The Power of Publishing

Over the past few years, our middle school has emphasized Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a specific, inquiry-based model for teaching that has several distinct elements. One of the most powerful of Buck Institute’s Seven Essential PBL Elements is the final, “Public Product.” This pivotal, last stage of the project is where students share their work with the public by explaining, displaying or presenting it to audiences beyond the classroom.

Motivation to Learn

Sharing your work with a large audience can be scary for anyone but it’s also extremely motivating. Preparing a presentation or piece of writing for others creates a healthy pressure to produce your best work. This kind of pressure is distinctly different other classroom scenarios where the teacher may attempt to motivate the class by threatening to deduct marks or promising prizes for the best work. Under these conditions, the motivation of the students tends to centre on the teacher instead of their own learning. However, when students know that they will share their work with an audience beyond the classroom, they are more intrinsically motivated to make sure their best work is on display.

Supplying an authentic audience works to motivate students in a way that most of us are familiar with. Let’s say your boss asks you to make a big presentation at work. The task itself calls on you to put forward your best communication skills. You pour dozens of hours into your final product because you want to leave an impression on your audience. The classroom is no different. Who wants to write a story or make a book review just so their teacher can read it? What student wants to create a piece of writing that will be hidden in a digital folder or stashed in a pile of papers? The answer, of course, is that no one does. To make creative work meaningful, it needs to be shared with an authentic audience.

Storybird Student Publishing

Gathering an audience can be a tricky business but having the right tools is important. During the past few weeks, I learned about a publishing tool that gives students the ability to reach a larger audience with their writing. It’s a website called Storybird. Unlike many of the publishing platforms out there, Storybird is specifically focused on students.

How it Works

The website functions in a similar way to other educational websites. Teachers can create a class within the site and invite students to join. Before joining the class, the students need to create an account. If your school uses G Suit, it is really handy to have them create an account using their Google credentials. Once they have created an account and joined the teacher’s class, they can publish an Ebook or PDFs with beautiful illustrations for free. At first glance, it looks like students have to pay about $3.00 to publish these files, but once the students begin composing their story, they begin accumulating crowns that can be used to purchase a PDF or Epub file of their illustrated work. Students can also gather enough crowns to publish their work by having their parent sign up to receive communication from the website.

Publishing Formats

The Storybird website also has three different published products: Longform Books, Picture Books and Poetry. Due to the length of the stories that my class had already authored, I decided to have them create Longform Books. In the longform format, students can publish a written piece as one, long chapter or they can divide it into separate chapters. Although the Longform Books didn’t have as many illustrations as the Picture Books, there was an option to embed photos within the chapters. At the end of the composing and editing process, my students publish their stories as PDF file so that we could share them on the digital portfolio website we use called, Seesaw. Below, I’ve uploaded a few PDF versions of my student’s stories so that you can see what the final product looks like.

Although I was primarily interested in publishing a PDF file, because the affordability was appealing, there is also an option to order reasonably priced, printed copies on the website.

Storybird Publishing Considerations

  • It looks like the site is designed for students to pick a theme of pictures and write a story that conforms to those pictures rather than writing first and then finding pictures later. For example, the pictures are organized in themed packages and you cannot upload external pictures to add to your story. You also cannot pick illustrations from other packages. This is a limitation of the website that really matters–especially if you are creating Picture Books.
  • At the time of this post, there isn’t any clear way for writers to indent their body paragraphs. The first line of the first paragraph of each chapter can be indented, but I couldn’t find a way to indent the paragraphs that followed.
  • When composing Longform Books, students are required to publish their chapter before they create the next chapter. This was a bit confusing for my students because it looked like they were making multiple copies of their books. In the end, we discovered that publishing each chapter privately was just how the site worked to compile the chapters.
  • During the publishing process, it is a good idea to pre-buy download credits just in case someone has to publish their book twice–which happened to us a number of times. Buying the credits in bulk saves a lot of money. You pay $.20/download instead of $2.99!
  • I initially thought that my class would be able to share their stories with the other readers on the Storybird website, but as it turns out, student sharing is more limited than private accounts.
  • There are also writing lessons that you can assign your class on Storybird and I’m looking forward to trying one of the lessons with my class.

The Result

I wish I could bottle up the buzz in the air as my students composed their stories and send you a sample. The class was so proud to present their published products to each other and to their family and friends.

