College of Arts and Sciences

Growing up, every Tom Cruise character was that super-confident, super-cool guy that could bluff his way through any situation with quick wit and a smile. Who didn’t want to be Joel Goodson or Brian Flanagan or Maverick?

But I definitely also had an appreciation for people who planned every move with military precision. Who could see the downstream consequences to actions that everybody else missed. See: Jane Craig in Broadcast News. So: going by the book, or flying by the seat of our pants? Painting by numbers, or just making some happy little trees?

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Is teaching an art, or a science? If you’ve been around the game for awhile, you’ve probably concluded it’s both.

Joshua Eyler of Rice University turns the question on its head in a 2015 blog post, proposing that “the most effective teaching is that which helps students learn to the greatest extent possible”.

So how might we change the art vs. science question to reflect this positioning of learning?  Though we’ll have to sacrifice the nicely compact nature of the original, a new version of this question might ask whether achieving a deep understanding of how our students learn (both in general and about our fields) is more of an art or a science.

The sorts of collaborations with students that might reveal this knowledge could certainly be called creative and even artistic.  I also think there is something of an art to being attuned to students’ individual approaches to learning (or their Zones of Proximal Development) and adjusting our strategies and techniques accordingly in order to ensure we are helping as many students as possible.

What about science?  I have to admit I’m biased here.  As someone who is writing a book on the science of learning, I lean more heavily in this direction.  Because learning has its basis in the neurobiological mechanisms of the body, I think science has much to teach us about learning.  Learning is also rooted in the social world as well, so the fields of sociology and psychology provide further opportunities for understanding.

Brain science and psychology and making adjustments on the fly for what our students (collectively or individually) need at the moment? Yeah, that sounds exactly like what teaching is. “All Of The Above”.


That was us a couple of weeks ago. I know the look I saw on my kids’ faces after the logs quiz. It’s never a good sign, but that “I don’t get this and math is stupid and I quit” feeling in February makes for a long last 13 weeks for everybody involved.

So I called an audible.

I’m hardly the first to roll out this activity. My favorite instructional coach was doing Barbie Bungee before I was even teaching, long before Twitter and Desmos had even been thought of. The great Fawn Nguyen and Matt Vaudrey have raised it to an art form.

But I gambled that it would be just the antidote for the Math Plague that was threatening to decimate my classroom. Plus, worst-case scenario, I could justify it (at least to myself) by saying that the linear concepts and DOK 3 activity would be ideal for my students in the weeks leading up to ISTEP re-testing season.


 

I leaned heavily on Mr. Vaudrey, who is kind enough to post his materials for anyone to use, and to reflect on his own lessons so that folks downstream might be able to anticipate the stumbling blocks for their students. I teach in the new STEM wing of my school, in what eventually will be a combo computer lab and build/makerspace. So I had some essential ingredients on hand: measuring tools, lots of space, and plenty of surfaces at a variety of heights. What I didn’t have on hand, I sought out: eight bags of #32 rubber bands at WalMart, and 8 WWE wrestling figures from my son’s collection.

Day One I tried to hook them in with an insane missile silo bungee jump, then set them up with a figure, a bundle of ten rubber bands, a data collection sheet, and let them go about the business of jumping.

Perfect world: each group of three or four students would have had about 8-10 data points. Reality: most got 4-5. Several got only 3, and one group managed to record only one distance. Those guys are gonna need some extra support.

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Day Two, time for some estimates backed up by math: How many bungees would be needed to jump off the top of my projector? How far a jump could their figure make with 25 bands?

And in one of those glorious moments of teaching, I had set the hook. Students were madly pouring over their data, trying to use it to give legit estimates to the questions.

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Teamwork, baby. Teamwork.

(It was about this moment that I decided that I would honor their efforts at thinking and reasoning and doing actual math on their own by entering some points for the three-day project as a quiz grade. By department policy quizzes and tests account for 75% of a student’s grade, so a good quiz grade is like finding a hundred-dollar bill on the ground outside your classroom.)

