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Planning Meaningful Tasks Into My Units

March 3, 2012

I’m again in my favorite coffee shop and I want to distract myself. So I thought I’d muse a bit about planning and incorporating meaningful tasks into my curriculum.

As I’ve entered my second semester, I find myself experimenting less and focusing in on a few key aspects of my teaching that I want to improve – for example, my assessment cycle and how I assign homework, as documented in my few posts from before. One thing this has done for me is opened up a lot more time for me to plan projects/assessments/activities that I think are truly interesting and valuable – something for my units to build to.

I’m someone who does ‘backwards design’ – I plan my assessments first. But it’s not just my exams and homeworks and quizzes – when I’m really starting to plan a unit, I ask myself what is it I really want my students to be able to do by the end of it. What should they be able to do independent of me by the time they finish? Asking the question this way usually lends itself to some sort of activity or task rather than a problem set.

When I taught quadrilaterals, my two big activities were the Facebook Project and Coordinate Plane Mystery Quadrilateral activity. When I talked about area, I took my students to the parking lot and asked them to figure out how much paint it would take to paint all the parking curbs in the parking lot. When we did transformations, I had them create and Escher tessellation (which hopefully I’ll get to post about later). I’m in the middle of a unit on similarity and I want to take them outside soon to figure out how tall our flagpole is. Last year when I taught circles, I showed them a clip from Armageddon and had them calculate where Zero Barrier is (skip to about 3:45).

What all of the activities above have in common is they are end-of-unit tasks that can be done independently if my students have truly internalized the concepts and procedures we’ve been working on. When I did the quadrilateral coordinate plane activity and the parking lot area activity, one thing I really liked is that I could explain the directions and then set them loose – and, if I’ve done my job right, they should be able to pick up all the required pieces and figure out what to do next. In other words, if my students can complete these tasks with minimal directions, then I will feel that they have a firm grasp of the content I was trying to teach.

Related (and possibly why I feel compelled to write this tonight): Jason Dyer’s post on building objectives towards and overarching activity/project. All of my objectives and knowledge should be building towards some meaningful mathematical task.

Very soon, I want to take my students outside and have them use their shadows to figure out how big our flagpole is (or some other object). For me to do this, I need to make sure we’ve practiced setting up ratios and solving proportions. I need to make sure my students understand and recognize similar triangles, especially nested similar triangles. I need to make sure they’ve done a few word problems involving similar triangles. If I’ve done all of this, I should be able to take my students outside and say ‘Here’s a meterstick. Use what you know about similar triangles to figure out how tall the flagpole is. You have until the bell rings’. If that’s all the direction they need, then my unit has been a raging success. If some students need help setting up the problem, I should have spent more time on word problems. If my students get distracted and start goofing off and don’t even know where to start, then I have failed in motivating my students that similarity is meaningful and interesting (and I’ve also probably failed to truly teach them the content too). But worst of all, if I have to give them a worksheet that tells them what to do step-by-step-by-step, then I am cheating them out of a genuine mathematical experience and either (1) showing my lack of confidence in them and reinforcing their learned helplessness, or (2) hiding the fact that much of what I taught them hasn’t sunk in.

My school has been focusing a lot on the Understanding by Design curriculum framework and one thing I’ve really latched onto is their framework for developing tasks, which they abbreviate as GRASPS. Here’s the framework broken down and a math example. This framework is essentially how I structured my ‘paint the parking lot’ activity: “The school administration wants to paint all the parking curbs according to the school’s colors and our class has been tasked to figure out how much it will cost. Paint costs ____ per gallon and one gallon paints _____ square meters. Use a meterstick and a calculator to calculate the surface area of one parking curb and use that to determine how much it would cost to paint all the curbs in the parking lot. Once you finish, measure the area of some other structure you think the school should paint, then write a letter to the principal explaining why you think the sch0ol should paint this and how much it will cost.” It has a goal, the student has a role, there is a tangible product they must create (the calculations and the letter), and there is an audience. Somehow adding these elements causes a serious increase in motivation for my students.

Other tasks that if my students did it with minimal direction, I’d feel comfortable that they understood the material:

Dan Meyer’s 3-Act lessons/hooks/frameworks (I’m not sure what to call these). I’m curious if other teachers have tried to use these videos/images/etc in their units – and, if they have, did you use it as a hook to introduce something? Or did you use it at the end of your unit as some sort of task-based assessment? If I can play one of these videos/show picture/etc, get my students motivated by the questions, then set them loose on trying to find the answer with minimal guidance, then I think I’d be satisfied with their understanding.

Update 3/8/12: A reflection on using ‘What’s the question?’-type activities in their classroom:

Also: The Common Core Illustrative Math Project. There are some amazing tasks there – they give me something to shoot for when I unit plan. By the end of the unit, if my students can do this independently, then I have done something wonderful. PS – many of the ones I’ve looked at have GRASPS elements, which I really like.

I just reread this blog post and I’m not too sure why I decided to write it. Maybe I just feel compelled to share resources (I’m talking to a group of student teachers soon, so gathering and sharing resources is on my mind). Maybe I just wanted to share that this is something I’ve decided to focus on this year and it’s been exciting to see what my students come up with. I like that building towards these tasks helps me think about how to structure my unit but also holds me accountable – I need to make sure that my students really understand each of these building blocks so when we do this activity, it won’t go horribly wrong. It also makes me  feel better when I have a completely dry lesson of practice/notes/etc – only two more days of this before we tie it all together and I set them loose on something interesting. It also makes me and the students feel good when we finish these – like we’ve done something meaningful. Not gonna lie – I got really excited when my students were figuring out parking curb areas and when their Escher tessellations were coming together.

Also somewhat related: Lisa Henry wrestles with balancing assessments with tasks. Maybe this is why I’m writing this too – as a response to her post. I don’t know – maybe this helps

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