I’m still looking for ways to spread our stories to a larger audience through iBooks. If you have done something like this in the past, I would love to connect with you or read about your experience.

Copy the Cult

Copying was known as cheating in the schools I attended growing up but experience has taught me that copying is often a very important part of the learning process. In my visual arts class, I often have students copy a photo portrait of their own face in pencil. Copying allows them to discover knowledge about proportions, shading, different textures and even drawing techniques. Students are not the only ones who can learn from copying–teachers can too. In fact, using techniques or units from other teachers can actually be an effective form of professional development.

As a teacher who enjoys inquiry-driven modes teaching, I’m not a big supporter of ready-made types of curriculum. Commercial curriculum makers often have a particular audience or culture in mind when they create their product. As a result, these units or textbooks rarely appeal to my class. That is not to say they don’t benefit my teaching. I often rely on bits and pieces from textbooks and resource guides. I also draw on local authors like Adrienne Gear for her expertise. Her reading and writing resources are easily adapted to different classes. However, a steady diet of “canned curriculum” is not engaging to my students.

This is why Jennifer Gonzalez’s unit on narrative writing pleasantly surprised me. I’ve just finished teaching through it for the first time this term. It was awesome!

Much like Gear’s units, it was organized into a series of mini-lessons that were laid out topically. This made it very easy to adapt or skip lessons based on the strengths or prior knowledge of my class.

Each of the lessons also came with presentation slides and pages of clearly organized notes for the students. For example, the lesson on writing dialogue outlined some very simple rules that were clearly diagrammed so that the students could quickly refer back to them as they were writing their stories. These notes were (and will continue to be) an excellent resource for my students as they improve as writers.

One of my favourite mini-lessons in the unit was on pacing. Gonzalez explained how good stories have time jumps. They skip to the most interesting parts of the story to keep the momentum going. She also used a box diagram (below) to show how each story event is shrunk or blown up based on its importance. Some of the most dramatic events are expanded and developed in great detail while less important parts are squeezed into smaller summaries.

I can’t say enough good things about this unit. I only wished I had found it earlier in my teaching career. If you are interested in checking it out for your own class, it can be found here. There are several other units listed on her Teachers Pay Teachers account that I would like to investigate in the future. As I was writing this post, I bumped into her persuasive writing unit. It looks excellent too!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Jennifer Gonzalez’s website, the Cult of Pedagogy and her Youtube channel, I highly recommend them both as great resources.

A Year of Empathy

Empathy is s keyword for me in 2019 and one that I want to focus on with my class, school and family. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “How will I become a person of empathy this year?” I’ve also thought about how I can lead my students and family into greater empathy for others. This post is about some of the different strategies that I want to use to develop empathy in 2019.

Four Qualities of Empathy

Empathy has several different aspects to it. One definition that I have found helpful is Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy, referenced by Brene Brown in I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008).

To be able to see the world as others see it

Wiseman’s first quality of empathy is to see the world as others see it. This requires putting your own concerns aside to view the situation through another person’s eyes. One way that I’d like to cultivate empathy in myself is to intentionally read personal memoirs, autobiographies and biographies by authors who have different lives, beliefs and challenges than I do. How can I really communicate with others who have different beliefs or values than me if I don’t work at understanding their perspectives? I haven’t done a good job at this in the past. I’ve often read narrowly, inside an echo chamber of people just like me, and that doesn’t help to foster empathy.

To be nonjudgmental

The second quality of empathy Wiseman suggests is to be nonjudgmental. Making quick judgements of another person’s situation often discounts their experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation. In other words, it is a refusal to get into the messiness and hurt of the other person’s situation. Using stereotypes to form inaccurate assumptions is easy and often damaging to others. Asking more questions and listening to others is difficult and requires huge reserves of patience. This year, I want to become a better listener, someone who can be silent and connect without feeling the need to offer advice or try to put a positive spin on things.

To understand another person’s feelings 

Wiseman’s third quality of empathy is to understand the feelings of others. We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. One habit I started in 2018, that I would like to continue this year, is stream-of-consciousness journaling. The traditional memoir style journaling, where every journal entry has completely developed thoughts and neat paragraphs, has never worked for me. It is too time-consuming and doesn’t help me get my thoughts and emotions out onto the page. Writing out random thoughts, experiences and emotions in bullet point, rapid-fire succession is far more effective. I’ve found that journaling, in this way, has allowed me to better understand my own feelings and responses. I think it has also helped me understand the feelings and responses of others.

