Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Best Laid Plans...of a 5th Grade Class

Yesterday didn't go as all. I had a plan of what I thought would be an enjoyable and engaging math lesson. I recently bought the book Math-terpieces: The Art of Problem-Solving by Greg Tang. I planned on reading the book and letting the students have some fun solving the problems that related to the masterpieces of art on each page. I thought it would be a nice change of pace and a way to review previously mastered skills in a new format.

My students came up with other plans. Although several of them immediately "closed down" when I first got out a book to read (see this post), by the second page, they were all glued to the pages waving hands in the air to find different solutions to the problems in each of the poems. Before we could get through the book, they started offering different ideas to our day's plan.

View their Math-terpieces Storyjumper
One student asked if they could create math poems like the ones we were reading. Another student chimed in and said that for them to be like the ones Greg Tang wrote, they would need to use art masterpieces as the inspiration. Then another student suggested that instead of using a famous masterpiece, maybe they could create their own. To which another student suggested not only writing the poems and creating the art but publishing them in a StoryJumper so that all of the students that they collaborate with could read their book too.

Wow! This all happened so fast it was amazing. My learners had found inspiration in a book that I thought would hold their attention for about thirty minutes and turned it into a two day project that tied together reading for inspiration, writing for an authentic audience, creating for a purpose, and publishing it to further the learning of their peers across the country.

Within a few minutes, they were searching for inspirational artists to begin creating their own masterpieces. They asked to get out different art mediums, each one wanting to be unique. Once their masterpieces were done, they began searching for math concepts within their art and began brainstorming ideas. As with all of our writing projects, we had conferences throughout their writing process where they explained their ideas and they searched for vivid language. Then my students set up a new StoryJumper and began guiding their peers through their publication of their own math-terpieces.

Did we follow the prescriptive curriculum? Um...not these two days. Shhh! Don't tell on us. My kids were so excited and learned so much, how could I possibly have taken this away from them? I guess we'll have to keep all this learning tightly under wraps. Next time I make out my lesson plans, maybe I should turn it over to them. They all definitely come up with much more clever ideas than me. I'm so glad that my day didn't go as planned. I wonder what we'll do tomorrow. I can't wait to find out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I smell...a Math Scavenger Hunt

Standardized Testing is over! We are all celebrating. However, a challenge we face now, at the beginning of April, is that all of the standards have been taught. Many of our district’s pacing guides have us reviewing and re-teaching the exact same standards that we did before testing.

For math, we’ve already spent the year in small groups, doing a variation on Math Workshop, and project-based learning. What do we do now? I wanted it to be relevant, engaging, and enjoyable for my students. As I was pondering it, the television show The Amazing Race was on. They were doing a scavenger hunt type of challenge on the streets of India. All of a sudden, a brainstorm hit and I decided to adapt that challenge into one we could use for math.

First, I created 5 stations within my classroom. Each station had two challenge problems that the teams of two had to solve together. Once they solved the problem and checked it, they could bring their solution to me and explain how they got their answers. If their answers and explanation were correct, I gave them a card with two letters on it. Then they travelled to the next station. The goal was for each team to successfully complete all of the problems correctly and then take all of their letters and arrange them into a phrase.

I let the learners chose their partners, but they had to choose a partner with whom they had not worked on any projects this school year. Since we do so many activities and projects, it was a bit of challenge for them to locate a suitable partner. I wanted to encourage my students to get to know another student. Also, it broke up my high, medium, and low math students forming heterogeneous pairs.  Without me assigning partners, each pair had at least one very strong math student to guide their partner through challenge problems. However, both students had to explain their solutions to me.

On the day that we did this, I had all of the stations set up and I staggered the pairs at the different stations to avoid everyone working in the same area of the classroom. We had a discussion where the students set the behavior/procedural practices for this activity. Then off we went.

I figured that they students would enjoy this Math Scavenger Hunt. What I didn’t expect was that they would be so focused and engaged in solving these math challenges that after and hour and a half, they didn’t want to stop. They followed their behavior guidelines and didn’t even realize that guests had come into the classroom. Also, I was able to assess their abilities without having to give and grade a practice page, workbook page, worksheet or test (not that we do much of that anyway...but that’s what their peers in other classes are doing). The energy and enthusiasm was palpable.

Although they were trying to unscramble the letters to find out what their prize was, that wasn’t their focus. It was the challenge of completing the task successfully. Their prize was a “lunch bunch pass” which means they get to choose two friends to sit with at lunch and go through the lunch line first. They always love that pass, but they really enjoyed completing the Scavenger Hunt more.

They are begging to do this again and it can easily be adapted to any content area and any grade level. So next time the television is on, you might want to pay attention. You never know what inspiration might hit. My kids had every bit as much fun as the pairs working together in India on The Amazing Race and from what the pairs on TV said, I think our Scavenger Hunt smelled better.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Reading Log Conundrum

There's been much written about the use of reading logs in classrooms today.  Personally, I can say that I'm not a fan of requiring students to read and fill out the required form. Where I teach, using a reading log is a nonnegotiable, meaning every student regardless of age has to complete one daily. For the upper elementary students, a summary must be incorporated with their log. Our district has a semi-standards based report card. One of the 5 broad standards that students must meet in reading for each grading period is "independent reading." The reading log is linked as the way to measure whether or not a student has mastered that standard. If a child has completed his/her reading log at least 75% of the time during a grading period he/she has been considered as mastered that standard.

I know there are all kinds of problems with that method. I've been wrestling with this for this entire school year. I've been trying to discover a new way to have my students reach that standard that the administrators will approve and that will provide the documentation that students are reading independently.  It has been a challenge.  I'm also trying to reinforce the love of reading as that has also been a thanks, I'm sure, to this whole reading log issue (Many other teachers are reporting the same behaviors in their classrooms). I have students who (now) love to read, especially graphica. I'm having to remind them to put it up when we are engaged in another activity. However, these students will not turn in a reading log. To them there is no correlation to what they're reading, which is fun, and the reading log, which is not. They'd rather receive a zero and keep reading their self-selected reading.

So, here is the plan that I intend to pilot at the end of the school year to show my administrators. I'm hoping for their approval for next year in lieu of the dreaded reading log. My students spend a lot of time writing and  reflecting on their learning across content areas. We are going to move our reflections over to blogs. As with all our writing endeavors, I'm going to have my students form a  rubric and guidelines for blogging.

One aspect that I hope to guide them into including is whatever they are currently reading. With the comment options, I'm hoping to encourage students to share what they are reading and encourage commenting upon one another's reading choices...making connections and having real discussions. It takes the static, one-sided reading log, and gives it relevance. There's an audience. There's a purpose for their writing and reflecting. The blog turns their literature reflections into a book discussion where they can share the exciting things they are reading, whether it's a trade book, a novel , or a comic book. It will give me the documentation I need to meet the standard while the actual requirements will be set by the students, not by the school, giving them back the power in how they publish and express themselves with the literature.

If anyone has any other ideas, I'd love to hear them. I've felt like we were between a rock and a hard place with this reading log all year. Keeping our fingers crossed! Wish us luck!