you’ve even begun.

Getting students to question the perceived norm existing in their heads about math class, about their peers, about society, and about themselves will always be a focus in my teaching practice. Working to do so through my typical lens of the ridiculous is just a bonus. Though I know of at least one other teacher that’s taking a similar tack.

So I ask you this: what’s up?

In which a blog is recommended

There are a lot of blogs out there but one I actually email subscribe to is One Good Thing. If you don’t read this one, it’s teachers posting about one good thing that happened in their day. Some are big things but most are the small things that happen to make us remember why we teacher.

News is inherently biased toward the ugly and the depressing and the horrifying because that is what sells and generates clicks. This is also why I think sites like One Good Thing are critical for retaining sanity and a balanced outlook on life.

A post this morning from Mr. Dardy made me want to write a quick note to myself her as a reminder when I get back into the classroom. Specifically this bit:

She told me ‘I thought my job in a math class is to know what formulas to use and how to solve equations with them.’ I explained to her that this was certainly part of her job, but that success in a math class should involve more than that.

So, note to self: Sometime early in the year make sure to ask students what their job is in a math class and what qualities are needed to be successful. Use this to start conversations about growth mindset and what mathematics really is as early as possible and maintain those conversations throughout the year.