To understand the feelings of students in my class, I want to continue using several different strategies to encourage these conversations. Over the last few months, I have started a Mood Meter in my class. The concept is very simple but effective. Students come into my class in the morning and move their name to the part of the meter that shows how they are feeling. Sometimes I ask the class if any of them would like to share about the feeling they indicated. Other times, it just helps me get an overall sense for the mood of the class.

A few days ago, I shared where I was on the meter. I told the class that I had a rough morning trying to get to school. One of my sons had decided to look for his library book just 10 minutes before we left the house. When he wasn’t successful in finding it, he burst into tears. He felt rushed and frustrated. For the duration of our trip to school, he whined about not having his book. It was amazing how this small story gave my students permission to share how they were feeling. I ended up learning much more about their lives and having a better understanding of how they were feeling that day.

To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Wiseman’s last quality of empathy is to communicate your understanding of what another person is feeling. Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” Brown suggests trying, “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

This quality is deeply connected to the second quality and reminds me of, what counsellors refer to as, active listening. The general purpose of active listening is to question, clarify and reflect back the emotion and connected circumstances. After listening and questioning, the counsellor might say, “You are feeling ___________ (insert emotion) because of ________________ (insert circumstance). Is this correct?”

Active listening in the classroom looks different than in a counselling office but there are practices that help teachers tune into students’ emotions. One of them is greeting students as they come into class. I’ll never forget watching the video clip (linked below) of Barry White Jr.’s personalized handshakes with his class and realizing the power of a simple face-to-face greeting.

Let’s be honest, I’ll never have the moves that Mr. White has but I can definitely improve what I’m doing right now. Too often, I’m sitting in front of computer screen answering emails when my students come into my classroom. Or, even worse, I’m just guarding the door to make sure my students aren’t late. How much more in-tune would I be with the emotional life of my class if I was standing outside my class greeting students face-to-face as they came in? That is one question that I would like to answer in 2019.

Morning meetings are another great idea for building community and understanding the emotional landscape of your classroom. Lisa Dabbs wrote this great post about morning meetings for Edutopia. She does a great job of answering the what, why and how of morning meetings. She also gives some great examples of how different teachers use them.

I’d love to hear any comments below about how you are building empathy in your classroom or community.

Stories Clear Familiarity Fog

Familiarity with an idea can be a really good thing. Having some exposure to a certain word or concept can speed along the learning process and build deep understanding. However, the opposite is also true. Familiarity can dull our minds and prevent us from deeper learning.

Selflessness is something we talk about a lot in my class. I want the student to understand our class as a learning community and think about what it looks like to put the needs of others before their own. Even though I want this to be a central focus of the classroom, if I come back to it in the same way too often, it loses its power and students are lulled to sleep by things they have heard before.

Fresh Stories Clear the Fog

One solution to counteract the fog of familiarity is to tell fresh, powerful stories that illustrate selflessness in a variety of ways. They allow my students to gain deeper perspectives and have fresh inspiration to serve others. Stories are also a secret weapon to engage the head and heart of a person in a way that is impossible when communicating with bare principles or propositions.

One recent example of a story that brought the concept of selflessness to life was in Suzanne Collin’s book, Hunger Games. Last week, I was re-reading the story and was struck by the selflessness of Katniss Everdeen as she volunteers as a tribute at the reaping.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the reaping ceremony is required by the Capitol to remind every district in the country of Panem of their submission to its power. Two child tributes are chosen from every district to compete in a lethal competition called the hunger games. The games require a male and female representative from each of the Districts to fight to the death in an enclosed area. Katniss is one of many impoverished residents of District 12. Her mother and younger sister, Prim, are all that is left of her family after her father died in a mine explosion years earlier. As a result of her father’s death, her mother falls into a paralyzing depression and Katniss is forced to be the primary caregiver and provider for her family.

On the night of the reaping ceremony, the mayor gives a speech reminding District 12 of their historic defeat by the Capitol and why they must offer tributes to the hunger games every year. The district’s female tribute is chosen, and to Katniss’s horror, it’s her 12-year-old sister, Prim. The crowd is disturbed by the draw of such a young tribute who will surely meet a sudden death in the arena. Katniss shakes off the shock of the moment and volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place.

