Saturday, May 21, 2011

An amazing week (or, why I love my seniors)

Last Friday, I thought we had "finished" differential calculus (modulo taking the final exam and watching Stand and Deliver - essentially a requirement for high school calculus, no?). We had just spent about a week on optimization and students had a one-question quiz, something trivial about minimizing the surface area of a box with a fixed volume. I was agonizing over what do do with only 12 "real" school days left before their final- not enough time to start integration, as I had wanted to, yet too much time just to review for the final. And then I went home to grade the quizzes and found that a majority of my students could not correctly solve the simple box problem from start to finish.

They clearly needed more practice with optimization (so that's what "formative assessment" is!), but I worried that another problem set would cause immediate-onset senioritis. So, I decided to use a structure I had used before, printing out a bunch of different problems on separate sheets of paper for students to work on. The problems would range from easy (1 point) to devilish (15 points) and students would work with a partner to solve whichever ones they chose (you can check out the problems here). When students brought up a correctly solved problem, they'd get a stamp. (It always blows my mind that 17 and 18 year-olds still get really excited about stamps.) Then, they'd choose a new problem to work on.

In the past, the group with the most points at the end would be the winner. The problem with that is the problem with most math review games - everyone knows before the game even starts who is going to win. I needed a way to keep all groups working hard the entire time ... and then, behold! The Class v. Class Showdown. I have two honors calculus classes, and they would compete to get the most total points. The kids loved this, and I can honestly say they were engaged for the entire three days. Some things I really liked about the Showdown were:
• Everyone's points really did matter since we were totaling them all up. There was an incentive for everyone to work hard.
• Many students started with easier problems to build up their confidence, which is what they needed. However, they would have been reluctant to practice those easy problems without the incentive of racking up points.
• Since the challenging problems were worth a ton of points, students didn't give up on them. Many spent an entire period working on a single difficult problem.
• There was the perfect amount of peer support. More advanced groups would give a hint to groups who struggled with the more challenging problems, but wouldn't do the entire problem for them because they wanted to accumulate more points of their own.
After three days, the competition was intense. I happen to know that there was trash-talking going on in advisory and some potentially shady business on Facebook. And while I certainly don't condone these things in general, I couldn't help but bask in the knowledge that Calculus had achieved a pretty rad social status. On Thursday, we counted up the points in first period - 209. Then my second period students came in and worked their tails off for their final hour. Their points totaled 220, and when they realized that they had won they went CRAZY. Jumping out of their seats, cheering, high-fiving, back-slapping crazy ... over Calculus! I'm sure this wouldn't work as well if I did it too often, but it was a nice way to spice up humdrum skills practice.

On a completely unrelated note, enter Friday morning: a colleague and I drove up to school only to realize that the sole entrance to the parking lot had been sealed off by three pick-up trucks plastered with "Class of 2011." Senior prank! As we drove around the block looking for a place to park, we saw that every single chair in the school had been lined up on the roof. I have to admit that I shed a tear of pride over this. My kids had succeeded in pulling off a good, clean prank that wouldn't get any of them expelled but was still clever and required immense teamwork and organization. Talk about project-based learning at its finest!

And finally, this morning (Saturday) was the culmination of two of my students' senior project. (At my school, all senior teachers oversee 25-ish individual senior projects.) These two amazing young ladies had organized a conference entitled "She is..." for young girls. The conference consisted of keynote speakers, a career panel with successful women, a workshop dealing with body image & the media, and so much more. The impact of the conference can be summed up by a comment made by one tenth-grader during the closing activity of the body image workshop: "Today I feel beautiful. I don't always feel beautiful, so I want to always be able to think back to when I did." The absolute best part was that I had nothing to do with this; it was my students who had organized this entire transformational experience. The months of senior project-induced stress and tears now seem unimportant. [Perhaps more so even than the chairs on the roof] this was project-based learning at its finest.

All in all, a week that I thought would drag with senioritis and boredom turned out to be one of the best of  the year. Next year, I'll be transitioning into a new school on the other side of the country with a very different culture. While my school's chaos of late often has me looking forward to next year, this week my seniors managed to remind me of why it is I wanted to teach at this crazy school in the first place.