This summer, I was awarded the opportunity to pursue some professional development by the Thatcher Faculty Development Research Fund. My proposal was something rather unique, especially to me. It was The Ultimate Reading Vacation.
This may sound like a joke to you, but this was a big deal for me. The reason is, I just don’t read! It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I would typically be spending time with my family, golfing, teaching, coaching, bowling, going to athletic events, etc.
I just don’t sit around and take the time to relax.
This grant gave me the opportunity to read and I am definitely grateful. With that said, I would like to paint you picture of what this looked like and then give you three goals that I have for my students this year.
The Ultimate Reading Vacation started with my wife and I, son, and dog driving over 1,000 miles to the Christian family “resort” called Camp-of-the-Woods in Speculator, N.Y. We used to call it camp, but with all the upgrades over the last few years, it mimics more of the resort feel. With a year-round population of a little over 300 people and very little technology distractions, it has been our favorite vacation spot for many years. Every morning, Sunday through Friday, we spent the early hours on the side of “The Hill” at chapel that looks over Lake Pleasant.
This year, we got to hear excellent sermons from well-known Christian speakers Dr. Charles Zimmerman (my favorite), Dr. Martin Sanders and Dr. Erwin Lutzer. Some years, like next year, we plan on hearing Dr. Ravi Zaccharia, Dr. Tony Evans and many more. What I love so much about camp is that it always puts life into perspective by challenging you to reflect on God’s purpose in your life and where you currently stand in your walk with him. I learned through these powerful messages, Bible studies and by reading more academically-minded books such as “Invent to Learn,” “Elementary Mathematics for Teachers” and “Make it Stick.”
Every day after chapel, my wife and I changed into our swimsuits and headed over to the white sandy beach that overlooks the crystal clear blue waters of Lake Pleasant. On a daily basis, we would set up our beach chairs underneath our 12’ x 12’ pop up tent (we don’t tan well) and did almost nothing. With temperatures in the low 70s and a slight breeze in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains, I can’t think of a better place to relax and enjoy a good book and family time. This was our typical morning routine and I can definitely say this was the perfect way to get refreshed and motivated for the upcoming school year.
I have never been more excited to make a few changes to my classroom and I can’t wait to share what I have learned with my students. That said, here are the three major goals I have for my students this year:
I want each one of my students to hunt for the most difficult problems, projects, and situations and seek multiple ways to solve or improve the specific situation.
When I was reading the book “Make it Stick,” researchers were experimenting with varying populations of people on how they take in and learn information. They gave multiple examples but there were a few that stood out to me. One example was a baseball coach trying to teach his players how to hit a curveball (surprise!). One coach grabbed a pitching machine, set it to curveballs, and had all his players hitting curveballs all practice. This is considered mass practice. In my experience and in this situation, those hitters will most likely miss the first few, but by the third or fourth pitch they are making good contact and gain confidence in their new skills.
On the other hand, another coach grabbed a different pitching machine and he set his machine to randomly shoot out fastballs and curveballs. These hitters struggled! The first curveball they wiffed on. The second pitch, a fastball, blew right past them. The third, another fastball blown right by and the next was a devastating curveball. These hitters were getting angry and missed a lot more pitches during this practice.
So, which coach better prepared his team for curveballs in a game? Before you answer the question, think about how the situation will be presented to these baseball players in a game. Will the hitter see a steady stream of curveballs? Possibly. Is it more likely that the player will have to distinguish between varying pitches and have to make a split second decision on what kind of pitch is coming in? Based on the data, the coach that varied the pitches like a real game situation had much more game time success.
So what does this look like in my classroom? Let’s say we are working on graphing polynomials. As a teacher, I could give all the students notes saying which coefficient represents vertical movement or horizontal movement or changes the steepness of the line. I could follow that up with some mass practice with all very similar problems to the notes.
Or, I could make the students think a little more. I could give them polynomials with their corresponding pictures and ask them, “ What patterns do you see?” “Do you notice anything when the ‘a’ coefficient is greater than 1?” This makes it more challenging at the beginning, but who is more likely to truly understand and remember polynomials?
In both the baseball and academic settings, the students and athletes that struggled more in practice were a lot more successful in the long run. The problem with mass practice of the same skill over and over is that it tends to get mindless and students/ athletes end up going through the motions. Whereas when we are challenged to come up with our own perceptions and have to time to explain/ adapt by ourselves, we are much more likely to remember and understand how and why to do something.
Considers Mistakes A Learning Opportunity
Let’s say we are going to have a competition in class in which we are going to build mini cars and figure out a way to calculate which student has the fastest car, slowest car, car that goes the furthest and which car can tow the most. I would envision some students might put something together, run a few trials with a manual stopwatch, do some averaging and call it a day.
What I will be pushing for, however, is for the students to create one design, try it, manipulate the design, try it again and keep on doing this over and over. I not only want students to be able to build and run trials, but I also want them to understand why a certain design works better than another or be able to explain why they even choose a specific design. In these situations there is always room for improvement and I hope my students will develop this type of mentality.
Transfer and Apply Classroom Material into the Real World
This is one of my favorite goals every year. Whether students learn how excel can be used to do tax calculations or how parabolas can help create website designs, the world of mathematics is everywhere in our lives. As a mathematics teacher, I have made a promise to all of my students over the years that I will not teach them any mathematical skill or concept without referring to how it may be used in real life.
In my experience, and supported in my readings, relating concepts to everyday life creates a much stronger synaptic junction in the brain for the student and allows them to understand and remember material better than if they were just given just the facts or steps.
It is my goal that a student will be able to say, “Oh yeah, those are two-step equations, we use those in situations when we have both a fixed and variable amount of something and I need to figure out an unknown variable.”