So we dumped data into a Desmos graph, let some groups with few data points share some numbers from other groups (that’s that extra support we talked about), made a trend line, set a horizontal line at 533 cm on their graph, and talked about how many bands they’d need to safely make a jump from the top of our two-story Robot/Quadcopter Arena.

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Letting Desmos do the heavy lifting to free up brain power for thinking.

Quick group huddle to compare numbers, then after a few minutes of table talk I stopped to see each group, ask about how they came up with their number, and (this is key) have them agree on one number, write it down on their page, and circle it.

Day Three, the Tournament Selection Committee has announced the pairings, and the teams are ready to jump.

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Not that I’m craving attention or anything, but yeah, I totally posted the brackets on the window of the arena that faces a heavily traveled hallway.

I pre-assembled strands of ten bands to accelerate the assembly process, then students built their bungees and gathered, two teams at a time, on the second floor. We quickly found out that everyone in my 2nd hour class had seriously miscalculated the number of bands they needed. Fig after fig crashed to the floor. Lacking other options, and wanting to avoid the buzzkill of a six-way tie for last, we finally decided the “less dead” fig would move on.

The afternoon class seemed to have had some better estimates and we had some competetive matchups, as well as some gamesmanship as some teams attempted to scrunch two or three bands together in their hand on the railing to avoid a figurative skull fracture (high school kids, right?). The extra-long bungees in 2nd hour made a great math conversation starter (“what happened, you guys?”). I used Matt Vaudrey’s feedback form, and found out that Barbie Bungee was a near-unanimous hit.

Barbie Bumgee Feedback

Would this three-day activity had made more sense back in September when we were doing linear stuff? Probably. Would I have had the confidence to step back from the curriculum map for a minute when my students needed a breather if I hadn’t been hanging out on the periphery of the #MTBoS with its brilliant minds and fantastic lessons and activities? No way. Would I have tried Barbie Bungee without being able to follow a well-worn path? Not sure. I’m down with taking chances in the classroom, but I’m not sure I’d have been wise enough to add the Desmos piece if Vaudrey hadn’t blogged about it. And that made the whole project. We’d have been dead in the water, guessing a number of rubber bands for the Big Jump without it. Which means we would have missed the math altogether.

What I do know is: my students bought it, real learning happened, we all got the stress relief we needed, and I came out looking like an improv artist taking a prompt and making comedy gold.

Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.

Art. And Science. It’s a Both/And.

 

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So, How’s It Going?

Golden Dream Same Time Next Year
From The Golden Dream, by Gerry Faust and Steve Love

So, lots of changes in my classroom since the semester break. Seems like a good time to check in, just maybe a little sooner than Pete Alfano. How’s it going so far?

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Sports Illustrated, November 5, 1984

To recap, I’m trying to provide more opportunities for my students to work together in class, to have the support of their teacher as they work through practice sets. My lever is a flipped classroom. Trying to move in the direction suggested by Matt Miller and Alice Keeler in Ditch That Homework.

So they are viewing the notes outside of class, writing a 3-2-1 Summary when they finish taking notes from my video, splitting into Island/Peninsula/Land work groups based on student readiness to be self-sufficient, getting an opportunity for relearning and retakes on quizzes.

My main goal is to provide a proper level of support for all my students. I had to let go of some things like a rotating schedule of MTBoS-inspired bellringers. Truthfully, that decision made me die a little on the inside, but this wasn’t a knee-jerk decision. I weighed my options. What’s the best way to maximize the math happening when we are together in class? I want them thinking critically, but I also want them getting enough practice on basic skills to make them stick.


After 15 years of teaching I already have a good idea of what independent practice looks like outside of school (hint: not really independent), but I was curious what happens when I ask them to watch a video and take notes on their own, and then write down some questions about their learning.

