My Algebra students just completed a project using linear equations to predict how many rubber bands it would take to give their poodle a thrilling, yet safe bungee jump from the school balcony. This activity was adapted from NCTM’s Barbie Bungee activity. I do appreciate the opportunity to discuss with students the cultural stereotypes and gender assumptions perpetuated by Barbie, but in this case, using these stuffed poodles allowed us to focus on the math and on the fun.
Students were asked to string together one, two, three four, five and six rubber bands, and then make a prediction based on their measurements. The object was for their poodle to get as close to the ground as possible, without actually landing on its’ head. They predicted how many bands they would need for the first balcony, and if they survived the first jump, the poodles made the jump from the second balcony.
Check out the students’ reactions at the 1:20 minute mark and the 1:36 minute mark – in my experience, this is not your typical reaction to getting the right answer on a math problem! And look at the celebration from the winning team at 2:23! This engagement lent leverage into our reflective learning process.
I often struggle with how much structure and guidance to give students with a project like this. I want to set them up for success, but it is important to me that students have the opportunity to think things through for themselves, and to have the opportunity to get the wrong answer. My students are used to me telling them that the best thing they can do is to make a mistake …and then to go back and figure out where their mistake was (Thanks to Jo Boaler for sharing her convincing evidence of how the brain grows by correcting errors in our thinking!). My preferred method is to give students a compelling task with very few suggestions, and to share tools and advice only when they are requested. If an activity is choreographed well, they tend to ask the right questions. And if they totally screw up their model, it is an opportunity to go back and see why. If we can convince them to care, then when they make an error, they will want to go back and see where and why they made mistakes.
My students know that we learn math socially in our classroom, and that I always leave room for sharing of methods and thinking, but they are also used to two times when the class needs to be silent – at the start and the completion of tasks. Everyone needs space to generate their own thinking and ideas – and the room to come up with their own first guess (I have been convinced by Dan Meyer and others of the engagement generated by asking students for an initial guess). We also make sure to reflect individually on our own ideas and performance, and this is a regular part of our class as well. Everyone is expected to look back to see how well our plans and our models worked.
Of course, I include myself in this reflection as well. I think that this one went well.