On Tuesday, 11 June 2019, I spent the day at Worcester Polytechnic Institute at an Institute with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for the Science and Math Ambassador Program 2019. The Commissioner is challenging teachers to create deep, meaningful tasks (rather than problems) and this Institute was a roll-out with teachers who had created some of the tasks.
At first, I was pretty wary of these tasks, largely because I struggle with how to teach our math content in connected, project-based ways. Is it possible? I am sure. Am I doing it? Nope. I have loved shifting the to “By the End of” approach, thinking about content in scopes and sweeps, rather than a string of individual, unconnected lessons. But project-based learning takes that a step further and I’m not there yet.
So the first thing that made me feel better about the Math Tasks we looked at during the Institute is that they were mostly one-day/one-class tasks. That was a huge relief for me. THOSE I can start to think about! We looked at a percent task, which I think was too low for an end-unit task for 7th grade, and another one that was nicely complex. One thing my colleague, Irene Witt, and I often struggle with is the balance between complexity and ridiculous. Although I love the Eureka/EngageNY curriculum, there are times when their choice of values turns a problem into a headache, not an exercise in grade-level complexity.
One of the challenges in working with 7th grade math is that we are taking on the infusion of fractional values into the grade-level content. When that content includes things like finding volume of non-rectangular prism….or when those prisms have three die cut out of their faces, all of which go a different direction…well, fractional values add a whole new dimension to the experience. It can be hard for the students to grapple with the complexity of the concepts, such as realizing that the three die cuts all cross in the center, so the middle cut-out should not be subtracted three times, when they are also dealing with the fraction mess.
When I looked at the tasks that were presented, I was looking for that balance of messy, real-world values and non-ridiculous, usable values. I liked what I saw in the tasks that were presented. I am thinking about using some of these tasks as options for extensions as needed, especially for students who have completed all of the regular work and are spinning their wheels on a review day. Again, the big appeal here for me is the fact that these tasks are one- to two-day tasks, not lengthy projects. When the 7th grade math team tried some projects at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, we ran into the usual issues with variability–students simply need varied amounts of time, shorter and longer, than the “average” of four days that we had estimated and had set aside in the planning. It’s impossible to anticipate every possible over and under, so we always need to plan for how to accommodate the need for less and more time in order to avoid having to scramble while also managing projects and work. I’m looking forward to the promised roll-out of the searchable collection of tasks this fall.