cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Thoughts On Making Math Tasks "Stickier"

Last year, the book that changed my teaching practice the most was definitely Dan Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It helped me to think through how I wanted to structure classroom tasks in order to maximize intrinsic motivation and engagement.

This year, the book that is influencing my teaching practice the most would have to be Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. I bought it to read on my Kindle, and I kind of regret that now because it is one of those books (like Drive) that really needs to be waved around at meaningful PD events.

The Heath brothers' thesis is basically that any idea, task, or activity can be made "stickier" by applying six basic principles of stickiness. Their big six are:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Story
The writer in me is bothered by the failure of parallel structure in the last item on this list (Seriously? SERIOUSLY? Would it have killed you to have used a sixth adjective rather than five adjectives and one noun? OTOH, that does make the list a little stickier for me, because my visceral quality of my reaction only adds to the concreteness of my experience, so there is that). But that is a small price to pay for a very useful and compact rubric. It also fits in with nicely with a lot of the brain-based learning ideas that @mgolding and @jreulbach first turned me on to.

This framework can also help us to understand — and hopefully to improve —a lot of so-so ideas that start with a seed of stickiness but haven't yet achieved their optimal sticky potential.

I wanted to write out some of what I mean here.

For example, I have often waxed poetic about Dan Meyer's Graphing Stories, which are a little jewel of stickiness when introducing the practice of graphing situations, yet I find a lot of the other Three-Act Tasks to be curiously flat for me and non-engaging. Some of this has to do with the fact that I am not a particularly visual learner, but I also think there is some value in analyzing my own experience as a formerly discouraged math learner. I have learned that if I can't get myself to be curious and engaged about something, I can't really manage to engage anybody else either.

Made To Stick has given me a vocabulary for analyzing some of what goes wrong for me and what goes right with certain math tasks. The six principles framework are very valuable for me in this regard, both descriptively and prescriptively. For example, Dan's original Graphing Stories lesson meets all of the Heath brothers' criteria. It is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and narrative. The lesson anchors the learning in students' own experience, then opens an unexpected "curiosity gap" in students' knowledge by pointing out some specific bits of knowledge they do not have but could actually reach for if they were simply to reach for it a little bit.

But I would argue that the place where this lesson succeeds most strongly is in its concreteness, which is implemented through Dan's cleverly designed and integrated handout. At first glance, this looks like just another boring student worksheet. But actually, through its clever design and tie-in to the videos, it becomes a concrete, tangible tool that students use to expose and investigate their own curiosity gaps for themselves.

Students discover their own knowledge gap through two distinct, but related physical, sensory moments: the first, when they anchor their own experiences of walking in the forest, crossing over a bridge, and peering out over the railing as they pass over (sorry, bad Passover pun), and the second, when they glance down at the physical worksheet and pencil in their own hands and are asked to connect what they saw with what they must now do.

This connection in the present moment to the students' own physical, tangible experience must not be underestimated.

Watching the video — even watching a worldclass piece of cinematography — is a relatively passive sensory experience for most of us.

But opening a gap between what I see as a viewer and what I hold in my hands — or what I taste (Double-Stuf Oreos!), smell, feel, or hear — and I'm yours forever.

"My work here is done."
This way of thinking has given me a much deeper understanding of why my lessons that integrate two or three sensory modalities always seem to be stickier than my lessons that rely on just one modality. Even when the manipulatives I introduce might seem contrived or artificial, there is value in introducing a second or third sensory dimension to my tasks. In so doing, they both (a) add another access point for students I have not yet reached and (b) expose the gap in students' knowledge by bringing in their present-moment sensory experiences. And these two dimensions can make an enormous different in students' emotional engagement in a math task.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Meditation With Middle Schoolers – Episode Pi Minus 3: Sending and Taking

So on Friday my 8th graders’ giant research papers were due, and this is the week that high school acceptances go out. The 8th graders are stressed to the max. When the bell rang, my Advisory students begged. “Can we meditate? PLEEEEEEEASE?”

And as I always do when they request to do mindfulness meditation, I put on my mental robes and teach them this practice that has saved me so many times.
This morning I taught them the practice of lojong, which is a Tibetan form of mindfulness that translates loosely into “sending and taking.” The idea is that you breathe in the suffering that is out there, and you breathe out the peacefulness that is needed.
I sat on the staging table at the front of the room, folded my legs, and rang the singing bowl before giving them the instruction. “Close your eyes, and focus your attention on your breath coming in and out at your nose.” I waited for them to get very still, which inevitable helps them to get very, very quiet. “Think of someone who is very precious to you,” I began, “and when you breathe in, imagine yourself breathing in their pain and suffering and anxiety.”

Being middle schoolers, they have a lot of friends who are also suffering. The silence was so profound I could hear my own pulse.

“And while you are doing this practice for someone you care about very much, I will be doing this practice up here on this table for you — breathing in your anxiety and breathing peacefulness into your lives.” I gave them some guided instruction in imagining how it feels to receive this kind of heartfulness, and in noticing how it feels to send it out.

Turns out, it is very healing.

When I gave the instruction for closing the meditation, students stayed still even after they opened their eyes. One girl exclaimed, “That was magical!” The other students all nodded.

I told them, “This practice is always available to you, and all this week I will be doing this practice and sending peacefulness energy to you — wherever you are, all the time, every day.”

I rang the bell and gave them a deep gassho (bow) out of gratitude. There are times that remind me why I teach, and no hostile or ignorant third parties can take that away. I remembered something my teacher Dr. Fred Joseph Orr always said to me, “In a contest between the imagination and the will, the imagination will always win.” And here he would pause before finishing. “ALWAYS.”