Creativity of Students – Provide Opportunities for Expression

I was straightening up my office – something I realized I do not do enough. I found a file of student projects from when I was teaching Geometry over 15 years ago. We had done some geometry poems for Valentines day – i.e. write a poem that utilizes mathematics vocabulary (getting that ELA and creativity flowing in my students), and I had clearly saved a few of my favorites.  There were other files of student projects – scale drawings of bedrooms and furniture (so students could ‘rearrange’ their rooms using a scale model), dilation pictures, transformation sketches from Sketchpad, problem-solving portfolios, and designing an aerial view of a city using geometric shapes and properties. As I walked through memory lane, looking at student work from years ago and remembering specific students, it really made me miss those classroom experiences. And what I had forgotten is how incredibly creative and thoughtful students are when given the chance to express themselves – you learn so much about them if you let them, what they know about mathematics, what they think, and what they don’t know if you provide opportunities to approach mathematics creatively.

I’d completely forgotten about the problem-solving portfolios I did with both middle and high school students in all my courses. They were given a choice of problems connected in some way to the math content we were learning or applications of prior knowledge, etc., and they were to choose from several. They had to complete one per unit and put it in their portfolio as examples of their problem-solving and learning/application of mathematics. This was way before the ‘Common Core’, but as I look at my expectations, it was very Common Core like. The idea behind was really very much centered around helping students to persevere and think critically about problems, use problem-solving strategies, and explain their interpretation of a problem, plan out a solution path, justifying their thinking, and showing multiple ways to approach a problem, and analyze their solutions to see if they made sense.  Here are the ‘steps’ they needed to go through and demonstrate in their problem-solving:

  1. Restate the problem in your own words, writing out any questions or wondering you have about the problem.
  2. Create a solution plan – what do you think about the problem  and why (is it hard, easy, does it seem similar to something you have seen or done before), what math might be needed, what problem-solving approach will you start with and why do you think this might be a good approach? What do you think might be the solution, before you begin?
  3. Work through the problem – include everything, especially if you changed your original plan and why. Write down everything that comes to mind and what you did to think through things.
  4. What is your solution and why do you think this is a reasonable solution?
  5. Analysis of your problem solving – What did you think of the problem after working through it? What did you learn from doing the problem, either about yourself or about math, or both!?

In reading through some of these (I’ve posted some samples below from several different portfolios), you can ‘hear’ students personalities coming out, you can immediately see if they might have a misconception about what the problem is asking or an interesting approach to a solution, or identify those who really needed some extra support because their art work was more substantial then their mathematical work! It gives great insight into who might need some extra support or who might warrant some extra challenges. But mostly – the freedom to choose, think on their own and be creative and work through their problems provided students and ability to express their learning in a different way than an answer on a test. I remember at the time I was considered a rather eccentric MS/HS teacher because I did all these ‘strange’ things like keep math portfolios and journals, use manipulatives, used technology (Sketchpad) and projects instead of tests to demonstrate learning. But – in looking back on the past, and looking at what we want from students today in mathematics, with College and Career Ready Standards and Mathematical Practices, I think it’s the right path. Provide students opportunities to think, choose, be creative, find multiple solutions, justify their answers and question their results. It brings out their creativity and they learn to express themselves as mathematicians.

 

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New Year’s Observations: Supporting Educational Change & Teachers

I read an article the other day in Edweek about a recent study of teachers regarding the many educational reforms/changes they have seen and been asked to implement in the last couple of years. The article, Majority of Teachers Say Reforms Have Been Too Much” by Leana Loewis, reports on results from a survey done by the Edweek Research Center. I won’t repeat all the findings, as you can read the article and look at the results yourself, but the gist is there have been a crazy amount of education reforms teachers have been asked to make, from standards, to pedagogy, to assessment, to evaluation, and, frankly, it’s exhausting and they are getting tired. And often these changes happen all at once with results expected immediately. A quote from the article that says it all: “Teachers are incredible. They keep up with it because they have to.”  But – at some point, somethings gotta give. In large part, what teachers need is time and support, and this made me think back to something I wrote in my personal blog about change and how educational leaders can support these teachers who are struggling with so many reforms. I’d like to share my 3 suggestions for supporting teachers and change/reform as we begin this New Year.

Observation 1: CHANGE IS EMOTIONAL – change is hard NOT because we don’t want to change (often assumed of teachers who resist change), but because there is often a lot of emotion behind the change. Teachers may want to embrace new curriculum, or learn new roles and new skills, however…they may have LOVED what they used do use or do still want to do that – and it’s emotionally wrenching to have that taken away or altered. In a sense, teachers may be mourning for what is gone and nostalgic about how perfect it was (which it most likely wasn’t). There may be an emotional road block to educational reforms…one that can be overcome, but it will definitely take time, support, and understanding from leaders, students, parents and other teachers, as well as commitment on a teachers part to persevere.  So leaders – remember this about your teachers when it comes to implementing new educational reforms- it may be an emotional reason vs. fear of new or different resources/strategies. Try to address the emotion and provide relevance and reasoning for change and time and support.

Observation 2: RESISTANCE/RELUCTANCE TO CHANGE IS MULTIDIMENSIONAL – It’s easy to tell someone that if they learn a new skill or strategy, that things will be fine or be better. But learning that new skill/strategy or knowledge might not be the true road block – it could be that they don’t understand the relevancy to what they do, or they have preconceived notions or beliefs that cause resistance, or they are missing some necessary background experience/knowledge.What matters here is again, time to learn, but more importantly, dissemination of background, relevance, and connection to what they do and how these new or different skills/resources/strategies will make things better. Without a reason, a purpose, a connection, learning the how-to won’t ever change the internal beliefs and therefore never change behavior in a lasting, effective way.

Observation 3: SOME CHANGES MAY NOT BE FOR EVERYONE – it’s hard to accept, but not everyone can, will, or needs to change, whether that be a skill, strategy, or knowledge base.  What is important is to understand this, try to provide all the time, information, and support to push change along, but in the end, accept that some folks are not going to change and be prepared to deal with it. Whether this means encouraging them to find another place that fits their needs and interests, providing alternatives or simply accepting status quo, forcing those who are not ready, willing or able to change does NOT lead to success.

In education, we tend to introduce education changes, with little training and little time and expect miraculous results quickly. Real change, with long-term benefits is not quick – so let’s take this new year to really look at what we are expecting from our education reforms and assessing whether we have provided that time, addressed those emotional needs, provided reasoning and support. If you want success, you have to work at it.