I got my answer a few days ago when a scheduling crunch inspired me to have my students watch the video and take notes in class. It was actually a very efficient way to get note-taking done – way faster than direct instruction with a million distractions. I figured we could get the notes in and still have enough time for students to try the practice set and for me to get around the room and help.

I found that many of my students were focusing on the examples, taking good notes, backing up the video to rewatch certain parts, writing a thoughtful summary – pretty much the model of how flipped instruction should work.

I also saw kids blow it off entirely, playing on their phones or on other sites. And a few were just forwarding the video to a screenshot of the worked-out examples, copying them down, putting some nonsense down for the summary and checking out.

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Dueces. (source)

In other words, the students who cared before, care now. And the students who tried to slide by before, are still giving me their absolute minimum effort. So, can I snap up a couple from that last group and give them a nudge towards the first group? Good question.

I’m way past thinking that any of the tactics and strategies I pick up from my online PLN are going to be magic dust. They are all just tools in the hands of a teacher, for use to benefit student learning. So let’s use them.


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Image via Imgur

Logarithms are killing my students, slowly, like one class period at a time. It couldn’t be less clear if I wrote the instructions in Chinese. So we’ve taken three days to review: two days with a packet to get some reps in, and one day where I wanted some collaboration and mistake-finding built in.

I’ve been dying to use Log War for a while. But I’m not sure my students are in that place yet where they can rapid-fire evaluate logs. Plus I was a little short on materials and funding to purchase more index cards and labels.

I love how Desmos activities create opportunities for collaboration and making student thinking visible, but I’m also not opposed to low-tech alternatives that accomplish the same goal.

And Sara Van Der Werf’s “Add ‘Em Up” activity made an ideal Plan B.

I endorse this review method. Click through for full details and materials, but the executive summary is: students are grouped in fours, working on butcher paper or big white boards, each with his own log exercise to work out. I give them the sum of their answers as they are working on the problems. If their answers add up to the number I’ve written in the middle of the page, yay us! If not, that’s cool, it’s time to play America’s favorite game show, Let’s Find The Mistake!

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This activity got my students engaged, working together and talking with each other, referencing their notes for help, and it gave me an opportunity to sit with everyone individually for feedback and help. That’s the core message of a Ditch That Anything: teachers need to get face time with students, and build relationships along with teaching standards. That’s the big payoff of flipped instruction, Island/Peninsula/Land, and collaborative review time.

Still – it’s not a cure-all. Sitting with one group, looking at the work provided by one particularly uninterested student…. it was perfect. I asked her, “tell me how you got from this step to this step”. She looked me in the eye and said “Photomath did it. I’m not gonna lie to you. I don’t know how to do this. No clue. Teach me”.

I appreciate the request for help, and I’ll be happy to teach you, but I can’t reteach this unit to you in 10 minutes the morning before the quiz.

Especially not after you’ve been playing on your phone and not doing work for two weeks. That remediation gig is gonna take way longer than 10 minutes.


The Irish, 11-point underdogs, were 3-4 and had lost their last three games, all of them in South Bend. They hadn’t lost three straight at home since 1956…. Down the schedule, Navy, Penn State and USC waited to pick over the Notre Dame carcass. Faust was asked by ABC’s Keith Jackson if he’d ever win again.

Jackson: “You have the definite possibility of a 4-7 season.”

Faust: “Yeah, but also one of 7-4.”

That exchange defines the man. “Wouldn’t it be something,” he had said earlier in the week, “wouldn’t it be ironical if it was a game with my first opponent that turned the thing around?”

Somebody Up There May Be Listening“, Kenny Moore, Sports Illustrated, November 5, 1984.

Gerry Faust is an optimist. The faith we share dictates that. I’m more of an optimistic pessimist. But I still believe in the turnaround. If I can’t go 11-0 anymore, can I get to 7-4?  I’m gonna keep looking for things that work, keep what’s good, giving my students what they need, and it’s gonna happen. Come around sometime and see.