Recently, I wrote that perhaps our wisest approach to distance learning for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year is enrichment only. My earnest and amicable argument here is that if we try a continuation approach to distance learning, we'll end up with fewer engaged students now and larger gaps when we return than if we were to pause on the curriculum and figure out how to fill in the gaps once we're back to in-person schools. After all, we're bound to have gaps when we return to in-person schooling, so we may as well create consistency in those gaps. Plus, there are real experimental insights that we can gain in the meantime focusing on an engagement-first, enrichment-style curriculum.
To help make sense of and implement this approach, I'm providing a sampling of ideas here on the blog. The others are:
- 20 for 20 (Social Studies, ELA, Gr 4-12)
- Introduction to Nature Study (Science, ELA, Art, Gr 4-12)
- Counting Grass Blades…Because Why Not!? (below)
- What If? Learning Strategy Brainstorming Exercise (all subjects)
Now, disclaimer: I'm not sure if the math assignment below is feasible for fourth graders. Teachers will want to scaffold as they see fit. But a big part of the draw to this is that it's sort of weird and open-ended, and that there are multiple ways to solve it. So scaffold just enough to make the task clear to students but not enough to give away the answers.
A note on timing: for this kind of assignment, I'd recommend giving it on a Monday, teaching related material or concepts on a Wednesday, and having a whole-class share (via online forum or phone/video-based Zoom-type call) on Friday. So, about a week's worth of fiddling around with grass.
Counting Blades of Grass…Because Why Not!?
Hello, students! Today I've got a special challenge for you. Here's a video where I explain.
So the work here is pretty straightforward:
- Find a patch of grass near where you live. Size isn't hugely important because whether you have a patch that's 3×3 feet or 200×200 feet, you're going to quickly see that you'll need to develop a better method than counting by individual blade. 🙂
- Using whatever tools you have available — in my video example, I suggest it can be done with nothing more than a 9×11 sheet of paper — devise a method for accurately estimating the number of blades of grass in the chunk of grass you've decided to work with.
- Explain your method using a combination of video, sketching, and/or writing.
- Share your method with the class on ________ date and time.
(For #4, the teacher will want to indicate a time/platform for sharing out methods.)
Bonus Task 1: Develop 1-2 additional methods for arriving at a sensible estimate.
Bonus Task 2: This is literally a pointless exercise…or is it?
- What possible value can a person derive from completing a challenge like the one in this lesson? Explain.
- What did you most enjoy about this? What did you find most frustrating? Explain.
- What math skills or concepts that we covered in class this year did you use to solve the problem?
How this assignment targets student motivation
As I've written elsewhere, student motivation comes down to five key beliefs: credibility, value, belonging, effort, and efficacy.
The above assignment, which based on my current constraints cannot be required or graded, is likely to be completed by many of my students because it intentionally targets the beliefs.
- Credibility: For this one, I again recommend getting involved with your own video or notes to your students. Adding the personal touch demonstrates your care and passion — two of the components of the vital CCPR of teacher credibility. Even better if you can go outside and try to find three ways to solve the challenge using commonplace objects (like a piece of paper, as in my example).
- The Bonus 2 reflection exercise gets students thinking about and articulating the value of an assignment like this. Responses to this could be written and/or spoken (and where possible, use your chosen discussion/video platform for making that writing and/or speaking collaborative).
- Notice the prompt asking for connections to previously learned material — this is designed to take advantage of the same long-term motivation-shaping mechanics of Chris Hulleman's “Build Connections” intervention.
- More immediately, this exercise targets the value belief by playing to natural value boosters like curiosity and intrigue. It takes a commonplace object — a section of grass along a sidewalk or in a yard — and turns it into a very difficult puzzle.
- Notice that in the video I'm sort of laughing at the assignment even as I give it — it's a silly assignment, but the work of solving it quickly becomes engrossing.
- Belonging: As you get great questions from students, share those out with the community using whatever communication platform and guidelines your district is using. Whenever possible, attach the questions you share with the names of the students who are asking them — seeking to use examples from as diverse a group as possible. Remember to think of diversity not just in terms of gender or race, but also in terms of perceived ability level, social grouping, personality characteristics, etc. Belonging is about a sense of fit — “people like me do stuff like this.”
- Effort and Efficacy: This is where scaffolding begins the biggest difficulty for a lesson like this. Students with little understanding of estimation, measurement, and area will have a lot harder time developing solutions than students with that knowledge. This is why I think it makes sense to release some additional instructional content a day or two after you give the initial challenge video.
As always, I encourage teachers and students alike to enjoy the process. Learning is fun. 🙂 What an incredibly intricate world we all inhabit.