It’s a Wrap!

Ahhhhhhh March Break.
Time to relax…time to regroup…time to reflect with a blog post?

My Dad always said, “The meal is not over until the dishes are done”.  I’m realizing that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  I can only quiet my mind when I’ve taken a few moments to record what I’ve noticed and made the adjustments to my activities and practice that an honest reflection often demands.  What about students?  How do they process the lessons they take in, or decide what activities have value and which are the fillers between the ones that really count?  What messages, intended or otherwise, are we sending to kids with the tasks we assign and how we serve ‘em up?

This last week before break was incredibly hectic.  Everyone was exhausted and just trying to hold it all together.  Some teachers were organizing fun extras for students and I started thinking about what that could look like in math class.  What guiding principles should I be mindful of so that activities created were both fun and valuable?  How could that value be communicated to students with my delivery and wrap-up?

Math games are an obvious choice before a break but math games can be tricky.  While some students love competing it can be incredibly stressful for others.  When the focus is on speed and answer-getting, is the game really fun?  For who?  I remember realizing one day, part way through a Kahoot, that the fragile confidence I had painstakingly built in a few of my anxious math learners was completely shattered in a span of 5 minutes when it was made plain that they could not match their peers in speed and accuracy.  As someone who tries to send the message daily that math awesomeness is not just quick calculations, certain math games just don’t make the cut.  Mental note:  if the game is just a who-can-get-this-the-fastest…I’m out.  First principle:  do no harm. 

My second guiding principle is purpose.  Why are we doing this activity?  Is it just for fun?  Is it a review?  Is it a mental health break or a way to enjoy the areas of math not often covered in our curriculum?  With report cards looming students want to know if the activity matters.  Will it count on their mark?  Why participate?  I have to know why and what it is myself so I can be honest and upfront with the students. If the activity can be both fun and relevant, great! Focusing on the delivery and wrap-up will be key in communicating that message.

So, my list of criteria was made.  Relevant, social, with some embedded strategy and competitive fun but without too much pressure, spotlight and speed.  Did such an activity even exist?

Knowing some teachers would like to be outside and others in need of a quiet relaxing period, I created a Station Activity.  Set up scavenger hunt style, with 8 pit-stops around the school, or assigned digitally in google classroom, it was adaptable to one’s desired delivery needs.  Completed by students during an event-filled Winter Carnival Day, teams could travel the loop in any order they chose, working together to complete the problems.  As for the wrap-up, I supplied answers and notes – so teachers could have some guiding questions to support their discussions along with possible answers to review with their classes.  Answer sheets had helpful tools like hundred charts, coordinate grids, and number lines, and students were seen having great conversations on a variety of topics.  It was social, relaxed, and I dare-say…fun? The next day I found myself in different classes in different roles as I filled in where needed.  I asked the students how they enjoyed the Station Activity.  I was glad I did.  When you ask for feedback from junior high students – you get it!  Some loved the word search and some hated it.  Some thought the mystery number question was tricky but still thought they got it.  Wait…what?  You didn’t correct it together?  The more I talked to students, the more I noticed that common thread.  Many students didn’t know how they did, if they were on the right track or way off track.  The consolidation piece was missing.  Many teachers supervised the activity, but did not do any wrap-up.  So in spite of a reasonably fun and engaging social activity, the message that was received loud and clear by kids was – who cares?  Your effort does not count.  Your reasoning and conversations are not worth repeating.   Don’t get me wrong…I get it.  Sometimes just running around outside is what everyone needs to get through the day – especially during the week before a break.  I guess I just would have made something different if I suspected the wrap-up wouldn’t happen.  Something that gave students some kind of feedback along the way.  This wrap-up…or lack thereof…was wildly unsatisfying.

My tired brain struggled.  Was there another activity with some of those same qualities but perhaps a more embedded feedback system?  My colleague had a suggestion at exactly the right moment:  “I’d love to do a Math Market on the Friday before the break!”  Yassssss!  Math Market! Of course!

Math Market is an activity where students work in teams to answer questions they choose.  Teams purchase math problems with super-fun fake money and sell back the solutions at a profit.  As the difficulty increases…so does the cost per question…but the profits increase as well.   This could be just the right activity before break.  It ticks a lot of boxes.  Math Market:

  • promotes teamwork
  • offers choices
  • encourages revision and precision 
  • suggests some urgency, but on your own terms
  • is intensely satisfying

I went for it. I put together a Math Market for middle schoolers working on problems involving integers, fractions, decimals, and percentages.