To acknowledge her heroic act, the residents of District 12 touch the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and hold it out to Katniss. Collins describes this gesture as, “old and rarely used…occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love (p. 24).”

Katniss’ powerful act of love for her sister is contrasted by the selection of the male tribute that follows. Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, is also chosen as a tribute but his only brother, that can volunteer to take his place, refuses. His refusal to risk his life for his brother underlines Katniss’ radical act on her sister’s behalf. It is a love that goes deeper than family devotion.

Effie Trinket asks for volunteers, but no one steps forward. He [Peeta] has two older brothers, I know, I’ve seen them in the bakery, but one is probably too old now to volunteer and the other won’t. This is standard. Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was the radical thing.

The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins

“The radical thing” is what my students and I need to be reminded of every day. We want to be a community marked by radical devotion and servant leadership that puts the needs of others before our own. Stories like these grab our attention and inspire us out of our familiarity fog to be what we hope to be.

Do you have a story that has inspired your class lately? Tell your story or link your blog post below. I’d love to read it. If you would like to share this section of Hunger Games with your students, it is available from scholastic here.

Teachers as Human Beings

Building relationships with students is a foundational skill of a teacher. However, sometimes particular modes of instruction obstruct the teacher’s ability to build relationships, and therefore, the ability of students to learn. Teachers occupy numerous roles in their craft.  They act as tutors, counselors, evaluators, presenters, coaches, first-aiders and hosts (just to name a few). Many of these roles conceal the human-ness of a teacher.  In other words, a particular role can increase the relational distance in the teacher-student relationship making well-intentioned teachers into aliens.

Another way of illustrating this issue is to think about parenting. One role of being a father is much like law enforcement. There are certain rules of fair play in our family and when someone breaks a rule, I deal with the grievances that are reported and work to facilitate reconciliation. This often involves facilitating a small courtroom scenario where I listen carefully to both sides of the story and make an official ruling on the case. If I didn’t function in this role, I can only imagine the cycle of revenge that might occur. However, I don’t think that I would be a very good dad if I couldn’t switch out of my law enforcement role to also become a friend who has fun with them or a counselor who gives them advice. Teaching is similar to parenting in this way because no one wants a teacher that is always functioning as the rule enforcer or evaluator.

Of course, it’s easy to know that you should switch roles but difficult to create spaces where the switch can happen. In my experience, it often requires a different context and intentional planning. Struggles to find resources or parent support for experiences in different settings are real. With parenting, something as simple as taking one child out for ice cream might be all you need to create the space for a meaningful conversation. With a group of nearly 30 students, that switch of context isn’t so easy, and yet, if you are intentional about finding new opportunity to connect with your students, they seem to appear.

Finding Different Relational Spaces

Winding down the first term of school as we approached the Christmas break provided a number of opportunities to get to know my students as fellow human beings. Many of the year-end Christmas traditions in my class are focused on community-building.  In the past, I’ve approached these events as time-fillers or ways to manage students as their pre-holiday excited grew. This year was different because relationship building has become a bigger priority in my classroom.

One unexpected opportunity to connect with students was our Middle School, Christmas assembly that involved a teacher, lip sync battle. Even though performing on stage in front of 300 middle-schoolers was way out of my comfort zone, I accepted an invitation to pair up with another teacher and join the competition. Finding a Justin Bieber costume wasn’t easy and All I Want for Christmas is You was an awkward song to sing with another teacher but, in the end, we had fun with it. More importantly though, for those few moments on stage, I stepped into a different role and showed the students a different side of myself. Instead of being the “talking head” giving instructions in the classroom, I was the awkward, tall guy at the front doing my best pop-star impersonation and Fortnite, victory dances (which were terrible).

Ice skating was another grade-wide, Christmas activity that provides a unique opportunity to build relationships with students. Skating circles around an oval sheet of ice provides the perfect setting to talk with students about a variety of non-school topics. While it is still my responsibility to supervise everyone on the rink, it also provides a great space to throw some snow and have some fun with them–things that you may rarely get the chance to do in the classroom.

Rather than subjecting the students to another holiday movie, one of my teaching partners suggested that we have a class-verse-class dodgeball game. One unique part about this dodgeball duel was that both teachers jumped into the game as players. Because I don’t teach P.E. regularly, this was a rare opportunity to be on the same team as my students. Even though my class lost the game, we had a great time together and this shared experience bonded us together in a way that regular classroom interactions fail to do.

