Correction: I referred to Lisa Henry as Lisa Meyer in an earlier version of this post. My error, and apologies to Lisa!
This is a long post: hopefully future ones will be briefer!
I just returned from Orlando FL, where I presented a 75-minute workshop on “Making Rich Tasks Work” in a math class. This happened at the NCTM Reasoning/Sense Making Institute. Handouts for my workshop and others can be found here . I worried about coming off as a bit of an impostor, as I still struggle to find the right times/ place to integrate these into my own classroom practice. I am, by no means an expert, but I am growing.
I tried to keep that in mind when I designed the workshop. I didn’t want to talk at them. The bulk of the workshop came from the collaborative work of the staff of the Secondary School Teachers Program at PCMI, the Park City Mathematics Institute. We were guided by the wise minds of Gail Burril, James King, and Carol Hattan as well.
So here were my goals for participants, after attending the workshop:
- An awareness that using rich tasks effectively in a classroom setting requires time and preparation.
- A framework that could guide their future preparation:
- What’s the potential mathematics in the task (both topics and habits of mind)?
- Goals: What to I want my students to leave with after doing the task?
- Evidence: How will I know they are (not) there?
- Questions/Checkpoints: What will I say/ask to check for their understanding, and move them forward?
- Feedback: How will the kids know if they are making progress?
Here was the “rich task” that I started with: It was a problem that was inspired from Ben Sinwell’s NCTM Illuminations task:
Wendy has “cars” of length 1 and 2. She will string these together to make “trains.” How many different trains can Wendy make of length 5? 6? 8? n? A 2-1-2 train and a 2-2-1 train are different.
I will leave it to y’all to discuss the choice of wording / phrasing I used to launch this task.
Here’s what they had to do after doing the math:
If you are going to use the trains problems in your classroom:
- Pick one mathematical goal and one ‘habit of mind’ goal for your students.
- Describe evidence that your students are (not) making progress towards your goals.
- What questions/checkpoints will you prepare ahead of time to move students’ progress forward?
- What feedback will students get? Who gives it?
This is easier said than done, I think. I was worried I gave them too big a challenge. But the point was not to complete the challenge: I just wanted them to engage a bit in the framework that seems to help me.
Lisa Henry’s response to my session made me feel good. Given that she had attended sessions by Peg Smith and Dan Meyer as well, I felt like that I had succeeded in putting together a productive session for at least a few people. Plus, she thought I had only been teaching for 7-10 years. Perhaps I came off a bit “inexperienced?” I’d like to think my daily regimen of Neutrogena and vitamins helped. I’ll be starting my 17th year of teaching high school this August. But if I looked younger, THANKS Lisa! She also mentioned how more experienced teachers (like myself) may tend to use classroom experience as a basis for informing their classroom practice. I strongly believe that classroom experience is just as important as using current research to inform instruction. You need to learn about and know your students and school deeply.
My own assessment:
Overall, I was pleased that participants were willing to engage in the mathematical task, and do their best on a pretty tough challenge: identify specific learning goals and questions for a problem that they barely understood. Sometimes they put up some good possible goals, evidence to look for, and questions to ask students as they monitored work. I was especially pleased that they were willing to give some strong critiques to their colleagues work (anonymously, via post-it notes). I worried that during the “feedback” stage, I’d only see a bunch of “god job…. nice poster” comments that lacked specificity. That did not happen for the most part.
Evidence of Participant thinking during the session:
I’m glad I saved the poster papers and took photos. The anonymity of using the post-its allowed participants to be very clear about what they saw (or didn’t see) in the posters: “It think this question is too leading.” “Is this really a math goal, or just a topic?” I was happy that people were seeing the need to get more specific with their comments. The time crunch made this hard, but taking the time to do this well is, I think, important.
One participant remarked that in a classroom, the negative tone of some comments might cause some distress with kids, and many agreed. I see her point: you don’t want to emotionally derail a kid’s progress. This brought out the importance of establishing norms about peer-to-peer commentary, which was nice to see emerge.
Eighty cards were passed out at the start of the session: I think I got about 45 back. For 25-35, maybe there was little / no take-away? Non-response bias really sucks, don’t you know?
For the others, responses fell into two main categories:
“This is great. I’m going to do what you just did in my class (gallery walk).” As much as I liked the “niceness” of these, I wondered if some of these comments missed the point I was hoping for them to get: I don’t want people to imitate what I’m doing and try to retro-fit it for the wrong purpose. On the other hand, maybe some of these teachers became more aware of one technique for getting students to work together, commit to a set of ideas, write them down, and receive feedback.
“I need to do more preparation before I use a ‘cool’ problem in the classroom.” These responses reflect more of what I was hoping for: a greater awareness of the need to be more intentional and purposeful as a designer of classroom time.
My favorite comment involved an awareness and a specific thing to re-think in future teaching plans: “I may need to re-think how I use rich tasks in the classroom, and maybe use them more to help kids practice the reasoning that’s important, and not grade their work.” This is precisely what assessment for learning means to me: using tasks as a tool to help teachers and students learn from each other.