I was clearing out some files to make room for my daughter to store her things, and ran across some saved student projects. I had completely forgotten about these samples of student work and projects from long ago. The “mathematical poems” – combining math vocabulary and writing and definitions. The monthly problems, where students had to restate, plan, solve, and justify their solutions (very Common Core, I must say!). The Logo symmetry/4-color theorem project.
These artifacts from the past brought back some great memories for me and reminded me how much time and effort I put into finding activities, projects, and learning opportunities that allowed my students to be creative and apply mathematics. I remember creating learning centers for my middle school students where at least twice a week during center time, they had choices of activities (problem solving, building/making, technology applications (Sketchpad, calculators), research, tutoring) and created portfolios that demonstrated their learning. When I taught in high school, for every unit of study my students did an application project, where they built something or wrote something or researched and created something that applied or expanded what they had learned about math that unit. They had choices, they had opportunities to explore and deepen their understanding – to connect to mathematics in fun ways, because to me, learning mathematics was joyful and applicable and I wanted my students to love math like I did.
It was a lot of work – but it made teaching exciting and different on a daily basis. I will say, however, that it was a challenge to come up with ideas and activities. Today, there are so many more resources than I had just 10 years ago, especially if you consider all the open education resources and technology resources that were not around back then. With Common Core and the emphasis on mathematical practices (LOVE THEM!!), the maker movement, the blended-learning movement, there are so many innovative ways that a teacher can create an engaging learning environment. One where students are given opportunities to be true problem-solvers, use their creativity to make something that connects their mathematical understanding, and apply the mathematics to real situations.
My blast-from-the-past reminds me again of how creative students can be and how important, as a teacher, it is to provide opportunities for them to explore mathematics in different ways. Go beyond the textbooks and curriculum and find ways to help students create, make, and do mathematics. Challenge yourself and challenge your students.