Saturday, October 11, 2014

We Have the Power!

Sometime during the last school year, I saw people tweeting about a book called Powerful Problem Solving, written by Math Forum's Max Ray and other members of that fabulous team.  I finally found time to read some of it during the late spring, then the end of the school year happened, and hubbie got sick, and....well, you know how it is.  On my flight to Twitter Math Camp (TMC14), I finally found the time to finish the book!

At some point, after one of the evening meals at the hotel, a bunch of us were talking and I heard someone say something to a young man named Max who was part of the group.  I listened some more and finally realized this was THE Max.  We began a conversation about the strategies he explains in his book:

"But, you obviously are talking to elementary and middle school teachers.  I am sure these will work for high school aged kids, because without even knowing where it came from, I have been using Noticing and Wondering a bunch of times this year." Max agreed and said they had been wanting to get some video of high school teachers using these strategies and could he come to my school?

In preparation for his coming, I took Math Forum's online course "Developing Powerful Problem Solvers" . While participating, I came across some amazing videos:  one of which I used with the class of sophomores that Max would be coming to see. It is called Charlie's Gumballs.  Try it out!

My students were very excited to hear that "my friend Max" (of Charlie's Gumballs) would be coming to visit them.  Max shared "Angela's Grapes".  We had visitors watching Max do his amazing Max thing.  These observers were amazed at how engaged the students stayed throughout the whole thing. 

So what did I notice throughout this experience?  
  • I noticed that "Angela's Grapes" was a silly little story with a richness that belies its simple wording.
  • I noticed that it was not a "real life problem", yet the kids were fascinated by it.
  • I noticed that Max spent a chunk of time helping the students make sense of the problem ahead of time, yet HE never pointed anything out to them.  They did the noticing, then he would reread the story problem and ask if they wanted to add or revise anything.  This helped them sort out things ahead of time.
  • I noticed that he gave them a paper copy ONLY after they had done the listening, wondering, and noticing part.
  • I noticed that his only response would be a soft, "O.K. Thank you."  No praise, no repeating, no clarifying.
  • I noticed that after noticing, Max had the students share anything they were wondering about.  Again, nothing was judged.  If the kids wondered if Angela ever ate any protein, that also received a gentle "O.K., thank you," as did the question that we would eventually have them answer: "I wonder how many grapes she ate on Monday?"
  • I noticed that Max gave a whole new meaning to wait time.  I mean it.  If wait time were an Olympic Sport, Max would be a gold medalist.  And it never failed him.  He looked around the room with such interest: this SILENT room.  Finally some student might ask, "Could you repeat the question?"  "Oh sure!" he would say enthusiastically.  "I was wondering....." and off he would go, and several students would respond as a result.
  • I noticed that when a smart aleck response was given, Max could deflect it by making it part of the whole.  He was always aware, but never judgmental.  The smart aleck kids were flummoxed and eventually just got on with whatever the class was doing.
  • I noticed that whether he was working with elementary students (as seen in the Math Forum videos) or with my sophomores or with a couple of senior classes (of mixed abilities), the students stayed engaged and were challenged by story problems that sounded very simple, but could be solved using a variety of methods: from counting blocks, to drawing pictures,  to making tables, to creating an equation, to solving using calculus.

And what do I wonder?

  • I wonder if I can learn to master wait time to the extent Max used it?
  • I wonder how I can extend these problems into the "nuts and bolts" of topics that we absolutely have to get through for the state test?
  • I wonder what my staff at school (the ones who got to see Max in action) took away from this experience?
  • I wonder how many of these story problems I can fit in to my lesson plans and still make it through all the material that I am required to get through?
  • I wonder if these strategies of noticing, wondering, persevering, revising, trying another tactic, will carry over into the open response questions of the state test?
More USEFUL learning took place in the strategies, in the teamwork, in the communication, and in the revision of thought those students used in those 45 - 50 minutes, than has taken place in hours and hours of some of the other lessons in my classroom throughout the years as we rush to be ready for the test that is used to measure both them as students and me as a teacher.