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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Irregular Learning for Spectacular Results

Step One of a math problem in PowerPointMy fourth graders have been working on a really cool project lately.  And I don’t just say it’s really cool because I came up with the idea.  At the beginning of last school year, the fourth grade teachers and I discussed the projects their students complete in my technology class, and this topic came up: at the end of each year, during a cumulative math evaluation, their students always struggle with the problems in which they have to solve for the perimeter and area of irregular shapes.  I suggested we have the students create a PowerPoint in which each student explains how to solve a different problem of this type.

I must confess that last year this project took a long time to accomplish.  We worked through the newness of it together, and I learned that demonstrating the steps for each slide and then posting the steps on the board (projecting a Word document, basically) was the way to move forward.  And then this other thing happened.  Some kids got done with the steps right away.  Some kids really struggled.  So we sent the quick finishers over to the ones who needed more time to talk them through it, or to look over what they had so far to make sure it made sense.  And then being allowed to help others became an attractive incentive in itself.

Step 2 of a math problem in PowerPointWe’re working on this project right now in my fourth grade classes, and I have to say that this year the project is going much more smoothly.  I started out with a cute lesson on perimeter and area of a rectangle, and then we moved into what a finished product would look like. The kids could hardly wait.  And then this other thing happened. I really didn’t expect it, but teaching is like that, isn’t it?

A little background is in order. I have this one class with about five kids who really buck convention and who have great difficulty being productive members of a team or of the class.  We just finished our California Missions Google Earth project, which we did in teams, and these five were the ones who gave their teams the most trouble.   It’s not that they’re not bright, but several of them just don’t “play well with others.”  Two of these particular pupils have been stunning me with their facility with the Irregular Shapes project.  Each finishes his or her own slide and all the required tasks for it, and then circulates around the room looking for other kids to bring up to speed.  And they’re doing remarkably well at it.

Step 3 of a math problem in PowerPointThroughout this project, I get to revel in the “kids helping kids” model that I find to be one of the best things about my job.  They only need me to get them started and then keep them on track.  Not only can they handle the tasks, they’re becoming so comfortable with trial and error and with taking risks at times.  They seek each other out for help or to take turns reviewing each other’s work.  I’m excited and re-energized by how well they take on such responsibility.  And I’m finding that the entire process is going much more quickly this year.  They are truly motivated by my policy that “no one moves on until we can all move on together.”

And, oh yeah, they’re learning a lot about PowerPoint and math too.

Images are screen shots from my sample PowerPoint for the project discussed here.

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