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  • Katrien Vance

    June 3, 2020 at 10:08 pm

    And now it’s the end of the school year. Time to assess.

    First, this was not a normal spring. We all know that. When we switched to remote learning, I was about to begin a 3-week unit on solving equations. I had already taught the unit to half of the class using Algebra Lab Gear exclusively. By playing with the blocks on workmats, students learned about expressions, evaluating and simplifying them, equations, and all the properties and rules one needs to do so. There was no day when I said, “Today we’re learning about equations with variables on both sides.” We worked with the blocks and discovered what happened when we added to both sides, etc. This group had no sense that having variables on both sides of the equation was “harder” than not because we started there–we just put blocks down and figured out what to do.

    When we moved to remote learning, I chickened out. I didn’t have enough manipulatives to give to each student–we always worked in groups of two. I didn’t have the camera set-up to demonstrate the manipulatives. I left my homemade workbooks at school and sent kids home with the textbook instead. We started with one-step equations, then two-step, then equations that included parentheses, and so on. I tried to explain the way the textbook wants them to “clear the fractions” from an equation, and that left them completely confused–one of those things that is meant to simplify but just confuses. All it convinces them of is that fractions are really hard. Argh! This felt like a very clear, logical way to teach, ticking off boxes of “concepts covered,” but it had NO LIFE. It had no connection to anything real. It was a perfect example of stuff they memorized without understanding.

    (It would be so wonderful if I had some clear comparison of these two groups and how well each of them understood and remembered the material when we reviewed at the end of the year. I don’t. We did a quick review, but students got to choose which units they took quizzes on, and many did NOT choose solving equations. Those who chose it, from either group, were kids who felt comfortable and did very well!)

    For the final unit of the year, I had a little more time to prepare and create my own Probability unit. I found that over videochat, it was really hard for information to get through and sink in, so I created a page for note-taking for each day of class. I used that page as a script as I used video, activities like rolling dice or picking cards, and real-world examples to talk about each new concept. Students who followed along and wrote down definitions as we talked did much better than those who zoned in and out. Each day also had its own activity, including the Spin to Win game on this site and, later, Spin to Win 3. Some activities had us all trying something–rolling a die–and contributing our results to a common chart. Some activities involved playing a game with family. Each one was active. I threw in a lesson about the probability of certain game show games after watching an opportune For the final activity, students designed an experiment and charted the theoretical probability, created a hypothesis, ran the experiment, recorded the results, and analyzed those results. In this way, we brought the scientific method into our math unit and had the kids use the concepts in an experiment that they created, so it meant something to them–will my cat go to the blue paper or the red paper? Do twins think more alike than regular siblings do? Can I choose my favorite color candy from the bag of candy?

    The limitations of remote learning and videochats meant that Maggie and I did not get in a full year of hands-on, “curiosity path” teaching. But in a way, being forced to change our plans and go back to “regular” teaching was the best way to show us how much we loved teaching in a more responsive, organic, curiosity-driven way, and the benefits that held for the kids in terms of their confidence, their engagement, and their understanding of the material.

    Next year, I will be teaching both Algebra and Pre-Algebra, and while I have textbooks to help structure the units that I want to teach, I know that I want to teach through tasks and discovery. I am hoping that we will be back in school and in person, and I’m already thinking about how I want to jump in to the year.