So far, so good at my new school. I continue to be amazed at how tiny my sixth graders are and how grown-up my eighth graders can be and how fortunate I am to teach in a school and in a district that values schools and learning and where none of my kids come to school hungry. I am figuring out my commute across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, finding the most untraveled (and stress-free) routes, and getting myself into some kind of new routine. I am even making peace with our modified block schedule, all the while making my views clear that at this age, frequency is more important than duration.
The one thing I’ve been having trouble with is how incredibly dutiful and risk-averse my students are. Yeah, yeah, first world problems, I know.
Still, a dutiful and risk-averse student is unlikely to experience flow while doing mathematics, and that doesn’t sit well with me.
So I decided to blow things up with a block period problem-solving workshop.
For the eighth graders, the choice was easy — start them on Exeter’s Math 1, page 1, and tell them, “GO!” I knew they’d get hooked because it is everything they crave: mature, relevant, rigorous, juicy problems, sequenced to reveal connections they have long suspected but never experienced.
The sixth graders were another matter. They are still getting used to being in middle school and, as a wise colleague said to me the other day, the transition basically takes them all year. They are whip-smart and well-trained, but they are also tiny and cautious and eager to please and succeed — and at age 11, that is a recipe for anxiety I remember all too well. Tightness in my stomach. Trouble sleeping. Trying to remember to bring everything I need from my locker to each class and not always succeeding at that. Worry about who to eat with at lunch time.
It seemed to me that they might need to “break structure” even more than my eighth graders did. But there aren’t many wonderful problem-solving curriculum resources available for people that small. So that meant I needed to improvise.
I found a bunch of Singapore Math word problems that were structurally challenging, but insipidly written. I changed all the character names to Sesame Street Muppets and renamed the school in the problem set “Muppet Middle School.” I posted the solutions in the “Homework Self-Checking Station” in the corner, reviewed the instructions with them, and set them loose.
And it was glorious.
They gobbled up the challenges one after another, and I loved hearing conversations about how Elmo had lost 1/3 of his marbles and then given away another 2/5 to his brother. I could relate to losing 1/3 of my own marbles, but I said nothing about that. Instead, I showed them how to use my red-yellow-green progress indicator cup stacks, gave out mini-whiteboards and markers and erasers, and let them rip.
Some of the problems were really hard! At one point, when I was working with one group, I realized that *I* didn’t understand the problem either. So we wallowed in confusion together! I told them about my friend Mr. Shah’s motto that he has his students use — if you don’t understand the problem as it is, see if you can solve an easier version of the problem.
Kids loved being invited into this kind of productive struggle. We were all over the place — scribbling on the big whiteboard, sitting on the carpet in groups surrounded by calculators and yardsticks, and lining up rulers on the linoleum to measure the length of a single sixth-grader’s step.
With two minutes left in the long period, I called everybody back together for a little closure and some reflective questioning. I asked, How many people found it helpful to hear other people’s thinking and to have to explain their own?
Every single student raised his or her hand.
When the bell rang, there was a mad scramble to put all the materials away, but it was a joyful, enthusiastic scramble — the kind you see when kids can’t wait for the next opportunity to engage.
I felt grateful that I had taken the risk to let their natural capacities and curiosity carry them as far as they could go. I hope I can refine my own skills and strategies for designing this kind of learning experience and become more effective and deliberate in doing so.