Sunday, September 14, 2014

Off and Running

  So it's time to get back to work.  I'll be collaborating again with Rich in fifth grade, and we decided to start the year with a problem solving project.  We felt it would set the tone for one of our focal points, which is to help the kids develop their questioning skills.  We would follow the same protocol as last year's movie theater project.

We used this page...

...from this book.

  We gave the kids some time to look at the Birthday Party Basics list, and asked them what they noticed and what they wondered.  We gave them some time to write down their questions.
    While they were working, I overheard two students trying to formulate a question regarding the pints and quarts of ice-cream.  I walked over to listen in, and one student turned to me and said,
   "Mr. Schwartz, what's bigger, a pint or a quart?  I can never remember!"
    I hesitated a bit, and gave her my i-pad.  "Here.  Find it out for yourself."
   "I know how to do that," she said, as she quickly googled "what's bigger a pint or a quart".  (A small moment, I know.  But the fact that she could find the answer herself instead of relying on me or a fellow student empowered us both.  Another reminder of how important those small moments can be.)

They chose their favorites to write on chart paper.  Between the AM and PM classes there were quite a few to look through.  Many kids wanted to know how much it would cost to buy everything on the list.  They were also intrigued by the fact that a bag of pretzels cost less than a bag of potato chips but served more people.

A representative sample got posted on Rich's bulletin board.

We decided to have the entire class work on this one.  We liked it because of its openness; we felt it would prompt some interesting discussions as kids prioritized their list, and then re-evaluated decisions  based on how much money was left to spend.

     We weren't disappointed.  The question sparked some good conversation.  There was debate about which size cake to buy, what kind of drinks to serve (one group decided that bottled water was the way to go because kids might be allergic to apple juice and soda, another group agreed but decided to save money by just serving tap water), whether it was necessary to have potato chips and pretzels, whether or not it was important to have money left over, and the difference between 1 pint of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice-cream and 1 pint of chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry ice-cream.
     The AM class worked in groups of three.  Not so great.  One (or sometimes two) tended to dominate while the other(s) were left with nothing to contribute.  You'd think I would have learned this by now.
     We switched it up in the PM.  Rich had them work in groups of two.  As they started in on the problem, I remembered something that I heard this past summer from a teacher at a workshop.  When she has kids collaborating this way, she makes each use a different colored marker.  Her kids know that she is expecting to see a balance of colors.  It helps promote accountability.

I had never tried it before, but it seemed to work!
       Here's what I like about this approach:
  • The kids generate the questions.
  • The kids get to select which questions they'd like to solve.
  • The questions vary in level of complexity and necessitate the use of a variety of skills.
  • The kids can work on these at centers, independently, or in guided groups as the unit progresses.
The day the kids were working on their solutions, this tweet came across my feed:

   I'd like to experiment with big whiteboards for this type of problem solving activity.  Using whiteboards would allow the kids to erase when they make a mistake or want to revise their work instead of crossing out or just tossing the paper and getting another one.  Justin, who knows a lot about whiteboards, tells me that I can get them at Home Depot, and that they'll even cut them to size if I tell them I'm a teacher!
    So school's in.   We are excited about building on all the good work that the fourth grade teachers did with this group last year, and I think we are off to a good start.


  1. Big whiteboards are the best. I got them last year and I am so glad I did. I got my school to order from here:
    They are pretty cheap. Like 10 bucks and they have holes cut for fancy handles.

    1. Thanks. I'll check it out. I smell a grant to be written! It's funny, I've been having kids use the small whiteboards for years, but it never occurred to me to get big ones to use in this way, and it's such a logical extension!

  2. Pretzel vs Potato Chips...the thought has crossed my mind many times.
    Rich's students are developing some great questions for the first few weeks of school and posting them in the classroom validates and encourages student curiosity. I still struggle trying to give each question the time it deserves because I want to let each student know I care what they’re thinking. You mentioned would be interesting to see if engagement remains the same on the second go around.
    I think a lot of teachers shy away from "open" problems such as this but you have provided some great ways to ensure students efficacy. I will definitely be using and sharing the different colored markers. Brilliant!
    One of the perks of being a math coach is that you get to loop up with students and not let them get away with the "my teacher last year said" because you were there. Lots of great things happening here Joe. Thanks for keeping me hydrated.

    1. Thanks for the comments Graham! On the second go-around we had the kids solve other questions in centers. They did this on their own, and since they had already chosen which ones they were interested in, they were able to get right to work. It's an ongoing activity, and Rich and I need to look over their responses and provide feedback. I am planning on using the questions they formulated to talk more about what actually constitutes a "good" question. Some of the questions were so vague they were not really solvable.

  3. Lots of great ideas here, Joe!

    Here's wishing you and your students lots of "small moments" for the year ahead!

    1. You too Simon. Based on your latest tweets, you've already built up many big moments with your students. I would love to visit your school. Seems very different from mine.