Sharing Your Experiences

I’m curious to know how other teachers create spaces to build relationships with their students as a fellow human being. I would love to read your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.

Imagination and Empathy

At a recent conference, I was asked to identify the dispositions that I valued most in a learner.   A list of words was supplied to help advance our thoughts on the question.  It included words like: resilient, innovative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative.  I selected and defended the imaginative disposition for many of the typical reasons.  I spoke about how imagination inspires innovation and how it creates a movie in the mind of readers that is necessary for reading comprehension but I never talked about one of the more important reasons that I have learned since then. Namely, the importance of imagination for developing empathy for others. J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech called, Very Good Lives, recently helped me connect the two.  In this post, I reflect on the relationship between imagination and empathy and suggest a few strategies for developing both in ourselves and others.  

What is imagination?

During the course of her commencement speech, Rowling acknowledges the role of the imagination in innovation and invention but emphasizes its transformative power.  The transformation Rowling envisions isn’t just a changed mind but also a changed heart.  In other words, she understands the imagination to help us feel what other people feel, without ever experiencing their circumstances.  

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

J.K. Rowling

How does imagination produce empathy?

According to Rowling, imagination creates empathy by allowing us to think ourselves into other peoples places.  She illustrates this from her own life telling how an early day job at Amnesty International’s headquarters required her to read horrific stories of tortured victims, executions, kidnappings and rapes.  These stories changed her life forever because she was able to think herself into the place of the victims she read about.

“Unlike any other creatures on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced.  They can think themselves into other peoples places.”  

J. K. Rowling

The evidence of this transformative impact in Rowling’s life is everywhere in her writings.  The Dursley’s treatment of Harry Potter in one small example of how Rowling invites us to feel her own compassion for those victimized and oppressed.  In her famed Harry Potter series, the Dursleys are a family of three, composed of Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin. Harry is an orphan who is forced to live with the Dursley’s after his parents are murdered by the power-hungry Lord Voldemort.  The Dursley’s keep Harry safe but treat him harshly, including confining him to a cupboard, locking him in his bedroom without meals and treating as their servant.  As the reader, thinks themselves into Harry’s place, they are provided with an opportunity to feel the loneliness, rejection and powerlessness of anyone in his position.     

Those who refuse to imagine

Of course, imagination is not automatic and sometimes it is even suppressed.  Rowling’s speech contrasts the imaginative person with the unimaginative.  Those who refuse to know about suffering and intentionally plug their ears to the voice of its victims.   

And many chose not to use their imagination at all….they refuse to hear screams or peer inside cages; they close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

J.K. Rowling

Rowling extends this logic to show that those who don’t choose empathy actually participate in acts of evil through their apathy.  

What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.  For without committing an outright act of evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy. 

J. K. Rowling

Cultivating Imagination and Empathy

Reading Rowling address challenged me to think about how I am intentionally taking time to read and listen to those who are less advantaged or suffering.  It also made me think about how I’m providing opportunities to empathize and take action on behalf of the vulnerable groups in my classroom.  I thought of two units that I have used in the past to create these spaces for empathy.  The first required my Grade Seven students, to complete a personalized novel study using a historical fiction novel where the hero/heroine is from a different culture, class and race than their own and suffers physically or emotionally in some way.  

Another opportunity I have given students to practice empathy for others is an oral storytelling unit.  To prepare for the final project in this unit, students are asked to read part of a biography on the hero of their choice who has overcome some type of adversity.  In the end, the story is told from the first person perspective–as if they were the hero.  Last year, I can remember listening to one girl in my class telling the story of how Rosa Parks refused to move bus seats in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.  At points in the story, she embodied the voice of Parks so well that it felt as though Parks was there telling us the story in person.  The class rose and gave her a standing ovation when she finished.  This was just one opportunity to identify with a person who did not have the same privileges that many of us enjoy.    

Taking Action

In the last part of her speech to the Harvard graduates, J.K. Rowling sounds a call to action that challenges the class to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless—to really enter into their story.  I hope you were challenged, as I was, to do the same.  

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existance but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.

J.K. Rowling

 I would love to hear more examples of how you are giving students opportunities to raise their voice on behalf of the those who have none in the comments below.  I’ve attached the video to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech below. 

