in which i employ a plant

One of the fun parts about participating in the online community is meeting members of the online community in person. I had a chance to meet Daniel Schneider, aka Mathy McMatherson, and break some bread while enjoying one of my favorite things: edu-math-chat. And if you are not reading his stuff, you should be. I will be utilizing his Wall of Remediation idea for my Support class kiddos to study for the final in Algebra 1 which covers distinct skills from our SBG setup.

During our chat I was reminded of something I used to do that for some reason I have not been doing the past few years. I thought I would write it out here to help me remember to use it again in the future. I think best when I get a chance to write things down, so this may be a bit free-flowing.

So picture this: you have a lesson planned that will hopefully lead kids through some mathy ideas to a big conclusion. You are concerned, however, that they will not ask the questions you are hoping for and are unsure of your abilities to steer the conversation without obviously grabbing the wheel. This was my state of being for several years (and still is sometimes). On the spur of the moment in class during my 2nd year of teaching I decided to ask I kid I trusted to keep a straight face to ask a specific question if I gave a signal. It wasn’t critical to the question, but it was a nuance I didn’t think the kids were picking up on. I ended up giving the student the signal and they asked the question. This caused a pause in the class and then more back and forth conversations in the group about this point. My plant jumped into the discussion and none of the students thought anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Was I covering for weak group-discussion-leading skills? Maybe. Did the kids see something they wouldn’t have seen otherwise had the question not been asked? Yup. Was it better coming from a student than it was from me? I think so. I believe that students often respond better to the questions/responses of their peers than they do to myself. Peanuts effect and whatnot.

Fast forward a bit. I ended up using plants on occasion. Sometimes for questions, sometimes to say wrong answers I wanted to make sure got covered. I totally got caught in some classes, which I was able to play up enough that the kids found it amusing and the plant was giving off smug ‘chosen one’ vibes. I realized that getting caught could be great. I chose to sometimes give a kid a written question/comment with vocabulary they would never use, but I totally would. Authentic learning environment? Nope. Did kids pay attention, get a laugh, and build not only mathematical understanding but also classroom community? yup.

I once used it freak out students. Used to be my 1st period support kids would see me twice: once for support and once for regular algebra 1. I had a kid ask in support about other math symbols (we were doing inequalities if I remember right). This was a student who expressed dislike of math, but was well-liked by his peers and rather good at math he ‘got’. I wrote out some abstract form of “for all x contained within the reals ….” in symbolic notation. he thought the ‘code’ was pretty cool, so I asked if he could remember what it meant. He repeated it back. Fast-forward to period 2. Regular algebra 1. Same symbols question comes up. I get my plant a quick glance and he is playing it cool. I write up the symbols again, tell the class it’s an advanced math sentence and ask if any of them know what it says. They are, of course, stuck on the upside-down A. My plant raises his hand and TOTALLY plays this up. Squints his eyes a bit, rubs his chin, “well, I think it says …” Beautiful performance. I wanted to applaud. Every other kid in the class is staring at him, his friends are whispering demands for how he knew that. I congratulated him and repeated what he said while pointing at the sentence and then continued with the lesson.

I’m pretty sure he admitted to them later about being a plant, but it definitely got the attention of the class and I started seeing the upside-down A and the triple dots for ‘therefore’ on some papers.

Some notes on the details. I never used the same kid twice. I never made it a regular thing lest they get paranoid about one another. I’ve not done it in years. I think in the National Board year-of-crazy it got lost and I hadn’t even thought about it (which tells you how infrequently I did use it).

I’m much better at helping to direct conversations and making sure that kids are set up properly to make the connections I want these days. That does not, however, mean I am not thinking about how to use the ‘plant’ idea in some of my upcoming lessons.

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