Musings and Strategies From the Teachers Next Door

Posts tagged ‘project-based learning’

You Know What They Say About Assuming…

As a teacher, I have always known that connecting the curriculum to “the real world” is important, but I am just now beginning to understand what a HUGE difference it can make.  I have begun incorporating 3 Act Tasks and other similar activities in my classroom – and I have found that they not only reveal rather large gaps in student learning of the general content, but also in thinking.  Today fascinated me.  I chose to do Robert Kaplinsky’s task “How Much is a 1/3 a Cup of Butter.”  We had great discussion about how 1/4c could be right in the middle of the stick of butter. We modeled how you could take 2 sticks of butter and line them up, so that it would be easy to see that the 1/2c is at the end of one stick, we took time to point out 1/4c, we talked about what we knew about fractions, and we even took time to discuss what we noticed when we looked at the 2 sticks.

Let me stop here and tell you that I really thought I had blown the whole lesson.  I was thinking to myself that I taught them too much and now it would be way to easy.  After all, these kids are gifted…young, but gifted nonetheless.  So imagine my surprise when one student labelled 1/3 cup right after the 3 Tbsp. mark and then justified her answer by saying, “Well, I see 1/4 cup and if you take away one Tbsp. then you have 1/3 cup.  I  asked if anyone agreed with her answer and every kid raised their hand.  So next I had the student point to where 1/2 cup is.  (Remember, it’s labelled at the end and we already had a rather lengthy conversation about it.)  They agreed it should go after the 2Tbsp. mark.

I kept going with their line of reasoning, but I told them I was confused because we now had two different places labelled 1/2 cup.  I then asked which was bigger 1/2 or 1/4.  One girl immediately said 1/2 is bigger, then she drew 2 rectangles and showed 1/2 on one and 1/4 on the other.  When I asked her how she knew, she said her teacher told her last year.

That was a TREMENDOUS moment in our classroom.   I realized how students can know how to solve a problem on paper, but have no idea how it connects to real life.    See, I assumed that if they could determine what fraction was larger – that they would be able to solve this task.  Little did I realize, that their understanding had not progressed beyond solving naked math problems.  That’s a good place to be for a time, and there was even a time in my career when I would have thought that was perfect. But the reality is….they can solve our traditional problems while lacking understanding.  It’s our job to take them from doing math to understanding math.  It’s our job to provide rich opportunities, expose gaps and not merely assume they get it.  It’s an exciting time to be in education.

All Hands-On DC

Washington Monument

This weekend involved the much anticipated, for both teachers and students, 5th grade trip to Washington, D.C. I had visions of all of the STEM lessons that I would create as we toured around the Capital City. I had already thought of math lessons that would involve scale and proportion, geometry, and many others. It was going to be INCREDIBLE!  I imagined that students would be in awe of these topics and, of course, would just naturally observe them and bring them to my attention rather than me being the one to point them out. After all, we almost completed the year! I am sure you can imagine that this is NOT how the trip went.

While I was able to catch images that would help with future lessons in proportions and scale, and yes, many other lessons that I am sure will be fun, this whole discovery of and passion for project-based, hands-on learning was reinforced. I truly thought that being in 5th grade, the students would read at the different exhibits which we visited, look at the artifacts, and be on their way, intrigued and more informed. While they did read, it was other exhibits that brought about the wonder and awe I was expecting them to experience while in D.C.

One of our first stops was at the Holocaust Museum. I was a little worried about this stop because of the content of the museum and the fact that I had never been there, although I had heard different stories of visitors’ reactions to the museum. While we did visit the museum, we actually experienced the exhibit entitled “Daniel’s Story”. An interactive experience of a child’s perspective of the Holocaust, the students had a chance to experience Daniel’s journal as they walked through the different experiences of the young boy. A video of the exhibit can be found here. The kids were absolutely enthralled with the experience as they fought to read the diary entries and then to look under the bed, through the hole in the wall, etc. The kids were on their hands and knees interacting with the experiences this young boy had. They were able to immerse themselves in reading and left with a new appreciation of the Holocaust. At the end of the exhibit, I watched as the students eagerly wrote letters to Daniel about their feelings for him and his sister as they read their stories. Did you read that?? They eagerly READ and WROTE. These kids don’t normally do that. How awesome would it be if we could make all of our lessons come to life as this one did?

Again, when at the National Air and Space Museum, NOTHING sparked their interest until we entered the “How Things Fly” exhibit. Completely hands-on and discovery based, this exhibit reinforced to me the importance of students using discovery to solve a problem. Different parts of the exhibit were labeled with the things needed to make an airplane fly such as: lift, weight, force, and drag, the four forces of flight. They were able to experiment with each of the different forces and discover how it works. They literally ran to and from the activities calling me to show the force with which they were experimenting. They then would explain how it worked. Amazing. Kids are explorers at heart, so why would we stifle that need and desire while they are in the one place those qualities should be encouraged….school?

In the end, while I set out to be the “teacher” on this trip, I (once again), have been schooled by my students and have been encouraged to change the equation that equals learning. Too bad it’s Spring Break…I’m ready to get back in the classroom!


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