Fall 2010 Reflection #3

For our last book study, Therese had the desks pushed aside and blankets on the floor.  She had us all take off our shoes and sit down.  It was this approach as well as one of the topics covered in the book that inspired me to do things differently the next time I taught.  The topic in the book that I covered involved making connections in learning to other aspects outside of the classroom in order to help the students remember and apply the knowledge they have learned instead of just memorizing formulas for standardized tests.  In addition to these things I had also been impressed with Dan Meyer’s idea (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlvKWEvKSi8) that we should pull information away and encourage debate on subjects, by using this approach students are more likely to build these connections.
The next day in class I pushed the tables to the back and arranged the chairs in an arc at the front of the room.  I know from past experience that even a simple changing of the seating chart will often have the effect of ‘resetting’ things in the classroom and gives you a chance to make a fresh start.  By removing the tables altogether I hoped to increase this effect.  Also in my plan was drawing out a conversation, biting my tongue and allowing my students to stumble through the process of figuring things out, and generally trying to ‘stay out of the way.’  I started out by showing a couple videos of parabolic shaped solar cookers, which they are designing and building for this project.  I then asked for a volunteer to draw a parabola on the board.  I then asked how a satellite dish works.  After the first couple of standard quick answers, I just piped up to ask for details, asking them to explain in greater detail, pretending not to understand.  This seemed to work as they got more and more excited and finally moved beyond the, “That’s just the way it is” answers and started to really reason things out on their own.  The prior class they had researched practical uses of the parabola so this wasn’t just sprung on them with no prior knowledge.  Next came the tough part.  I asked the students how they could come with an equation that describes the parabola that was drawn free hand on the board.  This took the most amount of lip-biting on my part.  I did my best to just provide gentle ‘nudges’ here and there.  I reminded them of times they took data and created parabolic equations from it.  Slowly the students started dissecting the problem.  They drew a graph over the parabola, took points, and created an equation.  Throughout this whole process they argued over the best ways to proceed and why.  After this I gave them a two problem worksheet to do on their own that was the same type of problem they had done on the board.
Reflecting back on this I was happy with the results.  There was a complaint from one student, “We had to teach ourselves, you didn’t teach us anything.”  And there were two or three who still didn’t quite grasp what was going on and were just plugging in numbers to their calculators hoping to come up with the right answer.  At this point I am not sure what I would do to improve the experience and outcomes for all students, I am hoping that after having similar classes one or two more times I will get a better idea of what should be done to improve them.  This leads to one of the trickiest parts of the PBL approach; adding scaffolding and structure without it ‘looking’ like traditional classroom