Well that wasn’t any good.
Here’s a picture of the main part of my Calculus lesson from today:
One example. That’s it. The central element of my entire lesson was… one example. And not even a task. Just an example. A watch-me-as-I-carefully-walk-through-every-step-of-this-sucker and make-sure-you’re-on-guard-in-case-I-ask-you-any-leading-questions example. Oh my.
Granted, there was more after that example, just not a great deal more. And none of it great. We actually wrapped up the example, started the “next thing,” and quickly abandoned ship after some “Show me on your fingers how you’re doing” feedback from students revealed that all was not well (not by a long shot).
This changing of gears led to a somewhat-useful last 10 minutes of class (thanks in part to Desmos), which in turn led me to wonder: What did the end of class have that the start of class was missing? For one thing, after seeing the first part flop I had to clarify in my mind the bottom line goal for the lesson. I settled on this: If students left my room with the ability to translate verbal and algebraic problem descriptions into graphs, and those graphs into integral expressions, we’d be golden.
Well that wasn’t any good, either.
I went overboard Sunday evening creating a slide deck that (I thought) would help me lead students through a carefully crafted conversation on the topic of trigonometric properties and identities. The slide deck was slick as all get out. But the lesson was boring. You could see it on their little compliant faces. They didn’t even complain. They just sat there. Copying a property or two here, sketching a graph or two there, dutifully jotting down an observation or two when I asked, and so on, for the better part of half an hour. Argh!
Inspiration ≠ Incorporation
At this point I have no idea if I’ve painted a clear picture of what took place today in my classroom. Even less so what’s going on in my head right now. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, abandon ship now, ’cause this is about to get even less coherent.
You see, I’ve been struggling with a number of thoughts over the past few months. To name a few:
- Sam Shah is awesome. As some teachers call out worksheets on Twitter, Sam is busy packing one aha-moment after another into carefully crafted mathematical adventures for his students, all on that oldie-but-goodie 8.5 by 11 format. I want to bring these kinds of things into my own classroom!
- Dan Meyer is awesome. As some teachers give the all-call for real world applications over all else, Dan is blasting through pseudocontext and drawing attention to the heart of the matter (engagement), regardless of whether a task is labeled “real world” or “fake world.” I want to make genuine student engagement a central (and regular) feature of my teaching practice!
- Karim Ani and Team Mathalicious are awesome. As some teachers are firing up Khan Academy accounts and printing off hundred-of-the-same worksheets from Google search results, Karim and the crew are laying siege to the notion that math is uninteresting, unengaging, unimportant, or unworthy of our attention. I want to bring Mathalicious-style conversations into my own lessons!
- Jonathan Claydon is awesome. Seriously, have you seen the pictures of his class over at Infinite Sums? His students do stuff. All the time. They’re active, they’re involved. I don’t care what the lesson is, they’re at the heart of it. I want this to be true of my own students!
And I haven’t even mentioned Stadel, Nguyen, Kaplinsky, Vaudrey, Stevens… The list goes on. And while my inspiration grows, my frustration does too, because I can’t find a way to incorporate all of this awesome into a coherent whole in my own teaching world.
That’s really the issue. And I’m just using a frustrating Monday morning to process what I’ve been struggling with for months in the hope that I can make some sense of it all.
(Still with me? Awesome. Hang in there, we’re almost done.)
So let me try to name my struggle, clearly and succinctly, so I can go about the task of moving beyond it. Here goes:
For the past 500 days I’ve been inspired daily (literally, every single day) by what I see in the MTBoS. At the same time, I have yet to find a way to weave that inspiration into my own practice in a coherent, compatible way.
The Way Forward
I don’t know the entire solution, but I know it starts with this: I’m done designing scripted lessons, those awful handouts with eleven-teen examples that we’ll walk through. Together. All of us. At the same pace. (I’ve created enough of those to last a lifetime, and they don’t develop in students any of what I’m after.) I’m done drawing up anything where I can predict with 99%+ accuracy what the students will be thinking at any given point. I’m done throwing together slide decks that demand students focus on the same thing at the same time. I’m done throttling their insights, their noticings, and their wonderings by squeezing out of them a certain style of efficiency that is anything but effective.
Instead, I’ll be spending my time infusing worksheets with aha-moments and did-you-just-see-that mathematical surprises. I’ll be on the lookout for visuals that mess with students minds and spark dozens of questions they actually want to answer. And I’ll expand my teaching skillset so that I can navigate the waters of a class full of students exploring different problems inspired by the same visual. I’ll take risks, push the boundaries of what I’m currently capable of, and through it all develop my ability to orchestrate rich mathematical discussions, whether they’re centered around a thought-journey disguised as a worksheet, a rich and who-cares-if-it-has-no-context problem, an engaging and demanding task, or an honest-to-goodness real-world scenario. And whatever I do, I’ll make sure my students are at the center of it.
In short, I’m done with trying to script their thinking. I’m going all in with prompting them to think. “The script is dead. Long live the prompt!”