Blogpost #2: SPARK Problem

I call my activators, or opening activities, SPARKS. I made this one during our unit on geometry when my number rockets were trying to get a handle on the idea of angle classification. I projected the first slide (of just the table) and let it hang there for a bit so that students could have a little time to figure out what they were looking at and to wonder why they were looking at it. The second slide pretty much answers the second question. A few minutes were spent counting, going up to the screen to trace out claims, and, thank goodness, arguing. Students had been working with the words “acute,” “right,” and “obtuse,” so this was an opportunity for them to trade in those currencies. The task of visual analysis also required some perspective-taking and “space walking” around the table.

I liked this activity because it helped students move their minds into a good place for the the work that we were to be about. It’s not what I would ever call real-world problem solving, but it does at least beckon from that place, and bringing real into math class can sometimes be a good interest piquer, like, all of a sudden— a pinata. It was also the kind of simple story that granted easy access, so engagement was high and the noise was good noise.


I was surprised when a student said, “You mean, that’s a table?”. So then I knew that other kiddoes were thinking the same thing. One thing I learned here is not to overestimate my students’ savvy about the found objects that I might drag into class for them. Another is not to underestimate the power of simple things to make good stories.

One of my concerns here is what to make of the way my students and I spend our time together. On the one hand, I feel like I rushed out of this SPARK too soon; that by staying longer we could have fanned these small arguments into a nice blaze of reasoning. This is mathematics after all. But on the other hand, Otto, what about our relationship subject content? So yeah, I have a lot to learn about balance, momentum, and weight— the physics of teaching.

I think this activity is a fair spokesmodel for the sometimes awesome resource (and frequently behemoth distraction) that is the potential of web-powered social entanglement. I discovered this table via Pinterest.

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Blogpost #1: Color Correction

One clever feature of pre-service internship teaching is the spectacularly awkward newness of all things great and small. One detail that has been particularly vexing for me is “checking off” homework. I’ve tried the checklist idea: roaming, glancing, and ticking off names on a list. But knowing that this is such an unproductive use of time, I’d try to fly through as quickly as I could (hint: if that’s the answer, there’s probably something wrong with the question). There’s looking, then saying, “Great. And the other side? Oh…,” like I’m a drill sergeant checking cuticles and belt buckles. Then there’s finding the name. Then I think: “Hmmm. Is that a check or a check plus? Are those answers even right? If the front seems to be done well and the back isn’t done at all, what’s the code-icon for that? Is that a really good effort there or just scribbled-out guesses?” And of course the faster I tried to finish this business, the less I noticed and the more I wondered about the value of it all.  Does “checking off” really tell me anything (worth the time it takes to get)? I do need to know about and keep track of homework habits, especially the quality of the effort being made. It was for this record-keeping part of homework that I wanted a better mechanism.

So I tried using these awesome color pens. Each student (these are 7th graders) would grab a pen and use it to correct and/or annotate their work (which should have be done in pencil). They would self-check their work in small groups, adding notes and comments as they went, and I would keep tabs on this as I roamed. Then we’d come back as a group and look at some examples all together. I don’t think that’s way different than what most of us do (or is it?).

But my point here is those nice pens. Here’s what I like about them:

  1. Color is good. These cool pens add a kind of pleasant gravity to the ritual that I would like this process to be.
  2. Movement is good. Even though it’s early in the period, it’s a legit motor break. Middle school number rockets love moving around. They get up and choose their pens then they get up and return them. Then, we do whatever’s Next.
  3. Special is good. These pens live on my desk. They will always be there when needed and they are only used for this one activity.
  4. Feedback is really good. When I collect papers at the end of this homework review, I can see who did what because if it’s written in color ink then it wasn’t there at the start of class. I can see errors and read annotations. It’s all there in one place at one time and I can do a lot more than just “check off”— and I can do it whenever I want for as long as I want. I record a symbolic “score” based on three parameters (which I have explained to them in detail): completeness, thoughtfulness (which includes annotation), and understanding. They get this feedback the next day when their homework is returned.
  5. Ownership rocks. Kids seem to like the pens: special tools for special work. They add little stars and flowers, spiky monsters and goofy faces. They (should [1]) write comments about both their mistakes (“Added here instead of subtracting.”) and their mad keen grasp (“Nothing wrong! I get this!”). It’s all part of my diabolical plot to develop my students’ taste and skills for the practice of self-reflection [2].

[1] Kids don’t care if I call it feedback or symbolic score or, for that matter, phlinge. If it looks like a grade and walks like a grade and talks like a grade, they want a good one. In this case, a good one can be achieved by striving to do well according to the three parameters that I have explained to them.

[2] Just want to acknowledge my big big gratitude to Sam Shah and that band of merry mathfolk who have, through massive generosity of spirit and time, inspired me to delurkify myself and leap into the deep end of the sparkling waters of community self-reflection. Hello blogworld!