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:
- Restate the problem in your own words, writing out any questions or wondering you have about the problem.
- 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?
- 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.
- What is your solution and why do you think this is a reasonable solution?
- 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.