While I didn’t get to see this one in action, yet, I am told that the students loved it.  Lots of the same great conversations from earlier in the week, but regular feedback and consequences as answers are accepted or rejected, so adjustments in strategy can be made along the way.  In the end, money was counted and a team was declared the winner.  Success!  Success?  I still wasn’t quite satisfied. 

I wondered how students felt when the market was over.  Did they wonder if they could handle more difficult questions than the ones they chose?  Did they think about a question they struggled with and wonder if there was a more efficient strategy?  Were they happy to walk away with their third or fourth place ranking or did that activity solidify a false idea that the answer was the only important part?  

I remembered back to a course I had taken where groups were frequently asked to summarize their ideas, conversations and solutions on a slide.  Each group’s slide was part of a class slide deck and students had the opportunity to do a gallery walk to check out the solutions of their peers.  It was always the most satisfying part to me – the wrap-up.  The summarizing and vocalizing helped me consolidate my own ideas.  Seeing another persons’ solution was so interesting – especially when they took a completely different approach to the same problem or were working on entirely different tasks. Was there a way to incorporate these ideas into my activities?

I decided to include a class slide deck in The Math Market Activity I shared. Perhaps at the end of the market, students could choose their own slide and answer the question that they liked best.  Students could see the problems they didn’t pick and check out their peers’ solutions. Perhaps this is a way to emphasize processes as well as solutions.  Maybe I could ask students to create a question that could be used in a future Math Market and include a possible solution.  What level of question is it?  Why?  All skills and noticings that might promote new growth in interesting ways.

How else could we encourage students to reflect, wonder, and question? 
How do we keep the curiosity going and track the process?
Not all students have a “memorable math moment” during the same activity.  
If we, as teachers, stay tuned in, we can notice when it happens.  Will shining a spotlight on those that do have a big moment help others recognize it when it happens to them?

I’m reminded of a class earlier in the week when I arrived a little early for math time.  Students were doing book talks.  Standing up in front of their peers sharing what they had read and connections they had made…building interest without spoiling the ending. The enthusiasm in students’ voices when they speak about a book that had a powerful personal impact is contagious, as is the plug where they encourage others to read it.  Could this idea work in math class? 

I’m imagining a guided reflection where students choose a problem, activity, puzzle or math moment to write about or present.  Something that made a personal impact.  Maybe it was from the Station Activity, Math Market or something else. Maybe it stuck out because they could solve it so easily that day and couldn’t a few days before.  Maybe it surprised them that they could solve a percent problem mentally or reason through a fraction operation without resorting to decimal conversions.  Evidence of growth. Their evidence…their reflection…what they value.  Perhaps it starts with a weekly reflection that grows into a book talk format.  Maybe those proud moments are captured in a digital portfolio in a form that makes sense for the student…picture of work, audio recording, video of their presentation for a small group or to the class.  A collection and record of math growth over time…the wrap-up of one problem that leads to the curiosity for another.  Hmmmmm… 

I can imagine that as a teacher, seeing what strikes a chord in students would guide my choices in the activities I select and create.  Which are the intensely satisfying ones?  Where can I find more like these?  Who hasn’t had a math moment yet?  Why not?  What could work for them?  Classroom libraries have their novels arranged in categories like action adventure, biography, romance…what are the leisurely math equivalents?  I get giddy at the thought of students pursuing and selecting their own fun math activities to explore, challenge and delight and then sharing that journey with their class communities.  I’m sure it could work.

When we place emphasis on the wrap-up and reflection (as well as on completing the task) we send a clear message to students.  I care about you and what you like.  Your learning is significant.  This conversation is important.  Your opinion on your problem solving matters.  We can learn from each other. I care about what you have noticed in your personal learning journey.  And yes – running around outside to find problems and counting up your earned play money is fun.  And math activities can and should just be fun sometimes. But, put fun, learning, communication, and personal reflection together?  Well, then you have found the sweet spot.  I have rarely had the question, “Does this count?” in those moments.  The value is felt.  Then I know…it’s a wrap.

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