Math Projects that Matter

Math matters when it’s connected to authentic tasks and situations in life.  Doing loads of textbook questions that aren’t connected to authentic situations isn’t engaging for anyone.  This is one of the reasons I have shifted my approach to teaching math over the last few years.  At the beginning of my teaching career, my math class consisted of marching chapter by chapter through the textbook.  In the past few years, I have moved to a project-based approach that has benefited my students in many ways.  In this post, I want to share a few of reflections that I hope will move more educators in the same direction.     

Adaptable to learners at different levels

One difficult part about teaching math is engaging students at different levels.  Unlike the textbook-driven approach, math projects can easily be customized to fit learners at higher and lower levels.  Often this is because the task is more open-ended and can be more or less structured to fit the learner.  Instead of boring advanced students with a set of questions that they quickly motor through and become disruptive to the rest of the class, math projects are easily expanded or made more complex.   

For example, in my pool project last year, I had my students build a circular, model swimming pool out of cardboard to show their knowledge about the area of circles and the volume of cylinders.  I also gave them certain requirements for the pool, such as its capacity and the target audience it would be designed for.  I made sure the target audience included people with a range of heights so that their pool would need a deep and shallow end. Once the advanced learners had this information and we developed success criteria, they began working independently.  I knew a few of my students were very advanced and challenged them to design a pool with a graduated floor.  Others, who were struggling with the general concept of volume, designed two, joint, circular pools with a flat floor.  

This adaption of the project was much more efficient than the traditional textbook approach I had taken in the past.  This adjustment didn’t require research to find more questions and answer keys.  There were no fancy math websites needed for advanced students to stay challenged.  Separate tests or evaluations weren’t necessary. Nor, did it require dividing students into ability groupings that may have prevented the more advanced learners from helping their peers.  In short, the open-ended-ness, that scared me when I started, proved important for customizing the learning to fit my students.  

More side-by-side time

One disadvantage of project-based math units it that they require more time on the front end.   The learning maps, assignment guides or learner playlists are more like a little unit a syllabus than a lesson plan.  In my experience, inquiry-based units often take many more hours of preparation than traditional units.  However, this additional time at the front-end of the unit has also bought more time mid-unit to do mini-lessons with small groups, or work side-by-side with students who need extra support.   This is a huge advantage when you consider that many parents don’t know how to help their children with math at home and others simply aren’t there to help them.  Students need assistance delivered during school and teaching math projects has been extremely helpful for this.

Student choice and engagement

I didn’t actually think about how passive my math class was until I started teaching with projects.  The first large math project I attempted asked students to design their own vacation.  Not long after the project launch, I received dozens of questions from students about the design process.  “Mr. Mayer, will I need to rent a car?” To these questions, I often answered with a question like, “How close is your hotel to the activities you are planning?” My students weren’t used to being able to make choices in math.  Narrowly defined problems with a very specific scenario and a single outcome were the norms.  Giving students dozens of choices to create and design gave them a sense of ownership and pride while engaging them deeply in mathematical thinking.  Recently, one of my students was so proud of the trip she had planned to Vancouver Island that she suggested that her family actually go on the trip at Spring Break.  Her parents adopted the idea and she was able to experience the trip she planned and budgeted for.

Cross curricular and cross competency 

In a textbook-driven approach to learning math, it’s sometimes hard to find opportunities for students to communicate about the math decisions they are making or improve financial literacy.  However, teaching math projects gave students multiple cross-curricular learning opportunities.  For example, in my vacation design project, the students were required to write a travel itinerary for their trip and make a commercial on Abode Spark to “sell” their vacation package to the class.  Writing appealing summaries and video-editing are typically not skills that students associate with math.  In fact, there were a few competencies that seemed quite unique to a project-based approach.  Skills like:

  • Students generating their own ideas about how to solve problems
  • Students comparing information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students answering questions in front of an audience
  • Students justifying their financial decisions using math
  • Student presenting their findings to an audience

I think it’s often this lack of complexity and cross-competency work that makes math boring for students.  Working on bigger projects allowed them to use many different compentencies while building their number sense.

If you would like want to shift your practice toward a project-based approach, I’ve linked some of my favourite resources below.  Or, if you have some have a resources that you would suggest, please link them in the comments below.  

Suggested Resources